Archive for the ‘Life Lessons’ Category


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.