to new beginnings

I did it! I finished my Masters in Creative Nonfiction. And now what? Things may be summed up here, in the last sentence of the Globe and Mail astrology column.


 life is

an adventure

or it

is nothing

Puerto Rico

When I decided to go into the Masters in Fine Arts program at VCFA, I never dreamed of the world of writing possibilities that would open up for me, the psychic and spiritual conversations i would share, the unending vulnerability  and potential that would open up inside of me. This January, I met sixteen of my fellow poets and writers in Puerto Rico, where we spent four days in sun-drenched San Juan. We workshopped each other’s words in the mornings, summoning higher selves, writing in each other’s margins and pointing out where we’ve kept a secret from the reader. We begged for more.

In the afternoons we heard vivid and poignant lectures by Puerto Rican writers,activists, self-published, well travelled teachers and candles in their small but important circles there, fighting for justice, for identity, for freedom.

Yolanda Arroyo Pizzaro, “Las Negras”

Hector Feliciano, Author of "The Lost Museum"

Hector Feliciano, Author of “The Lost Museum”

Then we moved to El Junque, the Puerto Rican rainforest, home to the famous coquí frogs and the perfect tree snails who slide under your doors and walls unsuspectingly towards lost a lost cracker. This is where I conducted my graduate lecture in travel writing and read from my new book, Unpacked. I then received my diploma (conferred by Tom Greene) , with hugs from the VCFA faculty and staff.  We all drank mojitos and danced salsa and merengue after, with the amazing cooks in the kitchen coming out to teach us a few of their effervescent moves.

IMG_2342 - Version 2

As Leila says, Mommy, MFA.

Introducing CARGO

So by now I have taken on another editorial project, a new online literary magazine dedicated to the travel & the inner journey, Cargo Literary.  I suggest you follow us on FB at or on Twitter@CargoLit. We are also still looking for submissions for our inaugural issue, due out later in February. Find the submission guidelines (our landing page but more to come).

I guess that’s it for the update. Hope everyone is well and happy in 2015.

love, mdc

What were you thinking?

photo (12)I don’t always claim to know what I’m doing. I don’t. I’m a dreamer, a pure Sagittarius (and yes I think that’s important), a thinker. I admit. I lose my way. I can’t follow a plan. I am easily distracted by the intoxicating beauty of  rhubarb leaves, punchy high pitched horn lines, and the sway of birch trees in the wind, suspended in the magic of their glorious fall transitions from green to gold.

But it’s been happening a lot lately. The other morning, I jumped in the shower with my husband. Really, the vessel is too small for both of us and a jump-in rarely happens, but I like when it does. The kids were watching Curious George, and I had a minute, maybe two. I grabbed a big green bottle and loudly squeezed the gel on my hand. He started laughing.

“Do you always do that?” he began.
“What?” I questioned.
“Wash your hair with conditioner?”

I stopped and giggled when I realized that this happened last night too, except we were at the bathroom sink. I was perpetually not paying attention.

“You’re doing it again.” He said, accusingly.
“Doing what?” I asked.
“Using my toothbrush.”
Whoops. I did’t even notice.

How am I supposed to remember what my toothbrush looks like from day to day, especially when it’s so often changed in the name of “public health”? I have a daughter with two toothbrushes, and now a toddler with one  (which i’m sure would prevent a lot of cavities if he didn’t brush his hair with it), his and mine. My toothbrush cup overflows.

And I admit. I lose track. He throws me off guard when he asks, “What are you thinking?”

Something funny has started happening to me since I’ve begun writing full time. I live completely in my head, extending my week into one  long metaphor, my perception jagging in every which direction as I shift the angles for a better view on the page, something more interior, something deepened.  I don’t notice where i am in space, that’s too unimportant. I’m thinking about something else. Something major.  I’m thinking of the story of my life, that’s all, my story.

The story of my life.

I had a prompt. This summer, I had the pleasure of interviewing my friend, David Weale, the famous PEI author, for a review I was doing of the play he co-wrote with Colin Buchanan called Story (Read that review here). At one point, David turned the tables on me and asked,

“Mo, what’s your story? What will you be remembered for?”

I’m still not totally over the question, and each day as I plug away at my computer on endings and beginnings and passages through things, I’m thinking about it. And also in the shower, when i’m washing my hair with conditioner, and when i’m using my husband’s toothbrush, and when i’m burning the kids’ toast, and when i’m feeding cat food to the dog, ignoring phone calls or otherwise.

Storytelling has long been a high art form,  and it’s slowly making me question my place in the world, the words i leave behind and the stories I craft- right now –  my essays, my poems, and the travel memoir that I am working on that will tip the scales at 250 pages (not to mention which will become my Creative Thesis for my MFA!)

My tiny inner voice wonders why or if I deserve to be different from anybody else, coupled with the steady stream of rejection letters that seem to put the nails in the coffin. But another voice tells me to persevere, to keep submitting, and to honour that creative process, the drive to create a more succinct, bolder voice, one that will grow, become refined, become assured.

But there’s still the toothbrush thing. So when I think of my teeth, I think Orange, Orange, Orange. The story of your life is Orange.

Maybe that will do for now.


My Writing Process Blog Tour

IMG_0178MARY-KIM ARNOLD is a fiery poet whose words reflect the depth of her diverse experience. The first time I heard Mary Kim’s poetry, my heart almost stopped. We were at a new best friend’s sleepover in a hotel in Burlington, VT. Words and spaces blended together seamlessly. She would pause, tilt her head, let her horn rimmed glasses ponder and continue, giving new life to each pristine line she spoke. She was a pro.

A colleague of mine at Vermont College of Fine Arts (her second degree in Creative Writing), MK  maintains a thoughtful blog at Small Fires: A Pillow Book. She is the one who tagged me for this My Blog Writing Tour! Her poetry can be found at Two Serious Ladies, Tin Houseand of course, The Rumpus, where she is an editor.

— So, I’ll ask myself these questions, and then I’ll answer them, that’s how it works. OK? OK.

Here we go:

What are you working on?

(1) For the past two years, I have been working on a personal memoir of travel and grief. In 2008, after the loss of our baby girl at forty weeks gestation, my husband and I took an epic backpacking trip through Southeast Asia and the Philippines. Our daughter was two years old at the time, and she became a central character in the travel memoir I hope to publish sometime this century. The story is mixed in shades of darkness and stormy seas of confusion and grief, following a path of color and culture as the main character, Mo, finds the freedom to liberate the heavies in a sort of reality check taking stock of what she really has left in this world.

(2) I have a collection of essays that need to be manicured in some fashion. These have been written in the past two years. They are a revolving door of personal and lyric essay, involving a myriad of themes including gardening, the land, marriage and children, meditation, the realizations of middle life. There’s also some really great dialogue based on my hilarious eighty-one year old father, a retired chemistry professor and local innovator who seems ever present in most of my essay work.

(3) My roots of poetry have recently swelled, suddenly growing limbs and lines after almost a decade dormant. At my last VCFE residency, I had the privilege of attending a workshop called The Porous Boundary between Creative NonFiction and Poetry, led by the great essayist Patrick Madden and long established poet, Betsy Sholl. This has really resonated for me in a writing age where I want to explore new possibilities in text and media, and also create innovative books. If there’s anything that’s better than writing, it’s talking about writing. VCFA workshops are the best.

(4) My girlfriend Romina and I have an ongoing journal that we have been creating since 1998. These are nonfiction shorts (yae, brevity!) which involve text, photos, leaves, and things written in popsicles and lipstick. Romina has been my number one reader for about twenty years now, and we have been through just about everything together, including a five year old manuscript which has been shelved for the moment. This book awakened something in me finally gave me permission to sit down and write, which was one of the first turning points in my writing life. Hopefully there are many more ahead.

(5) I have become a bit of a gregarious reviewer, which seems to play well to my social life here on Prince Edward Island. I am reviewing books, theatre shows and musicals, sometime integrating interviews, with bits of elaborate ideology.

How does your work differ from others of its genre? As much as I want to say that I am supremely original, the truth is that I’m not sure. I feel my work is different than some other travel memoir as it takes the reader on an emotional journey as well as one through time and space, but I am by far the first to do this. Maybe it differs in that my focus has always been on family, and generating a balance between the unpredictable electricity of cultural inquisitiveness with the smell of a kindergartener’s peanut butter toast.

Why do you write what you do? I guess I write to figure out my world, and to make it meaningful not only for me, but for those around me. Stillbirth hasn’t been an easy thing for me to deal with, but I’ve grown through the loss to another side of myself, and one I never expected to find. I love this family lifestyle writing because we can learn so much from our kids, through the honesty and the obsession and the questioning and their constant surge of reorientation. I’ve become an essence of the person who i want to be, and the role model i need to be. My writing has just been a recording of this process. I write to become better. For the last five years I have become obsessed with the craft side of writing, and it’s been a wonderful injection into my writing psyche. It’s made me want to read more, write more and fills in the gaps in my whimsical style with backstory, scene setting, body language, and attention to detail.

How does your writing process work? The only quiet hours in my house are between five and seven am, and this is amazingly productive time for me. I find that the earlier I can catch myself off guard, the closer to my dreams I can write, and usually before some little person saunters into my office needing a cuddle. I also enjoy the stillness of my mind at this time, before my busy brain is turned to dentist appointments, returning phone calls and the daily errand and housework churn of a family of four. My husband is always amazed that my critical mind takes over at nine o’clock, but it’s true. At that time, writing is over and revision begins.

So now I tag two more people. I met Jason Howard, a fine young Kentuckian, when we drank bourbon together for four semesters at VCFA, planning our lives together as writers and dreaming in essays and memoirs. Jason’s book, A Few Honest Words, The Kentucky Roots of Popular Music, was published last year and he interviews musical greats such as Joan Osborne and Naomi Judd. You can also find him on Twitter @jasonkylehoward. If you ever meet Jason in a bar, ask him about Ann Boelyn.

Monica Lacey‘s love of words has been going on for decades.  In her honest beginnings,  Mon wrote and created her own books of poetry and boldly stocked our small city’s library with them. She has always been an inspiration for living the artistic life, and we are old friends from a past life, we think.  She has currently expanded her artistic merits to an impressive roster of visual art endeavours. Find her blog about her work at Dance the Changes.

climbin’ fences

Climbing fencesThis winter when the raging nor’easters brought blizzards galore, the snow piled and piled and piled up in the softball diamond beside my house, until my eight year old daughter, Leila, could skip right over them with a crouch and a roll. There was something about that small taste of freedom that ignited a spark in her. She’s been asking more than usual to visit the park, and it’s not because she’s interested in walking the german shepherd, or even playing much with the baby.

At seventeen months, he officially outgrew his sled this year, even before the snow finished flying. But as he gathered the steam he needed to pull the four pounds of plastic out of the shed yesterday, push and hauling it over Fall’s leftover leaves, something inside him says, “No, no, not yet,” and as I sighed, and caught myself thinking, “they grow up so fast.”

Why is Lei so desperate to get to the park these days?

She wants to climb the fences. First, it was the skate park. Could she do it? The throws of adrenaline that she must have felt climbing higher and higher,  as i pretended not to look on, my heart pounding, the half pipes and rails seeming miles beneath her.

“Let her go,” a small voice inside me says. I swallow hard when i think of her as the babe i nursed and care for, a few short years ago, holding her hand through a precocious toddlerhood, the difficult entry into the school system, and all that’s followed since.

It was fine in the winter. First it was only the top three feet of the fence exposed, plenty of snow underfoot to cushion a little girl’s fall. Then four five, then five. Over and over. Finally six, and the snow’s melted away altogether. And still, she climbs.

Behind the umpire, a thirty foot fence stands mighty and tall. She jumps up and on it like a cat now, hooking her paws through the wire openings and curling her body up to meet the tenth foot, silent,  before i’ve noticed.

“No,” I said. ” It’s too dangerous.”

“Come on, Mom,” she says, her eyes squinting in the sun, her body twisting and flexing. Ari looks on from his perch in the carrier, his head slung back and toward her as i march on behind the dog.

Ting! The wire reverberates as she she jumps six feet down, landing on the soft ground.

Life is dangerous.

Ari’s current mission in life is to crawl up the stairs. He’s got his own fences to climb, up, up, up throwing mail and socks to the floor in a hysterical buzz, his toothy grin still empty on the sides, where the arrival of molars torment him. He giggles, pleased and anxious for someone to find him. “Look what i’ve done. Look where i’ve come.”

“Ari!” I call from the bottom of the stairs. It’s too late. He’s halfway up.

He may know the way up, delighted in the badland fringes of mommy’s tolerance, but the little goose, he sure doesn’t know the way down. He won’t attempt the backwards crawl back down, his arms outstretched in need of safety, comfort, and warm hugs. The small blue eyes that cry, hold me, pick me up and take me away from this scary place. 

The spring changes us. It invites to fly to places unknown, take steps in new directions that we didn’t anticipate. Mom moves through her MFA, Dad finishes the school year. Lawns become new with the green of life, marriages become refreshed again with the sun that hits our faces. New energy brings new solutions to last fall and winter’s problems.

Mom used to say, “We’ve all got our cross to carry,” but i think a more suitable mantra would be “We’ve all got our fence to climb.”

And everyone in the family climbs.




the birth of advocacy


It happened again.

I got a dreaded phone call from a girlfriend who lost her full term baby, abruptly, unexpectedly- in the dangerous passage from warm comfortable uterus to the sharp, cold air of the birth room. As always, I cried. I cursed the world. I stopped breathing for a minute, the pain impenetrable, then exhaled, anguished. My heart races and I hold my hand over my mouth, “No, no.” The unthinkable has happened.

Every time the world loses one more beautiful baby, I lose Tya again. And this is the third beautiful baby this year I’ve said goodbye to, before i got to say hello.

I have a ghastly thought.

“I’m killing babies,” I tell Mitch, ravaged by the latest news. “I’m cursed.” I was bringing unbearable accidents – cord knots, tumours, more.

“No, Mo.” He gives me one of the stern looks he gives me sometimes, when I’m being irrational or melodramatic. His teacher look. “You’re the one who’s chosen to write about this.  You needed people. Now people need you.”

He’s right. But still.

I can’t breathe.

When we first lost Tya, I thought that someday I would go into the hospital, share my story with some nurses there. As if I could enlighten them. I picture myself there sometimes, in a sterile, outdated hospital conference room with women in scrubs, only somewhat interested.  I’d give a spiel about baby loss. I’d take two questions. I’d keep it together. For an hour. When i was healed. And it would be over.

The book was an accident. I never meant to write a book, but as the months ticked along, the manuscript grew and grew .  I was just writing (righting?) myself though the door, from a quiet internal place of stillness to the open, more comfortable place of dialogue. Somewhere new. A place where acceptance brings peaceful, cerulean blues and even purples. Longer stretches of moments between anxiety attacks, between nightmares.

I never thought that i would need to be strong, that I must be strong. That i MUST be a voice for the little babies who leave our world as tiny flames under  hot air balloons that travel, travel ,travel until we only have their memories, the tiny space in our hearts where they lived.

Advocacy has begun. This is not an outdated hospital conference room. This is a living, breathing wild thing of a space where anything and everything happens. A place where pregnancy sends mommas (and dads too) home with empty arms and curious, puzzled looks, stretching up and up on tippy-toes trying to see where that hot air balloon has floated away to, a light getting smaller and smaller until it appears there is nothing left. Where people need support and love and understanding. Sype dates and teas and girls trips to Montreal.

Not cursed. Haunted, is it. Cursed or haunted?

In a way, blessed.

I bring this up to Mom. She says she can’t read most of what I’ve written because it’s too difficult for her. She’s still on the wrong side of the door, i guess, with the darkness and confusion. I hope that she’s traveling too, finding her way to the light.

When I tell her about my friend’s experience through the tragic, the despaired, she comforts and assures me.

“This is Tya’s mission,” Mom says, her eyes watering as she wipes them.

Tya’s mission. I like that. After five years, her little candlelight has gotten a little brighter, her air balloon enveloping others with love.

deeper into the words

notes from julia's lecture.

notes from julia’s lecture.

As I return from my third MFA residency, I find a deeper connection still with not only my work, but with the work of others, and I am opening up to a whole new world of discovery. Sure, I tasted the fruit in college when i poured over Wordsworth and Keats, but I never dreamed that I would be able to recreate those feelings, vast and unexplored, in my own themes and live up to the accolades of these forefathers (and foremothers, thank you virginia wolf).

So let me begin with, I’m not there yet.

But I think I am starting to see glimpses. I am tuning in to the rhythm of my own creative process. I am learning character from Hemingway and style from Didion, delving into wildness with cheryl strayed and sitting peacefully on the fences of British churchyards with Bill Bryson. I am asking myself the traveller’s questions of Pico Iyer and am suddenly indebted to Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty for their courage and bravery to get up every morning and write.

And I love it.

This residency was dominated by three themes for me, and i would like to bow to each of them for a moment.

the heat

This residency in workshop I was lucky enough to have LeAnne Howe for a leader. LeAnne swears by the storyboard and her stories come alive in pictures. She challenged us to think cinematically, including shots both close up (the ring on my finger), medium (the city where I live) and my favourite — what LeAnne call epic (where I looks up to the stars or the mountains or the sky and wonder, “who was i meant to be?”)

When we were workshopping my piece (a chapter from the travel memoir that I’m writing), LeAnne stopped and said, “The writer is looking away from the heat, here.” Uh oh. Bad writer.

That wasn’t the first time LeAnne had mentioned the heat. She mentioned it several more times when things were “heating up”, “cooling down”, and got a charge when the narrator themselves seemed to be overcome with something. I take “the heat” to mean: pain, vulnerability, honesty, desperation. Grief, desire, you name it. We all have our own heat.

I love the association with words to colours, a scale of passion in some greater scheme of a story. The other thing LeAnne talked about all the time was movement. “The heat propels the story forward”, she would say. Of course it would.


VCFA’s young (and not so young) writers this semester had the pleasure of welcoming Julia Alvarez as a visiting writer, Dominican storyteller, memoirist and essayist. She arrived with her fingernails painted and a untidy bun pulled to the back of her head with loose grey curls. I met her in the cafe right before her lecture, and even that encounter was riveting. Even Julia’s eyes tell a story. Her enthusiasm was contagious, her voice boisterous, and most of all, she has a spirit that fills the room around her. Do you know someone like that?

Alvarez talked about the importance of storytelling.

She asked, “can the imagination save us?”

Our lives, our stories, our perspectives. She paid close attention to the stories that we tell that take on lives of their own, growing and changing with each expansion, each generation. Characters are alive, our ghosts become real presences, and the grey area between fiction and nonfiction becomes slightly blurred at the edges. This is the gift of the storyteller.

I mulled over this during glasses of wine with many other students, writers from coast to coast. So many times as writers we doubt the impacts that our stories will have. Fiction writers doubt their credibility, nonfiction writers doubt their honesty, and poetry writers doubt their covert relationships and the secrets on the page left by the poet for only the reader to find. Will they get it?

Are my stories important?  Hhmmm.


The last running theme of the residency for me was sparked by a lecture that my friend Jason Howard delivered. He talked about the power of the muse. Now, when most of us think our a muse, we think lineally about someone on paper, dressed in a goddess outfit, long flowing robes, etc. Jason thinks of long dead Anne Boelyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII, who was beheaded and to this day haunts the castle. She also haunts Jason Howard’s apartment in Kentucky. And not only that, she’s given him countless essay ideas as they have communed together.

It wasn’t just Jason that talked about his muse. My second workshop leader Brett Lott carried around a battered old copy of John Gardner’s On Becoming A Novelist (with a forward from his hero, Ray Carver)  and could quote from the thing like it was his bible. A student asked Brett about writer’s block, a common problem. He said, “When I think i can’t go on, I always ask myself. What would Ray do?” He smiles when he answers,

“Sit in that chair and write.”

My own office muses are becoming louder and louder, waking me from dreams or arriving at odd times, rousing me unconsciously to a pen or a keyboard nearby.

And the one thing they keep telling me is, “You can do this.” 

Surf Baby


Mitch and Leila, 2006

When I was asked to be Maid of Honor in a wedding in Bristish Colombia this summer, my husband and I were thrilled to plan our trip. We decided to start our adventure in the tiny sea inlet of Tofino, on Vancouver Island’s majestic pacific coast.

We were there together once before. It was 2006, and our daughter Leila was nine months old. Mitch and i were a romantic young couple, exploring the world one leaf and one legend at a time. We always considered that whole summer one long, loving honeymoon as we were married that year, in June.


There is no change in the rugged coastline. There are still massive waves on Chesterman Beach. The sunset from Radar Hill is still spectacular, and the ancient rainforest trees of Pacific Rim National Park Reserve quietly grow their mosses in the misty mornings, playing host to the thousands of birds and wildlife that grace their branches.

IMG_9375Now our daughter is seven, and our son, Ari is the one who is nine months old. Leila and Mitch spent the week surfing, using words like “crest” and “breakwater” and   ‘”killin’ it.” Last time we stayed in a private room at the youth hostel (a huge splurge for us); this time, we’re in a 3 bedroom house across from the shore. Leila does remarkably well for her first surf, and I’m so proud of her. Even her father is impressed, and Ari watches the waves with intensity.


According to the Stanford School of Medicine, every single cell in our skeleton is replaced every seven years. Does that mean that that I was a different person this time, on that beach in Tofino? A unique person with hopes and dreams, looking back on the shadow self of years behind me? The thirties have brought with them tumultuous times of grief and fear, professional quests, enterprising ideas and the dream of a future with kayaks and wildflowers.

And of course, my boy.

And now I carry on, fulfilling my thirties with blue mountain skies and family campfires and babies laughing over and over as the same block tower tumbles down, down. Writing books, critical papers and devouring the literature that will make be a more astute communicator. 

Will Ari some day take a little sister back to Tofino? To browse the native galleries and tickle her toes with starfish? Maybe for his first surf lessons, seven years from now :) 

Until then, Cox Bay.