Archive for November, 2016

A few of you who read this blog regularly will remember that I met up with a friend of my mum’s a couple of months ago. She and her husband, who live in Texas, were up visiting Sudbury for a nursing school reunion. She had found me through this blog, and through articles about my new role as poet laureate here in town via various online publications. Well, today in the mail, I received a fat little envelope full of six beautiful cards, including one from Wendy herself. The other cards are all ones that my grandmother had sent to Wendy and her husband, Carl, over the years. Seeing my grandmother’s handwriting made me get weepy. (I know…if you know me, you know that I’m a tearful girl. Always have been, always will be.) My grandmother was my best friend, so seeing her handwriting on coloured envelopes caught at my heart.

Gram died in December 1998. It really seemed to start a rush of deaths in my family through the late 90s and into the next decade. Most of them took place in December, usually close to Christmas. As you can imagine, while some people love the flurry of Christmas, I tend to shrink from it. There’s no need to rehash the dates and the people I loved who went away…I know who they are in my heart and I think of them all very, very often. My grandmother, though, was different. I spent a lot of my youth with her. When I was little, and my mum was working, I would stay with Gram Ennis at 350 Wembley Drive. My own parents weren’t really very openly affectionate, but Gram would always welcome me with a hug, and wouldn’t let me leave without another one. She had a fantastic sense of humour, and a sense of compassion and kindness that stuck with me. She also taught me that handwritten thank you notes are not an option in life, but a requirement. That’s something I’ve carried with me through my life. At university, I would take the bus from the campus and go and have supper with her, helping her with cleaning or laundry as she got older. We would spend afternoons chatting over cups of instant coffee (she loved Nescafe!). She was a grand storyteller and was the first person to give me a lined journal to write in. She knew, before I even had an inkling, that I was going to be a writer.

Reading through the cards tonight, after marking some essays for my class, I got a bit weepy again. Just seeing her distinctive cursive writing, and how she would slant the return address across the seal of the back flap of an envelope, made me smile. Inside, she signed off as she always would: “Love and the best always, Alice.” The ‘and’ is my favourite part, always, because she wrote it on a slant, from left to right, from top to bottom. It was a distinctive thing, like a writerly and cursive fingerprint on my heart. I miss her.

In one card, she wrote about how she ‘was slowing down somewhat.’ (I’d never heard her admit that her health was a worry when I was in my twenties. She didn’t want to worry any of us. Maybe she worried more for us than I knew, as we all grew up, and as she could be proud of what her own children had accomplished. She had been a single mum in the years when that wasn’t fashionable or accepted in Irish Catholic circles.) Her first fall happened in 1994. She had broken her wrist. I still remember that. They had to put in some space-aged metal contraption that stuck out from her arm. She looked a bit like a robot, and she hated it. What it meant, though, was that things were beginning to slow down for her. She was born on June 21, 1911, and married my grandfather on the Coronation Day for King George VI in May 1937. I always thought that was cool, but I was kind of a monarchist back in the day. (I might still be a ‘closeted monarchist,’ but that’s a post for another day, I think…) After that fall in 1994, well, there were a couple of others. She said she had slipped on her floppy slippers, I still remember that, but really…later…we learned that she was having tiny strokes. One time, my boyfriend and I walked in to find her on the floor in the kitchen and took her to the hospital. That was a terrifying night. Later, a big stroke would mean that she couldn’t communicate for a year or two before her death, and I remember visiting her at the nursing home and sitting with her, trying to find her in there, somewhere behind her confused eyes. I used to sing Irish songs to her and she would sing along with me. It was what we could share together, even after her words were gone. I loved her. A lot.

In her card to me, Wendy wrote: “I know that December will soon be here and that it is a difficult month for you, remembering the loss of your parents. Hopefully it is a small comfort to think of them up there with family and friends, looking down on us with pride and joy.” I’ve only just met Wendy, but she has enough of a sense of me already to know that December is the month I most dread. Right around my birthday, a veil seems to fall a bit on the world around me. I normally always see the light and beauty in things, but there’s an ache that intensifies in my heart in late November and throughout December. For me, it’s a month of losses, like a string of rosary beads. This year, for the two week break, I’m headed off to some cottage, somewhere near a lake, where I can just be with the dogs and read novels and poems and hopefully finish the last draft of my own novel. It’ll be Dad’s fifth anniversary and I can’t bear to be here in town. A couple of friends have already said that they find it hard to understand why I’d go off on my own, but the memories here sometimes can be more harmful than healing.

I’m blessed to have met Wendy and Carl. I know that much. In Wendy’s emails and in the packet of letters and cards that arrived here in Sudbury this afternoon, well, I felt as if I just had a little sliver of my grandmother’s soul visit me. I would, if I could, give the world to hug her just one more time and tell her how glad I am she is such a part of who I am today. Of anyone I’ve known this time around, well, my grandmother taught me lessons of kindness, compassion, and offered me the sense that there was magic in the world. Those gifts, those lessons, are ones that I carry every day.

I know Wendy reads these blogs of mine….so thank you, Wendy, for this gift of Gram’s spirit. She lifted up off the page tonight and I feel she had a hand in me meeting you this year. Small mercies. Bright stars. How blessed are we to have met one another?

In one of her cards to Wendy, Gram Ennis wrote that she would keep her family in her prayers. She used to say the rosary every night. I know because I remember that, when I slept over, she would often get a fit of the giggles in the morning when a rosary would slip out of an elbow of her nightgown in a haphazard way. She told Wendy, in that little card, that she always prayed for “all my friends and relations.” Her heart was big and endless. I loved that about her, that generosity of spirit that reached out and pulled you in. Her soul was vast. I miss it.

So, tonight, I’ll say a prayer for “all my friends and relations,” in memory of my Gram.

peace, friends.

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In my life so far, I’ve felt a few people’s deaths deeply: my parents and maternal grandmother; three of my former students; my literary mentor, Timothy Findley; the death of Seamus Heaney, whom I’d met the summer before in a Sligo pub, and whose death felt like a strong echo of the death of my father in December 2011. This week, hearing the news of Leonard Cohen’s death, on the heels of the rise of Trump in the States, well, my poor heart cracked. Everyone always quotes the lovely words from “Anthem,” and I do so love them, too. How can you not? He wrote: “Don’t dwell on what has passed away or what is yet to be.” If you’re a thinker, a worrier, a ‘feeler,’ an empath, and a creative soul (like me) this is hard to do. You want to try to not think too heavily on the past or the future because both can bring you pain when you least expect it. You’re wiser, by far, if you try to be mindful and just live within the hour, or minute, you’ve been given.

I’ve started doing that this year, and it’s been very helpful. Even taking guitar lessons from my friend Brittany, and practicing guitar, teaches me lessons each day. Yes, my fingers hurt. Yes, my fingers won’t stretch widely enough (yet) to get at that “C” chord. But I know, with practice, with stamina and hard work, I’ll get there. I can’t think about what happens if I don’t get the “C” chord; if I believe that, then I’ll never be able to accompany myself when I sing the Irish and Scottish songs I love. So I focus on the pain in my fingertips as I try to press more and more firmly down on the right strings, and the cramping in the stretch of my long fingers, and I think “you’ll be grand, Kim; you only just need to focus on the moment, on the practice, on the repetition, and know that it will all be well.” I kind of think that’s why I love Cohen’s “Anthem” so much. He talks about not dwelling on what you don’t know, or don’t yet know. Just because it hasn’t happened yet (being able to get the “C” chord or play “Will you go lassie, go?” on the guitar, for instance) doesn’t mean it won’t. It’s about having faith and hope in something, isn’t it? It’s about learning to trust yourself.

The other part of the song I love is the famous, oft-quoted part. In the last few days, it’s been all over social media, and I understand why. Cohen wrote: “Ring the bells that still can ring/ Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack, a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in.” He calls us, still, even though he’s gone, to know that there is beauty in our human imperfections, and that we need to honour, value and celebrate that. Even cracked and broken things–people especially–can be full of light and hope. I love that. I really do. It reminds me of having come through the darkness of depression to light, and it reminds me of how I try and create beautiful and purposeful things with words, and of how much care and time that creative process can take if I want to do it well. It calls me to be more patient in my day-to-day life, to have faith in the process of living itself. It reminds me of how I deal with the students I serve through teaching, especially of how they might not yet be able to see the light through their darkness or anxiety, and how I try to help them find slivers of light–even just slivers for right now–so that they don’t despair. It reminds me of my time working with Timothy Findley, who always used to sign his books with the phrase “Against despair.” Yes. All of this, this living and loving and loss, is about pushing back ‘against despair’ to find light. That’s why I loved Tiff and that’s why I loved (and will always love) Leonard Cohen’s words.

I’ll be honest now; I’ve never really liked his singing voice. It’s the words that have always drawn me. The poetry. The prophecy. The sense of there being a great soul there, in the turns of phrases, in the images, in the puzzles and revelations. The sense of a knowledge of the universe, a wisdom in how he explained his creative process and his view of spirit. I loved that about him, too.

I can never sleep on the nights when someone important to me dies. I don’t know if this is common for other people, but I almost feel as if I have to stay awake to show them, to show their souls I suppose, that they were a significant part of me…that I loved them. So, when my maternal grandmother died, I stayed awake all night, weeping and drinking tea, and reading Yeats poems. When my mum died, I remember the giant snow flakes that fell, and being on the back porch and yard with the dogs, walking through that white snow globe of the world that night and trying to find her somewhere…and not being successful…and feeling so bereft. And then, when my dad died, well, that was the hardest one somehow. Wanting to tell him what I hadn’t had a chance to, wishing and regretting I’d been braver to speak with him before he went. Coming to the realization that, sometimes, you will not be able to say the things you most needed to say to another soul before they go.

When writers or artists die, for me, if they’re ones I respect and admire, the same things happen. I spend the night awake, wishing them well on the journey, reading their words or listening to their songs, or looking at their artwork. It brings me peace, somehow.

People will write of Leonard Cohen’s going, and they should. It feels almost false, to write about it here, but I know I have to. When I feel compelled to write something, there’s no stopping it. I know that now.

His going means this to me: the light seems just a bit dimmer to me these last few days; my heart seems to ache a bit more sharply; the silences, oddly, bring me more peace; the walks with the dogs and the sitting down by the edge of Lake Ramsey seem more sacred somehow, filled with thoughts and wonder; the time I’m spending ‘turtling,’ as I call it, pulling inward to check in with my soul on days when I’m struggling with loss or even with just being braver in what I say or do (which is hard for me) makes it all seem more true. There are touchstones of soul that have emerged this week for me, and they make me feel blessed and full of wonder, even though the loss is there. It amazes me, some days, how full the world can be, if you let it speak to you.

I’m hoping you let the world speak to you…that it will fill you up as it does me. Find that spare star in the sky tonight, or the late leaving swoop of Canada geese that sit down near Ramsey, or the sound of the birches cracking when you walk near Dead Man’s Canyon. That’s where Cohen is now. He’s here, there and everywhere. And that’s both the sad and wondrous magic of it all, isn’t it?


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It’s no surprise to anyone who knows me that I am truly, madly, deeply in love with art. (I love being outside in nature, near water, or on a worn path in the bush in northern Ontario, almost as much as I love art…but art has become a fixation and passion of mine in the last five years. It’s filled a void of love, grief and loss that my parents left, I think. Doors have opened in my heart and mind that were shut; walls have crumbled. A lot of that, I think, has to do with how much I’ve immersed myself in the world of art.)

I’ve been meaning to get into the Art Gallery of Sudbury to see the two next exhibits, but I was away reading at Poetry at the Manor in Windsor when the exhibitions opened two weeks ago, and this past week was Wordstock Sudbury, so I’ve been running myself off my own feet. Yesterday and today, and likely the next couple of weeks, will be times filled with internal work and what I like to call ‘turtling.’ Some people will say it’s anti-social, to pull in and just take stock of what I’m feeling and thinking, but sometimes the world is too much and –as an introvert and creative person–I know I need to tend to myself when I get to feeling a bit ‘spinny’ inside. Part of this means dawn (or late night) walks next to Ramsey Lake, watching the sun rise, or the moon and stars shiver in the sky, and a few hours in the afternoon and evening either looking at art, or reading, or maybe fiddling with a new blog entry or a poem. I’m working on “The Kingsville Sequence,” a small sequence of haiku poems inspired by my love of Essex County. (Before this year, I’d never been there, but now I’ve been down there three times in less than twelve months and cannot get its skies and fields and Lake Erie out of my mind and heart. Besides that, I’m creating a series of ekphrastic pieces based on some ‘ofrendas’ that I saw at the Detroit Institute of the Arts (DIA) a week ago Saturday. Yeah, I got lost driving around on my own, but I know by now that if I don’t do things on my own, in a braver-than-usual-me fashion, I just wouldn’t see the things I want to see before I die. Melodramatic, perhaps, but true. 🙂

Today’s visit to the AGS was a lovely deep breath in and out after what’s been a frantic few weeks for me. I just wanted the silence of the space and the beauty of the art to fill me up…and it did…as it always does. I worked at the art gallery in my late twenties and it holds a space in my heart. I’ve written poems and plays in which it features prominently, and its stories and history always haunts me. For that, I must say, I am eternally grateful…to know that a place can have such a hold on your heart after twenty years is somewhat anchoring and comforting in a world that seems rather shifty at times.

In Gallery 1, you can see Barry Ace’s “Nayaano-nibiimaang Gichigamiin: The Great Lakes.” You walk into the gallery to see five great ‘honouring blankets’, each one holding its own space in a solid and tangible way. If you stand in the middle of the gallery and just breathe and let your eyes follow from one to the next, you can feel the energy of those five Great Lakes. They are all Hudson Bay trade blankets, “adorned with individual blanket strips with intricate floral motifs composed from glass beads and electronic components (capacitors, resistors, and diodes). Each blanket is an homage to the Great Lakes as traditional homelands of the Anishinaabeg.” I found myself drawn to two in particular, namely Lake Huron, which is the body of water that surrounds my beloved Manitoulin Island, and Lake Erie, which has haunted me a great deal since mid-May.

When I was a little girl, my parents took my sister and me up to camp on the edges of Lake Mindemoya, a place where you can see the outline of a woman in the shape of what is now more commonly known as ‘Treasure Island.’ I remember late nights in saunas, and then racing down between rental camps to speed down a long dock and then jump into a beautifully shallow lake. Swimming under the stars as a girl, well, that is a northern Ontario memory that won’t leave me. I’ll have it, I know, in my mind when I’m on my death bed, and I’m thankful for that. That honouring blanket, for Huron and its sacred Manitoulin, is all about paying homage to the “Great Crosswaters Sea.” The floral emblems that sparkle alongside the image of the thunderbird spoke to me on a deep level, reminding me of images I’ve seen since I was little. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been drawn to Ojibway art, especially the work of those artists who are of the Woodland School. They entrance me. This blanket wouldn’t let me leave it alone this afternoon. It conjured up August afternoons of pale Irish skin that freckled and burnt too quickly, and of my mother reading bent paperbacks and smoking Cameo cigarettes with a big red floppy hat on her head. She would peer out at the water over the top of her book, a beer at the side of her lawn chair, and was always sure to keep an eye on us as we swam out into the far distance of that shallow lake called Mindemoya. This afternoon, I couldn’t move; she was there, just as the honouring blanket for Huron was there. It shook my heart.

The other lake that has seduced me this year, in a truly surprising manner, is Lake Erie. I have never been down to Windsor before this year. The only reason I went in early May was to attend a ten-day retreat on Pelee Island, and to get a chance to work with Margaret Atwood for an afternoon. I had driven down through southwestern Ontario, through Mennonite country, and down towards the place where my dad was born and spent so much of his youth. My last good memories of time spent with my dad are of a road trip we took together in May 2009, before he fell and became a quadriplegic. We drove down to London, spent time sharing memories and thoughts, and then I took him to Park Hill, the tiny town where his maternal grandparents had lived. So, by the time I had travelled down to Kingsville in May, to cross over to Pelee Island, I was a bit emotionally raw. I had come through landscape that conjured up my dad in all his vibrant spirit. I could have sworn, at points, that he was sitting next to me in the car as I wondered about where my life was headed. Then, being thrown into a cottage with people I didn’t know, all writers, and having been stripped emotionally raw on the drive down to SW Ontario, well, I spent a lot of time taking long solitary walks and writing in my journal and finding little coves covered in fossils, so that I could sort out how Dad was hanging around again in my heart. I didn’t write a lot that week, but I met a couple of amazing friends…and for that I’ll be forever grateful to the universe, or God, or the Creator, or whatever you want to call it.

Going back down to Kingsville in mid-August, to work on the second draft of my novel, I spent time at a friend’s heritage house that overlooks Lake Erie. It’s a yellow brick house and, for those who know me, I’m always on about the yellow brick house on McNaughton Terrace and the one on Kingsmount that used to belong to Judge Orange. The house on Kingsmount is one I’ve stood in front of for years, on long walks. I stalk it. So, arriving to a yellow brick house on the edge of Erie pretty much did me in as a poet. Instead of sleeping upstairs in a bed, most nights I just pulled a duvet off one of the upstairs beds and slept on a chesterfield in the front porch, so I could hear the water smashing against the shore, and so I could see the moon over the water, and the shadow of the swing in the yard. I didn’t want to miss a single sunrise. Erie pulls at me with a power I haven’t known in a long time. Huron does it, too, but to a lesser extent somehow. When I was down in Windsor two weeks ago to read at the Poetry at the Manor event for some Canadian poet laureates, I felt compelled to drive out to Point Pelee National Park. I spent about three hours out there, walking amidst Carolinian trees and scuttling down little paths to the beaches. I sat there, watching the water, seeing the sun set, hearing the birds overhead, and I wept. How can you not? These lakes are powerful entities. They are alive and sacred. The land that edges and embraces their water is alive and sacred. It’s hard to explain to someone who doesn’t ‘feel landscape.’ I do. I’m into touching trees, picking up stones on beaches and in forests. The energy of the landscape, for me, is alive and speaks to me in a visceral and spiritual way. It’s why, I think, I was so entranced by Barry Ace’s work today…because art has an energy, too. It has a spirit, if you’re open to sensing it.

The show in the upstairs gallery is also breathtaking. A series of jingle dresses is displayed, and each one has a distinctive story that it tells. At first, you just see the visual beauty of it all — the bright colours, the sharply bright jingles that hang in strings from the fabric, the suggestion of beading on a patterned blouse. Then, as you read the descriptive cards next to the different pieces, you realize the titles of the work hints at deeper things. One piece that has stayed with me is Leanna Marshall’s “She Swims With Fishes” (2004). At the base of the dress is a sort of ribbon of silver metal that is cut out and which curls to the floor, hinting at something like fins flashing in sunlight. When you study it, though, and speak to Demetra Christakos, the Curator, she tells you it symbolizes the missing and murdered aboriginal women, and your heart breaks. Of the jingle dress itself, Wanda Baxter writes: “It is a healing dress. When we make the dress, it brings you healing. As you go through the process of making the dress, everything you do and all your feelings go into that dress. And as the maker, you are the only one who really knows and understands the art that you do, the experiences that you go through, the way your making connects you to others and all of your relations.” Yes. And in viewing these symbolic dresses, each with their own story to tell, you feel the energy of the makers ripple through you in the silence of the space.

I left the gallery feeling less ‘spinny’ in my head today. It roots me, being around art, in a way that being in nature and in the middle of landscape does, too. I’m blessed to have figured that out, in the second part of my life, after a great deal of struggle. Art can heal. Art can lift you up. Art can transform your life if you open your heart wide enough.


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