Last Journeys

Every December I circumvent my love of quality film watching and succumb to bingeing on cheesy holiday movies. Hey, we all have our vices — mine happen to take place between Thanksgiving and Christmas and center on bad cinematography. Don’t judge.

So imagine my surprise when listed under my Netflix “Holiday Movie” category, chock full of cringe worthy Hallmark Channel ’Tis the Season fodder, appeared a legitimate documentary about men and women selling Christmas trees on the sidewalks of New York City.

What? Christmas, mixed with quality film making, plus human interest, all wrapped up in one of my favorite places? And I didn’t have to live the internal shame of watching terrible TV? How could I not watch?

Within the first ten minutes of Tree Man, Francois, who leaves his wife and young family in Quebec annually to sell Christmas trees as a long time fixture on the streets of New York City, delves into the profound. He speaks of emotionality in leaving home, taking it all in because he never knows when that will be the final time he sees the place he loves. Every venture south could be his last journey. Francois stands on his land, surveying the frozen lake abutting his property, and worries that upon leaving for the holiday season, a season he never has the opportunity to spend with his own family, it could be the last time he is with them. Because you never know.

I’m convinced this sense of wanting to hold on, memorize the minutiae of moments, grows stronger the more loss experienced throughout life. Francois lost his father at fourteen, as well as some good friends as life moved forward, providing background for such thought processes. He takes nothing for granted.

There are points in time, significant places and people, that resonate within and become highlights in our life course. These occasions pull at one’s insides, unerring, sacred, and unique to each and every one of us.

I’ve felt it. Ensconced in local pubs in Belfast, Irish relatives on all sides, or packed into one of their cozy living rooms laughing, storytelling of loved ones passed a constant. Singing by a campfire overlooking Lake Ontario, the moonlight and a thousand stars glinting off waves washing flat rock spanning out from the shore. I’ve been gripped with the overwhelming need to freeze these moments, not let them out of my clenched fists, for fear of an internal undoing should they be lost. This is that same feeling Francois speaks of, not knowing if you will ever have that moment again. It’s an uncanny mixture of gratitude, greediness, longing, and bereavement. Is it the last time everything will be in place? Is it the last journey?

Five years ago, Christmas time — these weeks usually spent on mindless holiday TV viewing abandonment — became a season of agonizing grief. We lost my dad out of nowhere, with no warning. A couple years later, just before St. Patrick’s Day, we lost his best friend to cancer, a second father to me. This week, news came that we are losing another of our extended family — our “American” family puzzle-pieced together years ago by our expatriate fathers and mothers trying to make a better life for themselves, but living thousands of miles from home. This man, who helped shape the person I am, is an American who welcomed them all into the fold and helped build our mismatched close-knit circle of kinspeople, not born of blood, but chosen out of respect, friendship, and love.

We are losing him, and I want to pause everything, hold on to this more innocent space in time in which I haven’t lost yet another person, another moment. Human nature can be selfish in this way.

But that is impossible, the logical portion of my brain tells me this. So I acquiesce and make a silent agreement with the universe to live in the present, savoring each moment that my phone doesn’t ring with bad news. If it doesn’t ring, it means there is status quo among those I love. I am stretching the moment, rather than trying to harness and immobilize it. A side effect of experiencing all sizes of tragedy is reluctant acceptance that you can’t stop life, or death, from happening.

What I’ve found I can do is make a point of looking around myself and finding people, and potential moments, that enrich my life and figure out ways to reciprocate. Grow new memories to cherish, build new connections — a road paved by instrumental people I’ve been privileged to know. What better honor than utilizing their lessons, taught by example, and teaching future generations these essential qualities?

As it turns out, their last journeys are in the memories of all of us left behind, moved forward via word of mouth or turn of hand. We hold on to them by continuing their legacy.

NaNoWriMo Has Left the Building

National Novel Writing Month, the time in which aspiring novelists pledge to write 50,000 words of fiction in a mere 30 days, ends today for eager writers across the globe. For me, it ended yesterday, with one day to spare and 50,026 words written on a screen. Go me.

This is the first day in a month that I haven’t needed to think about that magic number of 1,667 (the per-day breakdown of 50,000), or update my word count on the NaNoWriMo website, or strive to get ahead just so I could take Thanksgiving and Black Friday off. Okay, technically I did write a few words and update my count on those days, including today when I had already completed NaNo, but that was all about achieving the 30 Day badge, not the number of words. Damn you, shiny NaNo badges of temptation.

In honor of this auspicious occasion, I have compiled a list of the top seven things that completing NaNoWriMo has taught me.

1. NaNoWriMo does magic tricks— Um, has anyone seen November? The year had one last time I looked…

2. You learn you can do without your friends, but why would you want to? Make sure you take extra time out to see your abandoned cohorts, even if it is a greatly reduced amount of time compared with pre-NaNo.  Your sanity depends on it. So does theirs. Also, their support is the key to getting through 30 days of high pressure creativity and still retain your love of writing. A win for you is a win for all. Okay, maybe it’s just a win for you (Mine!), but they often bring wine, which is a win for everyone. Sláinte.

Nano friends

3. Time management is crucial and 50,000 words are a shit ton of words. That’s 200 pages of a novel. Instead of freaking out, think of it as the daily count of 1,667 per day and you will make it through! Write a few more words every couple of days when a scene is going well, and you can take Thanksgiving Day off with no guilt. Well, except for the guilt of loading up that plate of tryptophan and its addictive accompaniments. Twice.

4. Leave off writing with a scene you look forward to starting the next day, or at least the idea of one. This technique takes the dreaded not knowing where to begin out of the picture and gets the juices flowing right away. Coffee helps as well, the stronger the better. Preferably with whip cream and cinnamon on top.

5. Dialogue makes word counts soar! If you’re lagging behind in your word count, have characters strike up a conversation or start an argument. Next thing you know, the 1,667 will have flown by and you’ll still be writing your scene. And writing your scene. And writing your scene some more.

6. NaNo’s word counter isn’t the same as yours! To win at NaNoWriMo, a writer must copy and paste their novel (or part of a novel) into the NaNo word counter in order to verify the amount written. For all you worriers out there, the count is made and the novel is immediately dumped out of their system. does not keep a copy. They aren’t trying to steal your genius.

Don’t write all those words only to lose NaNo on the last day due to a technicality! The first time I put my 50,054 words into the NaNoWriMo word counter to validate my novel, did I get a huge screen that said WINNER across it followed by the sound of NaNo crew members cheering my accomplishments? NO.

What I did get was a new set of numbers, 49,765, followed by the sound of me vomiting expletives.

NaNo ate 289 of my juicy, delicious words! Where did they go? Are they lost out there somewhere, calling my name and wandering in search of other blank pages to call home? I don’t know why NaNo’s calculations are different, but not cool NaNo, not cool.


7. The feeling of accomplishment is real. This is what it looks like:

Nano shirt

Will I participate in NaNoWriMo again? I don’t know yet. At the close of this feat, I’ve proved to myself that I can do it, which was the only competition I was aiming for the entire experience. I am left exhausted, enlightened, and content in the knowledge that I have written what equates to the size of a novella. I have at least another 50,000 words to write in my novel, and more than enough research required that will take months, in order to achieve the end goal: a complete novel.

Would I recommend participating in NaNoWriMo? Absolutely. It’s not a bad way to kick off a novel. I’m only halfway through writing mine but that’s a hell of a lot further than I was 30 days ago. NaNoWriMo might just be the kick in the ass you need to write yours too.