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I love Maya Angelou’s work. I also love her voice, which is all gravelly and full of wisdom. Many poets can fashion a poem, as they should if they’re good at the craft and art of the work, but Maya Angelou speaks poetry. It’s like God speaks through her. She has an innate amount of wisdom. I know some may only know of her through Oprah Winfrey, but I’ve been a fan for a couple of decades now. One of my favourite poems is “Phenomenal Woman,” which a talented student of mine used to perform for one of my Grade 12 English classes. Jessy used to embody the work, use her body to sway through the music of Angelou’s words, and she became — in her seventeen year old self — a phenomenal woman. (She still is today, by the way…a talented young woman who is a local singer-songwriter.)

Anyway, “Phenomenal Woman” spoke to me years ago because it speaks to the diversity that women embody. Curves, hips, and breasts are all right, Angelou says. There is power in what makes a woman a woman, in being happy with who you are deep in your soul, which is something that today’s young girls and women often struggle with in terms of anxiety, depression, eating disorders, self-harm, and general body dysmorphia. If every mother could read this poem to her daughter, well, I think the world would be a better place. You decide. Take a listen to Maya read her poem:

I’m not here to talk about that groundbreaking poem tonight, though. I’m thinking of a few people who have lost their loved ones recently. Two friends have lost fathers, and an old high school friend lost her husband suddenly, and without warning. In all three cases, I’ve thought back to my own losses and dear ones. It doesn’t matter who you’ve lost, or how you’ve lost them, the deaths always cut to the quick of the soul and heart. The grieving, which so many have written books about, is like a series of ocean waves, always crashing up against you when you least expect it….as if your eyes were turned towards shoreline rather than sea….so you were taken unaware. Because that is what death does, really. We all know it’s coming for us all, at some point, but we usually don’t know when or why or how.

When my uncle Terry died, my aunt Roz asked me to read Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” I still remember that day. It’s etched on my heart. Then, when my uncle Jeno died, my aunt Cathy asked me to read a poem. I chose to read parts of Maya Angelou’s “When Great Trees Fall.” Here it is:

When Great Trees Fall

When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down
in tall grasses,
and even elephants
lumber after safety.

When great trees fall
in forests,
small things recoil into silence,
their senses
eroded beyond fear.

When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly,
Our eyes, briefly,
see with
a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
examines,
gnaws on kind words
unsaid,
promised walks never taken.

Great souls die and
our reality, bound to
them, takes leave of us.
Our souls,
dependent upon their
nurture,
now shrink, wizened.
Our minds, formed
and informed by their
radiance,
fall away.
We are not so much maddened
as reduced to the unutterable ignorance
of dark, cold
caves.

And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.

(from Maya Angelou’s Celebrations: Rituals of Peace And Prayer.)

Here’s the thing about this poem: it is simply brilliant in structure and meaning, and it echoes in your mind and heart as a comfort when you have lost someone, and are still grieving. The third stanza speaks to us about what it feels like to lose someone suddenly, to gnaw at the unsaid conversations that still rattle on in your mind years after the physical departure, or to wish you had said something different than what you’d last said to them. My last words to my father, for instance, were: “I love you….see you at 6…Be good, buddy.” His words to me were something like: “Love you, too….” So, we knew we were soon to part from one another, but the words were spoken with little thought. There was much love there, but no idea that an afternoon of a few hours would mark his going. How could he leave without me there, after many weeks of vigil and advocacy, I wondered? A friend said, “His soul chose…he waited until you were gone. He didn’t want you to remember the going in the way you remembered your mother’s death.” Hers was harsh, all deep, racking breaths and staggered, staccato heartbeats through a hospital gown. I can see, looking back, how he might’ve decided, on a soul level, that I had had enough of bad deaths. Still, whether the death was ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (and none are Hollywood, let me tell you….), there are always questions unanswered or things left unsaid. This is what Angelou gets at in that third stanza. It’s the core of regret, and of wondering in a tormented fashion.

If the third stanza speaks to the intensity of a memory of loss, a sharpened cluster of images and sounds and smells, then the fourth stanza speaks to how minds “formed/and informed by their/radiance/fall away.” Anyone who has lost someone knows what that feels like. You lose your mind, logically speaking. You walk around in a daze for days and weeks, picking up the phone to call someone who doesn’t exist in physical form anymore. It’s a falling away of what you once knew, and a gathering of a new construction of self and surrounding world.

The final stanza, though, always breaks and then lifts my heart, as all good poems should. Angelou speaks of there being a period of peace that “blooms,/slowly and always/irregularly.” The peace may come in waves, with some days being more peaceful and kind than others. The spaces left by the departed, the poet says, “fill/with a kind of/soothing electric vibration.” How wonderful is that image?? The idea of energy, of soul, of something that transcends the physical world, always gets me. The final few lines gather us in, reassuring us: “They existed. They existed./We can be. Be and be/better. For they existed.” Yes. This is the crux of it all, the exhalation of great pain and loss.

So, what does this do for me, this poem, when I have a day filled with missing my dear ones? It makes me think that there is an energy that still connects us, whether it be of soul, spirit, or memory, it links me to all of them. From grandmothers to uncles and great-aunts, to ancient ancestors, they gather round me. I have to believe in that continuity of spirit. It helps me feel less alone.

I always stick this poem into sympathy cards when I think it might help someone through a period of grieving. I turn to it often for solace, in terms of my own grief. If poetry can be used to celebrate or mark the passages of life, why not turn to it? I warned my friend who lost his dad not to read it at work, but he read it after a second period class. Coming to the staff room for lunch, he said “Wow, man….that poem….” and shook his head in wonder, “it got me….just like you said it would.” I told him he should have saved it for home, but found relief in having offered him words that would resound with his grief. (Sometimes, you need a person who’s encountered and walked with death and grief to guide you….I wish I’d had that when I lost my parents.)

This week, this month, I’m thinking of Megan, and Chris, and Kim, and now Susie. Each one has lost a dear one, and each one has lost them in different ways. Still, the love those great souls shared lives on in the people who love them still.

Blessings to anyone who grieves, misses, or wonders what lies beyond the veil….

peace,
k.

I walk a lot.  I walk when I’m angry, sad, frustrated, or just plain confused.  I find I need to move my physical body to move things through my mind and heart.  It’s always been a bit of a helpful addiction, my daily walking meditation.  I sludge along, in most weathers, except in the coldest of cold.  The shih tzus can handle anything up to about -15 degrees Celcius, so all is well throughout most of the winter.  Even today, after about a 5-10cm dumping last night and this morning, we three went out trudging through the woods, and wandered down through my old stomping grounds.  I live in an area that is truly familiar and comfortable to me.  I have always felt, when I’m at my worst, that I can pick a street, park my car, and go for a walk.  Now that I live in this area, I don’t have to park my car  anywhere other than in my own driveway!  It’s helpful, to say the least. 

My aunt and uncle, Gail and Peter, lived one street over from this one for years and years.  At the top of my street, there is a path that winds its way into the woods.  I have fond memories of playing up there with my sister, Stacy, and my cousins, Liam and Kelly.  It was called “Dead Man’s Canyon” and it was a real wonderland for kids.  On the other side of the woods is Wembley Drive.  A few blocks down from here is my grandmother’s old house at 350 Wembley.  A block beyond that, at the crest of the great hill, my great-grandfather, James Cornelius Kelly, built a house for his big Irish Catholic family of ten kids at 160 Kingsmount. 

Sometimes I get to thinking about how ideas come to me, as a writer.  More than one person in my life has told me that I “think too much.”  It’s sort of frustrating to be told that, especially when it’s all you’ve ever known.  It’s also a pain because it’s usually said as if it’s a bother or an offense to them.  My mind is constantly busy, especially if I’m not preoccupied with talking during a conversation.  I’m sure people think I’m quiet or something, but most of the time, I’m observing, seeing things poetically, or just thinking ideas through in my head.  (It’s busy in there!) 

Today, on my walk, I was sliding all around on the snowy sidewalks.  They had plowed a few, definitely, but I was tired and I felt like my feet weren’t solid underneath me.  One stumble and I likely would have fallen.  (One path had a pothole that made me trip up, but I recovered).  Thing is, when I trip, it’s usually because I’m looking up at the sky, or at the trees, or looking for the source of a neighbourhood wind chime.  I’m easily distracted, I guess you could say!  :)  During one of these ‘looking up at the trees’ moments, I noticed the sky at the end of one street.  All of the sudden, the phrase leapt into my head:  “The sky is winter-bruised.”  I had to keep repeating it as I walked the rest of the way home.  What struck me was that “winter-bruised” isn’t one of my usual suspects, in poetic terms.  It got me to thinking about where the words come from….and how poets and writers filter gifts of words and images into well and finely tuned pieces.  The rest of the way home, I kept thinking, “Holy….that’s a bit mental…how it just pops up in there.”  If I don’t repeat it to myself, it will vanish. 

Some poets will say that the creative part of our work is mostly craft, but I can say pretty confidently that most of my poetic friends have encounters like this, where the words just fly in and sweep you off your feet.  There is definitely something to the whole belief that poets have a connection with a more ephemeral world, so that The Muses can work their magic.   I truly believe you have to be willing to see beyond the veil that separates this world from any others if you want to get at spine-tingling poetic imagery.  That’s how it works for me, anyway.  Others may have different creative processes, but, in terms of my poems, I always seem to get an image, or a full first line.  Today’s full first line is rare.  Usually, it’s a snapshot in my mind’s eye, of words creating an image.  One of my earlier short stories began with a flash of a woman in a white nightgown walking into the sea.  I had no idea where that image came from, but only knew that the story needed me to write it.  Rather, now that I think about it, it almost seemed that the woman wanted me to write her story. 

In recent years, I’ve let the story side of things slide a bit.  I’m a bit disappointed in myself, but I am glad the poetry keeps coming in a fairly steady stream.  I’m not a prolific poet, but I’m always grateful for a poem when it arrives on my doorstep.  I thank the angels, any saints, God, the universe, and any creative force that might have helped me to see things more poetically.  The story side got a kick in the ass last week when I signed up for Sarah Selecky’s online course, “Story is a State of Mind.”  Last week was March Break, so I spent about three hours a day working through some her writing exercises.  I was pleasantly surprised; I wrote a lot, and even created a full short story, as well as a number of ‘story starts’ that I’m going to use over the next few weeks.  I also have an idea for a novel that is shifting around in my brain.  What it reminded me of, taking the time to sit with a notebook and pen, honouring my gift of writing, is that you need to think of it all as a relationship between writer and written work.  You have to give to get some kind of writerly return.  You can’t expect a story to write itself without some time and crafting.  Starting Selecky’s course reminded me of that.  One of the first questions she asks is “How are you and your writing doing?” It is, as she says, a very intimate relationship, and, let’s face it, any good relationship requires tending.

Coming home tonight, I watched “Saving Mr. Banks.”  I thought it would be a light, uplifting film, but it ended up making me think more about a writer’s life.  I have quite a few friends who are writers.  They’re all pretty fascinating to hang out with, especially because the conversation is spirited.  I remember reading the Mary Poppins novels.  I loved them.  They were on par with L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables stories, in my twelve year old mind.  What I found interesting about the film was the way in which P.L. Travers was depicted.  She was a spinster, closed off, wounded, and afraid to let go of the past. I dislike the way single women writers are often depicted, as if they are lost and yearning for something other than their work.  Being a writer, I think, means that you do need to make some peace with being a bit more solitary than others.  It doesn’t mean all writers end up prickly and bitter.  Still, I ended up being a weeping mess throughout the film.  Her relationship with her father made me think about my relationship with my dad.  There are, apparently, parallels between the film and her own life, but not all of it is factually correct. This is not surprising; Hollywood often fiddles with facts and makes them seem more dramatic. 

There is a part in the film where the father figure, played by Colin Farrell, speaks to the child version of P.L. Travers, telling her that they both have “a Celtic soul” and that the world is too much for them.  I actually think I get this.  I often feel I don’t belong in this time or place.  My mum used to tell me that my grandfather, who was a prospector in Northern Ontario, was “an Irish dreamer,” as if that would explain his often erratic behaviour.  Maybe there is something to the whole, you’re Celtic, you’re caught between worlds, kind of philosophy.  Travers herself was quoted once as having said:  “Perhaps we are born knowing the tales of our grandmothers and all their ancestral kin continually run in our blood repeating them endlessly, and the shock they give us when we first bear them is not of surprise, but of recognition.”  This speaks to me.  Some people say there’s a link between creativity and madness, which you could easily argue, but I think you could also argue that genetic memory and the passing down of stories, in families where they are honoured and often told to children, can fuel creativity in a person. 

Beyond that, though, I was intrigued by the whole depiction of the ways in which our parents haunt us once they’ve gone.  Not in a ‘whooo whooo’ ghostie kind of way, but in a way that colours our lives.  In “Saving Mr. Banks,”  Emma Thompson’s P.L. Travers is often pulled backwards in time and memory, recalling her father’s decline.  Tom Hanks, as Walt Disney, says at one point that there are some people who use their imaginations to create order in the world.  I liked that very much, indeed.  You see, if you’re creative, it does sometimes seem like you need to protect yourself against the rigours of a world that you don’t quite fit into as easily as others might.  The other thing that passed through my mind was the way in which we fashion our stories, how we conjure up our memories (whether we repress them, or whether we gild them and make them grander than they were in reality). 

My friend, Nancy, let me borrow Don Miguel Ruiz’s wonderful book, The Voice of Knowledge.  Ruiz speaks of how we tell our own stories, over and over again.  Sometimes we create stories that are exaggerated, or sometimes lessened in intensity, simply because we find comfort and release in the actual action of telling the stories.  We mythologize our lives, especially when we’ve lost someone we love.  In the film, the character of Travers is haunted by her father.  She needs to let him go, to forgive herself for believing she could save him from his alcoholism.  Ruiz would say that your story is your own story; you cannot save others on your journey through this lifetime.  You are meant, he says emphatically, to be the storyteller of your own tale. 

These are deep thoughts, friends….and I’m not sure why they’re all here tonight, but I felt the need to share them.  Hopefully, you might find something here….in my story.

peace,

k.

     

Well, it’s snowing again. We’re supposed to get 5cm tonight and another 5cm tomorrow. Sigh. Actually, given that it’s March Break here in Ontario, and given that I’ve finished my marking, I’m intending to take the week as a reading and writing retreat of sorts. Am signing up for Sarah Selecky’s “Story is a State of Mind” course and hoping that it kick starts me in terms of writing more prose. I have ideas for a novel (or “novel ideas” if you’d rather call it that), and there’s some other story in my noggin about a house that owns a ghost (or is it vice versa?!). That one’s inspired by a huge turn-of-the-century house that ‘lives’ in my neighbourhood and is up for sale. We’ll see whether either idea starts to pan out this week….one can hope.

Had sad news on Friday morning. My aunt, Cathy, called to tell me that her co-worker and friend, Sally Spence, died early Friday morning at the local hospice. Sally was my physiotherapist when I was twelve. That goes back about thirty-one years. I had slipped femoral ephiphysis, which meant that my hip had weirdly slipped out of its socket. I had to go to the Hospital for Sick Children (warmly referred to as “Sick Kids” by its previous and current patients) in Toronto for a major surgery. As a result, my left leg is one and a half inches shorter than my right leg and I limp when I am tired. There’s also a staple of some kind in that leg that is in there for life. Titanium? Who knows! Anyway, I was sent home for eight weeks of bed rest in a body cast when I was twelve. You can imagine that’s where I developed my love of reading and imagining up stories. It was an enforced incubator. After the cast was removed, well, I had a lot of physical therapy to do in Sudbury, so that’s where I met Sally. She pushed me through pain to get as much range of movement as I could possibly attain. She always wore pink lipstick and she always laughed and smiled. You remember these things when you’re a kid who is dealing with physical issues….the people who care for you are near and dear to you.

Last year, when I moved to my new house, my aunt Cathy and I came across Sally walking her dog, Gracie. We had a great chat and, whenever I walked my dogs through the summer or fall, I would often encounter Sally and Gracie strolling under leafy skies. Even though she was battling cancer, you would never know it. She loved her life with a passion I’ve rarely seen in my time on the planet. What I do know is that she touched the lives of thousands of Sudbury-area kids who needed a kind, but firm, physiotherapist when they were most terrified or worried about their progress. Her work at the Children’s Treatment Centre (CTC) in Sudbury was nothing but angelic. She probably didn’t recognize the scope of her influence, but I’m sure she does now that she’s in heaven. So many of us are sad she’s left us, but glad we knew her and had the experience of her touching and truly changing our lives. Bless her.

Friday also brought the opening of a dear friend’s art exhibit at the GNO downtown on Elgin Street. My friend Mary Green’s exhibit, titled “evocation,” is wonderful. It runs from now until April 19th. If you get the chance, go spend some time with great art. Mary is a fantastic artist, someone who works in mixed media and photography. This exhibit is all about photography. Paul Walty, the curator of the show, writes: “The subject matter is the stuff of Mary’s dreamtime.” I love that line because it reminds me of Australia and aboriginal dreamtime. There’s a mysticism here, an ethereal essence, as if you’ve missed something out of the corner of your eye because you’ve turned your head too quickly. He continues, “The images are frequently in soft focus or blurred. There are tight compositions of the human figure and northern Ontario landscape that drift in a space both familiar and off-kilter. . .Like snap shots that catch but do not capture. A suggestion, a trace of half-remembering.” They are truly beautiful photographs.

I was honoured to have been asked by Mary to read her works. I recorded them on a stormy winter night in January 2012, just a few weeks after my dad had died. I was on the cusp of a wretched winter cold, so I thought my voice sounded scratchy. Anyway, I guess Mary liked the recordings, because she’s incorporated them into her show. At each photograph, you put on headphones and hear my voice reading her wonderful poems. I think Mary is a triple threat, artistically speaking. She’s an artist and a poet, and she’s a creative soul. If you tell her she’s a poet, she will just brush off the comment, but I’d truly love to see these poems in a small collection. It would be beautiful to see something ekphrastic emerge from this exhibit, with poems published alongside photographs.

One thing that surprised me is that, when you hear your own voice, you’re often taken aback. I’ve heard myself read my own poems, of course, in video or radio recordings, but it always strikes me as odd. . .to listen to your own voice read poems. Still, I do believe that poems need voicing, so I’m always more than glad to give them that, whether or not they’re mine. With Mary’s poems, well, you’ll just have to go and hear and see the exhibit to understand the beauty of her written and visual creative work.

Now I’m off to finish my ginger peanut chicken and coconut rice. The creative cooking experience, on Sundays, continues…so far, I haven’t buggered anything up too badly. :)

peace,
k.

Today marks what would have been my mum’s 75th birthday.  She died at the age of 69, though, so she’s missed the ‘big birthdays’ that everyone seems to love to celebrate:  the 70th, the 75th…and so on and so forth.  I posted some photos of her as a beautiful young woman on my Facebook page, as well as a clip of Judy Garland singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”  I am blessed (sometimes cursed) with a keen, photographic memory.  I suppose I ought to be thankful, in so many ways, because it’s come in handy in my creative and writerly life.  I can harvest images, scents, sounds, and echoes from my memory to fuel my own writing.  At the same time, it’s like there’s a vivid movie constantly running in my head, and it isn’t always lovely.  (Happy endings are for Disney princesses, I often think, and not so much for Hobbit-poets.) 

Listening to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” made me think of how music has framed my life.  I truly respect the songwriters amongst us because I recognize them as fellow poets.  I love songs written by people like Sarah Harmer, Glen Hansard, Ron Sexsmith, Gordon Lightfoot, Stan Rogers, Joni Mitchell, and revel in songs by bands like Blue Rodeo, The Pogues, Great Big Sea, Dala, The Skydiggers, and Coldplay.  I have a pretty diverse love of music.  (The other passion I have is traditional Irish music, and any East Coast music with bodhran and tin flute, but that’s another story as Hammy Hamster used to say.)  Anyway, back to the Judy Garland song.  My mum always sang it to my sister, Stacy, and myself when we were about to be tucked in for bed.  It was either that, or it was Doris Day’s “Que Sera Sera.”  (Man, if only I’d learned how to take the advice of the second song to heart and not spent most of my youth, my 20s and 30s, worrying my head off for no reason.)  Mum had a beautiful voice, but I only really recall her singing us to sleep or singing along to ABBA on long summer road trips in the old van.  We crossed from Manitoulin to Tobermory on the Chi-cheemaun Ferry (the word is Ojibwe for “Big Canoe”) so many times that I can’t keep track.  I just remember that Stacy was often car sick, so it made for dramatic scenes in cars.  If my Gram Ennis was traveling with us, she often got the giggles and had us in stitches over little things that struck her as funny.  I have grand, sweet memories of those summer trips.  On days like today, on Mum’s birthday, I’m glad for that photographic, cinematic memory.

I went to HMV at the mall tonight.  Just needed to get out and be distracted by mall noise.  I like to people watch, and where better else to do it than the mall.  I love that HMV has the whole “2 for $25″ thing going on, but I’m a bit out of control with CDs.  I still love CDs, heaven help me.  I love unwrapping them like little presents, and I especially love opening the little booklets and reading the liner notes.  I know:  nerd. 

I picked up Blue Rodeo’s “Five Days in July,” which, for me, conjures up my early 20s.  Actually, if I think about it, the first boy I ever loved introduced me to Blue Rodeo, The Police, The Housemartins (and The Beautiful South), The Cure, The Sex Pistols, The Dead Kennedys, and Elvis Costello.  If I can thank him for something, it was for introducing me to a wider variety of music than I’d listened to in my teens.  In my teens, I was transfixed by U2 (Bono was my first “secret husband;” others have now joined the roster, of course, but he was the first one that I can recall), Crowded House  (I thought I could marry Neil Finn, delusionally speaking) and The Pogues.  I pretty much was the only person I knew who loved The Pogues in my teens.  I went to a Catholic girls school where The Pogues weren’t “top of the pops.”  Anyway, first boyfriend, first love.  He shall remain nameless.  He arrived in my early twenties, at university.  “Our song” was Blue Rodeo’s “Lost Together.”  Yeah, I know, gag me with a spoon.  Looking back, it should’ve just been “Bad Timing” instead!  :)

When I went to Carleton University in Ottawa to do my Master’s in Literature, in 1994/95, I met a whole bunch of cool poet types.  I had a Dodge Neon, a real lemon of a car that I named “Maude” (after Yeats’s love, Maude Gonne).  Five of us–me, Jamie, Leanne, Dan, and Carolyn—hung out, read poetry, and did strange things like walk to the Centennial Flame on Parliament Hill in the middle of the night, after drinking Irish beer at The Celtic Cross on Bank Street.  I don’t even know if that bar’s still there, but I was in love with the bartender (who was from Ireland).  His accent killed my heart.  (Later, Newfoundland accents or Nova Scotian accents, or Australian accents would all have the same effect on me, to my own detriment, I’m afraid.  A couple of the owners of those accents broke my heart in a couple of places, but what can you do?)  So, back to Ottawa. 

The bunch of us once piled into Maude, heading into the pitch black of an empty Gatineau Park.  We stopped at a lookout overlooking a lake that we couldn’t see by moonlight, and howled at the moon.  I know, poets….what can you do about them????  I still remember the park police pulling over, thinking we were all stoned, and asking us to leave.  Dan had a huge longwinded, but very believable explanation, telling them that we were students of literature and poets.  Whaaaatttt?  The cops just shook their heads and told us to leave.  What I remember about that night is letting Jamie out to pee.  I can still see him standing in a field, the bunch of us laughing hysterically until he returned to the car.  The songs that were playing on the cassette player that night, in the Dodge Neon named Maude, were all by The Skydiggers.  Remember Andy Maize with his glasses and beard?  I thought he was cool.  I also thought Andrew Cash had great hair.  It was the mid-90s after all.  Regardless, the music was fantastic.  We blasted “I Will Give You Everything” and “A Penny More” over and over again.  Then, we drove back to Jamie’s apartment and stayed up to see the sun rise.  Yup….those were the days. 

My fascination with Great Big Sea started in Ottawa, too, when I saw them perform in 1994/5 in a small cement amphitheatre just outside the National Art Gallery.  There might’ve been forty of us.  The band was selling their self-titled first CD.  They played alongside a Celtic rock band from London, Ontario called Uisce Beatha.  That’s when I started digging into Irish and East Coast music.  My thesis was on Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet, and my undergraduate thesis had been based on the work of W.B. Yeats, another great Irish poet.  Guess you can see the pattern here, eh?  :) 

Anyway, my 20s really were about The Skydiggers, The Pogues, Tori Amos (when I felt depressed or was infatuated with a boy who didn’t seem to see me), Blue Rodeo,  and Great Big Sea.    

Coming home tonight, putting that Blue Rodeo CD into the car’s stereo system, I took the overpass home and drove fast through the night, singing along loudly with “Hasn’t Hit Me Yet,” “Cynthia,” and “Bad Timing.” I miss Mum a lot, but I’m glad she introduced me to good music as a child. Sometimes, you can fight sadness with good music. Tonight, it helped a little bit, to lessen the missing of her….I imagine heaven must be full of music, art, good food and fine wine. I imagine she’s having a fine time, kicking up her heels with my dad….listening to Johnny Cash or Stompin’ Tom Connors or maybe even Elvis. I hope she’s so blissfully happy. I hope, for fun’s sake, that she can actually swing on a star, if she wants to….and travel with her favourite Little Prince through space and time continuums.

Well, people, if you’ve read this, and you still have your parents, give them a hug. They really aren’t around forever…I can tell you that.

peace,
k.

Ruminations in February

Winter is taking forever to leave us here in Northeastern Ontario. Tomorrow, we’re expecting about 5-10 cms of snow, following by a coat of freezing rain. I am addicted to previewing The Weather Network forecasts on my ipad, which is undoubtedly weird for my age range. (I’m 43, after all, not 83. Weirdly, I remind myself of my dad and how he always watched the weather.) I think ahead to when I should shovel. I plan it in sections so that I don’t break down weeping on the stairs. I hate it. . .the snow, the cold, the endless winter. It started in November, so we’re deep into our fourth month of it here. I cannot wait for lighter jackets, shoes instead of boots, and walking the dogs without their sweaters (so they aren’t bullied by bigger dogs on our walks).

One of my undertakings this month includes increased music listening time. I’ve been listening to The Once, a great Newfoundland band; Dala, a duo with fab harmonies; Stan Rogers, the greatest East Coast singer/songwriter of all time; Ella Fitzgerald, because, let’s face it, why not?!; and, some traditional Irish music to get me going in the early mornings. I also have been listening to a lot more CBC radio, especially at night. Less TV, more music and radio. I’m fine tuning my readerly, writerly soul. It’s like uncovering a long mulched flower bed or something. Kind of esoteric, but also messy.

I’ve also started cooking more passionately. I used to love cooking and I’d forgotten how good I was at it. When I get to cook for others, it makes me happy, but when you live alone eating just seems to be something you do to fuel the machine that is your body. A friend recommended Janet and Greta Podleski’s new Looneyspoons Collection. (Canadian readers will know these two sisters’ work….simple fare, healthy, all that jazz.) Anyway, every Sunday I choose a new recipe and go at it. So far, I’ve got at Wowie Maui Chicken & On Golden Prawn (shrimps!). I’ve impressed myself both times and frozen stuff for future dinners. I love chopping vegetables. I’m a chopping machine. :) For me, I just fell into the whole chicken and salad thing for such a long time. Not exciting at all. I’m in love with quinoa, though, and it’s a relatively recent romance that began last spring. I love it with red and yellow peppers, or with falafel. There’s just no wrong way to enjoy quinoa, in my humble opinion. :)

I’m back at Zumba with my friend Pat. I can’t explain how much I love Zumba. They turn off the lights in an elementary school gym and I go a bit mental. There’s a flashing coloured light, some great music, and no one can truly see how out of step I am. You just can’t stop grinning when you do Zumba. For the first fifteen minutes of the hour, I imagine that I’m on Broadway in a musical…yeah, I know, sad. Then, after that, well, things begin to go awry. There’s sweat, some under-breath cursing, and a couple of crackly knees. Still, I love it and it makes me thankful for a body that still moves in fairly fluid ways….even if it isn’t in synchonicity with what everyone else is doing.

Am reading some fairly cool books this month. One, for my book club, is about Scientology. It’s called Beyond Belief and it is pretty interesting to read about the tenets of that belief system. On the side, I’m reading Don Miguel Ruiz’s The Voice of Knowledge which is making me re-think my way of thinking and being in the world. It’s by the same fellow who wrote The Four Agreements. I highly recommend it. Two lighter pieces…Maeve Binchy’s last novel, A Week in Winter, is a like a favourite sweater on a dark, cold winter’s day. You always know that Maeve has you covered. Bad day at work? Pick up Maeve. Someone cut you off on The Kingsway? Stick your nose in classic Binchy. I’m also reading Nora Roberts’s Blue Dahlia. Yeah, I know…not the highest brow there….but I do like knowing how Roberts uses plot and structure. No surprises there. If you need some kind of comfort in life, why not turn to a writer who provides you with a familiar equation or structure? There aren’t surprises with Binchy or Roberts and maybe that’s why I read them for fun. (Still, Binchy is above Roberts in my view….but sometimes my brain is tired from thinking deep thoughts and I just need a day pass….)

I’m teaching a Studies in Literature class to some Grade 11s and 12s these days, so I’m also reading Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome. It’s my counterpoint to my pulp fiction of the previous paragraph. I’m also dipping into essays on Seamus Heaney’s work…and reading poetry on a pretty regular basis. In my AP class, we spend time talking about what makes literary canon. Who decides what we teach (or learn) at high schools or universities? Who’s left out of the traditional Western literary canon? As I situate myself as a feminist literary critic, and because I teach at an all-girls school, I always integrate great female writers. I also try to diversify my offerings to my students, so that they begin to see the world through a variety of theoretical lenses. I love bringing in Virginia Woolf or Sylvia Plath, Jane Austen, Margaret Atwood, or Carol Shields. It’s like a buffet of classic literature. You can’t ever ‘eat’ too much of the classics….but you could easily overdose on the pulp fiction. Maybe that’s why I read them side by side….to offset the pulp with the classic. :)

Thinking ahead to summer, I’m planning on going to some sort of writing retreat….I’d love to do something out in Newfoundland, but I’m still researching possibilities. Finding the right place, with the right people, is a bit like a magical spell. One thing goes off with dynamics in a writers’ retreat and you’re in trouble. The atmosphere and collegiality has to be positive and encouraging. It’s a tall order….

So…these are the ruminations of February. Still hermit-ish, reading, listening to music, walking dogs, just finding my centre. It makes me wonder if the squirrels are out there doing similar things, just waiting to wreak havoc on my two dogs when spring arrives. For Sabe and Gull, winter means a reprieve from the squirrels, chipmunks and their incessant scolding. They’ll be ready for ‘the great chipmunk hunt’ as soon as the snow has gone. It may be a while yet, though….so for now they’re chasing stuffed chipmunk toys around the living room. :)

peace,
k.

Thanks for bearing with the radio silence of the last month, blog readers. I’ve learned a lot through the cold, mean month of January. It wasn’t a good one for me. One of the most difficult of my life, in fact, though I will spare you the details. Suffice it to say that I owe the universe a debt of gratitude for “coming through it”, as D.H. Lawrence would say, and that I’m moving in some direction….which is better than being stagnant. (Those of you who are creative types will get this. Too often, as artistic types, we pummel ourselves and don’t trust our gifts…especially in a world that isn’t often kind to the gentler, more creative souls out there.)

February 1st is known in Ireland as St. Brigid’s Day (if you’re a Catholic) or Imbolc (in the Celtic, pagan tradition). Now, as someone who is Irish Catholic at heart, I have a list of favourite saints that includes, but is not necessarily limited to: St. Therese (my mum and dad’s fave), St. Patrick (mine), St. Jude (“Helper and Keeper of the Hopeless”), St. Anthony (patron saint of lost and stolen things), and St. Brigid (who happens to be in charge of poetry). While some don’t recognize St. Christopher as the patron saint of travelers anymore, I still have a little medal in my car that my grandmother, Alice Ennis, gave to me years and years ago. I will always think St. Christopher is still the man who guards me as I travel, with or without Vatican approval. :)

I also love Mary, who is my most steadfast ‘home girl.’ I know. I’m a weird modern Catholic…I believe in talking to angels, saints, and the ‘big three,’ namely Mary, Jesus & (you guessed it!) God. There’s a conversation going on inside my head with these guides and helpers on a daily and hourly basis. I know they hear me, even if I don’t always think I can hear them…especially on a rough day. (But I’m also learning how to listen better…)

I digress. This is about Brigid. Why do I love St. Brigid of Kildare so much? Let me tell you….

She is very old, in terms of Irish history. She was a nun who lived in the fifth century and who, along with Patrick and Columba, is one of Ireland’s three patron saints. (Some say her parents were baptized by St. Patrick, which is pretty cool if you ask me.) As an abbess, she established a dual monastery, for monks and nuns, in Kildare, which became a cathedral town. She founded a school of art in Kildare which produced amazing illuminated manuscripts, including the Book of Kildare. (You may know more of the Book of Kells, which you can visit at Trinity in Dublin.) She died in Kildare on February 1st, which is why we celebrate her on that feast day.

Her feast day falls on the same day as Imbolc, the pagan festival that celebrated the start of spring in Ireland, especially in terms of planting and lambing. Interestingly, if you study Irish history, you’ll know that a lot of sacred Catholic places, where big cathedrals or churches were built, were originally the sites of pagan and druidic holy wells. When you visit Ireland, you can often find little holy springs or holes in the ground that are now marked by little statues of Mary.

I think Brigid is so special to me because she is the saint who takes care of poets. When I first started teaching, back at St. Charles College, a student I taught created a painting of Brigid in his art class. When I saw it, I knew who it was, and I knew what she was all about. I bought that painting from Jonathan Boucher for about $25 or $50 and it’s still in my house today. :) (I’m a big believer in meeting people when we ought to, as divined by God and the universe, and learning from them as we walk through life.) When I get stuck, poetically speaking, I take a peek at that painting and remind myself that St. Brigid’s out there guiding my creative footsteps.

She’s been on my mind a lot lately, to be honest. I’ve been struggling with my place in space, I guess you could say. Still fighting off the ends of my bout with bronchitis, both of my ears are still blocked. It’s hard to read, think, write, teach, or even be comfortable, when you are not feeling well physically. A wise friend told me yesterday that blocked ears mean you’re not open to hearing something of importance. What am I not hearing? Maybe, I think, it’s that I’m not honouring my gift of writing as much as I should be….maybe I need to carve out a space where it can grow and flourish. It needs time to steep or marinate or something like that. I’ve learned that I block out a lot of grief by keeping too busy. I like to do things that make a difference in the world. I’m goal oriented. Now, though, my busy-ness has been impeding my ability to open my heart to the words I so love…the writing that shapes me and helps me to evolve. The words that come through me root me like nothing else ever will.

So, through January, I’ve been living a hermit-like existence. Probably not ideal for someone who has always struggled with depression and shadows of loss in life, but I’ve come to find some peace in silence of late. There’s a deep spiritual and creative well here that I’m drinking from these days. Not a lot of people will get that, I’m sure, but some of you who write, or paint, or sing, or dance will. And you’re the ones I’m most likely speaking to with this blog. The creative ones, the ones who are often on the margins of society because you see things through creative eyes. Artists of any ilk walk through this world seeing things slightly askew. This is better in terms of observing the world from a different point of view. Without that unique view of the world, would we ever even be able to be as creative as we are? Here is the blessing and the curse of creativity….and I choose to focus on the blessing of the gift, even if it can sometimes be solitary and almost too silent in origin.

I’ve set a new series of resolutions this year….to read more, poetry and prose (mostly non-fiction), so that I can hone my own craft of writing; to rest more, to breathe deeply in both prayer and meditation; to avoid drama and people who create it; to watch less TV to distract myself from my grief; to listen to music more often, blaring the stereo loudly in my house; to create a peaceful place within myself, and to honour that peaceful centre as a place of creation and blessing; and, maybe, lastly, to walk more often with my dogs and revel in the beauty of crisp snow underfoot and the sound of lonesome chickadees in trees. :)

I’m looking forward to finding my creative feet again…and am hopeful that it will only serve to fuel my soul’s fire.

Happy Imbolc and St. Brigid’s Day to you all, wherever you may be…

(Special blessings to those in Ireland today who are battling fierce storms and flooding. You are all, my friends, especially Sue in Eyeries, in my prayers and thoughts tonight.)

peace,
k.

Normally, I wouldn’t let more than a month pass between my posts here, but I’ve been more than under the proverbial weather for the last four weeks.  Just when you think you’ve had enough shite over a period of a few months, small things that pile up and irk you, so that you wonder if your physical body isn’t just falling apart at the seams, then the big whirlwind hits.  Bronchitis.  Yeah, I’d heard of it before, but I’d never encountered it on a one-to-one, intimate level. 

See, the thing is, when I get a cold, I get nervous fairly quickly.  I had a wretched lung infection in my early thirties that set me back for a couple of weeks, but ended up with my being diagnosed with adult onset asthma.  Big deal, I thought then.  Asthma, schmasthma.  Then I went to Newfoundland in the summer of 2006 with my friend Christine and tried to walk up Signal Hill.  Other people managed.  I was fit.  I didn’t have problems, except for a staple in my leg that had been there since I was eleven.  No problem, right?  Wrong.  Half way up that hill, I thought I was having a heart attack, couldn’t catch my breath, started sweating without reason or purpose, and had to sit with my head between my legs for a good forty-five minutes.  It wasn’t my physical well being; it was the steepness of the hill, the pitch of the thing, that did me in.  I never forgot my puffer again after that.  It terrified me to the core.  If you can’t breathe, well, you panic…and that doesn’t bode well for anyone, especially yourself.  (Climbing Diamond Head in Hawaii this summer terrified me, too, because it was also steep….and there were moments that the asthma and panic attacks raised up like demons in front of me…but I did it.) 

So, I take vitamins, I walk, I do yoga and meditate.  I sing (when I have a voice and can hear!).  I pray a lot.  I eat well and drink lots of water.  I’ve lost over 50 lbs in the last two years, and I try to balance work with life. When this ‘cold’ started, I thought, ‘This feels different, this feels bad.’  I’m sure a couple of friends thought I was overreacting, but I know my body pretty well…and I know when it’s about to ‘go walkabout’ on me and cause a revolution.  I took two days off, to try and kill it quickly, but by the third day, it was the worst I’ve ever encountered.  One doctor in a clinic said ‘it’s viral’, while another doctor in another clinic said, ‘it’s laryngitis (and geographic tongue).’  What the hell, I thought, is ‘geographic f’n tongue?’  Then, finally, broken and almost driving myself to emergency one night because I couldn’t breathe, I got in to see my doctor who told me it was severe bronchitis.  She gave me antibiotics.  Then there was a reaction to the antibiotics, an ear infection that distorted sounds and still has me mostly deaf with ringing ears, and non-stop coughing.  This was not bronchitis, I thought, but the seventh ring or dimension of hell.  Death, at points, looked tempting. 

I’m not telling you this tale to make you feel sorry for me.  (I already feel sorry enough for myself, thanks…as I cough up a lung on my couch.)  I’m trying to figure out what I need to learn from this situation.  It’s been a hermit-like existence, through one of the most festive times of the year.  I was so excited to be able to go and visit my sister and her boyfriend in Toronto, but had to cancel because I couldn’t leave the house.  Even taking the dogs out to go pee was enough to set me off to sleep for a couple of hours.  It was, for me, the most negative Christmas period I’ve ever had.  Now, here we go…it’s not my best time of year anyway.  I lost both of my parents at Christmas…my mum on Dec 18/08 and my dad on Dec 28/11.  The season is always, now, bookended by grief.  I do my best to run from it, but it always pulls me under, like an undertow, really, that can’t be escaped.  I’ve suffered from and with depression all my life, so this just set me back, too.  When your body is physically affected, well, other systems get depressed.  It’s a fierce cycle and downwards spiral. 

I’ve learned a couple of things….

1)  I have some very good friends.  My sister, Stacy, and my aunt, Cathy, called me every day to see how I was doing.  My friend Lisa brought me soup in a snowstorm.  My friend Trish brought me a beautiful scarf and gave me a hug.  A childhood friend, Frances, brought me soup, tea and honey.  My friend Jane called me every day to be sure that I was still alive (my request because, at the worst of it, I was afraid of not breathing).  My friend Brenda and her husband, Brian, came to shovel my driveway when I couldn’t move out of bed.  My friend Megan, who brought me a jar of her mum’s magic potion (ginger, lemons) to be mixed with Irish whiskey.  My soul sister, Mel, came and sat with tea, the gift of a book, and just let me have a little cry.  I’ve learned, through all of this hell, that I have a few good friends who are steadfast and kind.  My neighbour dug out the end of my driveway.  Others sent kind messages on Facebook, or called to just check on me.  Even those small acts of kindness meant the world to me.  While I felt helpless, and terrified, to be honest, people kept pushing at me to be sure I was all right.  I pull in when I’m not well, physically or mentally, so these good souls know me well enough to push back. As Mel said, “Well, whether you like it or not, whether you’re contagious or not, I’m storming the moat tomorrow at 1pm.”  And she did….and it lifted my spirits.  (If I’ve forgotten someone here, I apologize…you may have visited during the Fever Stage of my withdrawal from society and the world.)

2)  I have learned that I am my most harsh critic, thinking I’m not doing my best, but I actually think I work harder than I even recognize or know.  My body was exhausted.  I’d had other little physical illnesses pop up in the fall, so this last one felt overwhelming…like a series of dominoes that don’t end well.  (I was the one at the end of the row…)  I’m not sure how to deal with this, to be honest.  How do you try to be less efficient, when that’s all you’ve ever been?  I remember always trying to please my parents, my teachers….and now, with my parents gone, well, I’m good at taking care of other people, but really not so practiced when it comes to taking care of myself.  I push myself further than I should, I guess…and now I think I need to figure out ways to carve out more time to relax and find inner peace.  How do we do that, in such a busy world, I wonder? 

3)  I’ve been thinking about what it means to be on a pilgrimage, which is what this feels like to me.  (I have a neighbour who is housebound.  I spoke to her a couple of weeks before I fell ill.  She has just moved northwards from the Waterloo region.  One morning, she said “Well, I’m back in Northern Ontario, with all of this snow.”  I agreed.  Then she said, “I have issues with my health, so I don’t come out in winter much.  That’s okay, though.  I’m a Buddhist, so I’ve been treating it like a retreat.”  What she said stuck with me, even as I got sick and struggled with a smaller burden than hers.)  So, there hasn’t been much of a pilgrimage in my little brick cottage.  It’s been more like a ‘walking through the fire’ test of wills and trust in God.  I couldn’t exactly turn it into a writing retreat when I slept most of the 24 hours in a day.  When you’re having feverish dreams, well, that’s not really a retreat, either.  It’s more like a sweat lodge vision quest, I guess, than anything else. I remember talking to people who are dead…and then once I called out to my sister.  Yeah, she lives in Toronto, so that’s a bit weird.  Fevers are scary creatures in terms of what they do to your mind…and your heart, afterwards.  I thought of the old Irish who journeyed to Station Island, in the middle of Lough Derg in Donegal, to find themselves, or to converse or commune with God or some ancient source.  So where is the journeying here, for me?  I think of the quotation, “The longest journey is the journey inward,” which is attributed to the writer Dag Hammarskjold.  That speaks to me…and I’ll tell you how. 

I’ve often been of the mind and heart that traveling, for me, is about journeying outward to discover more of my ‘inside self,’ or my soul self, or my ‘higher self.’  When I travel, especially with the intent to observe closely or to write poetry, I feel keenly aware of the world around me.  it’s like being in the middle of the technicolour part of the Wizard of Oz.  That is how profoundly travel affects me.  It changes me, every single time. This year, it was holding a koala bear and looking into its eyes, as well as communing with a kangaroo in Australia.  Those two things, along with watching the sun set on Fraser Island, changed me utterly and completely. 

What being so ill has taught me, then, is that you don’t have to physically journey to discover more of yourself.  Sometimes, an illness makes you question your own power.  You realize that you are not in control of your body, even if you’ve taken good care of it, along with your spirit and mind.  Sometimes, I think, we need to be reminded that there is something bigger than us out there.  Our bodies are so fragile and vulnerable.  Being ill teaches you that.  You can want to do something really badly but, if your body isn’t cooperating, well, then, it just isn’t going to happen.  That can be utterly disappointing.  Shattering, even. 

Having so much time alone to ruminate wasn’t all grand, though.  I tend to go into dark spaces when I’m too much on my own, so for me it was dark in a number of ways…physically, mentally, spiritually.  It made me think about what I’m doing with my life, and how short a life it truly is…and it made me think about what I really want out of my life…and whether or not I’m being true to myself in what I’m doing.  (This always leads into darker spaces where I most doubt my own writing…which is the one thing that I hold most dear to my heart.) These are big philosophical issues…and I’m not sure I’ve figured anything out.  More likely, I’ve just begun.  One friend, Violet, wrote me an email in response to an email I had sent her.  I told her I felt like I was losing my mind, losing my faith, and walking through the C.S. Lewis ‘shadowlands.’  She wrote back, “You might be losing your mind, but more likely you are just asking it to scooch over to make room for more soul consciousness.”  Whoah.  She’s a profound poet, my friend Violet. 

Yes, I think Violet is right.  I am walking through the shadowlands.  Maybe I’ve been avoiding them for too long…not grieving or letting things go that need to be let go….so the universe has put me in a place, physically stopped me, where I have to face things I haven’t yet faced.  It’s very possible that’s my lesson.  To stop, feel, and not bottle it up.  To release pain.  To be alone to do that daunting thing. 

So…a long, reflective post tonight.  I apologize if it’s too meandering…but this journeying inwards is the longest journey I’ve been on in a long while…Hardly the easiest.  Might actually be the hardest I’ve yet encountered in my 43 years on the planet, in this lifetime. 

Just trying to breathe through it…and trust my soul’s guidance and wisdom…searching…always searching…hopefully, someday, finding.  That would be nice….

peace,

k.

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