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I’ve been away from teaching since February, on a pre-scheduled and pre-paid leave to take time to work on some of my writing projects. I’ve done well. (I’m honestly my own worst enemy because I keep thinking I ought to have done more work, even though I did do what I set out to do. I just feel I have so much more to write and now I’m juggling the writing with the teaching again, so that can be a tug of war inside my heart. It is for me, anyway.) So, it’s been a bit of time away from the young women I teach. They are full of spirit and emotion. I think, almost every day, how I wish I’d had a guide of sorts when I was their age. They remind me so much of myself at that age…all creative, smart, uncertain, and terrified at times of the unknown. It makes me want to help them all the more, knowing that I might be able to help make their path a little bit less traumatic than mine was…I know it’s idealistic, but I’m a poet, so you can just chalk it up to that. (I’m lucky that I have about five really close friends who get it…and don’t seem to mind me the way I am…which is a bonus!)

I’ve missed my little writers. There are about four girls in particular who kept in touch via my ‘teacher email account’ while I was off on leave and sent me pieces of their writing to critique while I was away. They just needed someone to say ‘yeah, it’s fab. Keep going!’ One is working on her first novel, while another tends to drift towards writing poetry. A new student of mine this year is an avid writer and has dreams of starting up a publishing house when she grows up. (She told me the other day that she’s written four novels already, in a series of six stories. I just shook my head and said ‘Well, I guess I’m far behind you, then!’)

Without fail, the girls who are writers find their way to me. It makes sense. I know. They hover at the doorway after the bell (if they’re not in my class) so they can chat and then ask if I’ll read their new work, or if they’re in my class now, they’ll gather around just before lunch and chat with me. I’m glad I can be there for them. Mentorship in writing, especially in Northern Ontario, is crucial to ‘growing’ new young writers. I wish I’d had a writer as a mentor when I was in high school. Instead, I always felt really alone when I was a girl, just retreating into my bedroom, playing music loudly, reading a heck of a lot of books (and falling in love for the first time with Mr. Rochester), and writing some of the weirdest short fiction and most depressing poetry ever known to any sworn-to-secrecy-journal. I know, though, that words saved me as I struggled with depression and isolation even then. It was easy enough, if you weren’t socially adept, to retreat into yourself and imagine worlds. When these little writers come to me, I know what’s going in their heads. They tell me they love the words, and escaping into them. “Yup,” I tell them, “me too.”

Sometimes, you feel blessed to be a teacher. Sometimes, on certain days, and without any kind of warning, a student comes along and asks you a question that breaks your heart. Today, a student I’ve only just begun to teach this year stopped by to chat. We talked about the book she’s been reading. Then she asked if she could ask me a question. She started to cry. (For some reason, kids cry around me. It’s okay. I can handle it. I cry a lot, too, at home or in the car, so I figure it’s just lucky I don’t spontaneously break out into tears at school, too.) She asked me about my parents. “You talk about them in class a lot, you know…and you seem okay with it…that they’re gone.” That shook me up. “Yeah, I talk about them all the time. We were close. But, no, I’m not okay with it that they’re gone. How could I be?” She kept on. “So…I wanted to ask how you got through it when they were sick, when you knew they wouldn’t get better…that they would die. That you would be alone afterwards.” Dear God. I was not prepared for that question this morning. How do you answer a question like that? How do you protect your own battered heart and put up a wall for a bit while you try not to be shaken emotionally by the bravery and vulnerability of the young person asking you the question? I just took a deep breath and tried to think about how I managed. (My friends might say I didn’t manage very well…there are only one or two who were there through the hardest part…and they knew how dicey it was for me. It’s a miracle I’m even still here. I know that more than anyone else.)

“I wrote. I walked. I cried.” I started there. “But I was in my thirties and you are much younger. It was hard for me then, so I can’t imagine how hard it is for people your age.” We chatted about writing, then. It wasn’t a teacher and student thing. It was a writer-to-writer chat about how words make us feel better when we’re not at our best. I talked about how journaling still helps me. Years later, I can go through my journals of that time, when my parents were ill and then dying, and I can see how awful it was…how hard it was…and I recognize how strong I was, and had to be. I thought at the time that I was weak, but I wasn’t. I wouldn’t be here at all if I was weak. I know that now. I did, though, have big walls that I built up. They’re still there and that’s my biggest worry these days. You need to be strong when you’re trying to be the ‘person’ for someone who’s really ill. You tend to protect them by running interference with other people, including medical folks. You create a bubble of safety for them. I did that for my mum and dad whenever I could, but it was at my expense in so many ways.

Then, after they’ve gone, you need to be strong when you’re on your own. You feel the loss of the people who’ve died even more when you’re single, I think. Well, therapy helps, but living with dogs alone just doesn’t cut it when I have a bad day and just want to cry because I desperately long to ask Dad a question or get a hug from someone who loves me absolutely. The problem, though, is that I’ve noticed this year that I’m trying to break down the walls I built up to protect myself from pain–well, from the world, really–from the inside out. Sometimes, I think, you hope to find just one someone on the ‘outside’ who will accept you as you are and will recognize that you need help breaking your walls down. You may not even know how thick those walls are, that you’re trapped behind them, but you can feel you aren’t fully out from behind…and that causes pain all over again. It means you need someone to help you feel safe enough to break down your walls, so that you can be vulnerable…and that is quite a task.

So what’s the point of me writing this out? Here? I guess it’s that I’m remembering how much my students teach me. It’s ironic that I’m labelled as a ‘teacher’ when, in fact, they teach me the most profound lessons. One student’s question cracked me open today, made me realize that she was brave enough to let down her guard to ask me a question that would go to my most grief-ridden place. I had to be brave enough to trust her, to answer her question, to try and offer her some ideas for coping. (I’m no expert in grieving, but I don’t hide it from my students. I know grief is a reflection of love. I don’t hide the fact, either, that my creativity has come hand in hand with mental health issues like depression. I hope–I always hope to God–that what I’ve learned about how to walk through darkness to light will help one of them. If it does, help even one single kid, then I’ll be okay with all the time I’ve spent teaching…with the time it’s taken from my writing, even.)

Walking with my friend this afternoon helped, too. We talked about how palliative care is a journey. We talked about how many people are afraid to speak about how we live and die. Our walk by the lake, and our chat on the bench surrounded by too tame gulls and nosy little brown birds, made me think about how we all have to be so brave in this world. We need to take risks with our hearts sometimes. It’s the only way we can grow, I think…and it’s probably why I have always continually walked through the world ‘breaking my own heart,’ as I say. Violet laughed when I said that today. Then she said, “Well, what would be the alternative? Not feeling? Building more walls and not breaking them down?” The universe…man…the universe sends you lessons in couplets or triads, it seems, and all in one damn day.

That little writer today made me realize that it’s okay to let down my guard, to let the walls fall, even when I’m unsure of how much my heart will be broken again, in either small or large ways…and what a lesson she taught me. This afternoon, I went out and bought her a journal. She said she’d write it all out, let the words guide her through this sacred journey she’s on with her mum. Because it is all sacred, even the pain of knowing someone’s going…because the love shared then–when you know they’re in the process of leaving you–is that kind of love that creates stars in the sky and sends birds soaring through the tree tops. It’s that beautiful, and it’s that horrible. But, above all, it’s that sacred and holy.

peace, friends.
k.

Sometimes, the universe has plans for you that you can’t quite envision. Last week, I was checking my Poet Laureate email account and found a little junk folder that I didn’t even realize was there. The city’s email system is different from the one I use at the school board, so I’m still fumbling around a bit. When I opened the folder, I found two interesting emails. One was from a fellow who lives in England and who had my great-aunt Norah Kelly as a teacher at St. David’s years ago. He had written her a poem and a song. He found me through finding Norah’s name on my blog. The second email was from a woman named Wendy Drennan Forsina, from Texas of all places. She said she knew my mum from St. Joseph’s College in North Bay, and that her mum and my grandmother, Alice Ennis, were best friends from their Creighton days. I replied to both emails, touched by the way in which my words on this blog had rippled outside of the Sudbury basin in a way that brought memories of my loved ones back to me. Then I thought nothing of it.

The next day, Friday, I was sorting through old books in my basement bookcase and found a “Daily Missal” that had been given to my mother, Sheila Mary Ennis, on her graduation from St. Joseph’s College in North Bay, in the spring of 1956, from The Drennans. I shook my head and thought “The very same Drennans that Gram Ennis and The Girls — Norah, Maureen, and Clare–always spoke about up at 160 Kingsmount. The very same Drennan family as the one who just emailed me through the library website. How weird is that?” Then I came upstairs and checked the messages, only to find a voice mail from Wendy herself. She was in town for the Marymount School of Nursing reunion and wondered if she and I could meet to talk about what the blog has meant to her. We sorted out a time to meet, and so I saw she and her husband, Carl, today at 3pm.

The first thing Wendy did was to tell me how she came to my blog. She had searched out Mum’s name and found my dad’s obituary from December 2011, and then realized that Mum had died in December 2008. Then she somehow found my blog entry on grief (“By wavelets or tsunami”) from December 2014. She found this around December of 2015 and said her children encouraged her to try and contact me. She didn’t want to intrude, she kept saying today, but I kept telling her that any writer would be thrilled to find someone who so loved reading their work. Wendy’s read every entry in the blog that I’ve ever written, stretching back to summer 2012, when I started it with encouragement from my poet friend, Tanya Neumeyer. She was citing the titles of specific entries, which no one has ever done to me before. 🙂

The thing that made me most emotional, though, was that she spoke about how my blog entries made the people she had loved growing up come back to life in her memory. She spoke of the time she’d spent at 160 Kingsmount, the house my great-grandfather had built, and the place where my three great aunts lived for most of their lives. She talked about how warm a place it had been, and how Norah, Maureen and Clare had always welcomed she and her sister Penny with open arms. She remembered that, when her mother Della went into the kitchen with my grandmother, Alice, and the door was shut, no one was to intrude. The two women were friends going back to their youth in Creighton Mine. What was discussed in that kitchen was meant for the two of them alone. She said, too, that she knew Gram had raised her five kids on her own, but that they were told never to ask about where my grandfather was. (He was off in the bush, prospecting.) The loveliest story, though, was the one she told about her mother dying. You wouldn’t think a story about a woman’s mother dying would be lovely, but it was. (I have a couple of sacred moments that happened for me when my mum was dying eight years ago, so I understand how weighted it can all feel in your heart’s memory…)

When Wendy was in her late teens, her mother died of cancer in her early fifties. She said she clearly remembers that my grandmother and my three great-aunts would take turns sitting in the hospital room at the General, on the edge of Lake Ramsey, saying the rosary with and for Wendy’s mum, Della Drennan. They always did gather round to support others in their times of need. I do remember that clearly. A couple of weeks before Della died, my grandmother told Wendy’s dad, Charlie Drennan, that she was going to take Wendy home to 350 Wembley, the house where my mum grew up with my three uncles and one aunt. Wendy says she remembers that Gram took her upstairs and tucked her into the warmest bed, gave her soup and hot chocolate, and sat with her as she fell asleep. She said she recalls Gram talking about death, and about her mum. She said she felt so safe there, and that she considered Gram Ennis something of a second mother. This made me want to cry. (Gram was that for me, too. She radiated warmth. When I think of her now, and I do almost every day even though she died in 1998 when I was just twenty-seven, I think of how she would always offer a huge hug when you arrived or left her house. I always felt, with Gram, that I was absolutely and totally loved. She made you feel whole and perfect, when sometimes the world was so much more harsh in its estimation of your character.)

We talked a lot about Creighton, but she also told me about my mum having been her ‘big sister’ at St. Joseph’s College, and how they were close. She said Mum was ‘great fun,’ ‘tall,’ and ‘graceful.’ Mostly, though, she said she wanted me to know that all of them — the Girls, my grandmother, and my mum — had so much fun and were such great women. I knew that, but it was good to hear it from someone who spent time with them. As Wendy said before I hugged her goodbye, “Those women took in the Drennans, too…they made our family a part of their family.” That made me smile. What makes me miss all of my relatives the most is the lack of physical connection and warmth. I miss their laughs, their stories, their hugs, and their compassion. I know, though, that they’re in the best parts of me. I hope I carry them with me in all that I do, each and every day. I think I do…I don’t actually know how I could not do so because these women formed me. Any deeply good part of me is due in great part to the women of my mother’s family. That grand Irish Catholic lineage is a touchstone for me. My parents raised me, yes, but my mother’s family made me who I am. (That might not make sense to a lot of people…but I’d explain it over a huge cup of tea and a bit of time…without being rushed…)

The other lovely part of the afternoon was meeting Carl, Wendy’s husband. They met when Wendy went down to the States to search out a job after graduating from nursing school. Carl was a doctor at the Catholic hospital where Wendy was working. One night, he told me, after weeks of seeing her around the hospital, he asked her out to dinner because, as he said, “She had to eat.” Carl and Wendy are the loveliest couple I’ve met in a long time. Twelve years separates them, but their love is strong and certain. I kept thinking of a lighthouse, an image I’ve had in my head quite often lately. That certainty, of a light beaming out to ships, is sort of like the kind of love they seem to share, of how they are so tightly connected–one to the other. They spoke of their children and grandchildren, and of how an American fell in love with a Canadian girl, and married in November 1963. When they asked me if I had someone, I said no. “Whoever it is, if he’s out there,” I said, “will have to be willing to take me as I am.” And that, they agreed, was a very good thing…so I liked them all the more. 🙂

All this is to say that the universe sends us tiny messages and signs every day, even when we least expect it. The email in the junk folder, the tiny “Daily Missal” that my mum obviously loved and used regularly (with all of its pretty little holy cards) and the phone message from Wendy…all of it seems like a beautiful and sacred Celtic knot of sorts. Maybe the Drennans and the Kellys and the Ennis crew were up there realizing I needed to chat with someone who knew a bit about Creighton and the way in which families used to love and support one another. Now that my family is so small, it makes me feel more anchored to know that those who have gone were so solidly rooted–in love, faith, and Irishry. But, mostly, I learned about the generous way in which they gave of themselves to others in times of struggle. That, for me, is a lighthouse beam on a dark night…and a way in which I hope to continue to live my own life. Those women, from my mum to my grandmother, to my great-aunts, were the greatest teachers I’ve ever had…

…so loving the serendipities this year has brought me…so honouring them…

peace,
k

So. Two things.

1) Today, I decluttered. I do this when I’m nervous or stressed, or just feeling too much. (I’m a “feeler,” an empath who can sense things a mile or more away). It may be an OCD thing, but I don’t think so. I declutter, clean, bake Irish soda bread, and walk or sing my ass off. I do this: when I can’t make a decision; when I’m about to go on a trip all by myself; when I have a dentist’s appointment; when I think my house is falling apart around me and I need to fix something so have to hire someone who will likely take me for too much money; when I’m angry or sad, or even extremely happy; when I fancy someone but am too shy to say so; when I’m trying to finish a novel, or write a poem or play; when I can’t sleep; when I’m starting back to school in September (now!), or when I feel like my soul is about ready to bounce out of my body. Dancing in my tiny kitchen with the dogs also happens occasionally, but we won’t go there today. So, suffice it to say that I do this a lot of the time in my life, house, surroundings…Really, I ought to quit teaching and just start up a cleaning/baking/organizing business.

So, I am having my bedroom redecorated this fall. When I moved here to my little house three years ago, the bedroom was just a room. The rest of the house is a colourful gallery filled with art, music, and the scent of the essential oils that I love to burn when I read or write. It feels like me. 🙂 I have a whole house to use up, but I have never really owned or loved my own space in my bedroom. It doesn’t feel like mine, even after three whole years in this lovely little brick bungalow. Today, I took all of the old books I’ve not looked at in three years–down from a wall unit that I’ve had since I was seventeen or something–and went through old packing boxes, and tossed a lot of stuff. I boxed up books to give away, and threw away mementoes of the past. In the process, I found an old journal. Yeah, I journal. It doesn’t make for much fun, to be honest. If you were to read them, going back fifteen years, you’d see a long line of sadness, depression, and poor self-esteem. I very rarely dip into them because it just makes me feel how much time I’ve lost in my life…but today, I found a half-finished journal from Fall 2004. I was 33.

Fall 2004 was when my mum had a massive heart attack and nearly died. The memory of that night, of her heart attack, is burned into my mind. I can’t escape it. It’s like a horrible movie that plays in my head every so often, usually when I least expect it. I hate that about memory, how it plays havoc with my heart just when I’m doing okay with moving forward. So, the journal that I opened this afternoon was all about that time, about rushing her to the hospital in the middle of the night, and about being told that she would die by morning’s first light. She didn’t die then, but it began a downward slide towards death that lasted for the next four years. Beyond the entry I read about how awful that time was, of her heart attack and then her surgery and recovery, there was an entry where I laid out my plans for myself.

At the time, I was caring for everyone else but myself. I was in the depths of depression, but didn’t even know it. I hid it from everyone at work, but that took energy, and I was in denial about my own health. Sitting there on the edge of my guest room bed this afternoon, with a huge Rubbermaid storage bin beside me, I just read and shook my head. There, after an entry about that hospital hell, was a little one that said, with a tiny voice that was ashamed to speak up for itself: “I want to learn how to write a play. I want to write a play.” What?? I never thought I would write a play, so I don’t know why I wrote that. But, maybe, I guess I hoped (even back then) that I would write a play.

Funny, then, that in Fall 2014, ten years later, I would take an introductory course in writing plays at the Sudbury Theatre Centre. Then, last fall, I was in Playwrights’ Junction at the STC, for a longer stint in playwright stuff. Now, well, I’m in love with writing plays. How did I know, twelve years ago, that I would end up writing a play? It threw me for a loop this afternoon. There were other points in the journal–about wanting to travel the world, wanting to fall in love again, and wanting to have my own house–but I put so much aside to help my parents that I shut those dreams down for almost a whole decade. That made me cry a bit this afternoon, sitting on the edge of that old bed in the basement. How much time have I lost? My thirties, definitely. It’s not all my parents’ fault. It’s partially mine, too. Having major depressive disorder when you’re in your thirties doesn’t mix well with taking care of physically ill parents. It was, as my doctor later said, “a perfect storm” for destruction. I was in dark places for such a long time.

This leads me to my second point of the day…a reflection on what I know I am, and how I must seem to other people…

2) I had a grand afternoon with a friend at her house, on the edge of a northern Ontario lake. We watched gulls soar by, and I was transfixed by the shivers of a pine tree in the wind next to her deck. (I get transfixed by things that are beautiful…it’s like I’m pulled into an experience with nature and landscape…but that’s very pastoral and Wordsworth-ish…and it’s the topic of a different blog post!). I met a friend of hers, a talented writer and pretty amazing person. She found it hard to believe that I was 45. I know. I don’t look it. I’m a hobbit. I avoid the sun. Always have. Maybe that’s helped? The longer we chatted, though, she kept saying “I can’t believe your age. You look so much younger.” I’ve heard this before. It doesn’t matter. I don’t care. I am who I am. Then, the longer we talked, I found her staring at me. She said “When you talk, you sound so much younger than what your age is…” She was puzzled. I don’t care. I’ve seen a lot of people stare at me this year. I notice it, even if they think I don’t. I know they’re trying to sort me out in their own heads, trying to figure out who I am. I know I’m not simple. It’s part of why I’m on my own, I think. I don’t fit into the check boxes for what is traditional. I say what I think. I don’t put on airs. I am who I am. You can take me, or you can bloody well leave me. (I used to worry about it all so much, but now I just feel that I’m supposed to revel in this ‘me’-ness.)

I have mannerisms, I guess you could say, that are a bit quirky. I prefer the word “genuine,” to be honest. I throw my head back when I laugh. If something’s really, really funny, then I laugh with my whole body. I bang my hand on the table (if there’s one there) or I double up with glee. I giggle. I laugh until I cry. I never used to. Trust me. When I was sick, in the depth of darkness, and when I was taking care of my parents, I was the darkest person. I was empty, which is even scarier than being sad. Being empty is terrifying.

This woman today, after I said something without thinking (I have no filter!), looked at me and shook her head, puzzled. “You sound so young. You look so young.” So I just shook my head and smiled, “I know. I’m gullible. I’m too trusting. I’m too innocent. The guys at work say I’m better than TV…because I’m gullible.” I mean…what else can you do, really? Should I tell her I’ve been through twelve years of hell and only have just recently emerged? So that everything seems much brighter than it ever did before? That I touch trees and leaves because I feel how alive everything is? That I love to walk in the rain, or sleep with curtains open so I can see the sun rise? Or that I love watching stars from my back yard swing? No. There’s no point in that. You see…and here is my point: There is a difference between seeming to be ‘young’ and being filled with constant wonder and astonishment, which is sort of what I think I am these days. This world amazes me. So much light, so much energy.

So what’s the story, morning glory? Well, that I will continue to bang my hand on the table if something is really funny, or I will cry if I feel moved to do so, or I will tell you that I miss you or love you when you least expect it, or that I will hug you if I feel I need to, or that I will drop off flowers to your door, or give you a loaf of my Irish soda bread, or that I will love any beam of light that comes my way. Because, you see, I don’t take the light for granted any more. I know I need to live in it, be it, and share it with whomever wants to share it with me. If not, that’s okay, too.

Sometimes, I think, it’s easier for people to say that you’re “so young” (and maybe atypical) when you’re actually in love with your life for the first time ever. Maybe they’ve been lucky enough not to have lived in the darkest of places. I’m happy for them. The dark isn’t a good place to be. But it does teach you (me!) how to recognize and honour any light that makes its way to your doorstep.

Be the light, friends. Be the biggest, brightest light you can be.

peace,
k.

I was speaking to an older, more established poet last year here in town and he said to me, “I don’t understand why you go off to travel to all these places and write…why you go off to workshops given by other poets when you could, in fact, run workshops and not take them. You have the experience and stature as a poet now. So, why wouldn’t you do that instead?” It’s a hard question to answer when it’s been posed to you because, as you can imagine, if someone’s posed the question, then they likely think you shouldn’t be going off to ‘little retreats.’ They have already formulated their view of the worth of such travel and work. The other side of all this going out of town to write is that people think you’re going off on holiday when, in fact, you are working on your writing. It may be in beautiful places, that is true, but it is often also true–I find, anyway–that you need to leave home to get your head in the writing game sometimes. Why? I mean, I am a single woman with two shih tzus. I can write in my house, and I normally do, but there are interruptions that occur and–when you’re a writer–sometimes interruptions become ways to procrastinate.

I can already hear the uproar out there. It’s the same uproar I’ve heard for years: “Well, if you’re single, you don’t have any responsibilities! Surely you don’t need to get away to write when you live in a quiet house with two dogs?” Or, in the case of work: “Well, you’re single, maybe you could take on a few more things after work…there’s no one waiting for you at home, so why not put your energy here?” Other single people, of both genders, will likely know what I’m talking about. (Maybe I should make up a boyfriend or husband, or 2.5 wholesome kids? That might work in deflecting some of the chatter…but I won’t…because what’s the point? You have responsibilities when you’re single and without kids. I could go on, but I won’t because I’m off topic on a tangential bungee jump.)

So: workshops and retreats. Why are they a good thing? Here it is: They force you to take your work seriously. When I first went to the Anam Cara Artists’ and Writers’ Retreat in the summer of 2012 in Ireland, to work with the amazing Seattle-based ekphrastic poet, Susan Rich, I thought ‘oh my God, they will all know I’m a fraud poet,’ but afterwards, I felt more committed to knowing my work in a new way. When I went to the Sage Hill Writing Experience in Lumsden, Saskatchewan to work with Ken Babstock in summer 2014, I thought ‘oh my God, they will all think I’m a hick poet from outside of the 416 area code,’ but afterwards, I learned how to edit my work more cleanly and with a more subjective eye. When I go to workshops and retreats, I learn from my mentors and those poets and writers I meet while I’m there. I find my tribe. 🙂

This year, having had my seven months away from formal teaching, I’ve given myself the space and time to sink into my writing, committing to the vocation of it with a new force and dedication. (It’s sort of a bit like I was dating my writing, not too seriously, and that I wasn’t too sure I was good enough to have it want to stick with me, and now I’ve grown accustomed to its ways, and sometimes it makes me tea when I didn’t think I wanted or needed any, and we’re in a committed relationship.😉 Seriously. It feels that intense to me. (In April, someone asked me if I was in love and I looked at them like they were crazy. “Um, me? Do you know my luck with men? No! I’m in love, though. With my words!”) There’s something empowering, to know that you’re moving into a place and space where your writing is something that’s more organic, more holistic, more all encompassing than it’s ever been before. I’ve stepped into it, and it’s stepped into me. (I’ve been so loving Maggie Rogers and her song, “Alaska.” It speaks to me of the journey I’ve gone through this year. Her words are strong ones: “And I walked off you, and I walked off an old me. Oh me, oh my, I thought it was a dream, so it seemed. And now breathe deep, I’m inhaling. You and I, there’s air in between. Leave me be. I’m exhaling.” Having seven months to feed my writing, my creative work, has been exhilarating. More of her grand words as she says she “Learnt to talk and say whatever I wanted to.” Yup. That’s happened, too. Some of my closest and oldest friends have noticed it, and I’ve certainly noticed it. Sometimes, if you take the time to feed your passion, it helps you to blossom into yourself, and that’s a pretty cool thing…even if you can’t always recognize who you’ve become.

This year, I’ve done four writing retreats–outside of just spending hours and days at home, trudging along with books, papers, pens, and my laptop. The first was my writing workshop in Banff with Larry Hill. I met great people, now friends and kindred spirits, and I started to realize that maybe–just maybe–the story I wanted to write in my novel might be good enough for other people to want to read in their spare time. That’s a big leap of faith, in yourself and in your own work. I’m not an ego-y person, so I’m not in any of this for any weirdly imagined glory. That’s all fake, anyway. People who are in it for that aren’t the people I want to know, to be honest. I’m about telling the story that’s in my head to the best of my ability. It needs telling, so I’ll tell it. I need to serve the story. That’s my job as a writer.

The second retreat was a ten-day stay on Pelee Island. It was self-directed, but I met seven other amazing people and writers. They’re grand friends now, too, I feel (or maybe that’s just me being an empath and ‘feeler’). 🙂 That retreat was interesting because of an encounter with Margaret Atwood, one afternoon in a rented cottage, with platters of pigs in blankets and slabs of Brie. I learned a lot in that hour or two. Some of it was rough to hear, but that’s okay. I still learn from rough things. To be honest, I probably learn more from them, if I take a look at my life historically speaking. Sitting across from a Canadian lit icon is, well, a bit surreal to say the least. Besides this, though, I met someone who was kind enough to offer me a space to write this August, at a house called Woodbridge Farm in Kingsville. Once you start to meet people who are like minded, ripples happen…serendipity.

The third was a poetry writing retreat at Moniack Mhor in the highlands of Scotland, just outside of Inverness. I got to work with noted Scottish poet, John Glenday, as well as the amazing Jen Hadfield, who lives in the Shetlands. I can’t tell you how my discussions with the two of them, in terms of specific poems that I’ve written, helped me to fine tune my style. I also met some great poets from around the world. Plus, I did my first reading outside of Canada, in Newcastle, England.

This last retreat was self-directed, at Woodbridge Farm in Kingsville. It’s a beautiful old yellow brick house that sits on the edge of Lake Erie. (I love yellow brick…memories of driving with my Dad through Southwestern Ontario in my youth and staring at beautiful yellow brick houses next to wide green fields. I also have one house on Kingsmount that I regularly stalk just because it’s yellow brick. I know…I’m weird.) The fact that it houses the best swing set in Canada is just an extra bonus, in my book, because I am all about late night swings under trees and stars. Having ten days there, just to sit and work through the second draft of my novel, titled “The Donoghue Girl,” meant that I couldn’t avoid what I needed to do. I had to cut and burn, write new scenes to strengthen characters and their relationships to one another, and then I kept a notebook of things I need to go back and research to add more detail into the story. It’s a bit like taking apart and putting together a jigsaw puzzle, but there’s no instruction manual as to how to best finish that task. Sometimes, it’s as big as figuring out the structure, as to where to put chapter breaks, which is harder than it looks, and other times it’s as simple as changing sentence structure or taking out excessive commas. All it kind of happens at once, so you sort of feel like you’re a circus master inside your own head.

I don’t have an MFA in Creating Writing. I have an MA in English Lit. There’s a difference there. Sometimes, I feel like a big fraud. I’ve written before about how I often feel like I’m cheating on poetry, with either playwright work or novel writing work. It’s been a shift for me, in the last twelve months, to begin to think of myself more as a writer in a holistic sense. When you’ve only ever been considered, or introduced, as ‘the poet,’ it’s a bit of a stretch inside your own head. I’m thankful to Marnie Woodrow, who’s been my guide in this novel writing process, giving me feedback as I go. Otherwise, I honestly don’t think I would have the faith in myself to try to write something as vast as a novel. The other person who’s been grand has been Matt Heiti, who has taught me everything I know about writing plays. Two autumns ago, we had a chat and I said I wanted to write a novel and he said ‘so do it.’ Rather than get caught up in the size of the thing, he suggested just thinking of it as a series of scenes. I see it all theatrically, or cinematically, in my head, so it was an analogy that worked.

Self-directed retreats work. If you have a goal, then you need to be firm with yourself and just get down to business. It’s not simple and there are times when your head gets so overwhelmed that it’s a bit buzzy in there, or if someone comes to say hello and you’re writing, you look a bit stoned (not that I would know about that because I can’t inhale; I can’t even take Benadryl without being loopy!). It’s almost as if you slip into another world, populated by characters who are as real as your friends or family members (or dogs!). If you get pulled out of that space without warning, well, people need to expect it not to be a nice thing.

Besides going on retreats this year, I’ve begun to carve out time to write. This doesn’t make me popular with some people. I say ‘no’ now sometimes when I feel I have work pressing on me with my novel, or plays, or poems. Being poet laureate, too, has quite a bit of responsibility attached, so I feel like I am juggling things. I’m hoping that people will understand if I’m not quick to say ‘yes’ to social invitations. I hope they’ll understand that the writing I do needs to be done. My goal is to have this next draft ready for Thanksgiving, and then I’ll get feedback and move into a third draft. It’s a long journey, this novel writing thing, but I need to keep setting my own dates and goals. If I don’t, it’s just too easy to say, “yeah, let’s just avoid sitting my ass down to write.”

It’s not a sexy thing to do, writing a novel. There is a lot of drinking tea, talking to yourself, drinking water, pacing, maybe listening to music (for me, if I’m writing new stuff, it needs to be instrumental so I don’t start singing…like Bach or the Chieftains…or singable stuff if it’s just transcribing and editing as I go…for that it’s Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Harmer, Ron Sexsmith.) I usually light essential oil (lavender or patchouli) to ground myself, and I write next to a braid of sweetgrass. It can be a really lonely pursuit, this writing gig. I know it sounds cool, when you hear of a person who’s working on a major creative project (and I have lots of friends who write, so I know this is true) but often times, a writer is wondering if their work is half decent, or if it needs to be jettisoned, or if it’s all bullshit. The inside of a writer’s head is a busy place…but writing a novel isn’t what people think it is. It’s hard stuff…a lot of it is just slogging and trying not to avoid the chair and laptop.

But it’s also the most beautiful thing I can think to do in my life these days…to see words emerge, to craft them, to see a story rise up. That, to me, is well worth all of the solitary, self-doubt filled wanderings inside my head. I’ll take that any day of the week. With thanks and gratitude.

peace, friends.
k.

As someone who wishes she could have grown into being a visual artist, it makes perfect sense to me that I am drawn to writing poetically about art. So, whenever I travel, I research what art is being exhibited in the city I’m nearest to. It’s become a kind of pilgrimage of sorts, I guess you could say.🙂 This week, I’ve been writing at the Woodbridge Farm Writers’ Retreat in Kingsville, working on the second draft of my novel. I’m almost to the very end, so the ten days have served me incredibly well. I can’t thank my friend, Grant, enough for letting me borrow this beautiful space by Lake Erie. Sometimes, the best gift you can give a person who writes is space and time, and that’s what he’s given me so I’m very thankful for that. 🙂

On Sunday, I drove into Windsor to see the exhibition of 1920s Modernism in Montreal work. It’s work that has been done by a group of artists, and they were called “The Beaver Hall Group.” I bought the big art book (of course!) so that I can write some ekphrastic poems about the pieces I saw there the other day. What drew me to the Beaver Hall Group was that, as Shahir Guindi says, “this group of artists was also the first to include professional women artists among its ranks in equal numbers to men.” Yup. That’s the thing. This group is often spoken about as an ‘alternative’ group to the more famous (and very male) Group of Seven. Now, I’m from Group of Seven land. I can drive about half an hour from my house and see some landscape that A.Y. Jackson painted. I think that’s a pretty cool piece of Canadiana right there, if you ask me, but I’m a bit nerdy when it comes to art, theatre, and literature so I know I’m likely the exception to the rule.

There are quite a few artists in The Beaver Hall Group, and some are men, but I have always been drawn to the work of Kathleen Morris (in particular), Anne Savage, Lilias Torrance Newton, Emily Coonan, and Prudence Howard. There are beautiful paintings of women from the 1920s, all full of deep emotion, longing, sadness and generally just a lot of deep gazes. I quite like them. I especially like the portraits done by Randolph S. Hewton.

You can’t talk feminist theory without talking about ‘the female gaze.’ Even at the Stratford talk by women playwrights last week, Kate Hennig spoke about ‘the feminine gaze.’ I imagine, just as it goes with defining ‘feminist,’ each person would have their own view or interpretation of these phrases. You can study all of this stuff in books, of course, and you should, but when you’ve lived your life and have some experiences, then I sort of think that you’ll identify and re-identify yourself as you go along in years. I know, if I think of my views of feminism in my 20s, that I’ve evolved since then. Happily so. You can’t live a life in this world and not ask yourself questions about what your beliefs are, or wonder about how and why your views might be shifting as you are more of a woman than a girl. (There’s a whole lot of material to talk about here, but you can imagine that would need to be a different blog post!) In any case, I loved the portraits of women by women. I noticed where their eyes were looking, and whether or not they were staring directly out from the frame. In many cases, but not all, the women who were painted seem to be looking off into the distance, pondering something. I kept standing there, in front of them all, wanting to say “So, what are you looking at over there? Tell me!” There’s a sense, in this exhibit, of women thinking and maybe keeping secrets. I sensed that. I wondered, too, whether a man would have that same reaction, or if it would be something different. (You can’t help but think about gender when you’re seeing an exhibit that heralds female artists in the 1920s.)

I could have stayed there all day. I really could have. I loved the Art Gallery of Windsor so much, and I loved the museum on the first floor. It stretched back to First Nations settlement of this part of the province, and then moved right forward to the present. The First Nations section of the museum was fairly impressive, I thought, and well done.

I knew I wanted to get back to Kingsville to write more, though, so I wanted to stop by Biblioasis in Windsor. I have two friends who work there, so I’d heard it had a good poetry section. I messaged Bob on Saturday night and asked about it, so he said they were open on Sunday afternoon. It was like entering heaven. Seriously. Besides art galleries, I also stalk book stores when I’m in new cities. Bob had said they had a great poetry section, but I had no way of expecting what I’d find there. It was one of the loveliest afternoons I’ve spent in years, sitting on the hard wood floor and peering at oodles and oodles of great books. I bought some Eavan Boland, Paul Muldoon, Mary Oliver, Elizabeth Smart…and a whole slew of other things. I won’t tell you how much I spent, but I do know that I’ll be stopping at antique stores on the way north tomorrow to see if I can find some bookshelves to plunk in my RAV. (My house is too small!!! I need more walls for art and more space for bookcases! These are my problems!)

I spent time with friends, walking, talking and eating. They filled my soul up. (I hope it was mutual, but one never knows!) Today, I went to visit two tiny stores. One was called Paisley Dreamer, and is the kind of place I’d love to work in, I think. It’s all spirit and spunk and magic. Then I went to visit The Painted Moon. The woman there was lovely and we started talking. I said I was down here to work on a novel and she asked me what it was about, so I told her and then she said “oh, I have goosebumps. That’s a good sign for me.” I bought some things for the bedroom redecoration I’m about to do at home and she just said “You know, love, that you’re on the right path, don’t you?” It almost made me weep. “Yes, I said, but thanks for saying that today. I needed it.” It’s lovely, I think, when you meet kindred spirits in the most unexpected places. So much of my traveling and writing this year has been about that…meeting new kindreds and resonating with people who ‘get’ my energy and spirit. Not everyone does…I know…how many people can say they like to hug trees, or have their own swings in the back yard, or speak out loud to the universe when they’re thankful? I don’t care anymore. That’s the beauty of it. Growing up, not old I might add (!), means that you can be a part of something greater, in a vibrant and passionate way, and not be afraid of it. It’s taken me a long time to get here, and I’m damn glad it was worth all the struggle and heartache. It makes it all so much more worth the while, and I value each moment of every day. I am so blessed…I feel it in my bones…and I’ll sing it to the high heavens!

It’s beautiful here. I don’t want to leave. It’s that beautiful and peaceful. If you can fall in love with a landscape, and I can (fairly easily, I know), then I’ve fallen for this part of the province in a way I hadn’t expected. I knew Pelee Island had struck my heart in the spring when I was down for a writing retreat, but being here again, on the edge of such a great and powerful lake, well, I kind of think lakes call to me. Big ones, like this, are almost shouting in my ear. That’s energetically speaking, of course. There’s good energy here. I hope to come back again soon. God knows, the words come quickly here…and I don’t know why…but I’ll take that gift any day of the week. 🙂

peace, friends.
k.

I was in Stratford last night, so I went to see As You Like It for the second time this year. (Yes, I have a thing for Shakespeare. If he were alive, I’d be a stalker…but as it is, he’s dead, and so he’s safely in my stable of ‘secret husbands.’ They are ‘secret’ because they don’t know we’re married. Some are musicians or actors, or songwriters, but most are dead writers. I know. It’s okay. I’m in therapy. 🙂

This morning, I bought a ticket to see a talk given by Hannah Moscovitch (Bunny), Anusree Roy (Pyaasa, Brothel #9), and Kate Hennig (2015’s The Last Wife and The Virgin Trial, a play which will be staged at Stratford next season). The focus of the talk was what “being women” has meant to them at various stages of their careers as playwrights. Both Roy and Hennig are working actors, while Moscovitch started at the National Theatre School of Canada in the acting program, but quickly switched to the playwright option in second year.

One of the things that struck me this morning was a discussion about voice in writing. Anushree Roy mentioned that, while at York University, she found a professor named Judith Rudikoff who told her: “You have a voice; don’t change it.” This struck me because of a conversation I had with the Scottish poet, John Glenday, last month on retreat at Moniack Mhor. I had talked to him about worries I had about my ‘poetic voice,’ how a writer can sort of have a particular style that may or may not vary over the years. Mine has definitely evolved. I can look back and see where I was as a poet twenty years ago and see that I’ve grown. This makes sense to me. I mean, we live our life and have experiences, and all of this melds into our work as writers. All three women have written for years, and Kate Hennig spoke about having come to play writing work later in life. She’s older than Moscovitch and Roy, but has been writing plays for about the same amount of time as they have. This made me feel better about my work with plays.

Here’s the thing…I often feel a bit of a fraud. I love art, all art, and I wish I could paint. So, as a ‘failed artist,’ I love to write ekphrastic poems. That allows me to delve into art and then transform it into poetry. The same thing is happening, for me, in my writing of plays. I love theatre. I love plays. Nothing transports me more than being in a darkened theatre and wishing I could act. So, instead, I have now fallen in love with writing plays. If I can’t make it on stage, I can at least see my words go from ‘page to stage,’ and I find great joy in that process.

Moscovitch, Roy, and Hennig answered a question about the themes or ideas that they deal with in their plays. This, too, was fascinating. Anushree Roy said: “My play finds me…my soul needs me to write the play.” She speaks of herself as a vessel, which is something I also found resonated with me. I can’t understand where my words come from, but I love to see them come through me. It feels like magic. As Roy said, “…the play comes through me, rather than me having to generate ideas about plays.” Yes! Hannah Moscovitch then said that she writes in an “emergent fashion,” so that she “writes to find the story.” She writes many drafts and says that she “listens to characters.” Her purpose is to use “the personal to get to the political” and is interested in issues of morality. Roy then jumped in to say that she often finds she has conversations with her characters. She’ll write something and then say, “Why did you just do that?” and then laugh because she realizes that she was the one who had the character do that in the first place. (Here, then, is the magic that sits inside a writer’s head, I think. How else can you convey that to people who don’t write? It’s difficult…and maybe not even worth trying to do, to be honest. Maybe our job, as writers, is just to do what we’re meant to do…and let people interpret it all as they will.) I loved, too, what Kate Hennig said about playwrights being ‘vessels,’ which followed on what Roy had said earlier. Hennig said she believes that “plays move through individual artists as acting does through actors.” She spoke about “how the story comes through your body and soul.” Yes. Just ‘yes.’ It really is that visceral and sensual. It’s a raw experience, to find words coming through you and emerging onto whatever page or screen you choose to use. In fact, it’s fairly intense, if you stop to think about how you create as a writer; there’s an intimacy to it that is just too hard to explain.

One piece of the conversation that made me nod was the part about the relationship that exists between the playwright and the dramaturge. A dramaturge is someone who helps the playwright in developing the play. This person asks questions of the playwright, making them question their own crafting of the play. Hennig referred to the dramaturge as a “coach” of sorts, someone who can ask you questions and be honest with you about how your work will manage on the stage. Hannah Moscovitch spoke about how she purposefully tries to create “constructed ambiguities” in her plays, so that audience members have two possibilities playing in their minds as they watch the play. This kind of creation is more difficult than trying to simplify a play’s structure. In terms of her creative process, Anushree Roy spoke about how she works intensely in revisions at the ‘front end’ of a play. She wants her production draft to be finalized, if only for the sake of the actors. As a working actor, she finds it’s important to honour the actors and the work they do in remembering the lines, in embodying the characters. She also spoke about the role of the dramaturge as “someone who will tell you the absolute truth.” You would rather, all three women agreed, have someone tell you early on in the writing process, than to see your work on stage and then poorly received by an audience. (I’m blessed to have worked with Matt Heiti and Lisa O’Connell as dramaturges. I trust them. I have no idea what I’m doing when I write my plays, but they make me feel I must know more than I think I do…and that is pretty amazing in and of itself, if you ask me!)

The discussion soon shifted to the notion of storytelling. Kate Hennig wondered if there was, as Bob White says, “a feminine gaze” in women’s plays. Hannah Moscovitch said that she believes this is true simply because she writes from a woman’s perspective, just because she is a woman. Hennig spoke about how the earliest plays are rooted in male origins, citing Homer as an example. All dramatic structure and form is really male-centric, as Hennig said that “all plays are a masculine construct.” They are all mostly linear, with a beginning, middle, and an end. Think of Shakespeare or Miller here and you’ll understand. 🙂 Hennig wondered if there are ways to create new plays from “the feminine.” (Not the “feminist,” but from the “feminine,” as she clarified.) The question she herself posed was: “Is inclusivity part of what a feminine construct might be?” Hannah Moscovitch responded by speaking about “collective creation,” a process which is happening more and more in playwrights’ work these days. This leads playwrights away from text-based plays to plays that are image-based. Anushree Roy then spoke about the importance of text-based plays. Someone wondered whether or not text-based work would disappear, but Roy said that humans are drawn to text-based plays because they can see themselves in the works.

The question of why there aren’t more female playwrights’ works being produced arose. Recent stats from the Playwrights Guild of Canada (PGC) says that more than 50% of the members are women. However, in a single year, only one quarter (1/4) of productions in Canada are written by women. There’s a notable discrepancy there. The PGC says that this is because women playwrights tend not to submit their works. Hannah Moscovitch posited that this may be because male playwrights are more often rewarded for their work, whereas she believes “women tend to be penalized for pushing their own work.” She feels uncomfortable in advocating for her work, but has taken on that role of mentor for four new young women playwrights. As she said, “I find it easier to advocate for others rather than myself.” I found this very interesting. I think it’s a cultural phenomenon. As women, perhaps, we are not really taught how to advocate for ourselves. It takes years of life experience to find your own voice and be rooted in some kind of confidence about your writing, whatever genre you might be dipping into. Anushree Roy said that she is always aware that she must “hustle.” In the early years of her time as a female playwright, she did that for herself, but now she has an agent who does most of that “hustling” work for her. (This fall, she has four new productions on stage across Canada, the result of a great deal of ‘hustling’ and advocating for her own work.) She then said “Finished plays get opening nights.” So, if you want to see your play workshopped, as a woman, you need to finish and submit your plays. Kate Hennig further emphasized this by saying, “You need someone to take a chance and actually put your play on a stage.”

Conversation shifted to how the three playwrights find their work is received. Hannah Moscovitch said that she “finds my plays with male protagonists do get produced more often.” She finds this frustrating. Often, she said, her plays are reviewed and critiqued by “younger male critics who say I don’t write about big ideas.” Her response was, aptly, “Fuck all y’all.” She does, she said, write about big ideas. Anushree Roy said that she finds men of colour are often the ones who respond negatively to her work. They say that she should “tone down her work or you will never find a husband.” Hannah Moscovitch laughed at this comment and said she often finds, after a play is staged and produced, a series of Jewish mothers will appear and tell her “You’ve got to meet my son!” Moscovitch also said that, as she “moves along,” she gets bolder in the themes and issues she addresses in her plays. In “Bunny,” for instance, she addresses issues of sexual desire and sexual shame. In upcoming work, she is focusing on the confessional form, writing about a miscarriage and thinking about what “modern maternity” means for today’s women.

A question arose about how, as a woman, you are often torn between generations. Anushree Roy spoke about being very close to her parents. She talked about how, as you age, you realize that “with different life experiences, your life changes and your writing changes…your dreams change, too.” The lens through which you view the world changes. (If it didn’t, that would be sad, I think…) She did admit, near the end of the talk, though, that “it does make it easier if you have a partner who loves and supports you…and who likes doing laundry.” Moscovitch talked about being a new mother, having a son under the age of one, and how that has changed the way she sees herself, and her role in the world.

Near the end of the talk, all three women spoke about the idea of trailblazing. As Moscovitch said, “trailblazing is hard work; you get to be original just by being yourself, but you also end up getting lots of branches in your face as you go,” and Roy said that it is all such incredibly hard work. Hennig spoke about the groundbreaking work of three particular Canadian women playwrights, namely Judith Thompson, Sharon Pollock, and Colleen Murphy. They are the first generation of women playwrights in Canada, but this group of three today is a key part of the next generation.

The thing that spoke to me most was when Kate Hennig talked about the importance of playwrights finding other playwrights. She says ‘circles’ are not to be underestimated, in terms of their power. Having feedback from your peers, especially in terms of new work, is crucial to your development as a playwright. Hennig also said that the first time she saw her work on stage, with actors reading her words, she was shaking. “The boldness of having your words spoken out loud, even in small circles of playwrights, and on stage with actors, is crucial to your development.” Yes. I get that. I’m blessed to have a few good friends whom I met through the Sudbury Theatre Centre’s “Playwrights’ Junction” program and we still meet every second week at my house to workshop our new plays. Without them, I don’t know that I’d have kept on writing my little “Sparrows Over Slag.” Seeing that play on stage, too, made me shake. There’s nothing as raw as either a) reading poems in front of people or b) seeing your words go from ‘page to stage’ and have characters become flesh and blood people because of the blessed work of brilliant actors. That’s divine!

I’m on a ten day writing retreat down in Kingsville at my friend Grant’s house. It’s a lovely old yellow brick place, with a view of Lake Erie. And swings. So, I’ll blog if it strikes me, but maybe not so much. Trying to finish the second draft of my novel, and trying to complete “Sparrows” with a third act that is yet to fully emerge.

Keep writing, people.

peace,
k.

I should begin by saying that these are my personal views and may not represent others’ views. It’s my disclaimer, simply because of my poet laureate work, before I begin to rant a bit here as a human, a woman writer, and a feminist. Still, I should also say that the position itself means that you advocate for something, and I know that I’ve been advocating for social activism in terms of the arts, poetry in the schools and in mental health and palliative care. There’s not a lot that’s very poetic or subtle about what I’m going to write here; I’m reflecting on the social media upheaval that has been sparked here in Northern Ontario — and beyond now — regarding a video that has gone viral. The video in question advertises the Ring of Fire project and was created by a company called KWG. Any of this information can be found easily online. It doesn’t take a genius to take on a Google search. I refuse to post any links to this video within this blog post.

There are so many problems with this video that it’s hard to know where to begin. Right now, I should be working on a new scene for the second draft of my novel, but I’ve been cleaning and doing laundry all morning, and pondering this video for a few days now. (You never want to write a post when you’re absolutely incensed and without logical reasoning powers, so I let it sit for a couple of days.) You can’t avoid how it’s caused a furor up here in Northern Ontario. There has even been a Sudbury Star poll asking people to vote as to whether or not it’s a sexist video. What’s upsetting about that is the huge percentage of people saying that it isn’t sexist, essentially saying that women aren’t demeaned or sexually objectified in the piece. That makes me feel ill, to be honest. I live up here. I love this place. But, when things like this happen, I wonder if we’ve come as far as we think we have, as a society, as a culture, within Northern Ontario. Maybe the sexism that I thought was lessening is actually just boiling around under the surface in a really insidious way. The response to this video, on social media anyway, and the results of that poll in the local newspaper, make me angry, ashamed, and very very worried for the future of the young women whom I am privileged to teach at Marymount Academy here in Sudbury.

As a teacher, I am so proud of my girls. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked students where they are headed after Grade 12 and they say, “Miss, I want to be an engineer,” or “I think I want to go into mining.” These are words and phrases that I never heard when I was their age. Things have shifted, so that young women are encouraged to go into trades and careers that have traditionally been male-based and centred. How amazing is that, I often think! How grand is it, to be alive to see shifts in our culture when it comes to gender and career?

My own family’s ties to mining are close ones. My paternal grandfather worked at INCO, as did my father, in the Copper Refinery back in the 1960s and 70s. Some of my earliest memories of my dad are of him getting up before dawn, making eggs in the kitchen, and of him packing his lunch into one of those sturdy metal lunch boxes which almost all Sudburians will recognize and think fondly of, I imagine. The stove light would always be on as he cooked, because it was so dark and he didn’t want to turn on the kitchen light and wake us. I still remember poking my head out, seeing him there, back to me, down a long bathroom hallway, pushing eggs and bacon around the pan and thinking about his day. On my mother’s side, my great-grandfather owned the general store in Creighton Mine for years (and before that managed the Hudson Bay Company store in Sudbury) and my maternal grandfather was the superintendent at Garson Mine in the 1930s. Mining is so tightly interwoven into so many lives here. I think, sometimes, we forget that we live above a series of catacombs, of shafts and tunnels, until we feel a rock blast or hear of the tragic loss of a miner’s life. Then, we all realize, that regardless of how this town diversifies, it is all still very rooted in the earth, and in the industry of mining. That’s why this video is even more upsetting to me.

Now, I’m no expert on mining and engineering, and I wouldn’t claim to be. I am, however, a fairly intelligent woman. I’m a writer, an editor, a teacher, and a feminist. All of these things come together to make me who I am. I’m also a very widely read person. I was thinking, this morning, of what women like Virginia Woolf, or Gloria Steinem, or Audre Lord, or Kim Campbell, or Beverly McLaughlin, the Chief Justice of Canada, would think of all this. I’m especially thinking of Chief Justice McLaughlin today, as I’ve been researching her life and the decisions that she has made during her time serving on the Supreme Court of Canada. She has always fought for women’s rights, if you read about and consider her various decisions within the courts, but she has also been very vocal about her support of any inquiries into the Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women here in Canada.

Here’s the other part of the video chaos that I find particularly repulsive. It’s repulsive (and yes, I know that’s a strong choice of wording) that you see and hear a bikini-clad woman speak to the idea that this mining firm has the ability to ‘partner’ with First Nations communities in Ontario. When you think of colonization through history (and you can read Thomas King’s brilliant book The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America to get a sense of that historical fiasco) it has always been about Europeans arriving in various countries around the world–Australia and New Zealand included in this–and beginning to ‘manage’ people and ‘farm’ the land’s natural resources, without care for the land. I’m also reading Basil Johnston’s book, Ojibway Heritage, right now. We lost Johnston last fall, which is a shame because he was groundbreaking in terms of the work he did in archiving and writing about First Nations culture in Canada. If you read any of the stories in Ojibway Heritage, you quickly realize that we are all — whether First Nations people or not — meant to be guardians of this land. We are meant to guard it for future generations of humans, not plunder it thoughtlessly. So, imagine seeing that a bikini-clad woman is speaking of how grand it is to partner with First Nations communities?

If you’ve read about First Nations history and culture, you’ll know that women play a key role. I can’t imagine any woman would be pleased to see this video, but that the makers of this video think it’s wise to speak about First Nations ‘partnerships’ is a travesty. In a time when we finally have an overdue inquiry into the Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women here in Canada, it seems so cruel to use the sexual objectification of women to advertise mining in Northern Ontario. It makes me angry, but when I get angry, I also get weepy. It makes me shake my head and question what’s happening here…in Northern Ontario, in Canada, in our culture, that so many think it’s all right to continue to perpetuate stereotypes of women as sexual objects, as a way to just further cement that idea that sex still sells.

There isn’t a nice way to end a post like this. How can there be? This is, I think, something all men and women in Northern Ontario should find repulsive. Having a mining CEO say that he thinks it’s grand that people are talking because of his “Mining Minute” video, because any talk is good talk or p.r., really isn’t all right.

I don’t know what this says, friends. I only know it doesn’t bode well for us all, in a geographical and cultural sense. I’ll think, upon leaving you now, in a spirit that is culturally refreshing and reviving this area right now. The Up Here Festival, for instance, and the Northern Lights Festival, and the Art Gallery of Sudbury, and YES Theatre, and the Sudbury Theatre Centre, and the Sudbury Symphony Orchestra, and all of the very talented artists (visual, musical, literary, theatrical)…these are the organizations and people into which I choose to pour my hope for cultural and artistic renewal in this region.

But…for now…when I return to teaching in a few weeks, I want to be able to say to my girls–with absolute faith that I’m right in this–that sexism has faded, or at least that equality is coming along on its journey. So much has been done, over so many years, in terms of promoting women’s equality in mining. You only need to visit the website for Women in Mining in Northern Ontario to know that. (You can go there from here! (http://www.wimnorthernontario.com/)

It’s my fervent hope that this video is just some kind of strange aberration because I want my girls to go off into a world that is more about equality and less about sexual objectification and being demeaned because you happen to be a woman. That’s my hope.

peace,
k.