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Archive for February, 2018

The tragedy last week in Florida has sat heavily in my heart, and in my mind, for many days now. In late 2012, I remember writing a blog about the tragedy in Newtown. My thoughts remain much the same. Automatic guns aren’t necessary. You can’t try to persuade me as to how they are acceptable in a democratic society, or how American teachers should be asked to get trained and then carry them into their classrooms, ostensibly to defend their students. That is, to be completely honest, just pure and simple bullshit. And here is why.

If you ask a teacher why they came to the profession, most will tell you it’s because they love to learn, enjoy being with young people, and want to share their love of learning and knowledge with their students. William Butler Yeats’s quote about gathering knowledge is one of my favourites. He wrote: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Yes. Now, some who don’t teach will always say that teachers join the profession because of long summer holidays, or health benefits, or they will say, as some have said in my range of hearing, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.”  It’s actually a quotation taken from a work by George Bernard Shaw, but it’s been bastardized over time. Now, it’s often used in an insulting way, if you teach, and it’s a mindless way of trying to devalue the good and hard work that educators undertake each day. My blood boils when I hear that quote used in flippant conversation, usually by someone who thinks teachers aren’t worth their salaries.

In the length of time I’ve been teaching, about sixteen years or so, the profession has changed a great deal here in Ontario. (I can’t speak to America, but I have American teacher friends, so I’ve heard different stories.) When I began, parents seemed to value the work that teachers did. Now, it is not always so. There have been times, in the last five years, when I’ve opened my work email account, or picked up telephone messages, or had parent-teacher meetings, only to be berated by someone who won’t let me respond to their accusations while their voice(s) increase in venom and volume. Some phone calls can leave you physically and emotionally shaken, and then you think to yourself. “Why? You haven’t even met me…” It seems now that this kind of treatment of teachers is acceptable. I’m not sure how, but it seems to be rooted in the poor health of our current society. I see it reflected even in local businesses where owners need to post notes about how their staff should not be verbally abused by patrons and customers. In the school system, we struggle with bullying, but it seems to me that the entire society within which we live now is saturated with it, in one way, shape or form.

Having said that, I want to say that I love teaching my students. They show me that there is great potential in the world, if it is encouraged and supported by family and by educators. Here is the thing, too, that has altered in the last sixteen years. Family structures have morphed into more diverse forms. This is neither good nor bad, but it does change the way a person teaches. In a semester, I will watch kids struggle with emotional issues. They are more anxious, but yet less likely to be able to cope. Helicopter parents have swooped in once too often and now kids aren’t sure how to deal with failure. You can’t learn how to deal with a failure, to turn it into a success or strength, if someone else older than you has erased it from your field of vision and experience. So, we see kids dealing with mental health issues like anxiety and depression. They aren’t “made up” and it doesn’t help (as some people seem to think) if you just ignore it and think it will go away. And, contrary to popular belief, mental health issues don’t “spread” if you talk about them in public spaces and places. Being open with kids is the best way to encourage adaptability and mental health that will serve them well now and throughout their lives.

Last week’s shooting in Parkland chilled me to the bone. Whenever we have a lock down drill at my school, my heart rate speeds up. We never know when it will happen because our administrators want us to take it seriously, want us to feel fearful, helping us to learn how best to cope if such a horror were to take place. We tell our kids to go to the back of the classroom, to group together tightly and quietly, and we ask them to silence their cell phones in case a shooter were to hear a ping or ring. Then, as they go to the back of the classroom, we rush across to our open classroom doors and lock and shut them. I always check twice. I’m on leave from work this semester, to write a novel, but the last lockdown we did, I saw two frantic girls running towards my open door. The other teachers down my hall had already locked and shut their doors. I can say to you that I felt like a mother bird, pulling them in and slamming the door shut behind them. Their faces told me they were afraid, as I’m sure my face did for them. It isn’t ‘fun’ to do a lockdown drill. It’s not a fire drill.

When I heard stories about Trump saying American teachers should be trained in firearms use, and that they could deal with ‘taking out’ any shooter, I shook my head. What we do as educators isn’t about killing anyone. We have come to education, we have come to kids, to help them grow and learn and flourish. We are all about life, and nothing about destruction. That someone can think it wise to arm teachers astounds me. It would go against every fibre of my being. You can tell this when you hear the stories of the brave teachers who sacrificed themselves for those kids in Parkland last week, or the kids in Newtown, or the kids in Columbine. Scott Beigel, 35, was a geography teacher. He unlocked his door after it was locked, pulling kids into his classroom so he could save them, and he was shot. Aaron Feis, 37, was an assistant football coach. He was shot when he threw himself in front of the shooter, to protect his kids. Chris Hixon, 49, was the athletic director and a wrestling coach. He died, too, trying to help kids who were wounded.

What’s the common theme here? These are teachers who tried to save their students, against all odds. They loved those kids. They gave their lives for those kids. Guns wouldn’t have saved those teachers, or those kids. They wouldn’t have. What would need to happen first, and who knows what will happen because it is America, which is so very different than Canada in terms of gun laws and acceptance of openly carrying weapons, is anti-gun legislation. The National Rifle Association would have to agree to stop courting and funding political campaigns, and politicians would need to say no to NRA funding. That would be a start.

And then, well, then there are the kids who were lost. I can’t imagine losing a student in such a way. I’ve lost two prior students to tragic incidents, one in the depths of the mines here in Sudbury, and another in a snowmobile accident. I think of them both very often. I can’t imagine the trauma that the students and teachers of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are dealing with right now. I can only tell them, and their families, that my heart breaks for them. When we gather in our kids during lock down drills, and when we hush them while our hearts speed up, we can only just imagine a fragment of what they all felt that day last week. Their losses, their grief…there just aren’t words.

What education systems need now, in Canada and America, are influxes of funding for other underlying issues. Not guns and firearms training. Teachers need support in their classrooms. We see troubled kids all the time, and we watch them, and we report them to Student Success teams, Guidance counsellors, and administrators. We watch for poor attendance patterns, or poor hygiene, of a pulling in of spirit and personality. We watch for kids who seem to be anxious without reason, or who can’t cope with simple challenges, or who might even have suicidal ideation. We watch for these things every day because we are teachers. We are, while our kids are with us, “in loco parentis,” or “in place of a parent.” We watch them, we stay awake at night worrying for them if they struggle academically or emotionally, and we try really, really hard to save them. But sometimes we can’t. We need help there. We aren’t social workers. We aren’t trained psychologists or psychiatrists, but we are more and more often called to do this deep work on top of our underlying ‘original’ work.

But, at the end of the day, we’ll still rush to the classroom door to look outside into the longest of hallways, and we’ll hear the terrifying thud of doors slamming shut and echoing hollowly. And we’ll see school bags abandoned by open lockers like ghosts, while we lock our doors and try to keep our kids calm. That’s what teachers do. That’s what teaching is about.

I’m sending my thoughts out to the staff and students, and the families, down in Parkland. Teachers around the world are thinking of you…I hope you know that.

peace, friends.

k.

 

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One of my strengths (or perhaps weaknesses!) is that I never really think of how things might not work, but instead just imagine that things will work, with just a bit of vision, elbow grease, and determination. As poet laureate over the last two years, I’ve had the privilege of being able to make connections and partnerships with a variety of local and national non-profit organizations that support literacy initiatives. One of my most beloved ones is with Project Bookmark Canada. (Don’t worry, National Reading Campaign and Reading Town Sudbury! I love the work you do just as deeply!) 🙂

Both of these nationally-based, but locally-inspired, non-profit organizations do things that I love and support as a writer, an educator, and a human. I came first to Project Bookmark Canada and the amazingly inspiring Miranda Hill through my time at the Banff Centre for Creativity in April 2016, when I was part of Lawrence Hill’s historical fiction class for a week. I had met Larry back at the Sage Hill Writing Experience in the summer of 2014, when I was lucky enough to work with Ken Babstock as a mentor for my poetry. I had read about Project Bookmark Canada, so I knew that Larry’s wife was its champion. So, on the day we were quietly discussing my progress with my historical fiction novel, at the very end of our meeting, I snuck in a question about Project Bookmark Canada and asked Larry to introduce me to his wife. He did. This is how I began to work away at getting Project Bookmark to come to Sudbury. I sent off a selection of local Sudbury-based books, of poems, novels and short stories to Miranda that summer, but I mentioned the one that I thought was truly evocative of our town.

Matthew Heiti’s novel, The City Still Breathing, was the first book I’d ever read about my city that actually reminded me of my time growing up here. There were mentions of Elgin Street, Ramsey Lake, Bell Park, the slag dumps and the black hills behind Gatchell, and of Dino, the Popcorn Man, who used to sell bags of popcorn from a little wheeled cart around the downtown core. Even the way he described winter in Sudbury seemed alive to me. The novel is a great story on its own, but the description of my home town was what sold me. Matt had managed, as a writer, to make Sudbury into a living character of its own, sort of salty and weather-worn. But, and here is what I love about working class towns like Sudbury (and Windsor, too): there is a pride and beauty underneath what seems to be a rough, tough exterior. I love the notion that you can see something and then need to explore it, discover its true essence, by entering fully into it and beginning to really know it. Nothing is what it seems, and a book (or, in this case, a city!) shouldn’t be judged solely by its (supposedly obvious and stereotypical) cover.

It took a while, some months, and then I heard back that Project Bookmark Canada was interested in putting a bookmark here in Sudbury, and that they thought Matt’s novel was a fine match. I was thrilled. Matt was…hmmm…not so much thrilled as continually cringing when it all came up in conversation. If you know Matt, then you know he’s one of the most humble, brilliant, creative, and kind souls you could ever encounter. If he likes your work as a writer, he’s open to critiquing it with an honest, yet thoughtful, approach. He’s a fine teacher and a good friend. (He’s also extremely funny, because he’s so smart, so that’s another bonus.)

In the middle of my trying to submit work to Project Bookmark Canada, and after my time out at Banff and then down at a writing retreat on Pelee Island in May, I was asked to partner with Reading Town/Ville Lecture Sudbury in Spring 2016, to write a poem to celebrate Reading Town’s arrival in Sudbury. I was thrilled. Then I met Sandy Crawley, who is the dynamic and spirited Executive Director of the National Reading Campaign.  This is the organization that creates Reading Town events across the country, and its main mission is to make reading a national priority. Its vision is, even more brilliantly, to create, sustain and grow a society in which everyone has an equal opportunity to become and remain a lifelong reader. In my work as a writer, but even more so in my work as a classroom teacher, I have seen how having books in a child’s home is crucial to their development, not just intellectually and psychologically, but also imaginatively and creatively. Reading, for me, is central to my life. It always has been, and it always will be. (I once had a boyfriend who said I loved books more than him…and…he was right! He wasn’t a reader, or a writer, or much of a compassionate thinker…so that relationship obviously didn’t work, and for that I am extremely thankful.)

Fast forward ahead to last summer and fall, and a new Executive Director for Project Bookmark Canada in the person of Laurie Murphy, as of January 2017, a truly spirited Maritimer who has been encouraging us to move forward over the months. Finally, now, our bookmark has been approved, and we have a spot to place it, a home where people will be able to go and read the excerpt from Heiti’s The City Still Breathing. On Thursday, May 3, 2018, at 4pm, we’ll gather outside the Townehouse Tavern, and unveil our Sudbury bookmark. Here’s an interview I did with Markus Schwabe at CBC’s Morning North back in December.

http://www.cbc.ca/player/play/1121570883723

Now, we need to raise some money…just a wee bit…but you can help if you’d like…by going to the “Give” tab on the Project Bookmark Canada page at

http://www.projectbookmarkcanada.ca

Look for the photo of Matthew Heiti and his book cover, under “Help Build a Bookmark,” make a donation, and then receive a tax receipt for being a donor. If donating online doesn’t work, you can easily drop off a cheque (made out to Project Bookmark Canada) at the main branch of the Greater Sudbury Public Library on Mackenzie Street. You can address the envelope to the attention of Tammy DeAmicis. She’ll be forwarding all of the donations to Project Bookmark Canada in Toronto, so that they get there safely!

You can also get to know National Reading Campaign…because any organization that gets kids and families reading together is, in my books, an organization to get to know. (Look at me: matchmaking for other people on Valentine’s Day! You should know I have successfully set up at least one couple…and they’ve been together for two years. Not so good at it for myself…but that’s another blog…another day…)

http://www.nationalreadingcampaign.ca

I need to thank some people here now, because I couldn’t have envisioned this larger project coming to fruition without supportive friends in the arts and culture community. So, first, to Jessica Watts, of the Greater Sudbury Public Library, who supported me throughout my time as poet laureate for the city. From Project Bookmark Canada, thanks are due to Miranda Hill and Laurie Murphy, whose vision for this organization amazes me. From National Reading Campaign, Sandy Crawley, who makes a fine dinner companion when you’re at the Governor General’s Literary Awards and you’re nervous because you’ve never worn a fancy schmancy gown before (!). From Reading Town/Ville Lecture Sudbury, a big thank you to Derek Young, who has patiently helped me to figure out how to write grant applications for local arts and culture funds. From Wordstock, Sudbury’s Literary Festival, a wave of thanks to the entire Board of Directors, but especially to Dinah Laprairie, Heather Campbell, and Celina Mantler. From the Sudbury Arts Council, warm thanks are due to Board member and amazing community ‘giver,’ Judi Straughan, as well as to Linda Cartier, who (with the help of Adric Cluff at the SAC office) made up fantastic postcards and distributed them at Nuit Blanche Sudbury. From the CBC, to Markus Schwabe, who always offered me a bit of media space to speak about my projects, and from Sudbury.com, Heidi Ulrichsen, who always sent me little notes via Facebook messager when she heard I had a new project to share. To Sudbury’s new poet laureate, Chloe LaDuchesse, who has offered her support of this project…I’m so thankful! From the Townehouse Tavern, the place where the Nickel Bin lives on, thanks are due to Paul Loewenburg, and to the Desjardins family, who are giving us permission to put the plaque on their building’s wall, in support of arts and culture in Sudbury. And, of course, a note of thanks to our mayor, Brian Bigger, for his support of my work during my time as poet laureate.

Finally, well, you can’t say enough to thank the person who wrote the words that will be placed on the Project Bookmark Canada plaque, can you? So, for Matt Heiti, a thank you for your excellent novel, your fine words, and your continual support of the Sudbury literary scene. I know you are hesitant about this whole thing, but you’re part of a national literary trail that helps put Sudbury on a larger scale, a project that shows we are a vibrant, diverse, artistic community…where beauty hides itself in the most unexpected of places, nestled amidst slag dump hills and impressive rock cuts.

There is such beauty here in Sudbury, and I’m hoping that people come to see the plaque…and stay to experience our warmth, the beauty of our raw northern landscape, and the stories that make up the fabric of this very grand and dear place.

peace, friends.

k.

 

 

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When I was in Ottawa for the Governor General’s Literary Awards at the end of November 2017, I knew I wanted to go and visit the War Flowers exhibit. I had read about it somewhere and was drawn to its own story.

IMG_9712.JPGTaking a tour with artist Mark Raynes Roberts and my friend, Judi Symes. (Photo credit: Adrianna Prosser)

I have always loved letters. They have a power that pulls at me. I know I’m a poet, and a romantic, and a lover of story and handwriting, and how letters can travel through the years, tied up in yellow ribbons and tucked into shoeboxes under beds or in hall closets.  I also love sending mail in the old fashioned way…through the postal system.  I can think of nothing as lovely as receiving a hand written note in the mail, and I know it’s rare these days, but I still cultivate epistolary conversations…with pen and paper, or via email. (Even my texts are unbelievably wordy. If I don’t know you, I can sometimes seem to either be shy or else snobby when I first meet you. I won’t be wordy, either in person—with my voice,  and in my speech—or on paper or screen, if I don’t feel comfortable with you. But, if I think I trust you, well, you’re going to get words in some way, shape or form. My dad used to just laugh and shake his head when I got to babbling and thinking things out through talking out loud or writing; I stymied the poor man.  🙂

That day in Ottawa, on November 30th, the day after my birthday, I came upon the heart-stopping architecture of the Canadian War Museum. It’s one of my favourite Canadian museums, because you can wander through it and feel the ache of history. It’s a place that really resonates with me. I had had great-uncles in WWII, and I had once been grand friends with a WWII veteran who had helped to liberate the concentration camps. That friend, Ernie Schroeder, taught me so many lessons about the nature of our own humanity, and about how we should be in the world in a compassionate and humane way. We should always be thinking of others, and being grateful for the peace those veterans had fought so valiantly for, often at the cost of their own health and well-being, and so many times at the cost of their lives.

Seeing War Flowers at the Canadian War Museum was so moving that I started jotting down words right away, just fifteen minutes ahead of a group of touring elementary students. I had very little time before that group of feisty students came in that morning, and I felt hurried and rushed. I was alone, and the exhibit was tucked into the hall with the ‘first drafts’ of Walter Alward’s stark, but stunning, Vimy Ridge statues. That was enough to give me shivers. (I had also learned about Alward through Jane Urquhart’s stunning novel, The Stonecarvers, which is still one of my favourite Canadian novels of all time.) Inside the museum, Regeneration Hall echoes, and then there were the haunting sounds of a young girl humming, birds twittering, a fog horn calling out, and guns firing. The soundscape of the exhibition echoed through the hall and then through my heart. The words, the poems, started to pour out.

Here, so you get a sense of its raw beauty and emotion, is a video about the exhibit itself. It doesn’t do it justice. It never could. But it gives you a sense of why you ought to go and see it in Toronto, at the Campbell House Museum, before it leaves for Vimy after March 25, 2018.

https://warflowers.ca/#single/0

And this, too…so you understand the curator’s view of the exhibition’s purpose.

 

And this, about how you can use crystal to tell such a story of loss and love…

 

Here is the story of a man, George Stephen Cantlie, who wrote two letters home each day from the Front—one to his wife, and one to his little daughter, Celia. He called her ‘dear wee Celia’ in his letters, and he picked one flower a day, pressing them into envelopes and sent them back to Canada. Years later, they emerged, and this exhibit was born. I was struck, when I first saw the exhibit in late November, by how poignant it was. Here was a man, in the field, facing the wretched battles of trench warfare in France and Belgium. He might have picked a bit of heather from a roadside ditch, or a bit of stitchwort from some wild bunch in a field, or even snagged a little yellow rose from outside a local hotel. Each flower has a meaning. This is what floriography is all about. It seems Edwardian, and it reminds me, on some level, of the little flower faery books by Cicely Mary Barker that I used to get as a young girl. (I have always loved flowers, but I have always loved faeries even more…)

The fact that the flowers each have a symbolic meaning, and that each meaning weaves itself into a theme for the exhibition, and that each theme inspired artist Mark Raynes Roberts to capture its essence in crystal etchings, well, that just overwhelms me. The notion that a father so loved his daughter, too, that he would pluck one flower each day and send it home to Canada with a short note, touched my heart. When I first saw the exhibit, I got teary eyed. When I visited it again yesterday, but with my friend Judi Symes and Mark along as our private tour guide, well, I got teary again.  The multi-sensory aspect of the exhibit does this to you…pulls you in and surprises you with waves of deep emotion. You feel the losses of the 68,000 names. They become humans with lives and families, men with girlfriends back home in Ontario or Quebec, and men with family homes and farms left behind so that they could fight for things like king, country, faith, and valour.

*************************************************************************************

Now, just so you know, I love Instagram because of photos. I only really started taking photos a few years ago, and I really see them as visual poems in a way. So, the day of that exhibit, I posted an Instagram photo and tagged Mark Raynes Roberts. That is how we connected. When I told him I was so inspired that I had begun to write a series of poems, he offered to take me on a private tour when I visited Toronto in February. I was amazed and so excited! I love speaking with artists. It doesn’t matter if they aren’t writers, I am intrigued by how the creative process works with different mediums. (I love ekphrastic poetry, so this exhibit pulled at me, not letting me go.) In any case, I think it’s funny when people say social media is problematic; really, it’s only problematic if you can’t use it in a positive, creative way. For me, it has been a way of making creative connections around the world, especially with other writers and artists.

Yesterday, my friend Judi and I went to meet Mark at Campbell House Museum in Toronto. It was a bit of a snowstorm, which made me laugh. I had flown in the afternoon before to read at the Art Bar Poetry Series, which had long been a dream of mine. The night had been lovely, and I had met up with some old traveling friends, and even a few former students. But I must admit I was most excited about going through the exhibition with Mark as our guide, mostly because I had struggled with a couple of the thematic poems I was writing.

The morning was brilliant. Mark explained his process as an artist, and how he was inspired to create the various crystal pieces. Each one is beautiful, but I have my favourites. I won’t list them here because it could sway a potential viewer of the exhibition. Then, add in the William Morris-esque flowered wallpaper, and the Gothic arches that remind me of church windows (or the prows of boats!), and the scents that have been created by perfume artist Alexandra Bachand, and, well, I am lost. The curator, Viveka Melki, has a clear vision of what this multi-sensory exhibition should be, and I love how beautifully all of it dovetails together. Along with Raynes Roberts, Bachand, and Melki, there is botanist and archivist, Celine Arsenault, and Normand Dumont, who worked on exhibition design and layout. Alexander Reford plays a role, too, in relation to Reford Gardens in Quebec.

I can only say that this exhibition has moved me since I first saw it in late November. It haunts me, if I’m honest about it. The images, scents, and soundscapes of it, all of that imprinted itself on my heart and mind, and the poems have emerged as a result. I’m not sure where they’ll go, but I know they’ll likely find a spot in my next book of poems, which I’m working on.

I think of the 68,000 names that are listed on the banners that hang above the staircase in Campbell House Museum, and then I think of the lives lost, and of the lives shattered back home in Canada, and I think of how these little flowers, pressed and faintly shaded now, were sent from a father to a daughter.

And, then, well, I think of how, despite the horror of war, there is hope for humanity in the lessons we learn about love…and how love connects one to some other. That, for me, is beautiful, even in the face of great loss. It makes me weep when I see this exhibit, every single time, because I think of those boys and men in trenches, and then I think of those letters and pressed flowers, saved for over one hundred years…and the light they offer is hope…and that is beautiful, even in the face of despair.

I’m so thankful to Mark Raynes Roberts for that quiet tour, and for the conversations we had about art and humanity, and about creative process. I’m thankful, too, to Viveka Melki, for her kind words via email. I’m thankful, finally, to Judi Symes, who put me up in her beautiful home for one night, in a room with a night bird perched in a window, and am so glad she came along with me to experience the exhibit.

Sometimes, I think, this world is a wonderfully knit spiderweb of soul connections.  So, when we find them, we need to make special note of them, and then thank the Universe (or God, or the Creator, or whomever!) for the mystical machinations that bring us one to another. This brings us, I think, to a greater understanding of how light works against darkness, in creativity and in love, written out in letters and pressed flowers, and then sent across the sea…

I’ll leave you with one of the poems, titled “Names,” from a suite of poems that I’ve tentatively called “The War Flowers Sequence.”

 

Names

Those who were lost,

but not forgotten,

like stitches in a handmade scarf–

singular souls, woven together

sometimes only by their endings

and by the blurred ghosts of maple leaves,

fallen crimson in sharp beams

of late autumn sunlight.

 

peace, friends.

 

k.

 

 

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