Sunday, January 21, 2007

The truth is harder than fiction

I'm working on a story right now that doesn't involve interviews, online research, or up-to-date information. It's a story of my life.

I don't have a lot of memories before age 12. The ones I do have are pretty insignificant: chasing cats around the farm, watching Oma's arthritic hands cut corn off the cob, designing colonial houses and Poloroids out of Lego, and being relegated to the role of "R2D2's girlfriend" in a playground reenaction of "Star Wars." Definitely not the wellspring of an epic memoir.

The MB Herald wants a 2 page spread about my childhood for an issue on "Disabilities" to be published this Easter. I can't remember much about my early feelings or interactions with my brothers, both of whom have Fragile X syndrome. Since my words seem to flow faster in blogger than they ever do in Microsoft Word I thought I'd do some processing here and see how far it gets me. (If I ever write a book, the publisher will receive their first ever manuscript made entirely of blog posts.)

This Christmas I watched the movie "Bed of Roses" in which Mary Stuart Masterson's character was raised by an absent foster dad. Because she was found in a train station at three months old she didn't even have a birthday. On Christmas Eve her boyfriend takes her to the first family gathering of her life and she freaks out. It feels "normal" and she knows she isn't normal enough to fit into it. I broke down in tears at my first Christmas gathering at my inlaws for exactly the same reason.

Even more than "happy," I've always longer for "normal." Normal isn't subjective, it's a very specific experience. It's the feeling you get when you're in a group of girls and everyone is laughing about how their little brothers do this or that, and you can laugh along, because your baby brother does exactly the same thing. Or when everyone is talking about their family trips to the movies or the campground and you can see "I've seen that one" or "remember the time I dropped my melty marshmallow on my pants?" It's "I get what you mean - I've been there - I'm one of you."

I'm lucky I have an Autism support group now with a "new normal." Where no one stares and clears their throat and changes the topic to precipitation levels when I say "my son tried to stab me with a pencil." Because the woman beside me was just threatened with a steak knife and the dad across the room was up all night with a screaming 10 year old and someone else can't get their daughter to eat bread just because it's square. I wish I had had a sibling support group as a child so I would have known whether there was a "new normal" for that.

I think it's a lie to say that I suffered because my brothers were disabled. I loved and accepted them. I wasn't afraid of their unusual behaviours or their wild tamtrums. I wasn't particularily embarrassed about them in public. Those are the struggles people expect to hear. That's what makes this story so difficult to write.

What made me feel different was that I was alone. And it's the reason I'm doing everything I can to get the support I need now.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Chasing the wind

I've been having an "Ecclesiastes" week.

It's not really a category; I just made it up. It's one or two steps above a "Jonah day," a term I like from Anne of Green Gables. At least in an Ecclesiastes week no one gets swallowed whole.

Ecclesiastes is the book of the Bible that begins:

"Meaningless! Utterly meaningless! What do people get for all their hard work? ....Everything is so weary and tiresome! ....And in future generations, no one will remember what we are doing now."

My work is sporadic: either I have three stories due all at once or nothing at all. I always go through a little slump of gloom once the frenzied panic is over. I've come to the place where I can give myself permission.

Usually I have the sense of accomplishment to keep me going. I've helped support my family, I've created something beautiful, and I've added to a legacy of stories that will survive me.

But this time I'm wondering if it's really all that. My Burma story was supposed to be a quick call to a missionary, write up the facts, hit "send" and you're done. Instead it was hours interviewing refugees, phone calls to pastors and foreign affairs representatives, emails for clarification, looking up news articles online, and presto: I've earned myself a whopping $1.50 an hour. How's that for supporting my family?

And leaving a legacy? I've learned it's okay for editors to change your words without running the changes by the writer, because "you know the material but they know their reader." I find it difficult when my stories come out; sometimes I'm afraid to look. They have my name on them, but they aren't really mine anymore.

It all feels a little meaningless. Like trying to catch the wind.

As I was typing out the verses from Ecclesiastes I had a funny thought: the writer says that future generations won't know what he's done, and yet here I am thousands of years later, wearing polyester and sitting in my Lazyboy, reading his words! The poor guy had no idea his writing would end up on gold leaf and bound in leather or send through fibre-optic cables from my nifty little laptop to yours!

They say writing is something you do for love, not for fame or money. Some days I pray for God to give me a passion for delivering flyers, because I think I'd be ahead financially.

But I know, even when the work is hard and the editors are chop happy (or like to smother everything in cheese), I won't stop writing. Because there are so many stories that need to be told.

That's where the love comes in. It's not just love for the act of writing (which many days I must admit involves more blood and sweat than drool). It's love for the stories: from the displaced people of Burma to the homeless individuals in Harry Lehotsky's neighbourhood - when I tell their stories they become my friends. And when you read them, my hope is that they become your friends too.

"The wise are often poor and the skillful are not necessarily wealthy. Whatever you do, do well." Ecclesiastes 9.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Ask a great question....

In my last entry I asked "Why is Burma never on the news? and I got the best answer I could have asked for: "They are!" The very next night CBC TV did a feature on the plight of the Karen. (That prayer worked a lot faster than the one I prayed as a child for the Berlin wall!)

It's kind of goofy, because I sat beside the phone all day Monday waiting for Foreign Affairs to call, confirming that Canada will welcome 2000 more Karen this year. Then I see that exact announcement on CBC that very night. Apparently, Foreign Affairs informed the CBC before they told Angeline Schellenberg. Where are their priorities? ;)

The best part is: now there will be even more people praying for the peace of Burma.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

It breaks my heart that I never knew

Have you heard of Iraq? Do you know where Gaza is? Does Afganistan ring a bell?

What about Burma?

Burma (also known as Myanmar) is one of the most brutal, longest running, military dictatorships in the world. Which begs the question: why aren't they in the news?

I'm writing a story about Burmese refugees entering Canada. If I thought studying nearly 50 years of Harry Lehotsky's life in one week was complicated, try learning everything about 50 years of a country's history!

This is the first time I've had to phone Immigration Canada or Foreign Affairs for a story, or had to wonder whether a foreign consulate might read my work. It's the first time I've asked myself whether no one else has reported a piece of information because it's inaccurate, dangerous, or because no one cares.

The Karen are an ethnic group from Burma that have suffered beatings, rape, imprisonment, and forced labour. They've watched their homes and villages burn. They've hidden in the jungle for years, dodging landmines and contracting malaria only to reach a refugee camp and languish there for up for up to two decades. Canadian and US companies, including our CPP, still invest in Burma, to the benefit of the ruling military junta.

By the end of 2007, 100 Karen will live in our city. Let's give them a celebrity welcome. After all, unlike Britney Spears or Michael Jackson, they've earned the right to become household names. And their stories, though not sugary, are filled with strength, beauty, and grace.