Graveside Introductions

“Je peux vous aider?” the man asked me.

“Je suis désolé, je parle un peu le Francais,” I responded. I’d been on the ground in Paris just a few hours and had not engaged my language skills long enough to do anything other than apologize for my poor French.

“Anglais?”

“Oui. Merci, monsieur.”

“Do you know of her?” he asked in English, much to my relief, rolling a cigarette with one hand and adjusting his plaid, wool scarf with the other. “Most people don’t stray off the path here. Are you searching for something?”

We stood for a moment and admired the subject which sparked him to interrupt an odd Canadian woman’s wander through the lonely graves along the South wall of Cimetière du Père Lachaise.

IMG_2923

“She’s extraordinary,” I whispered. I knew he’d caught me half in tears in the moments before our first words. I’d been searching for more than half an hour for Monument aux victimes des Révolutions and wanted her to be it.

“May I ask why you are looking for it?” he asked upon learning of my quest and odd interest in Communist Paris.

“Marie Guerrant,” I told him.

“Who is she?”

“Muriel Gale’s pseudonym.”

Puzzled, he introduced himself as Olivier, one of the historians of the cemetery.

I returned the courtesy, offering up myself as a novelist, which cleared up any confusion he had earlier about why I’d be tossing around names such as Marie and Muriel.

Paris plays a key role in the Woman On The Wall as the place where our main character, Elijah Gale, returns to eight years after her grandmother Muriel’s murder.

Muriel, a Holocaust survivor, is buried at Père Lachaise under the name Marie Guerrant (Mary at War) in the novel. She was also a Communist – a seemingly unfathomable pairing. However, the woman had always been an enigma whose politics favored the people rather than power.

Olivier’s eyes lit up.

While he had to take up a position at the front gate in under half an hour, the charming middle-aged Parisian who looked every bit the part offered an arm and his knowledge to guide me through my search for answers amongst the dead.

IMG_2921

From that point, he walked me along the boulevards lined with maples and acacia beginning their dramatic shift from summer’s hues to the vibrancy of Samhain. The stories of the interesting and uncommon flowed from him as if they were his own.

The graves of Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison, and Edith Piaf remained far in the distance. Instead, we chatted about the quiet, undecorated graves of people who lived out eternity inside one of the most noted cemeteries in the world. Graves like the one that carries the name Marie Guerrant in Woman On The Wall. Graves that serve as masks for lives we will never know or understand.

IMG_2916

I found myself struck by a knowing as to one of the reasons Muriel never revealed her true identity. Père-Lachaise’s most wrenching memorials haunt the walkways, those to the dead of Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau, and the other concentration camps.

Olivier spoke of how soil from those places was mixed with that at the graves. We walked past sculptures of emaciated souls and I understood as if Muriel shared it with me herself. She was a survivor of Dachau who worked to preserve lives, culture.  Being buried amongst those who died in the camps would have defeated her in death. She preferred the power of anonymity in order to make sure that work continued on.

Despite the fact that Muriel is dead long before Woman On The Wall begins, I love her as a character. She drives Elijah in the best and worst ways, and I’m genuinely fascinated by her impact on the entire cast.

IMG_2930

The last bit of the walk proved quiet and had me wondering if Olivier was either irritated or lost in thought. As we made our way to the cemetery entrance near Rue Robineau, he turned to me once again.

“You know they call it The Wall,” he said of the Monument aux victimes des Révolutions. “You’ll find it in the park up that hill. No one really ever goes there.”

As he spoke the words, my entire body seized up with a sense of awe at the serendipity of the one sculpture I’d come to see carrying the moniker of the novel I am writing. My eyes overflowed with tears.

“It was never allowed to be inside the cemetery for reasons no one really knows,” he continued. “You must see her, incredible, holding back the revolutionaries of not just the Commune, but all of the generations.”

“She was their protector, then?” I asked.

“Their Sibyl, you might say.” he replied.

pa270003-1600x1201.jpg

As the first stop on my first day in France, this proved to be the beginning of a truly remarkable confluence of time and opportunity during which people such as Olivier dropped into my life to reveal extraordinary details I would never have otherwise known.

As I rode the Metro to the Museé de Cluny that afternoon, I marveled at how clear Muriel had become. The pace and path of Elijah’s return to her grandmother’s home in Paris and the role it played in the story firmed up in my mind.

Now, I needed to know, who were these victims of revolutions locked inside the stone of this Wall?

 

A Journey Without Expectations

I’d tried desperately to curb my urges, yet preparation for France owned me.

My kids made it clear they wanted no more of this level of obsession.

“All you think about, all you talk about is France, mom,” my oldest daughter kept saying, deservedly irritated that she got little of my focus.  “What are you going to do when you don’t have France anymore?”

“That’s not possible,” I would always reply.

Really, though, I worried.

For three months, I’d immersed myself in planning and research for the novel research to come. I spent three hours a day learning French, surfed French websites, made appointments with French historians, booked tours, packed twelve times, read every book I could. With two weeks to cram it all in, I had to make sure my focus proved laser-sharp, and I wouldn’t walk away from this experience wishing I’d gone and done something different.

I literally planned every moment of every day. Error, jet lag, language barrier, time—none could be a factor. I had sworn off the need to account for any of them.

Ken said I was the Fort Knox of travel planning. Everything right down to what would happen if I caught a cold had a solution in place or a detailed map and itinerary attached to it.

Then, the day before I left, in the middle of working on Woman On The Wall this popped up. Just a little note. Nothing profound. Nothing more than a reminder sliding in while I pounded away at the story of Elijah, the main character:

IMG_2880

It hit me like a brick. What if no moment I’d so carefully mapped out worked out the way I planned? What if I went to France and found nothing? Or something totally different? Or hated it? Or everything went sideways on the first day and the rest of the trip was garbage? What if I couldn’t keep up with my schedule? What if I missed this or that? What would I possibly do?

This was the first solo research trip of my life, and I’d left no room in it to just experience anything, to see where a lead took me, or listen to the wind and follow it.

I could freak out, unable to control it all. Or, I told myself after recovering from the icky, cold sweat I broke into, I could go without any expectations and have faith that all of the work I put in to get there would lead me to experience France in a way in which stories simply blossomed, taking shape without being forced.

Hmmmm.

I promptly dumped my rigid itinerary in the trash, marked the few things that I could not miss, and hopped on the plane with the mindset that anything I faced in those next 14 days would be transformative.

I’ve tried to control nearly everything my whole life. It was time to just experience it all.

IMG_2900

From that moment, I swear it was like the universe offered up its nod of approval, jacked me into the energy of place, and set me on a path to discovery that even I could never have imagined.

France took me in, opened its soul for me to be a part of, and left me a changed woman.

For the next several weeks, I’ll be posting the tales of magick, time travel, serendipity, and the great confluence of modern-day life alongside that of the Renaissance which defined my French sojourn, deeply reshaped the story being told in Woman On The Wall, and brought me to a place at the edge of the veil where I found far more than details for my novel.

I look forward to sharing this experience with all of you.

 

 

New Glasses

That first day I sat in the big, fake leather chair at the eye doctor’s office, my little spirit shook.

At age 6, I couldn’t see the board at school. Typical. In my heart, though, I knew.

My eyes. Oh, my eyes.

Twice, sometimes three and even four times a year, I sat in that same chair as the world around me blurred in more dramatic ways.

“She could lose her sight,” I heard the doctor once say.

Somewhere around age 10, though, the doctor visits slowed. No one explained why. In my heart, though, I knew.

I wouldn’t lose my sight, but spend my life deeply obligated to my glasses and the health of my eyes.

In the years that followed, dozens of pairs of glasses came and went. I treated each eye doctor visit as self-care and fell in love with the routine of making sure my peepers got top-shelf treatment.

Graduating into progressives three years ago, I knew the annual glasses replacement would have to slow (they are damn expensive).  My last pair took a beating, literally on life support for the last few months.

So, when it came time to level up my prescription, I found that thrill of picking out the new pair and taking care of mes yeux rushing back.

Here are the results.

IMG_2818.jpg

The Writer’s Studio – Personal Sovereignty

My brother said something to me the other day, “Robin, you have to really look at your sovereignty and ask yourself why you are letting XX affect you this way.”

I’d been complaining to him a lot, irritated by people who we like to call petty tyrants—those who exert their control by forcing what they know is a habitual reaction from you in order to manipulate.

He, however, was having none of it and told me so. I found it impossible to debate the merits of his assessment. I’d given my personal responsibility away and blamed it on another person.

I’d been procrastinating and whining about not having enough time for the things I love for a month. It definitely had to be because of all of these tyrants.

Over the course of the next few days, as I grew increasingly short-tempered in a wide range of areas related to freeing myself of these damned tyrants, I heard his bellowing voice in my head, “Why are you giving away your authority over the way your life plays out?”

My aggression with others grew and grew. My mind offered no willingness to bend to things I’d, before that point, conceded to for any number of reasons.  I blamed others for my limited work on my novel writing, for frustrations at work, for situations that left me without things I needed, for communication that never quite communicated what I desired.

The funny thing was life didn’t get any better with all of this standing up for myself. It actually devolved. 

Intolerant and thoroughly pissed off at others, I’d reached my  boiling point. Everyone received my venom. I’d become a tyrant in defense against tyrants, lost myself and my productivity in the ugly circle of fury.

60339760-938B-4ECD-A385-4722B08B9A67

That’s when my husband stepped in.

“Robin, you control how you work and create and move through the world. Set the parameters, walk away from that which does not serve who you really are, and go from there.”

At that moment, my husband’s sage words sparked a deeper realization of what my brother meant—how I’d been taking the hatchet to myself thinking I was standing up to others. How I could make my way back to my creative, productive, communicative, centered self.  He wasn’t telling me to go kick some butt. He spoke of sovereignty in terms of responsibility for how one reacts to others as they move into and out of your life.

It wouldn’t take days or even hours. It took about ten seconds to step into that responsibility and say, “I will choose to serve the health and well-being of me, my sweet family, and what we need to live our best, most purposeful lives. I will react in a way perpetuating such purpose.”

Understanding that my ability to navigate through life is first and most significantly impacted by the mindset going in shifted my perspective and sparked a renewed sense of purpose.

So, as August dips out of sight and the start of Fall descends upon us, I’m going to dig in and live with more purpose through the simple yet incredibly demanding act of personal sovereignty—taking responsibility for how I respond to the ebbs and flows of my life, and determining through my own actions how it all plays out.

In The Writer’s Studio – August, The Dead Month

Just about every writer who submits their work to agents knows that there is one month every year when nothing happens.

Don’t prep a manuscript, write a query letter, reach out on Twitter, or check in with an agent who has your partial. It’s not gonna work out for you because everyone is at least pretending to lounge on a New England beach.

The rest of the year is stupid crazy busy. August means time for a bit of radio silence.

Augustdeadmonth.jpg

For me, it has traditionally proven the month to hunker down and log big hours in the writer’s studio, plotting and crafting.

This year, however, my brain took a break along with everyone else. You can read about my angst surrounding this unplanned standstill HERE.

Today, after a long chat with an editor who just returned from vacation herself, I found myself breathing a bit easier. The conversation revealed her own startling loss of an entire month and her shock at how often lately this similar chat has played out. Apparently, August was a wash for at least half the known universe, and we are all scrambling to realign priorities, carve out time, and make tangible progress on writing projects.

For me, this is all about removal of external distractions.

I’ve planned the hell out of my research trip to France and refuse to plan even a minute more.

Classes and curriculum, mapped out.

Coaching training, done.

Schedules, made.

Now, to snuggle in and get the love letters between Francesco and Aesmeh mapped out.

93431c707aaa26e599d0125c5c4c0a4f

Then, to make sure my modern-era antagonist is fully formed and well-rounded. I actually quite love him, such a provocative character motivated by what he is convinced is the only possible road to truth.

Finally, before I get on the plane to start the research and writing marathon in France, I’m going to nail the sequence of the story down and finish the plotting. That way I can move through my time there with exceptionally focused purpose instead of scrambling to figure out story foundations.

I’m coming out of the Augustine black hole, people.

Finally.

Prep Notes for France – Three Pre-Travel Revelations

With just about forty days left before I hit the skies for France, the pace of preparation is beginning to pick up.

It’s no mystery that my excitement for this novel research trip overflows. Hiding my enthusiasm is not a thing I even attempt to muster a capacity to achieve.

Last week, friends offered incredible amounts of wisdom and high-fiving when I opened up on social media about the bits and pieces of this trip which worry me: getting mugged on the RER from CDG to Gare du Nord; leaving my luggage at the hotel before check-in; passport security.

The best advice I received: “Everyone is going to know you are not French anyway. Just don’t look foolish.”

 

imagesI totally concur and would give this advice to anyone coming to Vancouver. I cannot tell you how often I see out-of-towners with their backpacks unzipped, luggage unattended, wallets and Iphones hanging out on the Skytrain and while they are waiting for the bus. It’s like saying, “Here, have my $700 cash and three credit cards. I really wanted to visit the consulate here in Vancouver anyway. My old passport photo sucked and I wanted to pay $250 to rush a new one with the money you just stole from me.”

Now, I can’t help but stop said tourists and let them know of their prone condition before something truly shitty happens to them. I tell myself it is my wee investment in maintaining the “Canadians are the nicest people” reputation. Really, though, it’s a selfish act of karma stacking.

It’s official. I must be traveling soon because  I just had the “Forgot my passport and missed my flight” dream last night.

MissedFlight.jpg

Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

I have the same dream in the same dream-dimension airport where I end up in some version of a country I can’t identify near the ocean in the desert every time I go someplace.

It’s like the high school exam dream. Plus, with this one, five people I hardly know decided to come to France with me. That was probably the worst part. 😉

Finally, last night, I discovered les bouquinistes de Paris.

8a789a51d2abe3812e58123c1fc43fb1

I suspect the reason my lovely friends did not reveal their existence to me is they knew it would deeply impact my Paris itinerary (and budget).

I now fear and delight that all I will see of the City of Lights is the left bank of the Seine from Pont Marie to Quai Voltaire. That is entirely untrue, as I will be tracing the path of The Woman On The Wall’s main character, Elijah Gale.

I also will have to make sure I know the location of the closest location of La Poste. There will be a need for packages of written things to be mailed.

 

The Writing Classroom – Summer Reading Story Quilts

It may still be 15C out in the middle of August here in Vancouver (we’ve had what amounts to five days of truly hot weather this season), but the kids are out of school, the pool is open, and we are in full summer mode for a few more weeks.

That also means that my creative writing classes were PACKED (and I mean packed) with young authors who knew they need to keep reading and writing during the long break but also didn’t really want comma worksheets and book summaries.

My secret plan to keep them going was to bribe them with pizza. They received long reading lists and daily writing tasks at the beginning of the term. The pizza at the end of the Summer Reading Challenge Rainbow proved the key to getting them to read more than 100 novels this summer.

The way we kept track of it all was a bit sentimental, a bit creative, and a bit old-school community building.

We made a Summer Reading Story Quilt.

IMG_2739.jpg

Over the course of eight weeks, the kids got to make a quilt square every time the read a new book. Around the edges, they had to come up with symbols that stood for the theme, the characters, or a literary device used in the novel. Then, in the middle, they drew their favourite scene and captioned it.

Admittedly, there was a wide range of engagement, but they had fun using their brains in a different way, setting reading goals, and achieving them.

For me, this was also a demonstration of how much can be accomplished by taking learning one step at a time. When we started, the wall looked pretty sorry and everyone wondered if we could ever fill it.

Within a couple of weeks, the quilt started to take shape.

IMG_2500.jpg

Kids would pile in to see what others had read. They named their teams in order to identify which squares belonged to them and counted to make sure they were in the race for the pizza at the end.

Yesterday, the final square made it up onto the wall.

img_2738.jpg

The kids couldn’t believe how much they accomplished and we all marveled at the 100+ books read over the course of the Summer.

Now, time for the celebration!

Young Author Spotlight – Bonnie Xu on Shadows

Good morning. I haven’t posted much writing from my young authors this summer, as we have been heads-down working on the Summer Reading Challenge and discovering literary elements through the close reading of fiction.

However, this piece by Grade 6 young author Bonnie Xu needed to be shared with the world.

In class this week, I asked her to write a story about being someone’s shadow. Her take on it gave us a startling and moving peek into the shadow world.

English is Bonnie’s second language, yet her ability to transform ideas into provocative stories blossoms with every assignment.

Shadow by Bonnie Xu.jpg

On Being Distracted

So, I sat down fifteen mornings ago with the intent to pen a tome on the reality that I’m about as focused as a light breeze meandering through the desert these days.

I’m exhausted.

My head is spinning.

I’m almost late for everything (on time is late for me).

My patience for crazy is wafer-thin.

I have lists for lists of the lists I haven’t completed because I forgot to make a list.

My mind drifts and lingers in useless places like the social media dark universe and daydreaming.

george-pagan-iii-f-PH16nZHKI-unsplash-min.jpg

Photo by George Pagan III on Unsplash

I re-opened this draft today and realized the “On Being Distracted” headline proved so valid that I couldn’t even get around to finishing a blog post on the topic.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” I ask myself, beginning the misguided self-talk that leads me deeper and deeper down.

On one side, I am remarkably busy.  My writing coaching business is booming, and I work with students all around the globe almost every day.

I also work with students all around the Lower Mainland almost every day, which means I’m spending a crazy amount of time on public transit. That level of contact with people, in and of itself, is enough to unsettle even the most chill of souls.

hugh-han-5pkYWUDDthQ-unsplash-min

Photo by Hugh Han via Unsplash

There, boom. The coaching part of my life is mapped out and accomplished with only the normal bumps in the dealing-with-other-humans road.

However, in the rest of my writing life, the lack of forward motion proves startling.

I sit down to edit, query or work on the novels – nothing.

I sit down to read (I haven’t read ANYTHING all summer that wasn’t for work) – nothing.

So goes the flow of being, and I recognize it as just that. Sometimes, you can’t squeeze more juice out when one side of your life is at full-speed and requires all of your attention. I will get back to a balance which gives me the time and energy to focus, probably sooner than I think.

Yet, I can’t help but feel like I am failing myself as a novelist.

Where’s the devotion?

Where’s the getting up every day and writing no matter what?

Where’s the “Do whatever it takes” required to make anything of yourself in this world?

I have beaten myself up without end for these times when I am tapped out, and I genuinely believe that I have to figure out how to honour them rather than let them steal pieces of me away.

Meanwhile, I’m still busy berating myself for choosing to finish three seasons of Outlander rather than write, or talk to friends on social media rather than read or research or focus on the craft in personal ways.

I suspect my head is waiting for the novel research trip, which is less than six weeks away. At least I can guarantee a bit of an endpoint for all of this foolish distraction.

 

 

 

Exploring Vancouver – Spanish Banks Bike Routes

I would like to begin by acknowledging that the land on which I live and that I write about here is the unceded territory of the Coast Salish Peoples, including the territories of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaʔ/Selilwitulh (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations.

For the last month or so, I have started at least a few mornings a week with 10k worth of walk or bike riding.

It is a Summertime ritual for Vancouverites who know that the rain and darkness will settle in all too soon.

This morning, I rode out to the tip of the UBC Endowment Lands.

On the way back, I stopped at the beach to enjoy the gorgeous light.

There, I received a message . . .

611727CA-3DAF-4EF5-ABFB-1172D9271943-min.jpg

I am lucky enough to live on the West Side of Vancouver in a gorgeous neighbourhood called Kitsilano, which runs along the waterfront. So, accessing this incredible beachfront trail is pretty much just getting on my wee Schwinn and hitting the road.

I love cycling around town, and believe me when I say I am no athlete.

Vancouver is an absolutely magical city for cyclists, with routes literally from end-to-end, protected lanes, and for all sorts of levels.

The city even has a public bike share system that is used by thousands of people every day.

People visiting or wanting to bike the beachfront, but are not familiar with the route, the City of Vancouver has paper or downloadable Cycling Route maps.

However, I wanted to share a short map of this route from Tatlow Park, which is at the edge of Point Grey Road. Despite the controversy around it, the road is for pedestrians and cyclists only other than traffic from residents along the street, and it is a stunning location to start your ride.

The rest of the route is along the water and very accessible for people of all fitness levels.

The trail is quiet before about 9 a.m., with the occasional jogger or walker to pass. Mid-day and on the weekends, it gets quite busy. However, because Vancouver is so cycling friendly, most people are quite courteous as long as you are courteous to them.  There is the random hot dogger who likes to fly down the path with their headphones and no clue about the rest of humanity. So, keep your wits. Otherwise, enjoy this sweet route and even take a quick ride through the forest in Jericho Park to cool down.