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I’m having a busy week.  Last night, I helped to judge the Lo-Ellen Poetry Slam contest in Sudbury and tonight I read at the Barrie Manor here in Barrie.  Two cities, about three and a half hours apart (if you drive weirdly like me!), and two different age groups of audience members (the first, teen writers, and tonight’s crew, a vibrant group of seniors).  The commonalities were what struck me, though.

Last night, alongside novelist and playwright, Matt Heiti, and CBC radio host, Jason Turnbull, I was privileged to see and hear the work of young Sudbury poets.  All of them were amazing.  They used vivid images, and then linked them together to create beautiful extended metaphors.  I was so impressed.  As an English teacher, I am always amazed by what teenagers can do with words, in expressing their hearts’ pains and joys.  Teenagers are so raw, so open, so close to the root of emotion somehow, and it comes out in beautiful ways, in their poetry.

We heard poems about being a nerd in school (rang a bell for me, sadly), passion, and the search for identity.  Being a teenager isn’t easy.  It wasn’t my favourite time in my life.  Being able to suss out that discomfort, on the way to discovering yourself, is brave and courageous.  So, even though there were only three “placing” poems, well, I felt like I wanted to give every poet there an award.  So much of starting out, as a poet, is to put things down on paper, to take risks with the very things that are deeply close to your heart.  To even give voice to the words you have written is such an incredibly brave act.  (I still feel nervous and a bit too vulnerable every time I give a reading…because it’s a bit like turning your heart inside out and asking people to examine it.)

Tonight, at Barrie Manor, I had the pleasure of reading alongside the Poet Laureate here, Damian Lopes.  His poems are simply stunning, and he’s got a real presence as a poet and reader, as well as a good sense of humour, so I hope he will come north to read in Sudbury.  The invitation has been extended.  :).

Before Damian and I read, though, a woman named Mary read her work (this is a pseudonym I’ve given her to respect her privacy).  In any case, Mary read a beautiful poem about wanting to be a tree.  She wrote about how she would have roots to reach down into the earth and arms — or branches — to reach up.  It was poignant because Mary has limited physical movement and is in a wheelchair.  Her poem, though, spoke about the way in which imagination and metaphor can lift a spirit.

Now, anyone who really knows me knows that I have a “thing” for trees.  I grab at leaves when I pass by trees.  I’ve been known to just hold on to their trunks when I go walking alone (no one sees this except me and maybe the dogs), and if I feel really out of sorts, I’ll go give a hug to a tree.  I think it’s grounding or something.  Celtic, and Druidic, for sure.

After the reading, I had a chance to talk with Mary about her poem.  We talked about how we both love trees.  She has a room on the second floor that looks out to an oak tree.  “Ah,” I said, “you must feel as if you are in a tree house up there, then, looking into those branches every day!” She smiled and said “Yes, I do!” Then, though, she lamented the fact that she can no longer touch trees (I had told her of my strange tree groping habit!), so I said “But you can always get outside and sit under their branches.  I do that when I’m sad..or just feeling out of sorts.  You can always tilt your head up and watch the branches and leaves dance, can’t you, against all kinds of skies?”  She smiled and agreed.  I so loved her poem…so very much. I’m so glad, too, that she and I met.  There is always a reason…why you meet certain people and spend time with them.  That sense of connection, for me, is so important.:)

Here’s the amazing thing that poetry does, then, in my view.  Teenagers can write poems, and seniors can write poems.  People who haven’t written poems since they were young can try to write poems again, now.  You don’t have to share them with anyone for them to “work” in your heart’s space.  You just have to usher them into being.  By doing that, you crack open your heart and soul, and the world becomes a more vibrant and magical place.  For a young person struggling with trying to figure out issues of sexuality and identity, a poem can be a safe space in which to create and recreate themselves.  For a senior struggling with physical life changes, with the loss of some abilities, a poem can speak of how a person can continue to persevere and flourish, even as they mourn what they have lost.  A poem, then, can be the light in the darkness.

That’s what I believe…and that’s why I’m grateful to be able to see these poems and poets send out sparks of beauty, courage, and spirit in the face of what can often seem to be a too dark world.

So…Happy National Poetry Month, people.  Go ahead.  Try it.  Write a poem.  (You don’t have to tell anyone, or show anyone. Just let that poem that is a burning star inside of you OUT…so that it can BE!)

peace,

k

 

 

I’m honoured to have been asked to read a couple of my poems tomorrow at the Local Health Integration Network’s (LHIN) “Death Café.” It’s an opportunity to creatively open up a discussion about end-of-life planning and palliative care. This isn’t a popular conversation, but it’s one that people need to have within their own families. It was (and is still) an area that holds my heart tightly in its grip. I’ve written about my parents on this blog before, but I haven’t spoken too much about their endings, which were difficult to say the least. When I joined the Health Sciences North (HSN) Patient and Family Advisory Council (PFAC) a few years ago, just after my father had died, I knew I had a keen interest in making life better for the frail elderly in our community. Those without dutiful daughters are lost in the health care system and it makes me so angry on their behalf. The other area I had an interest in was palliative care, especially in terms of hoping to bring art into that particular ward at HSN. While on the PFAC, I was more successful in moving forward with issues to do with speaking out for the frail elderly, and the palliative care aspect didn’t really get off the ground.

In seemingly unrelated news, I’ve recently been named as the new Poet Laureate for the City of Greater Sudbury. I’m the fourth one, and the first woman, which is a real honour for me. As part of my new role, I can do interesting things with causes I believe in highlighting. To me, poetry is both personal and political. This is a feminist approach, I know, but it’s even more so a human approach to poetry as it can serve as a sort of social justice piece in our community. Poetry isn’t just a bunch of words collected on a page, or spoken in performance, but rather a way in which we can speak to things in society that we wish to change. (Writers have done this for eons, so it shouldn’t be too shocking!):) One of the areas I hope to delve into is to explore how poetry can work within the ‘countries’ of palliative care and mental health. So, when I was invited by Lara Bradley (of our local LHIN) to take part, I was thrilled to bits. Here is a way in which a simple poet can speak to a cause she cares deeply about.

“Death Cafés” started in the United Kingdom in September 2011. In just four and a half years, over 3,027 “Death Cafés” have been offered around the world. And now, we’re having one in Sudbury. Tomorrow, from 2-4pm at The Buddha, people will gather to hear a few poems, and to speak about death. Why? I can tell you why, from my own experience.

My parents fell ill when I was in my early 30s. I had just begun my teaching career. First, my dad had a heart attack in fall 2001, and then I helped my mother with his recovery after his heart bypass surgery in early 2002. Then, she began to struggle with her health, just as his faltered. They dovetailed each other, in terms of their descent from not-so-great health to their respective endings. They ate too much, drank too much, and didn’t exercise. She smoked, from the age of sixteen forwards, so I know that’s why her end was so awful and medieval. Her body, her lungs, were calcified from the inside out. When they told me that, as she lay dying, I remember thinking of her lungs as what pieces of sea coral must look like…or maybe driftwood in an ocean surf next to a shoreline.

My parents were too sedentary and my mother, in particular, really didn’t cultivate friendships. She was solitary and often spoke of her home as a ‘safe place.’ She only really wanted to be around people in our family. It was a closed sort of family, and, to be honest now, very dysfunctional. (Therapy lets you learn all of these things about your own historical patterns, even when you don’t want to go there). Anyway, her health continued to falter until her heart attack in 2004. She also had heart by-pass surgery, so I helped her with her recovery. Then, in late 2007, she had issues with her circulation. It ended up that she had peripheral artery disease (PAD) and a small issue with her right foot looked, initially, like a simple case of gout. She wasn’t diabetic. By April 2008, she was diagnosed as having gangrene and part of her right foot was amputated at the metatarsal level. She was bedridden until her death in December of that same year. (I was off with major depression, a lot of which I can now see was directly tied to being her main caregiver.) There were battles for home care, endless streams of calls to CCAC, fighting for her to try and encourage her to fight and rally (even when she was obviously exhausted and giving up). That year made me lose my mind. Suicidal ideation was common. I was at my wit’s end.

She went into hospital via ambulance on the morning of Dec 11, 2008, because her breathing had worsened and I knew we were in trouble. She didn’t want to go and I remember she was so angry with me for calling that ambulance. (I think she knew she was dying and just wanted to die at home.)  Within days, she was in a coma. She was in a regular hospital room, until she was moved, finally, to palliative care. The hospital was under renovation at the time, so they took us through a horrible main hospital hallway, with too many people just openly staring at her as we went. She was in a coma and breathing horribly, on a stretcher, and I remember that I so wanted to yell at everyone we passed, “Stop fucking staring. She’s my mother and she’s dying.” And, I remember, too, that I just wanted to drape myself physically over her, on the stretcher, to protect her so that she wouldn’t have to be stared at with pity. She would have hated that, that lack of dignity and privacy). She was moved to palliative care in the late afternoon of the 18th.

I actually think she died, briefly, when they shifted her into her palliative care bed in that wretched North Tower. I remember the nurses whispering behind the curtain, a rustle of bedclothes, and the silence. They were trying to find her pulse, I think. Then, one nurse swept out from behind the drapes, came over to me, and said, quickly. “You need to call whomever you want to be here. She is not going to be here much longer.” So I did. I was alone with her that afternoon as my sister had taken my dad home to have a shower and a bit of a rest. We three had been at the hospital for four days, so he needed that break. Calling home, then, was the hardest thing I had to do, worrying that he would not manage losing her, having to tell him on the phone that Mum was not long for this world. They came back, and my aunt Cathy came later as well, just to say a quick goodbye and leave the three of us with her, and Mum died about three hours later. She had oxygen forced into her lungs through a mask, something which still bothers me. She had, the night before, spoken to unseen people, asked to be ‘lifted up,’ and tried to get out of her bed, with a physical force I couldn’t quite believe as she had disappeared to a skeletal and pale version of her former self. I remember her voice being water logged, literally, as she tried to speak, without making any sense, drifting in and out of that damned final coma, and then us trying to get her wedding ring off her finger, which became an awful race to cut it off because of the swelling due to her heart congestion and failure. The only reason I’m writing this, now, in such detail, on this blog, is just so you can see how awful death can actually be. It isn’t a Hollywood movie. It’s much more brutal.

My dad’s story is horrible as well. They both tested me, in their going. Seven months after she died, in August 2009, he went on a fishing trip with a friend. He fell, hit his head, and became a complex quadriplegic. What followed then was a comedy of errors. Airlifted to Michigan because there weren’t beds in Ontario, then trying to get him home two weeks later, and then him saying he wanted to kill himself because he felt lost without his mobility. He was shifted from HSN to Lyndhurst, in Toronto. He saw Lyndhurst as a place where he could — he thought — maybe walk again. My sister and I tried to tell him, gently (but how gently can you tell someone you love this?), that he would be a quadriplegic until he died. What followed that was a return to Sudbury, to the hospital, and then to St. Joseph’s Continuing Care Centre (where there was a physio program), and then to Pioneer Manor. He lived for twenty-seven more months, until he had another major heart attack in Oct 2011. That night, I sat with him while the doctor in emergency told me he was not going to make it through the night. My sister was working for a beer company at the time, so I had to call her home from her sales calls in Muskoka, so she drove through the darkness to be there. He lived, though, despite the heart attack and double pneumonia. From that point on, though, until Nov 11th, he declined. On Remembrance Day, they declared him palliative, and we spent the next six weeks with him in the palliative care ward. He had the best care there. Really, in comparison to my mother’s death process, his was full of light and love. He lit up the world on that little ward. He became ‘my little Buddha,’ spending hours telling me his thoughts about life, love, and loss. I feel blessed, now, that he and I shared that time together. I remember thinking then that it was so sacred.

There were other parts of his last six weeks that were not so nice, though. He could often get quite agitated, would berate me and call me names. (I won’t write them here….but they weren’t nice names…and I know he would be sad he’d said them so meanly to me, if he’d been in his right mind, but he wasn’t, and I love him still, so all is forgiven.) The nurses told me that dying people often attack those who are closest. One night, I lost it and yelled back at him, “Why are you calling me that name? I’ve taken care of you. Don’t do that to me now…as you’re dying. Don’t let that be one of the last things you say to me, what you leave me with.” It was ridiculous, and it did no good. He cursed at me again and I ended up in the hall, sliding down to the base of a wall and weeping silently. I know he didn’t mean it. I know that death isn’t kind. I’ve seen it. It robs you of dignity more often than not, sadly, and I know, too, that this is why I feel so strongly about why we need to advocate for end-of-life care and palliative care. The health care system needs a revision, too, in terms of how it deals with the dying and their loved ones.  There are too many awful things that can be prevented, from the inside out.  People deserve dignity in death. It’s a part of life.  Sometimes, we need to fight for that dignity for our own loved ones, and it can be a hard, exhausting road if you haven’t been on it before.

I haven’t written about this in such detail before. It’s hard. It’ll be hard, too, tomorrow, when I read the poems I wrote as both Mum and Dad were dying. They aren’t the best poems I’ve ever written, but they are real and reflect what I was experiencing through their dying processes. It’s worth it, though, reliving the pain of their deaths, that bit of grief, if it means that it might help someone else have a conversation with loved ones. My parents, you see, didn’t want to talk about their ill health or imminent deaths. They avoided them. They shifted them off to me as the eldest daughter, the one who never said no, who always tried to please everyone, even if it ended up damaging her. (If I’d known then what I know now, eight and four and a half years later, respectively, I might have fought more for myself. It’s tiring, being strong for everyone else. You learn to be so strong that you can’t let other people in. I still struggle with that. Sometimes, the things you do out of duty, which is a twisted form of some kind of love I guess, are so damaging. I’m still working on healing that part of myself, on trying to be more open and vulnerable and trusting. I’ve had to prop myself up for a long time and the idea of letting others let me lean on them, even occasionally, feels like cheating to me somehow. I know. It’s f’d up.)

Anyway, all this is just to say, a la William Carlos William and his lovely little plum poem (!), that I hope those of you who read this blog entry have a conversation with your own parents as they age. Do they have living wills? Do they have a health care clause in their will, something which tells of their wishes if they are incapacitated or unable to make their own decisions? Do they want a do not resuscitate (DNR) order on their chart? Do they want to be on a ventilator? There are other questions, of course, which come when elderly parents go into a decline, but those are myriad and too long to list here. (You would need a quick whiskey, and I don’t want to share mine as I hoard it for when I have my bouts of bronchitis!)

If you’re interested in learning more about “Death Cafés,” you can check out this brilliant video by an organizer of the Portland, Oregon event. Her name is Kate Brassington, and the little video really does do a good job of making it all seem less daunting. She also talks about how losing someone to death can make us more aware of how important it is to connect with people. We need to find like minded souls, to recognize them when we see them, and to let them know, as friends, as kindred spirits, that we see their light and we can honour them in friendship and connection. What else is this life for, if not to connect with others????

As I close, I leave with my favourite poet’s words. Seamus Heaney, just before he went into surgery and died unexpectedly, texted his wife the following message: “Noli timere,” he wrote, in Latin. The translation is “Do not be afraid” or “Fear not.”  So, I hope, somehow, that we can begin to be less fearful of death. If we treat it as a natural part of this life, and not as something we can avoid or just ignore and pretend doesn’t exist, it might just be a little bit less ominous. And we might find more of that connection we’re all so desperately looking for…

Thinking of you all…and sending out light and love tonight as I miss my parents.
peace,
k.

I’ve had two friends tell me this week that returning to a regular day-to-day existence after being in a super creative space like the Banff Centre, with like minded people and kindred spirits, can be a bit challenging. Both Danielle, who is an author and artist, and Duncan, who is a musician, mentioned the notion of “decompressing.” They both used the same word. It should have been a cosmic warning of sorts. I took the word in, thought about it, and tried to prepare myself for how the return home would sit in my head and heart. The reality of it, this re-entry, though, hasn’t been simple.

I came home on Tuesday night, fairly exhausted and my head full of thoughts and new ideas. Wednesday was a day of laundry and rest, along with the token trip to the local grocery store to buy things like milk, yogurt, and fruit. Basics, really. These last few weeks, I’ve been so over-excited that my appetite is almost down to nil. It’s like my head has taken over my body in some kind of illegal coup. Again, not always the most simple or comfortable of situations, but a reminder, certainly, that the creativity is more often in charge of me these days than I’ve known in previous years. I’m not used to how intense it can feel; I feel a bit like someone riding one of those mechanical bulls, out of control and holding on for dear life.

I feel as if my body is vibrating at a different level of energy. Sparkles of energy shoot up my legs, but, more often than not, they shoot down my arms, into my hands, and that is when I feel the need to write. If I ignore that drive to write, it never ends well. (When it needs shifting, you need to shift it out of yourself….to make room for more of it, I sometimes think!) There is so much of this writing thing that is the more practical, disciplined, business side of sitting down at the table and then working through the next part of a play, poem, or story whether you want to or not. There is also another sort of mystical part, though, that really feels otherworldly. I love it, but it also sort of frightens me in its intensity. It’s the latter one that’s been haunting me these last three days. It’s a bit frenzied, to be honest, so that sleep doesn’t come, so that food doesn’t really play into the equation, so that you feel you’re almost shedding your skin in some weird soul molting session. These last two days, well, it’s freaked me out a bit.

So, at three this morning, I padded out to the kitchen on cold bare feet to boil water, fill my hot water bottle, and make some variation of valerian root tea. It’s from David’s Teas. It’s weirdly named “Mother’s Little Helper,” or something sinister sounding like that. It works surprisingly well, but then I end up just sleeping for a few hours, dreaming weird dreams with dead relatives in them, and then waking even less rested. So, I slept for maybe two scattered hours last night, waking at five and then showering, trying to dislodge the sludge from my head. It’s creatively busy in there these days, but my physical body is pretty spent from not being able to calm down my thoughts. I even tried meditation and a sea salt and lavender oil bath last night, but all to no avail. 😦

So, this morning, restless and feeling as if something big is coming my way, a creative tsunami likely, I wandered down to the edge of Lake Ramsey and walked my ass off. An hour long walk, with two sniffing shih tzus, the sun rising, and not another soul for the first forty-five minutes. It did me some good, it did….but the restlessness is still here and it’s driving me a bit bonkers. I figured maybe writing this blog would help, get the energy out through my fingers, and it is to some extent…but that frenzy is still there underneath it all. It’s the creative buzzing…and there’s no avoiding it. It makes me feel like walking up to the first person I see on my street and saying, “Okay, could you just hug me? Hold me? I feel like I’m shattering apart inside with creative energy and thoughts….” It’s not a despairing feeling, but definitely a real one. Obviously, you can’t just grab at strangers in the street. It’s not acceptable. It’s just that there is a feeling of needing to find a root of sorts, a place to plant yourself and let the energy come out creatively. (One thing I liked about the mountains at Banff was that they circled up around me, so I felt safe and ‘held’ by the landscape.)

This morning, chatting with Marnie online, I’m setting myself a new goal of finishing the first draft of this novel by June 1st. Setting a goal makes me shiver and shake a bit, on top of all the energy running through my body already today. Still, I know I’m dawdling about finishing this story. I think, on some level, I’ve grown to love the characters and the world I’ve created. I dread finishing the story, letting them go. It’s hard when you live alone sometimes, and when imagined characters are people who speak in your head. Putting them down on paper, letting them speak their story, has been such a joy for me this last year or so. Coming into the last eighty pages, well, maybe my body is rebelling, not wanting to see it all end…and maybe fearful of the next (?) story that might pop into my headspace. Who knows….I only know the words need to come, so, for today, I’ll let this energy move them through me and spider across a page.

And a quick thanks to Duncan and Jane, who heard a bit of the frenzied energy earlier last evening, via text and phone….but especially to my soul sister, Laura, who saw me online late last night and let me talk it out with her on Facebook; she’s a gypsy soul, too, intuitive and druidic, so I know she doesn’t mind when I need to vent. I feel less bizarre when someone is on the other end, understanding how sometimes this creative surge/decompression thing can be overwhelming.

So….here’s to another day, full of words, shadows of images, people beginning to find their endings on my pages. Glad I’m scheduled to have a wee drink with my playwright friend Sarah tonight. Hopefully, by then, I’ll have this all sorted out, or maybe have had time for an afternoon nap to rest my body and soul. We’ll see. It’s all part of this process, I think, and as I give it more space in my life, while I’m off from teaching, it’s beginning to take a bigger role in my being…and, until I sort out that balance, well, I’m going to be a bit at odds. (Apologies to those friends who get to be witness to this creative whirlwind this week. I will owe you drinks, or poems, or walks and talks…or tea…)

So, I’m off now to damp mop the floors, work on a couple of poems for the Poet Laureate things coming up in later April, and jack up some traditional Irish music. The spinning sounds of that music always makes me feel more myself. My ancestors must’ve liked jigs and reels, I think…for the energy that moves down through your body and out into the earth. Suits me these days.

….and this….well, this is kind of how it feels to be inside my skin right now. There are worse ways to feel! :)

peace,
k.

I’m in Edmonton now, visiting family and friends. It feels good to reconnect with a few more friends before heading home to Northern Ontario tomorrow morning. I’ve spent the day wandering on the grounds of the Alberta legislature (beautiful!) and then browsing in Audrey’s Books, which has fast rocketed to the top of my list of favourite bookstores in the world. Then I had a two hour lunch with Alice Major, Edmonton’s first Poet Laureate, and someone whom I admire a great deal. Yesterday, I spent time with my friend, Alexis Kienlen, at the Art Gallery of Alberta, seeing the Group of Seven exhibition there, as well as a stunning exhibition of First Nations Canadian art. Last night, I was thrilled to see Alexis dance in a Bedouin Beats belly dancing recital. (All of my previous understanding of belly dancing has been blown out of the water…and I wonder if I should give it a try!)

I wanted, though, before I return to my day-to-day life in Sudbury, to make a list of the things I’ve learned from my Banff writer friends this past week. I took notes (yes, I’m a nerd!) during our discussions. Anything in quotation marks is a paraphrase of something Larry said…and that we then riffed on and conversed about as a group. (I had wine….so it’s a true paraphrase because I couldn’t feel my ankles….😉

1) Some people outline meticulously when they write novels. I am only writing my first novel, so I have a lot to learn. (I don’t have an MFA in Creative Writing, so maybe I’m lacking in that respect….) I started by writing down a synopsis of what I thought my novel was about. Then I kind of plotted out some major plot points, as well as created a sort-of-family-tree so that I wouldn’t lose track of characters or their motivations. (It’s hardly perfect, but I’m sure as I finish this novel, and go on to write others, that I’ll get better at the process work.):) My friend Emily has an amazing sense of organization, colour coding things to track creative process and progress. In one of our discussions, Larry did say that, while outlining is important, there is something powerful about how writers also “create energetically.” I sort of fall into that category. I use my novel notations as a guide to where I’m headed, but I’m not wedded to certain events. I can see a variety of possibilities for plots and sub-plots. (Sometimes, I think, I ‘see’ too many possibilities, and I’m indecisive and can’t pick one path, so I just need to write through it. It can also be a pain in the ass to go out for dinner with me because I can never make decisions about what I’m in the mood for….long, sad story!)

2) When you write historical fiction, you need an “anchor moment” that you must stay true to; you can’t fiddle with history. There are facts to consider. You have to stay true to that historical moment and atmosphere in your writing. (This sounds easy, but I don’t think it is….I struggle with it, especially in trying to integrate Finland’s brief Winter War into my own novel.) You can research too much and then end up avoiding the writing of the actual story. Sometimes, writers are the best procrastinators, and research can end up taking you away from the actual telling of the story. I learned a lot about the pitfalls of research from the other writers in my group. (Who knew you could spend quite a while looking up which chickens tend to live in certain states in America, or which person wrote a traditional Irish ballad, and in which year?!:)

3) Endings….I’ve been avoiding mine for about a month or so. I know now that it needs to be written, and that will be my first plan of attack when I’m home this week. It’s funny, you know, how you can get so attached to fictional characters. Some of them seem more real than actual humans I know. I don’t know what that says about me, or my psychological make up. I’ll leave it to those who know me best to suss that one out. (I’m not going there!) Anyway, Larry suggested that writers need to sometimes “provoke the ending by writing around it.” You almost circle it, somehow. I’m walking a lot these days, as if trying to physically move it through my body, up into my mind, and out through my hands (whether by pen or by laptop). The restlessness of it is bothersome. Feels like a labouring of some sort. Even though I can’t say I’ve ever gone through a real child birth thing, it feels as creatively intense to me on many levels.

4) “Story Management:” This is an idea I quite liked. It reminds me of something I’d read in David Ball’s book, Backwards and Forwards: A Technical Manual for Reading Plays. That purchase was courtesy of a conversation I had with Lisa O’Connell from Pat the Dog Theatre Creation last August. So. Here it is….you have scenes and bridges in a story. Your scenes are happening in the here and now. You imagine your characters as actors on a stage. You need to slide into the mindset of your characters, imagining how a character would perceive things. Your bridges, on the other hand, link things together, moving the reader from scene to scene. They move you through time and space. In effect, a scene is about “showing where you should show” and a bridge is about “telling where you should tell.” (Every time you leave a scene, though, and the immediacy and intensity of it, you risk potentially annoying, and then maybe losing, your reader in the process.)

5) Dialogue: “It is not human speech; it’s a representation of human speech.” Yeah, um, I have some work to do in this area. I know that. First, I need to write the ending of the novel, and then I’ll go back and fix the little bits of wacky dialogue. (Sometimes my characters speak too poetically…occupational hazard, said the poet who shifts shiftily into novel and play writing work.:)

6) Point of View/Narration: Basically, you can’t flip around with narration, unless you’re trying to be an innovative novelist who is breaking narrative boundaries in an experimental way. (I’m so not advanced enough for this, so I’m steering clear of it!) I know I shouldn’t pop from POV to POV, but I still struggle with it as it’s the first time I’ve tried to write a novel. I know my novel is mostly told from the point of view of Lizzie Donoghue, but her husband, Michael Power, comes in there, as well. I’ve got to keep a rein on them and streamline my narration so that it’s more carefully sculpted. (Think bonsai tree pruning, Kim!)

7) The value of art in the world….”The world loves art, but artists are frequently despised…for taking the time needed to create art.” This makes me sad, but I know it’s true. I wish we lived in a world where artists were more accurately compensated for their work. It’s important stuff, this creating art, even if most people may not realize it. Spend an afternoon in a major art gallery and be astounded by the beauty and social commentary. Then wonder how an artist makes a living….(Also, it amazes me that people will want their kids to be creative, but then dissuade them from pursuing education in the field of the arts. Brutal sadness in my heart for this one, as a writer and as an educator.)

There’s a lot of poetry in my head this afternoon, especially after my lunch conversation with the brilliant Alice Major. I’m thinking about how poetry and science intertwine, after listening to Alice speak about her deep love for that grafting, and about how poetry is really about story telling and communication. I’m also thinking about how some poets seem to be so brilliant, able to craft unique projects, but their ground breaking and innovative work can, at the same time, make me feel daft when I read it. I worry about how accessible poetry is for people who don’t regularly read or write poetry. If we alienate them with poetry that is so experimental, what have we done? Have we just proven that we’re brilliant and clever, and maybe even precious and pretentious? I don’t know…I can’t do it, though. I have to speak plainly, but use vivid imagery and metaphor to paint pictures in people’s minds. That’s how it all works for me.

To be honest, I’d rather write poems that someone like my dad might have read and understood. (He wasn’t university educated, but he was the first person to recite Shakespeare to me in a super dramatic way. He loved words and stories, too. I’d never want him to feel ‘less than’ when reading my work, and I think I did a good job of letting him read my earlier work, while he was still around, to see what he thought.) It’s funny to me, sitting here in a hotel room in Edmonton, looking out over a busy downtown street edged with lovely trees, and watching a particularly watchful magpie, that I’m thinking of him yet again. He doesn’t leave me very often…a heart touchstone, I guess. I’m blessed to carry him with me…

So…this is what I’ve learned in the last couple of weeks. These days and nights have opened me up creatively and emotionally.  I’ve shared a lovely evening with my cousin, Liam, his wife, Michaela, and their little girl, Wren, and felt more connected to family than I have in a while. Seeing my cousins Frank and Darlene just before going to Banff, too, made me feel connected again, even though we’re far apart geographically. Love them all to bits.

I’ve spent time with my writer friends at Banff (Cheryl Foggo, Monica Kidd, Beverly Boutilier, Josiah Neufeld, Sandra McIntyre, Emily Ursuliak, Patti-Kay Hamilton, and Larry Hill). I’ve spent a day and evening with my old friend from Sage Hill, Alexis Kienlen, talking about poetry and prose, and sharing time, laughs, and kindred friendship. Then, today, a few hours stolen from Alice Major. How blessed am I? How blessed am I?:)

Keep writing and creating, if you write, friends. The world needs more art to press up against the darkness….to bring in more glorious light.

peace,
k.

I know…the title sounds like the song from Sesame Street. You know the one, back in the 1970s? “These are the people in your neighbourhood, in your neighbourhood, in your neigh-boooouuuurrrr-hood….” I can’t help but rhyme as I’m a poet at the core of it all. :)

When I told friends I was coming west to a writing retreat here at the Banff Centre, most understood my motivation. One, though, asked me why. I was stumped by his line of questioning. “Why”, I asked him, “wouldn’t I go to a writing retreat or workshop?” He thought I didn’t need to go on retreat. He said he thought I was a ‘good enough writer’ to just go ahead and write on my own. (He hasn’t been on any retreats himself, though, so I can understand the question may not be rooted in complete understanding of what an amazing creative atmosphere can be fostered with the right group of writers, in a magical place. There’s a synergy that happens, if you’re lucky…)

This will have been my third major writing retreat in the last four years. In the summer of 2012, I went to Anam Cara, near the village of Eyeries, on the Beara Peninsula, in County Cork, Ireland. I worked with the brilliant ekphrastic poet Susan Rich, who is based out of Seattle. I learned so much from Susan in that one week workshop on ekphrastic poetry, and I met some dear friends. Then, in the summer of 2014, I went to Lumsden, Sasksatchewan, to work with noted Canadian poet Ken Babstock at the Sage Hill Writing Experience. Again, I met some amazing people, a number of whom have become dear friends. In both of those retreats, I learned about poetic structure, and — at Sage Hill in particular — I learned how to be less ‘precious’ with my poems. I learned how to take a step back, be honest with myself, and how to revise my work with an eye to clarifying poetic structure and form. I learned how to prune the bonsai tree of my own poetry. Working with Ken also allowed me to realize that I felt a bit stuck with my poetic style, and he guided me towards a new way of envisioning my work. Sage Hill blew my mind open, and made me think of myself as a real writer. I began to take myself much more seriously, in terms of setting goals and intentions for my own creative work.

I met Larry Hill at Sage Hill that year, and I still remember saying to him, one night in that large lounge overlooking the prairies and the Qu’Appelle Valley, that I sort of wanted to try to write a novel, even though I was ‘just a poet.’ I had ideas, one idea in particular, and it was just poking at me a bit quietly back then. When I expressed my doubt, my fear that I couldn’t sustain a longer piece of writing, I remember Larry looking at me quizzically and saying “Why not? You’re a writer! Writers work in many genres. It’s natural.” That one conversation spurred me on towards the fall of 2014, when the little idea began to speak up more persistently in my mind, so that, by Christmas of that year, I began to write the story down on paper. Last year, from February to October, I worked on that little novel idea, writing about 225 pages in those months. Come October, I took a break of four months to work on plays through Playwrights’ Junction at the Sudbury Theatre Centre, under the direction of Matthew Heiti, who is a talented playwright and novelist in his own right.

So, fast forward to this January, when I saw the Historical Fiction Intensive advertised on the Banff Centre blog. It had been my intention to apply to come here, when I knew I would be taking a sabbatical leave from teaching, but seeing this opportunity wasn’t something I could pass up. I applied and was accepted. Now, we’re at the end of the week, and I wanted to talk a bit about why retreats work for me, as a writer, and as a human being.

I love to travel, so incorporating travel and writing makes perfect creative sense to me. I get to settle into a space with other writers, and there is nothing finer than spending time with people who feel just as passionately about words and stories as I do. They are kindred folk, and it always feels good to just get to know them more and hear about the projects that they’re working on. It makes me feel less alone in terms of doing this work, which is often very solitary. Having a week to just be present, with time set aside for working with such a great and generous mentor, and to not think about anything except why and how we write, has been so very valuable for me. I’ve had some poems arrive, as they always will when I travel away from home, and I’ve thought through a re-structuring of my novel (which will come later, just because I don’t want to distract myself with administrative and structural re-workings when I’m trying to move forward and finish the draft), and I’ve begun to write a difficult–but necessary–series of ending scenes. It hurts to move through these ending parts, maybe because I hate to see what will happen to my characters, or maybe because I just don’t want to have to leave this space I’ve created, this world I’ve entered into.

So, when someone wonders what happens at a writing retreat, workshop, intensive, or colloquium (all parallel birds, in my mind!), here’s what I’ll recall from this week at Banff: being distracted by the beauty of the mountains here; the sound of the wind in the trees; endless pots of tea after lunch; spirited conversations with new friends; sing-alongs with wine and laughter after nights discussing things like narrative point of view, dialogue, structure, agents and publishers; staring at the cold blank screen of my laptop, avoiding my ending, and then hearing the echo of Larry’s voice in my head from an earlier morning meeting about my work — “Kim, just write the damn ending! Provoke it; don’t avoid it!”

Yes, and I’ll remember Patti-Kay singing The Unicorn Song (fiercely, in a weird Irish accent), and her wonderful storytelling piece; warning Josiah to “watch out for bears” on his mountain hike; Cheryl singing a song after reading her work for us, and her wonderful laugh and generous heart; walking with Emily into Banff, and the rock store (!); linking arms with Larry and P-K after too much wine, walking through late night woods in the Leighton Colony on the way ‘home;’ passionately argued discussions with Larry and Monica about why I won’t eat puffins or leprechauns; Monica’s lovely voice and guitar playing during our Wednesday night singalong; hanging out with Beverly and looking at art — yes, bunnies in boats are a thing here, especially if you have $20,000 to drop (!); Monica’s Newfoundland stories, puffin scars, and the phrase “stunned arse;” and, most importantly, having someone like Larry, whose work I truly respect, take the time and care to really read my writing and then offer me suggestions to strengthen it. That is worth the world to me…to know that someone I respect thinks my novel is worth something because, sometimes, as a writer, you work on your own, in such necessary solitude, and you need a mentor to remind you that your work is good, that it has promise…so you can move forward again with some faith.

These friends, this new family…I will miss them all when I head off to Edmonton tomorrow and then back home to Northern Ontario on Tuesday. But I know, truly, that we’ll stay in touch. They’re in my heart. Once people get in my heart, well, there’s no leaving them anywhere else…(Gosh! I hope they don’t mind being in my heart!)

peace,
k.

I’m out here at the Banff Centre (a long time dream of mine as a writer), taking the Historical Fiction Intensive under the guidance of Lawrence Hill. I’ve met the most amazing writers this week, and made some great new friends, so I wanted to share some of the things I’ve been pondering as we spend our evenings drinking wine, laughing, chatting, reading and sharing work, as well as discussing the genre of historical fiction.

Today, I’ve been thinking a great deal about time. It always passes, no matter how much we may want to hold it tight. I found myself thinking, this morning, on the walk into the Leighton Colony, and Painter House, of a tiny hourglass that my grandmother used to have on her kitchen windowsill back when I was growing up. It would sit there, not fancy at all, but I was constantly drawn to it, turning it upside down, and then right side up again, transfixed by the fine white sand disappearing down that tiny bottleneck. I remember her laughing at me. (I guess she just figured I was going to be a weird kid…easily amused by things like hourglasses and a barrel full of monkeys hanging on kitchen doorknobs.)

When you write, you are very much aware of time, and its passage. You may have one or more projects on the go at once. Some people dread writing the end of the novel. A friend of mine who writes, Danielle Daniel, once asked Margaret Atwood for advice on writing and she said to always have more than ‘one pot on the stove.’ Yes. So, as you come to the end of one piece, you find there is another there, perhaps already started, or just simmering on the element, forming itself in your mind. I get that. In the last year, I’ve moved into genres outside of poetry, mostly as a novice playwright and novelist-in-training. It’s not comfortable ground, but then I’ve never been one to be complacent in my life, or in my writing, so edging into discomfort means that you are growing and learning as a writer, and as a human being.

I’m blessed to be on a sabbatical from teaching this semester. These months are mine for writing, and it feels glorious. I can’t recall a time when I’ve felt more content, or at home within myself. That’s when you know you’re a writer, I think. It courses through you and, when you ‘feed’ it with time and dedication, then it feeds you in a symbiotic, poetic way. Love that!:)

The other night, the group of us gathered at Painter House to end our day, talking of our work and asking questions of one another’s creative process. The conversation got around to time. When do people write? Where do they write? How do they find time when there are other demands pressing down on you in your daily life? And, too, how do you protect your time, as a writer, from your family and friends? (Sometimes, people won’t understand why you pull in and work in a solitary space…but other writers will get it. That’s why I love having writers for friends; they understand and you don’t need to really explain anything, including your potentially eccentric behaviours).

Larry told us that he writes for about three hours in the morning. Then, if he leaves it, he’s likely to come back to it later in the day. The scenes will nudge at him and he’ll feel pulled back. A couple of us write at night. Now that I’m not working early in the morning as a teacher, I tend to find myself writing in the early afternoon and again in the evenings. There is nothing lovelier than sitting at my dining room table, listening to music, and writing in the silence of deep night. It seems holy to me, somehow. When I’m teaching, though, I tend to try and carve out time wherever I can…usually in the evenings when I don’t have marking, or at least on one day during the weekend. It’s harder and harder to find time while teaching because I find I am constantly planning, marking, or researching new ideas for my classes. My brain, when I’m teaching, is almost at war with itself…trying to find headspace and energy to devote to the writing. This year, I’ve found, the writing has really pressed down on me, so that I can’t just ignore it. (I never did ignore it, but now it’s a bit more demanding….so it’s required a lot of re-jigging my schedule and inward journeying.)

One thing Larry did say to me, when we were talking at lunch the other day, is that I need to protect my time. Saying ‘yes’ to everything, even as the new poet laureate, is exciting. I want to take part in so many exciting initiatives in Sudbury, and I will, but he also warned me about guarding that time when I write, on my own. If you give it away too carelessly, you risk losing the very thing which you most love in the whole world. (I’ve learned, over the last few years, as I’m in my mid-forties now, that saying ‘no,’ while hard to do initially, is actually pretty empowering. You own your gift, your craft, and you honour it by protecting it with your heart, soul, and your sense of privacy. It needs protecting. That was a good lesson for a lunch of chick peas, soup, and salads.:)

The other thing we talked about this morning was balancing our commitments in life. I’m single, with two little dogs, so I don’t know how people who have kids do it. We, as writers, juggle everything–from work, to family, to a partner, to the thing that is most demanding, the writing, the words that poke at us persistently in their efforts to get out. I know that drive, when it feels like my palms are itching to get hold of a pen, or when my fingers are desperate to find their places on the keys of a laptop. It can be the most exhilarating feeling in the world…

The noted Canadian opera singer, Measha Brueggergosman, is here at Banff, in the Leighton Colony, working on her memoir. She joined us this morning, to hear about our various novel projects. I was amazed by how intently she listened to our respective stories, asking very insightful questions about each of our works-in-progress. It’s nice to have people who take your work seriously, who want to hear about your obsession with something that drives you to tell its story. I loved hearing, again, how each of my colleagues is moving forward with their historical novels. I love watching their faces light up with excitement, sharing much loved ideas and feeling respected and safe in that round circle of chairs at Painter House.

At one point, Measha got to talking with us about balancing her art with other parts of her life. I think a lot of us really related to what she was saying. Those of us who are women in the group (as there are only two men in our crew this week), I think, could understand the pressure, to not deny the creative spark, but also to not deny the other important parts of life. Looking round the circle, at the different people, there are so many things pulling energy away from you, when you are at home, and not secluded here in this lovely little creative terrarium called the Banff Centre. Here, well, you don’t need to worry about walking the dogs, any ailing parents or children, paying bills, doing laundry, putting gas in the car, answering the phone, or the next big deadline or potentially dramatic crisis in your family. Instead, this place offers us the gift of time. They feed us and give us grand views of mountains–a space to create, in amidst a group of like-minded souls.

It’s magic here. We’re half way through the week and I don’t want it to end. Someone at home, a writer friend, asked why I go to retreats. I can always learn more, I said, by listening to other writers. I can always grow, as a writer and as a human, by taking part in stimulating conversations about creative process and philosophy.

I’m so mindful of every moment I’m spending here, tucked up amidst the mountains. An hour spent in a beautiful little handmade paper shop in Banff this afternoon, a tiny place charmingly called Gingko & Ink Atelier, totally lit up my day. There were stunningly complex coloured papers from Nepal and China, and tiny little handmade journals with multi-coloured pages. Origami birds hung from the windows. The woman who owned the place was lovely to chat with and, around every corner, I found another splash of colour and vibrant pattern. I kept exclaiming like a little kid, living in the moment, mindfully. (I even think I told her I loved her….I was so caught up in the beauty of that space…in how she had created such a sanctuary for the soul. I was so entranced by the love she had for all of these beautiful papers, with silver leaves on teal, and tiny blue birds sailing across a paper sky.) It just struck me, as I stood there with my new friend Beverly, that, while time passes, we can only ever be sure to savour it in the smallest and most lovely of ways. It could mean steeping in a tiny tea shop off Banff Avenue, or it could mean feeling the texture of paper between your fingers, or even just picking up pebbles from the path on the way to Painter House in the morning.

I hope you find your moments, friends. Be mindful; be present.

peace,
k.

Coming out west to visit my cousins, from Ontario to British Columbia, I am always surprised by how my view of this great country does not match the one with which I grew up, created in my imagination and somewhat fuelled by old historical film strip shows we watched in school. You know the one: the map of Canada on the pale pink cover of an old Hilroy exercise book with blue lined pages? I think of all the hours spent reading maps that hung from fast spinning rollers that were mounted above black chalk boards in elementary and secondary school classrooms. And then I think of the ditto-machine-made maps that we all used to colour in, province by province, territory by territory, from coast to coast to coast. On these maps, Vancouver is marked with a big black dot. Its corresponding island nestles and snuggles into the space that exists between mainland and island, looking small and a bit like a simple puzzle piece. In reality, there are inlets and coves, and majestic mountain ranges that hover like cloud castles over the horizon, where water meets land.

Crossing straits on the ferry, and watching for orcas, I imagine them cresting the surface of sea as if they were in a Bill Reid painting, ancient and elegant. Still, no orcas come forward to welcome me here. They shyly hide themselves under cover of waves, so that nothing is what it seems on the surface of things.

Then there is the sweetness of driving by Departure Bay, traveling north from Victoria, and thinking of my favourite Diana Krall song as she sings about these places and reminds me of how we evolve from children into adults, from girls into women.

Yesterday, I walked on a beach in Ucluelet, looking for pebbles to carry eastward to Ontario, but not finding any. Suddenly, a rush of giggles caught on the wind’s current, carried across to me. There, further down along the beach, was a mother and her little boy. He must have been under six, from the sound of his enthusiasm and joy. She was not next to him, but stayed further away, about six or eight feet back. Other mothers might have stood right next to him, clasping hands tightly in fear. She, though, stood and let him encounter the ocean on his own, trusting her instincts and knowing that he would learn more through his own personal encounter with waves. There were no shouted warnings to “be careful” or “not go too close,” and I found myself moved by her certainty. (I recall my parents, who were overprotective, afraid of what awful things might happen if they let us experience life.) Here, though, on a seaweed strewn beach, this mother watched her son live joyfully, proud that he rushed into that water with pure love and joy, not fear. If only we could all be so blessed…)

Sometimes, the map we think we most know and comprehend shimmers and shifts, surprising us with new ventures and adventures. I’ve been sensing this a lot in my life lately. There may be more inlets and surprising harbours that offer respite even as everything else seems to change, weaving watercolours in my mind’s eye. What matters is moving forward, breathing, and embracing the uncertainty of new waves of evolution.

I learned so much from that little boy yesterday. He’s a wise old soul who knows how to beam joy and love out across the sand. There are two sides to every story…If given a chance, between being fearful and stepping into newness, which would you choose?

Peace,
K.

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