Archive for September, 2016

I’ve been away from teaching since February, on a pre-scheduled and pre-paid leave to take time to work on some of my writing projects. I’ve done well. (I’m honestly my own worst enemy because I keep thinking I ought to have done more work, even though I did do what I set out to do. I just feel I have so much more to write and now I’m juggling the writing with the teaching again, so that can be a tug of war inside my heart. It is for me, anyway.) So, it’s been a bit of time away from the young women I teach. They are full of spirit and emotion. I think, almost every day, how I wish I’d had a guide of sorts when I was their age. They remind me so much of myself at that age…all creative, smart, uncertain, and terrified at times of the unknown. It makes me want to help them all the more, knowing that I might be able to help make their path a little bit less traumatic than mine was…I know it’s idealistic, but I’m a poet, so you can just chalk it up to that. (I’m lucky that I have about five really close friends who get it…and don’t seem to mind me the way I am…which is a bonus!)

I’ve missed my little writers. There are about four girls in particular who kept in touch via my ‘teacher email account’ while I was off on leave and sent me pieces of their writing to critique while I was away. They just needed someone to say ‘yeah, it’s fab. Keep going!’ One is working on her first novel, while another tends to drift towards writing poetry. A new student of mine this year is an avid writer and has dreams of starting up a publishing house when she grows up. (She told me the other day that she’s written four novels already, in a series of six stories. I just shook my head and said ‘Well, I guess I’m far behind you, then!’)

Without fail, the girls who are writers find their way to me. It makes sense. I know. They hover at the doorway after the bell (if they’re not in my class) so they can chat and then ask if I’ll read their new work, or if they’re in my class now, they’ll gather around just before lunch and chat with me. I’m glad I can be there for them. Mentorship in writing, especially in Northern Ontario, is crucial to ‘growing’ new young writers. I wish I’d had a writer as a mentor when I was in high school. Instead, I always felt really alone when I was a girl, just retreating into my bedroom, playing music loudly, reading a heck of a lot of books (and falling in love for the first time with Mr. Rochester), and writing some of the weirdest short fiction and most depressing poetry ever known to any sworn-to-secrecy-journal. I know, though, that words saved me as I struggled with depression and isolation even then. It was easy enough, if you weren’t socially adept, to retreat into yourself and imagine worlds. When these little writers come to me, I know what’s going in their heads. They tell me they love the words, and escaping into them. “Yup,” I tell them, “me too.”

Sometimes, you feel blessed to be a teacher. Sometimes, on certain days, and without any kind of warning, a student comes along and asks you a question that breaks your heart. Today, a student I’ve only just begun to teach this year stopped by to chat. We talked about the book she’s been reading. Then she asked if she could ask me a question. She started to cry. (For some reason, kids cry around me. It’s okay. I can handle it. I cry a lot, too, at home or in the car, so I figure it’s just lucky I don’t spontaneously break out into tears at school, too.) She asked me about my parents. “You talk about them in class a lot, you know…and you seem okay with it…that they’re gone.” That shook me up. “Yeah, I talk about them all the time. We were close. But, no, I’m not okay with it that they’re gone. How could I be?” She kept on. “So…I wanted to ask how you got through it when they were sick, when you knew they wouldn’t get better…that they would die. That you would be alone afterwards.” Dear God. I was not prepared for that question this morning. How do you answer a question like that? How do you protect your own battered heart and put up a wall for a bit while you try not to be shaken emotionally by the bravery and vulnerability of the young person asking you the question? I just took a deep breath and tried to think about how I managed. (My friends might say I didn’t manage very well…there are only one or two who were there through the hardest part…and they knew how dicey it was for me. It’s a miracle I’m even still here. I know that more than anyone else.)

“I wrote. I walked. I cried.” I started there. “But I was in my thirties and you are much younger. It was hard for me then, so I can’t imagine how hard it is for people your age.” We chatted about writing, then. It wasn’t a teacher and student thing. It was a writer-to-writer chat about how words make us feel better when we’re not at our best. I talked about how journaling still helps me. Years later, I can go through my journals of that time, when my parents were ill and then dying, and I can see how awful it was…how hard it was…and I recognize how strong I was, and had to be. I thought at the time that I was weak, but I wasn’t. I wouldn’t be here at all if I was weak. I know that now. I did, though, have big walls that I built up. They’re still there and that’s my biggest worry these days. You need to be strong when you’re trying to be the ‘person’ for someone who’s really ill. You tend to protect them by running interference with other people, including medical folks. You create a bubble of safety for them. I did that for my mum and dad whenever I could, but it was at my expense in so many ways.

Then, after they’ve gone, you need to be strong when you’re on your own. You feel the loss of the people who’ve died even more when you’re single, I think. Well, therapy helps, but living with dogs alone just doesn’t cut it when I have a bad day and just want to cry because I desperately long to ask Dad a question or get a hug from someone who loves me absolutely. The problem, though, is that I’ve noticed this year that I’m trying to break down the walls I built up to protect myself from pain–well, from the world, really–from the inside out. Sometimes, I think, you hope to find just one someone on the ‘outside’ who will accept you as you are and will recognize that you need help breaking your walls down. You may not even know how thick those walls are, that you’re trapped behind them, but you can feel you aren’t fully out from behind…and that causes pain all over again. It means you need someone to help you feel safe enough to break down your walls, so that you can be vulnerable…and that is quite a task.

So what’s the point of me writing this out? Here? I guess it’s that I’m remembering how much my students teach me. It’s ironic that I’m labelled as a ‘teacher’ when, in fact, they teach me the most profound lessons. One student’s question cracked me open today, made me realize that she was brave enough to let down her guard to ask me a question that would go to my most grief-ridden place. I had to be brave enough to trust her, to answer her question, to try and offer her some ideas for coping. (I’m no expert in grieving, but I don’t hide it from my students. I know grief is a reflection of love. I don’t hide the fact, either, that my creativity has come hand in hand with mental health issues like depression. I hope–I always hope to God–that what I’ve learned about how to walk through darkness to light will help one of them. If it does, help even one single kid, then I’ll be okay with all the time I’ve spent teaching…with the time it’s taken from my writing, even.)

Walking with my friend this afternoon helped, too. We talked about how palliative care is a journey. We talked about how many people are afraid to speak about how we live and die. Our walk by the lake, and our chat on the bench surrounded by too tame gulls and nosy little brown birds, made me think about how we all have to be so brave in this world. We need to take risks with our hearts sometimes. It’s the only way we can grow, I think…and it’s probably why I have always continually walked through the world ‘breaking my own heart,’ as I say. Violet laughed when I said that today. Then she said, “Well, what would be the alternative? Not feeling? Building more walls and not breaking them down?” The universe…man…the universe sends you lessons in couplets or triads, it seems, and all in one damn day.

That little writer today made me realize that it’s okay to let down my guard, to let the walls fall, even when I’m unsure of how much my heart will be broken again, in either small or large ways…and what a lesson she taught me. This afternoon, I went out and bought her a journal. She said she’d write it all out, let the words guide her through this sacred journey she’s on with her mum. Because it is all sacred, even the pain of knowing someone’s going…because the love shared then–when you know they’re in the process of leaving you–is that kind of love that creates stars in the sky and sends birds soaring through the tree tops. It’s that beautiful, and it’s that horrible. But, above all, it’s that sacred and holy.

peace, friends.

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Sometimes, the universe has plans for you that you can’t quite envision. Last week, I was checking my Poet Laureate email account and found a little junk folder that I didn’t even realize was there. The city’s email system is different from the one I use at the school board, so I’m still fumbling around a bit. When I opened the folder, I found two interesting emails. One was from a fellow who lives in England and who had my great-aunt Norah Kelly as a teacher at St. David’s years ago. He had written her a poem and a song. He found me through finding Norah’s name on my blog. The second email was from a woman named Wendy Drennan Frisina, from Texas of all places. She said she knew my mum from St. Joseph’s College in North Bay, and that her mum and my grandmother, Alice Ennis, were best friends from their Creighton days. I replied to both emails, touched by the way in which my words on this blog had rippled outside of the Sudbury basin in a way that brought memories of my loved ones back to me. Then I thought nothing of it.

The next day, Friday, I was sorting through old books in my basement bookcase and found a “Daily Missal” that had been given to my mother, Sheila Mary Ennis, on her graduation from St. Joseph’s College in North Bay, in the spring of 1956, from The Drennans. I shook my head and thought “The very same Drennans that Gram Ennis and The Girls — Norah, Maureen, and Clare–always spoke about up at 160 Kingsmount. The very same Drennan family as the one who just emailed me through the library website. How weird is that?” Then I came upstairs and checked the messages, only to find a voice mail from Wendy herself. She was in town for the Marymount School of Nursing reunion and wondered if she and I could meet to talk about what the blog has meant to her. We sorted out a time to meet, and so I saw she and her husband, Carl, today at 3pm.

The first thing Wendy did was to tell me how she came to my blog. She had searched out Mum’s name and found my dad’s obituary from December 2011, and then realized that Mum had died in December 2008. Then she somehow found my blog entry on grief (“By wavelets or tsunami”) from December 2014. She found this around December of 2015 and said her children encouraged her to try and contact me. She didn’t want to intrude, she kept saying today, but I kept telling her that any writer would be thrilled to find someone who so loved reading their work. Wendy’s read every entry in the blog that I’ve ever written, stretching back to summer 2012, when I started it with encouragement from my poet friend, Tanya Neumeyer. She was citing the titles of specific entries, which no one has ever done to me before. 🙂

The thing that made me most emotional, though, was that she spoke about how my blog entries made the people she had loved growing up come back to life in her memory. She spoke of the time she’d spent at 160 Kingsmount, the house my great-grandfather had built, and the place where my three great aunts lived for most of their lives. She talked about how warm a place it had been, and how Norah, Maureen and Clare had always welcomed she and her sister Penny with open arms. She remembered that, when her mother Della went into the kitchen with my grandmother, Alice, and the door was shut, no one was to intrude. The two women were friends going back to their youth in Creighton Mine. What was discussed in that kitchen was meant for the two of them alone. She said, too, that she knew Gram had raised her five kids on her own, but that they were told never to ask about where my grandfather was. (He was off in the bush, prospecting.) The loveliest story, though, was the one she told about her mother dying. You wouldn’t think a story about a woman’s mother dying would be lovely, but it was. (I have a couple of sacred moments that happened for me when my mum was dying eight years ago, so I understand how weighted it can all feel in your heart’s memory…)

When Wendy was in her late teens, her mother died of cancer in her early fifties. She said she clearly remembers that my grandmother and my three great-aunts would take turns sitting in the hospital room at the General, on the edge of Lake Ramsey, saying the rosary with and for Wendy’s mum, Della Drennan. They always did gather round to support others in their times of need. I do remember that clearly. A couple of weeks before Della died, my grandmother told Wendy’s dad, Charlie Drennan, that she was going to take Wendy home to 350 Wembley, the house where my mum grew up with my three uncles and one aunt. Wendy says she remembers that Gram took her upstairs and tucked her into the warmest bed, gave her soup and hot chocolate, and sat with her as she fell asleep. She said she recalls Gram talking about death, and about her mum. She said she felt so safe there, and that she considered Gram Ennis something of a second mother. This made me want to cry. (Gram was that for me, too. She radiated warmth. When I think of her now, and I do almost every day even though she died in 1998 when I was just twenty-seven, I think of how she would always offer a huge hug when you arrived or left her house. I always felt, with Gram, that I was absolutely and totally loved. She made you feel whole and perfect, when sometimes the world was so much more harsh in its estimation of your character.)

We talked a lot about Creighton, but she also told me about my mum having been her ‘big sister’ at St. Joseph’s College, and how they were close. She said Mum was ‘great fun,’ ‘tall,’ and ‘graceful.’ Mostly, though, she said she wanted me to know that all of them — the Girls, my grandmother, and my mum — had so much fun and were such great women. I knew that, but it was good to hear it from someone who spent time with them. As Wendy said before I hugged her goodbye, “Those women took in the Drennans, too…they made our family a part of their family.” That made me smile. What makes me miss all of my relatives the most is the lack of physical connection and warmth. I miss their laughs, their stories, their hugs, and their compassion. I know, though, that they’re in the best parts of me. I hope I carry them with me in all that I do, each and every day. I think I do…I don’t actually know how I could not do so because these women formed me. Any deeply good part of me is due in great part to the women of my mother’s family. That grand Irish Catholic lineage is a touchstone for me. My parents raised me, yes, but my mother’s family made me who I am. (That might not make sense to a lot of people…but I’d explain it over a huge cup of tea and a bit of time…without being rushed…)

The other lovely part of the afternoon was meeting Carl, Wendy’s husband. They met when Wendy went down to the States to search out a job after graduating from nursing school. Carl was a doctor at the Catholic hospital where Wendy was working. One night, he told me, after weeks of seeing her around the hospital, he asked her out to dinner because, as he said, “She had to eat.” Carl and Wendy are the loveliest couple I’ve met in a long time. Twelve years separates them, but their love is strong and certain. I kept thinking of a lighthouse, an image I’ve had in my head quite often lately. That certainty, of a light beaming out to ships, is sort of like the kind of love they seem to share, of how they are so tightly connected–one to the other. They spoke of their children and grandchildren, and of how an American fell in love with a Canadian girl, and married in November 1963. When they asked me if I had someone, I said no. “Whoever it is, if he’s out there,” I said, “will have to be willing to take me as I am.” And that, they agreed, was a very good thing…so I liked them all the more. 🙂

All this is to say that the universe sends us tiny messages and signs every day, even when we least expect it. The email in the junk folder, the tiny “Daily Missal” that my mum obviously loved and used regularly (with all of its pretty little holy cards) and the phone message from Wendy…all of it seems like a beautiful and sacred Celtic knot of sorts. Maybe the Drennans and the Kellys and the Ennis crew were up there realizing I needed to chat with someone who knew a bit about Creighton and the way in which families used to love and support one another. Now that my family is so small, it makes me feel more anchored to know that those who have gone were so solidly rooted–in love, faith, and Irishry. But, mostly, I learned about the generous way in which they gave of themselves to others in times of struggle. That, for me, is a lighthouse beam on a dark night…and a way in which I hope to continue to live my own life. Those women, from my mum to my grandmother, to my great-aunts, were the greatest teachers I’ve ever had…

…so loving the serendipities this year has brought me…so honouring them…


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So. Two things.

1) Today, I decluttered. I do this when I’m nervous or stressed, or just feeling too much. (I’m a “feeler,” an empath who can sense things a mile or more away). It may be an OCD thing, but I don’t think so. I declutter, clean, bake Irish soda bread, and walk or sing my ass off. I do this: when I can’t make a decision; when I’m about to go on a trip all by myself; when I have a dentist’s appointment; when I think my house is falling apart around me and I need to fix something so have to hire someone who will likely take me for too much money; when I’m angry or sad, or even extremely happy; when I fancy someone but am too shy to say so; when I’m trying to finish a novel, or write a poem or play; when I can’t sleep; when I’m starting back to school in September (now!), or when I feel like my soul is about ready to bounce out of my body. Dancing in my tiny kitchen with the dogs also happens occasionally, but we won’t go there today. So, suffice it to say that I do this a lot of the time in my life, house, surroundings…Really, I ought to quit teaching and just start up a cleaning/baking/organizing business.

So, I am having my bedroom redecorated this fall. When I moved here to my little house three years ago, the bedroom was just a room. The rest of the house is a colourful gallery filled with art, music, and the scent of the essential oils that I love to burn when I read or write. It feels like me. 🙂 I have a whole house to use up, but I have never really owned or loved my own space in my bedroom. It doesn’t feel like mine, even after three whole years in this lovely little brick bungalow. Today, I took all of the old books I’ve not looked at in three years–down from a wall unit that I’ve had since I was seventeen or something–and went through old packing boxes, and tossed a lot of stuff. I boxed up books to give away, and threw away mementoes of the past. In the process, I found an old journal. Yeah, I journal. It doesn’t make for much fun, to be honest. If you were to read them, going back fifteen years, you’d see a long line of sadness, depression, and poor self-esteem. I very rarely dip into them because it just makes me feel how much time I’ve lost in my life…but today, I found a half-finished journal from Fall 2004. I was 33.

Fall 2004 was when my mum had a massive heart attack and nearly died. The memory of that night, of her heart attack, is burned into my mind. I can’t escape it. It’s like a horrible movie that plays in my head every so often, usually when I least expect it. I hate that about memory, how it plays havoc with my heart just when I’m doing okay with moving forward. So, the journal that I opened this afternoon was all about that time, about rushing her to the hospital in the middle of the night, and about being told that she would die by morning’s first light. She didn’t die then, but it began a downward slide towards death that lasted for the next four years. Beyond the entry I read about how awful that time was, of her heart attack and then her surgery and recovery, there was an entry where I laid out my plans for myself.

At the time, I was caring for everyone else but myself. I was in the depths of depression, but didn’t even know it. I hid it from everyone at work, but that took energy, and I was in denial about my own health. Sitting there on the edge of my guest room bed this afternoon, with a huge Rubbermaid storage bin beside me, I just read and shook my head. There, after an entry about that hospital hell, was a little one that said, with a tiny voice that was ashamed to speak up for itself: “I want to learn how to write a play. I want to write a play.” What?? I never thought I would write a play, so I don’t know why I wrote that. But, maybe, I guess I hoped (even back then) that I would write a play.

Funny, then, that in Fall 2014, ten years later, I would take an introductory course in writing plays at the Sudbury Theatre Centre. Then, last fall, I was in Playwrights’ Junction at the STC, for a longer stint in playwright stuff. Now, well, I’m in love with writing plays. How did I know, twelve years ago, that I would end up writing a play? It threw me for a loop this afternoon. There were other points in the journal–about wanting to travel the world, wanting to fall in love again, and wanting to have my own house–but I put so much aside to help my parents that I shut those dreams down for almost a whole decade. That made me cry a bit this afternoon, sitting on the edge of that old bed in the basement. How much time have I lost? My thirties, definitely. It’s not all my parents’ fault. It’s partially mine, too. Having major depressive disorder when you’re in your thirties doesn’t mix well with taking care of physically ill parents. It was, as my doctor later said, “a perfect storm” for destruction. I was in dark places for such a long time.

This leads me to my second point of the day…a reflection on what I know I am, and how I must seem to other people…

2) I had a grand afternoon with a friend at her house, on the edge of a northern Ontario lake. We watched gulls soar by, and I was transfixed by the shivers of a pine tree in the wind next to her deck. (I get transfixed by things that are beautiful…it’s like I’m pulled into an experience with nature and landscape…but that’s very pastoral and Wordsworth-ish…and it’s the topic of a different blog post!). I met a friend of hers, a talented writer and pretty amazing person. She found it hard to believe that I was 45. I know. I don’t look it. I’m a hobbit. I avoid the sun. Always have. Maybe that’s helped? The longer we chatted, though, she kept saying “I can’t believe your age. You look so much younger.” I’ve heard this before. It doesn’t matter. I don’t care. I am who I am. Then, the longer we talked, I found her staring at me. She said “When you talk, you sound so much younger than what your age is…” She was puzzled. I don’t care. I’ve seen a lot of people stare at me this year. I notice it, even if they think I don’t. I know they’re trying to sort me out in their own heads, trying to figure out who I am. I know I’m not simple. It’s part of why I’m on my own, I think. I don’t fit into the check boxes for what is traditional. I say what I think. I don’t put on airs. I am who I am. You can take me, or you can bloody well leave me. (I used to worry about it all so much, but now I just feel that I’m supposed to revel in this ‘me’-ness.)

I have mannerisms, I guess you could say, that are a bit quirky. I prefer the word “genuine,” to be honest. I throw my head back when I laugh. If something’s really, really funny, then I laugh with my whole body. I bang my hand on the table (if there’s one there) or I double up with glee. I giggle. I laugh until I cry. I never used to. Trust me. When I was sick, in the depth of darkness, and when I was taking care of my parents, I was the darkest person. I was empty, which is even scarier than being sad. Being empty is terrifying.

This woman today, after I said something without thinking (I have no filter!), looked at me and shook her head, puzzled. “You sound so young. You look so young.” So I just shook my head and smiled, “I know. I’m gullible. I’m too trusting. I’m too innocent. The guys at work say I’m better than TV…because I’m gullible.” I mean…what else can you do, really? Should I tell her I’ve been through twelve years of hell and only have just recently emerged? So that everything seems much brighter than it ever did before? That I touch trees and leaves because I feel how alive everything is? That I love to walk in the rain, or sleep with curtains open so I can see the sun rise? Or that I love watching stars from my back yard swing? No. There’s no point in that. You see…and here is my point: There is a difference between seeming to be ‘young’ and being filled with constant wonder and astonishment, which is sort of what I think I am these days. This world amazes me. So much light, so much energy.

So what’s the story, morning glory? Well, that I will continue to bang my hand on the table if something is really funny, or I will cry if I feel moved to do so, or I will tell you that I miss you or love you when you least expect it, or that I will hug you if I feel I need to, or that I will drop off flowers to your door, or give you a loaf of my Irish soda bread, or that I will love any beam of light that comes my way. Because, you see, I don’t take the light for granted any more. I know I need to live in it, be it, and share it with whomever wants to share it with me. If not, that’s okay, too.

Sometimes, I think, it’s easier for people to say that you’re “so young” (and maybe atypical) when you’re actually in love with your life for the first time ever. Maybe they’ve been lucky enough not to have lived in the darkest of places. I’m happy for them. The dark isn’t a good place to be. But it does teach you (me!) how to recognize and honour any light that makes its way to your doorstep.

Be the light, friends. Be the biggest, brightest light you can be.


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