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A few of you who read this blog regularly will remember that I met up with a friend of my mum’s a couple of months ago. She and her husband, who live in Texas, were up visiting Sudbury for a nursing school reunion. She had found me through this blog, and through articles about my new role as poet laureate here in town via various online publications. Well, today in the mail, I received a fat little envelope full of six beautiful cards, including one from Wendy herself. The other cards are all ones that my grandmother had sent to Wendy and her husband, Carl, over the years. Seeing my grandmother’s handwriting made me get weepy. (I know…if you know me, you know that I’m a tearful girl. Always have been, always will be.) My grandmother was my best friend, so seeing her handwriting on coloured envelopes caught at my heart.

Gram died in December 1998. It really seemed to start a rush of deaths in my family through the late 90s and into the next decade. Most of them took place in December, usually close to Christmas. As you can imagine, while some people love the flurry of Christmas, I tend to shrink from it. There’s no need to rehash the dates and the people I loved who went away…I know who they are in my heart and I think of them all very, very often. My grandmother, though, was different. I spent a lot of my youth with her. When I was little, and my mum was working, I would stay with Gram Ennis at 350 Wembley Drive. My own parents weren’t really very openly affectionate, but Gram would always welcome me with a hug, and wouldn’t let me leave without another one. She had a fantastic sense of humour, and a sense of compassion and kindness that stuck with me. She also taught me that handwritten thank you notes are not an option in life, but a requirement. That’s something I’ve carried with me through my life. At university, I would take the bus from the campus and go and have supper with her, helping her with cleaning or laundry as she got older. We would spend afternoons chatting over cups of instant coffee (she loved Nescafe!). She was a grand storyteller and was the first person to give me a lined journal to write in. She knew, before I even had an inkling, that I was going to be a writer.

Reading through the cards tonight, after marking some essays for my class, I got a bit weepy again. Just seeing her distinctive cursive writing, and how she would slant the return address across the seal of the back flap of an envelope, made me smile. Inside, she signed off as she always would: “Love and the best always, Alice.” The ‘and’ is my favourite part, always, because she wrote it on a slant, from left to right, from top to bottom. It was a distinctive thing, like a writerly and cursive fingerprint on my heart. I miss her.

In one card, she wrote about how she ‘was slowing down somewhat.’ (I’d never heard her admit that her health was a worry when I was in my twenties. She didn’t want to worry any of us. Maybe she worried more for us than I knew, as we all grew up, and as she could be proud of what her own children had accomplished. She had been a single mum in the years when that wasn’t fashionable or accepted in Irish Catholic circles.) Her first fall happened in 1994. She had broken her wrist. I still remember that. They had to put in some space-aged metal contraption that stuck out from her arm. She looked a bit like a robot, and she hated it. What it meant, though, was that things were beginning to slow down for her. She was born on June 21, 1911, and married my grandfather on the Coronation Day for King George VI in May 1937. I always thought that was cool, but I was kind of a monarchist back in the day. (I might still be a ‘closeted monarchist,’ but that’s a post for another day, I think…) After that fall in 1994, well, there were a couple of others. She said she had slipped on her floppy slippers, I still remember that, but really…later…we learned that she was having tiny strokes. One time, my boyfriend and I walked in to find her on the floor in the kitchen and took her to the hospital. That was a terrifying night. Later, a big stroke would mean that she couldn’t communicate for a year or two before her death, and I remember visiting her at the nursing home and sitting with her, trying to find her in there, somewhere behind her confused eyes. I used to sing Irish songs to her and she would sing along with me. It was what we could share together, even after her words were gone. I loved her. A lot.

In her card to me, Wendy wrote: “I know that December will soon be here and that it is a difficult month for you, remembering the loss of your parents. Hopefully it is a small comfort to think of them up there with family and friends, looking down on us with pride and joy.” I’ve only just met Wendy, but she has enough of a sense of me already to know that December is the month I most dread. Right around my birthday, a veil seems to fall a bit on the world around me. I normally always see the light and beauty in things, but there’s an ache that intensifies in my heart in late November and throughout December. For me, it’s a month of losses, like a string of rosary beads. This year, for the two week break, I’m headed off to some cottage, somewhere near a lake, where I can just be with the dogs and read novels and poems and hopefully finish the last draft of my own novel. It’ll be Dad’s fifth anniversary and I can’t bear to be here in town. A couple of friends have already said that they find it hard to understand why I’d go off on my own, but the memories here sometimes can be more harmful than healing.

I’m blessed to have met Wendy and Carl. I know that much. In Wendy’s emails and in the packet of letters and cards that arrived here in Sudbury this afternoon, well, I felt as if I just had a little sliver of my grandmother’s soul visit me. I would, if I could, give the world to hug her just one more time and tell her how glad I am she is such a part of who I am today. Of anyone I’ve known this time around, well, my grandmother taught me lessons of kindness, compassion, and offered me the sense that there was magic in the world. Those gifts, those lessons, are ones that I carry every day.

I know Wendy reads these blogs of mine….so thank you, Wendy, for this gift of Gram’s spirit. She lifted up off the page tonight and I feel she had a hand in me meeting you this year. Small mercies. Bright stars. How blessed are we to have met one another?

In one of her cards to Wendy, Gram Ennis wrote that she would keep her family in her prayers. She used to say the rosary every night. I know because I remember that, when I slept over, she would often get a fit of the giggles in the morning when a rosary would slip out of an elbow of her nightgown in a haphazard way. She told Wendy, in that little card, that she always prayed for “all my friends and relations.” Her heart was big and endless. I loved that about her, that generosity of spirit that reached out and pulled you in. Her soul was vast. I miss it.

So, tonight, I’ll say a prayer for “all my friends and relations,” in memory of my Gram.

peace, friends.
k.

In my life so far, I’ve felt a few people’s deaths deeply: my parents and maternal grandmother; three of my former students; my literary mentor, Timothy Findley; the death of Seamus Heaney, whom I’d met the summer before in a Sligo pub, and whose death felt like a strong echo of the death of my father in December 2011. This week, hearing the news of Leonard Cohen’s death, on the heels of the rise of Trump in the States, well, my poor heart cracked. Everyone always quotes the lovely words from “Anthem,” and I do so love them, too. How can you not? He wrote: “Don’t dwell on what has passed away or what is yet to be.” If you’re a thinker, a worrier, a ‘feeler,’ an empath, and a creative soul (like me) this is hard to do. You want to try to not think too heavily on the past or the future because both can bring you pain when you least expect it. You’re wiser, by far, if you try to be mindful and just live within the hour, or minute, you’ve been given.

I’ve started doing that this year, and it’s been very helpful. Even taking guitar lessons from my friend Brittany, and practicing guitar, teaches me lessons each day. Yes, my fingers hurt. Yes, my fingers won’t stretch widely enough (yet) to get at that “C” chord. But I know, with practice, with stamina and hard work, I’ll get there. I can’t think about what happens if I don’t get the “C” chord; if I believe that, then I’ll never be able to accompany myself when I sing the Irish and Scottish songs I love. So I focus on the pain in my fingertips as I try to press more and more firmly down on the right strings, and the cramping in the stretch of my long fingers, and I think “you’ll be grand, Kim; you only just need to focus on the moment, on the practice, on the repetition, and know that it will all be well.” I kind of think that’s why I love Cohen’s “Anthem” so much. He talks about not dwelling on what you don’t know, or don’t yet know. Just because it hasn’t happened yet (being able to get the “C” chord or play “Will you go lassie, go?” on the guitar, for instance) doesn’t mean it won’t. It’s about having faith and hope in something, isn’t it? It’s about learning to trust yourself.

The other part of the song I love is the famous, oft-quoted part. In the last few days, it’s been all over social media, and I understand why. Cohen wrote: “Ring the bells that still can ring/ Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack, a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in.” He calls us, still, even though he’s gone, to know that there is beauty in our human imperfections, and that we need to honour, value and celebrate that. Even cracked and broken things–people especially–can be full of light and hope. I love that. I really do. It reminds me of having come through the darkness of depression to light, and it reminds me of how I try and create beautiful and purposeful things with words, and of how much care and time that creative process can take if I want to do it well. It calls me to be more patient in my day-to-day life, to have faith in the process of living itself. It reminds me of how I deal with the students I serve through teaching, especially of how they might not yet be able to see the light through their darkness or anxiety, and how I try to help them find slivers of light–even just slivers for right now–so that they don’t despair. It reminds me of my time working with Timothy Findley, who always used to sign his books with the phrase “Against despair.” Yes. All of this, this living and loving and loss, is about pushing back ‘against despair’ to find light. That’s why I loved Tiff and that’s why I loved (and will always love) Leonard Cohen’s words.

I’ll be honest now; I’ve never really liked his singing voice. It’s the words that have always drawn me. The poetry. The prophecy. The sense of there being a great soul there, in the turns of phrases, in the images, in the puzzles and revelations. The sense of a knowledge of the universe, a wisdom in how he explained his creative process and his view of spirit. I loved that about him, too.

I can never sleep on the nights when someone important to me dies. I don’t know if this is common for other people, but I almost feel as if I have to stay awake to show them, to show their souls I suppose, that they were a significant part of me…that I loved them. So, when my maternal grandmother died, I stayed awake all night, weeping and drinking tea, and reading Yeats poems. When my mum died, I remember the giant snow flakes that fell, and being on the back porch and yard with the dogs, walking through that white snow globe of the world that night and trying to find her somewhere…and not being successful…and feeling so bereft. And then, when my dad died, well, that was the hardest one somehow. Wanting to tell him what I hadn’t had a chance to, wishing and regretting I’d been braver to speak with him before he went. Coming to the realization that, sometimes, you will not be able to say the things you most needed to say to another soul before they go.

When writers or artists die, for me, if they’re ones I respect and admire, the same things happen. I spend the night awake, wishing them well on the journey, reading their words or listening to their songs, or looking at their artwork. It brings me peace, somehow.

People will write of Leonard Cohen’s going, and they should. It feels almost false, to write about it here, but I know I have to. When I feel compelled to write something, there’s no stopping it. I know that now.

His going means this to me: the light seems just a bit dimmer to me these last few days; my heart seems to ache a bit more sharply; the silences, oddly, bring me more peace; the walks with the dogs and the sitting down by the edge of Lake Ramsey seem more sacred somehow, filled with thoughts and wonder; the time I’m spending ‘turtling,’ as I call it, pulling inward to check in with my soul on days when I’m struggling with loss or even with just being braver in what I say or do (which is hard for me) makes it all seem more true. There are touchstones of soul that have emerged this week for me, and they make me feel blessed and full of wonder, even though the loss is there. It amazes me, some days, how full the world can be, if you let it speak to you.

I’m hoping you let the world speak to you…that it will fill you up as it does me. Find that spare star in the sky tonight, or the late leaving swoop of Canada geese that sit down near Ramsey, or the sound of the birches cracking when you walk near Dead Man’s Canyon. That’s where Cohen is now. He’s here, there and everywhere. And that’s both the sad and wondrous magic of it all, isn’t it?

peace,
k.

It’s no surprise to anyone who knows me that I am truly, madly, deeply in love with art. (I love being outside in nature, near water, or on a worn path in the bush in northern Ontario, almost as much as I love art…but art has become a fixation and passion of mine in the last five years. It’s filled a void of love, grief and loss that my parents left, I think. Doors have opened in my heart and mind that were shut; walls have crumbled. A lot of that, I think, has to do with how much I’ve immersed myself in the world of art.)

I’ve been meaning to get into the Art Gallery of Sudbury to see the two next exhibits, but I was away reading at Poetry at the Manor in Windsor when the exhibitions opened two weeks ago, and this past week was Wordstock Sudbury, so I’ve been running myself off my own feet. Yesterday and today, and likely the next couple of weeks, will be times filled with internal work and what I like to call ‘turtling.’ Some people will say it’s anti-social, to pull in and just take stock of what I’m feeling and thinking, but sometimes the world is too much and –as an introvert and creative person–I know I need to tend to myself when I get to feeling a bit ‘spinny’ inside. Part of this means dawn (or late night) walks next to Ramsey Lake, watching the sun rise, or the moon and stars shiver in the sky, and a few hours in the afternoon and evening either looking at art, or reading, or maybe fiddling with a new blog entry or a poem. I’m working on “The Kingsville Sequence,” a small sequence of haiku poems inspired by my love of Essex County. (Before this year, I’d never been there, but now I’ve been down there three times in less than twelve months and cannot get its skies and fields and Lake Erie out of my mind and heart. Besides that, I’m creating a series of ekphrastic pieces based on some ‘ofrendas’ that I saw at the Detroit Institute of the Arts (DIA) a week ago Saturday. Yeah, I got lost driving around on my own, but I know by now that if I don’t do things on my own, in a braver-than-usual-me fashion, I just wouldn’t see the things I want to see before I die. Melodramatic, perhaps, but true. 🙂

Today’s visit to the AGS was a lovely deep breath in and out after what’s been a frantic few weeks for me. I just wanted the silence of the space and the beauty of the art to fill me up…and it did…as it always does. I worked at the art gallery in my late twenties and it holds a space in my heart. I’ve written poems and plays in which it features prominently, and its stories and history always haunts me. For that, I must say, I am eternally grateful…to know that a place can have such a hold on your heart after twenty years is somewhat anchoring and comforting in a world that seems rather shifty at times.

In Gallery 1, you can see Barry Ace’s “Nayaano-nibiimaang Gichigamiin: The Great Lakes.” You walk into the gallery to see five great ‘honouring blankets’, each one holding its own space in a solid and tangible way. If you stand in the middle of the gallery and just breathe and let your eyes follow from one to the next, you can feel the energy of those five Great Lakes. They are all Hudson Bay trade blankets, “adorned with individual blanket strips with intricate floral motifs composed from glass beads and electronic components (capacitors, resistors, and diodes). Each blanket is an homage to the Great Lakes as traditional homelands of the Anishinaabeg.” I found myself drawn to two in particular, namely Lake Huron, which is the body of water that surrounds my beloved Manitoulin Island, and Lake Erie, which has haunted me a great deal since mid-May.

When I was a little girl, my parents took my sister and me up to camp on the edges of Lake Mindemoya, a place where you can see the outline of a woman in the shape of what is now more commonly known as ‘Treasure Island.’ I remember late nights in saunas, and then racing down between rental camps to speed down a long dock and then jump into a beautifully shallow lake. Swimming under the stars as a girl, well, that is a northern Ontario memory that won’t leave me. I’ll have it, I know, in my mind when I’m on my death bed, and I’m thankful for that. That honouring blanket, for Huron and its sacred Manitoulin, is all about paying homage to the “Great Crosswaters Sea.” The floral emblems that sparkle alongside the image of the thunderbird spoke to me on a deep level, reminding me of images I’ve seen since I was little. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been drawn to Ojibway art, especially the work of those artists who are of the Woodland School. They entrance me. This blanket wouldn’t let me leave it alone this afternoon. It conjured up August afternoons of pale Irish skin that freckled and burnt too quickly, and of my mother reading bent paperbacks and smoking Cameo cigarettes with a big red floppy hat on her head. She would peer out at the water over the top of her book, a beer at the side of her lawn chair, and was always sure to keep an eye on us as we swam out into the far distance of that shallow lake called Mindemoya. This afternoon, I couldn’t move; she was there, just as the honouring blanket for Huron was there. It shook my heart.

The other lake that has seduced me this year, in a truly surprising manner, is Lake Erie. I have never been down to Windsor before this year. The only reason I went in early May was to attend a ten-day retreat on Pelee Island, and to get a chance to work with Margaret Atwood for an afternoon. I had driven down through southwestern Ontario, through Mennonite country, and down towards the place where my dad was born and spent so much of his youth. My last good memories of time spent with my dad are of a road trip we took together in May 2009, before he fell and became a quadriplegic. We drove down to London, spent time sharing memories and thoughts, and then I took him to Park Hill, the tiny town where his maternal grandparents had lived. So, by the time I had travelled down to Kingsville in May, to cross over to Pelee Island, I was a bit emotionally raw. I had come through landscape that conjured up my dad in all his vibrant spirit. I could have sworn, at points, that he was sitting next to me in the car as I wondered about where my life was headed. Then, being thrown into a cottage with people I didn’t know, all writers, and having been stripped emotionally raw on the drive down to SW Ontario, well, I spent a lot of time taking long solitary walks and writing in my journal and finding little coves covered in fossils, so that I could sort out how Dad was hanging around again in my heart. I didn’t write a lot that week, but I met a couple of amazing friends…and for that I’ll be forever grateful to the universe, or God, or the Creator, or whatever you want to call it.

Going back down to Kingsville in mid-August, to work on the second draft of my novel, I spent time at a friend’s heritage house that overlooks Lake Erie. It’s a yellow brick house and, for those who know me, I’m always on about the yellow brick house on McNaughton Terrace and the one on Kingsmount that used to belong to Judge Orange. The house on Kingsmount is one I’ve stood in front of for years, on long walks. I stalk it. So, arriving to a yellow brick house on the edge of Erie pretty much did me in as a poet. Instead of sleeping upstairs in a bed, most nights I just pulled a duvet off one of the upstairs beds and slept on a chesterfield in the front porch, so I could hear the water smashing against the shore, and so I could see the moon over the water, and the shadow of the swing in the yard. I didn’t want to miss a single sunrise. Erie pulls at me with a power I haven’t known in a long time. Huron does it, too, but to a lesser extent somehow. When I was down in Windsor two weeks ago to read at the Poetry at the Manor event for some Canadian poet laureates, I felt compelled to drive out to Point Pelee National Park. I spent about three hours out there, walking amidst Carolinian trees and scuttling down little paths to the beaches. I sat there, watching the water, seeing the sun set, hearing the birds overhead, and I wept. How can you not? These lakes are powerful entities. They are alive and sacred. The land that edges and embraces their water is alive and sacred. It’s hard to explain to someone who doesn’t ‘feel landscape.’ I do. I’m into touching trees, picking up stones on beaches and in forests. The energy of the landscape, for me, is alive and speaks to me in a visceral and spiritual way. It’s why, I think, I was so entranced by Barry Ace’s work today…because art has an energy, too. It has a spirit, if you’re open to sensing it.

The show in the upstairs gallery is also breathtaking. A series of jingle dresses is displayed, and each one has a distinctive story that it tells. At first, you just see the visual beauty of it all — the bright colours, the sharply bright jingles that hang in strings from the fabric, the suggestion of beading on a patterned blouse. Then, as you read the descriptive cards next to the different pieces, you realize the titles of the work hints at deeper things. One piece that has stayed with me is Leanna Marshall’s “She Swims With Fishes” (2004). At the base of the dress is a sort of ribbon of silver metal that is cut out and which curls to the floor, hinting at something like fins flashing in sunlight. When you study it, though, and speak to Demetra Christakos, the Curator, she tells you it symbolizes the missing and murdered aboriginal women, and your heart breaks. Of the jingle dress itself, Wanda Baxter writes: “It is a healing dress. When we make the dress, it brings you healing. As you go through the process of making the dress, everything you do and all your feelings go into that dress. And as the maker, you are the only one who really knows and understands the art that you do, the experiences that you go through, the way your making connects you to others and all of your relations.” Yes. And in viewing these symbolic dresses, each with their own story to tell, you feel the energy of the makers ripple through you in the silence of the space.

I left the gallery feeling less ‘spinny’ in my head today. It roots me, being around art, in a way that being in nature and in the middle of landscape does, too. I’m blessed to have figured that out, in the second part of my life, after a great deal of struggle. Art can heal. Art can lift you up. Art can transform your life if you open your heart wide enough.

peace,
k.

The train derailment that happened in Gogama back in March of 2015 has been on my mind a lot these last few months. I’ve followed the case, hearing dribs and drabs about what happened, and — more importantly — what didn’t happen in terms of an environmental clean-up. What bothers me is how easy it is for politicians in Southern Ontario, at Queen’s Park, to forget about how train derailments that spill toxins into northern rivers damage the land. If this sort of thing happened in wealthy, pompous Muskoka, with all of its pristine lakes, monster cottages and their matching boat houses, I can’t imagine it would take a year and a half for the Ontario government to clean it up. And herein lies the rub, to paraphrase Shakespeare: there is a different set of rules for the south of this province than there is for the north. Those in the south will, of course, say that isn’t so, but northerners know how long progress takes. Look at how long it’s taking for Highway 69 to become four lanes.

What happened in March 2015 was heartbreaking for those of us who live in, and love, the North. I remembered hearing about it on the CBC, as I often listen to the radio more than to the television news. One million litres of oil spilled into the Makami River that day. One friggin’ million litres. CN says, on its ‘special’ Gogama spill site that “the product spilled was synthetic crude oil derived from heavy oil sources in Western Canada. This synthetic crude is less dense than water, so it sits on the water surface.” That’s nice. At least you can see it. CN is also nice enough to let us know that it’s going to ‘scare off’ migratory birds with devices that ‘create loud noises, movement, light changes, encouraging wildlife and birds to move on to the next suitable habitat.” Okay. So you’re displacing wildlife because of the garbage you spilled into the Makami River, which feeds into the Mattagami River and is on sacred First Nations land. Yeah. But what about the fish? Well, on its site, CN helpfully tells us that there were soil samples, groundwater samples, and fish tissue samples taken in January of 2016.

In a September 6, 2016 article in the Timmins Press, titled “Gogama anglers not biting on clean bills of health,” Gogama Fire Chief Mike Benson was quoted as saying, “Most of the fish that died were suckers, they are bottom feeders, so we expected them to be the first species to be hit hard. But now we’re finding pike, pickerel, bass, perch and even lake herring–some of the strongest fish. Some of these pikes are three pounds and you have to hit them in the head with a hammer to kill them, but according to the ministry, they are dying from ‘natural causes.'”

I’ve been up to Gogama. I’ve been up to Timmins. That road, up Highway 144, cuts through some of the most beautiful and pristine land I’ve ever seen. I still remember encountering a moose up there about twenty years ago, on my way home from a friend’s camp. It was, and still is, one of those life altering moments, when a moose stops dead in front of your car in twilight and turns to look at you. You get it, especially if you’re a northerner. I think, to be honest, if you grow up in Northern Ontario, you automatically have a sense of how important the land is to your identity. I know that I often drive out to beautiful places, on the outskirts of town, when I want to get some sense of how small my place is in the world. Being in the middle of nature makes you realize that your troubles aren’t as big as you think they are. I think, too, that northerners feel a kinship to the land. My parents had a camp on the West Arm of Lake Nipissing, and some of my teenage memories are of hearing the wind whispering in the pines. For some in the southern parts of the province, that might seem a cliche, a sort of farcical Disneyfied version of what the north is about, but let me tell you that it is true. You walk into a northern bush area and your world changes.

I’m no scientist. I’ll admit it. What I am is a human and a teacher and, more importantly, a poet. We tend, I think, as poets, to see the world differently. We raise issues in our work that aren’t all stereotypically about love and flowers. I know people have views of poetry that are old fashioned, but I see poetry as a way to raise awareness for issues that I feel passionate about: poetry as a way to battle and deal with mental illness; poetry as a way to lift up the spirits of those in palliative care wings, or their families; poetry in places where you stand in lines and wait and wait and wait, like in airports; and poetry as a way to raise awareness of First Nations issues and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. I know. I’m becoming feisty as I get older. I always was feisty, but it’s getting worse. We need to speak up. It’s that simple…and that difficult. But, sometimes, you need to take a risk to make change.

As Northerners, I’d encourage friends and colleagues to inform themselves and raise their voices. We need to stand up for Gogama and the Matagami River. We need to stand next to those who live in those areas, especially our First Nations neighbours. We need to demand that southern Ontario politicians treat environmental issues in the north as being just as important as southern ones. We know the truth…that our part of the province is beautiful and raw and real. Not everyone can manage that. Let’s be honest. We’re a hardy group of folks and we know the magic of sitting on the edge of a northern Canadian lake or river near midnight. We’re blessed to be guardians of that northern wilderness…and that means speaking up, alongside luminaries and environmental activists like David Suzuki, to be guardians of the land upon which we were born.

peace,
k.

I’ve been thinking a great deal about school libraries lately. My school’s library is being renovated and shifted into a “Learning Commons” or “Learning Hub.” The semantics of the phrasing doesn’t really matter. We need to get beyond that, I think. At its core, it’s still a library. The word “library” shouldn’t be a ‘bad word’ in schools across Ontario, but I’m worried that it is becoming one. Yes, I recognize the need to have technology in the schools, and in terms of research, but I also want to make a case for keeping books on shelves. I’m a writer, after all, and I think of how many countless hours I spent in Marymount’s school library as a teenager, and how reading saved me from depression and offered a very solitary, overweight, smart and creative kid a bit of respite from the too harsh world.

At one point, I wanted to be a Teacher Librarian, but there aren’t many in my board, so I’m sure that’s not in my career ‘cards.’ In any case, as a writer and English teacher, and now as Poet Laureate of the City of Greater Sudbury, I spend a lot more time in my own local library and have learned about all of the things it can offer to me. (Recently, for instance, I gathered up a whole lot of fascinating research about the mining town of Creighton Mine for a novel I’m writing. This town is now gone, flattened to the ground. Deep in the Creighton Mine, though, is the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO), so there’s something still there, even if we can’t see it. The town, though, the little houses and the people and stories that built it, they’re all pale now…and that makes me sad.)

As Poet Laureate, one of my roles is to work in the schools. I chose to take that on as one of my tasks during my time as laureate…to try and introduce secondary school students to poetry in a more dynamic way. I’m also going to be running a professional development session at my board’s next PA Day in late November, where I’ll talk about integrating poetry into the secondary curriculum. (You can use poems in classes other than English ones, so I’m excited to share my ideas with my colleagues at home. Hopefully, some colleagues will sign up!)

As part of my reading with other poet laureates down here in Windsor this past Thursday, at Poetry at the Manor, I spent time visiting St. Joseph’s Catholic Secondary School. It’s a beautiful new building and it’s full of grand people, students and teachers alike. We met in the “Resource Centre,” which is a big open space filled with chairs. It’s attached to a sun-filled atrium. It’s really quite a lovely space in which to read poetry and speak to kids about writing. I loved it. But then I noticed the murals of books on the walls and figured out that it must once have been the library. (Just writing that sentence makes me feel full of doom…)

When, at the end of the reading, I asked the head of the English Department where the books were, she just grimaced. “We don’t have a library anymore.” She told me of how her board had disbanded libraries at elementary and secondary levels. I felt a despair rise up in me because I fear this is becoming more and more common across the province. Whether you teach in the Catholic or public system in this province, I think you know that libraries are at risk of extinction. That sounds rather ominous, doesn’t it, but seeing this empty room at St. Joe’s made me cringe inside. When, I wonder, did boards of education in this province begin to think that increasing technology in the classrooms meant casting off physical books? Was it the rise of e-books? Was it that budgeting became more and more difficult, due to cuts in boards and schools? Was it when technology began to sweep into classrooms? And, does it mean that, just because technology is present in our world, we need to cast off the things that were traditionally rooted?

The teachers at St. Joe’s now have classroom libraries, which is something that Penny Kittle suggests we do in her Book Love. I totally love Penny Kittle, but I also have to speak up for libraries in our schools. Yes, physical books cost money, and more and more each year it seems. Yes, technology is important and we need to educate our kids so that they are twenty-first century learners and citizens of the world. I’m not suggesting it’s one or the other. Why can’t it be a marriage of technology and tradition? Of electronics and paper? You only need to look at the gong show that was the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test (OSSLT) roll-out last week, in its online incarnation, to realize that–sometimes–paper and pen can still work wonders and be more efficient.

Yesterday, I spent a couple of hours at my favourite bookstore in the province, Biblioasis. My friend Bob Stewart is the bookseller there and he knows so much about books. What I love about Biblioasis is that you walk in onto its hardwood floors, its quirky brick walls, and the large armchairs and floor rugs, with sunlight streaming in through the big front window, and you can actually sense yourself calming down. You are surrounded by physical books. New and used, it doesn’t matter. Some of the best things I found at Biblioasis in August were in the used section. The poetry section is stellar. Then I got to thinking about how, in Sudbury, independent bookstores just seem to fail. Chapters has taken over. As a poet, I can’t stand the poetry section at Chapters. You look for a new book of poems by a person whose work you love and you can never find it. There is always, though, the one that is titled “100 Love Poems for Men to Use to Woo Women” or something equally kitschy. Jaysus Murphy, Mary and Joseph. That is not poetry! So, I ordered a whole slew of poetry books and Canadian plays from Bob before I came down here and I’ll heft them home tomorrow on the plane. I under packed my suitcase (which, if you know me, is a pretty amazing feat) so that I could buy a lot of books. I’d rather support a local, independent bookstore–even if it isn’t in my own hometown–than order through Amazon or Chapters.

All this is to say that we need to fight, as readers and writers and teachers of literature, to support small bookstores and teacher librarians in our school systems. If we don’t, the demise of books in our schools, and the ability for kids to learn to love reading will disappear. We need to fight for our libraries in our smallest (and largest) towns. We need to say ‘yes, books do cost money, but knowledge and imagination is crucial to human development.’ We need to be brave enough to raise our voices to protest the gradual and slow extinction of independent bookstores in this country. And, maybe even more important, we need parents to speak up about what they want for their kids in the school system, Catholic and public both. In that, we as educators need to be united. Otherwise, I fear, we’ll be seeing more of these empty ‘resource rooms’ next to grand sunlit atriums.

For me, as an introvert and a smart girl in high school, I remember that the school library and its books offered me an escape. I loved, and still do, the smell of a book’s pages (whether old or new). I love to touch the covers, turn them over, and discover what’s inside. As a person, I believe in looking beyond the superficial surfaces of things, in living with depth. I think books (and art) can do that for us in our homes, lives and societies. The slow extinction of physical books, especially in the school system, causes a shiver to run up my spine. Maybe St. Joe’s is a harbinger of what’s to come…and that, my friends, is a real worry.

peace,
k.

I spent this past weekend up at a beautiful little cabin on the edge of Lake Kagawong, surrounded by the sounds of loons calling on long walks by the shore, and by wind whispering in the trees. It was, to be honest, one of the loveliest fall weekends I’ve even spent in Northern Ontario. Somehow, back in early summer, I stumbled across Shannon McMullan’s offer of a rental space. I knew her beautiful gallery, Perivale, but hadn’t really noticed the cabin next to it. (I’m always about seeing original art, whenever I can see it, and wherever I can find it, so I’d been to Perivale Gallery before.) The notion of staying in a cabin on that same magical piece of property, tucked up on the cusp of a hill overlooking the lake, appealed to me. I corralled two writer friends, Danielle Daniel and Liisa Kovala, into renting it with me, and we waited for the weekend for months. Dan just launched her memoir, The Dependent: A Memoir of Marriage and the Military, and Liisa’s book will be released next year. I’m about to enter two or three fairly busy weeks in my role as poet laureate, so I knew that I too would need a break, in advance of the chaos. As a quiet person, an introvert by nature, it takes a lot out of me, energetically speaking, to be out in front of people. I love it, reading my work, but I also know I need to muster my energy in advance, and then collect it all again after a public reading. Besides all of that, I knew I’d write some new work, and I’d have fun with two of the most amazing women I’m blessed to call friends.

Here’s the thing about Perivale: You open the door of that little cabin and walk into a space that is any writer’s dream. There is original art on the walls, and tiny nooks for reading and writing that are tucked into spaces where you least expect them. (I love houses with character, and I love houses with surprising twists and turns. There’s nothing like a house with a fancy antique doorknob, or a piece of beautiful stained glass hanging in a window, catching sunbeams and sending them around a room.) I think I initially bounced around the various rooms like a crazy woman, shouting out repeatedly “Oh my God! Look at this! How amazing is this?!” (I’m rather exuberant when I encounter things that are beautiful, so I was in shock for most of the weekend. I have aesthetic issues…a la William Morris and his philosophies of beauty in the world. Bless him!) The one thing I’m so pleased about is that I went with two friends who also know the value of silence. The best retreats I’ve been to in the last few years are the ones where you can agree to carve out a number of hours to just sit in silence and work, or even just read. Yesterday morning, I crafted two new commissioned poems, and then this morning I added to the third act of my play, “Sparrows Over Slag.” I never feel like the poems are done, but I know I’m my own worst critic. At some point, you just need to say, ‘okay, I did my best with this piece, and now I need to let it go…’ This is, believe me, easier than it sounds. 🙂

Some of my favourite Perivale House weekend memories: hearing a chipmunk scamper across the roof while drinking coffee in the sitting room (!); a latte at the Peace Cafe in Providence Bay; picking cedar to make tea sometime this week, and thanking the Creator for these gifts; sitting down at the water’s edge, listening to the chickadees (my Mum’s favourite birds!) twittering in early morning trees that lit up with sunlight — everything looked like stained glass; a raven soaring high above some trees; yesterday’s early morning walk being so beautiful that I actually began to weep as I walked down an empty gravel road (one more reason I usually walk alone; beauty moves me without warning and not everyone can handle that intensity); an afternoon walk today, before leaving, with Liisa and Dan–and finding a path that was alight with gold and red leaves–so amazing that it felt sacred and holy, that space, like a cathedral of trees. Above all, I felt the time on The Island did what it always does to me: that place, when you cross the swing bridge and drive through Little Current, unwinds me. I exhale. Sometimes I don’t even realize I’ve been holding my breath, and my spirit, for too too long. Manitoulin opens you up when you least expect it, so that walls fall down and you are left amazed by what landscape and spirit can do to your own soul.

We can’t thank Shannon enough, for the time we had at Perivale. Her Irish hospitality and cultivation of the arts in this northern part of the province is warm hearted, generous and enthusiastic. So love that about her! I’ll never forget the wild turkey that seems to be courting the tall heron statue in the sunroom, or the sound of loons calling while I walked a long gravel road and gathered bits of cedar. These are such vivid images, held now in my heart. And the words. Where else do the words come so freely, so that stories and poems seem to rise up as you look out over a hillside guarded by the tallest trees?

And I can’t thank Liisa and Dan for being two fine writerly companions and friends. To think that we’ve orbited each other for about twenty years, and only just found one another last year! I can’t imagine. I feel like I’ve known you for lifetimes…and maybe, just maybe, I have.

peace,
k.

Also, if you haven’t been, you can read a bit about the gallery itself here:
http://www.perivalegallery.com It’s a magical place.

Most people around town know that I’m trying my hand at writing plays. I say ‘trying my hand’ because I read and study them in my spare time, and then try to write them when I’m not working on my poems or adding layers of detail and research to the second draft of my novel. I never have difficulty writing poems because they always seem to come to me without warning, a phrase or image pressing down on me until I commit it to the page. With the novel, or short stories even, things take more work, trying to weave a world together–with people in it!–so that it isn’t contrived or boring. Plays, though, have stolen my heart. They’re a bit like that handsome man you secretly fancy (but think you can’t have) in that they the dance in a shifting of shadows and light on a stage, in the artificial wonder of sound effects, in the crispness of good dialogue, and in the sheer amazement at the brilliance of keen actors who take a writer’s words from page to stage. (That’s the most seductive thing of all for me, as a writer– to hear my words spoken by an actor. I was never prepared for what that would do to me, viscerally almost, in terms of how attracted I would become to this genre of writing.)

Funnily enough, I’ve fallen in love with plays in the last year and a half. I order them, buy them, read them, and try to write them. I don’t think I’m very good yet, but I have three on the go, one of which is almost done. (I’m off to Manitoulin the weekend after Thanksgiving to finish Act 3 of that play, I hope. It’s prodding at me these days, so I know it’s ready to come out onto paper. I’m hoping that, sitting by a lake again, alongside two dear writer friends, will inspire me to finish that first full draft. Then I’ll start revising.)

Last week, I read Colleen Murphy’s “Armstrong’s War.” When I was in Playwrights’ Junction at the Sudbury Theatre Centre (STC), I was introduced to Murphy’s work by Matt Heiti. Last fall I read “The December Man,” which documents the Montreal Massacre of early December 1989. It changed me, reading that play. I knew then that I wanted to read more Canadian women playwrights, so that I had a sense of the tradition. (I don’t have an MFA in Creative Writing; I know I’ve said it before here. I have a straight MA in English Literature, one which has served me well as a teacher, but as a writer, I’ve pretty much just continued to read voraciously over the years, dipping into various areas of interest. I feel, though, that I’m teaching myself how to feel more comfortable about writing plays. It’s taking its time, though…trust me!)

If you read the back of the published play, it’s a simple premise: “After suffering an injury during a tour of Afghanistan, Michael, a young solider, is recovering in the rehabilitation wing of a hospital. The last thing he wants is to spend time with a twelve-year-old girl, but Halley, a spirited Pathfinder and self-described ‘reading fiend,’ is eager to earn her community service badge. The pair is at odds from the start, but they find a shared interest in “The Red Badge of Courage<" the classic American Civil War novel, which spurs them to reveal their own stories. As their friendship grows, uncomfortable truths are exposed and questioned, redefining the meaning of courage and heroism." It's a nice 'blurb.' The relationship between the two characters, though, is really what it's all about.

I was thinking, sitting there in that wonderfully quiet and darkened theatre space tonight, about what friendship means, and how it develops without warning sometimes and can sometimes seem most unlikely in a retrospective way…and how sometimes those are the strongest friendships you'll ever experience. I thought about serendipity, and how I believe we meet people for a reason. And I thought about how we tell (or don't tell) our personal stories. In the play, both Michael and Halley tell one another stories. The entire play is fashioned around the notion of Stephen Crane's novel, with the two characters reading to one another, and then writing their own stories in a fictionalized way. It isn't until the end that we hear their real histories (which I won't reveal here).

Stories fascinate me. I'll often chat someone up if they seem open to it, simply because I want to ask them questions about what they do, or if I want to learn more about what they are passionate about. I find it interesting, to see which people will open up to me like a flower blooming, to wonder if they will share their life stories — even little snippets of them — with me. Sometimes a smile, a few questions, and a quick chat can open up a flow of amazing stories. For a writer, well, that's golden. Anyway, I've always loved stories, so getting people to tell me stories is what I like to do, and not in an "I'm a stalker" kind of way. I hope that's clear here!🙂

"Armstrong's War" makes you think about how stories work, how we choose what information we share with other people. We protect ourselves with persona pieces, masks that we think will protect us but really only ever just heighten our fears. I wonder why we do this. We only ever end up isolating ourselves. Maybe it's just that we've all been hurt somewhere along the way, so that walls are easier to build than tear down. Our stories, though, have power.

I'm thinking, too, of having read tonight at NISA's Open Minds Quarterly launch at the Northern Water Sports Centre on the shores of Lake Ramsey. It was a lovely place to hear poems read and see visual art. There were so many brave people, all in one big, bright room on the edge of a lovely lake, and all of them were taking off their masks to say, without shame, "I have lived with mental illness. I have survived." It was powerful, to see stories told so bravely and openly. For years, I wore a mask to cover depression and pain. Taking it off is a relief. I can breathe better now. I don't hide as much of myself, and sometimes I think that can be overwhelming for other people, but I really don't care anymore. There's power in that, in telling stories and shedding shame. If it's too much for someone, they just won't be in my life. That's a good lesson for me to learn. As some Ojibway elders say, "The people who are meant to be here now, to be with you, are here now." I love that teaching. It speaks to me.

The same thing happens in Murphy's "Armstrong's War." Halley and Michael are brave enough to pull down their walls, brick by brick, knowing that they could be hurt by one another in the process of being honest. Still, they do it anyway…because life is short, and they value the connection of the unlikely friendship that they have forged. As Halley says, the Armstrong motto is, aptly, "I remain unvanquished." That's a motto we can all hope to ascribe to, I think. I’m going to add it to my own list of personal truths or mantras, to carry in my pocket as Michael carries his seashell.

You don't have to read Colleen Murphy's play, or study it in the intense way that I did, to enjoy this production that's on stage at the STC until Sunday night. I know it's Thanksgiving weekend, but sometimes holidays aren't always the best of times for people who struggle with emotions and memories…and maybe seeing a play is a way to sort of escape for a few hours. Either way, you need to go and see Katie Ryerson and Trevor Pease in this production. It will change the way you look at the notions of life, friendship, war, bravery, and love.

Think about it. Tell Roxanne, Brittany and Cora that I sent you. (Cora will pick you the best damn seat in the space, especially if you want to sit by yourself and slip into the middle of the theatre in an all encompassing kind of way!)

peace,
k.