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The end of August brings me to the end of about four and a half months of aerial silks classes at Windsor Circus School. It has been, for those who are friends and have seen my little video of my routine, fairly intense. I have done the following things: hung upside down in an inversion pose, which I might have made a bit stronger just this afternoon; learned how to do a starfish, a plank, Ship’s Maiden, a back split, a candy roll (Cripes…this one is my damn nemesis!), and a ’tilt’ as of this afternoon. I’ve crept up a bit higher on my silk, but I’m still working from a central knot rather than climbing. This bugs me. I want to climb. My arms are stronger, but not strong enough. That’s my next goal: stronger arms by October.

Here’s what’s changed physically (in my body and being) for me, after all these weeks of Tuesday afternoon’s aerial silks classes: I have more of a core than I’ve ever had before, so I’m less klutzy and more certain in my bearing; I’m more in my body than I’ve ever been before — I trust it and I know it’s strong; I walk more gracefully, mostly I think because I’ve unfurled myself, uncurled myself, stretched myself out and learned where the muscles are, where my strength lives and flourishes; my upper body and shoulders are athletic, and I have muscles in my arms that were always there, but didn’t really show up very often; my feet and toes have more dexterity than I ever imagined; my hands and fingers: well, when you’re holding your whole body’s weight up with your hands and arms, you get arm, hand, and finger cramps when you least expect it. What’s been really loveliest of all, though, is that my left hip (the one with the big metal staple in it) has more range of motion than it has in years. It might be the hip rotations, bear walks, and ‘hollow body’ exercises we do on the floor mats for conditioning before class, or it might be the cascade of planks that we do on the mats, and in the air, but whatever it is, it has made me feel more whole, and less broken. This is the biggest gift.

Beyond the physical, here’s what silks has done for me in my daily life: I challenge myself to overcome my (mostly imagined) fears now. I tried TRX this month, once a week, and was amazed by how much I could do. This body of mine is stronger now, healthier. It can balance itself on a single knot of fabric, a foot above the floor. I can trust that it won’t let me down, that I’ll find my centre of balance in so many ways beyond the physical. The staple in my left hip that used to tell me, “You’ll never been fit, or slim, or healthy, or strong” now is made silent by my purposeful intention to be healthy, physically and mentally, and by my goal of becoming stronger. The one move that I fumble with is the candy roll. Tia, my teacher, knows this. Today, she saw me avoiding it in class. “Candy roll! Let’s go!” So I did it. And I did it fairly well. And then she just said, “Again! Do it again!” (She’s a good teacher; this is what I do with my student writers, too. The more you do something, over and over, in a disciplined way, the better you’ll be at it.)

What I have learned from Tia is that I can now trust my body more than I can my head. This is a big, scary, life changing lesson for me. I’ve always been cerebral, more in my head than in my body. Then, when I was really overweight, I was always wanting not to be in my body because I didn’t like it very much. Now, well, it’s a strong and athletic body that I’ve sculpted. It’s taken work. I’m not all the way there yet, but I’m getting there. I don’t hate it anymore. I love it, and I thank it for its strength and good health.

I’ve also learned important lessons from Tia. They sound like snippets, these little phrases: “Why the face?! Smile!”, “Get out of your head! Get into your body!”, “Point your toes and make that took pretty!”, and, my favourite of all time, when I complain or whinge about something, “Welcome to Circus!” and “Nice talk! Now, go again! Do it again!” Today, at the beginning of class, the ominous bit of conversation in passing was a quiet couple of words: “Today, Kim, you are moving on. New move. It’s happening.” Then I made a face, doubtful of my own ability to make myself strong enough to do something that requires me to flip around myself and then pull myself back onto the knot.

Today, when she taught me the ’tilt’ move, I thought I would fall off the silk. You have to pull both sides of the silk together into one joined ribbon, and then put one of your legs on the outside of that main ribbon. Then you tuck your leg over the silk and lift that same knee up so that you tilt over the other side of your body. You sort of, as Tia says, “give yourself a big hug.” (I know my giving myself a hug today was not at all ‘pretty looking,’ but I get what she meant when she said it to me. I’m getting there.)

What I’ve learned since April, since I began, and when I look back at my personal progression videos that I take every week, is that I am not as fearful of trusting my body to hold me up. I’m strong. I could be stronger, and I will be. In the last few months of the year, I want to be stronger so that I can climb. I’ve compensated for that stapled hip for too long. Doing aerials means that the scar tissue gets broken up every week, and that I have a wider range of motion than I’ve ever had since I had that surgery done at Sick Kids when I was just a kid. That’s a big deal. The even bigger deal is that I don’t let my hip, or the story I have traditionally and historically told myself about that hip and that staple, stop me from trying new things anymore. I’ve also finally accepted these Irish curves of mine, too, especially since they’re more ‘together’ than they were at this time last year. That’s powerful, too…to embrace your femininity and know it is about strength…both internal and external.

I may not be able to climb as high, or be as fluidly bendable as the 20-somethings who hang like pliable monkeys from the other silks across from me, but I know I’ve had a hard battle with a lot of things in my life, so I’ll celebrate the fact that I can lean my body confidently forward into Ship’s Maiden and then feel my shoulders straining. And then I’ll use my core and arms to pull myself back up to centre. I’ll celebrate the fact that I can somehow do candy roll if I trust my core and my balance; I can trust my feet and hands more now, to hold me up and not fear falling. It’s a metaphor for living, I think: for not mourning my ‘lost years of battling depression,’ but instead a celebration for honouring my survival, and now, well, for my blooming, as well…

I’ll throw a little party inside my head as I invert without thinking about it anymore, putting my legs into a diamond shape so that I know I am holding myself up in one of the weirdest ways I’d ever imagined I could. I’ll throw yet another party for myself because all of this makes my hiking down long trails even lovelier, more fulfilling, and more energizing. I still need to be mindful when I hike, not to overdo it. Sometimes that hip freezes, and I don’t know why, and it’s like someone has kicked me so I physically buckle. (If I’m lucky, I’m usually alone with the dog, and there’s a great deal of pain and swearing…) It happens less frequently now, though, and I know that is because of aerial silks, and Windsor Circus School, and my teacher, Tia. ūüôā

Sometimes, you know, being an almost absolute beginner and a late bloomer is the best place for learning the most important lessons in life. Sometimes, you know, you step into yourself when you can’t imagine you ever would have. There’s such a gift in this new knowing. Such a gift…

peace,

k.

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I feel strongly about thanking the various mentors I’ve had in my writing career thus far. It isn’t over, so I am sure there will be a few more before I’ve gone and left the planet in my old age. (I intend to live to over ninety, so I have quite a few more things to write before then!)

Besides mentors, though, there are the writers you discover as you move through your own life, with its various trials and tribulations. Bronwen Wallace was a poet I learned about in grad school, at Carleton University, in Ottawa. Her work changed me. It still does.

This essay is a reflection on how the late Bronwen Wallace’s work has influenced me as a poet, as a person, and definitely as a feminist. She was so amazing, and her work still sings.

If you’d like to read my essay on her work, you can do so at

https://themanygenderedmothers.blogspot.com/2018/08/kim-fahner-on-bronwen-wallace.html

She was an inspiration to so many of us, and maybe more people need to hear her name, discover and come to her poems, and the excellent work she did with abused women in Kingston, Ontario, at Interval House.

Thanks for reading. I appreciate it.

 

peace,

k.

I think most Northerners have an affinity for the bush. If you grow up anywhere from Parry Sound upwards, in Ontario anyway, you’ve liking been out hiking, canoeing, fishing, or camping in summer. You have memories of the sound of an outboard motor starting up, kicking at the deep navy blue water on a summer day, and then the smell of gas rising. You’ll recall putting your first worm or minnow on the fishing hook, and those weird puffy red life jackets that we used to wear. (My grandparents used to stick us in ones that were from the 1940s. God knows, they probably didn’t work, but we weren’t smart enough as ‘under 10s’ to know it.) So, you probably also knew how to swim in lakes and feel weeds under your feet, and maybe a fish nip or two. Most Northern Ontario parents stick you in swimming lessons as soon as you can handle water wings because there are lakes everywhere.

You likely also have memories of jumping off rocky shores, never really completely sure that it was safe to do so. You have sat under tall pines, near a shoreline, maybe around a small campfire. And you likely have stood out on a dock, at 1am, under the darkest night sky you could ever imagine, looking at stars. Yeah. We Northerners grow up in the wilderness and we usually, traditionally, escape to the bush on weekends, with beer, wine, cards, a cribbage board, and maybe look forward to crazy games of Monopoly and Scrabble under a yellow camp light and with a mosquito coil burning like some kind of weird Northern Ontario incense stick. We have camps that have been passed down through generations, places (even sometimes) where ashes might have been scattered after the loss of a loved one.

So. Watching the creeping forest fires on social media over the last two weeks has been heartbreaking. Hearing of friends who were out at their camps on Hartley Bay or Alban and then were suddenly evacuated makes me feel sick to my stomach. It’s heartbreaking. There is no other word for it, to be honest. Now, I know that forest fires are ‘natural’ in that they cause regeneration of trees and soil. Some trees and plants require fire to help them germinate. I’m reminded of how farmers will sometimes burn a field and let it stay fallow for a season, to enrich the soil. I know there are benefits. Now, though, after a couple of weeks of it all, you’ll spot someone offering a place for people to stable their horses, if they’ve needed to evacuate. People grow kinder and more compassionate in times of crisis. Now, though, the fire up around Parry Sound (just called “Parry Sound 33”) keeps creeping, expanding. An article from last night’s Sudbury Star says it started on July 18th and it’s now burned more than 100 square kilometres. The Municipality of Killarney has been affected, but not the village itself. The Municipality of French River has issued an evacuation alert, warning people that they should be prepared to leave quickly. The smoke causes visibility issues on Highway 69. Over 500 firefighters are up there working hard, including 200 from Mexico. What makes it all seem more real, though, are the photos and videos on social media. A spark sends the fire across a river, so it ‘jumps’ the water and spreads. The rain isn’t plentiful enough to slow its progress.

There’s no doubt there are going to be horribly sad stories that will emerge once this is over, but there will likely be stories of great compassion and kindness, too. I can only, though, right now, think of friends who live in those at-risk areas, or who have family camps. And, of course, I think of the wildlife and the gorgeous trees that are so much a part of my internal and poetic landscape. You can, as a Northerner, love the land as deeply as you would a human. You can know what it feels like to stand under a tall white pine, on a stretch of rock overlooking some river channel or lake, and smell pine gum on your hands, or feel the needles of that tree. You can squat down and put your hands into the softest moss, or watch a tiny beetle meander across an old fallen tree. You can feel like you’ve been born of a place and space that is sacred to you, and will always be. If you believe in God, or a Creator, you’ll know that creative force exists when you step out into the northern bush and landscape.

I’m sending love to this sacred landscape of mine these days…and hoping things get better. I’ll keep praying for rain, and hoping that everyone stays safe.

peace,
k.

ÔĽŅ

I go to Stratford every year. I always see one or two Shakespeare plays. I love Shakespeare. (My students back home know that he is one of my ‘secret husbands,’ mostly because he is dead, so he isn’t aware that we’re together…) I also always try to see the work of at least one Canadian woman playwright each season. My favourites are Kate Hennig (The Last Wife¬†and The¬†Virgin Trial)¬†and Hannah Moscovitch (The Russian Play, East of Berlin, Little One, Infinity, and Bunny). As a new playwright, I’ve been reading plays pretty intensely for the last three years. I have quite a library of plays, and more than a few of them are by women. I know what my voice is like when I write for the stage, but it’s interesting to read the work of veteran female playwrights to get a sense of how women’s issues and voices make their way to the stage in Canada.

So. When I heard that Antoni Cimolino was going to cast Martha Henry in the role of Prospero in¬†The Tempest, I got very excited. It is one of my top five favourite Shakespeare plays. There is a sense of wonder about it. There are thematic centres around the notions of freedom, being enslaved, wanting to find your identity, the tensions between illusion and reality, colonialism, compassion, and forgiveness. (When people say Shakespeare isn’t interesting, I always shake my head. He is fascinating. That he could have written such brilliant plays, and with such intricate dialogue and characterization, always amazes me. Hearing his words come to life on stage is, if it’s done well, magical.) To cast Henry in the role is, quite simply, sheer brilliance.

Anyone who is a Stratford ‘person’ will know that Martha Henry has a long career in theatre, but in Stratford productions in particular. Her first role in 1962 was that of Miranda, daughter to William Hutt’s Prospero. Now, that would have been a show to see. Now, fifty-six years later, she is playing Prospero. Her cloak is made up of pieces of fabric from all of the robes that have been worn by Stratford actors who have played Prospero in the past, and by a bit of fabric taken from the gown she wore back in 1962. Talk about coming full circle. What I kept thinking, watching the play, was that there are so many parallels to strong women as leaders. It seems perfect that Cimolino cast Henry in the lead role. The one figure who comes to mind, perhaps naturally, given Shakespeare’s relationship to her as his patron, was Elizabeth I. There was a woman who had to try and live up to the storied reign of her father, Henry VIII. There, too, was a woman who often referred to herself as a ‘prince,’ and who kept her love life very quiet and private so as to maintain a sense of power, mystery, and dignity about her person. Smart woman, Elizabeth I…

Martha Henry is 80 years old. I love this. In a world where women playwrights have to struggle to be produced on Canadian stages, and where women may not often get cast in lead roles like that of Prospero in The Tempest, Henry¬†is a¬†wise and strong woman of substance in her acting.¬†She commands the stage as she always has. If you’ve seen her in a Stratford play over the years, you’ll know what I mean. It’s hard to explain. You need to see it. She can stand in a small circle of light, drop her voice down low, raise her hands up like birds, and then you are caught up in the real magic of her work as an actor. You forget who she is, and you think “Ah, yes, this is indeed Prospero.” From start to finish, from her loving interactions with Miranda, to her spirited interactions with Ariel, to her machinations with love and war, and to her learning about how to forgive, have compassion, and divest herself of her magic, Henry’s Prospero shifts between places of power that are both real and illusory. Her transformation of the character is fascinating, thought provoking stuff.

The thing that always gets me in this play, besides Caliban’s beautiful “Are you afeard?” speech, with its gorgeous language and sense of magic looming, is Prospero’s epilogue. Divested of her magic, she stages alone on the stage, stripped of her magic cloak and staff: “Now my charms are all overthrown,/And what strength I have’s mine own,/Which is most faint…” She wants “art to enchant,” and it has done nothing but in this particular production.

I was fine all through the play, until I got to that last part. Martha Henry standing there, as Prospero, hoping that the play has pleased the audience, made me start to cry. I mean, beyond the beauty of Shakespeare’s words, how do you thank someone who has acted for so many years, and who has brought so many wonderful characters to life? And how do you thank someone for making Prospero into a wise, strong woman? For embodying that magic and power? And then, how do you thank someone who can take on such a role with deft grace? I don’t know. I just started crying. And then I got myself together, walked down to my car under a new full moon, and was fine until I got on the road. I went looking for a cup of steeped tea, shaking my head, and crying as I drove.

You see, there are performances in the theatre (you know what I mean if you love theatre as much as me, or if you’ve seen productions that move and shake you to the core of your being) that change you from the inside out. This was one of those theatre experiences for me. (The only other one I can think of was Colm Feore’s performance as King Lear a few years ago, and that one left me a mess in the theatre seat, sopping up tears next to a stranger next to me who, thankfully, was also sopping up tears.)

My only weird moment in the evening was a conversation at the interval with a mother and daughter who were sitting next to me. For some reason, they thought I was with the two elderly gentlemen who were seated on the other side of me. When they sorted out that I wasn’t with the two men, that I was sitting in a single seat between them, the mother leaned over with shock in her voice. “Are you here by yourself? Alone?!” Here we go, I thought, another lesson in what not to say to a single woman who is traveling. “Yes. Why?” And she kept going, “Oh my God! No! You mean you’ve just been sitting there reading the program by yourself? That’s sad.” Cue my standard response to this Noah’s Ark mentality, “Why? I’m not sad. I’m alone, but I’m not lonely.” Then, she realized she’d sort of made a mistake. “No, I mean, of course not…after all…you’re here on your own, so it mustn’t bother you…to be at the theatre alone.” Christ. It does get tiresome. As if all single women in the world sit in their apartments or houses, waiting for men on horses to ‘rescue’ them so that they can live their lives and go to see plays. Shocking. “No. It doesn’t bother me. I do it all the time. I travel. I see things. Go to concerts and events on my own. And this play is one of my favourites…” Later, she tried to apologize. “It’s my favourite, too…I love how it’s so mysterious, don’t you?” I nodded. Then she continued. “So we three can be Shakespeare buddies…” I nodded and then returned to my program. The two elderly guys next to me just sort of rolled their eyes at me in sympathy.

What struck me, though, is that she missed the point of having Martha Henry as Prospero. She liked the beautiful bird that perched at the top of the stage during one of the more fantastical, dream-like scenes, but she wasn’t quite sure of how the woman-as-Prospero thing was working for her. Maybe, I thought later, she needs to try going out to the theatre on her own. You meet interesting people, and you can stare at the handsome, strong jawed, clean shaven, long haired Shakespearean male actors in doublets for three hours and imagine dancing a pavan with them. That’s not all that upsetting in my books…not upsetting at all.

peace,

k.

 

It’s July, and I’m on leave this year to work on my writing, but the news that is all over social media this week is something I can’t really ignore. My ‘day job’ is that of a secondary school English teacher. In that role, I’ve been lucky enough to teach a Grade 11 First Nations, Metis, and Inuit literature course. I took what was then called “Native Studies” at Laurentian University back in my undergraduate years. It was a while back now, but I’ve always been drawn to learning more about the First Nations cultures and the teachings of the people in Northern Ontario, where I live most of the time. I’m drawn to First Nations spirituality because it is truly holistic and resonates with me, and because it’s so closely woven into the fabric of the environment, as well as the belief that guardianship and protection of natural landscapes and wild spaces is important. As a writer, I’ve always read widely, and I love reading Canadian writers, but have–in the past four years in preparing to teach this course–read more Indigenous writers than I traditionally would have read. For that, I am really quite lucky. I’ve read Wagamaese, Maracle, Dimaline, King, Hayden Taylor, Scofield, Vermette, Van Camp, Dumont, and others. I’ve immersed myself in their bodies of work. I want to be as informed as I can be in bringing the right information to my students when I teach this course.

I’m not Indigenous. I always tell my students this on the first day of classes. If I don’t know the answer to a question (and no question is ‘stupid’ is the other thing I always tell my kids), then I tell them I’ll ask someone who knows. I’ll usually ask an elder, or someone at our school board who can point me to the proper resources. I would never tell a student something that I wasn’t sure was true, especially because I know how important it is to honour the teachings of our First Nations peoples.

This past year, I was blessed to have Joel Agowissa, our school board’s Aboriginal Support Worker, come into my class on Monday mornings. We would gather outside of our traditional classroom, coming into the school chapel in a circle. We took part in smudging and learned traditional teachings. I teach at an all-girls’ school in Sudbury called Marymount Academy. Now, if you teach girls, on their own, you know that they are spirited, independent and bright. They also tend to love to talk. They share their ideas widely, and they ask questions with curiosity. With Joel, I was amazed to see them sit quietly, with respect and interest. By the end of the semester, they came and told me that they were grateful for the course, and that they were upset they hadn’t known about the ‘true’ history of Canada before Grade 11 English.

Here’s the thing that pisses me off about this recent cancellation of curriculum writing: I know people think teachers are lazy. (It’s not true; we aren’t.) I don’t know that people know that many teachers take time in the summer to upgrade with what are called Additional Qualification courses, to learn new methodology and content, to make their classrooms more vibrant places in which kids can learn. I don’t know that most people know that teachers will travel to Toronto, from all over Ontario, and take part in curriculum writing sessions. You don’t just show up empty handed. When I’ve taken part in our local curriculum writing sessions, I’ve had to do research and come with unit and lesson plan ideas. You come prepared, to work with colleagues, to work through questions you have, to troubleshoot any problems that might arise at the various board and school levels in the province. You create a document that will help thousands of Ontario teachers teach better. You help teachers open doors for the kids they teach. These kids are your kids. These kids, I’ll say it again, are your kids.

To cancel a session of curriculum writing a day or two before it was slated to begin, and which was meant to pull in Indigenous educators and elders from across the province of Ontario, including teachers from as far north as Nipigon, you send a clear message to Ontario educators, parents, and (most importantly) students. “You aren’t important. Your voices don’t matter. Your time and effort doesn’t matter.” You might also, in some way, when you cancel $100 million in funding for school repairs and maintenance in the same damn week, be saying, “We don’t really care at all” and “Truth and Reconciliation was a nice idea, but implementing it within a curriculum and school system, and taking time to train teachers to teach it as respectfully and truthfully as possible, is just too expensive.” What the Ministry of Education puts out, though, in fine language is this: “In keeping with the commitment that Premier Doug Ford made to run government more efficiently, all ministries will seek to carry out initiatives in the most cost effective way possible.” It is, quite simply, bullshit of the highest order.

Here’s what I think, as a writer and reader who loves reading Indigenous literature and learning about First Nations, Metis and Inuit culture and history. I want my students to know as much as possible. When they finish a course that is completely not whitewashed in content, when they read about Saul’s struggles and triumph in residential school in Richard Wagamese’s¬†Indian Horse, or when they learn about the horror of missing and murdered Indigenous women through Greg Scofield’s poignant poetry in¬†Witness I Am, and through Katherena Vermette’s poems in¬†North End Love Songs,¬†or when I show them the documentary¬†Angry Inuk and we discuss the significance of seal hunting in Northern Canada, they want to know more. We don’t teach Shakespeare in this Grade 11 course at Marymount. We teach Drew Hayden Taylor’s brilliant play,¬†Toronto at Dreamer’s Rock, and the kids love it when they hear references to place names that are in Northern Ontario. We took them to see the “Walking with our Sisters” exhibit that was spearheaded by the amazing Christi Belcourt. We gathered around sacred fires afterwards, on cold winter days, watching our breath rise up with the smoke of the flames. We are all related.¬†

I am not Indigenous, but I am an ally. That, in itself, is probably a problematic statement. I know that. But I’d rather be an ally than someone who doesn’t care, who would just sit by and watch a government cancel a curriculum writing session that is meant to address what has been lacking in a racist school system for most of the last century, and into this one as well. Here was a chance for Ontario to step up, to honour the hard work of Justice Murray Sinclair, and to the thousands of survivors who told their very difficult stories. The ‘truth’ is about telling and witnessing true stories of sheer horror, and of the Sixties Scoop, and of families broken up for inane and brutal reasons that spoke of colonization and racism. The ‘reconciliation’ is up to all of us, including teachers, students, and the very parents who likely were not even taught about any of the true history of this country when they were in school. Ontario’s cancellation of this curriculum rewrite just spits in the face of the Commission, and in the faces of those people who have suffered, and then suffered again by telling their stories in hopes that their truth telling will help to mend things, to move forward and not backward. Here is Justice Sinclair, in what I think is a helpful clip of how to explain what reconciliation is about. Perhaps Doug Ford should watch this, too.

I’m writing this in a little rented flat in Kingsville, on a cloudy morning, when the humidity presses down. It feels oppressive. I couldn’t sleep last night because all I can think is how I don’t recognize this province anymore. I can’t envision a Ministry of Education that is handcuffed and made to issue statements of cost cutting when I know that there are First Nations kids in my classroom who tell me stories about parents and grandparents who were traumatized by being in residential school, and who speak to me, quietly, just before lunch, on their way out of my classroom, about how addiction and violence is part of their family history. Or how I’ve seen sixteen year olds start to cry when they watch parts of the film¬†Indian Horse¬†because they feel they ought to have known about residential schools before Grade 11. “How,” they ask me, “did we not know this? Why wouldn’t they tell us before now?”

I don’t know what the answer to this recent revelation of institutionalized racism and idiocy is, but I know it’s terrifying because now it’s only going to be further reflected and embedded in a colonialized curriculum that is already too outdated. It means, likely, having to beg for money for buying new texts that will help us to teach the right stories, the real history of Canada. It means, likely, not having proper professional development in our various school boards across Ontario, so that some teachers (who were never taught about residential schools when they were students) will still not know the truth of this country’s history. I really don’t know the answer to my own worries and questions here. I only know that I’m going to keep speaking up, as an ally, as a writer, and as a teacher. This Ontario needs to listen up, to learn some of what we (as educators) call “active listening skills,” and make decisions that are compassionate and forward thinking.

We are all related. This is a common phrase that comes up in the First Nations teachings that I’ve been privileged to hear when I’ve sat in circles with Elders from Atikameksheng Anishnawbek or Wikwemikong in Northern Ontario. We are all related. It’s a relationship. As Justice Sinclair says here, “If we can agree on what that relationship needs to look like in the future, then what we need to think about is what can we do today that will contribute to that objective. Reconciliation will be about ensuring that everything that we do today is aimed at that high standard of restoring that balance to that relationship.”

I think we’d best remember that as we move forward. Otherwise, in my mind, it’s all more about truth and lies than about truth and reconciliation.

peace, friends.

k.

 

My first experience visiting Detroit was almost two years ago, in October of 2016. I was down in Windsor for the Poetry at the Manor event, in my role as poet laureate for Greater Sudbury. I spent a few nights at an AirBnB in Kingsville, the very same one that I’m staying at now for the rest of the year as I finish my second novel. I took some time and decided to cross the river, via the tunnel, to spend the day at the Detroit Institute of Arts. I’ve written before, on this very blog, about my love of art. I always hang out in museums and art galleries. I had hoped to grab a friend, but none were to be had, so I do what I always do as a singleton — I hopped into the car and set off on my own, ready for adventure. It was that, indeed. I got a bit lost that day, ending up in a rather dicey neighbourhood and trying to plead with the GPS on my iPhone, reminding it that we were in America and no longer in Canada. Finally, I managed to figure it all out, after many episodes of talking to myself and pulling over to curbs to search out new directions. I loved the DIA and spent the whole day there, steeping in its atmosphere and writing in its beautiful little cafe.

I’ve been down here for a few months now, but back and forth because of literary things back home in Sudbury like the staged reading of my play at PlaySmelter, and the unveiling of our Project Bookmark Canada plaque in early May. Then, I was home at the beginning of June because I was nominated for the Mayor’s Celebration of the Arts Awards. Finally, I’ve come to rest (well, I’m writing a novel, so it’s not restful most of the time!) in Kingsville for the next two months, and beyond it, into the fall and winter. So, now that I’m here, I get to spend more time exploring, which is something I love to do. I want to see how the seasons shift here, too…how that works with the landscape I love.

Last week, my new friend, poet Melanie Janisse Barlow, took me on a day trip to Detroit. (I met her back in mid-March, when I first arrived in the area and went to hear her read her poetry at the Windsor Public Library. She is an amazing poet, and I’m a huge fan of her work. Thankfully, we hit it off and then had tea last month.) Our trip to Detroit last week was, to be honest, a bit of a revelation. It’s such an interesting place, all layered like a prism in its nature.

We drove out to Rochester Hills to pick up one of her wonderful “Poets Series” prints. She’s super talented because she’s a writer and a visual artist, and has now painted a number of Canadian and American poets. (You can read more about her brilliant project at http://www.poets-series-project.com). While we waited for the print to be ready, we dashed off to a Salvation Army store and spent an hour and a half or so in there. I have a thing for dresses now that I’ve lost a lot of weight in the last couple of years, but I am not very good at knowing which size will fit. I know, of course, what size I am, but my head tells me that I’m still a lot bigger than I am. She saw a beautiful teal dress with embroidery and held it up. “You need to try this on! It’ll look great with your skin and eyes!” I shook my head, “No way. That won’t fit.” She insisted, and so I tried it on. It’s brilliant, and she was right. It fit. And it made me feel beautiful, to wear that lovely blue colour. I’m a pale person so I do well in jewel tones. She’s got a good eye for fashion. After the hour and a half was up, I’d bought a small dress for just $3.50 American, alongside a soft-cover book of Synge’s Selected Plays for just ten cents!¬†dress.JPG

After we finished that bit of the journey, we headed back into Detroit and Mel took me to what I think is the best Mexican restaurant I’ve ever been to in my entire life. El Veloz Tacos is sort of tucked into a factory on Toledo Street. On the way there, though, she gave me a tour of the urban decay that weaves itself through the city. Certain neighbourhoods are poverty and crime-ridden and she made note of them for me as we drove through them. Each neighbourhood has a distinct flavour and personality. Some are scarier than others. From June 25 to July 2, according to the Crime Viewer app provided by the City of Detroit (and intended to make the city safer), there were 1,387 crimes reported, including arson, forced entry and burglary, assault and battery, retail fraud, murder, and ¬†manslaughter. ¬†You can’t be naive about the state of this American city. It’s beautiful in so many ways, but so very complex in the roots of its issues. I wouldn’t even dare to try to explain it here. I don’t know enough, and I can only just say what I saw and how it made me feel. (I’m a ‘feeler,’ because I’m an empath, so everything imprints on me quite forcefully, whether I want it to or not.)

After lunch, Mel took me to see the Heidelberg Project, an outdoor urban art exhibition that ‘lives’ on Heidelberg Street. It was started in 1986 by Tyree Guyton, who returned to his old Detroit east side neighbourhood after having been away, and who wanted to transform the decay of an area which was then “riddled with drugs and deepening poverty.” As the Heidelberg Project website will tell you, Guyton “transformed the street into a massive art environment.” The mission of the project is as follows: “The theory of change for the Heidelberg Project begins with the belief that all citizens, from all cultures, have the right to grow and flourish in their communities…it believes that a community can redevelop and sustain itself, from the inside out, by embracing its diverse cultures and artistic attributes as the essential building blocks for a fulfilling and economically viable way of life.” (You can read more about the project at http://www.heidelberg.org).

Walking around the city block that encompasses the Heidelberg Project is an eye-opening experience. Tourists in small buses pile out, speaking German or Spanish, and then take photos and leave. It’s sort of nicer to take more time, to let it seep into you for a bit. It’s impressive, how urban art installations can make a difference in cities. Back home in Sudbury, I’ve seen this happen with the murals of the Up Here Festival. Helping to put up poems in city business windows, too, and on the streets, is something I really enjoyed doing when I was poet laureate. I like the notion that art can lift a person up, take them out of their regular routine, make them review their place in the world, and in their own lives. Art can do big things like this, from the inside out. Definitely.

Here are some photos of the Heidelberg Project:

heidelberg 5.JPGTime…heidelberg 6.JPGheidelberg 4.JPGThe Numbers House, with its angel on a chair…heidelberg1.JPG

After this, we went to Dabl’s African Bead Gallery. Dabl seems to be a fixture on the Detroit scene, and he has transformed a number of buildings on his land into works of urban art. There’s the African Language Wall and a number of outside sculptural pieces. Then there’s the actual bead museum, which is a bit like walking into a colourful kaleidoscope. At the centre of it all is Dabl, who will reach over and shake your head with a warm smile, welcoming you to his store.

dabls 3.JPGBeads! Beads! And more beads!

dabls museum .JPGdabls 2.JPGdabls 4.JPGWhen you walk onto this property, your eyes are taken by everything around you. It almost reminded me of a found poem of sorts, with pieces put together in beautiful and striking ways. There are mosaics of the highest creative order, with fragments of mirror reflecting your bent elbow, the curve of your waist and hips, the glance of a kneecap, or the lifting up of a stray hand, raised to block the sun from your eyes. You see yourself in fragments; you think about putting yourself back together again. It’s really a metacognitive process, to spend time in and around the buildings that are so beautifully and elaborately decorated. Again, this is another urban arts project that seems to fly in the face of decay, seems to encourage the value of community and peace, and to honour the way in which art can lift people out of despair in unique and inspiring ways.

Beyond that, we drove around the city, with Mel taking me through areas that had been decimated by the race riots of the late 1960s. Then, in the 1990s and forwards, the story of how Detroit struggled with economics. The rise of crime, including incidents of arson, is something that is commonly known. The arson, though, is unsetting. Even in the Heidelberg Project, there was talk about how fires are still being set, how grudges become much larger things when not contained. It doesn’t seem safe, in many places. In daylight, even, decimated houses have windows with a shutter or two hanging at odd angles, or shrubs that have taken over the front of what used to be grand houses. A drive through a very gentrified street or two had me gaping out the window of the car. There were mansions, really, from the earliest times of the Ford dynasty, when the car industry built the city and its wealthy citizens obviously benefitted. Now, there are streets where these grand old houses are being restored, but just one or two streets over, you’ll see burnt out husks of houses, or lawns that are no longer cared for. The difference between a street or two makes you realize that Detroit is complex: it has a surface, and it has a number of different depths. It’s rough and raw, and beautiful, even in the most difficult of places. The people are warm and welcoming, but you need to mind which place you’re driving through. Anger simmers underneath, a result of gentrification, racism, and elitist divisions of wealth. There are obvious ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ in this city, divided by race and gender, and so it’s not surprising that poverty and crime are common here. I would be lying if I said it wasn’t disconcerting or unsettling. It is, on both counts.

abandoned church Detroit.JPG

An abandoned church. Its back wall is a place where the plants seem to be taking over the sidewalk and abandoned parking lot. where a house used to live .JPG

One of the most unsettling things to see are the number of empty, grassy lots in places where the houses used to be, before the riots and incidents of arson occurred. Whole blocks are altered, visually, economically, and socially, by these empty lots.

Then there are the marked contrast between the posh houses on one street, and the run-down ones just a street or two away…

house2.JPGhouse 3.JPG

house.JPG

One of the last stops before we headed back to Windsor was a visit to the Guardian building in downtown Detroit. Mel had told me that I needed to see it, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. It delighted me on so many various levels, all of them artistic and sensual, and not very many cerebral ones–mostly because of the stimulation of the colour and the architectural beauty that you find on the building’s external walls, and the stunning nature of its lobby. When I entered the lobby, through a rather nondescript, sort of silvery revolving door, Mel went in first and then looked back to see my reaction: “The same thing. Every single time.” What she saw, I think, was me with my head tilted back, my mouth open, and me just muttering “Oh, my God. So beautiful! So beautiful!” I spent the next twenty minutes listening to her tell me about the building’s history, and just staring open mouthed at the elevator doors, the Tiffany-crafted clock, the elaborate tiling, and the wide expanses of marble.

Stained Glass Guardian building.JPGguardian building map.JPGThe mural wall with a map of Michigan at its centre. (This map makes me think of my parents, both of whom really loved traveling in Michigan just after they retired and were still healthy, going from Sudbury and then west to Sault Ste. Marie, and across the border. It also reminds me of the time I spent in Petoskey, when my dad was in hospital there after his accident.)

guardian5.JPGThe stunning tile work…

guardian3.JPGThis mosaic piece, above the main reception area…so beautiful.

guardian2.JPGThe Tiffany-crafted clock.guardian4.JPGElevator doors that are made of inlaid steel pieces…

guardian1.JPGMore of the tiles…

After that, Mel took us on a drive around Belle Isle, which is a place I want to go back and visit when I have more time. (It doesn’t have the same pull for me as Point Pelee does, though, and this is mostly –I think — because I love raw wild spaces and not ones that are more photoshopped and manicured.) There are so many lovely things to see in Detroit. I know a lot of people are saying that Canadians shouldn’t travel to America right now because of the Trump presidency. I understand that idea in theory. I do. But I also have a new sense, having been down in this area for a few months now, that border cities are different animals. They are so unique and often have such distinct personalities. Windsor and Detroit definitely seem to prove that theory. When you drive into Windsor, you can sometimes think that the tall skyscrapers of Detroit are part of Windsor, but they aren’t. There’s a whole different feeling to Detroit. It’s what I expected, and more. It’s complex: beautiful, rough, raw, violent, artistic, vibrant, and full of interesting people and history. I can’t wait to spend more time there and learn more. I love the DIA and want to spend a lot more time there. And I want to visit bookstores. Lots of them.

I love Windsor, too, for similar reasons. When I say I’m down here writing, people at home make faces. “Why there? Why Windsor? You could go anywhere…” And then I think: It reminds me of home, Windsor does. It’s got the same kind of working class mentality and hard work is valued. There’s a history of a union town that draws me, as I’ve come from one and understand how it works. There are unique cultural groupings, just like back home. ¬†I’m not fond of the humidity, as a very pale woman, but I walk early in the mornings before it gets too humid. What I do love are the trails and the landscape. I love the birds, the trees, the water, and the words that seem to come to me more easily…for now, anyway. The flowers seem bigger and richer, and the gardens bloom in a more voluptuous way than they do in the north. It’s a fine place to write, Kingsville is…and the entire landscape of Essex county, and Windsor itself, draws me in creatively.

I’m not done with exploring Detroit…or Michigan. Next, I’m headed to Ann Arbor soon. An American poet friend who was born there, and whom I met on a retreat in Ireland six years ago, tells me that there’s a wonderful arboretum and hiking trails there. That’s a bit of a siren call to me, so there’s a day trip coming soon for that…

Sometimes, I’ve been thinking, over and over again lately, the things you see on the surface (of people and landscapes and cities) are not always as obvious as you’d initially imagined. There’s a great mystery to that, a sense of exploration and journeying that appeals to me, as a writer, but as a human, too. There are so many lovely layers of being in this life, and discovering them is part of the journey. I love new experiences. The difference now is that I used to want and long for new experiences, but then I would shy away from them out of fear. Now, though, I consider the risks, swallow the largely imagined spectre of fear, and step forward anyway. It’s a better, more richer way of living, I think…for me, in any case. Most definitely.

peace, friends.

k.

 

 

 

My little love affair with letterpress printing started last year in an odd, unassuming but somehow fated kind of way, just as most love affairs will, I suppose. I read Merilyn Simonds’s book,¬†Gutenberg’s Fingerprint: Papers, Pixels and the Lasting Impression of Books¬†last spring and wrote a little review here, on my blog. I had known of Gutenberg, of course, and have always loved reading about historical periods, so it was, for me, the perfect book. Before that, I had little notion of how beautiful a letterpress could be. (Trust me: I know that sounds weird…)

In April 2016, I went to a historical fiction workshop at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity and met two women who raved about different types of font over wine one night in the Painter House. I remember thinking, “What are they on about?” One was Sandra McIntyre, who was writing a novel about Baskerville and his famous font, while the other was Monica Kidd, who owns Whiskyjack Press in Calgary and who happens to be a brilliant poet. I had had one glass of wine, so at that point I wasn’t in grand shape, but I remember thinking that I was intrigued.

My friend Tanya Neumeyer, a poet from Toronto, saw my blog post and wanted to introduce me to Hugh Barclay, of Thee Hellbox Press in Kingston. Both Tanya and Hugh are mentioned in Merilyn’s book as Merilyn had worked with Hugh on some letterpress projects, namely her beautiful limited edition handmade book,¬†The Paradise Project.¬†Hugh is a book artist, and you can tell this by the description of that project on his website. He speaks lovingly of the detailed and meticulous process that is typesetting and letterpress work: “What we will have is a 64-page book, hand-set in 14 pt. Garamond Roman, printed on an 1890 Chandler/Price press on Saint-Armand’s “salad” paper (cream coloured mould-made paper)…The covers will be wrapped in Japanese Ajisai Gold, which translates as Gold Hyacinth.” Pure poetry, I think, Hugh’s description of that stunning book.

When Hugh read the review of Merilyn’s book, he invited me, in my role as poet laureate (then) of Greater Sudbury, to visit him in Kingston, along with Tanya, to set and print one of my poems. So, there was a road trip down to Toronto to pick up Tanya and then on to Kingston, where I stayed with my second cousin, Mary, and her partner, Dale. What followed was a hot and humid nine-hour day in Hugh’s print shop, learning the ins and outs of letterpress printing. I was overwhelmed, but oddly attracted to it all.

Then, in March this year, I had a poetry reading out in Calgary, so Monica invited me to visit her letterpress studio in the old Grain Exchange building downtown. This was one of the loveliest afternoons I’ve had in my lifetime, peppering her with questions, setting type, and learning about how she works as a letterpress printer. It was too short, though, that time.

When I came down to Kingsville to work on my second novel, my friend Fe told me about Levigator Press and its proprietor, Jodi Green. Fe said that Jodi ran classes and a bell went off in my head. I wanted to learn more and maybe set and print some more poems. So, in April, I took a paper marbling class. It was brilliant. I have always loved art, and I write a lot of ekphrastic poems, but I never really considered myself to be artistic in a visual arts sort of way. Now, though, I’ve found a way to satisfy that need to be visually artistic in a literary way, melding my words with ink, beautiful paper, and elegant bits of ornamentation.

So, in mid-June, after I returned to Kingsville from Sudbury, I set off to Levigator to learn letterpress more fully. I knew I wanted to set the type for one of my poems, but I also knew that the full poem I’d done with Tanya and Hugh last year had taken nine hours. I was not up for that. (In a new relationship, even one with inanimate objects like type and a letterpress, you don’t necessarily want to spend every waking hour with the person. This probably means I am commitment phobic, if that’s even a phrase, but I know how I work. I get fascinated by something like letterpress and book arts, and then go fully into it, but I also know about balance and how I need to work on my writing projects, too. As a writer, you’re drawn to people, but also weirdly repulsed, I think. That repulsion part, for me, lets me spend a lot of time on my own, hiking, walking in towns, reading, and writing on my own.) So, after all was said and done, I settled on typesetting and printing just one stanza of a poem I wrote after hiking at Kopegaron Woods, in Wheatley, Ontario. I chose what I think is the most beautiful stanza in that particular poem, the one with birds. (I also have a big thing for birds, in particular crows and ravens, but that’s a whole other blog…)

title.jpgThe title of the poem, “A Walk in Kopegaron Woods,” which was shortened from its original title (because of its length!)

Jodi was incredibly patient and kind, listening to my peppering of questions and offering up answers and carefully worded explanations so that I could learn as I went. It was a lot of new terminology and I felt out of my depth. So, after four afternoons, and part of another day, I think, we ended up with the stanza set on beautiful paper.

Hugh and Tanya taught me so much last August in that one nine-hour block of time. I revisited it with Monica in March out in Calgary. With Jodi, over the last two weeks, I’ve had an intense immersion and review of letterpress. I remembered the terminology for things like the chase, the furniture, spacers, slugs, ornaments, the ink reservoir, and words like ‘kern’ and ‘quoin,’ which just make me think that you could easily write a poem using letterpress terminology and it would likely be beautiful…I could call it “A love letter to the letterpress.” ūüôā

full layout .jpgDesigning the layout before printing the stanza.

The loveliest thing that’s emerged from all of that is that I’m giving one signed copy of my limited edition print run of stanzas to the Essex Region Conservation Authority, to auction off at a fundraising event in August. So, a place where I love to hike and which brings me great peace inside has inspired a poem, which inspired a letterpress broadside, which now allows me to give back to a protected conversation area. I love that circle. It feels very ancient and very Celtic. It feels very “me.” I love trees, as most of my friends know, and I love hiking out under these Carolinians. The trees back in northern Ontario are different. Just as beautiful, of course, but different.

completedpoem.JPGThe completed broadside. (I am so in love with it!)

Next week, and the one following it, I’m back in at Levitator Press for a number of hours in the evening, haunting Jodi and beginning to typeset a stanza from another poem. After a long talk last week over coffee, we decided to try another broadside, so I can get more comfortable with typesetting and printing, and then we’ll move onto a small chapbook of my hiking poems from my time in Essex County. We’re going to try using stanzas and make plates of photos that I’ve taken during my hikes.

What I love most about doing this, exploring the world of letterpress printing and book arts, is that there’s something very historical and traditional about it. These are two things I’m strongly rooted in within my life. I always feel as if I’m out of the loop of modern life, as if I was born in the wrong time period, and I know full well that I’m an anachronism. I’m old fashioned. This little project allows me to steep in the beauty of words and language in a new way. (Plus, to be honest, there is something very comforting about picking through a tray of type, searching out letters and tiny commas, and then trying to centre it all in the chase. Finding that it all magically works, after hours of meticulous work with your hands, is beautiful in a really true, authentic, and deep way.)

I’m down here in Essex County until the end of the year, finishing the first draft of my second novel, so I have the time and space to work on this project, too. I’m excited to start. I have so much more to learn, but I have time…I have time. ūüôā

peace,

k.