Author: Karen Stiller (page 2 of 6)


It was around the second half of the first verse of “One Day at a Time…Sweet Jesus,” a solo sung with gusto by a woman at my parent’s small rural church, when I heard the first chirps of a renegade songbird joining in.

I knew that voice immediately. And I knew exactly where it was coming from.

Second row, centre seat of the small choir perched on the other side of the church. My mother, a soprano of remarkable enthusiasm, didn’t join in on entire lines, because she didn’t remember all the words.  She chimed in on “….teach me to take, one day at a time.” Then, seconds later, “ me the way, one day at a time.” Patsy Cline, belting it out to the left of the baptismal font seemed unaware of my mother’s contributions. But she did seem like a pro, who had probably sung this song in 100 bars before this joint. She had probably dealt with usurpers before.

After all, it is hard not to join in. And  each time my mother did, she moved her head slightly to the side so she was no longer obscured by the little old ladies in floral dresses sitting in front of her. So she could see me. And so I could see her. She was singing those fragments to me directly. Or so it seemed. She likes it when I am home and attend church with them. She had already announced to the congregation, from the choir pew, that I was there.

I looked away. I rattled my bulletin. I glanced at my father to see if he had noticed. He sat stiffly, eyes glued to the main performance. She fired on all cylinders as she entered the final lap, finish line in sight “….Well Jesus you know if you’re looking below. It’s worse now, than then. Cheating and stealing, violence and crime…”

I glanced back to my mother. Looked away again quickly. I wanted to both shush my mother and applaud her for refusing to let one singer hog this great old song. And then I just felt grateful that these things still go on, that country singers still pop up in country churches built entirely of white wood. That passionate sopranos sometimes just can’t sit quietly. That the small congregation broke into applause. That the singer leaned into her mic and said “Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you,” when she was done, and that soon, very soon, we’d all get to eat sugar cookies left over from the funeral on Wednesday. But over all, grateful for my mom.

Used books

The other day I found exactly what I was looking for in a used book store. It was The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls.

The store owner, sitting behind his desk pecking away at an ancient computer, jumped to his feet when I asked for help. He zigzagged through the store, zeroing in on the one remaining copy, perched high up on a shelf somewhere in the back, sideways, all the while remarking he didn’t think he had any copies left. But boy, there were a lot of them around a few years ago, weren’t there, he said.

But there it was and I think we both felt we had won a little prize. We had a chat about used books and their stores, and how they always smell so comforting. I told him how I used to work in a tiny used book store right beside Peddler’s Pub downtown, which is now a shiny, metallic looking gym. I asked him if he knew Neil, the owner who hired me way back then, whose last name is gone forever from my mind. I was a woman expecting her first child and expecting only to be back in Halifax for six months or so, while her husband became more Anglican.  He hired me anyway and he and I and Brent would have fun, warm talks. He thought we were weird I think, but he liked us, especially Brent I remember.

Neil had a lovely wife with long blonde hair and a pet ferret. She and I became friends and I remember going to visit her on a long bus ride. She died, the book store owner, told me. Of cancer, he thought. And this news triggered off a long ago memory of knowing she was not well, even back then. I remember that Neil carried a sad burden. I remember him buying her earrings from the Pier One that also used to be on Granville Street. And I remember him saying she probably wouldn’t like them, because he was one of those husbands who never could pick out things his beautiful wife liked. I took the book I had bought for my new friend, and one I picked up for myself too, and headed back down Inglis Street, thinking about the treasures you find in used book stores.


Unexpected pleasures

For a simple trip from Toronto to Halifax, it certainly involved a lot of cancelling, delaying, waiting, boarding, fretting and running. It was easier to fly home from Cambodia. But happily, last in is first out, or so I learned about luggage. I also learned that even, nearing 50, I can still show up with my shirt on inside out.

So far, during this trip to Halifax, I made a point to step inside King’s College Chapel, where Brent and I married 26 years, one month and one week or so ago. It was the same beautiful, dusty, churchy, old, quiet, lovely spot. As I stood there watching the light flow through the old windows, remembering, a young couple walked quietly in. They asked if I worked there. I smiled and said no. They explained they wanted to marry in this very chapel. I told them I already had. And that they definitely should.

I have a favourite editor

I have a favourite editor. Probably all writers do. But this guy is sunshine. Every time I do a piece for him and read over his comments in the margins, I smile. Here are some snippets from his latest edit: He starts with a cheery “Hi Karen!” and then moves on to: “This was a lot of fun! I feel like turning on some music right now.”

The piece was about how to bring music into your home in a more intentional way, and all the benefits it brings. So, now I’m totally warmed up and beginning to lean back in my chair to soak it in, and he writes: “I have a couple of suggestions and a question.”

No problem, think I.

His very next comment is lovely again: “I like how you’ve built the scene.” He just said that to be nice.

What’s up next? This: “Love how you’ve set these two sentences up… Plus it acts as a great transition.”
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These past months, my gobbling greedy self learned anew, and deeper than ever, how disappointment can punch you in the stomach. The deep, miserable kind. The cry loudly on your bed when you are home alone. The nose-running kind.

I felt like God had almost given us something amazing. But He shrugged and said “Nah” at the last moment and looked for someone better to give it to. That’s what I felt like. And the fact that I felt that particular cry-baby kind of thing, made me think that maybe what I think and feel about a lot of things to do with God aren’t quite right. Because, was I supposed to feel that way? Wasn’t that naughty and bad and selfish and stupid?

Then, instead of that Big Magical Thing I thought I had deserved to receive into my grasping hands, God gave me a small, tiny thing. A name. It dropped fully formed into my mind one morning as I sat sipping my breakfast tea.

Darlene. My old friend from years back. The woman who knew enough, even back then, to iron her second-hand dresses inside out so they lasted longer.
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