I spent this past weekend up at a beautiful little cabin on the edge of Lake Kagawong, surrounded by the sounds of loons calling on long walks by the shore, and by wind whispering in the trees. It was, to be honest, one of the loveliest fall weekends I’ve even spent in Northern Ontario. Somehow, back in early summer, I stumbled across Shannon McMullan’s offer of a rental space. I knew her beautiful gallery, Perivale, but hadn’t really noticed the cabin next to it. (I’m always about seeing original art, whenever I can see it, and wherever I can find it, so I’d been to Perivale Gallery before.) The notion of staying in a cabin on that same magical piece of property, tucked up on the cusp of a hill overlooking the lake, appealed to me. I corralled two writer friends, Danielle Daniel and Liisa Kovala, into renting it with me, and we waited for the weekend for months. Dan just launched her memoir, The Dependent: A Memoir of Marriage and the Military, and Liisa’s book will be released next year. I’m about to enter two or three fairly busy weeks in my role as poet laureate, so I knew that I too would need a break, in advance of the chaos. As a quiet person, an introvert by nature, it takes a lot out of me, energetically speaking, to be out in front of people. I love it, reading my work, but I also know I need to muster my energy in advance, and then collect it all again after a public reading. Besides all of that, I knew I’d write some new work, and I’d have fun with two of the most amazing women I’m blessed to call friends.

Here’s the thing about Perivale: You open the door of that little cabin and walk into a space that is any writer’s dream. There is original art on the walls, and tiny nooks for reading and writing that are tucked into spaces where you least expect them. (I love houses with character, and I love houses with surprising twists and turns. There’s nothing like a house with a fancy antique doorknob, or a piece of beautiful stained glass hanging in a window, catching sunbeams and sending them around a room.) I think I initially bounced around the various rooms like a crazy woman, shouting out repeatedly “Oh my God! Look at this! How amazing is this?!” (I’m rather exuberant when I encounter things that are beautiful, so I was in shock for most of the weekend. I have aesthetic issues…a la William Morris and his philosophies of beauty in the world. Bless him!) The one thing I’m so pleased about is that I went with two friends who also know the value of silence. The best retreats I’ve been to in the last few years are the ones where you can agree to carve out a number of hours to just sit in silence and work, or even just read. Yesterday morning, I crafted two new commissioned poems, and then this morning I added to the third act of my play, “Sparrows Over Slag.” I never feel like the poems are done, but I know I’m my own worst critic. At some point, you just need to say, ‘okay, I did my best with this piece, and now I need to let it go…’ This is, believe me, easier than it sounds. 🙂

Some of my favourite Perivale House weekend memories: hearing a chipmunk scamper across the roof while drinking coffee in the sitting room (!); a latte at the Peace Cafe in Providence Bay; picking cedar to make tea sometime this week, and thanking the Creator for these gifts; sitting down at the water’s edge, listening to the chickadees (my Mum’s favourite birds!) twittering in early morning trees that lit up with sunlight — everything looked like stained glass; a raven soaring high above some trees; yesterday’s early morning walk being so beautiful that I actually began to weep as I walked down an empty gravel road (one more reason I usually walk alone; beauty moves me without warning and not everyone can handle that intensity); an afternoon walk today, before leaving, with Liisa and Dan–and finding a path that was alight with gold and red leaves–so amazing that it felt sacred and holy, that space, like a cathedral of trees. Above all, I felt the time on The Island did what it always does to me: that place, when you cross the swing bridge and drive through Little Current, unwinds me. I exhale. Sometimes I don’t even realize I’ve been holding my breath, and my spirit, for too too long. Manitoulin opens you up when you least expect it, so that walls fall down and you are left amazed by what landscape and spirit can do to your own soul.

We can’t thank Shannon enough, for the time we had at Perivale. Her Irish hospitality and cultivation of the arts in this northern part of the province is warm hearted, generous and enthusiastic. So love that about her! I’ll never forget the wild turkey that seems to be courting the tall heron statue in the sunroom, or the sound of loons calling while I walked a long gravel road and gathered bits of cedar. These are such vivid images, held now in my heart. And the words. Where else do the words come so freely, so that stories and poems seem to rise up as you look out over a hillside guarded by the tallest trees?

And I can’t thank Liisa and Dan for being two fine writerly companions and friends. To think that we’ve orbited each other for about twenty years, and only just found one another last year! I can’t imagine. I feel like I’ve known you for lifetimes…and maybe, just maybe, I have.


Also, if you haven’t been, you can read a bit about the gallery itself here:
http://www.perivalegallery.com It’s a magical place.

Most people around town know that I’m trying my hand at writing plays. I say ‘trying my hand’ because I read and study them in my spare time, and then try to write them when I’m not working on my poems or adding layers of detail and research to the second draft of my novel. I never have difficulty writing poems because they always seem to come to me without warning, a phrase or image pressing down on me until I commit it to the page. With the novel, or short stories even, things take more work, trying to weave a world together–with people in it!–so that it isn’t contrived or boring. Plays, though, have stolen my heart. They’re a bit like that handsome man you secretly fancy (but think you can’t have) in that they the dance in a shifting of shadows and light on a stage, in the artificial wonder of sound effects, in the crispness of good dialogue, and in the sheer amazement at the brilliance of keen actors who take a writer’s words from page to stage. (That’s the most seductive thing of all for me, as a writer– to hear my words spoken by an actor. I was never prepared for what that would do to me, viscerally almost, in terms of how attracted I would become to this genre of writing.)

Funnily enough, I’ve fallen in love with plays in the last year and a half. I order them, buy them, read them, and try to write them. I don’t think I’m very good yet, but I have three on the go, one of which is almost done. (I’m off to Manitoulin the weekend after Thanksgiving to finish Act 3 of that play, I hope. It’s prodding at me these days, so I know it’s ready to come out onto paper. I’m hoping that, sitting by a lake again, alongside two dear writer friends, will inspire me to finish that first full draft. Then I’ll start revising.)

Last week, I read Colleen Murphy’s “Armstrong’s War.” When I was in Playwrights’ Junction at the Sudbury Theatre Centre (STC), I was introduced to Murphy’s work by Matt Heiti. Last fall I read “The December Man,” which documents the Montreal Massacre of early December 1989. It changed me, reading that play. I knew then that I wanted to read more Canadian women playwrights, so that I had a sense of the tradition. (I don’t have an MFA in Creative Writing; I know I’ve said it before here. I have a straight MA in English Literature, one which has served me well as a teacher, but as a writer, I’ve pretty much just continued to read voraciously over the years, dipping into various areas of interest. I feel, though, that I’m teaching myself how to feel more comfortable about writing plays. It’s taking its time, though…trust me!)

If you read the back of the published play, it’s a simple premise: “After suffering an injury during a tour of Afghanistan, Michael, a young solider, is recovering in the rehabilitation wing of a hospital. The last thing he wants is to spend time with a twelve-year-old girl, but Halley, a spirited Pathfinder and self-described ‘reading fiend,’ is eager to earn her community service badge. The pair is at odds from the start, but they find a shared interest in “The Red Badge of Courage<" the classic American Civil War novel, which spurs them to reveal their own stories. As their friendship grows, uncomfortable truths are exposed and questioned, redefining the meaning of courage and heroism." It's a nice 'blurb.' The relationship between the two characters, though, is really what it's all about.

I was thinking, sitting there in that wonderfully quiet and darkened theatre space tonight, about what friendship means, and how it develops without warning sometimes and can sometimes seem most unlikely in a retrospective way…and how sometimes those are the strongest friendships you'll ever experience. I thought about serendipity, and how I believe we meet people for a reason. And I thought about how we tell (or don't tell) our personal stories. In the play, both Michael and Halley tell one another stories. The entire play is fashioned around the notion of Stephen Crane's novel, with the two characters reading to one another, and then writing their own stories in a fictionalized way. It isn't until the end that we hear their real histories (which I won't reveal here).

Stories fascinate me. I'll often chat someone up if they seem open to it, simply because I want to ask them questions about what they do, or if I want to learn more about what they are passionate about. I find it interesting, to see which people will open up to me like a flower blooming, to wonder if they will share their life stories — even little snippets of them — with me. Sometimes a smile, a few questions, and a quick chat can open up a flow of amazing stories. For a writer, well, that's golden. Anyway, I've always loved stories, so getting people to tell me stories is what I like to do, and not in an "I'm a stalker" kind of way. I hope that's clear here!🙂

"Armstrong's War" makes you think about how stories work, how we choose what information we share with other people. We protect ourselves with persona pieces, masks that we think will protect us but really only ever just heighten our fears. I wonder why we do this. We only ever end up isolating ourselves. Maybe it's just that we've all been hurt somewhere along the way, so that walls are easier to build than tear down. Our stories, though, have power.

I'm thinking, too, of having read tonight at NISA's Open Minds Quarterly launch at the Northern Water Sports Centre on the shores of Lake Ramsey. It was a lovely place to hear poems read and see visual art. There were so many brave people, all in one big, bright room on the edge of a lovely lake, and all of them were taking off their masks to say, without shame, "I have lived with mental illness. I have survived." It was powerful, to see stories told so bravely and openly. For years, I wore a mask to cover depression and pain. Taking it off is a relief. I can breathe better now. I don't hide as much of myself, and sometimes I think that can be overwhelming for other people, but I really don't care anymore. There's power in that, in telling stories and shedding shame. If it's too much for someone, they just won't be in my life. That's a good lesson for me to learn. As some Ojibway elders say, "The people who are meant to be here now, to be with you, are here now." I love that teaching. It speaks to me.

The same thing happens in Murphy's "Armstrong's War." Halley and Michael are brave enough to pull down their walls, brick by brick, knowing that they could be hurt by one another in the process of being honest. Still, they do it anyway…because life is short, and they value the connection of the unlikely friendship that they have forged. As Halley says, the Armstrong motto is, aptly, "I remain unvanquished." That's a motto we can all hope to ascribe to, I think. I’m going to add it to my own list of personal truths or mantras, to carry in my pocket as Michael carries his seashell.

You don't have to read Colleen Murphy's play, or study it in the intense way that I did, to enjoy this production that's on stage at the STC until Sunday night. I know it's Thanksgiving weekend, but sometimes holidays aren't always the best of times for people who struggle with emotions and memories…and maybe seeing a play is a way to sort of escape for a few hours. Either way, you need to go and see Katie Ryerson and Trevor Pease in this production. It will change the way you look at the notions of life, friendship, war, bravery, and love.

Think about it. Tell Roxanne, Brittany and Cora that I sent you. (Cora will pick you the best damn seat in the space, especially if you want to sit by yourself and slip into the middle of the theatre in an all encompassing kind of way!)


There are always artistic things happening in this Northern Ontario town, but Matthew Heiti’s Crestfallen Theatre group (including past Poet Laureate, Daniel Aubin, Daniel Bedard, Jorge Cueto, Marc Donato, Jenny Hazleton, France Huot, Patrick Ryan, and Dani Taillefer) is one of the most innovative. A few of these people are my friends, so I’m going to admit that I have a bias here, but I still think it’s important to reflect on what Heiti is doing here in Sudbury. He and this dynamic band of ‘creatives’ transformed the highest floor of Querney’s Office Plus building into a pale and ghosted likeness of the old Silverman’s Department Store that operated in the space from 1911 to 1975. I don’t remember it. I’m too young, but I remember my grandmother and great-aunts talking about it. I also remember Mary Fournier having her Elm Tree Books & Things store on the bottom floor. She used to wrap whatever you bought from her in Silverman’s paper, which was pretty darn cool. It was like there was a shadow store behind her store somewhere, hidden behind closed doors.

Matt’s done great work in running the Playwrights’ Junction, via the Sudbury Theatre Centre (STC), over the past few years, encouraging local writers to delve into writing for the stage — even if some of us think we can’t, or don’t know how. He’s an excellent teacher and mentor for Northern Ontario playwrights, and even more fun to have as a friend. He wrote “Mucking in the Drift,” a play that focused on Sudbury’s baseball past and was produced at STC in 2013. His love of local history, and of digging through the old microfiche machines at the public library, is pretty common knowledge among local writers in town. Part of being in the Junction sessions was researching local history, trying to find stories that we could ‘mine’ for our own use in our new works of drama. What you learn, as a writer, is that your city has many stories to tell, and so many of them vanish without a hint of protest.

It came as no surprise, then, that Matt would spearhead BrokeDownTown, pulling together a group of amazingly creative folks to build what they termed as a ‘phantasmagoria,” a mixed-media installation followed by a short performance. Performers met audience members in the alley behind the Querney building, with Marc Donato wandering out with a guitar, assuming the persona of Burt Northburn and serenading folks while Jorge Cueto documented everything with his camera. Everyone was in costume. We were entering “Nickelman’s,” a fictional department store that was based on the old Silverman’s store. Climbing those three flights of stairs took us back into another world. There were multi-media experiences to take part in, including my favourite, which allowed you to write a message and then hear it zip off with a thunk above your head to someone who would write you a response. It was delightful, and I felt like a little kid, remembering how simple things can be fun. There was a graphic novel telling the story of Nickleman’s, with panels by Dani Taillefer hanging on columns, so you could read through it all. Dan Bedard created the soundscape for the entire thing, which was obviously a huge undertaking. It felt, at times, as if I was eavesdropping on the past. It also felt overwhelming, just because it was such a grand space. It was sensory overload, but it was wonderful! The wood floors stretched out forever, and the crew had created a “Nickelman’s” bar, complete with a bartender. Little strings of Christmas lights dazzled up above our heads, and strange half-mannequins and hat boxes were clustered in little visual vignettes. It was, quite simply, like a buffet for the senses. I loved it! 🙂

Hazleton and Huot drew on their acting and clowning training so that people were in stitches all night as the two wandered almost aimlessly (but not quite!) through the crowds of explorers. Heiti never came out of character until the end of the night, which could be frustrating if you were trying to congratulate him on his undertaking! Matt was the ringmaster. He circulated, in character, gathering in audience members, interacting, and (I’m sure) thinking heavily about what he could do differently. (It was perfect, I thought, but I know he is someone who rethinks and revises his work, whose mind is always active, so why would this project be any different? Plus, as writers, we are always having to release something to the world even though it could be continually revised and reworked. I struggle with this all the time, not wanting to send in a ‘final’ poem in case I want to change it in two days’ time! Even though he stayed in character, you knew — if you know Matt — that his mind was working away at high speed, taking everything in and considering all angles.) Aubin wandered around in his top hat and answered questions (if you were nosy enough to ask, as I always am!) His “If I had a nickel” performance poem, which was part of the performance piece of the evening, was simply brilliant. It made me think about how much of our downtown core has perished without a blink. So much history has been erased in the core of Sudbury’s downtown and continues to be destroyed. We can only hope that groups like Crestfallen Theatre will continue to remind us of what we’ve lost.

Here’s what made me smile so much last night: spending time with other writer friends, interacting with the various multi-media exhibits and actors, and then seeing the beauty of the actual short performance. It was all so beautifully woven together. It was all so unique, so eccentric, so quirky, so not like traditional Sudbury theatre. That’s what made it divine, I think, that sense of diversity and excitement. It was also great to re-connect with John Querney (we used to be on the Laurentian University Alumni Association Board years ago) and hear about how excited he was to work with Matt and his group, and how proud he was of the Silverman’s mural that hovers above the stairs as you enter onto what used to be the fabric floor. John cares about the history of his building. He knows he’s a steward. That made me smile. It felt like walking into a time machine, somehow…like walking between worlds.

Here’s what made me sad last night: the entire thing made me realize just how much Sudbury has erased itself through history. It’s not just a nickel and mining town, although that’s obviously at the root of it all. (You can’t ignore the roots of this place, especially when you often see people posting on Facebook “Hey, was that a rock burst? Did anyone else feel it in the south end?”) You also, though, can take a look at those old YouTube videos of downtown Sudbury in the 1970s and wonder “Where did all the people downtown go?” It’s a good question. The downtown I grew up in, when my parents had a gift shop on Cedar Street, was always alive with people–characters who were larger than life. It might’ve been that I was very young, and they all seemed like characters in a book, because I was an introvert and a big reader, but I don’t see that as much anymore when I walk downtown. That makes me sad.

We have a role to play in this city, in how we choose to move forward. Being involved in BrokeDownTown last night, as an ‘audience’ member, made me think again about what sort of place I want to see the city evolve into. I know, for certain, that we can’t continue erasing history and paving parking lots. I know that…


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.

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 Frisina, 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…


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.


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.