Archive for December, 2018

Until last year, I didn’t even know what ‘ghosting’ was about. I teach Grade 11s and 12s, though, so I heard them talking about how they had “erased” people on Instagram and Snapchat. We’d been having a discussion about social media, bullying, etiquette, safety, and all of that. It’s something typical that we talk about in secondary schools these days. Teachers need to teach kids about how to be in the world, and now teachers need to guide students in how to act with thought and maturity on the Internet. It took me a group of seventeen-year-olds to help me realize that someone, a man I thought was a friend, had ghosted me.

That’s embarrassing, I know, but I’m really not that worldly. I’m too trusting. I’m gullible and too naïve. I see the best in people. Then, when they show me other sides of themselves that they may have initially hidden from me, I’m usually pretty shocked. I turtle. I never know how to deal with them after that happens. How can you tell what is true to the person, and what is false? If they’re a good actor, then maybe they’re used to dealing with people in this sort of thoughtless way. I don’t know. I’d hope that wasn’t the case with this person, because I thought I was a good judge of character, but it might be. These days, it seems, any kind of poor behaviour on the Internet is acceptable. So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, disappointed, or hurt. But I am. I’m soft hearted.

Sometimes, in real life, when you see a person often in your town, a friendship will end quickly, or, alternatively, after a period of drifting apart. A person might say something that is triggering for you. That has happened only once, rather dramatically, in my life. I was triggered, and I’m not even sure how. Sometimes, you just drift when it comes to growing apart from friends. You grow in different directions. Sometimes, the drift is too great, the space between too hard to mend. The silences grow slowly, stretch out, become spaced out Morse code dots and dashes that draw themselves out into nothingness. Humans are complex. When friendships end without my knowing why, I usually blame myself.

If anything, in these cases, I blame myself, for a very long time. I’m of Irish Catholic stock, so that means, when a friendship ends without closure, whether with a woman or with a man, I blame myself. I try to figure it out. It isn’t good. I feel ‘less than’ and then need to try to build myself up again. That I let other people make me feel this way is a worry I think about every day, actually. I need to be stronger, I think. I tell myself that I need to be less trusting, less compassionate, less caring. That is what happens, for me, when these connections seem to end suddenly and without reason. It’s likely because I take friendship seriously, and because I don’t have much of a family anymore. My friends are my family, so losses feel – to me – very painful. They linger in my mind and heart for too long.

The person I was when I was very ill a decade ago, the one who only wanted to please people, only wanted to listen to gossip and then share in its toxic buffet because it felt like something that included rather than excluded me, well, that person disappeared when I began to get healthier. There were, too, friends who disappeared from my life when I was very ill, taking care of my parents. I don’t blame them, either. They didn’t know how to help. I didn’t know how to reach out. I felt I was a bother, and having major depressive disorder makes you feel like you’re only ever a nuisance to others, that you aren’t worthy enough to be friends with others, so you pull in harder and faster. You turtle.

I still deal with that when I’ve felt friendships weakening, or even when friendships are new, the feeling of being a ‘bother,’ never knowing if I’m wanted, and it’s something I struggle with still, how to know if it’s your fault, or if you just don’t value yourself enough yet because no one ever taught you how to do that as a child. I don’t know that it’ll ever go away. That’s like the evolutionary leftover of a prehensile tail, or the wisdom teeth that we don’t really need anymore. I think I just need to admit it as a part of my character now, a leftover that proves I survived the tsunami of depression and anxiety that was inside my head and heart. For me, it’s a painful badge of honour. It’s a reminder, too, to always be mindful of my own mind and moods. I’m my own best guardian. I have to be. The ghost of mental health always hovers, makes you hope depression doesn’t come back to your front door. It’s hard, exhausting work, this staying healthy thing. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying. And maybe they need to, to keep up their own scaffold of being, to convince themselves that they’ll be okay. And that’s okay, too. Whatever it takes us to survive.

What arises instead, after picking up a life in ruins, is a woman who knows herself in her newest, perhaps her truest form. She has been broken, has nearly erased herself with suicidal ideation, and has – against all odds – rebuilt herself in a new fashion. What I’ve noticed is that some people who’ve known me for longer than five years just don’t understand who I’ve become. Most days, I don’t know who I’ve become, either. The last three years have been transformative for me, physically, spiritually, and intellectually. You just need to expect that you will lose people you care about along the journey. They may not resonate with the new you, or maybe you will no longer resonate with them. That is, perhaps, a good thing. It means you’re growing, that you aren’t stagnant in your own evolution of self.

What a social media ghosting by a man does is different, though. It perhaps speaks to the role of men and women in a patriarchal society. Perhaps. Or, perhaps it speaks to the way in which women view men, or men view women. Perhaps. Or, perhaps, it just speaks to the way in which our society is cannibalising itself slowly, from the inside out, so that kindness and compassion—even what you think is a half-decent friendship—is to be feared and then destroyed quietly. Maybe it’s just that being friends with a single man, when you’re a single woman, is coloured, sometimes, by attraction. I’m not sure…still thinking that one through.

I have a feeling that younger women are more accepting of this ghosting and blocking practice. I’m on Twitter, so I’ll often see millennial women speaking of it in passing, as if it is to be expected. I don’t expect it, especially when you are only just friends and not even dating. I can’t accept it, I guess. I don’t know how to deal with it when it happens. So, in this one case, I just kept on, rose above it, didn’t want to think it was actually happening to me when I really couldn’t figure out what “I’d done wrong to offend him.”

After a while, though, if you stay connected on social media feeds, you almost feel as if you’re a voyeur, not a friend. Then, you have no choice but to unfollow and unfriend on social media. It’s too weird to see what is going on in their life when they don’t stay in touch in tangible ways. The man has forced your hand, made you feel even more ‘less than’ you did before, if that’s at all possible. He’s made it clear he wants nothing to do with you. It doesn’t feel good to be ghosted, and it doesn’t feel good to disconnect from someone you thought was a friend because it will always feel as if you have done something wrong. That, I think, is what is so toxic about men ghosting women on social media. It’s dismissive and cruel. It’s an erasure, and, to someone who nearly erased herself by way of suicide ten years ago, that can be quite horrible.

The other thing that happens is that you wonder what was even true: was the man you first met, who you were first impressed by, and who you felt very much drawn to, the ‘real’ version, or was it a fake one? I can’t tell anymore. It worries me. If it was that first person—who was funny, kind, extremely smart and witty, who had a good family and cared for them deeply, who was handsome but not full of himself—well, if that was the real person, then what is this person you see (or rather, after the erasure of ghosting happens, don’t see) now? Which is true? Is there one ‘true’ person, or are humans always constantly putting on masks for different people? Then I wonder, was he manipulative or deceptive? Does he do this regularly with women? Can he cut people out so easily, even ‘just’ as friends? Was I reading things wrong? Am I stupid?

Mostly, to be honest, I think it’s me being stupid. And then, even now, a long time after I’ve been ghosted and ignored, I blame myself for being stupid, for trusting someone and sharing things with them, and then realizing that I’m not worldly enough for some men. I get angry at myself, angry for feeling stupid, and for feeling too much. It seems to me, these days, men and women only ever play games and create drama, and it makes me wonder, too, if it’s even possible to have decent friendships with men. I don’t know anymore. This has all thrown me for a loop, made me question all of my friendships, and made me think it’s me. (My dad always said I was ‘too smart.’ That still bothers me, the phrasing of it. He worried that my intelligence and creativity, my sharp wit and weird, blurt-it-out-without-thinking-honesty even, would prevent me from knowing people, from trusting them, from not being fearful, and I think he wished I was less naïve.) Still, it’s probably what makes me have a sense of wonder when I go hiking and canoeing, this naivete and gullibility. I know it works into my poems and prose writing, this sense of being amazed by things that most people don’t even notice.

Worst of all, though….I just can’t stand that I would miss a person who has treated me poorly, but I do. I miss the person I thought I knew…and I know, because of being ghosted, that it isn’t a mutual ‘missing.’ He can’t miss me if he’s erased me, is what logic tells me. If you erase someone so completely from your life, then you must not miss them at all. You must not have ever cared a single stitch about them. And then I feel stupid again, for having trusted him. So I’ll just feel a bit sad about that, and try to sort it out in therapy, or just over drinks with a couple of close, trusted friends.

For a moment, just the other day, I thought of a theatre stage. Sometimes, you’ll see a line of actors on a stage, acting out their lines, written by someone else. You’ll see a character step forward, out of a line, or maybe another will step back, into shadows. What ghosting by a man on social media makes you do is take steps backwards, away from the pain of being treated as if you never existed. You take a step back, you take another step back, you hope the person will turn and extend a hand of kindness, but they don’t. So you take another step back, then another, until you disappear into shadow. You won’t even be the last person picked for the dodgeball team. (You might get a ball in the head as you leave, for good measure.) You’ll be exorcised to the open gym door, and then escorted out of the school and into the parking lot. You’ll walk home alone. You’ll take another step back, knowing the other person wants this more than anything else, to just erase you from his memory. So you’ll honour their wishes, but you’ll need to find yourself again afterwards. Somehow.

What I’ve learned, sadly, is that I need to be more careful in making friends. I’m too open and friendly. I’m too warm and generous. It leaves me open to being hurt. Some will say this gives the man in question too much power. I can see how someone would say that. As a feminist, I just berate myself some more. What it does do, though, is make me question my own judgement, of myself and of others. My sense of discernment and intuition must be off. It makes me pull my small circle of close friends closer still. It doesn’t make me love my friends any less. It makes me look to my few current men friends, whether they are single or in couples, and feel glad that I have them in my life.

I’ll hope that this has just been an anomaly, this particular ghosting. I’ll hope I’ve learned something, but, for now, I just feel sad because I’ve lost a friend I cared about. Obviously, that part was an illusion, wasn’t shared, and now I know that I’m too easily toyed with or manipulated by words. Despite that, I’ll only ever wish him well on his path. I forgive him, but I’m having a harder time forgiving myself for being too trusting and kind. And maybe we were never friends to begin with, and maybe I was stupid and naïve enough to believe we were, and maybe I was only a ‘friend’ while I was useful, or a strange curiosity. It makes me doubt myself, question my own internal barometer. That upsets me. I’m trying to find my sea legs again…

In a world where people swipe left and right as mindlessly as if they’re picking ripe avocados at the grocery store, and in a world where true connection seems fleeting, I just hope I can somehow fit in, that I can trust again. Right now, it doesn’t much feel like it. Right now, it feels like I can’t trust people, especially men, and, even worse, that I can’t trust myself and my own intuition and judgement. Sometimes, it seems, you can feel you don’t belong in the time period into which you were born, and this, for me, is one of those times. I never imagined that, with the rise of technology, there would also come a rise of cold erasure.

While this person once said that I was ‘too intense’ on social media, I’ll continue to use my various platforms to speak of issues that are of importance to me—like literacy, conservation of wild spaces, speaking out against violence against women, as well as speaking up for mental health awareness (especially for the kids in the far northern communities), and against stigma. I’ll write about poetry, and I’ll write about grief, and I’ll write about kindness. And, no matter what, I’ll always use social media to connect communities of friends, artists and writers in northern areas where geography can so easily distance us from one another, and I’ll hope—at the end of the day—that I’ve been helpful in some way. And I’ll hope, in some way, that the world will be lighter for me having been here on the planet. I don’t want to be worried that someone thinks I’ve liked too many of his posts on Instagram, or that I’ve made a comment under a posting someone’s made on Facebook or Twitter. That way is madness…and life is too hard  when I already feel like such a weird anomaly.

I’ll never apologize for the woman I’ve become, because there was a time, not too long ago, when this woman wouldn’t have made it past 2014. I’ve learned, in coming through the darkness of my own family’s life, that you should never make yourself less of yourself, or make yourself a paler, more conservative version of yourself for a man. You must only ever be yourself. As Dr. Seuss says, so wisely, “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”

The man who ghosted me won’t read this, and that doesn’t even really matter anymore. What matters is that maybe some other man will read it, and then will think twice of ghosting a woman. Or, some woman will read it and, as a result, not ghost a man. No person should just ghost another person on social media. If they can do it so easily, it’s terribly worrisome. If that is what social media has done to the world, to humans, values, truth, and connections, then we’re in a leaky boat, indeed. We need to get back to a world where people communicate—with their words—in writing with a pen and paper, and through speaking, one to another, face to face. Otherwise, we will just hand off a world that is technologically advanced but heartless and lacking in compassion. That, I think, is one of my greatest fears.

Be kind to one another, friends. Be yourself, in person and online. Be the same person. It really isn’t that hard, even if it makes you vulnerable and open. Maybe, just maybe, some of this pain will be worth it in the end. Right now, though, I’m not so sure….





Read Full Post »

Ten years. A decade. How it seems like forever, but also just like a blink. Today, it’s ten years to the night I lost my mother. What I remember is the last week of her life, the pain that led up to her end, and the way in which she taught me to live through her dying process. The greatest gift, the most important lesson she taught me, was that living with(in) fear will not bring me peace inside. She lived with great fear, I know, for most of her life. I don’t know why, or how, but I can imagine reasons based on what she told me in fragments, gathered in the months before she died, while she was bedridden. The stories we tell, near the ends of lives, are strong and clear and true.

She was sent off, as the eldest daughter of an Irish Catholic family, to an all-girls’ boarding school in North Bay, from Sudbury, when she was just fourteen or fifteen. From Grade 10 on, a life went on there that she didn’t want to talk about much with me, until she was dying, and a life went on back at home, where her four siblings grew up together while she was at a distance. It doesn’t matter now, but it still bothers me, on her behalf, that adults actually thought it was better to send a young girl to a boarding school rather than to let her stay with her family. If that had happened to me, well, I wouldn’t have done as well in coping.

What it did to her ruined her somehow, made her fearful of making connections with others, fearful of being close to other people, made her pull in and be strong—having to build walls to protect herself and her well-being—when what she really needed most was to be open to love, and the notion that she was worthy of receiving it. That fear made her life more emotionally and spiritually confined than it ought to have been, and it influenced me for a large part of my life as I grew up. What matters most now, though, is that I choose love and bravery over fear in my own life. It means risking being vulnerable, and it means risking great hurt and pain, but it means maybe having fewer regrets when it’s time to go. She taught me that, in her going, and I’m only sorry that she had to endure it at all.

My mother was good and kind. She had a true heart. She was afraid of her heart, though, never sharing it with many people, keeping it ‘safe’ and not realizing that she made herself weaker because of this. She was private and proud, gathering herself too closely to herself. With people she loved, her family mostly, she gave of herself to a fault. When I was little, I had a surgery at Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto, one that left me with a staple in my left hip. She took care of me there, away from the north, and for the two months back home when I had a body cast on. I was immobile, in a hospital bed in the living room. I was in pain a lot of the time, and then later, in great discomfort. Two months seemed like an eternity. She made it lighter, trying her best to make me forget how uncomfortable I was. She cared for me when I was ill, and then, later, much later, I cared for her before she died. This is the unspoken vow we must have taken at some point, and the one I honoured until she took her last breath.

She likely sacrificed her personal happiness for my dad, and for my sister and myself. I don’t know, though. I can only imagine, ten years on. I can’t ask her the questions that cluster incessantly in my head these days. That bothers me. I can’t remember her voice anymore. That bothers me even more. I have memories of its musicality, her voice, and of how it seemed so unique, and of a laugh that, when she was caught up in mirth, would often have her double over in hysterics until tears ran down her face. I remember that. I do.

The night she died, the world outside the hospital was a snow globe. My car had been parked in the farthest parking lot, down near Walford Road, for four days straight. I had been afraid to leave her in case she died alone. I wanted to be there for her, even if she didn’t know I was there. When I finally went to get my car, a half hour after she died, it was covered in thick ice and two feet of heavy snow. Her going was laboured and painful. She fought hard, her body a ruin but her soul rebellious. She pulled into herself, shoving the rest of us aside. In the last weeks of her life, she slept in a darkened room, refusing water and losing her appetite. She knew, I think, that she was dying. Someone, somewhere, must have told her. She must have chosen not to tell us.

So we tried: to feed her, to give her water, to comfort her, to lighten her darkness. None of it worked. She stayed in a darkened room, curtains pulled, glaring at me when I went in to care for her. It was, for me, the worst year of my life, watching her die as I tried so desperately to keep her alive. You cannot, and she taught me this, will a person to live. It will not work. She taught me, too, that each person has a path, has a choice, and that each person must honour and respect the other person’s path. I still don’t understand it, why she chose not to let us be with her as she went, how she pulled in and erased herself from the inside out even as we tried to gather her in closer to us. I likely never will understand that. But, and this is so important, I’ve accepted that she chose that path, even though it broke our hearts as she went.

The night she died, I watched her chest rise and fall, the nurse having told us not to watch her breath, but to watch, instead, that ebb and flow of her chest, that rise and fall, that frantic intensified heart beating through the thin cotton hospital gown. So I did. The night she died, my sister and I left my father alone with her, to say his goodbyes. We came back half an hour later, worried we would miss her going, only to enter the room to hear him singing to her, crying, and saying that he loved her, his head resting on her chest. That image will be with me until the day I die. That image is what I think love must be in one of its deepest and truest forms.

Despite a marriage that had its ups and downs, its challenges, at the end, my father was the strongest man I had ever seen. At the end of his own life, too, he showed great courage and love, opening up as he died because he knew what my mum’s closing up before she had gone had done to us, to Stacy and myself. He offered a bit of a counterpoint, a warmth to the departure, and that still makes me so grateful to him.

There were times when I wondered, as I grew up watching them, why they had stayed together. They fought a lot, going off to separate parts of the house to glare at one another in silence. It wasn’t always what people on the outside saw, but how often is it that, anyway? People’s lives are lived in the dollhouses they construct for themselves, the ones that others see from the outside in. My parents weren’t openly affectionate with one another and, as the years went on, they got crustier with each other. As they began to weaken and fail, though, their love rose up again in the tiniest and most unexpected of ways.

When she fell ill, first with a middle-of-the-night heart attack that nearly killed her in 2004, and then with the gangrene, peripheral artery disease, and (supposed and likely) with the lung cancer that took her away from us in December 2008, my dad softened, got teary eyed more often than not, and sat for hours with her on the edge of her bed at home after she lost part of her foot to trans-metatarsal amputation. He held her hand, flirted, smiled sweetly, told funny stories, and tried to make her laugh. And it worked. For a while. As she got sicker and sicker, soon after their 40thwedding anniversary on November 16, 2008, it was like she became a ghost of herself, a “shade” as the Irish might have said in James Joyce’s time. Then, well, none of us could pull her back. She stopped reading, which is something she loved. That worried me.

It was only after she died that I realized she had got herself, somehow, on a mailing list for a macular degeneration information package. In the last few months of her life, she couldn’t see very well, it seemed, but she never told me that, even when I tried to suggest new books, or wanted to sit and read to her. That she could no longer read broke her spirit. It had been the thing she had done all her life. It offered her a respite, an escape, from a reality she maybe didn’t always like very much. When she stopped reading, I knew it wouldn’t be long. She was a husk of herself, huddled under heavy blankets, not asleep and not awake, full of pills that made her feel so ill. I hated that: I hated seeing her have to give herself shots of warfarin in her belly, watching her wince, knowing that it all didn’t seem much about quality of life at that point.

I hated having a home care nurse in twice a day to debride and clean her ruined foot. I didn’t see it, the ruin of it, until the night before she died, when a nurse cleaned and wrapped it. That moment, for me, seemed so awful, so invasive, so private, and it also explained why she had been so defeated. A foot without skin and muscle and tissue is not something anyone wants to see. Halves of toes, skeletal, are not things you ever walk on again. That I saw her foot, so ruined and unhealed, made me realize that she had—against all odds—tried to will herself to heal, but her body hadn’t agreed. It wasn’t her fault. She had tried. She had.

My mother’s dying, her ending, has informed what I think about the way in which our society deals with the ends of a life. At that point, really, she ought to have been in hospital and, likely, if we’d known how sick she was, in a palliative care wing somewhere. Her end might have been less awful for her. It is, I think, why I feel so strongly about palliative care now. Keeping people alive by filling them with medications doesn’t make their lives better. You end up having them there, physically, for a bit longer, but at such a cost, to both them, and to you.

I don’t think she wanted to die in hospital. I know that. There were days when her breathing was laboured, when I sat next to her in her bed at home, begging her to let me call an ambulance. She was fierce. “No, you are not to call,” she hissed at me one Sunday. Finally, though, during one bad bout of breathing, I had said, “I have to. It will be all right. You’ll be home soon.” Her face, then, told me that she knew more than I ever would. She smiled sadly, shook her head. “No…I won’t…but I know I need to go now.” A week later she would be dead. I had lied to her, said she would be well, but she had created a fiction, too, likely knowing she was terminally ill, but not sharing it.

She hid her pills, the ones that would have helped to thin her blood and keep her alive for a bit longer, tucking them into the zippered pockets of her wallet and then stuffing them back into her massive black purse at the side of her bed. We wouldn’t find those hidden meds until after she died, and there was a day I still remember, sitting next to my sister on the edge of an empty bed, looking at a clutch of pills discarded in a wallet, knowing she had known something about her health that we hadn’t. We felt angry and betrayed.

People will always say, “Look back to your memories before she was ill,” and “There were good times, you know, Kim,” as if they are annoyed that I can’t remember them, but she was so ill for the last five years of her life, and I helped to care for her for the last year and a half of it in my parents’ house, so it’s hard for me to remember a time when she was healthy. She smoked heavily, drank and ate too much, didn’t exercise, and didn’t have many friends beyond her family circle.

Here is what I miss about her, though, ten years on now, and what she taught me:

My mum loved books. She read in front of us when we were little and, even when my parents didn’t have a lot of money, they always bought us books for Christmas and our birthdays. She read while my father watched TV, putting ear plugs in so she could focus, and sneak-eating chocolate bars from the table next to her chair in the living room because he was diabetic. When I asked her why she didn’t just go somewhere else in the house to read, she said that she liked to be near him. At that point, he had had a heart attack, so she was more worried about him than about herself. That changed after she had her own heart attack and began to fail, but at that point she didn’t want to be apart from him because she was afraid he would die first. She didn’t even want to be in a different room…

My mum’s full name was Sheila Mary Elizabeth. Her aunts and uncles referred to her by an abbreviation of her name, either just “SM” or “Sherry.” Sometimes, I remember my great-aunt Clare Kelly referring to her in a rush as “Sheilamary,” or, even more oddly, even more quickly, “Shamerry,” so that, if you didn’t know, you’d wonder what her actual name was. That was my extended family, and she was the first born of the grandchildren, so there, in 1939, and onwards, there were a slew of photos of a beautiful little dark haired girl with big eyes. She had a beautiful name, and I want to use it often, to prove that she lived and hasn’t been forgotten.

She was an excellent cook, especially when it came to chicken and dumplings, turkey soup from the bone, chili, and shepherd’s pie. She would often bake my grandmother’s oatmeal scones, slathering them with butter and strawberry jam. She made the best (or worst) strong Irish tea that I’ve ever had, letting it sit on the stovetop element until it sometimes burned itself dry in the kettle. (I’m, thankfully, much better at making tea. Hers, well, hers could have stripped something off of your insides…but she always said that she ‘liked it strong.’ She thought the tea I made was too weak and sometimes drank it unwillingly, making a face, and laughingly calling it ‘cat piss.’ It made me laugh, every time, because it was something we disagreed on, the strength of the tea we liked to drink.

When we were little girls, she would often sing us to sleep with Doris Day’s “Que Sera Sera” and Judy Garland’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” She had a beautiful voice. It’s likely why I love to sing so often to myself. She liked it, too, when I sang. She loved playing piano, and we’d often come home to hearing her playing a song from West Side Story on the upright grand that sat in the kitchen. She loved musicals, so we grew up on Oklahoma, Brigadoon, West Side Story, and The Sound of Music. I think she loved The Wizard of Oz the best, though, because of that song. I can’t really watch it anymore…and I cry if the song comes on somewhere while I’m shopping. One time, I left one of those little single-person-red-baskets at the grocery store sitting on the edge of a floor of an aisle, full of oatmeal and almond milk and clementines. I just left it, abandoned, tried to force my face to look normal, and then rushed out to the car to weep.

She loved her work, first as a nurse, and then for the Children’s Aid Society, and later advocating on behalf of people with disabilities. She had a big heart, and she poured it out into giving love to the people who were closest to her. She taught me how to share that sense of wanting to be of help, too, of how to be an advocate for causes I feel are important and maybe not always popular or well known. When she was well, up until her early sixties, maybe, she was a different person. That’s the one I try to recall so desperately now, but time apart from someone in the physical world can weaken a memory.

She loved gardening. Her favourite flowers were peonies, lilacs, columbine, and purple iris. She loved going to our camp on the West Arm of Lake Nipissing, reading on the dock, a big floppy hat shading her pale skin. She gathered pine cones and wild flowers on walks there in the bush, and on our walks into summer fields when we rented a camp each August on Lake Mindemoya, on Manitoulin Island.

She had three favourite quotations that I know of. While she loved Kahlil Gibran, she really loved Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince. The quotation she often mentioned to me was this one: “ ‘Goodbye,’ said the fox. ‘And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” The other one was: “In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing when you look at the sky at night. You—only you—will have stars that can laugh.” Beyond that, the one quotation that spoke to her in the last few years of her life, after her heart attack, was one from the Dalai Lama: “My religion is kindness. There is no need for temples, no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple: the philosophy of kindness.” She had drifted from the Catholic church, found comfort in this notion more than in the notion of the god of bent knees and rosaries that she had been raised on. That god, I think, she often might have thought, had left her without hope…

Mum was glad I was a poet, I think. She once told me, when she was bedridden, that she’d been glad to have known what a poet was like, that she had never imagined having a child who would grow up into being one. She and my dad came to almost every single poetry reading I ever had, with the exception of ones that happened after they both fell ill. Once, at an Ottawa reading back in my mid-twenties, she had sat next to me in a pub, drinking her beer and getting a bit drunk, and leaning over to tell me, when someone else was reading a very long epic poem, “I don’t like much of this stuff, Kimmy, but I do like yours. Why are these ones so long? What do they mean?” And she’d roll her eyes and smile in a sneaky way, as if she knew it wasn’t great to be saying such things in a loud whisper at a poetry reading in a big city. “People try to make themselves sound like more than who they are…” She said that once, too, after we walked back to the hotel that night. “There’s no reason to do that. Just be yourself.” So. She taught me that lesson, too. Being yourself is always the best option. Always.

When I was at Carleton doing my Master’s, I had my first big run-in with depression in my early twenties. I didn’t know, I don’t think, but she did. She called often and wrote weekly letters, sending them in funny cards and putting the dog’s pawprint on the outside of envelopes. She was proud I’d gone so far in my schooling, urging me forward to completing the degree when I thought I wasn’t good enough to do so. I pushed myself to do it in a single calendar year, probably faster than I ought to have done. I didn’t know that I was beginning to get sick then, in my early twenties, but she could likely sense it. She had worked in psychiatry as a nurse in her twenties. Ironically, when she fell ill later in her life, she wouldn’t have admitted to being depressed herself, to isolating herself, but she knew enough, while I was young, to keep an eye on me…even from a distance. Looking back now, I’m glad she offered me a life jacket…

Mostly, though, what my mum taught me was to be kind to others. “You can never know what another person is going through,” she always said. People are one way on the inside, and one way on the outside. What looks okay on the surface isn’t always so. She taught me to be the same person inside and out. That might have been the greatest gift, I think, that she left me. To be kind, and to be genuine and honest.

While she taught me many good things, she also left me fearful of living fully. There were strict rules and expectations. There wasn’t a lot of room for being daring in our house. She was afraid if we biked too far down the road, or if we went for walks after dark. Everything, it seemed, might take us from her when we were little.  She was afraid something would happen to take us from her. Maybe it was that she had been taken from her own home, placed in a boarding school without being asked. I don’t know. That kind of fear impresses itself on you when you’re a child. It took me forever to take apart that fear she had instilled in me as a girl. Seeing her die made me realize that life is short. You can be fearful, and not tell people you care about and love them, but you may regret it later. She had so many regrets when she died. That translated into anger and fear.

The way she lived, and the way she died, taught me to press against fear despite what I’d been taught as a child. There are small pings of leftover guilt and worry when I go out hiking alone, or when I risk opening my heart to tell someone I care for them, or when I let someone get close enough to share my truths. I have, for most of my life, only ever been taught how to build walls of fear and protection. I have, since she has gone, spent a decade learning how to tear them down. Sometimes, your biggest lessons in life are the ones you try to unteach yourself, the ones your parents taught you, and the ones that their parents taught them. Teaching myself to pull down my own walls, to be vulnerable to feel both love and pain, is the hardest thing I’ve ever done as a human. It’s solitary work, most often, and many won’t know how difficult it’s been.

I used to think, in that last year of her life, that I could save her somehow. I researched proper nutrition, ways to cook meals that would give her the nutrients that would help her wounds to heal. I learned everything there was to learn about amputation and debriding. I tried to fix her, even though she likely knew it wasn’t fixable. I was tenacious and depressed at the same time, throwing myself into her care with a fixation that wasn’t healthy. I was unwell. It was firestorm of fear.

I don’t know how ten years has passed. It seems like forever, and also a blink. If I had three wishes, I’d likely spend them trying to get an hour to sit and talk with her again, to ask her questions that I’ll never get the answers to now, and to listen to her voice, to make myself remember it. I would also thank her for her life, for her lessons, because they made me into the woman I am now. She would likely think me mad, taking aerial silks classes this year, traveling and hiking places on my own. It would make her cringe, but her fear isn’t mine any more…and that might be the best gift she ever gave me.

Today, in an hour or so, I’ll go off to spend a few hours walking on the trails at Point Pelee. I’ll take some tobacco to give to Lake Erie, to thank the Creator, the god I love, for the gift of her life. And I’ll release a lot of leftover grief to that lake, knowing that it will shore me up as only it can. I’ll touch trees and pick up stones. I’ll wish she could be with me, see the beauty of the place that speaks to me as no other place in this world does, and I’ll cry. I’ll always wish I could’ve saved her, but I know now I need to let her go…and Erie will help me do that, and has done so all year long.

Mostly, though, I’ll remember those words in my head…. “In one of the stars, I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all of the stars were laughing when you look at the sky at night. You, only you, will have stars that laugh at night.”

And so, tonight, I will look at the stars and try to laugh, or at least maybe smile a little bit.


Peace, friends.














Read Full Post »

I’ve walked by Park House a number of times since I’ve been down in Essex County this year. It’s simple and small, and you wonder what stories it has seen happen both inside and outside of its walls. Built in the 1790s at the mouth of the Rouge River in Michigan, it’s a house that moved across the Detroit River and shifted countries after the American Revolution. Its Loyalist owners moved to Upper Canada when Detroit was handed over to the Americans by the British in 1796. (I like this story because I like stories about houses that have been floated across bodies of water. The houses in Newfoundland, and those beautiful old black and white photos that have been preserved there, from re-settlement of the outports, have figured in my writerly imagination for over fifteen years. There’s a sense of tenacity and survival about houses that move across water…said the romantic, imaginative poet woman.)

First images of the house can be seen in an 1813 painting, “A View of Amherstburg,” by Margaret Reynolds. Alexander Mackintosh bought the property in 1817, and the Park brothers ( Thomas and Theodore) bought it in 1823. It stayed in the Park family until 1941. Fast forward to the early 1970s and the Rotary Club of Amherstburg bought the house, moved it to where it stands now, and preserved it to prevent it from being demolished. Smart thinking, I’d say. It was officially opened in 1973. In 1978, the Park House Tinsmiths (a volunteer association) was created to make reproduction tinware to help finance the museum. Now, it captures the way it would have felt to have lived in the mid-1800s. Park House was named a National Historic Site on October 4, 2018.

I first encountered Park House in April 2017, when I came down to Amherstburg to stay with my friend, Lena, for the Easter weekend. (I never do well with the big holidays that involve family now that they’ve all gone, so her invitation in 2017 to visit her, in an area I love, was quickly accepted.) We never went into Park House then. We had a fish and chips supper on Good Friday at the Legion in Amherstburg, and then we all walked down the street. There were daffodils. (For a girl from Sudbury, where there is still snow in April, daffodils made me giddy inside!)

That’s when I first saw Park House. It’s beautiful. All white and simple, and a bit rough looking on the outside. I love historic sites, though, so it, along with Fort Malden, captured my imagination. Lena took me to see Fort Malden this summer, and it was amazing to spend time walking through the grounds and into the house, which is now a museum. The best part was visiting the kitchen, though. I find myself transfixed by kitchens when I visit historic places. I think that’s because I love to cook and bake, and also maybe because I think sharing food and conversation is sacred in terms of making connections with people. It was hundreds of years ago, in simpler times, and it still is now. In the Irish tradition, there’s a lot of cooking and baking, and gathering in kitchens around hearths as the centre of a home. A stove, I guess, has taken the place of a stone hearth and fire, but it’s still what happens when I cook up a supper for friends at a dinner party. It’s the best way to take care of people you love.

Here’s what Park House looks like:


The beauty of the place is enhanced now that it’s entered the Christmas season. Everything is decorated in a Victorian style and you feel as if you’re slipping back into a novel. The day I visited, on Thursday afternoon, the curator, Stephanie Pouget-Papak, was decorating for a Dickensian storytelling session that was set to happen the next night. She apologized for things being pushed up against the walls, but they had set up tables so that people could be seated. I told her that I thought it was a fabulous idea, to be so creative in bringing people into the house who normally might not visit it. The scent of cedar branches, wreathing the windows and doors inside, also made the place smell lovely. (Scent, for me, is a big thing…in making something evocative.)

Stephanie took me for a tour around the main floor, and I was especially amazed by the main fireplace and the kitchen. I loved the old hardwood floors and the beautiful rounded doorways. (I always touch wooden doorways and windowsills. I don’t know why I’m so tactile when it comes to old houses, but it is a problem. Put me in an Irish or Scottish castle, and I’m a basket case: I touch everything, and am even more tempted to touch things if there are signs that say not to touch things. People should really watch me, and maybe even follow me through historic places…)


She was busy setting up tables, but told me to go upstairs on my own. The stairs were beautiful, and I told her later that it reminded me of being on an old ship. The upstairs rooms are dark, but the windows make you think you can step back in time. Standing there, looking out over the back roof towards the Detroit River, I kept thinking I could imagine a woman standing next to me, in a long green dress, watching and waiting for someone to arrive. With no one else there, it was easy to imagine people living their lives, and history creating itself slowly, spinning itself out in a woven tapestry.

Everything is so beautifully presented and well-curated. I’ve been in many historic places and some are not very well done. This one, though, is one of the best and most authentic that I’ve ever seen. IMG_1752.jpg

I had a little wooden rocking chair like this when I was a girl. My paternal grandfather had inherited it from somewhere in southwestern Ontario, likely Exeter or Park Hill. This one made me think of him, and of how he built so many beautiful pieces of furniture. I’m lucky to have a few things he made, in my house in Northern Ontario. The quilt reminded me of my paternal grandmother, who used to quilt when she was a girl. Such craftsmanship just doesn’t seem to be valued as much anymore, so when you see it embodied in recreations of historic places and buildings, I’m always impressed by the authenticity of artifacts that make you feel as if the people who lived there once have just stepped out the back door for a walk…IMG_1751.jpgI love the weight of this stove, but also the Scottish tartan that is artfully draped over it. (Yup. I touched it.)

IMG_1750.jpgThis was my favourite window in the entire house. I’m not a big fan of Christmas or December because I lost both of my parents in this month, so I normally cringe when I see things all ablaze with tinsel. Seeing this window, though, made me smile. It harkens back to a simpler, more classic and elegant sort of time. Etiquette and courtesy was expected then, and today it just seems that it is so much lacking in our society when I’m out around people. It’s all so rushed and about buying things, when really — especially if you’ve lost people — it’s not about that at all. Simplicity, for me, is to be honoured. This window does that for me.

IMG_1748.jpgIt was at this window, also looking over the back yard towards the Detroit River, though, that I imagined a woman standing just to the side of me. How difficult it must have been, to have lived then, to have been a woman, maybe a servant, and to have not felt as free as women do today. I thought a lot about that as I walked through the house. It’s beautiful now, all preserved and brought back to life, but then it would have been a much harder life. The moss on the roof, though, well, that, for me as a poet, is something beautiful. The images here spoke to me in clear ways.

When I went back downstairs, I looked through the Park House Tinsmiths’s works of art. They’ve made amazing items with tin, all of them accurate reproductions of things that people of the 1850s would have used. There are lovely little candle holders that sit on window sills, and there are ornate punched tin lanterns that would have offered them sources of light. (My friend, Lena, gave me one as a gift two years ago and it’s my favourite thing back home, to light it with an electric votive candle, and to watch the light flicker through the punched out patterns in the tin.) There are even tin Christmas ornaments for sale there right now. If you’re looking for reasonably priced gifts, but ones that are unique and historically-minded, then a visit to Park House before Christmas is a good idea. You can buy things that range from $8 and up.

The one thing that Stephanie told me that made the writerly nerd in me very excited was that artifacts from Park House have been borrowed to be used in the film versions of Alias Grace (a brilliant film of Margaret Atwood’s equally amazing novel of the same name) and in Outlander (yes, that one with Claire and Jamie…). You can buy copies of candlestick holders that were used in both productions. Imagine!

If you live in Essex County, you can still get tickets to next Friday, December 7th’s event “Dickens by Candlelight: An Evening Tea and Reading.” Those tickets are only $10 a person and I imagine it would be quite an experience, to slip back into time during such a busy, hectic time of year. You can also, though, become a member of the Park House Museum. A family membership is $40, a single is $35, and a student membership is just $30. It’s the time of year when you can make your annual donations to charities you might love and care about. Just a thought to consider would be to offer a gift that would offer support to a place that is very special—all history and stories and a curator who loves her work. It shows in the care she takes with her displays, and the knowledge which she shares so openly and warmly with visitors who stop in…




Read Full Post »