T is for Titillating Tales of Terror (or Real-Life Scary Stories my Family Tells, in honour of Halloween)
A certain sparkly vampire family made its fictional home in a temperate rainforest town, 250 miles north of the socked-in coastal village that my own family calls home.
There is a marked spookiness that descends on all coastlines along with the dark. The only horror movie I could tolerate watching as a kid was called "Lady in White", which was about a grief-stricken ghostly mother who jumped from a cliff into the ocean every night she re-realized her daughter had been killed. (Goosebumps are popping up all over my skin as I write this...do you know who hates thinking about scary things? ME!!!) While that story was set on the other side of the country, it laid beautiful ground in my childhood imagination for strange things to happen on the coastal cliffs of my adolescence and adulthood.
When I was in my early twenties, my brother (born with considerable more nerve than I) reported spooky happenings to which he and his friends had been witness. They would purposefully go to get themselves scared at a nearby state park, complete with misty, dramatically descending cliffs, a non-working lighthouse, and a tree (known as the Octopus Tree) that was rumoured to have housed the bodies of recently departed First Nations people for the first night after their death.
The strangest part of this already strange and beautiful place were the deer (at least in his experience), because the deer there did not act like ordinary deer. The park and its surrounding area is not well lit and prone to fog, so trips there at night were always made with caution to not hit any wildlife.
But, five or six times, the cars in which my brother and his friends travelled were not so much dangerous as endangered. When they came upon the deer that roamed the misty forest by the cliffs, the encounters were anything but normal. Instead of freezing up or running away out of fright, as deer tend to do, the deer would get aggressive. The drivers would have to move their cars away from the deer, getting out of the deer's way (!) instead of the other way round. It was, as he says, "like the deer were trying to defend something."
One night, this Warrior Deer behaviour reached its pinnacle when, with about ten people spread between two cars, one lone deer came out onto the road. As the headlights of the car flashed into the face of the animal, it stared into eyes of the driver of the first car for a few seconds before running into it, throwing its body against the front of the car as if to say "Get out, you don't belong here!"
It was with these strange encounters in mind that I went at sunset with my newly engaged fiancé to this same state park to take pictures. Matt hadn't heard any of the stories or local legends, but they weighed on my mind as we passed through the open gate of the park. I thought for the briefest of moments about telling Matt what I had heard. But something held me back; I thought that talking about the stories might make both of our imaginations run rampant.
The sunset was beautiful. To watch and photograph it, we descended from a spot in the park affectionately nicknamed "Suicide Point" by my siblings and I (!) and carefully traversed a narrow wedge of land to a cliff that juts out to the sea. Once the sun set, I started feeling anxious about getting back...and again, opted not to tell Matt, as he was still taking pictures of the last crimson and orange streaks on the horizon.
By the time we came back to Suicide Point and clambered through the brush to the official path, it was dusk. As we approached the Octopus Tree, my skin began to crawl: not because of its appearance, but because I thought I heard groans coming from the woods around it.
But I am the scarediest of scaredy cats, so did I say anything? No sirree, I did not. Because as long as I didn't say anything or draw attention to the groans, I could keep on believing it was all in my head.
Two or three moans and groans later, Matt's ears picked up the sound. He looked at me and grinned. "Sasquatch?" he asked, jokingly. I gritted my teeth in a nervous smile in response and pushed out something like a laugh.
"What's the matter?" he asked.
"I'll tell you later," I replied.
Even at this point, with Matt hearing groans near a tree that probably didn't but maybe did house the corpses of the dearly departed of our Aboriginal brothers and sisters, I was trying to talk myself down. Maybe there were people in the woods being goofy and playing tricks on us? Maybe there was a family nearby and the kids were hiding and groaning, trying scare us? This was nicer to believe, so I just walked a little faster, holding Matt's hand and trying not to squeeze it as hard as my fear compelled me. Someone else was here. Someone was being silly. It was all in my head.
The path away from the Octopus tree descends gradually into a large parking lot for tourists wanting to see the lighthouse and the tree and the beautiful views.
But there were no cars there. Not a soul. And at this point Matt, naive as he was to the legends and mysteries of the place, started getting nervous too. He had heard the moans and groans. If no one else was here, who was making them?
The gates to the park close at sunset, or so a sign affixed to them says. We drove out as quickly as we could to avoid being locked in. As we passed safely through the still-open gate, I began to tell Matt what I had heard about this place. He tried to make light of it, and I tried to relax as we got back out onto the main road.
But, as we turned onto it, a deer emerged from the woods and came onto the road.
And stared at us.
And didn't move.
And I can't tell you how long we stared at it or it stared at us, but the standoff ended when the deer ran at our car!
And then Matt and I collectively freaked out, he in his calm, cool way and me in my frantic, noisy screeching way. Somehow we got around the deer, somehow we made it back onto the highway, and somehow we drove as quickly as the dark would allow back towards town and home.
If you can believe it, we have never gone there at night again. Because maybe the tree is just a tree and maybe the cliffs are just cliffs and maybe the deer are just deer but...
Well, who really knows?
Note: This post was inspired by a similarly-themed column published in Bill Bryson's hysterical book, "Notes from a Big Country." Thanks, Bill!
The Bridge Jump (a tale passed onto me from my friend Mike)
I went to university in Idaho. Nobody outside of the Pacific Northwest of the United States knows where Idaho is (and even then, people can be foggy on the exact location). Upon arrival I was told that Idaho is comprised of two parts: the northern, green, forested part teeming with white supremacists (!), and the southern, brown, tumbleweed-ridden part in which my university is located.
Thankfully there was more to southern Idaho than that (not much, but some), and one thing that we university students did when the weather was warm was go bridge-jumping at a nearby river.
One warm afternoon, a poor, nervous lad made his way down the side of the bridge to the narrow landing from which he and his friends were to jump into the river below. The drop was greater than he expected, so it took him several minutes of hemming and hawing and his friends' encouraging before he finally got up the nerve to jump. At that critical moment, he made the leap. And as he did, his friends noticed in horror that a large object was floating down the river and would be intercepted by their friend precisely when he made landing.
The large object was the corpse of a dead cow (!)
Gravity of course is real and unflinching even if situations like this. So Poor Laddy continued to plummet down, unable to change velocity or direction, and fell straight through the bloated, blessedly squishy and soft and thus not lethal body of the dearly departed Moo Mama.
Laddy survived, thankfully. But I would venture to say he never jumped again.
One fall morning, I woke up early to take our dog for a much needed walk in the neighbourhood. It was dark and cold for the thirty minutes or so we rambled, and I was glad to return to our warm home at the end of it. When I came in, I saw my oldest two children (then 7 and 5) sitting on the couch watching cartoons, but could not find my 15-months-old youngest son.
"Where's Ephraim?" I asked the two boys.
"I don't know," the oldest one answered, his eyes and his brothers' glued to the television set.
I went into the bathroom where my husband was just getting out of the shower.
"Where's Ephraim?" I asked.
"What do you mean?" he replied with slight alarm.
"I can't find him," I said.
We looked at each other for a few silent seconds before Matt scrambled to get clothes on and I left to do one final check under the beds and tables and inside the closets of our tiny attic suite.
No Ephraim. Matt and I opened the door, went down our steep flight of stairs, and went opposite directions down our street, calling his name as we ran.
As I approached the park at the end of our block, I saw a tiny figure in a t-shirt and a diaper peeking out from behind a bush. It was my son, of course. I ran towards him and he ran towards me, laughing and excited to be "found" and so unbelievably unafraid and unbothered by the cold.
I kissed his little cheeks and warmed his feet in my hands while chiding him for running away. Then we went to find his dad and returned back to our house. We still don't know how long he was alone at the park, but our guess was anywhere between ten and twenty minutes.
That is life with my third son in a nutshell. Always on the edge of panic while he rushes headlong into the next big adventure. Now that he's older and his impulsiveness has mellowed, some of the beauty of his fearlessness has been revealed. In fact, I often wish I could take a smidge of it for myself.
January 2005. Matt and I have looked through our bills and our bank statements and realized that we just don't have enough money for me to make it through another semester of grad school. When we go our separate ways, he to put our son to bed and me to clean up from dinner, I shoot a quick prayer up to God.
"Lord, if you want me to stay in this you're going to have to do something to make it clear. Because we can't do it on our own."
The next day an older friend stopped by with a belated birthday present for our one-year-old son. Isaac opened the present, throwing the tissue paper around the room and excitedly removing the actual gift. I thanked my friend for her thoughtfulness and she replied kindly but still sat there, smiling, as if waiting for something else to happen. I was tired and unfocused, so I thanked her again for the present and we chatted until she left.
I put Isaac down for his nap and went to clean up the living room, including the gift bag. Only then did I notice a card inside that I had failed to see before and thus left unopened.
When I slipped the card out of the envelope, a cheque floated down onto my lap. I picked it up and when I saw the number, my stomach dropped.
$500.00. Five-HUNDRED dollars.
In a note also enclosed, my friend explained that after the recent death of her parent, she and her husband had received a small inheritance. They had prayed about which people or charitable organizations to give the money to, and Matt and I kept coming to their minds.
I started to cry (I swear I don't cry all the time, even if my posts seem to indicate otherwise). I had asked for God to do something about our financial shortfall and, believe what you will about the timing, a cheque was in my hands within 24 hours. The next day I wrote a thank you note and told my friend about my evening-before prayer. And I stayed in grad school, graduating two years later with a Master's degree, two babies, and no debt from that degree whatsoever.
יהוה יראה (the Lord provides)
A month after my father died in 2005, my sister called me.
"I'm pregnant," she declared.
"You're what?" I asked in astonishment. Her daughter was only eight months old at the time, and as I had managed (gratefully) to remain unpregnant for the 13 months following the birth of my son I assumed she would like to have some non-pregnant time as well.
"I'm pregnant!" she said more loudly. "And I don't know how! I swear this is an Immaculate Conception kind of thing."
I wanted to ask more questions but she was in a bit of a fury and said she had more calls to make. I got off the phone, thanking my lucky stars that it was her and not me.
Two months later, as I have written about before, I found out that I was pregnant as well.
Let us fast forward to the strange part of all of this (besides the aforementioned Immaculate Conception of my nephew).
When you are in your first year of mourning for a loved one, there are several days that are bitter and brutal and that you just need to make it through: The first month anniversary of their death. Then the second. The sixth month anniversary that kicks you in the gut and the yearly anniversary that wallops you in the teeth (that anniversary is called yahrzeit in Yiddish, as our Jewish brothers and sisters have the good sense to have a proper name for that horrible day). The first anniversary of marriage sans loved one is hard for the spouse; the first birthday without them is hard for everyone. The yahrzeit is agony, and there's no good way of getting around it.
A little consolation on these days is always welcome. A little extra joy is a stark and life-giving contrast to the months and days cut deeply by the sharp, unrelenting force of loss.
So imagine, if you will, the consolation of welcoming my nephew into the world two days before what would have been my dad's first birthday away from this world.
Imagine, if you will, the consolation of welcoming my son into the world a week and a half before what would have been my dad's first yahrzeit.
And imagine, if you will, the consolation of both of these events being completely unplanned, completely unexpected, completely "wrecking" the timing of so many things and yet resting as a balm on our family's broken hearts when a balm was just what we needed. Because that, of course, is what their births were.
A blessing for you, and for me:
May hope catch you unawares,
May consolation bleed through the breaking of your best laid plans,
May laughter lift you from fear,
May God provide.
When I was 20 years old I was sexually assaulted by a stranger. I had never seen him before. I have never seen him since.
I told a friend about the incident immediately after it happened, using vague, uncomfortable language . When I did, he asked me why I hadn't said anything during the event to make the man stop. I looked at him, speechless for a moment, before mumbling something about being too shocked at the time to be able to speak.
I didn't talk about it again for 15 years.
It was only when the Canadian icon Jian Ghomeshi was accused of sexual assault that I first told my husband about my experience. Even then I did what many women do: minimized what had happened, shaving off the sharpest edges to make it seem less troubling than it was. This self-protective charade lasted through the first few sentences. Then I started to cry. "It wasn't like it was a big deal," I insisted in a shaking voice, tears running down my face. My Matt said nothing, but took my hand in his.
In the days that followed, he struggled to understand why I obsessed over the topic. If there was so much personal pain involved, why was I following the public conversation about Ghomeshi and his victims on Twitter and on Facebook and in the deplorable comments section? What was it that I needed to see?
Fortunately at that point, a friend reached out to talk me about the scandal. She too had known assault, and was also keeping vigil over social media conversations. We talked about the feelings the articles and discussions were eliciting, hinting at memories awoken with every new twist and development. It was then I learned that where our loved ones cannot understand, there is a sisterhood of sufferers who can.
When Brock Turner was given a judicial wrist-slap and national attention for his assault of a fellow student, I felt the same obsessive need to make sense of what was happening. My body began to ache, demanding that I not only pay attention to the articles and conversations and my own memory but name the wrong that had been committed against me.
A day or two into it, I called my twin sister--my best friend--to tell her what had happened to me all those years before.
"He did what????" she screamed into the phone. "Why did you not tell me before?"
I responded sharply and she quickly apologized before saying the only thing I needed to hear.
“I’m sorry that happened to you.”
I'm going to give in again to the temptation to minimize: If you had asked me before the Ghomeshi case if the first assault I experienced affected me, I would have said no. I barely remembered it. If anything it was locked into a windowless chamber in my mind, bothering neither me nor anyone else.
But in the two years since, with that case compounded by the Bill Cosby rape trial and the Turner travesty of justice, my answer would be different. Not only has the memory of assault demanded my attention, its cellmates have as well: memories of street harassment; physical intimidation; being followed down streets in multiple cities; being groped by a drunk man who stumbled along the curb only to stagger towards a wall where he could block me in and lay his hands on me.
There are other memories that I will not talk about, but which also share that miserable cell in my mind. And they too have come out into the light.
The day the recording of the current Republican presidential nominee was released, I began sinking into a heavy sadness. I accidentally saw his words on Facebook and was so overwhelmed I promptly blocked the post that shared them, warning myself not to read them again But by the next morning my feed was filled with denunciations of and conversations about his comments, and I felt I might need to know what exactly he said.
I read the whole transcript. And instead of moving further into sadness, I got mad. Hella mad. I posted a statement denouncing the recording as a confession of assault. I scoured my news feed and jumped onto every thread that seemed to paper over the seriousness of what had been admitted.
And in what may sound like no big deal, I--the consummate Bernie supporter and undecided voter--donated money to the Hillary Clinton campaign. I did it as a giant "fuck you" to her opponent and to every man who has assaulted a woman and pretended like it was okay or no big deal. I wasn't sure I would vote for her, but I sure as hell wouldn't vote for him.
Let me get this out of the way, as a woman, a Christian, and pastor:
Rage. Anger. Outrage. These are all appropriate responses for victims of assault. We sometimes cannot access them for years after the event, but when we do, it is not a shameful reaction but a healthy one.
Rage is an appropriate response to people who excuse or minimize the assault they commit against their fellow human beings.
Anger is an appropriate response for victims forced to relive their worst memories every few months because one more powerful man is found to have harmed women.
Outrage is an appropriate response when the disturbing choice is made by bystanders to focus on the status and welfare of the assaulter while ignoring those who have been assaulted.
Anger saves us just when we feel we might be destroyed.
Rage burns our guts, so that we no longer stomach or excuse rape culture when it is exposed.
Outrage gives us feet to stand and fight even as it forces us to face difficult memories.
Together, they return the voices our assaulters took that we might raise them on behalf of ourselves and others.
And with my voice given back, I want to say this to those who are watching and discussing and deciding what to do in response to this latest chapter in a tired story as old as sin itself.
Do not malign the victims when they come forward.
Do not crucify them for their courage.
Do not question their honesty, their timing or their motivation.
And above all, do not pretend they are uncomfortable inconveniences to be cast aside or overlooked for some mythical greater good.
Those who are wronged deserve the common decency of acknowledgement and sorrow. As do all of us in the unchosen sisterhood to which we belong.
A blessing for you, and for me.
Help us, Lord, for Your name's sake.
"Doctors?" said Ron looking startled. "You mean those Muggle nutters that cut people up? Nah, they're healers!"
-J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix
I both love and hate these words of Ron Weasley evaluating the limitations of Muggles like me and our ability to get each other well. On the one hand, I like his recognition that not all healing comes at the edge of the scalpel or the sharp end of a needle.
On the other hand, I love my doctor. I do. She saved my life twelve years ago when she diagnosed me with postpartum depression after the birth of my son. She immediately started me on anti-depressants and referred me to a postpartum psychologist for a follow-up evaluation. And she always included my mood as part of the postpartum checkups after I gave birth to my three subsequent children, keeping close tabs on me to make sure things weren't going sideways. Thankfully, they didn't.
This year, my doctor was my healer in so many ways: putting me on medical leave; making sure I was on the right dose and type of medication; getting me into a free, provincial cognitive therapy program. And, at every follow-up appointment, she asked not only about my mood but my ability to manage things at home, ensuring that I had what I needed to cope with my life as a mom of four.
So yeah, I'm going to disagree with Ron and assert that my doctor is a healer. But as much as I think my doctor is a healer, I know that healing doesn't end with her, nor can the praiseworthy title of healer be given only to her. There are other people, professional and otherwise, who have brought healing in my life not only in this past year but throughout my life. So in their honour, and in honour of the many other healers at work around the world, I'd like to offer up this poem of thanksgiving. See if you can find your own healers in it or even, yourself--not for me, necessarily, but for someone else.
For all the Healers We Give Thanks
For all the quacks, Lord, we give thanks:
The counsellors and coaches, therapists and clinicians.
For those who staunch our wounds with quiet attention,
Witnessing our departure from one path and embarkation on another;
For those who cheerlead our progress and give us eyes to see it
O Lord, we give You thanks.
For all the concerned, Lord, we give thanks:
The friends, the family, the neighbours, the clergy.
For those who bring hot meals and sugary treats;
Who call to check in or take our kids to the park.
For those who declare, "I understand," and those who admit they never will
O Lord, we give You thanks.
For all the communities, Lord, we give thanks:
The schools, the workplaces, the neighbourhoods, the congregations.
For those of the fixed presence, the webmakers of life together;
For those who greet us with joy and ask after us with compassion;
For those who give us space to heal and grace in our absence
O Lord, we give You thanks.
For all the companions, Lord, we give thanks:
The spouses, the girlfriends, the boyfriends, the best friends.
For those startled from sleep by the sound of our tears,
Those who reach out to hold our hands in the dark;
For those who bear with our weakness and accompany us into strength
O Lord, we give You thanks.
For, all the Healers, Lord, we give thanks:
For those who prize our health above their own desires or expectations;
For those who hold fast when we are broken, who speak hope into our despair.
For those who patiently bear with our sickness,
Trusting we will, one day, be well
O Lord, we give You thanks.
Happy Canadian Thanksgiving, friends. Richest blessings to each and every one of you.