My dreams all night last night were about losing our house, our livelihood, our children. One was sick and we were hiding the news. One was defying us and making all kinds of other people sick. Our car fell into a bog. Our house was in the car. Our lives had disintegrated with nothing but our own grit remaining.
IRL: Q woke up in the middle of the night, frantic. Shouting. Terrified that she’d poured a virus onto our couch.
M cried herself to sleep, worried that her friends would forget her and she’d return to school, someday, alone.
Ken and I grapple with the news coming out of every corner, our own potential exposure. We waffle between dark and light, doom, smart preparation, and trying to create some sense of ease.
We high-fived ourselves for taking a walk in the dark last night and surviving our first adventure in the Zombie Apocalypse. It seemed funny, but my head instantly went to infected zombies forcing their way through our front door. I hate zombies. Have always seriously feared them without any reason.
Now . . .
Deep breaths, I see you. May each moment I choose to pause and breath offer space and ease. Thank you for the blessing.
Morning tea, I see you. I feel you comfort and routine. Thank you for the blessing.
The sun. I see you and find myself basking in your loyalty. Thank you for the blessing.
Comfortable home and health of my wee tribe, I see you. I set the wards and make the bread we break. Thank you for the blessing.
My work, that I can do from home. I see you. Let me be of service to all who need it. Thank you for the blessing.
Fear, I see you. I acknowledge you from a place of love for the people around me. That love creates worry for their well-being. That worry creates whatever I allow it to. Let it not be the paralysis with which I contend this morning. Thank you for the blessing.
The need to provide solutions, and the panic of being unable to control things, I see you. I ask myself where I can be of service, and work to place my efforts there. I am one being who can serve best in one way. Thank you for the blessing.
Nightmares, I see you. May you be the way my mind rids itself of its own irrationality. Thank you for the blessing.
I can. I just can, today, hold compassion for myself and others.
Go rise, beauties. Take it easy on yourselves. It’s really scary out there.
I ripped the layers of myself so far back to the very core, I was sure I’d die of exposure.
By far, it emerged as the most incredible year of my life.
I discovered a woman I’d put to sleep as a child out of fear that I wouldn’t be able to control her; that she would burn me; that people would—well—it didn’t matter because all of that hiding only isolated me from everything and everyone that mattered.
More than once this past year, and in rather dramatic Robin fashion, I stepped off the ledge of that life, intentionally kept small by my own fears, and discovered my own ability to fly.
Acknowledging and embracing the call to teach; leaving for France and the time there alone; returning to answer a call from spirit; believing in my own worth enough to launch ACW.
I let all that I’ve seen and known about myself all my life emerge without any apologies.
And, now, I see with so much more than my eyes, hear with so much more than my ears, believe with so much more than faith.
Women of my generation – I see you.
Women of my generation – I hear you.
Women of my generation – I believe in you.
“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.
“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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
The Germans got it right with their word for wanderlust.
Fernweh, or farsickness, is the perfect description for the longing I’ve held within myself for as long as I can remember.
I get super swoony over the wonderment brought on by thoughts of heading off to other places. It’s where I go when I read, but even more so when I write.
Like that moment in Out of Africa (#2 on my top 5 swoony movies of all time list) when Meryl Streep says to Robert Redford, “I have been a mental traveler.”
(Pretty sure I was Karen Blixen in another life)
I recall the very moments of when this all began. As a child, I spent my days announcing to my parents that I would travel the world as a biologist or an archeologist. I would speak ten languages. I would seek out the elephants of Africa, the ruins of South America, the ghosts of Medieval France.
My father, a bit wanderlusty himself, first gifted me with a subscription to National Geographic. I pored through the pages, careful never to crumple or tear the stories within them, as I believed they would serve as my travel guide to all of the places my soul longed to take in.
I got on my first plane when I was 8. Back in the prehistoric ages (1979), it was totally cool to put two young kids on an airplane in Denver, let them change planes in Chicago, and let their auntie pick them up in Toronto or Buffalo so they could stay the Summer with their cousins. We did that every year until I was probably 12. When people freak out about me traveling alone as an adult, I tell them that story and we never speak of such fears again.
Since then, it is an unsatisfied ache that I cannot contain.
I’ve lived and traveled all over North America (43 states, 8 provinces) on my own and with my family. We, as a family, camped our way across Canada twice, deliberately left our lives on Vancouver Island in order to spend a year in Halifax just to experience the Atlantics. As a younger adult, I moved every 18 months from the time I was 22 until I was 35. I married a Canadian, immigrated to another country.
Looking back as I write this, I realize how much traveling I have actually done. There’s just one hiccup in all of that – I have never left the continent. I didn’t even have a passport until I was 30.
My tendency is to lean toward a willingness to exaggerate the rationale behind this little crimp in my fernweh in order to avoid my underlying shame. Really, though, I spent a lot of my life as a bit of a sissy.
Well, that shit is all done.
In three months, I wave goodbye to my family, honouring that 8-year-old little kid and the Medieval French ghost hunter inside me as I head to Paris, then deep into the Loire Valley on my own.
It’s about healing an old wound I inflicted upon myself so very long ago – the one where I didn’t trust in my own ability to travel the world.
Yes, I’ve dressed it all up in a romantic package of researching The Woman On The Wall. However, all of the museums, countryside explorations on my bike, backroom castle tours, and cafe writing with espresso and a slab of brie serve an even higher purpose than tapping into the magical world of da Vinci.
They give a little girl back her dream, and then let her see it through.
I’ll be journaling about bits and pieces surrounding this trip for the next few months or so. Follow me to see how this all plays out.
I’ve made a huge dent in The Woman On The Wall this week, finally hitting my flow in the balance between the modern-day timeline and the historic epistolary component.
Incorporating the fictitious journals and letters of Francesco Melzi and determining their role in the storytelling process has, to be honest, posed the biggest dilemma for me. How I approached them would determine the entire tone of the novel.
Would it be a thriller?
Would it be a historical drama?
I went with a love story full of magical realism as our adoration of the Monda Lisa is nothing short of a torrid romance.
To drive this level of intoxication, mystery, and obsession, I turned to Griffin & Sabine this afternoon. Nick Bantock may qualify as the grand master of epistolary storytelling with his series, leading us through the mysterious connection between two unlikely lovers.
When I was a child, my favourite pastime during Summers at my grandmother’s house was to go through her drawers. They were packed with beautiful treasures from all over the world, as well as from generations of my Polish family.
When I was maybe 8, she gifted me with two of my great grandmother’s mechanical pencils. I loved them beyond measure and wrote every day with them until the lead ran out. Then, they sat, nothing more than trinkets of the past.
In a few days, we will honour the fourth year since my mother’s passing. I have struggled deeply in my relationship with her before and after her death.
This past year, the work my brother and I have done to reclaim our roots, heal generational wounds, and pull ourselves out of shadow has transformed that struggle into understanding and my own ability to step beyond what was never spoken between her and myself in life.
These pencils, tools of the storyteller I never knew, surfaced today without explanation at a moment when I required a provocative sign. From there, I understood what my mother and the women before her had waited nearly 50 years for me to hear.
Magic is always with you—even when it lays dormant until you are ready for it.
I admit it, I’m a bit of a romantic. If someone truly wanted to win my devotion beyond imagination, a pile of handwritten letters detailing our moments together and our deepest connections wins.
Sadly, letter writing careens quite close to the dead art category. With e-mail, texts, Snapchat, and Twitter, it seems no one recalls the magic of eloquent storytelling in the form of a hand-written personal narrative which connects two people and their shared experience.
However, ditching the romanticism for a moment, I do believe the craft of letter writing holds a slightly secret place in the realm of mastering the art of written communication. It also gives you an edge in competitive academic as well as work environments.
A well-crafted thank you letter in the proper situation can launch you from just another person to thoughtful friend, colleague, to a top candidate. It is the key to becoming memorable, which is so much of the battle in life.
In fact, university admissions teams from NYU and Columbia stated recently that a well-crafted letter following up with them can take an applicant to the top of an application pile. Fortune 500 CEOs have already said that, all job candidates being equal, they will take the one who communicates best in writing.
Knowing how to reach people matters.
That’s why I love to teach it in my writing groups. Students usually come into class thinking, “Well, this is going to be an easy couple of hours. Boring.” and leave thinking, “Mah ghad, that was crazy hard and I loved it.”
It blows their minds.
As challenging as most people find it, they also end up discovering pieces of themselves along the way.
Here’s how I hook them on letter writing:
First, I set the tone and mood with a sweet short film, “Joy and Heron” by Passion Pictures:
Thank you letter writing is all about bringing joy to someone else. If you can start with that, a special quality comes through in the writing.
Now, on to the actual writing:
Creating emotional connection through an introduction or hook.
This is my favorite part. Students are usually stumped big-time by this little bit, thinking they should be able to start with “Hi” or “Thank you” right away.
I get them to think about a memory between themselves and the person they are writing to. How can they spark that, start the fire of service or family, devotion or love which drove the other person to connect in the first place?
I call this the big warm hug, where letter writers wrap their arms around someone and say, “I remember. This meant something to me.”
Tell the reader why they got this little gem.
A transition in its most grammar nerd form, this part of the letter really serves to set the reader up for all of the goodness to come.
“I’m here to say thank you for. . .because . . .”
The letter is getting so good now.
The middle of the letter is where most of the energy either builds and creates a truly meaningful experience, or it dies in a wimpy “so what?”.
When I ask students to provide thoughtful details about how a person has influenced their lives, it goes beyond the typical “You have helped me in so many ways.”
“What ways?” I ask, much to their frustration. “This is a person you know well, with whom you have personal experiences. Share those experiences. Help them understand why they made a mark on you.”
GAH! Everyone is erasing like crazy and cramming in details, realizing they are going to have to re-copy this letter rather than just write it once and be done with it.
They think I’m evil for a moment until they see how those personal details make the letter sparkle.
Pull it all together.
Everyone loves a bit of dramatic flair. Use those thoughtful details to build to a joyful culmination where everything comes together and you explain to the reader how each detail lead to their greater impact on your life.
Usually, kids are blown away by this detail when they read it back to me. Even they had no idea, until writing that paragraph, the level of impact a person had on their lives.
There’s some real magic happening by the time they choose their closing salutation and sign their names.
However, there is one final part which I think happens too often when beautiful, emotional letters are written—you can’t forget to drop it in the mail.
Now, imagine yourself after a long day at the office. You climb your front stairs and retrieve a beautiful, hand-written letter from the mailbox.
Inside, a student, friend, or family member carefully crafted a letter sharing their warmest memories of your time together. Then, they thanked you for the experience.
Before that moment, you may not even have known those moments mattered.
I have my theories about how it’s possible that two of these beauties exist. Time to go finish what may be like the twentieth book on the Mona Lisa that I have read since I started researching her for Woman On The Wall.
My plan is to go hang out with her in person this Fall on a solo research trip—first stop, Paris. After that, I’m headed for the bucolic hills of Amboise to hang with da Vinci himself and see if I can discover some of my own answers about our La Gioconda.