Posts Tagged ‘Corner Brook’

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Because My Heart Is Island-Shaped

May 8, 2012

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As a Newfoundlander, I am a bit of a fraud. Living abroad, I tell long and rocky tales of the island that hangs off the East Coast of Canada. I talk of people riding snowmobiles to work, accents made up of English more olde than new, outport night skies like ink, moose as plentiful as the blackflies, and air so fresh, the smell of bedsheets taken in off the line could break your heart.

Those things are all true of my home. Newfoundland is an exotic, peculiar place. People do flatten their vowels and add fat, round “h” sounds where none are meant to be. You can wake up to moose in your back yard and bears in your cabin. The kitchen party is the heart of the culture where a set of musical spoons or a recitation is just as easily pulled out as a bottle of beer. There are places you can stand where the wind can make you fly, cliffs that are blacker and more treacherous than a sleeveen’s tongue.

And see? There I go again. So many years away have made me focus on the salty air and the half-Irish turns of phrase. I am fiercely proud of my identity as a Newfoundlander. I pull it out like a dare when I meet someone new.  The truth? If asked to ‘do” an accent, I need a fair amount of alcohol and concentration to even begin to get it right. I never had one. My mother grew up in a small community, and my dad has retired to one, but I grew up in a small city. I don’t know how to do a jig or snare a rabbit, there were people in my town I didn’t know, and I never had to snowshoe to class. The pulp and paper mill, the lifeblood of my hometown, made the air stinky and grey. We watched American cable imported from Bangor, Maine. Still, there were woods near enough by when you wanted to disappear and cry your way through a teenage heartache, there were plates of thinly sliced moosemeat fried in butter on birthdays and there was a gorgeous-in-the-sunset bay running right through the belly of it all that could set you to dreaming.

My fiction and poetry of late is full of the Newfoundland outport. Those are places I’ve visited, as exotic and novel to me as the black sand beaches on Bali or the frenetic streets of Ho Chi Min. I claim those tiny, colorful communities as my heritage, but they have never truly been part of me.

At least, I didn’t think so. The last couple of weeks have been a revelation.

I know now that our hearts are informed by the landscape on which they come into being. We are walking maps of where we come from, the topography is in our palms like lines of fate. You can travel as far as you like, redraw your boundaries a million times, but if you are born with a Newfoundland heart and try to force yourself to live in a block of concrete filled to busting with people, damage will be done.

My husband and I moved two weeks ago to a small town outside of Seoul. I take the train for over an hour to go to work and the nearest convenience store is a 30 minute walk away. We live in a house with a garden and trees. Yes, the garden is unmistakably Korean. The trees are low to the ground and there are little stone fertility symbols tucked under shrubs. It doesn’t matter. My heart needed trees. I didn’t realize how much I have denied the Newfoundlander in me by living in Seoul for so long. I feel suddenly full of breath. My God. For how long, had I been holding it?

I am writing this on the upstairs deck of the house. The sun is setting over a squat, lush mountain. I hear only the sound of the odd happy dog, the birds and the Cocteau Twins -the  noise I choose. And of course, the cows. Did I mention there are cows?

I sit here, the only white woman for miles, and I feel more at home here than in the middle of the expat neighborhood in Seoul. I am a Newfoundlander, see, every inch of me. I have ocean in my veins, and wildness in the soles of my feet. It is my birthright. Space and quiet are my natural way and I have never stopped looking for bears in the backyard. You can’t grow up in the middle of such a myth, and then expect to roll it up in your backpack as you board a plane, thinking it will fit. Make no wonder it has been coming out in my poetry and my barroom stories.

I’ve been leaking Newfoundland all over Asia for the past 15 years. That doesn’t mean I need to go back. I do need to respect my inner landscape, find more ways to feel my hair tangled by wind and my fingers soaked with water. I need a kitchen that will fit a party.  I need stars, not satellites. And I need to face the truth. I’m more of a Newfoundlander than I ever knew.

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Scribble: Walking in Corner Brook

August 15, 2011

I could walk her wrinkles blindfolded,
So sure my feet were of her one-way ways.
She curved around me like a bowl
protective as the swans
swimming in her center.

I rolled up and down her hills
Feet faster than my heart,
Too full of her summer green
To feel anything else
But beautiful.

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“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, cornerbrooker.com . 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.

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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.

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Calling My Tribe

October 16, 2010

I recently joined the Mondo Beyondo Dream Lab, thanks to a nudge from the fabulous Kyran Pittman of Notes to Self. One of the themes of this particular dreamlab is the idea of “tribe” – surrounding yourself with people who support and nurture your deepest self. One of the exercises I was supposed to do last week was to describe what my tribe would look like. I had no idea.

When I was a university student majoring in English Lit, my school opened up a fine arts department with majors in Theatre and Visual Arts. Suddenly, there were little pockets of delightful strangeness opening up all over the very small campus. The department had just opened, so there were just a few of those Fine Arts students walking around. When I saw one of them, usually dressed in black, and looking like they were laughing at a secret joke, I would feel a pull. I didn’t think of myself as any kind of artist. Still, these people were different. Having grown up just a little odd, I instantly recognized and appreciated that difference.

Then I met and fell in love with one of the Acting majors. This was such a sweet time for me. Not only was I in the middle of a very innocent and open-hearted love, I was quietly being accepted by his Theatre friends as one their own, even though I was still an English major. About a year later I decided to join the department. My father worried that I was just following my boyfriend into a path that would lead to the unemployment line, but I knew that I had found my tribe. I don’t think I was particularly meant to be an actor. However, the hours I spent around the green room talking about BIG THINGS were home to me. Classmates gave me mixtapes so that I could hear new music. Professors gave me books to read that they thought would interest me. Many bottles of wine were consumed. I was being nurtured on the deepest level.

Sixteen years later, my primary identity is “Foreigner”. I am not a woman, a Canadian, a teacher, a writer, a coffee-drinker or a goofball. Before all those things, I am foreign first. When I first came to Korea, it was a novelty. Trails of kids would chase me in the street yelling “hello” over and over like like talking dolls stuck on repeat. I thought it was cute. The blatant staring made me feel special and exotic. I became pleasantly aware of my soft pink curves. The feeling of walking through a society without having to really be part of it was freeing.

That is different now. Usually in Seoul, people don’t stare or point anymore, and kids usually have a foreign teacher of their own and don’t feel compelled to chase the ones they see in the streets. I have married a Korean, participate in traditional Korean family ceremonies, and have made a very good life here. More importantly, I have learned how to blend. I know which of my “foreign” behaviours will call attention to me, and I know how to put on “Korean” manners. When I meet new Koreans, they sometimes say that I am almost Korean. For them, that is the highest compliment they could pay me. Still, I will always be a foreigner. I have a Korean family, I have Korean friends. What I don’t have is a Korean tribe.

Being an expat and making expat friends is also tricky. In the beginning, I put a lot of effort into making friends with other foreigners. The problem is, most other expats eventually go home. We share coffees, dinners, secrets and trust and on the other end of it, I find myself alone again. This has caused me to turn in on myself, keep myself company, and close my heart a little. Today, though, I am rethinking. One of the really good things about the expat world is the opportunity to become friends with people whose path you would never cross at home. We are all very different, yet we are all foreigners and that binds us into some kind of a misfit tribe.

So, I am calling my tribe. I am ready to open up and be nurtured, to let people pass through my life and enjoy them while they are with me, let them go with love when they need to move on. I still don’t know what my tribe will “look” like. But, I’m sitting here with an empty chair on the other side of my coffee shop table and enough money in my wallet to treat you to an espresso. Come find me.

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Safety

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.