Author Archives: Michelle Woodvine

About Michelle Woodvine

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Hot Dam!

Okay bunnies, it’s confession time again.

I love going on school field trips.  And I’ve done them all:  from High Park and The Science Centre, to Tafelmusik and my latest:  The Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s Young People’s Concerts.

Yeah, field trips invariably include rain, steamy schoolbuses and the $100,000 questions:  why is Billy sitting over the wheel again and who’s got a carsick bag?

Or there’s the constant head counting, on (1-2-3-4-5-6..) and off (1-2-3-4-5-6…) of every form of public transportation that this lovely city has to offer.  Ahh…those moments of horror when you think you’ve lost one of the little blighters delights, only to realise that they’ve taken off their hat and now you have to remember to find and count a head of tousled brown hair.

Because I’m a field trip veteran, the teacher often hands me the list of kids in my group with a nervous smile that says “good luck”.

Inevitably I’m in charge of either The Runner or the Talker.  If you’ve ever been on a field trip with a bunch of elementary school children, you know these two characters well.  The Runner is that kid who doesn’t think “stay with your group” applies to them and is never where you last put them.  If you look away for two seconds, they are usually as far away from you as is possible (don’t let those little legs fool you, The Runner can move like they’re channelling Usain Bolt and just so you know, the Science Centre is reeeaaaally big – but <ahem> I digress.)

The Talker on the other hand, is the one who is glued to you the whole trip, talking incessantly, until by the time you get them back to school, you know far, far more about them and their family than you probably should.

By now you’re probably thinking “Didn’t you say you love field trips?  Doesn’t sound like it.”  But truth be told, despite the stress <bows to teachers everywhere> I get it.  It’s a field trip, which means no matter where you’re going, it’s a day spent NOT AT SCHOOL – woot!

And for me, I get to go places and experience things that I’d never get to do otherwise….okay, fine – I’m as big a kid as the rest of them.  But I also understand that The Runner is just really curious and The Talker is often hilarious and they’re all a blast if you just see the world through their eyes.

And what better way to experience the world through the eyes and mind of a curious child, than my latest foray into the wonders of educational field trips in Toronto, a visit to “Lights, Camera, Orchestra!” part of the Young People’s Concert series presented by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and featuring the short film, “Dam!  The Story of Kit the Beaver.”

G-_Guest-Artist-Photos-&amp;-Materials_2016-2017_DAM!-The-Story-of-Kit_DAM_poster_TSO_vUPDATED_072616

The audience, comprised of school groups from around the city, settled in to the always stunning Roy Thompson Hall for a whirlwind tour of the role that classical music plays in often surprising places, including some of the most iconic television, film and ballet productions in the world.  From Mission Impossible through Bugs Bunny, Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story, Blue Danube and Jaws; the orchestra, led by the infectious enthusiasm and seemingly boundless energy of conductor Earl Lee, effectively illustrated  to the lively audience, how music tells a story.

Earl Lee conducts Lights, Camera... Orchestra @Jag Gundu

Sprinkled throughout the presentation were opportunities for the kids to get involved, and the students gleefully jumped in to voice the title shout from Leonard Bernstein’s “Mambo”.

Earl Lee, TSO (school concert) @Jag Gundu

Now I’ll admit, I was a little nervous when I realised that a large portion of the audience were armed with recorders – the instrument, not the device.  I played the recorder at school and well, we all know it doesn’t always do well in groups.  But when Mr. Lee and the orchestra led the recorder-welding students through a boisterous rendition of the theme from Star Wars, I was cheering – it was awesome!

And just when the kid in me couldn’t get more excited, the orchestra introduced us to Kit the Beaver.  Dam!  The Story of Kit the Beaver is a short film, commissioned by the TSO in partnership with the Toronto International Film Festival for the Canada 150 celebrations.

It is brilliant and so quintessentially Canadian.

I was blown away, not just by the animation of the story, but by how it was told so beautifully by the orchestra:  bringing home to the audience, the integral role of music to convey emotion in film.

I won’t give you any spoilers, except to say that I loved it.  Indeed, there was much ugly crying by the end, because, well – little beaver, big heart, huge dam issues and friends who save the day…<sniffle> it was <sniffle> fantastic!

Happily, you can experience Kit’s adventures for yourself – and you really, really should!  Bring your kids – and if you’re a sentimental blubberer like myself – your tissues, and head down to the TIFF Bell Lightbox to see it.  There’s even a Q&A with the director, Kjell Boersma on April 11th and 20th.

Be sure to check out the next TSO Young People’s concert –  The Hockey Sweater (the classic story by Roch Carrier with music by Abigail Richardson-Schulte) playing in April.

 

And to all you field trip moms and dads out there…I salute you!  May you always have a plastic bag in your pocket.

 

(Photo Credits:  Jag Gundu for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.)

 

…tap, tap…is this thing on?

Greetings Bunnies.  Yes, it’s been a while.  And why is that, exactly?  Well I have to confess…I was giving my attention to another creative love interest.  You see, I’m a bit obsessive when it comes to creative projects.  I have an idea and well…yeah.  It all becomes a bit “my preciousssss” but thankfully without the hair loss and manky teeth.

As many of you know, I’ve been chugging away on rewriting the first draft of a YA Sci-fi/Fantasy novel.  I’ve had a lot of people say to me “So, when’s your novel coming out?” as if it’s as simple a matter as sitting down at the computer, mug of coffee in hand, watching rainbows of perfect prose flow onto the page, then sending your shiny novel off to an agent, who is positively starstruck by your genius and before you know where you are, your book is on the shelves of all your favourite bookstores and you are a NYT bestselling author.

Uhhh…no.  not exactly <cries>

I wrote a first draft.  It took me about three months and was an amazing experience.  131,000 words, all mine, a story that gave me goosebumps and characters that I loved like they were real people, some days even more so.

But editing and rewriting?  Taking out the scalpel and “killing your darlings”?  ugh.  My mother had an expression:  “you make a rod for your own back.”  Which basically means I’m a masochist.  Let me give you an example.  I had a wonderful prologue that was going to tie everything together, the characters were interesting, and I put them in all kinds of life-threatening and heart breaking-then-mending situations.  They were the cornerstone to the whole saga.  They were where everything began and the story couldn’t happen without them.  Absolutely couldn’t … nuh-uh.

It was all perfect.

Until I gave the pages to my husband to read and he loved it.

…Wait, what?

No, you didn’t read that wrong.  He loved it.  In fact he loved it so much that he wanted more.  He wanted more of those characters.

But…but…they weren’t even the main story.  They were just the warm-up act – the opening band.  It was then I realised that I was in trouble.  Like Indiana Jones trapped in a pyramid with snakes trouble.  I’d written an incredible backstory, but it wasn’t the actual story (and a 30 page prologue is a bit of a no-no …<nervous laugh>)  What the heck was I doing, anyway?  I had no freaking clue what I was doing.  Even U.S. Immigration would only refer to me as an “aspiring writer” until I had something published that they’d actually heard of (and apparently a MSc. thesis on heterophyllous buttercups doesn’t count – meh, there’s no accounting for taste but that’s a whole other story).

So back to what was rapidly becoming a nervous breakdown in progress…I cut the prologue.  (Saved it, yes.  Love it still.  Maybe I’ll eventually publish it as a novella.)  Now the story started where it should, right?  We meet the main protagonist, what my writerly friends call the “FMC” (female main character), in Chapter 1.  And what a chapter that was.  I laughed, I cried…it was awesome.  So was chapter two – heartbreaking, emotional…so, so shiny my precious <ahem, sorry, where was I?>  Oh right.  Even Chapter 3, where I sneak in all that pesky exposition?  Ahhhhh.  Sculpted for weeks, months – polished to within an inch of its life.  As good as it was going to get (before an editor gets hold of it, anyway).

I sent those three chapters to a friend to read, and once again got hubby to give me his honest opinion (and as an aside, don’t ever ask him if an outfit looks good on you unless you want an honest answer.  You do get used to that kind of honesty and it can be invaluable once you stop freaking out).  The response was universal.  It’s great, but what’s the story about?  Well, for crying out loud!   I’m getting to that…can’t you see?  It’s right here in chapter 4…

…Oh, wait…

That sound of screaming?  That’s chapters 1-3 joining my beautiful prologue in the pile of exiled darlings.  God, you’re all gorgeous, but you do diddly to tell the actual story.  You are, what they refer to in writing circles as a runway.  Yep, the literary equivalent of Fred Flintstone frantically flapping his feet down the tarmac.

On the upside, getting my novel down to the publisher-preferred 100,000 words is super easy when I cleave off a 30-page prologue and the first three chapters.  And maybe I actually am getting the hang of this writing a novel business when I can shove that protective, fanged ego out of the way for a minute and see what’s not working.  So onward to Chapter 4, or as I now like to call it:  Chapter 1.

And to those of you who keep reading chapters for me, only to have me say “Well thanks so much, but I’ve actually cut that chapter from the book?”  I’m so, so sorry.  It will stop eventually – hopefully before the story becomes a haiku written on a cocktail napkin.

Ooh…now there’s an idea….

Mine.

This pain is mine
-and mine alone.

This exquisite agony
Is everything,

And nothing.

Joy is shared,
But this pain-

This exquisite agony
Is mine.

And mine alone.

It is my badge
And I clutch it to my heart

Where it rips
And tears

And bleeds.

Joy is shared
This pain is mine.

Hiding, returning,
Never fully
Out
Of
Sight…

This pain

This exquisite agony,
Is mine alone,

And I treasure it,
Like a dark light

Writhing, curling.

I treasure it,
This perfect pain

Because it carved and cut and molded
-it made me

Who I am.


This one was written several years ago, when it struck me how pain can shape the people we become and that sometimes, those people are stronger than they ever were before.

Citrus and Coconut Body Scrub.

When I was young, I loved helping my mother in the kitchen.  She taught me all the basics of cooking and baking and most importantly, how to be creative in the kitchen.  Living on a small island, if we couldn’t get a certain ingredient, or didn’t have a tool we needed, we couldn’t simply go out and buy it, so we had to be resourceful.  Sometimes, after an afternoon in the kitchen, she would “treat” us to a butter-sugar hand scrub.  She’d put a small dab of butter in each of our palms, and top it with a bit of sugar and we’d rub it all over our hands.  It tickled like mad, rubbing the sugar on the palm of your hands, but when we were finished, and we washed the sugar off, our hands always felt amazing-smooth and soft.  A handy, household exfoliant!

I still occasionally use the butter-sugar trick for smoother hands, but I’ve recently become interested in the benefits of essential oils to fight the winter blahs, and so when I saw a recipe for Citrus Body Scrub on the Well Blog I had to try it!

Just like my mother’s butter-sugar mixture, there are two key ingredients: a mild, soluble all natural exfoliant and an oil or fat to soothe and seal in moisture on your newly softened skin.  In this case, the added benefits are three bright and aromatic essential oils.

The recipe is simple:

1½ c. white sugar (or a mixture of white and brown, or even all brown)
½ c. coconut oil
5 drops bergamot oil
8 drops lemon oil
5 drops orange oil
zest of one lemon

Mix all the ingredients together thoroughly, and store in a sealed container.

In the shower, gently apply the scrub to wet skin and when you’ve rubbed it in a bit, rinse it off.  Just bear in mind that you don’t want to be too gung-ho with it, or you will actually irritate your skin, and it doesn’t need any more irritation than it already gets-especially if you are in the middle of a Canadian winter.

The essential oils – bergamot, lemon and orange – give any blah mood an immediate lift and the coconut oil is not only nourishing to the skin, but always makes me think of the beach!

Check out www.well.ca or your local health food store for ingredients and experiment with different combinations of essential oils to suit your mood.

IMG_7950I’ve discovered a mixture called “Cheer Up Buttercup” by Now® Solutions, that contains orange, lemon and bergamot in a slightly different blend, that would work very well in the scrub.  Or, in the spirit of Valentine’s Day, perhaps a more sensual blend like Naturally Loveable oil blend (also by Now®) with jasmine, ylang-ylang, lemon, orange and sandalwood.  Don’t like citrus?  Skip the lemon zest and citrus oils and try lavender essential oil, one of my favourites for calming and soothing the senses.

A word of caution!  As with any other oil-based bath or shower product, this one will make the bath or shower floor a bit slippery, so be careful.

“Can you hear the people sing?”

One cold March night in the early nineties, I surprised my Mumsie on her birthday with tickets to see Les Miserables. I was a student at the time and didn’t have two cents to rub together, but I saved enough to buy two student tickets for seats in the gods of the Royal Alexandra Theatre here in Toronto. Our seats were on the very back row of the theatre and all the way up those many stairs, we joked about nosebleeds and vertigo. But it was worth the climb. Laid out below us were the mesmerizing sights and sounds of the theatre; the red velvet curtains, the ornate decor, the orchestra squeaking away as they warmed up beneath the stage. We were like kids in a candy store not knowing what to look at first, and that experience alone might have been enough to build a lasting memory.

But then the orchestra began the first trembling strains of the overture that, even now, I hear in my head-note for note. Those magnificent red velvet curtains went up, and Michael Burgess stepped out into a spotlight and began to sing. In that moment, nothing else existed, not the thought of the dreary, blowing cold of early March, not the stresses of student or personal life. In that moment, it was just us and the magic.

Over the next few years we went to see Michael in his role of Jean Valjean again and again and again, eventually finding ourselves at his last performance. It just as moving as the first time we’d seen him. We cheered ourselves hoarse as the curtain calls came and went and roses were thrown, and then we cried like fools not because of the performance itself (although we’d cried through each and every one) but because this time, we wanted it to never end.

It is one of my most treasured memories.

Wherever you are, Michael (and I hope you are in Grannieland with my Mumsie) rest assured, I can still hear the people sing…

http://t.thestar.com/#/article/entertainment/2015/09/28/canadian-tenor-michael-burgess-dies-at-age-70.html

Writing it all down.

“I have written you down now/You will live forever” -Bastille, “Poet”

Can I call myself a writer now?….how about now?   

I’ve always envied people who, even from childhood, knew what they wanted to be when they grew up.  Those people who have that one great passion-one calling:  to be a doctor, an actor, a musician, a writer, a teacher.  I suppose for them it can be both a blessing and a curse.  I suppose they also suffer crises of confidence-perhaps they too doubt themselves, but at least for them, at the end of the day, their one great passion is also their refuge, the thing that they can pour themselves into and for that moment, be fulfilled.  It gives their life meaning.

My passion has always been pretty much everything.  I am that most unfortunate of creatures. The jack-of-all-trades, master of none.  And the older I get, the more frustrating it becomes, the less content I am with not really knowing my place in the world.  And I ask myself “who am I?”  Then, “does it matter?”  Should it matter?  Should I be content to simply exist?   

But something strange and wonderful happened when my mother died.  As the grief became more manageable and I started putting the bits and pieces of myself back together, my search for meaning became clearer.  There came a day when I decided it was time to sort through her photographs and 8mm films.  No small task, considering she had once been a photographer by profession and her love of photographs meant that her collection spanned nearly 100 years of family history.  As I sorted through a massive plastic tote bin of loose photos, I began to realise that life itself is meaning.  I began to realise that finding meaning in life is about preserving who we are so that we will live forever in what we leave behind.  I knew in that moment that I had to preserve the person my mother was so that she would live forever-for my children, their children.  So that like the photographs, someone could one day look back and see who we were.  I had to write it down.

I’d like to say a writer was born that day.  But I soon discovered that that’s not quite how it works.  

Being of a logical sort, I decided that in order to write anything I had to first buy myself a nice notebook.  Pen in hand, I sat and stared at the lovely off-white page for what seemed like forever before I started with the brilliant first line “My mother was born in…”

After numerous awful iterations in a similar vein, I decided I needed some help.   I bought scads of writing books by the likes of Steven King, Anne Lamott and Natalie Goldberg.  But still, every attempt I made reeked.  I decided I should take a course on memoir writing.  New notebook in hand, pencils sharpened, I was the first student to arrive and the teacher and I introduced ourselves.   She asked me to tell her why I was taking the course and I proudly announced “I want to write a memoir about my mother’s life.”  She replied “No one wants to read about your mother’s life.”

Thud.

There were several possibilities for what would happen next:  I’d burst into tears or I’d leave the class.  Maybe both.  But then she added “You have to write your own story.”  Hmm…I decided to stay.  Over the next few weeks, we learned about runways (yes, that’s one right at the beginning of this piece…Hmph), we struggled to find our inner voice, to avoid adverbs, to “show don’t tell”, to write from scars not wounds.  And as I listened to my companions read their work out loud-pieces that touched on massive, extremely personal life changing events, struggles and challenges, all I could think was how lame my story was.  I had a mother, she had an interesting life and she died, it was sad, the end.  I felt like an impostor with nothing important or interesting to say.  Certainly nothing of the calibre that would warrant writing about it.

We were told that the two things all good writers have in common is that they’ve been writing from an early age and they love to read.  Well, I wanted to be a good writer, so I took stock:  I’ve always been a voracious reader, and I wrote stories when they were assigned at school, papers in university, business proposals, the odd letter to a friend and an occasionally witty facebook post, but writing stories as a vocation?  Journaling?  Nope.  Was I too old?  Did I need a degree in English?  A love of classics?

I began to wonder if my epiphany about becoming a writer had been akin to Ebeneezer Scrooge’s “..bit of underdone potato.”

But as time passed, I knew I couldn’t give up.  Despite all my self doubt, I’d tasted that moment-that shining moment when the words work and you look at what you’ve written and it is good and it is right and while your mind says “where the hell did that come from?” your heart is giving itself high fives.  And so I struggled on.

Until I eventually did give up.  Who was I kidding?   I’m a 43 year old housewife.  Somewhere along the way, I had turned my idea of writing my mother’s life story for my children into a mountain of insecurity and doubt.  I tried to tell myself it didn’t matter who read it, it was for my kids, but it wasn’t happening.  It would never be good enough.  I couldn’t scale the mountain.

One night as I got into bed and turned off the light, a character appeared in my head, and like me, she had a story that needed telling.  But her voice was easier to hear than my own, so I got out of bed, found a scrap of paper and a pen, and I started writing it down.

Not long after that night, I now had some more characters and a plot outline but I also had children and a busy life-it was tough to get into a writing habit and the type A personality I have been harbouring all my life, the one never content to just “be”, wanted carrot and stick.  So I took on the NaNoWriMo challenge.  I vowed to give it the best shot I could, and to just write.  To not look back, to not edit until I was done, to always finish the day’s writing on a cliffhanger and to write every day.  Thirty days and 56,000 words later I had two thirds of a story that wasn’t half bad-a work of fiction into which I had lovingly tucked my own life and the lives of the people I have both loved and hated.  Printing off those pages, looking at the words, I understood that I could do it.  I just had to keep at it.

So I am a writer now.  Perhaps not destined for best sellers and awards, but I know now that one day I will scale that mountain and write my mother’s story-my story; for her, for me and for my children.   And I hope that it one day finds its way onto a bookshelf somewhere, and that it gives some meaning to the vagaries of life.  

Now I just have to finish writing it all down.

“All sorrows can be borne if you put them in a story or tell a story about them.”  Karen Blixen under the pen name Isak Dinesen