Archive for March, 2016

My friend Natalie Morrill sings in Octatonic Decadence, a local choral group, so when she posted a notice about an upcoming concert, I wanted to go. I love choral music, and especially listening to choirs sing in churches. Add to that candle light and, well, you’ve got me. (This is why I am also drawn to Taize, which I’ve written about on this blog before). This concert tonight at St. Patrick’s Church was a benefit for Sudbury Project Hope, an undertaking spearheaded by former Sudbury mayor Jim Gordon. The goal of this group is to “provide support for refugees to resettle in the City of Greater Sudbury and to help them integrate into Canadian society.” Anyone who has watched the news over the last year is well aware of the plight of Syrian refugees, and of the Canadian government’s pledge to assist them in resettling on Canadian soil. When you think about it, a lot of Canadians have roots in other places, historically speaking, so this wave of immigration isn’t all that different from other ones. People need new lives, away from war and bloodshed. The work that Sudbury Project Hope does is so important, I think, and Octatonic Decadence’s presentation of “Tenebrae Factae Sunt” tonight was a beautiful tribute to the way in which art can lift us up and gather us together in hopeful ways.

“Tenebrae Factae Sunt” is a Holy Week Musical Meditation. It tells the story of Christ’s last days on earth. The “tenebrae,” or “service of shadows,” was intended to show believers that sin can have negative consequences and that Jesus made a huge sacrifice. The service centres on singing selections from the Book of Psalms, followed by a short versicle (not popsicle!) and response. Throughout the service, there is the voice of Christ calling out to God, facing his death. The thing that strikes you, though, is the sensory experience of it all. There is a triangular candle holder (called a ‘herse’) that sits on the altar and twenty-five candles are lit, representing the twelve prophets and the twelve disciples, with one candle at the top representing Christ. As the service goes on, there is a gradual extinguishing of the light, candle by candle, spark by spark. It’s powerful and symbolic. By the end of the entire piece, which takes about an hour and a half to listen to, you are sitting in the dark, with one small candle beaming out into shadow.

I’m battling a horrid cold, and have been for a few weeks, so I was worried about coughing and snuffling through the whole thing, but I quickly became entranced by the experience. The singers didn’t face the pews, but instead gathered in a circular form and sang in towards one another. The effect was pretty intense and stunning. (People who’ve read this blog before will know my ‘I can’t feel my hands’ test of good art. Well, Octatonic Decadence passed the test! In fact, I found myself not feeling my arms or legs tonight.) With each section of music sung, a candle was extinguished. The symbolism can’t be ignored. It’s Holy Week, so, in the Christian tradition, we’re talking about the last days of Christ’s life on earth. He has a conversation with God, trying to figure out what’s going on in his life. He prays, he argues, he pleads, he worries. He’s human, at that point, afraid of pain, death and the unknown. We all know the story, the betrayals and, ultimately, the crucifixion. The music is mournful, and for good reason. Even if you were to look at it from a human perspective, it would have been a difficult week, but add in the concept of sacrifice and saving grace, well, and the music becomes even more haunting and poignant.

Part way through the concert, the choir moved to the back of the church and continued to sing. I didn’t turn to watch them. I sat, facing the altar and those flickering candle flames, and let the music wash over me. Here’s a little sample, “Miserere Mei, Deus,” so you can imagine the evening’s intensity.

I have never heard such a beautiful layering of voices, but I want to hear them again. There were times tonight, sitting in the darkened church where my parents were married in 1968, that I thought of how fragile we all are. Then I thought of Brussels, and the tragedy that happened there today. Lives, like lights, were extinguished there. Acts of violence erased people and caused great pain. But still, there on the internet tonight, a vigil in a city square even when the people of Brussels were told to stay safe and indoors at home. They refused, coming together to support one another–all races, walks of life, genders, and religions. It didn’t matter; they wanted to show that they were united in the face of terror, of destruction, of shared confusion and grief. In amidst that vigil in a town square, amidst the messages drawn out in coloured chalk, there were the little tea lights and tall holy candles.

Seeing the tiny lights tonight, wavering in the breath of the church, I thought of how we are all so fragile. This Easter story is strong, as told in sacred and ancient music, and the idea of hope sits at its core. The last candle left alight tonight was called “The Christ Candle,” and it shines even after all the others have been extinguished. When it looks as if everything has fallen apart, when things are at their worst, there is a spark of light, of hope, that shines out in encouragement. This is what Project Hope Sudbury does, and this is what we do around the world when we speak up against terror and hate, even just by gathering together in a Sudbury church to hear the sorrowful waves of music. This, too, is what art can do to press up against darkness.

Small steps, tiny lights, great hope…and a prayer for those lost in Brussels.


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It’s St. Patrick’s Day here in Sudbury (or rather, just after the day) and I’ve been thinking about my Irish heritage. My last name is Fahner, obviously, and it’s German. Someone told me it means “flag bearer,” which intrigues me. (I don’t regularly carry banners and I can’t say I’m a leader of any real sort….although sometimes, when I teach, I feel a bit like the Pied Piper of Hamelin with my students who write creatively!). I’ve never been to Germany, but I’d like to go someday soon. My dad’s side was small, just my paternal grandparents and a couple of great-aunts who lived at a distance, down in southern Ontario. One great-aunt was lovely, but the other was rather reminiscent of a prickly pear. My mother’s name was Sheila Mary Ennis, though, and her mother’s name was Alice Elizabeth Kelly, so you can understand that my maternal Irish side had a bigger role in my development as a human. The warmer, larger side of things was the Irish side. This is what it felt like…

I remember, from my youngest days, that St. Patrick’s Day was a big deal, especially at the house my great-grandfather built, at 160 Kingsmount. My three great-aunts, Norah, Maureen, and Clare Kelly lived there until the first two of the three died in 1998 and 2000. Clare stayed a while longer, but then the house was sold and she moved into a series of retirement homes, and then into nursing homes as she has declined over time. Before all that sadness, though, the Kingsmount house was referred simply to, in my immediate and extended family, as “The Girls’ House.” The three of them were some of the most influential women in my life, along with my grandmother, their sister, Alice Ennis. I recall sleep overs at the big house, with Maureen always exclaiming when I came in the door “Ah, sure, it’s herself!” and then there was a big smile, a wild laugh, and an open hug. “Ween” was the one who taught me that you could refer to spider webs as “Irish curtains.” She and Norah were teachers at St. David’s here in Sudbury and they worked us up when we visited, often reading to us, or having us read to them, or telling us stories about the family history. The two of them were the best storytellers. Clare loved to sing Irish songs, especially one in particular when she had drunk too much Tullamore Dew. 🙂 So, on St. Patrick’s Day, there was always a stop at my grandmother’s home at 350 Wembley, for a hug, a quick supper, or just to pick up some green iced sugar cookies or cupcakes. She decorated a little table with green things, I remember, and that table always shifted in reflection of the seasons, to Easter eggs and green rabbit grass as spring progressed. Then, there was also always a stop at the Girls’ on the day, where the house was always decorated and the women wore green and had little shamrock tiaras and things. As we grew older, the stop included some fierce Irish coffee that Clare whipped up cream for, and that was more than liberally doused in liquor. Corned beef and cabbage always came first, though, followed by the fierce coffee. 🙂

Beyond the day itself, though, these four women told me tales of their family, of their growing up, and of how our ancestors came over from Ireland after the Great Famine. They settled in the Ottawa Valley, as so many did, and then wandered up here, into the north. The importance of music and poetry was always impressed upon me. Norah used to read me the W. B. Yeats poem, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” which is still one of my favourite poems, and they often read us the various faery tales of Ireland. These included stories of faeries and leprechauns, whose existence they never really denied. I loved that about them. They let me believe in those things, and I still do! They let us steep in the stories and encouraged imagination. I miss them so much and think of them often. My grandmother’s favourite prayer was “The Breastplate of St. Patrick” and she often spoke to me of it. I still read it over when I miss her. (One young man knew I loved Irish poetry and prayers, so I remember receiving a book of these things from him in my mid-twenties at Christmas one year. It’s still here somewhere….a good way to win a woman poet’s heart…even if it never worked out.)

So…on to tonight…and a beautiful concert of traditional Irish music at the Sudbury Theatre Centre with Fagroongala. Three of the people in the band are old friends and I love to see and hear them play live whenever I can. To be honest, on St. Patrick’s Day, I often think of people I miss, especially my grand Irish family, most of whom have gone now. It can have a bittersweet tone for me, this day which once held such joy and familial love. Hearing the music tonight made my heart swell, full of love and sadness at the same time. My friend Pat sang a beautiful song, one the Dubliners once sang, called “Dublin in the Rare Old Times.” I had not heard it before, which is weird because I do like the Dubliners, but the words made me think of all my Irish great-aunts, uncles, and my maternal grandmother. So much of it is about stories…and change. I was blessed, I think, to have had such wonderful people ‘grow me up.’ Really, I was older than my age when I think back, always, because my mum encouraged us to spend time with all of these fabulous adults. We were included in family parties, gathered in, and really loved up. You couldn’t help but be influenced by that love, by those stories of ancestry and tales of years past. I still remember how, when my dad was dying, he said “Your mum saved me. Your mum’s family saved me.” Now I get it. They were magically loving people, all welcoming to my friends. I delighted in introducing them to new friends in my twenties, and then delighted again when the people who met my great-aunts and my grandmother and spoke to me of how wonderful they were. They really were that wonderful, and that is why I miss them so, I think. Anyway, here is the song for you to listen to….such beautiful words.

The other part of this post is meant to reflect on how I feel when I’m moved by music, or art, or theatre, or poetry. The first time I noticed it was at the annual general meeting of the League of Canadian Poets in Winnipeg, likely in 2000, I think. I had always loved the work of Anne Szumigalski and she had recently died. That year, her daughter spoke about her and gave a lecture of sorts, including a reading of some of her poems. I remember sitting there, amidst all of these great Canadian poets, thinking I didn’t belong, as a young beginner poet, and being in awe of them all. And then I remember hearing her daughter read one of her mother’s poems. I remember having my hands crossed in my lap. I was 29 or maybe 30. Young. As I listened, I felt as if I had been lifted right out of my body. The words lifted me up so that my physical body felt unimportant. When she finished reading the poem, I remember becoming aware of my hands again, as if they weren’t attached to me, or as if my heart, mind and soul weren’t part of my body. I know….it sounds weird. Ever since then, when I am truly moved by art, I ‘lose track of my hands.’ I told some fellow playwrights this in the fall, and they laughed, asking what that meant. Now they get it, but maybe it’s because they just know me better and have become close friends! A few months of intensive writing and sharing of words and bonding can do that for you, especially if you’re all creative folks.

Anyway, tonight, listening to the beautiful music of Fagroongala, I lost track of my hands again, and I had flashes of memories cross my heart and mind. Just as the Dubliners sang about the changes that have taken place in Dublin over the years, and how things alter, and how you can never really come home to the same place or time in your life that has gone before, I began to think of how my life has changed in the last twenty years. I’ve lost so many people I held dear, and all were family…as well as a couple of dear friends. But I am so very blessed that they were even part of my life, that they made me so much of who I am now. And I am blessed to know that art, poetry and music has such a role in our lives, if we let it move us in deep and profound ways…and thank those who bring us these little epiphanies through sharing their music. 🙂

Bless my lost ones…sending them love and light, across the universe, with a kiss blown out under a starry sky….so that I can still Maureen’s voice in my head saying “Ah, sure, it’s herself!”


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