Author Tags: Education, Fiction, Literary Landmarks
LITERARY LOCATION: Lennard Island Lighthouse, off Long Beach, three miles from Tofino.
Situated at Latitude 49 degrees 6" 37' and longitude 125 degrees 55" 23', Lennard Island has been home to lightkeeper Caroline Woodward, a former bookseller-turned-author, since 2008. It takes her and her husband Jeff roughly 20 minutes by power boat to get to Tofino or one hour by kayak going with the tide. In 2015, she published Light Years: Memoir of a Modern Lighthouse Keeper.
Born in Fort St. John on March 14, 1952, Caroline Hendrika Woodward was raised on her parents' homestead at Cecil Lake, B.C. in the North Peace River region. On June 3, 2016, Northern Lights College in Dawson Creek conferred an honorary associate degree of arts on Woodward for her "distinguished national and international reputation as a writer for adults and children." Previous honorees are opera singer Ben Heppner, First Nations artist Brian Jungen and singer/songwriter Roy Forbes. After she gave a convocation address, a celebration was held in a new chapel on the former site of the two-and-three-room Transpine School she had attended at Cecil Lake. Neighbours remembered her "singing away the dark" on her way to the school bus stop. [Location: Cecil Lake Christian Fellowship Chapel, 4607 Cecil Lk Rd, Cecil Lake, BC V0C 1G0]
"My Grade 4 teacher sent the most wonderful letter about my voracious reading habits (A Tale of Two Cities devoured with relish) and apparently I memorized The Pied Piper of Hamelin so I could be the narrator while my school mates enacted the tragedy on stage.
"I believe it was Jane Rule who said, "We are all Children of the Book." That's certainly how I feel. I am very grateful that my insistence on writing about what matters to me, rural and northern Life and Death topics, nonetheless attracted stalwart publishers who put their money and expertise behind my efforts. All of which has led me to a life rich in friends and adventures."
Caroline Woodward began her writing career in 1968 with a two-year stint as a weekly columnist for the Alaska Highway News in Fort St. John where she first encountered the formidable newspaperwoman, Ma Murray.
She earned a B.A. and Teacher's Certificate from UBC where she minored in fine arts history while acquiring her B.A. major in anthropology/sociology. Along the way she took studio classes with Toni Onley and studied First Nations art with Audrey Hawthorn. Before she also gained a Diploma in Creative Writing from David Thompson University Centre in Nelson, B.C., she undertook paid and volunteer work in Sri Lanka, India, Nepal and Europe.
Woodward published travel articles in Canadian newspapers and magazines such as Miss Chatelaine (Solo bicycling across Greece-May, 1976) and in 1981, she wrote, designed and self-published A Blue Fable, printed on 12 pages of rice paper in Kathmandu, Nepal. This endeavor introduced her to the nuts and bolts of promotion, distribution and retailing in the Canadian book industry.
Woodward has also served for six years with the Vancouver Foundation (an organization, "about which I cannot say enough good things"), has assisted the Caravan Stage Company in its horse-drawn tour of Law of the Land in 1981 and she has put local teenagers on stage to sing, act and dance with professional arts groups, "but when it comes down to the wire, I am, first and last, a writer with deep roots in the Peace [River region] and adventurous arms stretched out to South-East Asia and to group homes and greenhouses and grassroots arts organizations."
In 1993, Caroline and her partner, Jeff George, renovated a circa 1900 building on the main street of New Denver, B.C., population 700, and opened the Motherlode Bookstore. She realized she needed time to focus on her collection of short stories so Woodward applied for a whopping $5600 from Canada Council Explorations Program (now sadly defunct). Before sending the grant proposal, she asked Julian Ross of Polestar Press in Winlaw, B.C., to read over her application and write a short letter of support for the project. Ross unexpectedly offered her a publishing contract and later a job. Woodward worked for Polestar Press in Winlaw, B.C. until Julian and Ruth Ross sold the company to Michelle Benjamin of Vancouver in 1992. Caroline recalls:
"I had worked at Oliver's Books in Nelson for two years part-time and also worked at Polestar, beginning as a manuscript reader in 1987, then as a one-shot publicist for Noel Hudson's Mobile Homes. When that all worked out well, I went on to work part-time (our boy Seamus was still pre-school age) at Polestar as a publicist/copy writer/editor and finally as managing editor during a five-year time span. I was gobsmacked to be phoned by Julian and Stephanie Judy (head editor at that time) and offered a contract. That's how Disturbing the Peace was born, which was followed three years later by the mystery novel, Alaska Highway Two-Step."
Her experiences as a writer and bookseller led her to work as a publishers' representative for Kate Walker & Company, based in Comox on Vancouver Island in 2001. "I've always been very happy as a kind of cultural midwife for talented artists," she says. Even though it was her literary job with a dental plan, she left in 2008 to join her husband Jeff, an Assistant Lightkeeper, at Lennard Island Lightstation, near Tofino, where she has been able to re-refocus on writing.
Woodward simultaneously released two new books in 2010, "both of them springing (or glacially proceeding, more like it) from my Peace River roots." A West Coast-themed retelling of The Odyssey, Penny Loves Wade, Wade Loves Penny (Oolichan, 2010) is about an 'inventive and resolute ranch wife' and a 'reluctant rancher and good man, adrift behind the wheel on his last long haul truck run of the season.' Her other Peace River book, Singing Away the Dark (Simply Read Books 2010), is an autobiography that tells the story of her mid-winter mile-long walk to the school bus stop, through a dark tunnel of trees, four barbed wire gates, past a herd of cattle and a cranky bull, and across a field where the north wind always blew hard. Dedicated "To Peace River children who are all brave and tough," it has been translated into French, Korean and Bulgarian editions.
Woodward's chapter book for 8-to-11-year-olds, The Village of Many Hats (Oolichan 2012) is her first book for that age group and also a departure from her Peace River roots literature; it takes her to another set of valleys, the Kootenay and Slocan of southeastern B.C. "Outside the vibrant cultural life and amenities of cities," she says, "I have to say that the rural and semi-rural Kootenays possess the people, the wilderness, the do-it-ourselves attitudes and persistence to keep the arts in all its forms thriving, with a constant flow between all age groups that I have found nowhere else and that I still find truly remarkable. During the eight years that my partner and I founded and ran the Motherlode Bookstore, I was able to appreciate the way that people supported each other in times of crisis and in times of celebration, too."
Woodward has since earned her assistant lightkeeper qualifications to do (lightkeeping) relief work at the station, and other stations, on the west coast. She now happily writes on her rocky island "in-between doing weather reports, painting, power-washing and lawn-mowing." Her long journey to literary productivity has resulted in a memoir that has emerged largely from her lightkeeping days and nights on the West Coast.
Of the several previous books about lighthouses in B.C., none are more essential reading than Don Graham's Keepers of the Light: A History of British Columbia's Lighthouses and Their Keepers (Harbour 1985) and his second volume, Lights of the Inside Passage: A History of British Columbia's Lighthouses and Their Keepers (Harbour 1986), both written to protest the impending widespread curtailment of manned lighthouses in Canada. Born in 1945, Graham was a Cultural Conservation Coordinator for the Province of Saskatchewan prior to becoming a British Columbia lightkeeper in 1976. He worked at Bonilla Island in Hecate Strait, at Lucy Island near the mainland and east of the northern Queen Charlottes and finally at Lighthouse Park in West Vancouver. With an M.A. in history,. adept at political science, he spearheaded the partially successful campaign to halt replacement of manned lighthouses with strictly automated signals. His two books reveal that many of B.C.'s lightkeepers were under-paid working class heroes. The first won the Roderick Haig-Brown B.C. Book Prize in 1986. Graham continued to live at the Lighthouse Park light station after it was officially 'de-manned'. Graham also caused a stir for claiming on CTV national news that the Allies had deliberately shelled the Estevan Point Lighthouse on the West Coast of Vancouver Island in 1942 to whip up war fever. This attack led to the expulsion of Japanese Canadians from the West Coast. Don Graham died of cancer in October, 2003.
Finalist for 1991 Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize (Disturbing the Peace)
Finalist for 1994 Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Mystery Novel (Alaska Highway Two-Step)
Finalist for the 2011 Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Prize.
Finalist for 2010-2011 Amelia Frances Howard-Gibbon Illustrator's Award.
Nominated for the 2011 Ruth and Sylvia Schwartz Award (Picture Book category).
Nominated for the 2011-2012 Chocolate Lily Award (Picture Book category).
Canadian Children's Book Centre Red-Starred Our Choice Award.
Finalist for 2016 Bill Duthie booksellers' choice award.
Light Years: Memoir of a Modern Lighthouse Keeper (Harbour 2015)
The Village of Many Hats (Oolichan 2012)
Penny Loves Wade, Wade Loves Penny (Oolichan: Fall 2010) fiction; novel
Singing Away the Dark (Simply Read Books: Fall 2010) children's picture book, illustrated by Julie Morstad
Work is a 4-Letter Word (National Literacy Secretariat, B.C. Literacy & B.C., Ministry of Advanced Education, Training & Technology-co-published, 1999)
Alaska Highway Two-Step (Polestar: Vancouver, 1993)
Disturbing the Peace (Polestar: Winlaw, 1990)
A Blue Fable (New Printing Press: Kathmandu, Nepal, 1981)
MORE BIOGRAPHICAL DETAILS:
Caroline Woodward made Nelson, B.C. her home base from 1983-1991 where she continued to publish non-fiction articles, short stories, poetry, plays, book reviews and artist profiles for an assortment of media. The writing teachers she salutes from this period are Colin Browne, Paulette Jiles, John Newlove and Clark Blaise. She also became very involved with the Kootenay School of Writing as a volunteer organizer and instructor and with a plethora of other arts organizations in and around Nelson. She started her long association with Polestar Press as a manuscript reader, author tour organizer, publicist, in-house editor and occasionally, managing editor. She also began her enduring friendship and collaboration with Paulette Jiles in the mid-1980's, which resulted in several CBC Radio productions and a stage production, "For the Daughters", a fundraiser for local scholarships for women, among many other informal antics like their Starving Artist Dinner Parties.
Woodward's first collection of short fiction and prose poems, Disturbing the Peace, evoked her Peace River roots and was nominated for the 1991 Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize. Stories from this book have been reprinted in Canadian anthologies, many of which are used in high school and university English courses. Bravo TV adapted one story for its Spoken Word series of dramatic monologues. Her first novel, Alaska Highway Two-Step, is a road story containing a mystery, and was nominated by the Crime Writers of Canada for the Arthur Ellis Best First Mystery Novel category in 1994. She was then invited to be a panel presenter at the 1994 International Bouchercon Mystery Writers Conference in Seattle, Washington.
Always very involved in the rich cultural life of the Kootenays when based in Nelson (Kootenay School of Writing, Theatre Energy, Kootenay Lake Summer School of the Arts, Images Ad Hoc Singers to name a few), things got even busier in the village of New Denver. As well as helping to run the Motherlode, Caroline served as the Kootenay rep for the Federation of BC Writers (1994), served on the Board of Selkirk College for three years, joined the Valhalla Community Choir (go to CBC Radio's OutFront site for Keep On Singing, Woodward's homage to singing in choirs nearly all her life), joined the Board of the Slocan Lake Gallery Society for seven years, served on the arts and culture advisory committee of the Vancouver Foundation for six years and was appointed Vice-Chair of the inaugural B.C. Arts Council with Mavor Moore as Chair. While serving with the latter, she spearheaded the Youth Employment Program in the Arts to offer tuition credits and to mentor young people in cultural work, a successful and much-needed transfer of specialized knowledge program, which was slashed by the provincial Liberal government in 2001.
Woodward first began teaching creative writing classes in 1985 and has since taught hundreds of workshops and courses ranging in length from half a day to a full four-month term for organizations as diverse as the Lasqueti Island Arts Council, the Sechelt Festival of the Written Word, the Kootenay School of the Arts, Elder Hostel, and three BC Festivals of the Arts. She has taught writers aged 8 to 80 plus and she has given over 100 public readings across Canada from Whitehorse to Montreal, from Dease Lake to Ottawa, from Calgary to Pouce Coupe.
[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2015] "Fiction" "Education"
Penny Loves Wade, Wade Loves Penny (Oolichan $18.95)
“I’ve lived and worked all over B.C.,” says Caroline Woodward, “from the Peace River and the Kootenays to Lillooet, the Gulf Islands, Vancouver, Haida Gwaii, Powell River, Tofino and all over Vancouver Island. So I can feel at home in lots of places.”
Now a relief assistant lightkeeper based on the Lennard Island Lightstation near Tofino, Caroline Woodward also worked as a sales rep for publishers for Kate Walker & Co. “from Chemainus to Smithers” for seven years. She’s hitting the road again, this time she’s promoting two new titles of her own “springing (or glacially proceeding, more like it) from my Peace River roots.” Her novel Penny Loves Wade, Wade Loves Penny (Oolichan $18.95) is a contemporary retelling of The Odyssey, an enduring love story between a resolute Peace River ranch wife and her good husband, adrift behind the wheel of his long-haul truck bound for the west coast and southern interior.
Singing Away the Dark (Simply Read $18.95), a children’s picture book illustrated by Julie Morstad, is based on Caroline’s coping skills learned during midwinter one-mile walks to the Cecil Lake school bus stop in Grade One, through barbwire gates, a scary dark trail, past a cranky bull in a barnyard and finally, enduring a northern blizzard.
Woodward’s October book tour included over 25 events in 16 cities, towns and villages. “I love driving,” she says, “and I welcome the chance to organize my road maps and hit the road again.” Born in Fort St. John and raised on a homestead at Cecil Lake, the former Kootenay bookseller began her writing career with a two-year stint at the Alaska Highway News while she was a high school student.
Penny: 978-088982-267-2; Singing: 978-1-897476-41-3
The Village of Many Hats by Caroline Woodward (Oolichan $9.95)
They say “it takes a village” to raise a child and to care for families in crisis. It takes both a child and a village and a wise hat-maker in Caroline Woodward’s first chapter book for 8-to-11-year-olds, The Village of Many Hats (Oolichan $9.95). As the protagonist nine-year-old Gina struggles with her sister’s illness, tragedy within their mountain village of Silverado brings the community together.
With her literary roots in the Peace River, Woodward, born in Fort St. John, is also moving onto new ground geographically with The Village of Many Hats, setting her uplifting story in the Kootenay and Slocan valleys of southeastern B.C. where she founded a bookstore.
“Outside the vibrant cultural life and amenities of cities,” she says, “I have to say that the rural and semi-rural Kootenays possess the people, the wilderness, the do-it-ourselves attitudes and the persistence to keep the arts in all its forms thriving.
“There is a constant flow between all age groups that I have found nowhere else and that I still find truly remarkable,” she says. “During the eight years that my partner, Jeff George, and I ran the Motherlode Bookstore in New Denver, I was able to appreciate the way that people supported each other in times of crisis and in times of celebration, too.”
Woodward lived for eighteen years in the Kootenays: on the north shore of Kootenay Lake, attending the visionary, late, still-lamented David Thompson University Centre in Nelson. In Winlaw, she also worked in various capacities for Julian Ross and Ruth Porter at Polestar Press.
“I remain inspired by the work of so many talented and generous community organizers and artists I’ve met, collaborated with and still sing the praises of in The Village of Many Hats.
“I haven’t even begun to pay homage to the abandoned railway tracks, the glorious hot springs, the cold, clean lakes and river swimming holes, the plentiful mountain ranges with acres of wild flowers on their slopes for six weeks and fantastic skiing the rest of the year...
“Did I say that I intend to live in the Kootenays again? Well, I do!” says Woodward, who currently lives near Tofino.
The name of the village in her book combines one of the early names for present-day New Denver — El Dorado — and Silverton, a village on the shores of Slocan Lake, only five kilometres to the south of New Denver. “Silverado is more than just the name brand of a truck!” says Woodward.
After the province withdrew 100% of its funding for the New Denver Reading Centre, Woodward posted her work-in-progress online and auctioned off roles in the story to five ‘real’ people who have contributed over $900 to support the centre: Heather Fox, Dr. Jamie Barber, Judi Gardiner, Wendy Harlock, and Francie Oldham.
The muse for her character Madame D’Oiseaux is the multi-talented milliner and fabric artist, Rosalie Bird, who still lives in New Denver. The book was launched at the Bosun Hall in New Denver in May. 978-0-88982-284-9
Woodward & Jiles
Who's Who item
Here’s how the world works: Currently doing a stint at the Quatsino Lighthouse on Northern Vancouver Island, BCBW contributor Caroline Woodward first met poet and novelist Paulette Jiles in 1983 at David Thompson University Centre in Nelson. They collaborated on Starving Artist Dinner parties, the Kootenay School of Writing and CBC radio pieces. When Woodward worked as a publicist for Polestar Press in the Kootenays, in the late 80's, Jiles had just published Sitting in the Club Car Drinking Rum and Karma Kola and several books of poetry with them. Over many decades, they stayed in touch. When Woodward sent Jiles one of her partner Jeff George’s annual wall calendars, Jiles loved his spooky, fog-bound night image of the Lennard Island Lighthouse near Tofino, which she had visited while researching the book. Jiles emailed the image to her New York editor. Now HarperCollins has bought the image so it can adorn Jiles’ new dystopian novel, Lighthouse Island (HC $19.95 ), set in a formidable North American future. Larry McMurty has bought the screen rights for Jiles’ previous novel, The Colour of Lightning. Lighthouse
Light Years: Memoir of a Modern Lighthouse
from Sheila Peters
In 1993, Caroline Woodward, with her partner Jeff George, renovated a circa-1900 building on the main street of New Denver, B.C., population 700, and opened the Motherlode Bookstore.
Also an author of three books, Woodward later worked as a publishers’ sales representative for Kate Walker & Company, based in Comox, starting in 2001.
But the literary life can be a hard slog.
At the outset of her new book, Light Years: Memoir of a Modern Lighthouse Keeper, she describes how a pivotal meeting with a middle-aged man on the Alert Bay ferry changed her life. He was on his way to a new job as a relief lightkeeper, enabling him to escape from a dull civil service career in B.C.’s interior.
Woodward was struck by “how his face lit up when he said how he felt truly, deeply alive upon arriving in Port Hardy… And wasn’t that exactly how I missed feeling?
“And wasn’t that even more the case for my husband, who had dutifully worked at all kinds of low-paying, part-time jobs with awful hours for years on end?
“Here we were, in our late middle-aged phase of life when most people are at the pinnacle of their chosen careers. We, on the other hand, were feeling trapped and powerless.”
After Jeff George first gave lighthouse keeping a try, and liked it, Caroline Woodward packed in her job as a publishers’ sales rep and joined her partner on hard-to-approach Lennard Island, offshore from Tofino, where she subsequently gained her credentials as a keeper of the light.
Here Sheila Peters outlines how Woodward’s irrepressible curiosity and enthusiasm turned a chance encounter on a B.C. Ferry into a life line.
Like any good storyteller, Caroline Woodward runs many threads through her rich storybook quilt of history and memoir.
On the personal side, she takes us back to her childhood on a farm in B.C.’s northeast and her breakthrough writing year at David Thompson University where she met her husband, Jeff George.
On the historical side, we travel back to the early days of lighthouse keeping in B.C. and forward to the heated battle to keep at least some of those lighthouses staffed.
As these storylines are connected, Woodward’s determination to reclaim her and her partner’s creative life amounts to a powerful story.
“The lightkeeping life was going to be our next Great Adventure,” she writes. “…It was time for me to climb the rope ladder, get on the ship and head out to the lighthouse.”
Woodward’s narrative mentions the dozens of jobs she had previously, from her childhood on her parent’s homestead in remote Cecil Lake, B.C. in the North Peace River region to her teenage days writing for Ma Murray’s Alaska Highway News to planting rice in Sri Lanka and running a bookstore (to mention only a few). As well as providing fodder for her writing, she says, these varied experiences made her a good fit for the varied tasks of a relief lighthouse keeper.
Although she does admit the lawnmower once backed her into the blackberry thorns, the sixty-something, five-foot-two Woodward stands tall for female equality. “…when anyone has the colossal nerve, as one lightkeeper’s prissy wife did, to tell me that lightkeeping is really Man’s Work—well, I’ve been far too polite to such presumptuous, sexist individuals to date. But I will state here that I had likely done more hours of hard labour by the time I reached fourteen years of age than most contemporary adult Canadian males have done in their lives.”
Woodward sticks up for B.C.’s always-endangered lighthouses just as strongly as she sticks up for herself. Light Years is full of stories of lives saved, disasters averted and comfort brought to people caught out by wind and waves. Excerpts from keepers’ letters reveal some of the challenges they faced as tsunamis destroyed their homes or supply ships couldn’t get to increasingly hungry families.
And if you’ve ever wondered exactly how visibility, the height of the waves, or the wind speed are determined, Woodward reveals the tricks used to compile the weather reports keepers file daily, beginning at 4:40 a.m. and finishing at 10:30 p.m.
The lighthouse keeper’s life can be a hard slog…
Along the way, Woodward rarely misses an opportunity to throw in arcane facts. It was Robert Louis Stevenson’s engineering father who invented the Stevenson screen, a slatted box still used to house maximum/minimum thermometers.
“The Stevensons and their crews of skilled tradesmen,” writes Woodward, “achieved feats of engineering in North Sea conditions that would be utterly forbidding, even today, using no cordless DEWALT power tools whatsoever.”
As exuberant as any wild coastal landscape, Light Years has sections on gardening that include how-to cope with extreme coastal climates or soil contaminated with diesel spills, babying seedlings shared with other keepers and pruning a beloved David Austin tea rose.
In spite of the complications of shipping food to such remote locations, celebrations of good eating are epic (if Woodward ever invites you to dinner, accept!). Best of all, she slips her sense of wonder into every chapter. Photos are by Jeff George. And, yes, some of the romanticism most of us automatically associate with lighthouses is in evidence.
“I slept and slept on Egg Island,” she writes, describing one of her numerous relief stints at other lighthouses, “with only the sounds of the wind in the evergreens, the cries of the sea birds and the comforting push and pull of the ocean swells.
“One night humpback whales circled the island, singing their eerie whale songs, some basso profundo, others swooping up into the heldentenor range. I had to pinch myself. Imagine falling asleep to whales singing deep sea lullabies.”
Woodward’s need for solitude combined with her powerful sense of connection to people and place has stood her well in her work on the lights and as a writer. Light Years is a passionate and generous celebration of both endeavours and the people who do them.
And any writer looking for ways to re-start a stalled career would do well to consider her example: Light Years is Caroline Woodward’s fourth book since moving to keeping the lights in 2008.
Sheila Peters writes and publishes from Smithers.
Onward from The Magic Bus
Commencement Speech (2016)
Thank you, Northern Lights College, for this great personal and professional honour today where we have primarily gathered to commend and applaud the hard work and sacrifices of the graduates and their families.
Thank you for the generosity and enduring patience of the Treaty 8 First Nations and the Kelly Lake Cree Nation on whose territory the beautiful buildings, the classrooms, labs and workshops of this College are built in the key cities of the North and South Peace region.
When I attended the two-and later three-room Transpine School in Cecil Lake, I did not read about our own rivers, lakes or our own wide sky or about the First Nations who have lived here for at least ten thousand years or the European immigrants, like my parents from Holland and Wales, who toiled as homesteaders on this northern prairie. I devoured the books that came in the Bookmobile two or three times a year with pioneer librarian Howard Overend at the wheel of what was to me, a truly Magic Bus, a bus that Mr. Overend named Parnassus, for the sacred mountain peak in Greece, the mythical home of poetry and literature.
I knew in my child's heart and mind that our rural lives were every bit as interesting, and as important to read about as the stories of children in England and America and, somewhere along the line, as I wrote songs and plays for my school friends and I to perform, I resolved to write books about our forgotten lives in this often-overlooked part of the world, then proudly claimed as Canada’s most northerly agricultural breadbasket and now treated as some industrial sacrifice zone for the rest of this province.
When I was a high school student and wrote a weekly news column for the Alaska Highway News for two years, I learned the three golden rules of journalism: spell everyone's name correctly, get the facts straight from the original source, find a second source with expertise in the subject to corroborate if my BS radar is waggling wildly, and always be inclusive and generous because every individual, every club and team and every issue of concern in the community matters deeply to someone and people deserve a fair and even-handed account. I learned to apply more nuance, more depth, and more edges too when faced with wily subjects and when writing in other forms than the “just the facts, ma’am” reportage bashed out on a typewriter in the Office Practices classroom every Wednesday by this Girl Reporter on the Loose. Later still, at the University of British Columbia far from home where I went for my post-secondary education long before these first-class facilities were built in the Peace, I learned not to be afraid to question Authority or anyone else. And to back up my curiosity with solid research, in other words, do my homework and consult with others because as the brilliant Canadian Joni Mitchell sings, Two Heads Are Better Than One, and I’d add that six are even better than two. The truth is out there, after all, and it lives inside our own hearts and minds too. Add solitude and wilderness to your lives as often as possible, to stay inspired. And never forget where clean water and healthy food comes from and where your waste materials go either, to stay grounded.
Writing as an occupation is as hard or worse than farming as our products are both subject to the vagaries of markets and mere opinions beyond our control, of urban trends and technological change that is inexorable wherein what may have worked once will not work as well ever again, so we must be humble and alert to the signs and change our ways. Adapt. Albert Einstein said, “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” Just sayin’. Well, Einstein didn’t say that. I did but his honest statement excites and drives forward the innovators among us in all fields! What if? Let’s try this! Great science and great art spring from experiment, from trying the so-called impossible. His wise words can also be interpreted to mean: Listen, observe, ask questions, be open-minded and tolerant of other points of view en route to creating a better world together.
If we choose to work at what we love, we will love our work for the rest of our lives with no regrets, learning from our mistakes, accepting them, working smarter, moving forward. That’s my strategy and I’m sticking to it. This is not to say that I don’t wish all of you a steady and substantial income for your talents rather than the minor feast and famine situation I’ve gotten myself into, don’t get me wrong! But if you have to leave your heart at home to earn cold, hard cash in a workplace where you feel unsafe and devalued, where you are paid to do work you find ethically reprehensible, find a way to work with others to organize change for the better, not just for yourself but for everyone else too, especially those more vulnerable than you are. Be open to the possibilities and the choices you have in every situation, always.
Becoming a writer, after trying out a good number of white, pink and blue collar jobs, has allowed me to ask questions and ponder answers, large and small, to research history, psychology, oceanography and countless other subjects, to wonder Why Not? and to imagine What If? Writing for me is an act of synthesis and of empathy, of imaginatively putting myself into another person’s shoes and walking their walk, in order to attempt to understand what motivates or torments or heals them. Writing is about reaching in and handing out what I’ve arrived at in understanding or gained as insight about this human condition thing we all struggle with. It’s why I write. It’s why I read.
No matter whether we choose, or are born to be, absolutely original artists like Ben Heppner or Brian Jungen or Roy Forbes, to cite three great ones whose company as honourees of Northern Lights College I must now strive to stand alongside, or if we offer the world our talents as administrators of ground-breaking social or medical programs to benefit humanity, as inventors of better technology to clean industrial waste water, as explorers, entertainers or veterinarians, it is really about becoming more evolved human beings, about being as kind and non-judgmental to each other as possible for we are all, despite outward appearances, carrying burdens in our hearts or minds or bodies. This is the inevitable truth of the human condition. We may start out “invincible, infertile and immortal” but we soon learn, unless we are chronically oblivious to cues from the real world, in which case learning is delayed -but still inevitable- that we are “fallible, frail and often foolish” in the Life decision-making department. In other words, we are each and everyone of us flawed yet potentially fabulous human beings, fodder for every writer and actor. To quote Marilyn Monroe, “we are all of us stars, and we deserve to twinkle”. I see a lot of twinkling from the seats here today and so you should. Gleam away all you grads, you proud families and yes, the instructors and professors who pushed and inspired the grads to get here today, too!
Finally, no matter where I've lived and worked in this world since first leaving to attend university, this landscape, this climate, the wild and the domestic realities of survival here in the Peace still resonate the most with me. I think we bond like ducks, to the earth and the water and the voices of the people we were surrounded by when we were very young and all the world was new. So spread your wings, fly high and wide, be of good cheer, it does get better, always do your best, be courageous and be kind. Don’t forget to call home, or your mothers will worry, and carry the Peace in your hearts forever. Thank you and congratulations to us all!
Caroline Woodward for Northern Lights College Commencement Address June 3, 2016, Dawson Creek.?