Reconciliation begins in our hearts

Like many Canadians I don’t know what to do about reconciliation. But as a writer I know ‘doing nothing’ constitutes a dereliction of duty.

As I said to a First Nations acquaintance over coffee last week, there are many people of European descent who are as troubled and perplexed as me when it comes to reconciliation: people who acknowledge the devastating assimilation that was perpetrated against aboriginal peoples in North America; and the unchecked occupation and pillaging of indigenous territories and cultures that had been established over thousands of years.

Acknowledging those atrocities is an important first step, but it doesn’t bring us much closer to an understanding of what is expected of us, and what we as individuals can do to help set things right. So I decided to go see Carey Newman’s Witness Blanket, on exhibit at Vancouver Island University’s View Gallery in Nanaimo until Nov. 30, thinking I might discover something in the 40′ display of residential school artifacts that would give me insights.

I wasn’t expecting any sort of revelation, rather, I wanted to quietly examine my thoughts and feelings in response to this work – I wanted to discover in the human scale of Witness Blanket, if what I already knew might coalesce into possibilities for meaningful action on my part. While I can’t say I’ve found a personal road-map, I have come away from the exhibit with a collection of ideas that might help me find a way.

As I studied the fragments of residential school history compiled in the Witness Blanket, I thought “I did not do this.” And asked, “Why should I apologize?”

It’s natural to look for a way out when we are confronted with something that looks like ‘blame.’ Then it occurred to me that apologizing is about more than accepting blame, it’s also about taking responsibility for the effects of grave social injustices that are still impacting the lives of tens of thousands of Canadians today.

As a nation, we do inherit the blame for our ancestors’ actions, and if we do not apologize in that sense, who will apologize and begin the work of healing. As importantly, by apologizing, we accept as individuals our responsibility to make right as best we can the wrongs that still weigh heavily on so many people in this land. Both facets of apology must be made and continue to be sincerely offered for as long as it takes to establish trust and achieve reconciliation.

Apology must be more than words, too; a sincere apology emerges out of genuine soul-searching and personal reform. To apologize in that sense means becoming aware of our own prejudices, and correcting them over time. It means respecting the people and cultures of First Nations – of any social or cultural group for that matter – and making room for them not only on the land, but in our hearts.

Guilt will not help us achieve reconciliation, but if we don’t devote ourselves as individuals and as a nation to the task, we will continue to be gnawed by guilt. When you become aware of an injustice, and take action to fix it, you do not need to feel guilty; but guilt becomes unavoidable if you do nothing. The most obvious sign of guilt is prejudice. When we cannot justify ourselves based on integrity and action, we rely on devaluing those we wrong and blaming them for their circumstances. A vicious cycle of scapegoating our victims distorts our perspective and shrivels our own humanity.

I came away from The Witness Blanket with an awakened sense of purpose. As a writer what I contribute to my world is words, strung into sentences, conveying meaning and encouraging action. Words, of course, are just squiggles on a page, ideas that have to be created anew in the minds and souls of the people who read them. I offer these words in that spirit, and will be looking for opportunities to talk, think and write more about reconciliation in the future.


Testing, testing, online sound check


There’s lots of good reasons for posting readings online; no reasons I can think of for not testing, testing, testing the digital audio waters.

I have recently taken the plunge into Direct-to-Web publishing. By that I mean editions of my books that are available in the form of dedicated web sites. By dedicated, I mean the web site is a book, every page and post focused on delivering the titled story. Rather than describe all the features, here’s a link so you can crack open the virtual cover to The Boy From Under and have a look at what I’m talking about.

First thing you might have noticed on the cover page is the options of going to the ‘Text’ or ‘Audio’ versions of the book. In case you didn’t click the audio link, have a look at the Boy From Under readings posted so far. What you will find there is a numbered listing of episodes, all linked to audio files that are, essentially, podcast readings from the book.

Pretty straight forward benefit to audiences that might want to listen hands-free on their mobile devices while they’re doing the dishes for instance, or commuting in a crowd to and from work, or if they just don’t feel like reading and want somebody to read to them.

For authors there are other digital reading benefits to consider. The Boy From Under is being delivered in audio format over a four month period, with roughly one episode of 122 posted daily. By the end of the project, the whole novel will be available for audiences that want to listen online – the text version is already posted and indexed in its entirety.

Every posting of a new audio episode provides me as author a legitimate opportunity to promote something new about my book to my potential audience. And since the book is online, I can disseminate to the whole world, if I choose, using social media strategies to get the message out. I can Facebook and Twitter my announcements, with a direct link to the latest update for them to click, along with an invitation for them to ‘Get into the story…’

Those who haven’t caught the 14 episodes posted so far can catch up by reading the text OL edition, or by cuing previous readings, which are posted online, too. WordPress includes an easy-to-use method for organizing and delivering audio files in a podcast format on web sites. It’s an ideal platform for authors who want to reach audiences with voiced as well as written words.

Next week I’ll go over the equipment and steps that go into posting a novel in audio format. It’s affordable, doable and worth the investment, I think.

Curling up with my mobile phone


I am one of the canaries in the mine shaft, twittering about the end of the ePub era!

Not, I hasten to add, as a literary Luddite, intent of on smashing the servers that fire digital data off into the stratosphere in bewildering, exponentially accelerating torrents, but as a writer who has moved on from Kindles, Nooks and their multitude of ePub equivalents into the era of direct-to-web publishing.

My first experiment with this publishing and distribution mode, The Boy From Under, has taught me two resounding lessons, it is:

  1. doable for any author with a modest kit of web and social media skills to build on (or friends, or providers, who have those skills);
  2. offers a range of opportunities for engaging, distributing and selling that can’t be touched by any other mode of publication.

And, since works can be self-published and self-promoted in this mode, there’s always the possibility of ‘going conventional,’ should a publisher come along who really wants to acquire rights to your trending, online novel.

Why go direct-to-web?

How can writers, and readers, benefit by direct to web? Let me count the ways:

  1. You can distribute your book just about anywhere on the planet at virtually no cost;
  2. That means you can sell your books for a fraction of the cost faced by conventional publishers;
  3. Virtually all the money you generate for sales will go directly into your bank account (for any of you who have ground your teeth to powder, watching potential earnings dwindle to net zero as book sellers, distributors, printers and publishers take their cuts, this is truly a potential golden goose that won’t be killed);
  4. You can format your book in text and audio easily, and post it in an indexed format that allows readers to get right back to their cued paragraph in an instant;
  5. Readers can tuck into your book anywhere, any time. They can read it or listen to it on their mobile phones, standing on the subway; sneak in a chapter at their desk, when the boss isn’t looking; even retreat to the sanctum-sanctorum of the loo when mayhem rules elsewhere in their world… there’s nowhere your book won’t be available;
  6. You can tie directly into all sorts of social media promotional and engagement opportunities, even allowing readers to suggest changes or revisions to your online ‘work-in-progress.’
  7. Environmentally, there is no more efficient, less destructive means of distributing literature. Think about it: no paper that requires pulped trees; no transportation from press to markets; for that matter, no press either.

Is the time right for direct-to-web?

There’s never a ‘right time’ for change; but the time does come when not changing means being left behind. People looking for the kind of experience literature offers are gravitating more and more to the Internet. If writers and publishers do not fill the void that presently exists online for first rate literary content, that void will be filled by others. I, for one, do not believe people in the near-future will see ‘curling up with a good book’ as anything other than reading or listening to it on the next-gen equivalent of a mobile phone, tablet or laptop.

Blowdown – Cannibal Man

Cannibal Man / Craig Spence ©

One day Spirit Bird told me the story of Cannibal Man. It was summer. I was ten, and had known her a couple of years – four, if you include the period when I could feel her presence, but hadn’t been introduced to her by Ant. We were seated not far from the Tea House Restaurant at Ferguson Point, me on the grass, her concealed inside a thicket. That was our way. She never showed herself to anyone else.

That day no breeze came to cool us. The sun beat down and the air oppressed me with its stifling weight. I was cranky. Mosquito, taking advantage of my languor, landed on my arm and bit me. Instinctively I swatted him, bursting his bloated body and splattering blood on my arm. It was as if I had spilled Mosquito’s blood and not my own. I felt badly about having killed him, but Spirit Bird only laughed.

“He deserved it,” she said. “Besides, Mosquito will be back. There’s plenty of him around. You can kill him a million times and there will be a million more of him waiting for an opportunity to sneak up and suck your blood.”

This harshness surprised me, and I asked her why she had no compassion for Mosquito, who was hated by everyone. “He doesn’t need compassion, nor does he want it,” she said. Then she told me his story.

North of here, up in the mountains, lived the Cannibal Man. They said that when the sky glowered red over the ragged peaks, Cannibal Man was stoking up his fires, preparing to roast human flesh. On such nights villages retreated into their longhouses and set guards at the door to make sure no one ventured outside and that Cannibal Man did not sneak in. Families huddled round the fire and told tales to pass the time and take their minds off the danger lurking outside.

Crowchild was a young man. He resented being cooped up in the longhouse every time Cannibal Man got hungry. “Besides,” he said to himself, “if I want to be a warrior and a hunter I must prove my slyness and courage. What better opportunity?” So he decided to slay the curse of his village, the murderer of his people, or to die trying. But how could he defeat Cannibal Man, who was bigger, stronger and faster than any human? Crowchild sat away from the circle of his clan and thought. He called to his spirit bird Crow and asked for advice.

Crow flapped in through the lodge’s smoke hole and landed before the young brave. Tilting his sleek black head and staring Crowchild up and down, the bird cawed harshly. “Am I not worthy?” Crowchild wondered. Ignoring him Crow hopped across the lodge and fetched a box of oolichan oil that Crowchild’s mother used to fill their lamps. “What shall I do with this?” Crowchild wondered. Then the bird flew over to Crowchild’s mat and retrieved the youth’s stout walking stick. “What do you mean?” Crowchild asked. “Wouldn’t a war club be more useful than a walking stick?” Finally the bird sidled up to the fire and plucked out a hot stone, which he placed next to the other items.

Cocking his head once more, Crow sized up Crowchild, then flew away.

Still unsure what he was supposed to do, Crowchild gathered up his things. He put the hot stone into a thick cedar case which he hung around his neck on a leather strap. Then he grasped his walking stick and the oolichan oil and set out for Cannibal Man’s camp.

“Are you sure?” the Elders asked. “I am sure,” he said. “Don’t go!” his mother begged. “I must,” he answered resolutely, stepping out of the longhouse and striding away from the village along the beach toward the still reddening sky.

Crow came down and alighted on Crowchild’s shoulder. Suddenly the youth was transformed and found himself flying high over The Place Between the Waters. “You must get to Cannibal Man’s camp quickly,” Crow said, “before your stone cools.”

“But what am I to do with the stone?” Crowchild demanded.

“You will know when the time comes,” his companion croaked.

They flew across the water, northwest toward the jagged peaks. Circling down they landed at the edge of Cannibal Man’s encampment. From behind a clump of shrubs Crowchild watched in horror as the giant, emaciated form of Cannibal Man danced wildly around his raging bonfire. Cannibal Man was thin as a skeleton, which meant he must be very hungry. Many people would die if Crowchild did not kill his enemy. He looked at the box of oil and wondered what he should do with it. “And why would Crow have given me a walking stick when he knew he was going to give me the power of flight to get here?” Crowchild wondered. The case that held his stone was warm, which meant its heat was escaping.

“Help me Crow!” he pleaded.

Suddenly, he knew exactly what to do. Opening the case of oolichan oil Crowchild smeared his body from head to foot, using up every drop. Then he picked up his walking stick and stepped out of hiding. “Cannibal Man!” he shouted. “Why do you waste your energy dancing, when there is game for you to hunt right next to your camp?”

The giant glared at him from the other side of the fire, then grinned. “You challenge me? What is your name?”

“Crowchild!” the youth answered proudly, although his knees were shaking.

“Hah!” Cannibal Man spat. “You’re so scrawny you’re hardly worth the energy of a chase. But I shall pick my teeth with your bones anyway, young buck. Then I shall go and devour your sisters and brothers and mother and father. Your insolence will cost them their lives.”

With that Cannibal Man charged.

Crowchild turned and ran. Round and round the fire he fled, Cannibal Man’s hot, stinking breath at his back. Several times Cannibal Man reached out to grab him, but every time Crowchild popped free because of the oolichan oil coating his body. Cannibal Man roared in frustration. Round and round they ran, until they were both exhausted. Crowchild could not run any more and he knew Cannibal Man was about to catch him. He dodged one more time, then spun to face his enraged pursuer. Cannibal Man bellowed and pounced, so angry he was going to devour Crowchild whole. “I’ll munch you down live,” he vowed, opening his huge maw to swallow Crowchild up.

But Crowchild jammed Cannibal Man’s jaw open with his walking stick. Cannibal man shook his head from side to side in panic and fury. “Argh!” he groaned, the stick digging into the roof of his mouth. Hanging on desperately, Crowchild fumbled open the lid of the case around his neck and let the hot stone tumble out. With a sizzle it landed on Cannibal Man’s tongue, then rolled down his gullet. The force of Cannibal Man’s howl hurled Crowchild out of the giant’s mouth. He landed with a thud upon the ground at the edge of the clearing. Cannibal Man shrieked in pain as the hot stone burned his gut and burst his stomach. Spinning wildly in his agony, he fell into his own cooking fire and thrashed about, as he was roasted alive.

Mosquito emerged with the embers that danced around Cannibal Man’s fire, and to this day he carries on Cannibal Man’s foul habit of sucking human blood.

“So you see,” Spirit Bird concluded, “you don’t need to feel pity for Mosquito.”

“What if I can’t help it?” I said.

Spirit Bird laughed. “Then you will be one of Cannibal Man’s few friends, and he will come to see you often.”

Blowdown – Before Times

Before Times / by Craig Spence ©

A long time ago, centuries before Europeans ran their boats up on the sand, a little girl lived with her family in this place called Stanley Park. She was a happy child, forgetful of her chores but always forgiven because she smiled so brightly and asked such delightful questions. The people of her tribe called her Spirit Bird, because “if she had wings, she would sail away on the wind and never be seen again.”

Clumsy and forgetful as she was at most useful tasks, Spirit Bird was a very good clam digger. She loved to go out on the beach at low tide and fill her basket with clams, which she would bring home for everyone to feast on. She especially loved clam digging on windy days. “How are you Shore Breeze?” she would say. “Thank you for combing my hair and stroking my cheeks.”

Shore Breeze wasn’t very talkative. In fact, for years he said nothing at all. But Spirit Bird knew he was listening and it was noted by the people that even on the calmest days, when everyone else was oppressed by the heat and the bugs, there would be a gentle wind blowing wherever Spirit Bird went. “She has drawn the spirit of the wind to her, there’s no doubt about it,” they said.

As she grew older, Spirit Bird longed for a glimpse of her consort. She wanted to see him instead of his tracks: ripples on the water, bending grass and scuttling leaves. “No-one has ever seen the wind,” her mother warned. “Which must mean the wind is not meant to be seen.” This answer did not satisfy the girl. So she went out on a point of land, opened her arms and called to Shore Breeze. “I have been your companion since I was a child,” she said. “Now that I am young woman, I long to see you.”

Nothing happened, but she persisted, facing the sea with her feet firmly planted on the rocks, her arms spread out like a net. “Why won’t you show yourself?” she pleaded. And for the first time Shore Breeze spoke in Spirit Bird’s own tongue. “I do not show myself because anyone who sees me will be lost to her people. It is enough to feel my gentle caress, to hear my whispers and sighs, to see my passing in the waving branches of the trees. Do not ask for more.”

“You must heed Shore Breeze,” Spirit Bird’s mother advised.

But the girl was determined and would not listen. “If he will not show himself willingly, I will trick him,” she vowed. So the next day, when she set out for the beach, Spirit Bird filled her clam basket with dry sticks of cedar and she brought along a hot ember from the longhouse fire and a wooden ladle carved in the shape of a duck. When she got to the shore she ignored the clam beds, making her way onto her rocky point instead. Here she built a fire, stacking the wood and igniting it with the glowing ember.

When it was burning brightly, the wood crackling and snapping, Spirit Bird called out to Shore Breeze to join her. He obliged, blowing the smoke away and making the fire glow even more cheerfully. “Why do you have a fire blazing on such a warm day? Isn’t it a waste of wood?” he asked. She nodded, but did not answer. He swooped closer in, whirling round so that the smoke twisted skyward like a tornado. Shore Breeze was enjoying himself in her company, which made Spirit Bird feel badly for what she must do. “He trusts only me of all the people, and here I am planning to trick him.”

This thought almost stopped her from carrying out her plan. But before her will weakened, Spirit Bird dipped her ladle in the sea and threw a scoop of water onto the flames. A cloud of steam billowed up from the fire and before her eyes it took the form of a handsome young man – Shore Breeze. He turned toward her, frowning. “Ah,” he said. “You, of all the people I have met, are the first to have seen me. Now you shall be mine.”

“Are you angry?” Spirit Bird asked.

“No,” he laughed. “I am happier than I have ever been, for you do me honour with your devotion. But your people will miss you.”

And so they did. All that was ever seen of Spirit Bird after that day was the cold ashes of her fire, the wooden ladle shaped like a duck, her clam basket and cedar cape. The girl had vanished forever. Some said she had dived into the sea and drowned because she was so sad not to meet her lover, the wind. But others claimed they could hear her whispering to them when the breeze blew. Some even said that after that day the breeze guided them away from danger and showed them things they would never have seen if they had not been guided by its gentle influence. Those were the ones who knew Spirit Bird had never gone very far.

Finish Line

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FINISH LINE / by Craig Spence

“You don’t have to run fast, you just have to run hard,” Mel said.

“D’ya get it?”

Alison glanced up from her bowl of chopped banana and granola with milk, squinting. ‘What’s that supposed to mean,’ she was thinking. You could tell by the downturn of her lips and the knitting of brows she didn’t believe him. “Worked hard all my life, what the fuck did that get me?” she said.

How could you gainsay that? She had worked hard. Cleaning toilets, making other people’s beds, changing their towels and bars of soap… people who had money to spend on hideaway motels, determined to have a good time. But really they were no better off then her when you got right down to it. Grunting away at their ejaculations, their entangled moments of glory. Or just lying there side-by-side, sawing away like beached sea lions.

“There’s no meaning to any of it,” Mel judged. “Life’s just a series of sensations and events adding up to…” his thoughts on the matter petered out.

“What are you on about?”

Mel sighed, hadn’t meant to think out loud. He had to admit Alison’s wasn’t a bad line of inquiry though. ‘Except the questions had to be asked by the right person, a person with the mental capacity to understand the answers,’ he ruminated in careful silence.

Not that Alison was stupid. She had brains. But her neurons connected to what he classified as a crow’s spirit – opportunistic, argumentative, garrulous, greedy, focused on the ground even though Crow’s magnificent wings, sleek plumage, and obsidian eyes were a composite meant for the arc of flight.

Of course, she sensed when he was thinking stuff like that and it annoyed her. “You’re going to go out there and run like a fucking lunatic, give yourself a heart attack and die, then you’ll leave me without a pension for christ’s sake,” she accused. “Where’s the sense in that?”

Fair enough, he had to admit. There was an element of selfishness to his undertaking. And he did look the fool out there on the track. “Hey Usain, can I have your autograph!” a smart-aleck student from Cowichan Secondary had taunted just the other day, he and his buddies laughing at the jibe like hyenas. What did they know? What would they ever know, except the mechanics of bone, muscle and guts – the sensations of pushing a machine through an atmosphere thick as sludge.

“Don’t expect me to cheer you on,” Alison shouted after him as he stepped out the front door. “I won’t even visit you at the hospital! I won’t go to your fuckin’ funeral, you bastard!”

Of course she’d go. She’d even pretend to be bereaved, daubing her eyes with a tissue. She’d get herself all worked up – actually convince herself that she was mourning bravely, even though the bastard had made a dent in her retirement income by going out and dying… not that Mel intended to die, of course. He just wanted to see… even if the vision lasted less than an instant… just wanted to see if he could actually run faster than his own body.

That was the whole point of the exercise – to run so hard the ligatures binding soul to flesh might snap, and set something free, something unknown, unknowable really.

Can eternity be encapsulated in a split second? In a split-split second? Mel couldn’t say for sure, and the problem with that kind of question is you could never know the answer unless you actually proved the proposition true. You could fail, and fail, and fail again, and still you wouldn’t know. But all it would take would be one brilliant millisecond of success and…

“Careful what you hope for,” Mel cautioned inadvertently.

No fancy track suit or shoes. Sweats and sneakers were good enough. He tried to get there before the walkers and joggers started their rounds, circling the Sportsplex track grimly, or pertly, or in yakking pairs and threesomes. He knew they thought him strange. What was a graying, paunchy retiree doing out there, huffing down the track like a locomotive, then walking round the backstretch to the start line again, and sprinting once more down the outside lane – if you could call his lumbering gait a sprint?

Four or five times, two or three times a week.

He’d read on the internet somewhere that the hundred-yard dash wasn’t just a matter of running hell-bent-for-leather down the track. There were three distinct stages to a 10 second run: Drive, from dead still to full throttle; maximum velocity, where the sprinter runs erect, hips lowered achieving highest velocity; maintenance, where the athlete minimizes the inevitable deceleration, exhausted, but still striving for the finish.

Maximum velocity. That was the critical stage, the only one that mattered as far as Mel was concerned. But you had to run the entire race. “Go for it!”

Mel didn’t crouch, as if his feet were in the blocks. He just took off from a walking start into his run, accelerating down the track hard as he could, pushing harder through the middle of his sprint, continuing to drive through the maintenance phase. If separation was going to happen it would be in Stage II, he thought, when the psychic booster rockets kicked in.

If only. If only. He set off down the Sportsplex track for trial-one, fast as he could go. Then torqued up to maximum velocity, urging every increment of speed, and then some, out of his flabby muscles and clattering limbs, flapping down the runway toward… what? Take off…?

Pushed harder, surging until he ran out of oxygen and the inevitable strangulation of human nature took hold, throttling down his yearning… pushed even then, when he knew it was too late… that even the possibility of a glimmer of hope… of feeling himself detach, break free, fly out ahead of body like…

“Like what?” he gasped… crossing the imaginary finish line… body and soul at the exact same instant.


Thanks for reading. Finish Line is part of a series I am writing from what I take to be an Existentialist POV. It is inspired by the memory of track athlete and all-round amazing human being Jesse Owens.


Direct-to-web publishing

bookThe most direct way for writers to reach readers is online, direct-to-web. The tedious, expensive, exclusive and restrictive channels that worked in the past no longer do for some of us. They are overwhelmed, and the reality for most, who do make it through the system, remains that everyone gets their share except the writer – publishers, printers, distributors, et al. get paid but there’s nothing left in the bag by the time it’s passed on to the author.

I’m not crusading against the conventional publishing industry or taking away from the ‘value added’ they offer; for most writers having a publisher’s imprimatur on the jacket of their book will remain a truly validating achievement. And self-publishing by print on demand will also remain a popular route. I will certainly try to include both in my mix. But I also want a direct route to potential readers, one that avoids the barriers of getting printed versions of my books into their hands. For me direct-to-web is an avenue that has to be explored.

The main drawback to this approach, of course, is the majority of readers are not prepared give up the pleasure of ‘curling up with a good book’. For many literature is only such when it comes in a physical package that has covers wrapped around pages. eBooks are gaining acceptance, but not nearly as rapidly as it was once thought they would, and the obstacles to getting eBooks into readers hands are formidable, too. The thought of accessing books on mobile phones, iPads, and laptops hasn’t really occurred to a lot of people. Reading, it turns out, is much more than scanning lines of symbols and reconstituting an imaginative vision based on written language; it’s a patterned activity, as ingrained and comforting as the rites and routines of dinner.

Stepping outside what’s conventional means for writers not only promoting and selling their ‘books’, but promoting a new format for sharing material and being compensated. It means getting audiences to accept that there are alternative methods of accessing literature that might work better for both readers and writers.



The Idea

Writers, especially fiction writers, must venture into the realm of ideas. How open we are, and effective at representing ideas and their permutations in our work, determines how invigorating our stories will be. It’s important to be alert not only to the intellectual aspect of new ideas, but also to the emotional and the physical aspects. Our reactions to the ideas we discover in that fluid world of the imagination is as important as the ideas themselves.