How Adversity Birthed an Author

With my third book, North of Dreams released today, I thought it was time to tell you a story. I won’t lie. This piece was easy enough to write, but it wasn’t at all easy to share. I may be a poet spilling my soul for your eyes, but overall I tend to be fairly reserved as a person. I don’t freely talk about my experiences or things of a personal nature. It’s hard for me. I guess that’s why I like poetry so much. I can tell you stories and thoughts without ever outright saying them. It’s something I’m working on – being as honest in real life as I am with my poetry.

So here goes nothing, this is the story of how I came to be J.L. Fizzell.

January 1st, 2017. I rang it in at one of my favourite local haunts in Sault Ste Marie. Walking distance from my old apartment in the East End of the city was one of my favourite pubs – The Road House. It had become a special place to me, not only because I could make endless Family Guy jokes at the expense of their name (see reference here) but also because it had become a Tuesday tradition with one of the best of friends a girl could ask for. The staff and patrons were the type of people who had become this weird quasi family, whether I had met them before or not. There was something about the place that just felt right from the moment I had walked in. It had been years ago with another friend and I left that night knowing everyone there by their first name, but that’s a story for another time. Tuesdays came with $6 tankers (that’s 32 beautiful oz of beer), good pub food and an electronic jukebox that let you pick the songs for a dollar (side bar: I was once booed by the entire pub for changing “My Heart Will Go on” by Celine Dion to “Shipping Up to Boston” by the Dropkick Murphies). It seemed like a fitting place to wrap up my last moments in Sault Ste Marie before I officially took residence in my hometown of Timmins once again.

I sat at a table with my boyfriend (at the time, though we’re still very good friends… you’ll find out how later on), my brother, my best friend, someone who I had yet to discover would become incredible special to me, and my bff’s boyfriend and his brother. It was a great night full of laughs as the year came to a close and a new one began. Twenty Seventeen felt like it was full of hope and adventure, as I went home to catch a few hours of sleep before hooking up the U-Haul and heading to my new little (rented) home on the outskirts of my hometown. The ride home still held the same excitement as the night before, though it was bittersweet as I thought about all the beautiful people I was leaving behind. My hometown held my first “real” job in my chosen field. I had spent a couple months prior this moment making a name for myself at aid job, while my boyfriend at the time held down the fort as he too made the transition from one job into a new one.  This was going to be a good year, I could feel it.

Being back in Timmins was exciting. We reconnected with old friends who we previously only ever got to see during holidays and quick trips home, hit up haunts from our youth and reminisced at all of our favourite places. We built a new home in the “almost country” where we turned the backyard into our little oasis, hosted friends and enjoyed our new space as much as we could. There was something about being back that didn’t sit right, however. We both missed Sault Ste Marie, we both had thee stress of new jobs, and he was working crazy hours (with lots of night shifts). We were both stressed and tired, and his energy peaks, never mind schedule, rarely matched mine. It made enjoying our time together difficult. One of us was always tired, or cranky around the same time the other acted like they had just downed five cups of coffee. Tensions started to grow slowly and I was tired of never having him around. I didn’t notice what had been happening between us until it was too late.

On a September morning I called it quits after a petty argument, immediately regretting the words when I heard the words “I think you’re right” in response. The argument itself did nothing to merit a breakup, but had both been holding on to a mountain of “petty things”. There had to be a breaking point eventually. What followed that day was a mess of feelings neither of us handled very well. I’ll spare you the ugly details and sum up my end of things. I wanted to work things out so badly, but my first instinct was to cut and run. I was so hurt and I just needed to make it stop, not stopping to think that maybe we just needed a little time to have a serious talk about what we both needed. I gave up most of the belongings we had accumulated together over the course of six years and moved out the same day. I did my best to set fire to it all (figuratively) in hopes that the pain would go away. He had been my everything. He was the guy I was going to marry and my best friend, then all of a sudden he was a stranger.

As the days (and slowly, weeks) went by, we both slowly started to realize that we had both acted rashly. But the damage was done, and there was no coming back from it now without the both of us putting in a lot of effort. We spent time together here and there, watching movies, getting food, talking things out honestly for the first time in ages, playing board games and going for drives singing to our favourite songs. By mid October it felt like there was hope again. That house we were looking at together might have gone up in smoke, but I was sure that our relationship was a little more pheonix like than kindling. I stopped by one night to pick up a few important things I had left behind, and we embraced tightly before I left for “home” and he left on a trip. There was something in that moment where I was confident things would be okay between us. Everything just felt right. Boy, was I in for a rude surprise.

He was headed to Sault Ste Marie for a few days to visit family. It wasn’t a long visit and he was going to be home in time for our weekend plans to have dinner and a movie. I was looking forward to it. Things between us had started to feel like they did back when we first started dating. Hope was hanging in the air and I could barely contain my excitement as I waited for Friday to roll around. There was so much hope balled up into one weekend. This was going to be the moment where we rise up like a pair of fire birds in all their glory, or so I hoped.

As the days passed and Thursday turned into Friday, I was acting like a kid at Christmas. At least until I noticed that all of my texts and phone calls were going unanswered. Had he changed his mind? Impossible. But my thoughts started to get the best of me. By the end of my work day, I was sad and hurt and angry. I left work hoping to see him waiting outside with Scotty, our shared red Chevy Cruze (yes, that is a Star Trek reference), but I was met with nothing but strangers waiting for their children. I was hit with an onslaught of feelings that had me reeling. I started walking when my phone finally rang and and I saw his name pop up on the caller ID. A mixture of happiness and anger took hold and I’m sure my greeting was less than friendly. As I waited for a response I could only hear a faint beeping sound in the background.  At first, I couldn’t make out what the noise was, wondering if maybe he pocket dialed me, but it eventually dawned on me that I was hearing the beeps of a hospital monitor. Something about that moment sat wrong and I felt sick to my stomach. I just knew that what was about to come next would be the farther thing from good news. I didn’t expect the severity.

My name finally made its way through the airwaves and my fears were confirmed. “Jess”. There was a painfully long pause. “I’m in the hospital in Wawa.” In one brief moment I had a full understanding what this meant, in the same way I “just knew” something was going to happen the day we had been involved in a hit and run. It’s an uncanny and terrible feeling.  I’ll save you the details of one the most heart breaking conversations of my life, and tell you that he rolled our car across the highway six times into a rock bed and managed to pull himself out of the car with a fractured spinal cord (though at that moment we didn’t know how bad the injury was). For those of you have ever driven the section of highway between Montreal River and Wawa, you know that he was beyond lucky to be alive. I’ve seen pictures of the car, and heard enough to thank what ever God in the sky was watching over that day. I spent that night sitting next to a campfire in the backyard in shock. I was a wreck, but I felt guilty for any of my feelings knowing that his end of the stick was far worse. Thankfully I had friends pull together the second night and drag me out of the house to try and come to terms (or at least forget about it for a while).

It was days before I knew if he’d ever be able to walk again, and weeks before I would see him for one really short visit in mid November, just after my birthday, and months before we would get more than hour together (he was living in a different city while he recovered). I tried to take comfort in the fact that he was alive and walking, despite the odds. There had been so much hope in the moments leading up to the crash and I didn’t know how to cope. It wasn’t enough and heartache eventually turned to numbness. Phone calls were infrequent as he recovered (mentally and physically) and I was feeling horribly alone and directionless. All of the things I had left behind were packed up into storage, the car was totaled, my relationship was even more complicated than it was before and our old home was gone. The place I lived in didn’t feel like what I had come to know as home. Nothing fit my skin. Days seemed like a chore, and the mantra “it’ll get better” was doing little to instill hope. How did we get here? We had been months away from buying a home only to watch our own fall to pieces.

Through all of this I had taken to poetry as a ways to cope with everything that was going on. I felt like I could only burden my friends so much with everything that was going on, and my supports elsewhere were lacking. Writing was how I stayed sane as I made my way through the work days with half hearted smiles, and numbly through the evenings. I knew that he loved me and that that feeling was more than mutual, but I wasn’t sure that was enough to keep “us” alive. I poured my feelings on to pages, feeling a surge of relief after every poem. The world make more sense on paper. Nothing made sense in my head.

I’m going to back track for a second. At some point during the early stages our breakup, I reached out to the friend I mentioned earlier. I needed to get away from everything and have some fun. She was living in Toronto, and what better place than a “big city” to have some adventures and make some memories that would hopefully overtake the onslaught of negativity. I had joked around when she asked me what I wanted to do once the time came, telling her the only thing I wanted out of this trip was for someone to make me dinner, and someone to kiss when the clock stuck midnight ringing in a new year. I booked a trip for the last half of Christmas Break – a whole week. By luck, my other two best friends were still living in the area and we had all sorts of plans together. New Years Eve was especially exciting as we were going to watch some music and firework in Nathan Phillips Square (at my request). This was going to be good – for real this time.

The morning of New Years Eve, I woke up on an air mattress to my best friend’s brother standing a couple feet away. I hadn’t see him in since the previous New Years, and while I had never really thought of him as anymore than someone who occasionally hung out with us, there was something about his eyes that had me tripping over my words faster than I care to admit. Not that you could hear me very well anyways, since I had lost most of my voice the night before. It was a weird feeling and I didn’t quite know what to do with it. We spent the day together along with various combinations of the others, and everything I learned about him fascinated me. I had always been fond of him to a certain degree, it all of a sudden he came across as this incredible person, and every moment seemed to confirm it. How had I missed all of this before?

We got back to the apartment waiting for our other friend to arrive and he offered up some of the sheet style face masks for us to use.  Something about facial hair and the sheet mask didn’t quite work and so he cut the bottom portion of his off. Putting on the half mask, he ended up looking like a variation of the Phantom from the Phantom of the Opera. I knew at that very moment I was in trouble. There’s a poem in Icarus, Anchors & You that describes the moment perfectly (I’ll have to find the page number for you). Looking at him made me feel like a sixteen year old girl. A very large part of me felt terrible even entertaining the idea of my best friend’s brother (despite her own brief dalliance with my own), but at the same time the frequent static silence from the one person I wanted to hear from most was eating me alive. Something about the entire thing had me drawn in like a moth to the flame. I was enchanted by the city, enchanted by this beautiful brown eyed brother and feeling as close to normal as I had in months.

The night went on and we had fun. I was flirting shamelessly (though I’m not entirely sure if it was perceived that way… the finesse of flirting and reading signs is beyond me) right up until we left for Nathan Phillips. I was bugging him to dance and stealing his pizza (if you know anything about Fizzells, we show our affection/interest by being a royal pain). By the time we headed out, I already had a gut feeling of where the night was going to go.

So as not to lose anyone in our group of 5 (though I think it was more for my sake, because I tend to wander when left to my own devices) we held hands all the way from the apartment down into the subway. At some point everyone had let go, but I was still holding on to his hand. Someone called us out on it, and I remember replying with “Oh, I guess you’re right” and didn’t let go until we got off at our station. I didn’t want to.

The night was phenomenal and we stopped at a few places for food and more refreshments on our trek back to the apartment. There were deep fried pickles, interesting venues, goofing around as we walked down the street, and a blue eyed blonde who was belonged to the night. I was on top of the world and  for the first time in a long time, I wasn’t thinking about how badly I hurt inside. The night had been perfect, aside from a few small moments when I caught myself wishing I could share these moments with the guy with the “broken back”. Despite everything, I still wanted him there with us. But it was a though pushed back.

We eventually found our way back to the apartment, turned up the music, and poured something to drink. Starting to feel sad that the promised phone call from the my recovering (insert label here) didn’t happen, I was a little sullen and took to the the balcony for some air and an attempt to shake off the melancholy that was settling in. Something about being 20 stories in the air staring out at the bright city lights was comforting. I was going to stay out there for as long as I could (Toronto set records for one of the coldest winters in 50 years that January). It wasn’t long before I wasn’t alone anymore, and I spent the next few hours talking about things with the beautiful brown eyed person who had my feelings out of whack. It was everything in my power I could not to kiss him as he slung a jacket around my shoulders. I can’t say that I was trying very hard to keep my lips to myself. More likely, I was just waiting for the right opportunity (people were on and off the balcony and I’m a known pansy when it comes to making the first move). I wouldn’t remember the next morning if I gave in or not as I woke up with his arms around me and my head on his chest.  My world was spinning both literally and figuratively as I remembered first falling asleep on the kitchen floor together with little recollection of how we made it to the air mattress. I got up to go the bathroom, lied back down and slung my arm around him to try and make the world stop spinning. He didn’t say anything and we stayed like that for a while, before eventually getting up and making the trek in search of food. Only one of the others tagged along. Everything that was perfect. From the Wonton soup at Lee Chen, to the terrible movie we watched side by side on the couch, to our last moments at a place called “The Artful Dodger”.  He left late New Year’s Day just after dinner. I awkwardly hugged him goodbye and pretended to not feel a twang in my chest as I watched the uber pull away.  After only two days together, I was a hot mess of feelings, hurt and guilt. The phone call I was waiting for that fateful New Year’s Eve eventually came on the third day, and while I understood the reasons for it’s delay, I was tired of wondering why so many of messages went unanswered. My mind was elsewhere.

I had felt something that night that had taken hold of me and wasn’t letting go. I tried to fight it but there was a spark that was doing everything in its power to become a flame. We chatted via messenger all week and my face lit up like a Christmas tree every time his name popped up. These feelings weren’t going away any time soon. I sarcastically debated the benefits of polyamory, as I tried to make sense of how I could feel so strongly about two people at the same time. Even worse still, I wondered how I managed to go from zero to a hundred so quickly. Normally I tend to keep people at arms length and see what happens. This. This has me wanting to dive right in and see what happened.

Walking down the streets of Toronto on my own last day in the city, I finally worked up the nerve to tell his sister that I had fallen hard. I was still beyond confused both with how those feelings could happen so quickly, and what to do about the mess that was my love life. Somehow poetry fell into the conversation at some point and she encouraged me to put together a collection and publish it (side bar: I had recently discovered r.h. sin and was ecstatic to know that people actually liked reading poetry). That same night before my plane took off, I finally garnered the nerve to tell her brother how I felt moments before take off and was surprised to find out that there were similar feelings on his part. My phone switched to airplane mode as the wheels left the ground and I would write a poem. The poem.  “A Symphony of Blissful Chaos”. The poem whose feedback would eventually give me the courage to compile my work, write new pieces and make my lifelong dream of being an author come to fruition. I’m getting ahead of myself. But I get excited every time I think about how a small chain of events could have such a big impact.

Things stayed complicated as I wrote my book and I was tangled between the choices I had in front of me. I loved one, and desperately wanted to know what it would feel like to let myself love the other. It was a mess and I couldn’t sort any of it out. So as I wrote poem after poem, I jumbled the order to reflect the chaos that was the inside of my mind. I still loved my former partner but the continued silence made me question everything, and at the same time, the brother had me head over heels. He and I shared a lot of the same likes and interests, to the point that we take our coffee the same way and share the same favourite food, had the same taste in movies, opinions on major issues as a long list of uncanny similarities. I felt I could talk to him about anything (I’m usually a closed book) and we connected on a level I still struggle to put into words. But my luck, I fell for a guy a who lived in Sault Ste Marie while I lived in Timmins and the other half of my heart was in North Bay.

So began yet another struggle. By the time we had become “a thing”, I had published my first book and would go on to publish another two. Poetry helped me make sense of the mess that was my mind. The more I wrote, the more I started to figure out what I really wanted. It was easier to understand my world when I could see it in front of me and that had me hooked. Poetry flowed through my veins like my own blood. I was going to write until my life was back on track, and then I would keep writing.

Somehow through all of this, my original partner was a huge support. I didn’t think one person could generate as much encouragement as he did. He read all three hundred versions of each manuscript, and while he admitted that some of the words stung, they were beautiful and needed to be heard. I often wonder why, given that many of my words were less than kind. He insisted that no matter my choices, he had come to realize that a world where we couldn’t stay friends was not an option. I suppose coming to terms with a near death experience has some pretty incredible power as far as your mind goes – for better or for worse.

Still, even on my end, there was something about almost losing him in the most permanent way you can lose someone that makes you set aside all of the other petty things. I’m still not sure where I’d be if he hadn’t made it out alive. As for the brother, he’s still a very important part of my life and I try to visit as often a possible. I’m lucky to have them both, and lucky to have all the incredible people who helped me get through those dark days. Somewhere in those moments, I found myself and became the phoenix that I had hoped for months ago. There was strength in me that I didn’t know existed, and I was determined that out of tragedy, something good would arise. I didn’t know just how much good was possible.

So there you have it. From one of the hardest periods of my life came the fulfillment of a dream, a means to turn a hobby into a coping skill, the ability to be honest with myself (and others) and the realization that I have some of THE BEST people in my life. From my friends, to the guy with the beautiful eyes, to the (thankfully almost recovered) guy with the broken back: you guys have championed me into this moment, and I don’t ever know that I will be able to thank you enough. They say you’re lucky to have one good friend in your lifetime, well I have more than my share. Truly.

If you’re wanting a taste of my work, head over to my instagram page or check out the “look inside” feature on amazon. The books themselves fill in the pieces of this story, though the back story isn’t necessary to enjoy them. The story has a way of telling itself without my help. I can only hope that they will be the same light for you that they were for me. As a final point, I also want to say thath North of Dreams is out today. I hope you pick up a copy and share your thoughts as freely as I’ve shared mine.

So there you have it, folks. That’s the story of how I came to be J.L. Fizzell. It’s not a pretty story, but it’s my story and I’m thankful that it allowed me to make it to this moment.

I’d love to hear your stories.
Feel free to share in the comments below.

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