About the book
Some people claim they would like to walk away from their lives. Shelley A. Leedahl had the nerve to do it. Was it an act of selfishness, or self-preservation?
Provocative, candid, and engaging, these intimate essays explore the implicit complexities and contradictions when personal and professional lives both complement and clash. How can she be a good mother when her literary calling requires her to be away — sometimes countries away — from her school-aged children? How does she reconcile the fact she is often more comfortable with strangers in foreign countries than with her own kith and kin? Yet personal experiences — including travels near and far, parental dilemmas, relationship breakdowns, new love, emotional chaos, and the care taken in creating gardens – also inspire the work.
Leedahl digs deep into her well, drawing upon childhood memories, hikes and road trips, her self-imposed exile to a rural Saskatchewan village (and the cutting loneliness that ensues), fortuitous meetings with strangers, and her habit of jumping off cliffs and starting over, again and again.
A facility for gratitude and a generous capacity for awe permeate the individual essays in this assured collection. The subject of the writing life weaves through the book, and the interior life is revealed for what it is — beautiful and hideous, joyous and forlorn, singular and relatable.
About the author
Multi-genre writer Shelley A. Leedahl assuredly shifts her creative focus between critically acclaimed books of poetry, short fiction, novels, and children’s literature. With I Wasn’t Always Like This, the seasoned writer and popular presenter adds creative non-fiction to her literary repertoire. Her numerous titles include Wretched Beast; Listen, Honey; Orchestra of the Lost Steps; The Bone Talker (with illustrator Bill Slavin); The House of the Easily Amused; and A Few Words For January. Leedahl’s work has appeared in anthologies ranging from The Best Canadian Poetry in English, 2013 to Great Canadian Murder and Mystery Stories; Slice Me Some Truth: An Anthology of Canadian Creative Nonfiction; Country Roads: Memoirs from Rural Canada; and Outside of Ordinary: Women’s Travel Stories. Born and raised in Saskatchewan, Leedahl has also lived in Calgary, Medicine Hat, Sechelt, and Edmonton. She now makes her home in Ladysmith, BC. In addition to literary writing, she works as a freelance writer, editor, and writing instructor.
My high school boyfriend remains a dear friend. Rob and I started dating when I was fourteen and parted ways during my eighteenth year, some time after I’d left Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan to study journalism arts at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in Calgary. I saw Rob not long ago, and he revealed that what has stuck with him over the years is that I always run from A to B. Yes. I run. I am now fifty-one years old, and I enjoyed an hour-long run this very morning through the sunny streets of Ladysmith and in the shade provided beneath Douglas fir, western red cedar and other giants on the Holland Creek Trail. Two weeks ago I surprised a large black bear on the path. Two months ago I tripped on a root and my knees were sewn up to the tune of fourteen stitches. I was running again the next morning. The day I can’t bolt will be a sorry day indeed.
I began dedicated running on January 1, 1993. I had quit smoking the night before. I had been an off-and-on smoker since I was fifteen, and can remember when a pack cost fifty cents. When I got pregnant, I was definitely off. Young children: off. When I started working as a radio advertising copywriter for two rock and roll stations in Saskatoon, I was definitely on. Mostly I smoked because it gave me an excuse to pause. Mostly I smoked because I loved to pretend I was a 1940s movie actress. A sophisticate. It was more than a little about the aesthetic of holding that Number 7 Extra Light King Size. Of brandishing it. It was a kind of drama.
When I stamped out my final cigarette and committed to getting fit, I went all in. I rather quickly increased my distance (from one block to ten kilometres), and my extra weight dripped off. I lost twenty-five pounds so rapidly, it damaged my gall bladder and I had to have it removed.
I have been so serious about running, I went under the knife for a reduction mammoplasty. A breast reduction. Running an average of fifty kilometres a week with D cups had quite literally been a bloody chore: the straps of my running bras quarried into my collarbones. I was grooved and scarred. I saw a plastic surgeon, explained that I was a runner and showed him a photo of myself in an orange bikini, taken in the privacy of my garden. You really do run a lot, he said. I removed my shirt. He confirmed that I was an excellent candidate for surgery. He whipped out a measuring tape and marked two dots on my clavicles. He measured again, lower: This is where your nipples will be. Oh, my. He explained how he would fold the skin. It’s a matter of darts, he said. Like sewing, I said. Yes, just like that. I asked if this would be like getting a haircut. Can I bring in a photo of what I’d like? No, he said, it’s not like that. The surgery was a success — though I think he could have gone two cup sizes smaller.
Why all this running? I offer only theories. It beats down the demons, for one thing. Childhood trauma, melancholy, depression, loneliness, guilt. When you’re struggling for breath, it’s hard to dwell on your anguished spirit. Running’s also the antithesis of sitting at a desk. It’s hard work, and I believe in hard work, of all sorts. Protestant work ethic, perhaps. Or I could blame my Grade One teacher who taught her charges this little ditty: Work before play, work before play … that is the way to stay happy all day. My parents are diabetic, and I’m determined not to go there. Running keeps me healthy and in reasonably good shape. It’s proven a super way to explore new territory. My sport of choice is a go-anytime/anywhere activity, and all I really need for it are an hour a day and decent shoes.
In Saskatoon, I lived near the riverside Meewasin Valley Trail. In my home city I rarely missed a day of running between January 1993 and August 2007. I used to track the changes in the river, in the leaves. I ran with music, or without. With a dog, or without. I ran north, or south. Out-and-backs, or loops. I was intimately familiar with bridges and wind gusts. My son, cycling along beside me when he was thirteen, said: Mom, for the amount you run, there should be nothing left of you. My frosty face appeared on the front page of the Saskatoon StarPhoenix on December 22nd, 1998, when the temperature was in the mid to low -20° Celsius range. At times I was thin as a stick.
Then: life as I knew it changed. I initiated a separation, moved to a village, and endured an excruciatingly lonely existence that I felt must be my penance for abandoning my family. I always say it like that. Not I left my husband, but I left my family. My friends. My home, and the garden with heritage peonies and ferns, a bounty of pink and purple lupins, a trilling waterfall, a lacy green vine embracing the six-foot privacy walls. Oh, haven. Oh, flagstone path to the red garden shed, where I painted S.L and T.L. inside a heart and doomed it with that most doom-able of words: Forever. Oh, Muskoka chairs beneath the French lilac: I still miss you.
I blew everything right the fuck up.
What I left in the city: myself. And everything I’d known for the last twenty-four years. There was a woman and there was a cliff. She raced for it blindly.
In the village that followed, I was often a wretched beast. I wound the bed covers tightly around my shrinking self.
I longed for an intervention …
One day, Jackson the redbone coonhound — my best running partner — ate my car interior. A few months later he ate it again. Jesus. My melancholy was manifesting in my dog. Jackson found a new family, with children to play with, and acres of freedom.
It was November again, and everyone was saying goodbye.
I met a man on the popular virtual dating site Plenty of Fish; my profile name was lovesthewoods. We conversed online for weeks. He lived in Edmonton — a teacher who ran marathons. He had played in the Western Hockey League. Loved card games. His teenagers lived with their mother. He met my requisite six-foot minimum height requirement, and knew how to use a semi-colon. He was super-competitive, like me. We were a near-match in age. He read Canadian books. Had a sense of humour. Was decidedly not crazy. He would push me to run harder, faster, longer. A trainer and a boyfriend in one handsome package. A good man.
I knew my parents would adore him.
We lived provinces apart, but late December 2009 found me in High River, Alberta to house-sit and dog-sit for my Cancun-vacationing brother Kirby and his wife Laurel. At the end of January my online sweetheart and I decided to meet in person. Because soon I’ll be back home, I e-mailed, seven hours away, instead of three and a half.
January, blizzarding. Bone-snapping cold, like a childhood winter in Saskatchewan. I packed the white German shepherd into the back of my sister-in-law’s Subaru Outback, filled the tank, bought a lottery ticket, steered north. Surrealism: the hard-grained, blowing snow; the map of uncertainty; the man at the end of the highway, whose voice I’d not yet even heard.
I stopped in Leduc, let Gunner out for a pee. I intended to buy some new underwear and pajamas before the rendezvous. This potential life partner had invited me to pack a bag, just in case. If you feel uncomfortable at all or don’t like anything about me, please feel free just to turn around and drive back. But just in case, why don’t you bring clothes and what you need for a few days’ stay?
I raced into a strip mall, grabbed a pair of black and white paisley pajamas at Giant Tiger. Flannelette. There was low-end lingerie on the racks, but even after a breast reduction, lingerie always made me feel ridiculous.
We were meeting in a downtown riverside park at 4:00. I didn’t know Edmonton, and I was terrified of city driving, speed, slick streets, and smashing my sister-in-law’s car. I navigated rush-hour traffic and one-way streets. I missed exits, pulled over to ask strangers directions. All I knew was that I had to find the blessed park and not invite bad karma by arriving late. I cursed my own superstitions.
Finally the sign: Dawson Park. He was standing outside his red convertible, against a backdrop of snow-weighted branches.
You are very pretty. His first words. It was -25°C. We unleashed Gunner, set out for a valley hike. G took my mittened hand after ten minutes; it was truly all I required. When the cold finally beat us, I followed his tail lights home.
From Shelley A. Leedahl
I'm not sure quite how it happens, but there seems to be some kind of magic at play during these literary salons with I Wasn't Always Like This. Last week my friend Rachel invited her friends to my home for an interactive presentation, and again, it was a spectacular experience for me -- and judging from their comments, for all the women involved. One woman said: "You need to do this every six weeks!" Here are some other reactions to the evening:
" ... a BIG THANK YOU to Shelley for sharing her book and herself with us and…
I am pleased to be Signature Editions' Author of the Month, and welcome you to dialogue with me about my new release, I Wasn't Always Like This, the writing life, and-or (most!) anything else.
I have been writing and publishing poetry, creative nonfiction, short stories, essays, novels (one for 10 - 13 year olds, another for adults), and children's literature for over two decades. I'm especially thrilled that Signature published my essay collection, as I find it such an exciting genre to both work in and read. I also work as a freelance writer, an editor, a book reviewer, and a workshop leader.…
Book club guide
“With Family Literacy Day celebrated nationwide last week, Northern Pride took some time to chat with former Meadow Lake resident and Canadian author Shelley Leedahl. Speaking from her home in Ladysmith, B.C., Shelley shared her thoughts on writing, her love…” >>
— Northern Pride
“‘I write as if I'm sitting across the table from someone, having coffee with them.’
Writer Shelley A. Leedahl of Ladysmith is candid and open when she writes about her experiences, and that's certainly the case with…” >>
— Lindsay Chung Ladysmith Chemainus Chronicle
“RESPONSES FROM READERS:
Just wanted to say I'm really enjoying your book. So far every story is my favourite ... I really love your writing. I've been warring with wanting to savour the stories and read them…” >>
“Leedahl always knew she wanted to be an author from a very young age.
“One of my earliest memories is of picking up a pencil and taking a paper and trying to make letters, but I was…” >>
— Robin Tarnowetzki Humboldt Journal
“Shelly A. Leedahl Talks About the New Marketing Realities
Something had to be done, and I knew the responsibility was going to be my own. My latest book, the essay collection I Wasn't Always Like This, was…” >>
— Alberta Writers Guild Westwords March-April 2015
“Saskatchewan native Shelley A. Leedahl lives in Ladysmith, B.C., and has a publishing résumé packed with poetry, short fiction, novels, kid lit and non-fiction. She described her latest book I Wasn't Always Like This (Signature Editions) to me as "a potluck of experiences…” >>
— Leslie Anthony Pique News Magazine
“This is a brave and honest book of very well-written essays from a writer born in Saskatchewan, home of the first province-wide (or state-wide) arts council in all of North America. Yes, it could be the visionaries who determined that…” >>
— Caroline Woodward Woodward On Words
Wednesday, October 14
Shelley A. Leedhal was interviewed by Mountain FM at the Whistler Writers Festival about her events and her latest book, I Wasn't Always Like This
(MP3 file, 5:07)