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I’ve been writing my novel since February of 2015. I wrote most of the first draft last year, up until October, when I began a second course of playwright work at the Sudbury Theatre Centre with Playwrights’ Junction under the direction of Matt Heiti. ¬†Then, I took from October until mid-January to work on three new plays. These little plays are still being developed. I’m nearly there with one of them, I think, but you never really know. I mean, you have ideas in your head, but until your fingers hit the keys, well, it’s all up in the air. (One of my literary mentors always says that you can’t ‘think out a story.’ You simply need to write it out, and put it down on the page. That is the only way the story will come, and take its journey, and find its end.)

This weekend, I’m writing the end of my novel, which is tentatively titled “The Donoghue Girl.” The title may change. I know the story will evolve, as it’s only the end of the first draft. There are still so many things to revise. I’ve avoided writing this ending for about a month now, struggling with it in my head, and maybe, just maybe, not wanting the characters to leave me. They really do become a part of your consciousness, and you get to enjoy spending time with them. (I don’t know what that says about me, though….that I may like fictional people more than real ones is a bit of a psychological issue, I’m sure!)

Throughout April, while out in Banff with the Historical Fiction Intensive with Lawrence Hill and a bunch of amazing writers whom I am now blessed to call friends, I struggled and struggled with how the story should end. I had about three possible endings in mind. When I spoke with Larry about my work, he tilted his head and asked, smartly, and intuitively, “So, Kim, do you think you’re avoiding the ending because you just don’t want it to end?” What? I thought he was mad. They’re all fictional people. It’s all made up, even if some parts are taken from old family stories on my mother’s side. Why would I actually sabotage my own ending just to keep them with me? How could that even make sense, logically? It couldn’t, could it? I went away from Banff thinking about that question. I pondered his question on the bus ride from Banff into Calgary–staring open mouthed at the beauty of the Rockies as we passed through them–and then again on the quick flight from Calgary to Edmonton. Good questions and conversations with other writers always make me think….and likely for much too long.:)

I spent the earlier part of May down on Pelee Island and met some great writers there. I struggled, again, to get words down on paper. Well, that’s not necessarily completely true. I wrote a new scene for one of my plays, “Some Other Country,” and I wrote five or six new poems, which I need for my upcoming book of poems. It’s not like I avoided the novel, but despite a number of 7km walks every day, on my own mostly, but sometimes with other people, I still couldn’t get that baby of a novel ending to move down the creative birth canal. It was so frustrating.

Coming home, so frustrated and disappointed with myself, I had dinner last week with my oldest and dearest friend, fellow writer, Melanie Marttila. Over a glass of wine and some kick ass Thai food, she nudged me a bit. (She does this in all areas of my life, which is why we’ve been friends for so long. She knows me so well that she wants to challenge me to grow, even when it’s most uncomfortable. That’s what a good friend does, I think, especially if you’re both writers and you’ve seen each other through your twenties and thirties.) So….her words, her question: “What if you write the ending and then work backwards? You’ve only got about twenty pages to go, you said…Try that.” At first, I thought, ‘How would that work, exactly?’ I’ve never written a novel before, and am much more comfortable with writing poems and short stories and, now, plays. Then, driving home that night, I heard Larry’s voice echo in my head: “Provoke the ending. Write around it.” What? So, with both of their voices in my head, it all started to rumble around in my skull. Marinating. Like chicken in broth. Or wine.:)

Let me say now that I think the idea of writers’ block is bullshit. Seriously. I think you need to have ideas, and some sense of planning, even if you’re a so-called “pantser,” someone who writes energetically and flies by the seat of your pants. I think you need a bit of both to make a project this big come to fruition. The scope of a novel is different from the size of a short story. What Alice Munro does in the “space” of a short story is radically different than what Timothy Findley does in the “space” of a novel. They are two different animals, even though both are prose in terms of genre. (Maybe, I’ve been thinking, they’re like two siblings in the same family. My sister and I are radically different; we come from the same parents, but we are complete opposites…the same might be true of short stories and novels.)

So, this week, I’ve been gathering pieces of my novel, stitching them together in a metaphorical way, and re-reading bits and pieces of it all, to see where I want to go next, in terms of ending the thing. A life can’t go on forever, and neither can a novel. (You may not enjoy it when you lose someone you love, but it’s part of life. I’ve learned that twice now, with the deaths of my parents. They keep teaching me lessons that transcribe themselves to other aspects of my life, which I always find intriguing. Leave it to them to keep hanging around…nudging me from beyond and gesturing to me with their half empty bottles of Bud on the camp dock!)

While I was on Pelee Island, I did what I always do….I touched the leaves and caressed the trunks of what I think of as ‘grandmother and grandfather’ trees. (I don’t do this when I’m with other people…especially when they don’t know me.) I do it on my own. I commune with trees. Hard to explain. Maybe you’d just need to know me better! If you’ve known me for long enough, and I like you enough to trust you, I’ll walk with you and not worry if you see me grabbing at trees and leaves. It’s a gift, I think, if someone gets to see me get all zen with my trees! It means I know you won’t judge me for being a druid hobbit girl.ūüėČ

Anyway, Pelee is full of ancient aboriginal history and you can feel the energy radiating through the land, water, and sky if you’re sensitive to energetic shifts, as I am. (Yeah, I’m an empath…and intuitive…and sensitive…and creative…so that means I feel stuff deeply, even when I don’t necessarily want to!) When I was on my own, on long walks down the shore either in early morning or in twilight, I would suss out little coves and plunk myself down on a bunch of shore pebbles, running my fingers through them and then gathering some of them up into my pockets. I would watch waves for quite some time, transfixed by the repetitive sound and motion, and then I would listen to the sounds of the birds, or see a white egret lift off from a nearby shore, or even see an eagle guard its nest so that I knew to turn around and walk the other way. I gathered. I gathered while I was on Pelee Island.

Well, first I released. Driving through southwestern Ontario, near London, had made me really emotional. I felt a bit raw and naked, in terms of my soul. I thought too much of my dad, and of trips we took together in that part of the province before he died in December 2011. I have a photographic memory, so I can recall conversations I had years ago with great clarity. I could feel Dad with me as I drove from London down to Kingsville, and I was sad in spirit crossing over to Pelee that day. He was with me, but still far away enough for me to feel my heart aching for the people who have gone from my life. Arriving on that island, which vibrates with intense energy, I was overwhelmed by its beauty: birds, stars, water, rocks, trees. For a northern girl who loved her family’s camp in the bush, on the West Arm of Lake Nipissing as she was growing up, and who loved nothing more than taking a novel off to read under a soft pine tree on her own, Pelee rustled up my soul.

So, after I wept a bit in London, and again on walks down long Pelee roads by myself, I released a lot of grief. I walk a lot. I also cry when I walk. It’s probably why I walk alone a lot of the time.:) You don’t want to freak out people who hardly know you when you feel so deeply, do you?:) So after I released, I gathered. I walked long beaches with new friends and gathered pebbles, shells, and pieces of sea glass. By the end of the week, Sue was lovely enough to know that I was drawn to sea glass and presented me with thoughtful pieces that she had found. (She knew I was searching desperately for them, as they feel like magic to me somehow…how they just arrive up out of the sand and pebbles and waves magically…and offered them to me.) That was one of the most thoughtful gifts I’ve ever been given….along with a crow feather, which my friend Violet gave to me a year or two ago.:)

Gathering things from the natural world links to gathering things within the scope of a novel, I think. I’ve been trying too hard to force it to a conclusion, this novel. Tonight, sitting here with the dogs, and listening to the music of Glen Hansard (I love his words and his voice) in the background, I just started writing. It felt good. It felt right. Words came. The ending is almost done. I’ve released, and I’ve gathered. It makes me realize that the lesson is in both parts…that to gather things together, to bring new things into being, you need to release past things, even if you feel comfortable with them in your life. Same thing with novel writing. You can’t wed yourself to what you’ve written. You need to be objective, to look at it all from a place of loving detachment (if there can be such a thing!) and then trundle forward.

So, friends, be mindful of what surrounds you. Look up at the sky at night. See that gorgeous moon and the strings of stars like far off patio lanterns draped across the universe, and watch the shadows of leaves dance above you in a midnight breeze. Swing on a swing again, as if you were a child rather than an adult. Then, gather it all in. Gather it in, and let it out again, in what you write down on the page. That’s what I’m doing this weekend….gathering the pieces together to find the ending, and having faith that it will all make sense some day soon. And knowing that the story needs to be told. And knowing that, even though you’ll miss them, these people you’ve created and loved (real and imagined) will stay in your heart….long after the last page is written.

peace,
k.

Here’s the thing about writing retreats: ¬†you never know if you’ll luck out with good people, or if you won’t feel comfortable with a new, small community of writers. ¬†(We writers and introverts are often eccentric folk…so you never know!). So far, I’ve been blessed: in summer 2012, at Anam Cara, in Eyeries, on the Beara Peninsula, in Co. Cork, Ireland, I met a great crew of women writers who have become good friends. ¬†In fact, I’m stopping in to visit Pippa Little in Newcastle in July, after a poetry retreat at Moniack Mhor, Scotland’s Creative Writing Centre in Inverness, and then a tour of Skye and the Hebrides, and hope to have a shared poetry reading with her.

Then, at the Sage Hill Writing Experience, in summer 2014, out in the gorgeous province of Saskatchewan, I met another great crew of writer friends. ¬†I’ve seen three of them this year, as I’ve been on leave from my teaching job and focusing on my writing. ¬†One of those writers is an amazingly spirited soul named Dawn Kresan, a great poet, graphic designer, and now a novelist. ¬†This April, I went to the Banff Centre for Creativity, to work with Larry Hill, whom I also met at Sage Hill. ¬†The third of mention is the whirlwind of a soul, Alexis Kienlen, who is a poet, novelist, agricultural reporter, and who now organizes film festivals and belly dances in her spare time. ¬†I’ll be seeing another Sage Hill friend, Jael Richardson, sometime this fall. ¬†Jael just spearheaded and introduced the Festival of Literary Diversity in Brampton two weeks ago, and it was a delight to see her gracing the cover of Quill & Quire this spring!

Then, out at Banff, I met a whole bunch of other amazing writers…Emily, Cheryl, Beverly, Monica, Josiah, Sandra, and P.K. ¬†They, too, are part of my new family of friends. I am so blessed. ¬†There were hysterics at the lunch and dinner table, conversations about puffins and leprechauns, late night sing alongs, and a supportive email grouping of writer friends that keeps me feeling linked and loved.

This Pelee Island retreat that I’ve just returned from, though, was organized by the aforementioned Dawn Kresan. ¬†She rented the cottage with the view of the wild and wonderful south shore, gathered a diverse group of seven other writers from Ontario, and woman-handled us on and off the feisty ferry from Leamington to Pelee, and from Pelee to Kingsville, with great aplomb. ¬†She finangled us tickets to see Margaret Atwood introduce Miriam Toews as the featured literary reader at the 16th annual ¬†Springsong Banquet, an event started thirteen years ago as a fundraiser for the Heritage Centre, with the help of the Pelee Island Bird Observatory (PIBO) and the much coveted rubber chickens and Botham Cup. ¬†(There is a 24 hr long contest whereby birders scour the small island and keep track of how many of the over 300 species of birds they have spotted. ¬†They travel by bike, car, foot, and maybe even boat. These birders are a tenacious lot!) ¬†Dawn also somehow magically managed to get Maragaret Atwood to come to our rental cottage and hold a master class with us. ¬†I’ve written about that in my previous post, so won’t repeat myself here.

What I found most amazing, though, is that Dawn gathered a fine group of writers. ¬†By the end of our ten days together, I felt blessed and very connected to them all. ¬†I wish I lived closer to where they live because they are, each and every one, very dear to my soul now. I feel somehow as if I’ve know them forever and a day. ¬†We spent time sitting in silence, reading or writing, or just watching the birds, on the big wrap around porch, sipping either mugs of tea or coffee, or glasses of wine, depending on the time of day and the weather. ¬†We also scoured island beaches, taking photos, exclaiming at the natural beauty of Pelee, and gathering up fossils and sea glass. ¬†There were long walks, late nights with board games and funny stories about maple trees, shoe trees, strange birds, and “bastards.” There were breakfasts at the Legion, and all you can eat perch dinners, as well as debates and even confessional revelations of self, but all of these wonderful souls were nothing but warm, loving and respectful. ¬†(If I could create my own version of heaven, these people would be in it…along with the other writers I’ve been privileged to meet over the last few years.)

So, to dear Dawn, Carolyn and Halli, Sue and Deepam, and our brave men, Grant and Bob, I miss you all so much already. ¬†I miss watching the barn swallows courting on the front porch, the giant fossil at the end of the drive, seeing the beautiful Great Blue Heron lift off from the canal around the bend, and playing fetch with lovely Loki. ¬†I miss the shared cooking, the kitchen table and Halli’s songs, and chats about books and ideas I didn’t know about before these last ten days (and you bright souls) entered my life. ¬†I miss the “Pelee wave,” doing impressions of Margaret Atwood’s voice, and trying to find the constellations in that gorgeous dark sky.

Tonight, here in my tiny hobbit house in northern Ontario, with two shih tzus snoring at the foot of my bed, it is just too quiet for my liking.  The sky is too quiet here, absent of that gorgeous riot of birds and feathers) and the water is no longer my view.

I can look to my back yard swing, though, and that will make me feel lighter if I go out later, after dark, to swing madly from my tree, and look up at the stars. ¬†I miss you so much. ¬†But I know, when I look up at those bright stars, that you’re all out there, somewhere, under that same sky. ¬†That brings me some small measure of comfort. ¬†(My family is small, but my writers are a growing tribe of people who make me feel loved and fulfilled….so grateful for that!)

Peace,

k.

 

What’s a Master Class with Margaret Atwood like, on her home stomping grounds of Pelee Island? Well, it’s a wee bit intimidating, to be honest. You know the person who’s coming to sit with your writing group is prolific and probably one of the most brilliant writers on the planet. You know her mind is sharp and that she’s well read. The day before she visited us at our cottage rental here on Pelee, four of us were in the island bakery, stocking up on baked goods for the evening wine session. While I was checking out with some cookies for the group, the owner asked if I was one of the writers here this week. “Yup. We’re writing. And reading. And walking. And drinking wine. And eating stuff from your bakery!” Then, as I was using the debit machine, she leaned over and hissed conspiratorially to me, “There’s Margaret Atwood now!” Sure enough, there she was, or rather her giant floppy hat was there, hovering just over the edge of the display case as she surveyed it for goodies.

Her voice is distinctive, as I’m sure you all know. It reminds me of a clothesline sometimes, a straight line of sound with occasional vocal pins thrown in for good measure. She has a sweet tooth. “Are there any butter tarts?” The other woman at the counter responded. “No, not today. We sold out. It’s been a busy opening weekend. How long are you here for?” The hat moved, shifted, and there was the hint of a smile, “Until the weekend. Will you have any butter tarts later in the week? We love the butter tarts!” Cue the writers in the car, on the way home to the cottage on the south shore, making a series of creatively-inspired butter tart jokes and comments in imitation Atwood voices. (I’m in a dead-on race with Carolyn for imitation voices, although I can hardly touch her Katherine Hepburn imitation!)

So, arriving yesterday, she settled into a spot on the leather chesterfield, and asked us to close our eyes. We had been asked to submit the first five pages of our writing to her, for discussion in the group setting. She’d given us two hours, telling her husband Graeme to pick her up at 3 o’clock. So she asked us to close our eyes and imagine walking into a bookstore and seeing our first novel cover. What would it look like? What images and colours? What fonts of lettering? What title would it have? Then, she said that, while writers rarely have input into what their covers look like, there will often be ‘disputes’ with publishers about which is best suited to the novel being published. (I can relate to this because I remember having a conversation about the cover of my second book, in terms of image, and a conversation about the title of my third book of poems. As a writer, you need to be open to accepting suggestions for these things from your publisher, but must also stand strong in your convictions. You’ll have to look at the book, after all, for years to come. It’s yours, so you’d best at least find it slightly pleasing!)

Then, having had us work through imagining our novels, she pulled out a batch of papers from her bag. “Here’s what I’ve been working on this morning…the galleys for my next book, which comes out in the fall. This will be the sixth pass through, but there’s still more to do.” Then, she was kind enough to show us mock-ups of covers for the UK, American and Canadian versions of the book. She asked us to debate the qualities of the various options, asking us to consider why one or the other would be weak, or strong. Sometimes, she told us, the Canadian publisher will take on the cover that was chosen by the UK publisher, but sometimes the cover of the same book will be different in various countries.

So, here are a few tidbits that came up in group conversation. There were specific comments given to each person’s novel-in-progress, but these are a few things that would apply to most prose writers, I think…

*On the importance of researching thoroughly….”If you get a factual detail wrong in your book, you will get mail.” (Her example was that she once wrote about butter, but a woman wrote to dispute the way in which she described the butter being made or churned.) This reminded me of something Larry Hill had said to us in Banff in April, when he said someone had written him once from Norway, quite a heated and lengthy letter, saying that he had confused a rabbit with a hare in one of his books.:)

*The first chapter is important to a book buyer. At the start of it all, the book buying process, a book buyer or reader will be drawn to the beauty of the novel cover, but then they’ll immediately (usually) turn to the first page of text. If you don’t catch them in those first few pages, you’ve lost them. Makes sense. So, in turn, it makes sense that you figure out the ‘worth’ of a character in your novel. One question Atwood posed to us yesterday was: “Who here thinks that this character deserves both a first and a last name?” If it’s a major character, then the person needs two names, but if minor, then they likely only need one. This first chapter, she says, is “like an overture” in music, in that it establishes motifs and patterns that echo through the novel. You weave things throughout a longer piece of prose. It takes a lot of thought, planning, and skill.

*”Avoid too much diverse and detailed information in the early part of the novel.” You can easily overwhelm your reader, and then you’ll have lost them. (Never lose them!)

*”Do differentiate between the colour of characters’ hair, especially if they’re girls or women. Readers like to have visual cues so that they can keep characters separate in their own minds.” This piece of advice made me smile, mostly because I hadn’t thought of something like this before. She also warned against too many characters’ names beginning with the same letter. “You can’t have a ‘Martha’ and a ‘Mable’ or people will be flipping back and forth trying to figure out who’s who….and then you’ve lost your reader.”

*When she asked one of the writers in the group about the potential ending of that person’s novel, she stopped herself by saying: “Oh, wait! You may not want to tell us the end because you will be using up the energy you need to write that end part.” I loved this. I loved that she thinks of it all energetically, which really resonates with me. (These people you’ve created on paper, but first in your head and heart, often drain me, I find. Sometimes, what happens to them hurts me just as much as if they were real friends or family members, which shows how real and intense a writerly and imagined world can be–for a writer.)

*”Are we still reading?” This question is the one she kept coming back to throughout her time with us. If you’ve lost your reader, there’s little point in writing. You need to be aware of what keeps your reader ‘hooked,’ being mindful (as always) of “connectives and transitions.” Atwood’s “connections and transitions” reminded me of Larry Hill’s explanation of “scenes and bridges.” Two different ways to explain how one should structure plot in a novel.:)

*Finally, she left us with a good piece of advice for any writer. “Remember that the reader is blank, except for what you tell them.” You know, as a writer, that you need to weave a world, a world which includes created people, conflicts, loves, and losses. You know your world better than a reader does, at least at first. You can’t forget, as a writer, that your reader won’t know everything that you know. You can’t take that for granted. You have to think critically about the structure of your work, being objective about how a reader might approach your story.

I learned so much from listening to her yesterday. I’ve loved her work forever. Her poetry, in particular, always sparks my heart. What struck me yesterday, though, is that she is a font of knowledge. Someone asked what her favourite book was to write, and she said “I’m not supposed to answer that question. I never answer that question.” Then, someone asked her what she’s reading right now and she went on to tell us about a book of Egyptian literature and then one about saints. She reads so widely, and it shows in the way she speaks about literature. Her conversation with us was sprinkled liberally with literary references to things that she’d read, or things that fascinated her. Her sense of humour is sharp, and she often¬†makes a little noise of exclamation (or a laugh)¬†when she finds something interesting or exciting. I liked seeing that more animated side of her. (It’s less of a clothesline voice, now, and one that seems more animated in tone just because she was sitting on a chesterfield, having coffee, and nibbling on cheese and crackers.)

The work that she and Graeme Gibson do for this place, for the Pelee Island Bird Observatory, too, is really quite amazing. They are so active in the birding community. She grew up in Northern Quebec and Ontario, she said, so her father told her about various birds, animals, and insects. Their love of the natural world in this part of the country is true and committed. I like that. Authors who have causes they care passionately about, and who are using their ‘celebrity’ to raise awareness and funds, always impress me with the time and dedication they offer. That she took time yesterday to sit with us, to intelligently discuss our work, is impressive and thoughtful.

That’s it from the south shore, friends.
Hope you have some butter tarts some time soon…ūüėČ
peace,
k.

I know a lot of people who dislike Facebook, but for me, well, it keeps me feeling connected. My family has shrunk in the last five years. It’s tiny. Now, it’s growing again as I gather in a few well chosen, like-minded souls and creative friends. I’ve been craving creative types these last few months, and some of them must find it annoying, I’m sure. (I must be insufferable, trying to match creative light to creative light, longing for connection so deeply…to ground myself somehow).

One of my friends, the talented poet, artist, and journalist Rob O’Flanagan, posted this poignant status update on Facebook today: “Life comes in waves, does it not? Waves of tests and difficulties, waves of joys and opportunities. I guess you just have to more or less roll with it, see where you pop up on the other side.” These words have been with me all day, as I walked down the long, empty roads of Pelee Island, surrounded by trills of birdsong, and as I sat on a pebbled beach watching a ‘V’ formation of Canada Geese lift up off the shore on the opposite side of this south shore bay. I responded to Rob’s post by writing: “If you fight the ebb and flow, it is worse…just breathe through it…even through the pain. It deepens into love, at some point.” The last line of my response has been with me for five hours, too, just as Rob’s words have been.

“It deepens into love…” Yes, it does, but it takes such a long time, to translate the deep pain of loss into an equally deep and rich sort of love, rooted in memory. It’s Mother’s Day. Of course it is. It’s also one of the two days I dread most in the year. For me, they only serve to mark loss, so I understand what Rob is saying. You can’t avoid difficult times or memories. They sit inside you, especially if you are an introvert or are highly sensitive…or maybe just if you’re a poet who is constantly aware of signs and serendipity.

The geese are honking again now–echoing out across the shoreline–and I’m amazed by their tenacity, to follow one another, to hold one another up, not to let one down or abandon any single bird soul. The geese remind me of unity, of togetherness, when I’ve been feeling–lately–rather ‘all on my own,’ even amidst the hectic nature of these last few weeks. It doesn’t bother or frighten me, but I’m aware and mindful of it, this solitary nature of mine. I miss feeling connected to my mum.

Walking down those shore roads this morning, and climbing onto a white pebbled beach, all to plunk myself down to journal and meditate there, I got to thinking of how I’ve lost her voice, the sound of it. I can still hear my father’s voice, and perhaps that’s why I still feel closer to him, why that pain aches even more, but she has faded. It seems odd to me, given that I am her daughter, her eldest child. I ought to miss her more, and that makes the guilt rise up yet again. (Irish Catholic cultivated guilt is always pretty wicked in its origin and nature…)

At some point, I wrote, “it deepens into love.” The absence I feel, of her not being here anymore, still tears at my heart. It’s dull and throbbing, like a heavy migraine before a rainstorm in late May. It’s a pain, but I know it marks love in a reversed sort of way. Regardless of whether I’ve haphazardly misplaced the memory of the sound of her voice, of her laugh, of the feeling of her arms around me, I know this loss has deepened into an aching kind of love. There’s certainty in that, even if everything else in my life seems uncertain.

For now, I’ll take those lines…and try to write a poem.

Hug your mothers, friends.
peace,
k.

I really shouldn’t be allowed to drive through the back roads of southwestern Ontario; my heart is too soft, even though I have spent a long time building walls to keep it safe. Driving south today, listening to music and singing loudly, I found myself to be fine as long as I was north of Barrie. Funny, how geography plays with your heart when you least expect it.

Now comes a confession: I am not a good ‘merge’ person. I never have been. It takes me back to when I first started driving and Dad would switch seats with me so that I could practice driving the bloody huge brown Dodge Caravan. (Not a good idea for someone as weird as me in my younger years.) I remember driving home up Hwy 69 and, every time a giant transport would either a) pass us or b) tailgate us, I would say, in a very weird voice “Big truck! Big truck!” Dad, of course, found this hysterical. He laughed until he cried. He could see I was a basket case. He knew me well enough, in my teens and early twenties, to know that I was always anxious. (For those friends who know me now….trust me when I say it’s much better twenty years on. Then, it was atrocious and I should never have been allowed to operate motor vehicles or interact with other humans. Seriously.)

So, today, merging onto the 407 West, I put on loud Celtic music, gave myself a talking to, and did very well. Through it all, I could just imagine Dad sitting in the other seat, laughing his head off. Then, stopping off in a tiny town near Brantford to see a friend, I decided to take the back way into London. It’s something I’d grown up doing, with Dad and Mum driving us to either visit Stratford to see a play, or to go and visit our great-aunt, Clara. (It was always more fun to go to Stratford, mostly because Clara was really not a very nice lady and scared us a bit.)

Driving through Paris (which is truly beautiful) and Woodstock (which has beautiful old buildings), I was struck by how pretty this part of the province is in spring. They’re ahead of us up north, and everything is green and blooming down here. There are cows and horses and sheep…all very pastoral, and very visual. The things that always get me, and I don’t even travel down here very often, are the fields and the trees. They always remind me of road trips with Dad. So, today, there’s me, fine in the tiny towns, but suddenly weeping like a crazy woman on the back roads. It makes me think: How does loss work? Shouldn’t it be finished by now? It can be so bloody exhausting. Just when you least expect it, grief rises up and, even though I know it only equals the amount of love that existed, as C.S. Lewis once said in his beautiful book, “A Grief Observed,” it still hurts like a bastard.

And here’s the other thing that added to the weeping today. I often find that I miss my father much more than my mother, and I’m not sure why. It may have been that she was more difficult to care for in the end, or even less warm and sometimes less accepting–or giving–of love, but it still makes me feel guilty. (Why miss one more than the other? It makes no sense…) I could much more easily imagine him in the car next to me today than her. He and I had grand conversations, and I miss them terribly. Conversation, for me, is a way to connect on a soul level, and he was so wise. He would know, I often think when I struggle with what’s happening in my life, what to say to make me feel better. I wouldn’t have to figure it out on my own all the time. (Not that he would tell me what to do; he wouldn’t….but he would listen and then ask a question, or maybe just offer a story that paralleled an experience. He was wise that way—guiding, but not pushing.)

Maybe it’s because I’m exhausted….because it’s been a busy couple of weeks. Maybe it’s because I didn’t sleep much last night. Maybe it’s because I’m very much aware of shedding my “soul skin” this year. I know, it sounds weird, but it’s really a year of transformation for me. I tried to figure it out earlier today while weeping on empty back country roads. It takes me back to an image and metaphor that I often used in my earliest poetry, when I was in my early twenties. I love the Irish legend of the Selkies. They are seals that are magical. They can shed their skins and appear as women (or men) on land. If someone on land steals their seal skin, well, then the Selkie is trapped and cannot return to their home (the sea). The legend of the ‘Black Irish’ is sometimes linked to the Selkie legend (but not always).

I have always felt drawn to that metaphor, of how we evolve during our time on the planet. We shed our ‘soul skins’ at different points in our lives and, here’s the thing that’s struck me in the last few months while I’ve been away from my teaching job: there are places and spaces in a life where you shed that skin and then can’t recognize who you are anymore. Hard to know what to do when you don’t have the anchor you used to have. Some people, I’m sure, would say it’s simply a mid-life crisis, but I don’t think so. It’s just a new awareness of having shifted inside myself. Maybe I’m more awake now. Maybe I’m finally thinking of myself more than others first…because I haven’t before, and that can be a strange experience, to take good care of yourself and then feel better for having done so after years of taking care of other people out of love and duty. It’s almost like you have even more light and energy to offer, somehow. You can’t, I don’t think, go back to who you were before. It’s simply not an option. That’s a very good thing, I think, but also terrifying. How do you work out what you believe in now, who you most resonate with, in terms of friends whom you allow to enter into your life and space, or even what work you do in the world on a daily basis? (You end up shedding friends, too, I think…whether you want to or not…because people evolve away from one another, as well as towards one another. There’s a cosmic ebb and flow that is quite ancient.)

Who knows where these literal and metaphorical back country roads will take me? Well, I know they’re taking me to Pelee Island, and a writing retreat. I know I’ll go for long walks, and sit on a sandy shore and just watch the water. (I always like watching water, almost as much as I like looking up at the sky at night.) I know I’ll meditate. I know I’ll read and write. I know I’ll be awed by the work of a couple of great Canadian writers whom I truly admire. I know I’ll be surrounded by bird song and (as I always do) long to fly. I know I’ll feel more myself and end up well rested after being away from the recent chaos of reading more poetry in a week than I would normally read in a year. I’ll turtle, which I do well. Then, I’ll come back and stick my head out again, out from under the shell, breaking through walls, even though my heart aches as I drive through Dad’s favourite back roads.

peace,
k.

I’m having a busy week. ¬†Last night, I helped to judge the Lo-Ellen Poetry Slam contest in Sudbury and tonight I read at the Barrie Manor here in Barrie. ¬†Two cities, about three and a half hours apart (if you drive weirdly like me!), and two different age groups of audience members (the first, teen writers, and tonight’s crew, a vibrant group of seniors). ¬†The commonalities were what struck me, though.

Last night, alongside novelist and playwright, Matt Heiti, and CBC radio host, Jason Turnbull, I was privileged to see and hear the work of young Sudbury poets. ¬†All of them were amazing. ¬†They used vivid images, and then linked them together to create beautiful extended metaphors. ¬†I was so impressed. ¬†As an English teacher, I am always amazed by what teenagers can do with words, in expressing their hearts’ pains and joys. ¬†Teenagers are so raw, so open, so close to the root of emotion somehow, and it comes out in beautiful ways, in their poetry.

We heard poems about being a nerd in school (rang a bell for me, sadly), passion, and the search for identity. ¬†Being a teenager isn’t easy. ¬†It wasn’t my favourite time in my life. ¬†Being able to suss out that discomfort, on the way to discovering yourself, is brave and courageous. ¬†So, even though there were only three “placing” poems, well, I felt like I wanted to give every poet there an award. ¬†So much of starting out, as a poet, is to put things down on paper, to take risks with the very things that are deeply close to your heart. ¬†To even give voice to the words you have written is such an incredibly brave act. ¬†(I still feel nervous and a bit too vulnerable every time I give a reading…because it’s a bit like turning your heart inside out and asking people to examine it.)

Tonight, at Barrie Manor, I had the pleasure of reading alongside the Poet Laureate here, Damian Lopes. ¬†His poems are simply stunning, and he’s got a real presence as a poet and reader, as well as a good sense of humour, so I hope he will come north to read in Sudbury. ¬†The invitation has been extended. ¬†:).

Before Damian and I read, though, a woman named Mary read her work (this is a pseudonym I’ve given her to respect her privacy). ¬†In any case, Mary read a beautiful poem about wanting to be a tree. ¬†She wrote about how she would have roots to reach down into the earth and arms — or branches — to reach up. ¬†It was poignant because Mary has limited physical movement and is in a wheelchair. ¬†Her poem, though, spoke about the way in which imagination and metaphor can lift a spirit.

Now, anyone who really knows me knows that I have a “thing” for trees. ¬†I grab at leaves when I pass by trees. ¬†I’ve been known to just hold on to their trunks when I go walking alone (no one sees this except me and maybe the dogs), and if I feel really out of sorts, I’ll go give a hug to a tree. ¬†I think it’s grounding or something. ¬†Celtic, and Druidic, for sure.

After the reading, I had a chance to talk with Mary about her poem. ¬†We talked about how we both love trees. ¬†She has a room on the second floor that looks out to an oak tree. ¬†“Ah,” I said, “you must feel as if you are in a tree house up there, then, looking into those branches every day!” She smiled and said “Yes, I do!” Then, though, she lamented the fact that she can no longer touch trees (I had told her of my strange tree groping habit!), so I said “But you can always get outside and sit under their branches. ¬†I do that when I’m sad..or just feeling out of sorts. ¬†You can always tilt your head up and watch the branches and leaves dance, can’t you, against all kinds of skies?” ¬†She smiled and agreed. ¬†I so loved her poem…so very much. I’m so glad, too, that she and I met. ¬†There is always a reason…why you meet certain people and spend time with them. ¬†That sense of connection, for me, is so important.:)

Here’s the amazing thing that poetry does, then, in my view. ¬†Teenagers can write poems, and seniors can write poems. ¬†People who haven’t written poems since they were young can try to write poems again, now. ¬†You don’t have to share them with anyone for them to “work” in your heart’s space. ¬†You just have to usher them into being. ¬†By doing that, you crack open your heart and soul, and the world becomes a more vibrant and magical place. ¬†For a young person struggling with trying to figure out issues of sexuality and identity, a poem can be a safe space in which to create and recreate themselves. ¬†For a senior struggling with physical life changes, with the loss of some abilities, a poem can speak of how a person can continue to persevere and flourish, even as they mourn what they have lost. ¬†A poem, then, can be the light in the darkness.

That’s what I believe…and that’s why I’m grateful to be able to see these poems and poets send out sparks of beauty, courage, and spirit in the face of what can often seem to be a too dark world.

So…Happy National Poetry Month, people. ¬†Go ahead. ¬†Try it. ¬†Write a poem. ¬†(You don’t have to tell anyone, or show anyone. Just let that poem that is a burning star inside of you OUT…so that it can BE!)

peace,

k

 

 

I’m honoured to have been asked to read a couple of my poems tomorrow at the Local Health Integration Network’s (LHIN) “Death Caf√©.” It’s an opportunity to creatively open up a discussion about end-of-life planning and palliative care. This isn’t a popular conversation, but it’s one that people need to have within their own families. It was (and is still) an area that holds my heart tightly in its grip. I’ve written about my parents on this blog before, but I haven’t spoken too much about their endings, which were difficult to say the least. When I joined the Health Sciences North (HSN) Patient and Family Advisory Council (PFAC) a few years ago, just after my father had died, I knew I had a keen interest in making life better for the frail elderly in our community. Those without dutiful daughters are lost in the health care system and it makes me so angry on their behalf. The other area I had an interest in was palliative care, especially in terms of hoping to bring art into that particular ward at HSN. While on the PFAC, I was more successful in moving forward with issues to do with speaking out for the frail elderly, and the palliative care aspect didn’t really get off the ground.

In seemingly unrelated news, I’ve recently been named as the new Poet Laureate for the City of Greater Sudbury. I’m the fourth one, and the first woman, which is a real honour for me. As part of my new role, I can do interesting things with causes I believe in highlighting. To me, poetry is both personal and political. This is a feminist approach, I know, but it’s even more so a human approach to poetry as it can serve as a sort of social justice piece in our community. Poetry isn’t just a bunch of words collected on a page, or spoken in performance, but rather a way in which we can speak to things in society that we wish to change. (Writers have done this for eons, so it shouldn’t be too shocking!):) One of the areas I hope to delve into is to explore how poetry can work within the ‘countries’ of palliative care and mental health. So, when I was invited by Lara Bradley (of our local LHIN) to take part, I was thrilled to bits. Here is a way in which a simple poet can speak to a cause she cares deeply about.

“Death Caf√©s” started in the United Kingdom in September 2011. In just four and a half years, over 3,027 “Death Caf√©s” have been offered around the world. And now, we’re having one in Sudbury. Tomorrow, from 2-4pm at The Buddha, people will gather to hear a few poems, and to speak about death. Why? I can tell you why, from my own experience.

My parents fell ill when I was in my early 30s. I had just begun my teaching career. First, my dad had a heart attack in fall 2001, and then I helped my mother with his recovery after his heart bypass surgery in early 2002. Then, she began to struggle with her health, just as his faltered. They dovetailed each other, in terms of their descent from not-so-great health to their respective endings. They ate too much, drank too much, and didn’t exercise. She smoked, from the age of sixteen forwards, so I know that’s why her end was so awful and medieval. Her body, her lungs, were calcified from the inside out. When they told me that, as she lay dying, I remember thinking of her lungs as what pieces of sea coral must look like…or maybe driftwood in an ocean surf next to a shoreline.

My parents were too sedentary and my mother, in particular, really didn’t cultivate friendships. She was solitary and often spoke of her home as a ‘safe place.’ She only really wanted to be around people in our family. It was a closed sort of family, and, to be honest now, very dysfunctional. (Therapy lets you learn all of these things about your own historical patterns, even when you don’t want to go there). Anyway, her health continued to falter until her heart attack in 2004. She also had heart by-pass surgery, so I helped her with her recovery. Then, in late 2007, she had issues with her circulation. It ended up that she had peripheral artery disease (PAD) and a small issue with her right foot looked, initially, like a simple case of gout. She wasn’t diabetic. By April 2008, she was diagnosed as having gangrene and part of her right foot was amputated at the metatarsal level. She was bedridden until her death in December of that same year. (I was off with major depression, a lot of which I can now see was directly tied to being her main caregiver.) There were battles for home care, endless streams of calls to CCAC, fighting for her to try and encourage her to fight and rally (even when she was obviously exhausted and giving up). That year made me lose my mind. Suicidal ideation was common. I was at my wit’s end.

She went into hospital via ambulance on the morning of Dec 11, 2008, because her breathing had worsened and I knew we were in trouble. She didn’t want to go and I remember she was so angry with me for calling that ambulance. (I think she knew she was dying and just wanted to die at home.)¬† Within days, she was in a coma. She was in a regular hospital room, until she was moved, finally, to palliative care. The hospital was under renovation at the time, so they took us through a horrible main hospital hallway, with too many people just openly staring at her as we went. She was in a coma and breathing horribly, on a stretcher, and I remember that I so wanted to yell at everyone we passed, “Stop fucking staring. She’s my mother and she’s dying.” And, I remember, too, that I just wanted to drape myself physically over her, on the stretcher, to protect her so that she wouldn’t have to be stared at with pity. She would have hated that, that lack of dignity and privacy). She was moved to palliative care in the late afternoon of the 18th.

I actually think she died, briefly, when they shifted her into her palliative care bed in that wretched North Tower. I remember the nurses whispering behind the curtain, a rustle of bedclothes, and the silence. They were trying to find her pulse, I think. Then, one nurse swept out from behind the drapes, came over to me, and said, quickly. “You need to call whomever you want to be here. She is not going to be here much longer.” So I did. I was alone with her that afternoon as my sister had taken my dad home to have a shower and a bit of a rest. We three had been at the hospital for four days, so he needed that break. Calling home, then, was the hardest thing I had to do, worrying that he would not manage losing her, having to tell him on the phone that Mum was not long for this world. They came back, and my aunt Cathy came later as well, just to say a quick goodbye and leave the three of us with her, and Mum died about three hours later. She had oxygen forced into her lungs through a mask, something which still bothers me. She had, the night before, spoken to unseen people, asked to be ‘lifted up,’ and tried to get out of her bed, with a physical force I couldn’t quite believe as she had disappeared to a skeletal and pale version of her former self. I remember her voice being water logged, literally, as she tried to speak, without making any sense, drifting in and out of that damned final coma, and then us trying to get her wedding ring off her finger, which became an awful race to cut it off because of the swelling due to her heart congestion and failure. The only reason I’m writing this, now, in such detail, on this blog, is just so you can see how awful death can actually be. It isn’t a Hollywood movie. It’s much more brutal.

My dad’s story is horrible as well. They both tested me, in their going. Seven months after she died, in August 2009, he went on a fishing trip with a friend. He fell, hit his head, and became a complex quadriplegic. What followed then was a comedy of errors. Airlifted to Michigan because there weren’t beds in Ontario, then trying to get him home two weeks later, and then him saying he wanted to kill himself because he felt lost without his mobility. He was shifted from HSN to Lyndhurst, in Toronto. He saw Lyndhurst as a place where he could — he thought — maybe walk again. My sister and I tried to tell him, gently (but how gently can you tell someone you love this?), that he would be a quadriplegic until he died. What followed that was a return to Sudbury, to the hospital, and then to St. Joseph’s Continuing Care Centre (where there was a physio program), and then to Pioneer Manor. He lived for twenty-seven more months, until he had another major heart attack in Oct 2011. That night, I sat with him while the doctor in emergency told me he was not going to make it through the night. My sister was working for a beer company at the time, so I had to call her home from her sales calls in Muskoka, so she drove through the darkness to be there. He lived, though, despite the heart attack and double pneumonia. From that point on, though, until Nov 11th, he declined. On Remembrance Day, they declared him palliative, and we spent the next six weeks with him in the palliative care ward. He had the best care there. Really, in comparison to my mother’s death process, his was full of light and love. He lit up the world on that little ward. He became ‘my little Buddha,’ spending hours telling me his thoughts about life, love, and loss. I feel blessed, now, that he and I shared that time together. I remember thinking then that it was so sacred.

There were other parts of his last six weeks that were not so nice, though. He could often get quite agitated, would berate me and call me names. (I won’t write them here….but they weren’t nice names…and I know he would be sad he’d said them so meanly to me, if he’d been in his right mind, but he wasn’t, and I love him still, so all is forgiven.) The nurses told me that dying people often attack those who are closest. One night, I lost it and yelled back at him, “Why are you calling me that name? I’ve taken care of you. Don’t do that to me now…as you’re dying. Don’t let that be one of the last things you say to me, what you leave me with.” It was ridiculous, and it did no good. He cursed at me again and I ended up in the hall, sliding down to the base of a wall and weeping silently. I know he didn’t mean it. I know that death isn’t kind. I’ve seen it. It robs you of dignity more often than not, sadly, and I know, too, that this is why I feel so strongly about why we need to advocate for end-of-life care and palliative care. The health care system needs a revision, too, in terms of how it deals with the dying and their loved ones.¬† There are too many awful things that can be prevented, from the inside out.¬† People deserve dignity in death. It’s a part of life.¬† Sometimes, we need to fight for that dignity for our own loved ones, and it can be a hard, exhausting road if you haven’t been on it before.

I haven’t written about this in such detail before. It’s hard. It’ll be hard, too, tomorrow, when I read the poems I wrote as both Mum and Dad were dying. They aren’t the best poems I’ve ever written, but they are real and reflect what I was experiencing through their dying processes. It’s worth it, though, reliving the pain of their deaths, that bit of grief, if it means that it might help someone else have a conversation with loved ones. My parents, you see, didn’t want to talk about their ill health or imminent deaths. They avoided them. They shifted them off to me as the eldest daughter, the one who never said no, who always tried to please everyone, even if it ended up damaging her. (If I’d known then what I know now, eight and four and a half years later, respectively, I might have fought more for myself. It’s tiring, being strong for everyone else. You learn to be so strong that you can’t let other people in. I still struggle with that. Sometimes, the things you do out of duty, which is a twisted form of some kind of love I guess, are so damaging. I’m still working on healing that part of myself, on trying to be more open and vulnerable and trusting. I’ve had to prop myself up for a long time and the idea of letting others let me lean on them, even occasionally, feels like cheating to me somehow. I know. It’s f’d up.)

Anyway, all this is just to say, a la William Carlos William and his lovely little plum poem (!), that I hope those of you who read this blog entry have a conversation with your own parents as they age. Do they have living wills? Do they have a health care clause in their will, something which tells of their wishes if they are incapacitated or unable to make their own decisions? Do they want a do not resuscitate (DNR) order on their chart? Do they want to be on a ventilator? There are other questions, of course, which come when elderly parents go into a decline, but those are myriad and too long to list here. (You would need a quick whiskey, and I don’t want to share mine as I hoard it for when I have my bouts of bronchitis!)

If you’re interested in learning more about “Death Caf√©s,” you can check out this brilliant video by an organizer of the Portland, Oregon event. Her name is Kate Brassington, and the little video really does do a good job of making it all seem less daunting. She also talks about how losing someone to death can make us more aware of how important it is to connect with people. We need to find like minded souls, to recognize them when we see them, and to let them know, as friends, as kindred spirits, that we see their light and we can honour them in friendship and connection. What else is this life for, if not to connect with others????

As I close, I leave with my favourite poet’s words. Seamus Heaney, just before he went into surgery and died unexpectedly, texted his wife the following message: “Noli timere,” he wrote, in Latin. The translation is “Do not be afraid” or “Fear not.” ¬†So, I hope, somehow, that we can begin to be less fearful of death. If we treat it as a natural part of this life, and not as something we can avoid or just ignore and pretend doesn’t exist, it might just be a little bit less ominous. And we might find more of that connection we’re all so desperately looking for…

Thinking of you all…and sending out light and love tonight as I miss my parents.
peace,
k.

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