Archive for May, 2017

Sometimes your life stops you cold, makes you re-think where you’re at, who you’re with, and where you’re headed. This past year, I’ve been blessed to have listened to teachings from three Ojibway elders in large group sessions. In the fall, I listened to elder Art Petahtegoose’s teachings, and yesterday I met and listened to the teachings shared by Julie and Frank Ozawagosh with our Grade 11 students. We travelled to Killarney and the Killarney-Shebanoning Outdoor Environmental Education Centre as part of our Grade 11 First Nations, Metis and Inuit literature course. We wanted to have our students meet elders, so they could understand the cultural context for the literature we’ve been studying this year. We also wanted them to learn more about women’s role as Water Keepers, in a place that is surrounded by beauty and water.

When I learn from elders, I always feel so grateful that they are sharing their wisdom with me. I’m not Indigenous, but I teach about Indigenous writers and literature, and First Nations issues, in my course. What I love most is that these teachings are so rooted in story. My earliest memories of books, and of reading, are of my mum reading to me before bed. I always saw my parents reading during their free time. Neither had university degrees, but both of them valued education and literature. My parents weren’t wealthy people, but they always made sure that we got books as presents for our birthdays or at Christmas. It fuelled my love of reading, and of writing. I wouldn’t be a writer if it wasn’t for my maternal grandmother, who gave me my first lined notebook to write poems and stories in, or for my parents, who bought me books when I was very young. My great-aunts and uncles were story tellers of the highest order; they were Irish, so I suppose that was to be expected. So, when I listen to elders teach, I am pulled in by the cadence of voices, the ebb and flow of a story’s pacing, and the place (usually near the end of the story) where you learn the core of the teaching.

If you sit with elders, you need to listen carefully. When they share teachings, you need to slow down inside yourself. It doesn’t matter if your dog is really sick, or if you have a stack of marking, or a bear is sort of stalking your neighbourhood…you need to put that stuff aside and listen. Here’s the thing…people aren’t good at listening these days. In common conversation, I find, when I’m sitting with friends, I often find people love to jostle one another for floor space. I’d rather sit and listen, to be honest. I learn more that way. “Active listening” is something we talk about in the field of education. I see fewer and fewer people able to sit quietly in another person’s presence…unless they’re both on their cell phones. People are afraid to really connect. So much of life is conducted via electronic devices, even in terms of dating, that there is a lack of depth. Personally, I love thought provoking and stimulating conversations with one or two people, but I also love that deep peace that comes from sitting with someone who just knows it’s okay to be quiet and breathe. That’s a perfect evening, if you ask me…conversation and then just silence with one or two who are near and dear to my heart. 🙂

Julie’s teachings struck me. I always think, over the last year or so in particular, that I’ve been in places, in spaces, with people who seem to resonate with me. Whether you call it ‘serendipity,’ or ‘providence,’ or ‘fate,’ or ‘magic,’ I’ve been noticing that I’m meeting people who are teaching me big lessons. Julie spoke about the role of women as Water Keepers. The natural (biological) link is that women are the ones who bear and then have children, and that children grow within wombs, and that there is water there, in the womb. From before birth, then, we are all tied to water, symbolically and in an even more necessary, literal sense that speaks to physical survival. (I’m a fan of the metaphor and symbol of it all, though, as a poet. It appeals to the romantic and poetic soul in me.) As a woman who hasn’t had children, I can understand how that formed me, in my mother’s womb, but I can’t relate to it as someone who hasn’t been pregnant. I see my mothering happening in different ways, but I wrote about that in an earlier blog post this year, so you can search it out if you feel so inclined.

Her talk of water, though, made me think of how much I love the Great Lakes. I love all lakes, to be honest, and I go all weak at the knees if you put me on a shoreline with pebbles. I’m even worse, naturally, if you stick me next to an ocean. I’m lost, then. (If someone wanted something from me…money or whatever…they would only ever have to take me to a shoreline and let me listen to, and feel, the water.  The experience of being next to water melts my heart and I lose my mind and logic completely.) What I liked about the teaching of women as Water Keepers is that women mind the water, including the times when people need to speak out about pollution and the destruction of the environment. We spoke of how you can “go to the water” when you need help in balancing. Boy, do I need help in balancing. It’s part of why I walk by water every morning at dawn. It centres and calms me, being near water, in a way that nothing else can.

I’m a workaholic, I think. Well, no. I know I am. I can’t sit still. I don’t sleep well. My mind is always busy, thinking, and sometimes worrying. There’s less worrying now that I’m healthy after so many years of having been ill with depression, but now my mind is busy with new ideas and questions. I struggle to find balance between work and writing and life. I have a few very good friends who know me well, and I socialize with them. I’m mindful of my time, space and privacy. I guard it fervently. Otherwise, how would I have time to read and write? (I sometimes think that’s why the best writers marry writers, or why teachers tend to be with teachers…because they know the demands of the work they’re doing. Others, well, others just can’t imagine how much time goes into writing. It’s a vocation for a reason. You need someone who would get that sometimes days and nights just disappear into the computer screen or notebook page…who is confident enough to know that’s okay.)

Julie spoke about how women tend to take on too many things, and have difficulty with balancing parts of life. Yup. I go full steam ahead with things until I crash. Then, well, my physical body stops me completely, usually two or three times a year, with bouts of bronchitis or sinus infections. Charming. I know. 🙂 Then she spoke about how women are best at giving, and not receiving. A bell went off in my head. I was supposed to hear that yesterday morning. I am a gem at giving to friends. I love giving thoughtful, symbolic gifts. I’m known for baking bread and then dropping it off at a friend’s front door, or I’ll do random drive bys where I drop daisies off for friends I’m worried about, or I’ll just buy copies of a book I love and then gift them to people I think might need to read it. I give beautifully. Receiving, well, I’m not so good with that.  I’m working on it. For me, that part takes time because it involves trust.

My favourite First Nations artist is Leland Bell. I have loved his work since I was little. I remember going out to the university and seeing the beautiful mural outside of the Fraser Auditorium. It ignited my love of visual art, and of First Nations artists. So, a couple of years after my dad died, I found a tiny canvas at Sudbury Paint and Custom Framing that was one of Bell’s originals. When I asked Jane Cameron, the owner, what the title was, she said, “Oh, it’s called ‘Receiving.'” I remember I actually laughed out loud. She tilted her head. “What?” I shook mine. “Oh, I’m supposed to buy this one…I need to learn how to receive…mostly because I think it means I need to pull down walls and let myself be vulnerable.” She nodded (because I’m there so often getting art framed that she knows me), wrapped it in brown paper, and I left with it. I look at it every day, as a reminder to just be open to receiving, in whatever way it comes to me…inspiration, words, stories, love, thoughts…anything is fair game.

Julie also spoke about how we need to recognize that, as women, we take on too much to make others happy. Again, so much of a message for me. Up until about three years ago, I tried to please everyone. Now, well, I do what I know is best for me because I’m on my own and I need to look out for me first. Before, I took care of everyone else…which was detrimental to my own well being on so many levels. She said, “Listen, there are people who are what I call ‘cling ons.’ They only want things from you, and they don’t offer you anything in return, or they aren’t equally paired to you. You need to watch out for these people.” The gist of the conversation was that, sometimes, even when it hurts, you need to let people go…whether they are blood relatives, or friends, or people you may have even been in love with at one point. If they are only taking from you, in terms of energy, then they aren’t helping you to flourish or grow your life. Sometimes you need to let jobs go, cities go, and grief go…even if that hurts. That resonated, too. (It also reminded me of my favourite Billy Collins poem, “Forgetfulness,” which I love so very much.)

Letting go of things is hard. I still struggle to let go of grief. I hate that I’ve lost so many people I’ve loved. Most of them have gone because of their deaths, but some just left without reason or understanding. Those are the ones who wounded most. I used to try to figure it out, but as Julie said yesterday, sometimes you just need to let things go, and let the mystery be, knowing that the Creator will sort it out for you. We can’t always know the ‘why’ of things, even if our heads are busy trying to figure it out. And, here’s the thing again: what she was saying, what I heard from the teaching, was that the heart is so much more important than the head. You need to trust your heart over your head, and let go of trying to control it all. You can’t, so why even bother.

The ironic thing is that I thought I was doing well in terms of my career and life plans, in letting myself trust the Universe/Creator/God, but I wasn’t. I was holding on too tightly to a whole lot of things: memories of love, all variations and shadings, all of it mostly lost and gone now, shadowed and pale; labels which I gave myself and which now don’t fit anymore; a life path I thought I had figured out, but which is quickly shifting with each passing day, and a sense that I knew very clearly and firmly what I was all about. It’s also been about learning how to let go when I finish a major writing project. Now that my novel is done, well, there’s grief there. Letting go of that, when it’s been a part of my life for a couple of years, is harder than I imagined.  Right now, it’s teaching me my hardest lesson, that little novel of mine.  What Julie and Frank taught me yesterday is that there is power in letting go, in recognizing that admitting you are confused or struggling with your own path also means that you are freeing yourself in some way. Whew. Big lessons.

As Julie said near the end of our time together, “Every day is a ceremony.” Yes. I’m there, and I have been for a number of months. Mindfulness, even when I can’t quite figure out the daily stuff of my life’s path, has brought me certainty that I can’t find anywhere else. There’s no looking for it outside of yourself, I know. Being uncomfortable, because you’re evolving, means that you’re awake. This is not a bad thing. Being aware of what behaviour you are wiling to accept, and what behaviour you are not willing to accept, means that you can discern which people are best for you, and which ones have your best interests at heart. If they love you, on any level, and you love them back, on any level, then there’s a clarity there.

I”m drawn to fire more and more these days, both literally and symbolically. I spent Christmas with the dogs down in Bobcaygeon, writing and working away at projects. Then I was there again for March Break. The fireplace there had me entranced. I was wondering why, since December, I’ve been drawn to the image and symbol of fire. I think I’ve figured it out. Julie spoke about how we all have a ‘fire’ inside of us. We need to light it, stoke it, feed it, and keep it going. It’s ours to mind. Maybe, just maybe, I’ve finally figured out that I have a fire and that minding it is key to my own evolution. “When your fire is out of balance, you will feel sick.” Yes. Your fire needs tending all the time. Your purpose on the planet needs to be embodied. As soon as you figure that out, when you begin to step into yourself, the process seems to get a bit easier.  I also, sometimes, think that I love fire because of the phoenix image that it conjures for me.  My life has been one of reinvention in recent years, from flame to ash, to embers rising again, maybe even catching on a bit of pine somewhere in a metaphorical way, in my being.

Yesterday, after their teachings, we each got some tobacco to take out as an offering to the Creator, and to the spirit of the land. I thought of my fire, my days of ceremony, and how I am learning to let go of the heaviest parts of my life’s existence so far. And then I thought of how I need to learn to receive, so I offered tobacco at the base of a birch tree, in a little grove, thanking God for all of the very difficult lessons that my life has taught me thus far. I wouldn’t give any of them back, even though each one broke my heart a million different times.

This morning, on our 8 km walk up to Granite Ridge in Killarney Provincial Park, I thought again, looking out beyond that ridge of pink granite and out over acres and acres of trees, of how small we are. We fiddle with things that don’t matter. We stay where we shouldn’t stay. We hang on longer than we ought to, punishing ourselves for having hearts that beat and feel. We forget what it’s really all about.

So, on the way back down that ridge, I stopped, found a beautiful old tree with bark that peeled itself open, vulnerable, and put my hand on its trunk. There was a lot of energy there. Letting go isn’t easy, but sometimes it’s just the only way forward, even when you walk alone. Letting go means receiving, even when you can’t imagine it does…but you know you need to trust.

So…here’s to knowing your fire, owning it, and then to letting go and receiving. The big lesson: It’s a bit like breathing, in and out, this whole letting go and receiving thing…one needs to depart before the other can arrive.  Maybe that’s why I’m mourning the end of my novel, but I’m shifting this emotion, deeply, so that its departure just makes space for another story to tell, when the time is right.


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Here’s the thing: Sarah Gartshore is one of my dearest friends. So, you will need to read this and think about whether or not I am biased. (I am, so I’ll just be honest and admit it.) I love a lot of things about Sarah’s work, but I especially like that she speaks from (and for) the margins, and you’ll likely recall the blog I wrote in the fall about “Project ArmHer,” which she wrote collaboratively with local sex workers. That piece was, in so many ways, socially groundbreaking. She goes where other playwrights won’t go, and her work is richer for it. The result it that the ripple effect, for the audience, is much more rich, too. You never leave a Sarah Gartshore play as the same human who walked into the theatre two hours before, and that’s a very good thing.

Her work vibrates with intensity of thought and craft. Her monologues are quick witted, pointed, and meant to make you feel uncomfortable in your seat. If that happens, and it should happen in a Gartshore piece, then you’ll start to think about your place in the world, and about what defines you, and about how we are all related to one another. At the core of all her work, and this is really what I love about it all, is that she tries to show how we really are more alike than we think, regardless of gender, race, or social status. If we could get there, to that place where we truly see the human souls in one another, then maybe we’d live in a better world.

A few weeks ago, I saw “Streethearts,” Sarah’s play about Sudbury’s homeless population. It has, as all her work does, a rhythm, rhyme and word music about it that ripples through your bones and settles into your heart. On Thursday night, in the early evening, I sat in on a staged reading of “Debwewin,” an Ojibway word meaning “truth.” The entire piece revolves around the notion of Canada 150, and how it really isn’t about 150 years. As the PlaySmelter program says, “The truth is that this land and its Indigenous people have a relationship that stretches back much further than the 150 years that many Canadians are celebrating in 2017. The truth is that Canada, as we know it, is at the beginning. The next short 150 years will be shaped, in part, by this time of truth telling as we navigate our way towards reconciliation.”

One of the most beautiful things about Sarah Gartshore’s pieces is that she integrates her mum, Lois Apaquash, into her plays as an actor. Lois is a real presence on any stage. Her voice is so evocative and there is such a sense of soul when she acts or reads. I love watching her work. In “Debwewin,” in one of the monologues that Lois performs, her character is a woman who was placed in a residential school. Her character says, “I am ’88’ and I am 40.” Oh my God. That line killed my heart. What some people don’t know is that First Nations children were taken forcibly from their families, put into residential schools, and then were given numbers. There were no names, only numbers, and no child was allowed to speak their traditional language or practice their traditional spirituality. To do so meant risking physical abuse and torture. That it was all kept secret for so long is part of the pain. That monologue, the ache of the mother speaking about her daughter, and of her daughter having been assigned a number too, echoed across the small theatre space. No one seemed to breathe. Numbers, not names. You can’t be more reductionist than that. Erasure is simpler if you can take away a person’s identity and give them a number. But these numbers are people, and the damage done still ripples across Canadian society today. That’s the lateral violence and intergenerational trauma that we weren’t taught about in school. That’s why we need truth and reconciliation.

Like Heiti’s textual and theatrical dance between what is ‘hole’ versus what is ‘whole,’ and between what is ‘absence,’ and what is ‘presence,’ so too does Gartshore ask us to consider what is seen and what is unseen, and what is said and unsaid. This is especially true of the residential school system. When I think that, as a child in elementary school, I was never taught about this cultural genocide, it makes me shake my head. As Sarah writes in “Debwewin,” “What came first? The genocide or the egg?”

Hearts are always central to Gartshore’s work. Symbolically and spiritually, hearts are what she’s perhaps really most interested in. (Now, she’ll read this and we’ll have to have wine and discuss it…because she may or may not see it.) The monologue in “Debwewin” that sits with me longest, deep in my own heart, is the one where a heart speaks. The character speaks about how she would do a number of things….keep a house clean, read self-help books, drink less wine, sit in a circle with other broken people…if only she could manage it. She can’t, though, she says, “because my heart hurts.” The refrain of “my heart hurts” echoes throughout the piece so that you feel the pain that seeps into things. In another monologue, Gartshore writes “The truth is numbers don’t lie; neither do hearts.” Then, with what is probably one of the strongest lines in the play: “Memory for memory, we are different, but heart for heart, we are the same.” Here, it seems to me, is the core of what Sarah does in all of her work, asking us to find our common places, our shared hearts. This makes me think of the phrase “all our relations.” When one character is asking someone if they’re coming to visit a reserve, she says, in a matter of fact tone, “Please bring water.” You could feel that line in the audience, mostly because there’s a truth there that shouldn’t be ignored. Clean water shouldn’t be an option, a box to check off at will. All Canadians deserve clean sources of water, not just the ones who don’t live on reserves in the far north.

The other person whose work I’ve just discovered is Eli Chilton, a First Nations playwright from Moose Factory. His work, “The Sandcastle,” speaks to the importance of family and community. The symbol of the sandcastle, as something that you build up to be solid, but then as something that gets so easily washed away by water, speaks to the notion that life is temporary, fleeting, and should be valued. Nothing is forever, and time passes. What lives throughout it all, one hopes, is the love that you find on the journey. Elsa Whitefeather is an older woman who seems to have a unique gift. She is either a medium of sorts, or she is falling ill. At the “talk back” after the staged reading, Chilton spoke of how he wanted to see how the two possibilities might work together, and how the house itself quickly becomes a character, perhaps even being haunted by entities that don’t always make themselves clearly known to the family and friends who visit Elsa and then witness her speaking to someone they can’t see.

This read had seven actors, but it was condensed down from an original eleven characters in the script. When the play is produced fully, at some point in the future, there will likely be eleven actors on stage. The point of having that many would be to suggest the size of the community and how everyone seems to know everyone else’s business. As George, Elsa’s husband, says at one point in the play, “Don’t mistake my lack of drama for indifference.” I nearly laughed out loud at that line. Seriously. Some people in life seem to enjoy cultivating drama, and then love pulling others into that vortex with great gusto. I’ve never been one of those people, so I found that line resonated with me. You can care deeply about someone or something, but also choose not to engage with the drama that might go along with it. You can choose to avoid negativity, or at least keep yourself at an arm’s length, especially if you protect yourself that way.

My friend Shelly Moore-Frappier played Barb, so it was fun to see her acting. Her delivery was right on and her comedic timing in delivering lines (as all of Shelly’s friends already know) is a gift for any good actor. She’s good!
Lois Apaquash played Elsa, taking the lion’s share of the lines for the hour and a half as we sat there listening. She made Elsa seem powerful, loving her family members and friends, but still tentative in tone when interacting with the unseen world. Elsa’s character walked between worlds within the play and Lois conveyed that aspect so beautifully.

At the end of the play, I got a bit teary. Preparing for a funeral, the characters speak of photographs, and of picking the ones that best reflect George’s life. I have photographs in my basement, in giant Tupperware containers. I avoid them. They’ve been here for four years this July, when I moved into this house. Opening up those bins always breaks my heart. I can’t do it more than once a year. I don’t even know what to do with all of those photos, mostly because they are all full of images of my ‘lost ones,’ as I call them. I come from a big Irish Catholic family, but all of them are gone now, so that I feel a bit lost without them. My great-aunts and grandmother were strong women who had a hand in raising me. All ten of the Kelly children are gone now, and they were my great-aunts and uncles. I spent lots of time with them growing up. We were always treated as if we were adults, invited warmly into conversations about books, music, and politics, as well as story telling sessions around the kitchen table at 160 Kingsmount. Three uncles have gone, two at the age of 50 and one a bit older than that. My parents. My grandparents on both sides. In any case, photos, for me, cause pain. There are just too many people I’ve loved who have died.

Eli Chilton’s play, especially near the end, made me ache for the people I’ve lost in my life. Too many died too early. I loved them all deeply, so even if they died later in life, which some of them did, I still ache with missing them. Most of the time, I can just sort of pretend that the ache isn’t that bad, that I can manage it, but grief has a funny way of sneaking up on you when you least expect it. When you were once part of a big family tree, but now feel you’re a single branch, well, it can be a hard go. I felt a bit of a longing sitting there, wishing for a family again. There’s a deep beauty in Chilton’s “The Sandcastle,” simply because he recognizes and honours the love that weaves itself between people in a home, a family, and a community. I’m hoping this play gets produced next year because I’d love to see it.

This wraps up a week of fine plays. As I left tonight, one of the members of the producer’s unit said, “Wow. You’ve been to every one, haven’t you?” I smiled. “Nope, I missed one, but I learned so much from the other four…” I’m sad PlaySmelter is over. It made me forget my hands in my lap, stopped me from breathing once or twice, made me laugh out loud, and then get teary in other quiet moments.

This is why I love theatre.


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Sometimes you fall in with a group of friends who change your life, and even change what you’re writing, in terms of genre. I was lucky to find this kind of group when I met Matthew Heiti, Sarah Gartshore, Liisa Kovala, and Lara Bradley. I’d known Lara since university, as a classmate, but never as a fellow writer. The other three, well, I met them in the Fall 2015 Playwrights’ Junction workshops at the Sudbury Theatre Centre. Then I ended up meeting Lisa O’Connell, through Matthew and Pat the Dog Theatre Creation.

It’s funny, as I get older, that I can see how I meet one person, and then a couple of years later, I meet another who is linked to the first one. Without one, I would never have met the other. It’s sort of magical, I think. A daisy chain of serendipitous meetings, and a close clutch of friends whom I’d do anything for…except being hit by an ore truck. My life has been like that for the last couple of years. Before that, not so much, but now I’m very much aware of the synchronicity that tends to weave itself through my world, and I’m forever grateful to the Universe for that. 🙂

This week, Pat the Dog Theatre Creation (under the direction of Lisa O’Connell and Matt Heiti) brought PlaySmelter to Sudbury. It’s PlaySmelter’s fifth anniversary, so they asked me to write a poem to celebrate. (You can read it on the Greater Sudbury Public Library website, on the poet laureate’s page, along with others I’ve written as commissioned pieces…if you’re into poetry.) I was more than honoured to write that poem, mostly because I have become a convert to the brilliance of Canadian plays and playwrights. I’ve only written plays over the last two years, but I have fallen in love with writing them, mostly because I love the magic of seeing actors on stage, embodying the words I’ve written. It’s a bit like having a magic wand and seeing something that was one dimensional blossom into the three dimensional. It’s all about how a playwright’s work moves from page to stage.

The first play I saw this week was Lara Bradley’s brilliant, “Blind Nickel Pig,” which is set in Sudbury in the early 1900s. It begins with two sisters, Annie and Frannie Flyberry, selling illegal alcohol in the guise of medicine. The newspaper man in town, William Mason, exposes the girls, as well as the presence of speakeasies (also known as “blind nickel pigs”) and their lives take a turn for the worse. There’s a bit of romance between the Ukrainian police officer and Annie, which is sweetly written, and seems realistic in its shadings. The thing that amazed me, as a playwright and as an audience member, was how Lara Bradley had written such vivid characters, all evocative of a previous time in Sudbury’s history. It’s a time in our city’s history that I didn’t know much about, so I enjoyed learning about what it was like, too.

Daniel Aubin’s Piano Man was, in my opinion, so bright and vibrant. His at times caustic narration, but still comforting jovial presence, along with the puppet shows that were scattered throughout the play, made for quick and witty comic relief. The other part of the play that was clever was Bradley having a variety of actors take on the role of Pickles, the drunk immigrant miner. The tell tale miner’s helmet and long coat served all of them well.

France Huot’s portrayal of Annie Flyberry was real enough to make me laugh out loud at times, and then get a bit teary at others. I love watching how France’s face transforms when she acts. (I should say I’m biased as she did a dramatic reading of one of the characters in my play, “Sparrows Over Slag,” last year at STC at ‘Last Stop.’) Greg Tremblay’s portrayal of a cerebral and quirky newspaper reporter, though, was one of my favourite performances, because it was in such sharp opposition to his richly textured and brooding rendering of a rather devious and sexually charged merchant who cheats on his wife. How Tremblay moves between two such radically different characters stumps me, but that’s probably because I’m not an actor. When I asked him about it, how he moves between the two, he said that it’s probably easier because the two characters are so different. I imagine it must be a bit like hearing two voices in your head, and the only thing I can compare it to, in my limited experience with theatre, is that–when you write a play or a novel or a short story–you let the words come through you, and your characters’ dialogue is distinct and clear in your mind, before it comes to the page, and then is re-written and revised at a later date.

I am constantly amazed by these actors, in awe of how they seem to just shift in and out of characters as if they are putting on a new spring coat. It puzzles me, and I wish I could understand how they can remember all of those lines. (I will never be a performance poet, for instance, because I have such a poor memory of the very lines I’ve written! A page poet…always.)

The next play I saw was Matt Heiti’s “Receiver of Wreck.” Oh, this one has had me thinking for two days straight. This play tells the story of Pez, a shoe salesman who lives on the West Coast, and Chase, an aesthetician who lives on the East Coast. Both have lost a foot in a horrible accident. Heiti based the play around the story of the Salish Sea foot mystery, out in British Columbia. You’ll remember the one: Since 2007, detached human feet have been found along the coasts of BC. Most are found in running shoes. Heiti’s riff on this is brilliant. Sitting in the audience during a matinee performance with my Grade 11 and 12 students, I kept thinking, “Oh…what’s he saying here about what’s lost and what’s found?”

The entire play makes you really consider what, about life, is worthwhile. It asks you to think about what’s wasted, and what waste is made up of, and what the notion of ruin is all about. One of my favourite lines, which I jotted down in the margin of the program, was “There is a hole in everything.” How true. People will say that they are whole, that there aren’t holes in their lives or identities, but I think they must be lying to make themselves look better for the benefit of others. Yes, we can strive to know ourselves, and we can be content as we are, fully realized for the moment we are living in, but we can also evolve over time, and sometimes, well, sometimes we are more full of holes than at other times in our lives. This is what makes us human, I think.

The story itself is achingly bittersweet. There is the sense that neither Pez (played by Heiti) nor Chase (played by Jenny Hazleton) is very content with their jobs, and they lose them, and are evicted from their respective homes, and so they decide to set off across Canada, each one headed to the opposite coast. It seems inevitable that they should meet. In fact, prior to their departure, they unwittingly end up chatting on an online dating site, finding that they have things in common. When they actually meet up in person, in the middle of the country, in a bus station, you get a sense that they were always meant to meet. It’s not a grand romantic meeting, but rather one that seems fated and destined. It reminds me of those stories of people who think they’ve known each other before, in other life times or incarnations. It’s the notion that there are things we can’t quite always explain, in terms of how we meet the few people who will be the most important in our lives. These two were meant to meet, were meant to feel calm with one another, were meant to feel that they had found their ‘home’ in their meeting. As the character of the Weather Man (played by Len Silvini) says, “Two strangers…exchanging chance for risk…or nothing is whole.” Sometimes, you need to risk being vulnerable to live fully. I loved that line and that notion. Either you pull in and turtle, or you try to live more fully. You risk, you grow; you hide, you stay the same…and how boring is that? 🙂

There is, too, I think, a real sense in “Receiver of Wreck,” that the idea of being alone can be terrifying. I’ve been alone for a long time, and it isn’t terrifying, but it can grate on you after a while. Sometimes you talk to yourself, or your dogs, or you sing and play music very loudly. One of Heiti’s lines is “Who will own ‘alone’?” and another is “Don’t go back to alone.” Both, for me, were powerful ones that made me lose my breath for a bit. Maybe, in some ways, they struck too close to my life. Not sure. Still need to think about that for a while.

You sometimes meet people who change your life, even if you only know them for a very short period of time. In my life, I can think of about three such people. Fewer than five, they are, but unforgettable…every single one. They may not stay with you, and perhaps they aren’t meant to stay. The point is, I think, that you can never ‘unmeet’ those very important souls who have made some sort of impact on your heart and mind. There is, and always will be, a ‘before’ and ‘after’ for your having met them. There’s a real beauty in that, even if it becomes bittersweet and they don’t stay in your life. The longing is hard, sometimes, because of the sense of loss, but the lessons learned may be all the richer because of that loss. I’m not sure on this, though, because I’m still working through a couple of them…and maybe, too, I’m learning, lately, that you’ll never be able to figure it all out, and maybe you aren’t supposed to, and maybe (just maybe) there’s something to be learned there, too.

That Heiti’s work is this thought provoking makes me happy inside. Yeah. I like to think. Probably too much. In any case, both Bradley’s “Blind Nickel Pig” and Heiti’s “Receiver of Wreck” are brilliant pieces of theatre. I hope people outside of the north get a chance to see them. I want to see them again. (But you don’t want to see your friends’ plays too often or they’ll think you’re a theatre stalker rather than just a simple supporter of local arts, and who wants that reputation?! 😉


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If you know me, you’ll know I’m fairly straightforward. If I like you, I say so. If I’m not sure of you when I first meet you, though, in a social situation, I’ll likely just avoid you because I’m a quiet, polite person and won’t want to hurt your feelings. I won’t share important things with you. I’ll pull a ‘half turtle,’ as opposed to a ‘full turtle,’ as I like to think of it, until I’m sure I’m safe. Turning red is always another sign of my discomfort because I’m all pale ghost skinned and blush too tellingly. Introvert woman.

If you’re a writer, though, I have a history of being completely and utterly tongue tied, as if I were in love with you or something. It really is akin to what happens when I crush out on someone: I end up looking like an eejit, all shifty on my feet, nervous, looking at the person and then looking away, and all a mess of hands waving all over the place as I talk. Or I just avoid eye contact and look at the ground. It really isn’t very socially forward of me…another reason why I’m sure I’m living in the wrong time period, and another reason why I’m still single. 🙂 When it’s a writer I admire, it’s ten times worse and, I’m sure, very amusing for those people around me. Meeting Seamus Heaney in a pub one summer almost did me in. There are a few friends who witnessed that encounter and know how blushy I went that day, and then got physically shaky and went into a bathroom stall to just sit on a closed toilet lid to have a little cry.

Colleen Murphy is one of my favourite Canadian playwrights. As part of the National Reading Campaign’s “Reading Town Ville Lecture Sudbury”, Murphy came to town to take part in what is a grand celebration of reading and literacy. I didn’t know anything about her until I was part of Playwrights’ Junction at the Sudbury Theatre Centre (STC) back in the fall of 2015. As part of the Junction, Matt Heiti, our instructor, always brought in a big trunk of slim plays to the STC. Each week, we would sign one or two out and then, the next week, we would give a little review. That fall, I was overwhelmed at work due to a stressful situation, so the Junction offered me a safe haven, with other writers who were learning about the craft of writing plays. At the same time, though, I just didn’t have the energy to deal with the stress and anxiety at work, and then come home and read plays. I was teaching full time, with a marking load of about 80 students at the senior English level, so I felt like I was dead inside, just a work horse, especially in terms of what I could produce creatively on my own ‘free time.’ That’s how I felt. Exhausted and overworked…and longing for my words and writing.

As the session went on, week by week, I started to sift through that old trunk of Matt’s at the end of our Monday nights as a group, and found I loved how complete each volume felt in my hands. You could read a play, I quickly realized, in a night. You could slip into a story, completely, and imagine it on a stage. How would you light the stage, or what music would you imagine using to highlight parts of the play? I was beginning to fall in love with writing plays. It struck me that it was very much similar to that odd “in between” place when you first meet a person and recognize a little frisson of energy and attraction. That’s how reading and writing plays came to me, but now I’m totally in love with them and even pre-order them when I go to Windsor and visit Biblioasis.

I’ve said before that I don’t have a fancy MFA in Creative Writing. I have a Masters degree in English Literature from Carleton, and I was accepted to do a PhD in English at Memorial ages ago, but I turned it down, knowing it would stop me from my writing. I did the right thing all those years ago. The only thing, though, is that I knew little to nothing of how to write a play when I joined Playwrights’ Junction. I felt like a fraud, sitting there amidst a couple of notable local playwrights like Sarah Gartshore and Matt Heiti. I had written poems, mostly, and short stories, but never a play. Part of what Matt taught me, thank God, was that I could teach myself if I immersed myself in reading inside the genre. Now, well, I read a lot of plays because I’m in the process of writing one or two.

Seeing Colleen Murphy on Sunday night was brilliant. She said so many things that resonated with me. Theatre, she said, “is a living thing. You can’t press pause and there is no other artistic experience like it. It’s also a very powerful form because we are all here together…writers, actors, directors, and audience members.” I think that might be, truly, what I most like about it. I lead a solitary life. I love that working with other playwrights means that I can create a family of kindred spirits, collaborating in the writing process, and then seeing everything from a visual and artistic point of view, as well as a literary one, and a theatrical one. It also means that there is, as Caleb Marshall of the STC said, the notion that “theatre destroys itself in creation.” I love the idea of things changing form, of transformation, and of how we are never the same people two days in a row. You can see the same show three times and, each time, the nuances you notice in writing, or acting, or directing, will shift and shimmer. Each time it’s performed and produced, Caleb said, “a play is reimagined.” For me, in my mind, it’s sheer magic.

Why do I love Murphy’s plays so much? Well, I fell in love with her work when I read “Armstrong’s War,” “The December Man,” and “The Goodnight Bird.” I love her sense of humour, especially in the way she uses it to show us how humans manage really difficult emotions by leaning on humour and wit. As she said, “humour is essential, especially during life’s worst moments.” She spoke of needing to be “in your heart” when you write, and of knowing that the two dramatic masks are actually two sides of the same face, of humour and pain. You must, as a playwright, “live in the heart of the character.” Yes. When someone asked how she lets go of her plays after they’ve been written, she thought for a second and then replied: “You birth the thing…it’s published. If they are whole, living, breathing characters, then you can let them go, just as you would your children.” She begins, she said, by writing with and through the character. Writing “The December Man,” which deals with the Montreal Massacre, meant that she had to think of how she would get inside the head of such a killer. What she did, and what makes good sense as a playwright, is that she thought of the child. She thought back to what the boy’s life would have been like. “You go through the child, who was beaten or abused. You imagine what that would feel like, how that would affect a person later in life.”

In her Governor General Award winning play, “Pig Girl,” Murphy has created something that is visceral and heartbreaking. I read this play when I was alone in a cabin in Bobcaygeon, on Christmas break. I remember sitting there, in front of a night fire, my breath stuck in my chest. I can’t even begin to tell you how powerful this play is, but I did wonder how she managed to imagine herself into the mind of a Robert Pickton-inspired character. As she said the other night, “the thing we talk about the least as playwrights is imagination. You need to imagine how you would be, or feel, in a situation. You must ‘put blood on the page.’ If I’m not moved by my work, how can I expect an audience to be moved?” She often weeps, she said, when she writes. I get that. I’m Irish Canadian. You couldn’t ask for a bigger ‘feeler’ than me and, when I had to write a mining accident into my novel while I was writing on the edge of Lake Erie last summer, I wept into my cup of Earl Grey tea. Your characters, I always think, should live in your heart, so you can feel them, and know them, and even sometimes be surprised by them. It’s what I love so much about writing.

Murphy’s newest play, coming out at the Stratford Festival this summer, is titled “The Breathing Hole.” It tells the story of a polar bear, over a five hundred year period, from 1534 to 2034. She has not, she said, been a polar bear, but she imagined herself as a mythic one, able to come to a specific breathing hole in the middle of Arctic ice over a period of five hundred years, from point of contact and colonization with the Europeans, to create what I think will be a brilliant play. It’s the one piece I really, really need to see this season at Stratford.

When I asked her about her creative process, she shook her head and said she doesn’t have one. Sometimes her ideas come to her when she walks the dog. She writes each play in one place. Then, once it’s out on paper, she spends a long time going over and over it. “A play comes to you, as a playwright, as being fully formed. It just seems to come together.” It’s not the traditional tale of a struggling artist who sets the alarm for 4am and then gets up, makes coffee, sits on the back porch, and then sits in front of a laptop for a scheduled period of time each day. For Murphy, the process is much more fluid. The work that comes afterwards takes time and effort, and this is reflected in the beautiful plays that we can read, and then see on stage.

So, when my friend Sandy Crawley introduced us, before her talk, I nearly genuflected. I kept babbling, “Oh, I so love your work.” What could she say? She just smiled and nodded, and then signed her play for me. Of course she did. Why wouldn’t she? Sometimes, I think, the best writers are those who just love to write, and those who work through their ideas and put them down on paper. I write that way. The way she described her writing process (although she wouldn’t call it that!) is much like my process. The writers I most admire, especially in the last year of my time of stepping more fully into myself as a writer, are the ones who are tenacious, and humble, and students of the craft. They read a lot, widely and outside of their comfort zones, so that they can learn and better themselves in their craft. They don’t have big heads or egos. They share their ideas willingly and are good teachers. I’ve been blessed to have a few cross my life path recently. The notion of writerly mentorship, too, means a great deal to me. As a classroom teacher, for however much longer I will be one, I try to encourage young writers to experiment and see the writing process as an exploration, and not as a chore. For me, there is really nothing lovelier than an afternoon spent writing and revising, a cup of tea at my side, some Bach echoing through my tiny house, and slipping into a world I’ve somehow created on paper. People there seem so much more interesting to me, some days, than people here…

If you get a chance to go and see “The Breathing Hole” at the Stratford Festival this year, you ought to. If you haven’t read or seen Colleen Murphy’s work on stage, well, you should. Guaranteed…her voice(s) will change your world, from the inside out.


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If you read my blog regularly, you’ll know I wrote an entry on New Year’s Eve, in the middle of the bush outside of Bobcaygeon, in the Kawarthas and Trent Lakes region of the province of Ontario. I talked about 2016 being my “Year of No Fear.” It’s true; it was. Coming into 2017, I got to thinking that it didn’t all have to come crashing to a halt on January 1st. So, this is my second “Year of No Fear,” and I am now a quarter of the way through it and relatively unscathed.

I am, it seems, a glutton for punishment, mostly because I am pressing back against patterns of fear and shame that have been deeply embedded in me since childhood. None of this pressing back stuff is simple, and it often means you need to go deeply into yourself, on your own, and that means plenty of time in solitude, for reflection. That doesn’t frighten me because I’m used to being alone. I think most writers will admit to being solitary sorts. We read and write, and that means we need to dance that delicate dance between enjoying being around other people, and observing them, gathering scraps for future stories we might write (!), and then just wanting to go home, shut the door, put on the kettle, and play with the dogs. There’s a real tug-of-war there, in the balancing act that writers do every day. For me, it’s been lessened this year because I’ve been working as a teacher during the mornings, and then doing reading, writing and laureate work in my afternoons. It’s let me breathe, creatively speaking, but it’s also sort of lit me up inside. (Yes, Virginia, you can fall in love with the act of writing — and with yourself — in a way that you can’t fall in love with a person. It’s a bit mystical, I know, but I’ll just chalk it up to being a poet, an imaginative soul, and a woman with bits of Scottish and Irish background.)

Some people, I guess, would call it a mid-life ‘crisis,’ but I prefer to call it a mid-life ‘chrysalis.’ It’s more powerful, I think, when you don’t have family members, or a partner, around to say things like “Um, are you sure this is a wise decision, to teach part time and write the rest of the time? What about your pension?” or “Are you sure you might want to leave teaching in a year or two? Is that really that wise, to even entertain that thought? For what? To write? To work in some non-profit organization?” or “You think you might move from the North in a year or two? Why? What’s wrong with it? You never wanted any of this before…so why now?” None of these questions are unfounded, I suppose, but why do they really matter to anyone other than me? They shouldn’t. I think they matter to people because most people don’t like change. I didn’t used to like change, but now I crave it.

I think, too, when you’ve been very ill with mental illness, people will always wonder whether or not you are ‘healthy enough’ to make what seem to be big life decisions. It’s almost as if, once you’ve had a bad bout of depression or anxiety, you’re infantilized for eternity. Some people almost seem to want to (re)diagnose you and make you into a victim for a second or third time, depending on how well you’ve been over time. It’s almost as if, to be honest, some people would prefer to see you not well than to see you healthy…especially when you’ve maybe never, ever really been truly healthy. And herein lies the rub: sometimes, you being healthy and content (happy, even) seems so against your historical type that people realize that they don’t know you anymore. This frightens them more than you might realize, sometimes to the point where you lose them, or they just disappear so that you wonder why you spent (or wasted) time with them in the first place.

So, since I’ve written that December 31st blog, my life has morphed again. I had lost weight last year, but now I’ve lost more. I had a car accident on the way home from Bobcaygeon on January 6th that, I think, now, upon reflection, was a major wake-up call. It made me realize that life is short. You can lose it, in so many ways, without warning, so you need to be mindful of what you’re doing with the time you have now. There was no “I saw my life flash before my eyes” moment in my car when I hit black ice. I was alone with two dogs. It was, for a second, terrifying. And then it was strangely calm. After that, through January and February, I encountered a rush of energy that was like a tsunami wave. I did Zumba more often, joined yoga classes (for the first time in my life as a mentally healthy person) and walked every morning. Before long, I felt healthier, lighter, and my brain seemed less foggy. I had, I knew by mid-March, stepped into myself for the first time in my life.

It felt like zipping off a heavy coat and letting it drop to your feet after a long Northern Ontario winter. You step out of it, and then you just don’t look back. You don’t want to, actually, because you’re beyond where you were, and looking back never really serves you. So, my metaphorical winter coat was one that was heavily weighted with anxiety, depression, and deep grief. (You can’t lose as many loved ones as I have without feeling deep grief on a physical level. It would be weird not to have had a hard time, I think.) I ate my way through depression, especially because the meds were so intense. Then, when my parents died, I ate again, bulking myself up to hide. I hid under the fat. I felt unattractive and almost invisible. It was a good shielding system, so that I would never get close to people, but it was killing my spirit slowly. Nothing seemed bright and everything had a dull, tarnished edge. Through it all, thankfully, I had my words and writing, and I probably owe my health to them, as well. When I took off my metaphorical winter coat in February sometime, I could breathe again. I started to glow a bit. I cultivated good health and took time to ask myself what I wanted for myself. I didn’t think of anyone else, for the first time in my life. Shocking, I know.

In recent months, it’s been a sort of evolution that’s embodied itself so that other people have noticed it all. I noticed it a while back, even before New Year’s, maybe as far back as last February, when I finally spoke up for myself in a situation at work that had caused me severe stress. As soon as I voiced my thoughts fourteen months ago, it’s as if the process began. Once you speak up for yourself, the filters drop down, and then some people won’t ever know what hit them. It can be that dramatic. It was for me, and for some of my dearest friends, I know it’s been a bit of a ride. Thankfully, my nearest and dearest ones know me well enough and don’t have a problem. They aren’t the people who fade to black when I turn my head and look towards the sun.

This brings me to the notion of beauty. Since my dad died, I’ve been more and more drawn to landscape (especially to the farm fields and windmills of Southwestern Ontario), to visual art, and to aesthetics. I’ve become more sensory, somehow. My friend, Monique, calls me a ‘voluptuary.’ At first, I thought the word wouldn’t fit me, when she visited me back in February. The part of it that appeals to sensuality, though, does. The fact that I can’t stop touching textured surfaces, especially trees, is not a new thing, but it’s sort of intensified. I think it’s more about being mindful of what I’m encountering as I journey. My friend Nancy, who is a wonderfully spirited Newfoundlander, always says to me: “Kim, you’re walking through the forest. What do you see?” She knows I can overthink things, so her suggestion to just pay absolute attention to the moment is what I’ve most taken to heart. Richard Wagamese, in “Embers,” does that for me, too. Before I read that book, back in early November of last year, I thought I was odd because of all this, but then he wrote about how we need to celebrate the beauty of the world. I am drawn, it seems quite clear to me now, to the beauty of the world, and to the wonder of how connections are formed–between people, but also between people and the natural world. It intrigues me. I think it’s the elemental in me. 🙂

As a girl and young woman, I was always solitary and quiet. Shy, even. Always, too, melancholy and overweight, until my mid-twenties. I was too fearful, too controlled by strict parents, and too oppressed. That it took me until my mid-forties to ‘wake up’ from fear sort of shocks me now, but I know it’s all about divine timing and being open to possibilities. Beauty came to me through art, literature, and music. I never once, in all those years, thought of myself as being beautiful, except perhaps when I was in romantic relationships with men. I let their views of me help me to find myself, a self that ended up just being a shade of who I really was at the core of it all. This saddens me now, but it’s done, so I won’t look back. All of it had to happen when and how it did, I think, for me to come into myself now.

Perceptions of female beauty frustrate me, and always have…and maybe that’s because I couldn’t grasp it all, but it’s also because I don’t like living on the surfaces of things; I like depth….a lot. For the longest time, the idea that you should love yourself first sounded like a bumper sticker, and then somehow that idea made more sense. You can never look to someone else to be whole; you need to be whole, and creative, and content all on your own. You need to, as I said to a group of Grade 12s at St. Charles College a few weeks ago during a poetry visit, “Find the little bit of spark inside of you and let it glow.” Then I went on, all Oprah/Chopra/Tolle, and said “You can try, if you want, to suffocate that little glowy bit, but it won’t work. One day, after you’ve stuffed it down for too long, it will just sort of emerge and surprise you so that you won’t even recognize yourself anymore.”

One of my Grade 10s last semester turned to another student and said, “You are your own best rainbow,” and I thought, as I overheard the conversation, “Now that is some good parenting.” Someone had taught that little girl to love herself, to not look outside for validation or approval, and had also told her, somehow and somewhere, that she was amazing all on her own and that she could trust herself and that she could be brave and not be fearful of the world. I never had that when I was young, and then I hid inside myself, behind layers of fat and books. You can’t conceive of your own beauty when you hide from it because you fear stepping into yourself. But, let me tell you, when you step into yourself in all parts of your life, you soon find your own beauty…and then you begin to glow and radiate from the inside out. You might even become a painting. 🙂

I had some new author photos done yesterday. My friend, Gerry Kingsley, is an excellent photographer, and he has a grand makeup artist in Dana Lajeunesse. He’s been after me for about a year to have new photos done. I kept putting it off because I don’t like photos of myself. I don’t like narcissism. I have plans for all of the things I want to get done while I’m on the planet. No dawdling now. Staring at a mirror, or peering into a phone for a selfie…none of it will ever appeal or make sense to me. It speaks too much of looking inward in a narcissistic and self-serving fashion than in a way that speaks of reaching out and making soul connections.

I don’t wear lots of makeup. I never have. I remember trying, in high school, but I had such awful skin then, all cystic acne and visits to dermatologists. That, in itself, squished my self-esteem. Add weight to that, and being ‘too smart’ and oddly creative, and you had a perfect storm for bullying and ostracism. When I met Dana yesterday, I told her I didn’t want lots of makeup. I know my skin is good because I haven’t slathered on sheets of foundation over the years. I also know to avoid the sun, because I burn and then look like a Maritime lobster girl. These two things, and maybe some good genetics, mean that I often get mistaken for being about ten years younger than I am. It doesn’t matter. I’m more worried about the inside physical and mental health of my body. In any case, she didn’t use a lot of makeup and it felt all right. Nervous at first, and even worried, Gerry soon had me laughing in about fifteen minutes. (It might’ve been the bit of whiskey he put in the coffee, though, so it’s hard to tell.)

After the shoot, we looked at the photos and I kept hitting him on the arm. “I cannot believe that is me. I look beautiful. I look like a painting.” (For me, beauty is about art…so seeing some of the photos shocked me to no end. I saw myself differently, maybe for the first time in forever.) Gerry just shook his head. “You know. You’re too hard on yourself. All women are. This is how I see you…when we sit and have coffee…and talk…and when I take these shots. You can’t see it, or you haven’t been able to, but maybe you can now.” So. This is how my friend helped me take another step into myself yesterday, in claiming my own beauty, in seeing myself through new eyes. I know a lot of it has to do with the hard internal work I’ve been doing, and with the weight loss and exercise, but I also know it’s because I have connected with myself on a deeper level, accepted myself, found my little spark and made it glow so that it’s kind of hard to ignore now. I’ve stepped into being a writer. It’s who I was born to be.

Yes. You can fall in love with yourself, your life, and your writing. And then, if you’re really lucky, you’ll find your own beauty and light. It doesn’t matter who else sees it. Not really. You will bloom where you’re planted, as that old saying goes, and then you’ll bloom wherever you travel, because you’ll have stepped into yourself and found your voice. That’s the beauty of it all…not selfies, plasticity and surface living.

Go deep inside. Be the painting. Live in the moment.



Photo Credit: Gerry Kingsley

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