Living the In-Between

It’s been a while! Since my last post, I have been busy writing poetry and submitting to various publications; working on a novel (my big project for 2020 and the main reason why you won’t see too many posts this year!); and meeting once a month with a small, supportive group of writers. Here is my latest poem, which has been submitted to the Canadian magazine Living Hyphen for consideration in their next issue on the theme of “Across Generations”. (Don’t worry, their guidelines say that it’s ok for work to be previously published as long as the writer retains all rights.) You may have noticed that the poem title is the same as my website title, but this time it has an entirely different meaning.

Blossoms in Sidney, British Columbia, February 2020 (Sonia Nicholson photo)

I live between the last and the next,
One foot in a place familiar but strange
Where roots run deep and twisted
And branches long,
One foot forward on this land
Where I was planted,
Grafted to bloom.

I am called the first generation,
A label to wear like a brass plaque.
But “first” is too lofty a term for
Low-hanging fruit,
When I hear tales of growing crops,
Of playing the accordion in their shade,
Of crossing oceans.

I want to know them, the ones that
came before. To search their faces
And find my Roman nose and
Obsessive mind.
To know their dreams, their reasons
For seeking, in hopes of finding mine.
To touch their soil.

I feel their weight in my veins,
Their fragilities and fortitudes
Carried in their leaves, the
Saudade* — longing —
Running thick through the trunk
Of our collective memory, reaching,
Always reaching,


*Saudade (noun, Portuguese): a deep personal state of longing, yearning, nostalgia for a person or thing that is absent.

The Last Stand

I recently entered the Greater Victoria Public Library Tiny Stories Contest, in which submissions must be 420 characters. Quite a challenge! Though I wasn’t selected as a finalist, I was really pleased with my tiny story.

An army advances, machines of mass destruction taking aim. Their targets face them in silence, standing tall and awaiting their fate with a quiet dignity and sadness. They do not fight but fall one by one, gentle giants cut down in battle on the land where they were rooted. Their final moments go unheard over the shouting engines. We do not wait to move in and clear the carnage; tomorrow, work begins on the new road.

Objects of Affection

Well, my fingers didn’t fit in the holes quite like they used to when I was young, but everything else was perfect. The white numbers and letters circling the clear plastic dial like groups of children on a merry-go-round. The chrome hook cradling the heavy handset with its curly cord hanging slightly kinked in a toothy grin. The shiny black body with space to tape on a piece of yellowing paper scrawled with the names of family near and far. The price tag may have read “$28”, but to me, this vintage rotary phone was priceless.

Rotary dial, detail. Sonia Nicholson photo.

In truth, the phone as an object was much less important than what it represented. It was a portal to another time and place, to a specific part of my past that now, as people have passed on, has become that much more precious. For as long as I can remember, a phone exactly like this — right down to the white paint splatter across the top — hung in my grandparents’ house. It watched quietly as my aunts, uncles and cousins gathered for Easter dinners. It endured my grandmother’s long and loud calls as she exchanged gossip and news from the brown vinyl kitchen chair beneath it. And it patiently waited while all the kids were crammed in the room watching WWF Wrestling and drinking instant coffee weakened by a lot of milk. The phone was always there.

So when I just happened to see one listed for sale on the Facebook page of a local antique shop recently, it was like receiving a letter that had been lost for 30 years and had finally been delivered. I begged the store to hold it for me and rushed across town later that afternoon. The proprietress listened kindly as I tried to explain my excitement without coming across as crazed. But how could I possibly convey all the meaning contained in that combination of plastic and metal? How could I make a stranger understand the rapid slideshow of memories that played in my mind every time I saw, or simply thought about, what to most was only an example of outdated equipment?

But how could I possibly convey all the meaning contained in that combination of plastic and metal? How could I make a stranger understand the rapid slideshow of memories that played in my mind every time I saw, or simply thought about, what to most was only an example of outdated equipment?

Those of us that work in history know that what makes an artifact more attractive is the story behind it. Just as a photograph loses its value if we don’t know at least one of the five “w’s” (who, what, where, when, and why), an heirloom without an anecdote becomes an orphan of sorts. It can provide information as an item in and of itself, but the relationships are lost. What once played a steady role in the life of a family is now seen only for its function and form. A phone is a phone and nothing more.

But objects have power. The mere sight of a ragged teddy bear, an elegant felt hat, a rusty spoon, or, in my case, a paint-speckled phone, can transport us. Suddenly, we remember. The good, the bad, and everything in between. As we run fingers over familiar surfaces, that contact triggers tidal waves of nostalgia. Keats wrote that “Touch has a memory”; the tactile evokes the long-forgotten moments that have receded farther and farther with each passing year and brings them back to life in vivid detail. In my work in archives and museums, I have seen it time and again with visitors and donors.

To listen to them recount their days is intimate, at times uncomfortable, and always a privilege not to be taken lightly. When their gaze shifts to another era after they have, perhaps hesitantly, reverently, laid the pieces of their history on the table, you fade into the background. You are only a facilitator. The objects are the transmitters connecting past and present, memory and moment, young and old as they are picked up one by one and turned over, the adjustment somehow providing better reception. And if you listen closely, you will hear the message loud and clear. The stories matter.

As I get older, I find myself increasingly tuning into my own. At home, my phone is now mounted on the wall and it looks like it has always been there. For my children, it is a novelty. They are amazed at how long it takes to make a call using rotary dial. (Impressively enough, the phone actually works.) For me, it is a tangible connection to something greater: those that have come and gone, still loved and still remembered. Family that lives on through the telephone line, answering the call every time I wrap the cord around my finger.

Victory for Victoria: 100 Years After the Peace Parade

I wrote this speech in 2018 for the Coursera course Speaking to Inspire: Ceremonial and Motivational Speeches. July 2019 marked the 100th anniversary of the Peace Parade in Victoria following WWI. I was hoping to have the opportunity to see this speech delivered, either by me or someone else, but unfortunately there were no commemorative events held in the city. I share the speech now as we approach Remembrance Day, and hope that it will give you a picture of Victoria in that period immediately after the war and impress upon you the importance of one specific event in bringing our city together.

Postcard of Peace Parade, with the Red Cross float followed by Muggins, the Red Cross dog on top of an ambulance, July 19, 1919 (Saanich Archives 2015-028-012)
Postcard of Peace Parade, with the Red Cross float followed by Muggins, the Red Cross dog on top of an ambulance, July 19, 1919 (Saanich Archives 2015-028-012)

“Victoria Celebrates Victory Today”.

This was the headline that residents woke up to one hundred years ago.

An illustration of Winged Victory, palm branch in one hand and shield in the other, dominated the front page of the Daily Colonist newspaper.

Below her, a list of the afternoon and evening events:

swimming gala,
“daylight shells”,
peace concert,
evening cabaret,
Parliament light-up,
harbour fireworks.

But the morning was reserved for what the paper called the “grand parade”.

The “monster parade”.

The parade announced by the explosion of sky bombs just after 10 a.m. on July 19th, 1919.

For four years, residents had lived under the dark cloud of the Great War.

About ten per cent of those who served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force were killed, and that number was similar locally.

The population of Greater Victoria at the end of 1918 was less than 60,000. With an estimated 6,000 dead and many more injured, everyone in this city was affected in some way by the war.

Everyone knew someone who had gone overseas.

Everyone knew someone who didn’t come home.

We’ve heard the stories of tragedy, and it’s important to remember them.

But that day was not about loss. Today is not about loss.

July 19th, 1919 was about celebrating. Celebrating peace. Realizing hope. And coming together as a community.

What did peace mean to the citizens of Victoria and the surrounding municipalities?

For many, it was the idea of going back to normal life, as much as possible.

Governments had already begun efforts to help returned and injured soldiers retrain and reintegrate into civilian life.

CHARLES FREDERICK DAWSON, a contractor from neighbouring Saanich, worked for the Department of Soldiers’ Civil Re-Establishment.

In 1917, PREMIER HARLAN CAREY BREWSTER had awarded FRED DAWSON a Distinguished Conduct Medal for getting an injured comrade to safety while injured himself. Now, he was teaching soldiers trades like boat- and furniture- building.

The Saanich Reeve wrote in his 1918 report: “It behoves public bodies to do all that is possible to enable the soldier to settle down into his civilian position as easily, quickly and comfortably as possible.”

GENERAL SIR ARTHUR CURRIE expanded on this idea when he wrote in 1919: “The Canadians who have been spared in the providence of God are going home to their loved ones better equipped than ever to assume the duties and responsibilities of citizenship.”

Of course life would never be the same as it had been before 1914.

But the Peace Parade was the first step forward, the first step towards normalcy.

But the Peace Parade was the first step forward, the first step towards normalcy.

During the war years, the people of Victoria turned everyday actions to the cause.

Hope endured through those that kept the home fires burning for their family, friends, and neighbours overseas. Mothers, wives, and daughters kept time by knitting, what poet KATHERINE HALE of Toronto described as

“A tiny click of little wooden needles,
Elfin amid the giant hood of war;
Whispers of women, tireless and patient,
who weave the web afar.”

In Gordon Head, the women of the Athletic Club turned their attention to patriotic work. They held fundraisers, and sent parcels to soldiers on the Front: little pieces of home in the form of “good eats”, smokes, and city news.

Even animals did their bit and helped to lift spirits. MRS. BEATRICE WOODWARD regularly brought her Spitz dog MUGGINS from their house on Gorge Road to downtown.

He would then walk his route solo, with small white coin boxes strapped to his back. Well, you know how much people in this town can’t resist a cute dog. Soon his boxes were full, and MUGGINS returned to the Red Cross office to unload and head out once again.

He raised over $21,000 for the war effort and received medals for his service.

The day of the parade, MUGGINS happily rode on top of a Red Cross vehicle. For him and for the crowd surrounding him, the Peace Parade represented the realization of hope.

Our community came together that day. It was a noisy day. It was a release. It was the day that the people of this city fully exhaled after holding their breath for four long years.

From early morning until the last bomb was fired after midnight, tens of thousands of residents filled the streets with pure joy, loud cheers, and full hearts.

Poet WILSON MACDONALD of Ontario captured this feeling in his poem called Peace:

“The upturned faces of the world today
Are like the laughing waves of a sea in May.
Tears are a lost art of a hateful dream;
Laughter is King, is King.
Blow, bugles, blow; let the wild sirens scream
Let the mad music ring,
Until the very flowers shall nod and sing.”

Victoria was reunited, even if it wasn’t whole.

Coming together that day was vital. And a symbol of the community’s vitality.

The strength of the whole came from the mutual support of the many in a very difficult time.

This city will have to face adversity again.

Like the residents of 100 years ago, unaware that the Great War would not be the “war to end all wars”, we don’t know what lies ahead. We do know that there will be more uncertainty, more tragedy, and more pain.


Victoria will once again persevere.

Like they did 100 years ago, we are holding on to this moment, right now, together.

Peace is fleeting so we must clasp it as tightly as we can, as long as we can.

I close with the words of Nellie McClung in her book “Next of Kin”:

“There is shadow and shine,
sorrow and joy,
all the way along.

This is inevitable, and so we must take them as they
come, and rejoice over every sunny hour of every day,

or, if the day is all dark,
we must go hopefully forward through the gloom.”

In those times of gloom, together we will remember to celebrate, to treasure, and to hold close to our hearts the moments of peace, hope, and community as we do here today.

Morning Song

When you step through the doors, the conductor has already raised the baton. The music begins pianissimo, so quiet that one might miss it completely. It starts with footsteps, the grit under your shoes breaking the rhythm when you don’t keep pace. You pick it up gently with the beat of your breath, strong and steady as it rises and falls like the hills.

This is a new song. It feels familiar like an old friend, but you’ve forgotten all the parts. A fermata—a pause for you to tune in—and then you hear them, the harmonies layered one by one. The sections of the orchestra are all there. The leaves vibrate at the soft touch of the breeze. Chickadees sing out, a staccato call and response between the trees. A register below, the crows perch low on the power lines like black notes on a staff.

Some of the players are unexpected. The steady hum of traffic a few blocks away is a bass line beneath the melody. It fades briefly behind the water running allegro in the storm drain as you pass. Even the road crew is counted in, striking and scraping stone in time. And every sound is noteworthy.

And every sound is noteworthy.

They rise to a crescendo and the music surrounds you while the neighbourhood slowly rises. It awakens house by house, the inhabitants unknowingly becoming both audience and performers as they stir and spill into the day. You reluctantly reach your destination and the silence is deafening when you shut the door behind you. Outside, the conductor smiles secretly as the composition continues.

Page Break: The Starts and Stops of a Writer

I used to write — a lot. Where others imagined futures with hockey sticks or lab coats, I dreamed of letters. I didn’t see my name in lights but rather in print, neatly positioned in the bottom right corner of the cover of my novel(s) and anchoring a colourful illustration of a Montmartre cafe in Paris or Rome’s Trevi Fountain. From my upstairs bedroom, painted blue and with a wallpaper border of sailing ships, the view of the vineyards at the edge of Osoyoos was a world away from, well, everything. The only option for a teenage romantic in a small town was to travel by pen.

Paris, March 1995 (Sonia Nicholson photo)
Paris, March 1995 (Sonia Nicholson photo)

In grade 8, my best friend and I spent our lunch hours sitting cross-legged on the rough grey carpet in the aisle of the school library. With our 3-ring binders in hand, we hammered out five chapters of a horse racing story inspired by the Black Stallion book and television series, and by a local horse-breeder/teacher we knew. We were so committed that we designed purple and green jockey silks and convinced my co-author’s mother to sew them. But eventually homework and band concerts and awkward dances took over, and our book was lost under stacks of high school ephemera. Even the silks disappeared. Still, that ache to create remained.

When I wasn’t writing, I read about it. My favourite novel in those years was A Summer in Paris, which tells the story of a group of friends who participate in an immersive school-sponsored trip. One of them, Nina, wants to be — you guessed it — a writer. Spoiler alert: she remains in Paris after the program and becomes an author’s assistant. Nina’s fictional life was my real life goal! By age 19, I had been to the City of Light twice and filled notebooks with poetry. In university I surrounded myself with languages and literature; however, the texts I read and the papers I produced didn’t leave much room for more artistic pursuits. And the drive for grades meant I literally didn’t leave my tiny dorm room.

So that’s been the pattern. Long stretches of life punctuated by periods of productivity. The words have been dancing at the periphery of my page, peeking over my schedule and teasing me while I’ve been busy meeting milestones in family and career. Ten years ago I somehow found the time to plot out an entire novel, complete with character biographies and a future movie soundtrack. I did everything but put all the parts together. And then nothing. All of the words went away to some dark storage vault in the depths of my mind and the notebooks were relegated to a basement cupboard. Though the desire still quietly burned like a lamp left on to await a loved one’s return, the writing stopped.

Though the desire still quietly burned like a lamp left on to await a loved one’s return, the writing stopped.

The sheets (or more accurately by that time, screens) remained blank until last year when Mosaic Times approached me about doing an article on growing up in an immigrant family. My insides screamed yes, a reflex from a muscle nearly atrophied from disuse. At first I struggled. It felt like I had just woken up from a deep sleep and couldn’t quite remember the beautiful dream I’d had. The images were frustratingly out of focus. But the vivid memories of my childhood with all its technicolour sights and sweet smells proved to be the elixir I needed. The writing returned. Ironically, I had spent so many years imagining far-flung locales for my subject matter when it was a little corner of my past that truly opened the door.

Since that day I have endeavoured to never misplace my calling in the footnotes of my story. Truth be told, I didn’t write again until now. But I was plotting — biding my time — until I could place myself somewhere I would really see the inspiration around me. Not in the neatly organized school library like so long ago, but in my own messy life as it is now. And today as I look out my front window, taking in every shade of the leaves on the trees before tapping at my keyboard, there is no mistaking that the view is just right. And just write I shall.