Coming Jan/16: Little Girl Mended

[Edited] Since posting this, the book has been launched. I thought I had the book trailer inserted here, but the link wasn’t working. However, you can see it yourself at's book cover

I’d also like to add (and I hope it’s not unforgivably immodest) that the author just sent me a copy of her book with a lovely inscription and this paragraph in the acknowledgements:

The editor’s red pen can feel a dagger to a writer. Not so with Lynne Melcombe, who edited my very rough first draft. Your constructive criticism and carefully crafted corrections helped me to find my voice as a writer. You were not only editor but also teacher. Thank you for your gentle and respectful awareness of how fragile I often was. You have a gift. Thank you for sharing it with me.

Thank you, Niki, for allowing me the privilege of editing your very moving memoir (not to mention touching my heart and making my day). I hope it sells well and, above all, I hope you keep writing. I don’t doubt for a moment you have many more things to say.

Claire Sower: Rocking Her Art in the Middle of Life

Claire Sower in her Granville Island studio.

Claire Sower in her Granville Island studio.

I’ve never seen my friend Claire Sower happier. Not that I see her often; we’re colleagues who bump into each other once every few years. But when I saw her displaying her work Art! Vancouver 2015 last spring, and she told me she’d been invited to participate in a show at the Agora Gallery in New York in October, there was a joy in her face I’ve never seen before.

“In my heart, I know this is what I was born to do,” she says of her mid-life switch from computer to canvas. “When I’m not painting, it’s what I want to be doing.”

Like me, Sower started out as a freelance journalist. And like me, as the years went by and well-paying freelance journalism gigs became fewer and further between, she filled in the gaps with contract work. Eventually, she landed a great gig as a medical journalist, writing reports about clinical research that had been presented at conferences prior to peer-reviewed publication. It was a stressful job, with ever-tight deadlines and a need for pinpoint accuracy, but it included world travel and good money—enough to buy a piece of property, not a common thing for a freelance journalist these days.

Her career switch had its seeds in 2007, when the FDA changed regulations regarding third-party reporting of medical conferences so it could only be done by those with university accreditation for providing continuing medical education. The bottom fell out of the industry; many communications companies went out of business. Out of work, other than the usual jobs most freelancers eke out a living on before finding something more life-sustaining, she set out to create a website providing medical information. But the internet was changing too quickly, social media had not yet evolved into the marketing tool it’s since become, and she was competing against dozens of other health websites, like WebMD, and tens of thousands of out-of-work medical reporters.

“I couldn’t keep up. I didn’t have deep pockets.” She was just making ends meet, and getting to the point where she realized, “I don’t want to do this anymore. I want to do what I want to do, goddammit!” She’d always wanted to paint, but “it never seemed like an option. I never had the time or money.”

Then in 2009, a friend mentioned she’d signed up for an art class and invited Sower to join her. Within weeks, she was hooked. After perhaps a dozen classes, “my friend and I went out and looked for a studio,” she says. “We had one within 10 days down on Granville Island. I just knew at the soul of my being this was what I should be doing.”

After a while, the paintings started to pile up and she figured she might as well try to sell them; if you don’t, she deadpans, “eventually, you’ll just be found dead under a pile of canvases.” Her first show was just a display of her work in West Vancouver City Hall, but it generated enough interest to keep her looking for opportunities.

I’ve been admiring and sharing her work on Facebook for a few years now; there’s something about the flowers she paints that draws my eye. She does landscapes, too—there were a few on exhibit when I saw her last May—but it’s the florals that are written about so glowingly in her artist’s bio for the New York show:

Claire Sower’s florals are tactile and interpretive, conveying a strong sense of tension and joy. . . . Eschewing detail in favor of essence, Sower works quickly, using palette knives to build depth by layering paint, allowing colors to mix on the canvas. This brings a sense of immediacy to her work, which conveys a flower’s “living energy.”

The New York show happened through social media. Claire has a website, of course, and a Facebook presence, but finds Instagram a great platform for emerging artists because it’s where a lot of galleries look for new talent. The Agora Gallery in Chelsea, New York, found her there and invited her to participate in a group show, which opened yesterday (October 9) and continues through most of the month (to October 29).

There’s a whole business component to any art, she says, as any artist knows all too well. You can’t just sit back and relax; you have to be constantly self-promoting. You also have to make some hard choices financially; you have to love what you do or it won’t feel worthwhile. You have to be willing to embrace a somewhat precarious existence, have some faith, and let go.

In some ways, that can be easier for a young person at the beginning of their lives, but Sower feels it’s an advantage to be making this kind of life change at an older age.

“I think being older serves me better because having had 20 years as a self-employed writer and running my own business, I have a lot of experience to draw on in terms of how I want to set up my business as an artist. I understand there’s a lot of pitfalls. I mean, yes, there’s debt, but there’s always debt. I think that’s just a way of life these days. . . . I’ve learned to trust my gut, trust my instincts, and they’ve never steered me wrong.”

At the moment, Sower spends her mornings on freelance writing opportunities to help pay the bills; rent from her property helps, too, another way being older is helping her fulfill her dream. But throughout those mornings at the computer, she’s always looking forward to afternoons and evenings at her studio.

Her long-term goal is to paint full time. “I’m going to have a big studio with a studio assistant and I’m just going to rock and roll!”

I believe she’ll do it. Her work is beautiful and original, and she has the drive and passion to get where she wants to go. And why not? People are living longer and healthier lives these days. Why shouldn’t mid-life be a time when we switch tracks and gear up for something completely new?

If you happen to be in New York City this month, visit the Agora Gallery in Chelsea between October 9 and 29 (opening reception October 15). If not, check out her website or Facebook page and see for yourself. Claire Sower’s art rocks—and, by the way, so does she.

Unité 9: A Harsher Look than OITNB at Why it’s So Hard for Women to Start Over

Unite 9 photoA few nights ago, I watched the second-season finale of Unité 9 on Netflix—and I thought Orange is the New Black was good. This piece of French-Canadian TV brilliance sheds a whole new light on women fighting an uphill battle to start their lives over.

Like OITNB, Unité 9 is set in a prison called Lietteville outside of Montreal. As the show opens, Marie Lamontagne is being hauled off to prison after pleading guilty to trying to kill her father. When she arrives, she’s surprised to find most of the women (except those few in either solitary confinement or the maximum security wing) living in groups of six in cozy little bungalows. Each woman has a small daily allowance for food, but in Unit 9 they pool their resources to have nicer meals, complemented by vegetables grown in a communal garden. Unit 9 is clean, organized, and run like a family by the maternal Elise, who’s approaching the end of her 24-year sentence.

But as Marie begins her seven-year term, a new prison director is taking charge at Lietteville. There have been problems at this new-concept prison and Corrections Canada has appointed stern-faced, tight-laced M. Despins to set the situation straight. Thus, the show starts out by playing into conservative, law-and-order stereotypes of convicts living the easy life on the taxpayer’s dime. Criminals who wear their own clothing, earn money at prison jobs to buy personal comforts like television sets and music players, and even take weekly piano lessons? What kind of system is this for punishing people who have committed crimes against society? And not just people, but women?

As the series unfolds, it becomes apparent this system was working quite well, thank you—or was, until Despins came along. Women whose root crimes were being poor, uneducated, and often lifelong victims of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse were working through their problems and becoming equipped to rejoin society.

But as Despins implements his ideas of the way a prison should work, the thread holding the women of Unit 9 together begins to unravel . At the same time as we’re learning why each woman is really there, what demons many of them are fighting, Despins is busy throwing more of them into Solitary or Max, splitting supportive family groups apart, and tossing women who were beginning to heal in with sociopathic gang members.

Committed staff who have worked with female convicts for years become frustrated with the increasingly toxic environment and leave Lietteville. New wardens hired more for brawn than brains either brutalize their charges or become involved with them sexually. Smuggling and theft increase, internal intimidation and violence run rampant, and all of it gives Despins the excuse he needs to become even more controlling.

In this environment, women who have lived their lives by negotiating gendered double binds find themselves less and less able to do what is expected of them—take responsibility for their actions and prepare to start their lives over.

The script is, of course, laced with metaphors: The windows need no bars because the real prisons are in the women’s minds. The psychiatrist is legally blind but her insights are deep and true. Liette, the root of Lietteville, is both a short form of the romantic “Juliette” and a variant of the slang term “Le Tit,” which refers to a female girl with nice T&A.

Marie Lamontagne is a mountain of strength, having pleaded guilty to a crime she did not commit to protect her daughter, Léa Petite, from sexual abuse at the hands of the same father who molested Marie. Through all the verbal abuse and sermonizing Marie endures for failing to take responsibility for a crime she did not commit (while her father’s abuse of both herself and her daughter goes unpunished), she protects her child (who attacked her grandfather in self-defense) by keeping her secret.

The story itself is, of course, a metaphor. Just as the best speculative fiction takes the problems we find most intractable on Earth and places them in distant galaxies, where we might see them more objectively and find our way out of the double binds we’ve placed ourselves in, Unité 9 places a group of women in their own small, separate universe so that we might see the double binds that tie us all into a world of gendered rules more clearly.

While OITNB strives to do something similar (and succeeds, as Stacey May Fowles wrote a few weeks ago in the Globe and Mail), it does so with a lighter touch, and it’s partly the humour with which the real-life protagonist, Piper Kerman, looks at responsibility in her own and other women’s lives that makes OITNB so good.

Unité 9 takes a different route, and a much harsher look at all the same themes, and reveals more in black and white than orange why it can sometimes be so hard for women who would like nothing better than to start their lives over, to actually do so.

First Step: Confidence

crowd scene

In a world of 7 billion people, no one is unique.

[Edited: An earlier version of this post may have offended some readers. I’ve revised a few statements to, I hope, clarify.]

I gave my first workshop a couple of weeks ago. I was nervous about it, but now that it’s done, I can safely say I enjoyed it. And what I enjoyed most was how confident I felt speaking to a room full of people as if I knew what I was talking about—because I did.

It was a great experience for me, and I plan to do it again. Perhaps more importantly, it got me thinking about how many other women must be Late Bloomers like me—middle-aged baby boomers, starting over with something new or returning to something they thought they’d never get back to.

There could be any number of reasons for women to start over in mid-life: surviving a divorce or loss of a spouse, recovering from an illness or injury, or getting back to the workforce after raising children. The reason is probably less important than finding and nurturing the confidence to do it.

Over my adult life, my confidence has come and gone. In my twenties, I set my sights on being a magazine writer. I thought I could take a few continuing-ed courses and become an award-winning freelance journalist while my babies were napping. I had a fake-‘til-I-make-it attitude. I didn’t really have confidence, but I acted as if I did.

In fairness to myself, I learned a lot over my decade of freelancing; I published dozens of articles, was shortlisted for a few literary awards, and still occasionally hear from readers who remember the essays I published in the Saturday Review.

But while I enjoyed the bylines, by the time baby #3 came along, I still wasn’t “making it” financially, so I switched career tracks and created a one-person communications business. I tried not to think of it as “giving up,” but I didn’t go into it with as much confidence as I’d had a decade earlier. In the meantime, I realized I needed more formal training, but by then I couldn’t afford it.

So I took a deep breath and started flying by the seat of my pants. I made cold calls, using a script to keep myself from going brain dead mid-sentence. I was honest with my target market of small nonprofits regarding my strategy of low rates in exchange for on-job training, and they accepted the tradeoff. I also took a few more courses and, as my business grew, so did my confidence.

Then I was injured, and my time for the next several years was focused on healing, pursuing a lawsuit, and sustaining a basic income. I had no time or money for courses as long as the legal action was ongoing; by the time it was over, the world had gone social and digital, and I’d fallen far behind.

I took another deep breath. I’d been very slowly working toward certificates in writing, editing, and publishing, and now I focused on finishing them all at once. With those under my belt, I said goodbye to my business and graduated into the world of formal work as a director of communications for a mid-sized nonprofit. I thought I was on my way to the last third of my working life.

That plan crashed when the job didn’t work out and the recession hit. Jobs I would have qualified for a year earlier were now going to people with far more formal education and experience than I had. I had to rebuild my business, but nobody was hiring contractors. It didn’t make any difference because I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to do next anyway.

It took a while to sort things out, but one thing that finally helped was working with a wonderful business adviser, Carolyn Burke of Integrity Incorporated. Carolyn helped me realize I’m just not comfortable with a fake-‘til-I-make-it, fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants, dance-as-fast-as-I-can attitude—and that’s okay. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with that can-do approach; it’s just that while it’s often gotten me through the moment, it’s never really built my confidence over the long term.

There are two things that build my confidence: training that yields formal recognition, like a certificate, diploma, or degree; and preparation, like a script.

This is not news to me, but it’s taken me this long to feel okay about standing up and saying to others, “This is what I need. It may not be what you need, but it is what I need.”

In a world of 7 billion people, I can’t imagine my experience of starting over in middle age is unique. We’re living longer, and we often need and want to do something different as we get older, but figuring out what it is and finding the confidence to do it is just not the same as when we were younger.

For one thing, we feel a time pressure we didn’t feel when our lives were in front of us. We don’t have time to waste trying things until we get our lives right. If we’re going to find fulfillment, we need to figure it out now.

For another thing, we have less energy than we did 20 or 30 years ago. I have to wonder (and I haven’t looked for research on this) if diminishing energy for the fake / fly / dance approach is linked with introversion and extroversion. I’m an introvert. I’ve always found the fake-it approach draining, but I had more energy for it 20 years ago than I do now. Would an extrovert of my age have a different experience?

I suspect those points apply to men and women equally , but in addition, women in middle age are often battling the cumulative effects of a lifetime of damaging messages. A couple of recent blog posts set alarm bells ringing in my head with countless memories of men interrupting and talking over me, not taking me seriously, taking credit for work I’ve done, and explaining things to me as if I were a simpleton.

I watched a video a while back (it was on Upworthy, but I can’t find it now) that compared the impact of constant street harassment to drops of water on a rock—they may have no visible effect in the moment, but over the course of years, those drops of water can carve riverbeds out of granite and deep crevices in women’s confidence to start something new, start over, start now.

It’s a recipe for women struggling with even the idea of starting over in mid-life. But given the choice now between the hard work of starting my writing career over for a fourth time and simply accepting the way my life was turning out before I started over, I wouldn’t go back.

Whether you’re excited about starting over in mid-life or daunted by it, here’s a small piece of advice: start by finding whatever you think will build your confidence. It doesn’t matter what it is—counselling , yoga, art, education—and you don’t need to listen to anyone else about what it should be. Your gut is your only real guide.

From there, it’s up to you.

My workshop went well, by the way. Not only did I feel good about it, but a few participants contacted me afterward for more information. The evaluations were largely positive, except for those who were expecting something completely different. I realized later they probably hadn’t read the description, which spelled out what to expect quite clearly, and if they’d only read the title, I could see how they might have misinterpreted it. That tells me two things: there are several points for me to improve on for next time—and there’s a niche for me to develop another workshop.

I’m up for the challenge.