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Note: I’ll say now that I won’t include any of the photographs here; they seem too personal, too intimate, for me to share without the photographers’ permissions. They seemed sacred and, if you’re interested, I’d encourage you, instead, to go and see the exhibit yourself at the McEwen School of Architecture on Elm Street. It’s more than worth the time for a visit. Take someone to talk to about the work, though, because you’ll want to…trust me on this one.

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Just before March Break, I heard about a photography exhibit that would be at the McEwen School of Architecture. It had been organized by the Northern Ontario School of Medicine (NOSM) and was the result of a project that was undertaken to address the causes and effects of intimate partner violence (IPV) in First Nations communities. There are plenty of statistics in other places, but suffice it to say that domestic violence is an issue across Canada. The Noojamadaa Exhibit was important for me to take my class to see, I thought, so I scheduled a visit for this past Friday morning.

The class I’m teaching is a Grade 11 First Nations, Metis and Inuit contemporary literature course, but we also learn about indigenous culture, as well as social and political issues that affect all Canadians. Given that I teach at an all-girls’ school, and we often speak about what healthy dating relationships should look like for girls (in terms of them knowing to avoid boys and young men who may be abusive) it made sense to take them down to the McEwen School of Architecture, to spend the morning really immersing ourselves in the photography exhibit.

The goal of the project is best explained by a mission statement that was posted at the entrance: “This exhibit features thoughtful photography and images shared by the Manitoulin First Nations women during a four week research project. Originally inspired by the Photovoice methodology, The Noojamadaa Exhibit uses an experiential learning approach to foster and promote healing and reconciliation. It’s a space for indigenous and non-indigenous peoples to reflect on our shared journey towards wellness, through contemplation of our relationships with one another and our surroundings.” Dr. Marion Maar, Associate Professor of Medical Anthropology, is the woman who coordinated and spearheaded the exhibit. She, along with Gayle Adams-Carpino, a Lecturer of Interprofessional Education, were there on Friday morning to give us a bit of a talk about the project and a tour of the exhibit. It was one of the best field trips I’ve ever been on, from a teaching and learning point of view. Pedagogically, I know we’ll have lots of conversation and spirited debate in the classroom tomorrow, so I think that’s one of the benefits of getting students out to see how art can be socially active and can instigate change in how people view issues within their communities.

So much of what we talked about on Friday morning had to do with what we’ve already discussed this semester in my class. We talked about the residential school system, and about the notion of lateral violence, and of how cycles of abuse and the loss of traditional ways have influenced the shape of indigenous families and communities. We talked, too, about the notion that it will take seven generations to heal from what’s happened through colonization and the residential school system. It’s such a difficult topic, and rightfully so, but what this exhibit does is show how people can be resilient and manage to turn darkness into light. It reminded me, again, of Richard Wagamese and “Embers: One Ojibway’s Meditations,” and of how he speaks about light as the goal to aim for in our daily living.

The girls spread out around the exhibit, taking notes and choosing one photograph to examine fully. Alongside each photo, there were bits of text to explain what the photographs represented. One of my favourites was a photo of a pair of wedding rings on a table. The words offered by Tasha Behm, though, were what spoke to me as I looked to the photo and then back to the text: “People forget what a privilege it is to be able to grow old with someone. Marriage isn’t just a piece of paper but an endless vow to love someone unconditionally for the rest of their lives.” Another photograph, of a bride and groom, was complemented by a quotation that spoke, again, of how marriage was a partnership and not something temporary to just have and then throw away. Candice Jacko-Assiniwe, of Birch Island, wrote of her wedding day: “Our relationship is nowhere near perfect; we have had some difficult times. For all that we had been through together in the last sixteen years, we have always supported one another as individuals, acknowledge our mistakes, worked at forgiveness and strive to be best as we walk through this life together. In this picture on our wedding day, I told him “don’t let me fall” and he reassured me by saying, “don’t worry, I’ve got you.” And the image of him holding me, and me trusting him while laughing with one another, reminds me to always remember to support one another through our struggles, and always to make room for laughter.” The last photo that spoke to good partnerships and marriages was one of an older couple, taken from behind, and holding hands. The words that went with this one were the loveliest, I thought, to do with couples and long lasting love. It was Tasha Behm, again, who wrote: “Sometimes the greatest love story isn’t Romeo and Juliet who died together, but grandma and grandpa who grew old together.” All three of these pairings, of photos matched with reflections of words, spoke to me strongly. While I’ve been single for a long time now, I know this is the kind of relationship that I’m looking for, what I want, and what I’ll honour and value most during my time on the planet. There’s a worth to a union that is a true partnership of shared values, humour, compassion, friendship, and love.

Here’s the thing: our girls need to understand that healthy relationships and pairings aren’t all flash and glitter. The kids I see in high school are often tied to the whole popular culture thing in an almost oppressive and addictive way. A lot of make-up and over-exposure on the internet and cell phones seems to give them a sense of self, even just for a little while. It really worries me because you can see they have more to offer and cultivate. They Snapchat a lot, and they text incessantly. They take countless selfies on a daily basis and they seem to enjoy living on the surface of things. They also don’t really love to read, which is a bit of a worry for me as a writer and as a teacher. The problem, though, is that all of this superficial stuff seems to translate to their expectations of what a relationship with a boy/girl/ferret should look like. Still, “good relationships” aren’t at all about money and superficial things. They’re more about the values and qualities that will last, the assets of spirit that each person would bring to a union.

A lot of kids these days also come from broken homes and families. It does cause them stress, despite what some of their parents might actually think. I’ve seen it in classrooms, when a young girl of sixteen or seventeen will try to explain with whom they live. “Miss, my mum and dad divorced, but then my mum lived with this guy and he left, so now she’s alone, and Miss, is she ever depressed.” Usually I just nod sympathetically at that point and listen carefully. Sometimes, all they really want is to have someone listen to them. “And, then, Miss…my dad….he found someone else, and I really really liked her. I even called her my step-mum and we were friends…but then they broke up and there’s a new woman at my dad’s house. She has three kids, so now I guess I have step-brothers and sisters, but I’m not really sure.” This is the lineage of a lot of kids’ families these days. I think, somehow, that’s why teachers feel more responsibility on a daily basis. Sometimes, you end up being (and more often than you ought to, for the kids’ sakes) a pseudo-parent, the one person with whom they might actually feel safe with every day. So, I think it’s important for them to realize that quite a large portion of society is dealing with false and superficial issues around pairings and partnerships. Everything seems so fleeting, in my mind, anyway. People having to work at something is an old-fashioned concept. I often wonder if my parents ought to have stayed together for their lifetimes; they weren’t always content or happy, but they worked through things and I saw how much they loved each other in the end, when the chips were really down. The thing about this photography exhibit, though, and these three photos in particular, was that we could see that people were talking about relationship as something worth working at, something to cultivate in a sort of garden-ish and organic way.

We’ll talk, too, I’m sure, about how girls value themselves in relationships. I worry about this a lot, to be honest. I don’t have kids of my own, so these girls become like my kids. Sometimes, I hear snippets of things and wonder how they are managing in the world. They are so in a place where they are building their own senses of identity, questioning their sexuality, and wondering about which path they should take to move forward into adulthood. As an adult, and I often say this in class, it doesn’t get much easier, but sometimes, just sometimes, it helps to honestly tell them that the path is never clear in any of those areas of life. I do worry, though, that they tend to make themselves seem less than to attract boys, in some cases, and it’s something I’ve seen over the years as a teacher. If they pretend to be ‘less than’ smart or clever, then they aren’t desirable to boys, they sometimes seem to suggest. That just makes me very angry. They should never, ever, be made to feel that it would be better for them to be daft or permissive, or to absent themselves from being treated fairly and equally in a relationship, so I’m hopeful they’ll have seen that, too, reflected in the exhibit on Friday. Women should be strong and unique and independent. If that scares a man, or intimidates him, then it isn’t a woman’s fault. These photographers, these women’s voices, prove that in their documenting their lives.

The other photographs that struck me, in particular, were ones that told the story of a young girl who lost both of her parents, a mother to suicide and a father to murder. Next to her family’s broken story was a child’s drawing of a graveyard. It sent shivers through me. Both of these horrible things occurred on Manitoulin Island, just a few hours away from where I live. I remember hearing about the murder on the news, but not the suicide. The thing is, how does suicide get to be so easily swept under the rug? We know suicide rates are high on reserves across Canada, especially for young people. This is the ripple effect of residential schools through the generations. It isn’t simple to explain, and I dare not try here.

All I know is that I was glad that this young girl, the one who had drawn the horribly sad picture of the cemetery, was shown in another pairing of photographs on the wall next to it. There, she had grown up into a teenager, sitting on a rock on the edge of a northern lake, somewhere on Manitoulin, the sun setting behind her. And then, another photo, of her modelling a dress at a school fashion show. The text, for that panel of paired photographs, was all about the little girl, now a young woman, reflecting on how she’d managed to rise up out of grief and tragedy, to become a person with dreams and goals. The overwhelming sense of the exhibit was embodied in this one set of panels, the notion that First Nations women are resilient and strong.

Perhaps the best example of resilience came in seeing the photo of the little girl spinning round in a hoop dance. Her grandma, or mother, or auntie, or big sister, had taught her the various moves of the hoop dance. Each variation mirrors a spirit animal, as Dr. Maar explained it, and the speed with which dancers move, with such grace and elegance, always amazes me. The image of this little one, dressed in her regalia and telling her story through dance and drumming, was a photo that made me tear up a bit. Despite all of the disruption of culture, and most of it being the result of how residential schools and the 60s Scoop ripped families apart, somehow, an elder taught a youngster how to dance. That is resilience. That is truth.

There were so many beautiful and thought provoking photographs. I only hope that NOSM can get the exhibit out into the city and outlying communities. It raises many issues in a person’s mind: what makes a healthy relationship, between partners, between parents and children, between children and the school system? The variations on a theme are endless, I think, and should encourage conversation. I know the exhibit is meant to be a teaching tool for medical students, in an attempt at cultural sensitivity training, but I actually think that “regular” folks from the community around here would benefit from experiencing this exhibit. It shouldn’t be an exhibit that doesn’t see the light of day outside of university buildings.

I think it’s so powerful, to know that the university, and NOSM in particular, is making collaborative forays into using photography to do research into something like what constitutes a healthy relationship within indigenous communities, from a woman’s point of view. Both Gayle and Marion were so warm and welcoming to my class, and I know I’ll be able to carry on a thoughtful conversation with my students tomorrow morning.

Women play such a key role in Ojibway culture. They are the Water Keepers and the tellers of stories. They are the mothers, the aunties, sisters, and daughters. Intimate partner violence isn’t something that is confined to any one group in society. Women, though, are often the victims. What I thought, on Friday morning, after leaving that beautiful school of architecture building, was that it was fitting that Marion and Gayle had asked women to take the photos that best represented healthy relationships from their perspective. The result is an exhibit that feels intimate, raw, and beautifully honest. You don’t want to rush, taking in the photographs and the stories that go alongside them. You can hear the voices of the women, know the stories they need to tell, and you leave with a sense of their resilience and strength.

If you have a chance, do try to see this exhibit. I’m sure you can call NOSM and see where it’s being displayed next. I’m hopeful, to be honest, that it will be displayed around town and in outlying communities. It’s that powerful a tool and seems, to me, to have the ability to suggest social change and advocacy.

One little pebble, thrown into the water, causes a ripple…

peace,
k.

This past year has been fairly bittersweet for me, in so many ways. I’m aware of what I’ve lost in the last nine years, but more of what I’ve gained, and that makes me so thankful and grateful in the very smallest of ways. (My friend Sarah has taken to calling me “White Oprah,” but I just think it’s that I’m more aware of how fleeting everything is…and that I value it all, especially the things I notice in the landscape around me and in the connections with people I feel close to.)

Since I moved into my little red brick house four years ago this July, I’ve thought of starting a vegetable garden. My dad had a massive one in our house on Bancroft Drive, in Minnow Lake, when I was growing up. I used to love it, at first, because it seemed so orderly and green, and I was always transfixed by the way the peas (in particular) would climb up the trellises and wire contraptions he fashioned out in the shed. Then, in my teens, when I was obese and socially awkward, I used to hate it because he made my sister and me go out and weed it all the time. I never did manage very well in hot summer sun. You only have to see me once to know I’m probably the palest person on the planet, so I recall being horribly burned, even with sunscreen. (It led to me avoiding bright sun for my twenties and thirties because I so often looked like an overweight lobster girl in my teens.)

I bought this house for a few key reasons. First, when I came here for a dinner party about ten years ago, when my parents were still well, I remember saying to my friend, Carla, who owned this place, “I could live in a house like this.” And I knew, even then, that it was meant for me, and I was meant for it…even if just for a period of undefined time. It is, as my friend Trish says, “a sanctuary.” I loved it for the shutters in the weirdest little ante-room to a bedroom that I’ve ever encountered, and I loved it for the star light fixture in the tiniest hallway outside the bathroom. And I loved it for the tree swing in the backyard, as well as for the fencing that would allow me to let the dogs wander and explore. I also knew that I had a notion to garden, even if not right away. I spent the last two summers working on expanding the little flower gardens, but each spring I always think about starting a vegetable garden for Dad. Usually, though, I chicken out because I think I could never live up to what he did with his, or what my grandfather did with his. I grew up with big vegetable gardens, you see…and I remember fall weekends full of digging up potatoes and putting them all in the fruit cellar and watching the eyes stare out at me. I also remember my grandmother coming for other weekends to sleep over, so that she could help my mum blanch beans for freezing, and sometimes to make pickles, or jams, or relishes. (I never will forget the smell of pickles in the kitchen and then how my clothes would smell of that for a few days at school.)

Last August, I saw the most beautiful garden in Kingsville. It just made me realize I wanted a little one of my own, for Dad, sooner rather than later. I’m not an agricultural diva, though, and I will say that bees freak me out, so I’ve been known to run, which means I’ve never been stung! (I think this just proves that you should run from bees, although everyone says that you ought not do so. I prove them wrong, with my track record!) Anyway, I have talked about it all winter, starting this garden, and then one day last month my friend Victoria, who is one of my brilliant Zumba teachers, and who has helped me to lose weight and gain confidence in my body, sent me a little Facebook message and offered to come and help me build a raised bed. So, that’s happening this week, and then, once the snow is fully gone and the yard has dried up a bit, she and I will build it together. We chatted this afternoon a bit about the whole thing and it made me think of Dad again. He and I were best friends, so I miss him a lot, and it comes on–this missing him thing–without any real warning.

Going to the Sudbury Dragon Boat Festival launch event tonight, to read a commissioned poem, meant a lot to me. As poet laureate, part of my vision of the position is to weave poetry into places where palliative care happens. This means that I’m working at building partnerships with the Maison McCulloch Hospice and the Palliative Care wing at Health Sciences North. Neither of my parents had easy deaths, and I know how much end-of-life care can either make or break a memory of someone’s ending. I remember that there wasn’t much original art or poetry involved, and that was the one thing that I knew would have given me an emotional anchor when I sat next to my dad as he died. A painting on the wall might have allowed both of us to escape, through our imaginations, even just once in a while from talk of medication doses, final wishes, tears, and lessons in life.

You never know, when you read a commissioned poem, in a place where people aren’t necessarily open to the genre itself, whether or not it will go over well. Apparently it did, which made me pleased. Afterwards, one of the organizers of the event, Jim Dixon, came over to me. He looked at me, tilted his head, and asked, “Are you Glenn’s daughter?” I nodded. “Well, I knew your dad when we were little. He was a bit older than me, but we chummed around.” It was hard to catch my breath then. Dad had been on my mind all day, what with the thought of garden beds and what seeds I ought to start buying and planting in the sunroom. “You knew Dad?!” I was astounded, to find one of his friends there, at the end of such a day, in a place where I was thinking of what Dad’s palliative care experience was like. “Yes. He and Gerry and I were ‘The Minnow Lake Boys.'” I pretty much couldn’t believe it, so I just said, “I’m going to give you a hug, if that’s okay. Is that okay?” And then I jettisoned myself into his arms. After that, Jim took me to meet Gerry McColeman, who was the third in the group of boys from the late 1930s and early 1940s. I heard about how they had all gone to church at St. Luke’s, and how they remembered the old Jigg’s Dinners–all Newfoundlander corned beef and boiled potatoes–and how they recalled my paternal grandmother’s key lime pie on the long pie table in the downstairs church hall. I just kept smiling and shaking my head, knowing Dad was around somewhere. Both Jim and Gerry got about two ‘jettisoning-of-body’ hugs tonight. They’re lucky I’ve lost weight or I might’ve tackled them! 😉

Then, on the way out, getting ready to drive home, another older man came over and introduced himself as Bob Bateman. “You don’t know who I am…but you must be Sheila Mary’s daughter, eh? One of Glenn’s two girls?” I nodded and asked who he was. “I worked with your mother at the San, when she was a psychiatric nurse back before she was with your dad.” It stopped me short. For these three men, all in their nearly mid-80s now, and all so warm and friendly to me, to bring Mum and Dad to life for me tonight for the first time in a while, well, I don’t know what to say, but I know it was the universe at work.

It’s funny, all of it, really. I miss Dad a lot. He and I spoke every day about big things, and seemingly meaningless things, and waves of grief hit when I least expect them. Thoughts of this new vegetable garden, and even continuing to try and figure out what I ought to plant, just before I went to read this poem tonight, for an event that will raise funds for the hospice, made his presence feel exceptionally strong to me tonight. As I said goodbye to Mr. Bateman, he looked over, rubbed my arm, and said “That was a beautiful poem. Your parents would be proud of you. We’re keeping an eye on you for them.” Well, that did me in. My eyes teared up and I could only nod.

I miss my people tonight. So, here, there’s a lavender candle burning, a small glass of white wine, some words, Glen Hansard singing to me, and a big mug of tea. But, above all, there’s just me feeling like my heart is so open that it’s about to burst with love and gratitude…and some little bit of ‘missing you’ sadness in there, too. The bigger part, though, is the notion that both Mum and Dad sent me little love letters tonight, in the tiniest of ways. They know, though, that I’m a bit psychic…and I’m a poet…so that’s double the trouble!

I miss hugs a lot. Being on your own, you can miss them more than most people would know. Getting hugs from Jim and Gerry made me think, just for a moment, that I was giving Dad a hug…and that was a gift I’m so thankful for…

Go hug someone you love.

peace,
k.

It’s been a week since Richard Wagamese died, and I’ve spent a lot of that time in the bush down near Bobcaygeon, in the Kawarthas. I went there to spend March Break on my own, in a place where I knew I could enter into the landscape. I need, when I’m seriously focused on writing, to be away from other people, or to maybe be with one or two others who are quiet, like me, and who don’t mind if I don’t talk. (I like to listen to people’s stories, and I love conversation, so I need to purposefully retreat and fill myself up with the spirit of landscape.) I need, I know now, to be in a place where I can play music, light candles, take long walks in the woods, and sit near water. I need trees, sky, stars, and maybe a full moon if I’m lucky. I want to sit on a night deck with bare legs, in the middle of March, and feel a bit cold. I want to feel the shiver of the weather and landscape having a visceral effect on my body and my soul. And I want to build a fire in the little fireplace, mostly so that I feel strong, Celtic goddess-like (!), beautiful, poetic, and empowered. Beyond that, too, as a woman who was born (and has lived much of her life) in the rocky nickel basin of Sudbury, Ontario, I need to move through spaces where barns sit on the edges of snowy fields and skies reach out without end, before I come to a set of gravel roads that lead me deep into the woods. So it was there, on the edge of Little Bald Lake, that I heard the news of Richard Wagamese’s death on CBC radio last Saturday morning. I sat there, at the antique table overlooking the water, working on a play I was trying to finish, and just shook my head in disbelief. How could this news even begin to be true? I had only just come to his work, and now he was gone? It seemed unreal…surreal…and it still does. I shook my head, too, because I had so wanted to write him a letter…and I didn’t.

I’ve written a couple of seriously honest and confessional letters in my life, at first on paper, when I was younger, and then via email. I only write letters when I feel strongly about things, and it’s as if emotion and thought demand to come through language, whether I like it or not. I can only imagine that the people who have received these letters must feel they’ve been hit by tsunami waves of words and thoughts, but it is how I ‘work’ in the world. For the longest time, I shut myself down, as a soul, and in recent years, well, I’ve blossomed. So, for months now, I had thought “Oh, I need to write Richard Wagamese a letter. I need to tell him what his work means to me.” And, for months, I didn’t do it. I don’t know why. Normally, if I feel the need to write a letter, or even a blog post, I simply follow my intuition and heart. Neither has served me poorly in recent years, so I trust them, without expectations. I trust that God/the Universe/Creator moves through me, and I know that the words I write are sent to me from somewhere outside of me. (Yeah, it sounds all ‘witchy woo,’ and maybe it is, but I imagine that there are a few creatives out there who understand what I’m talking about, so I’ll just know you’re out there…nodding your heads and smiling in support.)

I didn’t write the letter to Richard Wagamese, but if I had, well, I would have said something along these lines. I would have said thank you, for bringing me a new knowledge of First Nations teachings. As someone who is non-Indigenous (of Irish/Scottish and German heritage), I have always been drawn to Indigenous teachings and stories. They have always resonated with me. I grew up, as many northeastern Ontario kids will, to some extent, being surrounded by Ojibway culture. It didn’t mean I understood it, though, and so I became more and more curious about the art, culture, language and history of the First Nations in my part of the province.

In my twenties, I took “Native Studies” undergraduate courses at Laurentian University. (It’s now called Indigenous Studies, thankfully.) I learned a lot through that time. I was taught by Thom Alcoze and Barb Reilly, two people I still fiercely admire. I can recall specific lectures as if I’d heard them yesterday, so their teachings resonated with me and helped to make me into the person I am today. I’m grateful to them for that. I learned that it was okay to say you didn’t know something, as a non-Indigenous student in the classroom, and that you would be respected and encouraged if you tried to learn something new and understand it as fully as possible. I learned how to live differently from how I’d been taught through my non-Indigenous culture, to respect the Earth and the landscape through which I walked more as a spirit who was having a human experience rather than as someone who was just trying to ‘get ahead’ and ‘find a good career.’ I started to feel connected to the environment in a way I hadn’t before, to sustainability, in a way that made me feel as if the idea of union was not completely physical at all. There was a spirit that permeated all things, I began to realize, even if you couldn’t see it…

When I was told I’d be teaching a First Nations, Metis and Inuit literature course at my school, I was excited. I had been reading Indigenous authors for years, and loving the diversity and beauty of the work. (It was so varied in voice and in sharp contrast to some of the stuff I’d taught for years. Don’t get me wrong…I love Shakespeare and Harper Lee, but I knew that there were other writers whose work I wanted to share with my students.) When a friend shared Wagamese’s “Indian Horse” with me, I knew it was the piece I wanted to use with my Grade 11s. I can’t tell you how amazing it has been, to see the girls I work with at Marymount Academy begin to read this book and enter into it so completely. It has given me faith in literature again, as an English teacher, but also as a writer. There is something beautiful that happens, when you walk into a morning classroom of sleepy looking teenage girls, and you begin to discuss the story of Saul Indian Horse and his challenges and survival. For many mornings now, over the course of both semesters, I have had the pleasure of watching young faces light up, raising hands to offer opinions, and more often than not, to hear the girls ask, astonished at first and then angrily as the discussions continued, “How did this happen? Why did we not know about residential schools before now?” The conversations I’ve had with them all have been thought provoking and have made me question so much of my life and how I live in the world. It’s made me question my own identity as a Canadian, as a teacher, a person, and as a writer. Questions of what ‘truth and reconciliation’ mean, too, have had us debating Canada’s historical faults throughout the course. We’ve also talked about the education system, and how it has historically chosen what has been taught, and what hasn’t been taught, and how we need to know how to ask questions of our own institutional systems–to think with brains and hearts combined–and not to accept everything we hear without first thinking more critically about it.

What has been loveliest, from an educator’s point of view here now, is to watch how one novel has so shifted the minds of so many students. One girl last semester told me of how the book made her cry. “Miss, I never cry at books, but this one makes me cry.” Then she went on to tell me how she’d given it to her dad, because he wasn’t really “all that open” to learning new things about First Nations issues. He had read the book because she read it in school and talked about it at home, and they had had a discussion about Saul’s life. The character of Saul sprung off the page for so many of my students that I watched, amazed, as they journeyed with him. This witnessing, for me, was powerful. It always will be something I’ll remember of my career as a teacher. This was the one book that shifted lives while I watched. That was, and still is, pure magic. I wish I’d written to tell Richard Wagamese this, to let him know how deeply his words and this story touched the minds and hearts of young women in a classroom in northeastern Ontario.

For me, personally, I came to Wagamese later in my reading life. Last year, an old friend whom I’ve known for twenty years let me borrow her copy of “One Story, One Song.” I fell in love with the book, so much so that I didn’t want to finish it or return it. I rationed it, to be honest, reading a bit each night before bed. With “One Story, One Song,” Wagamese spoke to me, so truly and strongly, about how story works in human lives, and how it gathers and connects souls. This was what I believed, too, as a writer.

Then, when I was down in Windsor in late October to read at a poet laureate event called “Poetry at the Manor,” I stopped in to see my friend Bob Stewart at Biblioasis. (I always pre-order books when I go to Windsor now, because I love that bookshop so very much. It’s almost alive, it’s so warm and welcoming. It also helps, though, that Bob knows a lot about poetry and plays. He recommends good ones for me to buy and read, and has–so far–never been wrong in what I might like or fancy. He has a sense of what I like to read and that’s sort of lovely, really, to have in a friend who also happens to be a writer and a bookseller!)

When I told Bob I was looking for First Nations literature, he showed me the ‘new Wagamese’ that had come into the shop a week before and I fell in love with the book. First, it’s just visually beautiful. And then, well, I’m a tactile and sensual person, so when you hold this book in your hands, you feel it has a spirit about it. The cover is ‘touchable,’ and the use of gold and blue, and the image of fire on the front (something which intrigues me and always has, even though I can’t make one to save my soul!), and the beautiful photographs inside…all of this had me head over heels in love with the ‘new Wagamese’, as Bob called it. 🙂

The book’s title is “Embers: One Ojibway’s Meditations” and has, for me, resonated very deeply. Opening it to the introduction, I thought of how I love to walk at dawn, down by the lake in my city. I feel connected to the earth in a way I can’t fully explain. “Embers” made me feel less weird, less alone. Here, I thought, was a person who understood how I felt about being in the world. He seemed, I thought, to be so aware of the notion that there are veils between worlds that are material and spiritual, something which I fully believe and am aware of in my day-to-day life. That he had written these ideas, these teachings, in a book that I could carry with me…well…that did me in. How could he know some of my own thoughts, I wondered.

I often underline things in my books. When I lend them to friends (as I often tend to ‘prescribe’ books) they will laugh. My friend Tammy once gave a book back to me and smiled, “I feel as if, when I read the book, I’m reading the book, but then I’m also eavesdropping on the conversation that you’re having with the book as well.” I love writing in the margins of books. I figure it’s a bit like having a conversation with the author. So, in “Embers,” I underlined and wrote down some of these beautiful bits…

*”I am a dreamer made real by virtue of the world touching me. This is what I know. I am spirit borne by a body that moves through the dream that is this living, and what it gathers to keep becomes me, shapes me, defines me.”

*”Spirituality isn’t found in your head. It’s found in your heart…It’s found in silence. If you travel with your heart and your quiet, you’ll find the way to the spiritual.”

*”…be less concerned with outside answers and more focused on the questions inside.”

*”So I cultivate silence every morning…the people I meet are the beneficiaries of my having taken that time–they get to know the real me, not someone shaped and altered by the noise around me.” (Oh, I so love this one!)

*”We live because everything else does. If we were to choose collectively to live that teaching, the energy of our change of consciousness would heal each of us–and heal the planet.”

*”Creator is everywhere and divine light shines through everything and everyone all the time. My work is to look for the light…” (And then he shared it with us…)

*”I know the truth of what my people say: that we are all spirit, we are all energy, joined to everything that is everywhere, all things coming true together.”

*”Hard things break. Soft things never do. Be like grass. It gets stepped on and flattened but regains its shape again once the pressure passes. It is humble, accepting and soft. That’s what makes it strong.”

*This piece, on love and depth of connection…is just so beautiful: “I don’t want to touch you skin to skin. I want to touch you deeply, beneath the surface, where our real stories lie. Touch you where the fragments of our being are, where the sediment of things that shaped us forms the verdant delta of our human story. I want to bump against you and feel the rush of contact and ask important questions and offer compelling answers, so that together we might learn to live beneath the surface, where the current bears us forward deeper into the great ocean of shared experience.”

*And this one, for me, has proven to be more than true as I’ve journeyed over the last year or so into myself more as a writer and person: “…but there’s only one way to say ‘yes.’ With your whole being. When you do that, when you choose that word, it becomes the most spiritual word in the universe…And your world can change.” (Yes. He was right. Mine has.)

*”Time is an ocean, present and eternal…and the miracle is that we find each other at all…the mystery of our meeting is time’s gift to us. Swim with me now. We have no other chance.”

*”Intuition will teach you meaning.”

*This practice, of gratitude…”It has been proven in my life that when your prayers are about gratitude for what is already here, Creator and the universe ALWAYS send more. Always…Be thankful, offer prayers of gratitude for the blessings already in your life, whether health, prosperity or productivity, and more blessings will come.”

*”Home is a feeling in the centre of my chest…in that is the sure and quiet knowledge that home is within me and always was.”

*”Missing someone is feeling a piece of your heart gone astray.”

For me, “Embers” is a guide to living the life I must lead. His work has taught me so much and I know that, while I was sitting on that deck in the middle of the bush last night, wrapped in a Black Watch tartan cape from Scotland and looking up at the very brightest of night stars, I thanked him for the teachings he gave me through his writings. Of all of his work, this one beautiful little book has fast become my steadfast guide to how to continue to lead my life. So much of what he writes speaks to me, of how I have journeyed so far.

As Wagamese writes: “Life is sometimes hard. There are challenges. There are difficulties. There is pain. As a younger man, I sought to avoid pain and difficulty and only caused myself more of the same. These days, I choose to face life head on–and I have become a comet. I arc across the sky of my life and the hard times are the friction that shaves off the worn and tired bits. The more I travel head-on, the more I am shaped, and the things that no longer work or are unnecessary drop away. It’s a good way to travel. I believe eventually I will wear away all resistance, until all that’s left of me is light.”

You know, I don’t regret any of the letters I’ve ever sent from my heart. I do, though, regret this one letter that I didn’t send to a man who wrote words that speak still, and always will, to my heart. He was light while he was here, and he’s light while he continues to journey on. I know this is true because I can feel it in the wind that moves through the trees on a late night walk, or in the sound that the ice makes as it crunches and creaks at the start of the spring break-up on Lake Ramsey, or in the crows that follow me with feathers beating at the air when I hike through the bush near Bobcaygeon.

I’ll miss knowing that there won’t be more words…and that I never wrote and sent that thank you letter to him…but then I’ll re-read this piece from “Embers” and think that he really isn’t that far away from any of us. He knew that…

“It occurs to me that the secret of fully being here, walking the skin of this planet, is to learn to see things as though I were looking at them for the first time, or the last. Nothing is too small then, too mundane, too usual. Everything is wonder. Everything is magical. Everything moves my spirit…and I am spiritual.”

Bless. Thank you for the teachings.

peace,
k.

My dear friend Gina lost her husband this week. He was only 46. He had two lovely daughters, Abby and Mia. The four of these dear humans were (and are still) one of my favourite families in town. We didn’t spend days upon days together, but the four of them have been dear to me for years. It’s funny, sometimes, how people are meant to come into your life, to make you realize their souls’ importance and connection to yours, and then — well — they are in your life for good. You love them, and they love you. You have somehow ‘clicked’ and you know you won’t lose them. I love when this sort of magic happens, really, because I know that it’s all so divinely guided. Most people who enter into my life are there for a specific reason. Some stay, and some leave, but all resonate deeply with me and I feel grateful and blessed for having met them. I’m mindful of that more and more now, having lost people I’ve loved before they really ought to have gone.

The first time I met Mimmo, he was picking up Gina from work at the school board. She and I were chatting and she asked me to come along and meet their new dog, Margo. She knew I loved little dogs, as I had two shih tzus of my own. Along came Mimmo, warm and friendly, carrying a squirmy bundle of fur in his arms. I remember thinking, in passing, “Now, she has a good man. He isn’t afraid to carry a tiny dog and speak quietly to it with great kindness.” I always know the quality of a person’s spirit if they treat their dog with love. It’s a soul test, I guess you could say. 🙂

The next time we met, in front of the school, Mimmo was there to pick up one of the girls. We somehow got to talking and realized that we both loved Doctor Who with a passion. I liked him already because of my first impression about he and Margo, so I think I blurted out, without any need for encouragement, that David Tennant was one of my secret husbands. He just laughed and said he could see why. Then we launched into a big discussion of our favourite Doctors, as most Whovians will when they first find one another. Usually, I find, most of us seem to gravitate to Tom Baker, especially if we can recall the time around the late 70s to mid-80s, when Baker and Davidson were the ones to watch. (The only other people I can ever talk to about Doctor Who, in a really deep way, are my friends Mel and Phil, so it was nice to find a third person after such a long time.) Besides, sometimes people find me too much, I think, and finding someone who can speak Whovian is always a relief…as if you can just be yourself, and they can be themselves, and you know you’ve got something in common that is rooted in story and myth and magic.

After he was diagnosed with cancer, well, I didn’t really see Mimmo very often at school. I hadn’t taught either of the girls, but I was friends with Gina. I prayed for them. I sent love and light. We chatted on social media and I felt worried. I remember my uncle, Peter, who struggled with cancer in his late 40s back in the mid-1990s. I remembered how hard that journey had been for my aunt and two cousins, and how hard he had fought to live. My uncle died at 50. I remember thinking (I was in my mid-twenties then) that 50 was too young, but it still seemed far off. Now that I’m in my mid-forties, I know 50 is young, and it is never far off. Time, I have learned, passes far more quickly than we recognize or want to admit.

I hate cancer. I don’t hate much in this world, but I hate cancer. It’s killed more than a few of my family members and, each time, I think it can’t be any worse…but it always is, no matter how hard I try to will it differently. In my late twenties, I worked as a fundraising coordinator at the Northeastern Ontario Regional Cancer Centre here in Sudbury. I left that job because, even though I was good at it, I kept making friends with people who were ill and who ended up dying. I lost friends. Good ones. I hate cancer. I always will. It steals in, under cover of darkness, and it upsets everything that you think anchors you firmly in your life. You fight it…so hard…and it doesn’t always end well. What I’ve learned, though, is that people who live while they’re fighting a difficult illness can teach us so very much about how to live more fully. I know I’ve learned more about living by being with family members who have been very ill than by any other means. They have become my best teachers. I’m thankful to all of them for that.

The funeral today was one of the most beautiful and moving I’ve been to in years. I loved the words that were spoken, the songs that were sung, and the hearts that were opened. This fellow Whovian friend, Mimmo, taught so many lessons to so many people, and I don’t know that he knew how much he influenced the lives of many Sudburians. His immediate family — Gina, Abby, and Mia — they are a trinity of strength, love, and compassion. Their words today moved me. When “Here Comes the Sun” came on through the church speakers near the end of the funeral Mass, I smiled, nodded through teary eyes, and thought, “Yes. That makes sense. A Whovian, and a Whovian’s immediate family, would understand the value of light in dark times.” You’ll think I’m on about nothing now, ranting like an idiot, but I’m not…and I’ll tell you why.

Doctor Who draws people in because of the basic lessons of humanity that sit at the core of the character. Here is a Time Lord, the (supposed) last of his kind, always dreaming of Gallifrey and what used to be, before the war. He is anonymous in a sort of mysterious way, regenerating from one body to another, bouncing through countless universes and dimensions in his TARDIS. He himself often says that he is “a mad man in a blue box.” Doctor Who is about hope, you see. He is noble and ethical. He never kills people, and always tries to save humans, especially if they are his beloved companions. Rose, Martha, Donna, River Song, Amy and Rory, and Clara–the Impossible Girl–are all people he gathers close and cares about in a really tangible way. The only alien ‘races’ that he really can’t abide by are Daleks and Cybermen. Well, you really can’t blame him; these are the two alien ‘races’ who don’t seem to have any human traits. They colonize and destroy on whims, not blinking when they kill vast numbers of humans. Doctor Who loves hard, even though he tries really hard to look as if he doesn’t feel so deeply in an intuitive and emotional way.

Last Christmas, while Abby was in my English class, she said that she had a surprise for me. When I asked her about it (I was stumped) she said, with a typical Abby sparkle in her eyes: “It’s a surprise, Miss!” I was curious, but had no idea. On the last day before holidays, she showed up with a life-sized cardboard cut-out of David Tennant as Doctor Who. I nearly lost my mind. “Where did you find this?! Oh my God! Do you know how exciting this is?!” She laughed. “It’s my dad’s. He told me I could bring it and you could take photos with it. Then, after he thought a bit, he said that you should have it as a Christmas gift.” I was shocked. “Your dad is giving me this cut out of David Tennant?!” She nodded. “Why?! He should keep it!” She shook her head. “No. It was all folded up and in a cupboard and he knows how much you love Doctor Who and David Tennant.” We spent all of that period in class taking photos with the cut out. I sent Mimmo a message after I got home, beside myself with glee. This was the sort of man Mimmo was…he was considerate, thoughtful, and he knew how to make a person’s life brighter, even as he was being so strong and mighty in his own fight against cancer.

I was thinking today about Mimmo, and how I’m going to miss not having him to talk to about Doctor Who every so often. (This is Capaldi’s last season and I would love to have had a chance to ask him what he thought of that, and who he imagined could offer the role proper respect and honour. It would’ve been a good chat.) I would tell him, too, though, that I’ll keep Gina, Abby, and Mia close. We are all companions on the journey, as Doctor Who himself would tell you if you listened closely enough to the lessons he teaches. We all need to look out for one another as we walk through this life. Sometimes, the days aren’t as kind as they could be, but –with the proper companions and friends–we are sure to make it through, learning from and loving one another as we go, valuing the encounters and experiences we share.

I’m reminded of the line the Doctor speaks to Rose when they are forced to part ways, despite the love they share for one another. He says, “I’m burning up a sun just to say goodbye to you.” I imagine Mimmo must have felt that way when he said goodbye, too. He burned up a sun to say goodbye to the three girls he loved most. He left them with love, memories, and stories. I imagine him having easy access to his own TARDIS now, exploring the universe and passing by planets where the Little Prince lives, and having plenty of sonic screwdrivers in case of emergency.

As Rose Tyler once said, very eloquently I might add, “The Doctor showed me a better way of living your life. You don’t just give up. You don’t just let things happen. You make a stand. You say ‘no.’ You have the guts to do what’s right, when everyone else just runs away.” (‘The Parting of the Ways’) Mimmo knew that more than anyone else. He took a stand. He said ‘no’ to giving up, and he said ‘yes’ to living fully. He was mighty. He embodied the best qualities of a Whovian, of a human, of a grand soul full of the very brightest sort of light.

If you’re lucky, in this life, this all-too-short-life, you’ll find a few amazing souls who will teach you things you never thought you’d learn. Mimmo, Gina, Abby and Mia have taught me these things: love is eternal, and strength is something to cultivate and honour; being mighty means facing your fears and staring them down, living fully while you do so, and valuing the small, beautiful aspects of life on a daily basis; and, well, how faith can transcend the physical separation of death. You see, I think Mimmo knew what any good Whovian knows…that light always wins out over dark, even when you think it is impossible, and that good companions (even if they’re hard to find) are all you really need on the journey. Regeneration is all about light and spirit energy, after all. 🙂

Sending so much love to Gina, Mia and Abby tonight…and out across the starry winter sky to my Whovian friend, Mimmo. You’ll be missed…but never forgotten.

#atardis4mimmo

peace, friends.
k.

Sometimes, you receive a book that someone knows will speak to you, or resonate with your heart and soul. My friend, Cristina, brought along a book for me to my house party a few weeks ago. At first, I thought, “Now, why would I be drawn to this story, and why does she think I need to read it? I sing, but I’m not a musician!” (I always try to figure out why people give me the books they do, to read and then return. I think, perhaps, part of it is because other people can see you better than you can sometimes see yourself and know which authors or artists you might enjoy exploring!) The book Cristina brought me, which was quickly stashed under another stack of ‘books-to-be-read-soon’ next to a few bottles of wine on the kitchen pass-through, was titled From Kitchen to Carnegie Hall: Ethel Stark and the Montreal Women’s Symphony Orchestra, and was written by Maria Noriega Rachwal. It’s published by Second Story Press in Toronto. I finally had a bit of free time on Friday night, so I read in bed before I fell asleep, transfixed by the vibrancy of the story of Ethel Stark. It wasn’t long before I could figure out why Cristina had thought I’d enjoy reading it.

Ethel Stark was a Jewish violinist from Montreal, a woman who went to America — New York City, in particular — to take part in all-womens’ symphony groups during the 1930s, during a time when racism and anti-Semitism was fierce and rampant. She was, by Noriega Rachwal’s account, a feisty, committed feminist who wanted to see more women playing in organized orchestras. Ethel wanted, too, to encourage women from across various socio-economic backgrounds, races, and religions, to gather together to attain a common goal, to play music. When she announced that the orchestra would have its first concert, Ethel was heard to say, enthusiastically, “Let’s get busy!” I love that. How can you not love someone who’s that dedicated to her dream and goal?!

In the early part of the 20th century, most men didn’t believe that women should be part of formal orchestras. If they were present, it was believed that women musicians should only play stringed instruments, to best showcase their ‘smaller, daintier hands’ and ‘hourglass figures.’ Violins and pianos, it seemed, were acceptable, but instruments like the cello and bass, however, were rather too risque. As the author writes: “The cello…was another matter. The possible ‘immodest’ images suggested by the manner of holding the instrument between the legs were enough to dissuade any ‘respectable’ woman from going near it.” One reviewer, when asked about the potential for a women’s orchestra being formed, intimated that “a woman’s lips could serve a better purpose, rather than on wind instruments.” The sexual connotations–the reduction of what a woman musician could be, and the objectification of a woman’s lips as only being purposeful for a man’s sexual gratification–incensed Ethel Stark. She used that anger to fuel her dream, to create an all-female symphony orchestra in Montreal, in 1940.

She and Madge Bowen, a local socialite who helped organize venues and raise money for Stark’s orchestra, created an “eclectic group of female suffragettes: young women, older women, students, grandmothers, a seamstress, a photographer’s model, a stenographer, several teachers, nurses, office clerks, and some factory workers…one woman was head of her household and the other a maid.” Working together, learning to play instruments, they learned that more united them than separated them. The symphony itself was born in 1940, the same year that women in Quebec were first allowed to vote.

While the Montreal Women’s Symphony Orchestra was preparing for its first big concert in the summer of 1940, a young black woman named Violet Louise Grant dreamed of making music her career. Violet played the piano and the clarinet, and soon became the first black Canadian to play in a Canadian symphony orchestra on a permanent basis. The MWSO was the first racially integrated symphony orchestra “devoted to the playing of ‘classical’ or ‘concert’ music in Canada, and quite possibly in North America.” Ethel Stark had helped Violet’s dream come true, despite all of the racism and prejudice that existed in Montreal at the time.

I’ve been working on about three separate writing projects this weekend. Two are done and sent off, but I have another to get at in a bit, after I make a cup of tea. The thing that most pulled me away from my own writing work this weekend, though, was this stunning book by Maria Noriega Rachwal. I’d put it down, make a small pot of fresh coffee, and then pick it up again. I’d take the dogs out in the back yard, crunching around on the snow, and then I’d try to do a bit more of my own writing work, but Noriega Rachwal’s story of how Stark revolutionized music in Canada, even North America, keep drawing me back. Her successful attempt to create an orchestra for women, inclusive in its scope, makes for stimulating reading.

It’s a week and a bit before International Women’s Day (IWD) now, which will be recognized on Wednesday, March 8th. Funny how I’ve come to this book in the days before that day, a day that we still need to celebrate and recognize in order to struggle to promote equality between the genders in North American society. I’ll keep Ethel Stark in my heart and mind as I go through this next week or so, reminding myself that so many women went before us, fighting against prejudice and racism, using the arts as a way in which to highlight the talents of women at the start of a century when they had to fight to even get the right to vote in Canada. We sometimes forget that it all really took place just a short time ago, and this book — of one woman’s struggle to create a safe, creative space in which women musicians could play and create music — reminds me of that.

There’s a grand CBC “Sunday Edition” documentary from 2012 that you can listen to if you want to know more about Ethel Stark and the Montreal Women’s Symphony Orchestra, but I’d also suggest you buy a copy of the book, so that you can support an author and a Canadian small press. The book’s hard to put down, and you feel a bit sad when it’s over being read. Ethel Stark died in February 2012, at the age of 101. I can’t imagine having such a long life, but you can hear all about how brilliant she was here, in this radio documentary.

http://www.cbc.ca/radio/thesundayedition/it-wasn-t-teatime-documentary-1.1734997

All of it, really, reminds me of how the arts can serve as a way to be socially and culturally active. That, for me, is a good lesson and a call to action for so many things. The arts can lift us up–whether theatre, literature, music, or visual–and are a key part of how Canadian society has become so vibrant over time. How wonderful is that, too, to see how Ethel Stark’s life changed the lives of so many others?

And how lucky am I, really, to have friends who lend me such fabulous books?
Brilliant. Just brilliant!

peace,
k.

If you know me really well, you know I lead a sort of quiet life. I like listening to music, reading, writing, doing yoga and Zumba, lighting tea lights and burning essential oils, and walking the dogs at dawn. Not too exciting. Being the poet laureate of a city is a bit awkward, as I’ve had to be a bit more public. It’s also been weird to meet people who seem to know me, but I don’t know them. That’s a bit surreal. (That’s also probably why I’ve lately taken to going off to Bobcaygeon, to escape, to write in the middle of the bush in the depths of winter!)

I wanted to share this CBC Morning North interview here on my blog because I’m trying to encourage people to write some poems for my Sudbury Street Poetry Project. If you live in the City of Greater Sudbury, you can submit a poem to this project. The deadline date is Monday, March 20th (right after March Break ends) and the poems will be chosen and posted for National Poetry Month in April. You can see the list of participating businesses on the laureate page of the Greater Sudbury Public Library. Here’s the link for that page:

http://www.sudburylibraries.ca/en/booksmuchmore/Poet-Laureate.asp#StreetPoetryProject

Here’s the interview I did with Markus Schwabe the other day.

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/sudbury/poet-laurete-visible-project-1.3997595

We had a lovely walk down Durham Street, chatting about poetry and our downtown core. Thanks to him, and to the crew at CBC Sudbury, for always being so darned supportive of my poetic initiatives. It’s been such a great year…and I still have until the end of this one to do more work! 🙂

peace,
k.

I started teaching poetry in my Grade 11 class this week. To begin, I had the girls brainstorm around their views of poetry, after being in both elementary and secondary panels as they’ve come up through the system. The words and phrases started flying, so that I hardly turned my head from the whiteboard because I was writing so quickly. Here’s the list of some of the phrases: “terrifying,” “too difficult,” “confusing,” “not easy,” “like another language,” and “I hate it.” There were one or two words like “beautiful” and “artistic,” but I kind of think they did that because they know I’m a poet! 🙂

The course I’m teaching, NBE 3U, is centred around contemporary First Nations, Metis, and Inuit literature, but I did the thing I always do…I threw in one of my own poems, so that I could be vulnerable about how I create poems, and how they come to be in my mind and heart, and how I have an intention as an author when I write. I gave them my heart on a piece of paper, so that they could see you can be brave, as a poet and as a reader, with every piece of literature you consider and encounter. I talked about wanting them to understand annotation of a text as ‘having a conversation with the text and its author.’ I talked about how I love writing in the margins of my books and how I see characters as living people in my head. (They were mostly appalled about how I write in my books. “Miss! How can you do that to your books? You’re ruining them!” “Nope.” I answered, “Just having a conversation with the book and its people, or its poems and lines.” They did what they always do, which is mostly to shake their head and laugh because they’re not quite sure what to make of me after only two weeks into the new semester.)

When we were brainstorming preconceived notions of poetry, one student raised her hand to say, “Poetry is complicated.” Then, another student raised her hand and said, “No, Miss. Poetry is DEFINITELY complicated.” I threw back my head and just laughed. “We’ll see. By the end of this semester, I’ll have it as my goal to have converted you to see poetry differently.” She just shook her head.

The poem, “It deepens into love,” is one I wrote on Pelee Island last spring. I love it. I used images of geese flying in formation, individually strong but also part of community; stones on long, thoughtful beaches; water lapping on shelves of shoreline; and, fossils that represent pieces of memory and love. All of this is woven into the poem. So, I read the poem out loud to the girls, and asked them to cite the poetic devices. We talked about how I tend to use internal rhyme to create music in my work, rather than end rhyme. We talked about how images are the building blocks of good poems, how they evoke visual images (like photographs) in a reader’s mind, and we talked bout how metaphor works to create a wider meaning.

“It deepens into love” sounds like a love poem. When I read it, I asked the girls what they thought it was about. One spoke up. “It’s a broken hearted poem, isn’t it, Miss? Your heart is broken.” I just smiled at that. “Well, you’d be hard pressed not to have had a bit of heartbreak when you’re my age, so yes…” They thought it was a break up poem. One girl chimed in: “Well, he wasn’t very nice, was he, if he broke your heart.” What can you say? “No, he was fine…there were a few…and they’re all fine. It happens. Your heart breaks and you move on. We’re made to move forward, and not be vindictive or wish people ill will. What would that serve us, to be mean to other people after you’ve cared enough to love them, and for them to have loved you back?” They are teenagers, though, so that’s typical, to link everything to boyfriends, and to think that everything is so simply dealt with afterwards. “So, Miss, if it wasn’t about a man, then it’s about who?” Another girl answered before I could. “It’s about someone who died, isn’t it?” I just nodded. “My dad, actually.”

Then we talked about how love is linked to loss. All types of love–platonic, romantic, familial–they are all linked to love…having experienced it, even briefly, and losing it at some point. I told them I had written the poem after driving down through southwestern Ontario to get to Pelee Island. It is the country and landscape my dad most loved, through most of his life. In the last year, I’ve been down to Southwestern Ontario about five times, to different towns and places, and for different reasons. Each time, I think I am more and more drawn to its landscape, mostly because I feel him down here when I’m driving in the car. I can almost hear him giving me advice. It’s comforting. Arriving on Pelee Island, last May, I just remember thinking “Oh, I wish I didn’t have to be around all of these writers right now” because I felt raw and vulnerable. It felt like I had lost Dad all over again leading up to getting down to Kingsville. I had to pretend to be ‘normal’ when my heart was aching.

I kept thinking of C.S. Lewis and his A Grief Observed. It’s helped me so much over the past five years, since Dad went. I love the part where Lewis says that grief feels a lot like fear, even if it isn’t actually fear. Lewis also wrote, “I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow. Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process.” He was right about that. Lewis says that death is like an amputation. Make no mistake about it; it is. There’s a phantom pain that my mum used to talk about, after her foot was partially amputated. She felt that her toes were still there, and that they hurt, even if they obviously weren’t. I know, now, that the phantom pain you feel after losing people you’ve loved is just as awful. So. Lewis played a key role in “It deepens into love,” too. Love and loss will always be intertwined, but you can have a broken heart and still feel attached to the person, whether they are living or dead. That happens to me a lot. I think it’s my Irish psychic side. I just accept it. But that’s a whole other blog post and too much for me to feel while I sit on a Victorian settee and look out a bright bay window, in a beautiful yellow room in an 1870 historic house in Mount Forest.

I went on to ask them questions about how the stanzas and lines of the poem were structured, and the girl who had said poetry was “DEFINITELY complicated” chimed in to offer a number of answers and comments. I looked at her and smirked a bit, “Um, so, you think poems are DEFINITELY complicated, but you are giving me more answers than anyone else right now.” She turned bright red and smiled. “So, is it really DEFINITELY complicated now, after studying just one poem?” She shook her head. “No, but this is different. It’s your poem, and you make it easier to understand how it works, how you made it.” It made me happy to hear this because I know I’ll be able to work with this group and get them into the structure and architecture of poetry, but it also made me sad and a bit angry. Something has gone wrong with our education system in Ontario if a major genre of literature is so poorly taught at both the elementary and secondary levels of study.

I started a PhD in Education about ten years ago, but gave it up because I was beginning to deal with my own struggle with depression and then Mum got sick. It was too much to do a PhD on top of teach and take care of Mum, so I left it behind. No regrets there, though, because I had more energy to give my own writing. When I was doing a couple of PhD courses that year, my focus was on how poetry is usually taught in the school system in Canada. I read the work of Carl Leggo and Kieran Egan, both of whom talk about how imagination is key in terms of how we educate our kids. That’s a philosophy I can get behind, both theoretically and practically, in the classroom. Here’s what I know: when I go into the schools to work with kids, as poet laureate, and I talk to teachers, I get a sense that they aren’t sure of how to approach teaching poetry. One teacher this past year said to me, “Wow. That session you just led helped me to realize that I can do more than I thought in my classroom. I can use art to enter into it all…” I think, to be honest, that the League of Canadian Poets’ “Poets in the Schools” program is so key to all educators. As an educator, and as a poet and writer, I know I can use my love of poetry as a doorway into students’ hearts and minds. For me, it’s a key that unlocks a door. Once I unlock it, then I can help them to build a comfort level and actually want to spend time reading and talking about poems.

What needs to happen, if we are to change the way in which teachers and kids perceive poetry as a genre? You shouldn’t, for instance, hear that an entire unit on poetry was just left out of an English course because a teacher feels a bit uncertain of the genre. (You couldn’t get away with that in Biology, say, if you decided you didn’t feel comfortable with teaching about the cell or DNA. You shouldn’t be able to do it in English, either, but it’s happening more often than not, and across all boards.) This means, I think, that Bachelor of Education programs should maybe think about the way in which they have their in-service teachers trained. Yes, veteran English teachers make for good teachers of new English teachers, most times, but not always. Maybe they should also think about integrating actual writers as teachers (poets, playwrights, novelists, short story writers, essayists) in the university classroom as they teach future teachers in Ontario how to talk about poetry and other genres to elementary and high school kids. By all means, have a veteran teacher speak to classroom management and educational theory, but then ask a poet in to teach the piece on how to weave poetry into the senior English classroom, or ask a playwright or actor in to teach the piece about how to work drama into elementary and middle school classrooms. Doesn’t that make more sense?

Why does it matter, even, some of you might be wondering as you read this piece. I’ll tell you why it matters. We need to have some appreciation of art in our education system. This means that, along with the literary arts, the fields of visual art, theatre, and music are also key–in my mind, anyway–to helping future generations grow up to be well rounded people. It’s ironic, and so tragic, that these are the very programs that are often cut first in schools when it’s time for scheduling next year’s courses. Sometimes it’s easier to justify not offering a strings class, or a certain arts class, or an optional creative writing class, or a drama section, because the “numbers just don’t warrant it.” Here’s the thing, though…and I truly believe this…or I wouldn’t write it: when you’re a kid who’s an introvert, and really cerebral, and really creative, and who might not fit in, or who might have been bullied (as I was), then these are the programs that speak most clearly to those types of little souls. They need to find places where they can be themselves and not feel ‘odd’ or ‘left out.’ Imagine what would happen if we put money and well-trained educators into our schools, where they could foster young people’s love of the arts in a way that would help them to be more self-confident and expressive. Imagine how anxiety and depression might decrease, and how children in our society might blossom as they grow up. Just imagine…

Look, I’m not saying I have the answers to everything to do with education and poetry, or education and the arts, but I am saying that–as a practicing artist–I believe that the education system can do a better job. I know. I’m idealistic. It’s likely one more reason why I’m single. 😉 I have to believe, though, that we can do better, and that poetry can somehow be taught within our schools in new and creative ways. I’m tired, to be honest, of hearing kids say that poetry is “like a foreign language” and that they feel it’s a riddle to be solved. It isn’t. Never has been. That perception has to be changed. Soon.

peace,
k