Archive for September, 2018

The only reason I came into Dublin from the West yesterday was to see the Seamus Heaney exhibition. Beyond that, nothing else really mattered. Still, I had the day, so I chose my path wisely.

I woke up, went to St. Patrick’s Cathedral and lit a candle for my Mum and Dad. I’ve been to this cathedral about three times in my life, and every time I pop in to light a candle. Old habits die hard. I got there just in advance of the tour buses, so it was lovely, quiet, cool, and very atmospheric. It’s a beautiful church and it’s been around, in one form or another, since 1191. Yup. Since 1191. The current building, though, dates from 1230 and it’s had a few renovations since then. It’s dedicated to St. Patrick and, if you walk outside, you can see the place, a little holy well now marked with a slab, where he was said to baptize converts. You can also see the grave of Johnathan Swift and his muse, “Stella,” Esther Johnson. (They’ve actually tried to reconstruct how they would have looked, which is interesting, but a wee bit creepy…) I don’t spend time looking at the monuments, though. I usually just go right to the Lady Chapel, which is my favourite place, light a candle, say a prayer, and just sit in the space. Then I go. It’s intense, to sit quietly in that church. The tourists from the tour buses, when they arrive, clutter it up and I feel pushed out somehow, mostly because I so love its peace, I think. As soon as that’s disturbed, I can’t bear to stay.

Then I dropped into Marsh’s Library, which is just down a little close behind the cathedral. It’s tucked away and really very beautiful. You can’t take photos of the books. You can’t touch the books. (As soon as someone tells me not to touch something, I pretty much feel so compelled to touch it, it’s ridiculous. I’m like a ten year old inside an adult body.) It’s such a beautiful library, all old hard wood and thousands of brilliant antiquarian books. Some are bound in white and I wondered why. The guide told me it’s because those books would have been French books, bound in France. It was cheaper, he said, to bind them in white than to put them into coloured leather bindings. So, a bookshelf full of white binding means the books are all written in French. Then, you turn a corner into a north-facing library. The temperature drops and the story goes that this is where the ghost might live. A more logical explanation is that it’s north-facing, so it gets less sun and is therefore not as warm. (I’m sticking with the ghost story!)

In this second gallery, there are gates on each little room, with benches and ledges where people must have sat and read their opened books. It’s stunning, but seems very inaccessible. I pictured men sitting there, and not women. It made me sad. All I could think is that there have always been women who have wanted to read, and not all of them could read, whether due to lack of social status, or lack of education, or lack of possibility. I thought of how privileged I am to be able to read, to write, and to have been born in a time when women could access education. Walking through there, I thought that it would be funny to see what those old dead white guys would’ve thought of a curly haired poet walking through the stacks. They likely wouldn’t have been pleased.

Finally, I set off to see the Heaney exhibit. I assumed it would be at the National Library of Ireland. Nope. Of course not. The Yeats exhibit is there, but I saw it six years ago, when I was last here. The Heaney exhibit was further away, in the Bank of Ireland building. So, I set off again, walking through the streets of Dublin, and finally coming to the exhibit. Right away, I knew I was in trouble. As you enter the exhibit, there are pillars with pieces of Seamus Heaney’s poetry written on them. They are, to be honest, quite moving. For me, this exhibit was a bit like going to a church. If you’ve read my blog before, you know I love his work. He was the person I studied at my master’s level years ago, and I wrote my thesis on his bog poetry from North, weaving my work into the notions presented in Ben Shan’s brilliant book, The Shape of Content. I have always loved how Heaney plays with language, taking such time to craft each poem so that they all have their own voices, so that they all sing clearly. I love how he uses kennings. And I love how he roots everything in landscape and place. For me, when he talks about how the elements work inside his poetry, of how earth, air, water, and fire work creatively, well, that strikes a chord with my own poetry. In the supposedly ‘ordinary’ rhythms of life, Heaney always found ways to point out the extraordinary beauty and wonder that is so openly offered by land, culture, history, legend, and language. To me, his work is divine.

I wept at least four times during my time in those rooms. At first, I thought I was alone in being so moved, but it quickly came to me that this was not the case. The first poem, and you see it printed on the wall, is “Digging.” Heaney’s voice, so melodic, reads it out for you as you stand there. Right away, I teared up. The woman next to me was silent, reverent too. She was kindred. She listened to it twice, too, and I turned to go, seeing that she had closed her eyes, letting his voice sweep over her. That set me to getting weepy all over again. This is the power of his work, I think, and always will be.

The exhibit is divided into four main categories: Excavations, Creativity, Conscience, and Marvels. I loved all four. The part that moved me most, though, was the collection of Christmas cards. Each year, he would pen a Christmas poem, and then have cards made. There were beautiful linocuts and lovely handwritten, letterpress set and printed, and then cursive notes to friends, often with the phrase “With love” written in Irish at the end. Seeing that collection made me think of how quickly we live our lives, without even knowing what is speeding by. The last section of the exhibit struck me because, it was clear, there was a sense that he knew, in his life, and in his later work, that things were slowing down. These later volumes, though, hold some of my favourite poems. I don’t know how to explain that, except to think that maybe I could feel how he valued his own life so deeply in his later years. He must have known, after his illness and weakening, that he was on a decline of sorts. There is a sense of the numinous in these poems, a sense of something lifted up, of spirit. I love the sense of openness and possibility in these poems, the ones that hint at something greater than the physical life. They are a lot of what I believe about the world, and about the human spirit, and about what Heaney would call ‘the human chain.’ He knew, I think, that life should be valued and honoured, and that people, and the relationships we carefully craft and forge with them (for the best relationships take time and craft if they are to work and last) are precious things. I love that about his work.

When I think of endings, I think about my parents. They weren’t good at living mindfully, at valuing the beauty in life, and I think that is what always breaks my heart about how they went: they really missed out on so much of this life’s wonder and beauty. They complained a lot and, near their ends especially, were filled with regret and sorrow. It hurts to think that they might’ve had happier lives if they’d been more aware of the closer, more intimate connections they could have made with friends and family members. They feared making close connections with people, even taught me to fear these things, so it’s odd sometimes to think of how I run towards it now. It’s funny, how losing people will make you shift, evolve, emerge. What I once feared in my life–adventure, creativity, and love–I now crave.

It makes me think of Seamus Heaney’s last text to his wife, Marie, when he wrote “Noli timere.” It’s Latin for “Don’t be afraid.” For me, as someone who was raised within an Irish Catholic sensibility, I always recall the church hymn, “Be Not Afraid.” I still love to sing it when I’m on my own because it has a lovely tune, but it also has simple and elegant words: “Be not afraid. I go before you always. Come, follow me, and I will give you rest.” It’s the kind of thing that a compassionate person would say: “Here, don’t worry. I’m with you. Fear is an illusion. Trust. Have faith. All will be well.”

Hearing his voice today moved me a great deal. Sitting on a bench, near the end of the exhibit, you can listen to his wife read one of his poems. That will break your heart open, even if you’re not one for emoting very freely. Liam Neeson also reads a poem, and again, the words will sink into you, but only if you let them. The final images of the video are of a packed Croke Stadium in Dublin, at a GAA game, with thousands of Irish people, standing to pay tribute to Heaney after the news of his death in 2013. There again, I was lost. One literary critic said that his death was “a breach in the language itself,” while another person said that the nation of Ireland was “one man down” with Heaney’s going. I thought to myself, “No…more than the nation of Ireland. The world. The world is one great man down with his loss.” And then, I sat there, listening to “The Rain Stick” and thinking that, although he’s gone, he’s still here.

That he died at just 74 is, to me, a tragedy. So many more poems might have been written. He was born the same year as my mum was, too, so that always got to me on some deep level of serendipity. And, when he died, I remember watching the funeral on the Internet, at home, having just written a poem about him, and weeping as if I’d lost my own dad a second time. Some people, it just seems to me, have an effect on you that you cannot explain, even if you tried. He was one of those, for me, in my life. And he still is…

Sitting there today, on that bench, listening to his words and voice, I saw an elderly Irish man in a flat cap take off his glasses, try to wipe his eyes in a quiet, secretive way, and I thought, “Oh, he was dear to so many…” He likely didn’t know it. I hope he did. I wish I could tell him. He was, to me, and still is, so dear…so so dear.





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My friend, Frances, has been asking me for a few years to come and write here at her family cottage, but it took me until now, while I’m on leave from teaching, to make the time to visit when the place wouldn’t be awash with tourists.

I’ve been to Beara, and I thought it had my heart after I wrote there, just outside the village of Eyeries, in the summer of 2012, but now I’ve seen this place and I’ve spent a few days walking and writing here, and, well, I’ve found a new creative space to work in. I’m grateful.

Fran picked me up at Shannon on Saturday, offering me a cup of tea, and we whirled through the day. We visited Dromoland Castle, saw artfully made faeries in its beautiful walled gardens, and then drove back here to have an evening hike at the White Strand, where the sea smashes up against the rocks with great fury. From there, if you look to your right, you can see the cut out Cliffs of Moher. If you look out, too, you can see the Aran Islands. They get misty and almost erase themselves when the sea is fierce, but you know they’re out there.

Sunday, we went up to Lahinch. I wandered on my own for a couple of hours, finding a café in which to stare out over the sea, and also wrote a poem for this place, O’Neill Cottage. I’ve written a poem for a house only once before, so I don’t do it often. I love old houses, mostly, so the place has to strike me on a visceral level of sorts. It has to sing a bit, raise its voice, tell me its story. Then I am compelled to write a poem, to thank the place for letting me stay in its energy for a bit of time, and to let its people (living and dead) know that I love it. After Lahinch, we drove up to Loop Head, down by Kilkee. I’ve seen the Cliffs of Moher and, while they’re stunning, I don’t think they even compare to the views from Loop Head. There’s something raw and primal about that road and landscape. On one side, there’s the Atlantic, and then the other has the remnants of fields, left over from times before the Famine. The only thing that tells you what once rooted itself there–the houses and outbuildings–are the long stone walls that are falling into themselves, or held together only by blackberries and ivy. There were clearances here, too, just like those in the Scottish Highlands, and the land seems to ache. There’s an absence that is made present by the way in which the people left imprints on the land, and on the soul of the place.

Monday brought Fran’s departure and my settling in to O’Neill Cottage. I discovered that my grandmother’s family was rooted in Tipperary, which I already had some inkling of, but also that they would have lived closed to the Clare border. This is likely why my great-aunt, Clare, was given that unique spelling of her name. She always loved it, proudly telling anyone who would listen that her parents had named her after the county in Ireland. There was, she often said emphatically when spelling out her name, “no i” in her name.

She didn’t come here to visit Ireland until she was in her 70s, alongside her twin sister, Maureen, but what I recall of that trip was the delight with which they planned it, and the way in which they told their stories afterwards. The highlight, for them, was a visit to the shrine of the Blessed Mother at Knock. Clare especially, I remember clearly, was very keen on perhaps encountering Mary in a new way. They didn’t see her, though, but they did come back with rosaries made of Connemara marble, and stories of nights singing songs that they’d grown up with as children.

So far, it’s been a warm and welcoming place, with greetings given to me in Irish by the bookseller in Miltown Malbay. Then there’s the local hiking guide who takes people for tours of the Burren, Donnan, whom I’ve only met once in person in Ennis, and who says, over the phone line,  “Listen, I don’t want you to worry about this, but we need to pick a fine day early next week. There’s no use going when the weather’s dark. It’s stunning on a fine day.”

I’ve revised my poetry collection one more time, taking two days to read it over and over, out loud and then in silence, looking for spelling mistakes and shifting punctuation around like a mad woman. I’ve written four new poems, all set here, and I’m ready to head off to Dublin tomorrow to see the Seamus Heaney exhibition at the National Library in Dublin on Friday. I know I’ll likely cry, or at least try not to while looking reasonably well put together in a public place, in a library that I love dearly. Every time I come to Ireland, I always go to the National Library of Ireland. It’s beautiful, elegant, and unbelievably ancestral for me as a writer, and as a lover of Irish literature. (It’s how I got my nickname in grad school years ago. I was studying Heaney’s poetry, and a friend in the postcolonial lit course kept saying, “I know what I’ll call you: Modern Irish. You know a lot about Modern Irish lit, so it makes sense.”) I miss her, and often wonder where she got to. Funny, how time separates you from a person, fades them out in watercolour as it all moves on.

This place, Spanish Point, fascinates me. It was named after the happenings of September 1588. The Spanish Armada was blown off course, and a number of ships ended up swept around the west coast of Ireland. Two sank off this shore, but the one that sank off Spanish Point was the San Marcos. Local archaeologists have found what looks to be a mass grave up on a hillside, near to where the lighthouse used to be. Local people remember that they were told, as children, not to walk on a certain piece of land. There, it was implied, were the graves of the Spanish sailors from the San Marcos. They had either drowned and been washed ashore, or they had been ‘rescued’ and then executed, hanged by English troops, or by local people who were siding with the English.

The Spaniards thought that Ireland would be a safe place to land, given that it was a mostly Catholic country at the time, but they likely didn’t take into account the complexity of the politics that existed here even then. Some places were still ruled by Irish chieftains, and they might, in certain villages, have stolen the Spanish gold and then killed the sailors and captains. Some places, though, harboured Spanish soldiers. A law was put in place that said that anyone harbouring a Spanish sailor could be severely punished, but it still happened that some were taken in to Irish homes and families. Then, naturally, some of the Irish women here fancied the tall, dark and handsome Spanish sailors, and new families were created. (Here, if you look at Irish history, is where the notion of the ‘Black Irish’ comes from. Some say it’s about the selkies, but the Spanish blood line is also a plausible explanation if you aren’t fond of the selkie one…)

I go down to the sea each day. I think it pulls at me, as all large bodies of water do. I’ve fallen in love with Lake Erie this year, but this place calls to me on a much deeper level all over again. Oceans and great lakes seduce me, it seems. In any case, I go down to that beach, and walk down the shore, especially when the tide is out, picking up pebbles tossed up from the water, watching the oyster catchers dancing away from the waves as they search for their dinner, and listening to the pounding of the surf, through my ears, my feet, my heart.

Today, standing there on the beach, on what was a rainy and wet day, I kept thinking what it would have been like to have seen so many Spanish sailors, either trying to swim to shore, not knowing what fate would await them there, or seeing their bodies carried by the waves. If you stand there, on the road above the beach, you can imagine that there wouldn’t have been buildings where there are buildings now. You can imagine that the weather would have been fierce in those storms. You can imagine that it would have been a hellish scene. Now, there’s the lovely Armada Hotel. There’s a car park. There are the surfers who boldly strip down without care of anyone watching at the end of the day. There’s a school down the road, and a circle of cottages for rent in summer. I kept thinking, though, of how this place is woven into its history, into its stories, and how lovely it is that people here know them still. I wish we were better at that back home, in Canada.

This place is beautiful. There’s the full moon, hanging over these green fields, with mist rolling across them, and the shadows of cows silhouetted against stone walls. All of it is not to be forgotten.






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I only ever write something on my blog, or in a letter to someone, if my heart feels so deeply that it spills utterly and completely into my brain. I feel emotion rise up inside–whether it be love, or worry, or anger–and then it emerges in words. Sometimes, in my life, I’ve regretted writing things when I’ve felt so deeply, but I usually don’t. Sometimes, I think, I ought to have waited a day, and not sent a letter or email revealing affection or upset to someone, or waited a day, as my mother always told me to because she knew I lived in my heart too fully, and maybe burned the letter instead of sending it, making me less vulnerable and apt to be hurt. What good would that do, though? What good? When my heart tells me to speak out, I do. I trust it. I let the chips fall where they may. It’s a cliche, I know, but I trust my intuition implicitly. When I feel my emotions reach my brain, I feel a need to write, to speak up, to speak my own truth. To deny that, well, I would be doing a disservice to myself and to my ancestors, those who came before me.

I am a privileged white, heterosexual woman.  I know that. I situate myself in this identity, openly. I have three university degrees, have published four books of poems, and I’m currently on a leave from teaching English at a Sudbury school to try and finish the first draft of my second novel. As someone who has taught since 2001, though, I can speak on this particular matter as a human and as a teacher.

It would be easier not to write this blog. It would be easier. But “easier” is not often best. The more challenging roads in life, I’ve learned, are the ones that are truly the more rewarding ones. I used to be much more of a ‘pleaser’ in my life, not expressing my opinions freely, and doubting myself. I’m not that anymore. I speak my heart and mind freely. I step into myself to say what I think. And this is what I think about what’s happening up in Kashechewan right now. Some of you might not even know where Kash is on a map. You may not even know where Sudbury is, or you may have preconceived notions of it being a moonscape from the 1960s. Some of you reading this might not even know that this issue with decrepit schools is going on now, in 2018, so if one person reads this and opens their eyes, and if only one person reads this and is as incensed as I am right now, and if only one person reads this and feels that it’s a travesty, then that’s good enough for me. Maybe…things start with one person. I can think of one who inspires me still, and I never even met her.

Kashechewan has been in the news before. If you do a simple Google search, you’ll find all of the articles, archived CBC National interviews of reporters traveling up to Northern Ontario to document the state of education, health care, and housing in a community that has had a very hard time. You’ll read about the flooding in that community, and how its residents are often sent south to Timmins, Sudbury, and North Bay when the land floods in the annual spring melt.

When you hear about Kash, you’ll often hear about Attawapiskat. The issues are always similar: these are Northern communities that deal with flooding on an annual basis. They deal with poor construction of homes and mouldy school portables that are only just ever ‘bandaids’ rather than proper solutions to major social issues.

One of the most amazing people to have come out of Attawapiskat, one whom I have thought of often in my role as a teacher, was Shannen Koostachin. She was a young woman who advocated for what she called “safe, comfy schools” for Northern kids. That we have to speak of her in past tense is heartbreaking because her loss also speaks to the problems that exist in education in the Northern First Nations communities that border on James Bay.

You’ll have heard about Attawapiskat for years now. You’ll have turned on the CBC and seen reports by Peter Mansbridge, and of a number of reporters speaking with concerned voices and sad, shocked eyes, sending back video to Toronto about the state of housing. As someone who’s lived in Northern Ontario my whole life, I’ve known about Kash and Attawapiskat for a much longer time. Every spring, there are annual floods and evacuations. Up here, we hear about it on CBC radio, on the 6am news. It’s a northern issue, but it should be a national one. Sadly, sometimes, it seems we’ve just thought it will always be that way, a sense that our own geography can be discriminatory and even negatively affect funding for schools, libraries, health care, and a whole slew of other things.

In Attawapiskat, in 2000, the school there was closed because of site contamination from a 1979 diesel leak. In 2008, Attawapiskat’s Grade 8 class went to Ottawa and lobbied Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl for a safe school. The person who was most instrumental in that group of children was a young woman, who, at just 13 years of age, spoke with a wisdom well beyond her years. She was Shannen Koostachin. In a sickening twist of fate, she died in a 2010 highway accident because she had to go to school in a different community. That she even had to travel to go to school in a different place, south of her community, is ridiculous. People think the stain of the residential school crisis is historical, that it’s ‘done,’ but you only need to look at the state of schools in Northern communities to see that there are massive problems, and that the ripple effect of this whitewashed Canadian history is far reaching. Nothing is over. That’s why reconciliation is, sadly, I think, a hollow notion on the best of days.

Now, this year, in late August, Chief Leo Friday said that community leaders had made the decision to keep the school portables closed. In the south, I can imagine some people saying, “Why? That’s silly. They’re just making a fuss about nothing.” No. They aren’t. I’d like people who live in cities south of Parry Sound to think about what they want for their children, in their children’s schools. I’d bet the list would look something like this:

-safe and permanent school buildings, all built to code so that foundations aren’t buckling and warped by weather and water damage;

-no mould in classrooms where kids sit and study for six hours a day, and where teachers sit and mark and plan lessons before and after school hours;

-doors that close properly and floors that are evenly laid out, not warped by water under the foundations of temporary portable buildings that are being wrongly used as permanent solutions to a much bigger problem;

-no faulty wiring in the electrical systems within the portables;

-no need for kids to wear winter clothing in class, and no need for kids to shovel snow and frost off the floor because the heaters routinely fail in the winter months;

Ten years ago, these portables were put in place, with the intention that they would be used only while the new school was to be constructed. Ten. Years. Ago. I cannot, for the life of me, imagine that a school construction project anywhere else in this province, in this country, would take over ten years. Communities and parents simply would not allow this to happen.

So. The question is why isn’t it the school complete? Why isn’t there a proper, safe, comfy school for the kids in Kash? Is it because it’s all “out of sight, out of mind?” Is it because it’s difficult to build in Northern landscapes? That it costs more? That, every year, these communities flood, and have for years, so that means politicians feel they’re just throwing money into the annual flood waters? Or, is it because we’re talking about a deeply embedded racism that has been part of this country for as long as people have colonized it?

This is, I think, an “us” and “them” situation. It’s easy enough to say “Well, we love the Truth and Reconciliation Report, and this should never happen again.” Too easy, if you ask me. Too easy. It’s an excuse to make excuses when you see what’s happening in Northern communities. It’s an excuse for people to ignore it, because it’s too far north for them to see, to be reminded of, so it isn’t at the forefront of their minds, of their daily lives. It makes me shake with anger and disgust while I type this. It makes my eyes water when I think of what Shannen Koostachin gave up, which was her life, because of the poor education system that existed eight years ago, and still exists.

My parents always said, “If you don’t have something nice to say, then don’t say anything at all.” They also used to say, “Use your words.” So. I will say something when I feel I need to, even if it isn’t ‘nice.’ But I’ll take the other part of their advice and use my words, as only a writer can.

We have such a responsibility to be aware of what is happening in the North. This is Canada in 2018. No child should have to wear a winter coat while being taught lessons in a substandard classroom that puts them at risk of being continually exposed to mould. Every child should have a safe and comfy school, regardless of where they live in Ontario, in Canada. Every person in this country deserves an education, and should not dread going to school because the building is toxic.

I’m an ally. I know, even, in defining myself and in speaking as an ally, that I may offend someone who doesn’t want an ally. There’s a power structure even embedded in saying that I want to be an ally. I know that. It’s dicey ground, all of it. But to stay silent isn’t the answer, either. To stay silent means that I would be okay with what’s happening in Kash. And I’m not. I’m not. I never will be.

I’m a human, and I’m a writer, and I have a compassionate heart. And I’m a teacher, and I know what it’s like to see kids learn, and what it’s like to see them grow and flourish. I know this is wrong, what’s happening in Kash. So, if one person reads this blog and thinks “I didn’t know that was still happening ‘up there,” or if one person reads this blog and thinks “That’s appalling,” or if one person reads this and learns that Canada needs to be better, when it comes to social issues like this, then I will be okay about being ridiculed for speaking out.

This is, you see, simply put, a form of embedded racism. If it isn’t, well, then you’d be okay with your kids in Toronto, or Windsor, or London, or Ottawa all sitting in mouldy portables in -35C weather, without proper books or technology. If it isn’t, then you’d be willing to try sending your kids to such a school.

So…this is me…using my words…and thinking of Shannen’s Dream.






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