My guest today is Bill Engleson, an author from Denman Island. I had to look up Denman Island, having some vaguely ignorant idea that it was on the other side of the continent, somewhere in the frozen north beyond New Brunswick. Now I know that it is a small corner of paradise opposite Vancouver, I am green with envy. Bill is now Lucky Bill Engleson as far as I am concerned. In fact he is so lucky I have decided to post all of the excerpts he sent me, so put the kettle on now, put your feet up, and settle down for a long read.
Over to you now, Bill.
I have been writing recreationally since the early 1960’s.
When I retired from Social Work almost a dozen years ago, my partner and I and our two cats moved to Denman Island, a little community off the eastern shore of Vancouver Island. Our two cats have since gone to their reward but hopefully are satisfied with their replacements. We certainly are.
These past few years have been the most creative and productive period of my writing life.
Aside from short fiction, poetry, humorous and occasionally serious essays, and the intermittent letter to the editors of a number of anxiously awaiting newspapers, both local and national, I have recently published my first novel, Like a Child to Home, which depicts, in fictional form, aspects of the demanding child welfare world I experienced in a career that spanned 25 years.
I am currently writing a prequel to Like a Child to Home with the same protagonist, social worker Wally Rose. The book will be called Drawn towards the Sun.
One of my poems, Japandemonium, which was written very shortly after the terrible tsunami in Japan 3 years ago essentially to be performed at a fundraiser Open Stage in late March, 2011, is about to be published by Green Wind Press in an anthology of poetry from around the world commemorating that horrific disaster.
As do many others on our small Island, my partner and I both volunteer in a number of capacities,. Both of us chair the Board of Directors of separate key organizations. We have come to accept that the only way small communities can successfully function is to rely on volunteerism.
My Website/blog www.engleson.ca gives a fair picture of my various other writings and how to access my novel.
Here is an excerpt from Bill’s novel, Like a Child to Home. It can be read as a stand alone story.
Thursday Afternoon, November 15
As I got closer to Monica’s, my thoughts drifted to her and her 18-month old
daughter. Over the years, I had been the social worker for a handful of
young mothers, children 15, 16, 17 years of age, who tackled what I considered
the toughest job going; one I had failed miserably at. Often they came at the
duty of parenting with no real experience of having been parented themselves.
Many of their parents had lost their traction along the way, and their children
had been set aside. Some were outright abandoned, but frequently it was my
impression that they had been set down on the corner, so the parent could rest
up. If the parental recovery moment proved excessively long, pernicious time
would not permit them to resume their parental chore.
I was an apologist for the parents. Harsh assessments of their character
failings served no purpose. If the parent was still alive, reunion was always possible.
Most of the youth I worked with craved that reunion, although often
they would not admit it.
When a pregnant youth came my way, I was scrupulous in not attempting
to influence her about the decision to parent or not to parent. For many, the
struggle to decide was as intense as any struggle they would ever endure.
Monica had come to my office one Monday morning two years earlier. She was
three months pregnant. For the previous six months, she had been living with
her mother. Prior to that, she had lived with her dad from the time her parents
had split up when she was six. Her bond with her father was a powerful key in
her development. His death from cancer six months earlier had been preceded
by four years of escalating illness. She had become her father’s confidante and
nurse. There had been significant acrimony between her father and mother
and contact with her mother had been minimal. When her father died, she
had no other option but to go live with her mother.
“Oil and water,” Monica had said describing her relationship with her
mother the first day we met.
Denise Shaw, Monica’s mother, had not taken to her estranged daughter.
She was a hard working realtor with a long-standing, live-in partner, and
Monica had not blended well into their domestic arrangement. The mother-daughter
bond was further tested when Monica disclosed not only that she
was pregnant but that she was obligated to keep the baby. She felt this obligation
because she had suffered the loss of her father, and knew that he would
have wanted her to keep any child of hers. From my experience, this wasn’t a
casual, impulse-driven decision. I admired Monica’s resolve. Her mother and
stepfather tried to understand her position, but, though they never articulated
it clearly, it was fairly obvious that Denise Shaw and Ray Comeau did not
want to end up parenting the infant. Even though they insisted that she either
terminate or relinquish, she held her ground, and this precipitated her expulsion
from the home. I apprehended her, and in a matter of weeks, she became
a state ward. She lived in a good foster home until Samantha, her beautiful
child, was six months old. Finding a foster home that can care equally for the
infant as well as the infant’s child-mother is a challenge. Eventually, Monica’s
foster parents, and the foster mother in particular, found themselves increasingly
concerned about Samantha’s welfare. Small tiffs over day to day care
started to simmer. This predictable conflict was exacerbated by Monica’s occasional
comment that maybe she should have relinquished. She had tried to
involve Samantha’s father, a young man she no longer dated, in the baby’s life.
He was relatively transient, and the foster parents discouraged his half-hearted
attempts to play a part.
The placement cracked under the weight of the conflict. Because there had
been a marginal, yet legitimate, concern about the care of Samantha, Monica
agreed to allow Samantha to be brought voluntarily into care at age three
months. This essentially technical gesture allowed the foster home to receive
more funds for her care, but it also served to formalize Monica’s desperate and
wavering plan to relinquish. Complicating the situation was the appointment
of a social worker from another office to be Samantha’s social worker. The
intent of this was to assure that the baby’s interest were protected and kept
separate from Monica’s interest. Though this was a reasonable approach, it also
served to create a wedge between the interests of the mother and the interests
of her child. Something had to give. Monica decided that she and Samantha
should move out on their own. The voluntary care agreement ended and the
complexity of two workers came to a close when I negotiated a rocky ceasefire
to any protection concerns. This happened even though I had ignored a directive
from our chieftains in Victoria who were uncomfortable with the image
of two social workers from two different offices working at apparent cross
purposes. This conflict had evolved, plausibly enough, as I assisted Monica in
her corner and Samantha’s social worker struggled to ensure her baby’s rights
and safety were in place.
For the past year, Monica had lived on her own with her baby. I took her
out to lunch once every two to three months. She attended school as well as a
young parent’s support group. I thought she was doing just fine.
Monica’s apartment was located in a large, rundown complex, part of a
string of four-story apartment buildings that had seen way better days. I parked
in the rear and walked through the open-corridor underground parking to the
front entrance, buzzed her, and she let me in. I took the frail elevator to the
third floor, got out, and walked the hallway to her apartment. The door was
ajar. I knocked and she hollered from somewhere inside for me to come in.
I was saddened but not surprised to see that her housekeeping skills had
barely improved. She came out of the bathroom holding Sam on her hip,
looking thin, waiflike and smiling, and said, in a pitch more craggy with weary
age than her more usual chirpy tone, “Say it Wally. It needs a cleaning.”
“Consider it said,” I agreed, reaching for Sam. She handed her to me.
“The place might be a shambles but she’s spic and span. Look Wally, let me
dress her and we can go.”
I made a face at Sam, got a smile and a gurgle, and gave her back to Monica.
I could barely tie my own shoelaces when I was Monica’s age. I had been coddled
and exempt from obligation as a teen, both blessed and cursed by inspired
adolescent indolence. In hindsight, I wondered what part of my shallow teen
know-how allowed me to support youth like Monica. None of my experiences
came within a moon shot of her life, or the lives of young people similar to her.
Shortly, Sam was dressed and we lugged car seat, diaper bag, and a couple
of other baby trappings that meant little to me, into the elevator, down to the
main floor, out the building, and quickly to my car.
“I was thinking Japanese, if that was to your liking, Miss?” I said, knowing
Monica’s culinary tastes were somewhat more sophisticated than many of the
youth I dealt with.
“Where were you thinking…Yoshihara’s?”
“Yup.” We had eaten there once before, and I had promised we would go
It was a short drive, and we were there quickly.
The hostess showed us into a private room and we settled in to the intimacy
it afforded. The restaurant had a small low chair especially meant for securing
babes while adults dangled their feet in the well below the table.
We ordered two specials that included miso soup, a tray of delicacies
including tempura veggies and prawns, California rolls, and green tea.
“You want to know why I’m not at school?” she asked.
“No mystery there,” I offered. “You were destined to go to lunch with me.”
My stock answer generated a small smile. I had offered it only to give her
time to gather her forces to share what was slowing her down.
“My mother called on the weekend. I haven’t spoken to her since I was at
the Bensons. And then, it wasn’t really speaking…strictly yelling.”
Carol and Ted Benson had been the foster family for both her and Sam.
Monica still wanted to have a speaking relationship with them but the struggle
between the previous social worker for Sam and me had left a lot of emotionally
charged fissures. One of those was the slow repairing of the rift between
Monica and her mother. Denise Shaw, contrary to what I had expected, took a
shining to Carol and Ted Benson. Denise seemed to appreciate the safety and
care the foster family directed to both Monica and Samantha. However, once
Monica started to assert herself, Denise landed smack dab on the side of the
Benson’s. It was a logical landing emotionally, adult to adult, but it widened the
divide that had been closing between Denise and Monica.
“You must have been glad to hear from her? It’s been over six months of
cold shouldering,” I said optimistically.
“Yeah… glad… for about a minute.”
“So what, I have to extract everything you’re feeling? Like a dental shrink?”
That got a small smirk.
“Oh Jesus, it was great to hear her voice. She seemed to be happy to hear
mine but then she started asking all sorts of questions about Sam, was she
getting enough food? Was I missing any school? Wasn’t it about time I went
back to Carol and Ted’s? It turned into a humongous bitch session.”
“So, she called just to bitch at you?” I asked.
“Maybe not,” she conceded, “but it didn’t take her long to work up to it.”
After a gasp of breath, she added, “Actually, she was calling to tell me she and
Ray were getting married and she wanted me there.”
“Super,” I chirped in.
“She just wears me out, Wally. Mothers and motherhood just suck the life
out of me some days. I went to school yesterday but I just couldn’t get out of
bed this morning.”
Confessions of exhaustion from one so young invariably wore me out.
Aside from listening to her maternal woes, I had little to offer. I had successfully
tied my own hands. Denise had pretty much slammed the door in my
face once I had gone for a permanent order for Monica. And taking Monica’s
side when she moved out of the Benson foster home had sealed my consignment
to hell. Keeping the lines of communication open between youth and
parents was often the key to their growth and survival. Many times I had been
able to provide that intermediary conduit role. In Monica’s case, I wasn’t able
to and there really wasn’t anyone else in her life that could.
What might be needed now was a trusted middleman, a go-between,
someone who could renew the healing that events had failed to scab properly. I
could think of a couple of choices; Kate Morris could intervene, put me modestly
in my place by appealing to Denise to help her find a way to patch things
up as long as Wally was kept out of it. Another participant in Monica’s life
was Sheila Reicken, her teacher. Sheila had spent the past decade developing
a young parents program within her school, an inclusive program that supported
young parents to fully participate in learning, provided skilled daycare,
and normalized as much of their lives as possible.
Lunch arrived and we dug in. There wasn’t a whole lot Sam could eat but
she took a bit of the miso soup.
“So,” I asked, “besides marauding mothers, how are you doing otherwise?
“Like when would I have time?” she snapped back. “No, I want to and I
don’t. But I’m not. Between school and my parenting support group, that’s
about all I can squeeze in. Darren has visited a few times and he takes me out,
or sits Sam and frees me up a bit.”
Darren was a young man who had known Monica when she lived with her
dad and they had a pretty established, seemingly platonic friendship. I had met him
once on a home visit. He had been a neighbour of Monica and her dad’s in the
last couple of years of his life. Early on in my involvement with Monica, I had
requested a CPIC check on Darren just to insure that he was more or less on
the up and up. On the surface, he was just what he seemed, a young single guy
with a caring heart and no criminal record.
The balance of lunch was quiet. The food was good and we chatted about
the past, and more importantly, what the future might hold for her and her
baby. I restrained my barrage of focused questions, preferring to kick back and
enjoy the moment. Social workers on my team actively used lunch moments to
engage our clients, share small social interludes we are invariably nourished by.
Maintaining a balance between the professional and the caregiver was the
goal. I had worked with some social workers who actively shunned the sort of
intimacy shared lunch and open conversation permitted. Breaking bread with
teens had always seemed to me to be a valuable activity, and I built service
plans around that kind of relationship. There were youth who would have
none of it, youth too damaged to find any value in those sorts of quiet times, or
who simply had other things to do with their time. And that was fine. I likely
had a limit to my capacity to relax and share simple pleasures with youth. But I
wouldn’t intentionally be the one to set that limit.
As I was driving Monica and Samantha back home, I raised the notion
of finding an intermediary to talk to her mom. She knew Sheila a lot better
then she knew Kate but she agreed that Kate should give it a try. If she failed,
Sheila, as her teacher, had a better, less threatening chance. I told her that I
would ask Kate to touch base with her mother and see if we could get her
agreement to participate in mediation, or some process aimed at finding a less
painful way for them to communicate.
I dropped them off and got back to the office a little past 2:00 p.m. A big
lunch, last evening’s late hour carousing in the abandoned house, and too little
sleep had worn me down.
I checked my e-mails and phone messages. I am a bit of a throwback as
far as phone messages are concerned. Some years earlier, we were compelled
to accept electronic phone messaging. As a proud Luddite, I could not bring
myself to add one more beeping, ear-slaughtering electronic doodad to my
limited wired world. While the rest of my office mates had accepted their new
toy, I had simply refused. If someone called the office and wanted to leave a
message, one of the front office staff would take it. It was a simple act of defiance,
not much understood except perhaps by those people who were paid to
take messages and provide related supports to people like me.
It wasn’t a stretch to see that in the very near future, professionals would
be responsible for all of their record keeping. There might be some ethical
benefit to having sole responsibility for the work, the documentation and the
outcome, but what it also did was isolate the social worker, and that isolation
accelerated the burden of personal responsibility that most workers were shadowed
with. In and of itself, this was a reasonable complication, but most, in my
experience, buckled with the weight of it. I had crumbled some months earlier
with the insurmountable tonnage of it all. All of my layers of culpability had
crushed in on me, like multiple streams of lava, and eventually, inevitably, predictably,
I had hardened into immobility; I had become frozen in the moment, my
As much as I hated to admit it, I needed to rest my eyes.
I walked to the front of the office and told Roberta that I was going to take
a catnap for 20 minutes in the family room, where we had a sofa.
“Wake me in twenty, will ya Rob?” I had asked.
“Are you feeling okay?” she said, in a very concerned voice.
“Absolutely. It was a late night. Did Cathy tell you about our adventure?”
“She did, at coffee.”
“Well, maybe I’m just showing my age,” I replied.
“It’s about time,” she smiled.
“I love you too,” I said. “By the way, when is Cathy due back?”
“She said three, Wally. But you know she sometimes runs over time with
Didn’t we all sometimes, I asked myself. You could never give the youth
we worked with enough time. They would invariably suck the soul out of
you. Maybe that was our role; someone for the dispossessed to feed on, to
be nourished by our energy and wellness. And there were some very healthy
practitioners in the field. On that sheen of professional ice, I saw them skate so
well. In the taut skin of the professional, all the jiggles of misgiving, the waves
of apprehension, and the currents of despondency were held in check by that
tensor bandage of expertise.
But I had my own self-doubt, my own limits. The work culture I was
immersed in did not really embrace the sort of examination that would
encourage serious reflection. If it did, there would follow the compunction to
effect change. And change was actively discouraged. I mean, who had the time?
“If you would wake me at three, I’d appreciate it, Rob”
I fell asleep in seconds. It wasn’t an appreciably large couch, but I squirreled
into it and faded. I never used to nap. When I was younger, I could function
on five or six hours of relatively uninterrupted sleep. Those times had slipped
away from me, and my body and restless mind needed to adapt to the ways of
the older worker. My favourite dream reappeared. I am in the warm sun, the
topography is flat; the road I am walking on leads away into some far-flung
hills. I am thirsty, and water instantly appears. A cool spring gurgles by the side
of the road. I lower myself to the side of the stream, drink, and am quenched.
Hunger overtakes me. Food materializes. I sit at a table by the roadside; there
is a checkered table cloth, red wine in a clay jug, goat’s cheese, an assortment
of olives, and warm bread fresh from the oven. I feast and quaff the wine. A
breeze blows in from the sea, waves softly lap onto the beach that has replaced
the road I was trudging on.
I lie down on the sand and sleep, and dream of the mountains I will climb
when I am rested…..
What follows is one of Bill’s Gentrified Soul articles that he publishes in the island’s monthly journal. It gives you an idea of what he is all about.
Part 39-Confessions of gentrified soul-A how-I-learned-to-work-then-leave-it-all-behind reminiscence
“I had to quit my taxi cab driving job because I had no way to get to work. The problem was I kept calling myself to come pick me up.” Jarod Kintz
An early episode of Leave it to Beaver has the Beaver, age 10, and Wally, age 12, sharing a newspaper route with 58 customers. They get the job in order to earn money to buy bikes.
Their job is not arduous! I should know. I traipsed lightly as a paper boy for 4 years, from age 11 to 15 with, on average, 60+ customers. I did my route (I was route 66, incidentally, so I was thrilled to see the TV show come to the airwaves half-way through my paperboy exploits) on my lonesome. I didn’t have a younger brother tagging along. I did have a kid sister but she wasn’t all that collaborative.
Like the Beav and Wally, I had drive. Of course, I did subcontract out Mondays for most of those four years. Mondays, I bowled! 5 pin! I embraced, at a young age, a healthy work-play balance. In the fifties, there was great promise of much leisure time. I wanted to be ready.
Alas, the Beaver and Wally survive a little over a week in the news delivery game— actually, 26 minutes of real time. They lose their position because Ward, their papa, doesn’t trust them. He and mama June step in pre-emptively, without consulting the young entrepreneurs, and deliver the wrong Saturday papers, expired leftovers from the previous week! The lads are discharged because of interfering parental units! Ward makes amends in the end, gets them their job back by explaining what a meddling doofus he is, but, by then, his sons have moved on. They are off to see about getting a job at a supermarket. Packing boxes! An indoor job!
“I believe that if a man does a job as well as a woman, he should be paid as much.” Celeste Holm
The synchronicity for me is stupefying. I am relating like crazy. A few months after my paperboy days, I scored a job stocking shelves at a supermarket. Butter fingers that I was, I dropped copious jars of ketch-up—this in those long-ago, mostly pre-plastic days. The linoleum was regularly splattered with shards of glass and oozing buckets of blood-red condiment. During my apprenticeship, I had deftly manhandled all sorts of glass food products with a juggler’s dexterity. Unfortunately, that knack didn’t translate under fire. Like some gory theatre of war, the floors of the Nanaimo Safeway on Townsite Road ran crimson pretty much on my every shift. I was doomed.
Subsequently a red brick corner grocery store down the street from my house took a chance on my measly stocking skills. There was less of a factory feel to this job. I hung on to it for most of that year. The pace was manageable; damage was modest.
“Working cuts down on both folly and wisdom.” Mason Cooley (b. 1927) U.S. aphorist.
As I watched the LITB episode that one winter’s day, I began to wonder if anything I had ever done was truly original. Did my life somehow navigate in the same watery script-canal written for the Beav and his artificial family tree?
After my 4 year stint delivering the Nanaimo Daily Free Press, and before my two sojourns in the food retail racket, I worked briefly for a chiropractor. He had a business empire that included a soda fountain and a toy store along with his practice. I was fifteen and naively convinced myself that I had found my life’s target. With my considerable business flair, honed from four solid years of stick handling fiddly route collection payment requirements, not to mention the generous tips I was sometimes given, clearly because I was a crackerjack freckle-faced capitalist and budding sycophantic salesman, I was poised to take up my true calling in the kick-ass world of commerce.
“If my films make one more person miserable, I’ll feel I have done my job.” Woody Allen.
The job with Dr. Bone-Cruncher lasted a summer. I was sacked for playing with the toys. Which toys I can’t remember. Likely, they were not age appropriate. But it wasn’t the toys and their allure that did me in and ruined my career trajectory. Nah! It was the windows. The pre-Bill Gates kind. I could not avoid leaving streaks on the windows I was assigned to clean — the ones that faced the street— the ones that showed people what great coffee and milkshakes we made— the ones that displayed and tempted one and all to buy our toys and other confections.
To this day, I still don’t do windows well. It’s a habit I can’t break.
“When I quit working, I lost all sense of identity in about fifteen minutes.” Paige Rense (b. 1929), U.S. author and editor, recalling her brief period of being a housewife.
What I really started to write about in this column (and obviously got side-tracked from early on) was that sense of bereavement that accompanies the end of a career. It is akin to giving up smoking. Even though I haven’t smoked the noxious weed in over a quarter of a century, I still crave the grungy taste and smoky-fire flavour of cigarettes.
Every once in a while, I want to go back to work. I was a social worker. As stupidly mindless as the bureaucracy was that I found myself in, good and meaningful labour was possible. I have written a novel about it which will be released shortly. Initially I wrote Like a Child to Home, I believed, to purge my lingering work demons. I now think it was to resurrect them, to savour them once again.
For me, work was always about the people who shared my journey. That is what I miss most.
These days, I sometimes watch TV in order to catch a glimpse of how people doing work are portrayed. I feast on gorgeous worksite interplay. Cop shows that illustrate the nitty gritty of work demands and relationships most closely match my idealized memory of my abandoned work world.
Lost in this voyeuristic mix of simulated work situations and memories of early entrepreneurial yearnings are my derailed tycoon impulses. A chance friendship with a lovely family of leafletting communists and the sizzling political furnace that was SFU circa 1965 ruined me for corporate ascendancy. I could no more hang on to those business dreams than I could grip those elusive bottles of sugary Heinz relief.
But I still think about work, about my lifelong orientation to it, my continued bemusement by it, my forever exile from it.
Thank you, Bill Engleson for sharing some of your writing with us. It’s easy to see why you have chosen such a lifestyle—idyllic for some, hellish for others—if I had the chance I’d be there like a shot too.