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You’ll enter into Gallery 1 on a snowy March day and think you’ve been dunked into a lovely multi-coloured pot of paint. This is Brigitte Bere’s exhibit, The Imaginarium. Bere has exhibited her work for over twenty years, and her art has been sold to various clients across North America and Europe. She works from a wide variety of sources of inspiration and reference materials. As she herself says, she tends to “paint from the heart, rather than the head.” Bere uses many mediums, including acrylic, watercolour, encaustic, callography (print making), pastel, felting, sculpture, high relief works, acrylic collage, acrylic ink, graphite, and alcohol ink. The vibrancy of the colours, when you walk in, sort of makes you make a little circle around yourself with your feet as you turn. It’s a bit of a slow twirl, really, to take in all the beauty. It can all be that lovely and eye catching, especially on a grey winter afternoon.

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The felted pieces of Manitoulin are the ones that first drew me in. I’ve loved Manitoulin since I was a girl, when my parents used to rent a camp on the edge of Lake Mindemoya for one week every August. That was our summer holiday, and we swam and went fishing, hiked through meadows full of wildflowers and cows, and climbed all over the split rail fences. Show me a Manitoulin field and I get a bit teary eyed right away. The three felted pieces, “Manitoulin Landscape,” “Quilted Landscape–Railway Tracks,” and “Manitoulin Shores,” are evocative of the Island’s raw and magical natural beauty.

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Bere had me, though, with two of her more ethereal pieces. “Beltaine Celtic Rite of Passage” made me think of a day I spent hiking in Caherconnell, an ancient stone ring fort on the Burren, in Co. Clare, Ireland, a year and a half ago. Walking there, touching the stones, I could imagine people like the ones she has presented in this painting.

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Further along, you can’t help but smile at the mermaid-like quality of Bere’s “The Diver,” which makes you feel as if you’ve stumbled upon a sighting where you hadn’t been expected in the first place. Here is someone who is busy diving, her eyes focused on the depths rather than on the shallows, not minding that you’re trying to see if she really has a tail, or if she’s just a human woman diving for pearls. The suggestion is that she’s a supernatural being, someone with a purpose and power that we may or may not be able to divine.

IMG_4427.jpg“Floating Dreams No. 4” is intriguing because it takes up a large part of an end wall of Gallery 1. You can’t miss it. It feels as if its on fire with colour, and so you have to stand in front of it and wonder what’s happened to this woman. She looks as if she is asleep, or resting, but also feels to be defeated by something bigger than she can articulate. Her body becomes a part of the landscape, which I found interesting, given that the exhibit in Gallery 2 is all about how we view and interact with landscape and ecosystems. IMG_4432.jpg

“21 Pillows,” by Cheryl Wilson-Smith, was organized and curated by the Thunder Bay Art Gallery, with assistance from the Ontario Arts Council (OAC). Wilson-Smith wants you to interact with her exhibit, placing a little bucket of stones near the entrance with a sign that invites you to place a rock somewhere within the space, on one of the burlap pillows. It’s a bit like when actors break that fourth wall in theatre, when they walk into the audience or pull someone up on stage. You feel as if you might be stopped, as if someone might scold you or slap your hand, if you take a rock and then place it somewhere you maybe ought not to. But then you look up to see this…and all bets are off.

IMG_4450.jpgThe exhibit is lit to simulate the time of day around dusk, and there is the sound of ravens calling. It’s beautiful, really, to sit there on the rustic bench and listen to the ravens while you ponder the various patterns of stones. All of them, all 10,000 pieces, are glass pieces but tend to look like actual stones. It took Wilson-Smith two years to create all of the glass ‘stones’, which are reminiscent of the granite of the Canadian Shield near her home in Red Lake, Ontario.

For a poet who likes to hike, and who has piles of rocks in her home, well, this was a very tempting exhibit. Your eyes are caught by the shimmer and gloss of some of the glass pieces, but then are drawn again to the rough layers that other ‘rocks’ seem to have. Each pillow has a different ‘thing’ going on. (The gallery attendant, Tad, told me later that he takes photos at the end of each day, just to see how visitors to the gallery have shifted the patterns or organizations of the stones.) IMG_4440.jpg

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While I loved the riot of colour and texture of Brigitte Bere’s exhibit, my rock hound collector’s heart (and hands!) loved the ability to get right in with the pillows and ‘rocks’ in Gallery 2. It’s a sensual experience when you can pick up handmade stones and hold them in the palm of your hand, moving them from one place to another. What Wilson-Smith has said before, in interviews, is this: “When you pick up a layered piece, it’s got another piece of glass inside that will rattle, and sound like breaking glass. I’m hoping that people will just help move the landscape, because we all affect the environment, so how can we do it in this room?” She hopes, as an artist, that everyone who interacts with the exhibit will realize that they all “affect the environment and change it. For a long time, I blamed big business and corporate for our environmental problems. And, just recently, realized that it’s not just their fault. We’re allowing it, we’re changing it too.”

These are big messages that Wilson-Smith conveys in what seems to be a minimalist sort of presentation, but if you take some time at the gallery on your own, or with someone else who can sit next to you quietly, you’ll listen to the ravens, and notice the light, and think about how we are in the natural world. Interestingly, I couldn’t bear to alter the patterns of stones on the various pillows. I thought each pillow was fascinating. Some stones were grouped according to colour or shape, whereas others were arranged in patterns. Aren’t we all looking for pattern and meaning in our lives? I kept thinking this as I walked around the gallery, and as I sat quietly on the bench, watching the way the light hit the rocks.

My grandmother used to collect stones when she was on road trips. She’d go down to the shores of lakes around Northern Ontario and pick up little stones. Then, she’d put them in a glass bowl that sat–for most of my life–on the sill of the kitchen window above her sink. I thought of her today, this afternoon. There I was, sitting in a dimly lit gallery on John Street, and there her house was, down on Wembley Drive, with someone else living in it. All of that made me think of how time passes, and of how people are only here for a short while, and of how my Gram Ennis seemed to gather those stones as ways to keep memories of times spent with people she loved. Maybe that’s why I pile little bunches of rocks around my house. They remind me of her…in the loveliest of ways.

Anyway: Sudbury people should go see these two exhibits soon. They run until Sunday, March 22 at the Art Gallery of Sudbury. Be sure to just buy a membership. It’s really inexpensive, and it is such a good way of saying you love and support arts and culture initiatives in Greater Sudbury, and in the Northeast as well.

peace,

k.

I’ve been open about my journey with mental health issues in the past, so I’m going to write about the anxiety that I’m dealing with right now. There’s a trigger warning here, so don’t read on if you don’t want to know about what repressed memories of childhood abuse can do to a woman in her late 40s. If you can handle it, then go ahead and read. If not, be wise enough not to.

I’ve never been one to hide my past history with depression, and I’ve honestly been concerned lately that I’ve had a slip in that direction, but speaking with my doctor last week has made me realize that it’s a lot more about something else entirely. Anyone who’s suffered from depression and anxiety in previous years will always wonder if the other shoe will drop again. You always look over your shoulder, and you always wonder whether you’ll be ‘safe.’ You always second guess yourself–what you think, what you feel, and how you choose to say what you most need to say. Speaking with my doctor last week about that repressed memory, crying through the telling of it, she just shook her head and said “Of course you’re well. It’s the effects of what you’ve remembered, and the trauma.” More weeping then—and that crappy doctor’s office Kleenex that is useless—and mostly more weeping because it means that I’m still okay…even though it feels a lot like hell right now inside my body and mind.

I’ve always dealt with insomnia, and sporadic bits of anxiety. I’ve also dealt with grief at Christmas time. Usually, those pieces of anxiety are due to grief, over the loss of my parents, who bookended the holiday season with their departures. I expect that sort of slump to always come through late November until mid-January. It makes me nervous, then, when it goes past that timeline. This year, it’s done that. My insomnia has been much worse and the anxiety has ramped up because of it. I can’t really sit still in amidst groups of people, and I feel like running away for no apparent reason. I’ve increased my exercise, which was already pretty intense before this, and now I’m trying trazadone again, to help me regulate my sleeping patterns. And then, of course, there are my therapy sessions, the things I’ve never stopped doing since I began them in 2008 when my mum was fading away slowly and I was taking care of her.

But…I’ve gotten ahead of myself…because avoiding a memory that you don’t really want to remember clearly is something I might have perfected since I first remembered the thing in Newfoundland late last May. It was triggered by a murder that happened in my grandparents’ old house on Bancroft, by a news report I read online while in a different province. Even then, it took a day or two for the memory to rise up from inside. For most of June, I was in a spin, not knowing where to find an anchor. Losing my eldest dog in early July didn’t help. By fall, it seemed, I felt less wobbly.

I have five very important people to thank for listening to me—mostly via text because I couldn’t handle speaking it all out loud—and they will always know who they are. They were lighthouses in a dark time, when I was in a boat without oars or an anchor. They weren’t my oldest friends, interestingly enough. They are friends I’ve only met in the last four years or so. They won’t have known me when I was at my most ill, when I had suicidal ideation because of major depressive disorder twelve years ago, so perhaps our relationships are more rooted in my being more myself. Not sure.

The memory is one that I don’t like to recall. It’s too visceral, and, when I recall it, I feel it in my own body now. My heart speeds up. I can’t breathe easily. I shake. I’m terrified. That’s the whole ‘inner child’ thing. It actually exists. I sort of knew it did, in theory, but until you feel it in your adult woman’s body, there’s no explaining how that smashing together of child and woman sets off a tsunami inside. In the memory, I am little. I am hiding from my grandfather, pressed up against the back wall of a closet, trying to protect my little sister behind me. Somehow, I have pulled the closet door closed, even though there really isn’t a way to do this without hurting my fingers. Still, when you are terrified of being found and of being hurt, you will do things to try and protect yourself, especially if you are small, and especially if you love your little sister.

It is, to be honest, such a small fragment of a memory. You would think that such a fragment wouldn’t be so damning in an adult’s life, but it has been since it surfaced last May. What the emotions mean, because I recall it on a physical, ‘body level,’ is that I knew enough to hide from being hurt, which means that I had experienced it before enough times to know it wasn’t right and I didn’t like it. The memory is of just one time, but feels as if it is part of a continuation. The hiding from my grandfather means that it had happened before.

After the remembering, there have been months of dreading the arrival of other buried memories. The worst one that hangs over me, to be honest, would be the notion of sexual abuse. It makes me feel nauseated when I think of it because it is at odds with my memories of my childhood. The childhood memories I recall clearly aren’t ones of violence and abuse, but when my thoughts shift to my paternal grandparents, the memories and feelings are ones of fear, intimidation, and control. In the memory, I am little. I can remember what I was wearing, and that it was summer, and that I had a scraped knee from falling off my bike in the driveway between my parents’ and grandparents’ houses. In my memory, I am the little girl in this picture.

 

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For the longest time, I have loved this photo of me. It was taken in elementary school, long before the time when I got to be overweight and bullied, and it’s from before the time I felt ugly in high school and was afraid of boys. (It took me until university to find a boyfriend who made me feel safe enough to really let him into my life, and I never knew why. I blamed myself for the longest time when, really, I should have just blamed my grandfather. He had taught me to fear men from my earliest years, and then…I had forgotten it until last year. Your brain, I’ve learned, is a very complex machine. It can box things up when you’re at risk of falling apart, boxing them up so tightly that you don’t remember them until you’re 48.)

The photo of this little girl, of me, always seemed—for the longest time—to be capturing a sort of idyllic time. I have a copy of it on my fridge, but now I keep it there for a different reason entirely. There is a little girl who was afraid, who didn’t know who to trust, and who maybe still doesn’t even know who to trust now that she’s grown up and has somehow remembered this horrible thing. There is a little girl who is fearful, ashamed, and confused. She doesn’t trust easily. I wish I could go back and gather her up, and into my arms, to protect her.

It likely explains why, as a teacher, I always felt called to try and help the kids who were dealing with hard times at home. There were the kids who were living with parents who were pretending to be happy together (but really weren’t), and there were the kids who were living with separated families with lots of transient, pseudo step-parents sweeping in and out of their lives, and there were the kids who had parents with addictions. There were also the kids who knew poverty all too well, and then there were the kids who self-harmed, or the ones who acted out because they were afraid of bonding with people who might actually not leave them, and there were the kids who were ignored at home and only wanted to have someone really listen to them.

They were the ones who gathered around my desk at the end of a period, or who followed me to my office to borrow a book I thought they might like to read (to escape into), or who would ask shyly if they could share a poem or story they’d written with me because they knew I was a writer. All of them felt like kids I needed to protect. I felt a kinship, and I didn’t even know why then. Now I know why. I was one of them. I could see myself reflected in them. I wanted to help save them, and I didn’t even know that I had so badly wanted some teacher to have seen some clue, some inkling, of what I was struggling with back when I was in elementary school. But, even then, I didn’t really know that I was being abused, which is why child abuse is so deeply and horribly twisted and manipulative. You’re meant to keep things quiet, and this means you likely don’t even know how to find or use your voice as a woman until much later in life.

My parents didn’t know about the abuse. They loved us. If they had known, it would’ve been stopped. At some point, though, my mother stopped letting us stay there when she and my father were out of town on trips to buy stock for their gift shop, so I think—maybe on some level—she must have had concerns about how my grandparents were treating us. After that time, I remember spending some overnight visits to my three great aunts, Norah, Maureen & Clare, at the house that my great-grandfather built on Kingsmount. The Girls—as they were called—were dear to us. And then, too, there were weekends spent at my Gram Ennis’s house on Wembley. Staying at either of those two houses when my parents were out of town on business always felt like a gift to me, a way to not stay at my paternal grandparents’ house next door on Bancroft. Now, after the memory surfaced, I can understand why I have always loved those four women so much. They kept us safe when the alternative would have been having us stay with people who hurt us.

Besides the closet memory, there are other memories: an afternoon when, as punishment, Stacy and I were put out into the back yard and locked out. A neighbour had come to visit and we were told we had behaved badly and so would not be allowed in. We were little. We hadn’t done anything wrong. We wept and wondered how not to upset them again. There were nights when he would stand in our lit bedroom doorway, listening to us breathe to be sure we were asleep. It’s no wonder, I often think now, as I struggle so terribly with insomnia, that I can’t sleep easily as an adult. A whole lot of things make sense to me now, since the memory arrived last spring.

Now, there will be people who will say ‘why would you write this now?’ or who will say ‘your parents wouldn’t want you to air this dirty laundry’ or who will say ‘but your grandfather helped to build a church and made really beautiful furniture.’ I’ll tell you why I am writing this now. When this memory emerged, I wanted to read a voice that would tell me what was going on inside my head, my heart, and my body. I couldn’t find one online. I think, mostly, for me, it is a way to try and exorcise some of the frenzied energy and pain I feel inside myself these days. I know I’m likely on the cusp of remembering something else because I can feel my body wanting to run away from it, but I also know that my therapist has said these things tend to come up when you’re well. All of those years of me being unwell were, I think, a result of this childhood abuse. The years of being obese and caring for others before myself were really ways for me to protect myself from making close connections with people. If I padded myself with fat, men wouldn’t see me, and they never did, or if they did, they were the wrong kind of person for me and ended up being manipulative or deceptive. Not a good pattern.

When I began to heal and get well, I lost weight. I felt more myself. I felt in control of who I was becoming, or in who I was allowing to emerge from inside me without fear. So much of my life was about being quiet and polite, about being agreeable and compliant, that the blooming of my 40s has been a bit of shock to me. My 30s were all about being very ill, and about caring for very ill parents. There was great darkness then.

I’ve lost friends. I know. And I want to say I’m sorry if one of them reads this. Something a person might have said or done might have triggered me, even four or five years ago, and I wouldn’t have known what had caused my reaction or even how to deal with it, so I tend to pull in and turtle when I feel threatened or “less than.” I can’t handle conflict. And sometimes there comes a place where, well, if you feel you disappoint someone, you just can’t try and ‘fix’ a friendship that demands more energy than you have to survive. So much of it seems now to be about energy, and about how balanced things are. I have always been a people pleaser, someone who gives more of herself than she ought to. I have not been as good at receiving, and I think that’s mostly because I didn’t have a healthy role model to show me how to trust others. My parents tried, and I loved them dearly, but there are days when I think they ought not to have stayed together. My parents taught me how to be fearful of connecting to others, to be wary of trusting others. I’m sure, though, some people on the outside will be upset to read this, and maybe one of my extended relatives will be upset with me…but I’d ask them to keep that to themselves. Sometimes, most often I’d venture a guess, what you see outside of a house and family is not what actually goes on inside of it. Social media, even, often makes me think of how Susan Sontag spoke of how people create illusions for others, so that their lives look perfect but really aren’t. Either way, families are complex. One of my best friends still says I am the most open, but also the most private, person she knows. She is likely right. It takes a long time for me to trust someone. These shadows, I’ve learned this year, have long lives.

I’ve told a few more friends about this memory since the fall, sometimes as a way to explain my strange, removed behaviour. It’s just been the most awful journey in the last year, and one I can only walk on my own. People who care will say ‘just ask me’ or ‘reach out,’ but when you’re in the midst of intense anxiety, there really isn’t the energy to do that. Also, when you live alone, you can’t really allow yourself to fall apart. It takes a lot of strength to just be present. Besides, most people in my age group have their ‘person’ and kids, so I worry I’d be the drowning lady in the middle of the lake, pulling them under. Sad, but true. Right now, I don’t trust people easily. Hopefully that will pass too, but it may not, and I may just have to accept that people will disappear again…as they so often tend to do in my life. I feel like the shapeshifter of Irish myth, The Morrigan, a figure I’m most fascinated by. She is powerful and magical, and she walks between worlds.

I’ve taken on too many projects this winter, and that means I’m in a people pleaser mode, which only really serves others, but exhausts me, and doesn’t allow me to fuel myself creatively as best it could. I’ve had to pull out of two things I wanted to take part in next month, but just don’t have the energy to manage, and I had to cancel a poetry visit from a dear friend from Toronto. That one hurts most, because if I felt stronger I could have whipped up an event all on my own. Not just now, though. Not just now.

So. In March, I’ll have one public event, when my new play, “All The Things I Draw,” gets a staged reading at the Sudbury Theatre Centre on the evening of March 20 as part of PlayMine. I’ll be less on social media for a while, mostly because I feel too isolated when I see other people leading really ‘happy family’ lives. I’ll be around, but not as often. I’ll mostly post about writing and art, or put up some of my photos alongside a poem or two every few days. In the next month, I’ll finish writing my play and I’ll keep at my novel. I’ll be with the trees…because they don’t hurt me and they make me feel safe.

April, May and June are busy months for me, and I’m looking forward to book tours and readings in various parts of the country, as well as giving writing workshops. Right now, though, I need to sort out the anxiety and find a centre of calm. I will. I slay dragons when I have to…and Gull is a fine companion for that. The gift of my book of poems last year was a bright spot through darkness, and I’m grateful for the many kind messages I’ve received about the words I’ve written. That what I write…makes a difference in people’s lives…is really lovely.

I’m not depressed. I’m sad, though, and I’m anxious, and I’m angry…that such a memory…after such a long time being buried inside my brain…had to even emerge and throw my life into chaos. And I’m angry that that little girl I knew so well was so badly hurt. And I’m healing through a lot of pain because, as D. H. Lawrence once wrote, there is worth and great value in “coming through it” rather than avoiding it. I’m wrestling with it, from dawn to dusk. For now, if you see me, I’ll likely cry if you’re nice to me, or if you try to hug me. This is mostly because I’m not used to being held and comforted. This is also because I always feel that people tend to disappear…so I am never sure who will stay and who will go. My default setting is to expect people to go. Sometimes this is to be expected…because people will grow away from you. In my life, it has mostly been the pattern…that people have disappeared. So when someone tries to hold me, or gather me in, my instinct is to bolt, to not trust them, to imagine that I must always be strong. If someone holds me for too long, I crumble…and I so worry I wouldn’t be able to put myself together after that.

I would ask, though, that you think of the children in your lives. Don’t always assume that they are safe with people you love or are related to. Sometimes, sadly, they aren’t. Sometimes, the things you most wish wouldn’t happen…happen under your noses…and sometimes children don’t have the words to tell you yet.

Give children love and make them feel so very safe, but also don’t teach them how to be afraid of the world and other people. That doesn’t really help…and can do so much more harm than good when all is said and done.

My wish for this blog entry is that I’ve used my voice and told my truth, even though it still feels shameful to me inside. I also hope that some other woman, in her mid to late 40s, might find this blog post and maybe feel less alone at the very beginning of it all… because the dissociation between what you think is real and properly remembered, and what actually did occur, is something that can tear you apart inside.

I’m working on letting this little girl know that she is safe now, and that she doesn’t have to hide inside my mind or body, and that I’m strong enough to bear the remembering if it means we can walk forward together hand in hand. This sounds poetic and hopeful, but I am well aware that it will be some of my life’s hardest work. My heart is broken…for more than one reason…and I’m trying to put it together one piece at a time, one breath at a time, on my own. People will just have to be patient…with me. Some will stick and some won’t. That’s okay. I’m used to it.

I feel sorry I have to write this, really. I miss my parents and my maternal grandmother, my uncles, and my great-aunts and uncles. The ones I loved most in the whole world–and the ones who loved me most–have died. I hope, somehow, that they would be okay with me writing this, and that they’d understand the purpose behind doing so. They were of Irish descent, so I think they would’ve been fine, somehow…because they were all survivors, spirited to the core, even when their own hearts were breaking, I’m sure.

This is such a long journey…and such a long blog entry. Sorry for that…

Peace,

k.

 

 

 

I have never liked reading the comments sections of online newspaper articles when there were issues in education in Ontario when I was teaching. They were without thought, or care, full of horrid trolls, and mostly written without much knowledge of what it’s actually like to work and learn inside schools today. Right now, I’m taking time away from classroom teaching, so that I can work on my own writing. I know I’m privileged to be able to do this. I’m thankful to take time to breathe again because, when you teach, you breathe, but sometimes you forget to breathe deeply. Days rush into one another without warning in a way that I can’t imagine they do in other professions. Part of this is because–since I started in education in 2000–the amount of paper work related to reporting, standardized testing, and data collection has skyrocketed. Being more and more connected by the internet was helpful, of course, because it meant you could spend weekends at home doing report cards online, rather than going into an empty school to sit on a Sunday, but it also meant that there was a further disconnect between ‘work’ and ‘home/life’ balance. And, to be honest, if you were a single woman, the unspoken suggestion has always been that you might have less to do in your free time because you don’t have a husband or children to care for. In many ways, that has always bothered me. Some people will likely scoff, but if you were to ask the single women teachers on a school staff if they have ever felt this, I’d venture a guess that they have, but haven’t felt safe enough to say so out loud. Sometimes, the single women teachers are the canaries in the educational coal mine, and they might be the most easily sacrificed and least supported…

Of course, every profession is tied to gathering information and reporting on it, in some way. This is, I suppose, part of how we build knowledge. But…and this is a worry…it is not the only way we should build knowledge for ourselves, or–more importantly–how we ought to build knowledge for our children. It’s the worst thing, to see a child who struggles with anxiety, have to worry about passing a standardized test, and who equates that one day’s writing of a test to their well-being and sense of self-confidence. I can easily say, too, that I’ve seen many young writers not pass the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test (OSSLT) because of anxiety rather than because of their lack of literacy skills. And, to be honest, I’ve seen students pass that same test when I’ve wondered how that’s happened because they’ve struggled with literacy over four years in a classroom. Mostly, though, I’ve always wondered why kids wouldn’t be considered literate after being in our Ontario school system for twelve years of formal lessons. What’s forgotten is that children–even in their teens–are still just kids. (I’m still uncertain and awkward at 49 and, though I don’t have kids of my own, I’ve known enough over the years to know that they are wonderful and vulnerable and so full of potential. I have always hated the day when they get their results, to see faces crumble and to know what that does to a person’s heart, from the inside out. After all, anyone’s who has felt bullied or a bit of an outcast in high school will tell you that those things are memories that linger into adulthood…)

Although it may seem too cliche to those who don’t teach, it’s actually very true that teachers see the children they teach (from kindergarten up to Grade 12) as ‘their kids.’ After a long period of time in the classroom, I’m lucky to have stayed in touch with many of my previous students. Now, the ones that I taught in my first few years in the classroom are adults, in their late 30s, with families and children of their own. That they want to stay in touch makes me feel honoured to have been with them for some part of their youth. They only ever taught me so many important lessons. For me, as a teacher, the knowledge of English literature that I have shared in my classroom–and especially my love of poetry–has been such a small part of my own learning as a human being. My greatest teachers have only ever been my students. (And I’ll always love and miss two students of mine who died much too young…Jordan and Deidre…because they are with me in my heart and mind always.)

Here’s what I know.

Since I started in education back in 2000, things have changed. Teachers and kids are more connected with technology. This is both good and bad. Assistive technology has made classrooms accessible for kids, and this is definitely good. Wireless internet hubs have helped educators connect in ways that just weren’t possible when I was a high school student in the early 80s. That you can link up with a teacher in another part of the country, or the world, or that you can stream in a university professor or a published author for part of a lesson, is magic. Cell phones…have changed the game of teaching forever. That’s a whole other blog post, and someone else can take up that challenge. It only ever exhausted me. That children’s attention spans have shortened changes the way you work in a classroom, and changes the way you teach, and changes the way kids learn, and–in turn–how they read and process information. It’s also changed the way they perceive themselves in terms of their identity because of how they consume and process mass media (body image and notions of ‘beauty’, for instance, is a big one for girls), and in terms of how their minds work. The cell phones that might have initially seemed to have been a help in a classroom have now become a real addiction both inside and outside of schools. Of course, I’ve witnessed amazing things with technology in the classroom, so I’m not against its advancement, but I’m always wondering what’s been lost as one fad in society or education gathers precedence over another.

The arts in schools, something I’m a passionate supporter of, has been–quite simply–decimated since 2000. Music, visual arts, creative writing, and drama classes have all been cut in Ontario schools in recent years. If you look to the province, you’ll see this echoed in the non-profit arts organizations, including the recent cuts to the Ontario Arts Council (OAC). Here’s the thing, though: cuts ripple. They aren’t always obvious to those who live and work outside of a system. A cut will happen in one place and then ripple down over the next two years. So, for example, a cut at the OAC will result in a great place like the Inkwell Workshops in Toronto not being able to offer as many free creative writing workshops to people struggling with mental health issues. That same cut will mean that Inkwell will need to petition writers from across Canada to donate money to publish a journal full of beautiful and powerful pieces of writing written by mental health survivors. In the same way, cuts to the arts in education mean fewer arts-based classes and teachers. These are the classes where kids can really sort out who they are, exploring how to express themselves in truly creative ways. Why, in God’s name, would you ever want to cut them? But…they are being cut in the most drastic of ways.

Who cares? I do. The teachers who work in the humanities streams do. And here’s why. Those classes are so key to mental health and well-being for our children. They offer places where kids can find and express themselves in thoughtful, creative, and artistic ways. They help them build people skills and compassion for themselves and others. The universities know this, and so leaders there are thankfully championing STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Arts and Mathematics) programming that will then reach down into the secondary and elementary education systems to encourage that cross-curricular weaving of ideas. This sort of programming encourages experiential learning, collaboration, and working through the creative process. It’s meta-cognitive and higher level thinking. And it’s creative. But, still, the arts are being cut in Ontario’s schools. The classes that used to be full of kids blowing into French horns and dressing up in costumes and splattering paint around are less and less sacred, and those teachers have to fight more and more vocally to defend the worth of their programs. They have to fight for their jobs, and they have to fight for the kids who are in classrooms now, and for those who aren’t even there yet. Teachers, you see, teach the kids in front of them, but are always thinking of those who are yet to arrive. Education evolves, and teachers evolve and adapt, but sometimes the government doesn’t know what it means to be a teacher, or a student for that matter.

Since I began in 2000, there has been a sharp increase in children with mental health issues. Somewhere along the way, there were more children having panic attacks, self-harming by cutting their arms and legs, and dealing with depression. There were more children struggling with eating disorders and their own sense of identity. There was, to be honest, a greater sense of kids being under great pressure both at home and at school. (Make no mistake: perceived pressure is real pressure to any human being, so it affects kids in an even more intense way than it does adults). It is, I think, a reflection of our society. People live fast and fragmented lives. People are less likely to get outside and be in the natural world. Families are more dynamic, and are more apt to shift and change. People don’t stay married. Divorce is more common, and a lot of people would say kids are stressed because of that. To be honest, I’ve also seen kids, though, who do better after a divorce, who are calmer being outside of a too-tense home environment, so it’s hard to say if that old stereotype is even true anymore. And, too, I’ve seen kids in the most stable of homes crumble and fall apart in the most heart wrenching of ways. Each child is different, and each case is different. Now, we have social workers in schools to help students. The work of Guidance counsellors has burgeoned, and classroom teachers are called upon to sometimes be more like social workers than teachers–even if they don’t have that same training. My worst fear was always that I would say something, do something, that might actually cause a student harm because I didn’t have the background training if they were dealing with childhood trauma issues or mental health issues. Sometimes…you can try to help and do harm without meaning to…with words.

Since I began in 2000, the stresses, demands, and expectations placed on teachers themselves have changed. There has been a rising awareness of how to support kids with mental health issues, but teacher burn-out is also an area that no one really wants to talk about. You can put up posters to raise awareness of mental health for students, but the ones who care for them every day in a classroom also need to be supported. I don’t think school boards in this province do that very well, but I don’t think society deals with mental health issues very well either, so this doesn’t surprise me at all. The stigma of mental health will always be present in certain places, and the people who say it doesn’t exist probably haven’t had to deal with mental health challenges, and likely don’t really want to…if we’re all honest about it.

These strikes in Ontario of late aren’t about money. People who don’t teach will always say that they are. They will always say that teachers complain too much, that they’re greedy, and that they have summers off, and that they leave work at 3pm every day. What they don’t know is that a twelve-month salary is spread out over a ten month period. What they don’t know is that teachers take home massive bags of marking every night and that weekends don’t really exist. What they don’t know is that teachers sometimes answer the phone at work to be sweared at and berated by an irate parent who thinks that an 85% grade on a senior essay is ‘shit’ and that you’re out to get their kid. What they don’t know is that teachers worry about their kids at night, and that teachers will sit at lunch in classrooms with kids who struggle and who just want a quiet place to feel safe and cared for. What they don’t know is that teachers didn’t choose to be teachers for money. They choose to teach because they love kids, and they love learning, and they really believe that children are the future of the world. You see, I think, to be honest, teachers are some of the most idealistic and hopeful people I’ve known and met in my time on the planet.

When I began, all of those years ago, in my early 30s, it seemed like people didn’t hate teachers. They didn’t vilify teachers. Now, that’s all changed. It really seems that people hate teachers, and are more and more apt to say that out loud. I often wonder why. Anyone who wants to be a teacher–who feels so called to be–can become a teacher. It means a four year undergraduate degree, with specializations if you want to teach at the secondary level. It means a fifth university year in a Bachelor of Education program, with time spent practicing teaching in schools in Ontario. It means spending money on  Additional Qualification courses in areas where you want to improve and diversify your qualifications. It means continual professional development because you care to offer the best to your students. But, mostly, it means that you are blessed to be a ‘guide on the side’ to thousands of Ontario children in the span of a career, kids who end up teaching you more than you could ever teach them…about life and living.

These strikes aren’t about money or salary increases, despite what the public might think. They’re about people who love kids enough to take verbal harassment from the public in order to fight for kids now, and especially for those children who will come along later. Cuts to boards and teaching staffs made in a willy-nilly, thoughtless fashion, and cuts made that will ripple to affect the most vulnerable and marginalized children in Ontario, are cruel and detrimental to kids.

Cuts to autism programs, and cuts to arts program, and cuts to the very important support staff members in schools, and cuts to teachers…all of these cuts will ripple. If you cut teacher jobs to save money, you end up with fewer teachers in schools and you end up with bigger classes. These bigger classes mean that a teacher may not be able to spend as much time with each child in a 75-minute period at the secondary level. They mean that kids will be stuffed into rows of desks that really shouldn’t be stuffed into a classroom that was built in the 1950s. They mean that kids might need to share textbooks and other resources. They mean that kids might study out-of-date literature by dead white guys because there isn’t a lot of money to buy new books.

If you mandate e-learning classes and say it’s all about teaching kids how to use technology–but you’re really just doing it to save money on hiring three-dimensional teachers in actual classrooms–you neglect to consider the variety of ways in which children learn, and sometimes you make those same students feel even more isolated and frustrated because they aren’t in a classroom with a supportive teacher to encourage them along. And, then, logically, you cause those students undue anxiety. You also don’t help children learn how to communicate with other humans in the real world. You see, we have, I think, lost the ability to be compassionate in a three-dimensional and very human way. Children still need to learn how to speak to one another, how to listen, how to read, how to be comfortable with being silent inside themselves, how to be alone, and how to think and question things carefully. If they are so full of anxiety that they can’t interact with other people outside of technology, then there’s something going wrong inside the system, and adults are the only ones to blame.

I’m outside of teaching right now, while I’m working on my writing, so what’s struck me with this series of protests is how much more vocal people are about how horrible teachers are. The parents who are vocally supportive are grand, and the people who used to be teachers and have since left for a variety of reasons, are equally vocal in positive ways. But…mostly…it’s got me to thinking of how vilified the profession has become since 2000. The demands of the career have only grown and grown, and while teachers have become more and more mindful of their students’ well-being, I often worry for the teacher friends I have who struggle with their own well-being and work-life balance.

This blog entry could go on forever, and I’m sure I’ll get nasty comments and emails for having written it…but some things need to be said.

This province…isn’t the province I grew up in. This government lacks in thought and compassion. It’s harder and colder, more heartless than any other I can recall. These days, it makes the Harris era look like a tea party, which is farcical. I’m not sure what I hope, but I’ll keep hoping. I know we need to speak up for all of the things we love and care about, even if we’re slandered and harassed for it now or later. I know when you believe in something–like the arts, and education, and health care–that you need to fight for it…

…for what happens…if we stop fighting for what brings light in a darkening world? Apathy isn’t the answer…

peace, friends.

k

 

 

You’ll know, as soon as you walk up the steps at the old Bell Mansion that you’re about to enter into a gallery full of colour, pattern, narrative, and beauty. Make no mistake: these are definitely not your grandmother’s quilts. They fill the walls of Galleries 1 & 2, pulling you along as you marvel at the artistry.

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Traditional foot selfie in Gallery 2, thinking that that blue on the wall is the loveliest shade.

The “art of quilting” is “the process of creating a quilt, or quilted object. There are three parts to a quilt: the fabric top, the batting in the middle (for warmth, obviously!), and the fabric backing. When these three layers are joined together with stitching, the piece becomes a quilt.” This is part of the information sheet that you’re given as you enter the gallery, and it’s truly helpful. You’ll learn about the difference between ‘piecing,’ ‘paper piecing,’ ‘fabric origami,’ ‘thread painting,’ ‘appliqué,’ ‘needle felting,’ and the ‘art of stitchery.’ So much work, so much detail, to create such beautiful pieces of art.

The wall at the top of the stairs, just before you enter Gallery 2, is filled with the names of the people who make up the Sudbury and District Quilting & Stitchery Guild. It’s a full block of names, most all of them women. What of it? Why have women, historically, been drawn to making quilts? I often think that it has to do with narrative thread, and with passing things down. Stories are often passed down through women in families, and the same is true of quilts and cross-stitched pieces that are inherited.

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“Fluttering Around Verona,” by Louise Henri, is one piece I loved because of the barn swallows and leaves. So lovely…

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“Conflagration,” by Marilyn Clulow, is a piece that speaks to the fires in California, and to the climate crisis and emergency that we’re experiencing globally.

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“Steampunk Julye,” by Carmen Huggins, is a work that makes you stop and look closely. (You can also see why the gallery attendant tells you—quietly but firmly when you first enter—that you can look, but “don’t touch the quilts!” It’s so tempting…especially when you’re a ‘toucher.’)

My paternal grandmother was an award-winning quilter back in the early part of the last century. I have one of her quilts, and my sister has the other. When I was growing up, she often spoke of us needing ‘hope chests,’ something which the women on the other side of my family–my mother’s side–never really dwelled on. Funny, how one side of a family can value marriage and an old fashioned dowry over a woman creating her own life. My father’s mother was someone who tended to her husband, a man who was tall and dominant in the house. He intimidated my father, and he was intimidating when we were little girls. My grandmother, then, mostly tried to make him happy. She cooked, cleaned, and made things. Mostly, she seemed more like a servant than a wife, but those were different times, and she was born to a farming family in Southwestern Ontario, in Park Hill, just outside of London. Those were definitely different times for women. . .

The quilts in The Art of Quilting are beyond the ones that my paternal grandmother used to stitch. Hers were traditional patterns. These build on those patterns, but springboard out into newer places and spaces. In the article “The labor of creativity: Women’s work, quilting, and the uncommodified life,” Debora J. Halbert, of the University of Hawaii writes of how quilting is “an area of creative work rich in tradition that demonstrates how ideas and inspiration flow between quilters as they share with each other, move to different parts of the country, and develop their own designs.” In Canada, there are places where quilting seems to have flourished. You only need to visit Mennonite towns in Ontario to see that the old art is alive and well in a traditional sense, and a visit to the East Coast of Canada will leave you drooling over which quilts you can imagine draping across a white bed in the depths of winter. No matter where women lived, in America or Canada, in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, or in Sudbury or the Ottawa Valley, they sewed and quilted. They made things. They created pieces of work that were practical, but also artistic. It may really have been one of the few ways that they could be creative and independent. . .

While she wasn’t the warmest person, my paternal grandmother was skilled at making quilts. My favourites, when I was little, were the ones with puffed up squares. The puffy quilts were made out of old shirts worn by people who had long since died, I knew.  This was slightly creepy, but those puff quilts kept you warm at night, when people turned down the furnace. If you grew up in a house with parents who watched the thermostat, as I did, then you learned to “put on an extra sweater,” or “bundle up under a quilt” with a hot cup of tea while you read a book. As those puff quilts began to fray and then rot over the years, I remember my grandfather putting them out overnight, to protect any fall vegetables from early frosts out in his gardens on Bancroft Drive, in the Minnow Lake area of Sudbury. Those older quilts died a slow death, being shoved into corners of the battered garage for the fall frosts. They ‘lived there’ through the winter, spring, and summer, only coming out in late September and early October to mind the vegetables.

The quilts that I’ve taken photos of are ones that spoke to me, but each person will find themselves drawn to particular colours or fabrics. I am always taken with the notion of origami, with how things are folded and composed. One of my earliest poems, in my early 20s, was all about origami. Funny, mostly because I’ve never really tried my hand at it, but I’ve watched people make origami in Windsor at Levigator Press, and I was amazed by the intricacy of it. The same thing happens to me when I look at the quilts that are on display in Sudbury this month. They are beautifully layered, with meaning and colour and texture.

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This one, “Memories of Estelle,” by Patti MacKinnon, has close to 1,000 hexagons in the centre! I mean, what are the odds? So beautiful to see them all up close…

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This is a close up shot of “Blue Lagoon,” by Natalie Ferguson. I love the patterning…and the repetition. It reminds me of what I do when I write poems, and of how certain lines or images echo in a work…

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This gorgeous piece is “Rosalie,” by Joan Chabot. This piece was inspired by a doily that Chabot’s grandmother, Rosalie, created. (Rosalie was born in 1877). I love this because blue is my favourite colour…and I think that doilies are fascinating things…so… 🙂

There’s no way to describe the beauty of the exhibit that’s on at the Art Gallery of Sudbury (AGS) this month. It runs until January 5, 2020, so people can take any visiting relatives to see the quilts. (A fond ‘shout out’ to Kelsey Gunn, a former student, whose little piece in honour of David Bowie made me smile this afternoon. You go, girl!)

I’d also like to say, as I always do at this time of year, that it’s a wise idea to think about becoming a member of the Art Gallery. It’s inexpensive, and it’s an important place in the city. I know some people will disagree. I know–when I see people driving madly for parking spots to see a Wolves game on a Friday night or Sunday afternoon downtown–that this town is slow to support the arts and cultural groups. It worries me more than I can say. Ask me, and I’ll tell you. I’ll wave my arms around, too, most likely. And people will say that we’re ‘just a mining town,’ and that ‘this is the way it will always be,’ but I’m hopeful that we can move forward with the arts and culture sector growing and flourishing, and not being forced to beg for extra dollars every year.

I’m looking forward to seeing the AGS and the library in one place, with light streaming in through windows, and with places for children to read and write. And, to be honest, I’m looking forward to a fully wheelchair accessible, modern art gallery that will have space to properly store all of its beautiful pieces from the permanent collection.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t love the old Bell place. I do. More than I can say. I think that building will need care after the AGS leaves it, too, when the time comes. We’ll need to be sure that it doesn’t get left behind, or destroyed, as so much of Sudbury’s historic architecture was thoughtlessly erased in the middle of the last century.

Before you leave the Gallery, do stop in and see the art that’s been produced from the children’s art classes. Those pieces are in Gallery 3, through a door and with a window that looks out over the back yard with its beautiful trees. My favourite pieces were seven-year-old Ava’s chalk pastel stars and hearts piece, aptly titled “Clouds & Stars;” Georgia’s gorgeous “Flower;” six-year-old Kiniw’s “Lava Deer;” thirteen-year-old John’s “Solitude;” ten-year-old Kamara Charlton’s oil pastel “Spooky town;” and Mia Reich’s sweet little piece titled “They’re not seagulls.” Of them all, though, I was most fond of “Unideer in the Sun”, by ten-year-old Zoe Hopkins, because…let’s face it…who doesn’t want to see a deer that has a unicorn horn? It’s sheer magic, that unideer, and I’d love to tell Zoe that in person, but this will have to suffice. (#unideersforever)

A little side note…

I’ll be taking a break from my blog–and minimizing my online presence on most of my social media platforms–through December and into mid-January. It’s not my best time of year, to be honest, and I find social media can sometimes make it more difficult than not, so I’ll wish you all a safe and happy holiday season with your families. I’m going to turtle in, read books, hang out with my dog, and write a lot. It’s been quite a busy year for me, and I’m so very thankful for all of the opportunities I’ve had with These Wings, and with launching it in various places across Canada.  Thanks to everyone for buying the book, and for reading it, and for mostly saying that you love it. That means a great deal to me!  🙂

If you need to get in touch for writing or reading purposes, or for freelance writing and editing requests, you can reach me through my more formal email address on my author website at http://www.kimfahner.com

I’ll see you in the new year.     🙂

peace,

k.

 

 

 

I’ve thought about writing this blog post for a few weeks now. My city has just put out a call for its next Poet Laureate. I am what I like to call–quietly–a ‘past Poet Laureate,’ but I’ve also heard the more officious ‘Poet Laureate Emeritus’ used in other places around Canada. Whatever you call us, after we’ve left the office of laureate–and as we continue on with our mostly quiet work of thinking about and writing poems–doesn’t really matter to me. I’m more thinking about why it’s crucial that these roles be defended and protected in North America these days. Here’s why…

‘Poets Laureate,’ as they’re properly called in the plural form, have been around for a very long time. The tradition finds its roots in England, but poets have been important since the beginning of time. In the Irish tradition, the seanachai would travel around the country and tell stories in the ‘courts’ of different chieftains. Stories, for all world cultures, carry power and help us–as humans–to pass down our traditions, beliefs, and humanity. Anyone who’s had a parent who read to them when they were little will remember the magic of sitting quietly with someone and listening with great anticipation. Poetry is magic.

So. England. Laureates go back to the 17th century, with John Dryden being named the first one in 1668. (One of my favourites, Tennyson, was a laureate for 42 years, during the reign of Queen Victoria. I can’t quite imagine that job…for 42 years!) Poets laureate have traditionally been appointed by governments, so you can’t just name yourself one simply because you feel you might have a kick ass sonnet in a shoebox under your bed. You need to have some publication credits. You need to show that you’ve taken the work of being a poet seriously. And you need to have a vision for what you’d like to do with the position, for how you can serve as an ambassador for the literary arts, and for your community, during (and after!) your time as poet laureate. There’s a sense of purpose, of responsibility, that definitely goes with the role. Perhaps that’s why some people are fearful of applying for it. I’m not sure…but I am sure of the fact that I want to talk about why I think it’s important for a city to have a Poet Laureate, and for emerging and established writers to consider applying, even if they’re a bit nervous…

This week, the City of Victoria, out in British Columbia, put out a call for a Youth Poet Laureate. This is something I’m very much in favour of as I met some dynamic young poets when I was laureate here in Sudbury from 2016-18. When I began to travel more in my work as laureate, and in promoting my book at the time, I met laureates from across Canada, and I soon found that I had made new friends who loved poetry as much as I did. It’s a fine group of people, ones who know that they speak and breathe poetry each and every day, and ones who do sacrifice their privacy to take on the role. That may have been the thing I didn’t really expect.

While I’m quite comfortable in being in public, in reading my work to large groups of people, I was surprised that I sort of found myself being recognized while out buying tomatoes at the grocery store, or tampons at the pharmacy. Neither of these things is really fantastic when your hair is a mess and you aren’t expecting to have someone ask if you’d want to write them a poem for their sister’s birthday next month. You become a public figure and–while you might have known that was part of the role, as an ambassador of arts and culture–you also really don’t know how it feels to put out the garbage and have a stranger talk to you while you’re in your skivvies and wearing a wild purple kimono. Those moments still happen for me, even though I’ve been out of the role for almost two years now.

So. Why bother? You might ask that question. And now I’ll tell you why.

In a world that is so very dark, the various arts (and I’ll include literary, dramatic, visual, musical, and theatrical in this grouping) are slivers of light that pierce the negativity. Each Poet Laureate around Canada is asked to propose a legacy project. I had many notions of what I’d do with my honorarium. I didn’t want the money itself, but I wanted to roll it into projects that I’d do around the community. My goal, I suppose, was to bring poetry into places where people wouldn’t normally expect to find it, and maybe make them reconsider their preconceived notions of what good poetry might do in a community.

For me, one of the projects that meant the most to me was bringing poetry into Health Sciences North, to the palliative care and oncology wings of the North Tower. Both of my parents had been in palliative care prior to their deaths, and I was surprised at how cold and sterile it felt to me. I only ever wished for art, and for words. There were always issues about where you could post a poem, or stanza, without it being unhygienic or too expensive. Working with Jessica Watts at the Greater Sudbury Public Library was my godsend, mostly because she always just nodded when I floated my ideas out towards her. When I started talking about putting poems on windows, and about my notion of how poetry helps us to see (and be) in the world in a different way, she seemed interested. We asked the previous three laureates to gather stanzas that spoke to hope, and to the landscape that we all love.

It took most of my two year term, but we got the poems into the hospital in the last few months of my time in the position. It made me cry. I could only just think of my dad, and how much time he and I had spent together talking in his rather bland palliative care room before he died. I wished he’d had a poem…but he never did. Going up to that floor to install the stanzas on the windows was the hardest thing I’d ever done, as I hadn’t been up there since he died in late December 2011. I hadn’t the fondest memories of that time, so it took every ounce of bravery I had to do it. I’m glad I had Jess alongside me, and my poetry-loving friend, Martin Lees, who works at the hospital, and who was so instrumental in helping me to make my dream of palliative care poems come true.

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IMG_5881.jpg IMG_5879.jpgIMG_5878.jpgIMG_5882.jpgTrying to get the right photo of Tom Leduc’s poem meant a strange bit of angling on the floor in the long-term care hallway. (His was sneakiest to photograph because it looked out onto a roof space and there was a silvered box on the roof outside.)

I also love the airport poems for the same reason. Any place where you have to wait can be a difficult place to be. Waiting of any sort is hard. It means you have to find a quiet place inside yourself, go inside and find the place where you know there isn’t much you can do but just ‘be still.’ My favourite things are the photos that people took of their little kids with the poems at the airport. One woman messaged me through my blog and said that she had memorized my stanza. She had moved away to British Columbia, but every time she came home to Sudbury, she loved to read my airport stanza about the trees and lakes. That she memorized my work…well…that makes me amazed. Still, and always, my favourite photos are of the little ones with the airport poems.

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My absolute favourite is courtesy of Gen Waszczylo, who took a photo of her grandson, Izaak, back two years ago.

Then there are the really ‘far out’ things, as my mum would’ve said: the invitation to represent the city at the Governor General’s Literary Awards at Rideau Hall in Ottawa in November 2017, and then the invitation to read at Laureate City in Ottawa that same week. There were the two lovely readings at Windsor’s Poetry at the Manor, which was organized by Marty Gervais, who ended up publishing my book of poems, Some Other Sky (Black Moss Press). And then, there was a glorious trip to Yellowknife and its Northwords Literary Festival in late spring of 2018, where I met new writer friends, with whom I still stay in touch. These are the ripples of having been laureate, and they’re the things I love. That I can travel and stay with fellow poets, and sit with them for a cup of tea and then have a chat about words, is a great gift to my life. I’m so grateful for it. I can’t even begin to tell you…how much that means. IMG_8347.jpg

I never went to prom in high school, so this was a big night…all dressed up at the Governor General’s Literary Awards, and chatting up writers whose work I love.

IMG_6805.jpgLaureate City in November 2017, with my cousins, David Ennis and Lisa Ennis, at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.

While I was still laureate, a small group of us managed to get Project Bookmark Canada to install a plaque honouring the work of local writer, and friend, Matt Heiti. Matt’s been my playwriting mentor since Fall 2015. 20180501GD11926.jpgIMG_8570.jpgIMG_8572.jpg

What I love about Project Bookmark is that it’s all about creating a tangible literary trail across Canada. It promotes local authors, and literacy, and weaving words into communities in new and unique ways. Again, I love it when words get onto walls where you might not expect to see them. The element of surprise is always magical…

And then there was The Rain Poetry Project…which I loved for its whimsy, but also for its power. Here’s one of my favourite little poems, with one of my favourite local poets, Ignatius Fay, down next to his poem at The Market downtown.

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After my time as laureate ended, the ripples continued rippling. That surprised me the most. I was invited to read in Calgary, where I got to reunite with three of my favourite people, all writers I’d met at my Banff workshop.

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Blurry photos in a Calgary pub with Monica Kidd, Emily Ursuliak, and Sandra McIntyre.

IMG_8871.jpgSeeing Great Slave Lake from the air, on the way to Yellowknife, and the way the ice breaking up reminded me of doing paper marbling at Levigator Press in Windsor last year. IMG_8988.jpgWorking with the magic kids at Sir John Franklin Secondary School in Yellowknife. June 2018. IMG_8936.jpgMeeting more magic kids in Fort Smith, NWT, with Terry Fallis. June 2018.

IMG_8929.jpgAnd speaking to more young writers at the college in Fort Smith, NWT. June 2018. IMG_9049.jpgMeeting the Great American Pelicans at the Rapids, Fort Smith, NWT. Thanks to Patti Kay Hamilton for the photo of me and Terry. June 2018. IMG_9050.jpgHiking down a hill with Terry. Worried about slipping into the water…which isn’t far out of frame. Fort Smith, NWT. June 2018.

 

IMG_9031.jpgNew and steadfast friends in Rebecca Hendry and Terry Fallis. Yellowknife, NWT. June 2018.

IMG_9040.jpgPatti Kay Hamilton…and me…at 11:30 at night in Yellowknife. The light…oh, the light in the sky! PK and I met at the Banff Centre in Spring 2016, when we both took part in Larry Hill’s historical fiction workshop.

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Meeting Kirby at the Detroit Book Fair in July 2018 brought me a new and amazing friend. She owns Knife Fork Book in Toronto, a poetry-only bookstore that I love and support.

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Reading at Knife Fork Book, from These Wings (Pedlar Press, 2019) in March 2019.

So. I posted a bunch of really amazing photos here, and I know I’m blessed to have gone to these places, to have been invited to read in such beautiful bookstores, and worked alongside other writers from across Canada. None of it would have happened, though, if I hadn’t applied to be laureate.

That’s a big statement, I know, but the doors of possibility that open to you if you’re lucky and blessed enough to be a poet laureate are many. The community of poets is a small, woven one throughout Canada, and it’s much tighter than people would imagine. Geography and its vast distances obviously mean that we mostly stay in touch via social media and email, but literary festivals and shared retreats and readings mean that we’ll see each other more often than people would imagine.

I know that when people see the call for Sudbury’s Poet Laureate, a number of local writers who are mostly poets at heart will flinch. They will say–to me, or to the other past laureates–“Look at all that you did! I can’t possibly do that!” but I also said that before I applied. I was the most reluctant of applicants back in the Fall of 2015. I was battling the dregs of a depression and a fierce bout of anxiety at work as a teacher, but I knew that I needed to commit myself in a new way to my writing. The honour of being laureate, and the responsibility, and the gift that it has given to me since, has almost completely been rooted in the amazing people I have met. My work with young poets has been the most rewarding thing. When I think back to when I started to write in high school, there really wasn’t a person who knew what I was about, or how to encourage me. I had a Grade 8 teacher in Tony Armstrong, at Pius XII, as well as an OAC teacher in Rick Carter at Marymount College, but outside of those two, I didn’t have writers in my life to read my work and offer constructive feedback until I worked with Timothy Findley through the Humber School for Writers in my late 20s.

We have so many talented young poets and creative writers in Sudbury. They are likely the way I was back then: shy, a bit uncertain, likely very much cerebral and in their heads, artistic, and maybe just feeling out of sorts within their schools. I’m hoping that their teachers are encouraging them to continue writing creatively. The Ontario curriculum doesn’t allow for much creativity, sadly, as it’s packed to the gills with dense information, and leaves little time for creative expression. I know there are great English teachers in our public and Catholic school systems. I hope some of those writers of theirs will find a mentor who writes, and who will encourage them to continue onward. I wish I’d known a ‘real writer’ when I was their age…it would have helped me a great deal.

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Meeting with the lunchtime Poetry Club at Lo-Ellen Secondary School in January 2019, talking about ekphrastic poetry with Poetry in Voice Canada.

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Hanging out with the Writers’ Craft students at St. Benedict’s in March 2019, talking about eco-poetry and the SciArt Poetry Contest.

A poet laureate can do so much, if they let themselves be open to the possibilities of partnership and creative collaboration. While the initial response to the call for applicants to the role might be one of dread and a bit of nervousness, I’d challenge local poets to seriously think about what they might offer the role, and the City and its citizens. You can make of it what you want, and you aren’t limited by what previous laureates have done or not done. The canvas is yours alone to paint.

I believe that poetry is personal and political. I also believe that we are here for a purpose, and only for a very short time. I’ve said it before here, in many blog entries, but I’m constantly mindful of the fact that the first part of my life wasn’t always light.  A few close friends know that it was much darker than I’d imagined. The last three years of my life have been about getting healthier, about focusing on my written work, and about trying to find a way to channel creativity in a positive way into my community. We live in a beautiful place, I think, and it can only become more vibrant and beautiful if we invest in its future. It isn’t really for us, and it really shouldn’t be, if you ask me. It’s about what we want to sculpt it into for those generations who will come after us. The arts and culture sector needs to be fed, made healthy, encouraged, and the role of Poet Laureate is one vital piece that can help do that. Yes, it’s a volunteer commitment, and yes, it is a lot of work, but I can also say–without any reservations–that it is the most amazing thing that has ever happened to me. Sometimes, you know, you take a calculated risk…you follow your heart, even if your head is a bit wary. (It might be a bit like falling into love…or moving towns…or shifting careers…or taking up a new hobby…and taking that sort of hopeful risk, if you’re looking for an analogy…)

If you’d like to think about applying, please see the call below and check to see if your literary c.v. might match up with the requirements for the position.

The short description is here, on the City’s website:

“Applicants for the position of Poet Laureate must be a published poet, recognized for their achievements, and active in the cultural and literary community. Additional requirements include demonstrated leadership skills, public speaking ability and flexibility to carry out all duties required of the position in a manner that reflects English, French or Indigenous heritage.”

The URL with the link to the application form can be found here:

http://www.sudburylibraries.ca/en/booksmuchmore/poet-laureate-call-out.asp

If you have any questions, just reach out. There are at least five laureates who love poetry enough to sit and chat with you. Trust me on this!

peace,

k.

There are two exhibitions on at the Art Gallery of Sudbury right now. One features the work of Dennis Geden, a veteran North Bay visual artist. There are ten oil paintings, completed within the last ten years. They are portraits that focus on what the gallery calls ‘the stories of arcane figures, historical and contemporary.’ What I like, mostly, is that I’ve always been drawn to the faces and eyes of Geden’s people. They have, when I first volunteered and worked at the gallery back in the late 1990s, sort of entranced me. They look out at you (or not, depending on the painting) with their sculpted faces and their haunting eyes. I also really liked that there were cell phones in the paintings. It seemed, to me, quite timely, given the state of our western society. What I love about Geden’s work, though, is that, when you look at his paintings, you find yourself drawn in close, as if you might step right inside the canvas and enter into a different world.

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Rising the Black Dogs, 2010.

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Sea Onion with Botanist, 2019.

The second exhibit, though, is my favourite right now. It’s Joshua Mangeshig Pawis-Steckley’s Oshkimaadiziig: The New People, and it’s in Gallery 2, upstairs. I’m a fan of the Woodland School of artists. Some of my favourites are Daphne Odjig, Alex Janvier, and Norval Morrisseau. I’ve always been entranced by the work of Leland Bell and James Simon. (I once stood in Simon’s art studio on Wikwemikong, waiting while he ran into town for something. His wife let me in there, so no one needs to think I broke in illegally or anything. He and I never actually met, though, because I felt too weird, waiting in an artist’s studio for quite a while and feeling as if I were intruding on his personal and very private creative space, so I left after a bit.)

 

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Many people cite Norval Morrisseau as the founder of the Woodland School of Art. You can see his work at the McMichael Gallery in Kleinburg, Ontario. I was there last week, so I had the pleasure of going up to that loft gallery and being alone with his wonderful spirit fish. Artists who fall into the category of the Woodland School often tend to paint with bright colours, bold lines, and a sort of ‘x-ray style’ of vision that looks inside the people, plants, animals, and landscapes that are the focus of the work. Most often, the style of Woodlands Art is such that Anishinaabeg stories are translated to canvas. These paintings are beautiful to see in person, especially if you can go on your own, or maybe just go with one friend who is also fairly quiet. You need to sit down right in front of a piece and let it sink into your heart and mind. Chatter would disrupt the effect.

Oshkimaadiziig: The New People/Le nouveau peuple is a stunning exhibit. It has a sacred essence. Based on the teachings of the The Seven Fires Prophecies, Joshua Mangeshig Pawis-Steckley’s paintings embody the various prophecies, leaving the viewer to consider the scope of history as well as the forecast of where the prophecies lead.

In a release, Pawis-Steckley wrote of his work: “(The prophecies) speak of the poisoning of the Indigenous spirit and our lands, and our resiliency to survive and overcome it. They speak of restoring relations between Indigenous settler society. They also educate Anishinaabeg youth on the history of the great Anishinaabeg migration from the mouth of the Saint Lawrence River over to the land surrounding the Great Lakes.” Pawis-Steckley is from the community of Wasauksing First Nation, but now lives in British Columbia. He’s a graduate of the graphic design program at Nova Scotia Community College in Halifax and has been exhibiting his work across Canada since 2015. IMG_2593.jpg

The Great Migration, The Third Fire.

The prophecy of The Third Fire speaks of how a ‘light skinned race’ arrives on Turtle Island. This is the time of colonization. “Beware if the light skinned race comes wearing the face of death. You must be careful because the face of brotherhood and the face of death look very much alike. . .If they are indeed your brothers, let them prove it. Do not accept them in total trust. You shall know that the face they wear is one of death if the rivers run with poison and fish become unfit to eat.”

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Deceit, The Fifth Fire.

As a settler, I can only say that viewing Pawis-Steckley’s work is a powerfully emotional experience if you open yourself up to it. You should, I think. Better to be open than closed off your whole life, and experiencing art that makes you think and question what you’ve been taught in the traditional school system is the best way for you to grow. Part of the legacy of the Truth and Reconciliation work is that settlers learn the truth about Canada’s history, that we make ourselves aware of what this country’s true history is, even if it makes us uncomfortable at times. There are references in the artwork to colonization, to illness and pollution, to friendship and to warfare, to the brutality and horror of the residential schools, and to the loss of Indigenous women who are missing and murdered.

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The New People, The Seventh Fire.

 

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The resurgence comes in the prophecy of  The Seventh Fire, when the New People emerge.  In The Eighth Fire, there is some hope offered. If the light skinned race chooses the right road–between a choice of two roads–then the Seventh Fire will light the Eighth Fire, which is one of peace, love, brotherhood, and sisterhood. “If the light skinned race makes the wrong choice of the roads, then the destruction which they brought with them in coming to this country will come back at them and cause much suffering and death to all the Earth’s people.”  These are the words approved by Pawis-Steckley in the exhibition booklet. They aren’t mine, and nor should they be.

What I was left with, after viewing the Pawis-Steckley exhibit, was a sense of awe and gratitude, actually. I’m so glad that the Art Gallery of Sudbury has this exhibit up in Gallery 2. The show runs until November 10th, so people in Sudbury and the Northeast part of the province should really try and see it. It’s thought provoking and stunning.

If you know you don’t know enough about Canada’s history, I’d suggest you go to see this exhibit. Take your children, and take your parents and grandparents. Then, on Thursday night, see if there are any tickets left to hear Justice Murray Sinclair at the Fraser Auditorium at Laurentian University. The only way we can begin to try to understand how we can all live together respectfully is to be open to listening to the teachers who present themselves to us at the right time. In this case, in this particular week, I am deeply thankful to Joshua Mangeshig Pawis-Steckley and Justice Sinclair for being my teachers…and for letting me listen.

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As always, as a member of the Art Gallery, I want to suggest that, if you aren’t a member yet, you should think seriously about becoming one. You get little perks at the Gallery and around town, and they’re all outlined on the website, but really it’s important that we support these arts and cultural institutions in our town. For me, art is part of life on a daily basis. A day without a piece of visual art would be a day without breath, almost. (Melodramatic, I’m sure some would think, but for me, it’s absolutely true.) You can check out the Art Gallery website at http://www.artgalleryofsudbury.myshopify.com, but you can also follow their good work on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, too.

peace,

k.

 

 

I have loved Maud Lewis’s work since I was young. Somewhere, somehow, I remember seeing her bright colours and whimsical scenes. Might’ve been on an art calendar at Coles, or in a pile of art books in a bargain bin. I remember hearing, or learning, that she was a Nova Scotia painter, and that she was sometimes referred to as “Canada’s Grandma Moses.” That she charged $5 for her paintings back in 1965 astounds me. If she could see those paintings of hers now, as I did yesterday morning at the McMichael Gallery, she might be shocked beyond all belief. She didn’t want to be greedy, but she actually undersold the beauty of her gift.

Now, in the gallery gift shop, you can buy Maud Lewis mugs, key chains, art cards, and books. Everything, all of her work, is bright and lively, without shadows. The irony is that she had a difficult life, living in poverty and with serious physical challenges, with many shadows. In that way, she reminds me of so many women artists (literary ones, too) throughout history. She sold her work from her tiny house, often times with the paint still wet, for $5 a painting. Imagine that. Imagine her selling those little pieces for $5, and worrying that $10 would be too much to ask. She made herself smaller than she needed to, but so much of that was due to her life experiences.

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Still, then she made her life brighter than ever by painting every inch of her home with her husband, Everett. He was someone who interests me. He didn’t like that she had her own mind, that she spoke it, and he was recorded once–in an old 1965 documentary–saying that she really ought to pay heed to his ideas, but she never did, and somehow they worked as a couple. Maybe it was because she was a commodity for him, and there are stories about how he buried the money she made from the paintings in jam jars around the property. He didn’t trust banks, and he likely didn’t trust her. Today, I wonder…would she have stayed with him. I kind of hope she wouldn’t, to be honest, but I also can see how he helped her to paint and how he afforded her that space, even if it was one that was rooted in poverty.

Maud was born in 1901, but she said she was born in 1903. Her childhood was purported to be a ‘happy period,’ but she was mercilessly teased because of the way she looked. Some people said she had been stricken by polio, but she actually had juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. She disliked what she thought of as a deformed chin, and often hid her hands in photos, tucking them into her elbows. Then, they called it ‘teasing,’ but now we would recognize it as bullying, pure and simple. The videos and photos of her, when she lived in the tiny house with Everett, show a tiny woman who seemed frail and fragile. She never really went beyond her part of Nova Scotia. She didn’t care to. She had Everett. She had her paints and brushes. She travelled through the paintings she made. She escaped into them.

If you’ve seen the film Maudie, with Ethan Hawke as Everett Lewis, and with Sally Hawkins as Maud, it’s rather a romanticized version of their relationship. If you didn’t know the story, you’d think it was a pure love story. She was thirty-seven and he was forty-four. She was an old maid by most people’s standards. Everett was looking for a housekeeper. He found a wife. Some stories say that he was terribly controlling. The film version doesn’t show that, of course, because Hollywood likes “biographical romantic dramas.’ After her parents died, Maud went to live with an aunt, which is how she came to meet Everett.

Who is to say what love looks like, from the inside of a relationship, or from the outside? Everett knew Maud had her own mind, even if he didn’t really like it all of the time. They say he was the person who bought her the paint brushes and encouraged her to paint. Some would say he did this because she began to make money, but he did this before she was famous. Maud and Everett were what people in the area called ‘characters.’ I think Everett met Maud and knew that he had been living in a world that was painted grey. Maud brought him colour and light. She literally painted every surface of that little house. When her health got worse, Everett cared for her. There was, I think, some sort of love there, not in a romantic sweeping orchestral way that Hollywood would prefer, but in the way he accepted her as she was, and in the way she accepted him as he was, and in the way he cared for her near the end of her life.

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Despite what people say about Everett, he’s usually in quite a few of her paintings. You can tell him by the outfit and the specific sort of hat that he liked to wear. Maud must’ve held him in high regard, to include him in so many paintings.

 

I’m likely not qualified to speak about how relationships work because I’ve been on my own for quite some time now…but as a writer, I’m fascinated by other people’s relationships. Often, what they look like on the outside (to the world beyond a house and its walls) isn’t what they are on the inside. All of that ‘surface and underneath’ stuff intrigues me, as an observer and writer, as someone who watches how people work. This fascination works its way into my plays, novels, and short stories more than into the poems, most likely because I’m working with characters rather than stanzas. It’s also a fascination because I think of my parents’ marriage and have questions about how it worked, or didn’t. Maud and Everett intrigue me, mostly I think, because they were thought to be ‘odd’ by most of the people around. How are they ‘odd’ when couples like Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, or Georgia O’Keefe and Alfred Stieglitz, or Mary and Christopher Pratt were often perceived merely as ‘eccentric’ or ‘artistic.’ Put an artist with an artist, and chaos ensues. None of these pairings were without anger or passion. It may speak to how artists shouldn’t be with artists, even though some would think it smart. Maybe why Maud and Everett worked was because they were different. However it worked, it did.

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What I love about Maud is this: she was a survivor. She faced the loss of her parents and her erstwhile brother, and then went to live with an aunt. She faced physical hardship and often ignored pain in her hands and body when she painted. She painted with a passion that I understand. When something comes through you, creatively, you’re hard pressed to stop it, and you do what you do because there’s nothing else for it. I love that Maud–despite her poor health, as well as living in poverty–painted such beautiful things of the world she saw around her. She didn’t need to go far; she only needed to watch, to observe, to see what she saw, and then paint it. I don’t like the notion that her work is simplistic. For me, I guess, I see it as an art that is pure, without smoke and mirrors. She rose above her life’s challenges and found her freedom and joy in the art she created. That is inspiring. IMG_2479.jpeg

Maud Lewis painted shutters for people in the area where she lived. Of all the things at the McMichael exhibit, I loved these best. Her common motifs are birds, butterflies, flowers, oxen, and cats.

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Sally Hawkins as Maud Lewis in the film “Maudie.”

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What I love most about Maud, though, is her smile and spirit. You wouldn’t know she was living in a tiny house, with a challenging husband who might have tried her patience more often than she would have liked. You wouldn’t guess that she was missing anything in her life. She loved creating art. You can see it in her eyes and smile. That, to me, is one more reason to love Maud…

I’m not an art historian or anything fancy schmancy like that, but if you want to see an exhibit that will touch your heart deeply, then this is the one for you. It’s on at the McMichael until Jan 6, 2020.

If you go, take a deep breath, let the colour inside, and then feel Maud’s work light you up. She was a lighthouse. If you ask me, she still is…

peace,

k.