Wednesday, December 31, 2014

“Our most beloved star - may it be a light for you in dark places when all other lights go out.”

It’s been a good day, today.

In the morning, I arose late after another night of not much sleep. The dreams of vampires and serial killers, that have plagued me in the past, have returned in force, and a couple of hours sleep, or so, seem to be all I’m afforded. Those who don’t know me well might think I probably have those kinds of dreams all the time, given the dark nature of some of my writing. But, fact is, those nightmares usually leave me alone for many years at  time, and they only come around when I am at a dark place in my life and, true to the nature of any monster, only when I am most vulnerable.

It’s been a difficult year – no point in honeycoating it. It’s been a year that saw me leave my home province following the end of the longest, most stable relationship of my life. That ending came after a couple of very difficult years for both my wife and I, and leaving was an act of mercy for us both, that created the possibility, ultimately, for some light to seep in. But that would be getting ahead of the tale.

I’ll write about that journey some day, I’m sure – it wasn’t for the faint of heart, especially for a lad who’d never driven very much and had never before braved the aptly name Wreckhouse winds in the middle of a March blizzard with the winds steady at 160 km/hr on the thinnest stretch of highway imaginable.

Somehow, without any compass but blind luck and will, I ended up in Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia, where I rented a cottage for a few months and watched spring turn to summer in one of the most beautiful, healing places on earth. In its own way, Mahone Bay was Rivendell to me, and it will always have a fond place in my heart. I hated to leave it, but when I felt I was ready, I reached out to the university community for some means of making a living and continuing the teaching work I’d been doing for most of my life. I was fortunate that my seniority at MUN allowed me to teach distance courses via the Internet, something I hadn’t even considered until it became a reality. Then, UNB in Saint John offered me a course to teach on campus, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to meet with students face to face on a weekly basis. So, I moved to Saint John, but found an even better spot at a cottage for rent in a remote lake area of New Brunswick – so remote that even most New Brunswickers squint and say, “Where’s that, exactly?” – and this is where I continue to heal my soul and to seek out new stability and adventures, all at once.

It’s been a strange year. Back in January and early February, for three weeks, I was lucky enough to do a book tour of the Maritimes – Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and PEI – including readings, signings, the Fog Lit literary competition as guest reader, media appearances on CBC in Charlottetown and Saint John, and a school visit at Harbourview High School where I spoke with two creative writing classes. There was also an appearance on GlobaI TV, after my nomination for the 2014 Dublin IMPAC award, which, really, is what made the entire tour possible (well, that and the generous folks at Fog Lit). I also conducted creative workshops in nearly every city I visited, including Moncton, Saint John, Charlottetown and Halifax. Only  Fredericton was cancelled because of an adjunct faculty strike at UNB, as I had no intention of crossing the picket line, especially of people whom I know work very hard for damn little pay and virtually no benefits, and are among the most dedicated teachers I know. Yes, that’s my little rant about the Dickensian attitude of universities towards their contractual faculty – not so much those who do the hiring (many of whom are allies), but those who do the paying. More on that some other time, too.

The UNB strike also caused the Saint John reading, sponsored by the Lorenzo Society Reading Series, to be moved to a café downtown, and the place was packed with an eager audience that asked brilliant questions. There were big crowds in other places and smaller groups in other places, but it was the experience of a lifetime to have been able to do it all – despite (or because of) the blizzards, the long bus rides, the many nights in hotels and eating road food night after night.

The spring was a blur. I spent it in Lunenburg County, a stranger in a strange land, hidden (or so I thought) among the local folks, eating good local food and spending many a moment at the picnic table outside my cottage gazing up at the moon, or a blazing sunrise, a mauve sunset, or a glorious double rainbow that lit the entire bay after a spectacular lightning storm. In the mornings, most often, I would arise and go to Lunenburg where Kate’s Sweet Indulgence café was quiet and welcoming, and there I would sit with my iPad and keyboard and write.

It was mostly poetry. Not fiction. God knows, I wasn’t feeling creative. It was, as I’m sure you can imagine, a very dark time. My head was in a black fog, as it had been for a couple of years. The last thing to enter it was a creative thought.

But the poetry saved me. It gave me something I could do – something tangible and focused, though focused outward, or so I had thought. But I’ve looked back on it since and see much of myself in it – my own attempts to figure out the world when, really, I was trying to figure out myself and what had led me down this rough path, as alone in the world as anyone has ever been – or at least that’s how it felt, most of the time. I’m sure, in reality, many, many people are more alone than that. But, when you’re talking degrees of aloneness, or of isolation, or detachment, I’m not sure the comparisons really matter. I’m not saying I was lonely. In fact, human companionship wasn’t exactly on my to-do list. But alone is alone, and there’s no getting around it.

And, again, it was words that kept me afloat – when all other lights failed, so to speak, it was the one that shone feebly through the murk.

But this is all too serious. And yet, I felt it would be disingenuous to return to the blog lagoon without some brief explanation about where I’ve been and why I’d abandoned it. I’ve tried since the very beginning of keeping this blog to be authentic, to try and speak my truth in whatever form it took. But I found that my heart wasn’t in it this year. I had the excitement of the tour, but never wrote about it –and what a strange time it was. The exploration of Mahone Bay, Lunenburg and other parts of Nova Scotia was recorded mostly in poetry, meandering thoughts and the occasional FB page, with only a smattering of selfies recorded either for posterity or, for the most, as part of a promise I made to some dear friends who extracted a pledge from me when I was leaving St. John’s to offer the occasional proof of life. I think, to a great extent, if Helen and Helene hadn’t asked for that occasional sign, I might well have fallen into a black hole without any communication through social media at all. It would have been easy to do.

But that’s all behind me, now. The summer was hazy – punctuated by ellipses and commas, with the occasional question or exclamation mark – as I took a road trip through the northern states, and somehow found myself sojourning (or soul journeying, as it were) to the houses associated with Stephen King, Emily Dickinson, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Louisa May Alcott, and having tea at dusk on Walden Pond where Thoreau one wrote one of my favourite books on (human) nature. I got lost, and was found. I had great conversations with strangers, and strange conversations with people I would rather not know. I met tourists, writers, students and waiters - and a lot more hotel staff than I thought I would ever have the pleasure of knowing. In a way, they became my family on the road. The faces would change, night after night, but it wasn’t hard to find a friendly smile or a kind word from kindred souls who sometimes were kicking at the dark from their own side of things.

Upon returning from the U.S. in late summer, the fall semester was hard – teaching all new courses, with all new material, one course without a textbook at all – and then there was the glorious Piper’s Frith, about which I’ll have to write another time soon. It was a truly life-changing experience, and I made some great friends after a week of literary splendour in the wilds of Newfoundland. My workload only got more impossible after that, but I got through it – as did my students – and now it’s nearly 2015. It’s amazing how, in life, you can find yourself getting through some things you never thought you could get through. Now, somehow, a new year has come and caught me mostly unawares and unprepared.

And today, at my cottage, by my newly frozen lake, by the light of my first solo Christmas tree, I spent six hours, at last, writing. It’s been a long time coming, but, finally, I’m moving forward again. It wasn’t fresh writing, mind you. I’ve been painstakingly revising my current novel, which has been in limbo for far too long. Once again, writing is proving to be my salvation as I kick at the darkness that, as it turns out, has a nasty bite of its own.

I’ve gone for walks before supper, as the sun goes down (unless it’s raining or snowing), nearly every night for the past two weeks, including Christmas Day, and these walks inspire me. I talk to the creatures that watch me from the woods. I stop and listen. Sometimes, all I hear is the wind. Other times, a snort or the soft pad of footsteps – or maybe it’s just in my mind. But, surely, these woods are full of creatures. And it’s all fodder for my imagination. Today, quite unexpectedly, I saw two long, black cars as wide as those gas-guzzling tanks our parents drove in the early Seventies parked alongside a ramshackle cabin that I’d thought was abandoned. But there were no lights on inside, and the cars were pulled right in tight to the house as if their owners didn’t want them to be spotted from the road. There are rarely cars on that road at all. When I go for my walks, I am the only one walking and only once in a while do I see another living soul.

This is an isolated place, which is how I like it. It feeds my imagination, for now, and I wonder what those strangers, whom I haven’t yet seen, are up to. I’m a writer, so, of course, my instinct for a story tells me they’re up to no good.

I’ve started writing again. I’m not sure if that helps banish the demons or invites more demons in. Either way, I’ll take it and use it, and answer the calling I feel to destroy, explore and explain to myself, to put it all into words, to see what comes out and decide, after the fact, whether it looks, tastes, feels and smells like something worth saying aloud to anyone else.

As a result of the walking, the writing, the explaining and even the wild creatures that surround me in the darkest dark of the darkest nights – even now, I hear strange sounds out by the lake, but it’s too dark to see, and so my mind conjures images of various animals, which, I assure you, is the safest kind of beast to have around – I feel something like optimism creeping into my soul. It never really left, I suppose. It was merely becoming what it would become, waiting for the right time to emerge again and make itself known.

Much like myself, I suppose, in my latest incarnation.

Welcome back, for another few kicks at the darkness. If anyone still cares enough to read my thoughts, I’ll not stay away for so long next time. But, then, I’ll probably keep writing it anyway because that’s what I do. It’s not like have any real control over it.


  1. It is exhilarating to get through something you thought was impossible to navigate. The journey is always worth the struggle. Your blog post captures your courage and honesty. Bravo -- the new year awaits.

  2. I tried to email you but I am guessing it changed? Just wanting to catch up and check in. Hope all is well, or getting better anyway.... a previous student.

  3. Hey there. I haven't checked this account in a while. You can reach me at Love to hear from you.