Signing Off

Connie Howard died peacefully at the Norwood Hospice in Edmonton on November 15, 2016, surrounded by her family. She was 60 years old.

Connie was born in Lethbridge, Alberta, on July 19, 1956 to Ann and John Naundorf. She is survived by her parents; her husband of 14 years, Jeff, and his mother Lois; Connie’s three adult children, Byron, Natalie and Geoff; her three step-children Jennifer, Joanna, David and two step-grandchildren Bijou and Edie; her sister Kathleen, and brothers Daniel, Andreas and Martin; sister-in-law Maureen; and many dear in-laws, nieces, nephews and friends.

Connie found joy in connecting with readers through her writing. She published this blog (Sorting it Out), served as assistant editor of Eighteen Bridges magazine, contributed pieces to Alberta Views and the Edmonton Journal, and wrote a popular alternative health column (Well, Well, Well) in Vue Weekly.

Throughout the course of her illness, Connie often found relief through acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine. So in lieu of flowers, Memorial donations may be made to the Acupuncture Works! Community Fund, 201-10026 – 105 St NW, Edmonton, AB T5J 1C3, an outreach to those in the downtown core who lack the means to access these services.


I took the long way, because it’s the most delicious month of August, and because I wanted to feel a breeze and the morning sun on my face before summer is gone again, and because I needed to air out my brain cells. I thought I might do some work from this spot for a change too, but couldn’t connect to the Internet. No problem: I’m happy not to be productive for a short while. I’ll just have a coffee break and read things already downloaded to my laptop, and get back to my little Internet-connected cave shortly.

A blog post in my inbox resonates deeply with me. It is about the lengths others sometimes expect us to go to in order to maintain an easily received public persona, one that hides our loneliness and pain. It is about the reality that others are not always comfortable with the inescapable truth that we are not always optimistic, happy, and in control.

The post resonates deeply with me because the thing I’ve most been criticized for with this blog is my honesty about the darker facets of my experience. Like most of us, I sometimes feel abundantly happy, strong, confident, optimistic, competent, valued. At other times, I feel desperately vulnerable, overwhelmed, alone, uninteresting, sad, and powerless. Oh, and short (I think I’ve been shrinking), old, and washed-up. (I know, that probably just tipped the scales a little too far.)

We understandably prefer to keep the darker side at bay a little, and consequently often become uncomfortable when others tap into it. Those who highlight their joys and successes can make us conscious of our failures. Those who lay out terrible realities can tap into our fears. Perhaps this is why we’re quick to judge others as either too perfect or too pathetic for our tastes? Only neutral and balanced, not too happy, not too sad, allows us to keep our equilibrium?

It was a good walk in the sun this morning. It was a good cup of coffee, a good reset. Some things in life are heavy and complicated. Others tip the scales back to abundance and joy. And my unplanned break yielded a timely reminder that I don’t need to keep the truth about the balance at any given moment to myself.

Perhaps if we presented a more rounded and truthful public image—our successes and failures, our joy and pain—we might be more likely to keep that more complete image of ourselves in our own minds too, when the scales tip deeply into uncomfortable zones? And perhaps this in turn might make us a less likely to retreat from one another as often as we do?

The irony is that I have friends and readers who retreat because their perception is that the shadows of my experience are deep and dark, and others because their perception is that my life is full to the brim with good fortune, love and joy. Which is it?

It is both. And I will continue to present the sometimes confused and confusing truth of my experience to friends and readers alike. We’re social beings, and it seems to me that the only thing that makes any of it worthwhile—the only thing that makes the flow of love possible—is sharing our truth with others.

Through the Window; In Search of Morning

Outside the window, except for a few lights on the street below and in the buildings around me, it’s black. Large frosty clouds of exhaust from rooftops and cars passing by break up the blackness just a little. Several bulky-looking pedestrians pass by, walking quickly despite their bulk; one is running. Cars move slowly, as though they’re not quite thawed, and as though their grip on the road can’t be trusted.

Inside, the forced air heating my space wakes the wind chimes in the window, producing the quietest of melodies, and the memory of summer. The brightness of the computer screen tells my brain it is morning, time to leave behind the consciousness of the night. It also tells me that wind-chill values are below minus 40 degrees, and that frostbite can occur in minutes.

It’s a new day. And though we take yesterday with us, like mud on our boots after a muddy trail, it is new. I resolve to stay rooted and present and engaged, through and with and despite the mud on my boots.

How Not to get Freshly Pressed: Avoid Ten-Step, Be-Happy, How-To lists

I’m a little bored with the ten-steps-to-anything-you-want lists. Ten steps to happiness. Ten steps around your stone-walling partner. Ten steps out of your personality box. Ten steps to keeping your impossible boss happy. Ten steps to being organized. Ten steps to project confidence. Ten foods to avoid. Ten foods to include. Ten steps to a thin and fit you. Ten steps to a beautiful garden. Ten steps to improving your finances. Ten steps to entrepreneurship. Ten steps to successful breastfeeding. Ten steps to making your posts stand out. Ten steps to being Freshly Pressed. On and on.

I’m new to this, so I could be wrong, but I kind of doubt that praising honest and messy writing over tidy little solutions lists will get you Freshly Pressed. It seems that despite the glut of self-help stuff out there, we still value prettily packaged up and simplistically optimistic over reality.

But sometimes some of us just want to know our lives aren’t the only ones that aren’t all neatly tied up. We want to know that others with similar experiences are managing, and we want to learn from them, but we also want to know that they sometimes don’t manage well at all. Some say this not-managing stage ought to be private, that we ought to offer the story only once resolution has been arrived at. I disagree.

Most of us derive comfort from being reminded that we’re not the only ones who live with insecurities and anxieties and sensitivities. We feel less alone when we’re reminded that others too live with pain, and that they sometimes handle them less than graciously, too. We need to present our best faces at work, and in public in general, and sometimes even with family and friends, and it’s true, nobody enjoys the Forever Victim. But nobody likes Ms. Perfect either, so what’s wrong with striking a balance?

I’m not opposed to helpful information. I’m not opposed to organized writing either. But I am opposed to the idea that the writing always most worthy of our attention is shiny, happy, and primarily informative. Sometimes gritty truth and reality are most worth reading.

Because the truth is that ten steps may or may not get us anywhere but depressed. The truth is that it’s not always black and white and simple.

We come with challenges, personalities, and limitations as varied as the jungle. We’re strong and weak, accomplished and frustrated, happy and sad, productive and lazy, generous and selfish, emotional and rational. We’re conscientious and lazy, principled and compromising, caring and self-absorbed, charming and irritating, tolerant and image-conscious. And we’re all these things for a million different reasons. 

Life does not consist of tidy little stairways, and we don’t often grow beyond the constraints of our particular personalities or find the courage or grace to achieve our goals or endure painful situations by way of ten simple steps. These things involve looking at our deepest fears and motivations and the honesty of fellow travelers. We don’t find community and comfort in being surrounded by people wearing their I’ve arrived badges.

Optimism, direction, information, yes. Picture where you want to go and who you want to be, yes. But be present in the moment too, with yourself, with those around you, with realities that may be painful.

I love to read, but not lists, and not only stories that are finished, all loose ends tied up, problems resolved. I read those who honestly and intelligently and bravely and with humour face the realities of being human, of loss and heart-break, and yes, limitations. Sometimes the waters are blue and the sky is the limit, and sometimes our wheelchairs or our ages or decisions others have made on our behalf are the limit, and sometimes no ten step plans are going to help.  And sometimes we just need to hear from others left cold by the bright-siding, just-do-it lists. 

But as much as the world of literature respects the darker realities of human experience, and despite the reality that many bloggers are actually looking not so much for answers as they are for others who might understand, who might be willing to engage in something less amenable to a numbered list, what mostly seems to float to the top in the blogosphere is the perkier, tidier, how-to stuff.

I’ll have to come up with ten steps to change this.


From Autopilot to Conscious, Present, Empathetic

Sometimes I need a meeting with myself to feel anchored again. Plodding endlessly through the to-do list day after day is fine, but dreary, and can leave me feeling lost in the desert, parched, impatient, aimless.

Rattling around in my head are vanities, feeling ungrateful about wishing for a couple of inches of hair at Christmas and wanting a million more now, wanting back all the follicles that once upon a time were alive on my scalp. It’s not bad, I tell myself, better than none.

I’ve always been a self-soother. 

A former friend once told me I want it all. She was wrong then, and still is. I’ve never wanted it all, but today I do want back some of what I’ve lost.

I go for that coffee break. I go out for it for a change, not because I can’t have one in my office or my kitchen, but because I sometimes need a crowd to silence the internal chatter enough to be present to myself. I sit down and breathe deeply. I resist the temptation to get on with the Do list I know is at my fingertips, and instead, start with a little hobby writing. It’s a good bridge to the meeting.

Fingers tapping on my keyboard, eyes on the stream of human beings walking in and out. I used to do a lot of back-of-napkin writing. Now I’m in love with my Macbook—it’s much faster, allows my eyes to take in my surroundings as I write, and is infinitely easier to read and edit afterwards.

Men in ties, women in heels, chatty, sure professionals. Others in Joe or Lulu Lemon comfort. Middle-aged women in middle-aged fashions. Young happy faces in edgier outfits, ephemeral fashions destined for a very brief life. Some wardrobes clearly in need of cheering up, their owners either working too much or getting paid too little to care. Some very lined and tired faces, which I look away from—being relatively newly out of estrogen, aging still frightens me.

There are children bouncing and laughing, others sitting and watching. A blond and curly-haired toddler clearly and without any inhibition whatsoever taking full advantage of his diaper. Another brown-eyed boy weeping heart-brokenly. His mom has been ignoring him for what feels like a very long time, presumably not to give into whatever it is he’s after.  He’s so genuinely wet and sad though that it’s all I can do not to take him into my arms.

I log into the magazine inbox. It’s a Friday, and I’m happy there’s nothing new there. I look at the story I’d promised myself I’d edit today, and close the file. I remind myself this is supposed to be a coffee break, a slowing down, a meeting with myself, my real self, not my diligent, working, thinking personality. Much of what we do each day is automatic, habitual, unconscious. It’s the personality we’re comfortable wearing, not necessarily an expression of our real selves.

Hobby writing or nothing; that’s all for a few minutes right now.