Re-Inventing Myself

By Suzanne Heron

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The author on an early morning photo shoot on Cordova Bay beach. Photo by: Michel JOffre

I was sitting beside a broad canal in the north of Holland on a bright spring day in 2007, bawling. I knew the dream I’d nurtured for 12 years was quietly disintegrating in the boatshed behind me, and I was raging against the idea of slinking back to Canada in failure.

My husband Dolf and I had a particular dream, to wander the world by boat and end up in the Gulf Islands of B.C. We engaged a builder in Florida to make an ultra-modern catamaran, and winnowed our belongings to precisely 4.2 cubic metres. In 2004, we sold our house and bought a small piece of heaven on Lasqueti Island to come back to, with no road, no electricity, no building, just a cliff top overlooking a tidal lagoon and a bit of meadow.

There followed four years of trying, really trying, to live our dream. Our boat builder’s yard was destroyed in a hurricane. He set our project aside in order to respond to a woman who said she was under God’s instruction to build a floating hair salon for downtown St. Petersburg. With no boat to move onto, we lived out of the trunk of our car, at the mercy of family and friends from Victoria to Maine. Along the way, we built a barn, put in gardens, tore out gardens, renovated kitchens and bathrooms, fundraised, tended stores and B&Bs. Eighteen months later, the builder said he was ready to finish our boat - but he wanted almost twice the price. Stunned, knowing we couldn’t afford it, we walked away.

It took me 24 hours to figure out Plan B. “We could go barging around Europe,” I said, and Dolf thought a minute before replying, “That would be fun.” A British agent who specialized in Dutch barges helped us find a 20-ton, 100-year-old barge we could motor or sail on the thousands of miles of canals throughout Europe; I bought a book of charts.

He guaranteed the sale, and Dolf was reassured by the great care that is taken with every business transaction in Holland. The hull is examined twice, by three surveyors; the sale goes through a notary; there is an extensive paper trail. We stayed with Dolf’s cousin, or on the barge, for nine months, renovating it to our needs. For the very last project, I lifted the floorboards - and found water. When the hull was sandblasted, the perfect hull the surveyors had assured us of was shown to be pitted with holes, paper thin in places. One surveyor, appalled, admitted, “It looked so good, we didn’t scrape it.” So I sat by the side of the canal and cried.

The British agent simply told us he was disinclined to honour his guarantee. We fixed the hull and sold the ship at a great loss. We had run out of boats, out of money, out of possibilities. And other than loving each other, we were ill equipped to cope. I am a child of privilege; to me, everything is possible. Dolf is a child of parents who lived through the war under occupation. To him, the world is a dangerous place, and his job is to keep us safe. So, he felt like a failure, and I was bitter. And since anyone remotely responsible had run away as rapidly as possible, we did the only logical thing and turned to and on each other in paroxysms of frustration. Feeling used and abused, stupid and ashamed, we came crawling back to this continent, where we eventually washed ashore on Lasqueti Island.

There, a re-invention happened. To the inevitable question - how did you get here? - I told and re-told our story, and every single person said, “But that wasn’t your fault!” With repetition comes reflection. I was looking for a world adventure to confirm that I belong in the whole world, that there is a chance that we can all get along. I thought it would be fun to sail to a community and volunteer there for a while. Dolf pointed out the many projects we’d undertaken for people. “We’ve actually been doing what you wanted,” he said.

We didn’t get the adventure we planned. Instead, we reconnected with five or six of my second cousins and found them to be kindred spirits. Dolf rediscovered his extended family in Holland and found that in the bosom of his family, he is not an oddball. We biked and hiked in Holland, saw one daughter settled in England and visited old friends there. What I got was the ongoing adventure of life: the opportunity to build connections with family and friends, to become part of communities that support us. I got to realize my dream of feeling like a citizen of the world and developing meaningful relationships in many places - but I had to become open to what life gives, rather than my fixed view, to realize it.

Then, September 2008 happened. After losing so much money in boats, we now looked at each other in horror and said, “We have to go back to work!” But what to do? A small, purposefully remote island isn’t a place for relative newcomers to find steady work, so we made our way to our daughter’s basement in Victoria. There, despite what I considered a stellar résumé encompassing 30 years of community development and 20 years in retail, the silence of the telephone was deafening. Then, Dolf had an idea.

We’ve always loved the watercolour calendar produced by some Bermuda artists, full of little tidbits about the island, lots of pictures spattered across the pages, and a delicious recipe for each month. “Something like that would work around here,” he suggested. “Hmmm,” I said, and started talking to retailers. “Oh yes, please,” they all said, “and could you produce cards, too?” I was in business; Blue Heron Publishing was born.

I thought I was doing something completely new for me. Then I told my business coach at The Reger Group that our retail toy store back east attracted people moving from the cities who wanted small town friendliness. We were really selling a sense of belonging to a community. “Isn’t that interesting,” she said, “that’s what you’re still selling.”

That comment was one end of the ball of yarn that I unravelled for some months. I realized that my mother was part of a very close-knit group of cousins who shared summer fun in Bridgewater, New Hampshire. We still meet family there when we can. Whenever I meet any of my second cousins, we are instantly united by shared stories of swimming in Newfound Lake, climbing Peaked Hill, Uncle Jim teasing Aunt Agnes. It gives me a deep sense of roots, a firm sense of belonging. I realized that a sense of place is imperative for my well-being - and that belonging, being part of a community, being proud of that community, is critical for all of us. It turns out that I am still satisfying my own need to belong; I’ve made some great new friends here. And I am still building community, by using the artwork in my calendar to document and share local places that have special meaning for people.



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Showing 1 to 3 of 3 comments.

Fascinating story, Suzanne. I met you yesterday at your booth at the Jewish community centre on Shelbourne Street and was really delighted by your art, your willingness to discuss your techniques and your entrepreneurial spirit. I'm sorry that you and Dolf have had to undergo so much adversity, but it's good to know that you've been able to overcome those travails and start afresh. Good for you.

Posted by Erik Pedersen | December 1, 2014 Report Violation

Thank you, Suzanne for sharing your story with me yesterday afternoon! I am very impressed how you turned an extreme challenge into an opportunity! Your creativity, entrepreneurial savvy and community spirit are inspiring!

Posted by Julia James | October 29, 2013 Report Violation

I've known you for some time now Suzanne but this part of your story was news to me. Keep on keeping on !! You have many roads ahead of you. And me thinks most of them are wide open for you now.

Posted by Bob Buhr | August 27, 2012 Report Violation

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