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.

Finding inspiration in history

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I discovered these dishes in the Vindolanda Museum, along Hadrian’s Wall, and have been thinking about them ever since.

This almost-complete set of Samian-ware pottery was imported into Roman Vindolanda from France and, after being broken in transit, was thrown away, unused, into the ditch of the fort.

Imagine the disappointment of the intended owner – and the thrill of the archaeologists who found these dishes almost two thousand years later!

As a writer, I have all sorts of questions:

Who were these dishes intended for?

Did whoever ordered these dishes get a replacement set? How long did that take? How much did it cost?

Not all the dishes are here… does that mean a few of them arrived intact? If so, what happened to them? Where they given to a slave or someone else, or did the owner keep them?

These questions could be the beginning of a story. My current project is set in Alberta in the 1930’s and I have been thinking about a set of dishes ordered out of the Eaton’s catalog that arrives broken…

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.┬áToday’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.

Going out into

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It’s two o’clock: the woman gazes out
into the storm, wind driving the snow
into deep drifts along fences. You know,
he said that morning before going out
into the blizzard to check the cattle
huddled behind the wind-break he built three
summers ago, while she, sipping ice-tea,
sat under the maples, listening to the rattle
of the wind-chimes he had bought for
her last birthday, too large to move, the sun
too hot, just waiting, waiting for the day
her child would be born, and later on two more,
twins; You know, he said, reaching for the gun
to shoot the coyote, You’re beautiful today.

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Note: I’ve been at the farm for the past few weeks, and the frost last week was beautiful. I was out taking photos, and this photo, of the gate and the grass in the sun, made me think of this poem – one of the very first poems I had published, in a little magazine called diverge that has since disappeared. The poem itself grew out of a writing class exercise to write a sonnet.