Go the Distance

It’s late in the evening at a dark and rather dingy pub. He sits on a bar stool at the front, tucked up close to the bar, but facing a small gathered audience of admirers. He’s just finished a rollicking good tale about his cousin and his uncle, and while the laughs are still quieting down someone calls out: “Whatever happened to your uncle and cousin?”

His eyes search the crowd, and then, in a southern drawl that is almost undoubtedly adopted just for the occasion given his Canadian heritage, he slowly says: “Son, I said I was telling a story about my uncle and my cousin. I never said it was true.”

There was a moment of silence and then more laughs, as he has truly had us all believing a rather fantastical familial tale.

Yesterday, at the age of 81, W.P. Kinsella, author of books like “Shoeless Joe”, which became the movie “Field of Dreams”, died at the age of 81. Reports say it was a physician-assisted death, and that sounds about right as the man I met both lived his life and wrote on his own terms.

I met Kinsella years ago in that bar, but I’d been an admirer long before. There are those who might be surprised at how I revere his work, given his tendency to write about topics like baseball and my general lack of knowledge of such things, but Kinsella didn’t write only about baseball. He wrote about life.

A few years ago when the Fort McMurray Public Library asked me to participate in their “Fort McMurray Reads” panel, the book I chose was “Shoeless Joe”. You see, I felt it wasn’t just the story of baseball or Iowa or a man who builds a baseball stadium in a cornfield; it was the story of the kind of plucky courage and tenacity that makes people believe they can achieve the impossible. I felt it was the perhaps the most compelling parallel I had ever found of the story of Fort McMurray and the people who live here. Fort McMurray was the kind of place where if we built it, they would come; and they have.

Yesterday we lost Canada’s Mark Twain, a storyteller like no other who had both the kindest smile and the most acerbic wit.  It is a loss indeed, and the world will be just a little bit quieter without that voice in it.

This morning I pulled a book off my shelves. I read the inscription and felt myself pulled back into the past, into a dingy pub and a late night chat with an author who had touched my soul.

“To Theresa,” it reads. “Go the distance. Bill Kinsella”

When he signed the book that night so many years ago, W.P. made me promise I would do what he wrote in the inscription. 

And so I have, and so I will.

Thank you, Bill. For everything.

Smoke Damage

I am in my shed, four months later. For the most part, my life has returned to normal; there are no scorch marks on my house, no melted shingles and no red flame retardant. I open a bin of seat cushions, one that has been unopened for a year, and out spills not only the contents but a sharp, acrid odour, one I have come to recognize well since my return to Fort McMurray on June 3rd.

Smoke damage.

It happens at the most unusual times and in the most unexpected places, a sudden quick reminder of a day that has ever so slowly begun to recede into my memory instead of appearing in my every day thoughts. The smell of smoke, not of campfires but the odour of burnt memories and homes, is quick to bring it all to the surface again and remind me of how much has happened since that fateful day in May.

I was lucky, so much luckier than so many others. My home escaped the flames, but I did not escape the fire, as in some way I too am smoke damaged, not burned perhaps but still altered by an experience outside of what I once considered to be possible.

I think in the aftermath of May 3rd I am both stronger and more fragile than ever before. The simple smell of a freshly mowed lawn can bring me to the brink of tears; a quick glimpse of kindness can make my heart feel filled to the brim with joy.

I don’t know how to describe this as anything other than some sort of growth, thrust upon me perhaps but growth nonetheless. But with this growth has come some pain. There is, undoubtedly, some residual smoke damage.

There was a point when I thought I would one day return to “normal” – you know, the person I was on May 2nd, 2016. It has taken four months for me to comprehend that this is never going to happen, and I will never be that person again, because what has happened to my community – to me – has altered me.

There are so many different experiences and different perspectives; they are as unique as we are, the intriguing collection of people who have chosen this northern community as our home. I know there are those who are struggling to get through every single day, and it breaks my heart to witness it; I know there are those who have returned to lives virtually untouched and who seem impermeable to the events of the past four months.

For myself, I have managed to go days without saying the word fire, and there have been times when it has been quite far from my thoughts, but the truth is that in some way it is omnipresent. I suspect to some degree it always will be, and accepting this has been both the hardest and simplest part of the entire experience.

I pull the bin of seat cushions out of my shed, and leave the contents outside in the cool air overnight. The next morning they are almost as good as new, covered with a soft sheen of fall dew, but with an ever so faint smell of smoke clinging to them. They are quite usable, and they will be good for many seasons to come, but they are also forever altered.

They are smoke damaged, just like I am and just like the city I have come to love with a ferocity that astonishes even me is. But it is the kind of damage that doesn’t mean the end; it’s the kind where a reminder of the past exists even as you move into the future. I fluffed up the pillows, placed them on my deck chairs and sat and listened to the birds while my neighbour mowed his lawn. As the sweet smell of green grass filled the air, the faint smell of smoke simply faded into the background; still there but not centre stage.

And maybe that, in all its simplicity, is all I truly need.



I suppose I have not yet written about it because it makes me feel ever so slightly sick when I think what could have happened. But for a twist of fate – or a moment of listening to my instinct – things could have been very, very different.

I have written often about my experience on May 3rd, but I have left out one pertinent detail: I was not supposed to be in Fort McMurray on that day.

Every few months I travel to Edmonton to visit a corneal specialist, a trip I usually combine with some shopping and leisure time; this spring, my appointment date was for May 4th, and I had intended to leave very early on the morning of May 3rd. My hotel was booked and I was ready to go – except that on May 1st things began to change.

I was working a shift at the Spring Trade Show on the Sunday afternoon, and as I walked back to my office after the trade show ended I noted the increasing smoke filling the sky. From my office window I saw the a bleak darkness beginning to form, and as I walked to the parking lot I noticed ash falling on my car; I didn’t even have a chance to start the engine, though, before I received notice that some of our neighbourhoods were being evacuated. And I was sitting in the parking lot of the evacuation centre. I pulled out my keys, tossed my stuff back in my office, and headed in to help in whatever way I could.

The next morning, when I returned to my office and a building which was now officially an evacuation centre, I went into my boss’s office and told her I would be postponing my Edmonton trip. I said it was because I felt it was not a good time to be away, which was true, but if I was very honest it was also because of my instinct.

There was a time when I ignored my instincts. I assumed that instinct was of less value than intellect. In recent years, though, I have learned to listen to instinct; those gut feelings were far more often right than wrong. I began to understand that my intuitive sense was stronger than I ever realized, and that it was tapping into something my conscious mind did not and could not. I had begun to not only listen to it, but allow it to guide my decisions, recognizing that even if my instinct was on occasion wrong that I would never regret having followed it; and on May 2nd my instinct told me that I could not leave on the morning of May 3rd.

I am not psychic, nor do I claim to be. I had no way of knowing what would happen on that date, but I sensed that I should not leave, and so I was here when things began to fall apart. I cannot imagine if I had been in Edmonton, hours away, unable to evacuate my dog and my cats. I cannot imagine not having been here for my colleagues and friends, and watching it from afar. While being here was difficult, for me not being here would have been far worse; and it could have easily been the case.

Instinct is a funny thing. We discount it readily, suggesting that intuition and instinct are not factual and therefore not worth weighing when we make decisions, and yet in my experience my intuition and instinct have been invaluable. They have helped me navigate tricky interpersonal experiences. They have helped to direct my professional writing career. And in May, 2016, they were the difference between feeling helpless and feeling like I had some control.

When I called my corneal specialist on May 2nd to postpone my appointment, the receptionist mentioned they had a number of people booked for May 4th from my community, and asked me if I thought they would make those appointments. I hesitated, and for whatever reason I finally told her I thought they should be prepared for some cancellations. Even as the words left my lips I had no idea why I believed them to be true, but I did; and the receptionist later told me that of course many did not make those appointments as they were flung far and wide on the afternoon of May 3rd.

My experience at the beginning of May solidified what I have suspected for a very long time: instinct and intuition have power, and we ignore them at our peril. Being in Fort McMurray on May 3rd was hard, but at least by being here I had the chance to rescue my cats and my dog, gather important documents and be there for friends as they went through the same experience. To have been hours away, for me, would have been pure torture, and it would have significantly changed my experience in the days after evacuation.

It was a tremendous lesson in learning to trust my instincts. Any doubt I have had in this regard has now been washed away, and I have begun to listen to my intuition even more keenly.

And now I share this story, because I think far too often we ignore or discount our instinct. We allow ourselves to be swayed away from what we know instinctually to be right or true, and we veer away from trusting the very abilities that have served us well since the dawn of time. While over our evolution we may have refined our speech, our intellect and our ability to reason, instinct has always been a guiding principle for the human species. It may not always be “right”, but it is always worth considering. And it may not be the ultimate deciding factor for everyone, but I suspect that if we listened to our instincts more often we would learn not only more about our world, but about ourselves.

On May 3rd, 2016, I was in Fort McMurray as it burned. But I wasn’t supposed to be. But for a sense – a small feeling in the pit of my stomach – I would have been far away, watching it happen as if it was some surreal dream instead of surreal reality. Perhaps others would have preferred to be far away; for me, though, being here, in the community I have loved for fifteen years, was the only place to be. And it is only thanks to my instinct that I was.