Archive for May, 2019

I’d heard about Elliston, Newfoundland before I came to this province, but it was mostly because of my love of puffins. I have had a mad love affair with puffins since I first saw them, in Witless Bay, back in the summer of 2006. I loved how they zipped around, flying high and then dipping down low into the water. They flap their little wings over 300 times in a minute. If they stopped, they would fall from the sky. When I was last here, thirteen years ago now, I bought a pair of puffin mitts. I’ve worn them religiously since then, over so many winters. I walk outside a lot, and, like every other Northerner, I shovel snow a lot, so I’ve worn holes in them over and over again. My friend Karen’s mum, Helen, has kindly darned them for me more than a few times, but my main goal when I came here this time was to get a new pair of puffin mitts. I have, but they aren’t the same. They feel different, in shape and size. And then, yesterday in Trinity, I came upon a different style of puffin mitt again. So. Yup. I’m coming home with two pairs of puffin mitts for myself. It doesn’t mean, though, that I’ll only come back to Newfoundland again only after they’ve worn out and through. I’m kind of crushing out on this place, especially when I think of places to come every year or so to take time to write.

This time around, I’m visiting Newfoundland for two and a half weeks. Last time, I didn’t spend much time in the province, and I couldn’t really get a sense of how it ‘felt.’ (I’m a bit of a ‘feeler’ when it comes to both landscapes and people….so….) This time around, I’ve been out here to launch These Wings, a book of poems I’ve published with Pedlar Press, based in St. John’s, and run by Beth Follett and Monica Kidd. I was honoured to read with St. John’s former poet laureate, Agnes Walsh (whose book Oderin is one I really, really love), and with Monica herself, who’s just published her latest book of poems, Chance Encounters with Wild Animals, at Broken Books. Then, the night after that, we were joined by another St. John’s author, Sara Tilley. We had a Pedlar Press Salon at Monica’s house and spent a couple of hours reading excerpts of our plays and discussing the differences in genres. I found it fascinating, to be with two really amazing writers, and to be able to listen to their experiences. It energizes me to no end.

You can listen to recordings of these two evenings at Monica’s website, Curiaudio: Songs for Curious Girls:


While I’m in places, I try to read literature written by authors who live (or who have lived) in that area. This trip is no different, so I made sure to read Sara Tilley’s novel, Duke, which I loved for its stylistic innovation, as well as its sense of place and character. Elliston is mentioned a lot in that novel, because that is where Sara’s family is from. I like that she’s written about her family history, as I keep trying to do that in novel form. (Whether or not anyone else will want to read my novel…I’m not sure…) Coming up the Bonavista Peninsula on Friday, I passed Elliston, but I purposefully ended up there yesterday morning.

I was up a bit later than normal, having battled a middle-of-the-night migraine and my regular insomnia, so I wrote from about 8:30 until 11:30. The time disappeared on me yesterday morning, which is always a good sign. I’m working on a longer poetic sequence, something about self-discovery and the metaphor of sea change. Shocker. I won’t reveal the title because I’m hoping to submit it to a contest or two, so you never want to jinx such a thing with the revelation of a title.

Around noon yesterday, I set out to see Elliston. I went straight down to the sealers’ memorial. Back home, we have a miners’ memorial, which I think is really quite beautiful. I always walk down in Bell Park in the early mornings with my youngest dog, Gully, so he and I often end up there, in amidst the birches. What I love about that memorial is that it is beautiful and bittersweet, as well as tragic. The sealers’ memorial in Elliston is beautiful, too. There’s a single grey stone wall, with the names of the men who died, along with the men who survived. I’ll try to briefly tell you about that tragedy here, but I’m not an expert.

You walk out to the sealers’ memorial, and the sea–on a day such as yesterday–reminds you of how treacherous it can be. It was damp and cold, and very windy. As I stood looking at the names of the men who were lost on the ice, two older Newfoundland gentlemen were talking quietly to one another. Then one of them looked over at me. He smiled, saw I was pretty much holding myself together against the wind, with my hair all over the place, and said, “Pretty cold out here today, isn’t it, my girl?” We exchanged a bit of conversation about the weather, but then he saw me looking at the names. I was eavesdropping, to be honest. He and his friend were talking about a man who had died alongside his two sons. His name was Thomas Jordan, and he was 50. His two sons were Bernard and Henry, who were 18 and 22. His brother, Stephen, just 43 at the time of the disaster, though, managed to survived. They were talking about how hard that would have been, to have felt guilty for surviving.  As we stood there, the man started talking to me about the disaster and, as usual, I just started asking questions. (I’m pretty curious generally, so I always chat up people when I want to know something.)

The men from the SS Newfoundland went out on the ice in March 30, 1914 to hunt seals. Their ship soon became stuck in ice. The 132 men were on the ice for a couple of days, but were caught in a fierce blizzard and only 55 survived. Not far away, the SS Southern Cross was returning to Newfoundland from the Gulf of St. Lawrence, a ship full of seal pelts after a successful hunt. That ship sunk and all 173 men died.  One side of the memorial lists all of the crew of the sunken ship, the SS Southern Cross. The other side lists the victims and survivors of the SS Newfoundland tragedy. They share the memorial wall because both ships were caught up in that same fierce blizzard.

To be honest, this is a very good little National Film Board documentary that tells of the tragedy in animated form. It uses excerpts of interviews with some of the 55 survivors, and it’s much more effective than me just writing about it. Michael Crummey, the noted Newfoundland novelist, wrote this so you’ll know it’s good work. You can read his blog about why he chose to take on such a challenging task here, on the National Film Board site:


If you have about 15 minutes, now you can get yourself a cup of tea and watch 54 Hours. It’ll make you sad, so I’ll warn you of that…because the whole story made me sad yesterday in Elliston.


The monument gave me chills, and it wasn’t because of the weather. The names and ages of the men who died, and the communities they lived in, are all listed there. Their bodies were retrieved from the ice and they were all taken back to their home communities, and buried in various graveyards along the coast. I thought of that again today as I was driving down towards New Bonaventure, passing tiny graveyards, wondering which graves belonged to those lost men. On the list of survivors, the eldest man was 71, while the youngest, a boy of 14 who was a stowaway, was lucky enough to live. On the list of the dead, of the victims, the oldest man who perished was only 56, and the youngest boy who died was 15. They had names, and ages, and families. They had wives, mothers and fathers, and children of their own. A large number, though, were very young men, in their teens and early twenties.


The statue that stands beyond the memorial wall is unbelievably sad, especially on a day when the weather was extremely windy and often cloudy, and while icebergs hovered in the background. Morgan MacDonald’s statue shows a father and son, Reuben and Albert John Crewe, who perished together on the ice in March 1914. The statue is based on the way the two were found, frozen to the ice, holding one another. To see it…well…it’s beyond moving.


Afterwards, I went up to Home from the Sea, the John C. Crosbie Sealers Interpretation Centre. There’s a detailed and thorough exhibition up in the building on the hill that lets you know a lot about Newfoundland history, and sealing history in particular.

To be honest, and I have an undergraduate degree with a minor in History, I am well aware of the costs that the people of Newfoundland have paid over the years. Theirs is a history of trial, of survival, and of flourishing. Beaumont-Hamel and the Battle of the Somme in 1916 is something kids know about through the Grade 10 History class that’s mandatory in Ontario. I don’t remember the story of this particular disaster, though, and I felt angry about that yesterday. I don’t like only knowing parts of our country’s history. I want to know as much as I can, and I want to know the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ parts, too. That’s what learning is about, if you ask me…

I know about Joey Smallwood and Confederation, and how can you not know about 1949 if you grew up here, in Canada? But there are so many gaps in curriculum, not the least of which is the First Nations, Metis, and Inuit peoples’ history. There’s a whole history of sealing with the Inuit that is fascinating and important, too. One of the most important documentaries I’ve seen in the last couple of years is one every Canadian should watch, and that’s the CBC documentary, Angry Inuk. It’s an important film to watch, too, when we speak about the history of sealing in what we now call ‘Canada.’


I thought about the harp seal mug I used to have when I was in my late teens. It was something I knew nothing about, the sealing industry. It had a picture of a cute harp seal on it and, on the back, there was a paragraph that basically said that sealing was a horrible thing. It was a Greenpeace mug, or something. I knew nothing of the historical context of the sealing industry, over time and centuries, in either Indigenous or Newfoundland history. I remember being here in 2006 and there were t-shirts that a local company had made that basically attacked Paul McCartney and Heather Mills’s stance on the seal trade and Newfoundland. They were best-sellers, those t-shirts. I remember that. I also remember buying one that said “Free Nfld.” Still have it. Love it dearly.

It’s funny how it took me forever to learn about the sealing industry, and most of it was due to my teaching a Grade 11 First Nations, Metis, and Inuit literature course a couple of years ago. As I tried to learn new information, and to gather resources to teach kids about the importance of the sealing industry and Inuit culture, I taught myself stuff I hadn’t been taught in elementary or secondary school. There are so many gaps in traditional curriculum, and so many voices that need to be listened to, and heard, and allowed to speak. The story of the Newfoundland sealing disaster of 1914 is just one of those (likely) thousands of fascinating stories.

Now, please don’t send me nasty emails about how I don’t understand sealing and how brutal it is. I want to say that I love Newfoundland, and that I love the tenacity of the Newfoundlanders, and how their history speaks to survival, and how they flourish, and are so welcoming to those who visit. I have never felt so welcomed as I have these last two weeks. I’m grateful for that. I know I’ll be back to write. For me, it’s a magic place.

But I understand now why you’ll often see the pink, white, and green flag of Newfoundland flying more often on people’s properties across the province than the Canadian flag. They may have joined Confederation in 1949, but this is a distinct culture, and a storied people.

I want to say that the people of Elliston are lovely. The man in the craft shop, when I bought a book by a Newfoundland author, said to me, after I paid, “Thank you for supporting our shop, and our town.” Then, he shook my hand. I also want to thank those people out here who take such good care of the sealing monument. It’s so beautifully done.

And…a note of thanks to those people who put up with solitary tourists from Ontario who might ask odd questions. You are all so kind to point out the way to the puffin site, and who have put up roadside signs that say “Follow the puffin!”, and who then follow that sign up a half kilometre later with another sign that shows a puffin waving at you and saying, so encouragingly,  “Almost there!”

But I do want to say that, if you’re headed out to Newfoundland, and if you don’t know Newfoundland history, then a visit to the sealers’ monument in Elliston is far and beyond what any teacher could teach in a classroom. Don’t stay stuck in St. John’s, but get out a bit. It’s a massive province, this one is, and I have a dream to do Gros Mourne someday soon…but not on my own. That would be too lonely, I think. I’ll see. It’s on my list…








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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the value of art and the creative process. I’ve entered into it completely this past year, so that it’s the thing I orbit around every day. It’s my centre now, whereas before it might’ve just always been something I sort of worked into my days and nights. Now, it’s my centre–my North Star and my touchstone. I suppose, when you immerse yourself in something so deeply, it shouldn’t shock you that art moves you even more deeply than you’d ever thought possible.

On Sunday night, I listened to the Windsor Symphony Orchestra play excerpts of pieces that summoned up images of spring, but also of birds. For me, birds are important symbols. My current book of poems is called These Wings, and my last one was called Some Other Sky. I’m drawn to trees, lakes, seas, birds, and the sky. My first full play was titled Sparrows Over Slag, and my current one — which debuts tomorrow night at PlaySmelter at the Sudbury Theatre Centre — is titled Letters to the Man in the Moon. Yeah. I’m aware of how it’s working, these images and metaphors, these symbols and motifs, these philosophical and heartfelt anchors of soul. There were thunderbirds tonight, too, in Sarah Gartshore’s play, Remains, and that had me swept up all over again.


Playwrights Sarah Gartshore and Garrett Carr.

Tonight, I first listened to Garrett Carr’s debut play, Shots, which focused on how the Pulse Nightclub shootings in Florida affected people who live here in Sudbury. I’m not a fan of verbatim theatre, to be honest. I often find it choppy in its structure and it doesn’t seem to grab at my heart as deeply as I’d like it to. Carr’s play, though, was powerful in the way he’d crafted its structure. The choral section in the middle, a piece that reflected on the gun laws (or the lack thereof) in America, was absolutely crushing. The final part, where the music juxtaposed itself with the reading out of the names of victims, along with their ages, made me shiver. What that work did tonight, for me, was to remind me that–at the core of it all–we need to remember that it really is all about our humanity. It shouldn’t matter about gender, race, gender preference, or physical ability. It should matter that we are all human, that we are all someone’s daughters or sons, and that we can all play a role in making this world a better place. Shots makes me long to hear more from this new young Northern Ontario playwright. He’s created a play that is timely, and which speaks to questions of social activism. As the playwright character within the play says, and I am paraphrasing of course, what else is there to do when you are faced with such a tragic event, but to just do something. I was left thinking, at the end of Shots, that the very act of creating something — which is what we do as playwrights — is an act of resistance, of protest, of activism, and also of deep hope and compassion.


Matt Heiti discusses Shots with local playwright, Garrett Carr.

Then, one of my closest friends took on a key role in acting in her newest play, Remains, alongside Matt Heiti.  Sarah Gartshore’s newest play is part of “Project Uncle,” which is an initiative of Shkagamik-Kwe Health Centre. At the root of it, there is the question of how First Nations men are crucial to the health and well-being of their own communities. The play follows the story of Dust and Bone, two brothers. Dust is the younger one, and Bone is the elder one, someone who often ventures away to bigger cities. Both have secrets, but when Dust discovers what hell Bone has been through as a child, he struggles with the implications of that long hidden (and lately revealed) secret.

The pacing of the play is artful, with the darker, heavier scenes and conversations between the two brothers being balanced with excerpts of live music, courtesy of Lisa Marie Naponse. (The music is meant to be symbolic of a radio playing in Bone’s car.) There are funny parts. There is great love, even in the darker bits. You get a real sense of community, of family connections, and of how love really does gather people together, even after pieces of families have broken apart.


Sarah Gartshore & Matt Heiti as Dust and Bone in Gartshore’s play, Remains, alongside local musician Lisa Marie Naponse.

What struck me, sitting there, was that we can drift from certain people we once loved, but then find ourselves with others who seem to step in. We create new families. We are mindful that time passes. Someone grows up and marries, while another doesn’t. Still, the bonds between siblings, between brothers in this case, can push and pull at the same time. Nothing is simple, and everything is tenuous and elastic. To have conveyed all of this in a short play is, in my mind, nothing short of brilliant.

Now. I will admit that Sarah is the person I consider my dearest friend. I met her in Fall 2015, when we were in Matt Heiti’s Playwrights’ Junction program at the Sudbury Theatre Centre. I remember, when I first sat at the long table with her, alongside other people I didn’t know at all, that I thought she was too cool for me. She was smart, funny, kind, and so present in the room. I wasn’t a popular kid in high school, but she struck me as being a bright light. I thought “Oh, this person is an actor and a playwright. She’s so far beyond me.” But, you know, she never made me feel that, and I soon realized that was just my own weird head playing games with me. Instead, we became fast friends.

I don’t see a lot of people socially, because I’m often writing on my own, but she’s one I do see on a fairly regular basis. We seem to have a shorthand kind of communication when we sit together. And we can crack each other up, which is always a good thing in my mind. Beyond that, she’s become someone I can trust to read my plays. I don’t share my plays with many people. There are about three I can think of, sitting here right now, and they are mostly playwrights who will be able to give me feedback on structure and dialogue. (I never did an MFA in Creative Writing, so I’m sort of self-taught in the genre. I buy and read a lot of plays, mostly Canadian but not always…and mostly by women, but not always.) Anyway, she reads every one of my plays, and a lot of my other stuff as well. Mostly that’s because I trust her sense of style, and the fact that she and I share a sort of sensibility about what plays can do, in causing ripples beyond the stage.

So. I was all fine until the end of the play, which was really rough and heartbreaking. I started to get a bit weepy, but recovered. (I mostly cry at home or in my car, on my own, but I don’t cry in public. When I do, well, I rush off like Cinderella.) Mostly, if theatre or music affects me emotionally, I’ll lose track of my hands in my lap. I’ll forget my physical body. I’m sure, if someone were to really watch me during a play or concert, they might see my soul lift up out of my body. I know this because I can sort of feel it happening when I’m in the presence of something artistically beautiful. My heart still beats when this happens, but it’s almost like I need to wake myself from my heart outwards, to pull myself back into my body, so that I can walk through a theatre to get to the car outside and then drive home safely. Yeah. I know…it’s weird.

What got me, though, was the short film that played after the play itself. It showed a group of musicians gathering together to work out the lyrics of the song that Sarah had written. The words made me start to weep. The stories at the core of Remains are about what First Nations men have had to go through over the years. There are, as was said tonight, some ‘good uncles’ and some ‘not so good uncles.’ The thing that hit me, though, is that all of this pain is due to–and descended from–colonization. It’s about the residential schools that Christian churches used to inflict torture on children. What got me tonight, and it gets me every time I hear these truths, is that so much damage has been done to families who have had loved ones in residential schools. This is what it means to have intergenerational trauma.

As Angela Recollet, the Executive Director of Shkagamik-Kwe Health Centre, said so beautifully, and I’m paraphrasing again, “women forgot how to be warriors, and some men forgot how to be healthy men.” It made me think of how much damage has been done in this country, and how it doesn’t just affect the person who was forced to go to residential school. The damage ripples, is passed down through families, generations, and communities. It’s beginning to be healed, but Gartshore’s Remains asks us to consider ‘at what cost?’

It also made me think about how ‘toxic masculinity’ is so much a part of this western culture now, too, and how that is something that is worth weeping for, as well. The gender roles we grew up with–just from my point of view as someone who is in now in her late 40s–are so dysfunctional. That we seem to be more aware of this now, as adults, is good. It isn’t easy, though, to break down social expectations around gender.

Men have culturally and traditionally been encouraged not to cry or express themselves openly, and I have met at least one or two in the last few years who have actually said out loud that they cannot express themselves clearly in terms of emotion, and that they have purposefully stopped themselves from crying. The few men I have met who do cry, and who openly say they do, are rare indeed. That they do, though, is hopeful, and speaks to the notion of how the present might help to heal the future. This was underscored in Garrett Carr’s play tonight, too…that idea that we get caught up in social labels, homophobia, racism, sexism, and deep pain. I feel that pretty viscerally, I learned tonight.

What struck me, in watching the short film that Sarah put together after the play, was that she is pure magic in the way she can work alongside other artists, in the way she can pull together people from different groups in society. She walks between worlds, this friend of mine. She is able to encourage people around her to take creative and personal risks, to be brave and courageous, and she always makes it clear that she wants every person’s voice to be heard. Sarah, even when I worked with her when she was directing The Vagina Monologues in February, is so mindful of how others are feeling. As a close friend, one of the things that makes me both smile and get weepy is when I get a text on my phone from Sarah that reads, “D’ahling, how are you feeeeeeeeling?!?” She is the only friend in my life who regularly takes me out of my damned cerebral head and puts me fully into my body. When I get caught up in a decision or dilemma, she is the only one who has ever figured out that I need to be reminded to let my body tell me what I actually think, from the inside out. “How are you feeeeelllliingggg?” is something she says in person, and then it’s usually accompanied by a laugh and a big hug. She never asks me “What do you think?” mostly because she knows I tend to think too much, I imagine.

That she can transmute this gift–making a person feel valued–also reminds them that they are their own best truth teller. Then, she takes that magic of hers and uses it to create a creative community in this town. She creates theatrical work that makes people question their place in society, makes them cast off complacency, and take up the mantle of positive social activism. You know, this is such a rare talent…to write, to direct, to act, and to transform. This is likely what made me weep so much: the pain of men who have lost themselves, their identity, their families, their lives, and the notion that this strong female playwright friend of mine can help them to reclaim it in the work she’s written for the stage. Yes. I think that’s it. If you can shine a light on something sad, if you can ‘rumble’ with your own demons and past, facing things that are hard to face in the light of day, then maybe you can begin to heal.

One of Sarah’s characters speaks of an uncle who has recently died. The uncle used to say to Dust and Bone, the two brothers, “Share your burden.” Yes. Here is the thing. If we can only trust one another to share our burdens, I sort of think the world might be an easier place to be. Pulling in, staying in our heads and not in our hearts, is what will be damning for humans. If we’re honest and vulnerable with one another, with how we’re feeling, and with telling our truths and our own very personal stories, then I sort of think that we can change the world from the inside out. I know. I’m a poet and a playwright. I’m a star-watcher and a song-singer. These things are not always valued these days, in this space and place, but sometimes you don’t have a choice…but to be in your body, in your truth, and in your heart.

This, I guess, when I really sit and think about it, is why I so love writing plays. They take such a lot of heart, and head, and really hard, hard work, but when you see and hear them acted out on a stage, even in their simplest forms, they can cause you to feel things so deeply. You never stay the same after you’ve read a poem, or a story, or experienced a play on a stage. This…is why art is so important: it moves people to tears and then shifts hearts and minds. Such a ripple!

If you’re around tomorrow, well, there are still two more plays to go. My play, Letters to the Man in the Moon, is about a little girl who loses her dad in a mining accident. It’s about a lot more than that, but you’ll only see that if you come along to the Sudbury Theatre Centre at 6pm. Then, at 8pm, my friend Matt Heiti is debuting his new play, Aviatrix, which focuses on Amelia Earhart’s final, fated flight. Tickets are just $12 a play. Really, it’s a good Friday night out in Sudbury if you like theatre. You can check out the website for Pat the Dog Theatre Creation, and PlaySmelter New Work Theatre Festival, at http://www.playsmelter.ca




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