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Archive for January, 2017

If you follow me on social media, on either the Poet Laureate Twitter account (@SudburyPoet) or on Facebook, you’ll know that my current project, leading up to April (National Poetry Month!), is called the Sudbury Street Poetry Project. Yup. There’s alliteration there. Typical poet. It’s a seemingly simple project, but it’s had me running around the town over the last few weeks, chatting up all sorts of local business owners and convincing them that putting poetry in their front windows is a good idea. So far, no one’s tossed me out on my bum, and I’ve worn out my boots most afternoons walking around downtown and in the south end. I’m loving it, knowing that I can get poems out into spaces and places that normally don’t see poetry. It’s part of my notion of trying to spread some “poetic graffiti” around town, bringing the idea of poetry from one of elitist language to regular, everyday words that just make you think differently about the way in which you see the world. I want to make poetry more accessible as a genre, but I also want Sudburians to think about what poetry is, and maybe even try their hand at writing a bit of it. Sure, there are open mic sessions in town–one at the library and one at the Speakeasy–and these are great initiatives, but I also want to encourage people who may not think of themselves as being poets to try their hand at writing a stanza or two. It shouldn’t be something terrifying, but more of an experiment in language and expression of ideas.

Someone asked me the other day where the idea for the project came from. Well, if I’m honest about it, the whole thing traces its origins back to the West of Ireland, where I was taking part in an ekphrastic poetry writing retreat at the Anam Cara Writers’ and Artists’ Retreat, led by noted Seattle poet, Susan Rich, back in summer 2012. Anam Cara is a magical place, situated just a twenty minute walk outside of the tiny village of Eyeries, on the Beara Peninsula, in County Cork. It was a brilliant week that led me to further strengthen my poetry, and specifically made me consider how visual art played a role in my creative process as a poet.

While in Eyeries, I often walked through the village. That week in 2012, the “Windows of Eyeries” art exhibition was on in the village. The unique thing was that this exhibition wasn’t in a gallery, but instead meant that you could walk through the village, with its beautifully painted little houses, and see a piece of art in every house window. It was nothing to stand in front of a bright blue cottage and peer into someone’s front window, to better see the piece of visual art that was sat there in the window frame. I loved the idea! First of all, I love walking late at night so I can see in people’s windows. As a writer, I love making up stories about people’s lives in my head. I also like to see how people decorate their front rooms, especially if they live in older houses. (I am entranced by older, period and character homes. I touch anything in sight, drawn in by the history and by the stories that I start imagining in my head.) Windows without curtains drawn closed are so seductive to me. I also tend to photograph windows and doors when I travel. I love the idea of how a window is a passage way between places and spaces. The time in Eyeries, and the sight of art in each house’s front window, struck me as genuine and clever. It seemed, somehow, voyeuristic and charming at the same time. It was beautifully complex, in a simple and elegant way.

After that, in 2014, I remember reading something online about how people in Dumfries, Scotland, had put up some of Robbie Burns’s poems in windows of that town. Again, I was drawn to it…something about windows, and looking in them, and trying not to because it might be considered rude, but doing it anyway because I was curious. That you could put something in a window and want people to look (even though they maybe shouldn’t!) made me smile. It seemed…whimsical.

Here’s a link to that story:

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/art/art-blog-remembering-robert-burns-national-poet-of-scotland-with-windowpanes-of-words/

Then, when I was on a tour of the Hebrides and Skye this past summer in Scotland, I met two young women on the little bus who told me about the poetry library at Morpeth. “You must see it…especially because you are a poet!” They said it enthusiastically and told me it was one of the biggest and most amazing poetry libraries in England. My first reading in the UK was in Newcastle in July of 2016 and I met some brilliant women poets. Somewhere in a night of poetry reading and chatter and drinks, I heard about the Newgate Street Poetry Festival. Newgate Street is a street in Morpeth. The notion behind this festival was to document the life of a street, by having poems written about its history and then hung in participating business windows.

Here’s a link to that quirky little story, on my friend Oonah Joslin’s blog:

https://oovj.wordpress.com/2016/09/

The photo gives you a sense of what you can do with the scope of this project. Drawing poetry into places where it hasn’t traditionally been seen or read before, as in a dress maker’s window, for instance, catches my fancy. It’s quirky, a bit ballsy, and invites the onlooker (reader!) to take the time to actually read a piece of poetry.

So…fast forward to fall-ish of 2016. As poet laureate for the City of Greater Sudbury, I put out a call for submissions of poems that would be easily matched to the windows of small, local businesses. There were some submissions, but not as many as I would have liked. We called it the ‘Sudbury Street Poetry Project” because it’s about the whole town, in terms of where we post poems, and in terms of who wants to write and submit poems, and what they’re about. It also appealed to me, with the naming of the thing, not to call it a ‘festival,’ but to focus on it being a ‘project,’ something that might be just for a season. I’m never sure if my ideas will ever work. I’ll always try, though. (I’m stubborn that way!)

Last weekend, my friend Sarah asked me, “How do you do it?” So I said, “What?” She shook her head. “Well, you just have these ideas, ones other people don’t have, and you make them happen. How do you do that?” I shook my head. I’ll tip my hat in honour of the Windows of Eyeries, and to the Newgate Street Poetry Festival as the roots of my idea, but it’s more about just having the vision and then getting the work done. If people are surprised that things get done, I’m not sure what to say. I can only say that I feel the pressure of the term ending later this year, and that makes me want to try to put my ‘poetic graffiti’ projects out there before it’s time for me to leave the role and let the next person move in and make it their own for a while. I also want to have done a good, creative, and kind of quirky job of it all, by the time the end of my time rolls around.

Now comes the ‘kicker,’ as my mum used to say: I need more poems from all of you, my Sudbury, Ontario poet people. (And, yes, you have to be a resident of Sudbury to take part in this one!) Try to keep them to a page, or about 25 lines. We don’t want to overwhelm the ‘non-poetry readers.’ Send them in to the library site, via the poet laureate page. Follow the links on the page below!

http://www.sudburylibraries.ca/en/booksmuchmore/Poet-Laureate.asp

It’s all there! Now, here’s the thing…this poetry project of mine is about getting poems out into places where they’ve never been before. We’ll soon be putting up a list of participating businesses and organizations on the laureate page of the library site so that you can see which places support the literary arts (and culture) here in Sudbury. The other part of all this is to try and cultivate and foster a sense of community between the arts community and small, local businesses in Sudbury. Part of this is that you can, as Sudburians, visit the businesses that support the work that the library and the office of the laureate is doing. You can let them know that the literary arts and culture is important to you, as a citizen of this city.

For me, well, I love the arts with my whole heart, body and soul. In recent years, the arts have helped me to lift myself out of difficult times. A night at a theatre production, or a wander through one of the funky little art galleries in town, or the launch of a new literary magazine or journal, these things all make me feel like something’s being done to cultivate the arts in Sudbury. This is just another way in which to do the work that so many of us try to do in supporting the arts, especially through our volunteer committee work and in attending arts events around town.

You can help by writing a poem! Now, I can hear you as I type, “But, Kim, I’m not a poet!” And I will answer, “You may not consider yourself a poet, but I would ask you to do one thing: Each day, try to find one thing that strikes you as being beautiful, either something you see, or experience, or hear, or find just fills you with love, light or wonder. Now, write that one thing down. By the end of the week, you will have a series of little images, mostly rooted in the five senses I will venture a guess, and you can play with lines to make a stanza. Before long, you will have a little poem. If size intimidates you, try a simple haiku. They are so elegant, those little haiku jewels.”

Come on, fellow Sudburians! Get out your pens and bits of paper, and jot down a few lines. I so look forward to reading them. I look forward, too, to doing more innovative and creative work as your poet laureate, but I’d like to invite you to come along and take part. That, to me, is so much more fun than just me doing it on my own!

peace,
k.

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I’m a big believer in certain things: kindness (why is that so rare these days, I wonder, when it should come as naturally as breathing in and exhaling out, without thinking?); compassion; respect; treating others as equals; a dynamic classroom (where learning happens in creative and sometimes magical ways!); a person’s ability to make a real difference in their own community (if they have a vision and the work ethic and dedication to make it ‘real’); the way in which words can transform and transport you (whether you read or write, or do both) out of dark spaces in your mind and heart, or in the world; the saving grace that is democracy; the value of art in a person’s life, from birth to death (and beyond!); the worth of poetry in the world (in small and in majestic ways); and, I believe that admitting you know nothing is the best way to learn as you make your way through the journey you’re on while you’re here in the world. That admission, of opening yourself up to being vulnerable, to taking a risk, in admitting you don’t know an answer, or that you are willing to learn because you are ‘wrong,’ is a powerful doorway to new knowledge.

Teaching NBE 3U this past semester has shifted the molecules in my world for me. I can’t recognize who I am anymore. That sounds dramatic, and teaching this course is only part of my transformation, but I’m well aware that the shift in the way I look at the world dovetails, at least partially, with learning more about the teachings of First Nations cultures. From the first day of class onwards, I told the girls that I wasn’t indigenous, that I would never dare to speak for anyone else, but that I would bring in guest speakers who would be able to answer their questions, and I told them that we would learn together. We would make meaning together. To me, that was the most powerful intention that I could have set for my own classroom, as a teacher. If I’m anything, I’m just a teacher and an ally.

When my school replaced the traditional ENG 3U, Grade 11 University-bound English, with this First Nations, Metis and Inuit literature course, some people wondered why. Parents might have wondered, and I know kids wondered because they asked me about it. To me, it makes perfect sense. If part of what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) is doing is helping to educate Canadians about the true history of this country, in all of its harsh reality, then courses like these need to be mandatory, and not optional. Why wouldn’t we use English as a curriculum discipline, and literature, to be the vehicle through which the history of Canada’s First Nations peoples is more properly taught? As a teacher, too, I can tell you that teaching the literature has been exciting and energizing. (You can love Shakespeare, and he can definitely be one of your top ten ‘secret husbands,’ but there is a wide body of beautiful literature that’s been written by Canada’s indigenous authors.)

This past semester, we looked at work by Drew Hayden Taylor, Richard Wagamese, Thomas King, Liz Howard, Gregory Scofield, Marilyn Dumont, and Louise Bernice Halfe, just to name a few. I asked my friend, Sudbury playwright Sarah Gartshore, to come in and speak about her play, “Survivance,” and then my friend Shelley Frappier, who works at Indigenous Studies at Laurentian University, came in to speak to the girls about treaties. Liz Howard also came to visit Marymount, when she was up in town for Wordstock, Sudbury’s Literary Festival, which was fabulous as we asked her to read “The Look Book,” a poem we had studied in class. The course is a literature course, but you need to start from scratch when there is so little known because of how the school system has dealt — or not dealt — with Indigenous issues and history. You need to weave in some core teachings to root your students in a knowledge base. Then you can stir in the words. We also visited the Art Gallery of Sudbury to see two Indigenous artists’ exhibitions. (You can read about that in one of my earlier blog entries, if you’d like, so I won’t re-write it all here.) 🙂

As a class, we spoke about the course’s guiding concepts of identity, challenges, relationships, and sovereignty, as they were reflected in the literature we studied in class. What we learned, as a group, is that all four concepts are intertwined. You can’t speak of one concept without mentioning how the others weave themselves into one another. There’s something so beautiful about that, how the culture and spirituality permeates the literature, and the lives of the characters. We spoke of the Four Directions and the four sacred medicines. We spent time smudging in the school courtyard together, and we learned about how the Elders are the ones who pass the history, culture, language, and ceremonies down to the younger people in communities. That sense of continuity, really, is one thing that I find comforting about the literature. The role of residential schools is a dark, dark blot on the notion of continuity, because you end up with the destruction of family structures, lateral violence, abuse, addiction, and poverty, all as a result of the wrongs done to First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples through the government imposed structure of the school system.

Beyond the actual study of literature, though, there were quite a few life lessons that I learned from teaching this course for the first time this past semester. The most significant one was just being open to being an active learner, and to not always feeling you have to know the answer to every question. (And, believe me, when you teach, there are questions coming at you all day long!) As a learner (and as a teacher and person) I’ve traditionally been someone who wants to try to know everything, quickly, impatiently, and then take it in. It’s a control freak and perfectionist thing, I know. It also means that I’m more than a bit sponge-like, I guess, when it comes to learning. (I’m cerebral and creative, which can be a dicey combination in social situations and likely is another reason why I do well on my own with dogs!) By shifting my intention in learning and teaching, in pedagogy really, and by teaching my mind/brain that I didn’t need to know everything–that I can be curious and questioning as a way to lead my students through the curriculum–I freed myself from a number of old patterns of thinking. Letting myself relax a bit in the classroom, and letting our group conversations and questions guide the lessons, really ended up reflecting more of a non-traditional approach to pedagogy. I found that intriguing, too. My teaching style has shifted because of the literature I’ve been teaching, has shifted from being defined by a dominant social group’s perspective. The TRC, within the scope and sequence of this course, serves as a centre point, an anchor point, around which everything else revolves.

It may just be (after all is said and done) that this was “one of those classes”, though. If you teach, you know what I mean. A class like this, a “magic class,” might only come around once in a blue moon. When it comes along, though, you know it’s the one, or one of very few, that will sit in your heart for years to come. You can feel it when you walk in the classroom, and even when you leave. There’s an energy there that can’t be denied. To deny it would be a travesty and an affront to the Universe, I think, so I honour it by speaking of its power here.

I told my girls today that I was proud of them. They walked in, on the very first day, knowing only the stereotypes of First Nations, Metis and Inuit cultures that their culture and education system had previously offered them. They didn’t know about residential schools, or the 60s Scoop, or Charlie Wenjak’s Secret Path, or Christi Belcourt’s beautiful paintings and her exhibition of half finished moccasins. They didn’t know about the Red Dress Project in honour of Canada’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, and they didn’t know about treaties and wars on our own soil. They are young, but they are very wise girls. In conversations at the ends of classes, when they’ve shared their own poems or pieces of art, knowing how much I love art, we have talked about how spirituality can infuse all sorts of things. One young woman gave me the gift of a painting last week. She painted a bear, her spirit totem, guarding a stand of northern pine trees. “Miss,” she said, “The bear is my totem, and the trees are for you…because you love trees so much.”

Today, on our last day together, I thanked them for having taught me. At a girls’ school, when they’re emotionally moved by something you say or do, you see little smiles and all of them sort of go “awwwwwwww” all at once. It’s kind of sweet, like a wave of goodness. Then, one girl gave me a note that thanked me, but that also spoke to how this student now wants to help with reconciliation in her own life. To me, if nothing else came of this course, that would be a telling statement. This is where the Truth and Reconciliation Commission will find the spirit, I think, of what needs to be done in this country. Educating Canada’s youth means that they will know the truth, which is something I didn’t know at that age. It means that they will want to be more socially aware and conscious in how they choose to live. They will understand the connections between human and Creator (or God, or Universe), and between human and environment, and between human and human. That these young people now feel more confident with what they’ve learned, and that they are willing to help educate others, even parents who may not know about the true histories of our nation, is more than rewarding. (If I were to get hit by an ore truck tomorrow, I’d be perfectly happy in knowing that I’d done a good job with living my life fully on a daily basis and trying to start up some ripples and choruses of questions and ‘I wonders….’)

The most touching gift I’ve received this year has been the braid of sweet grass that I was given today at the end of class. One of the quietest girls waited until the very end of class and gave me the braid. That did it. I just started to get totally emotional. I hardly feel I’ve done the course, or its content, proper justice, but I can only hope I’ve made some change in some heart. Receiving that sweet grass braid today, well, it’s more than amazing when a sixteen year old thanks you for teaching them some of the most difficult things they’ve ever heard, and that she chooses to gift you with one of the four sacred medicines as thanks, well, I can’t tell you how that makes your heart open up.

I feel so grateful to have spent five months with my little group of Grade 11 girls at Marymount. They have, I know, taught me so much more than I will ever have taught them…and there is a place in my heart where gratitude swells up in big Great Lake waves tonight. All I can think, too, is that, in the face of their surreal world’s recent days, these bits of light are things to hold onto and cherish.

Every bit of light ripples out against the dark, in the smallest, but oh-so-significant of ways. Trust that, friends. Stir those waters, ripple your light, send it out.

peace,
k.

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Here’s the thing about Gwendolyn MacEwen: for me, as a young female Canadian poet back in the mid to late 1990s, her work struck me in the heart, the solar plexus, the brain, and the ever-important root chakra. Her poetry hit all the key points in my physical, spiritual, sexual, and intellectual body, in terms of where I think and feel, and her work still has that ripple effect on me. In high school, the only sorts of poems I studied were curriculum-driven, directed by the Ontario government. This narrow view of poetry included Shakespeare’s sonnets, Purdy’s and Layton’s poems, a sprinkling of Cohen, and some Atwood. (I especially loved “You fit into me,” which has a visceral kick to it.)

I didn’t come to Gwendolyn MacEwen’s work until university, likely in third year, when I read “Dark Pines Under Water.” It resonated with me. Looking back now, as a woman and not a girl (who stupidly thought she was a woman in her twenties) in university, I can see why it speaks to me. MacEwen writes: “This land like a mirror turns you inward/And you become a forest in a furtive lake;/The dark pines of your mind reach downward,/You dream in the green of your time,/Your memory is a row of sinking pines.” These lines, for me, speak of how I can walk into landscape and find myself at one with the spirit of a wild place. I never feel at home in a physical or material space, but am only most myself in amidst rocks, trees, and water — anywhere I can sit and open my heart and mind to let the essence of that natural world in. That’s where magic happens…and MacEwen understood the idea of magic. It’s in so much of her work, in her imagery of Egypt and the Middle East, and even in the costuming she used as she read her work in Toronto through the 60s, 70s, and 80s. She knew how to create a persona, a voice, and this essence of the poet and woman is so aptly evident and reflected in playwright Linda Griffiths’s “Alien Creature.” The big, dark eyes and the darkened kohl that rimmed them, well, so much of that was a reflection of self, and also a magical distortion of self, at the very same time. That’s what makes her so fascinating, and why her life and work speaks to me still.

Here is her oh-so-beautiful “Dark Pines Under Water:”

When I read the work of poets and writers–and when I study the work of visual artists–I often will immerse myself in their bodies of work. I like to live in their words (or artwork) for a while, weeks even, and I’ll read biographies and search out obscure bits of information. I’ve done this with MacEwen, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, and also with artists like Georgia O’Keefe, Mary Pratt, and Emily Carr. Yes, they are all women, I know, and I suppose this means that I am curious about how women artists and writers have, historically and culturally, succeeded in times when women were not considered as being even close to ‘equal’ to men. A few of them, but not all, had issues with mental health, and so I suppose–when I was very ill with major depression in my 30s–I was drawn to the notion of how creativity/genius and madness intersected. Looking back, I can see that I was trying to heal myself from the inside out, through reading and studying the work of other creative women.

Beyond that, though, I think that I was drawn to their life stories first. They were fascinating women, people who didn’t follow social mores or expectations. They were obviously unique and vibrant. These might be considered acceptable traits now for women, but then, well, they were the brave minority. I admire(d) them for their bravery, spirit, and ability to be all right with who they were. It takes forever and a day to come into yourself and, when you do, it frees you as a person, but also as an artist or writer. I only speak of this with reference to my journey as a writer since my twenties. I wouldn’t go back to that age if you paid me. There’s a depth of experience and understanding that comes with your years on the planet. I’m grateful for that now, as a woman and a creative. Complexity intrigues me, as I find I’m more interesting now than I was in my twenties. I’m glad of that.

MacEwen didn’t have an easy life, as anyone who knows the history of Can lit likely knows. She came from a family with a mother who struggled with severe mental health issues, and a father who was an alcoholic. She was born in 1941 and died in 1987. Some suggested she may have committed suicide, but Linda Griffiths suggests, in her play “Alien Creature,” that MacEwen died of alcoholism. Either way, it is horribly sad, how such a bright and creative poet should have felt so disenfranchised in a city like Toronto. At its peak, the Canadian poetry scene in the 1960s was vibrant and full of so many amazing voices. She was one of them. That she died alone–on the margins of society, in a town she had once loved, in a place where she had once been considered a sort of “magical woman, or alien creature,” and that she was so isolated and outcast–makes me sad. Very, very sad.

After completing my undergraduate and graduate degrees in English literature (at Laurentian University and Carleton University), I found Rosemary Sullivan’s “The Shadow Maker: The Life of Gwendolyn MacEwen.” I read it and felt sort of transformed. Here was someone who was spirited, creative, who loved magic and the way in which worlds (or dimensions) could weave themselves one into the other in a seamless and sensual way. She had struggled with parents who had dealt with mental health issues and alcoholism, as I had. (Sometimes, these things are in your family’s history and you don’t even know until you are an adult…because you may have somehow blocked them from your comprehension, in a psychologically protective way.) When your parents are caught up in these issues, you often aren’t aware, I think, because they hide things from you…and then, later, you want to believe they aren’t real. It’s easier, I guess, as a young person, to imagine that your parents are not human, that they do not struggle with issues like depression and alcoholism. Then, though, you need to deal with it later, as an adult. The work is harder, the time is longer, in terms of healing yourself. No one else can magically do it. The road is long, and tiring.

The first time I read Linda Griffiths’s play, “Alien Creature,” was in borrowing copies of plays in the fall of 2015 from Matt Heiti, during my time in his Playwrights’ Junction play writing session at the Sudbury Theatre Centre. I knew I loved MacEwen’s poems, and I had eaten up Sullivan’s biography of MacEwen, so I knew I would be drawn to the play. I read it in the fall of 2015, and again last week in anticipation of going to see Griffiths’s “Alien Creature” at Theatre Passe Muraille. Directed by Jani Lauzon, and starring Beatriz Pizano, the play comes to life on a simple stage. The images and smoke that curls around the stage evokes the sense of magic that is conveyed in MacEwen’s poetic work. Nothing in her poetry is clear, and everything is rich and complex in terms of her use of imagery and metaphor. It is sensual poetry, I think, and intellectually and spiritually stimulating on so many levels. (You can’t read MacEwen’s work without thinking about female desire and sexuality, and this is another thing that intrigues me. How men view women, in terms of desire and sensuality, is very different from what women feel inside. I think, often, of D.H. Laurence, and his view of how women must experience desire. Oh, goodness, D.H. You have no idea, do you? That’s why MacEwen’s body of work is intriguing, too. She wasn’t afraid of writing about female desire, about sensuality, and that is — for the time she was writing in, for she was, even then, ahead of her time — bold and empowering. It still is.)

I love what Jani Laurzon, the director of “Alien Creature,” wrote in the Director’s Notes for the play. “Gwendolyn’s journey was not an easy one. But bridging light and dark creates worlds of shadows that are rich, complicated, passionate and painful. That is what living is: the light and dark breathing together.” Yes. Just “yes.” I would so much rather be complex and unique than simple and one dimensional, as both a person, a woman, a soul, and a poet. To be otherwise, well, it would be boring and ‘flat.’ In my twenties, I kept thinking as I watched the play at Theatre Pass Muraille last night, I was so easily influenced, especially by men I fancied. I was wobbly, unformed, a fetus almost. Now, in my mid-forties, there’s a sense of confidence that’s well rooted. As a poet, I can look back on my body of work and see the various phases and stages of my life, as they are reflected in my own literary work. The path has been interesting, certainly, but the place I am now is a place of origin and certainty, and I kept thinking–last night–how sad it was that Gwendolyn MacEwen had reached that place, that climax of creativity, but then died. She could have done so much more…with her words…her heart…her spirit.

There are places in the play that speak to me, deeply. Griffiths puts words in MacEwen’s mouth. The ones about being a woman poet are telling, for me, anyway. A few times during the performance, I heard myself making sounds of agreement deep in my throat. Resonance is powerful. I loved the lines: “Just because I’m a poet doesn’t mean I don’t like light coming through the windows like anyone else.” How people (or society) view poets always intrigues me, sometimes frustrates, and sometimes even makes me laugh and shake my head. There are romanticized versions of what people think a poet should be. Sometimes, to be honest, I’ve even had other writers (mostly novelists or short story writers…those prosaic types!) make odd comments about my being a poet. It’s easier to explain me away, and define me, if you consider the historic, poetic story and archetypes: Ah, yes, she walks in the woods and touches trees. Poet. Is drawn to water and great natural landscapes. Poet. Broken hearted and melancholic. Poet. Likes to wear long, billowy black coats and walk through mist. Poet. Reads widely and writes in small (or wide) spaces. Poet. Believes that ‘pathetic fallacy’ is a permanent sort of weather pattern that reflects internal life and musings. Poet. Reads voraciously. Poet. Introvert. Poet. (Now add the title “Poet Laureate” to the definition and it goes berserk and escalates to another level of societal delusion and stereotype.)

All of this is bullshit. A poet is a person. People are unique, and so are poets. The thing that might make us different, though, is that we walk through the world seeing it in a close-up kind of way. The world speaks to me in imagery. That’s why I love art so. I know that. Imagery is my language, my heart, and my way of being in the world. I even speak in metaphor when I teach. For some reason, kids seem to understand it. They don’t question it. I love that about them. They don’t label as easily as adults, ironically. Maybe it’s that they are too new to the planet to have become jaded and weary and cynical. Perhaps that is why I like to teach. They accept me as I am: poetic, unique, beautiful, bright spirit, magical woman, and alien creature.

The magic of the Theatre Passe Muraille production of “Alien Creature” is that you can feel MacEwen’s spirit in the theatre with you. She isn’t sitting on the bench next to you, and she isn’t hovering up in the rafters. She’s embodied in the words that Griffiths wrote, and that Beatriz Pizano speaks and embodies. Pizano mesmerizes in her performance, speaking as Gwendolyn: “Poetry is breath, and sometimes the breath comes too fast and sometimes nothing at all will let it in.” The pain MacEwen felt, as an alcoholic, depressive, and as a poet too, is conveyed in these few lines: “I don’t want you to think I’m angry. I’m not. I love living inside this mind. It’s a constant adventure.” That breaks my heart, you see. I can imagine, Gwendolyn, that you knew what I know…that living inside a mind, being cerebral and creative, is both a blessing and a curse. You walk between worlds, as a magical woman and alien creature, gathering people, and then losing them…all because you are so much light in darkness, and too much light for others to understand. The only answer is to root yourself in the poems. There, Gwendolyn, is where you found some peace.

Griffiths writes, giving MacEwen a voice: “I want you to know I was brave. I want you to know I fought hard. I want you to know I loved beauty; that I laughed. I want you to know I was a coward.” MacEwen was, I think, more a brave soul than a coward, even if she couldn’t envision or believe it. I’m sad, to be honest, that she couldn’t believe in herself. I’ve only just got to this place of believing in myself…at the same age as she was when she died…so I can only imagine what work might have come afterwards, if she had lived. That makes me ache inside, for the loss of such work.

If you have the ability and opportunity, you need to try and see “Alien Creature,” at the amazingly dynamic Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto, before the run is up on February 5th. It will speak to you, resonate, sit inside the cage of ribs, inside your heart, so that you carry it with you for quite some time.

And now, I feel like leaving this entry with Gwendolyn MacEwen’s words, to let her speak even though she’s been gone for thirty years this coming November.

Poetry has nothing to do with poetry
Poetry is how the air goes green before thunder
is the sound you make when you come and
why you live and how you bleed
and the sound you make or don’t make when
you die.

–“You Can Study It If You Want” (from Afterworlds)

I wish she were still here, but I’ll always have her words…her image…those kohl black eyes and the purple kaftan…and the magical woman who taught me how to be ‘poet’ and ‘self’ in a way that roots and empowers me.

peace, friends.
k.

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I’ve had a lot on my mind this week. I have so many ideas (for new stories, poems, and plays) that I can’t even sleep properly. I end up waking up by 5am–after a horribly fragmented sleep–and writing, or reading, and then going down to Lake Ramsey to walk my dog. It’s only when I get down in amidst the trees and alongside the shoreline that I feel I can breathe again and sort out what’s happening in my mind. I have been doing Zumba with excessive force, too. I know this about myself: when my brain is too busy, because I’m an introvert, a creative, and a cerebral kind of person, I need to be more physically active. I lose my appetite, can’t sleep, and just need to move physically. (It’s busy in my head. Always has been. That can be a blessing if you’re a writer, but also a curse, I think. These last few weeks, it’s been a bit of both, depending on the day or the situation.) It’s funny enough that, when I speak to my principal at work, suggesting new ideas, I often finish (as I did today) with “Um, so yeah…I think that’s all I have to talk with you about…what’s in my head right now, anyway.” And then he laughs (as he did today) and asks, “Are you sure there’s nothing else in there, Kim?” And then I just shake my head and say, “Um, yeah, you know…it’s busy in there. I have a lot of thoughts.” I think, sometimes, they seem to build up and come out all at once and then, well, I don’t have a filter (never have!) so I’m sure being on the receiving end of one of my chats can overwhelm the most well rounded and intelligent of souls.

These past couple of months, at school, my students have wanted to talk about what’s happening in American politics. I took American history way back in high school. That was a long time ago. I do read a lot, though, so I try my best. Usually, I steer them towards trying to define and identify what makes us ‘Canadian’ and which values we espouse as a nation. They are, at times, different philosophies than American ones…even if we share a physical continent with our neighbours to the south. (Just think of different philosophies on gun control and violence, as well as education and health care. I’m sure that’s only just the surface, but enough of an example to start you thinking.)

Teaching a Grade 11 First Nations, Metis and Inuit Contemporary Voices in Literature course this semester at work, for the first time, has made me more aware of the overarching ideas of identity, relationships, challenges, and sovereignty, as they are embedded in literature written by First Nations writers in Canada. We’ve spent four and a half months talking about how we choose to define ourselves, and how others view and define us. Then we’ve talked, in class, about how these notions and ideas arise in the literature we study together. One of the most helpful pieces that has anchored the course has been a TEDTalk that I found via a teaching colleague. “The Danger of A Single Story” speaks to the idea of how listening to just one interpretation of history, or of any story, really, is damning in so many ways. You can watch it here. (Trust me when I say it’s worth the time it will take.)

It’s been the touchstone piece that I’ve used to anchor my interpretation of the course. My students are all girls (as I teach at Marymount Academy, which is the only all-girls’ school north of Toronto). When the American election occurred, so many of my students wanted to react with fear. I spoke to them, though, about the choices we have as humans. “We can,” I said, “either choose to act out of fear or love. Which is most beneficial, for us, as individuals, and as a society?” If you avoid things in life, because you’re afraid, then you end up not growing and changing. If you take some risks, with the idea of being open and living with a loving heart, then you’ll be hopeful and positive in your approach to life. It’s more of a risk, to speak and act out of love, but it seems to me that there is no other choice if you want to grow and develop. (How boring would life be, otherwise, if we all just stayed inside our respective homes and avoided things that might challenge our views and previous life experiences? We may get hurt by walking through life with open hearts, but I think it’s worth it. I hope my kids think so, too, at the end of the five months I spend with them.)

This week has been hard on them, and it’s been hard on me to see them struggling. I worry about them. I don’t have kids of my own, so these girls are my kids. I deal mostly with Grade 11 and 12 students, all ranging from 15-17 years old. They are under such pressure in the senior grades, especially at this time of the year, trying to figure out what they want to do with the rest of their lives. (I’m in my forties and I still don’t know what I want to do with my life….other than just write my heart out!)

One student this week came to talk to me during my Student Success period and she just wanted to talk about courses and where she was heading after high school. I just listened and asked questions. (This is, as you’ll know if you’ve read my blog before, a skill my dad had…and which has, somehow, miraculously even, been passed on to me. It comes in handy in teaching, let me tell you!) After hearing her out, I just stopped and said, “Well, it seems as if you have already made your decision. You know the pros and the cons, and you’ve just talked them through while I listened.” So she looked at me, with a sort of wistful smile, and said, “But, Miss, I just want someone to tell me that I’m making the right decision.” I laughed. “What’s the ‘right’ decision? I wish I could have someone help me with my decisions, too, sister, and I’m an adult. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ when it comes to your life, is there? Nothing is a final decision, and you can always go back and change it, or just start off on a new path. A decision that was right three months ago might not be the right one now. It’s a journey, and the road isn’t always straight. You can’t always see where you’re going.” She asked me how I make decisions in life. “I worry it out, and overthink it, probably more intensely than I should. When you live alone with two dogs, you do a lot of thinking and deciding on your own, so you hone the skill. Mostly, though, I think it out and reason it through. Then, after all is said and done, though, I follow my heart. After all, you carry your heart with you through life.” She smiled and said, “Right, Miss, but that applies to you, too, with your writing?” My breath caught a bit, then. “Yes, absolutely. I’ve been practicing with following my heart. It takes work.” Some days, I find, these kids are wiser than the wisest elders. They teach me.

Today, after a discussion about the Joseph Boyden controversy, and an examination of news articles on the subject from different points of view, the girls moved to talking about issues of cultural identity and one student raised her hand. She was frustrated. “But, Miss….I don’t understand. We know better, right, as humans? We know about residential schools now, and we want things to be more equal for all races and genders, but racism and segregation still happens.” She sighed. “I don’t get it. Why is that still happening, when we know better? We all bleed the same colour of blood.” Then we had a class discussion about how we manage in a world that can seem–this week, especially–a bit scary and overwhelming and racist. We talked about what happens at inaugurations, and what that means historically for Americans, and also what it means for Canadians and other people around the world this time around. I brought them back to the ‘fear vs. love’ question and that helped. The Trump thing has been hovering in class for a while. They’re all bright girls. They worry, too, because they’re bright and well read. They know life, the world, isn’t simple.

I was thinking, tonight, about the role that poetry plays in American inaugurations. I loved Maya Angelou’s “On the Pulse of Morning” (for Clinton’s inauguration), and I’m also terribly fond of Richard Blanco’s “One Day” (for Obama’s swearing in at the beginning of his second term). I love poets. That sounds weird, because I am one, but I mean to say (and convey) that poets have a role in the history of the world. The bardic tradition goes back farther than we probably even know.

Maya Angelou has always been someone whose work I admire. There is so much scope for positivity in her words. She saw that, even in the darkest parts of the world, there was good…and then somehow she was so incredibly gifted that she could convey that good, that hope, that potential for positive change, in the majority of her pieces. I love, love, love, the rhythm of her poems. She was pure music and magic, especially in the way that she read. She spoke of how all races and religions are one. (I still miss her being on the planet…cried when she died.) You can listen to the beauty and hope that is conveyed in her poem here:

In the face of the worry and fear, there’s still something beautiful about America, too, though. When we speak of change, it’s too easy to say that things are “bad” and “good,” or “white” and “black,” or “right” and “wrong.” These are all polar opposites, or binary opposites. It’s reductionist, I think, to imagine that we can interpret the world, and human beings, in such a basic and simple way. There’s something beautiful about America, despite the fear that surrounds the new president who will be sworn in on Friday. It’s a country that has survived through difficult times before, and it will do so again.

In class today, when someone asked me what I thought about Friday, I took a minute: “I think that life will go on. I think that democracy is a blessing. And, I think that we have a choice….whether to move forward while thinking, speaking, and acting…out of love, or out of fear.”

I’m hoping that most of us, even those of us who aren’t American, but who have American friends and relatives, can be mindful and set the intention to move forward with love and not fear. After all, what are our alternatives?

peace, friends.
k.

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There’s something truly glorious about having a music that speaks to you, from a history that forms you. For as long as I can remember, there has been Irish music in my life. My parents loved listening to it when I was little. Then, it was as simple as The Irish Rovers. We used to sing “The Unicorn Song” in the van coming home from trips, especially after I had surgery at Sick Kids in Toronto when I was eleven. Dad, whose father was pure German (and very scary, I might add), but whose mother was Irish, Scottish, and English, loved singing Irish songs. I remember he talked about dating Mum back in the 60s and going to see a folk group out at a hotel in Lively. It was, apparently, from what he told me, key to their courtship. (Who knows? I actually probably didn’t want to hear too much about their courtship, to be honest…who does?!…so I may have blocked part of that story out!) I think he said they were called The Travellers. For Dad, Irish music was that little group and The Irish Rovers. (Heck, for most of Canadians, I think that was what Irish music was for the longest time.)

For me, well, I was drawn to traditional Irish music in my twenties. I went to Carleton University in Ottawa to do my Master’s in Literature, with a focus on modern Irish poetry (my nickname in the graduating class was, yup, you guessed it, “Modern Irish,” just because I was studying poets like Yeats, Kavanagh, Muldoon, Boland, and — sigh — Heaney. My thesis, in undergrad, focused on W.B. Yeats and the weaving of traditional Irish legends into his earlier poetry. It was (too flowery) titled “Perpetual Poetic Gyres: A Study of Recurrent Images and Themes in Selected Poems of W.B. Yeats.”

Then, in my Master’s degree, I focused on Seamus Heaney’s stunning collection, North. The title for that thesis was more concise, perhaps because I had begun to fine tune my writing as a graduate student. Who knows? I called the thing “Ancestors of NORTH: The Bog Poems of Seamus Heaney.” In that Master’s thesis, I looked at the connections between poetry and art, something that would foreshadow my own love of ekphrastic poetry and my (seemingly lifelong!) happy addiction to art galleries. Even then, I guess, I was pulled to visual art like a magnet.

My thesis supervisor was Jack Healy, the professor I learned the most from in all my time as a student at university. We would meet every Friday at 3pm. “Just like Good Friday,” he would say and then smile. “You’re Irish Catholic. You get it, right?!” We had the most stimulating conversations every Friday at 3pm. I will never forget them. Then, trying to find something to connect with Heaney’s bog poems, he suggested I study Ben Shahn’s The Shape of Content. I was, to put it simply, transfixed by that suggested book, and the way in which it sort of wove itself into Heaney’s view of creativity and politics. These weren’t just bog bodies found in Ireland and across Europe, but indications of the political and historical struggle between the North and the Republic of Ireland. Heaney and Shahn’s works paralleled one another, too, in that they both used vivid imagery to evoke worlds in both visual art and poetry. The doors of my world opened that year, as I dug around in Irish legends, symbolism, song, poetry and story. It’s where, too, I began to truly know and believe that imagery roots all poetry (and art). 🙂

Living in Ottawa, too, meant that I often stumbled upon my beloved Irish pubs. I spent nights in The Celtic Cross on Bank Street (with Dan Laxer, Jamie Russell, Carolyn Salomons, Eric Stewart, and Leanne Patterson) and later at The Arrow and Loon in the Glebe. We were a fine bunch, all Master’s students hooked on deep philosophical and poetic questions. Give us an Irish pub, a live band, a late night, and a pint or three…and we could talk and debate about poetry forever. Those are conversations and times I’ll remember for the rest of my life. That’s where I began to listen to live traditional Irish music with a kind of fervour that I didn’t know was possible. (Listen: put me in any city and I will want to go and listen to live Irish music. Nothing thrills me more. It’s a visceral kind of thing, I guess…and it so parallels the history of the bardic tradition that I so love.)

So, twenty years later and I am still attracted and addicted to good traditional Irish music. Parking the car in the -25 Celsius night cold, I walked my dancing boots up the steps of the Moose Hall and opened the door to the sound of a beautiful tin whistle streaming out onto Frood Road. It was entrancing. Tonight, the Wild Geese (Pat McGuire, Wally Kealy, Pat Ryan, Tom Ryan, Duncan Cameron, Dianne Cameron, and Karly Schofield) played their hearts out at the Moose Lodge on Frood Road while a bunch of us danced like mad people. It was what I hope heaven is like. Yup. There better be a live Irish band, and a dance caller like Maureen Mulvey in heaven, so I know where I’m going next, and which person I should “dump” before I go “around the house” in a set dance.

And, I hope, there will be more men to dance with. Here’s why: I love dancing “The Haymaker’s Jig” and “The Siege of Ennis,” but there is often a shortage of men who dance at ceilis. What happens is that you have women dancing in men’s roles, so then, if you’re a woman, you’re always sort of thinking “Oh, damn it….am I man or a woman?” Then, well, you need to see if you’re on the right hand side or the left of your pair, and that positioning will help you figure out your borrowed gender. (It’s very Shakespearean, really, with women having to take on men’s roles, so I suppose I ought to be pleased, but sometimes you just need a strong man to spin around with…because, with the right man, someone who knows what they’re doing in a dance, a swing on the dance floor can have your feet lifting off, and that, my friends, is akin to pure joy. If you can lean back into a proper swing, with a man who is confident in leading you in the dance, if you can trust him not to let you fall, then it’s all centrifugal force…and there’s something to be said for that…what with the tin whistle, accordion, and bodhran all going at once. You can, sometimes, feel as if you’ve left the year you’re in…as if you’re dancing at a hidden cross roads in an Irish field. That’s kind of magical, to be honest…)

Tonight, I had the real pleasure of dancing with a 7-year old girl named Taliah. She was “the man” and I was the woman. This meant that, in a particular dance, I had to squish myself down to knee height just to be turned under her arm in a twirl. It was quite comical, to be honest, and she and I had quite a bit of a giggle fit together. “It’s okay, Kim! We did it!” She was lovely! 🙂 Later, when we met up again, she said “I remember you! You’re Kim!” See, I don’t mind dancing with a small person as charming as that, I will say…because she was a grand teacher for the more complicated set dances, and I appreciated her confidence and teaching skill.

So…what is the draw of the ceili dance? These are, traditionally, the dances that the rural Irish would have danced while in hiding. In the 1600s and 1700s, the Penal Laws outlawed any sort of traditional Irish culture: you couldn’t speak Irish Gaelic, or practice Mass, or even dance. So, people would dance in the cross roads, behind hedgerows.

Here’s one of my favourite dances. It’s called “The Haymaker’s Jig” and I love it so much. You get all caught up in it, and you’re breathless before you know it. It really makes me laugh and you can only think about how the music drives your body to move in brilliantly joyful ways. Here is what it looks like!

Here’s “The Siege of Ennis,” which is another of my favourites. I like it, too, to be honest, because my mum’s maiden name was Ennis…and I’ve been to Ennis — the town — twice in my life…so I’m fond to it because of that simple (maybe too simple? even daft?) and definitely nostalgic reason!

So, tonight, I danced and danced. I laughed and laughed. And then I thought how blessed I am to have a cultural tradition that has brought me so many friends, and that brings me a warm and welcoming community wherever I go in the world. One of my dearest memories of traveling has included dancing at a Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann set dance night in a hall in Westport, Ireland in the summer of 2012. It was such a night! There were enough men for the women, thankfully, and it made such a difference in the speed and accuracy of the dance. It was so beautiful.

I know I don’t write about my culture very much, and maybe I should do so more…because it’s so key to who I am, and probably explains part of why I think (and live) the way I do. I feel connected to my mother’s Irish heritage. My dad’s side of our family was so strict and almost abusive, that I’m thankful that my maternal grandmother and my great-aunts at 160 Kingsmount knew to gather my sister and me into their hearts so completely. It’s there where I learned about the stories, the legends, the music, and the history. It’s there, on Kingsmount, where I dug around in old Irish paperback books, and asked Norah, Maureen, and Clare a whole slew of questions about what they knew about family history. And, it’s there, at some point, where I heard the family story that would weave itself into what would become my first novel. So, I’m grateful to them all, even though they’ve all gone now.

When I was dancing tonight, I thought of them, the ten Kelly kids who were my great-aunts and uncles, including my Gram Ennis. I wondered, and hoped, that they had such a night in heaven. I hope that they have all learned to ceili dance, and that they haven’t forgotten the stories of Ireland, and the family legend of how the governess and the gardener at Bunratty Castle outside of Limerick ran off because they were in love, and of how the Famine sent them over the sea, to Canada and then Pembroke, and then north to work in a mining town called Creighton. I thought of them all, with each dance step I took, and with each ripple of a tin whistle or violin, or bodhran, or accordion, or guitar…and I wished them a good dance in some other place.

I just really, really hope that I can ceili dance forever when I go to heaven. I do. Give me an Irish band, a good, strong (and taller than me!) man who can spin me around so that I don’t worry about falling, so that I can lean back and feel that centrifugal pull, so that I can trust he won’t let me fall or trip, and I’ll be grand for eons and eons to come.

Of all the things in my life that never changes, you see, I know I can count on traditional Irish music to lift me up when I’m down. I know it won’t bruise or break my heart (as humans sometimes do). There’s such comfort in that; I can look back on my life and remember dancing with the same joy at the age of twenty-eight as I do now in my mid-forties. There’s something magical about that. The music may break your heart with its sometimes plaintive call, but it will never hurt or leave you. There’s something to be said for that, I sort of think. Bless.

peace,
k.

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Most days, I wake up at 5:30 and then take the dogs down to the lake for a walk before work. This morning, pondering the weather, and knowing I wouldn’t be walking, I listened to an interview about overcrowding at Health Sciences North (HSN) here in Sudbury. The piece focused on alternate level of care (ALC) patients. This is just another way to refer to the frail elderly in our city who are thoughtlessly bounced between home, hospital, and nursing home facilities in the last few years of their lives. You can listen to the interview here, before you read the rest of this blog entry.

http://www.cbc.ca/player/play/852391491542/

There’s always a story on the ALC issue here in town. For a while, a few years ago, I remember hearing the phrase “bed blockers” and felt sick to my stomach because my mum and dad would have been considered to be “bed blockers,” and they were both classified as ALC patients at the ends of their lives. Being labelled as an ALC patient means that your world gets a hell of a lot more messy, at the very time when it’s already shrinking because you might be isolated, and either living alone or with an ailing spouse—especially if you don’t have children to help care and advocate for you. The health care system in Ontario is big and scary, and I speak from experience. If you get stuck inside of it, without a guide, you can get spun around and around again.

If you take on an advocacy role, you immediately put a target on your back. If you speak up, because your parents don’t feel comfortable speaking up, or if you question doctors or the processes of transfers between institutions or health care campuses, or if you complain about the poor quality of care, then you really do make yourself vulnerable. Still, what is the alternative? There isn’t one. When you need to advocate for someone in your family who is a patient, especially if they are frail elderly, you do it out of love. There are no choices. That’s why the state of the system is so upsetting. The people who are most vulnerable, those who are frail elderly—and some of whom have been abandoned by their ‘families’—are the ones who are most at risk.

In the interview, David MacNeil said that “the demographic profile of our city is pretty clear…it’s aging.” This isn’t a surprise, as he said this morning. Those of us who have advocated for ALC patients have known this for years. We know there aren’t enough nursing home beds and that the CCAC and various contracted, independent nursing companies can’t manage with the numbers and case loads of those people who do manage to live at home on their own. We know that, if a person is discharged haphazardly on a Friday afternoon or evening, there is a risk of them not getting the proper continuum of care from hospital to home. Then, too, we know there is a higher rate of readmission that needs to be considered. Just sending older folks home, without support and proper care, doesn’t mean that the number of ALC patients will decrease in the hospital. It may briefly, I suppose, but there is a wretched ping-pong sort of effect that happens if you don’t have proper support at home. In the midst of it all, the person who is ill just gets weaker and weaker, fading before you know it.

MacNeil talked, too, about the ‘surge’ that tends to happen between December and March each year. Yes, it’s flu season, so it would make sense that older people are more easily affected by influenza. Then you need to consider that our hospital has morphed in the last ten years, after the three hospitals merged into a one-site hospital. Now, it’s become a regional hospital, drawing patients from smaller centres in northeastern Ontario. There are 101 ALC patients at HSN (as of today’s interview on the CBC). The stories in media this week are about how patients are being housed in hallways and lounges. There are questions of patient privacy and issues of dignity.

There is a problem with Ontario’s health care system. I’m not saying that it’s just a Sudbury and HSN issue. What I find most upsetting is that the people who are most often affected, and negatively at that, are our frail elderly. People who read this blog will know I’m quite passionate about this because I had to care and advocate for my parents when they were caught up in the health care system here in their last few years of their lives. It was, and I’m not exaggerating, sheer hell. I could tell you stories that would make your toes curl up in disgust. The thing is, when I hear these horror stories, over and over again, year after year (and even after my two year term as an active member of the HSN Patient and Family Advisory Council from 2012-14), not much seems to be improving. Some of the same problems I had when Dad was in the hospital system from 2009-2011 are ones that still echo in the family stories I hear from friends and colleagues now, five years later. If the whole move to patient-centred care (as it’s purported to be) has been in place since 2013/14, then I fail to see why things have not improved.

Beyond that, it is so disturbing to think that our health care system, both provincially and locally, so easily pins problems on our frail elderly. You know what I think: these people helped build this city, raised us, taught us how to speak up when things went awry, and we owe them a debt of gratitude, at the very least. To see this, to hear of their being so easily cast off, by the system and sometimes even by their families, is heartbreaking.

Here’s the thing, friends: You can’t wait until someone you love is stuck in the system. Better to get involved in some way now. Educate yourself about the issues, join a committee or board that advocates for the frail elderly and demands accountability within the system itself. You can’t just sit in the place of heartbreak. There’s a time and place to be there, in despair and heartbreak, but then there is the time and place when you learn to be more active…because, let’s face it, we’re all headed in the same direction, and we need to fix the issues in the system now, for the good of our elders, of ourselves, and the generations to follow us.

If you’re interested in this issue and want to learn more, you can also visit the site for the Northeast Family Councils Network (NEFCN) here:

http://www.nefcn.org/who-we-are

Some of the amazing and giving people whom I worked with on the PFAC at HSN a few years back are working here now, from outside the hospital structure, to try and make inroads into making important changes to long term care in this part of the province.

A few years ago I gave this speech to talk about my parents’ experiences in the health care system at the Seniors Summit, which was organized by Health Sciences North. You can listen to my mum and dad’s stories here:

None of this is easy work, but it’s most definitely necessary work. Rather than let the heartbreak of it all overwhelm us, I think it’s incumbent upon us to take a more active, volunteer role in making change from the inside out. I have to believe, I just have to, that it will get better…but it requires more people taking more active roles, demanding that our health care system is accountable to our social expectations. Our frail elderly deserve kindness, compassion, dignity, and respect. I really don’t think this is too much to expect.

peace,
k.

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It’s no secret that I’m a wee bit addicted to art. I think, when you’re a bit cerebral, socially awkward, an introvert, and a creative person, it’s a perfect storm for eccentricity. I remember, as a teenager, always being drawn to the big art books at Coles. They were always very expensive, so my parents couldn’t really afford them, but I would linger over the piles of them and touch the covers longingly. I so wanted to bring them home, so I wouldn’t be rushed in sitting with the images and taking them in. You know the ones I’m talking about, I’m sure…they were coffee table books, as some people used to call them. Now that I’m an adult, and I visit galleries like an addicted woman, I always buy books in gallery shops. (My latest is from the Art Gallery of Sudbury and is a beautiful collection of Daphne Odjig’s gorgeous paintings. It hurts my heart to think she’s gone.) Anyway, I also remember spending way too much time in my bedroom, listening to CDs and wishing I could be in a musical on Broadway, singing my heart out; or, reading really big books and then trying to write my own stories. I was a smart, fat kid who was terribly shy. It’s hard to believe now, if you know me, but it’s true. The shy kid is still inside of me. I always need to nudge her out of the way, especially if I’m nervous. No one else knows that, but I do.

When I was a teenager, my parents used to buy calendars as Christmas presents. (My parents weren’t wealthy at all. They were working middle class. In Sudbury, back then, what they made–combined–wasn’t a lot of money. We lived in Minnow Lake, for goodness sake, which wasn’t a very ‘safe’ or well respected part of town in those days.) Christmas presents were things that were practical: calendars, socks, pyjamas, and books. They never, ever skimped on money for books, and I know this is why I love reading and writing with such a passion now. I only ever asked for books, when I think back now to those years. Mum would ask, “What would you like for your birthday?” and I would have one or two books that I was longing for, and they would be my gifts. Not having money then, as a young person, and seeing my parents struggle to manage bills without worrying us as kids, made me value the worth of hard work and I learned that I didn’t really need to have everything I always desired. There’s something to be said for that, now, I think. I don’t need stuff. I’m not impressed by brands or logos. They weren’t things we could ever afford as I was growing up, so they don’t impress me now. I do, though, need books. That will never change.

Anyway, why would calendars be important? Well, I loved art, so…if I couldn’t get my parents to buy the big fat coffee table art books, then it was easier to sort of say that I would love to have an Emily Carr calendar or a calendar with beautiful Celtic knots that had been copied from the Book of Kells. That way, I could have art in my room every month of the year. Still, today, I buy at least one ‘art calendar’ a year, for either my bedroom or my office at work. I love beautiful things that are created from people’s imaginations. The whole process of creativity fascinates me, and I love how that process can transcend genre…moving from music, to art, to film, to dance, to theatre, to writing. It’s so amazing, to think of how it all spirals or ‘vines itself’ together. (Sort of reminds me of those fabulous Irish Celtic knots where the fish’s tail is in its mouth, or the dolphins loop together in a circle around some other image.)

One year, I must have been in my mid-teens, I found a calendar of Heather Cooper’s work. I remember it seemed magical to me. I was reading teen fiction at the time…all novels about knights and quests and things. Of course, that’s when I first read The Lord of the Rings and fell in love with fantasy and Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and the Narnia series…the whole thing, not just The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (!), and Orla Melling’s The Singing Stone. Never mind the Arthurian legends, which left me absolutely spellbound…and still do. It was so much easier to slip into a world that was so magical and legendary than to live in the real one, I often thought…and sometimes still do. 🙂

So, one of the months on the calendar was Cooper’s beautiful piece, “The Lion and the Lamb.” It’s all about two sides of the same coin, I think, and the notion of perception. There’s the beautiful lion, standing above the surface of a pool, and the smaller figure of the lamb is reflected in the water. When I see it, I always think of the myth of Narcissus, but there is so much more inside the piece that speaks to me. I think of my great-aunt, Maureen Kelly, who always used to say to me, when I went up to visit my great-aunts (we all called them “The Girls”) at 160 Kingsmount, “Ah, it’s herself, isn’t it?” I loved that about her. She was unabashedly Irish. She also was the person, along with my great-aunt Norah, who introduced me to the Irish legends and faery tales. They still draw me in with a tidal pull I can’t ignore, those lovely big books of stories. 🙂 I also think of how Maureen used to say, at the end of February usually, “Ah, March! In like a lion, out like a lamb.” Every year, I remember her saying that. (She was grand for that, for knowing phrases that had interesting origins, and I always used to call her when I had grammar and spelling questions while I was doing my undergrad and graduate work at university. She was so brilliant.)

Cooper’s piece of art reminds me of times I spent with Maureen, and Norah, and Clare, up at 160. That’s Maureen’s phrase, or one of them, anyway. “In like a lion, out like a lamb.” She was also terribly fond of “Red sky at night, a sailor’s delight.” My favourite thing about her, though, was that she gave great hugs and her eyes always sparkled. If you drove with her at night in the The Girls’ car, she would always, always, always, see a car with just one headlight working. It was sort of like ‘her thing.’ She would be driving, and we’d be in the back seat, and she would shout out, laughing as she did, “Aha! One eye! There’s a one eye, girls!” (Funny…the things you remember about the people who were such a big part of your life so many years after they’ve left. I’m glad for my memory’s accuracy sometimes…it’s like a movie plays in my head…)

Funny, how a piece of art can have so many memories linked to it…how it can make me remember my family members and the stories they told me when I was little and growing up. I even know where that calendar was on my wall in my bedroom. It was right above my bedside table, above a little antique lamp I had found somewhere. The light from the lamp sort of glowed upwards, I remember, bathing the calendar page itself in gold light. It seemed magical to me. It still does.

That’s why, when I arrived in Bobcaygeon at the little cottage I’d rented on December 27th, and when I saw the image of Cooper’s “The Lion and the Lamb” hanging above the kitchen sink, I exclaimed, like a crazy woman, “Oh my God! That’s a Heather Cooper painting!” to the fellow who owns the place. He just smiled. “Yes. You know her work?” I reached out to touch it. “Oh, God. Sorry. I didn’t mean to touch it. It’s just…it’s been in my heart forever, you know?” Then he told me that she was a friend of his father’s and that he had prints of her pieces in the little cottage space. There was another Cooper print in the bedroom above the bed, but it just didn’t strike me as the other had.

I knew, when I saw that print, when I walked into that cottage space that day, that I was meant to have found this particular space to write in. Somewhere, in my head, I could hear Maureen’s voice saying to me, “In like a lion, out like a lamb…or the other way round, Kimmy Ruth, depending on how the month goes!” Then I thought, somehow, that I am now both the lion and the lamb. I used to just be the lamb, all sort of fragile and wounded, but now I’m letting the lion sit in my heart more often. It doesn’t have to be one or the other anymore, I’ve learned this past year; I can be both the lion and lamb, strong and vulnerable at the same time. Such a lesson! The universe amazes me, how it links and swirls and dances around you, sending out tendrils of green memory that pull you backwards, all so that you can move forward with more certainty.

It’s funny; I remember being entranced by that old Heather Cooper calendar all those years ago…and now it’s come back to me to guide me into more writing that needed to be revised, edited, and finished. So circular, so Celtic knotted, so magical and transformative. This is why I love art, and always will. Colour and texture and image pull me in, and then I imagine stories…and everything is right with the world, even when it may not always be. 🙂

peace,
k.

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