Exchange House, Revisited

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In which I go back to a place I used to work at a job I used to hate.

When I was in London in September, I spent some time visiting places that were significant to me when I lived there for six months in 1998. This post is about one of those places.

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In the morning, I took the tube to Liverpool station and discovered I knew the way: up the stairs, behind the shops, down the little alley, and there I was. Intuitively, I travelled the shortcut I had used every day I worked in this building, without even realizing I remembered it.

I hated that job. It was a temp job, working for a brokerage firm that doesn’t exist any more, answering phones, typing letters, doing the filing. I hated it – for a bunch of reasons – but I stuck with it for as long as I could, saving my precious pounds sterling (worth much more than a Canadian dollar, especially back in 1998) to go backpacking through Europe later that year.

It was not the right place for me and yet working there taught me so many useful things about myself and about what I wanted to do with my life.

One lesson in particular stayed with me: the knowledge that I want to work at something I find meaningful.

For me, that is NOT brokerage banking. I spent several months watching a few hundred people in a high-stress environment spend their days (and their evenings and their weekends) shifting money from one account to another in the hope of ending up with more money at the end of the transaction.

After months of watching traders ride the highs and lows of the stock market, I realized that money – although nice to have – was not the only motivating factor for me. Making money was not enough: I wanted to do something that created something or helped people or contributed to the world in some way… a train of thought that eventually led me to a career in public libraries.

When I revisited this building, Exchange House, in September, I sat on the steps in front of the fountain, where I used to eat lunch (the fountain has been filled in is and is a grassy stage now). I wrote in my journal and remembered the people I used to work with and some of the things that happened while I worked there. And suddenly, much to my surprise, I was grateful for that horrible job and that experience, because it helped me figure out what the right place for me is.

Thoughts on commuting

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putting my feet up

Today I am grateful that my current commute is across the hall in my slippers. Well, not slippers, exactly, but these fabulous fleece socks that have become my “writing socks.” (Some writers have sweaters; I have crazy socks.)

For eight years, I drove 45 km each way to work. The commute took about 45 minutes, morning and night, if the weather and traffic were both good. On days like today, it took longer. Today’s heavy snowfall has made me think about that drive. How grateful I am not to be doing it.

Except, most of the time, I actually enjoyed it. It was, in large part, a highway commute, and I enjoyed watching the fields change with the seasons as I drove north on Highway 21 into Fort Saskatchewan each day.

The drive gave me much needed quiet time. Time to pause, to think, to reflect. I did some of my best problem solving during that drive, while my conscious mind focused on the road before me and my unconscious mind turned things over in the background. I was reminded of this phenomena last week while driving out to the farm, when several pieces of my current project fell – rather unexpectedly – into place. I spent the first 30 minutes when I got there madly scribbling notes so I wouldn’t forget anything.

I also used to listen to audio books while I drove. I laughed my way through John Green’s Paper Towns. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall kept me going for weeks, and Thomas Cromwell’s problems made my own seem much more manageable. (After all, no matter what happened, at least I didn’t need to worry about losing my head.) I was furious at Barbara Kingsolver when she bragged about growing her own watermelons in Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: A Year of Food Life while I drove through the dark mornings and afternoons of an Alberta February. But I forgave her when I listened to The Lacuna, which I loved.

In fact, audio books helped me keep up with reading – my first love in life, and the one that led me to both writing and librarianship – during some of the busiest times of my career.

view from my apartment

Even so, I am glad not to be on the roads today, and I am incredibly thankful for this sabbatical – it has proven to be an amazing experience (and it’s not over yet).

Drive safe everyone. I’m thinking of you.

The joy of a day spent walking

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From September 2-10, 2014, a friend and I walked across England along the line of Hadrian’s Wall, from Wallsend in the east to Bowness-on-Solway in the west. We were not purists and skipped some less interesting parts of the path in favour of blistered feet (mine) or a side trip we wouldn’t have time for otherwise. Even so, we walked more than 100 km, and it was an amazing way to see this landscape.

Later, at home, I was telling someone about the experience and found myself talking about the joy of getting up and walking every day. How it felt strange on the tenth day to wake up and realize there was no walking to do, that all the miles were behind us.

I’ve been thinking about how to share the experience. I’m not sure I can, but I’m going to try, with the help of photos and a few brief words along the way.

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The walk started at the ruins of the Roman Segedunum, located at Wallsend.

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Although most of the first day was spent walking through the city of Newcastle, we found ourselves on country lanes by the afternoon.

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The second day began with this stretch of the wall. Note the modern road that runs alongside it.

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We relished the solitude of quiet paths…

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… and took time to notice small wonders.

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See the spider webs beaded with morning dew?

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Our journey took us through farmland…

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(Yes, there were sheep)

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…across rivers…

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…and over hills with magnificent views.

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I especially loved this hill, shaped like a sleeping dragon:

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We made new friends…

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… and admired the countryside.

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All the while, we followed in the footsteps of Roman troops 1800 years before.

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The layers of history were perhaps most evident when we discovered these trees – likely hundreds of years old – growing on the remains of the Roman wall.

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Then, nine days later, we found ourselves at the “official” end of the trail:

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And then, as I mentioned before, came the morning where there was no walking to do, which felt strange and unfamiliar. I missed the routine I had become accustomed to, of putting one foot in front of the other, of the feel of turf and asphalt beneath my feet, the weight of my day-pack on my back.

Although we walked up to 15 miles a day, it was a slow way to travel, at least by modern standards — we could have rented a car and covered the same area easily in a few days. Yet with the slowness came depth, and tranquility, and peace — and those amazing views.

Sabbatical Project #5: Travel

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“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” – St. Augustine

Hawai'i
View of the black sand beach at Pololu Valley on Hawai’i in February 2014.

I have divided my sabbatical year into three parts.

For the first part of the year, beginning in April, my only intention was to take the summer off.

Now I am getting ready to move onto the second part of my adventure. This week, I am packing my suitcase and making final travel arrangements.

During the next few months, there will be at least one post per week here – things that I have planned ahead of time. I am also hoping to occasionally post new writing from the road.

More Sabbatical FAQs

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Pacific City

Q: Is being on sabbatical as thrilling and as terrifying as it sounds?

A: Yes!

Q: What do you know about being on sabbatical now that you wish you had known before?

A: A few things come to mind…

1. I wish I had known that it wasn’t a good idea to tell people that I want to write during my sabbatical. Because now, of course, everyone asks me how the writing is going, when I’m not writing yet and am not quite ready to write yet. I’m still at the rejuvenating stage of things (see my answer to the next question).

2. I wish I had known how difficult it would be to let go of my old job. I spent the past four-and-a-bit years pouring all of my time and energy into building a new library. I am so proud of that space and of the services the staff and I created. And now the library is going on without me, and I without it. Our paths have diverged, and it was surprising to discover that the library and I are two separate entities. I had forgotten that at some point over the past few years.

Q: So really, what are you doing?

A: I am taking the summer off. I am riding my bike, going for long walks and to yoga, and playing with clay in the pottery studio. I am spending extra time at the farm and visiting friends all over the place. I am sitting on my balcony reading books (and not even all that fabulous Can Lit I’ve been saving for “when I have time” – more on that in a future post). I’ve been taking lots and lots of long afternoon naps.

If you don’t believe me that it is possible to make an entire, completely fulfilling summer out of these things, try it some time. Trust me.

Q: Where is that beach?

A: Pacific City Oregon. I was in Portland for five days last week and rented a car to go to the coast on the last day, and found myself on this blissful beach.

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P.S.

Thank you for reading! I love it when people stop by to say hi. All kind and thoughtful comments are welcome.

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Sabbatical Project #4: Start a blog

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Welcome!

As you can see, I’ve been posting things here for a little while.

My main motivation for starting this blog is to give myself a deadline to write on a regular basis. I intend to post something (anything!) at least twice a week.

Will anyone read along? Who knows. This space for writing is – like everything else this year – an experiment.

A few things I plan to include in this space:

  • Updates about my sabbatical
  • Writing about my current and past travels (coming soon!)
  • “Research notes” about interesting tidbits I find while researching Alberta’s history and my own family’s history for a writing project I am planning to work on later this year
  • New poems and other short pieces of creative writing
  • Thoughts about creativity and the writing process
  • Notes about books I’m reading

If you’re reading this, please say hi in the comments. All kind and thoughtful comments are welcome.