Archive for February, 2016

I’ve written about Elizabeth Bishop before. I think, the last time, I had had my wallet stolen at work. Inside the wallet were the regular identification cards, credit cards, all just silly plastic stuff, really. There was the business card of the pub in Sligo where I ran into Seamus Heaney the year before he died. And, most importantly, there was the note that my grandmother had written on a tiny scrap of paper. “Reach for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land amongst the stars.” Losing that piece of paper, with her handwriting on it, had struck me hard. Yesterday, I lost another maternal talisman of sorts.

I’ve been to Ireland about four times so far. In 1993, I travelled with my aunt, uncle and cousins to England and Ireland. While in Ireland, in Limerick somewhere, I bought myself a Claddagh ring. I loved the story behind it. A heart (love), topped by a crown (loyalty), and two hands (friendship). The symbol of it all came from a tiny village outside Galway called Claddagh. If you wear it with the heart pointing outwards, you’re single and potentially looking for a relationship. If the heart is turned inwards towards your own heart, with the crown nearest your fingertips, then you’re “taken.” Now, there are a lot of stories about the legend of this ring. The one I heard, when I was in Ireland back in 1993, was that fishermen gave the ring to their beloveds so that other men, those not out on the sea making a living, would know that a woman was already betrothed and so would just leave her alone. In Irish Canadian circles, it can still be a signifier of your ‘singleton’ or married status.

When I went back to Ireland in 1996, I bought my mum a Claddagh ring. She loved it. Hers was bigger than mine; she had bigger hands than me, I think. She wore that ring from 1996 until her death in 2008. After she died, I took my Claddagh off and put hers on. Hers would only fit on the middle finger of my right hand. Well, yesterday, while out running errands and trying to get things done, I somehow lost her ring. It slipped off. I called around to the three places I’d been, leaving my phone number and name in case someone found it. Then I scoured my house, getting out a broom and dust pan, tracing my footsteps backwards, and saying frantic prayers to St. Anthony.

Now, here’s the weirdest thing: I’ve worn that ring non-stop for almost eight years since the night of her death and it’s never slipped off my hand. Why yesterday? My right hand felt so bereft and naked that I immediately went to my dresser and found my old Claddagh ring. I still find my thumb reaching for my middle finger, and I can still feel the outline of her ring there. Now, though, my tinier ring is on my right index finger. All day, I’ve been checking to see that it’s there, certain and not about to slip off as hers did. I’m not going to lie; I had a bit of a cry, but then I just thought ‘no’ and stopped. Right away, the Bishop poem popped into my head. Again, I’m thankful I have a stable of poems for moments in life like these. They buoy me up when I most need words to lift me.

As always, I look for the lesson, the teaching, the universal nudge. After some thinking, early last evening, I got to thinking that maybe, just maybe, it was Mum’s way of saying “all right now…you’re ready to move onwards and forwards again.” Grief hasn’t been a constant companion since my Mum died in 2008 and Dad in 2011, but it’s like a undercurrent or sea swell that sometimes lulls you to sleep in your little boat, or at other moments, rocks that boat of yours so that the storm makes you nauseated. Putting on my old Claddagh ring feels weird. It makes my hand feel smaller somehow, but, at the same time, more of my own hand than hers. In Bishop’s “One Art,” she writes: “The art of losing isn’t hard to master;/so many things seem filled with the intent/to be lost that their loss is no disaster.” Later, she cements the idea that loss is simply a part of life. Her words haunt me: “Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture / I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident/the art of losing’s not too hard to master/though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.” If you struggle against the tide of loss, then you’re making it all the more uncomfortable for yourself. If you accept that loss is woven into the process of living this life, well, then you’ll keep moving forward with positivity.

So, while her ring may have freed itself from this middle-aged daughter’s hand, I know what she’s saying to me. “That’s enough now. Grieve less. Love more. Shift, evolve, shine brightly, even if you’re nervous. Blossom. Don’t be fearful. Bloom where you’re planted. On your own.” Yup. Message received, Mum. It’s only a ring, after all…the love still lives here, in heart and mind and soul.

In case you haven’t heard the poem by Bishop, here’s a lovely link:


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Somewhere today, a mockingbird must have stopped singing. Harper Lee, the reclusive author of the American classic, To Kill A Mockingbird, died at the age of 89. Her last years weren’t easy as she was physically frail. There is some great debate about whether or not she had her wits about her, especially given the controversy over last year’s sudden and very unexpected publication of Go Set A Watchman. You can read about that elsewhere online, I know, but I just want to focus on how her 1960 release of Mockingbird changed the shape of the world, then and now. It changed me, I know, for certain.

I remember reading it back in high school, in Grade 10. At first, I thought, as most teenagers will when they read it, ‘Why are we reading this book? It’s so old.’ (Funny, though, that I don’t remember thinking that about any of Shakespeare’s assigned tragedies or Robert Bolt’s play, A Man For All Seasons.) We had a series of chapter questions to answer, as we always did in English class back in the 1980s. Then there was a straight forward unit test to finish things off. It was rather chock-a-block in those days. Despite the sterile approach to studying the novel, I fell in love with Harper Lee’s words when I read it as I splayed across my bed at home, transfixed and transported to a different time and country.

I remember thinking, at fifteen, how wonderfully rebellious Scout was…and how I wished I could be more like her. (I was always obedient and quiet in those days, following parental rules and being sure not to upset anyone.) I loved that Scout made friends with people who didn’t quite fit in, maybe because I never felt that I fit in as a teenager. I loved that she called out bullies, kids and adults alike, and that she spoke with a truthful and innocent voice. She was about truth and honesty in so many ways, and her character rang true to me in that respect. I also loved Atticus, who seemed so brave and loving. It didn’t hurt, either, that Gregory Peck did a fine job of embodying Mr. Finch in the 1962 film version of the 1960 novel. And, well, who could not love Boo Radley, who saved Scout when she needed it most, and taught her a great lesson about kindness and acceptance of diversity? I loved that she pondered questions about kindness and racism, and that Atticus could guide her along that mental path, and that she snuck in to see Tom Robinson’s trial, to watch her father defend him. The characters were real to me, so that I could vividly imagine Miss Maudie, Dill, Calpurnia, and Jem. Even the more minor characters were well drawn, and I always feel amazed at the lesson in the scene with Walter Cunningham at the Finch house, pouring syrup over his food. My favourite quotation is still, to this day, the bit of moral advice that Atticus gives to Scout: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

So, I read it first when I was fifteen, in Grade 10 at Marymount College. Then, years later, teaching English in the same school I was fairly ‘raised’ in, I ended up teaching the novel to a number of Grade 10 classes. It’s a classic. It’s still taught, and it should continue to be taught. Here’s why. The questions it poses to readers, from issues of race, equality, gender and social class differences, and even lessons about the power of simple kindness, continue to be lessons we can all learn from. I’ve read To Kill A Mockingbird more than a few times, so it sits squarely in my heart and mind. Today, in modern classrooms, it opens discussions about discrimination and about the acceptance of diversity that is so badly needed in our society. There are still the ‘grumblers,’ who see the novel as something to get through, to get a grade or credit, but then there are always more than a few students who, at the end of reading it, will come up at the end of class and say, quietly, with a smile or nod, “Miss, I really love this book.” That, to me, is all I need to hear. I love assigning journals, too, so that I can see my students making connections between the past and the present. Seeing students work through some of the ‘big questions’ in their thinking and writing, questioning and testing their own beliefs, makes me feel that Lee’s work will always speak volumes.

I often look up the meaning of totem animals in a wonderful book called Animal Speak, by Ted Andrews. Searching out the mockingbird tonight, I found that Andrews writes of a bird that “teaches you the power of song and voice.” It can help you find your “sacred song” and “inner talents,” as well as “finding your own path.” Makes sense, then, that the symbol of the mockingbird works so beautifully in Harper Lee’s novel. It is the symbol of innocence, of a child’s voice speaking truth, so that even adults stop to listen and pay it heed. The fact that Lee is a woman, too, is important to consider. For too long, female writers were marginalized within the literary canon. So I think of Lee, but also of Gwendolyn Brooks and her brilliant poems, and of Lorraine Hansberry’s beautiful jewel of a play, A Raisin in the Sun. All three women wrote with strong women’s voices and experiences, and the act of ‘giving voice’ to something is an act of gaining power in so many ways. Perhaps this is why the symbol of the mockingbird is still so powerful today, too.

This does not, though, discount the importance of bringing diverse pieces of Canadian literature into the classroom. Students should be exposed to pieces as beautifully composed as Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes, Eden Robinson’s Monkey Beach, and Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda. Here’s the thing: there is so much fear in terms of which books are taught in our schools, and it breaks my heart when I encounter administrators who make decisions to not include rich new pieces of literature in our curriculum. So, if you can’t teach a whole book, well, I tend to take snippets out and discuss them in class. We need our students to hear diverse voices, genders, experiences….all of this is so crucial to preparing young people for the world. While the focus may be on data collection in schools, and within the Ministry of Education, I believe our task as teachers is to encourage young people to think creatively, and ask questions that speak to higher level thinking. (We can either encourage fear-based decision making, or we can encourage diversity and decisions made based on the beauty and art of a piece of literature. I argue for the inclusion of all sorts of new works, alongside classics, but maybe that is because I am a writer first, and a teacher second…I’m not sure. Still working that through, to be honest…)

I haven’t bought or read last year’s release of Go Set A Watchman. I worry about how authors’ works may be altered or skewed or purveyed when they aren’t well, as they get more frail in later years, and I also worry about how I would feel, in my eighties, if someone pulled an old draft out of one of my boxes full of paper writings and tried to publish it. I think, somehow, if she had wanted it published, Harper Lee would have done so some years ago. So many of her dearest friends have reported, over the years, that she did not want to publish anything else after Mockingbird. Maybe she addressed all of the things that she puzzled over in her mind and heart in that novel, or maybe she was just overwhelmed by the response to the book back then. She didn’t like publicity and valued her privacy. We’ll never know now. I know, as a writer, it would take me a lifetime to puzzle out the things I think about and write through in paper musings. I respect her work, though, so I’ll stick with the first novel as my mainstay. And I’ll keep re-reading it and teaching it with great joy and gratitude in my heart.

I’m so sad she’s gone now, but I’m so glad she left us the gift of her words.

Blessings to Nelle Harper Lee as she transitions into the next realm…I’m certain she’s still creating and writing. 🙂

peace, friends.

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Steven Page, stigma, and me…

I went to hear Steven Page speak at Laurentian University with two friends a couple of weeks ago. It was a wintry evening, with wind whipping snow all over the road that wraps around the edges of Lake Ramsey. I don’t like big crowds, but I have loved Page’s music for as long as I can remember. His voice has always captivated me, but his words, the lyrics of all of those songs, in Barenaked Ladies as well as in his solo and collaborative ventures since then, and even in his music for plays at the Stratford Festival, have always spoken to me. (I also have to admit that I had the biggest crush on him in my early 20s, back in the early 1990s. I’m amazed by how quickly the time has gone, and how music, how specific songs, can mark important moments in your life.)

I don’t like big crowds. I’ve said it before here, just up there in the first paragraph! 🙂 I avoid places like Costco, or the too-tall shelving at Canadian Tire, where I tend to feel trapped and a bit frantic, and I tend to grocery shop when it’s almost ‘dead’ so that I can speed through the aisles with a purpose. I’ve always dealt with some mild anxiety, most often in tandem with bouts of depression. The last two big episodes of depression, from 2008-2009 and in 2011, paralleled logically to the deaths of my parents. The depression tends to go away, with the help of medication, therapy, and exercise, but the anxiety has always sort of just sat there, gargoyle-ing and shadowing behind my back. I’m used to it. I’m not, however, used to what it became this past fall.

Work-related stress pulled me under in June. I thought the summer off would lift the weight of it, dampen its intensity, but this bout of anxiety was unlike any other I’d encountered. In early July, I thought I was having a heart attack, so I went to emerge and sat for two hours just to hear some doctor tell me that I was ‘just a bit anxious.’ I know my mind, and I know when I need to take care of it, so I went to see my doctor and then my psychiatrist. My therapist is constantly on standby. After the darkness of my previous depressive episodes, I never want to risk slipping back there. Chest pains are a scary thing when you’re a woman in your forties. (C’mon, we’ve all seen the commercials!) They’re even scarier when you’re a woman whose parents died due to complications of heart disease and other such assorted gremlins. After they died, I made the conscious choice to lose fifty pounds. I changed my patterns. I became more pro-active in terms of my physical and mental health. It’s a daily decision to move forward and not backward. You don’t just do it for a while and then stop. You continue on, as you must. After all, we’re made to move forward, to adapt, to face challenges and overcome them even when they scare the shit out of you.

My autumn was hellish. I was overmedicated for a while, so that my “chest pains” would vanish. For the longest time, I didn’t think they would, and I wondered if I’d just have to live with being haunted by worry and the ghostly memories of my parents’ ill health. In the darkest of months, I couldn’t sleep, felt dizzy, had constant nausea, was exhausted at times when I ought not to have been, and felt like my mind had beaten me.  I felt vanquished more than once. I’m blessed, though, to have about four or five really good friends who pop up to walk with me. They can’t fix it….they know that…but they listen, over the phone line, or they sit and drink tea with me, or they just let me cry in their office at work when I don’t even know why I’m crying. (Sometimes, these medications help you, but they can also hurt you at the same time; spontaneous crying fits are probably one of the most embarrassing things because you never know when or why they’ll occur.) Finally, in late December, the chest pains left me. For a few days, I kept looking around, as if I wondered whether or not they would just pop up again. Then, I could finally begin the descent from the meds. As always, when the meds decrease, I lift up. Usually, when I need meds, well, they lift me up, but at some points, they can overwhelm and deaden me. That’s when I know (usually) that I’m coming through it all. I never know when I’ll hit that wall, or if I’ll push through it, but the more often you do this journeying through self, the more you are able to emerge again. It’s like a constant kind of chrysalis…but you never know if you’ll emerge as a butterfly or a wonky moth.

Hearing Steven Page speak two weeks ago made me want to cry. He spoke openly, honestly, and even admitted to being extremely anxious about speaking to a large group about his dealing with mental health issues and stigma. The thing that struck me, though, was his sheer bravery. He spoke about how, when he is struggling, he is of two minds. One is the confident mind that says he is capable, clever, skilled, and worthy of sharing his creative art. The other is the ‘sick mind’ which tells him is unworthy, not valuable, and which questions every good thing he tries to create. He said that quietly but firmly, he explained that duality, and I took a deep breath. No one else had explained before, to me, in such eloquent terms, what it feels like to be inside my head. Just knowing that he could understand it took my breath away. Then he spoke about stigma. This is something that gnaws at me often, especially in this last few months of grappling with severe anxiety and managing to work through it to get to the other side.

Here’s the funny thing about stigma, and I don’t mean in a ‘fun, joyful’ way, but I do mean it in a ‘peculiar’ way. That distinction needs to be made. While you’re in the midst of a mental firestorm, people will notice that you are not yourself, or maybe they will not. All you care to notice is whether you can put one foot in front of the other each day, to not fall, either literally or metaphorically, as you walk. All you can manage to notice is whether or not you can troubleshoot your way through minutes and hours, and days and nights. You are constantly, as I say, “mindful of your own mind,” and that can be one of the most exhausting things. If you haven’t dealt with mental health issues, then you likely won’t understand it. This past fall, I’ve had people I’ve considered friends say “well, maybe you need to find a less stressful job,” or “don’t glorify stigma,” or “do you really think stigma exists here, in this retail store/restaurant/hospital/school/hairdressing salon/government office?” The last one always throws me for a loop. Then, I start to think about it. Of course, if people haven’t lived in a busy head, and in my case a creative head, then maybe they won’t understand how it feels to sense the sting of stigma. They’ll think “Well, we’re following all the procedures and supporting mental health initiatives. We’ve done the Bell Let’s Talk text and retweet thing. We put up posters talking about awareness of mental health issues. We’re good!” When it comes to actually talking to the struggling person, though, people are so unsure of how to do that…and sometimes the person struggling is, too. It’s a quagmire.

Here’s the thing: No, we’re not good. Organizations have implemented mental health awareness plans and ad campaigns, and it’s definitely a start. I love the idea of Bell Let’s Talk, but I also know that dealing with mental health issues is still problematic in most workplaces in Canadian society. People will say it isn’t….but I don’t know that they’ve lived with these shadows dancing around their shoulders for an excessive amount of time. Most of my friends are creative, people who live in their heads and hearts. It doesn’t make it easy to live inside the structure of organizations. None of this mental health stuff is romantic. It’s not romantic or dramatic to feel so anxious that you shake like a leaf, and it’s not comfortable to feel overly emotional for no apparent reason when you least expect it, and it’s not easy to connect with people who don’t understand what it’s like to live with a necessarily keen awareness of your mind’s intricacies. In fact, it’s about the most exhausting thing you can do, and it’s a constant monitoring of the mind’s moods, even when you’re having a good day/month/year. Moments of sheer joy emerge, though, and, for me, writing makes me thankful for the way in which my brain has formed itself. It’s a blessing and a curse, a light and a darkness. I couldn’t give up my words…or my imagination…so I’ve learned to dive into darkness and anxiety when it arrives. For me, the only way back out is through it, and each time I learn something new about my own internal strength. Other people may not understand it, but that’s okay….I’m learning more and more about why I’m on the planet as I journey.

Here’s a gorgeous new song from Steven Page…it speaks to me. I’m so glad I got to hear him speak, and to hear these beautiful new songs of his. Good to know we are not alone on the journey….

….and, in the words of one of my literary mentors, Timothy Findley, we go on, “Against Despair!”

peace, friends.

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