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Thank You, Frances

“Sorry about your friend,” my son said. My wife must have explained to him why, earlier that day, I’d been curled up in the corner of the kitchen, sobbing uncontrollably. 

“Thanks, buddy,” I told him.

“Who was she?” he asked.

I paused for a moment. I felt ill-equipped to explain a person’s life, especially a life like Frances’s, in just a few words, let alone to a little boy who had never met her.

“Well,” I began, “Her name was Frances…”

Frances was my first Women’s Studies teacher at Langara College. I won’t go into the details of what led me to Women’s Studies but it was an epiphany I had while sitting in a movie theatre watching A League of Their Own. Not even kidding. The important part is, I was 22 and decided to take Women’s Studies, followed by film school, so I could become a filmmaker and tell women’s stories. I had no idea what those stories were but figured Women’s Studies was a good place to find them. For me, it ended up being the academic equivalent of popping into a two year meditation retreat saying, “Listen, I’m looking for some tips on relaxing a little”. To say I got more than I’d bargained for is an understatement and I am still grateful pretty much daily for the life-changing experience that was my time at Langara.

Frances was a huge part of that. It would take the length of a two-year college program for me to try and explain all that Frances taught me during my time at Langara but it was more than just feminism. It was how to stand up and be counted as a feminist. The older I get, the more those lessons sink into my bones. Thank you, Frances.

In the beginning, Frances terrified me. Okay, I never entirely stopped being afraid of Frances, but, in the beginning, I was flat out terrified. Physically, she was intimidating, sure, but it was more than just her tall stature. It feels like some kind of lesbian feminist stereotype to say she was an Amazon but Frances was a damn Amazon. Now, I don’t mean that in the way people might describe someone as an angel. I don’t believe in angels. But I believe wholeheartedly in Frances. It was about how she carried herself, how she stood tall and took up space, unapologetically, and how she didn’t have time for your bullshit. As I told my son, she did not suffer fools gladly. (Which, of course, required an explanation of what the heck that expression means and derailed things a bit but hopefully you understand.) In a word, Frances was direct; she looked you in the eye and expected something of you. It wasn’t confrontational, just more along the lines of “Why wouldn’t I expect something of you? Don’t you expect something of yourself?”

I found Frances frightfully intimidating so I set about doing what I do when I want people I’m afraid of to like me: I tried to make her laugh. Lucky for me, Frances also had a great sense of humour. Making Frances laugh gave me a satisfaction so deep it was silly. And for years, when Frances was funny herself, it took me a second to be sure. (Wait, was that a joke? God, what if I laugh and it wasn’t a joke? Is it possible to actually die from her looking over her glasses at me?) It made the eventual laugh all the more delicious. Frances taught me that being funny could be an integral part of my feminism. Thank you, Frances.

While at 5’3”, I can’t begin to pull off intimidating like Frances could, thanks to her, I learned how to hold myself as tall as she stood and look anyone directly in the eye. I can’t always manage it, but the older I get, the easier it becomes and the better it feels. Thank you, Frances.

Almost a decade after my time at Langara, Frances came back into my life. I had landed an important job that I was very excited about. It felt like a pretty big coup and I was filled with passion and dedication. Things started off okay and I was doing a great job but, eventually, my inexperience and naivety about the sometimes unhealthy motivations (be they intentional or not) of human beings resulted in things starting to crumble. I had recently run into Frances at an event. By this point, she was Executive Director of the Vancouver Folk Music Festival and was running things there. No small undertaking. No surprise. When I needed help, I turned to Frances who came to my aid like…well, like the Amazon she was. By then I was so filled with self-doubt, so confused about what I should be doing with my life, I was absolutely falling apart. One day, in a flood of tears and run-on sentences, I told Frances all the criticisms levelled at me by some of the people I was working with, how they’d said this and told me I needed to do that and how I felt powerless to fix things. Frances waited until I’d stopped for breath, then she looked me in the eye and said calmly, “These are the thoughts of stupid people. You’re right here. They are wrong.” That was all it took. In that moment, I knew I was going to be okay. (And that “These are the thoughts of stupid people” would become one of my favourite expressions.) Frances taught me that it’s okay to name it when people are acting stupidly and to respond to them accordingly. She reminded me that I was smarter than I was giving myself credit for. I wish I could say I learned that lesson firmly but I fall into thinking everyone is smarter than me a lot. I often have to remind myself to check in with reality, rather than bowing down to the thoughts of stupid people, but I doubt myself much less now. Thank you, Frances.

Spending as many years as I did intimidated by Frances, the day she told me one of her secrets brought me much closer to understanding what being bold actually involves. It involves bangles.

Apologies for not crediting the photographer. This is Frances's Facebook profile photo.

Apologies for not crediting the photographer. This is Frances’s Facebook profile photo and I don’t know who took it. Whoever you are, thank you.

Anyone who knows Frances will have a hard time imagining her without her signature silver bangles, adorning both arms. I was preparing for a meeting I anticipated being confrontational and I was in a panic. Frances jangled her bracelets at me and calmly asked, “Do you think this is jewelry?” I looked at her blankly. “This isn’t jewelry,” she told me. “This is armour. Every time I have to speak in front of people, every time I have to attend a meeting where I know some man will tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about, I feel these on my arms. And they can’t touch me.” I had seen Frances, on more than one occasion, very calmly and with a biting sense of humour, take down much bigger men than she at meetings. Knowing that she had to consciously step into that bravery made me think I could do it too. Thank you, Frances.

When my mum died suddenly in 2007, my wife Michele and I spent a month in a daze, packing up her home. Once that was done, the shock began to wear off, the grief began to set in, and the loss hit me with the strength of a freight train. My wife suggested we get away somewhere for a few days to just rest and grieve. It seemed a complicated thing to do. We needed to be somewhere relaxing and private, where we could feel comforted but not be expected to return anyone’s smiles if we couldn’t manage it. We found the perfect place when Frances and her wife Marguerite welcomed us to their bed and breakfast on the Sunshine Coast, Honeysuckle Cottage. When I needed it, Frances sat with me in their beautiful garden, overflowing with life, and talked to me. When I needed it, Michele and I stayed in the guest house and cried, watched movies, stared at walls, and grieved. When I think of that time, I am still overwhelmed with gratitude. I can’t imagine being able to be exactly where I was emotionally anywhere else. It was a softer, gentler Frances I experienced on that trip, one who didn’t expect me to be brave or even consider donning armour. But once again, Frances had quietly, calmly held me up and helped me know that I was going to be okay. Thank you, Frances.

There are many more Frances stories I could tell in which, over the past couple of decades, she taught me about things like organizational management, marriage immigration, bookkeeping and the fight for abortion rights in Canada. But it was the way she lived, how big she loved, how hard she laughed, how bravely she fought, and, most of all, how committed she was to mentoring the likes of me, for which I am forever indebted to her. I am not the only one who has Frances stories to tell. I know so many people who can trace back pieces of ourselves that we love directly to Frances. She didn’t create those pieces, but she held us up so we could figure out how to use them. She looked us in the eye and expected us to figure them out. Her mouth turned up at the corner in a smile or her cheeks ruddied with laughter and she encouraged us to step into everything we were worth. Sometimes she instructed us directly, sometimes she led by example, but always, she cleared the way. If we can be half the people she taught us to be, we too will be nothing short of Amazons.

“So, Buddy, she was someone very important to me at many times in my life and she taught me so much. I’m really sad that Frances didn’t get to die of very old age because that’s what should have happened.”

“Yeah,” he said. “I’m sorry you’re sad.”

I took a deep breath and marvelled at the compassion in my boy, the one with the usual attention span of a gnat, who had just quietly, calmly sat through all my tearful stories about my teacher, mentor and friend. And I was grateful.

Later that day, exhausted from crying, I had to get ready to go be entertaining at an event. I felt overwhelmed by the idea but, at the same time, that it was just what I wanted to be doing. Reaching into the cupboard where I keep my jewelry, I pulled out my bangles and a big, glittery bracelet. Armoured up, I knew I’d been well trained and could do this.

Thank you, Frances. For everything. I love you so much.

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Women, Apologizing ≠ Being Polite

You know, I try not to offer unsolicited advice but, sometimes, especially when it comes to young women, I just can’t help myself. I also don’t advocate the use of punctuation faces but appreciate their use in softening what might otherwise come off as harsh to someone sensitive. The latest in my exchange with someone applying for a volunteer position:

You are obviously a competent young woman with skills and energy to offer. Own that. Starting emails off with “Sorry to bother you” and ending them with “I hope I don’t sound too pushy!” is not necessary and might make employers feel like you lack the confidence to do a job. I can tell you that confidence is so much of what will get your foot in the door and women often mistake apologizing for being polite. You can be polite and willing without apologizing or qualifying. You’re worth someone’s time! Don’t try to convince them otherwise. So, there’s my totally unsolicited advice! Do with it what you will. ; )

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How to Remember

My son, like many eleven year old boys, loves to play “army guys” and “war”. Would his interests be different had he been our son from a younger age, rather than adopted at the age of eight? Who knows. This weird boy games/girl games stuff seems to be everywhere so he may not have been any different. I’d like to think he would have, but probably not. His interest in all things war makes us uncomfortable. We get that he doesn’t understand the realities of war so it’s all fun and games to him, but still.

We took him out of school early on Friday so that we could meet with family for a vacation. This meant he missed the school’s Remembrance Day assembly. I felt uneasy about this. I didn’t want the school to get the idea that we don’t feel such assemblies are important, that we’re all “Woo hoo! Extra vacay day!” But more importantly, I guess I have a hope that there might be something in such an assembly that might convey to my son what I don’t know how to about Remembrance Day: War is hell. Let’s not do it again. For so many reasons.

That’s why, today, I am struggling with what to say to my son as he plays on the beach without a care in the world. As he lives a life children in other countries don’t get to, a life his grandparents didn’t get to. As he lives a life not knowing the realities of war. As he lives the life we (my wife and I, my family, my country) have worked hard to create for him; a world without war.

I don’t know a lot about war myself. It is one of the privileges of being born into a country like Canada at the time that I did. But in my own way, I have seen its effects. And it isn’t fun and games to me. Like many people my age, my grandfathers were both in the war. It broke them. Plain and simple, it broke them. I cannot imagine what it is like for young men to “fight for their country” and I in no way mean to disrespect the intentions of those who did. I understand completely that they all did what they believed was right and that, yes, there are times when such measures are necessary. My heart breaks for my grandfathers and all the men (and now women) who have fought in wars; those who lived, those who survived, and those who were never the same. But, for me, Remembrance Day is also about more than them.

I know what damage was done to the families of those men who were never the same. Mine was one of them. While I didn’t come along until 1970, that damage influenced how I was raised (both positively and negatively), shaped my family, is carried on in me. I have choices about how I live that my parents didn’t. Not just because I grew up in a country without war, but because I grew up in a home without addiction, abuse, and terror as a result of war. That privilege influences how I see the world, how I parent, and what I fight for. I am well aware of my privilege. But I am aware of my family’s history too.

So, how do I talk to my son about that history? How do I help him understand that, when we mark Remembrance Day, it’s about honouring the lives lost, but also the lives damaged? That those lives may include people who never, ever saw war first hand? How do I teach my son that it is never okay to hurt a woman, no matter how much you are hurting. That it is never okay to violate a child, no matter what violations you have seen that changed your brain irreparably? How do I share with him that these things are what I think about when I honour Remembrance Day? That I cry for my grandfathers, yes, and for all the lives lost, but that I also cry for the other casualties of war? That so many people lived but, in essence, didn’t survive. That, despite never having been at war, I was shaped by WWII and that I am one of the lucky ones who came out virtually unscathed. Actually, luck had nothing to do with it. “Luck” was my parents’ conscious decisions that I would not be a casualty of a war that was over decades before I was born, and yet still, I was impacted by what went before. And how do I explain to my son that I am overwhelmed with gratitude that he doesn’t know anything of that.

How do I navigate that line between letting my son grow up in a life free from war and its far-reaching destruction and a life without knowing our important history?

My son is eleven. I am well aware that there are eleven year old children in countries currently being impacted by war and my concerns are trivial compared to what they are living through. I am well aware that he does not have a father broken by war, a mother responsible for picking up the pieces who is abused when she tries to. I am aware that he does not live with the ghosts and monsters of the war screaming in their sleep down the hall. And for this I am grateful. But those who are not aware of their history are doomed to repeat it. And my son has been through a war of his own. While I don’t want him to be burdened with anything more, I want him to understand why it’s not fun and games, why we remember, why we guard ourselves against forgetting, and why, most importantly for me, we promise each other: Never Again.

As I write this, my son comes out onto the deck of our vacation home with a message from my wife, “It’s time to make the salad.” While he tells me, he shoots off a cap gun that he snuck into the basket at the store today without us knowing, that we decided to let him keep because, hey, it’s vacation. That now seems like a terrible choice.

I don’t know how to talk to him about these things.

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My Kid Drew Some Cats

In support of my fundraising campaign, my kid agreed to do one-of-a-kind portraits of people’s cats if they sent him a photo. We grossly undervalued them at $10 and they sold out in no time. The first round were so great, the people were crying out for more. My kid agreed to do 10 more at $30 each. Again, apparently we could have charged more! People have suggested a book, as a fundraiser for VOKRA. My son having a book deal before me?

Great.

But I’ll allow it.

He is truly hilarious.

 

Click on the photo to see all the drawings

Click on the photo to see all the drawings

 

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All Cats All the Time

Sorry for the lack of posting lately. I know you’ve all been sitting patiently by your computers, dying for my next rant or goofball kid story. Or not. But I have a good reason!

I’m in the middle of a fundraising campaign called Help Morgan Save Kittens in order to help me do good for my favourite charity, VOKRA–Vancouver Orphan Kitten Rescue Association. 

I hope you’ll take a minute to check out my GoFundMe page, watch my video, check out the great perks I’m offering, and support me if you can. If you are desperate to read some of my writing, head on over to the new VOKRA blog I’ve started to hear about the amazing work of a group of caring, dedicated people that I love very much.

I’ll try to write something more here soon but right now, if I tried it would just be like this:

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And on the Third Day

My friend is 100.

Last summer, I received a phone call from one of the staff members at her care home. He said it was the end and that I should probably come and see her pretty quick if I wanted to say goodbye. Of course, I rushed to her. She wasn’t really conscious and didn’t seem to know I was there. I sat beside her bed and held her hand. I cried and cried, telling her how much I loved her. I said I would miss her like crazy but if she was ready to go, I understood. I stayed for a long time, not knowing when I’d said enough or cried enough, not knowing if I’d said the right thing. Then I kissed her on the head and left.

When I showed up for my volunteer shift that week, I went by her room, preparing myself for the tell-tale empty bed or worse, someone else in her place. And there she was, sitting up, bright eyed and bushy tailed, greeting me as if nothing had ever been wrong. I burst out laughing. I chastised her for making such a fool of me. “Here I was, blubbering like an idiot, telling you all sorts of deep and meaningful things!”

When I went to visit her last week, these many months later, her speech was off and she wasn’t quite herself. We had our visit, during which she uncharacteristically said, “You do the talking.” Lucky for her, that’s never been a problem for me. When we were done, I sought out the nurse on duty. He told me she was nearing the end and that he thought she was ready to go. I wondered if I should go back to her room and tell her I loved her one more time or say something important. Then I thought, “Oh, I’m not falling for that again!”

This week she was still there but much the same as last week. “You do the talking,” she instructed, and I obliged. I felt very aware that each thing I said to her might be the last so, of course, I tried to make it as funny as I could. I think if one has to go, one should go out laughing, after all.

I did ask her if she felt like she was ready or if this was just another plot to embarrass me. “Who knows?” she answered, and I left it at that. I told her stories about my week; cat rescues and filming and, her favourite, the kids’ shenanigans. I talked about Easter coming up and then said, “Wait a minute. This isn’t all an Easter prank, is it? You’re not planning on dying and then coming back to life this weekend, are you? Off you go and then, boom! Resurrection?”

She continued to stare into nothing for a while and I worried I’d taken things to far. Then her eyes got bright for a minute and she looked directly at me.

“Yeah!” she laughed, lifting her hands into the air. “Surprise!”

 

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Brevity is the Soul of–Oh, get on with it, would you?

My friend is 100 years old. When I visited her last night, she wanted to talk about Mickey Rooney dying. I started to say, “Well, he lived a good long life.” Then I realized she is 7 years older than he was when he died and thought maybe I’d shut up.

She wanted me to read her his obituary so I pulled it up on my phone and obliged. It was really, really long, chronicling everything from his start as a baby in his parents’ vaudeville show to his 8th wife. When I finally finished, I told her she should figure out what hers should say, you know, for when the time comes. I asked if hers would be as long and she said no. I asked what it would say.

After a moment of thought she replied, “That’s it.”

I asked if that was with an exclamation point or a question mark.

She said, “Both.”

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