Archive for November, 2017

Here’s the thing: good things don’t traditionally, or historically, happen to me. Close friends know this is true, especially if they’ve known me for a while. No need to go into details, just suffice it to say it’s a fact. So…when the invitation to go to the Governor General’s Literary Awards arrived a few weeks ago in my laureate email account, I was shocked. See…my parents weren’t wealthy, so posh events weren’t par for the course. Why would they be?

My dad worked in the copper refinery in Copper Cliff and carried a metal lunch pail to work each day. Then he worked in his trophy shop. Then he worked in summers for Labatt’s, selling beer to Northern Ontario fishing and hunting resorts. Then he managed the Sudbury Curling Club. Then he bought a gift shop. He was, to put it kindly, but in a frustrating way for my mother, “a jack of all trades.” She worked in nursing, social work, and then managed intake of clients for Participation Projects.

My paternal grandfather also worked in the refinery, but before that he worked out in Northern Ontario lumber camps. (I figure he must’ve helped my dad get into INCO, but no one is around to ask anymore…so that’s lost information.) On my mum’s side, my grandfather was in mine management at Garson Mine, and helped out with a mine in Petsamo, Finland, at the start of WWII. Later, he went out and became a prospector. On my maternal grandmother’s side, the Kelly side, things looked a bit more successful as my great-grandfather owned a general store out in Creighton and then built a lovely big house on Kingsmount when he retired. Before that, though, his ancestors came over from Ireland after the Famine. I thought of them today, mostly because one of them was a stonemason who helped to build the Parliament buildings in Ottawa. Those Kellys settled in this area.

So, when I knew I had to buy a fancy schmancy gown, I got a bit nervous…felt sick, even. I’m not what I’d call a ‘plastic chick.’ I don’t do fake nails, or high heels, or lash extensions, or use foundation. I’m kind of what my grandmother used to call an “Ivory girl,” who just uses soap, a bit of eyeshadow and mascara, and a wee bit of lipstick. I would rather walk in the rain, go canoeing or hiking, or read a book, or have a really amazing conversation than spend forever on appearances. Having to buy a gown traumatized me. I found one, though, and that was good. Wearing it, well, I felt a bit like Cinderella, which was actually kind of nice. 🙂

As a smart, fat kid, I never went to the prom. I never felt comfortable with myself, inside or out. Always an outsider and outcast. Not an easy time of high school, which is probably why I keep an eye out for bullies in classrooms and talk about making people feel welcome. I can feel when someone is uncomfortable, mostly because it makes me feel uncomfortable. Yup. Empath and introvert.

Walking into Rideau Hall tonight, I felt sick. I thought, “I won’t belong. These people aren’t ‘my’ people. They’ll call me out.” But I didn’t feel like that at all. I felt amazed and honoured to sit and listen to the various laureates who had won literary awards, and I felt proud of how much this country does to celebrate the literary arts, and I felt glad I’ve had the chance to be poet laureate for my town. (I’m not going into that now…I’ll write a post in a few weeks to talk about what I’ve learned from being a poet laureate person.)

I could feel my father, though, standing behind me. I could imagine him being pleased, to see me go further than he might have imagined. A girl from Sudbury, from Minnow Lake no less, from a mining family, wearing a gown to Rideau Hall. He would’ve liked that, I think…and I wish he’d been around to see it. That made me sad today.

Today is my birthday, you see…and maybe the first amazing one I’ve ever had. Life has not been simple or kind until very recently, which is perhaps why I am more aware of valuing friends and connections I make, and why I take risks where I never did before, and why I try to find ways to make each day sacred, to find bits of light, even if I’m struggling inside with something. I have a family of friends, but not a super close biological family anymore. I’ve had to be strong even when I didn’t think I could be, or at least try to convince myself that I could continue to exist. In the last two years, well, I’ve stepped into myself in more than a few ways.

One way I’ve done this is to love reading and writing as one would a partner. One of my first boyfriends once said I loved books more than I loved him. At the time, I thought he was just an asshole…but then, in retrospect, well, he might’ve been right. (He was still not very nice, though…and God knows why I fancied someone who would make me choose between him and writing…because writing is such a big part of me that you can’t separate it out, and I can’t give it up. It’s intrinsic. Besides, who really wants a partner who would want to change you to the point that they would want to jettison a major part of who you are?)  My life hasn’t given me space to get married and have kids. I spent my thirties being a caretaker for my parents. So, instead, I’ve given time to my writing. Now, it seems, it’s giving back to me, and it’s given me an energy that I can’t quite fathom…but for which I am most grateful.

I spent this afternoon at the National Gallery of Canada. I wanted to sit and listen to Janet Cardiff’s “Forty Part Motet.” I knew it would move me, but I wasn’t prepared for the way in which it would shake me, and then break me open. Sitting there, in that Rideau Chapel, which feels as if you are moving into a different world, I felt my whole body shake. The sounds and vibrations from the various speakers positioned around the room rippled. Brilliant. Sitting there, I pulled out a notebook, jotted down some images and lines, and will likely fashion a poem out of them at some point. But I sat there, eyes closed for a bit and letting the sound rush over and through me, thinking of my Dad again. He never leaves me. I keep thinking, tears pricking my eyes a bit, of how much I miss him, of how much he would’ve liked to have seen all of this writing stuff shift for me, even in small ways, and in how grateful I am that he was in my life for as long as he was. Cardiff’s work will break your heart open in so many ways…and it did today.

I’m feeling as if it’s my first real birthday in my body…spiritually, physically, and mentally. I’m grateful for that. It might just be the best birthday gift I’ve ever given myself, and the longest one coming, in terms of its arrival. But, sometimes, just sometimes, there are things that are worth waiting for…and the lessons you learn along the way make you a much richer soul while you’re here on the planet.

And then, well, there’s this….

It makes me know that, while the first part of your life can sometimes be a fierce struggle, the next wave is up to you.  It takes hard work, awareness, mindfulness, and intention, as well as faith and trust that art, music, literature, the natural world, and a few very dear friends who stay with you against all odds, will help you to fashion a richly rewarding life.

Thanks for wishing me a happy first birthday, friends. I am blessed to have you…and I know my dad would’ve told me the same thing…so thank you for your kindnesses.




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So far, I haven’t written anything about the loss of Gord Downie…and make no mistake…that’s what it is: a significant loss for this country of Canada, but an even greater one for those who love his poetry.

I don’t normally write letters to people who are ‘famous,’ but I did write one to him earlier this year. I emailed it off to Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, where I knew he was a board member, and they said they passed it on to him. I hope he read it, but I don’t know.  I had admired his advocacy on water rights and health for a number of years. In the last year, I’ve discovered my own great and passionate love for some of the Great Lakes, mostly Huron and Erie. Each one has its own spirit, personality, and vibrancy. I’ve even written a series of Great Lakes poems which are in my newest book, Some Other Sky, and I’m more than in love with these lakes because I’ve gone swimming, canoeing, and hiking along their shores this summer. If you were to tell me I couldn’t hike at Point Pelee National Park at least a couple of times a year, I’d probably weep. If you were to tell me I couldn’t go canoeing in Killarney, and swim into what feels like a living Group of Seven painting, well, I’d weep again, and likely lash out somehow. They are both that dear to me now.

I’ve always been a fan of The Tragically Hip, but I’ve been an even greater fan of Gord Downie’s poetry for nearly as long. When my second book of poems, braille on water, was released by Penumbra Press in 2001, I remember standing in a Chapters store somewhere in Ontario, my mouth open in shock because my first book of poems with a spine was right up against Gord Downie’s new collection of poems, Coke Machine Glow. I read that volume of his work voraciously, falling in love with a number of pieces that rippled with brilliant energy and imagery. My favourite poem of his is “Sailboat.” There are others, but I love the last few lines, when he writes that “the most you can do is / spend all your time / giving some of your time / meaning.” When Downie was named as an honorary member of the League of Canadian Poets this past spring, I thought, “Yes. About bloody time.”

I didn’t weep when I heard he’d died this fall. It struck me so viscerally, though, to think that he was gone, that I felt physically ill. I did finally weep, though, when I showed the CBC’s version of The Secret Path last week in my Grade 11 English class. It’s a class that contains literature written by First Nations, Metis, and Inuit writers. I just keep thinking of how he believed in what he believed in so strongly. Whether it was the struggle for truth and reconciliation and raising awareness of Chanie Wenjak’s story, or helping to bring attention to the state of so many northern Indigenous communities where there is–truly–a sort of cultural apartheid that is still happening, or the health of Lake Ontario’s water (so that you could swim in it, drink its waters, and fish in it), or just the intense natural beauty of this nation of ours, he fought hard for things he believed in.

I wept quietly at the back of a class of thirty sixteen year olds last week, poking at my eyes with a tissue, and then trying to explain why I was so moved. He had given of himself and his heart so openly throughout his life, and especially in a very public way in the last year or so of his life. That selflessness moves me. The students shuffled out of the classroom at the end of the period, hesitant to leave, muttering phrases like “It’ll be all right, Miss. Look at what he did for everyone…” And I stood there, trying to stop from crying even harder, knowing that it was seeing and hearing him speak in that documentary that set me off, just reminding me yet again of why I admire him so.

This world is a darker place without Gord Downie in it because he seemed, to me, to be someone who was genuine and true. I respect that in people because it’s getting harder and harder to find. Sometimes, I find, people don’t know what to do with those who are genuine or speak their truth with both conviction and kindness. He shone his light out, through poems, songs, interviews, and in his quiet, hard work on being on the Board for Lake Ontario Waterkeeper. He’s the kind of man I respect, and will always respect, for his quiet yet firm commitment to his voluntary causes.

This is the poem I wrote for him, as a gift to thank him for being such a grand poet and a steadfast advocate for so many important causes, to go along with the letter I sent to him in the spring. The letter will always be private, as are all letters I write to those I feel drawn or compelled to write to, and share my heart with, but this poem…is for him, to celebrate his work and bright spirit, and will be published in my next collection of poems in his honour and memory.

He was such a poet, such a soul, such a bright star, and so full of grace, too.



The Lake Belongs to Us

(for Gord Downie)

“I feel more a citizen of Lake Ontario than I do of anywhere else.”

            -Gord Downie, Board Member of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper

This lake, provincial

and called ‘Ontario,’

sits centred, thumbtacked

into the vintage school map

of Canada that stretches out

over a cork bulletin board,

coloured in Pantone’s palest blue—

either Robin’s Egg

or Twilight Mist.


“Don’t go outside the lines,”

the voice echoes in my head,

so that lake doesn’t bleed

into pink or green shades

of Laurentian pencil crayon.


Going beyond borders

is how this water moves,

though, straddling nations

and teeter-tottering

over the Medicine Line—

laws made on two sides

for one great lake.


The tall man with a strong voice

walks the land, singing stories

and speaking of truth and justice,

saying he is a citizen of the lake,

more than of the land itself.


The lake belongs to us,

reaching out towards

the St. Lawrence River,

craving the salt of sea

and then giving it up

in favour of something else—

a song about courage, protest,

and the protector who is

ahead by a century,

trailing stars in his wake.




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When I started writing plays two years ago, in Playwrights’ Junction at the Sudbury Theatre Centre, I thought, “I’ll just give this a shot. See what happens.” It’s pretty much the way I approach my life these days. I’ll try anything if I think it might work, if I feel drawn to it, or compelled to take a risk that might pan out. So. Writing plays. A whole different kettle of fish. Here’s why I love (and sometimes hate) writing them:

I had one play, “Ghost of a Chance,” workshopped at the Sudbury Theatre Centre, back in 2016, as part of the Opening Acts series there. It was based on the ghost of Mrs. Bell at the Bell Mansion (now the Art Gallery of Sudbury). There weren’t rewrites, though, and it seemed rushed. The play I’m constantly working on, as it weaves itself into itself month by month, is “Sparrows Over Slag.” It’s the story of two voices, one woman in her twenties, and one woman in her forties. In effect, it’s about how a female evolves, grows from being a ‘girl’ into a ‘woman,’ sometimes without her even recognizing the transformation. (Still, if you’d told my twenty-something year old self that I was anything less than a real woman, I would have been defiant. Now, though, I can see I was just a girl, and I’m glad to be where I am now, certain and confident.  That kind of thing takes time, I think, and you can’t rush it.)

This is a play that spirals into and out of itself. Part of me knows that that is because I think that way, and live that way, so of course it would infiltrate my own dramatic structure, too, as I write. There are so many poetic images that, when my dramaturge mentioned it to me last week, listing them all to me scene by scene, I thought, “Oh, Jesus. It’s too much.” I see the world as a poet, so images are what I use to write prose (short stories and novels) and drama. The problem is that you can’t “tell.” You need to “show,” through action. So the question, for me, is how to make my images into actions for the character(s) I create for the stage. It’s a cerebral debate I’ve been having in the last week or two, as I re-think “Sparrows.”

For images:

-There is a young woman who takes a leaf for a walk. (I have a real ‘thing’ for trees in my own life, and it’s quite transparently trickled down into all genres of my writing). I’ll tell you why I love trees now, if you want to know. They are so unbelievably strong; even when the most traumatic storms whip at them, they bend and creak, moving with challenges and not breaking. Celtic art has always amazed me with its Tree of Life symbology, and the way that the ancient Celts used trees to indicate a sense of continuity and eternity, in how their branches were woven together. To be honest, I’m fonder of trees than people most days, and I’m happiest if you plunk me in the bush somewhere. (I’m not fond of bears, though, and, having been in a car that sideswiped one the other day, I can say hiking in Northern Ontario isn’t always ‘easy,’ but it’s always something I love to do anyway.)

-There is the woman who calls out the faeries in the middle of a dusky “West-Of-Ireland” road. (I absolutely believe in faeries, and I don’t care who knows it. As such, they also make their way into certain pieces of my writing. I’m always ready for the derisive teasing and bullying that comes, when you say, as an adult woman, that you believe in faeries and ghosts. For me, all of the elementals just prove that there are veils between worlds and dimensions. These things don’t frighten me. I was raised with Irish stories. I know that there are things we can’t explain, and they don’t really frighten me. For me, they are just part of the fabric of my life. I’ve seen ghosts, so that doesn’t make me nervous, either…)

-There are references to this landscape, with Sudbury street names and the Bell Mansion, as well as to the notion of empty Manitoulin island fields, snow angels, and split rail fences that can trap a person when you least expect it. There are also swings (because I love them, and bought a house with one that hangs from a grand maple tree) and birds.

-There are men, two, bookending the piece. One is young and ‘passing through,’ and that relationship hints at a young woman who’s been cheated on and then discarded. The other is in his early to mid-forties, trying to make a connection with a woman in a conversation about pressing flowers, and swings, and Great Lakes. (Despite what you think, love can make and break a woman’s heart a few times in a life, and that makes for a richer character to write, I think…)

-There is a part of the play that speaks to illness, mostly depression, and to people’s deaths, and how so much of life is loving people as deeply as possible, and then learning how to let them go with some kind of grace. I always go to C. S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed when I miss my parents, especially. I love what he wrote about love and grief. He says that we grieve people’s going in a way that equates to the amount of love we had for them in life. At some point, he says in this lovely but powerful little book, we find that the grief of loss transmutes itself into a sort of love. I like that. A lot.

There’s something fascinating, about seeing how you’ve evolved as a human, as a woman, that calls for writing to be done. I call it a ‘chrysalis making and a chrysalis breaking’ in “Sparrows.” I like that you can see echoes of your former self in your current one, but you can also see how you’ve blossomed from girl, to young woman, to woman. The richest part of the evolution is now, for me. No other part of my life has been as content, creative, or rewarding. I don’t know if other women feel that way, but I know I wouldn’t have known it, or even imagined it, in my twenties or even early thirties. Life teaches you things, and the further you go, the more you learn. (It sounds like a television after school special, but it’s true…)

What I love about writing plays, and I’m only a ‘baby playwright,’ as a friend in the business said to me, is that they evolve over time. This one is two years old. Three scenes are new to the world as of July of this year, and at least one is likely to be jettisoned based on what I heard at the workshop we did on Thursday night as part of Wordstock. When you hear actors read your work dramatically, you can suddenly figure out what should stay and what maybe shouldn’t. It lights up your work so you can assess it a bit. I find that fascinating. No other genre allows me to ‘play’ inside it quite so joyously. I also love the collaborative aspect of it, working with actors and directors, and dramaturges. Seeing and hearing your words somehow become embodied through actors on a stage is a bit magical. I love, too, that you just keep playing with drafts until you find the core of the play, until it reveals itself to you.

My goal is to spend next semester writing somewhere in Southwestern Ontario, near Windsor, I think. I want to focus on the first draft of my second novel, but I also want to keep at “Sparrows,” as well as another play I’ve got started.  I wrote more of that other play when I was down on Pelee Island in August. Lake Erie is a bit of magic for me as a writer. It might be the water, or the sky, or the birds, as well as the long walks and hikes under the most beautiful trees I’ve ever seen, but that landscape seems to help me write more quickly, and I feel drawn to it in an ancient sort of way. I’m keen to get started on these writing projects, to really settle into days where I can sink my teeth into moving through these pieces of work. It’s been busy being laureate, and I’m so grateful, but I’m a bit tired out, and I miss the time I need to write, especially since work has been very busy this semester. Big classes at the senior level mean a lot of planning and marking. Carving out time to do what I love is crucial. If I can’t write, I feel ill inside, as if I’m not doing what I’m supposed to be doing. Balance, for me, means dancing, walking, yoga, music, hiking, canoeing, reading, and writing…with dogs in tow.

I want to thank Lisa O’Connell, of Pat the Dog Theatre Creation, as well as Matt Heiti, Sarah Gartshore, Bill Sanders, and France Huot, for their help with “Sparrows” over the last few months. I know it’s not done, that it needs a lot more work, but I think it’s good at the core. I do. I think it has potential. It definitely has a voice, and wings…

…and wings…and swings…are both good things! (I’m a poet. Can you tell?!) 🙂





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