Empty

I have asked her where she wants to go on our next vacation; back to Disney World and a cruise, perhaps, or maybe Ireland this time?

When she texts back a few days later I am both bemused and perplexed, as it shows what a complicated creature my child truly is.

“Chernobyl,” she texts. “I think we should go to Chernobyl.”

Chernobyl? The site of a massive nuclear accident, a name forever etched in my brain as I recall watching the coverage on television as the dire fears of a nuclear meltdown were realized and thousands fled their homes due to the radioactivity they could not see but that was truly lethal in the most horrific of ways.

Yes, that Chernobyl.

She is in first year Engineering now, and has discovered a fascination with nuclear science. She is in fact considering a trajectory change, switching her focus from mechanical to nuclear and I suspect this has spurred the sudden interest in visiting the scene of a nuclear plant gone terribly wrong.

She sends text after text showing that it is now safe, at least for small segments of time, using terms like millisieverts and other words beyond my simple comprehension. And while she does so, I begin to browse Chernobyl on the internet, quickly finding photos of the perhaps-forgotten part of the disaster: the city of Pripyat, evacuated in the first 48 hours following the disaster and uninhabited since.

Here is the merry-go-round in the amusement park, forever stilled. Here are the houses, the schools, the hospitals, the playgrounds, gradually decaying into dust and nature (of the sort that has been left behind after being irradiated) beginning to take over.

An entire city of 50,000 people gone in two days, never to return.

And as I view the photos I find myself beginning to feel ever so slightly ill, as this seems eerily familiar to me, far too similar to a city emptied of over 80,000 people in a matter of hours just under two years ago.

“You can tour the hospital,” she texts. They do guided tours through the city, and you can see where the firefighters who initially responded to the crisis eventually dropped their heavily irradiated fire equipment before finally fleeing (but not likely before they acquired a massive dose of radiation, and the ensuing health consequences). You can tour the streets and the school, look inside the houses and see an entire community that was abandoned.

It sets me into a long train of thought, as fundamentally it feels like this is a sort of “disaster tourism”, although in this case one heavily endorsed and promoted by the country in which it occurred. The tours are perfectly legal and popular; there are entire packages available.

For me, though, there is another layer of complexity as it feels so close to what we experienced in my community in May of 2016. When we fled we had no idea if we would be able to return; were it not for the fact that our water treatment plant, hospital and other basic infrastructure were spared, we may have found ourselves the residents of an abandoned city to which we would never return.

Both my head and my heart hurt as I ponder it.

“You could write about it,” she texts.

And in that she is right, there is no doubt there are powerful things to be written about Chernobyl and Pripyat, and even about the similarities to my own experience in a community that was ravaged not by radiation but wildfire. There is a lure in that, but there is something else that tips the scales.

There is the desire to feel myself challenged, to bring myself to that pit of sadness and back out again, to immerse myself in that abandoned city and realize that for the people who were forced to abandon it life went on, even if it was very different and very likely very difficult.

Just as life would have gone on had I never been able to return to my own city if a wildfire had not just singed it, but destroyed it entirely.

Chernobyl and Pripyat are perhaps examples of human error, maybe even hubris. But so too they are examples of resiliency, like turning this site of disaster into a way to generate revenue in a country desperate for it.

“Okay,” I text. “Maybe not this year, but yes. Chernobyl.”

And so I will one day stand in an empty city and reflect on their experience and ours. There will be a mix of emotions I am sure, some of them relating to the fact that I was able to return home to my community after a disaster while they had not; but  I also know I will feel there what I feel here in Fort McMurray: a sense of  the courage, resiliency and indomitable nature of the human spirit, even when the worst happens.

Even in the midst of an empty city.

Hometown

Sam at 10 in Abasand, Fort McMurray

“When I tell people at university that I’m from Fort Mac it’s amazing how many of them are, too,” says my daughter as we drive home from the airport.

What catches me isn’t that other kids at her school are from Fort McMurray; it’s that she says she is from Fort McMurray.

I pause and say: “You tell them you’re from here? Not from Calgary?”

You see, she spent the final two years of high school living in Calgary, choosing to leave Fort McMurray for a variety of reasons; and when she did I somehow assumed that when it came time for her to claim her hometown, she would claim our larger and admittedly likely more-exciting-for-a-teenager neighbour to the south.

She looks at me with that expression kids reserve for their parents when it is clear they are a bit senile or perhaps just dumb; “of course I say I am from here, this is my hometown”. And she gazes out the window as we drive home, watching the snow drift and the valley of downtown Fort McMurray come into view.

And I smile, because this is truly something I have always wanted: for my daughter to one day proudly say she is from Fort McMurray, Alberta.

This year marks the longest continuous stretch I have lived in one place, including as a child. Fort McMurray has now been my home for longer than anywhere else, and I know that while I have deep and abiding affection for Toronto and Saskatoon, the other contenders for my heart, that Fort Mac (and yes, I call it that with love) will always be where I consider home. It is the place where I have found people who inspire me, thrill me, love me, encourage me, compel me and on occasion drive me completely fucking crazy; who could ask for anything more than that?

My daughter came here as a child, of course, and had little choice in where to grow up. But the truth is she grew up here, in this place of opportunity and challenge, this quirky northern Alberta city-that-is-not-a-city and that is marked by an incredible vibrancy and energy (and one that has nothing to do with oil).

That she has chosen to claim it as her home town, eschewing her other home of late, makes me even more determined and committed to ensuring this community continues to be the place where children like her are proud to call home.

Communities don’t just happen; they are built by the people within them, and if the people who reside in them so choose, communities can falter and fail. Just as with brick and mortar buildings, communities need maintenance and tending, investment and loving care. And just as with buildings, with neglect comes consequences.

And to be very frank, just as with buildings when the exterior conditions become more harsh, that maintenance becomes more critical. When cold winds blow and hard rains pound a building, the necessity of shoring up the walls and roof becomes very clear; and in our region in the past few years we have seen the cold winds of economic change and the hard rain of blow after blow, including a devastating wildfire that threatened to topple us entirely.

And yet here we are, tending to our home. And why do we do it?

For me, it’s all about the kids, ones like my daughter who will undoubtedly leave one day and venture far away, but who can carry with them the strength, courage, tenacity and pride they found right here in their hometown.

As the car rolls on, I glance at her as she gazes out the window, seeing her hometown roll by. And I smile, as I am filled with pride; in her, in us, and in our hometown.

This Uncurated Life

It was with interest that I listened to a young woman explain her Instagram feed to me. She explained how she always uses the same filters, the same focus on her lens, the same point of view to create a consistent feel for her photos.

She called it her curated life.

I found this both intriguing and troubling, because one of the things I have come to recognize over the last five decades is that life is both uncuratable and truly at its best when it is messy.

My Instagram feed looks like nothing like a curated collection. It is a collection of real moments from my life, from suede shoes with bits of cat fur clinging to them to odd angles, bad lighting and brief glimpses of all the imperfections. And if I am honest these are the type of Instagram feeds I am drawn to, because instead of trying to create some image of perfection they instead reflect the reality of other’s lives.

Have you ever seen an Instagram feed or a Facebook profile that seems to display a perfect life? These always make me suspicious because the truth is life is not perfect.

If I had had the option to curate my life I would’ve curated out so many things; the painful death of my father from lung cancer; my mother’s sudden-death from an aneurysm; the loss of vision in my left eye due to disease; the demise of a 24 year marriage and so much more. But in the same way I would’ve wished to curate these things out of my life, they are what has made my life what it is.

I wonder about those who strive for a curated life; I suspect that one day life will surprise them as it surprises all of us, with unexpected happenings both good and bad. It is unlikely these things will fit into their curation, and yet these are the things that give life true beauty.

I am not saying that terrible things are beautiful; please don’t misunderstand. But I think if life were nothing but perfect, we would not appreciate it because we would not understand there are two sides to living.

They say that we only appreciate light because we can see the dark and warmth because we experience being cold. I think this is true of life as well. Perhaps those who curate their lives have not yet experienced the loss of a loved one, the end of a relationship, significant illness or any of the other life traumas that eventually we will all face. Or perhaps they have endured these things and have instead chosen to focus on a beautiful, “perfect” life.

And I do not judge them for this; I simply do not believe that life can be curated and nor should it be. Life is messy, difficult, occasionally painful and yet incredibly beautiful.

The loss of my parents made me understand how much I treasured them; the end of my marriage led me to explore my own need for independence; the loss of vision in one eye made me appreciate being able to see. To curate these things out of my life would be to deny that they are part of it and part of the journey of my existence.

I not only accept but also celebrate my time on this planet, with moments of both joy and anguish, as I wander through this uncurated life.

Finding Your Tribe

When she was a small child, I would worry on occasion about many things; and one of the things I occasionally fretted over was her small social circle, as she was quite picky about her friends and tended to have few.

There is no doubt she was a bit different from other little girls her age; while they played with dolls her preference was to disappear into her room for hours, emerging once she had completed her latest Lego or Playmobil masterpiece. It was clear quite early on that she had a grasp of certain scientific principles most children don’t grasp until far later (and that some adults, like me, struggle with for most of their life). She was interested in string theory and the riddle of Schrodinger’s cat, space travel and time hops. And she had a dark and cynical sense of humour from an early age, unusual for most children I think (where she inherited that, I clearly have NO idea).

And while she had friends, to me it seemed they were more friends of convenience than of choice; they were “better-than-having-no-friends” friends, good kids but ones she had little in common with and with whom she shared few interests.

The hard truth is that she was, in every sense, a lot like me.

Finding your tribe isn’t always easy. This is particularly true when you are, perhaps, a bit different from the norm and don’t quite fit into where fate has placed you as a child. For me, it was the challenge of being an unsophisticated kid who got plopped into a new school in Grade 6, where all the other kids were savvy and street smart and, frankly, keen to bully anyone not like them.

I found friends along the way – good ones – but it took me a long time to find my tribe.

And so it was for her, even when she chose to leave Fort McMurray to finish high school in Calgary, a move in which I thought she may finally find her tribe. And she found friends there, as I knew she would, but it wasn’t until she started university this past fall and sent me this picture that I knew it had finally happened:

She had found her tribe, in a group of engineering students who share so much in common despite their differences, who speak the same language of science and math and who are building a community despite coming to their campus from across the country and even the world; and it was so familiar, because almost two decades ago, after years of searching, I found my tribe.

One could also call it my community, I suppose. For it was when I moved to Fort McMurray Alberta – and when I allowed it to begin to move me – that I found my tribe, people who spoke the same language of home, belonging and community. We came from every corner of the planet to build homes, lives, communities and a tribe.

In 2016, a few months after the devastating wildfire that struck our region, I considered leaving Fort McMurray. I don’t think I am alone in this; many contemplated this choice, and some did in fact choose to move on. But for me, it was something I could simply not find it in my heart or head to do, as I had found my tribe here. These were the people who were in my life by choice, not just by chance; this was the place where I found every time I gave to it, it gave back to me tenfold.

How do you know when you have found your tribe? I suppose it is like I always told her. If you have to try too hard to fit in, then they might be a good tribe, but they might not be your tribe. If you feel you are losing a sense of yourself to become part of them, then they are probably not your tribe. If they do not make you want to be better and do better, then they may not be your tribe. And if it feels too much like work, if it does not feel natural and right and comfortable, then you may not yet have found your tribe.

That she has found her tribe cannot be doubted. It is in every tale she tells, every photo she sends, every laugh in her voice when she calls; it took some time, but her tribe – her community – is clear.

And so it is for me, too. Despite the challenges, the flaws, the failings, the moments when I roll my eyes at some of my tribal companions or when, for a fraction of a second I am tempted by the call of other places, I know I have found my tribe. It’s not that it’s perfect, it’s not that it’s utopia, and it’s not that it’s never -45 degrees Celsius (!). It is that for whatever reason, this is the place where I fit in, and where I have found the tribe I have spent my life searching for.

The funny thing about tribes, though, is that over your life they can change. New interests, new opportunities and new challenges are around every corner, and sometimes a new tribe awaits. But when you find your tribe – when you find the place where you don’t have to work to fit in, where you all speak the same language (and by that I don’t mean English, but the language of community, commitment and cohesion) and where you feel at home, you savour every moment, because the right tribe – your tribe – doesn’t come along every day.

Currently she revels in her new tribe, in their shared language and interests and common traits; and one day she may move on to a new tribe, but she will never forget this tribe or her allegiance to them.

And so I think it is with Fort McMurray, as once this tribe has claimed you and you have claimed it, it stays with you forever, no matter where you go or how long you are gone.

All my old worries from long ago are laid to rest; I am so very glad she has found her tribe.

And you know, I am glad I have found mine, too, in this northern point on the planet where the rivers flow, the forests grow and the northern lights dance, almost as if to a tribal song.

This is my tribe. And I cannot imagine a better tribe to which to belong.

The Year of Letting Go

The final day of 2017 arrives and my thoughts begin to turn to the year past and the one yet ahead. That thin wedge between December 31 and January 1, while a most arbitrary dividing line in our lives, has the power to do this, make us reflect and resolve and sometimes, perhaps, regret.

As this year hastens towards it’s end and a new one begins, the phrase that keeps dancing in my head is “the year of letting go”. I knew I had read a quote that struck me, and so I sought it out, finally finding it:

My heart truly soared when I read it, because that was my 2017. It was a year of letting go of so many things, putting down some of the burdens I had carried for so long and forgiving others – and myself – for our faults and failings.

2016 was a difficult year in my community. The massive wildlife that swept through our city destroyed not only homes but lives and hearts and souls. And it impacted me far more than I initially understood, even though I had not lost my home or my heart; but somehow the flames had singed my soul and I struggled for so very long.

2017 was the year we marked the first anniversary of that fire, a date that seemed both a relief to finally have past us and an agony to endure. I sat in my office on that memorial date and looked out my window, seeing not an angry black and red sky but a beautiful spring day and could not help but compare the two days, separated by one year in time.

2017 was the year I walked across a stage and accepted a medal for my conduct during the initial hours of that fire. I came very close to denying the medal completely, to asking to have my name removed from the list of recipients because I felt I did not deserve it in any way. On that fateful day in May, I had done my job, which did not involve saving lives or homes; and more than that I was carrying the secret shame that I was profoundly disappointed in myself that I had not been stronger, smarter, braver or tougher on that day or the days that followed.

2017 was the year I made friends, lost friends, saw my respect  for some grow as they showed themselves to be more than I ever imagined and saw my respect for others diminish as they revealed themselves to be lacking in what I thought they had; and in this way it was no different than any other year, as this journey we are all on means at moments our path crosses that of others, for better or for worse.

2017 was the year I left the job I had worked at for almost five years, the one that was intense and challenging and that I loved but that I had come to recognize was having negative impacts on me both emotionally and physically and in which I knew the time had come to move on, although I clung to it tightly because it was the job that had given me hope and life after my divorce and because I adored the colleagues who has become more like family.

2017 was the year I began a new job, one with new challenges and intensity, but keen and sharp and fresh and new and exciting and with a cast of new colleagues rapidly becoming friends.

2017 was the year I worked on a political campaign (well, two, really) and saw the highs and lows and thumps and bumps and victory and defeat and everything in between.

And 2017 was the year I began to write about my marriage and my divorce, these topics until now untouched and undisturbed as they settled in my heart and mind to a place where words could finally penetrate.

2017 was the year of letting go.

I let go of my anger and disappointment in myself that lingered after the wildfire; and I let go of my anger and disappointment in those who I felt had failed me in some way. I let go of a job that I had loved for so very long, but that I knew was time to leave. I let go of people who did not enrich my life and for whom I suspected I did not enrich theirs; and I let go of the emotions of my marriage and divorce enough to begin unpacking that baggage, quietly choosing what to keep and what to discard and what needed to be written.

I broke open and dug out all the rot with my own hands, beginning the year feeling uncertain and unsettled and finding myself at the ending at peace because I have done the things I know I needed to do to get where I wanted to be.

And here I am. 2017 was the year I made peace and love, with myself and with my world and with my soul that had been singed in a fire that somehow left me smoke-damaged and scarred without even touching me in any real way.

It was a good year, one not unmarred by losses and crises and tragedies, but one that reminded me that what mattered was not what happened but how I responded, and one that allowed me to remember to be as gentle with myself as I tend to be with others, forgiving them for things I would likely struggle to forgive in myself.

It was my year of letting go, of letting be, of almost losing myself and diving deep to find myself again, of stopping writing for a time to allow myself to feel until those feelings began to demand they be written again.

And now, 2018. A new book with blank pages, crisp and clean and empty like the dozens of notebooks I own, just waiting to be written in and to tell the story. Today I let go of 2017, not with the angst I released 2016 but with fondness and with gratitude for being not only a year of letting go but being another year I was so blessed to have had when I know others were denied of that privilege. And I look forward to 2018, with new challenges and new highs and lows and more than anything, most of all, another year in which to love and laugh and live with those who have chosen to be part of my life just as I have chosen to be part of theirs.

Dearest reader, whether 2017 was your year of letting go, and whether it was the best or worst or just another year, I hope you will embrace 2018 as a new chance, a fresh start and very simply another year in which you get to dance across this earth.

Happy New Year – and thank you for being part of my year of letting go. I look forward to sharing tales of 2018 – whatever they might be – with you.

And with that, I let go of 2017, and welcome a fresh new year.

~TEW

Merry McMurray

There can be no doubt that Christmas is right around the corner; the temperature has dropped considerably, as seems to be the trend for most December 25ths I recall here, parking at the mall has become atrocious and only the brave venture into the grocery stores. The slow slide into the holiday season has now sped up into the final few hours and then…Christmas will arrive in Fort McMurray.

I find myself feeling reflective, as I often do when the year begins to wind down and thoughts turn to the events of the year past and those of the year yet to come; and as I ponder all these things while wrapping gifts and baking cookies and trying to find a parking spot at the mall I find myself particularly reflective on the merry nature of our community.

McMurray Merry, you query? How could we be merry, given the challenges we have seen in the last few years, from economic downturn to devastating fire?

Much like Bob Cratchit and his family in Dickens’ famous tale “A Christmas Carol”, being merry – and making merry – is not dependent on one’s circumstance and status. Ol’ Bob and his family are quite merry indeed, despite their poverty and Tiny Tim’s medical state, while old Scrooge “bah humbugs” through the season despite his wealth and apparent good health (give his advanced age in an era not known for long life expectancies).

What we have seen in the various retellings of this tale is that being merry is not inherent in us; we all have the chance to make things merry, and in particular this merriment seems best found when making it happen for others who may find merriment elusive.

Take, for instance, the local Santas Anonymous initiative. Every year, this student led venture at Father Mercredi High School enables families across the region to enjoy Christmas with gifts for the children and food for the table. In the last two years, the demand on this program has increased exponentially, showing the need that now exists in our community; and just as in every year the students and the staff advisors worked with community volunteers to collect donations, wrap, package and deliver Christmas to hundreds of families in our region. They are indeed the very embodiment of making merry, I think.

And then there’s groups like the folks at YMM Magazine, Hines Health Services and Country 93.3, who partnered this year to develop the Santas Anonymous Cookbook, soliciting recipes from local people, printing them in a small-batch and highly collectible cookbook, and then selling them with proceeds going to support the very initiative I mention above. When they asked me for a recipe I was pleased to send my mother’s famous chocolate chip cookie recipe (although my daughter was mildly aghast when I revealed I had shared this with the world, as she thinks of this recipe as a family heirloom, but she acquiesced when I noted that it simply meant Grandma’s love was going to spread just a bit further).

Of course there is the annual Syncrude Food Drive to benefit the Wood Buffalo Food Bank; this year what a pleasure it was to stand outside a store door and ask people to consider donating. And donate they did, returning to me with hands full of red bags packed with food for the clients of the food bank, providing fresh stock for shelves that often begin to look a bit bare at this time of year.

And then there are the initiatives from individuals, like my friend Blake who just began fundraising this month as part of fulfilling his dream to run the Boston Marathon. Blake, who has endured myriad heart issues, is an avid runner and next year he will run the Marathon through participation in the support of fundraising for rare disease research, advocacy and support; and what could be better than fundraising to support research into a rare disease that struck one of our own littlest community members, Tessa Tough? This past fall I had the great pleasure of seeing Blake run in Fort McMurray Half Marathon and was even able to arrange to have Tessa and her mom Dawn meet him at the finish line to hand him his medal, a profoundly special moment to witness. If there are any people who know how to make merry for others, it is perhaps these kind folks who despite their own challenges find ways to make life better for others; and while this may not strictly be a Christmas initiative it simply shows the generous spirit and kind nature of the people of this community.

And how about local builder Shawn Chaulk and the team at Stratford Homes, who upon seeing on the Facebook page of one client that all they wanted for Christmas was to be home again after losing their house in the wildfire, put in extra hours and time and effort in order to be able to give her the key and welcome her home before December 25 and well before the anticipated key release date?

I could go on and on and on. This year I have friends who will be home for Christmas for the first time since the fire; and I have friends who continue to wait for their homes to be completed. I know people who have family here for the holidays, others who are travelling to be with theirs, and some who will spend it with friends – or volunteering at the annual Christmas Day dinner that feeds those in need of a place to be on that day in our community.

And as I write this, my daughter sleeps downstairs, home after her first semester at University, and my niece is curled up on the couch, here to spend the holidays with her cousin-who-is-more-like-a-sister and I.

I am so very fortunate to have had a part in raising these two remarkable young women, and what I am perhaps most proud of is the way in which they look for ways to enrich the lives of others, regardless of what is happening in their own world. If I have done nothing more than been part of creating more Cratchits than Scrooges, then I think I have done well in this world.

And right here in Merry McMurray? There is nary a scrooge to be found, even when lines in stores are long, parking spots are scarce and the time to Christmas is ticking down.

The final line in “A Christmas Carol” is perhaps my favourite. Scrooge, after learning the error of his ways, reforms and learns to not only embrace but live the spirit of Christmas, and not only one day a year but all year long. And in this same way, I believe it can always be said of Fort McMurray that we know how to keep Christmas well, through making the world brighter for others – on a daily basis, and not just one day of the year.

Merry Christmas, Merry McMurray.

And god bless us, everyone.

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No, You’re Weird

Sometimes it’s hard to trace where an obsession began; many begin in some murky past with poor definition. But my obsession with a certain Canadian shoe designer and his remarkably unusual creations began in 1984.

It started with a friend who had purchased a pair of boots while she was in Vancouver. At that point in time in the 80s there is no doubt that I was part of the new wave movement, a sort of post punk precursor to what is now called Goth; it was all black clothing and hair and make up and attitude. The challenge is that I was growing up in a small western Canadian city, and being different was considered more strange than avant garde. After years of being bullied in elementary school for not fitting into the norm, I was rebelling completely, deciding if others thought I could not fit into the box society had created, then I would not only step out of the box but make my own box, paint it black, and defy others to enter it.

But while my exterior attitude was rough and tumble and dark, on the inside I was still that bullied kid who was deeply hurt by their inability to fit in. What was lacking in me that the others had, I wondered?

And then along came a pair of boots that changed my life.

They were black and definitely designed to resemble bondage wear; lots of straps and buckles and fierce attitude. And when my friend realized they pinched her toes, she gifted them to me, and my love affair with John Fluevog began.

You can read the history of Fluevog here. I think it is quite likely that Fluevog, like me, realized early on that he wasn’t like others, particularly when it came to designing shoes. And so instead of trying to fit into a box, he made his own box. In fact, thousands of boxes, blue shoe boxes filled with shoes of the most incredible design and diversity. And somehow, his shoes told me, that kid in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, that I wasn’t alone and that being different wasn’t only okay, it was good.

I wore those boots until they fell apart; until the straps broke and the buckles would no longer buckle. And while I didn’t get another pair of Fluevogs for years after that, I never forgot how the boots made me feel or how they allowed me to recognize that being different was good.

Over the years as I became an adult I lost some of that difference. I found myself trying to fit in and losing some of the unique qualities that made me who I was. It wasn’t really until I begin writing again a few years ago that I began to rediscover that “different” girl inside, the one who had her own box painted black and who defied others to enter it.

And with that rediscovery came the rediscovery of Fluevog shoes. Once again I embraced the love of difference and just as I rediscovered myself, I rediscovered my love of those shoes.

Fluevog is known for some fairly unusual marketing techniques. One of them is the tagline “no, you’re weird”. It’s like the ultimate bully come back, the thing you say to all of those bullies when they say that you’re weird. And for those who love Fluevog shoes it’s become an anthem of why it’s not only OK to be different and weird, but good.

When I became a parent I decided that I wanted my daughter to understand that she didn’t have to be the same as everyone else. I wanted to make her bully-proof, so she would never experience what I had. And so I taught her that it was OK to be different. In fact I taught her that being eccentric and strange and weird was more than OK. It was good. The people who change the world are the ones who aren’t afraid to get outside of the box and, even more importantly, to make their own boxes.

That’s likely how I ended up with a daughter who is fearless, pursuing her dream of mechanical engineering with a hope to one day work in aerospace technology. She has chosen a path that is challenging, but one in which she believes she can make a difference.

And of course she also loves Fluevog shoes. When she moved to university this year she took with her several pairs of shoes, almost all of them Fluevogs. And for all of the major events her life she has worn Fluevog shoes, ever since she’s been able to fit into them. She crossed her high school graduation stage in Fluevogs, she attended her father’s remarriage in Fluevogs, she graduated from junior high in Fluevogs, and they are always at the top of her gift list for every occasion.

In September of this year I learned that John Fluevog, the shoe designer who had helped me to learn that it was OK to be weird, was going to be visiting the new shoe store his company had opened in Edmonton for a public meet and greet. I knew I had to go.

They say you should never meet your heroes; I suspect they say this because sometimes our heroes can disappoint us. Sometimes they are not who we think they will be or maybe they’re not who we want them to be.

John Fluevog was everything I thought and hoped he would be.

In my very brief conversation with him I told him how many pairs of Fluevogs I own, how many years I’ve been wearing his shoes, and how he helped me to understand that it was OK to be different.

And when I told him those things I could see the look in his eyes; it was the look of someone who understands the challenges of being different. He gave me a hug, he thanked me, he signed a pair of my favorite Fluevogs, and he signed a postcard for my daughter to hang in her room at University.

To meet John Fluevog, I took two days off work, drove 4 1/2 hours one way and then back again, paid to stay overnight in a hotel, and found a pet sitter for all of my pets at home.

It was worth all of it.

Even to just have a moment to tell someone that they have made a difference in your life is worth everything it takes. I know there are some who think he’s just a man who designs shoes, someone who sells things for a living. But to me John Fluevog has always been a sort of hero.

During a time in my life when I needed to know that it was OK to be different, I needed role models I could look up to. What could be better than a Canadian shoe designer who was brave enough to not only step outside of the box but to make his own?

And make his own he has. In a time of economic downturn and financial uncertainty, the Fluevog empire continues to grow. New stores are opening up, the latest one in Amsterdam, and the message of being different – in fact being weird – is spreading around the world.

When I posted a photo on my Facebook page of John Fluevog and I, a friend commented that the guy looked weird. I could only laugh. I responded back “no you’re weird” and explained that in the world of Fluevog, being weird was perfect.

It’s been a very long journey from that young girl in Saskatoon who struggled with being different. Along the way I have found many mentors and role models and developed profound respect for those people who are brave enough to be different – and especially those brave enough to be weird. And now I occasionally count myself among them, having rediscovered a box that was always there and the one that was just right for me. It’s no longer painted black, and that girl with the ferocious attitude has instead become an older woman with ferocious compassion, understanding and belief in the value of helping others.

I recognize that you don’t need to wear Fluevog shoes to be different. And I understand there are people who can be different and weird and not need reassurance to know that they are not alone. I have achieved those things now that I’m older, but there was a time in my life when I needed that reassurance. For me it came in the form of musicians, artists, actors and a Canadian shoe designer.

“No, you’re weird”.

It’s like a mantra now. Because in that weirdness, in that willingness to be different, is beauty. What a boring world it would be if we were all the same. My Fluevog shoes do not define my difference, and I no longer rely on them for the reassurance I once did. But they are an external manifestation of that girl within, the one who recognized long ago that she wasn’t going to fit into a box and so she made her own.

Because it’s not only OK to be weird. It’s beautiful, just like a pair of 1980’s Gothic black boots, covered in straps and buckles and with the name John Fluevog stamped on them.