The Top of Toy Mountain (1999)

 

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I’m stuck in traffic, making one last trip to the mall. A radio announcer with a soulful voice implores me to consider the children who will have nothing under the Christmas tree. He wants me to help build Toy Mountain.

For three weeks, I’ve shopped, baked and decorated. I am building Christmas for my family. Today, I have one last purchase to make for each child; one special present to add to the practical pyjamas, sweaters and socks and the books, games and CDs.

I will spend tonight assembling my ten-year-old’s costume for the politically correct school concert. Having clothed angels, shepherds and wisemen for almost twenty years, I am an expert, but this year’s school costume stretches my creativity. He’s to dress like Elvis. Other classes are wearing western garb for “Santa’s Holiday Hoedown.” Trying to explain to my son what part Elvis played in Christmas, I finally shrugged and told him flatly, “None.”

Now, waiting to turn left to the mall as the radio beseeches to make this a Christmas a child will remember, I let my own memory idle back.

Christmas Eve is what I remember, and probably 1954. In a small white Lutheran church in New Sarepta, Alberta, I leaned against the scratchy wool of my dad’s suit coat with my eyes fixed on a twinkling tree that was surely twenty feet tall. In a few minutes, we’d file past the smiling man at the back door who would hand me a brown paper bag bulging with one Mandarin orange and a generous fistful of nuts and hard candy—the men who filled those bags had generous hands. Then home to our own tree and presents.

There was no Santa in our Christmas. The gifts came from Mom and Dad: a sweater, socks, underwear, and maybe a Nancy Drew book. I have no memories of perfect toys , but what I remember is the sweet swelling in my chest as the voices of the people I loved rose in the final verse of Stille Nacht.

It is the same tender ache I will feel when I stand with my children in the candlelight on Christmas Eve at Lutheran Church of Our Saviour in Calgary in 1999.

I have been trying to build my own Toy Mountain. I dart into the right lane, out of the stream of traffic and head north to a little shop called Ten Thousand Villages where, two weeks before, I found a pottery burro made in a Mexican village. He bears the Holy Family on his back and in Mary’s face there is the same expression of awe that I wish for my children at Christmas. The Mennonite Central Committee operates the store, the staff are volunteers, and the Mexican villagers who craft the pottery are paid fair trade wages.

I buy three figurines, pause and add a fourth. When my children open their presents, I will tell them the story of 1954.  The fourth little burro I will add to the top of Toy Mountain.

(published in the Calgary Herald, Christmas 1999 &Canada Lutheran Vol 14 Number 9  December 1999)

Betty Jane Hegerat was a member of Lutheran Church of Our Saviour at the time this piece written and is now a member of Lutheran Church of the Cross in Calgary.)   

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Computer Match

The girl at the table is as pretty as a Siamese cat. She has a wedge-shaped face and Dresden blue eyes. She’s holding a tablet. Or an Ipad. Or devise I have yet to add to my limited electronics vocabulary. Fingers flying, she has such a secretly coy smile, I’d put money on the name of the person on the receiving end of the text being Damien or Marcus. Such a tiny device, so many possibilities

In a time long ago when computers took up a whole room and the data entry was done with punch cards, I redefined myself, albeit briefly, as a girl brave enough to go looking for romance with strangers. The program was called Operation Match. I know this because Wikipedia tells me so.

Computer dating questionnaires were all over the University of Alberta campus in Edmonton in 1968. I filled in a questionnaire, put it in an envelope with $20, and someone in Toronto transferred my answers to a punch card. A few weeks later I got a list of about eighty names. A dozen of them marked as my best matches in Canada. Apparently there were far fewer women than men filling in those questionnaires, and a nineteen-year-old auburn-haired university student, 5 foot 6, 120 pounds, was a slipper that fit.

I had no idea what to do with the list. Could barely believe I’d sent the questionnaire. I was a shy girl, with a short history of awkward dates. I never told anyone I paid twenty dollars to buy a fairy tale.

Then the “best dates” began to write. With almost all of them, the contact ended after a letter and a reply. No email in 1968. My Bests were spread all over the country. There were two in Edmonton and by weird coincidence; the one who contacted me was the older brother of a girl in my American Literature class. She saw the two of us having coffee at the Tuck Shop and rushed up to ask us how we’d met. He lied. So I did too.

We went for coffee a couple more times, and to a movie. When he showed up with his roommates at the Safeway where I worked part-time, they chose to wait in the long queue for the gorgeous blonde who was cashing on the till next to mine, and invited her to a party they were having that night.

Stung, I was ready to dump my computer persona, but I’d already heard from another best match from Halifax. He was passing through Edmonton on his way up north with the Armed Forces. I picked him up at the base and we went out for coffee.  A quiet guy, good-looking in a seriously military kind of way.

When I went to drop him off, he told me that where he was headed there were few women, and he suggested we park and consider the full moon for a bit   A short bit—just long enough to insist that he needed a roll in the back seat to send him on his heroic way. I held him off but the strength necessary frightened me, and with shaky hands on the wheel, I dumped him back at the barracks gates. I had a letter from him a few weeks later asking if we could see each other again when he came back to Edmonton en route to home. I hoped his list of names was short and some other naïve girl didn’t have to wrestle with him.

Things picked up after the soldier. The next match to get in touch was a live one. He showed up at the door one day, a boy from Toronto who was hitching to Jasper to work for the summer and wondered if he could “crash” at my place for a night. I was living at home.

Tall, muscular, blonde hair to his shoulders—it was the age of Aquarius, but Edmonton hadn’t signed on yet. He had Jack Kerouac and Ken Kesey in his backpack. He set my dad’s alarm bells clanging. No way was this hippie sleeping in our basement. He found an alternate crash pad with people with names like Teabag and Fish and Rainbow. For some reason, he liked me, the shy brunette with the strict parents, and appeared outside my bedroom window three nights in a row.

I don’t think he ever suggested that I climb out the window. I just popped the screen out and he told me stories—the places he’d been and oh, the places we’d go. On the third night he passed me a note and made me promise I wouldn’t read it until he was gone. He was leaving for Jasper Park Lodge the next day. I read the note as soon as his shadow slipped around the corner of the house. There was a ring buried against the wall under my window, but I was not to wear it until I came to Jasper to spend a weekend with him.

I dug up the ring first thing next morning—carved out of wood, way too big for my fingers, but the grain felt smooth as butter. I thought about wearing it on a leather cord. My mother’s reaction would be?  Pagan hippie ornament.

I was in love—who wouldn’t fall for a boy who buried a ring outside her window? I hitchhiked to Jasper with my best friend the next weekend, and arranged to meet my guy while she met up with some friends who were there for spring skiing. That was the story I told my folks, that we were going skiing. That Carolyn was driving and had a spare pair of skis.  It was going to be such fun because I’d never skied before.

I met my Jasper Park Lodge waiter and spent the night with him in a skimpy sleeping bag on the side of a mountain that had yet to be touched by summer. Two people in a sleeping bag will be less likely to die of hypothermia if they strip to the skin?  Perhaps after a plane crash in the Andes. Not within walking distance of a town.

Next day, he tried to convince me to swim across a rushing torrent of a river so we could take a shortcut back. The guy was surely high as a kite most of the time, but I wanted to believe that he had a lease on a dreamy cloud of his own. I wanted to share it. Strangely, he didn’t smell of dope. He smelled like apples.

We went back to the staff residence at the Lodge so I could warm up in his bunk before I went into town for the ride home with the real skiers. That adventure, the intimate contact with someone who didn’t mention that he was booked off work because of a raw throat, rewarded me with a wicked case of strep throat.

He came back to Edmonton for a few days at the end of summer, and after he left we exchanged long yearning letters. Oh, he was a poet, that boy. After the fall semester, he quit university—I don’t remember what he was studying, only that scent of apples. Back he came, and tagged along to classes with me, the ones in theatres so large the professor never noticed an extra body. I loved the way people looked at me and wondered about the stranger beside me. He stayed at a hotel downtown—I can see the outside, the entrance doors, the reception desk, the clerk who leered at me each time I came and left.

The name of the hotel… green, something green? I skipped afternoon classes most days and met him there. He gave short notice that he was leaving. There was good money to be made as a male model back in Toronto, he said. News to me, when he showed me his nude photos; just waist up, but still the sultry look on his face made my cheeks burn.

I ignored every clue that this was a boy/man who was lost: the bits and pieces of his story of being ousted from his family by a stepmother; the ready money that paid for flights to Edmonton and hotel rooms; periodic meet-ups with the fishes and teabags of a culture of which I had no experience. I imagined us in a Joni Mitchell song in an apartment in Toronto. I borrowed the car, told another lie about where I was going, and took him to the airport. I wept buckets in the parking lot before I drove home, sure that I’d never see him again.

That summer, he wrote to say he was coming back, and I was to find a place where we could spend the weekend together. I chose Elk Island Park, the only spot I knew where there were cabins to rent, and close enough to Edmonton that I could come up with an excuse for borrowing the car. This time, I told Mom and Dad I was spending the weekend with my friend at her aunt’s Elk Island cottage, assuaging my growing guilt by reasoning that part of the story was true.

I assumed I pulled it off. In spite of my own discomfort at the deceit, I didn’t think even a ripple of suspicion crossed their minds. I was twenty years old and almost finished university, and I thought they would have forgotten the long-haired doper who’d asked to sleep in their house. For years their friends had been telling them how lucky they were that I was such a good girl. Why would they suspect such a daughter to be a liar and a sneak?

We didn’t go to Elk Island because it poured miserable rain for days before he arrived and there was no sign that it was going to let up. He breezed into town and announced that we were going to Victoria instead. I’d never been on a plane. I was swept off my feet by the idea. Up up into the sky and away we flew.

I’d never been to Victoria either, even though we’d once taken a family holiday to visit my aunt and uncle in Vancouver. I tucked away the thought that if I ended up in trouble, I would find my way to New Westminster, confess all, and Uncle Cy would see that I got home safely. I was still infatuated, but picking up on signals that my guy was off-kilter. Oddly, I was not frightened, though this was the most reckless thing I’d ever done.

We checked into a hotel a block away from Beacon Hill Park. There was a full moon above and mist below and I remember feeling like I was wandering in a dream. He rolled a joint, passed it to me. Go ahead, he said, it’ll make the sex delicious. So far the sex wasn’t anywhere near delicious. I think he may have been gay. Erectile dysfunction at twenty-two?  It seemed like he was working way too hard at it.

I’d never smoked regular cigs, forget about weed. I faked, but got surprisingly high on the mist and the moonlight. We strolled back to the hotel, got into bed and it might even have been delicious except that two minutes later there was banging on the door. I dove under the blankets, he leapt up and answered the door, and in piled that old crew of teabags he’d crashed with in Edmonton.. I stayed under the covers while he got rid of them. We slept, just slept, and the next day flew home.

Apparently, the good girl inside me wanted to come clean. I’d lain a trail of clues. I’d kept souvenirs—the plane ticket, one of those little bars of hotel soap, and of course there were his letters. My mom asked a lot of questions about what my friend and I had done at Elk Island in the rain. Sat around the cabin and read and played Scrabble? She’d snooped and found the ticket. She’d read the letters. She cried. I cried. Dad never knew.

I began to see “dope guy” (as my mother referred to him) through different eyes. The good daughter pushed the dreamy girl aside. Now he was broke and borrowing money from me. I made excuses when he called, didn’t answer the door when he came knocking.

Finally, he left town. He kept writing to me all through the next year and, feeling safety in distance, feeling a good girl’s sense of loyalty, I answered his letters. When I graduated and got a social work job in Lethbridge, I shared that excitement with him. He turned up about a month after I moved there. He was on his way down to L.A. he said. I told him he could stay one night, sleep on the sofa; the next day I drove him down to the border crossing at Coutts and dumped him there. I gave him $100.  Again.

When I got home the phone was ringing. They’d refused to let him cross because he couldn’t give an address for his intended destination nor did he have enough money. I told him I couldn’t help him. He hitched or took a bus somewhere? I never saw him again.

He smelled like apples. How strange that I can remember that. And the hotel?  The Greenbriar. That was it—The Greenbriar.

Cat girl is watching me, curiously. I smile at her, still hoping that her Damien is a boyfriend in real time. Have I been talking out loud? Even if I was, and she heard the story she won’t have believed it. Computer dating in 1968?

Peace, Alan, wherever you are.

 

Sharon D’s rose, 7 years later

 

My original post of “Sharon D’s Rose” was written in June 2011. As with every memory of a friend lost, I shake my head and ask how it could be that so many years have passed.

Bob and Marilyn had come for tea in the garden that weekend. In my ramble around the yard before they arrived, I found a perfect stem of roses to send home with them. The shrub with the totally inadequate and utilitarian name of Winnipeg Parks had just began its blooming.  I planted this rose in memory of Sharon, a mutual friend of Bob’s — and every summer since, when it’s at its peak, it outshines all the other roses in the garden. Bob went straightway to a garden centre to buy the Winnipeg Parks that is blooming now in his garden.

Yesterday, clipping a bouquet to bring into the house, the memory of the spring and summer when Sharon became a gardener, flooded my thoughts.

Looking ahead to solitude in her house —her first two children had flown and the third was poised on the age of the nest to leave for university in the fall— Sharon was gazing out the window one morning, she told when she called. She had decided that she wanted to turn that rectangle of back yard with its lawn and shrubs into a beautiful place. “Help me make a garden, Betty! Any fool can make a garden, can’t she?” I flashed back to a similar conversation just a few months before when Sharon was contemplating walls and called to say, “I’m tired of these walls. Any fool can remove wallpaper, can’t she?” The rental of a steam unit, and three days of labour later, another phone call. Quavery voice. “Betty, you know the layers of wall underneath the paper?” Drywall. Made soft by oh such enthusiastic steaming … But still, I knew my friend was no fool at all, but a bright spark of a poet who would bring such creativity to her gardening I couldn’t wait to watch this garden grow.

First the pruning back of trees, then the digging of the beds (Sharon hired my youngest son to do the labour), the round and round my garden for plants she loved, and the digging and sharing. Then the trips to Greengate and at my suggestion of a bed of roses along the front driveway where the sun shone all day long, we reached the climax of this gardening story. I think there were six assorted roses in the first planting, but the day the Winnipeg Parks opened its first bud, Sharon sent an email saying she was off to Greengate. She was in love with that rose, and she needed at least two more bushes. On a day in late September, I had an email from Sharon saying she’d just finished planting tulips among the rose bushes when the first snowflakes of the season drifted down. She was hooked on gardens. She couldn’t wait to see those tulips pushing through in spring.

In January, Sharon died very suddenly. I think it helped that the world was covered in snow and we didn’t have to think about her garden for several months. That summer, my son tended the yard, pending the emptying and sale of the house. The tulips bloomed but were neatly decapitated by the deer that range nearby. But the roses, the roses were splendid.

Each year, my intent to  drive by Sharon’s garden to see if the Winnipeg Parks is still there lessens. By now, the sadness that kept me away in the first years would surely give way to joy should the roses still be in that perfect spot. But there is a good chance that whoever lives in the house now has different preferences, and they will be gone. I prefer to hold close to the memory of the excitement on my friend’s face that summer she was transformed into a gardener.  This year’s Winnipeg Parks in my own garden will be enough.

One Woman’s Island

 

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My good friend, Susan Toy, dedicates a large amount of time to promoting books and authors, and offering advice on “the business.” She also finds time to write and publishes her work and that of others under her own imprint, IslandCatEditions.

Susan is a splendid cook and an inspired one.  A recipe she created for Cinnamon Buns and kindly shared with me has won me many compliments. When I told her I was serving Susan Toy’s Cinnamon Buns at a coffee gathering last week and that I would give her acknowledgement but not divulge the recipe, she laughed and said I was to make sure everyone there knew that the recipe, along with several other of her “island” recipes is in her latest published ebook, One Woman’s Island.

( Some I will try but I will pass on Goat Water Soup.)

After several years of being on the receiving end of Susan’s promotion, I’m delighted to be able to shine some light on her writing.

In 1989, Susan and partner, Dennis, visited Bequia Island, a small island and part of the country of St. Vincent and the Grenadines in the Caribbean, and were so enchanted with this bit of “paradise” that they bought property, built a home and moved to Bequia in 1996. In the ensuing years, Susan has returned to Canada for several extended visits to Calgary, and more recently has bought a holiday home (she refers to it as “the trailer”) in Ontario.

As soon as I began reading One Woman’s Island, (and the same recognition occurred when I read Susan’s first mystery novel, Island in the Clouds), I could clearly hear Susan’s voice in the narrator, Mariana, who is looking for time to sort out her life. Six months on Bequia is a compelling choice.

The characters, the  island setting which emerges as a character unto itself, and Mariana’s introduction to Caribbean culture have resonance for me because I have heard so much from Susan about this place. The resonance, I think, would be there for anyone who’s dreamed of living in paradise.

There is a community of ex-pats—mostly Canadian and American—to whom Mariana is initially drawn, but with whom she becomes quickly disenchanted. Susan pulls no punches when it comes to the hardened judgement most of the “visitors” express freely about the “locals” and island culture. She also skilfully gives glimpses of the shrouded feelings of the locals toward these visitors on whom their tourist industry relies, creating a livelihood for many in this struggling population.

Mariana’s overflowing compassion is entirely believable, and so too is the reaction of her fellow ex-pats and the local community.  And so the story unfolds, with mysterious deaths and nefarious characters.

Just a tip:  Should you ever have the good fortune of visiting Bequia and meeting Susan Toy, stay away from swimming pools. She enjoys disposing of bodies—only a literary predilection we will assume—in convenient pools.

If I have one quibble with the writing, it is a small one.  I find reading dialect distracts me from story, even in this case where Susan’s many years on the island and finely tuned ear give her the skill for re-creating the voices of the local characters. There are places where a bit less, without entirely removing the beautiful song of the Caribbean voice, might make for smoother reading.

If you are seeking an escape, the island of Bequia, even enjoyed from your comfortable chair at home in your own personal paradise, would be a lovely bit of travel in any season.

If you have an interest in ethnography and sociology, there is plenty for pondering.

If you’re looking for a recipe for Rum Punch, you will want to try Dennis’s creation.

And of course, there is the recipe for the cinnamon buns which I brazenly now refer to “Betty Jane’s as told to her by Susan Toy.”

For availability, check IslandCatEditions website.

https://islandeditions.wordpress.com/islandcateditions/

One Woman’s Island is available through the Calgary Public Library’s electronic resources and I am sure through other libraries as well.

Well done, Susan!

An Interview with Dianne Harke, author of: Incognito, The Astounding Life of Alexandra David Neel. (Sumeru Books 2016)

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BJH   First of all, Dianne, I congratulate you on piecing together the story of the life of this fascinating woman. I appreciated your Author’s Note wherein you provide the rationale for the term “fictional biography” which to me, speaks to the care you’ve taken in recreating the “elusive” Alexandra. I believe that Alexandra David Neel would approve of you as her biographer and have no difficulty at all with your careful handling of “the invisible line between fiction and non-fiction.”

DH    Thank you for your kind comments. Not so sure that Alexandra would approve. I imagine her appearing in one of my dreams to give me a right rollicking about something that does not meet with her approval. So far, so good, though.

BJH   A woman who travelled incognito all over Asia, spent several long periods in Tibet, and lived as a hermit in a cave in the Himalayas—when and how did you first encounter the life of Alexandra David Neel?

DH    Can’t pinpoint an exact year, but know that somewhere in my early 20s, probably, I came across a reference to her book, My Journey to Lhasa. Promptly bought a copy and read about her amazing trek. At that time, I was doing a fair bit of reading about Buddhism and fancied myself to be as intellectually cool as Beat Generation icons like Alan Watts and Allen Ginsberg. When she died in 1969, I also read an article that highlighted her achievements.

BJH    I know that you have spent many years on the research and writing of this book, and I, as many other authors will as well, understand how we become enthralled with a character or story and arrive at a point where interest become obsession. Is it fair to say that it was obsession that drove you to persevere with this story? Did the interest develop over time, or did you know from the earliest research that you would have to write this story?  Were there times when you tried to put it aside?

DH   Obsession is the correct word. My early research was driven mainly by curiosity. Who was this woman? Where did she travel to and why? But, as time went by the hidden Alexandra became my focus. The biographies I read didn’t seem to delve deep enough into her psyche so I started to formulate my plan for a work of historical fiction.

BJH   “Ever since I was five years old…I craved to go beyond the garden gate, to follow the road that passed it by and set out for the unknown,” —My Journey to Lhasa, Alexandra David Neel.

Does the quote speak to you on a personal level?  Do you identify with her wanderlust?

DH   Another excellent question! Well to be honest, I am certainly not as intrepid or brave as Alexandra, nor would I be comfortable packing heat as she did. I do enjoy traveling, but coming back to a home base seems to be almost as important to me (at least now) as going off on trips to unknown parts. People and their stories are my keenest interest so if following the road takes me in that direction that would be my ideal. Walking several sections of the Camino pilgrimage path on two occasions was like that. So many interesting people, so many stories!

BJH   This is the portrait of a woman on a deeply spiritual journey in search of revered teachers of Buddhism and the Tibetan language.  Did it become, vicariously, such a journey for you as well?

DH   Yes, it certainly did become that kind of journey. Over the years, I became more and more interested in knowing more about both Buddhism and Tibet. Did try to learn some Tibetan and to practice it with a Tibetan speaking pen pal, but really haven’t progressed much. In both Edmonton and Nelson, I have done drop in meditation sessions at Buddhist centres and have appreciated the calmness but really don’t profess to know very much. Reading seems to be my number one way to make this journey. The teachings and books of Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun and resident teacher at Gampo Abbey, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia top of my spiritual journey booklist.

BJH   The numerous sources you acknowledge with gratitude, speak to impeccable and eclectic research. You have had a long and successful career as a librarian and consultant. How did this experience influence your approach? How did the people you contacted respond to your interest in Alexandra?

DH    My research skills have certainly been honed by my training and work life as a librarian. I took copious notes from books that I had collected over the years and also spent many hours at the University of Alberta library.

Several binders and a bulging brocaded bag of folders soon filled up. I also travelled to France with my husband and spent a few hours at the Alexandra David-Neel Museum in Digne les Bains. Walking in her footsteps into the room in which she wrote and died was truly moving, and eerie. I told the staff there about my project and later my publisher made arrangements to buy the rights to some archival photographs.  They were very cooperative, although there were a few bumps because of our limited French and their limited English.

BJH   What different formats did you eventually amass?  Could you describe the process of sorting, culling, organizing what must have been a formidable mountain of material?

DH   From binders, and handwritten notes, I progressed to a number of computer files. Because Alexandra lived for so many years and had so many distinctive parts to her life, the chronology fell into order quite nicely. The problem was figuring out what to leave out and also how to prevent it from turning into a dry, discursive account. By interweaving the first-person chapters with the third-person accounts, I hoped to achieve some sort of balance.

BJH   The voice in which you’ve written the sections that are headed “From the journals of Alexandra David-Neel”, has the ring of authenticity and intimacy. It feels as though you were inside the skin of your subject and writing her perception of her world and the life she was leading. I thought, at first, that these were the actual journals.  The narrator in the other sections has the same eloquence of voice. This is what writers hope they will accomplish, this sense of being the character. Was it difficult at times to sustain that voice, or did the research provide enough of both the insight and the language to guide you?

DH   It was difficult at times, yes, but when that happened I would just do my best to “channel” Alexandra. My great-grandmother on my mother’s side was a practising Spiritualist who communicated with long-dead people and pets, so perhaps there was an inherited disposition at work. Going back to the stacks of books and the voluminous pages of notes really helped as well.

BJH   The description of the land through which Alexandra travelled has that same authenticity. Have you been to Tibet? Any plans to go there?

DH   No, I haven’t been to Tibet, although I have read many books related to this fascinating country. The current political situation is upsetting. I have a Tibetan Buddhist monk pen pal (who grew up in exile in India) who is currently attempting to do educational and environmental work in Tawang province very close to the Tibetan border. The Chinese government, without consulting with local residents, is planning to go ahead with a number of hydroelectric projects that would destroy sacred cultural sites and habitats for endangered species. Police fired on peaceful protesters last year with two deaths recorded. I am also bothered by the vilification of the current Dalai Lama by the government, so yet another reason that I won’t be travelling to Tibet.

BJH   Authors usually have a particular intent, a vision, for the work they are producing. Can you describe briefly what your intent was?

DH   In brief, my intent was to introduce more English readers to this remarkable woman and to show myself that I could actually finish writing a work that had been started years ago. I also didn’t want to disappoint the very patient publisher who, after reading the first few chapters on Wattpad, had offered to publish the book – the best incentive for any writer!

BJH   What other writing have you done?

DH   I have been a scribbler for a long time. This is my first book, but over the years I have had shorter pieces published in newspapers – a children’s story and several columns in The Edmonton Journal and an essay in The Globe and Mail. One of the pieces previously published in The Edmonton Journal has recently been included in Lotus Petals in the Snow – Voices of Canadian Buddhist Women (The Sumeru Press).  I have also done some contract writing for Alberta Education (related to school libraries) and have written two radio plays for Alberta School Broadcasts (in the way, way back). Some book reviewing for school library magazines and a vitriolic clutch of letters to the editor on topics near and dear to my heart complete my oeuvre, such as it is.

BJH   And the tired old question that must come at the end of any author interview: Do you have another project in progress?

DH   Thank you for asking. Yes, I do, but details will be sparse. For some reason, I harbour very old-fashioned superstitions about talking about projects too much before they are complete. Don’t want to jinx things. A truly silly idea from a deeply flawed person – forgive me, please.

Now for the sparse details. If/when this project is finished, it will be a work of fiction set in contemporary times that features the appearance of a long-dead American literary icon (female). Time is a series of metaphysical spaces rather than a process in this world. No zombies or vampires, just some quirky fun

BJH   And another that seems to be expected these days—What are you currently reading?

DH   I have two daily reading rituals. To ease into the day, I adjourn most mornings to my poetry chair. This time features poems from three collections. Staying Alive – Real Poems for Unreal Times (a truly magnificent anthology edited by Neal Astley) Sailing Alone Around the Room by Billy Collins, and New and Selected Poems by Mary Oliver. I read the poems aloud – the plants seem to thrive on these words – and keep this book stack on shuffle. Which book today? Which random page to begin at? Oh, the excitement never ends!

To ease out of the day, I adjourn to the bedroom no later than nine (having given up the CBC TV news – induces glumness and troubling dreams) to read books taken out of our local public library. Usually have two or three on the bedside table. The one currently in progress is The Wonder by Emma Donoghue, a very fine work of historical fiction inspired by almost fifty cases of so-called Fasting Girls in the British Isles, Western Europe, and North America between the 16th and 20th centuries. Highly recommended! Coming up next is Carol by Patricia Highsmith. An article some time ago in The New York Review of Books has piqued my interest in Highsmith. Read The Talented Mr. Ripley some years ago and was very impressed.

I am, of course, terrifically curious to know the identity of that “long-dead American literary icon. Looking forward to hearing more. Thank you, Dianne. For persevering in your quest to reveal some of the mystery around this amazing woman, and for this chance to talk with you about the book.

For information on the publisher who produced this beautiful book:

http://www.sumeru-books.com/

Available from Chapters Indigo: https://tinyurl.com/z4vx4n7

Even better, check with your local indie bookstore to see if they can order for you.

And of course, always a good idea to contact your local public and suggest a title you’d like them to order.

Finding the Pony in the Pile

 

After four years during which my muse found the pen too heavy to lift,  in the past two months it seems she’s stretched and yawned and decided she was too young to retire.

So “we” opened my file labelled “edit new work” wherein rest stories that never made it to completion for one reason or another. Some of them, when I read them now, are not and clearly never will be worth the candle.

But I came upon one that I felt had “good legs” and so I found the flaws, asked a friend to read and offer her criticism and ended up with a story that pleased me.  I went to my list of past submissions and publications for some hint as to where this story might find a friendly editorial eye. To my surprise, “You Must Remember That” had already found such an eye. It was published in 2010 in the Antigonish Review.

Lessons learned: keep files up to date; and (I believe the essence of the quote is from Aritha van Herk) “We never really finish a story. We just abandon it.”

A second surprise on this sifting of stories—there were two (one fiction and a personal essay)  that I had no memory of writing. Only the memory of churning them in my mind years ago, and telling myself that one day, when the time was right, I’d find a way to put them on the page. Completion and editing now done, stories kicked on to magazine slush piles. Mission accomplished.

Rather than give “the muse” full credit for this return to story, partial credit is due to  Queen Elisabeth II. Netflix series “The Crown”, numerous newspaper and magazine articles on HRH’s long reign, and Theatre Calgary’s beautiful staging of “The Audience”  reminded me that I too have a QEII story and it has nothing to do with highways.

I wrote “The Queen is Coming” in response to a call for submissions from CBC’s Alberta Anthology, a program that was a gift to Alberta writers.

The theme was “Alberta’s Centennial.” I normally avoid writing to “themes” because most often the result is a heavy-handed story written without real inspiration or passion. But when several friends who are dyed-in-the-wool royalists began to go gaga over the upcoming royal visit, I decide to translate my eye-rolling into a story.

A helpful CPL librarian helped me dig through archived news of HRH’s visit in 1951for background, and in particular to find out what Her Majesty was wearing. It was the hat I was after. I even stood on the corner of 9th and Macleod and drank in the spectacle.

“The Queen is Coming” had the honour of a CBC broadcast, and was also included in a lovely collection titled The Best of Alberta Anthology for 2005.

Because it’s been gathering dust now for 12 years, it’s time for an airing:

 

The Queen is Coming

 

My mother phones at eight o’clock in the morning on March 27. “Charlie! The Queen is coming for the Centennial. I want to go to the party,” she says. “You sound sleepy, dear.”

I’ve given up reminding her that I work nights. I do data entry at a bank. Suits me well, and I’m free to ferry Ma to medical appointments and funerals – pretty much her only outings these days.

I’d cruelly hoped, when I heard about the pending royal visit on CBC radio this morning, that Ma would be having one of her bad days. That the news wouldn’t penetrate the fog.

“You know I hate crowds,” I tell her.

“You’re fifty-seven years old,” she says. “You should get over these little fears of yours.” She sighs. “This will be my last chance to see her.”

My mother’s obsession with the royal family began in 1948 when she and Princess Elizabeth were both pregnant. I was born two days after the little prince. If the royal had been a girl, I would have been named Ernest, for my father.

“The tickets are free,” she says. “All you have to do is get in line.” I imagine her head trembling as she speaks. “I hope I can find my hat.”

In Ma’s royal album, there is a picture from 1951. The two of us standing on Ninth Avenue, Ma in a dark wool coat, matching felt hat with a brim and feather. Me, buttoned into a heavy brown coat cut down from Ernest’s overcoat just a few months after he died in a streetcar accident. I’m clutching a small Union Jack in my chubby fist.

The Princess was wearing a mink coat that day, and a matching hat that hugged her head.  Ma had a milliner fashion a replica of that mink cloche hat out of a piece of fur no has ever identified. My sister, Annie, swears it’s cat. The hat has only ever been worn for royal viewings.  Four in all.

I grudgingly agree to get tickets to the Saddledome reception. But I oversleep on the morning they go up.

Ma is surprisingly cheerful. “Never mind. I’m not sure I could have endured the program. They say it will be hours long.”

“Right!” I say in jovial response.  I’ve had nightmares about chasing her runaway wheelchair down ramps. About the accidents to which this proud woman is now prone and the mortification of both of us.

“We’ll just go down to the public viewing,” Ma says. “Maybe she’ll do a walk-about.” She’s getting excited now. “Wouldn’t it wonderful if Charles was coming?”

“Don’t know why he isn’t,” I say. “He’s fifty-seven. He probably loves riding around with his mother.”

“He’s busy,” she snaps. “He’s getting married again, you know.”

Ma loved Diana, is sour on Camilla, but says at least Charlie Windsor isn’t going to remain an old bachelor for the rest of his life. And he has those two fine sons. I, on the other hand, allowed a childless marriage wash up on the rocks ten years ago.

The weather in the week leading up to the Queen’s arrival in Calgary was cold, grey, fiercely windy. Not the sort of climate to which a responsible man would expose his frail eighty-two year old mother.

But she insists.  My sister, Annie, insists. “For gawd sake, Chuck!” she snarls over the phone, “I offered to take her myself, but she wants you.”

I slump in my chair, thinking about the hat I retrieved from the top of the closet. . Even after my heroic attempts to fluff it up, the old relic looked like road kill. I winced when Ma settled it over her scant curls and peered into the mirror. “Oh, Charlie,” she whispered, “I look so old.”  But I, standing behind her chair, was staring at my own reflection. A fat, balding, man who would never be mistaken for a prince.

Even though it’s a morning in May, Ma is bundled into her black winter coat, feet encased in fur-lined boots, hat perched over her freshly-permed hair. A policeman stands in the middle of Ninth Avenue, diverting traffic. Despite his shouts, I creep forward, waving my “handicapped parking” sticker. He shakes his head, but points to a loading zone around the corner.

I push Ma’s wheelchair to a curbside spot in front of the Palliser Hotel. Huddled into my windbreaker, I wish I’d worn my own winter jacket. But then, just minutes before the entourage is due, the sun breaks through. Ma twists in the chair to look up at me, her face tiny beneath the fur. “They say she never wears a hat twice.”

Suddenly there’s a limo approaching, and as it glides by, a smattering of applause from the crowd. A blur of face, a wave. Finished in seconds. Ma doesn’t blink. “That’s not her,” she says. “It’s that Clarkson woman.”

The Governor General, Ma tells me, is going ahead to stage the receiving line for the Queen and Prince Philip. It’s the way things work.

I’m eyeing the corner of Ninth and Macleod a block away, thinking that this is where the cars will slow. This is why the crowd is thickest there. For the better view.  I hope my mother doesn’t notice that I haven’t chosen the best vantage point. Haven’t even tried.

She turns again, and motions for me to listen. I crouch beside the chair. “You look at her face, Charlie. She’s so… serene. How can that be possible with all the stress the poor woman has been through?”

I choke back a snort. “She has a bit of hired help, Ma.”

“Oh, not that,” she says. “It’s the children. The way they live their lives. What a disappointment that must be.”

I feel heavy, leaning there on my haunches, the weight of my own dull life hovering over Ma and me. “I guess that’s just something that comes with being a mother,” I say.

“No dear,” she tells me softly, without taking her eyes off the street. “Elizabeth has had bad luck with her Charles. Aren’t I a lucky old woman to have raised a decent man like you?” She turns now and the smile takes twenty years from her face.

I can see cars approaching, people waving and cheering in the next block.  Too fast. They’ll be past us in a flash. I crank Ma’s chair around, bounce it off the curb and race down the street, Ma gasping and waving her arms.

“Make way!” I shout. “The Queen is coming!”  At the corner, the crowd parts to let us pop up onto the sidewalk just before the second limo in the procession slows, and glides past.  Under a big-brimmed white hat, a smiling face turns to Ma, a gloved hand makes an elegant salute.

Ma grabs my arm. “She smiled right into my face!”

I bend, press my cheek to hers. “Of course,” I say. “She recognized the hat.”

END

An afterword from the anthology: ” The Queen is Coming” is about the relativity of the child-parent relationship and explores how grace inspires grace.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Promotion; the key to selling books, and the pain and the shame

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I know I am not alone in my dread of promoting my own books. It’s not only the obviously shy or tongue-tied who cringe at the idea of sitting behind a table in a bookstore, trying to catch the attention of the people who pass by deliberately avoiding eye contact. Or reluctant to approach event coordinators with a bid to be on the schedule. Not alone, but there are also many authors who are comfortable with and aware of the necessity of self-promotion. I pretend to be one of those comfortable authors, but all the while my ears are burning and the voice inside my mind is my mother’s. Blame your mother? Why not?

I grew up in the days before building self-esteem became one of the cornerstones to raising successful children. Be polite, do not brag about anything, and generally avoid calling attention to yourself. Those were my mother’s tenets and while I raised my own children with the hope they’d be polite but not afraid to speak their minds, happy to talk about their achievements without being boastful (that’s this mother’s job), and comfortable in speaking out and promoting what they believe.  My librarian, fisheries biologist, and musician all live and work with a fine balance of humility and confidence. I sometimes take their strengths for granted and forget to tell them how proud I am, but that’s for another post.

So. I had a new book published in May of this year, a novel for young teens, Odd One Out. Another book produced with the artistry of my good friends at Oolichan Books.

There were a few glitches in the beginning—problems not uncommon or unfamiliar to my author friends. A rush to have copies of the book in time for the scheduled date of the launch resulted in a small print run, because there was a design flaw that needed to be addressed. In truth, this was not a “flaw” to my eyes, but my publisher has a finer sense of the aesthetics of book design. Then, once the “new” book was off to the printer, it seemed to take an inordinately long time for it to reappear and more unfortunately, to appear in bookstores and libraries.

But at last. at last, the library orders have been filled: Calgary, Regina, Saskatoon, Camrose, Red Deer, Lethbridge, Vancouver libraries have copies waiting for your reading pleasure and more particularly the pleasure of young people in your lives from ages 11 – 15 and beyond as well from the feedback I’ve had. If your local library does not have the book, you could request that they order it. What harm in that?

And the bookstores. Our beautiful indie bookstores who’ve had copies albeit limited since the very first run. In Calgary Owl’s Nest, Pages, Shelf Life; in Edmonton, Audrey’s Books. Beyond the province, I haven’t been gathering stats. Available from Chapters/Indigo’s Signal Hill store in Calgary. And available online from Indigo Amazon.ca. as an ebook.

The one thing I don’t hesitate to tell people about any of my books is that this is work of which I’m proud. Odd One Out is a book that I hope will find its way into your hands.  I hope you will enjoy it, but if you don’t?  Then I rest on my strong belief that once a book is out of my hands, the story no longer belongs to me. Your experience, your taste, your perceptions will be your judge.

My mom is long gone, although she is so much a part of who I am, but she won’t hear me saying to you—

Hey, buy my book, give it to a young person for Christmas, or borrow it from our awesome libraries. Their circulation stats for the book are gratifying and nothing pleases me more when I visit the library than finding a copy of one of my books that’s dog-eared, well-thumbed, and has your fingerprints on it.