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There will be plenty of voices out there these days, and every single one will have a different opinion about what’s been happening to the university that most Sudburians have known for all of our lives. Now, there are some professors who have come and gone, just stopping by on their way through town, but there are also some who’ve decided to plant themselves and fashion lives here. For those of us who were born here…well…the university is the quiet heart of the community that we’ve maybe sometimes taken for granted. It’s an obvious landmark on the shore of Ramsey Lake. It’s been here since 1968, but not in the way we know or recognize now. I was born on November 29, 1970. Laurentian is two years older than me. Ancient, but not. Still young. Still evolving and changing….especially now.

I often spend mornings walking the boardwalk, and I love watching the sunrise…but I always look towards the silhouette of Laurentian…because…for me…it’s a poem and a painting.

If you’re a Sudburian, if you’re ‘basin born’ as I say in my hospital window poem, it’s likely you might have attended Laurentian University. A lot of Sudburians, and plenty of Northern Ontario folks–people who are proud members of the Laurentian University Alumni Association–have kids and grandkids who are now students there. The building itself has been part of my family’s landscape for decades. Two of my uncles, Peter Ennis and Jeno Tihanyi, were instrumental in bringing accolades and helping to build Laurentian’s reputation. I miss them terribly, and I’m proud of both of them in equal measure. I am proud to be their niece. I remember how much of their lives they gave up to their students, their programs, and to fighting passionately for whatever they thought would make Laurentian a better place in the earlier days. They didn’t think of it as a “just now” place to work, but they loved it fiercely. It was my uncle, Peter, who coined the term “Pride and Tradition.” I don’t know if it’s still painted on the wall of the gym in the Ben Avery Building, but it was when I spent a lot of time there, in my under-10s, teens, and 20s, watching his basketball games on Saturday nights from the bleachers.

So. I am going to tell you about my love story with Laurentian, and why I know we need to fight for it here in Sudbury and in the North. There are enough people taking the past and current administration to task, and there are definitely certain people who should be held accountable, but none of it seems very clear to me right now. That will come out as they investigate it all, I’m sure. I’ve read the media coverage carefully. I have. But, mostly, I’ve been grieving the news of what’s been happening, because it makes me angry. Someone on Twitter started speaking poorly of Sudbury and of Northern Ontario, blaming LU’s insolvency on how horrible it must be to live in this part of the world, which I find ridiculously ignorant. When I was Poet Laureate, I found myself constantly trying to tell people–while I was in other places at literary events and book launches around the country–that Sudbury was no longer the Sudbury of the moon landing story (which is so stale and overdone now, anyway, really). We have evolved. Thank goodness we haven’t stayed the same. We’ve grown…and that’s been difficult, too. It always is…isn’t it?

For just a bit here…I want to tell you why I love Laurentian University…and why I know we need to fight for it.

I grew up at Laurentian. I spent a lot of time watching my cousins at swim meets, and being transfixed by how worked up my uncle, Jeno, could get on the pool deck when he was coaching. I mostly was an overweight, bookish girl, so I always sat up in the gallery with a book…but I looked up to see what was going on. I never liked the smell of chlorine, and I didn’t like being in a bathing suit because I was always bullied as a kid for being overweight. Girls, in particular, can be really cruel to girls who are overweight. I know this from personal experience. Still, I did learn to swim there. How could I not? My uncle ran the pool. I did my various levels of swimming, so some of you will be old enough to remember the badges we got with each level. (Who really knows where you were supposed to ‘sew them on’? I’m still trying to figure out that one!) It’s the pool where I learned to dog paddle, flutter kick, and do a shitty front crawl. It is also where I was terrified when they made us go up to the first step on the diving tower. I have always been terrified of heights. I still am. (I freeze on castle battlements…and sometimes I freak out while on escalators if someone is too close to me…but that’s a whole other blog). That the Jeno Tihanyi Olympic Gold Pool has been closed for a lot of this year is more than frustrating, too. Again, I can imagine what my uncle would have had to say about that. He knew that physical activity was key to a good and rewarding life. It was part of balancing mind with body. Trust me when I tell you that he would not have minced his words. He was a feisty Hungarian-Canadian. (Still…he could tell the most fascinating stories of having to leave Hungary as a young man, and how he made his way here afterwards…and he had the best laugh…and was the consummate gentleman went it came to putting women’s coats on after family parties…and helping us up the Tihanyi driveway onto Ramsey Lake Road. I recall a number of times when he would say, when I was driving my first car in my 20s, “Kim…you want to go back a bit, and then get up some speed, and keep it steady…to get over that icy patch and then up the hill.” Most often, he would have to take my place in the car and I would trundle up the driveway…after he navigated the winter mess. That hill…was a winter nightmare.)

My uncle, Jeno, with Sasa (Alex) Baumann, who won a gold medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics.

It was so amazing to see the pool named after Jeno. Here’s my aunt, Cathy Tihanyi (my mum’s sister) and Sasa Baumann.

The fondest memories I have of the Ben Avery, though, is of hanging out with my sister, Stacy, and my cousins, Liam and Kelly, and Miklos, Sacha, and Andrey at basketball games. Liam and I were the oldest…but the crew of us just tumbled around the Ben Avery like real tumbleweeds on Saturday nights when we were younger. I remember games of hide and seek, and of running races up and down the hallways outside my uncles’ office doors. We razzed our respective parents for change, so that we could stock up on chips, chocolate, and pop from the vending machines in the basement at halftime. In our teens and 20s, we were all much better behaved, thank God. (We were likely just trying to look cooler…but were still wild inside…and some of us had weird asymmetrical haircuts.)

I remember watching Peter’s basketball games more carefully then. Mostly…I can remember the love and passion that Peter brought to every game. I was so proud to have him as my uncle. (This was the same guy who used to steal pickles and black olives from Gram’s dinner table and then shush me because he didn’t want Gram Ennis catching him snacking.) Saturday nights were fast suppers at home, and Mum and Dad would bundle us into the van. I remember Gram Ennis being at the games and she was–I think–one of her son’s biggest fans. If you sat next to her in the bleachers, you could watch her eyes anxiously follow the girls up and down the court. She would yell out with the rest of us. My great aunts would sometimes come, too, especially when it got to playoffs. See…we all loved Peter a lot…and we loved seeing the Lady Vees do well. We all sat together. We all shouted “DEFENCE! DEFENCE!” and clapped and cheered at the right parts of the game. We were a big Irish family. We weren’t quiet…then. I miss those days…for all of those people who were there then, and who aren’t now.

When Peter got sick with cancer, he kept coaching. He took Team Canada to the Olympics in Atlanta in 1996. He did that when he was very, very ill. He chose to live right until the end of his life, and he was the person who taught me the most about how to live life fully. Funny how you wish you could tell someone that, but then they’ve gone and you can’t. But he did that for me. And I miss him a lot. More than I can say, actually…but that’s a whole other blog, too…where I could just tell you why I loved Pete so much. So many reasons. He was the kindest, funniest, most compassionate, and warmest of uncles. (This is not to disparage my other uncles…it’s just that Peter was a bit of magic…and if you knew him, you know exactly what I mean…and there’s sometimes no way to explain why a person is just so special. You just know they’re magic, right? He was that kind of a lighthouse. You can see it here…in the joy he had when he won a game. He was happy for his players, for his coaches, for his family, and for Laurentian University. This photograph, to me, is the epitome of what passion…and joy…is about. I’m still so proud of him….)

Both of my uncles gave their lives to Laurentian. Both worked there up until they were very ill with cancer. They were passionate, in different ways, and they lived their sports. When I heard the news about Laurentian, I cried. I did. You see, these two men gave so much of themselves to help build it. And they are just two of hundreds of professors and coaches who built it up from a tiny Northern university to a world respected institution. So many people…so many Northerners…have given their lives to this university.

Now. For me…I have much to thank Laurentian for…so where to begin:

It was where I met my first boyfriend. I was a late bloomer. I lost some weight in first year and then I started to feel better about myself. I met that boy at the Art Gallery of Sudbury in third year. He was in the French section of an Art History class, and I was in the English section. Dr. Henry Best taught both of them. They were separate classes, held on different days and at different times. We met on a field trip to the Art Gallery. I was sneaky. I thought he was funny and cute…and so, after he left, I went back a few days later to see if I could find his name in the guest book. I found it. I had a bit of a crush. Then, there was a field trip to Toronto, to see the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Gardiner Museum, and–on the way home, the place I would come to love for life–the McMichael Gallery in Kleinberg. That first boyfriend…well…we spent a lot of time together on that Toronto trip…talking and laughing. By the time we got home to Sudbury a few days later, I was smitten. That relationship didn’t last, but it was Laurentian that brought me my first love. For a poet, that’s a big deal. A really big deal.

There were a couple of others I fancied, over my time there as an undergrad, but I won’t mention them here…because I’m sure they still live in Sudbury. The one who ended up knowing me best was a varsity swimmer on my uncle’s swim team, whom I met when I had a Celtic music show at CKLU in my late 20s. That’s a whole other blog…that one…but suffice it to say that you need to mind young men who are tall, handsome, athletic, and who come from Nova Scotia. They’re…a lot…for a poet in her 20s. Falling in love with men who don’t mind taking spontaneous road trips with me to other cities (and provinces!)…is a problem I’ve had my whole life. If they’re willing to let me drive wherever I want to go…at the drop of a hat…in the dead of night…well…Jesus…Laurentian has afforded me those magical memories, too. Some of them are poems in books…

What I am most grateful for, though, is the English Department. I want to thank a few of those English professors, including Laurie Steven, Marilyn Orr, Tom Gerry, and Shannon Hengen, who were the most formative people for me, as a blossoming young poet. It was in Laurie’s 3rd year Modern Poetry class that I started to fall for the modern poets. What? I had studied very little poetry in high school, which is something I try to remedy in my work as a high school English teacher now. I came to love Shakespeare most deeply at Laurentian. That’s also where I met William Butler Yeats in an intense way, along with Seamus Heaney. I would end up writing my undergrad thesis on Yeats’s faery poems, and the Irish Renaissance. Then, I’d move along to Carleton University in Ottawa to do my Master’s thesis on the bog poems of Seamus Heaney, in relation to The Troubles. I threw a bit of art into that MA thesis, too, so I figure I’ve always been a bit ekphrastic. I can thank Laurentian for that, too…because when I was back in Dr. Best’s class, I volunteered at the Laurentian University Museum and Art Centre (LUMAC). It would become The Art Gallery of Sudbury (AGS) later, when I worked there for a while back in 1997. So, you see…I can thank Laurentian for my love of English, of poetry, of art, and of late Friday night poetry readings in what was the ‘new’ student centre in the 1990s. I still remember the night we all gathered in that new lounge to watch the Quebec Referendum results roll in. I mean…that was historic…for the time.

People will be casting stones now about what’s happened…but I think it’s important to remember why a place like Laurentian University is important to you, if you’re a graduate. Ask yourself what it’s given to you, and what you’ve given back to it. For me, it’s been an anchor through a life that’s been challenging, to say the least. It gave me the words I hold so dear. Those words have carried me through depression…and a lot of loss. Those words…that grounding in literature…came from Laurentian. I’m never really lonely because I have my words…and the gift of writing was honed at Laurentian. It is, for me, the dearest place…

My undergrad degree gave me the grounding in English to go on and publish my first little chapbook, You Must Imagine The Cold Here, with Laurie Steven’s Your Scrivener Press, back in March 1997. We had that book launch at the Art Gallery, and we had an Irish band and a bit of ceili dancing. Mrs. Bell’s ghost was pleased, I think. When I was at Carleton University, in 1994-95, I met John Flood, who taught a course in how to research properly at the graduate level. He also was the publisher of Penumbra Press, which published my next two books, braille on water (2001) and The Narcoleptic Madonna (2012). I would end up publishing Some Other Sky (Black Moss Press, 2017), after I became Poet Laureate and met Marty Gervais in Windsor while reading at Poetry at the Manor. He knew I had a manuscript ready and asked to see it. All of this publishing stuff swirled through my life, and I’m sure that–from a distance–from the outside looking in, it looked as if I hadn’t worked very hard at all. But…my writing has always been my passion. I love words. I’m 50 now, and I’ve not stopped writing–in a really serious, focused way–since my early 20s. Guess where I was when that started? Sitting in those old lecture halls at Laurentian and lugging around a massive 4th year textbook of Literary Criticism essays…and sitting cross-legged between the stacks where the Irish lit books live…and soaking up Frankenstein, and To The Lighthouse, and The Mill on the Floss in a new way.

Too, my ability to work on strengthening my writing meant that I got to work with Timothy Findley through the Humber School for Writers in the late 1990s, as an emerging writer. He was, for me, the first person who encouraged me to consider myself as a writer–of prose, and not just poetry. Lawrence Hill, too, deserves much gratitude for telling me, at Sage Hill Writing Experience in the summer of 2014, over a conversation in the lounge at St. Michael’s over a cup of coffee, that I was maybe needing to think of myself as more of a writer than “just a poet.” I had told him I had an idea for a novel, but was “just a poet.” He shook his head. That conversation changed me again. He told me that I should write the novel I had in my head and heart..and so I did. I wouldn’t have met either of these amazing mentors if I hadn’t had that LU undergrad English experience. Beyond that, I’ve worked with brilliant writers as mentors: John Glenday, Jen Hadfield, Ken Babstock, Susan Rich, and Marnie Woodrow are just a few who have taught me important things about my work as a thinker and writer. Plus, I had an encounter with Margaret Atwood at a writing retreat in May 2016 that was formative for me, in terms of how I view myself as a writer, and as a Northern writer in particular. We learn lessons…all the time. Some are more difficult than others…but all of them teach us new things about ourselves…and we grow.

In the 1990s, I sat on the Alumni Association Board, and I met some friends there. Some of them have drifted, as old friends will, but all of them are doing well, and contributing to this community in really tangible and vibrant ways. We grew up there, at Laurentian. We found our feet there, and we found our voices there, too. We were so young…then…

The thing I think we sometimes forget, if we’ve lived in Sudbury all of our lives, is that this university of ours was hard fought for, and it is something to be proud of, despite this recent mess. That a small group of people have done this makes me furious inside. Laurentian is all about what my uncle termed ‘Pride and Tradition.’ It still is. We need to remind ourselves of what good it’s brought this town, this region, this northern part of the province. So much of the beauty we’ve enjoyed during the pandemic, on the hiking trails, is about the re-greening programs that started through LU in the 1970s. Think of the work done by the scientists and researchers who work at the university, and of the significance of the Living with Lakes Centre to environmental reclamation and protection of plants, animals, and insects. Think of the fact that Laurentian has a literary journal to be proud of, in Sulphur. Think of the medical school and the school of architecture. Think of the importance of how those programs have grown. Think of how much Laurentian has grown since the 90s, and of how Sudbury itself has blossomed because Laurentian blossomed first. Sudbury just wouldn’t be what it is today without Laurentian.

This doesn’t solve anything right now. I know that. It doesn’t make it less stressful for anyone who works at Laurentian right now, whether they are librarians, or professors, or security guards. That is the hardest part of this thing–the human part. Sometimes things fall apart…and there is great sadness in that. The city is grieving what’s been happening since the news came out a few weeks ago. I think sometimes towers fall…so that things can evolve. Maybe I’m an eternal optimist, as a poet…but I do think that there are always beginnings to be found in endings. It may not feel like it when everything is crumbling all around you, but things remake themselves (just as people do throughout their lives) in sometimes interesting ways. I’m hopeful that that will be the case with Laurentian. I believe it will be. Nothing is meant to say the same, and I don’t think it could have gone on the way it was going really, when research grants were being funnelled into operating costs. That’s just wrong, and I am sure there are many professors who feel deep betrayal about that. How could they not? They’re only human. They work hard and their work is valuable. To be so sideswiped, in such a strange fashion, is horrific. There is no doubt about it. Still, there’s a quote I love that is attributed to Buddha. “Everything changes. Nothing remains without change.” That quote, to be honest, in my life…which has been full of great loss…gives me a place to be still, to find an anchor. I return to it often…in good times and in bad ones…and always in times of personal transformation and growth.

The question is…what will the change bring us here in Sudbury? And how will we adapt to it? We don’t have to like it…because who likes things that make them uncomfortable? No one. Let’s be honest. But…we grow the most, maybe, when things change. We learn new things about ourselves, and about what’s important. We strip down to our necessities, to what is most important. I know what’s important about Laurentian–it’s the people, not the fancy buildings, and it’s the passion for asking questions and going out to search for answers, and it’s the excitement about curiosity, learning, and the exploration of ideas. And…it’s about being a lighthouse for Sudbury and for the Northeast.

I am very sad about what’s happening. I’m very angry, too. But I also want to say that I love Laurentian, and that it’s part of who I am today. This 50 year old poet woman would be a very different person if she hadn’t met that first boyfriend through that art history class. She might not have started writing plays if she hadn’t seen a number of really great plays at Thorneloe in her early 30s. She might not be hefting kettlebells and swimming in northern lakes if she hadn’t grown up running races down the hallways of the Ben Avery. I don’t know. I only know that I want us to try to remember why Laurentian is important to us, how it’s formed us as people, as Sudburians….and just as humans. And I want us to be thinking of the people who are so caught up in all of this right now, and how betrayed and angry they must be feeling. But they still love Laurentian…as we all do. We can be angry at a group of people who did this. We should be. That they mishandled the affairs of a place we hold dear, as Sudburians, is inexcusable really. You can’t apologize for that…neglect of care and duty. You can’t.

There is a pride and tradition that we can carry on with here, though, despite the darkness that’s around it all right now. We can offer Laurentian that, at the very least…and perhaps…by telling our stories, by writing our love letters to a university that raised us and holds us still in its heart, we’ll remind ourselves of why we need to fight for it.

Things might fall apart…and change…but we can still have pride and move forward. What other choice is there? We survive. We’re Northerners. And…I know my uncles wouldn’t give up on Laurentian…if they were still here. They’d likely be pissed off and very vocal…but they would fight for it, too. Because it’s worth it. Always has been…always will be.

peace, friends.

k.

I love whales. I love whales almost as much as I love icebergs. Both are things you don’t see often, if you live in Northern Ontario. Two springs ago, when I was in Newfoundland launching my last book of poems, These Wings, I saw icebergs for the first time in my life. It was a VERY. BIG. DEAL. I wept because it was the first time in my life that I felt very, very small, in the face of the beauty of the natural world. The Atlantic Ocean does that to me. If you put me next to the Atlantic Ocean, I’m a different woman. I’m already naturally tempestuous inside, as a poet, but being next to the Atlantic (either in Newfoundland or in Ireland), I’m a sort of walk-between-worlds kind of woman.  

One day after I arrived in St. John’s in May 2018, I went out on the ocean with my friend Monica Kidd, a writer and physician, on a boat tour of the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve. (That it’s a boat tour company that’s owned by The O’Briens of Irish Descendants fame also put me over the edge that day, but that’s a whole other story. The Irish Canadians who sing and dance at ceilis will understand my excitement. That’s all that matters here.) Mon knows I love puffins, so she knew I’d see them. Before she was a doctor, she was a CBC reporter and a marine biologist, so she knows her puffins. We parked the car in the lot at Bay Bulls, paid the tickets, and went on the boat tour. 

There weren’t any whales in May 2018 for me. The Universe had other plans. I reconnected with my puffins, at Witless Bay and in Elliston, but that trip east was all about icebergs instead. Why? I find them fascinating. I’m no fancy, super smart scientist. I failed science. Well, maybe not failed, but I did blow up a beaker over a Bunsen burner in one class. Mrs. Way once nearly got hit by a rubber stopper from a beaker because I overheated my beaker over a burner flame and the thing shot off and hit the chalkboard right next to her. I was in the first row of lab tables. I’ll never forget her turning around with a look of surprise on her face. She had a poet in the class. Poor woman. 

I love whales, the ones I’ve never seen but still know that exist, because I believe in them, even if I don’t see them. In many cultures, they are sacred. In terms of cosmogenic symbolism, whales are in a number of ancient sacred texts and are embedded in the stories of cultures around the world. Often, the whale-spirit is the one that helps to carry souls from place to place, from here to there, from this life to the next. The whale is also associated with compassion and solitude, having knowledge of both life and death. They are also associated with creativity, with how it sort of bursts out of creative people with the force of water being blown out of a blowhole. Yup. Know that one. Besides all of this, though, whales intrigue me because they’re ‘underneath.’ People who’ve read my work, in all genres, will know I am fascinated by what is projected on the surface of things (often illusion) and the underlying truths of the ‘underneath.’ Perhaps that is why I love the notion of whales. The same can be said of icebergs. Only a very small bit of an iceberg is above the surface. It can be massive, an iceberg, and my laptop’s screen saver is of an iceberg that calved in front of me that day in Witless Bay. The captain of the boat heard a rumble, turned the boat to go towards a nearby berg, and then we watched as—before our eyes—the iceberg calved. You haven’t lived, I don’t think, until you’ve seen an iceberg calve. The result is a new sort of iceberg, one that’s been broken and has a new form, with pieces of itself left on the surface of the sea. After the rumble, after the rush of ice, I kept thinking about what’s left behind after the destruction and reshaping…

How is this blog about mental health, then? If you’ve read this far, you should receive a treat or something. It’s about to get less poetic and a little bit more rough watered. Tempestuous? Maybe, if you don’t like hearing the perspective of someone who nearly killed herself back in 2008. Woah. That’s a sentence that holds its intensity like a bomb, eh? I don’t think I’ve ever written that down so blatantly before, but I’ve calved, like an iceberg, and I’ve changed form. There’s some scientific equation for this, but I don’t remember it…

I have a problem with Bell Let’s Talk Day. I avoid social media. I might post something, but I won’t look around. I’ve learned that looking around on social media just triggers me. I want to yell out “No! You can’t know!” to the people at the big institutions (like companies, like politicians and city halls, like universities and colleges, like hospitals, like churches, like school boards) and famous people and Instagram Influencers and those who Tweet out their “Reach out and chat with us. Here’s the EAP phone number! Here’s the Student Support Line! Here’s the person in HR who will save you and keep you working, even if you’re barely holding yourself together at work!” I want to shout out at the hypocrisy of it all, even knowing that on this particular day, my voice won’t be heard, and may be ignored or cast off. I know that my voice, that of a mental health survivor, won’t matter as much as the social and political optics that make OTHER people feel better. It doesn’t make this survivor feel better. I won’t say that I speak for all mental health survivors, because I know I don’t. To be that self-centred would make me throw up in my own mouth. What bothers me is the scope of how corporate branding and marketing has swept through mental health awareness in Canada over the last decade. Yes, it’s raised awareness, but I honestly believe it’s also done damage to those who have suffered and survived, and to those who now suffer and struggle desperately to survive. 

When I was at my sickest, in December 2008, I had been caring for my mother for about eight months. She was bed ridden in our home, with a transmetatarsal amputation of her right foot. I cooked for her, emptied her commode, bathed her (badly, I’m sure she thought) in the walk-in tub that my father had installed after she had her amputation, and changed her bed when she was sick. I lived with them, and she was completely dependent upon me for all care. My father had health issues, so he was not physically well enough to lift her, from bed to commode and back. I did that. I shouldn’t have, but I did. The nurse would visit twice a day to debride her foot, and my dad would sit and hold her hand during those very dark days before she was admitted to hospital in mid-December. As the two people who lived with her as she went through the last year of her life, we did our best, and my sister helped from the outside in, advocating for her when I was too weak to manage in April of that year. Stacy was the one who gave the doctors at Memorial shit one morning when we were there with Mum for her debriding. Her ankle didn’t have a pulse. (Did you know that doctors check your pulse there, when you have gangrene? I didn’t. I learned a lot about gangrene and debriding that year. Ask me. I know a lot about gangrene and amputation. I still do.) When the doctor tipped up Mum’s foot, you could see the blood rush one way, and then her leg whitened to a colour I’ll never forget. The blood wasn’t circulating properly. Thing is, with gangrene, there’s a place where it starts to climb up your leg, like a tide mark, and then the end is near. There’s an actual fucking line that you can watch climb the leg of someone you love. It’s something I won’t forget until the day I die, I don’t think. That was the morning that they decided to amputate part of her foot, in April of 2008. At the time, I was in the thick of major depressive disorder, one that my psychiatrist referred to as ‘situational depression.’ 

At the end of a long day of cleaning, cooking, and being off work from teaching with depression from January 2008 onwards, I would take the dogs out for walks. It was the only time I could get out. I usually timed it with the evening nurse’s visit. You wouldn’t think that a walk with dogs would be suicidal. It was. It nearly was. We lived in Minnow Lake, and Bancroft Drive is a fast road. It’s a fast road. The cars speed through at breakneck speed. They don’t care. They never have. They likely still don’t. In the 1970s, when I was growing up, we’d cross that road to go to the Crossan house, where Frances and Sheena lived. The four of us were explorers. Even then, the road was too fast. It wasn’t a suburb. It was a thoroughfare. So, at least once a day, I would walk the dogs. I would cross Bancroft and walk Gull and Sable for an hour. Down to Minnow Lake, past the weird fountain, past the little red brick church where—in Grade 3 or 4—I thought Jesus was actually going to come and talk to me in the confession booth during First Confession and tell me that I was a BIG sinner. (At that point, I thought it would either be Jesus, or God in a robe, or maybe Jesus-in-the-shape-of-a-lamb because I had a big imagination as a little girl). 

So, at least once a day, I would stand there at the curb, a dog leash in each hand, and think about stepping in front of a really big truck. I would watch for them. Every. Single. Day. For most of those five months after Mum came home from her amputation surgery. The only thing that stopped me from doing this, every single day, was having the dogs, and the notion that—if I erased myself physically—the dogs would die, and my parents would not have the care they needed. And they wouldn’t have because home care sucks, and it still does now, even thirteen years later. And because our society disregards the elderly as if they are to be cast off. One need only look to the demographics of deaths in this pandemic to see that that is true. Numbers and numbers and numbers…and so many of them in Long Term Care homes. Numbers are actually people, though, so I wonder how many of us remember that when we complain of what we must do now, to think less of ourselves and more of others we won’t even have met. 

I can’t stand to hear people complain about what’s happening with lockdowns when I know how many elderly people have died. We wouldn’t be here, in our cities and towns, without their hard work. Someday soon, too, we will also be in nursing homes, whether we want to believe that or not. This is not an ‘eternally young and sexy’ lifetime, despite the numbers of people who will sculpt their bodies with plastic surgery and excessive exercise. All of that will fade. All of that surface and superficial stuff…is irrelevant. Enjoy the illusion while you have it. It’s a comforting one, maybe…but it’s illusory. 

Other suicidal ideations came, too. I took long drives out to the highways, became fixated on rock cuts and waterways. Figured I could become Ophelia or pancake myself against hard rock. These were the notions. This is what suicidal ideation is about. It is not poetic. It is not fucking pretty. Not in the least bit. 

What bothers me most about corporate branding and marketing—for people and companies—is how fake it all seems. A playwright I follow on Twitter, Rona Altrows, said it best yesterday in a Tweet: “I wish this mental-health-day thing did not seem so commercial rah-rah Bell to me. Celebrity driven and somehow superficial for those of us who have truly suffered.” Yes. That. Let’s talk about that. Instead. Let’s not post rah-rah videos once a year. Let’s not post “Reach out to me if you need help” because most people who suffer will not be able to reach out when they are in the depths of despair. Stigma presses down too heavily.

So. The institutions that so easily speak up on such a day are the very ones that continue to propogate stigma in small, quiet ways. Try, if you’re a survivor of mental health issues, to move forward or ‘up’ in your company after you’ve taken time off on a sick leave. Try. Good luck to you. You can take all of the courses you want. You can have been discharged from care of a psychiatrist. You can have a vibrant and full life, but you will still be black balled. People will say ‘no, no, of course not’ but there will always be a shadow hovering behind you. Too, you will find it in your own group of acquaintances. When you’ve been sick, and when you’ve come out and reshaped yourself as a different person, you’ll lose people. They disappear. It’s from no fault of your own, and it’s from no fault of theirs. People grow. People change. They drift apart…like waves out on Witless Bay…that never come together. 

When I was discharged by my psychiatrist in April 2016, I sat in his tiny office, after eight years of regular visits, and he said to me: “Kim, it will not be easy. You will lose people. You will say ‘no’ when you have always said ‘yes’ and people will say ‘Oh, she’s unwell again…’ but you won’t be…and you must remember this.” He was right. People have disappeared, or drifted, and it’s not that it’s anyone’s fault. Life is full of ebbs and flows. Some people would rather a constant in a friend or lover. I’m not that. I’m a sea inside. That notion of constancy is an illusion, too, because why would you want to be the same person forever? Why would you not want to grow and change as a person, even if it means leaving others to walk a different path in life for a while, or forever? Things aren’t meant to last forever…

My psychiatrist was right. That last day, I remember saying to him, with tears in my eyes: “I don’t know how to do this now.” I remember him nodding. “Remember when you couldn’t look at me? You only looked to the floor? You were very, very ill. You are not now. There will be times, going forward, where you will speak your truth—as your new self—or you will speak about your feelings or emotions—in this new healthier person—and people will think ‘Ah, she is ill, she is fragile, she is unstable’ but you will not be. You will hit your difficult month of December, when everything is darker because of loss, and you will lose people every so often because they will not understand its weight on your heart. That’s okay. You will be well. It will be hard. And, those people who go…maybe they aren’t meant to walk with you for long anyway.” 

Here’s what I don’t like, as a survivor: I don’t like people who call me ‘fragile’ or ‘unstable’ or ‘weak.’ I’m the exact opposite. I’m strong. I’m a survivor. I’m still here. Here’s what I don’t like: I don’t like people who have never almost killed themselves creating a message that is made corporate and all Instagram-branded bullshit. Here’s what I don’t like: I don’t like large institutions saying they support mental health because they have an EAP number posted up in a staff lunchroom or bathroom. I don’t like celebrity testimonials, on the Internet, or on posters around a workplace. Because, you see, when you’re in the thick of it, people disappear…because they don’t understand the intensity of it all, and then you might think you are ‘less than’ because you can’t reach out. For those who struggle now, still, that’s a damning thing. It’s like a struggling swimmer seeing people leaning out of boats, their hands extended, offering trite words like “Reach out. Speak to me. I’m here” when they really aren’t…when the chips are down. It just isn’t that easy, you see. It just isn’t.    

I likely ought not to post this today, but I will because I have to. If you don’t agree, that’s fine. I’d rather not argue. Until you’ve been inside a body where you can’t handle being inside that body because of what storms inside your mind, at your sickest, then you likely won’t understand…and to be honest, I’m glad for you if that’s the case. I wouldn’t wish that experience on my worst enemy. You can have someone you love–a mother, brother, sister, father, aunt, lover–be struggling with mental health, and you can know that they suffer, and that it will and likely does affect you in a ripple effect kind of way, but if you think about that pain that you know, as a bystander, as a witness, you need to consider tripling that for the person who is walking through it.

Let’s Talk Day does work for raising awareness. I’ll give it that. But…I have so many worries about its overall glossy look. It really isn’t that glossy when you’re in the pit of despair. I worry for those who have suffered deeply, because it can be triggering to see it all on this day once a year, and maybe you won’t understand this if you haven’t suffered, and that’s okay too. It might make other people feel better, but I’m guessing there are more people like me out there…the ones who dread it every year because it seems to offer a ‘fix all’ solution…when it really can’t. I may be in a minority, but I don’t think so. I think a lot of us don’t speak up, for fear of the stigma, and for fear of using our voices when our history with mental illness has taught us that safety lies in silence. I don’t know. It will be different for each person.

My friend Robyn Scott lives in Yellowknife. I met her when I was a featured author at the Northwords Literary Festival in May 2018. She’s a teacher and a writer and an artist. She’s a triple threat. She’s also just a really amazing person. She’s begun a series of ‘balloon animals’ and I bought one that arrived in the mail last week. It’s the image that accompanies this blog entry. It’s a whale, lifted up by a balloon. That’s how I feel. What’s within and what I carry can be heavy, my past history with major depressive disorder, but it’s also everything that makes me a healthier me now: it’s a rough past with mental health issues, and it’s a deep reserve and well of creativity and wonder, and a deep passion for living spontaneously and with intense curiosity. And it’s a gathering of life experiences–at 50 now!–that make me a dynamic and interesting woman. I’m cool with all of this. I’m proud of all of this. It’s why I do public work on advocating for art, writing, and mental health.

I’m a whale, and I’m an iceberg. And I’m a poem and a painting. That’s what makes me interesting as a human, I think.

I’m still here. And that’s a miracle…and a celebration…and a lesson in living for me. Each day is a gift, no matter who is walking with me, and no matter who has disappeared…because I’m still here. And I’m not fragile, so don’t ever say that word around me.

And I’m not going anywhere anytime soon…and that’s a promise…or a threat… 🙂

peace, friends.

k.

p.s. if you like Robyn’s whale, you can order prints of various balloon animals on her website and look under ‘Whimsy.’ There are links there to her social media feeds. You should follow her on Instagram, too. 🙂

https://www.robynscott.ca

There’s a photo of Franklin Carmichael that I just really, really love. In it, he’s seated on a camp stool, in front of a paint box that is opened and there is a little canvas propped up in front of him.

It’s all black and white, and I have a thing for black and white photos. I always have. The more famous one is this one, though…with Carmichael as a strange, hooded figure, looking out over the LaCloche Mountains, a place he loved. (I’ve hiked there with my friend, Jen Geddes…and had my breath stolen by the beauty from the highest point…so I can imagine why he was drawn to these Northern Ontario views. Who wouldn’t be?)

Black and white photos make me wonder what people were thinking when the photo was taken. I start to imagine stories…and then I’m off in my head and imagination. This particular photo show Carmichael just looking at what he’s painted, assessing it, I imagine. I do this, as a poet. I write something, then read it out loud to the dog (who never listens), and then think “Oh, this is rubbish…I should start over” or “Okay, maybe this is the start of something…if I am patient enough to sit with it and not rush it through and out…” I imagine that Franklin Carmichael must have done the same thing as a painter, though one can never be sure of what another person is thinking…or might have thought. He’s been dead a while now. 

Carmichael was born in 1890 and died in 1945. He’s one of the Group of Seven, that famous Canadian group of (mostly) men. (I always kind of think of Emily Carr as above and beyond them, somehow, but I’m biased.) When I stand in front of an Emily Carr or a Tom Thomson, I’ll just start to cry. I’m an embarrassment in art galleries like the Art Gallery of Ontario, the McMichael Collection, and the National Gallery of Canada. It’s likely why I almost always go alone…because no one needs to see me cry. I’m all blue eyes and sea inside…and then it’s just a mess. Art, though…if it moves me….makes me cry. 

This is all to say that, while I like Carmichael, I’m more in love with Tom Thomson. There are a whole raft of reasons for this distinction, but that would be another blog. The two men did share a studio back in 1914, and they often painted with some of the other members of the Group of Seven. But…back to Carmichael. 

He’s known mostly for painting in watercolours, but also sometimes used oil paints, to capture the raw beauty of the Canadian landscape. (My Art History professor at Laurentian University, the late Dr. Henry Best, would be pleased to know I listened in his lectures…but he might not have been as happy to know that when he asked the class over to his house one day to see his many original works of Canadian art…that I might have surreptitiously touched the frame of an Emily Carr when no one else in the class was looking. People who know me know that I touch things…so…that was a fated Carr encounter in some professor’s upstairs hallway on the way to a fake bathroom break…just so I could grope the frame.)

In the mid-late 1920s, Carmichael fell in love with Lake Superior when he went there to paint, alongside Lawren Harris (I also love his work!) and Arthur Lismer (he’s okay…but he’s not my fella…) Carmichael came to northern Ontario, to our part of the world, in 1930, exploring the industry of mining within the landscape. The Cobalt-based sketches upstairs in the AGS exhibit are really beautiful and feel like home to me. These are places I remember my dad driving us through, when he was a beer rep for Labatt’s when we were in our earlier teens. We drove through places like Cobalt and New Liskeard and Kirkland Lake, and I remember it all quite clearly. I see in photographs and images…and then they become poems.

The exhibit that’s currently on at the Art Gallery of Sudbury, Franklin Carmichael:  An Artist’s Process, is really fascinating because it looks at how Carmichael created his work. There are really ‘naked’ and rough sketches, done in pencil and on rough paper, and they seem almost child-like at first. There are notions of hills and mine head frames that are etched out. However, as you make your way through the exhibit, with a skilled guide who lets you know the story of the pieces, you learn that these were beginning sketches, studies, the very places where Carmichael began to work out his more developed pieces.

To be honest, when I saw the roughest sketches, and then moved on to the more finished pieces, I kept thinking of W. B. Yeats. I remember studying his various poems in a fourth year seminar class with Dr. Laurie Steven at Laurentian in the early 1990s. We looked at his revision process. If you study Yeats, you’ll know he kept each draft of a poem, from start to finish. He was meticulous. Carmichael reminded me of Yeats. Both seemed to value the creative process, knowing that the tiny steps they took, with each and every piece, would lead them to a richer final piece. This artistic work takes time. And patience. Both men–artists in different disciplines–would take their time, be meticulous in their work as creatives, and be brutal in their respective edits. I admire that in an artist. A lot. People always think to seem, if they aren’t writers, that poems just magically appear…or that paintings appear just as magically…but they haven’t any idea of the time and effort it actually takes to do this work.

Normally, I would take a foot selfie with the art pieces clearly visible, but you aren’t allowed to take photos in this exhibit. You also need to have a guide with you while you tour the galleries. So, for this photo, you get the bottom of Carmichael’s work. To see the amazing pieces, you need to go to the Art Gallery of Sudbury.

Because I couldn’t take photos of the pieces, and because so many are untitled, I just want to say that if you read this blog post, it’s really worth it to go and see this exhibit. Afterwards, it’s slated to move to the Art Gallery of Algoma in Sault Ste. Marie. You don’t, though, want to miss it. Of particular note are the pieces, I think, that seem to centre on Cobalt. These are pieces that remind me of old photos of Creighton and Sudbury, too. My grandmother’s family, my great-aunts of Irish descent, often showed me old photos of Creighton. There was my great-grandfather’s General Store and post office, and here, too, in one piece today, was a general store of the very same ilk. And, as well, outside that image, was the likeness of an old wooden sidewalk. I clearly remember my grandmother and my great aunts telling me stories of the old wooden sidewalks that lined the streets in Creighton. Looking at that photo this afternoon made me think of my mother’s family’s history…and of all the stories they told me. Life here, in Northern Ontario, wasn’t easy. It might be simple to think you could romanticize it, but that would be a mistake. That settlers to Northern Ontario struggled goes without a doubt in my mind.

The other thing that struck me this afternoon was that Carmichael was so beautifully influenced by the work of Lawren Harris. I love Harris, too. Always have. His are the paintings of big Lake Superior skies and islands, with clouds that sometimes look like wild birds winging through space. There are two or three paintings in this AGS exhibit that made me think “Oh, that’s so like Harris!” It makes sense. They traveled together up to Superior in the mid-1920s. Harris impressed Carmichael, they were friends and colleagues, and so Carmichael mimicked his style. Poets do this, too, just as I am influenced by Mary Oliver and Seamus Heaney. I could never expect to be as good as they are, as a poet, but I am well and truly influenced by their work. Better to be honest than not, as a creative. (Really, let’s be honest, though: who wouldn’t be impressed by Harris?!) So. if you want to see the piece that makes me catch my breath, it’s the one in Gallery 1, just as you enter and to the right. You’ll know it: it’ll look like a Lawren Harris piece, but it’s a Carmichael, and it’s blue and full of spirit. That one. Go see it.

Really, I could try and wow you here with borrowed art history information, but I only just have one art history course from Laurentian that’s over twenty-five years old now. So I won’t. I’ll tell you instead, here, that I really love the Art Gallery of Sudbury. It’s played a role in my life, for all of my life. I fell in love there for the first time. He was in the French section of the art history course, and I was in the English one. (That’s a poem, and not a poem that ended happily, but it’s still a poem, somehow.) I volunteered there when I was in that art history class, and stayed for a few years, without pay, shelving borrowed art books and tiny projector slides. You see, that’s where I fell in love with Canadian art. I studied it in stolen moments, in between volunteer tasks like sending membership renewals and licking stamps and sealing envelopes. It’s also the place where I learned about patience, and how to be studious, and how to be still inside when I encounter art. I owe the AGS a great debt of gratitude. No one else will ever understand that.

Today, after a few issues with my physical health this fall, and feeling frustrated with not being able to ‘feel better’ as quickly as I usually do, it felt safe–like coming home, somehow–to be amidst those walls and pieces from the Permanent Collection. In Gallery 3, I smiled at the walls of old books. Here were the ones I’d shelved in my early to mid-20s, across the street in the old B.A. McDonald House. Now…well…now it’s just a regular house, but then, it was a really special place where a few people who loved art worked every day…

I could write here about all of the beautiful paintings, but I really just want to say that, if you live in Greater Sudbury, and if you’re craving a quiet place where you can just be still, you should schedule a visit to see this Franklin Carmichael exhibit at the Art Gallery of Sudbury. It runs until the 31st of December, so you still have time. It’s so ‘in demand,’ though, that you need to book a week in advance. I’m in my own bubble, so I always have the pleasure of being completely on my own with Tadd, who is a really smart gallery guide. It kind of feels, I guess, like how it would be to have a boutique experience with art. I suppose that’s one way of explaining it. Imagine being given free reign to be with art on your own. It’s sort of like my lifetime dream of being locked in a bookstore or library overnight. I should clarify by saying that I wouldn’t want to be in a ‘regular’ library overnight. I’m more the woman who would want to be locked into the library in Dublin with the Book of Kells…with the ability to actually turn the damn pages at 3:23am on a Saturday. That’s me. Or, maybe, a night locked into Marsh’s Library in Dublin, just round the corner from St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I’m not simple. I like libraries with spirit and story. Not a chain store or something. Just saying’. 🙂

So. You can book an appointment to see the Franklin Carmichael exhibit at the AGS via their website, or just by calling 705-675-4871.

And, also…I’d always ask you to consider making a year end donation to the AGS. Here’s the thing: I don’t know about the rest of you, but as a single person who loves art, and who knows that all sorts of art has sustained her through this pandemic shit show of an apocalypse, I think we really need to support our local arts organizations. So…my favourites are the Art Gallery of Sudbury and the Sudbury Theatre Centre…but you’ll have your own. If you’ve enjoyed a podcast, a bit of music through the darkest of nights this year, or a recorded Stratford Festival play, or even a poetry reading that’s been streamed live and then recorded for later consumption…I just think it’s the decent thing to ‘pay it forward’ right now. If you need another reason, well…I guess I’d say that’d be your old paper or emailed tax receipt, but…I’m hoping you’ll really think of what’s gotten you through this year…and I’m betting that the arts–theatre, music, literature, and visual art–has played a role in keeping you sane….if you’re honest about it. I could be wrong, but I doubt it…

Go see this exhibit at the Art Gallery of Sudbury. And, please, while you’re at it, think about becoming a member.

From all of this, I’ve learned…that ‘stuff’ doesn’t matter. Experiences do. People do. Stuff with logos…that’s stuff from ‘the before times.’ Don’t carry that nonsense forward into the new world…or else…you’ll be with the anti-maskers…and you won’t have learned that much at all…from this time…that is both a blessing and a curse.

Thanks, too, to the AGS and Nancy Gareh, for asking me to take part in editing their education guide for this exhibit. I’m honoured that you asked me. It feels, really, a bit of a return to my beginnings with art…and I’m thankful for the gift of remembering that time…when I was much younger.

And…also…how to say this? Don’t forget to look at the mugs to the right of the entrance door. I was lucky enough to get a Heather Topp mug and so I’ll cherish it when I drink coffee in the mornings.

peace, people…

k.

There’s something lovely about being back inside an art gallery after months of not being there. For me, the Art Gallery of Sudbury is a “home place” of sorts. I spent my 20s there, first as a volunteer, and later as a contract worker who managed media communications for a short time. I met my first love through the AGS, when we were both taking an art history course at Laurentian during our undergrad. He was in the French section of the course, and I was in the English one. We met haphazardly during a joint class field trip to see an exhibit. (I still remember that I had no idea who he was, but that he had nice eyes, was funny, and could carry a witty conversation. That impressed me. I went back to the gallery, two days later, to find his name in the guest book. I was infatuated. The things you do when you fall in love for the very first time…) In any case, from that time, in my early 20s–until now–in my late 40s, the Art Gallery of Sudbury has played a starring role for me in my life.

I’ve written a poem, and a play, about how I encountered Mrs. Bell’s ghost while I worked there in my late 20s, and I’ve rarely missed an exhibition while I’ve lived in Sudbury. Times living in North Bay, Ottawa, and Kingsville found me searching out other art galleries like someone with a strange addiction to visual art. I am. Addicted to art, I mean. So, during the pandemic at its deepest lockdown, I most missed walking alongside the lake and also just going to the gallery to be in that space. There, I honestly sort of am in a timeless space, able to be in and out of my body simultaneously. It’s a creative vortex for me, and a major part of my heart and life.

When the letter to members came in the mail last week, saying that you could book a time slot on certain days, I called in right away. The gallery was open again! This reopening exhibit is titled, aptly, “Change of State/Alteration,” reflecting the historic and fluid time within which we’re living. You’re allotted forty-five minutes, which is a good amount of time. At the door, you’re greeted and you’re asked to wear a mask. Every staff person I saw while I was there was wearing a mask, and the person who was there to answer my questions about the exhibit was aware of social distancing. At the inside door, there’s a bottle of hand sanitizer, some disposable masks (in case you don’t come with your own), and gloves, if you’re super nervous. But, I mean, let’s face it…you don’t need gloves…unless you’re planning on illegally touching the art…but…that’s another story for a bit later on here…

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Covid-19 protocols for a safe visit are visible at the inside door, and then there are hand sanitizing stations throughout the galleries.

Gallery 1 is full of beautiful pieces from the Permanent Collection. Now, don’t tell me that you don’t like pieces from Permanent Collections. I LOVE THEM! It’s like someone let you wander around inside a secret wardrobe and pull out a variety of the best vintage dresses to try on in your bedroom! Here are pieces that the gallery has housed for years, and that have been brought out to share. I love this notion so much, especially when you consider the theme of the work.

The first one on the wall is a tiny piece by noted Canadian artist, Joyce Wieland (1930-1988). I saw an exhibit of her work at the McMichael a few years ago and was amazed. This is Sailboat Tragedy, #1 (1963). It’s self-explanatory, and kind of voyeuristic in a strange way as your gaze drifts from panel to panel, knowing what’s about to come even as you dread it. It looks simple, this Wieland, but it’s not. It sets the tone for what we’re living through, a life that seemed to be sailing along in a lovely fashion, and then is so easily upended without warning. Pandemics will do that, it seems, and we’re all learning that first hand this year.

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Next to the Wieland is a massive Fred Hagan. It’s titled “Homage” (1991), and it’s overwhelmingly beautiful. The bench is well positioned in the gallery, because you’ll want to sit in front of this one for a bit. It’s Northern Ontario, in all of its gorgeously raw natural beauty. There’s a tiny image of self-portraiture, if you know where to look for it, and then there are figures of influential Group of Seven artists who painted so much of their work up here. There are allusions to specific paintings, so if you’re a Group of Seven fan, look for the clues in the trees and flowers. 🙂

Get up close to it, now. Take your time here. This is one not to be rushed. It takes up the space, and demands that you give it the time to do the same thing with your body, heart, and mind.

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Tom Thomson is one of my favourite Group of Seven painters, and here he is depicted painting his wonderful piece, “The West Wind.” If you know Thomson’s work, you’ll know that that’s who’s painting in this corner of the Hagan piece. Then, move on to other parts of the painting, and see others of the Group who painted up here in Northern Ontario. It is Hagan’s homage to those who influenced him as a painter.

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Here is Lismer, busy at work en plain air, his canoe next to him, a pan of freshly caught fish frying on a fire for him to eat after he’s done his work. (I get this. I forget to eat when I’m writing, too. Today’s the perfect example of that, with me pecking at things over a series of hours that seem out of time and place…and the art living in my head.)

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The balance to this piece of Northern Ontario beauty and painterly history comes with an image that highlights Martin Luther King, pictured about John F. Kennedy. This is Carl Beam’s “King + Kennedy,” a piece that reminds us of the Black Lives Matter movement that began at the centre of the lockdown. A global virus that is called corona, and then the virus that has always been there–which is racism, discrimination, and colonialism.

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From here, I was drawn to Jane Ash Poitras’s massive piece, titled “Shaman Never Die” (1988). It, too, is a counterpoint to the Hagan, and to this country’s colonial past (and present). Hers is work I have loved for years. You can stand in front of this one and find so many things to look at and think about.

Do yourself a favour here: don’t rush it when you’re in front of the Hagan, the Poitras, or the Odjig. All three…have a great deal to say about the times within which we’re living. All three speak to the notion of how our world is changing, and how our lives are impacted by those massive changes. What goes on out there in the world also goes on as a mirrored experience inside each of us, too. It affects us globally, but also individually. It is massive, and it’s okay to admit that, even though it can feel overwhelming sometimes…

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In this piece of detail from the larger work, there’s the image of Poundmaker, as well as a repeated reference to the Lubicon Lake Cree. Poitras documents the ways in which the Alberta government allowed oil companies to drill on First Nations land. Hers is an art that is beautifully layered, a multi-media collage piece that is reflective of the colonial oppression and general bullshit that the Lubicon Cree have had to deal with–and fight against– for years and years.

The beauty of Gallery 1, though, for this exhibit is Daphne Odjig’s piece, “Spiritual Renewal” (1984). She estimated that it took her six months to paint, and it’s easy to see why. You’ll catch your breath if you stand in front of this one for a while and let it sink in.  As Odjig writes in her artist’s statement: “Spiritual Renewal is a historic portrayal of the spiritual culture shock associated with the arrival of the White Man’s religion. The first part of the panel shows the arrival of the missionaries and suggests confusion…The second panel depicts the return of…spiritual activities.” As she says “Spiritual renewal takes place within the heart and soul of all who see it.” You aren’t allowed to take photos of this piece, which makes it very special in my mind. It’s something you need to go to the gallery to see…to feel in your body, really.

The one thing I struggled with, and Tadd (the Gallery’s Visitor Services and Operations Co-Ordinator) know this all too well–sadly–is that I will always ask “Can I touch it?” if there’s something really unique happening. I mean, I always know that he’ll say no, but I always ask anyway.  In this exhibit, the thing that I most wanted to touch was a rock on the floor. It’s called “Zigzag Water,” (1986) and it’s by Bill Vazan. Just know that it’s also something you should see in person. It’s been carved into, so that there’s a pattern etched into it.

Talking about how landscape and environment can also change is reflected in Jana Sterbak’s “Dissolution” (2001), which documents a series of photographs taken of a chair made of ice. It melts, dissolving slowly from frame to frame. This is a reflection of how everything is constantly changing. In this case, one would easily think of global warming, but it seemed to me that it could also just be speaking to the notion that human lives are not at all about permanence. We are constantly evolving and changing–hopefully growing, if we’re lucky (and open) enough to do so. Besides that, though, we are not guaranteed a certain length of life. We are mortal. We are temporary. We change, and we live through change…

Upstairs, don’t miss the Doug Donley, David Blackwood, and Kenoujuak Ashevak ‘wall.’ If there were three pieces that meant the most to me in the whole building, these three would do it. Doug was a personal friend, and I have three of his pieces of work in my home. That he died much too young is always something that saddens me. His work is worth seeing, if you haven’t encountered it yet. Blackwood, well, he thrills me because he’s from Newfoundland and because his etchings are always stories waiting to be discovered and told. Kenoujuak Ashevak…gah…how do I even explain my love of her work? Go and see it and you’ll understand. Words…don’t suffice. (And also–do not forget to take a look at the Bruno Cavallo painting in Gallery 2, as well as the Mary Green piece.)

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The star of the everything at the AGS right now, though, is local artist Pandora Topp’s pandemic work. You’ll need to step into Mrs. Bell’s conservatory space first. Sit down and take the time to watch a couple of Pandora’s videos. Her project is titled “Imperfect Poetry.” Right away, I knew I was going to love it. I’m a fan of Pandora’s work, and have been for years. She’s a bright light in town, within the arts and culture community, and I love to watch her act on stage.

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“Imperfect Poetry” started as an artistic prompt as part of a creative challenge that was extended to Pandora by Charlotte Gowdy, and offered by Haley McGee, all of it connecting artists from here and the UK. The notion is that you “show up for 14 days and create for 10 minutes each day.” It’s a wide open field of creativity!

I love these collaborative arts projects, especially in times when creatives are even more isolated than they might usually be. (I always think it’s funny that people assume that all creatives and introverts would excel at quarantine and lockdown. We’re all still humans, after all, and it can be difficult to be in small, isolated pockets for long periods of time when we’re used to being around other creative people. While what we do must be done in quiet places and solitary spaces, we also need to share our work, to feel connected, and to feel that our work has a purpose and ripples outwards…)

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Here’s what’s really wonderful about Pandora’s pandemic project: you get to see her creative process as a *process* in its truest form. There are computerized notes, as well as handwritten journal entries. Alongside those two more literary elements, she has included some sketches. Go from left to right, and take the time to read the documents. I am in love with cursive writing. The more at risk it is of disappearing from our culture these days, the more I fall in love with it. I gather up old letters written by my mum and grandmother, taking them out when I want to remember them more closely. I have always thought that cursive writing is like a fingerprint of soul and personality. You can see a person’s handwriting and know who it belongs to. You can feel a rush of love for someone if you recognize the way they cross their Ts or tuck the loops of their Ys under things.

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I know I’ll need another visit, mostly just because I want to go back and read Pandora’s work more carefully. I kept thinking, as I read the pieces of writing, “Oh, sweet Jesus, I hope she publishes these things somewhere…”

What I love about “Imperfect Poetry” is that so much of what artists and writers do is create something. We create to press against the dark. We stir up magic and light, and then we share it. I’m sure each of us has our own specific way of explaining how this works, but what struck me as I read her work yesterday afternoon is that we all need to ‘get it out’ somehow. It’s about finding your voice, about moving through the grief and loss of lockdown. In one piece, she writes: “Weep today if you must. Listen to the high water mark, or low…the pull of the tides are within you.” Yes. Let yourself feel the emotion inside your body, she says. Feel it deeply. Honour it. And then, find yourself in your own body; give yourself a true voice that carries…outwards…and a voice that ripples.

You can listen to some of Pandora’s fine work here:

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This whole exhibit, including Pandora Topp’s “Imperfect Poetry,” runs until Saturday, September 5th. I really hope it’s extended, though, so that more people have time to go and see it. You can register for a visit–for yourself and five of the people in your immediate social bubble–by contacting the Art Gallery of Sudbury at 705-675-4871. It’s open from Tuesday to Saturday right now, with a certain number of visits slotted into each day.

Too, I think it’s a fair time to remind those of you who love art in Greater Sudbury that we really need to reach out and tangibly support our arts organizations. You can become a member of the Gallery for a reasonable fee, but you can also now really show your love by joining the Franklin Carmichael Circle. They’ll send you a tax receipt when it’s time, too, so you don’t even have to think about that part.

It’s another long blog entry, I know…but it’s worth it. If you can, go and see this exhibition. The Gallery’s done a fine job at making itself safe and creative, leading the way in showing us how the arts will survive in creative and innovative ways in the times of a global pandemic…and beyond.

Without the arts, what do we have….?

peace,

k.

 

 

 

Something is making my heart ache today.

I’ve been following the Twitter posts of a variety of scientific, medical, and educational experts of late. I’ve been watching the various news conferences that come out from Ontario’s Ministry of Education. I’ve been watching the parents who are wise (and emotionally torn) enough to know that they need to “follow the science” and their hearts at the same time. I’ve been watching the slew of people who bash teachers coming out of the woodwork on social media, and I’ve been watching other educators worry and fret about how best to ensure a safe return to schools this fall. What I hadn’t expected to read was a heartbreaking Tweet from a student, Isaiah Towers, who lives in the catchment area of the Limestone District School Board (which includes areas like Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox, and Addington).

Here’s what Isaiah wrote: “As a student, I can confirm I’m terrified. So are a majority of students. Personally, I feel like I’m getting sent back to die. But if I don’t go my education will slip even more.” He was responding to a parent’s tweet, responding to an adult who is advocating for a safe return to school. He was saying out loud what so many kids must be thinking. I don’t know Isaiah personally, but…as a teacher…I know Isaiah is just one of thousands of young Ontarians who are really afraid and worried right now, and who are looking for adult leadership in a crisis.

So. Here’s the thing. We need to listen to Isaiah’s voice above other voices.

We don’t need to listen to Doug Ford’s voice, or Stephen Lecce’s voice, or the voices of our various Board of Education Directors and Superintendents, or the voices of Trustees. If we wait to listen to those voices, the voices that are embedded within a power structure that is already archaic and mostly colonial and patriarchal in its historic origins, then…well…we aren’t really listening to Isaiah, are we? And we definitely aren’t listening to our students’ or our children’s deepest worries. This won’t be a popular opinion, maybe, but I sort of think it doesn’t matter anymore. I know other teachers are likely thinking similar thoughts…or I hope they are.

What matters, then? The safety of Ontario’s children. That’s it. That’s what matters at the core of it all. Some will say, “Oh, you’re a teacher, so you’re lazy, and you’re not wanting to teach, and you get paid way too much, and you get summers off, and this is just another way to avoid doing your job.” Those are some of the voices who will always be there. They’ve been there for decades, but their voices have been steadily increasing with each and every passing year. I’m not sure why, to be honest, because the career of being an educator at the elementary or secondary level of study these days–anywhere across North America, I’d venture a guess–is more complex now than it’s ever been.

Teachers don’t just “deliver curriculum,” but we also serve as role models, as pseudo-parents for those kids who come from abusive homes, and as social workers for those children who might not have enough to eat at home, or who might be self-harming due to mental health issues. We’re called upon to do things that our predecessors never did. Still, teachers do what needs to be done, and often without a parade or any kind of fanfare. Teachers, you see, aren’t in it for the money. If you ask any teacher why they initially entered into the profession, you’ll likely hear that it’s because they love to learn, that they’re curious, that they’re interested in the world around them, that they like to ask questions and think, and–here it comes, now…get ready for the truth–that they love to be around kids, even if they don’t have kids of their own.

If we get caught up in that “teacher bashing” mess, though, which most teachers have put up with for a very long time, then we’ll miss the forest for the trees. If the ‘trees’ in this case are the bashers (for lack of a better phrase), then the ‘forest’ is made up of our kids. Yup. They’re “our kids,” even if they go home to your house and you’re called ‘Mum’ or ‘Dad.’ They’re “our kids,” too.

So…let’s talk about protecting our ‘forest,’ then…just for a little bit.

If we look at Premier Ford’s “plan” to return to school, which was released last week, and which is based–in a very wobbly fashion–on the Sick Kids report, we can see that parts have been addressed and parts have been avoided. The parts that have been avoided, it seems to me, are the parts that are the most important…and the most expensive to address. Funny how that works, eh? Easier to say you support a ‘plan’ you’ve created, based on a medical report, when you can pick and choose which pieces work best. Then, fast forward to yesterday, and a reference by Premier Ford that begins to discount the ‘plan’ to return safely in September, the very plan that was his party’s last week. “It’s not our plan…I’d be nervous if my kids were back in school…The other thing is they don’t have to put their kids in school.”  This is back pedalling of the highest order, if you ask me. Whose plan is it? And, let’s be honest…it’s not a plan…so….where exactly is the plan?

No one likes a pandemic. I hate it. No one wants to be in a tiny bubble. We’re meant to be social creatures. This virus takes away what most makes us human, which is touch and gathering together, so that’s brutal. Absolutely so. But…what this virus does physically to people, in terms of how it affects a person’s health, is terrifying. It’s a shape shifter, I’d say, and the longer we muck through this mess, the results of scientific and medical studies that are coming out from around the world seem to be stranger and stranger. Children aren’t meant to be isolated. We know that. We know they do better when they’re in school, socializing and learning with kids their own age. This is true. Of course it’s not ideal that they’ve had to struggle with online learning. Nothing about a pandemic is ideal.

And, it’s not ideal that this pandemic has hit women, single parents, and those who are parts of marginalized groups, the hardest. COVID-19 has shown us where our failings are, as humans–in terms of equality, in terms of compassion, and in terms of our privilege. Our experience in Canada varies from other countries around the world, and our experience within our communities varies, too. If we own houses, we likely have a yard to escape into. If we live in low-income high-rises in larger urban centres, though, the pandemic has played out very differently.

You only need to look to the cases of school re-openings around the world, in recent weeks, to see what’s worked and hasn’t worked. You can look to cases in Montreal, in Israel, and–sadly–in two weeks’ time, likely most of America, as well. You can figure in that COVID-19 is more airborne than we’d thought it was initially, when we were all panicky and buying things in bulk. Then, back then, we thought it was only transmitted through touch. Now, thanks to the hard work of scientists around the world, we know it’s more about airborne transmission. It’s how we’ve come to know that masks help to reduce transmission. It’s how we’ve come to know that social distancing is key. It’s how Canada has managed to flatten the curve, in that we know we have a social responsibility to one another, and to those groups of people who are most at risk of being negatively affected by this virus.

This ‘plan,’ for a return to school, isn’t at all clear. It puts students, as well as all education workers–including principals, vice-principals, teachers, secretaries, cleaning staff, bus drivers, and cafeteria staff–at risk. Each and every one of those people in Ontario is at risk.  All four teaching unions put out a joint statement last week. The Ontario Principals’ Council put out a statement last week. None of them is saying that the Sick Kids report is wrong. It’s fine. But…the Sick Kids report is suggesting that a safe return to school means that Boards ensure smaller class sizes (call them ‘cohorts’ or whatever fancy word you want, but it’s just about making classes smaller in size). This means that Boards across the province are now scrambling to sort it out over the next three weeks. They’re trapped between a rock and a hard place.

You see, if you reduce class sizes, especially after the recent cuts to teaching positions in Ontario over the last two years, then you need to hire more teachers, and you need to find more space in which to hold classes. All of this means you need to invest more money into the places where it really touches kids. You need to re-imagine education in a way that allows teachers to teach in community spaces that could be rented to school boards. You need to think outside the box of a system that still works on the premise upon which it was founded, which, if you study the history of education in Ontario means that the patriarchal and colonial structure we’ve inherited might not work in the face of a pandemic. This might actually be the best and most opportune time to be creative in reimagining how education works at the elementary and secondary level. That’s a whole other blog, and there are lots of other people who know much more about this particular notion.

What we need for the fall, though–and that means it could be a later start than September, if people really do want a “safe start” for kids and education workers–is smaller class sizes at both levels of study, physically distanced classes, alternative teaching spaces, better ventilation in schools, and PPE for education workers. And, yes, we need students to wear masks, too. It is, for now, for these times, what will help us to ensure everyone’s safety.

This is a long blog. If you’ve read through it all, thanks for that. If you’re a parent, know that teachers worry as much about your kids as you do. If you’re a teacher, know that we’re likely all as worried and freaked out, but just don’t know what to do. If you’re a principal or vice-principal, God, I don’t know…thank you for trying to guide the staff in your schools in an uncertain and anxious time. If you’re in a school board office, I don’t envy you your role, either. You have to ensure the safety of thousands of people under you, on your watch. You have to dance a difficult dance between the Ministry, and unions, and teachers, and parents, and students. That’s a huge responsibility. I wouldn’t want it, but I know you’ll try your best to make it safe for all of us under you. I know this because…you were once classroom teachers, too, even if you aren’t now. I know you won’t forget those early days, even if you’re in big fancy offices with name plates now. I know you love kids as much as we all do.

If you’re in the Ministry of Education…and you’ve never been a teacher…you shouldn’t be there right now. If you’re meeting by Zoom, and you don’t want to sit in a class of 28 kids during the fall cold and flu season, then you shouldn’t be there now. But…if you are there now…then it’s incumbent upon you to make sure our kids are safe. It’s incumbent upon you to make sure Isaiah, and all of the thousands of kids across Ontario, are safe. If that means putting more money into health and safety measures that actually show up in the lives of classroom teachers across Ontario, then that’s what you need to figure out.

We have three weeks. People can get creative. The money needs to be there, though, or else we’re looking at kids in classrooms that aren’t socially distanced, and we’re looking at teachers and education workers falling ill when they don’t need to, and we’re looking at community spread, and we’re looking at hospitals that will be over run when they don’t need to be. The bubbles…won’t matter at all…and we’ll see how that plays out in a very terrifying way.

I just hope…we can all be together on this one thing. The Isaiahs of this province deserve our best because–guess what?–we’re the adults here. We need to step up to make it a safe return, even if it’s staggered or different from what it usually looks like. The old Sears catalogue photo of kids in plaid skirts and maroon shaded cardigans just won’t do it this year.

peace,

k.

 

 

 

 

You can’t be alive on the planet right now and not know about the fuss over wearing little homemade fabric masks. I’ve mostly avoided looking at social media in recent weeks, just posting a thing or two, and then ducking out. Part of this is because I continuously shake my head at people’s self-centred stupidity. If you know something like this virus is spread through touch, well, you can pretty much manage washing your hands. Our parents teach us that as we grow up, and, if they don’t, then I know I’ve spoken quietly to a few teenage students about how soap can cure a myriad of ills, and will serve you well in life. Now, if the newest scientific studies are telling us that this virus is spread through droplets exhaled through our mouths and noses, or through sneezing, or through singing, then it would seem to be fairly logical that we wouldn’t all rise up and not consider a few things…even just in passing.

So…some points to consider:

~For those of us with underlying health concerns—either invisible or visible—a mask means that we know we need to be responsible for our own health and well-being. We don’t do it out of fear, just so you know, but because we’re being proactive with our own health. It also means that we know there are others out there, just like us, who may be a little bit anxious about how this pandemic thing is progressing. And, no, it’s not easy to say ‘I’m nervous about this virus’ or ‘I’m fearful of how it could impact my health’ out loud, mostly because now there’s a stigma—for wearing masks, or for contracting a virus that is stealthy and a bit of an asshole, if we’re all honest about it. In the early days of the pandemic, people were muttering things like “We need to know who has it, how they got it, and what their names are.” I was talking to a Toronto friend about it earlier on, just on email, and they were saying that it reminded them of the panic and discrimination after AIDS arrived on the scene in North America in the 1980s. It feels a bit like a witch hunt, and it makes me think that we need to check our hearts and minds on this one. For those of us who care for, or love, people with underlying health issues—again, either invisible or visible—wearing a mask means you know they’re more vulnerable of really dying from this disease.

~There’s a lot about fear here. Maybe, by avoiding wearing a mask, people can pretend to convince themselves that things are as they were before COVID-19 arrived. But…they aren’t the same…and they won’t be for a long time. Wearing a mask might trigger people to think this whole pandemic is real. Well…it is real. If you follow some of the scientific studies that are being published and mentioned online, even today, some of the top minds are saying this is transmitted in an airborne fashion. But…knowledge isn’t fear. Knowledge is power. So…if we know that that’s the way the thing is spread, why not try to prevent its spread…before it hurts the most vulnerable in our communities, around the world?

~I’ve written about the frail elderly before in an earlier pandemic entry. It upset me then, knowing that this would likely happen, and it’s only made me more upset now that we’re in July. Having the military being sent into long term care homes (and I’m sorry…but I don’t care whether they’re non-profit or for profit in origin…so don’t get me started there) meant that a lot of truths were revealed. Those of us who have cared for, or who have advocated for, parents in long term care know that it means a schedule of visits that are jotted down at the start of a week, varying in times and days, so that you can be sure that your loved ones are cared for as well as they should be. I should say here, now, that I have great respect for those who care for our frail elderly in long term care, but I also know that they are overworked, underpaid, and often work other jobs to cobble together a proper living in a society that really would rather shuffle our elders off because it fears aging and death. Here’s a thought: why not pay them better, and why not offer them more support in what is a really, really difficult job, both physically and emotionally?

I follow Nora Loreto on Twitter. She’s a journalist. Throughout the course of the pandemic, Loreto’s been posting stats about the numbers of people in long term and residential care homes who have died from COVID-19. As of last night, July 4, 2020, of the 8,674 Canadians who have died from the virus, Loreto has linked 7,252 to a residential care facility. That’s 83.6%, by her accounting. Now, it’s easy enough for people to say “Don’t make me wear a fucking mask” or “This is all a conspiracy by the government” or “You’re all sheep” but…I wonder if they’d start to give a shit if they had someone they loved in residential care. These are not just the frail elderly, by the way. You can count in people with disabilities, too, those who live in neighbourhood homes and who are cared for by people who are our friends and acquaintances. You can count in the people who are marginalized within our fucked up Western society. I’m not listing them off here, but maybe this pandemic should have us look to our own hearts, to see where we’ve not supported certain groups as compassionately as we ought to have done in the past.

~This also just reminds me of what it’s like to have a chat with someone who doesn’t want to wear a condom during sex. They’re usually self-involved. Now, I know, this is not the same way that COVID-19 is spread, but this speaks to the notion of caring for others and making wise decisions for your own–and others’–health. Sexually transmitted infections (STI) are something we teach kids about in schools across Canada. In Ontario, the sex ed curriculum was revised a few years ago, and we know that knowledge is power. The uproar about that stunned me. I don’t know. When I was growing up, we were separated into two gendered groups and were given two separate ‘talks.’ I remember a pink and grey pamphlet that really stymied me in Grade 8 Health class. (This was even more fucked up if you were in the Catholic system in the 1970s…as you might imagine.)

So. If you know you can ‘catch something,’ then why wouldn’t you be proactive in your planning and in the way you live your life? (If you care for a partner enough to wear a condom, to stop the spread of STIs, then why wouldn’t you just care enough to wear a mask when you’re inside a grocery store? Are you having a dalliance with the avocados? With the kiwi fruit? Doubt it. (or I certainly hope not…but to each their own, I suppose…)

I figure…if you’re having sex, then you can also likely manage the rather basic machinations of putting on a simple fabric mask with polka dots or stripes on it. (I have two that I’m especially fond of—one is brown with polka dots, thanks to my cousin, Mary Kelly, down in Kingston, and the other is a leaf pattern, with thanks to Marjorie Stintzi up near Rainy River. In total, I have about four, so…there’s always one in the car for good measure.)  Too, though, I mean…this is about caring for loads more people than just one person you’re intimate with on a regular basis. This is about caring for one another–in community–and about caring how we move forward. Your use of a mask protects the other person more than you. So…by wearing a mask, you show care for others. It’s not a conspiracy. If anything, it’s a conspiracy about spreading a philosophy of kindness and compassion.

~And, here’s the really big thing about wearing masks. Lean in close to your computer or phone now, like you’re huddled over a campfire and I’m telling you a story, or you’re trying to hide from someone: By wearing a mask, you help to keep our hospital system from being overrun. You only need to look to America to see what’s happening in states like Texas and Florida. There are others, I know, but the news reports I watched online from those two states are heartbreaking. Now, I’m not a scientist, although I once dated one fairly briefly. (He fancied himself a poet…but he wasn’t one…) So. I think it’s really about reading the science behind this virus. For me, this can be a difficult thing. (I failed science at Marymount…and there are plenty of stories of me in a science classroom that only a few women my age know, mostly because they were in the same class that year…and…it wasn’t pretty. The math and science teachers back at Marymount there were…very kind to me…) Basically, as a poet, I think in image and metaphor, not in fancy schmancy scientific terminology. I don’t understand all of it, but I’m fairly clever and a quick learner if someone’s a good teacher.

And now, here’s the other thing: Our health care workers are the first line of defence in so many ways, along with other groups of people who we’ve come to understand do much more than we ever imagined before this all started back in mid-March. They need proper PPE. They’ll need PPE for a very long time to come, if we see how all this plays out—based on the history of pandemics. I don’t know the stats on how many health care workers have died in Canada because of COVID. They died caring for people we might have known or loved. They sacrificed their lives when they really shouldn’t have been asked to do that. Just because you don’t know someone who’s got the virus, or who’s died from it, doesn’t mean that person who died doesn’t matter. The people who have died had names and were someone’s beloved. It doesn’t matter whether they were 18 or 37 or 81. They aren’t numbers. They are people with names.

~I’ve been watching, with interest, what people are saying about education, too. Come September, teachers will be front line workers again, and they will need to be properly considered. I worry about high schools. Anyone who’s a teacher will know that classes have been stuffed full of kids in recent years, and that there have been cuts to teacher jobs and hirings. I feel for those administrators who have to make decisions quickly now. I feel for teachers more, though, who are really just hoping for some sense of a plan. I feel for parents, too. But, and let me make this clear, I also want to say that this pandemic has revealed that quite a lot of people see schools as a form of day care rather than as places where children learn. To reinvigorate the economy, parents need to return to work. I get that. What I don’t want to see happen is teachers and students being put at risk of contracting this virus. Schools should be safe places. That means that there needs to be proper ventilation, access to proper PPE for all teachers, and more intense cleaning of classroom and office spaces.

What bothered me about most about watching Quebec open some schools a while back was that those teachers and children were like guinea pigs. There were spikes afterwards, obviously, and that frightens me. Our children aren’t expendable, and, just because we don’t see them affected in the same way as adults, or in the same sorts of numbers or percentages, doesn’t mean that they aren’t going to be. I also understand that mental health is key here, especially when socialization is such a key part of child development. But…this is a pandemic. It’s that “unprecedented time” thing that everyone talks about. We don’t know enough yet. We just don’t. But…if we follow the science, and include our hearts in that ‘equation,’ I think we’ll maybe have a shot at making it through that second wave. And please don’t tell me that a second wave isn’t coming…or that Bill Gates or Richard Branson is somehow mysteriously involved.

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I feel like I’ll put a trigger warning on this blog entry saying “If you don’t like masks, don’t read this” because I’m tired of the self-centred, me-first philosophy of life. That’s the old way. This is a new world, and I don’t think it’s going back anytime soon. What I do think is that we should maybe learn something about community from this pandemic.

And…here’s the last thing I’ll say: the faster everyone puts on their masks, the faster I’ll be able to hug the four or five most important people in my life. As someone who lives alone, I haven’t been able to touch anyone I love in too many months. I’m in a state of what’s called ‘touch starvation.’ It’s sad that I had to research it, so that I wouldn’t feel like I was going mad. (It’s also probably why I love being outside in the rain these days, or swimming, because at least something is touching my skin…but that’s a whole other series of poems that I’ll work on in coming days and weeks.) I love those four or five people of mine, and it’s hard not to just want to latch on like one of those little plastic monkeys in barrels when I see them in person. That would scare most of them, to know that I’m a tempest inside a body right now. (I haven’t seen a couple of them in person yet…and I almost dread it when I think about getting to see them…because right now I feel like I’m in a boat without a rudder.)

I do know, though, when I do get to hug them, that they’re going to not be prepared for the gales of tears I will weep…because…you never know how long you’re here on the planet for…and this time should sort of make you value your most important people even more…especially when you live alone. They all better let me have a glass of something alcoholic  beforehand…because then maybe I’ll just fall asleep quickly and they will be able to back out off the back porch. (If they’re really smart, they’ll also just ask me for all of my important passwords…or ask me something totally mad…because I’ll be like a bad Russian spy…and spurt out everything I think or feel without a filter…)

All this is to say that, if you don’t wear a mask, and now that you’ll be required to wear them here in town, maybe think about why it’s not such a bad thing after all. This isn’t a sprint; it’s a marathon. It’s actually what my dad used to call ‘a long game.’ I don’t understand football at all, but he always used to make that analogy when it came to my own writing. “Don’t worry, Kimber…it’s a long game. Set your eyes on the horizon, but put your head down and work hard. Look up every so often to see where you’re headed.”

This is the part where we put our heads down…where we work hard…for ourselves and for everyone else. For the ones we know and love, and for the ones others know and love…even if we don’t know them at all. That, now that…would be a lesson to have learned in a pandemic.

Peace,

 

I’ve been finding the contrast between social media and real life hard lately. It’s led me to spend less time on Facebook and Instagram, which I’ve never really done before. In the ‘before times,’ before the virus swirled around the world, the pictures helped me to feel more connected to other people. I live alone with a dog, so being able to see the lives of friends from around the world helped me to feel included. Mostly, I have friends who seem to like nature, so I didn’t mind seeing photos of hikes near lakes and in amidst trees. Social media felt inclusive then. Lately, I find it makes me feel excluded and lonely inside. I’ve been thinking about why, and there are likely so many reasons.

I think of Susan Sontag and her On Photography, and how she says people curate images to create an image of what they think the world would like to see (or believe) of their lives. My images are almost always of nature. I don’t usually do selfies. I do, though, take photos of my feet. There’s a reason behind this. Near the ends of their lives, both of my parents were without the use of their legs or feet. My mother had a trans-metatarsal amputation of her right foot for the last eight months of her life, so was bedridden until she died, and my father fell on a fishing trip and ended up as a complex quadriplegic during the last two and a half years of his life.  As a result of this, I grew to be much more aware of the gift that I had in being able to walk and hike, and to be grounded into the earth I love so much. Now, I take photos of my feet, sometimes on hikes against the black of northern Ontario rocks, and sometimes on the shores of a lake before I go for a swim. Mostly, though, I take photos of my feet when I highlight poetry books I’m reading and reviewing. Poetry, for me, grounds me. My feet do that, too. For both of those things, I am grateful. My feet, for me—in a symbolic way—mean that I can still keep moving, after a lot of struggle in life. They help me to stand strong on my own, even in storms. (Sometimes, though, I also imagine myself as a birch tree, so that I envision my whole body as a strong, but bendable tree with my feet as roots and anchors…but that’s a whole other story I tell myself.)

When the pandemic began, and when self-isolation was new and felt like it might not take too long, it was easy to pretend things would (or could) continue as they had been. I tried to think I was just in the middle of a serious writing retreat. Just before it all hit, I was making revisions to my latest play, All The Things I Draw. I had a session with my dramaturge on March 11. Later that afternoon, the local university shut down. It felt surreal. I had edits to make on that play, and I have a date set to finish it by, one I’ve set for myself. Still, since that day of dramaturgy in mid-March, I haven’t been able to touch it. I haven’t been able to make the edits and rewrite the sections that need rewriting. I have all of my meticulously taken notes, with all of my questions scribbled in the margins of a piece of the script, but they sit next to my writing chair in my little ‘in between’ room, where I sometimes sit to read or write. The play, it seems, is now frozen solid in time, in the ‘before times,’ as one of my online poet friends has so aptly called it. No matter what I try to do, I am drawn to my play, but it repels me, and so I repel it in turn. We are strangely drawn to (and yet also repel) one another. It’s likely a very complex toxic relationship. Fucked up magnets, me and this little play of mine…

I found I have lost the ability to read novels, which completely unsettles me as a writer and avid reader. Some part of my brain seems to have come loose. Nothing connects. There have been more than a few tears shed over that lost bridge between my head and heart. What I’ve come to, instead—and it is the thing I have always loved since I was a girl—is poetry. I can pick up a book of poems by Mary Oliver or Seamus Heaney and read one or two, and not feel as if I’ve failed, or as if I have been irretrievably broken. My mind only ever sees and understands things in image and metaphor. Things, right now, seem fragmented and jig sawed to me. Being on social media has been harder and harder. Wherever I turned, once well into May, there were people saying how wonderful the time has been for them as readers, or as writers, or in their couples, or in their families. Even the divorced couples with shared children seemed fairly happy, playing card games and taking selfies alongside photos of family outings.

This hasn’t been my experience of the pandemic at all. It hasn’t been pleasant. It’s been a struggle. What used to make me feel connected now makes me disconnected. Still, we are all on the same tempestuous ocean, but in very different kinds of boats. No one’s experience of it all will ever feel similar to someone else’s. This is what I tell myself. So comparison, when I see too much togetherness on social media images—whether it’s real or whether it’s curated for the comfort of the person who’s posting it—makes me feel ‘less than’ of late. Can’t stay in a place where you feel less than. I’ve learned that from people and experiences over a long period of time. I miss the images of trees and rocks and lakes, and knowing what people are up to, but I can’t handle the rest right now…so it’s good practice for me to gather my energy inwards into making sure my own boat doesn’t sink.

Some writers will post on Twitter that they’ve finished drafts of novels. Others will say they also can’t write. Right now, I gravitate to the orbits of those who also confess that they can’t find the words, or the links, or the sense of connectivity to literary creativity. I put together a manuscript of poems through April, but it felt like an exercise of ‘doing something’ rather than of ‘creating something new.’ I like to feel I’m amongst others who can’t find the words, or who are looking around trying to pick up pieces of a life that you had planned, but isn’t quite working out as well as you’d imagined. I get fed up with writing pandemic poems. I have written too many pandemic poems. Then I think, ‘Well, of course you’re writing pandemic poems. You’re living through a pandemic. You’re writing. The words you write, in poems, will of course reflect your concerns and experiences.’ And, really, how could I write anything but pandemic poems right now? My lexicon has changed, poetically, inside my head. The images are shifting. I can’t find the lighthouses I used to find, but I keep seeing hourglasses and boats without anchors or oars. Fitting, somehow.

What I have done to cultivate creativity has felt a bit haphazard and daft in its intention. I don’t like puzzles. I don’t like adult colouring books. They make me anxious because I can never complete them. There are too many tiny pieces and spaces. So, what did I do? I ordered a paint by number kit. That seemed to be a decent idea. It arrived, and it was lovely, but it was lacking in numbers. (People who have known me a long time will laugh because they know I have a very long string of crap luck. One only needs to ask me about the time a tow truck driver stopped at a pharmacy to dry shave—all to impress me and then ask me out while taking my broken down car to the garage—to know that my historic string of crap luck goes back at least twenty years.) In any case, I tried to paint the little shapes in the guise of the photo that came with the outlined paint by numbers canvas, but I only got more and more frustrated. One more thing I couldn’t do properly in a pandemic. Fuck.

So. This is what I did.

I took out all of the little acrylic paint tubes and opened them, covering the canvas with paint and creating a mess of strange, alien-like red flowers with dark green vines underneath. It’s not at all pretty, but it’s something that I made. It’s the making that seems to help. I’ll post it here, because I can’t curate my life at all right now, and I’m learning to practice letting go of things I thought I knew were truths, and accepting that new truths are making themselves each and every moment of each and every new pandemic day…even if they make me mostly feel nauseous and in need of a Gravol.

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I planted tiny seeds in empty egg cartons. At first, they didn’t sprout. For weeks, I stood over them on the back porch, bending down to see if they would grow. No. Of course not. Like the words that wouldn’t emerge or link themselves into being, the tiny egg crate seeds were saying ‘Fuck you, Kim.’ Last week, though, after a few days of cooler and rainier weather here, the carrots emerged in tiny fern-like fountains of green and I said out loud to them, a big cup of coffee in my hand, ‘Are you sure you want to be here now? Things are really falling apart out there…’ (Yes, I know I’m referring to Pema Chodron’s brilliant book…) But still they grew. Stubborn, these seeds of mine. They conjured themselves into being, with the help of a few hot days followed by a few rainy ones.

I planted window boxes, even the one outside my bedroom window, the one that I’ve never planted in all of the seven summers I’ve lived here in this little red brick hobbit house. This year, I told myself—while remembering William Morris’s philosophy of cultivating beauty in your home—I will make my window box beautiful. I will be able to see beauty, even as the world seems more and more like an out of control and very weedy terrarium to me. And so the little sweet potato vines are growing, tossing themselves gracefully and poetically over the edge of the box, looking hopeful. (I want to warn them, though…and tell them to mind what the lemmings did…but…)

I sing Irish songs out loud now, as I always have, as if to prove to myself that my lungs, my breath, and my voice are strong, and will continue to be. The plans I had made, the ways I’ve been making meaning over the years, worked for the old way of living, for the time before the arrival of the virus. Now, there are no set plans because what I’m learning is that plans aren’t really well suited to an apocalyptic time. I’m learning that I can do a lot more yoga than I’d ever imagined, except when the dog walks under me. I’m learning that my feet will always keep me rooted down to the earth, even as my Sagittarian self longs for something dreamier.

I was thinking of Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art yesterday. It’s a book I’ve always loved. One quote that seems to resonate with me these days, in all of their uncertainty, is: “Our job in this life is not to shape ourselves into some ideal we imagine we ought to be, but to find out who we really are and become it.” The time before the pandemic was more about the first part of the sentence, right? And now, well, now we’re living in the second part of the sentence. We’ve had to spend time with ourselves in ways we haven’t before—the single people, the married people who are both happy and unhappy, and the separated and divorced people with kids moving between houses. We’ve had to face things we couldn’t before, because we always made ourselves too frantically busy, too much with the ‘doing’ and not enough with the ‘being.’ Now, well, now the ‘being’ feels terribly hard, when the default has always been to just fill spaces with ‘doing.’

I miss reading fiction so much that my heart hurts. A friend offered to bring me books, but I can only handle poetry, so to see anything else makes me feel physically sick inside right now. This week, I started Harry Potter. I have prescribed it for myself, trying to focus on reading two chapters a day. Why this book? Because. I know what the dark and light do in these books. I know there will be battles and that good will win out, even though people will struggle for what’s right and even though some will likely perish. I know that the ‘outsiders’ and eccentrics in the story will triumph because they are unique and true to themselves deep inside. I know I will lull myself into a rhythm of reading that will pull me back—I hope—to being able to read prose again soon.

And I’m immersing myself in Charlie Mackesy’s beautiful little book, The Boy, the mole, the fox and the horse. It’s not hard to read because it’s full of tiny illustrations. You can start at the beginning and then make your way to the end, or you can open it at any point—just as you can with a book of poems—and find yourself lost in the lovely words and images. It reminds me of my mum’s favourite book, which was The Little Prince. In both beautiful books, which seem on the surface to be written for children, there are messages of wisdom and kindness from which the world could learn right now.

Here is the thing I think I’m trying to say: this pandemic time is not about learning a new language, or teaching yourself how to make stained glass, or bake really complex opera cakes in their tiny, multitudinous layers, and it’s not even about pretending to do any of those things well. Those are (and let’s just all call them what they are) distractions from the uncertainty, fear, and grief we feel as humans—living in the midst of a global pandemic and, now, witnessing the horror of racism and violence. I won’t speak to that because I am white and privileged. I want to listen. To not mention it here, though, would be ridiculous. If the first wave of the corona virus was an invisible health threat that swept the planet, as well as a real cluster fuck for your mental health, then the second wave is revealing humankind’s inhumanity towards itself. The third wave…who knows? It will likely just be the second wave of the virus, and that’s hardly a ‘likely just be’ if you ask anyone who has silently lurking health issues or who has someone they love living in a long term care home. So. How do we manage, then, is what I’ve been asking myself. As a creative person, I need to create. If I can’t create with the words I’m used to creating with, and if even reading (which is usually such an escape) is hard to do, I have to think it’s because we’re living through trauma.

Yes. We’re living through global trauma, of more than one kind, and then we’re living through trauma that’s been freakily reflected and embedded in our individual lives. Maybe some people still flourish in the pandemic, but I’m not one of them. I’ve surviving. I kind of imagine we all are. If I say I’m only surviving, praying for a vaccine, does that mean I’m weak? No. Mentally ill or ‘fragile’? No. It means I know that I can’t expect more of myself right now. I can’t expect to finish a novel I used to love writing every day. I can’t expect to make the ‘right kinds of edits and rewrites’ on my newest play. It means I have to be less hard on myself, more gentle, and more accepting of the fact that we’re living through a very surreal time. I have to hold myself tightly, and closely.

If you’re a writer, and you’ve been watching other writers on social media say how fantastic a time they’re having, finishing stuff up, just know that I’m not in that cohort. I feel broken as a writer right now. I can focus on small poetry book reviews, and I can write blog posts, and I can write pandemic poetry (which I hate writing), but I’m mostly trying to find other ways to assure myself that I can still create something worthwhile. I’ve signed up for online writing courses, and then been really worried that my frazzled head will let me down. My mind is the thing I like most about myself, but lately it’s rusty and clunky in how it works creatively. That worries me, leaves me trying to find my sea legs again as a writer.

I also am part of a small group of local playwrights. Once a week since this began, we respond to a prompt that one of us sets out. We only write for an hour, and then we post our work around a text-based sort of campfire that proves we can still set aside an hour a week to create something imaginative beyond what’s lurking ominously outside in reality. We don’t ‘zoom’ this. We just write separately and the pieces appear for reading and commentary. It proves we still exist, that we can still create, that we are somehow still connected by words and writerly friendship. It proves to me that I can still write, that once a week time slot. It’s not the same as meeting in person, though, and that’s hard, especially because writers tend to be introverts anyway, so writing groups can offer that sense of community you might be craving. After all, even the most introverted of writers need human contact…

I keep looking for lessons during this time. Poets do that, I think. It’s likely why we end up with other poet friends, so we feel less awkward in the world. Maybe the lesson is to be found in looking for the tiny silver linings, in trying to find light in darkness, and maybe it’s just even about breathing through a difficult yoga pose that could easily be renamed ‘life in the pandemic era,’ or maybe it’s just about leaning into the uncertainty of the unknown in the face of 2020’s chaos and brutality.

I think–for the creatives out there–we know that creating is important. It’s what we’re here on the planet to do. Often times, I think, too, that what we create has a purpose beyond what we can intuit at the time when we create it. A painting, a poem, a song…these things can move through us, and then ripple out in waves of light to other people. We create because we need to create. When we feel we can’t create…it’s hard. And, too, we create and speak up against darker things like oppression, racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, hatred, and bullying in the work we do. Sometimes it’s obvious, and sometimes it’s more subtle. Art…the creation of art…is so important these days. So, even if I’m struggling with my own creative process right now in a really tangible way, I can think….

….maybe…if I plant carrot seeds and they grow, I’ll be thankful. And, if I can write a pandemic poem that reminds me of what has been lost, I’ll be thankful for what I remember loving most about that ‘before time.’ And if I can listen to a piece of music that makes me cry while I sit underneath a tree at the end of the day, I’ll be thankful again. It’s a time of being within ourselves, and of being true to ourselves, and we will all do that in different ways. It’s a time of speaking up after being silenced by others for too long, and also a time of knowing when to listen more than to speak. Different boats, same big ocean…and all of us looking for our lighthouses…

peace,

k.

And…an addendum for those who wonder: I may love the Harry Potter books, but I’m not keen on J.K. Rowling’s TERF-dom this week. Still working through that discrepancy in my head and heart now, and very angry about—and disheartened by—her comments. For me, the books have lit up my life during my very darkest times, and will likely continue to do so. That she has spoken so hatefully is wrong. In my life, her books have saved me in ways I can’t even begin to express here. Thinking this week of those who have also loved her work, but who this week feel betrayed and battered by her ignorant and hurtful words…

…and wishing for the wisdom that only Dumbledore could offer us during one of our darkest and most challenging of years. (He’s his own man in my mind now, anyway…separate from her entirely…as all good characters should be.)

I kind of think Dumbledore would say to keep fighting any kind of darkness, to keep creating, to keep spreading light and compassion, and to be lighthouses for one another…but you’d have to ask him to be sure…

 

 

 

Sometimes in life, you’re in the middle of something and a pandemic suddenly arrives without warning. For some it might be an emerging love affair, the tail end of a university degree, a half-cultivated pregnancy, or a marriage that’s falling apart. For me, it was dealing with the detritus of a repressed memory of childhood abuse and trauma. I won’t dwell on it, as I’ve already written about it before, and once is more than enough.

What I will say is that, when you’re dealing with psychological trauma, and another larger sort of trauma comes along like a tsunami wave, you’ll have a hard time finding your sea legs again. What you usually use to anchor yourself likely won’t work, and you’ll find that friends in couples or in families sort of disappear as they batten down their own hatches, pulling in to protect their loved ones. None of this is unexpected. People who have their people are busy.

When you’re a single woman of 49 and a bit, and someone with an underlying health issue that has to do with lungs, you’ll find yourself thinking that now you’ll know what very elderly and isolated widows must feel like, housebound. You’ll spend a lot of time thinking about how your lungs are made of something like tissue paper, something easily torn or ripped, and that even if your body is physically strong and fit, your lungs are like…those rice paper fire lanterns that are pretty in the night sky, but so bad for the environment.

And, when you’re a single woman, an introvert and mostly shy, and a survivor of mental health issues, you’ll find yourself a bit like a solitary leaf, being swept down a fast moving river. It will at times seem as if there is absolutely nothing to grab onto. You will do yoga, and you will walk far and fast (as if you are the girl in that story that Hans Christian Andersen wrote about with the cursed red shoes, the ones you can’t ever take off and that won’t let you stop dancing), and then you’ll try not to think about how rarely you are normally touched. And then you’ll cry again because you’ll think you may not be touched again.

And sometimes, a few weeks into the apocalypse having a hissy fit, you’ll see people start to say things on social media like ‘reach out’ and ‘here’s a 1-800 number’ and ‘call me if you’re desperate,’ and you’ll just sit there and shake your head. And then there will be others who say ‘Are you on meds? Should you be? Can you find your psychiatrist again?’  As if a pandemic isn’t supposed to shake a human being, a human soul, to their core. As if a virus that infects so insidiously isn’t supposed to make you fearful and nervous. As if that isn’t just about being human.

From inside this snow globe, I keep thinking, “Why won’t you just say that you’re afraid? Why do you pretend it’s fine?” So much of what a poet friend of mine out west has called ‘The Before Times’ was all about people creating illusions of lives that were Instagram pretty—perfect family and vacation photos, two wine glasses kissing in front of a fire, or too many selfies. Now, in these new days and nights, is it so awful, so upsetting, to actually voice fear, or worry, or concern? I hope not. I think ‘The Before Times’ were overscheduled, full of things, full of superficial social posturing, and an avoidance of the real vulnerability and intimacy that comes from sharing and feeling things deeply. Better, it seemed, to stuff all of that in a box and put it in a closet. Now, with the threat of losing people we love, maybe the too-carefully-constructed societal masks will start to slip.

Here’s what I think, as someone who’s a survivor of depression: please don’t re-stigmatize people who are dealing with, or who have survived, mental health challenges. Please don’t be condescending. Please know that we’re all still people, too. A lot of us have struggled through very dark places to learn how to use tools to survive. A lot of us manage after having been very ill, and a lot of us somehow manage to recreate ourselves in new ways. But, to have people think you are depressed or suicidal because you’re struggling, can actually make you doubt yourself during the very days and nights when you most need them to let you know that you are strong, and not fragile. Maybe, if you haven’t struggled with mental illness, you won’t know this, and I’m glad for you not to have to know that. It’s best you don’t. It would add another layer of complexity to this pandemic stuff, and who really wants or needs that?

These last few weeks, I’ve had to re-think my work/life balance, and my return to teaching in September. It’s been stressful. You don’t want to have to look backwards, to constantly be looking over your shoulder to see if your past has caught up with you, but you also want to be mindful of what your own human side can handle, especially when you’re living alone as a single woman. You always need to make all of your decisions by yourself, without a partner to bounce questions and ideas off of. You need to think ahead to your finances, and how they will be when you’re a much older woman in your seventies or eighties, if you are even blessed to live that long.

People have difficult choices to make during these pandemic days, for what comes afterwards. Do you keep a small business open, or do you close it? Do you work full time afterwards, or do you choose to work part time so that you can have a life outside of your workplace, one that’s richer in ways that have nothing to do with money? Do you stay in a relationship or marriage with someone who’s just not the right person for you anymore? Do you date someone who just wants to have sex with you and not really get to know you or spend time with you? Do you think you’ll go back to who you were before, in “The Before Times,” and…really…should you even want to? There’s the biggest question of all: who will you have become when you exit the chrysalis of this COVID-19 pandemic? Will you just return to your old ways, or will you have evolved into a more interesting, and more compassionate human being?

What I miss most is human touch. I don’t get touched enough, really, outside of when I’m my visiting my hairdresser, esthetician, or massage therapist. I imagine other single woman in their late 40s are like this, unless they are open to random hook ups organized via Tinder. I’m not that woman. I never was a ‘lark in the park’ or ‘spring fling’ person. Last year, a very handsome man asked me if I was dating anyone, and then proceeded to tell me about his lengthy roster of previous sexual partners. Numbers. And I would be the next, perhaps. That wasn’t enticing to me because it felt more like a transaction than the start of anything that could be a collaborative, healthy, interesting, fun or long-term sort of grown up relationship. It felt as if I’d been objectified. This was not his fault. Not at all. He’s a good, kind, and handsome man. It’s the time and it’s the way of the world, which leads me to my next point.

I am rarely touched. I’m lucky to get hugs from a few very close friends, occasionally but not often, and usually a few times a week after my dance classes from one or two dear friends there. I was likely in a severe touch deficit before this pandemic thing began. I was, I know, because I couldn’t hug people for most of this past year, given the trauma of working through repressed memories from childhood abuse by my paternal grandfather that rose up last May. I felt, through a lot of the fall and winter months, that, if someone I trusted and cared for deeply would hug me, I would fall apart in their arms. My worry then was that I’d have to come home to an empty house and try to pick myself up again afterwards. There wouldn’t be a man here to gather me in while I fell apart. How do you explain this, though, to people who aren’t single women, or who aren’t shy or introverted? You can’t. (And yes, you can be a straight woman, and a feminist, and still wish to have a man who will hold you after you’ve broken apart emotionally, and that doesn’t mean you’ve sold out or fallen prey to old school gender stereotypes…but that’s another blog entry entirely…)

So. Here it is.

Please don’t worry. I’m not depressed or suicidal. I’m very, very sad that the world is in such a state. I’m used to being independent, so no worries there. And, as I’ve said at many small dinner parties with three close women friends, I have a couple of very good vibrators with a stock pile of AAA batteries, and one relatively new one with a technologically advanced USB cord for charging, but that is not the same thing as being held or comforted when you are worried or are crying, or having a long and interesting conversation that moves tangentially from place to place, but still somehow finds meaning there. And it is not the same as being caressed or cherished, and it is not the same thing as holding someone’s hand and wondering how their day went, or even kissing them on a walk in the woods.

What I worry about is how the world will work afterwards, in “The After Times.” Will I be able to let myself be held and cry in front of friends who hold me and don’t let me go, even when I try to turtle in? Will I be able to trust people? If you’re not a Tinder person these days, as a single woman, then you’ll likely know what I’m talking about. You might not want to say it out loud, though, and that’s okay too, because saying it loud makes you feel naked and vulnerable and raw. If you’re a man, you likely won’t know what I’m talking about. Funnily enough, things for men are still fairly privileged, even though we’re in 2020. I think it’s much different for younger women, who seem much more bold and free to me in their relationship choices, but I could easily be wrong about that observation as I am so often on the outside of so many things.

How much of this is mental health, and how much of this is being isolated, and how much of this is just being uncertain about what your future looks like? I don’t know. My friend Lara calls it “the butterfly soup,” the time and space where the caterpillar becomes a gooey mess before it emerges from the chrysalis. How such beauty and light comes from such darkness, I have no idea. I’m hopeful that what comes next will be brighter, in some ways, than the world we knew before.

Yes, it’s okay to be sad right now, to grieve what’s been lost. So much has been lost, but maybe some things that are of greater value will have been gained, after it’s all said and done. Who will know? That’s the thing. We’ll have to lean into the flow of things, trust the Universe a bit, and know that we did something, collectively, that speaks to how humans can really care for one another without knowing who they’re saving just by staying at home.

And, for those of you out there who were ‘in medias res’ when this corona virus shit storm blindsided the world—whether it was a sudden cancer scare with deferred appointments, or a wobbly and crumbling marriage, or a mid-life career change, or a plan to travel the world in a free and whimsical way—here is the thing: we will still be ‘in medias res’ when it’s all moved along. We will always be ‘in medias res,’ I think, but it’s how we choose to face that challenge that speaks to our survival and, later, too, to our blooming.

For those of you who, like me, may be dealing with pre-existing trauma in the face of the trauma of a global pandemic, I’d say that it’s okay to admit it’s hard. It doesn’t mean you’re weak or fragile or sick. It means you’re brave, able to say “This fucking sucks. Now I have to deal with more than what I ever imagined I’d have to.” To say it isn’t, to say that you’re “fine,” is only going to hurt you more, I’d guess, in the long run. So many people won’t understand it. If you’re living alone, it’s even more important to know that this is just probably not even the middle of a five act Shakespeare play. Pace yourself. Be kind to yourself. Know that you’re stronger than you can imagine.

And…if you are blessed enough to be with other humans in a house, be sure to hold them. You may be sick of them after these long weeks of pandemic self-isolation. I can understand that. Still, imagine not having close physical human contact for just as many weeks. If you’re not getting on with your spouse, or your marriage is falling apart, then hold your child close instead. But, above all, be grateful that you even have another human to hold, to feel, to touch. You can’t imagine what it’s like not to have that physical closeness in the midst of this uncertainty. Find some of your peace and calm in that great gift of physicality, for that is what it most certainly is…

peace,

k.

(…and…too…please do not try to set me up with your male friends after this is done. I’m not into set ups. Never have been, and…really…this hissy fit of an apocalypse won’t change that. This may be the only thing of which I can be most certain these days…)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The calls for pandemic literature have been coming in recent weeks, from around the world, really. Writers and artists will help to document what’s happening, maybe without even knowing they’re doing so. I’ll blog, as I do when I feel compelled, but I’m having a hard time writing these days, so I don’t know that it’ll be that often. Here is the first, in who knows of how many entries, of things I’ve been thinking about lately. Thanks for reading, if you do. Kim

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The news across Canada these last few weeks grows more and more grim, and the tales of people who continue to disregard the government’s request to stay home and think of others first can often be disheartening. So many Canadians are ‘sheltering in place,’ as some people would say. But, there are those who seem to seek out the ‘loopholes’ as ways to make themselves think that ‘normal’ is ever coming back again after this pandemic has swept across the country. It’s the ones who look for loopholes, for reasons to just think it’s all a conspiracy theory, or who have theories about government control, who actually make it worse for the larger group. Who will suffer? Or, perhaps, who will suffer most? And why does that matter? Or…why should it matter? It’s an ethical debate, really, and there are some who will disagree with me. That’s fine. Keep it to yourself, please. Write your own blog. Bitch somewhere else.

I’m a poet, and a philosopher I suppose, too. (Can you ever have a poet who isn’t a philosopher? I personally doubt it.) I’m also someone who has underlying health conditions. My lungs are not happy ones when I get a bad cold. Those things–for me– often morph into severe bronchial infections or pneumonia. I have adult onset asthma. Its arrival in my late 20s was shocking and meant that I needed to learn how not to panic when I couldn’t breathe deeply. So, this virus terrifies me, on a very personal level. I feel it’s only fair and honest to admit to that fear, because it’s a real thing. Those others I’ve talked to since COVID-19 arrived, those who are also adult asthmatics in their 40s and 50s, are just as afraid, as are many others with “invisible” underlying health issues. They just won’t always say it out loud…and that’s okay, too.

I am also someone who spent a great deal of my 30s taking care of elderly parents who both had severe health issues. The health care system is not friendly at the best of times, whether you consider the structure of long term care or hospitals. It isn’t ‘user friendly,’ and it often requires an injection of compassion during the most difficult times in a person’s life. Sometimes, if you’re an advocate for frail elderly parents, you’re made to look crazy, as if you’re mad because you stand up and ask questions on behalf of those you love. Sometimes, it’s easier for people in high places to gaslight you, if you’re an advocate for the frail elderly. Sometimes, it always felt to me, people in charge would rather just not worry so much about the frail elderly. Why not just assess them, stuff them into a hospital bed, and then have them shuffled into long term care? Why not just say they are ‘bed blockers’ instead of human beings? Out of sight, out of mind. This, sadly, is still the case in Canada if you visit a nursing home and see how many elderly people are without family members to show them love, affection, or support. Those who do visit are the ones who become vocal advocates for the elderly, and for their rights. Some of us keep on, even after our elderly parents have died.

The news of the numbers of deaths due to the corona virus, when you look at them, tend to speak to how brutally this thing is hitting residents in long term care homes across Canada. There are calls for masks and personal protective equipment (PPE), calls for gloves, and calls for proper quarantine within long term care residences, but they have come–it seems to me–too late. What this points to, I think, is a blatant disregard for our elders. The same thing is happening within group homes for adults with disabilities, as well. In both cases, there is serious discrimination against two high risk groups. In both cases, frontline workers need PPEs and support. That they don’t have these things is, I think, a travesty, and speaks to a sort of moral and ethical decay within our society. At the ends of my parents’ lives, both of them were physically disabled. Neither could walk. One was confined to a bed for the last year of her life, and the other was in a wheelchair. Both had issues with breathing, and with underlying core morbidities.

I have chosen to minimize my time on social media lately. What used to make me feel connected, as a single person who lives alone, now makes me feel disconnected. It’s a strange state to be in, to be honest. I don’t have a television, so I watch the news on CBC online once a day, just to see what’s happening. I read online newspapers, too, but I am mindful to think through what I’m reading in a critical way. If we learn one thing, besides compassion of course, after this is over…and it will take some time for it to be ‘over’…I hope it is that we will think more critically about what we read, say, and posit in public spheres.

What I worry about is that some people are thinking that it’s not so bad if older people die from this virus. The numbers of deaths are higher in this group, so surely that’s to be expected, is what they might be thinking, and sometimes even stupidly say (or write) out loud. In Italy, doctors and nurses had to make decisions to not put people on ventilators based on age or physical ability. When you’ve had a parent in a nursing home, or even in the hospital, you’ll likely already know how often some bug passes through a building, and how quickly things are usually managed, with disinfectant hand wash and gowns and gloves at entrances to patient rooms. You’ll also know, though, that people will always still die when there is a flu bug that sweeps through a long term care facility. You’ll know why you get the flu shot. Yes, it’s for you, but if you have an elderly parent in a nursing home, you’re more likely getting the flu shot to protect them, and those they live with, and their carers, too.

The things that have been happening at the Dorval and Bobcaygeon nursing homes in the last couple of weeks show us that they are simply both the more obvious canaries in the coal mine of a system that has been vastly underfunded for decades, really. In these places across Canada, where our elders live, the ratio of PSWs to residents is unacceptably low. Nurses, registered practical nurses, and personal support workers are all underpaid for the hard physical and mental work they do each and every day.

I’ve been reading bits of Richard Wagamese lately. He is, for me, a source of great wisdom and comfort. One of my favourite books of his is Embers, but I read One Drum: Stories and Ceremonies for a Planet last fall. In it, he speaks of how we are all connected, as human beings. He writes this: “So the most profound truth in the universe is this: we are all one drum and we need each other.” He also writes: “The great forgotten truth of our reality as a human species is that we all came from somewhere. We all began our cultural journeys somewhere on the planet and because of that we are all Indigenous to her. Everyone. But we learned to use our minds. We learned to think, to rationalize, to know fear and to be protective. When we learned that, we learned separation. And as we practised separation we learned dislocation and disharmony….We learned to exist for the grand illusion–that we can control things on the planet.” He speaks, too, of courage and faith and fear. Faith, he says, “has come to mean ‘find an insight that heals.” See? Wagamese was wise. He still is. What he also writes about, in both Embers and One Drum, is how we are all part of one song. He writes of how elders are meant to be valued, heard, and respected. This is also what I have always been taught.

Growing up, I had two families. One was my father’s side, which was abusive. The damage they did is still something I’ve been dealing with of late. The other was my mother’s family, which was the opposite. I often think of my great aunts who lived on Kingsmount because they gathered us in when we were little. I also think, very often, of my maternal grandmother. All four of these women took us into gatherings that were for grown ups and spoke to us as equals. I don’t ever recall a time when we were made to feel ‘other’ or ‘outside of’ something, even when I was little. I learned my manners there, from my Gram Ennis, in particular, but also from my great aunts and uncles, from my aunts and uncles, and from my parents. In my twenties, I often spent time having coffee visits with my great-aunts and my grandmother at their houses, on Kingsmount and Wembley, listening to their stories. They were then seniors, and they had such a wealth of stories, and somehow wove me into them. For me, they were the women who taught me the value of story, and of telling stories, and of remembering stories, and of feeling worthy enough to write them down, and of gathering people together.

I think of those people who were wise elders in my life, and I think of the frail elderly I saw when my father was in long term care, those who often didn’t get visitors, and I think that we need to remind ourselves that all people are to be valued. Age, in so many cultures, is something that is valued, not denied or avoided. The strange Western phenomenon of plastic surgery and denial of the physical aging process is, I think, terribly sad and unsettling. Are we so afraid to be here, to still be alive, to gain more and more life experiences as we go along our paths, side by side? Are we so quick to cast off people?

As of yesterday, April 12th, almost half of Ontario’s COVID-19 deaths were in long term care residences. That it takes the corona virus to wake people up about the state of elder care in Canada is a worry, I think, but it may be that one of the things that might change after the virus has swept across the country will be the way in which we treat the frail elderly. That it might take this awful thing, and these great personal losses in long term care homes, breaks my heart. Why, I wonder, has it taken this for us to stop and think, just for a scant moment even, about how we treat our elders?

I go to Wagamese for comfort these days. I go to him more often than anyone else. We are all part of one song, and that he so openly shared his culture’s wisdom to teach us is a gift I’ll always be grateful for. He has been my greatest teacher in recent years…and I miss him being here. But I will always be grateful for all of the books, all of the words, he wrote and shared.

peace,

k.

 

 

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.