I have come to love canoeing this year. Losing weight has helped, I think. You go from a size 14 to a 10 in about a year and a half of hard work, and you learn that you are much physically stronger than you ever imagined. You can suddenly heft up a heavy canoe off the top of an SUV, and help your friend carry it down a hill to a lake, or yank it up onto a rock so that you can perch there for an hour, chat, and have lunch. On top of that new strength, though, you end up feeling much more graceful than you ever have before. You feel that you’re finally in your body, rather than just in your head. It’s been a journey, that’s for sure.

My dear friend, Jen, lives in the community of Atikameksheng Anishnawbek, just beyond the town of Lively. It’s a half hour drive out from where I live, near downtown Sudbury. The drive itself is really lovely, but once you get out there, well, your heart melts at the beauty of the land. Jen and her husband, John, have a canoe. We’ve gone out about a few times this summer and, each time, I am reminded of what the act of canoeing offers a person–from the inside out.

Until about two years ago, I was constantly worried and anxious. (It’s a bit like a vestigial tick that is left over from the major depression I suffered when my parents were dying and I was the main caregiver). In the last two years, I’ve made a conscious decision to not be fearful, to take risks when I otherwise would have just curled up into a fetal position. Coming into yourself is an amazing journey. I don’t care what other people think, I feel calm in my thoughts and words, and certain where I was always so uncertain before. It’s allowed me to envision a life where I’m not bound by a specific place or town or job. It’s allowing me to imagine a life that might bloom into something new, especially in terms of career and where I might live. (My leave from teaching in February will hopefully help me to sort these things out. I want to write in a different place, somewhere not in the north, to see how geography and place influence and shift the content and style of my writing. I have faith the leave will help me to redirect myself because I intend to enter into that experience of exploration fully.)

The canoeing this summer has taught me a few things that relate to life lessons:

A) You can learn and practice skills, even if you think you might not be as capable as someone else, or if you think you are uncoordinated. I had rowed on Ramsey Lake back in my 20s, so I knew I was comfortable being on the water, but I had had one bad canoeing experience about ten years ago, with a friend who just didn’t seem to enjoy canoeing. It felt arduous and not at all joyful. This reintroduction to canoeing, with Jen’s help, has caused me to become quite addicted to it. Tell me that you want to go canoeing with me and I’ll jump up and down a little bit. I can’t think of a nicer way to spend a day, unless it’s a hike in the bush somewhere.

B) You can learn to work with another person, to trust another person, rather than to feel that so much of everything is up to you alone. When you’re an introvert, as I am, and a fairly quiet and creative person, as I am, you sometimes forget how to trust that others will help (and not hurt) you. I trust Jen to steer, but now I know –almost intuitively– when she needs a hand or what I should do to help out from the bow. I like that I don’t have to think as much now, when we go out together, that I can trust my sense of intuition and balance to know what I should do to help steer…especially when we go deep into cattails and try to see if there is a way between lakes. I like that I know I can trust someone else now, that I can use my personal strength to work collaboratively with a friend to move a canoe through the water. I think I’ve transferred that lesson to my own life, too, but that’s a work in progress…as always.

C) You can learn to relax and float a bit. (Historically, I have not been a floater. I have always worked hard, a lesson my father taught me, and I have always had goals, and I am stubborn in too many ways.) Canoeing has taught me to trust the water. If you learn and practice the skills of paddling, you can trust that the water will hold that canoe, that it will cradle the canoe (and you!) and take you to places you hadn’t ever imagined. Yesterday, for example, we paddled right up to a beaver lodge. I was ecstatic! You can’t imagine how it feels to be four feet away from a beaver lodge when you’ve only ever seen them from the roadside next to a northern lake. They are beautiful, so well made and bigger up close.

D) You can learn that sometimes you don’t need to know where you’re going in life. This is a big, big lesson for me. My parents were always too strict and over-protective, so it’s taken me some time to grieve their deaths, but also to overthrow their fearful philosophies of life. I know, for now, that I teach in a formal high school structure, but I feel that I’ll shift from that sooner rather than later. If you’d told me I’d have thought this even three years ago, I would have shaken my head vehemently. I was still too rooted in fear, then. I had grand plans of moving into Guidance and Administration, but now my writing is more important. Before, I was too linear and cerebral. I was fearful of exploration. I’ve come to a place where I can realize that, if you find yourself ‘stuck,’ you can simple readjust your canoe and take a new route. You can start off having a plan to move from one lake to another, looking for wolves, moose, and elk as you paddle along shorelines, but you may not see them.  You may also find, when you finally get to the place where you should be able to move between two lakes, that the local beavers have built a dam there, to fiddle with water levels and make their homes safer.  So, you can shift life plans and routes: it takes time to adjust, of course, but it’s all very possible. Being open to possibilities is a new thing for me. It’s exciting.

E) You can learn, too, from disappointment. This past week has been a hard one for me. I’ve learned, again, that people can’t always be depended upon, and that you can’t always trust as openly as I do. I always think that they will be dependable, but I know now that that’s because I am dependable. (You can’t always assume or expect that someone operates from the same sort of moral and ethical place as you do…or that they share similar philosophies of life…even if you’ve known them for decades. And you can’t believe that, just because you’ve known them for years, they will be there for you. I’ve learned that this week, from someone I’ve known for ages, and it’s caused me great pain. But I’m learning from that pain, so I know I was meant to have that experience…again.)

The thing, then, is for me to discern whether or not a person like that can be trusted, can be depended upon to be a supportive person in my life. How do you decide whether you can trust, or whether you can be vulnerable with a person, or whether they will hurt you without a single passing thought? I’m working through that right now, and it’s painful because it’s someone I’ve known for years and years…so I’m wobbly…and I’m turtling…and my heart is sore and a bit shocked. I am fighting against pulling in and turtling, but it’s rippled out into other parts of my life…in seeing what roles other people play…and the lesson feels like a big one. Figure it’ll take some time…but the canoeing helps me to remember that I can trust landscape, and nature, sometimes, more than I can trust humans with my heart.

F) You can learn that it’s all right to be full of wonder when you see a fish jump to the surface of a lake, creating ripples in a concentric way; or when you shout out with joy when you see a “V” of geese sweeping across an afternoon sky while you’re out on the water; or when you watch a dragonfly sweep across in front of you and land on a nearby rock. Finding images of wonder is a way to bring light into your life, I think. It’s just being mindful, being poetic (maybe), and for me, being myself. It roots me firmly into myself, as I connect to something greater, something that speaks to me through landscape and the natural world.

This new love of canoeing, then, has taught me a great deal this year. I’m stronger than I thought, more in love with the wilderness of water, rocks, trees, and sky, than I ever thought possible. I love canoeing out to little islands and then swimming off the edges of them, so I feel as if I’m entering a painting. If I could reincarnate right now, I’d choose to be a tree, perched on the edge of a rock overlooking some waterway in this country.  I’d be the poem of the wilderness, giving and receiving energy from some greater creative force. But, for now, I’m just me, so I’ll root down like a tree, take up the space I’m meant to, breathe in and out, and be centred, calm, and creative, knowing it’s all for my soul’s growth, even if it can be a bit sharp sometimes.

Here are some photos from yesterday’s trip…IMG_5900.JPGIMG_5926 (1).JPGIMG_5933.JPGIMG_5942 (2).JPG

peace, friends.










I am always so thankful to Markus Schwabe (at CBC Morning North) for the times he’s had me on the morning show to speak about the things I’m most passionate about…mostly poetry, literacy initiatives, and why we should encourage parents and kids to read and write poetry.

Here’s the link to that interview, if you’d like to listen.  You can also order a copy of the new book via my website, by going to the Books page and clicking on the cover image.  🙂  The website URL is simple…it’s just  http://www.kimfahner.com





For most people, Thanksgiving must conjure up all sorts of glorious red and gold leafy images of family gatherings, hugs and pie. I remember them, I do, but only vaguely now. These days, I remember them as if I am looking at them from the outside of a really thick glass snow globe, one that someone has shaken too fiercely, so that I can’t see the images clearly anymore. If anyone inside the globe speaks, or a memory rises up, I can only hear muffled voices. So, as I do for Christmas, I try to rent a place where no one knows me, and where I don’t know anyone, and I pull in like a little turtle.

My heart hurts, and I’m a turtle-r when I’m hurting. I pull in, avoid anyone or thing that hurts me, and just try to stay strong. I’m sure some people would view it as my being distant or even cold, but it’s not that. It’s a hedgehog kind of thing, too, a prickly outside that protects you when you’re a bit raw. (When you’re the only one in your life to pick up your own broken pieces, well, you tend to gather yourself to yourself on the hardest days…because it’s a mess to try and pick up your own pieces after grief has broken you up again from the inside out when there’s no one else around to hold you in a hug, or give you a hand.)

For me, Thanksgiving and Christmas make me feel sick inside. I try not to think of the people who’ve died, but I always do. In my head and heart, I refer to them as ‘my lost ones.’ There are more of them there now than here, and it’s hard. I have no shortage of more than kind friends who offer me a place at their dinner tables, even a second cousin who makes me feel loved when she drops off little containers of stew or chili. I’m blessed that people are so kind to me. I appreciate invitations to other people’s family dinners, but it’s just that it actually even hurts more when you are with someone else’s family. I end up feeling jealous, and then I put myself down internally for being jealous (because how silly is that, anyway, to be jealous of someone else’s family?!), and then I get just so unbelievably sad inside. Being with other people at Thanksgiving and Christmas makes the two or three days even worse. If you’re ‘borrowing’ a family for the day, then it feels like you’ve invaded a Norman Rockwell print, elbowed someone aside, been a bit of a bother, and just feel it’d be best to go home and hop into bed with a book. On such days, then, it is better to go off and pull into my little turtle shell.

Sitting here, in a tiny cottage on the edge of Lake Simcoe, I’m thinking about my parents and my grandmother. I think, always, of my dad and maternal grandmother every day. My mum, well, she’s there, but sort of like a strange bird that sits behind me on a tree branch, watching, maybe even tilting her head, judging me, curious about the person I’ve become since she’s left, but distant and not really as interested in my life somehow. Funny how these relationships with my loved ones have changed since their deaths, I often think, just as real-life ones with friends will. I have tried to write this weekend, and I have, but I’ve had more luck in the last two days with marking journals for my classes, planning the agenda for my book launch, and reading next to Sable, who snores very loudly now that she’s mostly deaf. There have been lots of long walks with the dogs, and that’s helped. Sitting by the edge of the water across the road, at sunset and sunrise, has been good, too. Just being able to breathe a bit helps.

An article about grief popped up on Facebook this morning. I clicked on it, shaking my head, skeptical. Typical article: grief is like a wave; it doesn’t have a time frame or schedule; it can be tied to days, or seasons, or to a difficult day or week at work. For me, it doesn’t have edges, and it wobbles evasively like a tomato aspic jelly salad, defiant and not easy to cut into. It can have you weeping when you hear a certain piece of music, or see light slicing beautifully through fall leaves in an outside tree, or when you just wish you could have a decent chat with your dad. It can be as ache-inducing and relentless as a sore back tooth, or as sharp as a knife that has fallen from a counter to bounce off the floor, and down onto the soft upper surface and slope of a bare foot. It can make you lose your breath, when you least expect it. It can make you flash back to a last moment or breath, to the departure of a parent’s life in a hospital, or to the last words you said to a mother or father, not knowing that they were actually the very last words. It’s that much of a shapeshifter, a trickster, a pain-creator, this thing called grief.

So.  What to do? Nothing. You push through these few days—maybe in a new spot in the province—so that the different types of light distract or transfix you, so that the sounds and smells of fall are different from the ones up north, so that the sound of a train whistle in the distance makes you think of how your dad liked Gordon Lightfoot songs, but still often sang “The Black Velvet Band” loudly on road trips, and loved passing cars at high speeds when he really didn’t need to on Highway 69. Some people will say, “No, don’t run away from the pain of grief. Face it. Or sit with other people over their turkeys and pretend that your heart isn’t sad.” Here’s the thing: you can’t escape it, even if you try. You can’t run away from it because it sits in your heart. You carry it with you.

It’s more that you try to distract yourself from the days, usually in a clutch of two or three. You take the days as you would swimming in large waves in a Great Lake like Huron or Erie, bracing yourself and gulping at air before you go under and then emerging again, over a series of nights and days, somehow beginning to trust the motion of those waves again.  If you trust them, actually take a deep breath and enter into the memory and grief, then it lets you in, gathers you up, acknowledges the pain and ache of love lost to death. The more you struggle against your feelings, though, the more you are likely to drown. A weekend or clutch of days like this…can exhaust a person. More often than not, on Tuesday morning at work, the person will look tired, but they will also be triumphant (in small ways) at having survived the tsunami of both good and bad memories.

My parents’ voices have both gone now. While I used to be able to hear them in my head, I can’t anymore. This, this year, has been the most difficult adjustment, in losing the sound of their voices from my mind. Their faces remain, but not their voices. And then I think to myself, “List what you are grateful for, Kim. List it. Write it. Make it true, a daily list of what you find to be beautiful, all magic and gratitude to fight against any empty spaces they’ve left behind in your heart.” And these turned into my gratitude posts on Twitter and Facebook, and my photos on Instagram, as reminders to stay in the light, be grateful for each breath, and live life fully in tribute to the people I’ve lost:

A pre-dawn walk on the edge of a lake, ducks having breakfast, tail feathers up above the ripples, ass over tea kettle (as my Gram Ennis might say), water ballet birds in avian tutus; a star high up in the branches of a pre-dawn tree, and a full moon that hangs like a marbled beacon in the sky; the sound of a loon once in a blue moon, echoing across the water’s surface; a cup of Earl Grey, bare feet and legs tucked up under me on the chesterfield, reading Mary Oliver or Wendell Berry poems; the sound of Bach in a little house or cottage, notes soaring up around me, lifting me when I’m on my heart’s own metaphorical knees; the friends who have kids, who generously let me take on the role of eccentric aunt; my deep love of trees, birds, and shifting skies and weather systems; the few souls who know and understand how deeply a person can ache inside, especially in the times around family holidays, and who text or message not to ask for or demand something, but to offer a warm, welcoming and kind heart, a listening ear, and pure unconditional love instead. These are the friends who love me as I am, not just as a passing poet laureate or published writer. They take me as I am, these few dear friends whom I can count on one hand, and that is all I’ve ever wanted or needed since my dad died.

While you might not enjoy your family all the time, friends, trust me when I say you will miss it—and them—once they’ve gone. It’s very true what they say…that you only really notice what it is you’ve lost after it’s left your life.

This weekend, all full of love and grief (the very two things that C.S. Lewis says go together in his work, “A Grief Observed”), I am grateful for having known them, and for having loved them, and for having been so well loved for at least a bit of my life time.

I was blessed; for that time, I was blessed, and I didn’t even know the half of it…



I have to confess that this will be a biased piece. I have read a lot of Colleen Murphy’s plays in the last two years and fan-girled all over her when she came to Sudbury in May for Reading Town/Ville Lecture. What always strikes me about her work, when I read it and again when I see it on stage, is how carefully crafted it is. It’s the sort of work you wish you could write for the stage, and I always leave shaking my head and then checking my heart to see if it’s still there, beating regularly. Her work really is that powerful, and none of it seems to ever repeat itself, although some of the underlying thematic questions are common.

This play, “The Breathing Hole,” is one that she talked about in Sudbury in May. She said she had written a play about a bear that was five hundred years old. The play focused on the notion of a breathing hole in the ice, in the far north, in the Arctic, and would deal with Inuit culture. This idea seemed both mythical and magical, that a bear could live five hundred years. To me, that’s seductive. I love legends, creation stories, myths, and the idea of ancestry. I also love the notion of every living thing having a soul, and this is so much an interwoven part of Indigenous culture. I’m naturally drawn to being outside, in nature, and the raw landscape of northern Ontario plays a role in most of my writing.

The most beautiful parts of this play are sensual and visual. It begins with two children playing with shadow puppets, light casting shadows up on the back of the stage and telling the story of the Arctic, and colonization, and always returning to the shape of that polar bear. The first time you see the bear, it’s a tiny thing held in the arms of an Inuit woman who feels lonely. Then, it’s massive, lumbering across the stage, making noises that sound truly bear-like. It is anthropomorphic, this bear, so symbolic of spirit and culture, and it ends up being a great teacher by the end of the play. (I won’t spoil it in case you go to Stratford to see the play, which you should.) The sound of the Inuktitut language, too, when you hear it spoken, is so beautiful. Hearing it tonight reminded me of the first time I heard Welsh spoken, while I was on an Irish ferry between Wales and Ireland. It’s musical and, when I closed my eyes to listen to it, I could imagine ocean waves cresting and breaking, and then rolling back into themselves. Beautiful.

The notion of a Stratford play that has been produced in a year that celebrated the 150th anniversary of Confederation is also very telling. (I was asked to write a poem for Canada 150 in my role as poet laureate, and had a difficult time. I don’t believe in it because this country existed long before Confederation, and long before colonization. Indigenous peoples have been here for much longer.) What I love about Murphy’s play is that she has the polar bear serve as a sort of narrative image, or symbolic thread, that strings itself from the start, which takes place prior to contact by Europeans, through to the end of the piece, when we hear of oil spills and eco-tourism in the Arctic in a futuristic time. You hear it before it crosses onto the stage, its breathing and grumbling, and its big padded paws shuffling echoing through the theatre. You learn to love it, to let it into your heart.

This bear is a great teacher, as an elder would be, I imagine. The closer you come to the end of the play, the more you think about how humans are most detrimental to both themselves and the health of the natural world. Europeans have a history of destruction, of conquering with no real reason except to get more stuff–resources, land, and even to decimate and/or ‘gather’ and try to assimilate Indigenous people. There is also a reference to the ill-fated Franklin Expedition, to how pompous and vain it all seemed, trying to find and map out the Northwest Passage. (I always think of the Stan Rogers song.) Still, very little is ever told of the Inuit side of that story in Canadian history textbooks, and Murphy gets at it a bit here, in a quirky and satirical way.

Faced with the weirdness of eco-tourism and oil rigs (and spills), “The Breathing Hole” makes you think about what’s happening with global warming and how the Arctic has been the canary in the climate change coal mine. The Inuit have been warning about changes to the northern landscape for decades. They have noticed a change in polar bear and seal populations, in how plants flourish or fail, and how landscape is physically changing because of melting. The image of this great symbolic bear drenched in oil can break a person’s heart (it did mine…) but it should also make you realize that we are our own worst enemies sometimes.

This morning, we took our Grade 11 English classes to see the film version of Richard Wagamese’s “Indian Horse.” It was beautiful. The shots of the landscape around Sudbury and Northern Ontario made me get emotional. I’ve gone hiking and canoeing in those beautiful places. I’ve gone swimming out in those lakes and rivers, too. They are beautiful, in all types of light, in various seasons, and in all ‘genres’ of weather. Seeing Murphy’s play tonight made me think, again, of how much the natural world means to me. It’s why I’m drawn to the poetry of Seamus Heaney, Mary Oliver, and Wendell Berry. All three poets write of the beautiful rhythms of the natural world, and of how landscape can be one of our greatest teachers. According to Indigenous beliefs, the natural world is full of spirit. I can’t look at the sky at night without being amazed. I can’t walk out in the bush and through heavily treed areas without feeling more myself. When I’m worried or stressed, or sad, I go out into the woods. What Murphy tells us, and what Wagamese tells us in all of his work, I think, is that we need to be mindful of our environment. We are all meant to be guardians of this natural world, especially more so now that there is such a threat to the health of the environment.

This great spirit bear in “The Breathing Hole” opens a person’s heart even wider than it already is, asks you to let it in even further, has you feel comfortable enough to risk discomfort in the watching of the story, and reminds you that you have a role to play in a world that you are only really ever passing through…as a guardian and legacy keeper. (You forget, too, that the puppet bear is not real, which is brilliant. The actors inside the bears disappear and you only sense the soul of that bear.)

There’s good reason why Murphy’s play has been extended here at the Stratford Festival. It’s likely to become a Canadian classic. It’s beautiful, disturbing, clever, heart wrenching, and so damn moving. It makes a five and a half hour drive from Northern Ontario seem perfectly worthwhile.


My maternal grandmother was, really, if I’m honest, my best friend. When my mother went back to work after I was born, as a nurse and then as a social worker, I apparently stayed a lot of the time with my Gram Ennis, in her house on Wembley Drive. At that point, my dad worked in the copper refinery in Copper Cliff. I don’t remember those days, because I was very young, but I know she was dearest to me until she died when I was in my twenties. Since then, well, I think of her every day, and I envy anyone who still has their grandmother, and will likely tell them so. For me, she was the best person, the person who really raised me. My parents weren’t openly affectionate but, for me, Gram always welcomed me with smiles and warm hugs. She was the first person to give me a blank lined notebook in my teens, when she knew I started writing poetry, and then she gifted me with an old Underwood typewriter, telling me that I would be the writer in the family. Most of who I am, the best part of me I often think, is thanks to her guidance and warmth. (This is not to discount the role of my parents, but to say instead that they were not easy to comprehend as either a child or adult. My relationship with them, in my mind, was tainted, too, by my having taken care of them as they were ill and then as they were dying. It’s complex, to say the least.)

Caring for my parents, and battling the oddly structured health care system in Ontario from 2007 until 2012, when they were both stuck inside of it, led me to advocate for the frail elderly when I joined the Patient and Family Advisory Council at Health Sciences North. I thought, wrongly, that I could raise enough hell to change the world. I’m often idealistic and delusional, but I’m a poet, so I figure it’s par for the course. I thought that speaking up would change the way people perceived the elderly. I was raised in the bosom of my mother’s family, all Irish Catholic and unwieldy, so I knew older people from the time I was little, and I was taught how to converse as if I were adult.  We were never treated as being ‘little’ or ‘less than,” but were invited into big conversations and storytelling sessions. It all formed me into the person and writer I am today. It also allowed me to value older people and treat them as equals and my most powerful teachers.

Reading at Barrie Manor yesterday brought me back to the memory of all my wonderful Irish great-aunts and uncles, to my grandmother, and to my father, as they dealt with ill health in their 70s and 80s. I thought, again, of how the arts (literary, theatrical, musical, and visual) should be a more vibrant part of long-term care facilities in the province. I know there are some who espouse this, and Barrie Manor has an amazing advocate for the arts in the person of Dawna Proudman, a fellow League of Canadian Poets poet. She believes in the power of poetry and this is obvious in her passion to run such a poetry series, inviting poets from around the province to come and read to the residents of the Manor.  In my role as poet laureate, I’ve had the pleasure of reading there twice now, and I’m always  impressed by the residents I meet. (I know I won’t be poet laureate past the end of December of this year, but I hope I’ll be asked back as they are all dear to me there.)

It bothers me to see places (and I have, in the past) where people are cast off, left to stare out windows, or weep in chairs in their rooms, solitary and isolated. Barrie Manor is not such a place; it is alive, caring, and spirited in its programming and staff, as well as with its residents. Yesterday, I met an older woman who volunteers there. She struck me with her spirit, dashing around and offering people cookies, and then coming up to me with a warm smile.  “I wondered if I could give you a hug?” she asked.  “Of course! I don’t get many, so I’m always open to receiving them!” I answered, and we chatted about her youth in Yorkshire, a place I visited years ago. We talked of the Yorkshire Dales and the raw beauty of that landscape, and then she spoke of her husband, children, and grandchildren with me. Everyone has a story, you see. Every person has a tale to tell, and some only just need a single person to hear it with an open heart. And, too, every person likely feels a call to serving others, even if they might also face ill health or the challenges of ageing. I found this bright spirit in this lovely woman yesterday and it reminded me of my own grandmother, and then my heart ached for her.

Today, in Barrie, I decided to drive an hour south, in traffic, to see “Cutting Ice,” an exhibition of Annie Pootoogook’s drawings. Her story has been with me for years. I love art, all art, but am drawn to First Nations and Inuit art. I had known of her work before her untimely death last year, but I had never had a chance to see it in person. So I drove down to Kleinburg and spent a couple of hours breathing in the beauty of that place, a gallery that makes me emotional every time I visit because it is like being inside a giant tree house, with the light and trees outside of the big glass picture windows serving as another bit of art that tugs at my heart.

The first exhibition was of the work of Tom Thomson and Joyce Wieland, and titled “Passion Over Reason.”  I found the description on one wall quite funny. Both artists were unique, it read, because Tom Thomson had never married, and Joyce Wieland had never had children. Then, eavesdropping on an older couple as they discussed the panel of information, I heard the husband say to his wife, with certainty, “Well, you know…artists…probably why this is a good exhibit.  They’re too odd to be with other people, aren’t they?”  I just shook my head and thought of all the artists and writers I know who manage to be in relationships and still produce brilliant creative and artistic work. Both Thomson and Wieland had romantic relationships, so it’s not like they were that odd, but perhaps just that they were not conventional for their time(s).

The first time I got teary was seeing a wall of small Thomson canvases. I love his work, as well as the work of the other Group of Seven painters, because it speaks to me of the raw landscape I know very well. Views of Georgian Bay and of central and northern Ontario bush always tears at me inside. These are views I’ve grown up with, views that pull at me from the inside out and make me grateful to have been raised in places where the landscape is stronger than human intervention. Other parts of the province, I often think, while less intimidating geographically, in terms of weather and physical challenges, have no notion of how survival plays into a person’s spiritual upbringing and personal development.

Then, moving into the Pootoogook exhibition, I felt unbelievably sad. The film of her life, shown in a tiny theatre room with classroom chairs, made me sit still and start to get teary-eyed. There, on a lit up wall, she spoke of how Cape Dorset formed her, and the landscape moved across the wall. Then, in the mid-2000s, she had had some success with her work and was heralded as a new artistic voice for Inuit art. By the time she died in 2016, she had somehow been caught up in addiction and had lost touch with her art. In the short documentary on her life, she spoke about how she was a third generation artist, and that got me to thinking again about how women connect with their mothers and grandmothers, how a female lineage strings itself through the emotional region of the heart, but also through physicality and familial inheritance, and through the gift of storytelling, whether with words or with visual art.

When I heard of her death in September of last year, of her having been homeless and living on the streets, and of her battle with addiction, I thought of how this country’s ignorance of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) continues to astound me as a woman. How can anyone just disappear without notice? Why do people (especially women) from communities in the far north of the country feel they have better chances in more major urban centres? The stories don’t usually have good endings. Again, I’m left thinking that there is a sort of apartheid that exists between urban and rural Canada, between the far north and the southern parts of the provinces. It’s about racism, too, whether or not people want to admit it openly.

In the film, Annie Pootoogook says “I wish I was born in the past…but I was not.” I get that. I often feel I don’t belong in this time period. It’s not about romanticizing the past, but of just not feeling that you ‘belong’ to a place or time. I don’t know if this is common to all artists or not. I’d like to ask a few friends, and then I’d like to know if they feel as separate from others as I do.

When you create art, you connect to a different energy, I think. It’s alive for you, inside of you, and you can hook into it, in a sort of mystical way, and it can feed you, if you feed it properly. But it can be very lonely, too, and I felt this in the ache of Pootoogook’s work today. Knowing she had been killed and that her body had been left in the Ottawa River shadowed my experience of the exhibition.  I just kept seeing the two big black and white photos of her face in my mind as I went through and looked at her drawings. It made me tear up.  She shouldn’t have died at 47. She shouldn’t have died after a ten year struggle with homelessness and addiction. It’s a loss of the highest order.

I’m not an art scholar. I’m not Indigenous. I love art and stories, and I love to learn about women artists and writers. They help me to find my place in the world, when sometimes I feel a bit lost inside myself. That she was taken as she was, so violently, and with the promise of more art hidden in her heart, breaks mine.

If you don’t know about her, you need to.  You can watch this little documentary…and then you can go and see the exhibition at the McMichael Collection of Canadian Art in Kleinburg.  It’s well worth battling the traffic on the 401.

No person should go missing and no one should be found in a river, far from her home, forgotten and cast off like rubbish. She deserved more. I know that much.











Am always honoured to have work accepted for publication.  Both Mary Oliver and Gwendolyn MacEwen are dear to me, in terms of influencing my work as a poet, but also just as a reader and lover of poetry.  Some writers (like people) come into your life and never leave.  These two women are like that, in my heart and head.

With thanks to rob mclennan, for liking this essay, and wanting to share it on Many Gendered Mothers.  (I am a huge fan of the site!)

If you’d like to, you can read my reflective piece here…but you should also read some (MORE!) of Gwendolyn MacEwen’s beautiful work.  It was, and still is, a great loss that she left us much too early, in my mind.






I’ve been reading Richard Wagamese’s Embers: One Ojibway’s Meditations again.  It goes everywhere with me.  I bought it at Biblioasis in Windsor last October and it’s really a bedside read that comforts me when I’m struggling with things, with big decisions, both emotional and cerebral.  He centres me with his writing and teachings, reminds me that I should not imagine I have any real control over my life.  (I’m not that important!)  I need to trust the mystery of it all, this life I’m living.  It’s worked well so far, since then, since I started reading Wagamese late last fall.  I’ve added in some Buddhist readings, too, and returned to my yoga practice, so now it’s all about mindfulness and finding the poem in what I see every day.  I keep my eyes open for things that are full of wonder, for things that make me catch my breath, or things that stop my heart with their beauty, and then I ponder them.  One of my favourite pieces in Embers is when Wagamese writes:  “Creator is everywhere and divine light shines through everything and everyone all the time.  My work is to look for that light.”  Looking for that light has never been more fun, and it’s usually where I least expect to find it every day.


A wise friend said to me, rather recently, that human emotion is like weather.  If you think of the essence of the word “mood” and equate it to what we call “weather,” then you can kind of see what it’s all about.  The wind that’s come up tonight here on Pelee Island, on my second last night, seems fierce, but the sky is beautiful and alive. I can even go out on the hillside and see stars sparkling in amidst the clouds that shift across the sky.  Earlier tonight, I went out onto the East Shore beach and stood there, listening to the waves crash, and watching the sky transform itself.  It made me cry.


I’m like that when I’m in amidst landscape.  It’s mostly why I go into wilderness on my own, or with someone whom I really trust like my friend, Jen, because I know I’m going to feel blessed and tiny. It overwhelms me.  She’s good about it when I yell out spontaneously, for no apparent reason, while canoeing, pointing at birds, or a water lily, or a turtle, or a Killarney rock face: “Oh my God!  I can die now!  Look at that!  How beautiful is that!?” at random points in the journey.  She doesn’t judge me.  She loves it, which is kind of nice, because I think, most of the rest of the time, I sort of initially transfix, and then maybe really frighten, people.  I can be ‘too much,’ all witchy woo and mystical, but it’s good to have at least one friend who loves me and accepts me enough to think it’s a good thing.  And that she isn’t afraid to canoe and be alone with me for five hours straight is a bonus!


I’ve also learned, this year and last, with the waters of Lake Erie, and with the beauty of Manitoulin Island and Killarney, and the powerful energy of the mountains in Banff, and even in the Highlands of Scotland, that you can easily fall in love with landscape and its energetic soul.  It becomes a force, an energy, and, if you’re open to these things, these elemental shifts inside your soul and then in your physical body, well, it’s as good as the perfect kiss: magic.  (I still feel guilty about falling in love with Scotland.  I never expected that.  I always expected that Ireland would be my one true love, but my tour of the Hebrides changed that, especially in the way they seem so raw, mystical, and powerful.  (Don’t worry; I’m in therapy.)

Being here on Pelee Island for two weeks has saved me.  I’ve been tired.  I still am, but a bit less so. Being a fairly active poet laureate of such a supportive city as Sudbury is a great honour and privilege.  I take it very seriously, and I work hard to give the role the dignity it deserves.   I’m proud of the work I’ve done in the last year and a half in terms of going into schools, running workshops for new and aspiring writers at the library, promoting literacy efforts, putting poetry up in public spaces, talking to teachers about how to bring poetry into their classrooms in innovative ways, advocating for mental health awareness and palliative care, and just generally trying to be supportive of our local arts and culture scene.  (I’m sure people think I’m on social media all the time, but I’m not.  Curating other people’s interesting posts isn’t that time consuming and my mind really doesn’t slow down.  Plus, I do battle with insomnia, so that adds more hours to the day to read and write.  It’s both a blessing and a curse, my being so damn creatively and socially driven.)  My increased energy this year means that I’ve also shrunk a bit, and that just seems to have given me more energy.  I don’t know how that works, but I’ll take it.


Being here—on an island—has forced me to slow down. It’s a retreat, maybe even a self-imposed sort of exile.  Sometimes, well, I’m not good at taking care of myself first.  I’ve had to be too strong for too long, for so many damn reasons.  I have a history of caring too much for others, of giving too much and not receiving.  I didn’t really have a role model in my life for the receiving part, which is sort of sad.  I know.  It’s taken me a while to get here, but I’m here now.  My goal this year is about pushing against my fears, but it’s also about learning how to receive compliments, kindness and love in a more welcoming, believing and trusting way.  People will need to be patient with me as I walk this new spiritual path.  It takes practice and I’m breaking patterns I’ve had for half a lifetime.  I think I have a problem with receiving, too, because I haven’t valued myself properly, historically.  Now I do, value myself I mean, so I know I deserve to receive goodness just as much as I give it out to others.  (God, isn’t this just all Oprah, Chopra, Tolle?!  I’m trademarking that little phrase because it’s a line in my play!)


Since I’ve been here, just short of two full weeks now, I’ve spent hours walking down long roads on my own, or sitting on an empty beach, or meditating between two trees in the yard, watching the weather, the skies and the water, being mindful of how the birds, dragonflies, and butterflies seem to be trying to tell me secrets.  I’ve gotten less pale, walking in the sun and wind, and reading outside; I’ve been bitten by the worst little flies ever, and my legs look a right mess because I’m allergic to weird bug bites, and almost everything else in life, including cats; and, I’ve fallen in front of British tourists while tripping in a pothole on the North Shore Road because I was too busy looking up at barn swallows in a field, so now there are bruises and a huge scrape on my leg to add to the bug bites. So not attractive.  But happy.


I’ve been thinking about where I’ve been and, more importantly, where I’m headed in my life.  I have four months left in the role of laureate and I have plans for about three more projects, along with any poetic commissions and readings that might come along.  The call will go out soon for the next laureate, and I’m hoping someone in Greater Sudbury will be brave enough to apply.  It’s the best thing I’ve done in my life, in terms of how rewarding it has been, but I know now it’s more than what I thought it would be, and it’s been something I would never ever do “half assed,” as my dad would have said.  (I don’t do things in half measures…)


This fall, I’ve chosen to teach again part-time, so that I can really do the role of laureate justice and still give my Marymount girls my best as their senior English teacher.  I’m ready for the next four months now.  What comes after, though, is what I’m thinking about on a personal level.  I’m single, and my family has shrunk over the last decade because of death.  This is just a fact, not a way to gain sympathy or sad faces. I’m fine. Worn and weathered from too many storms, but strong.  So, in February, I’m taking another leave from teaching.  Coming here to Pelee Island was a way to sort through some plans, and it’s helped.  I spent time talking with two close friends who live in this area and I’ll see a dear high school friend on Saturday night in Kingsville.  (Fe knew I would be a writer long before I did, so I love that she lives in Harrow and that we’ve reconnected in the last few years.)  Here’s the thing:  I love the North with my whole heart, but I need a little sojourn to see what happens when I write somewhere new, for a longer period of time.  My images and metaphors change, my ideas stretch out into new yoga poses in my mind, and I write fairly quickly down here.  I have had debates with myself over the last few months, not knowing where I belong, or what place I should root in to see how its landscapes will move through me in terms of my creative process.  I’ve thought about how it might feel to just not feel rooted, to just “be” for a while, to see how that would change me as a person and a writer.  (I think too much.)


When I first came to Pelee Island last May for a writers’ retreat, I thought a lot of my dad, especially driving from Arthur down through Stratford to London, and then from London down to Kingsville.  I stopped in Park Hill, where my paternal grandparents were from, and the landscape felt wide open.  I loved the fields, and the skies that seemed to go on forever.  Funny thing, though, is that my heart opened up, too, like the skies and fields around me.  Landscape can do that to you, or to me, anyway.  Traveling through that landscape made me miss my dad even more.  We’d driven back and forth to London to visit my great-aunt, Clara, for so many years, and I really hadn’t thought that the landscape had made such an indelible impression on me.  It did, though, and then it’s somehow woven itself into my memory of my father.  He introduced me, too, to theatre.


In my mid-teens, my parents took us down to see plays at the Stratford Festival.  I began to fall in love with it all then—plays, actors and theatre—the sound, the smell, the lights, the words, the beauty of the theatres themselves even, and the sense of anticipation when the lights go down, how you can slip into another world without worry or care.  (I never imagined I’d also start to fall in love with reading and writing plays, but I have.)  They weren’t wealthy, my parents, so I was always aware that they had saved a lot of money in order to take us on the way to visit our rather nasty great-aunt in London.  She was very wealthy, but miserable inside.  I think they thought a visit to Stratford would distract us from our visit with her, which would usually crush our little souls, but it was hard not to dislike her.   I should be thankful, I think, because now I know that—because of my mostly negative experiences with her—I tend to judge people on their spirits, values, simple kindness and compassion, and not their monetary wealth or social status.  The two sides aren’t always connected, in my experience.  Things don’t impress me…people do.


I thought, last year as I went to down to the writers’ retreat, “Oh, God. I hate humidity.  I would miss my rock cuts and tall pines.  How would this work?”  I looked at the possibility of change (and changing) with a lot of negativity, to be honest.  I’ve changed since then.  I can’t recognize myself some days, but I like who I am now, so it’s a really good thing because I go to sleep with myself at night, and then wake up with myself in the morning.  Coming here for two weeks this summer was something I needed.  I love water, and I fell in love with Lake Erie last May.  It makes everything I’ve struggled with for most of my life seem tiny, and almost forgettable.  It makes me feel small, but not in a scary way.  It actually gives me myself back, in some odd way. It makes me feel like it will take care of me, which I know doesn’t make any logical sense.  I know.  I know.  Poets.  What are you going to do?!


So.  Sitting on the edge of Lake Erie late on a Thursday night in August, a lake that has won my heart truly, madly and deeply, I’ve come to decide that I’m going to spend most of next year somewhere down here in Southwestern Ontario, somewhere between Stratford and the Windsor-Essex area, in some little town I have yet to decide upon, trying to write my next novel. I know I’ll need to be close to this lake, though, so that’ll help me decide.  No rush.  The unfoldment is the thing that’s interesting now.


The dogs will come, too, and I’ll find someone to sublet my little brick house in Sudbury.  The novel I want to write is (weirdly) the sequel to the first one, which doesn’t even have a home yet.  Still, it needs to be written, and it’s sitting in my heart and head these days, stewing itself into being.  This fall, in terms of my writing, I’ll work on finishing two “in progress” plays, hopefully see my first full play read dramatically in Sudbury sometime in November, launch my next poetry book (Some Other Sky) with Black Moss Press in Sudbury in mid-October, go to a poet laureate reading in Windsor in mid-October, and wait to see if anyone wants to take up my first novel, The Donoghue Girl, and give it a place to live for a while on paper.


I’m grateful to the Sudbury Catholic District School Board, for giving me the second semester of the 2017-18 academic year off to pursue some literary dreams I’ve had for my whole life.  I would kind of like to see a really full spring (with green in March or April!) for the first time in my life, to be honest, so the notion of spending time with open skies, the sounds of waves on my favourite Canadian Great Lake, and living in a place where I can walk for miles without having to navigate a lot of snow and ice, well, it’s pretty tempting.  I love Sudbury and the North, but I also know I need to venture out for a little while.  I’m thinking a lot, these days, of Gwendolyn MacEwen’s “Dark Pines Under Water,” and how she writes that second stanza that so speaks to my heart:


Explorer, you tell yourself, this is not what you came for

Although it is good here, and green;


Sometimes, just sometimes, the things that you’ve known the longest, the things that are most familiar and safe and ‘green’ to you, are the things you need to venture away from for a while so you can grow and learn.  Does that make sense?  It might seem backwards, if you think with your head instead of your heart and soul.  It would have, if you’d told me I’d try this a few years ago.  I would’ve curled up, and ‘turtled,’ and said emphatically, “No, I’m fine where I am, in my little world.”  Now, though, I want to follow Wagamese’s suggestion.  In Embers, he writes, so wisely: “My scars have the strange ability to remind me that my past was real, and what is real offers knowledge, understanding, and an ultimate forgiveness.”  Then he writes about what home means to him:  “Home is the culmination of my hopes and dreams and desires.  Home is a feeling in the centre of my chest of rightness, balance and harmony of the mind, body and spirit…It is also knowing that home is what I bring to it, and in that it is the sure and quiet knowledge that home is within me and always was.”


So, I’m sitting here tonight, on the North Shore of Pelee Island, listening to the waves break at the end of this ‘yard,’ thinking that I’ve come through some very dark places, and so very grateful for the lessons those places have taught me.  It’s a miracle I’m alive.  Nine years ago, I walked around with suicidal ideation all day and night as a constant companion.  Some people will never know darkness, or will only come to it later in life, or will avoid it because it frightens them.  For me, the darkest places have made me bloom and value each and every breath I take, and every person I meet.  I don’t understand it, not logically, but I do know, in my heart, that it’s good and true.  When you step into yourself, when you push against fear, which is really all imagined and an illusion if you read Richard Wagamese or even some of the Buddhist teachings, then you bloom like a lotus, out of the muck and rubbish.


And once you bloom…well…happily…there’s no going back.  J





P.S.  Keep your eyes on the @SudburyPoet Twitter account because I’ll be launching my new author website soon and starting a pretty funky little interactive thing that everyone can take part in called “Bookish Selfies.”  You’ll see.  I’m not done yet…and we’re going to have some fun with poetry this fall! J