Just Create Dammit!

Thank You Emily


Emily collage smaller

Emily, Emily, Emily, Dave Matthews and Emily (1993), Emily, Emily, Emily, Emily, the Gazette and Emily (1993).

When I first started showing up at the Improv Embassy last February, hanging out in the back row and hoping to God I wouldn’t be called up on stage, I had a hard time answering the question “What made you decide to try improv?”

It was a good question, especially when I panicked or blustered or just stood there on stage without a clue of what to say next (which, by the way, still happens).

But I do know the answer, and have for a while – it’s because of Emily MacNaughton.

Emily and I met at the Dalhousie Gazette, beginning of the 1992 school year. Me, from the small town of Labrador City and she, from the bustling metropolis of Kitchener-Waterloo. Her first article was a review of Cameron Crowe’s movie Singles which included her take on Generation X and the ‘Year of Grunge’. I was amazed at her confidence in expressing her opinion so publicly and a little intimidated by her philosophical tone and big words. I still have the clipping saved in my mom’s basement.

Emily loved to dance.

She brought me to my first show at the Double Deuce, back when Halifax was becoming the next Seattle. I think Sloan was playing. My friends from the Gazette would know. Maybe even my roommates.

While she was at Dal, Em and I attended every single Canadian University Press (CUP) conference we could get to – especially the Atlantic Region (ARCUP) ones which always included a rowdy kitchen party.

Emily was a board member of Campus Plus, CUP’s national advertising company. My memory is so shagged up I don’t remember if that’s while she was in Halifax or Toronto. I do know that even after she left Dal and Halifax, she was still involved with CUP and co-chaired a CUP national conference.

Emily was funny, smart, goofy, artistic, articulate and edgy.

She moved to Paris for a few months. I don’t remember when. Between 2000 and 2004 I visited her a few times in Toronto. I think it was during my breaks from Bosnia, and when Mom and Dad moved from Labrador to Toronto so Dad could get a lung transplant.

We lost touch sometime during my four years working at Kandahar Air Field. I lost touch with a few friends back then. Emily was no longer on Facebook, I lost all my emails when canada.com shut down and I couldn’t find her on Google. Also, unbeknownst to me, some version of PTSD was screwing with my brain and any friendships I maintained after Afghanistan were all due to my friends’ efforts.

Emily was a really good friend.

Emily tracked me down almost five years ago when she found a blog post I wrote about Remembrance Day. I was so happy when she contacted me. Emails flew. She was still in Toronto, looking for work and living in a nice place called Eden House with nine other crazy people (“I’m the tenth,” she wrote). She volunteered as a sound operator with the Bloor West Players, finished training as a volunteer Expressive Arts Therapist for Hospice Toronto, was participating in a poetry group run by Workman Arts for people with mental illness, and at that very moment was at her dad’s and stepmom’s place learning about golf as they watched the Masters Tournament.

Emily had a great memory. Out of the blue she’d say something like “Your mom is a Taurus, right?” –  20 years after I mentioned my mom’s birthday. She was also an astrology nut. When I introduced her to my roomies, family or friends, within the first two minutes she’d ask “When’s your Birthday?” or “What’s your sign?” Unless I had mentioned their birthday in some previous conversation long forgotten by me, in which case she’d lead with “You’re a Leo, right?”

Emily liked to share.  After discovering a great program she emailed me the link for the Wellness Recovery Action Plan in Ottawa. “I was wondering if your mom might like it.” Emily knew about Mom’s history with bi-polar, but I wonder if perhaps she also sensed my own mental health issues – before I even dared to voice them to myself. She could be very perceptive.

Once we reconnected Emily was really good at keeping touch. She mailed me Christmas cards, emailed me e-cards from the Art Gallery of Ontario and when she went to New York with her mom, she mailed me a postcard. For one birthday, she emailed “Remember how great you are and enjoy being 42.  It’s not so bad, eh?”

In one early email, she wrote that she recently talked to Dave Matthews, a friend from our CUP days and now an Anglican priest in London, UK with whom she had also been out-of-touch for a long time. She described him as “very much the same fast-talking, charismatic, witty man,” who had tickets to see Barbara Streisand and Black Sabbath. “So, same Dave, a little older like the rest of us.”

In another email, she said she and her dad saw Zack Taylor on TVO’s The Agenda, talking about conservatism in Ontario. “He looks exactly the same!” she wrote, and told her dad she “once worked as a co-chair for the CUP conference with our star!”

Emily could also annoy the hell out of me, as only a good friend could. “Have you been writing?”, she’d ask. “Why don’t you write?”, and “That would be a great story to write.” And “Would you please read my poetry and let me know what you think?”. Well, at least she wasn’t asking me about writing.

Emily would read her poetry out loud. In public. In front of strangers! And she got her poetry published. She tried to encourage me to write again but most of the time I just changed the topic.

Emily and I would catch up whenever I was in Toronto for work or whenever she was in Ottawa for a job interview. She was very keen on getting a job where she would need to speak French. For a while she worked with Kids Help Phone and then with Public Works, while taking courses through Bloor Street United Church in preparation for the ministry.

We talked about depression and PTSD. We talked about recovery, roommates, boys we dated and books we read. I think we talked about going skating on the canal the next time she visited.

Emily died a year ago yesterday. She was in her pajamas, in bed with a book nearby. During one of our dinners she had mentioned a heart condition, but no one had expected this, especially her family who were waiting for her at their pre-Christmas dinner the next day. Emily was 45 years old.

I was out of town when it happened and found her Christmas card waiting for me when I returned. I sent her a Merry Christmas text and wasn’t worried when she didn’t respond.  Maybe she and her mom went on a trip. I think she had mentioned they might go to Paris. I left her a voicemail around New Year’s.

I found out about Emily when I was taking a quick peek at Facebook during work on a Thursday afternoon. Dave Matthews found out about it from Emily’s dad, and the news was handed down a short chain of CUP presidents, from Dave to Alayne Armstrong, to Joanna Shepherd Zuk, and then to me. Which I then shared with our Gazette and Dalhousie friends.

Emily’s memorial service took place on January 19th at the Van Duzer Art Studio in Toronto. I booked my hotel for the wrong week, took the wrong bus twice to get to the service and showed up too late to hear Dave’s message read out. Friends and colleagues and family took turns getting up to speak and share stories about Emily. One friend read some of her poetry. One counselor shared that Emily would also ask her to read her poems and provide feedback. It seemed most of the people there knew Emily from her more recent Toronto days. I wanted to say something about how I first met Emily almost 25 years ago. But I couldn’t speak. I physically couldn’t do it. As each person finished talking I tried to will myself to speak up, but words wouldn’t come out, no room for my voice to squeeze past my heart-blocked throat.

Eventually the minister stood up, made a last call for comments, and then started  wrapping things up –  when I found myself standing up.

I think I said my name and that I first met Emily at the Dalhousie Gazette. I talked about her review of Singles and how she loved to dance and that she was energetic and…. whatever that word is for someone who speaks well. I had forgotten the word “articulate”. I said we lost touch when I was in Afghanistan and when we reconnected she was living in a nice house with nine other crazy people. I think some of them were there – and they laughed. And I said she was brave. So very brave and she inspired me. I cried pretty much the whole time and someone insisted I keep their pack of Kleenex.

I met Emily’s mom, dad and step-mom for the first time after the service. They said some very nice things to me and I hope I said some nice things back. I said I would email them photos of Emily. I don’t remember if I did. I spoke with some of Em’s recovery friends and there was an instant bond, because we all belonged to different chapters of the same club.

I then spent my time in Toronto asking myself “What would Emily do?” and did it. Instead of staying in bed listening to murder mystery novels on Audible, I went to the Women’s March. Instead of going to see a fluffy superhero movie I went to see a film I figured Emily would prefer – something real, edgy and possibly uncomfortable: Twentieth Century Women – it was pretty good. And then I went to Sneaky Dee’s on College and Bathurst… and got drunk. Not something Emily would have done now, but something we both did in our twenties, so screw it.

This piece of writing here, about Emily, I started on the train in January, to and from her memorial service. The first writing I’d done in more than a year. The next month as I sat staring at my computer after work I googled “comedy class Ottawa” and found something called Improv Embassy on Rideau St. And they had something called an open jam that evening for $5 – so I stopped in. I took my first class in March. I took two more classes in May, one of them a sketch writing class. Somewhere in between there I tried stand-up at the Embassy. In September I took another improv class and joined the sketch troop the Shit Hot Shit Show, in October I took a photography class with the School of Photographic Arts Ottawa and in November I was able to memorize my lines for three and a half Shit Hot Shit Show sketches. This month I finished my photography course and submitted my final assignment of six photos, which were, I explained to my instructor and classmates, inspired by my friend Emily – who found me when I was lost.

Judy Emily Still Life

My still-life composition for my photography class assignment: Me and Emily at the Grawood Lounge, Dalhousie University (circa 1993, photo by Mike Graham), Emily’s Christmas card to me (2016), and my medals from Bosnia (2000-2003). My writing about Remembrance Day, Bosnia and Afghanistan is how she found me in 2014.

I wish I could tell Emily how much improv has helped me. How that flood of fear and panic I feel on stage helps me calm down during the rest of my waking life. That I started writing again, although I’m still a terrible procrastinator. That Mom and Kelley came to see me in some sketches last month and laughed their asses off. Seriously, I could hear Mom laughing all the way from the back row. That I’m applying to the Ottawa Fringe Festival next month and if I can find a venue I might actually be doing a one-person show in June called How to Get Over a Guy in 723 Days…. and Other Useful Things I Learned from PTSD.  That I started dating again, and maybe she could rate my Plenty of Fish ‘matches’ based on their astrological signs.

That I say weird stuff out loud. In public. In front of strangers!

That I miss her. Very much.

Thank you Emily. I so wish you were here.

Assignment collage minus 1

The rest of my SPAO photography assignment inspired by Emily. Architecture: Laura Secord looking over flags at half-mast on December 6th; Portrait: My very expressive friend Behi; Landscape: Frozen leaves in my backyard; Documentary: Two performers at the Improv Embassy; Architecture 2: Not the usual view of the National War Memorial.

The KAF Chronicle (AKA shortest newsletter series EVER)

We only put out two issues of the KAF Chronicle while I was in Kandahar, but I was proud of them nonetheless. I wish it could have been a full-time job– taking photos, talking to people and learning their stories – instead of squeezing it in between work and not enough sleep.

ATCO KAF Chronicle - Issue 01 - 2010 February

ATCO KAF Chronicle – Issue 01 – 2010 February

ATCO KAF Chronicle - Issue 02 - 2010 May-June

ATCO KAF Chronicle – Issue 02 – 2010 May-June



De-cluttering and Colouring

I just returned to camp this evening after nine days off at home in Ottawa and I’m exhausted! I’ve never been so busy on my days off.

I had big plans on working on my blog and instead I plunged full steam ahead in de-cluttering my sister’s rec room and then helping her with painting it. Kelley has done a great job in colouring/painting her living room, kitchen, dining room and hallways so I wanted to learn more about it by helping with her basement.

I also helped out my mom in the final push of de-cluttering her bedroom and then putting up some pictures in her room and a few around the house.

These may or may not be the colours we painted Kelley’s basement.

I’ve never seen Mom so excited about her bedroom before. I should have totally done before and after shots – her room looks lovely. And over the years Mom has collected some nice pictures. Too bad we didn’t hang them sooner.

Kelley and I spent a few long days on her basement. When I left all the walls had been painted, and newly painted shelves mounted. Thank goodness Rod was there to hook up the TV and all its many peripherals. I think I would have had better luck solving a Rubik’s cube (and thirty years later I still haven’t solved that one).

I should also mention that I left Kelley’s basement in a mess. I wish I had one more day just to help put everything away and have some fun shopping for the perfect pillows. We figured the right coloured cushions would be just what we needed to pull together all the paint colours and the forest-green ratty sofa. The right cushions and a strategically placed throw can provide fantastic camouflage for an outdated and mismatched couch.

Hmmm… now that I’m looking at these colours, I see some resemblance to a certain blog theme. Oh my. I certainly didn’t do that on purpose.

Good night, and good luck with rest of the rec room Kelley!

It’s still October 30th somewhere, right?

Ok, maybe one of these isn't actually a costume.

Ok, maybe one of these isn’t actually a costume.

My seven days are up. It was one week ago this morning that I kick-started my blog, that I promised once I reached five posts or one week, I would reach out to Susan Murphy and thank her for her post “The Number One Thing Holding You Back from Creating Great Content“.

But I don’t wanna.

I still haven’t figured out why I want to do this. Why would I write what is essentially a diary, and share it with complete strangers, or even worse, with people who know where I live?

I know that part of it is I want to document this journey, this big trip to building a tiny house. I want to write about how hard it’s going to be to let go of most of my stuff, and hopefully how good it’ll feel once I do it.

Part of it is I want to inspire my mom, show her it can be done. Of course she’ll see it first hand, and unless I give her some computer lessons on how the inter-tubes work, she’ll never see this blog. Maybe I’ll start her on Facebook first.

Part of it is the practice of writing. It’s something I find much easier to daydream about than do. I live too much in my head, and writing a blog is exercise and a commitment.

And a big part of it is that I have at least ten shopping-cart-sized boxes of photos, postcards, school reports, military assessments, newsletters, diaries, tickets, teddy bears, newspaper clippings, pins, Girl Guide badges, piggy banks, jewelry boxes, berets and shawls that I really want to hang on to… and let go of. I have so many memories and stories wrapped up in those boxes marked “Treasures” and “Personal”. It’s time to let go of all that stuff, and I figure if I can write that I was there, I did that, I failed, I survived, those were my people and I loved them, if I can attach those memories and feelings to words rather than things, then maybe I’ll be ready to let go.

And buy some more stuff (kidding!).

Speaking of stuff, I would like to take this moment to congratulate myself on not buying a Halloween costume this year. I was in Fort McMurray twice last week and both times I resisted buying a costume. Ok, one time I resisted and the other time the line up was too long. Still, when you consider how many costumes I got my hands on in Kandahar, this is quite a feat for me.

Despite my penchant for dressing as an elf/devil/ghostbuster on a military base with 30,000 soldiers, I am nervous about exposing myself on this blog – sure that’s normal. As was spending two hours after work this evening scrolling through page after page of vectors in search of the perfect paisley background and vintage tags on which to write my non-existent blog categories. Yep, 100% typical of what I would do when I don’t want to do what I should do… which is this; posting my fifth blog post and making a connection.

Get ‘er done.

(Thanks Susan!)

Afghanistan to Alberta in 1500 Words

“As soon as I figure out how to add a banner image to my WordPress site, I’ll definitely start posting!”

That’s from SuzeMuse.com, Susan Murphy’s post “The Number One Thing Holding You Back From Creating Great Content“.

It was also my personal wake-up call at 4:30 this morning, because that’s exactly the excuse I used when I first setup a WordPress blog in 2009 while I was working in Afghanistan. I made exactly one entry which read something like “I wonder if anyone is going to read this,” and was never heard from again.

I thought blogging while I worked overseas would be a great idea. Lots of people would be interested in everyday life as a contractor in Kandahar. I was working in a part of the world most people back home only hear about on the news, so of course people would just be flocking to my posts.

Uh huh.

I had all sorts of reasons for not actually writing – too busy, too hard, could get into trouble for saying too much, but mostly – I wanted my blog to look JUST RIGHT. I spent a few hours working on a logo, but could never quite figure out how to upload it as a banner. Once in a while I would check back – yep , JudyOnTheGo is still there – and then get back to being busy again.

I worked in KAF (Kandahar Airfield) for four years. During my last six months there I was starting a new and interesting job (logistic support for unmanned aircraft), working on my second course towards my Masters in Education, volunteering one or two evenings a week teaching English to soldiers and contractors, coordinating volunteers for a small school on base which was open to Afghan boys on Saturdays and doing cross-fit training five days a week. I had a great roomie, my own little pink motorcycle which I adored driving and a good group of friends who always had something fun on the go.

But once the Canadian Forces left Kandahar, so did the funding for my position. I didn’t want to go. I was very fortunate that in the same phone call I lost my job I was also offered a new one in Canada. I did some scrambling looking for another position on base, and was lucky to stay on another six weeks as a security officer, but at almost half the pay and half the time off, I knew it was time to head back home.

I returned to Canada in September 2011. And ten days later I started working in northern Alberta.

Accommodation camps for oil field workers have a few things in common with Kandahar Airfield; men outnumber women about 10 to 1, we live in little containers outfitted to sleep in, we eat in cafeterias and we count down the days until we can go home. There are differences of course; the men and women here aren’t armed, no one has to share their sleeping quarters with a roomie, the food is better and I only count down 21 days before I go home instead of 90+. Oh, and no rocket attacks.

Sounds pretty good right?

I am very grateful for not having to deal with rockets (although I do still flinch when I hear almost any alarm), but I still missed my KAF life.

I dove into my new job which meant spending 10+ hours a day in front of a computer. Then I’d inhale supper and try to keep up on my readings and assignments for my third course. Maybe things would have turned out differently had that particular course not been about research… but I suspect not. I had real difficulty in not just understanding the articles, but in caring about them. I just didn’t care. Seriously, what was the point? I was in the middle of fucking oil fields – who or what was I going to teach? After ten or twelve hours working on a computer the last thing I wanted to do was online research.

Everything frustrated me. My research course, the workers bitching about having to go outside to get to the chow hall (awww, muffin), not having friends to hang out with after work, the guy eating a sandwich while on a stationary bike. All of it had me screaming on the inside. By the new year I dropped my course, quit the gym, ate lots of delicious desserts and in six months gained fifteen pounds. Maybe eighteen.

I tried to find things to look forward to. In May I talked my sister into going to Cuba with me for a week which was mostly nice (there’s a reason why most visitors stick to the pool in May – jellyfish season). In July I travelled to Texas as my Brit former-roomie married her Texan honey-bun (sometimes these overseas romances do work out!) for an emotional but enjoyable reunion with some of my KAF friends.

And in September 2012 I came back to work… and couldn’t figure out how I was going to do this job another three weeks. Was this all I had to look forward to? Entering data, printing paper, stamping paper, punching paper, mailing paper, passing out paper?

It was a rough couple of days and I didn’t get much sleep. I didn’t get much done either. I was a zombie. Could I just quit? Could I just walk away from a decent paying job and eleven years with this company? I don’t have anything lined up back in Ottawa, not even an apartment. I know Mom would be thrilled to have me stay (really, she would), but could I handle that much time at home? Seriously, 41 years-old and living with my mother? Oh God, I really don’t want another 9 to 5 job and an apartment to furnish and bills to pay and bus rides to work filled with people just counting down to the weekend. How am I ever going to save enough money to build on the land Dad left us in Newfoundland if I’m paying rent again? If only I knew how to build a house. A tiny little house just to get me started or maybe to give to Mom. She might be happier on the Island. If only I could build a tiny little house…

If only.

And somewhere between Day-2 and Day-3 of my 21-day rotation, in my dreadful zombiefied state I decided to learn how to build a small house. And not just any small house. A tiny house on wheels. A House-to-Go from Tumbleweed Houses.

See that? House-to-go. Judy on the go.

That’s Karma baby. Or destiny. Ok, it’s something.

Unfortunately when I went looking for my deserted WordPress blog, there was no trace of it. I guess after three years of neglect JudyOnTheGo slinked off to that place abandoned blogs go to die. Or the automatic renewal for my account didn’t work because of the $1800 worth of fraudulent charges on my credit card.

No more blog. Oh well.

I didn’t really give it much more thought I until I followed a link on facebook two days ago to SuzeMuse.com and her post “How to Stop Being Too Busy’’. Hmmmm. Well. I see. Maybe she has a point.

And around 4:30 this morning when I still couldn’t get back to sleep I checked out Suze’s blog again and BAM!

As soon as I figure out how to add a banner image to my WordPress site, I’ll definitely start posting!

Well, FINE.

The real reason I didn’t write my blog in 2009 was fear. Perfection is just an excuse and an enemy to creativity.

Point. Taken.

I have to get up in an hour anyway so let’s get ‘er done!

I almost got trapped when I started looking for that perfect theme.

Oh no you don’t!

I picked a free one and vowed I wouldn’t tinker with it until I had ten posts. Well, except that colour has to go. And I wonder where I could find a nice polka-dot background. Or maybe some paisley…

There’s lots more to write – what happened after I gave my notice at work, who I’ve enlisted to help me build this tiny home, and all the work I’m going to have to do (and what I’ve already done) to learn to live with less.

But for now, I just wanted to say thank-you Susan. Karma, coincidence – I don’t know – but your posts couldn’t have come at a better time. And by the way, I’m not going to let you see this for a week or until I have five posts – whichever comes first.



p.s. Has anyone else noticed a proliferation of BAM!s on the net? Overused perhaps?

p.p.s. If you’re looking for a good, funny blog about Kandahar Airfield (and who isn’t?) I highly recommend the irreverent and sometimes raunchy “Just DFACS Ma’am”. DFACs is short for Dining Facilities and it’s what we call the cafeterias in KAF. The title is a play on “Just the facts Ma’am” and the cheeky M. does a great job of dishing on the chow being served up to 30,000 KAF diners… with a few staff misadventures thrown in. It’s funny stuff, especially if you’ve ever been there or know someone who has. And I’m not just saying that because I used to work for M. and he might be looking for a replacement if my former roomie gets knocked up. Seriously. Funny stuff.