Cilantro has been cut for the black bean and corn salad. Its scent adds spring to the air. Grilled cheese sandwiches are hugely round – not yet grilled in a sort-of leaning tower of Pisa in the showcase along with sugary pastries, croissants with salami, overly stuffed egg salad sandwiches.

Alan greets me with a question: “Decaf Americano?” It’s more an affirmation. He knows what I want.

I sit at a table by the window in the tiny coffee shop on Oak Bay Avenue looking at the wall of photos: Alan with his customers, babies, dogs – all visitors to The Savoury Café.

An old fridge door acts as a bulletin board full of magnets. The one of the Blue Mosque interests me the most. Conversation is light as Alan greets morning customers. He knows them all by their preferences for morning drinks. One of them doesn’t pay and will do that another day.

I’m welcome here – a newcomer without a name. It’s like being in my friend Ulli’s kitchen except there’s a woman at the next table talking about immigrants. She thinks they should be screened. I don’t engage.

The cilantro changes everything. The coffee a comfort. There’s that image of the Blue Mosque. Alan is still smiling.

Cilantro offers hope to the day and our humanness, helps us begin again.

It’s been almost three weeks since my last radiation treatment and since seeing Alan at The Savoury Café. It’s something that came to mind last week as I sat, writing, with fourteen other writers “Exploring Life through Memoir.”

The WordStorm Society offered the workshop with Yvonne Blomer, Victoria’s poet laureate. Yvonne has published essays in various anthologies, most recently in This Place a Stranger (Caitlin Press, 2015) and has a travel memoir with a publisher right now. She came up from Victoria for the day and although I had run into her one day on Oak Bay Avenue, hanging out with her and other writers was just what I needed. Yvonne set up the welcoming space which we held together. She shared many resources as inspiration for writing we did while together.

Cilantro was still on my mind when we wrote about an abstract noun:


Hope is azure,
porridge with lumps,
brown sugar on top,
the chirping sound at the crosswalk for the blind,
a walk to Fernwood, a place I hadn’t seen before.
Hope is my own taking-action mantra.

Readings from the work of memoirists helped to inspire other short pieces. Mine included memories going back to 1963, 1983, and a taxi ride in Istanbul.

I’ve always appreciated having companions nearby when I’m writing. It may be I’ve thought sub-consciously: Don’t leave me alone with this stuff. The energy of a circle of writers magnifies our intent, offers protection and support. The workshop was a way to anchor myself back in my familiar community.

The same aspects could apply to writing in the present and reflecting on the past. I’ve appreciated writing this blog because I get to start in the present and then muse on the past. It’s a way to integrate my experiences into the here and now.

354881The anchoring in the present works well for the reader too. I’m thinking of Patrick Lane’s brilliant memoir: There is a Season (McClelland & Stewart, 2004). He writes during his year of recovery from a long addiction to alcohol and cocaine. His story is grounded in the present in his beloved Saanich garden. From there he reflects back to the traumas of the past including his early years in the interior of British Columbia. Patrick gets to come back to the here and now and so do we.

shadowchildBeth Powning, a New Brunswick memoirist and novelist, wrote one of my favourite memoirs: Shadow Child: An Apprenticeship in Love and Loss (Viking/Penguin, 1999). She writes, many years later, of Tate, the stillborn child she had never spoken of.

“I’m beginning to understand that what I thought needed to be hidden is not what threatens me but is rather the source of my strength,” she writes.

This is a powerful aspect of memoir (and other forms of creative non-fiction): a form of contemplation that leads to healing for the writer. Not that the loss of a child is something one “gets over.” As Beth says: “There’s nothing to get over to.”

One morning after she had begun writing Shadow Child: “My mind flies to my desk and with it goes my heart, singing. Tate is there. That’s where he is. Soon he’ll be other places too.”

There are also regrets we can’t redo but we come to know them in our hearts. We plant seeds of self-compassion rather than self-loathing. We stay present with the feelings. (My thanks to Pema Chodron for those insights.)

Beth reflects on writing as well and how she wants to fight for her book to be published. “I have to fight with absolute conviction to make it live in the world, apart from me, to let it be part of other people, something that came from me but is not me.”

When she writes of fighting for her book, it is a memoir called Seeds of Another Summer. It was republished last year as Home: Chronicle of a North Country Life. (Goose Lane Editions, 2014). You can read my review at Story Circle Book Reviews.

I’ve written several personal essays and I’m feeling the desire to thread them together perhaps by anchoring myself in the present. I’m looking forward to offering writing circles again in the new year and the phrase I’ll use for the Writing Life Circle will probably be “finding our stories in the every day.”

We’ll anchor or root ourselves in the present, the lives we’ve created for ourselves, and then reflect back on how we got here. We’ll plant seeds of self-compassion along the way.