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One of my strengths (or perhaps weaknesses!) is that I never really think of how things might not work, but instead just imagine that things will work, with just a bit of vision, elbow grease, and determination. As poet laureate over the last two years, I’ve had the privilege of being able to make connections and partnerships with a variety of local and national non-profit organizations that support literacy initiatives. One of my most beloved ones is with Project Bookmark Canada. (Don’t worry, National Reading Campaign and Reading Town Sudbury! I love the work you do just as deeply!) 🙂

Both of these nationally-based, but locally-inspired, non-profit organizations do things that I love and support as a writer, an educator, and a human. I came first to Project Bookmark Canada and the amazingly inspiring Miranda Hill through my time at the Banff Centre for Creativity in April 2016, when I was part of Lawrence Hill’s historical fiction class for a week. I had met Larry back at the Sage Hill Writing Experience in the summer of 2014, when I was lucky enough to work with Ken Babstock as a mentor for my poetry. I had read about Project Bookmark Canada, so I knew that Larry’s wife was its champion. So, on the day we were quietly discussing my progress with my historical fiction novel, at the very end of our meeting, I snuck in a question about Project Bookmark Canada and asked Larry to introduce me to his wife. He did. This is how I began to work away at getting Project Bookmark to come to Sudbury. I sent off a selection of local Sudbury-based books, of poems, novels and short stories to Miranda that summer, but I mentioned the one that I thought was truly evocative of our town.

Matthew Heiti’s novel, The City Still Breathing, was the first book I’d ever read about my city that actually reminded me of my time growing up here. There were mentions of Elgin Street, Ramsey Lake, Bell Park, the slag dumps and the black hills behind Gatchell, and of Dino, the Popcorn Man, who used to sell bags of popcorn from a little wheeled cart around the downtown core. Even the way he described winter in Sudbury seemed alive to me. The novel is a great story on its own, but the description of my home town was what sold me. Matt had managed, as a writer, to make Sudbury into a living character of its own, sort of salty and weather-worn. But, and here is what I love about working class towns like Sudbury (and Windsor, too): there is a pride and beauty underneath what seems to be a rough, tough exterior. I love the notion that you can see something and then need to explore it, discover its true essence, by entering fully into it and beginning to really know it. Nothing is what it seems, and a book (or, in this case, a city!) shouldn’t be judged solely by its (supposedly obvious and stereotypical) cover.

It took a while, some months, and then I heard back that Project Bookmark Canada was interested in putting a bookmark here in Sudbury, and that they thought Matt’s novel was a fine match. I was thrilled. Matt was…hmmm…not so much thrilled as continually cringing when it all came up in conversation. If you know Matt, then you know he’s one of the most humble, brilliant, creative, and kind souls you could ever encounter. If he likes your work as a writer, he’s open to critiquing it with an honest, yet thoughtful, approach. He’s a fine teacher and a good friend. (He’s also extremely funny, because he’s so smart, so that’s another bonus.)

In the middle of my trying to submit work to Project Bookmark Canada, and after my time out at Banff and then down at a writing retreat on Pelee Island in May, I was asked to partner with Reading Town/Ville Lecture Sudbury in Spring 2016, to write a poem to celebrate Reading Town’s arrival in Sudbury. I was thrilled. Then I met Sandy Crawley, who is the dynamic and spirited Executive Director of the National Reading Campaign.  This is the organization that creates Reading Town events across the country, and its main mission is to make reading a national priority. Its vision is, even more brilliantly, to create, sustain and grow a society in which everyone has an equal opportunity to become and remain a lifelong reader. In my work as a writer, but even more so in my work as a classroom teacher, I have seen how having books in a child’s home is crucial to their development, not just intellectually and psychologically, but also imaginatively and creatively. Reading, for me, is central to my life. It always has been, and it always will be. (I once had a boyfriend who said I loved books more than him…and…he was right! He wasn’t a reader, or a writer, or much of a compassionate thinker…so that relationship obviously didn’t work, and for that I am extremely thankful.)

Fast forward ahead to last summer and fall, and a new Executive Director for Project Bookmark Canada in the person of Laurie Murphy, as of January 2017, a truly spirited Maritimer who has been encouraging us to move forward over the months. Finally, now, our bookmark has been approved, and we have a spot to place it, a home where people will be able to go and read the excerpt from Heiti’s The City Still Breathing. On Thursday, May 3, 2018, at 4pm, we’ll gather outside the Townehouse Tavern, and unveil our Sudbury bookmark. Here’s an interview I did with Markus Schwabe at CBC’s Morning North back in December.

http://www.cbc.ca/player/play/1121570883723

Now, we need to raise some money…just a wee bit…but you can help if you’d like…by going to the “Give” tab on the Project Bookmark Canada page at

http://www.projectbookmarkcanada.ca

Look for the photo of Matthew Heiti and his book cover, under “Help Build a Bookmark,” make a donation, and then receive a tax receipt for being a donor. If donating online doesn’t work, you can easily drop off a cheque (made out to Project Bookmark Canada) at the main branch of the Greater Sudbury Public Library on Mackenzie Street. You can address the envelope to the attention of Tammy DeAmicis. She’ll be forwarding all of the donations to Project Bookmark Canada in Toronto, so that they get there safely!

You can also get to know National Reading Campaign…because any organization that gets kids and families reading together is, in my books, an organization to get to know. (Look at me: matchmaking for other people on Valentine’s Day! You should know I have successfully set up at least one couple…and they’ve been together for two years. Not so good at it for myself…but that’s another blog…another day…)

http://www.nationalreadingcampaign.ca

I need to thank some people here now, because I couldn’t have envisioned this larger project coming to fruition without supportive friends in the arts and culture community. So, first, to Jessica Watts, of the Greater Sudbury Public Library, who supported me throughout my time as poet laureate for the city. From Project Bookmark Canada, thanks are due to Miranda Hill and Laurie Murphy, whose vision for this organization amazes me. From National Reading Campaign, Sandy Crawley, who makes a fine dinner companion when you’re at the Governor General’s Literary Awards and you’re nervous because you’ve never worn a fancy schmancy gown before (!). From Reading Town/Ville Lecture Sudbury, a big thank you to Derek Young, who has patiently helped me to figure out how to write grant applications for local arts and culture funds. From Wordstock, Sudbury’s Literary Festival, a wave of thanks to the entire Board of Directors, but especially to Dinah Laprairie, Heather Campbell, and Celina Mantler. From the Sudbury Arts Council, warm thanks are due to Board member and amazing community ‘giver,’ Judi Straughan, as well as to Linda Cartier, who (with the help of Adric Cluff at the SAC office) made up fantastic postcards and distributed them at Nuit Blanche Sudbury. From the CBC, to Markus Schwabe, who always offered me a bit of media space to speak about my projects, and from Sudbury.com, Heidi Ulrichsen, who always sent me little notes via Facebook messager when she heard I had a new project to share. To Sudbury’s new poet laureate, Chloe LaDuchesse, who has offered her support of this project…I’m so thankful! From the Townehouse Tavern, the place where the Nickel Bin lives on, thanks are due to Paul Loewenburg, and to the Desjardins family, who are giving us permission to put the plaque on their building’s wall, in support of arts and culture in Sudbury. And, of course, a note of thanks to our mayor, Brian Bigger, for his support of my work during my time as poet laureate.

Finally, well, you can’t say enough to thank the person who wrote the words that will be placed on the Project Bookmark Canada plaque, can you? So, for Matt Heiti, a thank you for your excellent novel, your fine words, and your continual support of the Sudbury literary scene. I know you are hesitant about this whole thing, but you’re part of a national literary trail that helps put Sudbury on a larger scale, a project that shows we are a vibrant, diverse, artistic community…where beauty hides itself in the most unexpected of places, nestled amidst slag dump hills and impressive rock cuts.

There is such beauty here in Sudbury, and I’m hoping that people come to see the plaque…and stay to experience our warmth, the beauty of our raw northern landscape, and the stories that make up the fabric of this very grand and dear place.

peace, friends.

k.

 

 

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When I was in Ottawa for the Governor General’s Literary Awards at the end of November 2017, I knew I wanted to go and visit the War Flowers exhibit. I had read about it somewhere and was drawn to its own story.

IMG_9712.JPGTaking a tour with artist Mark Raynes Roberts and my friend, Judi Symes. (Photo credit: Adrianna Prosser)

I have always loved letters. They have a power that pulls at me. I know I’m a poet, and a romantic, and a lover of story and handwriting, and how letters can travel through the years, tied up in yellow ribbons and tucked into shoeboxes under beds or in hall closets.  I also love sending mail in the old fashioned way…through the postal system.  I can think of nothing as lovely as receiving a hand written note in the mail, and I know it’s rare these days, but I still cultivate epistolary conversations…with pen and paper, or via email. (Even my texts are unbelievably wordy. If I don’t know you, I can sometimes seem to either be shy or else snobby when I first meet you. I won’t be wordy, either in person—with my voice,  and in my speech—or on paper or screen, if I don’t feel comfortable with you. But, if I think I trust you, well, you’re going to get words in some way, shape or form. My dad used to just laugh and shake his head when I got to babbling and thinking things out through talking out loud or writing; I stymied the poor man.  🙂

That day in Ottawa, on November 30th, the day after my birthday, I came upon the heart-stopping architecture of the Canadian War Museum. It’s one of my favourite Canadian museums, because you can wander through it and feel the ache of history. It’s a place that really resonates with me. I had had great-uncles in WWII, and I had once been grand friends with a WWII veteran who had helped to liberate the concentration camps. That friend, Ernie Schroeder, taught me so many lessons about the nature of our own humanity, and about how we should be in the world in a compassionate and humane way. We should always be thinking of others, and being grateful for the peace those veterans had fought so valiantly for, often at the cost of their own health and well-being, and so many times at the cost of their lives.

Seeing War Flowers at the Canadian War Museum was so moving that I started jotting down words right away, just fifteen minutes ahead of a group of touring elementary students. I had very little time before that group of feisty students came in that morning, and I felt hurried and rushed. I was alone, and the exhibit was tucked into the hall with the ‘first drafts’ of Walter Alward’s stark, but stunning, Vimy Ridge statues. That was enough to give me shivers. (I had also learned about Alward through Jane Urquhart’s stunning novel, The Stonecarvers, which is still one of my favourite Canadian novels of all time.) Inside the museum, Regeneration Hall echoes, and then there were the haunting sounds of a young girl humming, birds twittering, a fog horn calling out, and guns firing. The soundscape of the exhibition echoed through the hall and then through my heart. The words, the poems, started to pour out.

Here, so you get a sense of its raw beauty and emotion, is a video about the exhibit itself. It doesn’t do it justice. It never could. But it gives you a sense of why you ought to go and see it in Toronto, at the Campbell House Museum, before it leaves for Vimy after March 25, 2018.

https://warflowers.ca/#single/0

And this, too…so you understand the curator’s view of the exhibition’s purpose.

 

And this, about how you can use crystal to tell such a story of loss and love…

 

Here is the story of a man, George Stephen Cantlie, who wrote two letters home each day from the Front—one to his wife, and one to his little daughter, Celia. He called her ‘dear wee Celia’ in his letters, and he picked one flower a day, pressing them into envelopes and sent them back to Canada. Years later, they emerged, and this exhibit was born. I was struck, when I first saw the exhibit in late November, by how poignant it was. Here was a man, in the field, facing the wretched battles of trench warfare in France and Belgium. He might have picked a bit of heather from a roadside ditch, or a bit of stitchwort from some wild bunch in a field, or even snagged a little yellow rose from outside a local hotel. Each flower has a meaning. This is what floriography is all about. It seems Edwardian, and it reminds me, on some level, of the little flower faery books by Cicely Mary Barker that I used to get as a young girl. (I have always loved flowers, but I have always loved faeries even more…)

The fact that the flowers each have a symbolic meaning, and that each meaning weaves itself into a theme for the exhibition, and that each theme inspired artist Mark Raynes Roberts to capture its essence in crystal etchings, well, that just overwhelms me. The notion that a father so loved his daughter, too, that he would pluck one flower each day and send it home to Canada with a short note, touched my heart. When I first saw the exhibit, I got teary eyed. When I visited it again yesterday, but with my friend Judi Symes and Mark along as our private tour guide, well, I got teary again.  The multi-sensory aspect of the exhibit does this to you…pulls you in and surprises you with waves of deep emotion. You feel the losses of the 68,000 names. They become humans with lives and families, men with girlfriends back home in Ontario or Quebec, and men with family homes and farms left behind so that they could fight for things like king, country, faith, and valour.

*************************************************************************************

Now, just so you know, I love Instagram because of photos. I only really started taking photos a few years ago, and I really see them as visual poems in a way. So, the day of that exhibit, I posted an Instagram photo and tagged Mark Raynes Roberts. That is how we connected. When I told him I was so inspired that I had begun to write a series of poems, he offered to take me on a private tour when I visited Toronto in February. I was amazed and so excited! I love speaking with artists. It doesn’t matter if they aren’t writers, I am intrigued by how the creative process works with different mediums. (I love ekphrastic poetry, so this exhibit pulled at me, not letting me go.) In any case, I think it’s funny when people say social media is problematic; really, it’s only problematic if you can’t use it in a positive, creative way. For me, it has been a way of making creative connections around the world, especially with other writers and artists.

Yesterday, my friend Judi and I went to meet Mark at Campbell House Museum in Toronto. It was a bit of a snowstorm, which made me laugh. I had flown in the afternoon before to read at the Art Bar Poetry Series, which had long been a dream of mine. The night had been lovely, and I had met up with some old traveling friends, and even a few former students. But I must admit I was most excited about going through the exhibition with Mark as our guide, mostly because I had struggled with a couple of the thematic poems I was writing.

The morning was brilliant. Mark explained his process as an artist, and how he was inspired to create the various crystal pieces. Each one is beautiful, but I have my favourites. I won’t list them here because it could sway a potential viewer of the exhibition. Then, add in the William Morris-esque flowered wallpaper, and the Gothic arches that remind me of church windows (or the prows of boats!), and the scents that have been created by perfume artist Alexandra Bachand, and, well, I am lost. The curator, Viveka Melki, has a clear vision of what this multi-sensory exhibition should be, and I love how beautifully all of it dovetails together. Along with Raynes Roberts, Bachand, and Melki, there is botanist and archivist, Celine Arsenault, and Normand Dumont, who worked on exhibition design and layout. Alexander Reford plays a role, too, in relation to Reford Gardens in Quebec.

I can only say that this exhibition has moved me since I first saw it in late November. It haunts me, if I’m honest about it. The images, scents, and soundscapes of it, all of that imprinted itself on my heart and mind, and the poems have emerged as a result. I’m not sure where they’ll go, but I know they’ll likely find a spot in my next book of poems, which I’m working on.

I think of the 68,000 names that are listed on the banners that hang above the staircase in Campbell House Museum, and then I think of the lives lost, and of the lives shattered back home in Canada, and I think of how these little flowers, pressed and faintly shaded now, were sent from a father to a daughter.

And, then, well, I think of how, despite the horror of war, there is hope for humanity in the lessons we learn about love…and how love connects one to some other. That, for me, is beautiful, even in the face of great loss. It makes me weep when I see this exhibit, every single time, because I think of those boys and men in trenches, and then I think of those letters and pressed flowers, saved for over one hundred years…and the light they offer is hope…and that is beautiful, even in the face of despair.

I’m so thankful to Mark Raynes Roberts for that quiet tour, and for the conversations we had about art and humanity, and about creative process. I’m thankful, too, to Viveka Melki, for her kind words via email. I’m thankful, finally, to Judi Symes, who put me up in her beautiful home for one night, in a room with a night bird perched in a window, and am so glad she came along with me to experience the exhibit.

Sometimes, I think, this world is a wonderfully knit spiderweb of soul connections.  So, when we find them, we need to make special note of them, and then thank the Universe (or God, or the Creator, or whomever!) for the mystical machinations that bring us one to another. This brings us, I think, to a greater understanding of how light works against darkness, in creativity and in love, written out in letters and pressed flowers, and then sent across the sea…

I’ll leave you with one of the poems, titled “Names,” from a suite of poems that I’ve tentatively called “The War Flowers Sequence.”

 

Names

Those who were lost,

but not forgotten,

like stitches in a handmade scarf–

singular souls, woven together

sometimes only by their endings

and by the blurred ghosts of maple leaves,

fallen crimson in sharp beams

of late autumn sunlight.

 

peace, friends.

 

k.

 

 

When I first started teaching my Grade 11 First Nations, Metis and Inuit literature course two years ago, I read a great deal about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) in Canada. The Red Dress Project further raised my awareness, and then the various documentaries that I watched to learn more also helped. I knew the statistics were staggering and brutal. For a few years now, I have heard of the “Walking with Our Sisters” exhibition, so when I heard it was coming to Sudbury, I was keen to see it. I didn’t know, though, that it would break me open as it did.

When you first walk into the eight-point star lodge, which has been set up inside the McEwen School for Architecture downtown, on Elm Street, you think of how impressive it is, with various pathways that are fashioned on a red floor so that you are guided around each series of moccasin tops (or ‘vamps’). They are set out in colour coded blocks, so the reds are on their own and the blues and greens are somewhere else. It feels fluid, in this way, in how the colours are like waves. The eight points of the star shape represent the Seven Grandfather Teachings of honesty, truth, humility, love, wisdom, courage, and respect. The eighth point of the star is symbolic of how we relate, as humans, to the Creator.

There are over 1,810 unfinished sets of moccasin vamps, beaded and decorated by the loved ones and friends of those women who have disappeared or been murdered across Canada. This is, my friend Charmaine told me, only about one-tenth the number of the estimated lives lost. Not everyone saw the initial call to send in beaded vamps back in 2012, when the call was put out via Facebook. Christi Belcourt was at the head of that call, and this exhibit has a great deal to do with her work as an artist and activist.

Walking through the installation today, I noticed that some families only chose to include one, rather than two, to show the symbolism of a woman’s life that was unfinished, cut in half. You journey through the installation on a path that is a symbol for a person’s life. It curves, bends, circles around, and sometimes comes to a sharper point. You walk without shoes, and you stop to see the various designs, each one representing a woman’s particular spirit.

And then there are the children’s vamps. They are not included in this exhibition, but there are hundreds, and they represent the children who died in residential schools across Canada. They were often buried in unmarked graves, discarded without thought or worry. One banner, with smaller vamps decorated and then attached, was created by students at White Pine Collegiate in Sault Ste. Marie. It serves to remember the children who lived and died in Shingwauk Residential School in the Sault. It closed in 1970.

You carry tobacco with you as you go, and there is cedar carefully attached to walls around the open space of the room.  Then you walk. You need to take your time, to not let yourself be too rushed. The intensity of it all startled me. Each set of vamps represents a woman who is missing or murdered. Each set of vamps means an unfinished life. Each set of vamps reflects the love that a woman’s family and friends hold for her, a mourning that you can feel with an ache inside your heart. One pair is made of soapstone; another is made of birch bark, with the likeness of wildflowers etched into the it; many are beaded so beautifully, full of flowers, or rainbows, or sea horses. One pair was purely black felt, edged only by blue and green beads, leaving me wondering about what had been left undone, what space hadn’t been taken up in one woman’s life, and how many other lives were affected by her loss.

One pair had the image of a woman reaching up to the moon on the left vamp, and then the words “Sing her to the light” on the right one. She needs singing to the light, and she needs people to care enough to guide her. This one, in particular, reminded me of Gregory Scofield’s beautiful poem, “She Is Spitting a Mouthful of Stars,” from his collection, “Witness, I am.” You can hear that poem read by the poet here:

http://www.cbc.ca/player/play/829322819940

Through it all, in an hour of quiet walking, reflection, and prayer, I kept thinking (over and over again in my head): “So many. Too many.” What struck me was the amount of love (and grief) that was put into each pair of vamps. Here was someone who had written a poem for a lost sister or mother, affixing it to the top of the vamp. There, a few rows up, a pair with one faery and one mermaid made by a mother for her daughter. Then, in another section, a pair with Scottish thistles, while another had infinity symbols on them. Each set of vamps reflected the personality of a lost, but not forgotten, woman.

I was fine until I left. The smudging, I think, helped. The keepers of that lodge space smudge you as you go in, but then also smudge you when you come back out. When you leave, they smudge the front and the back of your body. It’s as if they know how heavy that experience can be. It’s as if they know that your heart will be affected, even if you don’t think it will be.

When I left, my friend Charmaine showed me the book that listed out the names of the people who had created the individual vamps. That’s when I started to cry. Divided into provinces and countries, there were endless lists of names. These were not the names of the women who were missing or murdered, but the names of those who loved them. It was a big book, and the names went on and on and on. She had shown me their names…and I couldn’t stop crying.

Walking downstairs, I had to duck around behind a bank of elevators to try and gather myself, but it wasn’t of much use. Here is what I kept thinking:

Why does this happen? Why are First Nations, Metis, and Inuit women so vulnerable? I know the logical and official answer. I do. Many, we know, leave their communities and reserves in the far north and move towards larger, more urban areas. Maybe they think they will be safer, or will find work, or will make better lives for themselves. What happens, though, is often the opposite. They may find drug or alcohol addiction, or poverty and homelessness, or prostitution, or relationships that are domestically violent, or cycles of abuse they can’t escape. They will lose their families. They will be disconnected in places that aren’t ‘home.’ They will be lost…and in need of feeling connection…to others and to the land itself.

All of it seems to stem from this country’s broken history of trying to colonize, segregate and then annihilate Indigenous people. Something is still so wrong, so broken, that we can hear of women like the great Inuit artist, Annie Pootoogook, found dead, floating dead in the Ottawa River, pregnant, and only in her forties.  We can talk of “Truth and Reconciliation” as if that will solve everything, but then you walk through an exhibition like this one, and you think “How? How does it stop?”

And here is the other thing I kept thinking, and the thing that made me weep even harder, after sitting in a sacred fire outside. “If this were to happen to non-Indigenous, white women, would this be the response?” My answer: no. How can so many women have been erased in such violent ways? You only need to do a bit of reading and research to hear their individual stories, and they are–quite simply–some of the most brutal things I’ve ever read about. How are Indigenous women so expendable, and non-Indigenous women not? It’s racist. It’s inhuman. It’s unacceptable.

If this were to happen to non-Indigenous women, if white women were found brutally battered and left for dead on the sides of highways in the northern parts of our Canadian provinces, or at the bottoms of some of the long prairie rivers, how long would this go on for? It makes me cry. It will continue to make me weep. It’s wrong. As a soul, as a  woman–regardless of race–I find it unconscionable.

I don’t know what the answer is…I don’t…and I’ve been thinking about it all day, and now into this darker night. I just know it can’t continue. This exhibition, “Walking With Our Sisters,” closes here in Sudbury on Wednesday morning. You have tomorrow, and part of Wednesday morning to experience it. You should be warned, though, that it may very well trigger you. It will make you want to shout, to question, to weep…and to pray for those families who have lost their daughters, mothers, aunties, sisters, and grandmothers.

They can’t be forgotten…they are our sisters.

peace,

k.

 

This is the end of my second self-professed “Year of No Fear.” The third is about to begin. Here, though, are some of the lessons I’ve learned in 2017, some of which have trickled over from 2016. (I’m imagining there is a pattern here and that 2016 has rippled into 2017, and then all of that energy will ripple, logically, into 2018. Energy doesn’t disappear, after all!)

I have learned that the most important gift you can give yourself is to “step into yourself.” It’s taken me such a long time to actually love myself in a genuine way. I had always thought I was unattractive, physically, and that I was not very much of a presence in the world, that maybe I didn’t deserve to take up too much space. I had always felt that I didn’t belong, and I often still feel that I’m living in the wrong dimension or time period. I’m old fashioned at heart, an anachronism, a poet and romantic whose heart is often broken by the way the world works. I’m sensitive, too sensitive perhaps. I’m honest, and I say what I think, and this often puts me at a real disadvantage. I’ve lost friends because I’ve said what I thought in a truthful way. (Sagittarians are like this, I’ve learned, as I’ve begun to look at astrology more closely in the last couple of years. Sagittarians are known to be blunt, and this can be a deficit in a world that would rather lie to itself than tell itself the honest truth. Sagittarians are rooted on the earth, but reach for the stars…which can definitely be a precarious sort of tension when you are, in fact, a Sagittarian.)

I’ve continued to take good care of my physical and mental health in 2017. I’ve been much more physically active, walking on a daily basis, hiking in the bush, canoeing around Killarney and Sudbury with my friend, Jen, doing Zumba about four times a week, and keeping at a fairly regular yoga practice. The result of all this activity has been a healthier body that makes me feel strong and graceful, when I never have before. I’ve shrunk from a Size 14 in Spring 2016 to a Size 10 in Winter 2017. It’s not about size, though, or weight for that matter. Instead, it’s a matter of me feeling lithe, strong, and active. I’ve kept stripping away at the layers of fat that I used to use to protect me from interacting with the world, and people, in a meaningful way. (Some days, I think it might have been easier to stay hidden, to hide under the fat, but then I go for a long walk and think ‘Nope…this is divine’ because I can breathe and not feel like I’m carrying a small child on my back.)

Feeling graceful and strong has also led me to feel beautiful, too, and I have to thank my photographer friend, Gerry Kingsley, for his help in making me view myself differently. I didn’t want a lot of makeup on in my photos, because I don’t wear a lot on a daily basis, so Dana Lajeunesse did a good job of making me look myself. The author photos Gerry took of me in May made me realize my own beauty. My thirties were dominated by major depressive disorder and taking care of my parents. That decade of my life nearly disappeared to suicidal ideation. It’s scary when you know that you almost erased yourself, but I somehow managed to survive that quagmire. What’s happened now is that I feel more driven to live fully, to tell people that they are important to me when I feel something must be said, and to put my energy into creative and artistic projects that I truly believe in. I feel like a strong, beautiful and creative woman, something I’ve never felt like before in my entire life. That makes 2017 a year of chrysalis breaking celebration of sorts.

I’ve had some deep heart pain recently, though, that’s brought me back to some old wounds of grief. In early December, my oldest dog, Sable, had what looked to be a stroke. She fell off the bed early one morning and then couldn’t move her legs. I took her to the vet’s that morning, fully prepared to have to put her down. I was broken. I was an emotional mess at home and at work, and I’ve been struggling all through these last four weeks. (The poor guys in the Math office have not known what to do with me!) I’ve pulled in, turtled, spending time at home with her while I still have her. She has vestibular disease, which means that she may have a lesion on her brain. There’s no way to know, though, and I know the vet has told me that I’ve got a bit of ‘borrowed time’ with her. She tilts to the left now, walks with a wobble and uncertainty, and can no longer jump up on the sofa or climb stairs on her own. She sees the world from an angle that I cannot understand; she’s teaching me to see the world from a different angle, too, surprisingly. But she still loves cuddles (maybe even more now) and having her food, and nosing around in the backyard snow, so she’s well enough to stay for a while longer.

I know we (Sable, Gully and me) are waiting for the other shoe to drop and, for people who are in couples, or who have kids, well, I know they can’t really understand the pain I’m experiencing. For me, this dog is the dog that chose my mum back in 2004. This was just after my mum’s open-heart surgery, and before my world changed and I became more of a personal nurse and caretaker for my parents, rather than my own person, for a big chunk of my life. This dog was my mum’s dog, and then my dad’s dog after my mum died. This is the little shih tzu who ‘speaks’ by grumbling, and who gives ‘head hugs’ between your shins if she wants a bit of love.

This incident with Sable has made me go back and somehow re-grieve my mum’s death. It’s been very, very rough. A few good friends have been here for me, and I’m thankful (as always) that they’ve called, texted or emailed, or just stopped by for a cup of tea. I’m also glad they know that there are times when I just really need to be alone. These two dogs are my family. For me, December is a month of great pain. Mum died on December 18th and Dad died on the 28th, so my Christmas is always painful and I fight against it, walk through the emotional molasses of it, and am thankful that my closest friends know it’s natural for me to pull in. I can’t find the energy to pretend I’m okay anymore when my heart hurts. (People pretend too much these days, anyway; they want everyone to think they’re fine, even when they’re not.)

I think it’s okay to actually admit that you are struggling with your life and emotions. I can’t hide it. My face is too transparent. It always has been. If I fancy someone, my face reveals it through blushing, I get quiet and nervous, and my eyes drift constantly to the floor, even when I wish I could stop myself. If I am sad, or angry, or hurt unexpectedly by someone’s words, my eyes pool up with tears so that I have to turn my head and pretend to be fascinated by the pattern in the rug under my feet. I turtle. I can’t stand conflict. I wish I could be stronger, wish I could hide my emotions a bit to protect myself, but it’s fine. I think, in some ways, my emotions being so close to the surface is what allows me to write poetry, but that’s a whole different blog post.

I’m taking second semester off from teaching this next year to write for a while in southwestern Ontario. I love the birds, the trees, and the water there. It all makes me feel small, but more connected somehow, to a larger network of meaning. I’m going to work on the first draft of my second novel, to complete and revise some plays, to work on some non-fiction pieces, and to put together the start of my next book of poems. I want an absolute writing retreat, outside of my comfort zone, where I can see how my writing will likely shift in terms of imagery and metaphor, and away from any distractions here at home, and to also be close to Point Pelee National Park, where I intend to walk as frequently as possible. It’s a place that has become a part of me and I love to be there on my own. It’s like the landscape gathers me in, so I feel comforted somehow. It makes for a good place to write, to breathe, for a while. I’m also going to be able to explore southwestern Ontario, a place my dad loved, including Stratford and more plays (!). I want to spend more time in Detroit, because it intrigues me on many creative levels. Then, I intend to spend another chunk of time on Pelee Island, and I’m planning on spending some time with three good friends, Dawn, Fe, and Lena (and Lena’s two amazing kids, Athena and Alex, whom I love to bits and bits!).  As well, I’ve never really experienced a true spring, and I’d like to…because who knows when you might be hit by an ore truck. So, for once at least, I’d like to see things grow in April instead of late May or early June.   🙂

Taking months of time, away from the North, to work on a novel…well…that is a terrifying thing. It would be more comfortable to just stay in Sudbury and try not to be distracted. But I love Lake Erie, and I want to walk along its shores on a regular basis. Whenever I’ve written down there, in Kingsville or on Pelee Island, I’ve written quickly and I find my writing is different, stronger somehow. I’m curious to see how changing my geography will shift my style of writing. My work changes there. It’s an experiment, in pressing against fear, in believing that I can really write, and in gifting myself with the time and space to really devote myself to it. I’ve written in other places before, but for much shorter time periods. I squeeze serious writing projects into holiday blocks, hoping and praying that something half decent will emerge. (The fear, I suppose, is that I won’t do well with my writing, or that I won’t write as much as I’d like to in five or six months…or maybe even, on the other side of things, the fear that I might find out that I’m more a writer than anything else…and how that might change my life.)

In 2017, I’ve also learned more about friendship. I value it a great deal, not having a big, close family anymore. People with families, or who are in couples, won’t get this. I understand. You still have big groups of people who love you, unconditionally, so it’s easy to feel connected and part of something. You have a familial net into which you can fall if you struggle, or if you need someone to say they love you, or at least care for you. It’s hard to be strong on your own, and so I choose my very small network of close friends carefully. They gather me in, and I hope I somehow gather them in, too. (Also, they know there will often be random drive-bys with gifts of flowers or Irish soda bread…or a book…or something. I like giving, but I do know, too, that I need to get better about receiving and being more vulnerable. I’ll work on that in 2018.)  🙂

I’ve learned, too, that you can’t make yourself less than who you are to suit other people’s requirements. If you’re told that you are ‘too much,’ or ‘too intense,’ or that you should maybe ‘dial down’ your spirit or personality so you don’t frighten people off because you might be too bright, or too smart, or too creative, it hurts. When you’ve nearly erased yourself nine years ago, you won’t make yourself smaller to suit anyone else’s requirements. When you’ve managed to survive mental illness, to get well, and then thrive, you have to cultivate it, mind it, guard it. Casting off good health is not in the cards.

I used to be fearful of offending people, but now I’m not. I believe it’s best to have a very small group of good friends who know me on a deeper level, than to have a load of fair-weather ones who hover about. You can like a whole lot of people, can be friendly, too, on a surface level, but–as a creative and an introvert–you may not always have the space or energy to be close to all of them. To some, it might look like you are distancing yourself from them, but you are just doing all you can do, energetically, to be well, content, and creative inside. Sometimes, too, despite all efforts, you outgrow people, or they outgrow you, and I’ve learned to accept that painful lesson of letting go, too. We learn from one another, and that’s the key thing. We grow.

The most amazing thing that has happened to me this year, though, is that my friend, Jen, has introduced me to hiking and canoeing in Northern Ontario. For someone who has always been timid, for no apparent reason, I’ve surprised myself. I’m athletic enough now that I’ve canoed across the mouth of the North Channel of Lake Huron, hugging the shoreline and reaching out to touch the boughs of a tree hanging out over the water. I’ve gone leaping up onto those small Killarney islands in Collins Inlet in the middle of hot July weather, and then become what I like to call a “rock jumper.” Now when I go canoeing, I wear my swimsuit under my t-shirt and shorts and life jacket, and Jen and I look for islands or places along a river’s shore when we can jump off a rock and swim all afternoon. It is, to be honest, the most joy I’ve had this year. There is nothing like swimming into something that looks like a Group of Seven painting. 2018 will bring more canoe trips with Jen, I know.  For me, her gift of introducing me to hiking and canoeing now means that I have a new sort of spirituality that is firmly rooted in the natural world. God is reflected and embodied in the details of what has been created, and so that’s where I feel closest to the Creator these days. I also know that’s probably why I’ve been drawn to Mary Oliver and Wendell Berry for such a long time. I’ve grown into entering landscape, even though I was fearful at first, wondering if I’d be strong enough to lift a canoe or paddle for four hours in hot summer sun. (Sunscreen, yet again, has proven to be my best friend!)

What I’ve learned, in 2017, is that my second “Year of No Fear” is about realizing that what we fear…is really not to be feared. It is all an illusion. So, I intend to make 2018 my third “Year of No Fear.” Going away to write for a chunk of time (and coming back every so often to hike and canoe!) is a big part of that plan. This time, I can just write, be me again, and not be a busy poet laureate with a lot of projects. I’ll have more time and space. It also means that I’m trusting that I am truly worthy of giving myself the gift of time and space to work on my writing. It’s the truest love I’ve had since I was just a geeky outcast of a girl: words, and poetry, literature and art, and shuffling words around on paper until it makes a ‘thunk’ sound deep in my heart. We’ll see what else emerges. (And I still haven’t gotten my bird tattoos for my parents…so that’s a fear I have yet to manage…sigh.)

I tell my students, often, that we must venture out into internal spaces that are uncomfortable, go away from what makes us complacent, so that we can grow our souls. I keep doing this, in the smallest of ways, every day, and (so far) it’s working. There is fear, though. The thing is that I choose to look at it now, in the face, and say “Yeah, I’m terrified, but I’m doing this anyway…” An old friend of mine always said “Leap, and the net will appear.” That’s what I’m putting my money on, especially for my writing and my own personal growth, for this next year. I’m a rock jumper now, after all! 🙂

It all reminds me of one of my favourite Mary Oliver poems from her collection, Blue Horses. It’s called “If I Wanted A Boat,” and Oliver poses the question that most speaks to me:

What kind of life is it always to plan

and do, to promote and finish, to wish

for the near and the safe? Yes, by the

heavens, if I wanted a boat I would want

a boat I couldn’t steer.

I guess I’m at a place now where I have a boat that I can’t steer, and I’m not completely comfortable with this because I tend to like to have some sense of control (which is an illusion, too!), but I know that the water holds up the boat. For me, the water is about trust—trusting myself, my heart (and not always my too-busy, too-smart head), my writing, and my relatively newfound longing for adventure that will undoubtedly help me to grow my soul. The water will hold up my boat, and maybe even steer it without my knowing, and I’ll be richer for it in the end…

Here’s to a boat you can’t steer, friends. Here’s to a boat you can’t steer….and friends who will cheer you on. 🙂

peace,

k.

 

 

 

 

My time as Poet Laureate for the City of Greater Sudbury has been absolutely brilliant. I’ve loved meeting new people, and other poets and writers, at home, and then away in other places. Since early 2016, I’ve tried to focus on spreading a bit of what I like to call “poetic graffiti” around our town. As part of my work, I’ve put poems up on the glass windows at the airport, and popped poetry posters up on the windows and doors of local businesses, all the while trying to encourage people to think of poetry in a more positive, friendly, and accessible way. People who normally wouldn’t think they were poetic might now think again…or they might just think of poetry more positively. We have some new and emerging poets in town, and that’s lovely too.

I’ve especially loved visiting classes in local elementary and secondary schools, going as far out as French River to speak to kids (and their teachers) about their views of poetry, and speaking about the value of reading and writing creatively, in the classroom and beyond. For some kids, I know as both a writer and a teacher, literature, and writing creatively, can offer an escape and respite from difficult things in life. I’ve seen it lift kids up, given them hope and a greater sense of self-esteem. It’s why I’m so passionate about literacy initiatives, too. (I actually really believe that there should be more writers and artists in our school systems…or at least in terms of training in-service teachers…but that’s a whole other blog on the education system, isn’t it?)

My most favourite memory of visiting schools is of one particular little boy who had autism. He lit up as we talked about a David Blackwood painting from Newfoundland and was full of ideas about what was happening in the painting, and offering up words and snatches of lines for our little group poem. His teacher was surprised that he took such an active role because he normally wasn’t that verbal and didn’t traditionally interact. At the end of the afternoon, he offered me a big hug around the knees and said goodbye. It was a good day.  And then there was the day at Sudbury Secondary, early on in my term, when students actually drew my poems into being. It was an amazing afternoon, talking about how art and literature go together naturally, and I ended up seeing my work as a springboard for student art. That moved me a great deal because I love literature and art in equal bits.

The literary arts are important, I think, in helping people view–and live in–the world in a fuller, more vibrant way. Sometimes, our lives are so busy that we neglect to see the wonder that sits right in front of us, in daily rhythms and encounters with others. Poetry is everywhere, if you are open to seeing it. I think that’s been a fairly clear message in my time as laureate, or I hope so, anyway.

I’ve loved working alongside groups like the National Reading Campaign’s Reading Town/Ville Lecture, Wordstock (Sudbury’s literary festival), the Northern Initiative for Social Action (NISA) and Open Minds Quarterly, the Greater Sudbury Airport, Health Sciences North (HSN), and Project Bookmark Canada. There’s a lot I still wanted to do, but my time has run out, and someone else can take over now because I am—quite honestly—fairly exhausted and a bit burnt out. This job is one that has given me new energy, in terms of realizing how much you can do in one community with poetry and partnerships, but now I’ll look forward to pulling in a bit, rebalancing things, and writing more. I have always led a quiet life, with two dogs, reading and writing, walking out in the woods and near the water, yoga, canoeing, and doing lots of Zumba.

It’s been fantastic, meeting writers from around the world. I took a semester off from teaching last year and met really interesting writers out in Banff last April at a historical fiction writing workshop, and then down on Pelee Island in May, and in Kingsville last August.  Last July, I spent a couple of weeks in Scotland, where I worked alongside British and American poets in the Highlands, tramping over long roads in my running shoes and listening to curlews in tall pines. This year, I spent more time down in Southwestern Ontario, near Windsor, writing again on Pelee Island, and realizing that I love how Lake Erie makes me feel inside. I also loved immersing myself in a new kind of natural landscape, as so much of the creative work I do is driven by canoeing, or walking and hiking through the woods. Put me in amidst trees, on my own, or maybe with a dog or two, and I’m happy as a clam. I like the quiet, the birds, the sound of wind in trees, and knowing that there’s water nearby. It reminds me of Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese.” It makes me feel connected to something.

I’ve been honoured to have been Sudbury’s Poet Laureate for this period of time. I’ve learned so much about myself, and I’ve grown, and I hope I’ve made a positive difference – in some way – to this community in the work I’ve done. I have given up a lot of my privacy, and I suppose I hadn’t really expected that. I’ve been more than present in person and on social media, but in the last little while, it’s felt good to know that I can let go of that and focus on my own writing again.

I’ve tried, too, to create a sense of artistic community via my social media feeds, raising awareness of local art exhibitions, theatre productions, local musicians and visual artists. I like the idea of being a laureate who has raised an awareness of the culture that is so vividly present here in Sudbury, and in Northern Ontario in general. It’s time that we shed some of the old mining town stereotypes, I think, but we need to purposefully elevate one another, offering kind and supportive words whenever and wherever we can. Social media can easily be the place to do that, I believe. If you use it wisely, with purpose, it works well. Some people might disagree, might find it all a bit much, but from what I’ve heard from local artists and writers, it’s worked out all right. Now someone else can do it for a while…

One or two people have told me they are sorry I’m leaving the role of laureate, but I think it’s up to everyone in this community—not just one person—to raise awareness about what is happening here in the arts scene. Anyone can do this, if they truly believe in the value of the arts, and in the artists who work away quietly at creating art. Everyone is replaceable, too, so I know that I am…and I know that the next poet laureate will be fabulous! I know I’ve tried to use the role as a vehicle for promotion of the arts, and especially for poetry and literacy initiatives. I’m sure the next laureate will have their own passions and this will be reflected in the work they choose to do during their term.

I’ve learned a lot about human nature, too, though. For the most part, I’ve been thrilled by how warmly people have welcomed me as poet laureate. No one person or business ever said they wouldn’t take part in a project I set out to undertake. They all let me babble excitedly about my ideas, waving my hands around like a wild woman. One of my literary mentors and friends told me, when I first came into the role, that I should be careful to guard my writing time and privacy, and that I should say ‘no’ when I felt I needed to. He gave me good advice. As usual, I probably didn’t listen as well as I should have, but he still puts up with me.

I have learned that, if you take on a dignitarial role, and you make the most of using that role to raise awareness of social issues like mental health and well-being, palliative care, poetry, and literacy, you have to work hard at balancing parts of your life. You represent your city, so you need to think about what you say and do before you act. You need to be diplomatic. You need to be an ambassador for your city, and for what you love and believe in. I think it helps to stay grounded and genuine, too. As a result of my being in the role, I’ve gone to the Governor General’s Literary Awards (and felt like Cinderella for the first time in my life!), and I’ll be reading in Toronto in February, Calgary in March, and I’ve been invited to Northwords, a literary festival in the Northwest Territories, in late May. All of this, I think, has to do with the laureate work, and it dovetails nicely with my new book having been released by Black Moss Press back in October. I feel blessed. I do.

Suddenly, though, you’re a public figure instead of a private one. It’s weird, and a bit disconcerting if I’m honest about it. You’ll be in the grocery store and someone you don’t know will say hello to you, using your first name, and so you wonder if you’ve had a stroke, because you can’t recall having met them before. You haven’t. They know you, but you don’t know them. That happens more regularly than I would have expected it to in a city of just over 160,000. One person told me, a couple of months ago, in the grocery store: “You must be sick of yourself lately because you’re everywhere in this town…” Another person told me I should “dial it down” a bit or I might scare off potential suitors…even though I wasn’t even worried about suitors…and was more concerned about a revision of a play I’ve been working on!

Yeah. People say things that aren’t necessarily polite, and then you smile, nod, gather up your almond milk and oatmeal in your little metal buggy, and go home and feel a bit downcast.  Usually, I put on the kettle and hug a dog or two, or pick up Wendell Berry or Mary Oliver and try to forget that some people aren’t always nice. (I don’t ever intend to make myself less than who I am because I was very sick a long time ago and, having almost erased myself, well, you never let someone make you feel less than again, because you can recall it all too well in your own head.)

You’ll get weird people who phone you at home, as if they know you very personally, and some who show up to your door even, and then you have to think about changing your phone number and getting an alarm system. You’ll also get other weird people, sometimes men if you’re a woman, who are a bit intimidating and creepy. So, you learn to be warm and friendly, but also protective of your own personal space. Some people only want to be friends because of your role, and hopefully you can spot them right away, but sometimes you can’t, and then you get hurt and you feel stupid for months and months. Some people pretend to be friends just because you have the title of ‘laureate.’ You’ll recognize them because they aren’t in it for the long haul…and that’s okay. Better to have friends who will be present through good and bad times, through titled and non-titled times.

Having dogs helps. Having a few really good friends who understand the demands of the role, though, helps more. As I said at my book launch in October, I have felt spread a bit thin in the last two years, and those very close friends who have stood by me, understanding when I’m super busy or when I’m exhausted, have given me love when I most needed it. They know who they are, and I love them for being patient and supportive of my work and dreams. (They also put up with emails and texts that are excessively wordy, and know that I’m prone to drive-by gifts of Irish soda bread or flowers or books…just because I like to give gifts.)

Over the last two years, I’ve made new friends and acquaintances in the fields of writing, publishing, music, and theatre. For that, I’m extremely grateful. I don’t have a family, so my friends are very important to me. I’ve lost a few friends in the last two years, though, perhaps because I’ve given myself too fully to the work I’m doing, both as a teacher and a writer. I tend to be a workaholic in that I commit myself to whatever I take on in my life. I’ll write more on this in my end-of-year blog next week. It’s much too big of a revelation to talk about here.

I’m most proud of the work I’ve done with Health Sciences North, in putting up bits of poetry in the oncology, long term care, and palliative care units. That’s a selfish undertaking, I think. It’s all in memory of my father, for all the times when I had to sit next to him as he was dying, wishing there was something I could look at while we sat together talking, while he struggled with having to let go of his life when he didn’t really want to. I hope the poems on those windows at HSN distract one patient or family member from pain…especially at this difficult time of year.

Whoever gets this job next is lucky. It’s the kind of role that you can use to elevate poetry and, if you’re a poet, it’s the best (unpaid) job ever. I wish the next laureate great success and personal growth…

…and I just really want to thank the fine people of this city for the way in which they’ve embraced me, and supported me in all of my poetic projects. Your kindnesses have meant the world to me and I’ll never forget them.

Oh…and notes of thanks to a few places and people who have helped me make the two years of my laureateship more creative. For Melanie Marttila, my oldest and most steadfast friend, with thanks for your kind, calm voice and heart; for my dear friend, my soul sister, Jen Geddes, who introduced me to canoeing and hiking this summer…now I’m happily addicted; for Dawn Kresan of Kingsville, who first introduced me to Pelee Island and Point Pelee National Park in May and August of 2016, likely knowing I’d fall in love with both places for the birds and their murmurations, the sky, the water, and the trees; for Sandy Crawley at National Reading Campaign, who is a steadfast friend and mentor, and who is also great fun at evening literary soirees in Ottawa; for Larry Hill, for his mentorship and friendship, & for the Banff Centre and those glorious mountains; for Miranda Hill and Laurie Murphy of Project Bookmark Canada; for David and Denise Young of Bobcaygeon and Kawartha Lakes; for Marnie Woodrow, who helped me to believe in myself in a writer, and convinced me that I could write a novel after all; for Moniack Mhor, Scotland’s Creative Writing Centre; for Grant, Kirk, and Elizabeth Munroe, of Woodbridge Farm and Kingsville; for Marty Gervais, of Black Moss Press; for Lisa O’Connell, from Pat the Dog Theatre Creation; for Tanya Neumeyer, who introduced me to Hugh Barclay, and my first experience setting a poem on a letterpress in Kingston; for Gerry Kingsley, who made me find my own beauty for the first time in my life, in the author photos he took of me back in May; for Sarah Gartshore, Matt Heiti and Trish Stenabaugh, who are my little trinity of close creative sparks, and who encourage me to keep going…and especially for Sarah, who shows up for coffee or tea in her red jacket, and makes me laugh when I most need to, and offers me a hug when she knows I most need one; and for Matt, too, who says he will make me a poet laureate sash out of ‘burlap and Irish moss;’ for Jess Watts, who has made being laureate the loveliest experience, and who never balked when I said, “Let’s try invisible rain paint on sidewalks!” And for Jane Rodrigues, who phones me regularly to make sure I am still myself, taking over from where my Mum was forced to leave off nine years ago when she died. I am most grateful to my Jane…and love her dearly as my “second mama.”

I’m off to the Windsor-Essex area in early March, to spend six solid months working on the first draft of my next novel, to finish up a couple of plays-in-progress, to complete a non-fiction collection of essays, and to write more poems as they come to me. I want to totally retreat to a different area of the province and offer myself up in a committed way to my work as a writer, to see what might come of it. I need to give it, that part of me, the time and space it deserves, without distraction, and so I will.  And then…well…who knows…the Universe will guide and nudge me in the next right direction, I’m sure. It always does…and I follow my heart and intuition more and more often these days…

In terms of social media, you won’t see me at the @SudburyPoet Twitter account after December 31st, 2017, but you can follow me on Instagram or on my personal Twitter account @modernirish  My website is www.kimfahner.com so I’ll be posting up any upcoming readings, signings, or literary festivals that I might be attending. (I mostly Tweet about art, poetry, trees, or my dogs…and I mostly take photos of landscape and trees…so I’m rather bland, I think.  But I’m funny, too, so if you like funny…it’ll be there somewhere in the mix.)

Thanks for the support, Sudbury friends. You are all the best people I know in the whole, wide world. I love this place…where grit reveals beauty when you least expect it. There is so much beauty and poetry here…we are blessed. It’s been more than a pleasure…a real joy for me, to be honest…to have been your poet laureate.

How blessed have I been? How blessed? Amazingly so….

Peace,

k.

 

IMG_6736.jpgAt the Governor General’s Literary Awards (on my birthday, no less!) November 2017.

IMG_5882.jpgSitting on the floor at Health Sciences North, trying to get a shot of Tom Leduc’s poem on the window!

IMG_4896.jpgHanging out in Kingston in early August with Tanya Neumeyer and Hugh Barclay, typesetting one of my poems.

IMG_4382.jpgGiving an ekphrastic poetry workshop at Sudbury Catholic District School Board’s June 2017 PA Day.

IMG_4021.jpgStalking the caterer’s trays at the Mayor’s Celebration of the Arts, at the Sudbury Theatre Centre, with Sarah Gartshore, in May 2017.

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Reading at Poetry at the Manor, in Windsor, in October 2017.

IMG_5608.jpgPhotos of people saying goodbye at the airport, under the poems.

IMG_0986.jpgA little one under my poem at the airport.

IMG_5746.jpgThat time Monique Legault painted something based on a poem I wrote. Fall 2017.

IMG_6581.jpgA thank you card from the kids at Walden Public, Fall 2017.

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A trail poem about…trees…what else? 🙂 (Thanks to former poet laureate, Tom Leduc, for starting up this project in Sudbury, and for asking me to give him a tree poem!)IMG_6383.jpgReading at One Sky during Wordstock, November 2017.

IMG_0799.jpgHanging out at St. Benedict Catholic Secondary School, in Ms. Hodgins’s Writer’s Craft class, 2016. GK-KIM-PRINTRES-0027.jpg

One of Gerry Kingsley’s excellent photos of me.  (I’m pretty sneaky…he caught me.)

IMG_1195.jpgFun at my book launch on October 21, 2017.

IMG_1185.jpgIMG_5879.jpgA hospital stanza…in Palliative Care at Health Science North.   For my Dad…with love.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

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.