“The question is not were you loved. Or did you love. Or did you love yourself. Or did you allow love to move through you, though that’s a big one. The question is, did you get to be who you are. And if not, then why. That, my friend, is the big why.”
This quote (slightly abbreviated) from Michael Winter’s novel, The Big Why, haunted me for an entire decade during which, until this past spring, I worked as a full-time public servant. Every morning I got up, put on a costume (typically a navy blue blazer,) drove to a brick building, walked into a cage, and spent the next eight hours wishing I was writing. No one at my job cared that I was a writer or that my debut novel had won awards and has been optioned for a film. Most of my coworkers didn’t even know this, or they had forgotten, or it was convenient for them to assume my life’s goal was to be an administrative assistant (I worked in a male-dominated department in which many of the higher-ups referred to my coworker and I as “the girls.”)
The tension between my real life and my work life played out like a dark comedy. In 2016, I was a finalist for the Stephen Leacock Medal and was flown to Ontario where I was lauded at a ceremony preceded by the singing of the national anthem. Two days later, I was back in the office being presented with a stack of papers to photocopy.
I just couldn’t do it anymore.
To be fair, the job wasn’t serving me and I wasn’t serving it either. The fact that I stayed to the point where my health was beginning to deteriorate is no one’s fault but mine, the consequence of an acute aversion to poverty deeply entrenched from childhood. Having been raised by a single mother of three who scraped by as a substitute teacher, I can attest that poverty is stressful and not conducive to creativity. I never want to go back there.
In between the thousands of agonizing moments that led to the very serene one in which I knew with certainty that I was about to quit my job and never go back, I spent a lot of time polling other writers, “How do you make money?” Over and over they advised, “Don’t quit your day job.” Most of them hadn’t. Even the big ones.
But here’s the thing. When you grow up without money, you learn the skills to pay the bills. A resourceful streak gets braided into your identity. Even when I had a secure job with the government, I’d catch myself doing semi-shady things like taking home the hotel mini shampoos or wrapping up a cinnamon roll from the breakfast buffet and tucking it into my purse. Fear of scarcity, a friend defined it. It’s a survival mechanism. And while I resent this mechanism every time it forces me to order the cheapest thing on the menu or wait an hour for the bus when I could easily hop in a taxi, it comes from the same part of me that appreciates every little thing that comes my way. The same side of my personality that will, with zero moral quandary, forge an ID to scam a student discount is the same side that, no matter how spotty my income, has donated a monthly sum to a developing country ever since I actually was a student. Being grateful is better than being rich. The more I embrace this, the more it is true.
I unceremoniously quit my job on a cold spring day with nothing lined up. I was determined to finish my novel-in-progress, but books usually don’t generate money until they’re written. So I knew I’d be scraping the barrel. On my last day of work, my friend Fionnuala, a visual artist, invited me over for a two-woman retirement dinner. The night ended with Irish dirges to my soul-eroding-if-bill-paying career and a raising of glasses to our shared belief that when we drop that which is no longer serving us, we make space for that which wants to come in. I was half delirious with nerves, but prepared to put my resourcefulness to the test.
I kid you not, I awoke the next morning with a message on my cell from the Writers’ Trust of Canada. With shaking fingers I dialed the program director and was greeted with the words, “I have good news. You’re going to Berton House.”
As far as signs from the universe go, this one was bigger and louder than a Times Squares billboard. The Berton House residency is only open to professional writers, and it is highly competitive (Lawrence Hill was here last winter.) I have applied every year since my book was published. At the end of this year’s application I added, “Maybe this year the stars will align.” And indeed they did. Of almost one hundred applicants, I made the shortlists of all three jurors.
And so, after a very long journey, the last leg of which I spent on a small plane looking down at hill after hill, valley after valley, here I am. For the next three months, I will live and write at the edge of Dawson City in the childhood home of Pierre Berton, mere steps from the cabins that belonged to Robert Service and Jack London on a dirt road affectionately known as “Writers’ Row.” It is a high honour, and I am grateful beyond measure to the Writers’ Trust, to the jury members, to the Berton House Writer’s Retreat Society, to Pierre Berton himself for this precious gift.
On this day of Thanksgiving, I give thanks to have been born a have-not with the ability to pursue my full potential, to reside in a country in which I have the security of knowing that, no matter what happens, I will always have the option of food in my belly and a roof over my head; such things are givens in few corners of the world. I give thanks to be an artist pursuing my creativity full-time, to have finally accepted that I must live, literally and figuratively, on the margins. I don’t belong in an office. I belong here on this hillside, half hidden by trees, waiting for the sky to erupt in brilliant, wavering colours. My writing has taken me places both mentally and physically that not every person gets to experience and I do not take this for granted. I give thanks that I had the guts to leave a job for a dream, that I faced my dragon and opened my whole heart. That I chose the life that has chosen me.
Today, and for all of the days I have left in this life, I give thanks that I get to be who I am.