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Christmas Past

Every year as Christmas creeps closer and closer I call up fond memories of the season. One especially amusing recollection from my much younger days predictably jumps to the forefront of my mind and every year, I like to share it in some manner or another.  This year, it is here:

 

STOCKING CHRISTMAS

Joanne E. Betzler

The year I was five, I awoke Christmas Eve morning unable to ignore the excitement niggling at my insides. It was useless to even try. Images of Santa covered in soot sliding down our non-existent chimney, Daddy’s old socks bulging with toys, candy canes, and oranges hanging in front of our fake fireplace, and gifts mounded beneath our twinkling tree overwhelmed my preschool brain. I also knew that today I had to be good.

Since stockings were a vital part of the season’s rituals I made it my job to sort them. I pulled the tangled mass of worn woolen socks from the bottom of the battered cardboard ornament box and laid them side-by-side on the sofa.

Mainly assorted shades of blue, the lone green one caught my eye. The hue was too pale to be a true Christmas colour but with a darker green pattern of crisscrossing lines, it was close enough. I pulled the sock up over my arm and pushed my fist against the frayed patch of darning. Assured of the toe’s strength, I performed the same test on the heel. Finding it firm, I knew this stocking would be mine tonight. The bossy voices and strong arms of my two older sisters were a perpetual risk so I stuffed the prickly material under my shirt and ran upstairs to secure my treasure under my pillow until bedtime.

 

Every Christmas Eve night, our house was a family magnet. With each arrival of aunts and uncles, a new offering of gifts was laid under the tree and two more chairs brought into our already overflowing front room. And with each new arrival, the excitement in my gut grew until I was sure I would burst.

Freshly bathed with my hair set in hard plastic curlers so I could look my best in church the next morning, and with no real sense of time, my stomach did somersaults as I stood in the doorway inhaling the hazy cloud of cigarette smoke and observing the jolliness of the room.       How long would it go on?

The insides of my eyelids were a built in View Master. Every blink offered a different festive image. Santa, elves, reindeer. They were all there, spinning through my brain. I couldn’t stand it. My heart raced as I wiped my sweaty palms down the legs of my worn flannel pajamas. The only way to make it be Christmas morning was to go to bed and sleep through the long hours of waiting.

After brushing my teeth and one last trip to the bathroom, I ventured in to bid our guests goodnight. Rough whiskered faces and sticky red lipstick kisses breathed spicy rum into my nostrils as I made my way around the room. With Momma busy in the kitchen and Daddy’s storytelling voice booming from the babies room as he put my younger sister to bed, I knew I was on my own and mounted the wooden staircase.

All of us together

As per our prescribed nightly ritual, I knelt on the floor and leaned my elbows on my mattress to assume the prayer position and asked God to bless all the members of my family. Even my baby brother and our cat Beatty. A quick sign of the cross as my sign-off, I jumped up to take a peek out the window in case Santa happened to be flying by, then pulled the blanket back from my pillow. Careful not to disturb the perfect smoothness of my covers, I inched my way between the tightly tucked sheets to stare up at the long shadows on the ceiling created by the light from the hall.

Voices and laughter from below wafted through the vent beside my bed but I couldn’t make out the words. Instead, my mind wandered to the possibilities of tomorrow. What would Santa bring? What would he put in my stocking…?

My lungs gasped for air and my body jolted upright.

Oh no – no – no – no – my stocking – I – forgot – to – hang – my – stocking!

Tearing the corners of my blankets from beneath the mattress, I shoved my hand under my pillow and found the rough fabric of Daddy’s old green sock. Waiting.

I couldn’t move. The cardinal rule of bedtime in our house was carved deep in my psyche. Once you go to bed, you STAY in bed for the night. Period.

A wail rang out from my very being to resonate from the bedroom walls.

AHHHH …

I’m not allowed to get up!

Tears streamed down my crumpled, burning face as I snatched the stocking and hugged it to my heart. My stomach jumped to my chest. My lungs inflated to their fullest and spewed out my misery. Over and over and over…

Santa would fill only four stockings tonight. Not five. Would he know one was missing? Would he put my goodies on the floor under the spot where mine should be? How could I possibly watch my sisters empty their stockings and me with none?

There would be no Christmas for me – with – no – stocking!

WAHHH …

 

“What are you howling about?” Momma’s voice thundered up the stairs.

“I forgot to hang my stocking.” My throat hurt and the inside of my chest burned. I held my breath, afraid to move.

“No one sent you to bed.” She sounded a little mad. “What are you thinking?”

“I wanted Christmas to come faster.” I swiped the tears from my face with my sleeve and swallowed a hiccup.

“Come downstairs. It’s too early for bed.” That time she laughed but I didn’t see anything funny at all.

A wave of relief filled my core as I squeezed the prickly green stocking tight in my fists. Sliding out from under the blankets, I took a long shuddered breath, stood tall and made my way back downstairs not even trying to hide the grin on my face.

2017 – A Bittersweet Goodbye

GaspesieAs I review the events in my 2017 calendar, what jumps out at me first is the richness of my existence. Travel alone can classify me as privileged. From a winter trip to Mexico with my spouse, children, their partners, and our grandchildren, to my first ever visit to Ottawa for Canada’s 150th birthday that expanded into Montreal, Quebec City and a grand tour of Gaspesie. Two weekend wedding trips, one to Kelowna (Congratulations Luke and Christina!) and one to Sechelt (Congratulations Cameron and Carolyn!). And the eagerly anticipated visits to Edmonton for face to face time with my two grandchildren. It will never be a choice of mine to miss a birthday. A third flight to Alberta for another bit of family time and grand-kids’ winter sports iced the year’s travel excursions (Thank you, John, Brenda, Brody and Aubrey). And finally, our Christmas in Victoria.
Despite best efforts by all, it was impossible to coordinate our date of family travel to Mexico with the schedule of our daughter and her husband’s life-changing move to Aberdeen, Scotland (Congratulations, Eowyn and Jonathan – we missed you). You inspire us to embark on a trip to, as my Grandma would call it, the old country in 2018.
Some health issues dogged me this year, but I am not easy to take down. The resurfacing of screaming shoulder pain led me on a new path of recovery. A specialist’s expertise diagnosed a case of bursitis and after her TLC, I am nearing recovery (Thank you, Dr. Ho). The BC cancer agency’s request for a mammogram-do-over resulted in some mind-over-matter exercises, a clear test result and a personal essay of the experience that The Globe And Mail saw fit to publish in October.
The sore on my nose proved more difficult. After two months, the pimple-like lesion refused to heal and I sought medical attention. After a few liquid nitrogen treatments, a biopsy showed basal-cell melanoma. The dermatologist assured me that if I had to have skin cancer, this was the type I wanted, then referred me to a surgeon skilled in MOH’s surgery, a specialized treatment that revealed my small pimple was but the tip of an ice burg of entrenched melanoma. The removal procedure has a high rate of success (well over 90%) and two weeks post surgery, I am nearly healed and optimistic for minimal scarring (Thank you, Drs. Siu, Samycia, and Nasseri).
Writing has been source of satisfaction in my life over the last five years and in that department, 2017 did not disappoint. As the 25th anniversary of my sister Jane’s death, I resolved to fulfill my personal commitment to write about her death’s influence on my ability to leave my unhappy marriage, the same year. Pulling my head from its fiction mindset, I began with a couple of memoir and non-fiction courses (Thank you, Betsy and Mark). I work-shopped piece by piece with my InkTank friends who gave me objective and insightful feedback and helped clarify my skewed vision (Thank you, John, Kristy, Maureen, Deborah, and Rena). Since 1992 I had been hiding behind Jane’s death. I needed to dig deeper into myself and be honest about my realities for my memoir based writing to work. This in mind, I ventured onto a six-week memoir writing workshop (Thank you, Elee, Dhana, Donna, Heather, Maureen, Rena, Sylvia, Sheila, and Carole) that helped me to persevere through the painful process. This weekend I will wrap up the final chapter of this long overdue memoir.
My connection to the Vancouver writing community enriches my world on a regular basis and this year I was honoured to celebrate friends’ book launches (Congratulations Carleigh, Suzanne, Jonina and Carys). Writing consults through SFU and Vancouver public library and Word Vancouver introduced me to some interesting and inspiring writers I would not otherwise have met, and I continue to research my Great Grandmother’s history for a different crack at non-fiction. And I can’t resist stepping onto the stage at Cottage Bistro at least once each calendar year, to share a slice of my writing. May’s audience was warm and receptive.
My writing world feeds my creativity with more than words.With the prevalence of changing climate, I find myself captivated by the plight of bees. Not only do they feature in my fiction, they

Honeycombpopulate my back yard. This year, I allocated a slice of inspiration to the hard-working pollinators. Root crops were replaced with a plethora of colourful cosmos, sunflowers, heliotrope, marigolds, and allium. The honey-comb garden that invaded my dreams day and night last winter, came into fruition in May with the help of Grant’s carpentry expertise.

During the August visit from our Edmonton family I planned fun Vancouver adventures for grand-kids via TransLink and fussed over meal planning for picky eaters, encouraged by frequent exclamations of “Another score, Grandma!”.

Regular visits and dinners with Grant’s ageing parents are enjoyable and add perspective to my outlook on life (Thank you, Robert and Margaret) and the scarce moments that my daughter and I find to share fun experiences like a trip to Granville Island or the Circle Craft Christmas Market, treasured (Thank you, Megan). I especially enjoy Grant’s Sunday trips to the golf course with my son-in-law (Thank you, Mac). Their seasonal outdoor recreation offers me a cherished early-morning solitude for grounding myself in gardening or in writing.
I had two constants in my life, this year. The dog was just a dog. Funny, playful, pesky and sweet (Thank you, Flint). But ever since I’ve known him, my husband has been my anchor and 2017 was no different. His unconditional love and encouragement inspire me to have faith in myself. He challenges me, laughs and sings with me, and when I falter, is but a warm shoulder and a word of encouragement away. (I can’t thank you enough, Grant).

Saying good-bye to 2017 is bittersweet. The good outweighed the bad big-time but life is about moving forward and 2018 opens with possibilities of new ventures in life, family, and travel. I am ready.

EXIT 2015

I’m happy I took the time this morning to review my 2015 calendar. The difficulties of the year have weighed me down in a way I can’t quite define, other than to say they felt heavier than usual. More challenging. Yesterday’s wipeout in Pacific Centre was insult on top of injury and all I can say is, it’s a good thing I’m resilient, because two tumbles in two weeks is definitely out of the ordinary.

After taking inventory of 2015 events and placing them on a balance sheet, I am happy to announce that the good times far outweigh the bad. The vicious dog attack on me in my own neighbourhood, the vandalizing of my truck, and the disastrous water leak that took out both our bathrooms and all of our bank account (I’m going easy on this one – trust me), were quickly conquered by rare visits from nieces, nephews, grand-nieces and grandnephews that filled our lives with happiness and fun times. Thanks to Megan and Mac, we met our new grand-dog, Sprout. The summer was topped off by a most special visit from our two grandchildren, Brody and Aubrey, who were generous enough to bring their parents along for the ride. What fun we had! Thank you, John and Brenda.

We outsourced the task of evicting a rogue squirrel from our eaves, and I’m choosing to take a positive spin, despite the cost, on our installation of a new furnace. But Autumn did bring a new trial. While Grant’s brutal shingles attack was his alone to bear, his struggles made me ache for the ability to soothe and take away his pain.

The October time we had booked off for travel became a road trip to the Okanagan. Kelowna, south to Penticton, tasting wines and visiting our lovely, generous friends and part time wine tour operators, Paul and Patti. Further south to Osoyoos area and more wine tasting, the excursion was a refreshing distraction. Our Portland trip to see a dance debut turned out to be a daughter’s wonderful surprise wedding. Congratulations, Eowyn and Jonathan!

I had six great months working with a most excellent group of writers in a TWS Manuscript Intensive, exchanging valuable feedback and gaining new insights into my own writing. Thank you, Wayde Compton, Carys Cragg, Karen Faryna, Lorraine Kiidumae, and Kelly Roulette. Bimonthly workshops with the Ink Tank group, Maureen Reynolds, Kelly Roulette, Christy Storey, and John Taylor, further helped me hone my writing. I am grateful to you all.

The completion of my last chapter, is without a doubt the icing on my book, and my entire year.

Christmas in Tofino with Grant and Flint rounded out December. Surging, heaving waves, ever changing tides and light patterns, brute strength of the Pacific Ocean, grounded me and I recognized the enormity of nature and the world, and how small a player I am in its structure. What are my few hiccups to such earthly power?

Yes. The positive in my 2015 far outweighs the negative. A son’s engagement at Christmas, (Congratulations Luke and Christina!) two new bathrooms and a new Prime Minister, fundraising events for Honour House, Looking Glass Foundation and Fraser Fest are just some of the year’s highlights that outshine and diminish a few pesky inconveniences. My difficulties are minute, even in the scope of other First World problems. Freshly bruised knees and a stiff neck are my badges of defiance at 2015’s pathetic attempt to hurt me. Raising my throbbing, purple ring finger as a flag I thumb my nose at 2015.

I may fall, but I don’t break.

ELUSIVE EXPECTATION

Two and half years (approximately) in the creating, I finished writing my first novel yesterday. From the beginning of the project, the expectation I carried for my reaction to that moment was extreme satisfaction, even elation.

Instead, it was almost the opposite. When I hit save before closing the file on my computer, a weight of sadness settled in my core. Oh, I was not deceived into thinking the work was complete. Proofreading, editing, rearranging, and queries all critical to the big picture process, are outstanding. Yet somehow, I believed that pulling together that last chapter would give me a sense of fulfilment, if not completion.

Wanting to share my accomplishment with the world, I reached out on Facebook and posted the following:

XXXII Chapters done. And done.  I know I have lots of editing to do, but not right now.  I’m just empty.

And that’s just it. I felt empty.

An indescribable sense of loss dogged me throughout the evening and into my sleep last night. As I awoke today, thoughts of rearranging the last two chapters, perhaps splitting them into four, were at the front of my brain and I spent most of the morning in a state of agitation, prepared to dive in and make my book complete in one intense binge at the computer.

My partner has a cooler head and more logical thought process than me. The distraction in my brain became less insistent as together, Grant and I navigated our Saturday morning within a somewhat normal structure: coffee, Globe and Mail, game of Cribbage, and a hearty breakfast.

But still, my brain remained muddled. Finally, a hot shower rinsed away some confusion, and my thoughts fell into place. A wallowing, self-absorbed, blog post, of course. What better way to disgorge the garbage clogging my creative process?

A simple, three hundred and thirty-three word vent, and I feel renewed enough to celebrate my accomplishment and enjoy a writing free weekend.

Monday morning, let the maintenance begin.

My Translink Rant – Creative Non-Fiction

When the well-dressed Translink executive, on his way to a GVRD transportation meeting, sat next to me on the skytrain and asked my opinion, I told him it was vital they be mindful of their spending choices when growing public transit in B.C’s lower mainland. One wrong step such as adding an extra CEO and paying them both exorbitant sums and bonuses beyond the comprehension of the system’s general ridership, there would be an entire mainland population up in arms.

“Before you know it, people will be clamouring for the job of running the intricate urban transportation link with claims of the ability to accomplish so much more for so much less. And in a far shorter time span.” I said. “And should you plan to fund the growth through any kind of tax, no matter how small the fraction, plebiscite or not, Nay Sayers will scream. Not everyone, mind you. Just the Nay Sayers and they will be heard yelling ‘foul’ to the ends of the Fraser Valley.

No amount of reasoning will convince them that transit lines, cars, busses and operators don’t grow on trees and the system will not automatically appear overnight. They will never accept that the money has to come from somewhere and the expense is most logically shared by the entire population that stands to benefit from a vast transportation network that unites communities and facilitates an enriched life experience for everyone concerned.

That vocal segment of the population would have us living in the past. Back in a time when the hundred mile diet was a harsh reality because horses and carriages have their limitations. When access to education was restricted to the distance one could travel under their own steam in the limited amount of time available away from the homestead.” I went on. “So many cultural activities to miss out on, and the Pacific Ocean …  Don’t even get me started.

“So remember to hire judiciously at the outset. One CEO will do for starters. See how it goes. No one will begrudge you another should it prove necessary after the initial trial as long as you are forthcoming and transparent with the needs and the costs. Save the bonus structure for a later date.

Last of all, please don’t forget to extend the validation time of a three zone bus ticket to accommodate the extra time it takes for busses to weave their way through the congested roads of North Vancouver all the way to Langley so I can complete my journey home before my ticket expires.”

 

 

My Space

“To have a sacred place is an absolute necessity for anybody today. You must have a room or a certain hour of the day or so, where you do not know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody or what they owe you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be …” (Joseph Campbell)

Writers spaceI hunger for space. My space. And by space, I don’t mean a cupboard, or a big empty basement room. The space I crave speaks to me. As I am. No questions. No conditions. No criticism. Welcomes and accepts me. Lets me immerse myself in other worlds. Worlds of words. Worlds of ideas. Worlds of stories.

Three years ago, I decided to have that space. I cast aside my acceptance of a pipe dream. I was tired of slinking down to the cold dark basement. Twisting and turning chairs and lamps to find optimal lighting. Packaging myself in sweaters, blankets, and wool socks.

My work station is located in the den/guest room of our 1950 era two bedroom house. It has a desk with computer, monitor, office chair, printer, and stand along the east wall, with a book shelf in the NE corner. On the north wall is a 4.5’ x 3.75’ blinded window, and the west wall is occupied by the doorway to the room, and a loveseat that pulls out into a bed. The south wall houses a closet and a bookshelf.

Writers spaceI painted the walls cheerful lemon lime, and adorned them with a favourite painting and family photos. Because the house was built in 1950, the closets are small and I am forced to share the space with my husband who stores his clothes in this room. He keeps his belongings confined to a tight corner and the joint use of the room does not pose a problem to my productivity. The pullout bed is our secondary guest sleeping quarters, so even as a guest room, the inconvenience is negligible.

I am fortunate to have this oasis.

My place of  “… creative incubation.”

My Biggest Success So Far As A Writer

Originally published on New West Writers

The writing demon is with me always. From the security of her perch on my shoulder, she sporadically rouses from hibernation to taunt me with grand ideas and inspiration. “Come on, Joanne. Give it a go. You can do it.” And in that moment, I believe her.

Inevitably, each and every tidbit of fiendish encouragement and support is rapidly reversed. “Stop, stop, Joanne, stop! What were you thinking?” And in that moment, I believe her.

For most of my life, stories germinated in my head, became tender sprouts upon blank pages where they withered and died under a fiendish drape of anxiety and self-doubt. With no faith in my own creative voice, I chose to explore the field of editing in my spare time. Every time I studied SFU’s Continuing Education Catalogue for the next course, my eye was uncontrollably drawn to the side-bar promoting The Writer’s Studio, provoking the imp. “Maybe, Joanne. You should try. No way – are you crazy, woman?”

In the spring of 2012, a different class caught my eye on the calendar’s list of possibilities. August offered a week-long intensive called Write, Write, Write. I couldn’t get it out of my head. My scoundrel and I battled wholeheartedly for a couple of weeks over the possibility of submerging myself in a world of writing for an entire week. “Yes, you can. A whole week? I don’t know, Joanne.” Hmm. “Just a week. It’s just a week, damn it.” I’d had enough. In an impulsive act of assertion, I gagged my resident meddler and signed up for five continuous days of I knew not what.

The first day I panicked and heard the demon’s whisper. “You’ll not last the week,” she hissed. I replaced her muzzle and dove into a world of self-enlightenment. I wrote stories and read them out loud. I listened to stories and was amazed. I laughed. I cried. I rejoiced. By Friday’s end, the urchin could barely raise her head when I declared “This is how I want to live my life.”

Come September, I actively sought information on The Writers’ Studio and devoted the hours, days, and weeks necessary to prepare my application and submit it by the October 31st deadline. When the call came informing me of my acceptance to TWS 2013, I was consumed by elation and fear, a volatile combination certain to stir the sleeping tyrant. But I was ready to let TWS change my life.

Change my life it did. I gained a firm belief in myself and now trust my instincts to write. My biggest success as a writer is finding the courage to face and subdue the demon on my shoulder. She will always be there, I know that. But now, I am more than halfway through my first novel and when my tormentor’s objections threaten to hinder my progress, I assert my confidence and power on. She can’t stop me now.