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My eldest dog, Sable, is turning fourteen years old this week. I know she’s not very well. She’s had a heart murmur since the beginning of time, but in the last few years, she’s had a couple of weird cancer scares, a terrifying case of near-death pancreatitis just before my dad died, infected eyes that have been quite scary to heal, and now, she’s fairly deaf and blind, and dealing with vestibular disease, which means she’s tilted and a bit wobbly. She’s still happy and content, though. She loves her breakfast and supper dishes, and treats of course (especially bits of banana or carrot), and seems to want to snuggle more. I refer to her as the Queen Mum. She’s ancient, and wise, and rather crotchety. Still, she seems a bit more cuddly of late, fumbling across the chesterfield to my side and sitting there so that my hand rests on her head, my arm on her back. She snores horribly, as if there’s an old man in a tiny furry suit in the flat, rather than a small, barrel-chested shih tzu.

When you’re on your own as a single person without a lot of family members, and I have been for quite a while, your dogs are your closest family. They see you when you’re healthy, and when you’re sick in bed, with either a migraine or a bout of bronchitis. They know when you’re feeling unwell and snuggle up next to you without asking. They don’t talk back, but they do try to steal the banana peel, especially when they think that something of the banana might still be left in there somewhere. 🙂

Sable’s gone downhill a bit in the last three months, while I’ve been writing in Kingsville and away from home in Sudbury. In many ways, she does better here, mostly because I’m living in a tiny flat that is perched above a garage, tucked away behind my landlords’ home. She can navigate the space quite easily if you put her on the floor next to the bed, right after you wake up. She will snuffle, nose her way to the water bowl, wander outside to do her business, and then I tuck her up under my arm like a football, to carry her up the tall stairway that leads to my door here.

The saddest part of it all, really, is that she doesn’t walk with me anymore. From the time she was little, she was my walking and hiking partner. Then Gully came along, as my mum was dying in Fall 2008, and he joined us on our walks. In the last year, it’s been hard not have Sabe along for our daily morning walks. Since last year, Gull and I have gone on long hikes around Sudbury, and now, down around Southwestern Ontario. I have to leave Sable behind, in the little flat, but she doesn’t seem to mind. She mostly sleeps all of the day away now, and I cuddle with her whenever I can.

So. Here are the lessons that having an aging dog have taught me, and for which I am grateful:

  1. You can have bought a dog for your parents, and then suddenly find yourself falling in love with her. You can watch that dog sit by a failing mother, and then, after she has died, you can smuggle that same dog into a palliative care hospital wing in a red sports bag. (Sable grumbled and made some ‘talking noise,’ but she also didn’t seem to upset the nurses, who mostly turned their heads and looked the other way.) And then you can remember having watched that dog sit next to your father in a hospital bed, and how he and she had a little ‘grumbled’ conversation over the course of an hour, with a closed door, and hushed tones, so that no one would ever know she was there.
  2. You can learn that having an elderly dog with a disability is a teaching moment of the highest order. You can learn that love comes in small, furry packages, and that dogs are more often than not much kinder than humans. They love you unconditionally, which is a rare thing in these modern times.
  3. Aging dogs teach you to be even more patient than you may already be. They remind you to be quiet when you need to be, to be kinder than you already are, and, even more importantly, to be open and welcoming to those who may need to have someone listen, or else just sit next to them in silence.
  4. They teach you that walking into walls isn’t a bad thing, occasionally, and that you can learn a great deal about how to “bounce back” when you make the ‘wrong’ decision and need to re-route yourself. (Mind you, they also teach you to have eyes in the back of your head so that you can keep an eye on them…so that you can be their eyes now that theirs don’t work as well…so that they actually don’t walk into walls…)
  5. They can tell you about the value of being vulnerable and ‘soft’ inside, when you’ve only ever had to be strong and protective of your own self (if you’re on your own). Sometimes, fear can make you hard and resistant to others, but these lessons are about acceptance of having been hurt or tried, and of learning how to forgive, and to accept a space that best heals you, that best keeps you healthy.
  6. Older dogs are slower. They remind you, when you take them on short walks (or wobbles) down the laneway, that you should stop and smell the proverbial roses. Life is too fast paced, and we are all rushing to get somewhere, but these older dogs remind you that time is fleeting, that we need to find those with whom we can share time and energy on deeper levels, so that we can truly experience life. They remind you that slowing down is a good thing, not a bad thing.
  7. They remind you that life is short, that fourteen years is a fast-moving carousel, often populated with love and loss in various incarnations. They remind you to celebrate the love, no matter what. They remind you to share love, even while others would avoid it, or just take pale facsimiles of it into their hearts.
  8. And…they remind you that ends will come, whether you want them to or not. There is something in older dogs that will nudge a person, kindly, will tell them that life isn’t to be wasted, but to be lived fully, even if this means a slow, wobbly, snuffly walk in the grass that takes half an hour instead of ten minutes. It’s about value. It’s about quality, not quantity. It’s about depth, not surfaces. It requires commitment. It requires risk.

She’s not done. I know that much, but these are the lessons I learn from Sable every day. They come in small segments, portioned off like bits of clementine on a white china plate, so that you are more than aware of what their importance is as you move forward in a day, a week, a month, or a year. You savour the lessons. You love the time you have left. You mourn the times when you could hike together over rough rocks and bits of moss in Northern Ontario, and you still take her to Point Pelee to watch the sunrise, just for fun. Even if she can’t really see it anymore. She teaches me, you see, that sometimes what you see in your mind’s eye, in your imagination, is much more vivid than anything else you could sense in this less colourful dimension…and that hope is a thing that flies like a bird, or an angel.

…and she teaches me about gratitude and love and respect…and about being soft…and vulnerable…and trusting…even if it puts me at risk of being hurt…and even if it makes me feel uncomfortable.

She teaches me how to grow.

IMG_8722.jpgIMG_8352.jpgIMG_7503.jpgpeace, friends.

k.

 

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I’ve been lucky to have met some really amazing writers in the last two years. Some have turned out to be acquaintances, but some are dear friends. Patti Kay Hamilton is one of the dearest I know. We met at an April 2016 historical fiction workshop with Lawrence Hill. (I’m lucky; although I’ve not stayed close friends with other writers from other previous writing retreats, I’m still in close touch with quite of few of those Banff friends. They are particular kindreds, I guess you could say.)

When we were out in Banff two years ago, I remember PK talking to Larry about NorthWords, the Yellowknife literary festival. He and his wife, Miranda, were going out to take part in the festival in late May of that same year. I remember the photos of them down with the White Pelicans, thinking that it would be an amazing experience.

Imagine my delight, then, when PK rang me in the fall last year to ask if I’d be interested in taking part in the 2018 festival. One of the committee members had heard me interviewed about one of my poet laureate projects in Sudbury on CBC radio, through the internet, and had put my name forwards as a possible writer to invite. I said yes, of course. I love to travel and meet new people, but I also love to see raw landscape and nature, and I knew I’d get something of that as well. Plus, I’d have a chance to visit with Patti Kay, and I missed her.

So, on May 30th, I flew from Windsor to Calgary to Yellowknife. Imagine my fan-girl behaviour, then, when I was seated in front of Lee Maracle and Terry Fallis. (I hope I didn’t seem too weird when I turned around in my seat and said, “Oh my God! I love you guys!”) And then imagine my delight when I saw Cherie Dimaline and Richard Van Camp get on the tiny plane that would take us to the Northwest Territories. I kept thinking, inside my head, “Oh my God. So many amazing Canadian writers are on this plane. It better not crash.” The flight was uneventful, except that I was seated next to a very tall, rather musty-smelling Yellowknife resident. He must’ve thought I was mad because I became too excited as we flew over Great Slave Lake. It is, to be honest, one of the most beautiful things that I have ever seen in my entire life. It is the second largest lake within Canada, and the fifth largest in North America. Whenever you fly into (or out of) Yellowknife, you get to see it, and it’s stunning. As we began to descend, it crept into the space of the airline window. That’s when I think I freaked out my musty-smelling seat mate. I kept saying, “Oh, my God. It’s so beautiful. Look at that. Look at the ice!” Finally, he put down his book, which he was pretending to read, but couldn’t because I was muttering in amazement and craning my neck. “It is nice, isn’t it? We take it for granted sometimes, living up here.” Then we began to chat about what types of fish there are in the lake, and how long it takes for the ice to leave (sometimes it doesn’t go until July, and it reappears in October). In any case, the poor man didn’t finish his book, I was worn out from a long day of layovers in Calgary, and perhaps even more chatty because of it. (I talk too much…sometimes!)

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The ice on Great Slave Lake, during spring break up. Wednesday, May 30, 2018. (SO BEAUTIFUL!!)

After we dropped our bags at the hotel (where there was a large stuffed polar bear in the lobby!), we were ferried to a welcome dinner at the home of Judith Drinnan. She owns the brilliant Yellowknife Book Cellar, Canada’s most northern bookstore, which was founded in 1979. Her home overlooks the bay where there is a houseboat colony. From her deck, you can see the colourful full-sized homes that seem to float on the lake. I was totally taken with that little clutch of colour. “Are they on land? On islands?” I asked someone who was also out having a glass of wine on the decking. The woman shook her head and smiled. “No. They are on barges. They stay out there all year round.” Of course I ended up researching about them because I found them fascinating. They reminded me of the Jelly Bean Row houses of St. John’s that I so love. You can imagine, in places where the weather might be rough in winter especially, that bright colours like red, blue, purple, and green would perk up your days (and sometimes endless Midnight Sun-inspired nights!).

The houseboats have been there since the early 1980s. Some people have referred to the people who live there as ‘water squatters.’ In the 1990s, the town tried to work out the business of taxing people who lived in dwellings that weren’t actually on land. It didn’t work, so the people who live on the houseboats don’t pay taxes (you can’t tax houses that float on water, after all), and are in charge of their own sewage and electricity. Most use composting toilets, solar energy, or propane, to heat and light their homes. In summer, they boat across to the docks, and in winter they drive across. The “shoulder seasons” of spring and fall can be a bit dicey for getting back and forth to shore. A number of the people who live in the houseboat colony are said to be artists. (I can imagine that the quirky romance of the idea of living on a houseboat would be appealing for some, but with my luck I’d fall in during one of the shoulder season bits…)

 

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The Yellowknife Houseboats. Wednesday, May 30, 2018.

That first night, I met some amazing women. (Literary festivals always seem to feature the hard work of innovative and feisty women. They make for good kindred spirits and seem to know how best to plan things.) Charmaine Routery is the spirited executive director of the festival. She has a grand sense of humour, and a keen sense of organization. Then there’s Fran Hurcomb, the president of the festival board. (People always think that being president of a board of directors is fun, but I can imagine it’s a load of work…) Other key people I met were the brilliant Tanya Snow, who is a writer and who also does traditional throat singing; Robyn Scott, who is a spirited teacher who is also a performance poet; and Mary Elizabeth Kelly, the calm force behind things. Whenever anything seemed to get a bit frazzled or frantic, you could look to Charmaine and Mary to smile and speak calmly. (It’s amazing what having someone speak calmly will do to a group of writer people…) Patti Kay is also a board member, but she’s based further afield, in Fort Smith, an eight-hour drive south of Yellowknife. You couldn’t mention all of these people without mentioning the brilliant NWT writer, Richard Van Camp. He is one of the kindest people I’ve ever met, and his dedication to writing, and to being supportive and encouraging of other writers, is something that totally impressed me yet again.

The next day, I went to Fort Smith with Terry Fallis. His is a Cinderella story, in terms of publishing his first book, and then winning the Stephen Leacock Award about ten years ago. I’m a fan of his writing, and it’s always so good to hear stories of how people have succeeded as writers. We met Patti Kay at the airport in Fort Smith and spent the day whirling through town. First stop was a hike through the woods and down a steep ridge to edge of the Slave River, to The Rapids of the Drowned, where the American White Pelicans often fish. It’s the largest colony in North America, so they are quite plentiful. For a bird that is rather ungainly, they are so graceful when they fly. I was amazed at that. To be truthful, I didn’t want to leave them behind, but we went off to meet students at both the Thebacha Campus of Aurora College and then later at Paul William Kaeser High School. Both groups were spirited and I learned a lot from them. The kids at PWK met us within the space of a Cree language immersion classroom. (In between our school visits, we had a lunch of moose meat and barley soup, read from our respective books to a large audience at the museum in Fort Smith, and generally got to know people. They are, from every interaction I had during my four days in the NWT, truly hospitable, fun, and generous in sharing their hearts and stories.

 

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After a hike through beautiful woods, we stood on the shoreline of the Slave River, and the Rapids of the Drowned, and saw the northernmost colony of American White Pelicans. Fort Smith. Thursday, May 31, 2018.

 

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A visit (with Terry Fallis) to the Thebacha Campus of Aurora College, in Fort Smith, on Thursday, May 31, 2018.

 

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A visit to the PWK High School in Fort Smith, hanging out with Grade 7-9 emerging writers, with Terry Fallis, on Thursday, May 31, 2018.IMG_8938.jpg

Stop signs in Fort Smith, NWT.

In the Northwest Territories, eleven languages are officially recognized; nine of these are Indigenous, while two (French and English) aren’t. In Fort Smith, the main language spoken is Cree, whereas the majority of people who speak Inuktitut live in Yellowknife. The walls of the PWK classroom were covered in Cree translations of English words and phrases. As the three key cultures in the area tend to be Cree, Chipewyan, and Metis, students in school can choose to either take French or Cree from elementary school up through secondary levels. The classroom next to ours, too, was a traditional one, with the teacher showing us the community drum and giving us a short rendition of a sacred song.  Again, on the way back to Yellowknife late in the afternoon, we watched the beauty of the ice on Great Slave Lake. It reminded me of a paper marbling class that I took at Levigator Press in Windsor back in early May, seeing the water and ice blending in such a beautiful way.

On Friday, I had the pleasure of visiting two groups of high school students at Sir John Franklin High School. We talked about how pieces of visual art can inspire us to create poems. (This is my main area of interest as a poet, and likely more as a failed visual artist!) The students, and Tomiko Robson, their teacher, were spirited and really great sports in taking part in the writing process with me. I felt honoured to be there. Then, in the afternoon, I met with a group of local Yellowknife writers and talked about ekphrastic poetry. I also learned a bit about the history of the town.

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One of the fine groups of emerging writers at Sir John Franklin High School, along with their brilliant English teacher, Tomiko Robson. Friday, June 1, 2018. IMG_8988.jpg

A second keen group of emerging writers at Sir John Franklin High School. Yellowknife, NWT. Friday, June 1, 2018. IMG_9004.jpg

A fabulous group of emerging writers at the Yellowknife Public Library afternoon poetry workshop. Friday, June 1, 2018.

Saturday brought a morning panel discussion about the power of fiction, with Rebecca Hendry, Lee Maracle, Cherie Dimaline, and Terry Fallis. This was followed by a poetry panel in the afternoon.  Lee and I discussed social media, social justice issues, and the role that poetry plays in our modern world. (This was terribly intimidating for me, as I have loved Lee Maracle’s work for years…and am constantly amazed by her.) I also had the privilege of mentoring two local writers who shared their poetry and prose work with me on Saturday afternoon. I so loved that one-on-one experience, so I thank Elaine Gillespie and Robin Young for it.

Saturday evening brought me a slight heart attack. “Blush” is the NorthWords festival folks’ idea of fun. It’s an evening of people reading erotica. Yeah. I’m one of the shyest people I know when it comes to private things, and erotica is not something I’m good at writing. (Writing a few sex scenes in my first novel required soft music, candles, and a bottle of wine…) I write sensual poems, definitely, but they usually use trees and nature as metaphors for romantic relationships. So. As both Rebecca and Terry know, I had just gotten my first glass of wine for the evening and heard my name called. I was the first reader. Damn it. This did not bode well. I had hoped to at least not feel my ankles before getting up on stage and turning fifty shades of bright red. I basically told about two or three hundred people that I would be the sedate, Downton Abbey part of the evening. Then I read a couple of sensually-charged poems featuring birch trees that unveil themselves and stars exploding. Yup. Tame by comparison. For the rest of the evening, I drank heavily, sandwiched between Terry and Rebecca, and kept muttering “Oh, my God…” as people read rather explicit passages that they’d written. It was a night of terror and bravery for me. Let’s leave it at that. 🙂

What I most want to say about the NorthWords Writers’ Festival, though, is that the people of Yellowknife and Fort Smith are hospitable and open hearted. I felt so honoured to have been asked to take part. I was the most unrecognizable in a slate of very famous Canadian writers, so I felt like Cinderella for most of the festival. I worked hard as laureate for Sudbury, and I’m proud of what I did over my two-year term, and I’m so glad of the opportunities that it has afforded me since then. Visiting the Northwest Territories was a ‘life highlight,’ but now I’m desperate to go back. I would love to go on a canoe trip, or on a really long hike. The land is beautiful. The sun never really sets at this time of year, and the energy in the earth and high skies is powerful magic.

To Fran and Charmaine, as President and Executive Director of NorthWords Writers’ Festival, I can’t thank you enough for my invitation, and for making me feel so at home. To the other (big famous) writers who were there along with me, you don’t know how grateful I am to have sat next to you at breakfast, eating eggs and bacon, pinching myself under the table because this little Northern Ontario girl never grew up imagining she’d ever be meeting writers she so loved and respected when she grew up to be a woman. To Rebecca and Terry, well, how do you know when you’ll meet truly kindred spirits and want to hang out with them all the time for fun? To Patti-Kay, hmmm…how do you thank someone whom you know you were fated to meet two years ago, in amidst the mountains of Banff? I feel blessed, grateful, and more sure of my internal compass as a writer…even on days when I’m tired and my head hurts from trying to sort out a story’s plot.

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Last night…after my terrifying reading at “Blush,” on Saturday, June 2, 2018…with Rebecca Hendry and Terry Fallis. (Poor souls….)

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Patti Kay Hamilton, a dear friend whom I met in April 2016 at a (now infamous) Banff Centre for Arts & Creativity historical fiction workshop with Larry Hill. How lucky I am that we stay in close touch, despite the geographic distances.

And to Yellowknife and Fort Smith, I love your White Pelicans, your Wild Cat Cafe, your never-setting Midnight Sun that reminds me of my dad’s favourite Robert Service poems, and your endless hospitality and kind words. I may just have fallen in love with the Northwest Territories…and will carry it in my heart for years to come.

Don’t worry…I’ll be back. A hiking trail or canoe is calling my name…already. 🙂

peace,

k.

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The infamous Yellowknife landmark, The Wildcat Cafe. (Best bison stew and bannock I’ve ever had!)

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Sunrise, at 3:30am on Sunday, June 3, 2018.

 

 

I was lucky enough to have been invited to take part in the NorthWords Writers’ Festival last week in Yellowknife, in the Northwest Territories. It was such an honour, and I got to meet and hang out with writers whose work I’ve admired for a long time. I’ll write more about that in another post later this week, but wanted to write about one workshop that struck me. It was about the power of fiction in the world, and how reading literature can transform you.

The people taking part in the panel were Rebecca Hendry (author of One Good Thing and Grace River), Lee Maracle (author of many books, including Ravensong, I am woman, and Celia’s Song, just to name a few), Cherie Dimaline (the 2017 winner of the Governor General’s Award for Literature with her stunning novel, The Marrow Thieves), and Terry Fallis (who has six novels to his name, including his latest, One Brother Shy, and who is also the owner of a keen sense of wit). Imagine the wealth of experience on this little panel on a Saturday morning in Yellowknife. (I should’ve had more coffee that day…lesson learned.)

The questions posed were ones surrounding the notion of how literature, particularly prose, can be powerful, can even invoke social change. The moderator asked first about the authors’ earliest memories of story. Their answers were interesting, varied, but all came down to the importance of storytelling and reading. I like that. Literacy is one of my pet causes, so it’s always good to hear authors speak of the power of books.

Lee Maracle began, speaking of not having been able to read until she was nine. Hers was a childhood of storytelling, and of recollections of myth-making. Later on, she spoke of how Chekov influenced her, how his work drew her to worry about his characters. Rebecca Hendry spoke of how she had been “writing since I can remember.” Cherie Dimaline spoke about how she grew up hearing two types of stories — the myth making history ones that recorded her culture’s origins and history, and the ‘play’ stories that allowed for fun, but still held meaningful teachings. Terry Fallis spoke of how his father engendered a love of literature and reading so that he “grew up to love reading.” He talked, too, of how he believes “we learn far more from fiction than from non-fiction.” All of their views could be summed up in Maracle’s statement that “story is our guide.” How could it not be, is all that I could think as I listened carefully and took notes. Maybe I’m biased, though, as an avid reader and writer. I write in three different genres, which often seems a bit schizophrenic to me, but all of them centre on what I perceive my truths to be, and this is reflected in what I write.

The notion of truth, and how we come to it as writers and readers, was broached. Fallis said, “Fiction is the best vehicle for telling the truth…because we create a story to perfectly convey a truth…” Dimaline echoed this notion when she said that readers can “fall in love with characters first…and then talk about the real issues underlying the story.” Her work, in terms of The Marrow Thieves, has a far-reaching ripple. As a teacher, I can see how kids fall in love with her YA novel for its vivid characters and situations, but then also learn about residential schools and colonization. Then, they take the novels home and let their parents read them, the very parents who may not have been exposed to knowledge of Canada’s “other” history, the one that tells of the persecution of this country’s First Nations, Metis, and Inuit peoples. Rebecca Hendry spoke of how “we all have different perspectives” and that “fiction has the ability to allow us to learn about one another…and triggers our sense of empathy.” Yes! It makes us feel first, and then it makes us think, if the author has done his or her job properly.

Quoting Thomas King, Maracle said, “we are made of stories.” I always think that my earliest memories are of stories told around my great-aunts’ kitchen table at 160 Kingsmount in Sudbury, the house my great-grandfather built after retiring from running his store and the post office in Creighton Mine. We gather, all cultures, in circles, to tell our stories. We share them in this way, through recounting them, through writing them down, through telling them over and over again, over time. How powerful is that? Powerful.

Some may think that fiction isn’t as powerful as non-fiction, but there is a power in “telling a story, but telling it back differently,” as Maracle says.  You take on the story and re-tell it in your own words. You make it your own, even if it began in your family a few generations ago. Dimaline said, “Fiction asks you to involve your whole self, your heart and your mind, and then you will want to invest in making change.” Fallis spoke of how he heard Donald Woods speak at a conference, citing Stephen Biko as a perfect example of how one person can make change real and tangible. He spoke to how satire can be a powerful tool in writing: “When you laugh at something, you disarm it, ridicule it, and then weaken it.” He also said that this allows a writer to “go at the issues by stealth,” so that falling in love with characters can help an author be a force for social change. I kept thinking of Swift’s 1729 essay, “A Modest Proposal,” when he speaks of the Irish selling their young as sources of food. He was not literally suggesting this, but was instead critiquing (rather forcefully) the poor treatment of the Irish by the English. That was satire at its best, and it has stayed as a touchstone in literature for that reason. Here is an example of Juvenilia satire that works and is still studied. He got at the issue by making fun of it, by pointing out how absurd this notion would be. He pointed out an issue that was serious by using satire as the vehicle.

In terms of Canadian Literature these days, the significance of truth and reconciliation is of great importance. Dimaline spoke to the notion that Can Lit has begun to include other voices, other experiences, but used the example of building a house. As she said, the ‘house’ of Can Lit was already built, largely populated by white men at first, and then women, and then other diverse cultural voices and experiences. In recent years, though, an ‘addition’ has been fixed onto the side of the house, and it ‘houses’ Indigenous authors. She suggested that, instead of seeing it as an addition, perhaps the house of Can Lit should have been destroyed and then rebuilt, including rather than excluding Indigenous voices as just a hastily tacked on ‘add on.’ I think this is true, actually. You can’t try to put a too-small sweater on if you’ve gained weight. It won’t fit. You can’t just shoehorn a whole kind of literature into another one. They need to work together.

That’s the whole notion of what ‘reconciliation’ is about. The truth part is about letting people tell their stories, as Maracle, King, and Wagamese would say, but the reconciliation part is about somehow learning to work together. I think it can be done, but all things take time. These strong voices in literature, though, bode well. In classrooms around Canada, kids are now reading stories by First Nations, Metis, and Inuit writers. This is a big change. Ten years ago, it was unheard of within our provincial curriculum in Ontario. Well, you might have had a poem by Lee Maracle in a textbook, or part of an essay by Wagamese, but you would never have studied Drew Hayden Taylor’s plays instead of one of Shakespeare’s….and that’s happening now…and it seems to me that kids are finding it resonates with them. Maybe, as Dimaline says, reconciliation will only happen with that next generation of Canadians.

My view is that story, of any incarnation, is powerful. From the time we are little, we like to gather around adults to hear stories. The easiest way to make friends with a little person under the age of six or seven is to put out your hand and ask if they’d like you to read them a story. (This is how I’ve bonded with a lot of my friends’ kids. I’m the one who buys them books, tells them stories, and lets them tell me their stories, too.) We just need to be story keepers and story sharers. This, I think, is how we will change the world, one story at a time.

 

 

panelNWT.JPGJust one story at a time.

peace, friends.

k.

 

 

 

 

Fear is bigger than it ought to be, when you’re too often in your head, as I so often am. I’m a ‘feeler’ and an empath, certainly, but I’ve always been cerebral. I read a lot, I think a lot, I am on my own a lot, and I write. (I’ve had people say, “You’re too smart for your own good,” which always ticks me off because it implies that a person should apologize for being quick witted. It’s just as daft as someone saying to me, “You’re too pale for your own good,” or “Your hair is too curly for your own good.” And since when is being smart a bad thing?)

For me, it has been a blessing and a curse. I think quickly, speak (too often) without a filter. (This is either shocking, for some people, and for me, sometimes, too, or else it is something that causes people to laugh hysterically. I say stuff that other people think about saying, but then stop themselves from saying. I’m missing the filter. I’m a ten-year-old inside an adult body.)

Choosing to come to southwestern Ontario, and an area that I love to hike in, was a big choice that I made last August when I wrote on Pelee Island for two weeks. Taking a semester off to dedicate myself to trying to finish the first draft of my second novel is a bit overwhelming, when I get to thinking about it. I am dedicating myself to my work. By being away from home, I can’t distract myself. I also, though, need to stay slightly social. So, I have three good friends who make sure I see other humans occasionally, outside of random encounters with hikers.

I’ve known Fe since we went to high school together. She moved away, and we reconnected when her dad was ill in Sudbury, and later when he died. Then, two years ago, my friend Dawn asked me to take part in a writing retreat on Pelee Island, and I began to discover the beauty of the Essex County area, so Fe and I reconnected when I was down again in August of that year, working on a novel in Kingsville. We’ve been in touch ever since. I feel lucky and blessed that someone who’s known me for as long as she has gets me as I am. She always has, and likely always will.

When I got down to Kingsville, she opened her heart, family, and home, asking me to Easter Dinner with her family. It was lovely. Then, after dinner, over some kind of trifle in a bowl, she mentioned that she was doing aerial silks at the Windsor Circus School. Then she showed me a video. I gasped. How was she doing that? She suggested I try it. I scoffed. (You should know that I usually scoff when I’m nervous, overwhelmed, or when my head is trying to tell my heart that I should just *not* do something new. I have to fight against my fear.)

Fast forward to a couple of weeks later, in April, and a visit to try aerial silks. The first day was brutal. I have a staple in my left hip, so my range of motion in that whole leg is completely difficult. It moves just so far and that’s it. (This is why pigeon pose has traditionally annoyed me in yoga class. I can do pigeon pose on the right, but not the left. I am mismatched.) Tia, the aerial silks teacher, is brilliant. I told her about the staple, but she didn’t flinch. Nope. I shouldn’t let the staple in my hip stop me. She just said that working out on the silks would likely actually work out some of the scar tissue, and even likely give me more range of movement. (She’s actually been right about that and, though I know I’ve just begun, I can sense a more fluid motion in my left leg and hip, as if it’s learning how to breathe again).

She just stretched us out before we began, through exercises on the mats, which is called ‘conditioning,’ and then got me started on a simple starfish pose. You step up into the knot, and then you move your feet out until you are almost in a square shape. You look a bit like a weird, hanging starfish. (You also quiver a lot because all of the muscles in your body are holding you up and in position.) After that, I learned the ‘cocoon,’ which is fun. You get to swish fabric around, use your ‘safety arm’ to be sure you don’t kill yourself while only a foot off the floor (if you’re a beginner, like me), and you push your legs out into the silk in front of you, finally sinking into a cocoon of your own making. Then there’s ‘plank,’ which requires a lot of upper body and core strength. You end up, somehow, pulling your body up to a horizontal position, so you’re suspended inside the square of the silks. All of these moves and positions require you to engage your core and pretty much squeeze the crap out of any and every muscle in your body. You are, always, always, always, sore for a day or two afterwards. (It puts my experiences with Zumba and Pound to shame, to be honest, and it’s made me more aware of my physical and mental strength.)

The most challenging thing, for me, happened in my fourth class. Tia said that I would be inverting. Yeah, okay. I just made a face. She made a face back. “You are. You will. Today!” And then I think I shook my head again. She laughed, smiled, as she always does, and then said, “Get out of your damn head! Get into your body!” Leaning back into the knot of silk, positioned just above my waist, she helped me to tip backwards, so that my head went backwards, and my feet and legs went up above my head. I couldn’t stop laughing, mostly because I was terrified. I was completely upside down. (If ever having control was a real thought, even though it’s always an illusion in life, now was the moment I realized that I had to be vulnerable to be strong. That was a lesson. That was, indeed, a big lesson…)

There are side effects to doing silks, things I hadn’t expected: sore shoulders and arms, newly defined arm muscles that I didn’t know existed, emerging core muscles that I didn’t know existed, and a strange sense of grace when I walk or hike. I feel more rooted in my own feet and legs, and my arms swing with greater certainty. I take up more space in the world, even though I’ve lost weight. That is a very cool thing. A reversal of fortunes, and a reversal of mind. Then there are the ‘occupational’ hazards: the burns from the silks where you least expect them (backs of your thighs, behind your back, near your armpits), and even blisters on your hands. Cramps in your hands, arms, toes, and feet, too, seem common. It’s like your whole body wakes up and stretches open wide and says “Hey, look at this…you woke up! I can move!” when it’s only ever been scrunched up, trying to be quiet, or proper, or just invisible. This, I find, is about making myself visible to myself. (It’s also about feeling sexy, strong, and sensual. Definitely not bad side effects. 🙂 )

Here’s the thing: so much of what I’ve done at silks in the last four sessions has been psychological and mental. I’ve had a life of being fearful, of just being ‘safe’ in everything I try to do on a day-to-day basis. Boring. Learning aerial silks takes me out of my head and plunks me smack-dab into my physical body. You can’t control very much of anything, but you need to control your physical body when you do aerial silks. You need to be in your body, and not in your head. If you’re in your head, you might hurt yourself. When Tia turned me upside down, helped me to invert, tipped me, I had to trust my own physical strength. I had to trust that my body was strong enough to combat the fear inside my brain. Then, for me, who’s always had to be strong for myself, on my own, I had to trust her to tip me over myself, physically, and to give up that sense of control (and fear). The hysterical laughter was, I think, a combination of fear, shock, surprise, and (mostly) delight. I was out of my head for the first time in a very long time…and that was freeing.

I’m new to this aerial silks thing. I record my progress every week by videoing it on my iPhone, and I can see how I’ve improved over the four or five 1.5hr classes I’ve taken, but I’m not high off the ground. That’s okay. I’ll get there. Last week, I managed to invert by myself, to my great shock and amazement. Then I pulled myself back up. There’s core strength where there wasn’t before, but there’s something even greater…and that’s the best part: I’m more in my body than in my head and it’s changed the way I am in the world, in myself. Not a lot scares me these days. That, for a change, is a huge gift. I have Fe to thank for getting me there, and Tia to thank for always encouraging me, despite my Muppet faces and grimaces, and accompanied by some muttered swearing. (Last week, I struggled, after having been back home in Sudbury for a few weeks and a couple of literary events, so I felt awkward again. Tia was persistent, telling me that she could see it on my face, that I was lacking in confidence. “I can see it on your face, you know. You’re nervous. You think you can’t do it. Don’t let your head win. Get back into your body! Get out of your head!” She was right: it’s my new mantra. It’s working, even on days when I don’t do silks. 🙂 )

I know I’ll keep improving. I’m stubborn. I’m going to keep on keeping on, and I hope to get higher off the ground, because it already feels a bit like flying. On so many levels, it’s like flying for the very first time, and being vulnerable enough to trust that I won’t fall…and that you can be strong by being vulnerable and open after all.

Who knew? Who knew?

peace, friends.

k.

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I’ve been away down south for a couple of months, writing my next novel, working on some new plays, and putting together my next book of poems, as well as a little collection of non-fiction essays. (It sounds exciting, but there’s a lot of coffee being drunk, late nights and early mornings, long hikes and trying to work out characters and plots, and a bit of hanging around from aerial silks at the Windsor Circus School to cut the tension and pressure I put on myself to complete my writing work.)

What I was thrilled to hear about, via Facebook and other social media feeds, was that the brilliant exhibit, “Sudbury Women in Art,” would be extended, moving from the space of the Open Studio on Durham Street to the Art Gallery of Sudbury. There was great coverage of the opening on social media, so I sat down in Kingsville all restless and dying to see the show. Then there was mention made of an accompanying book, highlighting the work and careers of a number of stellar Sudbury women artists. (I’ll say right now that I know, or have at least met, quite a few of them. I’m a fan of their work, so this will be a blog that is celebratory and unapologetically laudatory.)

Here’s the thing, Sudbury friends: tomorrow is Mother’s Day and it’s the last day that the exhibition will be on at the Art Gallery of Sudbury. If you’re like me, and Mother’s Day is a hard day, this is a way to lift your spirits. Art does that for me. It may do it for you, too, if you give it a try. So, this afternoon, I wandered over to the old Bell Mansion. I love it there. I’m happy that the gallery and library will find a new space in the downtown core, but I do hope that people will fight to keep the Bell Mansion as a historic place. It deserves that honour. It’s so storied, and it has facilities that could be used for event planning and poetry readings. It can’t, regardless of what else happens, be let to fall into ruin. It just can’t…

Today, there was a right mess of boy and girl scouts at the gallery, a whole lot of them to be honest, so it was loud in the high school art exhibition in Gallery 1. I quickly made my way upstairs, entering into a very different space, populated by images of this place and space. I could breathe deeply again in that silence, feeling pleased that Sudbury’s widely loved Heather Topp would have the first couple of pieces on the wall. Rightfully so. I’ve written about Heather’s work on this blog before and am a huge fan.

There are so many beautiful pieces on the walls of Gallery 2. I’m going to list all of the women here, as they’re mentioned in the book that accompanies the exhibition. They include: Adrienne Assinewai, Rachelle Bergeron (those photos!) Leesa Bringas (a woman who, like me, seems torn between Sudbury and Windsor), Kathy Browning (her Irish photos always pull at me), Rose Cardinal (whose tattooing artistry is well respected in the North), Joan Chivot, Danielle Daniel (whose work I have long loved, and whose beautiful downtown mural just off Durham Street, titled “Dear Sudbury,” is fairly famous in town), Laura-Leigh Gillard (those butterflies, birds, and moths are just a bit mystical), Sarah King Gold (who is the mastermind behind the gorgeous mosaic mural down on Elgin Street, just opposite the tracks), Tennille Heinonen, Stacy Lalonde (more photos!), Monique Legault (who painted one of my poems last year and who is now lobbying for local artists to create a mural on the Elgin Street Underpass), Rosie Maddock (whose typewriter skirt is one of my favourite pieces of clothing), Kim McKibbon, Rae Miranda (whose work in textiles is fabulous), Neli Nenkova (who is most well known for the brilliant mural on the Kingsway), Ruth Reid (fabulous watercolourist, but also a former voice at CBC Sudbury), Carole Rodrigue, Sydney Rose (!), Trish Stenabaugh (who is one of my best friends and whose work has graced the covers of the last two books of poems I’ve published), Colette Theriault, Heather Topp (those paper-mache goddesses and so many of her feisty and spirited canvases), Dineen Worth, and Chantel Abdel-Nour (a co-editor of the book that goes along with the exhibit), Johanna Westby (another co-editor of the book!). Whew. That’s quite a list.

Each and every piece was beautiful, when I looked at them today, but there were a few that stood out, so I’ll mention them. As I’ve already said, I love Heather Topp’s work. I find her whimsical and organic style, especially in terms of her life-sized paper-mache women, always transfixes me. Sydney Rose’s piece, “The Joy of Sex and Indoor Gardening,” made me laugh out loud: who knew that a series of houseplants might be so quirkily placed. I loved that one. Then there’s Trish Stenabaugh’s work. I’m beyond a fan of Trish’s work. I began teaching at the same time as Trish and she’s one of my dearest friends. I have, just let me count here, um, four of her paintings in my little red brick house. Her use of colour and form always gets to me, in the best possible of ways. Next, you can’t have an exhibit like this without the stunning work created by Danielle Daniel. She’s up for Emerging Artist in this year’s Mayor’s Celebration of the Arts on June 6th. She’s a triple or maybe even a quadruple threat: a visual artist, a singer and ukulele player, and a brilliant writer. The piece up in the gallery, “Water Warrior,” made me think of how important it is for all of us to mind our waterways. The image of the woman with sad eyes made me nod in agreement: you can’t live in the north, and you can’t have enjoyed swimming or canoeing or fishing or hiking, without knowing that the water is so dearly in need of our advocacy and protection. Then there’s Leesa Bringas, someone I admire a great deal. A ‘transplant’ from Windsor, Leesa is a relatively new spark in the community, and almost always behind some of the most brilliant artistic initiatives here in town. Her cyanotype photography is just so beautiful, and the piece up at the gallery makes you sort of want to just walk right into that deep blue colour. (Or maybe that’s just me…it could just be me…) 🙂

I really loved Johanna Westby’s piece, “Wading in the Evening.” It is, truly, I think, so evocative of what a northern woman is all about. If you grew up here, you probably learned to swim in a lake. I did. The notion of skinny dipping in a northern lake, too, isn’t farfetched at all. I loved this piece because of the ‘above and below’ of the surface of the water. Throughout it all, the image of a naked woman, seen from behind. Above the water, the trees our region is famous for, and underneath, a couple of stylized blue fish and a mess of reeds. (I still call those ‘weeds’ or ‘seaweed’ when I go swimming. There’s not a summer when I don’t think I feel fish brush by my legs when I’m swimming, even though it’s likely just a mucky lake bottom with weeds!) Anyway, Westby’s a featured artist at the gallery right now, so you can buy some of her beautiful notecards and there are some originals on display at the main desk.

Laura-Leigh Gillard is well known here in Sudbury. She does those amazing acrylic and ink pieces of birds and butterflies and moths. They are stunning to see and you know right away, when you see a Gillard piece, that that’s who made it! Her two pieces,  “Patience, Darling” and “Cataclysmic Catalyst” are simply stunning. The colours, like those used in Daniel and Westby’s pieces, are jewel toned and bold. Love it. Further on down the gallery is the work of Rosie Maddock. Originally from England, Rosie lives here now and is fairly famous for her pillows, tote bags, and (yes! thank God!) quirky typewriter skirts (which are perfect for writer women like me)! Her two pieces are so touching, from her ‘Mum Makes History’ series. In one piece, the artwork is accompanied by a pair of tiny white leather shoes and some old photos of a little girl. In another, there is a tiny antique stuffed bear and a multi-media piece that is too beautiful to even begin to explain with words. Then, there’s Rose Cardinal. She’s on my list because I still need to get two little barn swallow tattoos from her, in memory of my parents, but I’m still a coward in that department. In any case, two of the most striking pieces here are photos of her “In Memory of Pierre,” which is a tattoo of a miner’s face, as a memorial. Then there’s the stunning, “Underwater Parenting,” with the image of a mermaid breastfeeding a baby mermaid. What?! How fantastic is that!?

These are the pieces that struck me most, but all of these women artists are producing unbelievably beautiful and thought provoking work. The exhibit, “Sudbury Women in Art,” is only on until the end of day tomorrow. Yup. That’s Mother’s Day. So, if you’re looking for something to do on a day which can be hard when you’re missing your mum, as I am, then the Art Gallery of Sudbury is the place to be. Where else can you celebrate the force of the women in this community in a tangible way? Please remember to make a donation when you walk past the welcome desk. The only way we can ensure that the arts flourish in Sudbury is to pay artists for their work. Seeing their work in a gallery is just as important as buying a piece, if you can. Skipping past the donation bin is a no-no. Come prepared to celebrate and honour their work as women artists.

Now…the next thing…would be to have this tour around a bit. I can imagine it at the McEwen School of Architecture, for example, or maybe at the Living with Lakes Centre on Ramsey Lake Road. Why not just keep it going, extend its life span, keep the ball rolling, as my old dad used to say? Just a thought, Sudbury friends…just a thought. 🙂

peace,

k.

 

 

You never know when death will actually arrive. It’s the worst part of it, to begin. There are other ‘worst parts’ to it, but that whole ‘it arrives when you least expect it’ part of it is what shocks the heart first. It’s always the phone call, I find, when someone you haven’t heard from in a long while ends up ringing you and you pick up and see an area code from far away, a hand of dread fisted around your heart. You usually already know it’s not good news. In my family, it has happened too often…mostly because we were big and Irish Catholic. There was a time, when I was little, when family gatherings were massive. They’re not as much now, except at funerals and wakes.

My grandmother was the glue that held her five kids and their families together. When she died in 1998, while I was in my twenties, someone in the family (I forget who, but I think it was one of my cousins) said “Now…we won’t see each other as often.” I remember I scoffed, shook my head, and thought there was nothing to that farfetched prophecy. Then, the house on Wembley Drive sold and the centre could not hold. From 1997 until the later 2000s, a whole slew of relatives died. It was one loss after the other. The worst ones were my uncles, Peter and Terry, who both died at the age of 50. Then my great-aunts and uncles started dying, their goings like sea swells, or badly placed and timed contractions. Then my uncle Jeno died in spring 2007, and my mum followed a year and a half later. Dad was to follow just three years after that. It was a lot.

Getting the call from my cousin, Sheryl, on March 24th, was a bit of a shock. I was alone in Kingsville, so it was a bit hard. I went walking afterwards, trying to shake it into my head and heart, sitting on the edge of Lake Erie on a windy day. I’d known my uncle, Mike, was sick through the fall. He had struggled with heart issues. (My mum had heart issues, too, so I knew what that decline was like. She used to call it “The Ennis Heart,” and the phrase would hang over the kitchen ominously whenever she referenced it. It’s part of why I’ve gotten so focused on my own physical health in the last six years, with a key intensity in the last two. I don’t want to suffer as my mum and dad did. Being healthy and strong is key to living a healthy life, no matter what your age. It’s not enough to say you don’t drink, but it’s okay to eat excessively. Excessive eating is just as poisonous as excessive drinking; they both kill you slowly if addiction is involved. Addiction is addiction, in my mind, and whether it’s food or alcohol doesn’t matter. In some cases, in my immediate family, it was both, with my parents…)

I still can’t believe that I’ve lost my very last uncle. He was only 76. It’s not long enough. It isn’t. And here’s why: He was loved by many people, especially family and friends. Yes, he was so accomplished in his work field, but I can only think of the memories that have to do with him as someone who was encouraging to me, as a niece, and someone who had a great sense of humour and who cared about my grandmother. She spent part of every summer at Mike and Joanne’s house in Mississauga, and raved about time spent swimming in their pool, how beautiful his garden was, how fabulous Princess, the dog, was, and she so enjoyed spending time with Lisa and Sheryl. Whenever Mike came home to visit, I remember, she always had a list of things for him (or for Terry, too!) to fix. She used to cut out scrap paper slips, long and narrow ones, and keep them on her telephone table, so she could jot down notes in advance of their visits. Once, I said to her, shaking my head, “You have such a list of things for these guys to fix and mend! Why? Aren’t they coming to visit you?! And you make them work?!” And she giggled (she had a lovely laugh that I really miss a great deal), “They’re so good at it. They like to help. They like to keep busy when they come to visit.” And they did. Both of them. I remember they would trundle off to Canadian Tire during visits home to Sudbury with their wives and kids, and I’d find them doing something or other in the basement or kitchen. Mike always seemed to have a screwdriver in his hand when I saw him at Gram Ennis’s house, and he always explained what he was doing to me. He took great pride, too, in having written on the fruit cellar wall in the basement, and it was always kind of cool, I thought, to see the Latin translation of “Don’t let the turkeys get you down” in the basement of 350 Wembley. That was Mike’s scrawled writing. I remember it still…

My earliest memories of Mike are of his face and his laugh. He had a wonderful face. He did. It was soft and friendly, and he when he laughed, his smile reached his eyes. He really was the kind of guy who had stereotypically ‘twinkly eyes.’ He loved laughing and joking. When I was young, he and I had an exchange of notes that lasted for most of my teens. I was “The Shadow” and he was “The Mineola Ghost.” So, when we visited Mike and Joanne’s place on Mineola, in Mississauga, I often brought gifts for the Mineola Ghost, and was rewarded with crazily scrawled riddles that rhymed on bits of white paper. I need to try and see if I can find some of these notes now. They’re likely in boxes in my basement.  Anyway, while we were together, in person, neither of us would speak of the Ghost or the Shadow. We acted as if they were completely different people to us. They were alter egos or something. It was weird, but we delighted in this exchange for about eight or ten years. I had a vivid imagination and a sense of humour, and he liked rhyming, and it worked beautifully.

In my late 20s, I drove to Nova Scotia with a man-child who broke my heart. (He was, I thought, wrongly, the love of my life.) Before I picked up said fellow in downtown Toronto, I stayed overnight in Mississauga at Mike and Joanne’s house. Mike was protective. “You know: you have a phone, if you need anything, you can call us. You’re sure he’s decent?” And I was like, “Yeah, but I’ll be in Nova Scotia. It’ll be fine.” And he was like “Yeah, I know, but you can call us if you need to.”  He knew I was naive and hopeful, and massively in love with someone who (he probably knew from talking to me the night before I left) was likely going to break my heart. What he didn’t expect me to do, before I went to pick up the guy in Toronto, was that I stole a plastic pink garden pig from the back garden near the pool. I stuffed that thing into the trunk of my car and took it hostage. I left a hostage note, all penned mysteriously in cut-out magazine letters glued to white typing paper, with the help of my cousin, Lisa. She knew it would drive her dad crazy. He loved playing pranks, but no one ever dared to try and prank him. I stole that pig, and the handsome man-child and I took photos of it all over the East coast. On my return, I took the photos and put them into a photo album, returning the pig to the garden, with the photo album in a Ziploc bag next to it. Yup. He was actually pretty angry, Lisa told me later, that I’d kidnapped the pig and held it hostage, but those photos (who knows where they are now?!) were pretty funny. We stopped at the Magnetic Hill and took a pig photo, the Citadel in Halifax, the longest covered bridge in New Brunswick…you get the idea. There was even a photo of the handsome man-child pretending to throw the pig off a cliff just outside of Mahone Bay. Afterwards, I remember, when I brought the pig back, Mike laughed, his face sort of transformed, and he just nodded. “You’re pretty funny, Kimmy…” (Only my parents, grandmother, aunts and uncles even called me “Kimmy” or “Kimmy Ruth,” and it was always with such love…)

The most important thing that he and Joanne ever did for me, and I wish I’d had the notion to tell him when I saw him on November 30th last year, was that they took me to England, Wales, and Ireland when I was just twenty-two.  I remember they were taking Sheryl and Lisa across on holiday, and thinking what a fantastic trip it would be for them. I was in undergrad at Laurentian University and studying English lit. I loved Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Yeats, and the Brontes. I was all into poetry and the Romantics and Victorians. Then, one night, there was a call and my mum was sitting at the telephone talking to Mike. Afterwards, she and Dad came into the kitchen and said “Michael and Joanne want to know if you would like to go with them, and Lisa and Sheryl, on their trip this summer.” I think I started crying. I loved being at their house, because they were so welcoming. I just remember thinking that it was a dream, to go to a place where the writers I most loved had been born and lived. I was beyond excited.

That trip changed my life. Mike and Joanne knew Mum and Dad didn’t make a lot of money. They knew I wouldn’t have a lot of opportunities to travel just then, that I was pushing through university. They let me pay my way, and I budgeted my savings for that trip, settling up with Irish and English currency as we went each week. It was a trip that I will recall fondly for the rest of my life, and it cemented my love of literature and writing. We went to the Bronte’s parsonage in Haworth, and we saw Wordsworth’s cottage in the Lake District. We went to Stonehenge, and then in Ireland, we went to Dublin Castle, the Irish Writers’ Museum, and saw the Cliffs of Moher. I still remember the ferry trip between Holyhead, Wales, and Dun Loaghaire, Ireland, and how I got all emotional when I first saw Ireland through the mist that rose up off the Irish sea. There were dolphins that danced in the wake of the ferry, and jellyfish that bobbed in the harbour, and even a few seals. It was, to be honest, one of the most magical experiences I’ve ever had. And, thankfully, it made me grateful to have cousins like Lisa and Sheryl, ones who loved legends, history, ghosts and faeries as much as I did…

My mum’s dying and death was hardly easy. It was, when I think of it now, and I actually try not to think of it too often because it still hurts almost ten years on, really really awful. She pushed everyone away, especially the people who loved her most. She pushed me away, and I was her main caretaker when she was bedridden with a foot amputation. And, well, she pushed Mike away. He loved her, and she loved him, and I still don’t understand why she didn’t let us love her while she was dying. That will always stymie me, confuse me, and hurt me deeply. I know, near the end, in those months when she slept with the curtains drawn, and wouldn’t even speak to me as I fed her and helped bathe her, that she must have been terrified of her coming end. She pulled in and she pushed everyone away, especially the people who loved her most. I couldn’t understand it, and I still don’t. It still hurts.  A lot. I know that both Mike and Cathy were the most hurt by her, but I can’t make amends for my mum, and I’ve learned to let it go. She did the best she could with the news she received (whatever it was, and no matter why she thought she couldn’t share it with those who loved her most). She was angry about dying. She was only 67. Much too young to die. In any case, she pushed Mike away. It hurt him. It hurt a lot of us. And no one ever knows what to do with love that turns itself into hurt, do we? We cry, we mourn, we get angry. Then Dad was ill and I lost time and years again, losing track of relatives. Then I was sick, really sick, and losing time again. And I lost track of people who loved me all over again.

It took me a long time to get healthy after my parents died. A long time. The last two years have been lighter, more creative, more joyful inside. In late November, though, I was going to Ottawa to attend the Governor General’s Literary Awards, and then to attend an event called “Laureate City” in Ottawa. I arranged to spend time with Lisa and then to meet her husband, Michael, and to have lunch with Michael and Joanne. We spent the most amazing afternoon together in Westboro, an artsy area of Ottawa. I loved seeing my aunt and uncle. It had been too long. Geography had separated us, and time…and the lack of that amazing grandmotherly centre that Gram Ennis and 350 Wembley brought us all. We reconnected, caught up, and I sort of knew it would be the last time I would see him. It felt deeply rewarding, to catch up, to mend fences broken by Mum’s illness and death, and to know that love really does mend things when you least expect that it can. Saying goodbye to him, on a side street, I gave him a hug, watched his face shift with emotion yet again, once more, and saw him get into the car. My heart ached.

When the call came on March 24th, I just shook my head. I’m glad we reconnected in late November. I feel sad it took so long to do so. You just get yourself together, get healthy, reconnect with someone you love, and then the person you have known your whole life, well, he just sort of goes away. It feels to me, hard. Really hard. I said to one of my cousins, yesterday, at the family gathering and dinner, “This has really sent me for a loop, you know?” And she nodded. Then I said, “It’s made me think back to Mum and Dad’s going…and how hard that was…it’s triggered a lot of stuff for me.” And, then, thankfully, she nodded, and smiled sadly. “Yeah, I’ve been thinking a lot of Dad in the last six weeks…It’s been hard.” And I said, “Okay. So I’m not crazy…it’s all coming up again.” You see…in a family where there was once a centre, whenever someone else dies, well, the remembered centre opens itself all over again, and you go down through the rabbit hole, mucking around in your own losses all over again.

It makes me incredibly sad, to see Mike go too soon. He was still active in his community, in giving of himself in volunteer work. He was still in love with Joanne, and she with him, which was evidenced when she played “On Eagle’s Wings” at yesterday’s celebration of life. He was still so proud of his daughters, his two son-in-laws, and of his three grandchildren. He had a lot more to offer, to do.

I am not afraid of death. Everyone I love is over there. They are, I know, all there. And I love them still. I am afraid of dying. Nothing I’ve seen about it in the last ten years is easy. It has taught me the greatest lessons about love, though, and I suppose I am tremendously grateful for those lessons. I value people more now. Some people find me too much, and I understand that. Maybe they haven’t lost as many people as I have. Maybe they haven’t looked darkness in the eyes and survived. It’s a lonely way…this way…but it also teaches you that love is the thing we should all strive to find. It is, I think, the only answer. Really…really…the only answer.

I miss Mike tremendously. Since the news of his death, I’ve been hiking down south, on Point Pelee, in Maidstone Woods, Kopegaron Woods, places I have come to love for their quiet spaces and rhythms, and just sitting on the edge of Lake Erie, trying to find some peace in his going. It’s hard. I know it’s even harder for Lisa, Sheryl and Joanne. I miss Mum and Dad and Gram…and everyone else. There are too many to count now…and that breaks my heart open again and again and again.

I’ll always think of one night, in Newton Abbey, when Lisa and Sheryl and I were lagging behind Mike and Joanne on an evening walk. The trees were all green and leafy then, in July, as they are in summer, in England. It was like walking into a poem. I watched Mike and Joanne, that night, reach out to one another, and hold hands. Lisa and Sheryl were astounded, I remember, because it wasn’t a common thing. But I remember what I saw: I saw love, in these two people who held hands, who walked into a shaded evening, with birdsong, and the sound of wind in leaves, and I thought, “That, now that is love.” And I saw it again yesterday, at the service at Beechwood, and in the words of my aunt, and my cousins, and in the love that my extended family had for Mike.

How do you ever say goodbye, I wonder, when you don’t want them to go…how…

Hug your people, friends. Mend your fences, and then hug your people. Life is too short not to love fully, live deeply, and share it all with people who share your ancestry and story.

Slan abhaile, Michael. Say hello to them all for me…and mind that front door for when we all show up someday…save us a spot around the table…and a glass of Tullamore Dew, too.

Slainte to you, Mike…

peace,

k.

 

 

 

I’m writing a play with two women’s voices in it, so any time I get a chance to see a play with parallel structures, I want to see it. A few nights ago, I saw Pat & Emilia, a mixed-media chamber opera. I wasn’t sure what to expect, to be honest. What’s ‘mixed media’ when you meld it with chamber opera, anyway? This ended up being a theatrical and musical collage of operatic and dramatic conventions. The first act was spoken and sung from the point of view, mostly, of Emilia Cundari, who was a world renowned opera star who lived in Windsor. She died in 2005. The second half is mostly told from the perspective of Pat Sturn, who was a photographer who lived until she was a hundred years old. One woman had a dream of being an opera star, and traveled the world from Canada, to New York City, and to Italy. Then, she fell in love and married, returning to Windsor to raise her family. Some sources say that she “killed her career” in favour of having a family. Cundari was photographed by Sturn at some point, and Sturn followed Cundari’s career via local Windsor media.

Pat Sturn was a well known and respected photographer in Windsor. She died in 2011, at the age of one hundred. I kept thinking, while watching the play, that I don’t think I would want to live to be as old as a hundred years old, that it would be hard to see friends die before me, that it could be isolating. Sturn found a dear friend in current Windsor poet laureate, Marty Gervais, though, and he’s had a hand in remembering her, and allowing other people (like me) to come to know her legacy.  She called him “Mr. Poet.” She sounds like she would’ve been interesting to have a cup of Earl Grey tea with, that she would have been fascinating to talk to.

There seems to have been a friendship of some sort between the two women, but it isn’t clearly defined in the play, so you’re left to make your own suppositions. You do know, though, that both women were strong individuals, just with different life paths. Sometimes, two strong creative women might not be able to be friends, even if they really wanted to be. It happens.

The play is thought provoking. You get a sense of how both women were living before their time, and how they must have struggled, with family and friends not understanding their drive to pursue creative careers rather than traditional ones. The more I listened and watched, the more I thought that it really hasn’t changed that much. The women I know who are creative are either single, or paired with others who are creative, too, or maybe in relationships with those who have a deep appreciation of the arts and creativity, even if they aren’t artists themselves. How else to manage your artistic and creative gift? Being a writer, a singer, a musician, a visual artist, whatever the medium is, it feels (to me, anyway) like there’s a compulsion to do whatever it is you’re meant to do while you’re here on the planet. You don’t get a choice, in my view and experience. It tends to come first. It’s part of your DNA, so how can it not?

I remember being very young and loving stories and poems, and songs that told stories, and singing those ballads. I don’t remember thinking, “Oh, I should write something down.” It was just something that came from inside of me. When you know it’s such a deep part of who you are, this creative part, then you know it’s going to be with you for life. A lot of people can’t handle that, in terms of relationships. There is, to be honest, a great deal of creative work that must be done in solitude. You’re an introvert and creative, but you still need humans around. (After all, you use humans in your stories and plays, don’t you?! 🙂 ) But you also need someone who understands that there’s a balance of time needed to create on your own, as well as time spent together. That takes confidence on both people’s parts, I imagine, if it’s to work. Still, I wince at the suggestion that you can only be creative and that this in itself prevents you from being in a successful relationship with a partner. It seems archaic, as if you need to give up one in favour of the other. It seems too simple and sacrificial to me, somehow.

I remember seeing an exhibition at the McMichael Gallery in the fall last year. It was called “Passion Over Reason: Tom Thomson and Joyce Wieland.” I was more familiar with Tom Thomson, given his paintings of Northern Ontario landscapes. I had gone canoeing through those scenes last summer, so I felt even closer to his work than before. What I remember, though, is that I read a snippet of text about Wieland in that McMichael exhibit in late September. Born in 1931, Wieland was the first woman artist to be accorded a 1987 retrospective at the Art Gallery of Ontario. She was married, for some time in her life, to Michael Snow, who is a famous Canadian artist in his own right. In an article published in Canadian Art magazine last year, author Allison Macduffee wrote that the McMichael exhibit was a love letter to both Thomson and Wieland, but that it also raised questions of “gender, myth-making, and nationalism in Canadian art.” Wieland’s work—in terms of feminism, visual art, and also in filmmaking—is groundbreaking and brilliant. The pairing of the two artists made me think a lot about the notion of nationalism, and of the differences between gender of the artists, and the time periods in which they both lived and created art. (My head gets busy sometimes…too busy!)

There was a bit of text, on some wall, at the start of the exhibition. I read everything at art galleries. I like to look at the art first, let it sink into me, and then I read the little explanatory notes. As I wrote in a mid-September blog, there was a bit of text that spoke about Thomson never having married, and about Weiland never having had children. The text implied that this is why both artists were so unique. I found it funny at the time. Then, listening in on an older couple: “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).” (Conventional is boring, I think…but I’m a poet…)

What I kept thinking on Thursday night, while I watched the play, was how beautiful it was. Here were two vibrant and creative women, who were productive and gifted in their own respective fields, who seem different on the surface at first glance, and separated by years, but who really were more similar than they might have cared to have admitted to themselves or one another. The piece where Pat Sturn reflects on turning one hundred years old, and how she loved someone who offered her a ring, was bittersweet. She loved him, he knew her best (her character sings this in the second half of the play), but she chose her love of photography over the man. She was a feminist, but, I think, so was Emilia Cundari. They both followed their dreams; the paths were just different ones. One was not better than the other. They likely both had regrets near the ends of their lives. I have yet to meet a dying person who doesn’t have one or two regrets. The notion of artistic women making creative choices for themselves, though, resonates with me. It niggles at me, likely because I’m making what some might deem to be ‘selfish,’ creative choices and decisions right now in my life. They aren’t simple, but you breathe through them, as you would through the movements of a challenging yoga pose. (It’s uncomfortable in Sun Salutation until you push up from Cobra, into plank position, and then into the release of that Downward Dog…it’s sort of like that.)

There was one line that both characters sang in a duet near the end of the chamber opera that really struck me. It spoke about both women having made their choices, and mistakes. Here is the thing that bothered me most: that some people equate the notion of ‘choices’ to the notion of ‘making mistakes.’ I’m of the mind that we make choices in our lives. I used to believe we could also make mistakes, and perhaps we can, in small ways. But, at this point in my life as a creative woman (and after having had a lot of encounters with deaths in my family) I now believe that we just make a series of choices. A choice is not good or bad; it just is.  If we think of it from the Buddhist perspective (can you tell I’ve been reading Pema Chodron this year?!), we need to not assign something a value of being ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ A choice is made with the most accurate information that you’ve gathered for yourself, and, if the choice does not work out as you’d imagined or hoped initially, then you just make another choice, again rooted in where you feel you are at the time, and with what information you have. You need to, though, trust your heart and mind when it comes to all of this. You must also have hope…and a sense of adventure and exploration. A question posed, and then answered, may point you in a different direction. It isn’t a ‘mistake’ because that just sets up a dynamic of polarities or something.

So, Pat Sturn and Emilia Cundari seem to have had a falling out. Their friendship wasn’t mendable. They couldn’t build bridges after they were burned. No one knows exactly what was said, or what happened, to precipitate the end of their friendship. (Sometimes women’s friendships are complex.) What seems clear, though, is this: they were both amazingly spirited women, ahead of their times; they both made great strides in their respective creative fields; they both fell in love, with their art and with men who cared deeply for them; and, they were unique, and stubborn, and vibrant. I don’t think either of them made a ‘mistake.’ Neither one’s path was better than the other’s, even though they probably couldn’t see that…

Emilia sang around the world and then had a family. Pat felt like she only had her creative work and, so, perhaps pushed away thoughts of love. Maybe, I was thinking as I drove home afterwards along Highway 3 from Windsor to Kingsville in the dark that night, she thought that love and relationships with men would distract her from her devotion to her creative work. I get that. But I also think that love (which is spirited and creative in and of itself) might have surprised her and lit up her work in a new way that she could never have foreseen. Maybe she just didn’t find the right person. It happens. She would have seemed strong and powerfully creative, but was likely vulnerable at the core of it all, underneath any supposed facade of great strength. Who knows? This is all supposition on my part. I’m a writer. I make up stories in my head. I didn’t know either woman. The beauty of the play, though, is that I feel as if I care about both of them, and that’s the sign of a decent piece of theatre, I think.

The thing I think is most sad, though, is that Emilia Cundari doesn’t have a proper memorial plaque on her grave in Windsor. So, the actor who played her in Pat and Emilia, Tara Sievers-Hunt, is spearheading a Go Fund Me account to raise money for that little bronze plaque.  There’s a link here, to an article in the Windsor Star, if you’re so inclined to find out more. Emilia was a pretty amazing woman, and so was Pat.

http://windsorstar.com/news/local-news/keeping-the-memory-of-windsors-opera-diva-emilia-cundari-alive

And here’s a bit about the initial process of creation of this piece of theatre, and the conversations that spurred it all:

http://windsorstar.com/entertainment/nadine-deleurys-tale-of-two-women

 

peace,

k.