I won’t suck it up, Buttercup

Warning: coarse language and strong emotion

I’m enraged by Harvey Weinstein. I’m enraged that almost every woman I know has encountered a Harvey Weinstein in her life. I’m enraged that I can’t even write these words without my inner voice of dismissal going off like a gong inside me: whiner, victim, toughen up, suck it up Buttercup, where’s your sense of humour? This voice of contempt is implanted in me like a GPS microchip in a dog.

So I open Facebook and write: Me too. Of course me too.

And then I read Me Too on my daughter’s wall.

You too? My daughter?

My grandmother couldn’t protect my mother, my mother couldn’t protect me, and I can’t protect my daughter. Because sexual assault and harassment are almost as commonplace as breathing.

 So, yes, of course my daughter too. How could I be naïve enough to think otherwise?

Everywhere on the internet, women are saying, “Speak up, speak louder. Make more noise!” My memoir is my noise, my essays are my noise. Writing is my way of quelling that dismissive voice in my head.

When we stay silent, we stay on the same path that led us here. Making noise is making change. Making change is why we tell stories. We don’t want to have to tell stories like this one again and again. Speak louder. –Lena Dunham

When I cringe to think of my very personal memoir going out into the public sphere, I think of my daughter. And I think of my son. I wrote my memoir, End of the Rope, in large part so their stories could be different. But I didn’t include everything in my memoir. I didn’t write the backstory to my Me Too. Or to be more precise, I wrote the backstory, seven coming-of-age chapters, then took them out to go into a future memoir. But I have a sneaking suspicion that a publisher might look at my coming-of-age story and say, “Na. Been done before. The market’s saturated.”

Because life is saturated with coming-of-age stories involving predatory men who like to back young girls into the corner and stick their tongue down their throat. Like my friend’s boyfriend, Alfredo liked to do while his girlfriend was upstairs baking bread.

I’ve always thought that’s just life. That I was too sensitive. That I should get on with it. Or the absolute worst: that it was my fault. Because I hitchhiked. Or I was too friendly. Or I wore a halter top. Or I made eye contact. Because I had a living, breathing, warm body.

I’m one of the lucky ones. I was never raped. Possibly due to my strong defense mechanisms: tears, and projectile vomiting. And later, chewing tobacco. Unless, of course, you can consider it “rape” through your clothing while you’re almost passed out drunk on the floor at a party with dozens of teenagers watching and cheering on a boy twice your size. Thankfully I went to high school before social media.

No, I wasn’t raped, but I was grabbed violently by the crotch both in our crowded high school hallway, and at a busy winter carnival in Quebec City. I’ve been wary of crowds ever since.

I’ve been pinned down by boys, their leering faces close to mine, “I can do whatever I want to you and you can’t stop me.” Buttons wrenched open, rough groping. Crying helped in those situations.

I have had my head guided forcefully into a guys’ crotch, and told that he could get sick from “blue balls.” This even happened on a train going across Canada, making me wonder if date rape drugs existed in the 80s.

I wasn’t raped but I did have a little bits of my self-trust and power stolen from me with each “non-rape”.

But those were just boys. Boys will be boys and all that. The men were the ones to worry about. Men that I thought would want to protect me.

I worked at a pizza place owned by two middle-aged men who were obsessed with my virginity. “I think I see a sparkle in her eye!” they chuckled every time I came into work. Apparently, a girl gets a sparkle in her eye after her cherry’s been popped. They tried relentlessly to set me up with their leather-clad, 200-pound Harley-driving buddy who’d sit at the counter leering as I served him. “Come on. One date. Don’t you like me?”

When I did lose my virginity at seventeen, it was to a boy who spent two weeks, plus a whole evening at a party trying to talk me into it. A boy I considered my boyfriend. He managed to get my assent in that narrow window between drunk enough to do it and puking. I followed him out through the snow–stumbling and pissed to the gills–to his mother’s station wagon, and when he was done, he left me in -30 weather to pull up my pants and find my way back to the party. That night the puking came about ten minutes too late to keep me safe. He never talked to me again.

But thankfully, I was never raped.

And there’s that inner voice of admonition. Why did I drink so much? Why did I put myself in those situations?

Because our self worth was measured by the amount of male attention we got. Because we wanted to be wanted. To belong. To be loved. Because if we didn’t put out, we were called tight, cock teaser, uptight, bitch, no fun, frigid. Because if we didn’t have a boyfriend, there was something seriously wrong with us.

Amazingly enough, after that four-year minefield we call high school, I bounced out into the world looking for adventure in a tiny tank top and willowy hippy skirt, ready to embrace life, determined to do anything a guy could do. I was on my own, trusting, naïve, eighteen, cute, accessible, desperately wanting approval and a sense of belonging, and powerless. Everything a predator could dream of. I may as well have had a Fuck Me sign on my back.

I say I was on my own but really, my first foray into the world was with Katimavik, a government-sponsored nine-month volunteer program. My mother thought I’d be safe; I’d be supervised by group leaders and coordinators, with rules and structure, and it was Pierre Trudeau’s baby. But the coordinator used to take us under-aged kids drinking to the local pub, and one of those times I was picked up by a middle-aged, balding, sex-offender hippy who talked me into moving up Toba Inlet with him. It was my big dream come true –to live off the land in the bush. I hung out with him, sleeping in his truck in the Lund Hotel parking lot for two or three nights until I finally convinced him to take me back to my group. But I was lucky. He didn’t rape me. He only kissed me. He was grooming me.

Later, when my group leader, the one who’d scared off the hippy predator, told me there was something special about me, I felt complimented, until he told me he was sexually attracted to me. Then I was shocked. He was a father figure. I didn’t understand his attraction. I didn’t understand his anger. I was eighteen. He was my father’s age. “If I wasn’t married would you want to be with me?” he asked.

When my next group leader fell in love with me, this time I was smitten. He was under thirty, a dark-haired, dark-bearded, guitar-playing, Quebecois separatist and he’d chosen me! He borrowed his friend’s apartment for the night in Yellowknife so we could be “alone.” But because he didn’t approve of drinking, he ruined his chances of getting very far with me.

By age nineteen, I’d learned not to wear my little yellow tank top and willowy hippy skirt. Instead, I covered up my body with a baggy yellow sweatshirt and oversized army pants that had so many pockets not one part of my body had definition. I also gained some weight, which made me feel unattractive, but safer. I set out, undeterred, with a Fuck Vigilance attitude, to hitchhike across Alberta and BC by myself, still determined to do anything boys could do. In Banff, the first vehicle that stopped was an older, windowless van with two middle-aged men smiling from the windows. (Even as I write this, I’m begging that girl not to get in) To make a story of agonizing stupidity short, I ended up in their hotel room in Kamloops, willingly. I had a shower, unwillingly, but by then I was scared. I let them brush my hair, unwillingly, because by then I was paralyzed with fear. My baggy clothing was not going to protect me. “You have such a good figure, why do you cover it up?” When they both put their arms around me, I leapt off the bed and started to cry.

Apparently, tears are a turn-off for middle-aged men, not just teenagers. They snapped out of it and drove me to the bus station. I thanked them. I probably hugged them. I didn’t want them to feel uncomfortable.

I’d like to say that I learned from that experience, that things got better after that, but they didn’t.

My next job was on the coast of BC, up near Lund, working as a cook in a trailer for four loggers–two brothers, their father, in his sixties, and a partner. I held them off as long as I could–I needed the job–and finally started “dating” the youngest one. The only unmarried one. That wasn’t enough of a deterrent. Two of them still pulled me aside to kiss me. Or more.

I had my tent cabin, my sanctuary, way off in the bush in the woods, where I could escape. But one night, an aging hippy from the adjoining property came for a visit after dark to smoke a joint. I didn’t want to smoke a joint with him. But I did. To be friendly. I didn’t want him to sit on my bed beside me. But I didn’t want to offend him. I most certainly did not want to sleep with him. “You’re married,” I said, in case he’d forgotten. “We have an open relationship,” he told me. He reminded me of the special connection we’d had on the ferry, one I hadn’t particularly felt myself, singing John Prine songs together–me, him, his wife. He finally left in a huff, slamming the door, incensed because I’d encouraged him. I never told anyone. I didn’t want to embarrass him. I never felt safe in that tent cabin again.

Looking back, it’s an honest-to-god miracle I’ve gotten to fifty-six without being raped.

Fewer than two years out in the big bad world were enough to make me realize I needed to be able to protect myself. I needed to toughen up. I needed to rip the Fuck Me sign off my back.

So I started rock climbing. Seems like an extreme way to grow some defenses, but it’s amazing the survival skills you develop when you repeatedly and intentionally throw yourself into danger and successfully get yourself out of it. Climbing gave me physical strength and I began to feel bigger than five-foot-one-and-a-half. I stood up straighter. I walked more aggressively. I took up more space in the world. I didn’t feel like a target. And I started to believe in my ability to protect myself. Started to believe I’d be there for myself. Not freeze in fear when I needed to fight. I felt like if I could climb mountains, I could do anything.

I shouldn’t have to scare the shit out of myself climbing rock faces, or biking over rock slabs and slippery roots, or skiing steep slopes in the back country to develop my survival skills, but there you have it. That’s what I had to do. And my daughter has taken the same path. I see the strong sense of self and strength it gives her. It makes her less of a target.

The place we stand in our lives is in large part the product of the story that we tell ourselves about ourselves. And we have the power to revise these stories; we can find our words loosed from and thereby loosing us from the imposing grip of the past’s injustice and/or “wrongness.” Our inner voices still work. –Porochista Khakpour

Writing my memoir was my act of revising the story I’ve been telling myself about myself. It was a good exercise to get it down on paper, and now the final reckoning–publication in the spring. When I put my story out there for the whole world to see, that is me fully standing behind me. It is my final act of saying: Fuck permission. Fuck approval. Fuck apologies. Fuck silence. Fuck minimization. Fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke.

Be the heroine of your life, not the victim, Nora Ephron said. But being the heroine of my life doesn’t mean there aren’t bad guys–the Harvey Weinsteins–to contend with. It means we face them full on. It means we speak of them, write about them, roar about them from the mountaintops. When a woman breaks the silence, she is not whining and claiming victimhood, she’s finally taking off the cloak of victimhood. Being a victim is to silently brood alone until you develop irritable bowel syndrome and have to hire a psychologist for two hundred dollars an hour to tell your story to because your silence is slowly grinding you down.

There are women asking, “Why should I out myself? The guys should out themselves as the abusers!” Yes. They should. But we all know that’s not going to happen. So we write our two little words. Me too. We don’t have to go into detail. Not everyone likes to pontificate like I do. But if they hear our voices, they might wake up. The ones who don’t harass or abuse might become more aware of the Weinsteins of the world and stand up for women the next time, and who knows, maybe the Weinsteins of the world will get nervous. Especially when the next Carrie Fisher arrives at their door with a special Tiffany parcel.

I know this behaviour has been going on since the beginning of time. I know my little Me too isn’t going to change the world. But I do know change is possible. That guy that raped me through my clothes at a party? He came up to me two years later and apologized profusely. I laughed and waved him off. Hey, shit happens! But now I realize how important his heartfelt apology was. It meant he’d been thinking about it for two years. Agonizing, by the looks of it. It meant he felt shame, which means he knew it was wrong, which means he hopefully didn’t do it to anyone else, and never would. It means maybe he joined the ranks of the many other decent guys I know out there. Maybe he defended his daughter, and taught his son to be one of the decent ones.

Just a tiny move forward. Like my Me too. But it’s in the right direction.

Posted in Chasing Granny, Chasing My Next Book, End of the Rope | 4 Comments

The Last Slumber Party

It just occurred to me (not always the sharpest tool kinda thing) that there is a connection between my present infatuation with my matriline and the fact that my mother passed away just eight months ago almost to the day.

In February of this year, late at night on the sixth day of our vigil, I sat beside my mother’s dying body in her nursing home, watching her breathe, knowing there were only a few more breaths left for her on this earth. Four days worth, to be exact. I was documenting her breaths in my journal:

10 breaths, stop for 20 seconds, one tiny breath, one deep breath, then starts over with another 8….

In my last blog post, Family Karma, I mentioned a book– It Didn’t Start With You, by Mark Wolynn. In it, I discovered that as an unfertilized egg, I shared a cellular environment with my mother and my grandmother. When my mother was a five-month-old fetus inside my grandmother, I, just a wee egg, was already fully formed in my mother. There we were, my granny, my mother, myself, all tucked in together in one body.

I didn’t have this knowledge as I sat with my mother, but I knew this on a cellular level. She was being severed from me. I sat beside her with my hand on her body and wrote in my journal:

Sitting here feeling physical pain at losing her. We are of the same flesh. I came from her body. I became a person inside her. That is so profound.

I remember feeling the same way when my grandmother died when I was 15, though I didn’t know her well, and was, in fact, very intimidated by her. My journal writing from back then seems almost comical, and I almost feel I’m betraying that intense, heart-felt 15-year-old girl, but I’m not mocking her. I’m amazed at her depth, her insight, and her pain.

June 24, 1976

Uncle Steve just called and she’s dying! She’s got about two hours. Oh Granny! I miss her already. I can’t cry in front of Susan and Dad so I’m downstairs. Oh Granny, Granny, Granny! She just managed to say goodbye to Steve and Mom. Oh she has to go to heaven! Oh Mom! She’s probably taking it so hard. Dad should go. The phone is ringing. Oh Granny don’t die!

It was Kelly.

Granny wanted to see how me, Eric and Susan turned out. I can’t stop crying. Goodbye Granny. I love you. I’ve never lost a person that I love as much as I love her. Mickey was a dog, but I don’t think I loved him as much as Granny. It wouldn’t be bad for Granny if I did because I loved Mickey so much.

Granny died at 9:20 pm. It’s ok though (I’m going to cry again because I’m writing this) She died the way she wanted to. She didn’t suffer or anything. She kissed Uncle Steve and Mom goodbye. She’s being cremated and her ashes are being buried beside Grandad. It’s hard to imagine it.

My mother had the good fortune to be able to say goodbye to a woman who recognized her. When I said goodbye to my mother, she didn’t say goodbye back. This panic and pain-stricken woman didn’t know I was her daughter. She didn’t know the concept of daughter, didn’t know the concept of death. I’d been losing her to Alzheimer’s in increments for 15 years.

                                                                      –––

 A snowstorm was raging in Squamish as my mother died, and had been for days. My sister was barely able to get here from Toronto. We thought she’d die the first night, but she didn’t, so we set up cots in the tiny room and waited. We slept there night after night and it seemed our mother would never let go. Or did we refuse to let her go? “Tough old bird,” my brother said over the phone from Ottawa.

On one of the days I went home for a shower and real food, barely able to get my Subaru through the unplowed snow, and deliberately opened my library book of Tarot as I sat on the toilet, as though I were drawing a guiding card from the deck.

The Queen of Cups

She often appears as a mature female. She can manifest as a person in your life, or as a part of yourself.

I almost fell off the toilet.

Her sensitivity draws those who struggle and suffer towards her. In many ways she is a safe harbor for others. Her warmth and genuine caring make her a beacon of light. Because she is so responsive to the feelings of others, the Queen of Cups must constantly uphold her boundaries between herself and others. If not properly protected, the Queen can lose her own sense of self. This is her greatest vulnerability.

I know in my heart of hearts that Tarot cards are flakey, but my mother was a true Queen of Cups. She volunteered at the Crisis Centre. She was a psychiatric nurse. She took in stray cats and dogs and people. She stood up to my father and fought her aversion to asserting herself to save my best friend in high school from her abusive father, bringing her into our home for almost two years. She scooped up another friend who’d lost both her parents and became her surrogate mother as well, and that woman wrote to my mother right up until the end.

But my mother also lost herself. As I lost myself. Our greatest vulnerability.

I wasn’t going to read the reversed Queen of Cups, but I had to. Even with my limited knowledge of Tarot (two readings) I knew it held more wisdom for me than the upright Queen of Cups.

You may be feeling out of touch with your emotions or forced to restrict how you feel deep inside. If you do not address these issues, they will eventually reach a boiling point. You are turning in any direction that any wind may blow… you are easily overwhelmed by emotion….

I am the emotional train wreck of the family. My mother was my anchor; she kept me grounded to the earth. Whenever my life overwhelmed me, which was often, I phoned my mother. At 18, the night before I left home, I crawled into bed with her and sobbed all night. My heart was torn in pieces. I was leaving her. She was my safe place.

But for almost 15 years I’d been mothering my mother. I’d been advocating for her in a health care system that didn’t seem to give a shit. I’d pushed aside my people-pleasing tendencies to be her warrior. I’d written letters, filed complaints, taken photos, I’d even said to someone in a care meeting: “You’re either lying or incompetent.” A few years ago I wouldn’t have dreamed I could be so rude. So assertive. So self-possessed. So in possession of my SELF.

–––

My mother was still breathing, my sister snoring softly from her cot in the corner, and I refused to sleep myself because I was afraid that if I did, when I woke up I wouldn’t have a mother. So I kept writing:

What have I learned over these past 15 heart-breaking years of looking after Mom? Especially these past five in this godforsaken nursing home?

I’ve learned to trust my interpretation of a situation, to defend the vulnerable, to accept pain and loss as a part of life, to stand up for myself, to take pleasure in contributing small joys to people’s lives who have little pleasure left. I’ve learned to put anger to action, that I won’t break, that I am strong, that my mother is brave and dignified and as Ted put it – a classy lady. I learned to push through the fire, to stay with the discomfort and not look or run away, to let it transform me. I’ve learned the ancient art of caregiving, and how essential this role is. How love-based it is.

I’ve learned loyalty and steadfastness and companionship and family and love and familiarity and connection are what I want. Not novelty and excitement.

I feel like a reversed Queen of Cups, about to be turned upright with Mom’s death.

–––

She kept breathing and the days passed by. No one is supposed to be able to live with no food or water for ten days. But my mother would not let go. She was 90 years old and her tough old body kept trucking along. Maybe this wasn’t the end. Maybe she’d live to 100! God forbid. And I’d have to battle the goddamned nursing home for basic care for an additional 10 years.

–––

Nurses came and went, giving her meds, often letting her spiral into pain before we could track them down. Care aides also came and went. One came in to swab her mouth, her poor tongue dried up like a walnut. My sister and I were in our pajamas on our cots, writing in our journals and talking quietly with the lights dimmed and Mom’s favourite classical music playing softly in the background, and the care aide said, “Your mom wants to be with her daughters. She doesn’t want to leave the slumber party!”

“Maybe we should put on some Clash,” I said, and my sister and I doubled over in hysterics, unable to stop laughing, our legs squeezed tight together.

We peed our pants about four times in that ten days. I can’t even recall what we found so funny.

When my father was dying, my mom and I took a wee break on the couch, and something struck us as so funny that we couldn’t stop giggling. Then I noticed a change in Dad’s breathing and we rushed to his side. I was overcome with guilt, wondering if he was thinking, “What are those goddamned women nattering about over there while I’m dying!”

But I know Mom would have been happy to hear our laughter. It would have comforted her.

–––

On February 10th at 9:18 pm, almost the exact time of her own mother’s death, my mother, took her last breath. We opened the window so she could fly–no soar–away from that place, and join her ancestors. My mother was free.

The last slumber party was over.

 

My grandmother, Laura Isobel Bancroft

 

 

 

 

 

 

My mother, Jean Leslie Hodgkinson

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Posted in Chasing Granny, Chasing My Next Book | 8 Comments

Family Karma

I feel very strongly that I am under the influence of things or questions which were left incomplete and unanswered by my parents and grandparents and more distant ancestors. It often seems as if there were an impersonal karma within a family, which is passed on from parents to children. It has always seemed to me that I had to… complete, or perhaps continue, things which previous ages had left unfinished.

–Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections

I’m a hopelessly addicted genealogist and storyteller. I have records right back to my 15th great-grandfather, Ebenezer Bancroft (d. 1475) in Derbyshire, England on my grandfather’s side, and to my 12th great-grandfather, James Shivas (b. abt. 1600) in Aberdeenshire, Scotland on my grandmother’s side, and have researched many additional branches to the family.

These are the oldest pictures we have, on my grandfather, Melbourne Tait Bancroft’s side: Charles Bancroft (1788-1834) and his wife, Mary Ann Jones (1799-1873), painted, most likely, around the year they were married, in 1817. They emigrated from Boston to Montreal in 1815.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not surprisingly (in our historically patriarchal system) my male ancestors have been easier to find than the women, who dissolved into their new family with the wave of a bible and the mumbling of a few Presbyterian marital vows, but I’ve managed to get past many a genealogical brick wall to trace my matriline way back on my grandmother’s side. With birth, marriage, and death certificates, census records, wills, letters, journals and photographs, I’ve unearthed incredible stories of courage, heartache, transition, triumph, betrayal, loss, and major turning points where the decisions these women made changed the course of not only their own lives, but the lives of their descendants.

Anne Leslie (1784-1854)                           m.  Robert Cruickshank (1784-1859)

Grace Cruickshank (1808-1897)              m.  James Stephen (1792-1856)

Isabella Watt Stephen (1846-1934)         m.  Andrew Shivas (1846-1898)

Grace Leslie Stephen Cruikshank Shivas (1874-1944)     m. John Ernest Millen (1872-1964)

Laura Isobel Millen (1894-1976)         m. Melbourne Tait Bancroft (1895-1974)

Jean Leslie Bancroft (1926-2017 )       m. Ronald Arnold Hodgkinson (1927-2003)

Janice Hodgkinson (1961 – )                 m. Ward Robinson   m. Dan Redford

Jenna Daniel Robinson (1988-  )

I love that my great-grandmother, Grace Leslie Stephen Cruikshank Shivas Millen is the caretaker of all the names. She is the one that reset the course of our family’s destiny when she came from the Scottish Highlands to Quebec in 1890 at age sixteen.

I believe I’m obsessed with my family’s stories for the same reason I wrote my memoir: to make sense of the chaos; to find connections and patterns between my life and my ancestors’ lives in order to make better sense of my own story.

I’ve found an incredible book to help guide me deep into the past, beyond my childhood, beyond my parents’ childhoods, into my ancestors’ lives: It Didn’t Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle by Mark Wolynn.

Wolynn writes: “Tragedies varying in type and intensity – such as abandonment, suicide, and war, or the early death of a child, parent, or sibling – can send shock waves of distress cascading from one generation to the next.”

Life was hard for our ancestors. All of these tragedies happened to them, over and over. Sometimes I can feel their distress in my genes, the way deep wells of loss are triggered with each death of a friend or family member, my PTSD symptoms, my mothering style, my sometimes quick temper and irritability. I can feel them influencing my choices at major crossroads in my life to the extent that sometimes I feel my life was preordained.

I share traits with these women that have held me back in life: low levels of self-trust, a high tolerance for unhappiness and low tolerance for stress, anxiety… I see these traits expressed in my mother and grandmother’s letters and journals, I saw it in their relationships with my father and grandfather, in their relationships with their children.

But Wolynn also says, “the traumas we inherit or experience firsthand can not only create a legacy of distress, but also forge a legacy of strength and resilience that can be felt for generations to come.”

I know I haven’t just inherited character flaws and foibles from my ancestors; I know I’ve inherited some pretty amazing strengths: determination, resilience, curiosity, and obsessive tenacity, (which could be construed as a defect) and more specifically, passions that come straight from my grandmother: for genealogy, psychology, stories, writing, education, and adventure.

Wolynn says: “we’re likely to keep repeating our unconscious patterns until we bring them into the light of awareness.”

My purpose – in my research, in my writing, in my life – is to break the negative patterns that have been bequeathed to me by my ancestors, to consciously improve upon this generation so that my children will have better tools to improve upon their generation. I wrote my memoir partly as a “What Not to Do” primer for my children. Sometimes I feel like my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother left behind so much writing, some of it deeply personal, for that same reason.

The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

– William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

Save

Save

Save

Posted in Chasing Granny, Chasing My Next Book | Leave a comment

My Granny, Myself

Finding the photo of my grandmother climbing in the Rockies in 1913 helped to answer a question that has always burned in my mind. As a girl from an ordinary, not terribly-athletic, middle class family, who grew up in Inuvik, Fort Smith, and Whitehorse, and eventually ended up stranded as a teenager in an Ontario suburb called Munster Hamlet in the middle of flat corn fields–

How in the hell did I ever end up becoming a rock climber?

I thought it might be because my father hiked the Chilkoot Trail with his government cronies a couple of times when we lived in Yukon, but for the most part, my parents were reluctant walk-the-dog-around-the-blockers. Physical exertion was not their thing. Certainly not climbing.

Yet since my pre-teens I’ve yearned for the wilderness. Yearned for escape. I used to dream of running away to the top of Grey Mountain, living off the land. In high school I was drawn only to one class: outdoor education. I cross-country skied and even went on an overnight in the winter with a real pack on my back; I went canoe tripping; I rappelled down the brick wall of our high school. I inhaled Thoreau.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

In my memoir, End of the Rope: Mountains, Marriage, and Motherhood, (April 2018 – Random House) I address the origins of my climbing in the prologue. I was thirteen, on a Quebec language exchange when I met Jocelyn, a burly, bandana-clad Quebecois climber who showed me his mountain climbing equipment and took me caving and hiking. I was smitten. But looking back, I know I wanted to BE Jocelyn, not be WITH him. I craved his freedom, craved his control, craved his musculature.

Later that summer, in a fit of rage against my father (a typical state) I stomped away from our cottage, found myself under a (possibly) 100-foot rock face, and started to climb. Most likely my reasoning was, “Fuck ‘em if I die. It’ll be their fault.” An attitude that lingered well into my adult years and almost led to my death many a time.

I didn’t die (though I scared the hell out of myself). Instead, the triumph I felt at the top of that cliff, after successfully pulling myself over the top, coupled with the expression of unconcealed admiration on my father’s face when he looked down the cliff from the top, led me to write in my diary that night: “I’m going to be a mountain climber when I grow up.” A pretty improbable dream, just like my previous improbable dreams: of looking like Barbie, of being a movie star, of getting adopted by the Partridge Family. My unquenchable need for male attention (typical of most girls back then) aligned that day with my uncontrollable need to take physical risks, which led me on some hilarious adventures, and some very dark adventures. Bridget Jones in the mountains.

My grandmother’s adventures continued after her summer in the Rockies. And the more I uncover about her life, the more I recognize the strong connections between me and my grandmother. In fact, between all the generations of women in my family.

“If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all generations of your ancestors. All of them are alive in this moment. Each is present in your body. You are the continuation of each of these people.”

–Thich Nhat Hanh, A Lifetime of Peace

My grandmother with her father, John Ernest Millen, when she was about three years old, approximately 1897.  She seemed to have a special bond with him, and a knack of getting her way.

 

 

 

 

My grandmother at (I believe) Woodlands, the camp she went to every summer in either Quebec or Ontario. In her journals she describes going on overnight canoe trips, portaging their gear, sleeping on pine boughs, swimming out to islands. She describes these as her “tomboy” years. And she did it all in a skirt and proper shoes!

 

Posted in Chasing Granny, Chasing My Next Book | 2 Comments

Chasing Granny

Chasing Granny

This is the working title of my next book. I have to ‘fess up that I borrowed it from a self-published book I saw in the gift shop of a tiny historical society when I was in the Eastern Townships of Quebec doing research recently. I’m hoping no one minds.

Other working titles I’ve considered:

  • Isobel’s Mountain
  • My Granny, My Self
  • The Life and Times of Isobel Millen
  • The Matrilineal Wound
  • Following in Granny’s Footsteps

But Chasing Granny kind of stuck.

I know, I know. It seems strange to be so focused on my second book when MY FIRST BOOK JUST ARRIVED AT MY FREAKIN’ DOOR A FEW MINUTES AGO!!! (the review copy) but I’ve decided I have to take my mind off the anxiety of having a very personal memoir about to land on the world.

At this point, I have many, many questions about what this next book will look like:

  • Creative non-fiction or historical fiction?
  • Include myself and my life – how it parallels my grandmother’s?
  • My perspective or multiple, multi-generational perspectives?
  • Include my journeys to Quebec, Labrador and Scotland in search of my ancestors?
  • Write only about my grandmother’s wild and crazy life?
  • Include my female ancestors all the way back to my great-great-great grandmother, Grace Cruickshank, in the Highlands of Scotland?
  • Write it as personal essay?
  • Include research about epigenetics, psychology of family systems, genealogy, etc?

I must admit to feeling somewhat overwhelmed.

Thankfully, stuck to my computer right in front of my nose are bright pink stickies with sayings to keep me sane when life swamps me: RELAX. NOTHING IS UNDER CONTROL is my favourite. Fake it till you make it has gotten me in a lot of trouble in the past (for details, read upcoming memoir) so I use a more mature version of it now: Figure it out as you go. Simple, to the point, verging on boring.

This blog is my way of figuring out Chasing Granny as I go. I’m going to blog my way to my next book.

I think I’ve always had my grandmother’s story burning in me, ever since I found the most extraordinary photo of her in one of my mother’s many boxes of “crap” (as my father called her stuff).

Here she is, my mother’s mother, Isobel Millen, standing between two guides in front of Mount Robson. My grandmother, a little rich girl from Westmount Quebec. What the hell was she doing in the Rockies?

On the back of the photo: Three of us that made the summit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I knew she hadn’t climbed Mount Robson – it is the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies at 12,972 feet – so I assumed she was referring to one of the smaller mountains in the area. She also had photos of the summit cairn of Mount Lynx (over 10,000 feet), and of the view from the summit of Mount Baldy. But when were the photos taken? She had to have been very young. And did she climb those mountains, or had someone given her the photos?

So I went to the guru of Canadian climbing history, Chic Scott, who was able to immediately identify the photo. He told me my grandmother was at the Alpine Club of Canada General Mountaineering Camp in 1913. She must have gone as one of the tourists who were guided up the smaller mountains. “The three of us that made the summit” was a take on the famous photo of Conrad Kain and his two clients who had done the first ascent of Robson. In 1913!!! My grandmother had been in base camp with one of the most famous climbers in the world, during one of the most famous climbs in Canadian history.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A bit of simple math revealed that my grandmother was 19 years old in the photo (she was born in 1894).

I started climbing in 1980. When I was 19 years old.

It’s enough to give me the heebie-jeebies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Butt shot of me in Yosemite when I was 21 years old – one of the first photos of me climbing.

 

Next: Who is this Laura Isobel Millen and what other crazy shit did she do?

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Posted in Chasing Granny, Chasing My Next Book | 2 Comments

Cover release for End of the Rope: Mountains, Marriage, and Motherhood

I can finally share Random House’s cover for my book! The U.S. publisher will have their own cover, and I’ll share that when I can. This is starting to feel very, very real. April 2018 is the date! I believe you can even pre-order on Amazon, though there are lots of lovely independent bookstores out there (ie 32 Books in North Vancouver).

This is the American description of the book:

In the tradition of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild comes this funny and gritty debut memoir in which Jan Redford grows from a nomadic rock climber to a mother who fights to win back her future.

After the love of her life is killed in an avalanche, a grieving Jan finds comfort in the arms of his climbing buddy, an extreme alpinist. But their marriage soon falters. While her husband logs forests and dreams of distant peaks, Jan has children, and takes on a wife’s traditional role. Over the following years, however, she pursues her own dream, one that pits her against her husband—attending university, and ultimately, gaining independence.

End of the Rope is Jan’s telling of heart-stopping adventures, from a harrowing rescue off El Capitan to leading a group of bumbling cadets across a glacier. It is her laughter-filled memoir of learning to climb, and of friendships with women in that masculine world. Most moving, this is her story of claiming freedom from a crushing marriage, an act of bravery equal to climbing mountains.

Book cover

Save

Save

Save

Save

Posted in End of the Rope, News! | Leave a comment

Announcing my U.S. publisher! Counterpoint Press

Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, standing, outdoor and nature

Transatlantic Agency

Jan Redford’s debut, END OF THE ROPE: Braving Mountains, Marriage and Motherhood, in the tradition of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, set in the Rockies, in which a rash young climber bounces from mountain to mountain and relationship to relationship, then loses the love of her life in a climbing accident, becomes pregnant with his friend’s baby and struggles in a stormy marriage until she finally breaks free to pursue higher education and make her own way in life. US English rights to Jack Shoemaker at Counterpoint with Megha Majumdar editing, previously to Random House Canada for Spring 2018 by Samantha Haywood of Transatlantic Agency.

Save

Posted in End of the Rope, News! | 1 Comment

Final final edit of End of the Rope is now finished! Fini! Fertig! Acabado! Finito! As in – I am so DONE :)

After approximately 10 years, I’m am finally finished my first book, End of the Rope: Finding My Way Through Mountains and Life. On International Women’s Day, I pressed SEND, and off it flew to my editor at Random House, Anne Collins, and now it is with the copy editor. It is completely, irrevocably, terrifyingly out of my hands. I can no longer change a name, remove an incriminating detail, soften a snarky comment…

I am terrified about how the world will receive this book, I always have been, and I almost gave up so many times because of my fear of what others will think. I know I will piss off a few people. Mostly men. I seem good at that, in spite of my deep rooted, almost pathological need to be liked and approved of, but I find Rebecca Solnit’s recent essay in The Guardian reassuring. She says: “Being unable to tell your story is a living death. The right to speak is a form of wealth that is being redistributed. No wonder powerful men are furious.”

Through this whole process, year after year, I wrote, published stories that most certainly pissed off a certain someone (I compared him to a humping bunny, not my most subtle metaphor) and agonized over disapproval, stewing in guilt and fear. But I kept writing. That was the key. I kept forging forward. This is the main theme in my memoir. Momentum. Feel the fear and discomfort and do it anyway. It’s something I’m still learning. I’m a work in progress.

Solnit quotes “Ursula Le Guin: “We are volcanoes. When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains.” My book, End of the Rope, is my new mountain.

Posted in End of the Rope, News! | Leave a comment

Deal News – End of the Rope: A Mountain Memoir

Deal News- End of the Rope by Jan Redford

I’ve been neglecting my blog and failed to announce my biggest news yet. Could be a sign that I should renew my commitment to this website. My book, End of the Rope: A Mountain Memoir, will be published in spring 2018 with Random House! AND I have an agent, Samantha Haywood of Transatlantic. I like to do things backwards, first get a contract, then get an agent. I’m currently in the throes of yet another rewrite, but this time there is an end in sight, I’m finally getting published, (and paid!) and I’m working with an amazing Random House editor, Amanda Lewis. So I feel I’m in good hands.

By the time 2018 comes along, this will have been an eleven year project – or 55 years, depending on how you look at it (57 by then – yikes!) I have a file of notes for a book of personal essays on the writing process I’ve been through, sort of a what-not-to-do writing book. I wouldn’t presume to write a “how to” book. It has been a long, convoluted path to publishing, but the main thing I’ve learned (or, to be precise, am learning) is to trust myself. I’ve had many many wonderful mentors, and needed each one, but in the end, it is my book, my life, and it is my judgement I have to trust. Writing a memoir, which has a major theme of self-doubt, is not easy to do while inflicted with self-doubt, but  I wrote my way through it and I must say, I’m in a much better place for it. Better than psychotherapy, though I can see I’ll be needing some of that in the near future as I bare my life (and other people’s lives) to the world. As I re-read, this time with the knowledge that anyone who wants to will be reading this memoir, I shake my head and wonder, “Holy shit! What was I thinking?” I’m expecting the next phase of this journey to be as rocky as the first phase. But I’m assuming it will all be grist for the personal essay mill 🙂

Posted in End of the Rope, News! | Leave a comment

A Summit of One’s Own: Women’s Mountaineering Writing

http://www.alpinist.com/doc/web16a/a-summit-of-ones-own-panel-discussion

This is the recording of the panel I was on with a great group of women at the Banff Mountain Film Festival in November, 2015. It opened up a conversation that could have gone on for hours. The feedback afterward was very positive, and showed a hunger for debates about the status of women in the mountain literary community.

Katie Ives wrote:

On November 7, 2015, Alpinist Magazine and Imaginary Mountain Surveyors co-hosted a panel on women’s mountaineering writing as part of the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival. We called it “A Summit of One’s Own.” Writers in attendance were Angie Abdou, Bernadette McDonald, Margo Talbot, Jan Redford and Majka Burhardt.

In 1929 the British author Virginia Woolf—daughter of the great mountaineer Leslie Stephen—had famously declared that to become a writer, a woman needed a “room of her own,” a space away from the expectations and conventions of her society. During this panel, we talked about the various ways that women have created rooms for themselves as adventurers and as mountain writers in a genre largely occupied by men. Our panelists and audience members asked many questions, including these: How much has changed in women’s mountain writing since the late nineteenth and early twentieth century? What can be done to encourage greater female participation? What are examples of great female authors who have redefined what it means to roam and to write in the wild? And finally: What are some of the ways in which transcending masculine and feminine stereotypes can free people of all genders to experiment with new writing styles and subjects and to help foster richer, more diverse mountain stories in the future?

Posted in News! | Leave a comment