Surround Yourself With Smart People

“Whatever you do, surround yourself with smart people who will argue with you.” John Wooden

I grew up in a household where we argued about politics, world affairs, and anything we felt mattered. At the time, I wondered why we weren’t like other normal families who ate dinner and talked about their day. If something political was discussed during these meals with others, I couldn’t help myself.  

Have opinion will share.

I like discussion, arguing a point, listening to the counterpoint.

Friends often tease me by raising some sort of issue, counter to what they think my opinion will be. Then they wait for the sparks to fly. It’s always incredible to me how transparent I am and how easy it is to find my triggers.

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Nasty

“Evil is a miscellaneous collection of nasty things that nasty people do.” Richard Dawkins

This morning an image of someone I used to work with came to mind. I’ve thought of him on and off over the years, mostly when I’ve met him in others. He was a brute of a man, overbearing and opinionated. Yet exceedingly accommodating, falsely pleasant, and willing to do anything for his boss. I was his boss.

I worked in a young offender centre back then and he was one of the supervisors on the floor. Having worked in both an adult correctional facility and a young offender correctional facility, I would take the older, more hardened, over the impulsive, out of control youth any day. Occurrences of violence, hunger strikes and attempted escapes and suicide were common with young offenders. Adult offenders, in contrast, for the most part wanted to do their time and get out.

I tell you this so you understand the reality of these places. Having said this, I don’t want to give the impression that young offenders couldn’t be talked out of whatever situation they’d found themselves in.

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Adjusting

“Life is 10 percent what you make it, and 90 percent how you take it.” Irvine Berlin

Before he goes to bed, we mull over the day’s events. I wish him a good night in his language.Kalinychta. I feel his smile. There is recognition in that smile. With a few hints, he has remembered the day’s events. I am reassured.

In the morning, I wake him with a kalimera and we set about planning his day. After our discussion, where I’ve answered many of his questions more than once, he says, now I know. But over the course of the day, he will ask me again and again, what day is it, what am I supposed to do today, what do I need to buy?

Yet, ask him about some current affair, the elections across the border or the battles in the Middle East, for example, and he will give you a history lesson, tell you how the past has shaped our present and exactly what he thinks about it all. Or walk with him into his pharmacy where his pharmacist is a Coptic from Egypt and listen to the conversation he engages in in Arabic. Other customers stare and I know what they are thinking, how does this little old European man speak Arabic so confidently.

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Finding My Way Back

“Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what is possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.” Francis of Assisi

It’s been more than two months. I’m finally contemplating going back in. But I dread it. I know I will scramble and search. And scramble some more. There will be many long hours of nothing. No guarantees I will find even a hint of what I started.

You see I’ve been distracted, immersed in activity and noise. I like the kind of work that perpetuates this. I’m good at anything that demands quick thinking and organization skills. I’m not so great with work that calls upon me to be quiet. The ruckus gives me the excuse I need to avoid the other work I need to do. And yet it doesn’t squelch the niggling completely. Now it refuses to be ignored. I have to go back, do what I must. I know this and have begun to strategize.

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Another Festival Is Put To Bed

“A grateful heart is a magnet for miracles.” Anonymous

It wasn’t too long ago that I wasn’t sure I would have been able to write the words, another year, another festival. They come naturally now as if there is no question we will be back, bigger and stronger next year.

When the day closes today so will the 15th year of what has become the annual Whistler Writers Festival. There were so many times we wanted to call it quits. The effort to put on such an event grew too much and the funds available to make it happen were too limited. But what was once unthinkable has been made possible through the dedication and hard work of our small organizational team.  We kept going and miracles began to happen. Our audience base grew, sponsors and supporters came on board, and others took notice and wanted to help. And again and again I was reminded that no one succeeds alone.

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What Are You Excited About?

“The creative habit is like a drug. The particular obsession changes, but the excitement, the thrill of your creation lasts.” Henry Moore

This question−what are you excited about−is what journalists ask me in interviews leading up to the Whistler Writers Festival. Only a few days remain before opening night. At the moment, I’m mostly running flat out, trying to tie up all the final details.

There is no room for excitement.

It is at this time that I anticipate, visualize, hope (endlessly), and keep fingers crossed. And of course, I don’t sleep because I’m too busy thinking of every possible disaster scenario and what if anything I might do to avert it.

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Here I Come To the Rescue

“Since we can’t change reality, let us change the eyes which see reality.” Nikos Kazantzakis

I’ve been taking care of my dad over the last two weeks. He’s fine; as he likes to tell me, for an 87-year-old man with one foot on a banana peel. The man missed his calling. He should have been a comedian. My dad’s regular homecare person went on holidays and the various replacements, in the first few days, were inconsistent in when they showed up. This can spell disaster both for my dad’s failing memory and his need to get his medication consistently. So, out I drove to Calgary. 

I realize I’m a bit of a rescuer. Okay, for those who know me, stop laughing now.

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Review

“Beware of the bareness of a busy life.” Socrates

I quote him often, but this time, I’m wondering what Socrates means by bareness. I’m currently neck deep in the craziness of life. Less than three weeks away from the festival, lots of small details still being sorted out, and I’m juggling time, commitments and responsibilities. Where the heck is this bareness?

I don’t have time to think about it and I’m not going to write about it either.

Instead, I’ll share a review that recently appeared in the University of Victoria’s Malahat Review about my novel, The Brink of Freedom.

Good, bad or indifferent, I am very thankful for reviews.

Someone has read my words, took notice, and felt it was important enough to write about it. How could I not be grateful?

Emily McGriffin wrote the review . I take this time to thank her for reading my novel, understanding it so completely, writing about it and giving me a bit of light in the bareness of my busy, busy life. Thank you, Emily!  

© All Rights Reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, all blog content copyright Stella L Harvey

Tracker

“You can’t cross the sea merely by standing and staring at the water.” Rabindranath Tagore

At the moment I'm knee deep. Yes, I’m trying to cross, but the expanse seems too far. Not sure I can take another step without some help.

But I digress. Let me start at the beginning.

A student I mentored a few years ago gave me a Fitbit. You’ve likely seen these things on people’s wrists. They look similar to a watch, but rather than tracking time, they track steps walked, heart rate, and among other things, your quality of sleep. My student’s son set it up for me because I was intimidated by the gadget. Here was another bit of technology, something else I had to figure out.

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Firsts

“The scariest moment is always just before you start.” Stephen King

“I’ve got an idea.” These are the words that strike fear into anyone who knows me. They frighten me a little too. But I persist because I’m curious and stubborn and want to know what will happen next. How far can I go with my inkling?

I like beginnings. A fresh project, whether it’s a piece of writing or a completely new addition to my festival, comes with an inherent gush of creativity and inventiveness. It’s a time I’m flush with hope of what is possible and completely blind to how I’m going to bring it to fruition. I feel quite smug and cozy in my naiveté.

And then I sit down. What was once so compelling and complete in my head seems to grow tentacles of doubt that I can basically sum up into one niggling, obstinate question: what the hell do you think you’re doing?

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Lions and Sheep

“I am not afraid of an army of lions led by a sheep. I am afraid of an army of sheep led by a lion.” Alexander the Great

I had just had a California roll and looked forward to a quick cross-country ski at Lost Lake before heading home. It was a beautiful day, the kind we, who live in Whistler, brag about. The sky was clear blue and a light breeze teased at my cheeks.

A few kilometers into the trail my hands got incredibly itchy. My stomach started to protest and I found it hard to catch my breath. Pretty soon I felt as though I needed to peel my skin off, my lip was swollen (across my face, apparently) and my breathing became even more laboured. It got worse from there.

I wouldn’t know until I was in the emergency room that I was having an anaphylactic attack.  By that time, I didn’t know my name or where I was, let alone what I’d ingested and really the nurses and doctors who worked on me didn’t care either. I was aware of a lot of activity around me. I remember someone putting something into my arm. Instantly everything came back into focus.

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Every Day

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Aristotle

I read the ekathimerini most days. This is the English version of the on-line Greek newspaper. As the name suggests, it is published daily.  

The paper gives me a glimpse into what is happening in Greece.  It makes me feel closer to the country I love. Most days the picture isn’t pretty. The headlines seem to tumble over themselves with the same dire messages: more cutbacks, fewer jobs, higher taxes, and additional poverty. In between the gloom, there are rare stories of hopefulness, a reminder of a once great nation

When I speak to my cousins or aunts on the phone, they paint a dismal picture of the Greek situation as well. “It is not good here. Things get worse every day.”

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Writing and Publicity

“Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement; then it becomes a mistress, and then it becomes a master, and then a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster, and fling him out into the public.” Winston Churchill

My novel, The Brink of Freedom has been on the shelves since the beginning of October. It had already received a certain amount of media attention. This is always incredible for an author who toils alone, uncertain in the end if anyone will notice. Last week The Brink got a little more of a boost on the CBC weekend program, North by Northwest.

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Long Awaited, It Has Come

“Roots are not in a landscape or a country or a people, they are inside you.” Isabel Allende

It came this week. As did the tears the moment I saw the foreign writing. I took a breath, tried to control my emotions. Where had all this sentiment come from? I couldn’t articulate it. I have had difficulty at the best of times explaining to others why I have wanted what had just arrived. It’s a feeling. One of wanting to belong.

The faux-leather cardboard was cool in my hand. I stroked it, afraid to glance inside. Was this really mine? Had it finally come? It had been months, and if I think about it, likely years.

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Writer’s Block

You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.” Jodi Picoult

Last week’s twitter chat hosted by the Writer’s Studio at Simon Fraser University provided tips to combat writer’s block. A whole host of writers participated with some sound advice: rereading favourite authors, staying at your desk until the fog cleared, walking away from the work for a while. I have tried all of these tips with a good deal of success. This discussion got me thinking about other advice I’ve been given and the tricks I have built into own my practice to keep me writing. Let’s face it, writing is bloody hard, anytime, but particularly when the sun is shining and there are so many other things to do.

A few years ago we hosted author Richard Wagamese. He read at the main festival and participated in our Authors in the Schools Program. Richard told the grade 12 students in his session (all had read his novel, Indian Horse) that he had never experienced writer’s block. Asked how that was possible he said, “One word follows another, then another.” It sounded so elegantly simple.

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Dreamers and Doers and Those Who Provide Support

We rise by lifting others.” Robert Ingersoll

This is the fifteenth anniversary of the Whistler Writers Festival, a cause for celebration and reflection. As I look back, I think about the first festival in 2002. Twenty participants, one guest author, all gathered in my living room. Those who came from Vancouver and beyond (2) and the guest author, stayed in our house. We felt like a family, all under one roof. I love that feeling and always thought it would remain this way − small and intimate.

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Fear and All that Jazz

“Courage is knowing what not to fear.” Plato

In a conversation with my father this week, he mentioned he’d walked to the store in his neighbourhood to buy some groceries. He’d been to the bank and since the store was close by, he thought he’d get a few things. I’m pretty protective of my dad. He was the same way with me when I was a child. Man, I used to curse him for that. How old am I, I’d rail. You don’t have to treat me like a kid.

Now he says the same thing to me. I don’t know why. Look at the facts, I tell him. You’re 87. Your memory comes and goes. You’re frail. I don’t want anyone to take advantage of you.

His rebuff to all of this: Why do you insist on reminding me how old I am.

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Behind-the-Scene Angel

“When the world says, ‘Give Up.’ Hope whispers, ‘Try it one more time.’” Unknown

About a hundred years ago, a newcomer arrived in town. She didn’t really feel that she belonged (big city girl and clumsy at the best of times, let alone when she’s got two boards strapped to her feet and is careening down a mountain), but she had to find her way because the man she loved, loved the place.

So she decided to start something new, something that she was passionate about. There didn’t seem to be anything like it town so she figured why not. She knew that everything takes money. So she nervously made a pitch to support that wild idea of hers. To this day, she remembers her sweaty hands, how her voice cracked when she spoke.

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Who Is This Man?

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” George Bernard Shaw

He sits quietly with his daughter and listens to her as she cries over some slight inflicted by another child. I watch from behind, at a safe distance. His arm is around her, her body tucked in close to his. I can’t hear their whispered conversation, but whatever he has said has reassured her. His daughter is soon playing again with her perceived transgressor. All is forgiven or at the very least put into perspective.

The other day while planning an outing with other family members, he negotiated going on a hike rather than a bike ride because his wife didn’t have a bike and wouldn’t have been able to go along. He spoke with every family member, made his case and eventually secured agreement. Everyone enjoyed the hike, no one more so than his wife.

This reminded me of other times. Out for dinner with family, his wife at work, he ordered, and then delivered a meal to her. Why hadn’t I noticed his generosity?

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2016 Summer Book Recommendations – Part 2

“Wisdom begins in wonder.” Socrates

Last week, I listed and provided a brief summary of the fiction titles I recommended for summer reading. I know, none sounded like light reads, but they are all well worth the investment of your time, energy and in particular, your heart.

I have begun to read more non-fiction of late and here are some recommendations I’d like to share. Some of these books use humour to tackle tough topics, so it’s not all doom and gloom. Promise.

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2016 Summer Book Recommendations – Part 1

“We shouldn’t teach great books: we should teach a love of reading.” B.F. Skinner

Each year at this time I provide you with some of my book recommendations. As I write this, the sun is warming my back as I sit at my desk. Fluffy white clouds roll over the mountains. Summer has arrived. There’s no better time to discover a good book.

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A Little Life by Hanya Yanagirhara

“When you forgive, you in no way change the past – but you sure do change the future.” Bernard Meltzer

Four young men meet in college. Each is talented: one is an actor, one a painter, one an architect, and one is a lawyer. They move to New York where they hope to realize their dreams. And so starts the novel, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagirhara.

At the beginning I found it difficult to relate to the characters. They are young, selfish, and shallow. They like to party. How would I ever come to care about them? I nearly put the book down after 30 pages, told myself I’d given it enough time, but I hate giving up on a book. Failing to complete often says more about me than it does about the book. So I persisted, told myself I’d give it another five pages, then another ten. One more night. If it doesn’t pick up. That’s it.

Then something changed. The landscape began to shift. “You know he cuts himself.” Jude’s doctor says to Willem. At that point the novel takes on a different hue.

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Star Pupils

“Some painters transform the sun into a yellow spot, others transform a yellow spot into the sun.” Pablo Picasso

“What would you like the media to capture about the refugee crisis that isn’t being captured now?” This question came from a grade 11 student this week.

I had just finished a presentation to her class. I’d outlined my writing process and flashed pictures of places I’d been and the research I’d done while writing my novel. I also spoke about my motivations for writing this particular story of refugees who fall between the cracks of international law, and at times, compassion.

No one had asked me this particular question before. It stumped me a little both because of the depth of the question and its source. I’d obviously underestimated how informed and engaged teenagers were. It wouldn’t be the first time this happened this week either. Shame on me.

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Young Readers

“I am still learning.” Michelangelo

I have been doing a bunch of presentations for grade 11 and 12 students in the Sea to Sky corridor over the past few weeks. It’s an honour to be asked and while I’m always excited to meet people who have read my novel, I can’t help but be anxious too. A bit of nervousness is always good. I’m okay with that. It pushes me to do my best. Still, these particular audiences are different. To start with they are younger.

Will they understand what I was trying to do? Is the subject matter too harsh, too dark for them? How do I make this experience a positive one? That was only a sample of the concerns running through my mind.

I typically give a short PowerPoint presentation about my research and why this particular topic, the refugee crisis, compelled me to write a novel. A reading, then a question and answer period, follows. During each reading, I have felt the silence of an audience completely immersed in the text. There is no fidgeting, no scrap of chair against linoleum, and no whispers among friends. The kids are listening.

In one school, we have gone a little further with the presentation and reading model.

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Carnegie

“None are so old as those who have outlived enthusiasm.” Henry David Thoreau

“Would you be okay with speaking at any of our branches?”

“Yes, of course. Happy to go anywhere,” I replied to the email from the Vancouver Public Library. They were inviting me to speak about my novel. I was thrilled.

Those words came back as second thoughts as I tried to find a parking spot on the edge of the downtown east side in Vancouver−known as one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Canada.

Throngs of people lined the streets leading to the Carnegie Branch of the Vancouver Public Library. Some were seniors, others were addicts, still others looked like they were living rough−eyes hollow and distant, faces scrapped and scratched, lips cracked and dangling cigarette butts. The smell of marijuana, alcohol and rot was the kind that fixed itself to your clothes, your skin. It’s almost impossible to see Vancouver’s famed beauty in these streets. And yet this is Vancouver too.

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No Pitch Goes Unheard Here

“I never put off till tomorrow what I can possible do – the day after.” Oscar Wilde

I will do a few today, just a few. They should know. It’s only fair. No one should be left hanging, waiting. I wouldn’t want to remain in limbo, forever anticipating. I scroll down the list of those highlighted emails. There are about 150 of them.

To be fair, I have acknowledged each and every one. Immediately. It’s a point of pride. If someone writes to me, I respond. Thanks so much for getting in touch. I’m just in the middle of …, will get back to you, no later than… Please feel free to contact me anytime if you’re wondering where I am in the process.

Most thank me for the quick reply. I can hear the eagerness in their written words and feel even worse. I won’t be able to find a spot for every enthusiastic soul.

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Roots and Wings

“There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these is roots, the other, wings.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

“How is it that someone who doesn’t cook opens a restaurant?”

“I had money. I wanted to run a business.”

“But a restaurant? What made you think you could do that?”  

“I thought it would be a good business. It was crazy. I should have taken more time to think about what I wanted to do before I jumped into anything.”

God, when hadn’t I said those exact words before? Except this time they were coming from my father. This conversation was a snippet of one of the many I’ve had with him over the last couple of weeks. I’ve always known the specifics of our history: how and when we immigrated to Canada, what my parents did to support us, and how they struggled with integrating into a new culture.

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Painting Paradise

“You have your brush, you have your colours, you paint the paradise, then in you go.” Nikos Kazantzakis

Organizing an event of any kind, large or small brings with it a number of considerations, not the least of which is where to find the money to fund it. In my paradise (as it pertains to organizing the Whistler Writers Festival, and the Writer in Residence and the Author in Schools Programs) funders come onboard and give generously because they believe in our cause, see our need and want us to succeed.

As you have probably deduced, I’m a dreamer.

January of each year begins with writing grants, compiling lists of potential business donors, discussing strategies, populating countless spreadsheets and writing plans that realistically outline how much we’re going to need, where it’s going to come from and what benefits the community will realize.

Despite the reams of documents we prepare, there are no guarantees we’ll get any money. This year we saw funding cuts from two of our major sources. One had funded us to the same maximum amount for years. This year they cut us back.

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Why I Bother

“Every calling is great when greatly pursued.” Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

Why do I bother? I've asked myself this question daily, sometimes hourly. It happens anytime I sit down to write. First there are the questions: Why is this important? Who do I think I am? What the heck are my characters doing now? How does this fit into what I'm trying to do? The relentless questions are typically followed by feelings of worthlessness.

As insidious as undetected pinpricks in a garden hose, my insecurities seep out: I can't do this. I'm not good enough. It takes me some time to get a grip. The only thing that helps is to stay put, in front of the laptop, focused on the work, and asking myself, over and over again, what am I trying to say. This last question is helpful.

A friend of mine echoed similar feelings when we talked about writing earlier this week. She had just finished reading the novel, All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr. "It's such wonderful writing. You're blown away. But then you wonder what's the point of your own writing." My friend is a very talented writer. And hard working too. She squeezes revising and editing her novel in and around her day job and her responsibilities as filmmaker, wife and mother. She's more than committed to her craft. Still when you read something so incredible, it's difficult not to question yourself and your own abilities.

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Not For the Money

“The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.” Pablo Picasso

“So how much do you make?” I’m attending a book club meeting in Vancouver. I’d been invited here to discuss my novel. I don’t know anyone in the group. They found me through a friend of a friend of a friend.

I accept all invitations for presentations to book clubs or schools or festivals or anywhere really. You want me to come, I’m happy to oblige. I’m honoured by the interest people show in my work. And besides I have the gift of the gab (born with it) so any occasion to engage in discussion is good.

Despite this, I’m nervous. Yes, believe it. I hate to disappoint and each event is a performance. I prepare for hours: read and reread the piece I will deliver, think and rethink possible questions, imagine and reimagine where the discussion will go.

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