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I’ve been meaning to stop in to see this exhibition for some time, but my visit to Ottawa a couple of weeks ago, and an ill dog last week prevented me from getting there sooner. Finally, though, I managed to carve out a bit of time this afternoon to visit the Art Gallery of Sudbury and see Linda Finn’s show.

It’s called the War Letters Project and it’s fascinating and heart wrenchingly compelling. These are the words that are best suited for it, really. I recently went to see the War Flowers exhibit at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa and I kept thinking of how the two would be beautiful if they were ever exhibited together. They would dovetail in such a brilliant way, I think, but who am I to say…I just happen to love art. I’m hardly an expert.

In 2007, Finn found a box of letters that her grandmother had kept since the two World Wars. (Confession time: You should know that I love letters of all sorts. I especially love ones that arrive in the mail in the old fashioned way. I’m a poet and a romantic at heart. The notion of sending or receiving letters has great import in my mind, in a symbolic and metaphorical way. I know, yet again, that I am an anachronism.) So, the artist finds the box of letters.  Her grandmother, Essie Smith, lived on a farm outside of Beamsville, Ontario. She wrote to young men from her community, during WWI and WWII, offering them kind words of encouragement and friendship from across the sea. The result of her compassion is quite moving. The men, you see, wrote back, and what remains is proof of a relationship that transcended war and death.

As Finn notes, on the Art Gallery of Sudbury website, “The wartime letters represent a link between the women at home and the men overseas during both World Wars. Letters, parcels, and other ephemera are a part of this history, as are certain locales. By bringing these components together in assemblages and textile pieces, I present a different commentary for the viewer to read, one that sometimes expresses pain and suffering, but most often hope.” The notion of layering wisps and echoes of letters as they are laid palimpsest over images and photographs–and the sense of what is said and sometimes left unsaid when one writes or receives personal and private letters–is compelling. You feel as if you are intruding, somehow, but you are still drawn to read the paintings, leaning in towards the wall and almost holding your breath.

Yes. You read that right. I wrote “read the paintings.” This is, truly, what I found most magical about Finn’s “War Letters Project.” Entering the gallery, I found myself standing in front of “Essie,” which seems–from a distance–to just be the outline of a woman’s form. As you move closer, though, you see that Finn has used handwriting, excerpts taken from the many letters, to form Essie. Her essence is composed of words, both vertical and horizontal, all swirled out in cursive, and the notion of identity and how we communicate soon comes to forefront of mind. Essie, you soon discover, has written herself in more than one way. She writes herself, and the men’s thoughts and words write her, as well. It is eerily collaborative and touching.

How do we define ourselves? How do letters, handwritten and deeply heartfelt, connect us (despite our potential differences and geographical distances)? In my life, I have kept a box of letters that my mum sent me when I was doing my Master’s degree in literature at Carleton years ago. I only re-read them once in a while because they feel powerful and sacred. Her handwriting was like a fingerprint of soul to me. I have also kept old love letters and I shake my head when I read them, thinking back to two young men who coloured in the decade of my 20s. Each person’s style of handwriting is powerful and compelling, in how it lifts spirit up off the paper and seems to conjure them again, even if they’ve been gone from your life’s fabric for a while.

There were a few other pieces which pulled at my heart today. One was “Covenant.” It’s got a line of dried roses at the top. Those caught my eye. My grandmother used to dry hydrangeas in her darkened basement on Wembley Drive, so I’m always fascinated by what dried or pressed flowers seem to symbolize. (It’s also part of what so draws me to the War Flowers exhibit I saw two weeks ago in Ottawa.) In “Covenant,” there are handwritten works cut out, reminding me of bits of magnetic poetry tiles almost. The words that stood out were: ” home,” “love,” “joy,” and “peace.” Other little phrases inside the painting made my heart hurt. One letter writer spoke of it being “an age of high tension,” while another wrote “I’ve done my best.” Other phrases made me shake my head. “If I get back…” The words trail out into space and time, making you wonder how a soldier would feel, uncertain about his own life, knowing that his time would likely end before it should. And then, a phrase that sent chills down my arms. “…that we may go on…” Yes. They will go on, and in strong part because of art exhibitions like this one and the War Flowers one in Ottawa.

The gallery is bookended by two powerful pieces. At one end stands “Requiem,” a massive work that includes copies of letters sent to Essie from across the sea. On top of that rich fabric of story and witnessing the horror of war, the outline of a soldier is etched out in black. There are layers here, collages of meaning and echoes of history that haunt the viewer. At the other end of the space, there is “1917,” another prominent piece that takes up most of the wall. The background consists of sheets of text from the Bible, with tiny imprints of what seem to be the likenesses of toy soldiers stamped out on the paper. On top of that, layer upon layer, a handwritten quotation curling itself out in black ink. The effect shifts whether you are up close to the piece, or if you walk back to see the larger picture. Either way, you are struck by the intensity of it all. You think of what war means, how it is so often wrongly fought in the name of God, or in the name of a country or nationalism, but always at the expense of so many young men’s lives being lost.

The vintage briefcase set out on a table asks gallery goers to read the responses to the exhibition. You can leaf through what viewers have written. Here’s the thing: if you see this show, you’ll want to write something down. You’ll want to try to assimilate the meaning of it all, and how it overwhelms both your heart and your head at the same time You could give yourself hours to spend in front of these pieces, reading lines of letters sent across the sea. You could, but it would be hard. Perhaps this is the real beauty and legacy of Linda Finn’s War Letters Projects. It’s a tribute to a grandmother who seems to have been selfless and open hearted, but it’s also a tribute to the bravery of those who fought in Europe in the Wars. Beyond that, it’s a tribute to the power of letters and letter writing, and of gathering bits of ephemera to piece together meaning after people have gone without warning. Lost soldiers are somehow resurrected in memory when you read their words, captured and recorded in Finn’s stunning artwork.

One young man prayed that “we may go on” as he jotted down passing thoughts while his life was at risk. This exhibition ensures that quiet and hopeful prayer by making the soldiers’ voices come to life. Words written on scraps of paper near Vimy rise up and speak, echoing across time and inside a person’s heart. Finn’s work is beautiful, evocative, and reminds me of a storyteller who gathers together bits to form meaning.

So. Do yourself a favour and go see the War Letters Project. Give yourself enough time, though. It will affect you in a physical and visceral way, I think, so that you might find yourself muttering “Oh, my God” under your breath (as I did), or lose track of where your hands are as they fall to your sides. This will all happen as you read the words, as you see the images, as you let it all wash into and over you.

peace,

k.

 

 

 

 

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Here’s the thing: good things don’t traditionally, or historically, happen to me. Close friends know this is true, especially if they’ve known me for a while. No need to go into details, just suffice it to say it’s a fact. So…when the invitation to go to the Governor General’s Literary Awards arrived a few weeks ago in my laureate email account, I was shocked. See…my parents weren’t wealthy, so posh events weren’t par for the course. Why would they be?

My dad worked in the copper refinery in Copper Cliff and carried a metal lunch pail to work each day. Then he worked in his trophy shop. Then he worked in summers for Labatt’s, selling beer to Northern Ontario fishing and hunting resorts. Then he managed the Sudbury Curling Club. Then he bought a gift shop. He was, to put it kindly, but in a frustrating way for my mother, “a jack of all trades.” She worked in nursing, social work, and then managed intake of clients for Participation Projects.

My paternal grandfather also worked in the refinery, but before that he worked out in Northern Ontario lumber camps. (I figure he must’ve helped my dad get into INCO, but no one is around to ask anymore…so that’s lost information.) On my mum’s side, my grandfather was in mine management at Garson Mine, and helped out with a mine in Petsamo, Finland, at the start of WWII. Later, he went out and became a prospector. On my maternal grandmother’s side, the Kelly side, things looked a bit more successful as my great-grandfather owned a general store out in Creighton and then built a lovely big house on Kingsmount when he retired. Before that, though, his ancestors came over from Ireland after the Famine. I thought of them today, mostly because one of them was a stonemason who helped to build the Parliament buildings in Ottawa. Those Kellys settled in this area.

So, when I knew I had to buy a fancy schmancy gown, I got a bit nervous…felt sick, even. I’m not what I’d call a ‘plastic chick.’ I don’t do fake nails, or high heels, or lash extensions, or use foundation. I’m kind of what my grandmother used to call an “Ivory girl,” who just uses soap, a bit of eyeshadow and mascara, and a wee bit of lipstick. I would rather walk in the rain, go canoeing or hiking, or read a book, or have a really amazing conversation than spend forever on appearances. Having to buy a gown traumatized me. I found one, though, and that was good. Wearing it, well, I felt a bit like Cinderella, which was actually kind of nice. 🙂

As a smart, fat kid, I never went to the prom. I never felt comfortable with myself, inside or out. Always an outsider and outcast. Not an easy time of high school, which is probably why I keep an eye out for bullies in classrooms and talk about making people feel welcome. I can feel when someone is uncomfortable, mostly because it makes me feel uncomfortable. Yup. Empath and introvert.

Walking into Rideau Hall tonight, I felt sick. I thought, “I won’t belong. These people aren’t ‘my’ people. They’ll call me out.” But I didn’t feel like that at all. I felt amazed and honoured to sit and listen to the various laureates who had won literary awards, and I felt proud of how much this country does to celebrate the literary arts, and I felt glad I’ve had the chance to be poet laureate for my town. (I’m not going into that now…I’ll write a post in a few weeks to talk about what I’ve learned from being a poet laureate person.)

I could feel my father, though, standing behind me. I could imagine him being pleased, to see me go further than he might have imagined. A girl from Sudbury, from Minnow Lake no less, from a mining family, wearing a gown to Rideau Hall. He would’ve liked that, I think…and I wish he’d been around to see it. That made me sad today.

Today is my birthday, you see…and maybe the first amazing one I’ve ever had. Life has not been simple or kind until very recently, which is perhaps why I am more aware of valuing friends and connections I make, and why I take risks where I never did before, and why I try to find ways to make each day sacred, to find bits of light, even if I’m struggling inside with something. I have a family of friends, but not a super close biological family anymore. I’ve had to be strong even when I didn’t think I could be, or at least try to convince myself that I could continue to exist. In the last two years, well, I’ve stepped into myself in more than a few ways.

One way I’ve done this is to love reading and writing as one would a partner. One of my first boyfriends once said I loved books more than I loved him. At the time, I thought he was just an asshole…but then, in retrospect, well, he might’ve been right. (He was still not very nice, though…and God knows why I fancied someone who would make me choose between him and writing…because writing is such a big part of me that you can’t separate it out, and I can’t give it up. It’s intrinsic. Besides, who really wants a partner who would want to change you to the point that they would want to jettison a major part of who you are?)  My life hasn’t given me space to get married and have kids. I spent my thirties being a caretaker for my parents. So, instead, I’ve given time to my writing. Now, it seems, it’s giving back to me, and it’s given me an energy that I can’t quite fathom…but for which I am most grateful.

I spent this afternoon at the National Gallery of Canada. I wanted to sit and listen to Janet Cardiff’s “Forty Part Motet.” I knew it would move me, but I wasn’t prepared for the way in which it would shake me, and then break me open. Sitting there, in that Rideau Chapel, which feels as if you are moving into a different world, I felt my whole body shake. The sounds and vibrations from the various speakers positioned around the room rippled. Brilliant. Sitting there, I pulled out a notebook, jotted down some images and lines, and will likely fashion a poem out of them at some point. But I sat there, eyes closed for a bit and letting the sound rush over and through me, thinking of my Dad again. He never leaves me. I keep thinking, tears pricking my eyes a bit, of how much I miss him, of how much he would’ve liked to have seen all of this writing stuff shift for me, even in small ways, and in how grateful I am that he was in my life for as long as he was. Cardiff’s work will break your heart open in so many ways…and it did today.

I’m feeling as if it’s my first real birthday in my body…spiritually, physically, and mentally. I’m grateful for that. It might just be the best birthday gift I’ve ever given myself, and the longest one coming, in terms of its arrival. But, sometimes, just sometimes, there are things that are worth waiting for…and the lessons you learn along the way make you a much richer soul while you’re here on the planet.

And then, well, there’s this….

It makes me know that, while the first part of your life can sometimes be a fierce struggle, the next wave is up to you.  It takes hard work, awareness, mindfulness, and intention, as well as faith and trust that art, music, literature, the natural world, and a few very dear friends who stay with you against all odds, will help you to fashion a richly rewarding life.

Thanks for wishing me a happy first birthday, friends. I am blessed to have you…and I know my dad would’ve told me the same thing…so thank you for your kindnesses.

peace,

k.

 

A poem for Gord Downie…

So far, I haven’t written anything about the loss of Gord Downie…and make no mistake…that’s what it is: a significant loss for this country of Canada, but an even greater one for those who love his poetry.

I don’t normally write letters to people who are ‘famous,’ but I did write one to him earlier this year. I emailed it off to Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, where I knew he was a board member, and they said they passed it on to him. I hope he read it, but I don’t know.  I had admired his advocacy on water rights and health for a number of years. In the last year, I’ve discovered my own great and passionate love for some of the Great Lakes, mostly Huron and Erie. Each one has its own spirit, personality, and vibrancy. I’ve even written a series of Great Lakes poems which are in my newest book, Some Other Sky, and I’m more than in love with these lakes because I’ve gone swimming, canoeing, and hiking along their shores this summer. If you were to tell me I couldn’t hike at Point Pelee National Park at least a couple of times a year, I’d probably weep. If you were to tell me I couldn’t go canoeing in Killarney, and swim into what feels like a living Group of Seven painting, well, I’d weep again, and likely lash out somehow. They are both that dear to me now.

I’ve always been a fan of The Tragically Hip, but I’ve been an even greater fan of Gord Downie’s poetry for nearly as long. When my second book of poems, braille on water, was released by Penumbra Press in 2001, I remember standing in a Chapters store somewhere in Ontario, my mouth open in shock because my first book of poems with a spine was right up against Gord Downie’s new collection of poems, Coke Machine Glow. I read that volume of his work voraciously, falling in love with a number of pieces that rippled with brilliant energy and imagery. My favourite poem of his is “Sailboat.” There are others, but I love the last few lines, when he writes that “the most you can do is / spend all your time / giving some of your time / meaning.” When Downie was named as an honorary member of the League of Canadian Poets this past spring, I thought, “Yes. About bloody time.”

I didn’t weep when I heard he’d died this fall. It struck me so viscerally, though, to think that he was gone, that I felt physically ill. I did finally weep, though, when I showed the CBC’s version of The Secret Path last week in my Grade 11 English class. It’s a class that contains literature written by First Nations, Metis, and Inuit writers. I just keep thinking of how he believed in what he believed in so strongly. Whether it was the struggle for truth and reconciliation and raising awareness of Chanie Wenjak’s story, or helping to bring attention to the state of so many northern Indigenous communities where there is–truly–a sort of cultural apartheid that is still happening, or the health of Lake Ontario’s water (so that you could swim in it, drink its waters, and fish in it), or just the intense natural beauty of this nation of ours, he fought hard for things he believed in.

I wept quietly at the back of a class of thirty sixteen year olds last week, poking at my eyes with a tissue, and then trying to explain why I was so moved. He had given of himself and his heart so openly throughout his life, and especially in a very public way in the last year or so of his life. That selflessness moves me. The students shuffled out of the classroom at the end of the period, hesitant to leave, muttering phrases like “It’ll be all right, Miss. Look at what he did for everyone…” And I stood there, trying to stop from crying even harder, knowing that it was seeing and hearing him speak in that documentary that set me off, just reminding me yet again of why I admire him so.

This world is a darker place without Gord Downie in it because he seemed, to me, to be someone who was genuine and true. I respect that in people because it’s getting harder and harder to find. Sometimes, I find, people don’t know what to do with those who are genuine or speak their truth with both conviction and kindness. He shone his light out, through poems, songs, interviews, and in his quiet, hard work on being on the Board for Lake Ontario Waterkeeper. He’s the kind of man I respect, and will always respect, for his quiet yet firm commitment to his voluntary causes.

This is the poem I wrote for him, as a gift to thank him for being such a grand poet and a steadfast advocate for so many important causes, to go along with the letter I sent to him in the spring. The letter will always be private, as are all letters I write to those I feel drawn or compelled to write to, and share my heart with, but this poem…is for him, to celebrate his work and bright spirit, and will be published in my next collection of poems in his honour and memory.

He was such a poet, such a soul, such a bright star, and so full of grace, too.

peace,

k.

The Lake Belongs to Us

(for Gord Downie)

“I feel more a citizen of Lake Ontario than I do of anywhere else.”

            -Gord Downie, Board Member of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper

This lake, provincial

and called ‘Ontario,’

sits centred, thumbtacked

into the vintage school map

of Canada that stretches out

over a cork bulletin board,

coloured in Pantone’s palest blue—

either Robin’s Egg

or Twilight Mist.

 

“Don’t go outside the lines,”

the voice echoes in my head,

so that lake doesn’t bleed

into pink or green shades

of Laurentian pencil crayon.

 

Going beyond borders

is how this water moves,

though, straddling nations

and teeter-tottering

over the Medicine Line—

laws made on two sides

for one great lake.

 

The tall man with a strong voice

walks the land, singing stories

and speaking of truth and justice,

saying he is a citizen of the lake,

more than of the land itself.

 

The lake belongs to us,

reaching out towards

the St. Lawrence River,

craving the salt of sea

and then giving it up

in favour of something else—

a song about courage, protest,

and the protector who is

ahead by a century,

trailing stars in his wake.

 

 

 

When I started writing plays two years ago, in Playwrights’ Junction at the Sudbury Theatre Centre, I thought, “I’ll just give this a shot. See what happens.” It’s pretty much the way I approach my life these days. I’ll try anything if I think it might work, if I feel drawn to it, or compelled to take a risk that might pan out. So. Writing plays. A whole different kettle of fish. Here’s why I love (and sometimes hate) writing them:

I had one play, “Ghost of a Chance,” workshopped at the Sudbury Theatre Centre, back in 2016, as part of the Opening Acts series there. It was based on the ghost of Mrs. Bell at the Bell Mansion (now the Art Gallery of Sudbury). There weren’t rewrites, though, and it seemed rushed. The play I’m constantly working on, as it weaves itself into itself month by month, is “Sparrows Over Slag.” It’s the story of two voices, one woman in her twenties, and one woman in her forties. In effect, it’s about how a female evolves, grows from being a ‘girl’ into a ‘woman,’ sometimes without her even recognizing the transformation. (Still, if you’d told my twenty-something year old self that I was anything less than a real woman, I would have been defiant. Now, though, I can see I was just a girl, and I’m glad to be where I am now, certain and confident.  That kind of thing takes time, I think, and you can’t rush it.)

This is a play that spirals into and out of itself. Part of me knows that that is because I think that way, and live that way, so of course it would infiltrate my own dramatic structure, too, as I write. There are so many poetic images that, when my dramaturge mentioned it to me last week, listing them all to me scene by scene, I thought, “Oh, Jesus. It’s too much.” I see the world as a poet, so images are what I use to write prose (short stories and novels) and drama. The problem is that you can’t “tell.” You need to “show,” through action. So the question, for me, is how to make my images into actions for the character(s) I create for the stage. It’s a cerebral debate I’ve been having in the last week or two, as I re-think “Sparrows.”

For images:

-There is a young woman who takes a leaf for a walk. (I have a real ‘thing’ for trees in my own life, and it’s quite transparently trickled down into all genres of my writing). I’ll tell you why I love trees now, if you want to know. They are so unbelievably strong; even when the most traumatic storms whip at them, they bend and creak, moving with challenges and not breaking. Celtic art has always amazed me with its Tree of Life symbology, and the way that the ancient Celts used trees to indicate a sense of continuity and eternity, in how their branches were woven together. To be honest, I’m fonder of trees than people most days, and I’m happiest if you plunk me in the bush somewhere. (I’m not fond of bears, though, and, having been in a car that sideswiped one the other day, I can say hiking in Northern Ontario isn’t always ‘easy,’ but it’s always something I love to do anyway.)

-There is the woman who calls out the faeries in the middle of a dusky “West-Of-Ireland” road. (I absolutely believe in faeries, and I don’t care who knows it. As such, they also make their way into certain pieces of my writing. I’m always ready for the derisive teasing and bullying that comes, when you say, as an adult woman, that you believe in faeries and ghosts. For me, all of the elementals just prove that there are veils between worlds and dimensions. These things don’t frighten me. I was raised with Irish stories. I know that there are things we can’t explain, and they don’t really frighten me. For me, they are just part of the fabric of my life. I’ve seen ghosts, so that doesn’t make me nervous, either…)

-There are references to this landscape, with Sudbury street names and the Bell Mansion, as well as to the notion of empty Manitoulin island fields, snow angels, and split rail fences that can trap a person when you least expect it. There are also swings (because I love them, and bought a house with one that hangs from a grand maple tree) and birds.

-There are men, two, bookending the piece. One is young and ‘passing through,’ and that relationship hints at a young woman who’s been cheated on and then discarded. The other is in his early to mid-forties, trying to make a connection with a woman in a conversation about pressing flowers, and swings, and Great Lakes. (Despite what you think, love can make and break a woman’s heart a few times in a life, and that makes for a richer character to write, I think…)

-There is a part of the play that speaks to illness, mostly depression, and to people’s deaths, and how so much of life is loving people as deeply as possible, and then learning how to let them go with some kind of grace. I always go to C. S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed when I miss my parents, especially. I love what he wrote about love and grief. He says that we grieve people’s going in a way that equates to the amount of love we had for them in life. At some point, he says in this lovely but powerful little book, we find that the grief of loss transmutes itself into a sort of love. I like that. A lot.

There’s something fascinating, about seeing how you’ve evolved as a human, as a woman, that calls for writing to be done. I call it a ‘chrysalis making and a chrysalis breaking’ in “Sparrows.” I like that you can see echoes of your former self in your current one, but you can also see how you’ve blossomed from girl, to young woman, to woman. The richest part of the evolution is now, for me. No other part of my life has been as content, creative, or rewarding. I don’t know if other women feel that way, but I know I wouldn’t have known it, or even imagined it, in my twenties or even early thirties. Life teaches you things, and the further you go, the more you learn. (It sounds like a television after school special, but it’s true…)

What I love about writing plays, and I’m only a ‘baby playwright,’ as a friend in the business said to me, is that they evolve over time. This one is two years old. Three scenes are new to the world as of July of this year, and at least one is likely to be jettisoned based on what I heard at the workshop we did on Thursday night as part of Wordstock. When you hear actors read your work dramatically, you can suddenly figure out what should stay and what maybe shouldn’t. It lights up your work so you can assess it a bit. I find that fascinating. No other genre allows me to ‘play’ inside it quite so joyously. I also love the collaborative aspect of it, working with actors and directors, and dramaturges. Seeing and hearing your words somehow become embodied through actors on a stage is a bit magical. I love, too, that you just keep playing with drafts until you find the core of the play, until it reveals itself to you.

My goal is to spend next semester writing somewhere in Southwestern Ontario, near Windsor, I think. I want to focus on the first draft of my second novel, but I also want to keep at “Sparrows,” as well as another play I’ve got started.  I wrote more of that other play when I was down on Pelee Island in August. Lake Erie is a bit of magic for me as a writer. It might be the water, or the sky, or the birds, as well as the long walks and hikes under the most beautiful trees I’ve ever seen, but that landscape seems to help me write more quickly, and I feel drawn to it in an ancient sort of way. I’m keen to get started on these writing projects, to really settle into days where I can sink my teeth into moving through these pieces of work. It’s been busy being laureate, and I’m so grateful, but I’m a bit tired out, and I miss the time I need to write, especially since work has been very busy this semester. Big classes at the senior level mean a lot of planning and marking. Carving out time to do what I love is crucial. If I can’t write, I feel ill inside, as if I’m not doing what I’m supposed to be doing. Balance, for me, means dancing, walking, yoga, music, hiking, canoeing, reading, and writing…with dogs in tow.

I want to thank Lisa O’Connell, of Pat the Dog Theatre Creation, as well as Matt Heiti, Sarah Gartshore, Bill Sanders, and France Huot, for their help with “Sparrows” over the last few months. I know it’s not done, that it needs a lot more work, but I think it’s good at the core. I do. I think it has potential. It definitely has a voice, and wings…

…and wings…and swings…are both good things! (I’m a poet. Can you tell?!) 🙂

peace,

k.

 

 

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.

k.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

http://www.cbc.ca/listen/shows/morning-north/segment/14353522

 

 

 

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…

peace,

k.