Archive for July, 2016

My last day here in England was glorious. We set off to Durham, to see the cathedral there in mid-morning. It’s not far at all. (I’m notorious for always thinking distances on paper or internet maps are either a) much shorter or b) much longer than they seem to be! My cousin Frank and his wife, Darlene, can attest to this issue that I have, especially when it comes to the terrain of British Columbia and Vancouver Island. In this case, our drive from Newcastle to Durham wasn’t much more than a half hour’s drive.)

Durham is a small town, but it’s interestingly centred and clustered around the cathedral, which rises up on a hill. As Jack said, “All roads lead up there.” You can’t get lost, really, and it seems to me that would have been the thing for travellers and pilgrims to do, to use a tall and imposing tower as a way to guide them towards nearby towns and villages. Durham Cathedral was certified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site back in 1986, and the cathedral is the final resting place of St. Cuthbert, who spent time out on Holy Island (or Lindisfarne). The city itself can be traced back to AD 995, when a group of monks brought the body of Cuthbert there to rest. Imagine that! It’s so very old.

We spent time wandering through the building, which is so beautiful. Each pillar has a different design on it, running from floor to ceiling. High above, well, let’s just say that it was a neck cricking day for me. I warned Pippa, Jack and Karen that I have a problem with touching old things in ancient buildings. I always feel it’s better to let people know. (Having someone see you with your palm caressing a stone pillar, or running your fingers around the edge of a carved wooden rose on the end of a pew, could — I feel — be a wee bit awkward if you didn’t know what the person was doing. Better, I think, to just admit you have a sensory issue and like to grope historic buildings. I have a fetish, I suppose, and its mostly historical and architectural, and artistic, in nature. Sigh. ūüôā

Jack and Karen went off to see a friend of theirs, but Pippa and I stayed in the cathedral. We got to chatting with a guide in a purple cloak. When he found out I was from Canada, I just blurted out, “I love it here. I have a problem, though. I would like to touch everything in here!” He looked at me, a bit stymied, and then said, “Well, as long as you don’t touch the guides in the purple cloaks, we’ll be okay with you. Canadians!” So, of course, I cheekily reached over and patted him on his purple cloaked arm. He shook his head, looked at Pippa, and said, “Those Canadians…they never listen, do they?”

Then he told us that there would be a choir singing in “The Crossing,” the part of the cathedral where the centre of the cross of the building meets, just in front of the High Altar. Pippa and I sat and listened to the choir sing for about twenty or twenty-five minutes. I so wanted to record it, because it was so beautiful, but it felt so sacred, the music echoing and winging its way around the stone spaces, that I couldn’t bear to do it. Instead, I found myself wanting to weep again. Listening to Vivaldi’s “Gloria” and Mozart’s “Laudate Dominum,” amongst other pieces of sacred music, was uplifting. I could see a third of the grand rose window through one of the High Altar arches, and I just kept thinking, “Oh my God…how many people have been here, since the beginning of it all?” Just before we sat to listen, we lit candles. Then again, I had the same thought. “How many prayers and intentions are offered here, every single day, and then compound that by hundreds of years?”
I lost my hands in my lap again today. It’s a common happening of late, these out of body arts experiences. (I guess my soul just gets too excited to stay inside my body….so I ‘hover’ a bit if things are too beautiful…like poetry or music or theatre.)

I know it’s a more and more secular world. I get it. I still love the beauty of ritual, though, and perhaps this is why I am drawn to services (whether Catholic or Protestant) and sacred music. There is a timelessness about it. The other thing, though, is that hope shines through in each candle that is offered, in each quiet prayer that is sent up to the heavens, past the sound of a choir singing on a Monday afternoon, and winging its way up around the arches and through the roof. There is something truly glorious about that, these little acts of hope, in the face of a external world that is increasingly violent and without reason or compassion. While everything seems to fall apart around us, there are still tiny moments of grace, whether they are spent in the company of a good friend, an “anam cara,” or whether they are spent listening to an afternoon of choral music with absolute strangers. In amidst the gathering of strangers, there are such strong sparks of hope and light. I’ll put my stock in that these days…

I’m off home tomorrow, and I’m anxious to see my little furballs, Sable and Gully. I’m also anxious to get to work on the final edits of my poetry collection, and then to move on with my novel writing work sometime later next week. I feel so blessed to have had this time to write, and to be around writers, over these past few months. It has changed my life. Being able to travel here, first to Scotland, and then here to Newcastle, has allowed me to meet poets from this part of the world. They are all so amazing, and I have made new friends. I’m going to miss Pippa, especially, but I know we’ll always stay in touch. Soul sisters in poetry are impossible to separate, even if there’s an ocean between them. How blessed am I? How very blessed and grateful am I? Very.

Find (and share) your spark, friends. Beam your light!


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Today may have been one of the loveliest Sundays I’ve had in years. I woke up after a good night’s sleep (I don’t sleep well, normally, because my mind is too busy, I think!) and did a bit of writing before heading off to 11:30am Mass at St. Mary’s Cathedral. I have always wanted to go to Mass in one of these grand English churches, so today was the day. I know it’s likely not a popular thing to admit, but I quite fancy choral music and I love to sing, so when I looked to see if they had Masses, and the 11:30 service had a full choir, well, I was hooked. What struck me most was the um, how to put this, excessive use of incense. After the Mass, I was talking to one of the women who water the plants on the altar and she said that they consider it a “High Mass,” with lots of Latin singing. That part of it all was beautiful. The incense was lovely, too, but it does tend to get into your lungs, clothing and hair (especially if you have hobbit hair). I loved walking down the aisle to get communion because of the slow pace of it all. Given the long line in front of you, mostly people who worship there every weekend, but a few tourists thrown in for good Catholic measure, you are forced to just really take in the beauty of the architecture, and to listen to the choir. I could feel the music coursing through the Victorian tiles on the floor. Loved that…to feel that powerful music rise up through your feet and legs, while you hear it sung as if it’s everywhere, all around you. It made me weepy.

It started raining during Mass, so I pulled out my trusty Shakespeare umbrella (bought that lovely thing in 2009 when I was in Stratford-upon-Avon) and looked up the Laing Art Gallery on my phone. Walking through rainy Newcastle streets on a Sunday morning is sort of like slipping backwards in time. If you end up on a street with little foot traffic, you can almost imagine what it would have been like to live here hundreds of years ago. The rain on the pavement made everything slick and slippery, so I had to watch my feet. (I’m a bit clutzy, you see…even on the best of days.)

The Laing Art Gallery was briliant. (Whenever I travel, I always go to local art galleries. You can leave me in one for a full morning or afternoon, and I’m completely happy as a clam. Seriously.) They had an Alice in Wonderland exhibit on, courtesy of the British Library, and it was fascinating. It took you through the various incarnations of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books. It also included various other artists’ interpretations of his story, even though he was most fond of John Tenniell’s drawings. (There were even pieces by Dali, for goodness sake!) Beyond that, there were various editions of the book, with a wide variety of artistic views of how Alice might have looked. Not all Alices had the blond hair that was Disneyed-up in the last century. There were also loads of items from popular culture, including a postage stamp holder (because who doesn’t need one of those?), a tea tin, and some strange board games. My favourites, though, were the stuffed March Hare piece of taxidermy and the little cluster of pocket watches that were meant to conjure up the White Rabbit in your head!

Tonight, Pippa, Bob and Karen picked me up and we went to Ernest’s, where I met Jo, Jane, and Louise. I can’t tell you how wonderful their poems were…it wouldn’t do their work proper justice. You know, though, if you know me, or if you read this blog often enough, that I have a test for good poetry, theatre, or film. Usually, if someone is reading, and it’s very good poetry, I tend to lose my hands in my lap. It’s as if I just am out of my body a bit when I hear people read good work. I don’t know if I hover somewhere, or what, but I do know that I am less aware of my physical body. It’s a bit like the words pull me out of my body. So odd. I know. Well, that happened as all of the poets read tonight. I also make little noises when something strikes me as being beautiful. It must drive people who sit next to me mad, but I’ll just go “mmmmm” or “yes” if something is particularly striking to me as a listener. (Yet another reason why I’m still single…you can dress me up, but you can’t take me out!)

The loveliest thing tonight, though, was that Pippa had written a poem about me. No one has ever written a poem about me before. I feel rather ordinary and bland most of the time, to be honest, so hearing a poem written about me was a bit surreal. I’m so blessed to have such a dear friend in Pippa. It makes me know that my belief about friendship, about why we meet certain people in our lives, is very much a spiritual happening. You can feel it, if you are open to it–the buzz and crackle of souls that resonate with one another. Maybe we knew each other in a past life, or maybe the universe just knew we’d hit if off, but whatever it is, it’s a magic that I’m more and more aware of since my parents died. Since then, I’ve really cultivated friendships. The people and souls who have come into my life in the last few years, especially my creative kindreds (and you know who you are) are so very dear to me. I will often tell them this, too. The ones who can handle it, my honesty, will ‘stick’ and the others may not, but the ones who stick with me (and me with them) will have me for life if they want me. That’s how much they mean to me, my tribe of kindreds. ūüôā

Tomorrow, Pippa and I are off to see Durham Cathedral, a place I’ve been longing to see for years. I am so pleased to have a day with Pippa before I go home on Tuesday.

Find your ‘tribe’ friends, and all will be well…better than ‘well,’ actually.


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Sometimes, when you travel for writing retreats, you are blessed by the universe and end up meeting very good friends. I’ve been more than lucky in the last year, especially, but I met Pippa at Anam Cara in the summer of 2012 and feel that we are “soul sisters in poetry.” Some people will say that Facebook is a problem, or a drain of time, but for me, it lets me stay in touch with those who have firmly lodged themselves in my heart and who live far away from me. Pippa is one of those souls. I recall our week together in Eyeries, County Cork, very fondly. We spent a long afternoon walking the road from an ancient graveyard in Kilcatherine and had an excellent talk, and then we had a evening of giggles after a “quasi-art show” at Anam Cara. We’ve stayed in touch ever since, and I never feel that she’s far away, even though there’s an ocean in between us. (How blessed am I, to have such a friend?)

Having supper at Pippa and Bob’s house was lovely. They live in a little row house that is opposite a graveyard, and it is a house that has all of the beauties of an 1800s home. There are old doors with oval knobs, and high up above doorways are cornices. In the centre of the front room, there is a ceiling ‘coin,’ and on the far walls is a Victorian fireplace with ceramic tiles of birds. I had to touch the walls, of course, so then had to explain to Bob that I have a ‘thing’ for touching bits of buildings that speak to me. It’s rather odd, I know, to see me, I’m sure, with a wandering hand…but all I ever do is lovingly touch a bit of cornice. (Most often, I think, people wouldn’t notice me doing it, if I’m drawn to their house, but then I just tell them…better to be honest than not.)

Pippa and Bob’s house is full of “tatt,” as they say. I love this word, “tatt.” Pippa says it’s short for “tattorium,” which is parallel to “aquarium,” and that it just means the house if full of ‘clutter.’ I would disagree. Pippa and Bob’s house is full of love and books and memories. You feel it when you walk in, as if the house itself is embracing you with warmth. There are bowls of sea glass that they’ve gathered from the Northumberland beaches, all big chunks, some more worn than others. (There were glass factories here, one hundred years ago, so they cast off bits of ‘wounded’ glass to the sea, and it still comes back to the shore today…how poetic is that?!)

I had remembered meeting Sam from Cork in 2012, but I met his girlfriend, Kate, and I met Jack’s wife, Karen. We had a brilliant dinner and so much fun catching up and talking. I learned so much about Newcastle from Bob. There’s something lovely about being welcomed into a friend’s house, after you’ve only been with them in a physical space for a week. A week in a house, with other writers, can help you to bond very quickly. You may be your most honest self, I think, and so that genuine quality that emerges from people who share the love of books, reading, and writing, will draw one towards another. (I’ve made my closest friendships in this way, through writing retreats in far flung and quiet places, with bottles of wine, and board games, and long walks near water, or mountains.) Being at Pippa’s table, and having things passed round on big plates, and juice cartons put out next to the wine bottle, made me long for that feeling of family again. I know…I say it a lot on here…but I do miss that sense of connection that you get when you are around a proper family. Two dogs in a small brick hobbit house just isn’t as lovely…

After supper, we took the dog (awkwardly named “Kim”) for a walk, so every time Pippa or Bob yelled out, “Kim, come on!” I felt that I was lagging behind, when, in fact, it was the Labrador lagging, and not me! ūüôā On the way, we met a couple and their neighbour, out in their front garden, drinking wine and talking, “Who’s this then? Another relative?” the man in the white shirt asked. And then, Pippa, “No, this is my friend, Kim, from Canada.” From that point on, going down the road and coming back, the man kept yelling out, “Hello, Kim from Canada! How are you?” He spoke of Saskatchewan, which made me long for those endless prairie skies and fields of canola painted bright gold.

Coming back to their house, Pippa, Bob and I piled into the car for a ride to the beaches. They took me, to begin, to a mining memorial. Newcastle is a town built on coal and shipping. Coal, though, was never a kind mistress. The Hester Pit Memorial Garden, is a place that marks the place where 204 men and boys died early in the last century. The shaft, where the works fell down into the mine, is all cemented over, but you can sense the deep melancholy of the place. I so thought of Jordan Fram, a young man I taught years ago at St. Charles College, and his death in one of our Sudbury mines. Here is the thing: mining is harsh, no matter where you go in the world. The Hester Pit memorial has a walkway that you move down, towards the shaft, and each of the names of the men who died is etched on black rock, in white script. Their ages are there as well, and the hardest to bear, in your heart, is the one of a little boy of ten years of age, who was lost in that accident.

After that, we went to the sea and Bob and Pippa trundled me down to see an outdoor art exhibit called The Tall Ships Gallery. The artist wasn’t there, but his art was! He has fashioned out little scenes of tall ships, all from wood, or dolphins made of shells, and even a clothesline with pieces of carved wooden laundry hanging from it. Further, down over a place that leads to the sea, a mermaid statue sits on a swing, overlooking a canal. (God knows how the man got the mermaid out there, but he did, and she looks eerie swinging there in the dusk sky.)

Most of all, I’m thankful for Pippa and Bob’s warmth and hospitality. Newcastle is a lovely city, and I’m off to walk its streets on a Sunday morning, to find the Laing Gallery later this afternoon, and to spend time looking at art and sinking into paint, frames, eavesdropping on other people’s hushed conversation, and words brewing inside my head and heart.


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If you know me, then you know I believe in things you can’t see. This includes supernatural things, like faeries and ghosts. Skye is a place where worlds blur, a “thin place” that allows you to wander through dimensions. It makes perfect sense that there are faery glens and pools here. It also makes sense to me that the stories and legends are the pieces of the place that draw in the storytellers, writers, poets, and artists.

The Old Man of Storr, or “Bodach an Storr” in Scottish Gaelic, is a rocky basalt pinnacle. It stands at an elevation of 2,359 feet and at a height of about 160 feet. One story tells of a giant who died and was buried in the earth, with only his thumb emerging above ground. Another story is that two giants, an old man and his wife, were fleeing from attackers and looked back. As they did so, they were turned to stone. There are other stories, too. The Norse used the pillar of stone as a way of navigating, while they ancient Gaels believe it was a symbol of fertility as it resembled a penis. Whatever story, legend, or explanation you choose, it’s a dramatic sight to see as you drive along that long road.

The faery glen was interesting, but disturbing. At the base of a high hill, people park their cars and clamber about. One beautiful tree, all toppled and ancient, was covered with kids. A small area, ringed by a wall of stones, seemed a place for faeries. There were rowan trees all around, which are meant to fend off evil spirits and supernatural entities. (Nearby houses have red paint on them, as faeries dislike rowan trees and their red berries.) Beyond the red paint, though, people in the area also use horseshoes, as the iron is said to be a deterrent to faeries. These are not Disney-fied faeries, but the ones that you can tick off. They like their glens and pools, and don’t like to be disturbed. All I could think, this afternoon at the faery glen, was how pretty it was…and then I thought how awful it was that people were plunking down picnic blankets and baskets on what is very sacred ground. There was, though, a place near a tiny pool of water there where I thought they might be, retreating to a mesh of tall green ferns and a flock of foxgloves.

Later in the afternoon, we wandered down to a set of faery pools. There are bigger, more ‘famous’ faery pools here on Skye, and there is so little parking that people park in odd places on tiny, windy roads. Our guide, though, took us to a set of smaller faery pools much further down the Brittle Glen as it is called, nestled in at the foot of the Black and Redd Cuillin mountains. A small group of us traipsed up the highest hill, skittering along a mountain path up to the much quieter faery pools. Standing there with my new friend, Maureen, I noticed a tiny feather float by. “See!” I exclaimed, “I always see feathers!” These little signs intrigue me. Every time I travel, each day, I find a feather. I always take photos of them, to remind myself that sometimes the thin places of this world, the dimensions we walk within and between, are really closely related. Signs come in tiny ways, and I’m always open to seeing them.

I didn’t see any faeries today, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. They do. I believe in them. (I do know, though, that they must’ve travelled down the road from the bigger, more famous and photoshopped faery pools where the big tour buses stop, in search of safer living.) I would give anything to go back there, under darkened and starry skies, to sit next to that faery pool and waterfall. I know, I know…they’d like to meet me as much as I’d like to meet them.


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Here’s the thing about the Isle of Lewis & Harris. ¬†They are referred to as being separate islands, but they aren’t geographically separated. ¬†I still can’t figure this one out, so if someone can let me know why they are so distinct (other than the differences in geography and topography), you’ll need to message me and let me know. ¬†In any case, the thing that struck me most about today was our talk of The Highland Clearances. ¬†Whenever I’ve read of Scottish ¬†history, and I’ve hardly scratched the surface of it in comparison to my knowledge of Irish history, given my family history, I’ve thought that the Clearances are reminiscent of things that happened in Ireland.

In Scottish Gaelic, “Fuadach nan Gaidheal” is translated into “the eviction of the Gael,” and refers to the forced evictions of people from the traditional land tenancies where they took part in small agricultural undertakings. ¬†That’s a really basic and almost too inane summary of it all. ¬†What happened was that the culture and language of the highlanders, and the clan system itself, was considered a threat to those in the British establishment. ¬†After the Battle of Culloden, the government stripped chiefs of power in an attempt to eradicate highland culture. ¬†The people were moved out and the sheep were moved in. ¬†(The year 1794 is referred to here as “The Year of the Big Sheep.”)

The first reference to the Clearances came in the 1770s, and people were still being ‘cleared’ in the 1870s. ¬†If you were to trace the emigration of Scots to other countries, a great number shifted to Canada and Australia as a result of their evictions. ¬†(You can think, if you’re Canadian, of the power of Nova Scotia and Cape Breton as places where a number of Scottish emigrants settled. ¬†In some cases, Nova Scotia –and particularly the Cape Breton region — have kept alive traditions that have since died off here in Scotland. ¬†This is how powerful the Highland Clearances were, in terms of minimizing traditional culture.)

The stories of how people were evicted from their land were brutal. ¬†Often, people lived in small communities and couldn’t really prove that they owned land because land ownership had been passed down through families (and clans) in a very long lineage. ¬†There might not even have been paper documentation to prove who owned what parcel of land. ¬†You had no rights to the land you were living on. ¬†If you didn’t leave, the ruling families would pull your house down around you. ¬†One ‘easy’ way to do this was to pull down the roof beam, so that everything else tumbled in around it. ¬†If that didn’t work, they would simply set fire to your house. ¬† Highlanders were even treated like animals, tied up and pushed down through the hills to the quays to be shipped off to other lands. ¬† They were treated like second class citizens. ¬†If you could afford it, you went willingly abroad to start a new life, but if you couldn’t, then you would try and settle by the sea. ¬†Farming there, though, was not a good idea as the land was much rockier.

There were riots in the 1880s, when people began to fight back, but it was all too late. ¬†Today, we stopped by a memorial cairn to the men who took part in the Pairc Deer Raids of November 1887. ¬†It’s there to thank them for their stand against those who tried to push them off their own land. ¬†The memorial looks to be in the shape of a broch, and it sits on a rise of land overlooking the beauty of the very empty highlands. ¬†It’s a sad place, I found. ¬†Touching the stones of the cairn, you can imagine the pain the people went through.

So much of the Clearances reminds me of what happened with the Irish. ¬†Both Ireland and Scotland dealt with the same sort of famine in the mid-1800s. ¬†Both countries had to deal with the oppression of traditional culture and language, and both now have strong Gaelic speaking areas. ¬†In Ireland, I think particularly of the absentee English landlords. ¬†The deforestation of the west of Ireland, in particular, is someting that always bothers me. ¬†If you don’t know about this, you can read about it online, I’m sure, but one of my favourite songs to sing is “O, Bonny Portmore,” recorded by Loreena McKennitt. ¬†It’s a mournful song to sing, and I’m almost always drawn to the mournful in Irish ballads. ¬†You feel it in your body when you sing those songs. ¬†They have power, I guess you could say.

Beyond the deforestation of the west of Ireland, though, you can see parallels in the way in which any traditional Gaelic-speaking peoples were poorly treated by the English, and in their new homelands. ¬†In both cases, there is a Gaelic cultural diaspora that ripples across the world, and definitely still makes itself felt in my beautiful home of Canada. ¬†I’m glad to be part of the diaspora. ¬†My Irish heritage is a big part of who I am–especially in terms of my love of poetry, legend, and music–and I have my grandmother, and in particular, my great-aunts, to thank for that.

I’m no fine scholar of Scottish history, so you’d be better off reading about the Battle of Culloden, the Jacobites, and the Clearances in some well-researched book by an academic. ¬†I do know, though, what it felt like in my physical body today when I stood on that hill and thought of the loss that seems to seep from the ground here. ¬†There are so many parallels to displaced peoples around the world, and even in my own country. ¬†You cannot stand there, high on a hill, and look out at the empty spaces, and not wonder at how many lives were lost, or how many families were broken. ¬†It reverberates, that energy, in the land itself.

Last week, the amazing contemporary Scottish poet, ¬†John Glenday, told me that you can see where the villages and homes once were by looking for single rowan trees. ¬†People used to plant rowans trees to ward off evil spirits, and they were planted near their front doors. ¬†John said, if you wander along some of the roads, and see empty fields and spaces, and there is a rowan tree on its own out there, in the middle of a sad field, then you are likely looking at a place where a house and family was ‘cleared.’ ¬†The idea, of rowan trees being the only living markers of such great loss, tugged at my heart. ¬†While the families are gone, their trees are still there, living tributes to those who have gone before.

Tonight, on the Isle of Skye, I’m thinking of loss. ¬†It creeps up on us in small ways, and sometimes not in ways we expect. ¬†Loss isn’t always about physical death, but it can be so. ¬†Here, in these beautiful ‘highlands and islands,’¬†there’s a deep silence in the spaces you travel through and by. ¬†Such beauty, in the winding roads, gathering mists, and sheep crossing roads. ¬†It’s almost too empty, too silent, too ‘without.’ ¬†As our guide said today, with a sigh in his voice, “It is beautiful, yes, but it isn’t supposed to be this way. ¬†It isn’t supposed to be this empty, with only sheep and the ruins of buildings on the hills. ¬†The people were meant to be here, too.”






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I love ancient things. I mean, really, really, really old things. Iron Age things. Forts on hills make me very excited. Seeing the remains of a broch, high on a hill overlooking the ocean, was breathtaking. A “broch” is an Iron Age structure that was meant to defend chieftains. The Broch at Carloway is one of the best preserved in the Hebrides and is over 2,000 years old. It looks a bit like a beehive structure from the road, and then you climb up and realize how very intimidating it would have been if you were trying to attack it. There were no windows, and just one entrance. It’s about 9 metres high and 15 metres in diameter. Of course, I had to grope at the stones a bit, amazed at how they are stacked, without anything in between, and how it is a real engineering marvel.

We also visited two sets of blackhouses, one at Arnol and one at Na Gearrannan. The first, at Arnol, was brilliant. It looks somewhat like a longhouse might look. Built low to the ground, meant to stand up against the rough winds and weather (especially in winter) coming in off the Atlantic, and thatched to let out the peat smoke, this blackhouse was built in 1880.  It remained in the same family, with the last members only moving out in 1966.  Today, the house is preserved almost as the family left it.

What strikes you, when you walk in through a low door, is the thickness of the walls. They are made of stone, and the thatch covers the entire length of the house. If you turn left, you enter into the place where the animals were kept, the byre. If you turn right, you enter into a common room, a dining area, with a peat fire, a table, chairs, and even a bed tucked into a wall and hidden with a floral curtain. Following through that room, you can walk into what was a bedroom, with three little beds hidden behind curtains. There would have been so very little privacy there. I can’t imagine…

We also went to see a blackhouse village at Na Gearrannan. As croftwork began to decline after WWII, the weaving of Harris Tweed became increasingly important to the people of the island. By 1950, Na Gearrannan had more than twenty Harris Tweed weavers, a lot of them older people, as the younger people needed to move away to find employment. In both the cases of the blackhouses at Arnol and Na Gearrannan, the peat fires are what most fascinated me. You would never, they said, let a peat fire go out. In the morning, a shaft of sunlight split through the high window, lighting up the dusty space of one of the Arnol rooms. Putting my hand through the beam, it seemed as if  I could actually touch sunlight. The peat smoke was thick and swirled with each movement of my hand in the beam. I thought, too, about how hard it must have been to live in such a closed space, breathing in peat smoke, and how that must have negatively affected the health of the blackhouse residents. The smell of peat was on me for the rest of the day, and I can imagine that going outside to feel the wind blowing would have been a relief for those who lived there all those years ago.

The other amazing visit today was to the circle of standing stones at Callanish (Calanais, if you’re speaking Gaelic). The stones were erected 4,000 years ago, and you can feel the energy in the ground. Again, I was constantly groping at the stones, but one in particular was very powerful for me. Standing next to it, my hand up against its rough and lichened surface, I gazed off at the landscape. I could feel the energy running into my arm, aware of the power of this ancient place. (There’s a reason why people placed them here, and one of the most logical suggestions or theories is that they used it as an astronomical calendar of sorts). There is a stone circle of thirteen stones, with a monolith in the middle, and the remains of a burial chamber at the centre. It reminded me a bit of Newgrange in some ways, of how stones outside that burial mound also played a role with the sky and stars. There is also an ‘avenue’ of two parallel lines of stones that leads up to the centre ring of stones. It’s completely impressive, to be able to wander freely within and around the stone circle, touching them and feeling the energy. Here, they are likely based on ancient laylines, but I was thinking of the songlines that the aboriginals used in Australia, too. Sacred places have power that resonates thousands of years after they were built, and that in itself is powerful.

They say, if you stand in a certain place within the circle, you can see the Sleeping Beauty, or the Cailleach Na Mointeach or “Old woman of the moors.” This is the form of a woman seen to the northeast of the stones. Every eighteen years, at moonrise, it appears as if she is giving birth to the moon itself. These ancient peoples were sophisticated in their calculations, and in their symbolism.

The last part of the day brought us to the beach at Uig, and we had to walk far out on the sand to actually touch the Atlantic. It was wonderful, though, to take the time to gather up shells and photograph the bottom of the sea bed with the tide out. Finally, getting to the water itself, I tasted it in the curve of my palm, and then waded in further to feel the push and full of the waves.

Everything we did today was so rooted in an ancient, legendary kind of world. There was a sense of the veils between the worlds being thin. It’s a “thin place” here, in these Hebridean landscapes. While I mistakenly burnt my too pale skin, especially the back and front of my neck, I feel that the day was magical. If only, I thought, I could return to Callanish late, late in the darkest of night. I would stretch out on that charged ground, look up to the stars, and breathe what would likely feel like my very first breath.

Tomorrow, we head off to Skye…where faeries and legends live in a place named after the clouds.


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Before we set off this morning, I went into the Ullapool Book Shop. A new friend from Moniack Mhor, Liz, a poet from Edinburgh, had told me it was an excellent store, and she was right. While there, I bought “The Golden Mean” by John Glenday and then tried to find my friend Jen Hadfield’s books. The shop owner was kind enough to send me up through the village to a place called the Ceilidh Place Book Shop where the owner pulled out “Nigh-No-Place” and “Byssus.” Ceilidh Place is a brilliant shop. It reminds me of how pharmacies used to be, all business and no flouncy bath bubbles and creams. There are just walls covered in beautiful book cases and filled with books. (That woman has the best job in the world, I think, owning a bookstore in a place like Ullapool, and cultivating a whole bookcase of Scottish poetry. If I had more space in my bag, I’d bring back more books of poetry…but you know…Monster also needs to visit Marks and Spencers in Newcastle for new clothes…so…)

The ferry ride to the Isle of Lewis was just over two and a half hours long. We sat on the observation deck because people say sometimes you can spot whales or dolphins. Part way through the crossing of The Minch, someone shouted out excitedly and everyone trundled over to see dolphins playing in the water near the bow of the ferry. It was pretty amazing, to see their silver fins slicing through the water.

Once here, we drove out to the north end of the island and spent some time on a long beach. It was beautiful and, of course, I picked up a stone or two to bring home. I’m missing my two dogs, so I made friends with a Skye terrier who warmed up to me after barking like a maniac for three minutes. (There’s nothing like a cuddle with a dog when you’re away from your own, after all!) After that, we drove to see the Butt of Lewis, the Rubha Robhanais. It’s the most northern tip of the Hebrides. The lighthouse is fairly intimidating and people seem to want to get too close to the edge of the cliffs. (I kept wondering if anyone would slip off, as they sometimes do at the Cliffs of Moher on the west coast of Ireland.)

The thing that most struck me today was the bleak landscape on this island. The mist covered most of it, as it rained all day. There are huge piles of peat bricks piled up for drying in the fields, which reminded me of Ireland. The sheep move merrily through the fields, and a herd of cows trudged along the verge beside the road at one point. As our tour guide said, people think of Scotland as a romantic place, and it is beautiful, but if you can imagine what it would have been like hundreds of years ago, it really would be been such a difficult place to live. (The same could be said of Canada, though, so that’s something to think about, too.) It is beautiful here, but vast.

It made me think, as I watched out the window of the bus, how the landscape almost empties you out, and then fills you up again with something new. It’s cleansing, I guess is what I’m trying to say. The wind sweeps in off the Atlantic and that does it–you lose your feet a bit, and then find them again. I imagine, in so many ways, you never leave here the same person you came as…or, if you do, maybe you aren’t awake enough yet to feel it all, the sheer magic of this landscape.


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You know you’re going to have a good day, if you’re a writer, and you see a sign hanging from the side of a building that reads: ¬†“A place that exists only by moonlight.” ¬†You see, this is why I love Ireland, Scotland, England, and Wales. ¬†They all love poetry so much. ¬†Yesterday, walking to Holyroodhouse Palace, down the Royal Mile, I found a fairly boring wall that quickly evolved into a beautiful melange of poetry. ¬†Quotations from famous Scottish poets were mounted into the fabric of the wall, some with the original Scottish Gaelic translated into English. ¬†The wall was outside the Scottish parliament buildings. ¬†How brilliant is that? ¬†Democracy and language. ¬†Makes perfect sense.

Leaving Edinburgh, we travelled up to Dunkeld, where I walked along little pathways through a field that led to Dunkeld Cathedral. ¬†It felt something like being in a Sir Walter Scott novel…maybe “The Bride of Lammermoor,” which is one of my favourites. ¬†The bells from the cathedral were ringing out across the countryside. ¬†By the time I got to the side door, the rector was ushering people in. ¬†It was close to 11am, so he leaned over to a colleague and said, “More people going out than coming in for service! ¬†Maybe we should ask these people to stay!” ¬†(I would have given anything to have stayed, but you know how tours are…they don’t account for weird women who want to sit in ancient churches and listen to prayers.)

Leaving the church, I wandered down behind it to see the part of the cathedral which is being restored by the Scottish National Trust. ¬†It’s pretty eerie to be able to peer inside an empty cathedral space and see scaffolding holding things up. ¬†It’s also encouraging, to think that people care enough to respect and honour such old things. ¬†(I know sometimes, in my hometown, I see pictures of how Sudbury used to be and then lament the loss of buildings like the old post office downtown. ¬†One thing I love about this part of the world is that they truly see themselves as guardians of history, as people who have been entrusted a legacy. ¬†I like that. ¬†I wish we had more of it in Canada, to be honest. ¬†Having to fight to save heritage buildings seems silly to me, just because heritage buildings should be safe and guarded well.)

After standing by myself to listen to the bells and read some headstones, I watched men in dress kilts arrive for the church service. ¬†One man arrived with his two little boys, while an older man walked with his arm tucked into his wife’s arm, and she was dressed in a spring green tweed skirt and jacket. ¬†They all smiled and said good morning. ¬†I wished, more than anything, that I could have just had an hour to go in and sit there, in that beautiful space, for that service.

We moved on to visit the Hermitage, near Dunkeld. ¬†There is a woodland walk here that passes by grand Douglas Firs to lead to a folly, Ossian’s Hall, that overlooks the Black Linn waterfall. ¬†Past visitors have included (get this!) Wordsworth, Queen Victoria, Mendelssohn, and (one of my favourite painters) Turner. ¬†To get to the folly itself, you walk alongside the River Braan. ¬†It reminded me a lot of my walk in Cathedral Grove on Vancouver Island this past March. ¬†So green, and so much like a painting.

Next up for highlights was driving through Birnam Wood. ¬†Yes,¬†that Birnam Wood! ¬†I loved it! ¬†Just last month, my friend Laura and I went to see “Macbeth” and “As You Like It” at Stratford. ¬†“Macbeth” was briliant. ¬†(Although the Scots aren’t pleased with “Macbeth,” in terms of the liberties that Shakespeare took with his interpretations ¬†of Scottish history, you still drive through Birnam Wood, and the tour guide still mentions it.) ¬†What struck me was how dense the wood actually was. ¬†In my head, I’ve always imagined Dunsinane and Birnam differently. ¬†In fact, I learned today that there was never a castle at Dunsinane; instead, the word “dun,” in old Scottish Gaelic, refers to a “fort.” ¬†There is a fort at a place called Dunsinane, but the castle in the play never existed.

I should go backwards a bit and say how very much I loved the Stratford version of “Macbeth.” ¬†The one thing that struck me was the scene where Macbeth comes back from battle, after he’s encountered the witches and the seeds of the first prophecy are planted in his mind. ¬†He is covered in blood and Lady Macbeth greets him in their bed chamber. ¬†The scene is wonderfully sensual. ¬†They are portrayed as being in love, as having sexual chemistry, and it totally adds a new dimension to the play. ¬†Lady Macbeth wrings out a cloth in a bowl of water and begins to wash the blood of battle off of her husband’s body. ¬†You can see, in the way they interact, that Macbeth is overwhelmed by the blood and the cost of battle. ¬†This scene, which had never really come to life for me before, lifted up off the page and made me see a new dynamic between this husband and wife. ¬†It also made me feel some sympathy for Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. ¬†They seemed more human after the intensity and electricity of this scene, and it really set them up for an even greater fall. ¬†(Anyway…obviously you can tell that Shakespeare is my original “secret husband.” There are many of them, and most of them are dead writers, so I won’t go into that here now, or you will either a) pity me for pining after dead male writers or b) wonder about how mad I am.)

We drove up through the highlands and it struck me how barren and raw they are. ¬†The hills are covered with sheep and heather (which will bloom next month) and they rise up in such gorgeous ways. ¬†I felt as if the bus driver could just have let me off and I would have walked into a painting, never to return. ¬†I know…it’s a weird thing to say, but it’s true. ¬†The landscape pulls me in so I get all dreamy in my head. ¬†Daydreaming always got me into trouble in elementary school. ¬†It likely still would today. ¬†(I mean, as an example of how much I love the natural landscapes of things….on the first day of classes last September, I took my Grade 11s out to the back of the school courtyard and had them close their eyes and then describe sounds and scents around trees. ¬†Then I made them touch the ground and the trees. ¬†It was a perfect — and embodied! — lesson in sensory imagery in poetry. ¬†It stuck with them, I think. ¬†They didn’t switch classes, so maybe having a poet as a teacher isn’t so bad!)

One thing of particular interest on the drive up to Ullapool was that we spoke about the roads. ¬†The Romans called Scotland “Caledonia,” and they were (of course) famous for their systems of roadways. ¬†The same is true in England, of course. ¬†The modern roads that buses and cars travel on now have simply followed the lines of the Roman roads. ¬†They became “drove roads” (or cattle roads) and tend to follow the easiest path through the mountainous region of the highlands, so farmers could shift their livestock. ¬†Sometimes, they are also known as “Wade’s Roads,” and were used to move soldiers through the highlands during times of battle.

Ullapool reminds me of Westport, in Ireland. ¬†It’s a fishing village, with gulls and trawlers. ¬†Had the loveliest supper of scallops and rice, along with a pint of cider and black. ¬†Tomorrow we’re off to Stornoway, on the Isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. ¬†There’s a ferry ride across, and the puffins are out there. ¬†I’m praying I’ll see some as they are my favourite bird. ¬†(No one else I know has a pair of Newfoundland puffin mitts. ¬†They are the only thing that make my winters bearable in Northern Ontario, those little puffin mitts!) ¬†The Isle of Lewis also holds the Callanish Stone Circle, so I’m dying to see that, as well. ¬†If you know me…I love to touch things that are old and ancient, rooted in legend and history. ¬†Hopefully we’re allowed to touch the stones of the circle, or I’ll have problems trying to look like I’ve mistakenly backed into one. ¬†(If you know my bonkers Yeats’s grave story…you can just imagine me in an ancient stone circle.)

Well, more writing to do tonight, and then tomorrow….please God!….puffins!






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I always research what’s happening in a city I’m travelling to, especially when it comes to art exhibits or museums or, in this case, palaces. I’ve been to Buckingham Palace, Kensington Palace, Windsor Castle, Hampton Court, and now Holyrood Palace. I love history, so it’s nothing to spend three hours wandering around a place and then out into the gardens to imagine being able to travel back in time. (That’s if you can block out the pushy-shovey tourists at these places.) I didn’t get in to Edinburgh until about 2pm today, and I didn’t want to rush through Holyrood, or stop myself from having time to see the exhibit of the Queen’s dresses.

I don’t know if I’ve said this on here before, but I may as well confess. I know I have Irish and German background, and it may be at odds with that, but I love British history. It’s actually a fixation. In my early teens, I bought every book about the Royal Family and was always influenced by the Princess of Wales. I really loved the way she used her status to draw attention to important social causes. In any case, by the time I was sixteen or something, I think I had collected about eighty books on the Royal Family and British history. (I got rid of a lot of them three years ago when my sister and I sold our parents’ home…but I must admit I kept some amazing books.) I’m a veritable treasure trove of royal and British trivia. It doesn’t often come in handy, but when I get to walk through a place like Holyrood, well, I’m pretty much in heaven.

You aren’t allowed to take photos inside the building, but it’s actually really nice not to hear people’s cell phones buzzing and cameras dinging. I love the stories of Scotland’s history, but have always been fascinated by Mary, Queen of Scots. I think it’s because I read everything I could about Henry VIII and Elizabeth I when I was a girl. Mary, of course, was easily in Elizabeth’s political “mix.” Seeing their two graves at Westminster Abbey in 2009 was spine tingling, really. Cousins, okay, but I’m not sure I’d want to be buried next to my cousin in the same room if she had been as nasty to me.

Walking up the tiny spiral staircase that led to Mary’s bed chamber this afternoon, I found myself thinking of how awful it must have been for her. She had a rough life, to say the least, and a lot of things happened to her when she was very young, still not sure of who she was, or what was best, strategically speaking. The word “bedchamber” sounds grand, doesn’t it? In reality, the tiny spiral staircase led up to a tiny wooden door, and a room with a bed in it. Off that room, a tiny dining room, where her private secretary, Riccio, was killed by Darnley, her husband, (who thought perhaps Mary and Riccio were having an affair). It’s all a very small space, by modern standards. You can imagine a stabbing taking place very quickly, and a tussle ending in a death. Elizabethan history was melodramatic. (Maybe that’s why I like that period of history. I’m so not into creating drama, but I love to watch it…especially in terms of reading about it in history, or in seeing it on stage.)

Beyond the Mary, Queen of Scots fascination, I also have always been fascinated by royal dresses. I saw the “Diana” exhibit when it came to Canada about ten years ago, mostly because I really wanted to see the wedding gown. (I also love seeing the dresses that women writers have worn over time. I’ve done a Jane Austen tour, where I saw one of her last remaining dresses in her house, and I’ve seen one of Charlotte Bronte’s dresses, when I visited the Haworth Parsonage about twenty years ago.) I’m not really a fashion plate myself…hardly a high maintenance chick. I do love the artistry of the pieces, though, and I often wonder what happened to Elizabeth I’s gowns. I love the paintings of her dresses, and Victoria’s, so would love to figure out that mystery.

The dresses today were brilliant. The exhibit started off with two tiny rose coloured coats that Margaret and Elizabeth wore in the 1930s. It was amazing, to see their little hats and coats, so well preserved, and in such a lovely shade. Behind that, there was a dress worn by Queen Victoria. (If you know me, you know I so wanted to touch it, but obviously they had people there to stop you from doing that…so I didn’t). It was a famous plaid dress that she often wore when she and Prince Albert were up at Balmoral. Honestly, she had the tiniest waist, but it was also shocking to see what good shape the pleated felt was in. I don’t know who decided to start saving clothing like this, but I think it’s brilliant. You can see the time frame of a person’s life through what they wore.

My favourite part of the exhibit, though, included just about five or six coloured pencil sketches that had been done by Norman Hartnell, who was the Queen’s main dress designer from the 1950s until his death in the late 1970s. They were such lovely sketches, simply framed, and you could see that there would have been a sort of friendship between the two. She depended on him to help her look professional at public events and engagements. He did. There was a beautiful strapless red gown, and a couple of crinoline gowns that were quite obviously from the 1950s. The beading on some of them….amazing! Then there were the two cases of hats. ūüôā

I can’t believe the Queen is 90. It seems impossible to me, but I’m glad she let people root around in her wardrobes because this dress exhibit is one of the most fascinating ones I’ve ever seen. It spans her lifetime in such a visual way.

Despite all the oogling of paintings and forbidden touching of windowsills behind thick curtains this afternoon, my most favourite thing to do is turn my back to the room in question. Then, I pretend I’m alone in the room, without oodles of tourists, and gaze out the window towards the gardens. To think of that view, out such a grand window, is to think of what someone must have seen hundreds of years ago. How amazing is that? Mary, Queen of Scots looked out a window that I looked out of today. She had that view. I stood there, grateful for that same view. I love the full circle moment of it all…

Well, tomorrow I’m off to the Isle of Skye and the Hebrides. Can’t wait to feel surrounded by legends, stories, and songs. Can’t wait to get swallowed up in the landscape of the Highlands again.


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Yesterday was my last full day at Moniack Mhor. It was bittersweet. It seems like, you just get your writing groove on, and then your time is up. I’ve gotten feedback from John and Jen on about twenty poems, but it’s more about what they’ve taught me that has really changed the way I think about how I conceive of, and craft, my poems.

I’ve learned to be more careful in my word choice, thinking about playing more with words and language. I’m less wedded to the idea of lengthier poems, and I’m more aware of how to pare things down to get to the nub of the piece. I find, sometimes, I’ll look at one of my poems, after a long time away from it, and I’ll find it draggy or heavy in parts. This week, I’ve learned how to better spot the draggy bits and then how to trim them down.

On Thursday, my new friend Deborah said something John had told her about her poems, and I think it suits me as well. She described it quite clearly to me. He spoke about there being “mirrors” and “windows” in poems. If there is too much “mirror” in a poem, too much of you as a person that comes through in an autobiographical sense, then you need to pare that down because–if you don’t–you can actually alienate your readers. What you need to strive for, John says, is the creation of “windows” through which the reader can interpret the world in a new way. As a poet, your job is to interpret that ‘other, outside world’ (the one poets sometimes have a hard time living in!) in a new and creative way. Not everyone looks at the world as a poet would (which I guess is why we’re sometimes drawn to other creative people…to help us feel a bit less odd). I want my poems to be windows on the world that I see, so I’m going to strive to do that with my new work, and in revising my older poems. I want them to be more crystalline in terms of word choice and imagery. I want them to conjure things vividly for other people, but in a way that invites them into my mind, rather than excludes them. (I know we all see the world differently, as indiviudals, so perhaps this is just my way of documenting my journey through this life. It’s all I know, and it makes me happy and content, so I’m thankful for that.)

Time spent with Jen yesterday morning was brilliant. We went through quite a few of my pieces together and I found that the questions she asked about my intention, regarding specific lines or images, or phrasings, really re-jigged the way in which I consider my poems now. One piece, about an exhibit of First Nations art that I saw in Edmonton in early April with my friend Alexis, was really too long. I knew it, and I knew it was only a first draft, so I wasn’t too worried…but I knew it needed trimming. Jen’s questions, posed to make me think about how I work as a poet, and about the power of words and structure, are rattling around in my head here this morning, on a fast train from Inverness to Edinburgh. That’s a good thing. Seems like Moniack Mhor is not yet done with me!

Last night, we all read some of our work. I loved hearing the voices and styles of new poet friends. I wished the readings could have gone on forever. Each person, some of whom I’d gotten to know better over the week, has their own voice, in person, and in poetry. It was like a buffet of words, language slipping and sliding all around that candelit room. Then, we sang songs while Martin played his guitar. It was lovely, hearing old Scottish songs and stories. Hearing “The Flower of Scotland” was quite amazing, the room filled with strong voices. Jen and I sang “The Maid on the Shore,” which is one of my favourites to sing. She has a lovely voice, so it was fun to harmonize a bit. I love to sing, especially old ballads that tell grand stories.

One thing I love here, truly love, is how people claim one another with love. Jen calls her love “my man” or “my fella.” ¬†Today’s ¬†taxi ¬†driver, Gordon, also talked about “my lady,” a¬†phrase that made me smile. ¬†These terms of endearment are so beautifully woven into common everyday language that I don’t think people even know they’re saying them, but it just makes me long for such familiarity with, and in, love. ¬†(People of Canada who are in couples! ¬†Get with it! ¬†I want to hear this kind of thing when I hear friends talking about their significant others. ¬† I don’t have a fella, but if I did, I’d call him “my man” or “my fella,” of that you can be sure! )

So, today I’m off to Edinburgh. I’m hoping to see the exhibition of the Queen’s dresses at Holyrood Palace. (I love the Queen. There’s a long story there…for another blog…) I also want to see the bed chambers of Mary, Queen of Scots, and the apparently beautiful art in the Queen’s Gallery. Tomorrow, I’m off on a tour of Skye and the Hebrides, heading backwards to the direction I’m moving in now.

Outside this train window, the trees look a lot like my Canadian ones…but the sky is vast and alive. It almost seems, since I’ve been here, and on a lot of long walks, that the sky is sea-like. Clouds scuttle across the sky and the light changes so frequently. It reminds me of a Constable or a Turner painting, all of that sky.


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