Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Carpe Diem with Ruth Marshall and Kate Harris

The room was packed on Saturday afternoon to welcome Kate Harris and Ruth Marshall to the Writers Festival. Given the excited chatter amongst the all-ages crowd before the event started, it’s a safe bet that these festival goers weren’t just trying to escape the lousy weekend weather. I overheard attendees discussing the books at length—and by the end of the event, as the lively and engaged audience asked questions, it was clear that these two wonderful authors already had a room full of fans. The CBC’s Lucy van Oldenbarneveld hosted the event with the ease and humour that make her a festival favourite. As she opened the event, van Oldenbarneveld noted how different Harris and Marshall’s books are, yet both “these books allow us to witness these two women go through life-changing journeys.”

 

Kate Harris read first, explaining that her memoir, Lands of Lost Borders: Out of Bounds on the Silk Road , is really an exploration of the idea of exploration itself. Harris’ “mad longing for a world without maps” as a child had made her feel that she was born in the wrong time. Surely everything on Earth, with all the neatly drawn lines in her many atlases, had already been discovered. So what should a modern-day explorer do?  Harris recounted, in all seriousness, “I decided to become a scientist and go to Mars.” In fact, in her second year of university, Harris was able to take part in a Mars simulation in Utah. Much to her own surprise, she didn’t like it. In fact, the experience actually rekindled her desire to explore our world—a desire that led her to travel the Silk Road by bicycle with her best friend. Today, Harris looks at exploration differently: it doesn’t necessarily mean being the first to find a new place. Instead about exploration can mean a willingness “to have your maps of the world re-written for you… which could be through travel or reading a really good book.”

 

Ruth Marshall then read a few short excerpts from her memoir, Walk It Off: The True and Hilarious Story of How I Learned to Stand, Walk, Pee, Run, and Have Sex Again After a Nightmarish Diagnosis Turned My Awesome Life Upside Down. In her opening, Marshall emphasized “none of us go through this life struggle-free.” Marshall observed that her new memoir has seemed to resonate with people, even though her story is incredibly specific about her experiences after a rare tumour was removed from her spine. “Our individual stories can take flight and dovetail with others,” she said, adding that she originally wrote only for herself as she was going through recovery and rehabilitation. “I wrote to process [what was happening] . . .   and to entertain myself. I didn’t have the energy or the know-how to inspire others,” she said. When Marshall finished rehab, she started to feel that her story could be a book—and the rest is history.

 

During the discussion, Marshall said that it took her a while to make peace with her body, “but we’re friends now.” One of the remarkable things that Lucy van Oldenbarneveld mentioned from Marshall’s book was that it seemed like she was always refusing to take “no” as an answer from her body, despite being in rehab for months. “I didn’t think about the big picture at all [being able to walk again] because it was too big,” Marshall replied. “It was about baby steps. I focused on the task at hand and didn’t let myself think too widely about the negative possibilities.” Marshall also relayed a story about waiting for her husband to pick her up from rehab to take her to dinner for their sixteenth wedding anniversary, cherishing how excited she was for that date. “The key to happiness,” she proclaimed, “is always having something — anything — to look forward to.”

 

As the discussion continued, Lucy van Oldenbarneveld asked Kate Harris a variation of the question that was on everyone’s mind: how do you muster up the courage to chase your dreams?  “The hardest part of any journey is making the decision to go,” Harris replied. “You can’t just want to do it. You have to make the decision, and then you have to hustle to make it happen.” For Harris in particular, despite having the goal of biking to the end of the Silk Road, it was truly about the journey and not the final destination. Riffing on the old adage about shooting for the moon and then still landing amongst the stars, Harris said, “It doesn’t matter that I didn’t get to Mars. If I hadn’t aimed for that, I never would have gotten here…and I want to do what I can now through words and journeys to wake people up to this world’s marvels.”

 

I have attended many Writers Festival events over the years, and I can honestly say that this discussion was one of my favourites. I walked away with two new books to read — and I suggest you check them out, too.