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Archive for July, 2019

I will, I know, likely sound a Pollyanna when I write this. I don’t really care. Actually, I don’t fucking care. Twice in this one week, I have seen images that have been difficult to see. I have led a sheltered and privileged life. I am a white woman, a settler who is university educated with three degrees, and I live in safety, in my own house, in a country where I am privileged to be able to speak my mind without fear of torture or death. I say all of this to situate myself in some fashion. I say this not out of guilt, but out of a sense of great gratitude and commitment to being present, and socially active, in whatever community I live in.

There’s a bee in my bonnet, as my maternal grandmother would say. I only ever write on this blog when I feel compelled to, and I feel compelled to write on this warm summer evening. I know I am very blessed. I know I am lucky. Despite difficulties in life, I am aware of, and very grateful for, the many privileges I have. It, perhaps, makes me feel more compelled to write when I see injustice. I don’t know. That might be a whole other blog entry…or an appointment with my therapist…

What bothers me today is the video that was released locally, in Sudbury, of a naked man running through the downtown core, obviously distressed. Someone who is well, who is healthy and who is loved and cared for, would likely not do this. This is someone who is suffering. The moment such a video is recorded, and then released as if it is news, is a moment that lessens our sense of humanity and community. Of course it’s out of the ordinary. That doesn’t mean that it needs to be recorded by someone and put on YouTube for thousands of local people to see. I saw the news report online. I saw the still photo. It was enough to make me not watch the video. Why would I want to watch someone in such pain, in such a state of suffering? I don’t want to, because I think what it does–in being so voyeuristic–is shine a light on how much we lack in compassion as a society. Why demonize someone who is struggling to survive in such a haphazard and thoughtless manner?

We do so many things well in our community, and of course we should always speak up about those things, but we must also speak up when things aren’t right, so we can learn how to be better. That it seems acceptable to flippantly speak about someone who is likely suffering with mental health issues, with poverty, or addiction, or a long-term struggle with life in general, seems horrific to me.  To record it, and then broadcast it on a myriad of social media platforms, seems more akin to the American style of reporting than Canadian. Should we be so self-righteous, to broadcast such images of suffering, to assume that we are ‘better’ than someone who has fallen on poor luck or ill health? In my mind…I would never think it right. Perhaps, I worry, I’m living in a time that has lost all sense of compassion.

I saw another photo like this last week, of a man who was in obvious agony, on the ground in the downtown area, and surrounded by drug paraphernalia. It’s not that I can’t handle seeing these images; I can. I’m aware of the reality of social issues in our community. It’s not that. It’s that I worry for these people and their rights to personal and human dignity. They have a right to privacy–to dignity–even if they have forgotten it when they are in such states.

I often think about photographs, and about the rights of photographers to capture (and release) images of people who are suffering. I can understand that there is a documentary focus for some things, like the role that war photographers have played through history, or even a way to sort of advocate on behalf of social services that support people who are marginalized in Canadian society. Still, these two cases don’t seem to be in that vein. They seem more to fixate and cater to the ‘shock value’ of how quickly media works today in western society.

As someone who once struggled with depression, and with suicidal ideation, I know how it feels to be inside the country of a very confused mind. It is tortuous. There is no other word. Until you’ve experienced it, it’s too easy — perhaps — to think that a person can manage to pull themselves out of such a quagmire of their own accord. They will always need help–and therapeutic, medical, and social services are usually all included in that equation. That you are taken to a place where you are ruled by addiction, or by mental illness, and that you fall into poverty or homelessness because of it, is heartbreaking. No one should feel as if they are better off enough to speak down to, or make fun of, people who are struggling. No one.

My mum’s mum, my grandmother, always used to say “There but for the grace of God go I.” You don’t have to be religious, and not even spiritual really, to see that what she meant was that we should never think we are above falling on difficult times. It happens more often than you would imagine. The people who sleep on city streets, who struggle with drug addiction, or who run naked through streets full of people on a Thursday, were once people who might have been your neighbours or friends or relatives. They are humans. They are people. They would once never have imagined that they would be struggling to survive and maintain their dignity on the streets…

I know. I know that some will read this and think that I am an idealist. I am. It, for most of my life, has meant that I have stood on the outside of a snow globe, looking in. It has also meant that I can see things as a writer that maybe I wouldn’t otherwise see. What I do know is that we live in a time when the world is harsh and cruel. Any chance we have to be brighter lights, to be ‘lighthouses’ for the betterment of our own local communities, is one we have to take…even if it means that someone says you are ‘too soft hearted’ or a ‘Pollyanna.’ I’d rather be both of those things if it means that I think of how a person needs help before I think of ever wanting to make fun of (or blame) them. That makes no sense to me. No sense.

To be truthful, it isn’t an ‘either or’ situation. It doesn’t have to be ‘oh, that’s Sudbury…’ or ‘oh, that’s downtown Sudbury.’ No. It’s “There but for the grace of God go I…” Anyone who thinks they are above any kind of fall from grace–social or personal–is likely mistaken. Life is all about ups and downs. Life is also about being mindful and thankful of the social supports that are present in our communities. The cuts to these services provincially, under the Ford government, are just going to become more and more obvious as we go on. This is just the tip of an iceberg…

The recent closure of the men’s shelter downtown means that there are men at risk in the downtown core who need safe places to sleep and eat at night. That they struggle with drug addiction and poverty doesn’t mean they don’t deserve a safe place to sleep. They are not ‘useless’ people. They have not caused their own misfortune. Sometimes, you see, misfortune visits you and your life falls apart before you know how to gather the pieces together. Sometimes, you see, the rug gets pulled out from under you…and no one else is there to help you up and straighten up that rug. What then??

In Trump’s America, this degradation of humanity and compassion seems to be a common practice in the media:  Blame those less fortunate. Blame those who have fallen into hard times. Cast them off. Sweep them under the rug. I would hope, here, we could aspire to be better, to be more compassionate.

If you live in Sudbury, you can take part in an online survey that is gathering information about residents’ views of safe injection sites. They’re needed. That’s my own personal opinion. You don’t need to agree. If you think they aren’t, I’d encourage you to research a bit about what the benefits are. In any case, if you haven’t completed the survey, the health unit needs feedback from Sudburians. Here’s the link:

https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/sudbury/safe-injection-inline-survey-1.5211926

Tonight, I’m sitting on a back deck, with sounds of music coming up from Bell Park, and the wind in the trees. I am privileged. I am lucky. I am blessed. And I am also thinking of that man I saw sleeping amidst the drug paraphernalia, and of the naked man who was running naked and distressed through the downtown core yesterday. In both cases, I would only ever want them to find access to the right social support systems. We are only as good a community as our social services to support those who are the most marginalized in our city. We are only as good as that…and we can use our voices, our hearts, to speak up when things aren’t right for those who are marginalized and who may not be able to speak up right now. So…this is why I’m writing this blog entry. Sometimes we need to remember to use the voices we were given…for good.

And, sometimes, all a person needs is a few “spare angels…”

“There but for the grace of God go I…”as my Gram Ennis would tell me…

peace, friends.

k.

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I’ll say right here, right now, that I have deeply loved a book by a man named Scott Walden for many years. When I first went to St. John’s in the summer of 2006, I bought it. The photo on the cover, a black and white one of a church collapsing into itself, really spoke to me on so many levels. The book is called Places Lost: In Search of Newfoundland’s Resettled Communities and it’s haunted me for years, so much so that I wrote a couple of ekphrastic poems based on its photos and they were published in my last book, Some Other Sky (Black Moss Press, 2017). I had known about resettlement in Newfoundland from having also fallen in love with David Blackwood’s beautiful paintings back in the mid-late 1990s. His evocative piece, “Resettlement,” also inspired a poem which was in my second book, braille on water (Penumbra Press, 2001). For the longest time, then, I have found the history of Newfoundland fascinating.

Back in my early 20s, I was accepted to do a PhD in English at Memorial University in St. John’s, but turned it down because I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to have time to keep writing poetry. The thing I wanted to research for my proposed thesis, and to learn more about, was how Ireland’s and Newfoundland’s poetry would connect, given the close cultural ties between the two places. I wanted to focus on women poets. I don’t regret the choice I made, except sometimes, when I know how much I love the landscape out there, and when I think of how my younger years might have been more rewarding. To have done that degree then, when I was really very unwell mentally, wouldn’t have been wise in any case. (I had two artist friends back then who always said, ‘Oh, that was a mistake, for you not to have gone. You would have written amazing things in Newfoundland.’ For a while, I sort of believed them, but now I have a different view of how place influences writing, and how ‘home’ works within my own writing and spirit…but that’s another blog post.)

The photos in the Walden book captured my imagination. Why would entire little fishing communities just leave their lives behind and shift across to mainland Newfoundland? How heartbreaking would that be? The image of the church on the front cover shook me because I knew what that image would mean to my maternal grandmother and great-aunts. They were all Irish Catholic, so some of my earliest memories are ones of being fed tiny peppermint Lifesavers during Mass at Christ the King Church so that I wouldn’t get restless during the Homily. My grandmother needn’t have worried, really, because most of the time I was daydreaming, staring at the sun through the stained glass, or wishing that Mary would say hello somehow. I had a big imagination. Nothing much has changed.

Going out to Newfoundland in May was centred around launching my newest book of poems, These Wings, with Pedlar Press in St. John’s. My friend Monica Kidd, who is one of the publishers of Pedlar Press (along with its founder, Beth Follett) has a tiny house on the edge of the downtown and so had offered it to me for a couple of weeks beyond that, so that I could spend time writing. And I did. I had days full of hiking up Signal Hill, chatting up people, going to book readings, and having lunch with a couple of new author friends. It was sacred time for me. I got a lot of work done, and I feel I have recommitted myself to my work, as I always do. As soon as I knew I was going to be in Newfoundland, I started searching the internet for a tour company that would take me to see the resettled communities that I had read about years earlier in Walden’s book.

I found Bruce Miller’s Rugged Beauty Boat Tours in a Google search. The day I drove down from Bonavista to New Bonaventure was the last Sunday in May. It was bright and sunny. I stupidly forgot sunscreen. If you know me, then you know I’m likely the palest woman on the face of the planet. It was a daft thing to do, and I paid for it later, mostly with a red face for three days afterwards. Anyway, I got up early, took the highway down from Bonavista and turned in to pass Trinity. That town is like a postcard, really, and it feels like a movie set, but I loved it. The road from Trinity to New Bonaventure is a bit curvy, and it takes you along deep harbours, high hills, and a few of what Newfoundlanders call ‘ponds’ instead of lakes. It was, for me, one of the loveliest morning drives I’ve ever taken in my life. You can’t get lost, but you can wonder where the hell you are going — which is kind of like life most days. Finally, after a long drive, I got to New Bonaventure and met another single woman traveler, Janet, from Vancouver, and an older couple who were farmers from England. The four of us met Bruce and went into his fishing stage, where he showed us how they used to fish and clean cod back in the 1960s and 70s.

We heard stories of his aunt Lizzie and uncle Joe, and learned that Newfoundland women are much stronger than you’d imagine. Lizzie was the one who decided which fish should be dried and which should be pickled. Joe might’ve been out fishing, but she worked the business side with aplomb. Listening to Bruce talk about his aunt and uncle, as he remembered them from the early 1970s, was moving. We learned about how the cod were graded, and how fishermen had certain years that were very profitable and others that weren’t. The silence of the morning, with the sun cutting down through a window and onto the table in front of us, set the tone. It felt to me like a whole lot of people were standing around us. If you could imagine it, you could still hear the sounds of men getting ready to go out in their boats early in the morning, and then young boys being there to help process the fish when the boats came in a few hours later. It felt almost sacred, being in that fishing stage. That may sound excessive to some people, but it felt sacred to me: here was a man who was about to take us out to resettled communities like Kearley’s Harbour, Ireland’s Eye, and British Harbour, telling us about how his memories of being a child had been filled with colour and hard work. He told us the story in a silent harbour, which struck a chord. Things changed after Confederation in 1949, for sure, when Joey Smallwood fought for Canada to join Newfoundland.

Between 1955 and 1974, about 30,000 Newfoundlanders were relocated as part of a project to centralize growth in the province. The people who had lived their lives in places like Kearley’s Harbour had history there. They had churches and schools, and they made their living from the sea–fishing cod and herring, and hunting seals. After 1949, the politicians in St. John’s (and likely Ottawa, too) started being very interested in the outport communities. They were on the edge of very profitable fishing fields, after all. What they discovered, they said, when they sent out St. John’s people to start investigating the areas, was that those little outport communities had poor medical services, poor schooling, and were only reached by boat. It would cost too much, the new government thought, to modernize Newfoundland. The Department of Fisheries wanted to capitalize on the fishing industry, of course, which had been fairly unregulated before Confederation. They wanted the people there to move to what they called ‘growth centres.’ They also said that they lived in conditions that were more akin to the late 19th century than the middle of the 20th one. The folks who had lived there for a very long time, though, had a different view of their world.

As Walden says in his book, Trinity Bay was dramatically affected by the resettlement programs. We went first to Kearley’s Harbour, nearest to New Bonaventure. It’s haunting, to say the least, when you are in a boat with four other people, and then suddenly you turn into a harbour that is basically a ghost town. There are still remnants of the former settlement, and you can see them from the water, places where the path between houses would have been, where the stones are still laid out, but tumbling down the hill now. And there are piles of wood where the houses crumbled into themselves. Lobster traps sit on some little spits of land, proof that some people still fish here, and there are families who once had homes here who now have built tiny cabins in their stead. If their grandparents were forced out, well, then they have come back to settle again, as if to assert their love for the place and the history of their families. Walden tells of ‘The Courting Rocks,’ where young people could find a bit of privacy.

The place I most wanted to see was Ireland’s Eye. For me, as someone with Irish heritage, and having been filled up with stories of Ireland from my three great aunts on Kingsmount when I was a little girl, I knew that just the name, even, had seduced me. When I first read about Ireland’s Eye in Walden’s book, I was so taken by it. Walden’s book was published in 2003, and I bought it in 2006, so I guess I was stupidly hopeful that something tangible would be left. When Bruce took us out to Ireland’s Eye, I felt it was such an emotional place. I kept saying, “It’s just so beautiful. It’s just so beautiful.” He just smiled and said, “You wait, my girl, until we come around the Black Rock and in through the tickle. It’ll stop your heart.” And it did.

Coming through that tickle was heartbreaking. He slowed the boat and it felt as if there were ghosts everywhere along the shoreline. I got teary then, imagining how they must have all felt, being told they had to leave, and not really being given a choice. I had hoped to see the remnants of the church, as I had seen it pictured in the book from years ago, but it was long gone, with just the foundation peeking up at the cusp of the hill. Everything had been erased. It was too quiet. Once, I thought, so many people had lived here, loved here, raised families, and lived and died here. Ireland’s Eye is at a distance from land, so you can only reach it by boat. Maybe that’s why I love it so. I love islands. Always have, and always will. I suppose it’s about the romanticism of islands, of how they’re solitary and yet mystically connected to water and sky, and even, at some distance, the land. They kind of remind me of myself sometimes…and maybe that’s why I feel comfortable on or around them.

St. George’s Church was built in the early 1920s, with the cornerstone laid in 1927, and the final service was held there in August 1965. Imagine about forty-five years of a community, and then emptying it. There’s a cemetery there, too, but we didn’t get out of the boat, so I can only imagine how haunted that must seem by now. Bruce was kind enough to answer my peppering of questions. (I’m likely too curious when I’m interested in certain things, and I’m definitely a nerd, so…) He showed us pictures, in all three outport communities, of where the houses used to root themselves. Those pictures just made me more emotional, mostly because it all seemed too silent.

IMG_0720.jpgThis is where the church once stood. In Walden’s book, it was falling apart, but you can see here that it had fallen down almost completely. What is left is just a part of the foundation peeking up.

IMG_0722.jpgBruce brings photos of the old settlements, and then holds them up against the current views of the landscape, so that you can see what was once there, and what now isn’t present. It’s haunting…

IMG_0723.jpgThis place is poetic because it’s called “Ireland’s Eye.” People who lived there knew that, once you left this beautiful, protected little harbour, the next bit of land you’d see, if you could see it, would be the west coast of Ireland. (Given that so many people were forced to leave Ireland after the Famine in the mid-1800s, you can imagine that this makes perfect sense…)

IMG_0721.jpgIf you look closely, you can see the remnants of one of the paths along the shore, one that would have led people from one house to another, and a way of moving through the settlement. You can also see piles of wood, places where the houses crumbled into themselves.

What I kept thinking about, on the tour, was that so many people left Ireland during and after the Great Famine. (The same famine hit Scotland, although people don’t often think of that until they’ve travelled and spent time there, or studied its history.) I know, when I think of my great aunts, that they often spoke of their ancestors having to leave Ireland because of the Famine. No one wanted to leave their homeland. It wasn’t a choice, especially when death was the only alternative. The notion of setting the Irish to building Famine Roads that led to nowhere, an aristocratic English practice to keep the native Irish ‘busy,’ always bothers me. Imagine building a road to nowhere, while you are starving and without shelter or food.

The Irish diaspora has always fascinated me, mostly because my mother’s family came to Canada because of the Famine. They struggled, on both her father’s and mother’s sides, to survive and then flourish. Maybe that’s why my great-aunts so loved the Limoges china that their parents had stored in the upper kitchen cupboards for special occasions. They had struggled to make a new life in a country they thought would bring them a better life…but they had never really wanted to leave Ireland. (Once you’ve been there, and seen its beauty, you can imagine why they were hesitant to leave, but starvation is a hard life, and even the passage across was difficult.)

I sat there on that boat, just looking past the black rock at the entrance to the harbour, and thought about how these people must have felt, having had their extended and ancestral families shifted across an ocean, and then having their own families resettled to the mainland after Newfoundland joined Confederation in 1949. I can’t imagine…the upheaval…and the loss of roots. So much of this world’s history is of forced migration and immigration to places where people thought their families would be safer…

I would say here, now, that I’m well aware of the displacement caused to the First Nations peoples in this country that is today called Canada. Someone suggested that I write about that, their displacement, but I don’t feel comfortable speaking any other person’s story. That they were colonized, and, in the case of Newfoundland and the Beothuk, made extinct in the process, is obviously wrong. The Beothuk were the original people of Newfoundland. A plaque in honour of Shanawdithit, the last Beothuk, sits in Bannerman Park in St. John’s. I found that ironic, that she and her people have been relegated to a single plaque.  I don’t want to discount that rich history, and I won’t, but I also won’t speak here of their story because it isn’t my story, and it would be another form of colonization and an appropriation of voice—which is what I would never intend.  For me, with Irish and German ancestry, it would be wrong. I can only speak to what I know of my mother’s family, and of how the most recently departed generation of great-aunts and uncles (and my grandmother) spoke of how they longed for Ireland. That longing gets passed down through generations, through storytelling and song, and through poetry, and through love.

What I loved most about Newfoundland were the people, and the landscape. I have the habit of falling madly in love with landscape and the ocean. The west of Ireland has always done this to me, and the landscape and energy of Manitoulin Island and Killarney, and of the beauty of Essex County and Pelee Island, and Point Pelee National Park. What Newfoundland does to me, since I first visited it way back in 2006, has always intrigued me. There, I can feel the Irish part of my ancestry sort of spring alive, in the music, and in the sounds of people’s voices and love of poetry and story. There, I can sit by the Atlantic, which I love more than any other ocean, and feel closer to my Irish ancestry, and closer to myself somehow. And there, for two and a half weeks in May, I fell in love with the sea, the puffins, the icebergs, and the raw beauty of the land itself.

I know I am a ‘settler,’ and that this country has done a grave disservice to its First Nations, Metis, and Inuit peoples. What I also know is that I love and honour the landscape this country, this land, offers me. I hope, in some way, that I can fight for it, honour it, and somehow protect it — in my writing, and in the causes I choose to fight for — as the environment is dear to me.

I’m hoping to go back to Newfoundland this fall. What I found there, when I least expected it, to be honest, was a large part of myself. That such a place could do that to me, and for me, well, it makes me want to hug that whole province. The view from Signal Hill, and the view from Cape Spear in the early morning, at sunrise, makes me get weepy (as my Gram Ennis always used to say). There is such beauty in this world…if only we can recognize it, and fight for its survival, all of us together…that is my hope and dream. Anything else seems almost impossible to fathom these days.

If you ever get a chance, you need to go take a boat tour out of New Bonaventure from a fellow named Bruce Miller. He runs Rugged Beauty Boat Tours, and he’ll take you on a tour of Newfoundland’s outport history, and honestly…sometimes, even though St. John’s stole my heart, the farther out you go from ‘town’ and ‘beyond the bay,’ well…the more you sink into yourself and the landscape, and the more you’ll get to know the real Newfoundland.

Having said that, though, there’s nothing like walking down Bond Street and listening to a Ron Hynes song, humming as you go. And a shout out to Matt Howse of Broken Books, and the folks at Fred’s Records, and Sara Tilley, and Agnes Walsh, and Beth Follett, and Wendi Smallwood, and Marnie Parsons (and her brilliant little bookshop and letter press out in Tors Cove), and The Ship, and The Rooms, and to the little bakery around the corner from the house, and to The Parlour for its coffee, and to Angela Antle, who said to me, as she hosted a literary reading at Broken Books on one of my last nights in St. John’s “What?! You’re going!? We just got used to you being here!”, and to Monica Kidd, the friend who let me stay at her little house on William Street, and who made my year lighter and more creative because of it. For that gift of kindness, for a place to stay and be a writer for a bit, I will be forever grateful. I gained new friends this past May in St. John’s, and I’ll always be grateful to know them–and to see them again soon!

IMG_0689.jpgMy favourite iceberg in Bonavista, on a Sunday night after supper, and how it made me cry to see it up close…and how it had disappeared, or moved, by the next day.

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Foot selfie with one of my favourite icebergs near Elliston, Nfld.

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The beauty of Bonvista, Nfld on an evening walk…

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My hike along Signal Hill, up the Ladies’ Lookout path, and the mist, and the iceberg just out from The Narrows. Pure magic, that day…and always in my heart.

And thanks, too, mostly, to Bruce Miller of Rugged Beauty Boat Tours. He put up with my relentless questioning, and with my excitable comments about how beautiful everything was, and then told me I’d have been a great catch for some Newfoundland fella in one of those outport communities…back in the 1930s. His tour, really, is the one thing I’ll always remember of this past visit to Newfoundland…and the stories he told me about his family, and his love of the sea and the land.

peace,

k.

 

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