Dear Jill: On sickness anxiety

Dear Jill,

I want to tell you a story about my sickness anxiety.

“Teacher, your eye… it’s..,” said little Dana, squinting one eye in lieu of words. She was a four-year-old English language learner trying to explain my swollen, infected, leaking eye and ask what was wrong.

“Yes, Teacher is sick,” I said, nodding and moving on. I didn’t have the energy to get into an explanation. My little Korean kindergarten students knew the word “sick” and that was enough.

At lunch break, instead of eating the kimchi-and-rice lunch provided by the school, I followed my co-teacher to an optometrist down the road. On the third floor of one of thousands of five-floor concrete boxes stretching across Incheon, Bucheon, and Seoul, a doctor gave me drops and time in front of a face dryer before sending my back to work.

Other illnesses brought on needles filled with who-knows-what (my boss assured me, after speaking with the doctor, that it was fine), and once I was “allowed” to sit in the staffroom with my head in my hands as I shook and sweated out a fever and another teacher took on some of my classes. This system kept me from taking more than one sick day in two years. On that day, I felt terrible for inconveniencing my coworkers when there was no one to take my classes and forcing them to come in on weekends for my missed time.

I don’t want to blame Korean hagwon work culture for my anxiety about taking sick days, but I emerged from that time with a weird sense of pride about working through illness. I would certainly not inconvenience people by staying home for a cough of sniffles.

My first sick day in Canada was because I was in the hospital after a bad bout of food poisoning left me severely dehydrated.

However, the longer I lived back home, the more my Western norms reasserted themselves. I didn’t want to infect other people and I deeply resented sick people for coming into work and exposing me to their germs. But this weird guilt lingered.

It’s worth pointing out that I catch everything. If someone I pass on the bus is coughing, I will probably be wheezing by next weekend. I catch the flu, bronchitis, strep, sinus infections—at least two or three of these illnesses each year.

When I’m ill, like most people, I’m tired and less efficient in my work. My mind has a hard time focusing and it takes longer to complete things. A day or two of rest makes a tremendous difference in recovery and I come back weirdly excited to go back to work.

Yet, when I wake up knowing a bad illness has taken hold, I turn to Ryan and look at him imploringly, “Do you think I’m sick enough?”

This need for permission is hard to wrap my head around. I work in an office where my day-to-day work can be taken on by several other people and most of my deadlines are flexible. I have a laptop to work remotely from home.

Yet I feel like I’m committing a subversive act if I take a day off (and I have sick days!) or even work from my couch. It’s a mental struggle on top of the physical struggle of fighting off infection and fever.

And though I come back refreshed, happy to be feeling healthier and out of the house, I keep expecting someone to comment on my absence. I expect someone to suggest I lack fortitude and perseverance, that I’m putting my job in danger, that I don’t deserve any of the things I’ve worked for.

It’s a struggle I haven’t figured out how to navigate yet. I am glad to be in a work culture that doesn’t overtly throw shade for being sick or insist I see doctors on very short lunch breaks. But the subtext still feels very real: I should not be sick, I should be working, I should be productive or I am failing to be a responsible adult.

Dear Cass: How to write more assertively

Dear Cass: How to write more assertively

Dear Cass,

I like to have things in front of me. If things are in files or tucked away in folders, I forget they exist: out of sight, out of mind for me.

Therefore, I’m one of those people whose cubicle is full of interesting and useful printouts pinned up haphazardly. It looks like an absolute mess, but when there’s nothing up, I feel like I’m in someone else’s cubicle.

I have best times of day to post social media content, House of Commons and Supreme Court calendars for 2019, shortcuts for French accents on PC, and a blog post by Seth Godin about being a creator that feels poetic and makes me feel inspired when I look at it. I also have a few phone numbers and an acronym for improving writing (PANDA).

Today’s newest addition is one you might like too (maybe not for your cubicle, if you don’t decorate like a teenage girl postering her locker).

Maybe you suffer from this thing too, where you end up writing things that don’t sound confident even when you are confident (or at least, when you’d like to project more confidence). I don’t want to be brusque or robotic in my emails, and I know the written word can be misinterpreted. As a result, I feel something almost like up-talk sneaking into my email writing.

This handy graphic is just a nice little guide for writing stronger, more assertive emails.

Write more clearly



Dear Jill: How to read more books this year

Dear Jill,

I have 10 books on my Goodreads list right now and that’s probably too many. I can only keep track of a couple at a time. One of them I haven’t picked up in months, although it sits at my bedside.

I’ve been a restless reader lately, I’ve started more than 10 books that never made the list and set them down. It’s not because they were bad (most of them), but I just didn’t have that drive to read them. I’d set them down and not care what happened next.

However, I’ve read 25 books this year, so far and I imagine I’ll get to 75 by the end of December as I usually do. Maybe all 10 of my current reads will be done by then, or maybe I’ll remove some. It took me more than a year to finish The Brothers Karamazov back in 2013. I read in fits and starts and enjoyed it overall. I just couldn’t do it in one go.

Here are my secrets to reading more books in a year:

  1. Mix in some short reads. I always read a few graphic novels throughout the year and I tend to motor though, even though I like to stop and examine the pictures. They get a bad rap sometimes, but even much-maligned superhero comics can have surprising depth. One book I’ve set down, but will eventually come back to is Mighty Thor with Jane Foster becoming Thor while fighting cancer. It’s pretty dark (which is why I had to set it down for a bit).
  2. Don’t force yourself to finish every book. There’s no participation trophy. Reading should be enjoyable and you’ll read faster if you read things you like. It’s OK if a book challenges you and takes you longer to read (hello, Thomas Cromwell biography), but if you’re resisting picking it up, try something else.
  3. Audiobooks are books. I don’t quite understand why some people don’t want to count them as books. You listen to the whole story and you get to do things like drive or ride the bus at the same time. Also, your weird purist idea of reading leaves out those who are blind, dyslexic, or have another impairment that prevents them from reading from the page and there’s no need to be ableist in your reading habits.
  4. Try new genres. I used to be the most awful book snob. In the past few years I’ve started adding mysteries and bestsellers much more than I used to. I was surprised by how much I liked them. In the past I’d read such a small selection of the sub-genres that I was writing off so many great books because I didn’t like a couple of authors.
  5. Talk to people about books. Reading gives you something to talk about when you are forced to make small talk. When people know you read, they’ll often ask you about what you’re reading and that carries the conversation without having to resort to the weather. Then they’ll tell you about what their reading. You’ll both get great recommendations. Everyone wins.
  6. Turn the TV off / put your phone down. I watch TV and I play on my smartphone a lot. Social media is my literal job. But I make myself spend at least one evening reading each week for at least an hour, I read on many of my lunch breaks, and I listen to audiobooks on the bus. Sometimes it takes 10-15 minutes for my brain to calm down and focus, but it will. Unlike when I scroll on Twitter for 20 minutes, I feel more refreshed at the end.

This is how I read 50-75 books each year. Nothing ground-breaking, but I like to think some of these things are freeing. Read what you like! Read short books! Listen to books! Set realistic goals for you. I don’t have kids, so I have more free time than my friend with three kids under five.

Reading more will enrich your life and make you a more interesting person… But that’s another letter.



Dear Jill: Getting better at hard things

Dear Jill,

The hardest thing lately has been to sit down and write. Writing for fun or writing for work, it’s just felt torturous.

I came across this article in a newsletter I got over the weekend called How to do Hard Things.

The article recommends adding the hard thing to easy things and practicing until the hard part is easy. So I decided there are several things I can do to get over this hump.

  1. Easy thing: outlining; Hard thing: writing I love making a good plan. I need to pair this with writing. My outlines need to be more fleshed out, rather than the goal posts I’ve been letting them be. It will make the final writing process less daunting (hopefully), but will allow me to work on writing in smaller increments.
  2. Easy thing: research; Hard thing: writing I can get lost in research, but this eats up at my writing time. It’s hard to quantify what I’ve been doing all day if I don’t have some sort of product. That doesn’t mean the research isn’t valuable, it’s just much better if I can use it in some way. Therefore, I’m going to write more about the things I research. I won’t move on to the next topic until I’ve written something related to that research.

The article also recommends trying beginner exercises to get you going with the hard thing you’re trying to get better at.

I took a look at an article on writing discipline and decided to try the following:

  • Write small passages and build up. This can mean scenes in my stories or small blocks of social media posts rather than doing the whole batch at once.
  • Create a routine. I usually find it easier to write in the afternoon. When possible, I’m going to write when I get back from lunch, rather than trying to force it in the morning when I’m more geared to taking things in.

I don’t supposed it will make the moment of starting any easier, but it will get me going. It’s a bit like getting up in the morning—I hate it for the first five minutes and then it’s OK. Especially if there’s coffee.


The Łù’à Mǟn (Kluane Lake) effect

The Łù’à Mǟn (Kluane Lake) effect

In 2016, a river stopped flowing. The glacier most of its water came from had melted back and now flowed only into another river system.

A year later, a group of glaciologists published their initial findings about how the river system was effected.

Beyond the geology though, are people and animals with an uncertain future. While I was in the Yukon this summer, I traveled to the Kluane area and spoke with people about what they’d seen and their hopes and concerns for the future.

You can read that work in The Łù’à Mǟn (Kluane Lake) effect.

Spreading the good news

Spreading the good news

(In feature photo: The three winners of the National Indigenous Day Bannock Bake-off)

Hope, strength and resilience aren’t words I have heard in a lot of reporting on Indigenous peoples of Canada. The stories I hear most often go like this:

  1. An Indigenous nation has a dire problem (drinking water, suicide crisis, flood plains, etc). The federal government refuses to help. Problem is getting worse.
  2. The federal government is backing a company in their fight to extract resources from the land. Indigenous people protest and police get involved. The company still gets to extract resources.

These stories frame Indigenous people as hapless victims, unable to care for themselves or generally being a nuisance to both private and public sectors.

Stories North doesn’t tell those kinds of narratives. There was no agreement—we didn’t decide this was something we wouldn’t do. It’s just that’s not how we saw the people we met. The Indigenous people who spoke with our class were not helpless, they weren’t weak and they weren’t necessarily opposed to big business or the government, although most are passionate about protecting the land for future generations.

The people we met were incredibly strong—many had been through some hellish experiences, some of which Canadians are beginning to get familiar with through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s work, among other initiatives.

HAROLD (1 of 1)
Harold Johnson of the Long Ago People’s Place, telling us about Champagne First Nation traditions.

Yet, while many shared those experiences, our stories were shaped more by the work they are doing now to heal themselves and their communities. They are forward-thinking leaders, doing the good work that needs to be done for a better future.

Sometimes journalists look down on the “good-news story” for not being serious and important enough. The public does too—see the comments on any good-news story (or don’t, if you value your sanity) and some person is quick to comment that it “must have been a slow news day.”

But the importance of reporting on good-news stories that feature Indigenous people is that they allow the public to have a frame of reference beyond victimhood and civil disobedience. Protests and public crises should be covered—of course—but when many Canadians only see these communities, they don’t know about the incredible things that are happening.

Shauna Yeomans is a land guardian for the Taku River Tlingit First Nation. She helps test the land to make sure projects like the hydroelectric plant aren’t negatively affecting the environment.

As I move forward past this course, I am committed to doing three things to try and combat this narrative of despair:

  1. I want to know more about the people whose lands I live on. I’ve been lucky to get to know what’s happening in some of the First Nations of the Yukon and I’m very grateful to those who have shared. There’s no reason for me not to be talking with people at home. I know I live on unceded Algonquin Territory, but that’s not enough.
  2. I am going to share those stories. I am not currently employed as a journalist, but I have a sphere of influence: friends, family, Instagram followers. You never know who you’re going to touch and social media makes it easier to share what you learn.
  3. I’m going to try and stop feeling bad about preferring to tell good-news stories. I like soft news and if my master’s degree has taught me anything, it’s that most journalists don’t have a lot of respect for that kind of reporting. Yet, this course has taught me that these stories can be important and have the potential to change the way we think about each other. We could all stand to be a little kinder.

I arrived in this class aware of the history of Indigenous people. I’m not all-knowing, but I knew more than the basic pre-contact history taught at school.

As Harold Gatensby shared his residential school story and his outlook on the meaning of life, we burned pieces of one of the residential schools he attended in Carcross.

From the first day of Stories North, when we did a blanket exercise led by two young, strong, First Nations women, I have felt that I need to take my disgust with the way things have gone in the past and turn into something more productive.

What was missing from my education was hope and my own ability to help spread that hope. This class has not only taught me to look for the good, but has tasked me with the responsibility of sharing it.

Here’s to a bright, bright future.

Brave women

Brave women

“What’s your favourite colour?” I would ask my parents. “Your favourite animal? Your favourite car?”

At first they would humour me, but there came a point when enough was enough and they’d tell me they didn’t have favourites.

This was incomprehensible to four-year-old me. There must be favourites, there must be best and most-liked.

As I’ve got older though, I’ve come to side with their reticence. Picking favourites is like a declaration of allegiance. I’ve chosen one thing and therefore not chosen others. Maybe red is only my favourite colour of clothing, but for the walls of my apartment, I want something different.

When I’m asked about more complex things, I’m amazed at how people can choose one thing when I see an array of options that can are significantly different. A favourite place I’ve been. The most influential person in my life. The one and only career I must do until I retire or die. How on earth can there only be one?

So to talk about who has been most formative on this Stories North trip is a little difficult and I hope it’s not hedging to acknowledge that I don’t think any one person qualifies. It’s like focusing in on a small part of an 18th-century Grotesque painting. You’re seeing something incredible, but you’re kind of missing the larger picture.


*                                  *                                 *


I’d bought a book on prostitutes of the Klondike gold rush, picked up pamphlets about Kluane Lake and Atlin, B.C., and bought some jam as gifts for friends back home. Now I was trying to fit that all in my bag with my camera, lenses, mics, phone chargers and other equipment.

My bag was open on the seat of a bench outside the Dawson City Visitor Information Centre as I drew on my Tetris skills to make it all fit. The sun was shining, which was a nice turn from the beautiful, but damp misty morning we’d had earlier in the day.

I smiled up at a woman who stood nearby with her big grey dog.

“Do you know if we need tickets for the tour starting soon?” she asked.

“Yeah, but they’re free,” I said, holding up my “Golden Ticket.”

She handed me the leash of her dog. “She seems nice,” she said to the dog.  Then, to me, “This is Vincent. Can you hold him a minute while I go inside and get a ticket?’

I nodded and she went inside. I was left with Vincent, who seemed calm about the situation. I couldn’t even remember her face, except that it was kind.

I finished up packing my bag and sat with the dog while we waited for her return. No one looked at us or seemed to think it was strange that I had a dog. They probably thought he was my dog. Or that I knew her. Or I just blended into the hordes of tourists and no one paid any attention at all.

As soon as we started the tour the sunny day turned into a downpour. We huddled under a tent to listen to Parks Canada employees dressed up as famous Klondike figures tell stories of the gold rush.

We got umbrellas and I put up my raincoat hood and Vincent got very wet as he wasn’t allowed into the historical buildings. Between each building, I chatted with the owner as we walked down the boarded sidewalks with the pack of other tourists.

She was on a kayak trip, alone with her dog, stopping at historical places and camping out in the woods. She’d been to places only accessible by water and stayed in abandoned trappers’ cabins. I asked her if I could take her and Vincent’s photo later and she said yes.

At the end of the tour, I stopped to talk to the guide and lost her. She must have told me her name, but I can’t remember it for the life of me.

Brave, smart women have always impressed me. As someone who loves history and wanted to see the places she’d read about was bound to make me pause and think. It was like meeting someone you wish you were.

The Yukon wilderness is vast; it’s monumental. It feels too big to be surmounted by a woman in kayak with a dog. There are bears. She could drown. She could get lost and maybe no one would find her.

There are always reasons not to go, reasons not to do the things that scare you. But if they excite you and call to you, maybe it’s best to follow through. She certainly seemed no worse for wear. Even after being out on the river for weeks, she had friendliness for me and plenty of questions for our tour guides.

I’m nearly finished my third, and final (hopefully) degree. The future lays open with possibilities and it’s like looking up at a beautiful mountain of terror. But maybe there’s a way to navigate through and a friend to share the adventure with.

The great bannock bake-off

The great bannock bake-off

On National Indigenous Day—the first to be a statutory holiday in the Yukon—there was a bannock bake-off in a tent behind the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre.

Two of the students from Stories North participated in the challenge against several Indigenous women and one Indigenous man.

Click through the gallery to see how it went.

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The Healing Totem

The Healing Totem

“Every time, there’s not enough chips,” said Wayne Price, master carver of the Healing Totem Project at the opening ceremonies of Whitehorse’s first National Indigenous Day as a statutory holiday.

The crowd gathered around the totem pole that Price and a group of about 20 carvers created in 2013. Price said each chip represents one person. The chips were ceremonially burned and a portion of the ashes is inside the totem pole.

Community members carried the pole seven blocks through Whitehorse to of Main Street. It serves as a reminder of hope for the future.

The Quebecois

The Quebecois

I’m working on a photo series about Quebecois identity. What does it mean for each of my subjects to be Quebecois in their everyday lives?

For the purposes of the project, I’m using the definition of “Quebecois” identity loosely and letting my subjects define it for themselves: Must they be Francophone? (No.) Born in Quebec? (Not necessarily).  But some are Francophone, born in Quebec or both.

More photos to be added as the project continues. If you are interesed in being photographed for this project, send me a message.