Archive for the ‘Life Lessons’ Category



January 3, 2013

The leap

I’ve been a bad little girl. I’ve been behaving like a drunk, obnoxious tourist on the pristine beach of my own life.
I can’t tell you what delicious naughtiness I’ve indulged in, except to say it is probably not near as shocking as what you have going through your brain. It is closer to the truth to say that I’ve fallen out of character.

The truest version of me is the one that is always polite and kind, always follows the rules and does what is right. How, though, do you maintain that in a world gone crazy? Atrocity is nowhere near my doorstep, but it is all around every one of us in that moment where our breath is caught reading the CNN headlines at night. That intake of breath holds within it a moment of wondering of how people can be pushed so far and every headline holds a little bit of permission to move the line of what you will accept a little further away from your heart. The end of 2012 was brutal in its onslaught of horror-packed news. I too, developed a taste for the dark and thrilled and shuddered at how I could splash a headline across my life, watch it come spinning up to my consciousness like a scene from a 60’s B movie.

The new year finds me calmer, and wondering why. Why have I been playing with the moral code which I have carved out for myself? Don’t misunderstand. My moral code would probably never stand up to any set of church or government rules. It comes closest to the Wiccan rede, “Harm none, and do what ye will.” Love. Be loved. Tell the truth. Don’t judge. Always ask a question before you make a statement. Play within the rules when it is important. Break them when it is essential. Empathize, even when it hurts. Above all, keep the peace. Even When It Hurts.

I haven’t been following my own rules, though. The end of the year saw me fighting, lying and judging, swinging my hard-earned peace around me head like a spiked club, doing damage.I suppose it is easy to blame disillusionment with society, or perhaps just being middle-aged. We are all supposed to rage a bit at this age, aren’t we? No leather pants or motorcycle for me, I’ll stick to my snaked tongue and two faces, thank you. Oh, and pass the tequila.

No, I can’t blame any of these things. I have, however, settled on an excuse…a very special, unique excuse for why I’ve been less of my true self. I’m displaced, dislocated. That is to say, my identity is out of socket.

Being an expat can be glorious in its freedom. You float above both your worlds, and no one ever really gets to own you or define you. You play both cultures when you want or need to and can tune out either when convenient. This has consequences. There is a day when you come to feel like you don’t belong anywhere. When you don’t belong, the rules go spinning away from you, like yesterday’s headlines. A little too free, we expats sometimes find ourselves dropping beneath moments, doing things we would never do at home. Except, we are supposed to be at home, aren’t we?

Maybe, also, this spreads to all of us. Yes, I am a Canadian, a Newfoundlander, an only daughter who built a life on the other side of the world. And you? You may be living in Alberta when your TV starts flashing scenes of war, mass shootings, gang rape into your living room. Are you not then, too, an expatriate…living far away from the landscape you knew growing up? Are you not also dislocated, displaced? Does your heart not move a little left of where you last saw it? Do you not turn off the TV and go lie down in your bed and rearrange what you thought you knew and your rules for living?

I don’t have the answers. But, I’m back to asking questions first. And that begins the process of repatriation that maybe we all need to do. We are all far from home, right now, if you trust the headlines. Here’s hoping the New Year brings us all a train ticket back to the centers of ourselves, the ones that were built before the world got in the way. Here’s hoping you have a window seat and a chatty, interesting companion. And maybe, a shot of tequila.


Getting Clean

July 13, 2012


The bathing suit was not so racy. It was a black tank suit, but I liked it because it had rainbow stripes around the neckline, and at 13 years old, I loved rainbows.  I was exiting the low end of our town’s swimming pool, pulling myself up the ladder while the weight of the water pulled the top of my suit down, just low enough to expose what should have been a woman’s cleavage. At 13, I was already a very full B cup. As I exited the water, an older boy I didn’t know – maybe 16 years old – stood at the pool’s edge and watched my chest. When I had both feet on the cement he breathed at my chest, “Holy Fuck.”

Years later, “Yes, you were Shelley Collins, the girl with the big tits.”  – a revelation that had come from a guy from my high school with whom I became very close friends after graduation. In high school, I believed I was known as a “brain” – someone who always got too high grades to be cool.  I was also a really great public speaker, bad at sports, a bookworm, good with English and languages, and hopeless at Math. I was overwhelmingly optimistic, a hardcore Duran Duran fan, a “goodie goodie” , a bit of a weirdo and a loner, except for a small group of girls who straddled the line between the really cool girls and the losers, and who counted me as one of them. I was all that and more, and yet, none of the guys knew any of that. My identity began and ended with my breasts. I remember looking at my friend over my rum and coke that summer night, and thinking that the fact that I could be summed up in one sentence was both liberating and overwhelmingly frustrating.

When I had spent many years in Korea, a country where I have been groped more than any other (mostly by old women, curious and praising my ability to nurse babies), I had thought I had made peace with the  message my body sent out. I had been through the older men I had trusted who had assumed that a D cup meant I was horny, I had been through alternately embracing and reviling the sexual persona that seemed to precede every room I walked into, my breasts the first part of me to round any corner. I had been through being called a slut, because I looked that way. I also had been through men who had really, really loved me, who saw me as a whole, incredible being. I had been through and beyond the small town ideas about what defines a woman, what defines me. I had taught children who called me “camel teacher”, and mimed running up to me and bouncing back, and yet who would run to me with hurt elbows and feelings because a hug from me meant softness and warmth.  I had made peace with my body, I thought.

My first university teaching job, I was one of a very small handful of women. One night a staff party had extended beyond the usual barbecue meal and we continued on to a bar.   A male teacher from Australia and I were drinking Tanqueray together at the bar while the other guys played darts. AD and I had been good friends, and we had a little bit of an innocent office flirtation.  At the time, the TV show, Survivor, was really popular and we had an office pool going on who would win. Ad looked at me, drunk.

“ Shel, do you think you could play Survivor?”, he asked.

“ No way in hell. I like my comfort too much.”

“ If you were going to play, what would you wear?”

“ A tankini, I guess.”, I answered, not sure where the conversation was going.

“ Yeah, but, do you think you could run?”

“ What do you mean? Because of the tankini?”, I asked.

“ No, because of…… you know.”, he slurred and gestured to my now double D breasts.

“ Fuck off, AD, You’re drunk,” I shot back with a grin, slammed back my gin and walked out of the bar without saying goodbye to any of the guys, sat down on the sidewalk and cried like the 13 year old I still, deeply, was.

First they had been sexual, then maternal. Now they were a disability – a joke. I was deeply shamed.

Now, I’m a big woman, in a body that isn’t meant to be. I have one of the hardest bra sizes to fit – 36 DDD which means I have small bones. Most women of my cup size have much larger ribcages. I’ve managed to make my hips and belly proportionate, to my breasts and have an exaggerated hourglass figure.  I’ve eaten my way to the point where my breasts are not the first thing you notice about me.

 I am far too bright to think it is all as simple as that. I’ve read so many books, had so many conversations and breakthroughs, so many theories about why I am overweight.  There are layers there I’ll probably never get to in this lifetime. And yet, I believe the relationship of doing harm to myself, my own body, started right there, with a rainbow v-neckline and a hormonal 16-year old boy. How do you begin to forgive yourself for sending out a message you didn’t even recognize?

Recently, I had lunch with two female friends who are lovely and wise and have each dealt with body issues. It was supposed to be coffee and flea-market treasure hunting. It turned into multiple glasses of wine and girl-talk that took us far past the time we needed to make the flea market.

“Let’s take Shelley to the bathhouse”, said SS, knowing that in my 16 years in country, I had never been.

I am the ultimate bath-lover and until I moved, had spent the last 3 or 4 years in an apartment without a bathtub.  Yet, I never went to a bathhouse. In a country of mostly svelte women, I was sure that I would be stared at, talked about and perhaps even poked and prodded. In my clothes, with the right bra and a generous amount of black, I could look a little smaller than I really was.  Naked, I needed to be seen through loving eyes. As strong as my desire for hot, hot water was, I could never bring myself to strip down in front of strangers.

But that day, I was drunk, and buoyed by the confidence of my large-hearted, beautiful girlfriends. Plus, honestly, I have a bit of a 40-plus hormonal kick that makes me feel like a goddess in spite of it all and makes me not give such a damn.

Off we went, three drunk, white-skinned, wet women. SK taught me the rituals – how important it was to get really, really clean before getting in the pools. She pointed to the scrubbing area. The Korean women there were all shapes- some bigger than me. Yet, they were lovingly, carefully cleaning their bodies, spending long minutes on an inner knee or a patch of belly. The scrubbing was luxurious, slow. They gossiped and chatted and scrubbed each others’ backs.  I tried not to stare, but was taken by the simple beauty of getting clean – with no judgment, no shame, no stigma.

After dipping in the first pool, I forgot myself, and happily followed SK from pool to pool each one a different temperature. I was completely naked and particularly enjoying the transition from hot to cold and back again. I was taking care of my body in a way and a tradition that was so much older than me and my hang-ups.

Exiting each pool, I had to climb over a tile barrier to get into the next one. The water weighed my breasts down. Nobody looked. Nobody cared. I felt free.

I felt clean.

Note: For a better idea of what the Korean bathhouse experience is like, I suggest you read my talented friend Grace Smith’s blog post about her first time here.

and here.


The Very Long Thaw

February 13, 2012

Can we ever outrun our past selves? No matter how far away you move, how many lessons you learn, how many friendships fall away and are replaced, no matter how many wrinkles and grey hairs appear, must we always carry the weight of our pasts, with all that we’ve done and left undone?

This past week, my little backpack of past caught up with me.  I had to stop and unpack it, see what was inside that was weighing me down, throw out some of the heaviest trash, and repack what was left, so I’d have easy access to the things I needed – like the realization that I don’t know the first thing about what I think I know when it comes to people, the knowledge that things that have never been dealt with never really go away, and a tiny mirror that shows what a boring, undeveloped person I would be had I always done the right thing, had never gone searching for myself at the cost of others, had never made a mistake.

In my college days, I had a boyfriend whom, for the sake of whatever anonymity I can scrounge on a blog read mostly by people who know me personally, I’ll call ….Jeremy.  Jeremy was different than other boyfriends I had. In my previous post, The Cosmic Woman, I wrote about how I had spent my earlier years seeking validation through men. The better-looking, the more desirable the man, the bigger boost my confidence took. Jeremy was different – he was a big guy, tall and a little overweight, a pleasant face and very pretty eyes, but not handsome enough to even cross my radar for the first few years I knew him. Plus, he had a fiancée, placing him even further out of my circle of desire.

Jeremy and I were both theatre students at the same college. In his senior year (my second), we suddenly both found ourselves single.  In spite of my best efforts to try to fall in love with a very good-looking freshman actor, I couldn’t stop thinking about Jeremy. Why? He had an intelligence that was mesmerizing. He was solid, stable and mature – rare in the world of acting students. I started talking to him more often. He had a way of speaking in fits and spurts, like the ideas were coming too fast for breath. By the end of our first date, I knew I wanted him to lose his breath talking to me. And he did. He was one of the first men who ever really got turned on by my brain and not my breasts. He validated me to my very core, and in a way for which I was unprepared.

The chemistry between us became something of a legend in our department. People would walk in a room where we were and comment on the electricity. We had conversations where we would just stand in front of each other silently, knowing we were both getting it, the shared thoughts too quick for words. We’d hang out in his apartment, talking music and plays for hours, the discussions sexier than anything I had ever done with any other boyfriend. Physically, I was so comfortable. Knowing that he was responding to me in such an unbodied way allowed me to drop the femme fatale persona I had worn, and respond to him honestly.

Then, as was my way, I started to screw things up. A beautiful, unattainable classmate, the one that everyone wanted to date, crossed my path one night. Flattered that it was me he wanted, I cheated. This kind of validation, though, isn’t effective unless people know about it. I was somehow perversely proud of what I had done, and I ran to confess to Jeremy.  He forgave me, and we continued on for a little while….until I ended up making out at a cast party with my costar in the play in which Jeremy was directing me. Still, he took me back. I continued to push him in other ways, to see how much he would let me do before he would decide I just wasn’t worth it.

He graduated, and moved to another city for a job. I went to England for a summer. When I came home, we met again. All the good stuff was still there; just a little tattered by distance and pain. We made a decision to try to stay together despite living in different cities.

Several weeks later, I got a late-night phone call. “I’ve met someone,” he said. “I think she might be the one.” So, I let him go, feeling sickly satisfied that finally, I had driven him away.

It took a while before I realized he had frozen me out of his life completely. Having been able to remain friends with all my exes, I assumed that Jeremy and I would, in time, be able to turn the mental connection into a friendship, at least.  But, my phone calls started going unanswered, my messages ignored. I heard news of him from classmates and friends, of shows he was directing, things he was doing. Each time, I put on a big smile as if I had been in touch with him and knew all. Then, several short months later, I was drinking with classmates after a rehearsal, and somebody said, “Jeremy’s getting married. Did you hear?”

No, I hadn’t heard. I hadn’t heard a thing. For the first time since our breakup, I was in absolute, heartbreaking pain. It wasn’t because I had lost him. It wasn’t because I believed that he actually really belonged with me. In fact, I was, in the very back of my heart, happy for him.

It was his silence that ripped into me. I had thought that, in time, in the very small Newfoundland Theatre world of overlapping acquaintances and shared projects, he would come around. I thought about him constantly, even though I had moved on to another boyfriend. The fact that such happy, huge news, news that he must have known would affect me, was not enough to make him pick up a phone completely undid me. Everything good he made me believe about myself became a lie. The man who could set me on fire with his words had decided I wasn’t worth talking to.

I saw him once more in the months following my graduation. He was directing a show, and I dragged my reluctant, gorgeous boyfriend with me, so that I could show Jeremy none of it mattered to me. At intermission, I found myself in a strained, polite conversation with Jeremy. We talked of bad actors and his infant son (another big news story I heard from someone else), and there might as well have been a cement wall between us. Not a spark of who I might have been to him crossed his eyes.  I went home with the pretty, long-haired boyfriend and somewhere, between the hours of 5 and 6 am, released Jeremy from my heart.  I didn’t talk to him for the next 17 years.

Then, along came Facebook, of course. Sure that enough time had gone by, I requested his friendship – twice, I think. He completely ignored me.  My third, last-ditch request was accompanied with a note: “Add me, Dammnit!!” He did, and I sent him a polite message, thanking him and complimenting him on his very lovely-looking family. Again, I got nothing but silence – for another couple of years.

Suddenly, last week somebody posted something on Facebook that caught my attention. It was the word “Sapiosexual” with a definition: A person who is sexually attracted to intelligence in others. I liked it so much; I reposted it on my wall. And yes, it made me think of Jeremy, as well as a rare few others. The next day, I saw that Jeremy had “liked” the post. I imagined him sitting in front of his computer, tickled far enough out of his hatred of me to hit the “like” button. It was the first spark of connection I had from him.  I decided to run with it.

I composed a message, apologizing to him for my mistreatment of our love, for being the record-holding Shittiest Girlfriend Ever.  I told him how much I missed the friendship that never manifested afterwards, and how I hoped that someday, somewhere there would be a stiff pour of whiskey and a conversation that would bring it about. In spite of all the evidence that I shouldn’t, I hit “send”. I wasn’t even sure he would read it. So many years of silence made me sure he despised me. It made me even surer I deserved it.

A few hours later, I got an answer. He had just turned 45, he was reflecting on things. He spoke of regrets, apologies of his own and could we, someday, get that drink?

And just like that, someone I believed lost to me was back in my life. The truth is he never went away. Every hurt we inflicted on each other, me during the relationship and him after, still rang through us like far-away bells. It was done, but it wasn’t over. There had never been a funeral for our relationship, never an autopsy. How could we not be haunted?  I don’t know yet why he turned his back on me, exactly, and I don’t think he knows either. Yes, he may have been rightfully angry and proud. It most likely was the momentum of silence.

After reading his reply, I went into the living room and looked at a photo of myself that was taken in my last year of theatre school. Yes, that girl was cruel, wasting a heart as earnest as Jeremy’s. Yet, she had an impossibly vulnerable soul,  believing she was worthy of scorn, that she could only hurt those who loved her, and that her breasts were still the most interesting thing about her. Strutting around in her boots and bodysuits, her tuxedo jackets and crazy curls, she was just a little lost. In a way, moving halfway around the world, putting on weight, straightening my hair and giving up all theatre, I was ignoring that girl just as Jeremy had ignored me. She had never been dealt with. She wasn’t worth talking to.

Is it odd that reconnecting with him has let me forgive myself for the mistakes I made back then, with him, with myself? My marriage has been incredibly healing for me, mostly, and I thought that through figuring out how to make it work, I had made peace with all the versions of myself I’ve shown to the world. Still, I have only to look in a mirror, still see the weight, the straightened hair to know that there’s more work to be done.

But for now, I am celebrating the return of a very long-lost friend and the insights and understanding that lay around the corner. And I am talking as much about myself as I am Jeremy.


The Cosmic Woman

February 11, 2012

I have a confession to make: I love to read women’s’ magazines. Be it Vogue or Woman’s Day, I find myself dreaming of a more domestic, sleek, pulled-together version of myself whenever I thumb through the pages. It’s like taking a vacation from my real self, the Shelley with messy, always a little too-long hair, the Shelley who burns eggs, cannot mix a proper cocktail, can never apply eyeliner without a shaking hand, and who has never thrown a dinner party in her life. The skill set that apparently every other woman in the world has eludes me. Reading a copy of Good Housekeeping makes me feel like it is still attainable in my lifetime.

I’ve always had this love affair with magazines. When I was a pre-teen, I devoured copies of Seventeen and Teen. Then when I hit my late teens, I turned my attention to Cosmopolitan. In that internet-less age, Cosmopolitan was the Google of everything sexy. The cover photos never featured a model in a cute sundress, or a business suit – always the cover model was the personification of luscious, teased va-va-voom, leaving no mistake about what kind of womanly tricks and bedroom advice was inside.

Of course, at 17 years old, sitting in the back of Geography class doing the “Cosmo Quiz”, hypothetically answering questions about activities and experiences of which I had no real-world knowledge, I felt a sense of empowerment. Cosmo laid bare and celebrated the sexuality that my small town, Catholic school circumstances wanted us girls to ignore.  Having been in a “Family Life” class (Catholic-speak for Sex Ed) that only briefly mentioned effective forms of birth control and spent hours teaching us the Rhythm method, and having watched every graduating class from my high school have at least one round-bellied girl in a taffeta dress on grad night, we needed Cosmopolitan to tell us the truth.

I have envied the younger generation of girls today, because they have so much knowledge, experience and community easily accessible to them. Perhaps they lose some of the sense of mystery that was so intoxicating to us, but they come into the world of being a woman with hard facts, discussion forums, and instructional videos. They are told everything they need to know and encouraged to decide for themselves when and how to use it. Yes, I see the impossible standards of air-brushed beauty and recognize the lining of sexism in song lyrics and advertising, but I also know that there is an equal wave of activism out there that is sane and aware. Parents and educators are raising these young women to look at all the things in front of them with a critical eye, keep what speaks the truth for them and let go of anything that doesn’t. This generation of girls knows better. Don’t they?

Last week, I made a trip to my favorite expat bookstore in Seoul to indulge in a little glossy fun fantasy time. One reason why I love this particular bookstore is that they package up bundles of back issues and sell them for a deeply discounted price. I picked up a couple of bundles, and was secretly delighted to find a copy of Cosmopolitan wedged in between the magazines I had wanted. I don’t buy Cosmopolitan any more. I have only to look at the article titled “ 4 ways 30 kicks 20’s Ass” to know that I am no longer their intended demographic. Still, I curled up with a cup of coffee and a kind of excitement to peek into the world of sexual empowerment and maybe learn a few new tricks that hadn’t been invented when I was still wearing Doc Martens and Flannel.

Here’s what I learned:

I put down the issue, a wave of sad sickness in my heart. Somehow, the empowerment and ownership of what I now know to be a woman’s rich, powerful, ever-evolving, truly female force, her sexuality, had been reduced to a crash course in “How to make yourself less you, and then maybe, just maybe, a boy will like you.”

I had hoped that the smart, sexy magazine I had once loved would still be telling the truth. It didn’t. So, here’s the truth, my own version of buried, unmarketable wisdom that I think every Cosmopolitan Girl needs to know:

A woman is sexy when she knows how to please herself, and has a comfortable relationship with the mirror.

Intelligence and good conversation is the ultimate aphrodisiac, and you wouldn’t want to sleep with any man for whom that isn’t true.

A man will never lose his erection when you take off your clothes to reveal you are a little ( or a lot ) pear-shaped.

 A woman’s sexuality flourishes and deepens well past 35, and so you needn’t be in a rush to see and do everything before 23. Save some stuff for later.

 When you truly are “the one”, and you’ve found the right man, he will call you – the next day.

There should never be games and strategies in a real affair of the heart – it’s difficult enough to make things work just using open, honest communication. Start weighing every word you say, and any genuine feeling is doomed.

You don’t really need to read about how to give a guy a perfect handjob. He’ll be more than happy to show you when you turn up in his bed in all your pear-shaped, offbeat, emotionally honest and smart glory.

You don’t need to dress a certain way, choose a certain kind of movie or have the sexual arsenal of a one-woman army to make your guy “hot”. He needs you. YOU make him hot.

Men are complex, beautiful, brilliant beings who are nowhere near as shallow as this magazine would have you believe. They have insecurities and confusion, just as we do. Corporations and advertisers make money from making men feel good about themselves. They also make money from exploiting women’s insecurities. Follow the money, and you will understand why GQ will never dedicate an issue to analyzing how every fashion and grooming choice, every movie pick affects the way women think of them.

I don’t know if I’m being naïve to think that the filter of time isn’t adding a layer of criticism here. It’s quite likely that the Cosmopolitan magazine of my time wasn’t  any different. Perhaps it was just as misguided and I, at my raw, easily molded age,  confused this kind of cheap man-centric advice with power. I could write a million blog posts about how much I needed male attention to feel validated. I had a heck of a lot of fun and an equal amount of heartache crossing that very long road. Am I now safely on the other side, oblivious to the male gaze? Hell, no. The male/female dynamic is forever compelling and mysterious in all the best ways – when it is recognized for its true nature – not as a way to sell a magazine.

I knew all this before I opened last November’s Cosmo. So, why was I so disappointed? I guess I thought that we had progressed beyond “What he really means when he says I love you” and “Seven ways to tell if your man is cheating.” I had thought that we were collectively engaged in a balanced dialogue about how to make ourselves and each other happy, I had thought we were trying to protect and nourish our young women. Yes, we still need to know how to apply mascara. We do not need to be told that a man’s love depends on whether or not you apply it correctly.

Yes, maybe Cosmopolitan was always this kind of magazine. I was once that kind of girl. So, what’s different? I am no longer a Cosmopolitan girl. I am a Cosmic Woman. And that is the sexy truth.


My Last Roommate

September 22, 2011

The pajamas were Santa-red, a green stripe running through making them christmasy and familiar. The pants had an elastic waist, which would slip down around my hips if I didn’t make a little knot out of the excess material. They were too big, the pajamas. Yet, I wore them all the time, my favorite red flannel pajamas, pulling myself out of my teaching clothes as soon as I got home.Over the next eight years, I slowly grew to fit them, filling the outline of another girl who had owned them before me.

Lisa was my last roomate. Teaching together at the ECC Children’s Academy in Bundang, we were placed together in an apartment when she came to replace my other roomate, a conservative, intensely focused Calgarian named Diane. Diane and I had become best friends over the year we lived together, and I wasn’t sure I had the energy to put into getting close to somebody new.

Lisa made it easy to be around her. She was a larger-than-life American, a big, fair girl who smiled her way through all the newness. Her footsteps were heavy and comforting, as were her homemade garlic mashed potatoes – a true treat for a girl like me who couldn’t cook but loved to eat.
Lisa had taught in one of the toughest school districts in the States – The Watts district in LA, and was deservedly proud of having done so. And that completed the first impression I had of her- she was a wave of soft mothering flowing through our apartment, centered by a surprising core of toughness. She was everything I had secretly admired about America – smart, curious and yet so sure of her place in the world. Ever the polite Canadian, I envied her ability to claim her space. Later, when we travelled to Bali together, I remember being impressed by how she chided the flight attendant for forgetting to bring our drinks – polite and yet firm. I would have waited another hour, hoping to be noticed.

She was with me the night I met my husband. I had taken her out to see Sinchon, my favorite Saturday night stomping grounds. We went to a bar called Woodstock, and there he was – wearing red Chuck Taylors, eyes closed, moving quietly to “All Along the Watchtower” – the Jimi Hendrix version – and owning the most beautiful face I had ever seen on a Korean male. He opened his eyes, looked and me and smiled. I was claimed.

Over the next months, I felt bad for Lisa. I was supposed to be her partner in weekend crime, her guide through all that Seoul had to offer. I was instead consumed, engulfed in the love affair that was to define my life. My love for Bong, especially in those early days, made me selfish, addicted and ecstatic. We wanted only to be together. Everyone else in our lives were collateral damage, pushed out of the way of our grand affair. Sometimes, I wish I could say to Lisa, ” Look, I married him. I didn’t sacrifice our friendship to a fling. He was the love of my lifetime.” She already understood that, though.

I remember the night everything changed. I came home, my classes finishing later than Lisa’s, to find a half-cooked pot of something still on the stove. There was no sign of Lisa, no note. Within 30 minutes, I was at a hospital. Lisa, who had been going out on weekends with other friends, had been complaining of losing her balance when she was drinking. We had laughed it off, blaming the soju. She had taken to long, tearful phone calls to her family – odd I thought for a tough lady who had taught in the Watts district. A Korean friend had introduced an accupuncturist, who she thought might help Lisa through her discomfort. Coming home after the treatment, Lisa had collapsed. The tests showed a large brain tumor, an angry golf-ball sized thing which had changed her personality and her body from solid and sure to something more vulnerable.

We teachers tried to do our best for her. We took turns at her bedside, trying to lighten the mood, waiting for her Mom to come for her. Korean hospitals, at the time, bordered on nightmarish. The technology of care was there, but family members often took on care usually done by nurses in the West, and therefore camped out in the rooms all night. There was no such thing as “quiet hours”. The doctor could barely state the facts in English, never mind having a bedside manner. The nurses, when asked a question, would giggle out of nervousness of having to talk to a foreigner, giggle as Lisa tried to understand what was happening to her.

There I was, going through the motions of being a “good friend.” The truth is, I was in the most alive stage of my life. I was in love to the point where I could smell colors and taste feelings. I was in love with myself, in love with life, and most of all, in love with the long, caramel-colored boy in my bed. I had to wrench myself from my joy to go to Lisa’s bedside. We were two sides of a coin, she and I. I would never be more alive in my life. She had begun a long leave-taking of the physical. When I said goodbye at the airport, Lisa drugged and in a wheelchair, her beautiful mother, bravely navigating her way through a foreign hell with the same calm smile I loved Lisa for, I have to confess and say I was relieved. I could turn away from death, away from the slippery reality of the unfairness of life, and turn back to the beautiful picture of myself I saw in the bones of my lover’s face.

It has been 10 years since Lisa’s death. I was still a girl then. The woman I am now wishes I had been a better friend. I remember reading a Murakami novel, called “After Dark”. The short novel was the story of two girls- one mysteriously fast asleep while the other crashed her way through the night, having one dark adventure after another. When I read the novel, Lisa had been dead several years. I recognized us.

I am now about the same size Lisa had been. When I finally let go of her pajamas, they fit me perfectly. I dress in black and make myself less of who I am, to compensate for my size. Yet, I am reminded of shopping with her. She was drawn to a fuzzy leopard-print hooded coat – something I never would dream of wearing for the attention it would draw to me. Lisa was fearless in wearing it – that weekend in the club, the silver leopard print around her face, I knew she was beautiful. She sparkled under the lights, a big, blonde, soft creature whose warmth was as clearly inviting as the coat.

I continue to learn from her, my larger-than-life American last roommate.


Lessons My Father’s Photos Have Taught Me

August 11, 2011

We get more beautiful as we get older.

Not everything needs to be perfect to be breathtaking.

The shadows and darker parts of life are what make you interesting.

Everthing will pass in time, anyway.

In the meantime, remember that we are all in this together.

Don’t judge anyone too harshly as there is so much more going on beneath the surface than we can see.

Carve out a special place that is just for you.

You can love without losing yourself,

, but you should always be willing to open the door.


“Boy, Girl, Boy, Girl…”

August 7, 2011

Have you ever been watching TV or a movie and realized the scene playing out in front of you mirrored your life a little too closely? I was recently watching an old rerun of Sex and the City, when a particular scene played out like my diary entry circa 1995. In the episode for which this blog post is named, Carrie is on a date with her new boyfriend. They have the “conversation ” – which most couples have when things start to get serious – in which they tell each other about their most recent romances. As Sean lists his three most recent affairs, he starts with two girls’ names and ends with a guy’s. The episode goes on to explore bisexuality culminating in a game of spin-the-bottle where Carrie makes out with Alanis Morisette, decides she tastes like chicken, and then goes out for cigarettes never to come back.

So, what part of my life was reflected in this episode? I certainly never made out with Alanis, and as a non-smoker, I cannot use “going out to get cigarettes” as my excuse to ditch someone. My last game of spin-the-bottle was, regrettably, played in grade 6.

It was ’94 or ’95. I was at the Great Taste coffee shop in Halifax on my second date with a professional clown (yes, you read that right), who I”ll call Robin. We were having the conversation. I told him all about the great heartbreak that led me to come to Halifax, and the few guys I had dated since I had come. He told me about his most recent ex, a woman with whom he had been kind of serious. Then he said, “And before her was Lisa, and before Lisa was Paul.” I paused, trying to look cool, before I asked, ” Sooo, are you bisexual, then?” Robin replied,” I don’t really know. I just know that if I like someone, I’m interested in touching them.” I was a little in awe of that answer. Could it really be that simple? Can I be honest and say that Robin’s openess and sexual sophistication made him more attractive to me? He had figured something out, I thought. Plus, he was an amazing kisser. His sort-of-serious ex came back into the picture before we could move beyond kissing, though, and while I didn’t mind sharing Robin with a past male lover, I was not open-minded enough to share him with another woman.

A dear friend of mine who is gay, has said bisexuality is just a stepping stone on the way to gay – that there is no real thing as the true bisexual. I have no idea if this is true or not, but I don’t agree with being forced to identify with anything that is not real for you in any given moment.

I read with interest some recent drama which played out in my hometown of Corner Brook. A pride parade had been cancelled, with the organizers citing discrimination and lack of support. As the story unfolded , it became obvious that the small group of organizers had perhaps reacted too quickly, and the pride parade happened on a last-minute basis, organized by the university students and a local website, . I was proud that my hometown believed “Pride” was too important to ignore. My hometown had such a strong artistic scene, that it was surprisingly tolerant, if not friendly, to alternative lifestyles. However, on the local websites, many people said that they were ok with “gay” people, but that sexuality was a private thing. After all, straight people didn’t march through the streets proclaiming their sexuality. These commenters didn’t seem to realize that every marginalized group of people has had to make large gestures just to make the mainstream recognize them, let alone accept them. Newfoundlanders themselves, such a demonstratively proud people, often unfairly criticized and ridiculed, should be the most understanding of this.

I know from watching several gay and bisexual people in my life that it is the greatest act of bravery to to tell the truth about yourself.I am so proud of those in my family and among my friends who are open about the way they love. I am proud of all three of my parents, who may have struggled a little with the moral makeup of their generations, but still pushed through to accept the truth of those people who loved differently than they did.

I still think about what Robin said to me that day, am still impressed by its beautiful truth. I have been tempted to google him, to see which “side” he ended up taking. I stop myself, though, because that would play into the inflexible lines society often draws for us. I prefer to think of him, and all of us, living a life that is true, lovely and free – without labels.


Class Dismissed

April 8, 2011

Sometimes, when you’ve removed yourself from everything that has come before, it is almost like you have died. The people, places and events of your past become frozen in that moment when you airlifted yourself out of everything you knew, and everytime you come home to visit, you are shocked to find that things have changed.

In many ways, the people and circumstances of my life in the early nineties, the years before I came to Korea, have become a personal mythology. Today, I lost a god.

My expat friends here in Korea will all understand how strange the experience of news of a death at home can be. You get the phone call, or email. The landscape turns upside down for a moment. But, there is no one to go visit, no funeral to attend. Friends and family here in Korea – the ones that you will turn to for hugs and cups of tea – have never met the person that you have lost. So, you take your moment, you tuck it away in your pocket, and it never becomes real.

For me, this morning – it was a post on Facebook. My beloved Acting teacher, Arif Hasnain, has passed away.

I could tell you how he terrorized us the first time he ever conducted a cast meeting, how he got blitz-faced drunk and went after us one by one, tearing down our walls.

I could tell you that he could scream as well as he could purr, and that the phrase “hopping mad” was coined especially for him.

that he turned our small Theatre department inside out, and made us question everything we had learned.

that he should have been fired, many times over.

that he needed to work himself up to a razor-sharp edge, often with alcohol, in order to cut through all the bullshit we believed about ourselves.

But, I won’t.

I will tell you that he taught me all about the truth.

that a smile of approval from him was worth the world.

that he was one of the softest, sweetest men I have ever known.

I will tell you that the closest I ever came to being a really good actor were the moments I spent in his class- that these moments are an important part of who I believe I am, moments where I disappeared completely and yet was fully myself.

Today, I wish I could be with my old classmates. We were a small class – just 4 guys and 5 girls. We were an incestuous, complex little group, working our issues out all over each other. We were everything- sisters, brothers, lovers, friends, compatriots, teachers and students. We are all, also, artists. For that, I know we owe a big debt to one another.

We owe Arif even more.
He is forever in my pocket.


Fear of Falling (or how I learned to shut up and trust the sky)

January 23, 2011

It happened almost a year ago. It was a hot, bright afternoon on Koh Samui. I was waiting by the side of the road, nervous. A lanky blonde man pulled up alongside me on a motorbike and I swung my leg over the bike and got on, putting my hands on his waist, feeling white cotton and thin bones. We drove about five minutes and waited for a sliver of space between all the other bikes on the road in which to turn left onto a sloping dirt road. I tightened my grip around his waist as we went over the bumps. There were thick patches of flowering bushes all along the path – almost close enough for me to reach out and touch. At the top of the hill, we stopped at a house – his house. He led me through the gate and I saw that the house was completely open. There were no doors, no windows – only white stretches of space . The house was beautiful, clean and intense, as were his eyes. He led me to the living room, where he spread a sarong on the floor, and told me to lie down. I closed my eyes and this man began to explore my darkest self.

But this is not yet another story about a tourist flirting with the seedy underbelly of Thailand. ( Though I have one of those. Buy me a beer, and I’ll tell you. ) This is the story of how I overcame my fear of flying.

Airplanes have always been a part of my environment. My grandfather had been a test pilot for the Canadian Air Force. My father also had a pilot’s license and worked part time as a flight instructor. My family tells stories of how when I was a toddler, we lived in Gander, where there was an international airport. According to them, on nights when I would fuss and couldn’t sleep, I would demand to be brought to the airport, and it was the only thing that would calm me. Though I have no memory of this, I have a very vivid recollection of a coin-operated helicopter in the airport that I loved to play with. It was in a clear bubble, and using two handles I could make the helicopter fly.

Airplanes were all around my house, as well. At the top of the landing was a portrait of my grandfather, with pictures of all the types of airplanes he flew. In the basement would be a model airplane that my dad would be painstakingly working on during winter evenings. In the closet hung flight suits and Air Force uniforms. In the photo albums were pictures of cessnas in which I apparently liked to fly.

Then, as I hit my twenties, the fear took hold of my heart. I made a few flights in which I was nervous, but just a little. I flew to London by myself, and had butterflies the whole way over, which I reasoned away as being jitters about spending a summer on my own in a big city. About six months later, my theatre class went to England for a 6-week study trip. On this flight, I first experienced true, naked fear. It wasn’t caused by anything but had been growing inside of me, getting bigger without my noticing, until I sat down, buckled up, and realized I was really terrified.

Masochistically, I chose a life that would involve hours upon hours of flying. By the time I moved to Korea, an 18-hour flight from home, my fear was in full force. Yet in that first year abroad, I travelled as much as I could – Hong Kong, Bali, Singapore, Kuala Lumphur – each flight uneventful yet gut-wrenching. My way of coping was to drink. During takeoff, I would start to chant ” I need a drink, I need a drink…” either out loud to my travel partner, or in my mind if I was alone. Everytime the airplane would turn, I would lean the opposite way, drink in hand, trying to balance the weight of the plane, sure that if I didn’t do this, we would flip all the way over.

The nice side of this heightened sense of aliveness was that I became a very talkative seat partner for those who would have me. Fear twisted around with a little alcohol results in an open desire to communicate ( as I was convinced that each conversation would be my last). On a flight from Deer Lake to Toronto, I wrote a blues song with a music teacher. On a flight from Vancouver to Tokyo, I helped an engineer celebrate his birthday, going on missions to the galley for more birthday bottles and snacks. On a flight from Toronto to Seoul, I had an hour-long discussion in which my seatmate and I tried to decide who was the better Beatle: John or Paul.

Yet, after the alcohol wore off, and my seatmate eventually went to sleep, I was left once again feeling as if the bottom was dropping out from under me, and a cold, polite terror quietly taking hold of my soul. Plus, I was hungover.

Last winter, a girlfriend and I decided to go to Thailand to do a 10 day cleanse.
The point of the cleanse was to detox our bodies, but actually ended up being quite an emotional experience as well. ( Esther, my cleanse-mate writes about it here. ) On day 5 or 6 of the cleanse, we decided we were interested in trying some hypnotherapy, and made appointments.

I had always assumed that my fear of flying was a control issue. However, as the therapist pointed out in our initial conversation, I didn’t feel the same way on a train or boat. So, I tried to describe to him the feeling I had on a plane: There is nothing under me, and I am about to fall.

The session proceeded with him talking in soft tones. I was concious the whole time, and thinking that it wasn’t working and I had wasted my money. I was feeling fidgety and wanted to move. Finally he started talking about finishing the session and how I would feel an amazing sense of peace and well-being when I “woke”.

I opted to walk down the long path from his house back to the beach, while he went on his bike to pick Esther up for her session. I walked for a minute down the dirt path lined with tall flowering trees. Then it came – a high feeling of oneness with the world, an inexplicable happiness that warmed every cell. I was smiling at the flowers when the revelation appeared. I suddenly understood why I was afraid to fly. Buried under all my stories, my intellectual reasons and countless airplane mini-bottles of Rye was a simple truth. I was never afraid to fly. I was afraid to fall.

When I was 11, my parents divorced. Several months before, my family had taken a trip to Florida. It had been my first time on a commercial flight, though I had flown in small planes before. The night I found out about the divorce, I sat listening at the top of the stairs, and there was talk of that trip. I always thought that I had handled the divorce well, and that any emotional damage had just made me stronger. And, that is true, in a way. The divorce gave me two happier parents, and brought a third truly wonderful parent into my life. I believe I am in a happy marriage because of the lessons I learned. Yet, there was something I didn’t face, something I denied. That manifested into terror in the air, fear of falling.

So, dear readers, especially those of my friends who share my phobia, I want to reassure you that what you fear is not illogical, not senseless. You are afraid of something, but not necessarily the thing that you name. It is worth it to go digging. Not only will you lose the fear, you will lose all the baggage trailing behind it. ( Unless Air Canada loses it first. ) In short, I wish all of you a thin blond man on a moped.

These days, I still need a drink when I fly, and I still take medication to help get through the flight. But, I stop ordering drinks after the second pass of the drink cart. I can usually relax after the first hour enough to doze a bit. A little regretfully, I leave my seat partners in peace.

I trust the sky not to let go of me. So far, it hasn’t.



October 3, 2010

Growing up in the small city of Corner Brook, we were safe. Of course, there was a different kind of danger humming beneath family structures, through the halls of our high schools. But we were free from any tangible, named fear. Doors were never locked, games were played outside well past dark and the woods were a place where you could be comfortably alone. Then in 1982, a 20-year old local woman went missing from her job at a gas station. She had been abducted, raped and murdered with a hammer and screwdriver. In the days that lay between the discovery of her remains, and the arrest of her killers, we Corner Brook girls learned a lifestyle of fear that we had never imagined. We had to come home from school right away. We had keys strung around our necks. We quickend our pace at the sound of a man’s footsteps on the street behind us. The devastating thing was that her younger sister was one of us – a student at our school. This brought the tragedy crashing through our imaginations in full color. This wasn’t other people. This was in the classroom, sitting next to us.
I’ve been remembering that time these days as I’ve been following the case of another murdered woman with roots near my hometown. I didn’t know Anne Marie Shirran whose remains were recently found after she went missing in July. There is something in her curls and clear eyes that I recognize, though, and her story has been haunting me. How does a woman slip through the normalcy of everyday life and become a news story? How many seconds does it take for a situation to turn black? At what point should we start to scream?

I’ve always been unfailingly polite. Growing up in Corner Brook, we learned to be friendly and to have manners. If you were rude to someone, they probably knew your parents, and so there were always consequences to not being on your best behaviour. Mostly this has been a helpful trait to have had ingrained in me. Still, there are moments, blacker moments, where I continue to be polite in the face of things starting to turn wrong. There are moments where I should be screaming, and instead I smile. The lessons in keeping my body and soul safe didn’t take. For after the 1984 convictions of the killers of Marilyn Newman, our community let out a collective exhale, and we went back to believing in the basic good of people’s hearts and the infrequency of horror.

In my early twenties, I spent a summer in London. I went on a student work abroad program and got a job in a nightclub. As a small-town girl in a big city, I made many mistakes. One mistake boiled my London experience down to a few critical moments when everything could have turned black. I usually took a taxi to my door when coming home from work at 3 or 4 am. This one night, I got out at a convenience store around the corner to pick up a snack. As I exited the store and began to walk, a young man asked me if I had a light for his cigarette. At this point, I should have screamed. I should have run back to the store. I knew that. Yet, I politely answered that I didn’t smoke, and kept walking towards my place. He walked next to me, engaging me in conversation – did I want to buy some drugs? Did I have any money he could borrow? Could he come to my place to light his cigarette on my stove? At this point I was terrified, yet I kept walking and talking, coming up with reasonable excuses why this man couldn’t come into where I lived. When I reached my street turnoff, I hesitated. Should I make a run for my door? Then he would know where I lived. Should I just keep walking in the hopes of him giving up? In those few seconds he grabbed me from behind. He stuck his hand in my pocket and took out the tips I had made that night. Then he ran. I should have been running the opposite way. Instead, I stood on the corner, shaking and doubled over. He didnt hurt me. He just wanted my money. Yet I had been pressed up against possiblilty of violence and I hadn’t fought it at all. I had been polite.

Anne Marie may have been murdered by her boyfriend. He has been charged. And I’ve been looking at her news photos trying to understand the nature of safety and violence of all kinds. I’m 40 now, and would never let a stranger do what was done that London night. No stranger would ever be allowed to get that close to me again without a fight. Still, though, there are times in my life when the bottom drops out of a moment, when someone behaves as they shouldn’t. Still, the good little Corner Brook girl in me accepts the moment with a smile. Perhaps it is the nature of a small-town heart or maybe just something that runs through the blood of all women.

Anne Marie is sitting close to me these days. There is one photo in particular that I like. In it, she has a mysterious look on her face, like she’s thinking of a secret only she knows. Her face is intelligent, reflective and soft. In that moment, she is safe. Had she known her fate, would she have loved less? Put fences around her heart?

I know that I don’t want my safety to cost me my smile. I want to understand, forgive and grant second chances. To board up my heart would betray the Newfoundlander I am and will always be. Anne Marie, though, has taught me a lesson I won’t forget again.