A year ago, I knew nothing of Jim Swain, not even his name. Today, my perceptions of life are forever broadened and deepened for meeting and working with him.
That is the beginning and the ending of my story in what has been the adventure of getting this book to print.
Now, for a bit of the middle …
We met this past spring through a mutual friend, and as an aside, John Ashton and I have been getting each other into all kinds of fun for 20 years or more. He is but one of the many people in my life to whom I am grateful.
Our first meeting: over coffee for Jim and root beer for me, I learned of his story, was presented with binders full of writings and letters and clippings, and was asked the question that remains with me still:
“Is my story any good?”
First and foremost, your story is your story, just as my story is my story. There is no good or bad, right or wrong. It is yours and it is precious.
To want to share your story is often more about you than about the story. It takes courage, determination, and trust … for it takes a community to share a story. There is the author, the people in the story, the people who give the author space and support to work on the story and when I say space, I mean the time, the quiet, the hours and days and months that it can take from first draft to final product. It takes an openness by the author to let another person … or people … make suggestions, edits, and observations. It takes a whole lot of work and more strength inside than you can imagine.
And it was in that meeting, as I sipped my root beer, that I knew there was nothing Jim couldn’t do when he put his mind to it.
And thank goodness for us all that he did.
Reading though his binders and assembling his manuscript, I was drawn not only into his story, but mine. I knew of the places to which he referred in his dark times. If I had met Jim then, what would I have seen? Not much … I would have not doubt crossed the street to get away from him. I would have been afraid, or dismissive, perhaps mildly sympathetic but fully detached. And I would have moved on with my day and my life unaware.
As his story took shape on paper, however, I was drawn in through his eyes. I walked in worlds of which I had only heard. Yet I found that below the physical layers that separated us – the year he was born, the circumstances of his life – we shared the same determination, optimism, and fears.
One morning as I prepared one of the final drafts for Jim’s review, I spread the printed pages on my table and asked my mother to help assemble them in a binder. When I returned, I found her immersed in Page 44 – she had been reading each page as she filled the binder and was drawn deeper in the story with every word. By the time I found her, she was moved by the story and nearly in tears. She felt like one of the children in that high school class, watching Jim be humiliated, feeling heartbroken and utterly powerless to stop it. I quickly showed her the ending, and she lit up. Good for him, she said, I’m so glad. And until those pages appeared on my table she had never heard of him but instantly, she felt joy at his success.
That is the beauty and the power of a book. It is there for me, for each of us, to read and reread to learn of one man’s story, and to learn more of ours.
Each of the books we have published has been a window to another world that draws us more deeply into our own. The series that I have written is another little boy who has spent years telling me his story, and only recently could I own that the story was mine as well. Authors Mary Sheehan and Alex MacInnis also shared their stories through the wonder of a child’s eyes and the challenges that shaped them into the people they are today.
I am proud as a publisher to be part of Jim’s journey. More importantly, I am proud as a person to have learned from his story.
Congratulations, Jim. What you have done here is awesome.
Jennifer Hatt is author of the Finding Maria series and partner in publishing company Marechal Media Inc.
To see more of Jim’s book and purchase on line, click here.
Was there a reason I went to England, I was asked? I suppose there was. At the time, it was a vacation promised my 12-year-old, who as the youngest of three spent a great deal of time the past few years in airports seeing her siblings and/or mother off on trips, never to take one herself. “I like airplanes,” she reminded me plainly this past spring after yet another person’s travel plans were finalized. So, I promised her a trip, initially someplace in our home country of Canada. When a quick search had me utter in my outside voice that London was cheaper than most domestic destinations, my little Harry Potter fan launched her flight plan and within an hour had a complete itinerary of HP hotspots (with a Downton Abbey tour thrown in for her old mom) if we were to travel to England. So in Hawaii 5-0 fashion I booked it, Dano, and we prepared for five days and nights of London (and Oxford/Bampton/Highclere) in early August.
Was it a work trip, I was asked? A writer’s getaway?
Initially, no. I did pack a journal and pen. This was just five days of being open to all the firsts – new country, new city, and new role – that of leader rather than follower where travel was concerned. I’ve been a few places, foreign and domestic, but always as part of a family, group or partnership in which I was the least experienced. Never did I have sole responsiblity for myself, let alone my child, in a place where we knew nothing and no one. It turned out this trip was a most powerful invitation to that part of myself too long hidden, the part I needed to not only have a safe and awesome trip, but to write the stories I’m called to write, the live the authentic life I’m called to live, the part of ownership and trust in my decisions and actions, faith in the unknown, power where powerlessness too often festers and consumes.
Life is not a spectator sport, yet for much of my life I have been doing just that: observing, imagining … but rarely doing. I learned that from my parents, and they from theirs. Stay safe. Engaging in just about anything carries a risk. Be content with where you are and what you have. No need for more.
In a city such as London, however, there is more with every step: history, connections, awareness, invitations to delve into the past or create the future, all while committing the present to immortal memories. To stand in the shadow of a building that has weathered a thousand winters, to watch a street poet create an original artwork before your eyes, to meet people from all over the world who share the same interests as you – it’s all there, but you have to walk there and be open when you arrive. I had two choices: stay safe and stick to the street near our hotel, or trust that I can do what millions of people do every day, get on the tube and allow it to take me. Once the decision to leave the comfort zone was made, there was no going back. There were moments I was too exhausted to take another step, but what else can you do? There was no one to come fetch us, no way to get out of the station except up that massive flight of stairs. At one low point I am staring at a map of the stops, not recognizing a single name and saying out loud, ‘what are we going to do?’ The choices, no matter how unappealing, were simple. We either find a way home or stay the night right there in front of the map. We did the unthinkable. We reached out to a stranger. With their hints we figured it out, we as in my daughter and I, she at 12 with the wisdom of an ancient, me pushing 50 but in the moment going on 5. As fearful and frrustrated as those low moments were, her brilliance continued to warm my darkness and call me out. When I looked around, I realized we were far from alone and in fact, often knew more than many of the folks huddled over their maps, appearing desperately lost. The world is made up of all ages and abilities, reisdents and tourists, each a blend of lost and brilliant; the London Underground is a perfect slice of that to be examined and savoured, if you alliow yourself the space and time to abosrb the journey as well as the destinations.
The cashless ticket that gets you on London’s extensive transit network is an Oyster Card. Theories vary as to the origin of the name. As an oyster protects its pearl, the loadable card protects your cash and access. Hong Kong has the Octopus, so London kept with the marine theme. A play on the phrase “the world is your oyster.” Interesting that an oyster produces a pearl out of sheer irritation; that damn grain of sand that it cannot expel or ignore. London’s underground was the sand in my shell: each day began with ‘how will we get there’ and the gut-churning invited by the unknown. After five days, I did not have a pearl, but I did have a piece of my life back.
And I can’t wait to go back for more.
And I can’t wait to write about it.
Why London? It was what I needed. To show my daughter things are possible if you allow space to imagine, create and do. To prove to myself I am enough. And to let her show me children are far more aware than adults, that invitations are all around me if I choose to listen.
That may have nothiong to do with writing for some. For me, that has everything to do with my writing. Space. Listen. Do.
Thanks for being here.
Jennifer Hatt is author of the Finding Maria series and a partner in Marechal Media Inc.
We are warmly welcomed into a room lined with books – on shelves, tucked under the coffee table, footing the window seat, surrounded by a view of water glinting defiantly under clouds leaden with the last of a rare summer rain. High on an island hilltop, it was a space by and for book lovers but at first glance no place for a mermaid.
“I must be a mermaid … I have no fear of depths and a great fear of shallow living,” Anais Nin once wrote and by no coincidence I am drawn to the image of mermaids and the murky depths they call home. On this day, however, I surface in response to the generous invitation of Tuesdays at Two. This book club of gracious and well-read women has been meeting for a decade, longer than I’ve been writing books, and devote an annual afternoon to hosting a writer in the flesh. They list of a who’s who of local and CanLit guests of the past and I hear the tune ‘One of These Things is Not Like the Other,” from my childhood formed by Sesame Street.
Yet they have invited me here as part of this distinguished list to talk about Orchids for Billie and the little boy I created. In spontaneous acknowledgement of the unique story behind the story, they have widened their invitation to include the man whose life inspired the Finding Maria series, the real ‘little Jack,’ to speak to the experience of having one’s memories and experience crafted into a story and shared with the world. Even more rare than this day of rain during our dry summer is the opportunity for the two of us to speak together on this story we created. For more than a decade we have worked, explored and collaborated as a team, yet usually in the privacy of a one-on-one meeting or solitary reflection and response. This was a test: could I let go of my creation enough to let the person speak for himself? Would I hold my own in conversation or revert to detached observer and slip off into the depths? Would this public airing of our unseen connection be appreciated or painful?
In a word, it was brilliant.
In the years since I began writing the Finding Maria series I’ve come to own my desire for intense conversations, with no question too deep or topic too touchy to explore. Yet the art and beauty of conversation is too often lost in the world of tweets, sound bytes and fear: of offending, of intruding, of being nosy. The group gathered on the hilltop this silvery summer day was none of those things, nor could they ever be. They are informed, sincere, and genuinely interested in the story and the people who inspired it, and in that environment, there is no greater safety to explore, dive, and peer into darkened corners and blink at the revelations. It is the environment I first discovered in conversation with the man who quietly became my partner in business and creation and today sits next to me, sharing his story in a clarity of voice that our creation helped reveal. As one book became two, then three and four and the demands of our commercial venture took over, I had forgotten the beauty of revelation in the written word. I had forgotten how insightful and engaging that little boy could be.
While writing as a vocation is intensely rewarding and deeply revealing, it to me is wholly unattractive. Painters, potters and weavers, for example, are a joy to watch, their deft movements giving rise to a creation that takes shape before your eyes. Most days I feel like a human seive, absorbing all of life’s gobs and bits and chunks, then tasked with the process of straining our a clear, refined stream of consciousness ready to be sipped and savoured. Who on Earth wants to watch that?
For the longest time, not me and for years, I could do it without watching, thinking, or above all feeling as I quickly sifted through facts for the assignment at hand. Writing the Finding Maria series for the first time kept me in place, immersed in the chunks and bits, and I’ve too often responded in panic or rebellion. Now called to write my own story in the series, I am up to my eyeballs in the mess, the pulp, the unwanted and long-forgotten scraps, and it is easy to look away and pretend to be elsewhere, in a world too busy for such straining and sorting, in a life too full for new possibilities, in a space where feelings are to be toned down or ignored.
Tuesday’s conversation didn’t cut through the mess, but embraced it. Orchids for Billie emerged from chaos to offer a story of hope. It invited readers from many places, spaces and perspectives to a single room, on a single day, to add their own layers and colours to the words on the page. I sat in the presence of many wonderful stories by sharing the one I wrote, steeped in courage from the only man in the room, seated next to me, who outwardly chose none of this bizarre journey that is writing and publishing but is both allowing the unseen to take us where it will and permitting his story to be the interface.
A business coach and dear friend once told me I overthink my blogs. They don’t need to be so deep. They can be superficial, lighter, how-to hints or top 10 lists, and search rankings would prove her right. But I have floated in the shallow end for too long. This is deep and I like it there. Granted, it’s a great place to hide. But there is also great safety in knowing someone will invite you to surface every now and then and connect with those who would support and be supported by discoveries from the depths.
On a hilltop, on an island, there is no place to hide and in such a place, who would want to? To the ladies of Tuesdays at Two, may you go on to discuss hundreds of books and treat more lucky authors to an afternoon of your caring conversation. To those of you book lovers not in a club, start one. And to my partner in creation, thank you for your quiet yet unshakeable presence that invites me to shine a little bit more, added light by which to sort the flotsam from the jetsam as the quest for Book Five continues.
Thanks for reading.
Jennifer Hatt is author of the Finding Maria series and partner in publishing company Marechal Media Inc.
Twenty-five years ago today, on May 9, 1992, my community endured a massive tragedy. Those who survived, and those who remember, were forever changed.
It takes reflecting on this anniversary, however, for me to see how the Westray mine explosion affected me then, and continues to live with me now.
I was a reporter with the local daily, about two years on the job. I awoke to the sirens just after daybreak, then went back to sleep with a clear conscience. It wasn’t my weekend to work. In four days, I was jetting off to visit my friend in the US Capitol, Whoever was on for the weekend could handle what was probably a fire or accident on the highway.
I awoke again to the ringing phone. 7:30 a.m. The managing editor – the top guy in the newsroom food chain – was calling me in. “There’s a situation at Westray,” he said. “We need everyone in.” The agitation in his voice offered no clue; facing down daily deadlines, it was something we reporters heard at least twice a day.
The newsroom was busier than it had ever been on a Saturday, than it usually was most days of the week. Reporters, editors, the publisher, in huddled conversations or getting on or off the phones in a bid to put some order to the few facts we knew. Our Westray reporter and photographer were dispatched to the mine. The rest of us were on the desks, answering any calls that might come in, making calls for background and supporting stories. I was assigned a doctor and miner from Springhill. The miner was a former draegerman – mine rescuers specially trained for the dark, cramped and dangerous environments of unstable pits. He and the doctor had been part of the rescue effort in Nova Scotia’s last major mine disaster – the Soringhill bump of ’58. The draegerman had also worked the pits of Pictou County after the Albion Mine explosion in 1955.
At the time of our conversation, nearly 40 years had passed but their memories were vivid. The dark. The waiting. The joy at finding one, two, more men alive. The lines of ambulances at the pit head ready to transport the injured. The tiny hospital filled with stretchers, patients, doctors and nurses who had worked days straight, families desperate for a glimpse or some news. Their stories were gripping, horrifying, fully of agony and hope, yet told calmly, humbly. In their words and tone, mining was a way of life here. They weren’t courageous or dedicated. The tragedies came with the territory.
Office staff arrive to help cover the phones. Reports begin coming back from the mine site. The massive metal entrance had been shattered and twisted as if struck by a tornado. An explosion at 5:53 am. The entire night shift of 26 miners was underground.
Our layout and press crews arrive. Saturday’s paper to bed with the few facts we had, we would put out a Sunday special, for the first time since World War II.
The local fire hall was set up for families of the underground miners, to wait in privacy from the growing crowd of media and onlookers. The community centre was turned into the media room. Westray’s spokesman was as attentive as he was attractive, giving updates with an authentic blend of calm and chagrin. It would be much later that we learned as eyes were on him sharing ‘as much as they could’, his counterparts were shredding thousands of documents, preparing for a chapter our community was too grieved to yet ponder. The only thought: get our husbands, sons, fathers, cousins and friends back from the depths.
I was in Washington when news finally came that there would be no rescue, and then, no recovery. Standing on the subway platform, luggage in hand, I met a guy about my age, tie loosened after a day at the office, who recognized my accent as Canadian. “Where from?” he asked. “Pictou County,” I replied softly and our eyes met in a knowing glance. As we spoke a radio from somewhere was broadcasting news from the mine site, but he knew of Westray even before. “Terrible tragedy,” he murmured, shaking his head. I agreed, with a stab of guilt. I was away from it all now, and I couldn’t have been happier.
I was among the few journalists who never set foot in the media centre near the mine, and for that I was grateful. Never before had I been in the presence of such grief, and I had no idea personally or professionally how to process it. Worse, I felt powerless to be of use to those facing such loss, to people wanting to know how and why when there were no facts to share, to fix whatever it was that had led to such a devastating loss of life in an age when knowledge and technology enabled workplaces to be and do better. Larger news agencies focused on the next story, the big scoop. We as the local media tread a fine line between serving our readers with information and respecting the humanity of those on the front lines. After a TV reporter met two children at their bus stop to ask their opinion about their uncle being lost in the mine, the decision was made in part for us. School boards and law enforcement closed ranks to protect the innocent. And rightly so.
In the years that followed, as the tragedy shifted to anniversaries and inquiries, I was easing myself out of journalism and into family life. I was seven months pregnant with my son when I heard a deep rumble from the direction of the mine. The towering blue silos, once the symbol of a new industrial chapter, then monuments to ineptitude and broken dreams, came tumbling down by controlled explosion. No longer was the mine site visible for miles around. All was quiet.
Twenty five years later, I am the mother of three teenagers, a freelancer, author and publisher. Today, though, I am back in my reporter days, smelling the ink, typing furiously, feeling he adrenaline with every tick of the clock. Ten minutes to deadline. Five. Would there be more news? Do we run the press? All huge questions in the Information Age before Internet. We did what we had to do, but would I choose to do it again? Would I have done anything differently, like gone to the front line and let the tragedy touch me physically as well as emotionally?
My body knew the answer then as now. The front line was not ever my choice, nor was covering tragedies that sadly seemed to repeat history rather than learn from it. Yet the skills I learned from that darkened time are serving in a new direction. Weeks ago I met with a former Westray miner, who served on the rescue crew and worked tirelessly in the years that followed to help get the Westray Bill passed in Ottawa. He came to me not as a miner, but as a prospective author. He has written his story, including the years formed by Westray. Will I work with him to publish it? I want to. His story deserves to be shared. Am I the one to do it, is the question I have.
I am taken back 25 years, and ahead to the present.
The 26 men who died that morning of May 9, 1992, have as their final resting place a cavern that at the time had represented our community’s next great hope for long-term stability, for careers of which workers could be proud and families could thrive. But that hope for stability was built on ground most unstable, by nature’s production of high-methane coal, and the blindness of men wooed by the glow of profits to its dangers in the deep. It was the tragic loss of 26 lives. It was also the loss of innocence: of dreams that companies claiming to be community citizens will live up to their word and responsibilities, that governments will protect its people, that the time will come when workers don’t have to choose between risking their lives or feeding their families. But it also showed the power of community to rally around those in mourning, to honour the dead and console the grieving, and the power of words as a part of that community. Our little newspaper held its head high in an ocean of international media, reporting the stories we needed to cover and respecting humanity in the process. Readers appreciated or at least acknowledged the flow of information, clinging to the stories of hope, rising in fury at the injustices and errors that forced workers to make the ultimate sacrifice.
The greatest change in myself that surfaced, however, was my ability to be touched by it all. In the minutes, hours and days following the explosion, I didn’t shed a tear. It wasn’t in my job description. I kept it at arm’s length, did what I needed to, absorbed what was required for the job. This morning, 25 years later, I sobbed. A few hours later, I cried again, not from what I saw or heard or was told, but from what I felt. It touched me. I became not my job, but me.
Today, my children attend high school just a few meters from the Westray monument. Life has gone on. In some ways it has not changed. But there is still hope. And I am clearer now in my place in it. Memories and stories, recorded and shared, will keep the hope and necessity of ‘not another Westray’ alive. What I felt as powerlessness in 1992 I feel today as being a small piece in a large picture. I will not forget May 9, 1992, or the darkness of the days that followed. Now, though, I can grow from it.
Thanks for being here.
Jennifer Hatt is author of the Finding Maria series and partner in Marechal Media Inc. See more at www.FindingMaria.com
I have an output ratio of 100:1. That means for every word, idea or story I manage to force into words and out of my pen, there are 100 backed up in my body, getting restless and bored and clamouring to get out. It’s exhausting and at some point it will be dangerous. Why risk exploding like a vowel-laden balloon when i could just sit down and open the tap?
Because I can’t just open the tap. The one reason? Fear.
What am I afraid of? As a child, nothing. As a body in the throes of puberty, everything. As an adult, too many things to count, so I sorted them and it turns out, fuel for my fear fals into one of three categories: fear of being eaten, fear of being ostracized, and fear of being wrong.
Fear of Being Eaten
I blame the food chain and survival instinct for Fear #1. Fear of being eaten is what kept our ancestors alive to see another day in the cave. Even today, as human settlements spread into what was once wilderness, there is a chance of encountering predators that value humans not for their superior intellect, but for the quality of their meat. In my world, I may at some point encounter a hungry bear or wolf, but I am more likely to be consumed by beliefs, values and attitudes – mine and others. We are told over and over to ‘be ourselves’, yet praised when ignoring ourselves for the good of others, be they individuals, institutions or corporations. We know it as guilt, conscience, instinct, or signal, but that gnawing weighted feeling in the gut when a decision goes against something we’ve been taught to believe can literally eat us from the inside out. Depending on what we’ve been taught, what we choose to believe, or whether we feel we have a choice at all, every decision and action may come with this gnawing feeling. maybe you’ve heard the voices: I’m working late, I should be home with the kids; I’m playing Barbies with the kids, but i should be reviewing that report; I’m buying takeout for supper, I should be cooking; I’m working my 9-5 but I should be writing; I’m writing but I should be doing something that actually contributes to society … That is what increasingly consumes me each time I sit down to write: first on my novel, then my blog, then anything that had to do wth promotion or creation of my own work. For clients? Not a problem. To open the tap for my work, I have to treat myself like my best client. That means getting curious about the gnawing sensation, standing my ground, learning from it, and releasing the energy for writing rather than consuming it to beat myself up. Eat or be eaten. Yes! And I’m done being my own dinner.
Fear of Being Ostracized
This again came from our hardy ancestors, I believe. There is safetyy in numbers when fending off hungry prowlers or enemy tribes. Being cast out of the cave or village to fend for yourself meant certain death, most likely from Fear #1. In modern times, being ostracized is not as dramatic but just as devastating. losing a job is terrifying not only because of the financial stress, but the social judgement: only losers lose a job. What will my partner/children/parents/neighbours/guy in the grocery store who knew my manager’s wife’s uncle think?
How many times do we nearly bite our tongues in half for fear of losing a relationship that in reality brings us way more grief than joy, anyway? Or go along with the committee even though we believe they’re on the wrong track? Peer pressure is often described as a childhood angst but for most adults I know, it remains a thickened concrete influence in their lives, and rarely for the better. Being alone is ‘bad’; being ‘with someone’ is good, even if that someone threatens to smother your signal or keep you small. Whether or not I was taught that, it is something I came to hold as true. Opening up enough to learn something new will open the tap to my words as well. We are each individuals, and we are never alone unless we tell ourselves otherwise or listen to people who spin those stories for their own benefit.
Fear of Being Wrong
This is the biggest brute of all in my bully pen. As a very young child, I had no limits or blocks. I laughed, embraced, sang, talked, danced, and entertained anyone and anything that would stand still and listen. I shared completely and instinctively. That was who I was. But for parents raised with strict codes of privacy and silence, my behaviour was overwhelming and appalling. A young child approaching strangers at random requires immediate supervision, patience, and a comfort level of self that the parents can smile and own their child’s behaviour on her behalf rather than be humiliated and afraid of being judged for raising a wild child, which is how I think my parents felt. They only wanted to keep me safe, but the price of that safety was my spontaneity, and the lessons were both swift and effective. Keep quiet, and there is reward. Act out and there is punishment. I wasn’t physically harmed, but the sting of a glare or shouted lecture on how i have to start behaving myself has lasted 40 years or more. The occasional spanking I received has been long forgotten. Then I started school, and call out the wrong answer, get in the wrong line, step on the wrong playground and retribution again is swift: shame and humiliation. Some of us learn to laugh it off. I thought I did, until years later I began excavating the landfill blocking my inner signal and discovered mountains of memories oozing their zaps of ridicule, name-calling and calling-out. As an adult, I was called to work in the printed word but also realized how seriously each word committed to paper was taken. Words in a contract could cost you plenty. The wrong words in a news article could cost you a lawsuit or your reputation. Not writing it down seemed the safest place to be. Safety created by others. An illusion. Safety created by me: no word is stronger than that.
Finding these three triggers has helped me built a world of safety, of my own creation. Threatened by one of these I can treat it as I would any bully; look it in the eye, learn what I can, then release and move to a space where my signal is safe and waiting for me. This wil be a constant process of repetition to rewire decades, generations even, of learned and shared behaviours. So what. I don’t know how long it will take, either. Not much of a business plan, but a definitive plan for how I want to live my life.
The tap is now open to a trickle. Here’s to keeping it that way, and seeing what else is to come.
Thanks for being here.
Jennifer Hatt is a publisher, consultant, and author of the Finding Maria series.
You know those annyoing little barricade graphics that pop up when a website is Under Construction? There’s one on my company, my career, my life, orange cones everywhere. Icoudn’t be more lost. And I couldn’t be happier. There was a time when like a frantic driver late for work I cursed every cone as a delay, an obstacle, and sure-fire sign that the world hates me and you know what, I hate it right back. Now, I’m stopping, breathing, admiring its colour vivid through rain, snow and streaks of grime, marvelling at its posture amid wind, traffic, backhoes and threats. My life has been shattered, shifted and unearthed; I can rush to restore it, patting down the soil and filling in the cracks so all was as it once was, but I choose to embrace the chaos. I say “Yes!” to the mess, the uncertainty, the delays and diversions, for ultimately, they are the jounrey itself. The path I was on was the diversion, from the dismissed childhood, forgotten ancestors, overwhelming insights and intense feelings that to an awakening body feel like needles rather than tingles. Part of what was forgotten was my call to Renaissance and this week, it came flooding back in brilliant clarity, because a dam of fury melted, one I carried with piercing agony for years. I had no idea, but my body did.
At the time I steeped in the Hawaiian sun as a Rennaisance Woman in April 2016, I was supposed to be in Tuscany, the cradle of the historical Renaissance. I had been accepted into a two-week writing fellowship, and when I confirmed in October 2015 there was no doubt . But by November, my father’s health was declinining and for fear of being needed at home in the spring I deferred my placement. He passed in December, and the call to Hawaii came that winter. I did not give up Tuscany; I embraced the Renaissance in an invitation and place free of deadlines, schedules, routines and deliverables. It was a step to acknowledging that my writing was a part but not the whole, a conduit rather than shelter … steps that I continue to take slowly and painfully. Talents are so easily used as shields rather than invitations and explorations. Cracking the armour is done not only by a well-chosen word, but a well-placed one, visible to those who can support, challenge, fire up and cool down the energy needed to push through process and create. When that energy is blocked, the agony is intense, deep, and invisible, shutting down and isolating cells, tissue, entire chunks of your body from awareness and engagement.
And that’s what Tuscany had come from me. For to this land of beauty nd promise I attached values and judgements so ingrained I could do nothing for years but rage at the pain or shut it down.
Years before Renaissance Women or my fellowship, I dreamed of Tuscany. I have never been, nor had I considered going, but I awoke feeling both afire and grounded, as if the path to my more-connected self had been revealed. The visuals in my dream were vivid: greens richer than I had ever seen, scents of salt water and sun-baked earth, tastes of food fresh from the vine, but tthey paed to the sensations with which I was left: I could taste the music, touch the colour, see the passion, hear the growth. And above it all was the knoweldge within my body that I would not do this alone, that part of what made this experuence so fantastic is that I had soeone as awakened and engaged as I to share it, cell for cell, word for word, moment for moment.
My search then became fixated on the person. Who was he? Would he realize it? When would we go? When I was sure I had found him, I of course said nothing, not yet. I would let him reveal it to me. One day, he did, speaking of his desire to visit Tuscany, sampling Italian wine, trying out their style of cooking. Except he wasn’t doing it with me. He saw my dream, took it, and was trying to turn it into something it wasn’t. That was my story as my body filled with rage and I spewed flames of dismissal and criticism. How dare he. He reacted as I knew he would, defensively, diverting the conversation and seemingly dismissing my claim. That night, I packed away my books on Tuscany and vowed never to speak of it again until he came to his senses. My dream sat, a seething oozing mess of unowned beliefs and irritation, deep in my gut and over time I forgot about it. We maintainined our connection, he and I, but distant, as if engaged in swordplay, parrying and dodging, holding our ground but too shaky to advance.
Then came lunch last week. My body knew before I that there was a shift about to happen. Churning in my gut began late morning; by the time I sat in our booth, I could barely look at the menu for the nausea. I knew not of what was to come, but had learned enough to detach story from sensation. I sat with the queasiness, breathed, and allowed things to unfold. We chatted easily of work and his annual trip south. Then, like tossing a match to gasoline, he offered casually that he had two more trips on the books for this year: one west, and Tuscany.
I left my body in a whoosh of rage and agony. He was doing it again. My mood sank into the blackness, and my words and breath along with it. My dream was finally gone, torn from me and tossed aside, with me powerless to stop it.
Powerless. No, that’s not right. Get back here, in your body, right now.
I asked him about his trips. He started in about a recent work trip. I gently corrected him. Tuscany was something he wanted to do. It turns out the plans weren’t finalized, or even started. When you find out more about it, let me know, I hear myself ask him. He reacted with surprise but agreement. He turns to grab his notebook and with his attention diverted the words come easily: Tuscany was always something I believed you and I would do together.
And there it was. My truth. Out there, for him to dismiss, ridicule, deny … or perhaps accept. The turning point for me was that I didn’t care. I knew what I knew, and believed what I believed. In that moment, sharing it with no expectation, I confirmed my place in my own dream. His reaction would be his, and his dream. It could be different, it could be the same, but it was still his and mine. Another choice point woud be to make it ours but if that choice never came, I would still have mine.
Is that so? His reaction: equally calm and well-timed. I heard not surprise, but an invitation: tell me more.
I admitted I didn’t know why, just that I embraced Tuscany as a place of being rather than a place ‘to do’. I shared my awakening of the senses from my dream, and he agreed. It wasn’t about old buildings and dead people and art and crowds and traffic and sightseeing. It was the next level of being.
What we both didn’t say was that it was a place of being with each other. But again, I didn’t care. This was about me. His decision is about him.
If I am invited to go to Tuscany this fall, I will consider the opportunity.
If I am not and want to go, I will make it happen for myself. No longer is my dream, my happiness or my worth tied to him or anyone else.
There was my Renaissance moment. And in that moment I have never loved myself or him more. What was once a source of bitter disappointment was gratitude, for a presence in my life that allowed me to face, melt and process this festering pile of outmoded beliefs: I didn’t deserve Tuscany, I shouldn’t have feelings for someone else, I’m not able to do this alone. With this weight gone, I had room to breathe, to feel, and to turn around and see things from his perspective. Who wants to be in the presence of another when tasked with their happiness as well as yours? Who wants to feel as if they’ve crushed the world of another when only fulfilling what feels right in their own world? I was doing that, perhaps as the greatest diversion of all, for as my process continues I realize my self-sabotage runs far deeper than my intellect is aware. What I deeply want quickly becomes my nemesis, with civil war raging to both attain and destroy it.
I will see Tuscany some day but for now, the feeling I carry is far more enlightening than any view or setting could provide. I sit with my lawn under a foot of snow, sky grey, air damp …. but inside by being flows a sun-kissed emerald green that days after this encounter still warms and encourages.
This is the life I choose, and to which I say ‘Yes!’ Under Construction or In Progress may be applicable labels, and they are only labels, for months or years to come. So be it. What and who I am is in there, no expiry date. Yes.
Why? Because it’s just a number, this New Year’s Day included. Being another year older and wiser, I have come to realize that my stress with the approaching new year has been not my lack of accomplishment, but the setup of Jan. 1 as an unwinnable ideal, a shining magical starting line for a new life. Yet year after year, we wake up and discover it is just another day. No cheering section, no confetti, and the brass band I hear is my son practising his trumpet, achieving his dream not because of the date, but because he’s working at it every day.
I remember oh so clearly the Y2K craze, except at the time it was unfolding, it was a very real fear. We were told over and over by a range of experts that the world’s computers were not equipped for dates beyond the year 1999. As a result, on Jan. 1, 2000, computers would crash, power stations would cease to function, automated systems would go dark … technical Armageddon. In our house we installed an alternate heat source, stockpiled food, backed up our computers, then on New Years Eve we kissed out infant son in his crib and prayed we would see morning light. As we all know, the day dawned with not a bloody thing different. Everything worked, includding my aged fax machine. The date was just a number: a concrete place for our fears, but far from an accurate picture of things to come.
It is said numbers don’t lie, but they sure as hell fib by omission and fuel decisions with the compassion and insight of a sack of stones. The real conflict each New Year’s? Humans crave the safety of numbers, yet are designed to think, feel and act ‘outside the box.’ A fresh year promises a new world where the human spirit can soar, yet it is hemmed in by promises built on numbers that don’t move, see, feel, think or provide anything other than cold, hard judgement, such as:
a person’s health and beauty by their weight
an author’s talent by number of books sold
a human’s worth by their bank balance
a job’s quality by the salary
the depth of love by the number of presents, or the size of the diamond
Well, screw that, is my resolution number one this year. Numbers have their place. We need quantity to make sound decisions. But, we need context, too, and the ability to know, feel, own and act on what is good for us beyond the numerical scale. A 2,000 calorie a day diet may remove some pounds, but without the context of body type, metabolism, personal goals and type of food, it could turn a plump healthy body into a ravaged unbalanced vessel. Some of the world’s best storytellers and harbingers of history have never made the bestseller list. And some of the best resolutions have not started on Jan. 1, which in itself is just a number, and a cultural variant at that. Chinese New Year is Jan. 28 in 2017. Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, is in September. In some Christian faiths, Christmas isn’t over until Epiphany, celebrated the first Sunday in January after New Years Day.
So, Jan. 1 for me is another day – a great day of opportunity, choice, and action. But so will be Jan. 2, Jan 24, Feb 8, and every day before, between and after. Each day is a gift. Treat it as such, rather than a deadline. That is where the magic lies, in our choices, and knowing who we are and what we want, beyond the numbers.
Here’s to an awesome 2017, one day at a time.
Jennifer Hatt is author of the Finding Maria series and a partner in Marechal Media Inc. See more at www.FindingMaria.com.
It is in the throes of grief today that I am grateful: for the presence of a dear friend, and for finding the words.
We’ve received the phone call, or live in fear of it. Someone beloved has died. Sometimes sudden, often expected, but always a shock. Instantly the fabric of a life we once knew is torn, a piece gone, a light winked out. We are each born into this world with an expiry date. Thankfully, we seldom know the date or time. It’s an vague concept, a ‘someday’ thing, a deadline dodged each day we awaken with heart pumping and breath moving. But that deadline always comes and when we feel it, the time has passed for someone we love, and we are left behind to deal with it.
Deal with it how? There is no replacing the unique energy of a divine creation, especially when their life and yours are intertwined by love, circumastance, shared paths, family trees, or just plain choice. You know them, or at least I pray you do: those people who simply being in tbheir presence makes life brighter, richer, clearer. Being with them, near them, or somewhere on their stage of life is a pleasure. To find one is a treasure. To lose one, unspeakable.
Unspeakable. No words. No flow. Grief jams agains the ribs and spine, hammers the skull with nowhere to go. It darkens, drains, overwhelms until the very breath nearly ceases. There is no moving forward, and no going back. Being stuck here is as close to hell as I have every felt. And I’ve been getting way too much practice lately. The body cares not why there is grief, only that there is: loss, change, death, shift, it all evokes similar physical responses. A year ago, I bid goodbye to my dad. Today, I will say farewell to a dear friend, someone my age and believed perfectly healthy, until instantly and without warning, her life on Earth ceased to be. There are other changes, too, that have had me stuck in a constant state of loss. This past weekend, after “the call” had ended, I was left charred, defeated, breathless, powerless. Our world, her family, my family for God’s sake thrived in her presence. Nothing I can say or do will heal the loss felt by her husband, her daughter, and the many people of all ages whom she loved and loved her in return.
But what I say can help share her memory, record her legacy, pay tribute to a life well lived.
So, I write. A Facebook post. A blog. A messsage in a card. I kept it simple:
How we met: she was my son’s first sitter
What happened: he was eight months old. He loved her at first sight. Years later she would care for all three of my chidlren, and become a supporter of my emerging career as an author. When finally convinced to join Facebook, one of her first interactions was to like my fan page. Her ability to share the love among all she met and knew had no bounds.
A Favourite memory: My ‘baby’ eight years later giving her away at her wedding
How I felt at her loss (this was the hardest part): my heart is breaking, but I feel gratitude as well
A statement of hope: her legacy will live on in the many children she cared for, their families, and the world she made a bnetter place by loving our children with all her heart.
With each word, pain and pressure ease. Tears flow, but so does energy, awareness, light, all things needed for healing.
As a writer, the words were there for me. I just had to sit with my pain until they sifted through.
I am heartbroken and exhausted, but grateful.
A life in words pales to a life lived.
But in days of darkness, those words may be the glimmer we need to breathe in, breathe out, and look ahead.
Thanks for being here.
Jennifer Hatt is author of the Finding Maria series and partner in Marechal Media Inc.
See more of Jennifer’s work at www.FindingMaria.com.
It’s been 72 months and counting, and Finding Maria may not have launched a thousand ships, but it did inspire a series, publishing company, and a journey that continues to unfold. Nov. 24, 2016 was the sixth anniversary of the launch of our first book. So fitting that our anniversary fell on American Thanksgiving this year, because there are so many people to thank for this. An author may write a book, but it’s a global village that helps polish, produce, market and appreciate the effort involved. All of that investment, however, is paid forward in the ability to write more books, and in our case, publish books by other authors, helping them realize some reward for their dreams and hard work in the process.
To whom am I grateful? Family and friends, of course. They continue to be my first line of defence, support, hugs, encouragement, kick-ass pep talks and wine. In a class by himself is my business partner, with the thankless job of also being my muse. It is his story that is at the root of the Finding Maria series, and it was at his insistence that my simple gift of a short story for him become a book for everyone to see. Neither one of us were prepared for the world of authorship and self-publishing, running purely on curiosity and blind faith, but this very private person has huing in there while his story, currently in the form of four novels, makes the rounds of bookstores, street fairs, libraries and social media. He’s still hanging in there, even as the conpany sprouted new branches. In addition to our books, we have now published books for two new authors and have offered our editorial and management services to self-publishing authors as well. We are working with local artists and suppliers, have built and donated a Little Free Library to our hometown, and worked with school groups, seniors groups, writing groups, book clubs, and basically anyone wanting to share love for the printed word. t’s all been possible because of you the readers, who buy, borrow, and read our books, then share valuable word-of-mouth praise via conversations and social media. You keep authors and publishers employed. No question.
I’ve been asked often: who is Maria? All will be revealed in the stories. On a larger scale, FInding Maria is not just a story, a book title, or a domain name. It is a journey, into ourselves, in search of the authentic in each of us. So far, it’s taken me here, celebrating my sixth anniversary as an author and publisher, and so ready for more. Where could it take you? For starters, thanks for being here.
Jennifer Hatt is author of the Finding Maria series and partner in Marechal Media Inc. See more at www.FindingMaria.com
My video post: