Archive for the ‘(Fore)mothers & fathers’ Category

Sometimes, you receive a book that someone knows will speak to you, or resonate with your heart and soul. My friend, Cristina, brought along a book for me to my house party a few weeks ago. At first, I thought, “Now, why would I be drawn to this story, and why does she think I need to read it? I sing, but I’m not a musician!” (I always try to figure out why people give me the books they do, to read and then return. I think, perhaps, part of it is because other people can see you better than you can sometimes see yourself and know which authors or artists you might enjoy exploring!) The book Cristina brought me, which was quickly stashed under another stack of ‘books-to-be-read-soon’ next to a few bottles of wine on the kitchen pass-through, was titled From Kitchen to Carnegie Hall: Ethel Stark and the Montreal Women’s Symphony Orchestra, and was written by Maria Noriega Rachwal. It’s published by Second Story Press in Toronto. I finally had a bit of free time on Friday night, so I read in bed before I fell asleep, transfixed by the vibrancy of the story of Ethel Stark. It wasn’t long before I could figure out why Cristina had thought I’d enjoy reading it.

Ethel Stark was a Jewish violinist from Montreal, a woman who went to America — New York City, in particular — to take part in all-womens’ symphony groups during the 1930s, during a time when racism and anti-Semitism was fierce and rampant. She was, by Noriega Rachwal’s account, a feisty, committed feminist who wanted to see more women playing in organized orchestras. Ethel wanted, too, to encourage women from across various socio-economic backgrounds, races, and religions, to gather together to attain a common goal, to play music. When she announced that the orchestra would have its first concert, Ethel was heard to say, enthusiastically, “Let’s get busy!” I love that. How can you not love someone who’s that dedicated to her dream and goal?!

In the early part of the 20th century, most men didn’t believe that women should be part of formal orchestras. If they were present, it was believed that women musicians should only play stringed instruments, to best showcase their ‘smaller, daintier hands’ and ‘hourglass figures.’ Violins and pianos, it seemed, were acceptable, but instruments like the cello and bass, however, were rather too risque. As the author writes: “The cello…was another matter. The possible ‘immodest’ images suggested by the manner of holding the instrument between the legs were enough to dissuade any ‘respectable’ woman from going near it.” One reviewer, when asked about the potential for a women’s orchestra being formed, intimated that “a woman’s lips could serve a better purpose, rather than on wind instruments.” The sexual connotations–the reduction of what a woman musician could be, and the objectification of a woman’s lips as only being purposeful for a man’s sexual gratification–incensed Ethel Stark. She used that anger to fuel her dream, to create an all-female symphony orchestra in Montreal, in 1940.

She and Madge Bowen, a local socialite who helped organize venues and raise money for Stark’s orchestra, created an “eclectic group of female suffragettes: young women, older women, students, grandmothers, a seamstress, a photographer’s model, a stenographer, several teachers, nurses, office clerks, and some factory workers…one woman was head of her household and the other a maid.” Working together, learning to play instruments, they learned that more united them than separated them. The symphony itself was born in 1940, the same year that women in Quebec were first allowed to vote.

While the Montreal Women’s Symphony Orchestra was preparing for its first big concert in the summer of 1940, a young black woman named Violet Louise Grant dreamed of making music her career. Violet played the piano and the clarinet, and soon became the first black Canadian to play in a Canadian symphony orchestra on a permanent basis. The MWSO was the first racially integrated symphony orchestra “devoted to the playing of ‘classical’ or ‘concert’ music in Canada, and quite possibly in North America.” Ethel Stark had helped Violet’s dream come true, despite all of the racism and prejudice that existed in Montreal at the time.

I’ve been working on about three separate writing projects this weekend. Two are done and sent off, but I have another to get at in a bit, after I make a cup of tea. The thing that most pulled me away from my own writing work this weekend, though, was this stunning book by Maria Noriega Rachwal. I’d put it down, make a small pot of fresh coffee, and then pick it up again. I’d take the dogs out in the back yard, crunching around on the snow, and then I’d try to do a bit more of my own writing work, but Noriega Rachwal’s story of how Stark revolutionized music in Canada, even North America, keep drawing me back. Her successful attempt to create an orchestra for women, inclusive in its scope, makes for stimulating reading.

It’s a week and a bit before International Women’s Day (IWD) now, which will be recognized on Wednesday, March 8th. Funny how I’ve come to this book in the days before that day, a day that we still need to celebrate and recognize in order to struggle to promote equality between the genders in North American society. I’ll keep Ethel Stark in my heart and mind as I go through this next week or so, reminding myself that so many women went before us, fighting against prejudice and racism, using the arts as a way in which to highlight the talents of women at the start of a century when they had to fight to even get the right to vote in Canada. We sometimes forget that it all really took place just a short time ago, and this book — of one woman’s struggle to create a safe, creative space in which women musicians could play and create music — reminds me of that.

There’s a grand CBC “Sunday Edition” documentary from 2012 that you can listen to if you want to know more about Ethel Stark and the Montreal Women’s Symphony Orchestra, but I’d also suggest you buy a copy of the book, so that you can support an author and a Canadian small press. The book’s hard to put down, and you feel a bit sad when it’s over being read. Ethel Stark died in February 2012, at the age of 101. I can’t imagine having such a long life, but you can hear all about how brilliant she was here, in this radio documentary.


All of it, really, reminds me of how the arts can serve as a way to be socially and culturally active. That, for me, is a good lesson and a call to action for so many things. The arts can lift us up–whether theatre, literature, music, or visual–and are a key part of how Canadian society has become so vibrant over time. How wonderful is that, too, to see how Ethel Stark’s life changed the lives of so many others?

And how lucky am I, really, to have friends who lend me such fabulous books?
Brilliant. Just brilliant!


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Here’s the thing about Gwendolyn MacEwen: for me, as a young female Canadian poet back in the mid to late 1990s, her work struck me in the heart, the solar plexus, the brain, and the ever-important root chakra. Her poetry hit all the key points in my physical, spiritual, sexual, and intellectual body, in terms of where I think and feel, and her work still has that ripple effect on me. In high school, the only sorts of poems I studied were curriculum-driven, directed by the Ontario government. This narrow view of poetry included Shakespeare’s sonnets, Purdy’s and Layton’s poems, a sprinkling of Cohen, and some Atwood. (I especially loved “You fit into me,” which has a visceral kick to it.)

I didn’t come to Gwendolyn MacEwen’s work until university, likely in third year, when I read “Dark Pines Under Water.” It resonated with me. Looking back now, as a woman and not a girl (who stupidly thought she was a woman in her twenties) in university, I can see why it speaks to me. MacEwen writes: “This land like a mirror turns you inward/And you become a forest in a furtive lake;/The dark pines of your mind reach downward,/You dream in the green of your time,/Your memory is a row of sinking pines.” These lines, for me, speak of how I can walk into landscape and find myself at one with the spirit of a wild place. I never feel at home in a physical or material space, but am only most myself in amidst rocks, trees, and water — anywhere I can sit and open my heart and mind to let the essence of that natural world in. That’s where magic happens…and MacEwen understood the idea of magic. It’s in so much of her work, in her imagery of Egypt and the Middle East, and even in the costuming she used as she read her work in Toronto through the 60s, 70s, and 80s. She knew how to create a persona, a voice, and this essence of the poet and woman is so aptly evident and reflected in playwright Linda Griffiths’s “Alien Creature.” The big, dark eyes and the darkened kohl that rimmed them, well, so much of that was a reflection of self, and also a magical distortion of self, at the very same time. That’s what makes her so fascinating, and why her life and work speaks to me still.

Here is her oh-so-beautiful “Dark Pines Under Water:”

When I read the work of poets and writers–and when I study the work of visual artists–I often will immerse myself in their bodies of work. I like to live in their words (or artwork) for a while, weeks even, and I’ll read biographies and search out obscure bits of information. I’ve done this with MacEwen, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, and also with artists like Georgia O’Keefe, Mary Pratt, and Emily Carr. Yes, they are all women, I know, and I suppose this means that I am curious about how women artists and writers have, historically and culturally, succeeded in times when women were not considered as being even close to ‘equal’ to men. A few of them, but not all, had issues with mental health, and so I suppose–when I was very ill with major depression in my 30s–I was drawn to the notion of how creativity/genius and madness intersected. Looking back, I can see that I was trying to heal myself from the inside out, through reading and studying the work of other creative women.

Beyond that, though, I think that I was drawn to their life stories first. They were fascinating women, people who didn’t follow social mores or expectations. They were obviously unique and vibrant. These might be considered acceptable traits now for women, but then, well, they were the brave minority. I admire(d) them for their bravery, spirit, and ability to be all right with who they were. It takes forever and a day to come into yourself and, when you do, it frees you as a person, but also as an artist or writer. I only speak of this with reference to my journey as a writer since my twenties. I wouldn’t go back to that age if you paid me. There’s a depth of experience and understanding that comes with your years on the planet. I’m grateful for that now, as a woman and a creative. Complexity intrigues me, as I find I’m more interesting now than I was in my twenties. I’m glad of that.

MacEwen didn’t have an easy life, as anyone who knows the history of Can lit likely knows. She came from a family with a mother who struggled with severe mental health issues, and a father who was an alcoholic. She was born in 1941 and died in 1987. Some suggested she may have committed suicide, but Linda Griffiths suggests, in her play “Alien Creature,” that MacEwen died of alcoholism. Either way, it is horribly sad, how such a bright and creative poet should have felt so disenfranchised in a city like Toronto. At its peak, the Canadian poetry scene in the 1960s was vibrant and full of so many amazing voices. She was one of them. That she died alone–on the margins of society, in a town she had once loved, in a place where she had once been considered a sort of “magical woman, or alien creature,” and that she was so isolated and outcast–makes me sad. Very, very sad.

After completing my undergraduate and graduate degrees in English literature (at Laurentian University and Carleton University), I found Rosemary Sullivan’s “The Shadow Maker: The Life of Gwendolyn MacEwen.” I read it and felt sort of transformed. Here was someone who was spirited, creative, who loved magic and the way in which worlds (or dimensions) could weave themselves one into the other in a seamless and sensual way. She had struggled with parents who had dealt with mental health issues and alcoholism, as I had. (Sometimes, these things are in your family’s history and you don’t even know until you are an adult…because you may have somehow blocked them from your comprehension, in a psychologically protective way.) When your parents are caught up in these issues, you often aren’t aware, I think, because they hide things from you…and then, later, you want to believe they aren’t real. It’s easier, I guess, as a young person, to imagine that your parents are not human, that they do not struggle with issues like depression and alcoholism. Then, though, you need to deal with it later, as an adult. The work is harder, the time is longer, in terms of healing yourself. No one else can magically do it. The road is long, and tiring.

The first time I read Linda Griffiths’s play, “Alien Creature,” was in borrowing copies of plays in the fall of 2015 from Matt Heiti, during my time in his Playwrights’ Junction play writing session at the Sudbury Theatre Centre. I knew I loved MacEwen’s poems, and I had eaten up Sullivan’s biography of MacEwen, so I knew I would be drawn to the play. I read it in the fall of 2015, and again last week in anticipation of going to see Griffiths’s “Alien Creature” at Theatre Passe Muraille. Directed by Jani Lauzon, and starring Beatriz Pizano, the play comes to life on a simple stage. The images and smoke that curls around the stage evokes the sense of magic that is conveyed in MacEwen’s poetic work. Nothing in her poetry is clear, and everything is rich and complex in terms of her use of imagery and metaphor. It is sensual poetry, I think, and intellectually and spiritually stimulating on so many levels. (You can’t read MacEwen’s work without thinking about female desire and sexuality, and this is another thing that intrigues me. How men view women, in terms of desire and sensuality, is very different from what women feel inside. I think, often, of D.H. Laurence, and his view of how women must experience desire. Oh, goodness, D.H. You have no idea, do you? That’s why MacEwen’s body of work is intriguing, too. She wasn’t afraid of writing about female desire, about sensuality, and that is — for the time she was writing in, for she was, even then, ahead of her time — bold and empowering. It still is.)

I love what Jani Laurzon, the director of “Alien Creature,” wrote in the Director’s Notes for the play. “Gwendolyn’s journey was not an easy one. But bridging light and dark creates worlds of shadows that are rich, complicated, passionate and painful. That is what living is: the light and dark breathing together.” Yes. Just “yes.” I would so much rather be complex and unique than simple and one dimensional, as both a person, a woman, a soul, and a poet. To be otherwise, well, it would be boring and ‘flat.’ In my twenties, I kept thinking as I watched the play at Theatre Pass Muraille last night, I was so easily influenced, especially by men I fancied. I was wobbly, unformed, a fetus almost. Now, in my mid-forties, there’s a sense of confidence that’s well rooted. As a poet, I can look back on my body of work and see the various phases and stages of my life, as they are reflected in my own literary work. The path has been interesting, certainly, but the place I am now is a place of origin and certainty, and I kept thinking–last night–how sad it was that Gwendolyn MacEwen had reached that place, that climax of creativity, but then died. She could have done so much more…with her words…her heart…her spirit.

There are places in the play that speak to me, deeply. Griffiths puts words in MacEwen’s mouth. The ones about being a woman poet are telling, for me, anyway. A few times during the performance, I heard myself making sounds of agreement deep in my throat. Resonance is powerful. I loved the lines: “Just because I’m a poet doesn’t mean I don’t like light coming through the windows like anyone else.” How people (or society) view poets always intrigues me, sometimes frustrates, and sometimes even makes me laugh and shake my head. There are romanticized versions of what people think a poet should be. Sometimes, to be honest, I’ve even had other writers (mostly novelists or short story writers…those prosaic types!) make odd comments about my being a poet. It’s easier to explain me away, and define me, if you consider the historic, poetic story and archetypes: Ah, yes, she walks in the woods and touches trees. Poet. Is drawn to water and great natural landscapes. Poet. Broken hearted and melancholic. Poet. Likes to wear long, billowy black coats and walk through mist. Poet. Reads widely and writes in small (or wide) spaces. Poet. Believes that ‘pathetic fallacy’ is a permanent sort of weather pattern that reflects internal life and musings. Poet. Reads voraciously. Poet. Introvert. Poet. (Now add the title “Poet Laureate” to the definition and it goes berserk and escalates to another level of societal delusion and stereotype.)

All of this is bullshit. A poet is a person. People are unique, and so are poets. The thing that might make us different, though, is that we walk through the world seeing it in a close-up kind of way. The world speaks to me in imagery. That’s why I love art so. I know that. Imagery is my language, my heart, and my way of being in the world. I even speak in metaphor when I teach. For some reason, kids seem to understand it. They don’t question it. I love that about them. They don’t label as easily as adults, ironically. Maybe it’s that they are too new to the planet to have become jaded and weary and cynical. Perhaps that is why I like to teach. They accept me as I am: poetic, unique, beautiful, bright spirit, magical woman, and alien creature.

The magic of the Theatre Passe Muraille production of “Alien Creature” is that you can feel MacEwen’s spirit in the theatre with you. She isn’t sitting on the bench next to you, and she isn’t hovering up in the rafters. She’s embodied in the words that Griffiths wrote, and that Beatriz Pizano speaks and embodies. Pizano mesmerizes in her performance, speaking as Gwendolyn: “Poetry is breath, and sometimes the breath comes too fast and sometimes nothing at all will let it in.” The pain MacEwen felt, as an alcoholic, depressive, and as a poet too, is conveyed in these few lines: “I don’t want you to think I’m angry. I’m not. I love living inside this mind. It’s a constant adventure.” That breaks my heart, you see. I can imagine, Gwendolyn, that you knew what I know…that living inside a mind, being cerebral and creative, is both a blessing and a curse. You walk between worlds, as a magical woman and alien creature, gathering people, and then losing them…all because you are so much light in darkness, and too much light for others to understand. The only answer is to root yourself in the poems. There, Gwendolyn, is where you found some peace.

Griffiths writes, giving MacEwen a voice: “I want you to know I was brave. I want you to know I fought hard. I want you to know I loved beauty; that I laughed. I want you to know I was a coward.” MacEwen was, I think, more a brave soul than a coward, even if she couldn’t envision or believe it. I’m sad, to be honest, that she couldn’t believe in herself. I’ve only just got to this place of believing in myself…at the same age as she was when she died…so I can only imagine what work might have come afterwards, if she had lived. That makes me ache inside, for the loss of such work.

If you have the ability and opportunity, you need to try and see “Alien Creature,” at the amazingly dynamic Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto, before the run is up on February 5th. It will speak to you, resonate, sit inside the cage of ribs, inside your heart, so that you carry it with you for quite some time.

And now, I feel like leaving this entry with Gwendolyn MacEwen’s words, to let her speak even though she’s been gone for thirty years this coming November.

Poetry has nothing to do with poetry
Poetry is how the air goes green before thunder
is the sound you make when you come and
why you live and how you bleed
and the sound you make or don’t make when
you die.

–“You Can Study It If You Want” (from Afterworlds)

I wish she were still here, but I’ll always have her words…her image…those kohl black eyes and the purple kaftan…and the magical woman who taught me how to be ‘poet’ and ‘self’ in a way that roots and empowers me.

peace, friends.

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Sometimes, the universe has plans for you that you can’t quite envision. Last week, I was checking my Poet Laureate email account and found a little junk folder that I didn’t even realize was there. The city’s email system is different from the one I use at the school board, so I’m still fumbling around a bit. When I opened the folder, I found two interesting emails. One was from a fellow who lives in England and who had my great-aunt Norah Kelly as a teacher at St. David’s years ago. He had written her a poem and a song. He found me through finding Norah’s name on my blog. The second email was from a woman named Wendy Drennan Frisina, from Texas of all places. She said she knew my mum from St. Joseph’s College in North Bay, and that her mum and my grandmother, Alice Ennis, were best friends from their Creighton days. I replied to both emails, touched by the way in which my words on this blog had rippled outside of the Sudbury basin in a way that brought memories of my loved ones back to me. Then I thought nothing of it.

The next day, Friday, I was sorting through old books in my basement bookcase and found a “Daily Missal” that had been given to my mother, Sheila Mary Ennis, on her graduation from St. Joseph’s College in North Bay, in the spring of 1956, from The Drennans. I shook my head and thought “The very same Drennans that Gram Ennis and The Girls — Norah, Maureen, and Clare–always spoke about up at 160 Kingsmount. The very same Drennan family as the one who just emailed me through the library website. How weird is that?” Then I came upstairs and checked the messages, only to find a voice mail from Wendy herself. She was in town for the Marymount School of Nursing reunion and wondered if she and I could meet to talk about what the blog has meant to her. We sorted out a time to meet, and so I saw she and her husband, Carl, today at 3pm.

The first thing Wendy did was to tell me how she came to my blog. She had searched out Mum’s name and found my dad’s obituary from December 2011, and then realized that Mum had died in December 2008. Then she somehow found my blog entry on grief (“By wavelets or tsunami”) from December 2014. She found this around December of 2015 and said her children encouraged her to try and contact me. She didn’t want to intrude, she kept saying today, but I kept telling her that any writer would be thrilled to find someone who so loved reading their work. Wendy’s read every entry in the blog that I’ve ever written, stretching back to summer 2012, when I started it with encouragement from my poet friend, Tanya Neumeyer. She was citing the titles of specific entries, which no one has ever done to me before. 🙂

The thing that made me most emotional, though, was that she spoke about how my blog entries made the people she had loved growing up come back to life in her memory. She spoke of the time she’d spent at 160 Kingsmount, the house my great-grandfather had built, and the place where my three great aunts lived for most of their lives. She talked about how warm a place it had been, and how Norah, Maureen and Clare had always welcomed she and her sister Penny with open arms. She remembered that, when her mother Della went into the kitchen with my grandmother, Alice, and the door was shut, no one was to intrude. The two women were friends going back to their youth in Creighton Mine. What was discussed in that kitchen was meant for the two of them alone. She said, too, that she knew Gram had raised her five kids on her own, but that they were told never to ask about where my grandfather was. (He was off in the bush, prospecting.) The loveliest story, though, was the one she told about her mother dying. You wouldn’t think a story about a woman’s mother dying would be lovely, but it was. (I have a couple of sacred moments that happened for me when my mum was dying eight years ago, so I understand how weighted it can all feel in your heart’s memory…)

When Wendy was in her late teens, her mother died of cancer in her early fifties. She said she clearly remembers that my grandmother and my three great-aunts would take turns sitting in the hospital room at the General, on the edge of Lake Ramsey, saying the rosary with and for Wendy’s mum, Della Drennan. They always did gather round to support others in their times of need. I do remember that clearly. A couple of weeks before Della died, my grandmother told Wendy’s dad, Charlie Drennan, that she was going to take Wendy home to 350 Wembley, the house where my mum grew up with my three uncles and one aunt. Wendy says she remembers that Gram took her upstairs and tucked her into the warmest bed, gave her soup and hot chocolate, and sat with her as she fell asleep. She said she recalls Gram talking about death, and about her mum. She said she felt so safe there, and that she considered Gram Ennis something of a second mother. This made me want to cry. (Gram was that for me, too. She radiated warmth. When I think of her now, and I do almost every day even though she died in 1998 when I was just twenty-seven, I think of how she would always offer a huge hug when you arrived or left her house. I always felt, with Gram, that I was absolutely and totally loved. She made you feel whole and perfect, when sometimes the world was so much more harsh in its estimation of your character.)

We talked a lot about Creighton, but she also told me about my mum having been her ‘big sister’ at St. Joseph’s College, and how they were close. She said Mum was ‘great fun,’ ‘tall,’ and ‘graceful.’ Mostly, though, she said she wanted me to know that all of them — the Girls, my grandmother, and my mum — had so much fun and were such great women. I knew that, but it was good to hear it from someone who spent time with them. As Wendy said before I hugged her goodbye, “Those women took in the Drennans, too…they made our family a part of their family.” That made me smile. What makes me miss all of my relatives the most is the lack of physical connection and warmth. I miss their laughs, their stories, their hugs, and their compassion. I know, though, that they’re in the best parts of me. I hope I carry them with me in all that I do, each and every day. I think I do…I don’t actually know how I could not do so because these women formed me. Any deeply good part of me is due in great part to the women of my mother’s family. That grand Irish Catholic lineage is a touchstone for me. My parents raised me, yes, but my mother’s family made me who I am. (That might not make sense to a lot of people…but I’d explain it over a huge cup of tea and a bit of time…without being rushed…)

The other lovely part of the afternoon was meeting Carl, Wendy’s husband. They met when Wendy went down to the States to search out a job after graduating from nursing school. Carl was a doctor at the Catholic hospital where Wendy was working. One night, he told me, after weeks of seeing her around the hospital, he asked her out to dinner because, as he said, “She had to eat.” Carl and Wendy are the loveliest couple I’ve met in a long time. Twelve years separates them, but their love is strong and certain. I kept thinking of a lighthouse, an image I’ve had in my head quite often lately. That certainty, of a light beaming out to ships, is sort of like the kind of love they seem to share, of how they are so tightly connected–one to the other. They spoke of their children and grandchildren, and of how an American fell in love with a Canadian girl, and married in November 1963. When they asked me if I had someone, I said no. “Whoever it is, if he’s out there,” I said, “will have to be willing to take me as I am.” And that, they agreed, was a very good thing…so I liked them all the more. 🙂

All this is to say that the universe sends us tiny messages and signs every day, even when we least expect it. The email in the junk folder, the tiny “Daily Missal” that my mum obviously loved and used regularly (with all of its pretty little holy cards) and the phone message from Wendy…all of it seems like a beautiful and sacred Celtic knot of sorts. Maybe the Drennans and the Kellys and the Ennis crew were up there realizing I needed to chat with someone who knew a bit about Creighton and the way in which families used to love and support one another. Now that my family is so small, it makes me feel more anchored to know that those who have gone were so solidly rooted–in love, faith, and Irishry. But, mostly, I learned about the generous way in which they gave of themselves to others in times of struggle. That, for me, is a lighthouse beam on a dark night…and a way in which I hope to continue to live my own life. Those women, from my mum to my grandmother, to my great-aunts, were the greatest teachers I’ve ever had…

…so loving the serendipities this year has brought me…so honouring them…


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My last great-aunt, Clare Kelly, died on Wednesday night. She had a good, long life, which is something that everyone always says when someone of a certain age dies. She was 93. It wasn’t a surprise, but it still seemed shocking. I suppose that’s because she has always been there, lately as the last one of the Creighton Kellys. She watched everyone she loved–from parents, to aunts and uncles, to cousins, to nieces and nephews, friends, and siblings–all age and then die before her. It can’t have been easy, to have seen everyone else she loved go on before her. I often wondered how bereft she must have felt, but she would never have complained. She had a strong and deep faith, rooted in her Irish Catholic upbringing. There was a certainty, whenever one of the family died, that she conveyed in her demeanour. Clare knew that it would be okay, mostly because she truly believed that she would see them all again in heaven. When my mum died, I remember that she just hugged me and started crying. “Oh, Kimmy, I’m so sorry. She was too young…and it’s not right…but you know she’s with all of them.” I knew and believed that as well as she did, and I still do. It brings me great comfort.

Clare was one of ten children born to my maternal great-grandparents. There are wonderful photos of them all, posed up against the rocky landscape of Creighton Mine, wearing top of the line dresses and hats. Then, later, when my great-grandfather retired from the post office and store in Creighton, and when he built a big family home on one of Sudbury’s more wealthy streets, there were photos taken in the great back yard, where he planted long beds of peonies, lilacs, and tall English flowers. There was a willow tree, an old fashioned tall white picket fence, and a raspberry bush that we great-nieces and nephews always raided. There was a rock garden, all terraced and exciting when you weren’t supposed to be climbing back there. It was a kid’s paradise, especially when you went for walks out beyond the fence, along the banks of Junction Creek. I often think of that back yard, that leafy green garden, as a part of my great-grandfather’s legacy to the family. I never knew him. He died long before I arrived on the planet, but I had a sense of his love of family, and of having a place where they would all congregate even after they had their weddings and children. When the house was sold after Maureen and Norah died, and after Clare couldn’t stay there alone, one of the hardest things for me was saying goodbye to that garden. It was magical, I thought.

When I think of Clare, I think of my childhood and of huge gatherings filled with love. With eight of my great-grandfather’s children marrying and having kids, the house at 160 Kingsmount was always full of family members at Thanksgiving, Christmas, St. Patrick’s Day, and Easter. (When I was in my twenties, I remember my mum complaining about having to go up there all the time for holidays, but then, as more and more people died, and the family got smaller and smaller, it became obvious that the house had a special place in all of our hearts. It was a repository of love and memory, rooted in family history and faith.) I have a few things that still sit in my heart when I think of Clare.

I remember that Stacy and I often went to sleep over at 160, and The Girls (Norah, Maureen and Clare) would let us have cups of instant coffee before bed at night as they smoked their cigarettes and caught up on the day’s stories. I think that’s where I learned to love stories. The three of them could talk up a storm and Maureen would laugh at something one of the other two had said, and then she would throw her head back because it was so funny. I never understood why they weren’t up all night, but having instant coffee at 11 o’clock was a ritual for them. It taught me about the importance of kitchens, socializing, food, and storytelling in Irish Canadian families–a genetic memory of something that came across the Atlantic years before. 🙂 I also remember playing hide and seek with Clare around the house. (Norah and Maureen were too proper to have fun outside, but Clare was the one who would get out there, giggling, and hanging out with us when we were all little and pretty rambunctious.)

One of my favourite memories is of going out past the back fence, into the woods. Clare would take us down to Sunset Rock. It was behind Mr. Destefano’s house, I remember, and it was big. You could climb up there to sit and watch the sun set over downtown. The view was amazing. Then, in evenings, we would trundle back to the house and get set up in the sun porch to watch the slag pour. Yup. Kids in Sudbury in the early 80s used to watch the slag dump. Every night at a certain time, INCO would turn those giant pots of slag over and you could watch with binoculars and see it run like a river down dark hills beyond Delki Dozzi. (We did the same thing at Gram Ennis’s house on Wembley Drive, too, but usually we would watch out her kitchen window.) It was better than fireworks. 🙂

I remember always being excited, if we were sleeping over and it was a Friday night, that Maureen would load Stacy and I into the car and drive down to the CPR station to pick up Clare from work. Although I’m sure she knew we were coming to stay for a sleepover, she always pretended to be shocked when we hid in the back seat and popped up as she got into the front seat next to Maureen. She would laugh and smile, giggling, and take our faces in both hands and kiss us firmly on the cheeks. We always had lipstick marks on our cheeks when we visited The Girls as little kids. I loved that most about her. Until she fell ill with dementia in recent years, the way she greeted us was always the same. She would let out a happy exclamation, usually beginning with one of our names, and then put both hands up to our faces to pull us down towards her (she was a little shorter than all of us!) for a proper hug and kiss. It was pure love, really, now that I think back on it, and I’m sure other kids my age in the family would still remember that now, too. She had a grand heart.

St. Patrick’s Day was the best day at 160, though. By far. Clare would get out the special glass Irish coffee mugs and start up the whipping cream. She and Maureen negotiated all of that chaos in the kitchen. Then there would be Tullamore Dew, and a rounds of ‘cheers,’ and they’d usually have some Irish music either playing on the stereo or they’d be watching some PBS program with Daniel O’Donnell. Of course, it goes without saying, they’d all three be wearing green. (If you were lucky enough, and they asked, there would be corned beef and cabbage for supper around that time of year, too. They loved Irish traditions and I still recall how happy Maureen and Clare were when they finally visited Ireland together. They came back with so very many stories and memories enough to last a lifetime.)

The funniest Clare story is always the one of how she would get drunk on whiskey (and maybe wear a Christmas cracker crown) and crawl under the dining room table so that people couldn’t see her face. Then, she would sing “Hail Glorious St. Patrick” in the worst possible voice, in an imitation of someone whom she’d once heard sing the song. (She didn’t want anyone to see her face contort, she often said, which is why she crawled under the table cloth in the first place.) It was pure Clare–fun and warm and reveling in the company of the people she loved most.

I know it hasn’t been easy for Clare in the last few years. It very rarely is easy, when someone gets older and begins to fail. It’s not like the movies. But she did her best through all of it, and it hurt to see her in such pain the last year or so, so not herself anymore. It’s the end of an era, in my mind. It’s the juncture where your family–the people whom you loved so deeply–slowly begins to fade into the watercolour of memory and becomes its own story. It’s the place where you know you’ll have lost that last link to a group of people who were so dearly loved by so many of us. It’s the time when we all think of what they all gave us, each and every one now gone, and thank them for their having been here. We were blessed to know them all. I loved them all so, and I miss them all so.

And for those three “Girls,” for Norah, Maureen, and Clare, I have nothing but thanks and great gratitude for what they taught me about my family history, Ireland, the strength of women, poetry, writing, and my faith. They showed me how to love deeply, how to speak my mind and be true to my heart, how to care for others, and how to value family. They were the best teachers a girl could have…

But I know, now that Clare’s ‘home,’ likely in a place that looks a lot like 160 Kingsmount, they are all laughing, hugging, telling tales, drinking Tullamore Dew, and feeling all of that love again. And, for that, I’m glad for her…and glad for them.


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These Hallmark days, festooned with family brunches, cards, new ties and suppers out, break my heart more than anything else. If I could escape from days, the two in May and June dedicated to parents would be the ones I would run fastest from (and I’m not a runner…but a fast walker). Today, I’m thinking of my dad. He was my best friend. I called him “buddy” and he called me “Kimber.” He went to every poetry reading I ever gave, from my twenties until my late thirties, only stopping when he became paralyzed and couldn’t do road trips anymore. That’s when the pain started, so that I could feel him slipping from me, even before he began to get weaker and fade. His going took a long time, which was good for me and for him. We said what we needed to say to each other. I was able to thank him for so many things. He apologized for things he probably didn’t even need to apologize for. I walked him to the door of heaven, and then he walked through it.

Four and a half years. It seems like yesterday, and still a lifetime away now. This day, though, breaks my heart in a million little pieces. It’s cliché, but it’s true. My heart aches when these days happen, which they always will, and I always think ‘This year, this year, I will do better. I will rise up and be positive. I will not miss him as much. He will not pull at my heart as he so often does, even though he’s gone.’ But, each year, well, I fail at being lighter. My heart hurts. It actually hurts to breathe. Brutal.

So, today I tried to think outside myself, to busy myself with ‘things’ on a list. I finished writing a wedding poem for a friend who will walk down the aisle on Saturday, July 23. I won’t be here for the wedding, but I hope the poem is loved. I’ll be on my way from Edinburgh to Newcastle, to see my poet friend, Pippa Little. Besides writing poems, I also watered my mum’s plants, hugged the dogs, hung laundry in the bright, hot sun that I tend to avoid as a pale-skinned hobbit girl, and tried desperately to read a book. My head, though, is too full of memories to be of any use in helping me to logically distract myself.

I think of Dad and I think of so many things…how he (tried) to teach me how to drive by letting me practice on his Dodge Caravan (big mistake!); how he used to say “By the powers of Baldy Jim” when he was angry with us as kids; how he made the best liver and onions I’ve ever eaten; how he loved to spend hours in the huge garden behind our house, digging, planting, weeding, and harvesting; how he loved his wife and two girls; how he was the best example of how to live a life when faced with tragedy–showing me that, even after losing his wife, he could continue on and even face the challenge of becoming a complex quadriplegic at 76 years of age; how he was the most consistent person and my biggest fan when it came to my poetry readings, and how he sat there and smiled proudly at me even when I was so very nervous. There are so many memories of him, today and always. Too many to count, really.

I would give anything to see him one more time, to give him one more hug. We two had said all we needed to say, and for that I’m thankful, but it doesn’t stop my heart from breaking…on too warm pre-solstice days that seem heavily weighted with the ghost of love, metaphor and memory. Sometimes, sleep is all that soothes the ache of this too soft heart. Today is one of those days…

Hug those you love. That’s the lesson.
peace, k.

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I’ve just finished writing the first draft of a historical novel. It’s mostly set in the mining town of Creighton Mine, which is now a ghost town, only populated by the infamous, internationally-recognized Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO) lab, which is buried deep underground. Part of the novel, though, moves across the ocean to a mining town in Finland that was called Petsamo. That part of the novel is set around the time of the Winter War in Finland, in late 1940. The whole story is rooted in a family rumour, that my maternal grandfather (a mining superintendent and later a prospector with a head full of dreams) courted my great-aunt before moving on to court her sister, my grandmother. That is the core of the story, its fictional inspiration, but everything else has been fictionalized. My grandfather died in the late 70s, when I was just a little girl. My grandmother died in 1998 and she never once spoke to me of this odd romantic triangle. My great-aunt is a figure who looms large in my heart and head’s imagination. She remained single, living with two other single sisters, twins, in the house that their father built after leaving Creighton to live in a rather wealthy part of Sudbury. So, the story required a great deal of research about mining, as well as Finland and the Winter War. I’ve also drawn heavily on family photographs, old snippets of letters, and family history. So much of it is imagined, though.

Last Saturday, at the Alice Munro Festival of the Short Story, I was lucky enough to take part in Merilyn Simond’s master class on “Writing the Past.” As writers, so much of what we are drawn to is rooted in the past, I often think. (It is, perhaps, why I love history so much.  Give me a book on the Royal Family, or a history of Ireland, or a collection of photos of abandoned places in Newfoundland, and I’m unbelievably happy inside myself.) I grew up hearing stories told around my great-aunts’ kitchen table, at the house on Kingsmount, drinking Nescafe instant coffee at half past eleven on a Friday night. They were spirited women, atypical to/of the stereotype of ‘spinster.’ They taught me to love my own family history, poetry, Irish music, and legends.  More importantly, they taught me how to be a strong, independent woman.

Merilyn’s master class was nothing short of brilliant, to be honest. She spoke of the larger story as a ‘framework,’ but of the smaller, more personal story within the novel as the most intriguing part of the structure. She also encouraged us to “not be locked into the natural chronology of history,” in terms of structuring a piece of writing. As she so aptly put it: “In the end, your loyalty is to the characters and your story…not to the big story of the past.” To begin the process of researching a historical period, she suggested that writers delving into the genre of historical fiction should read widely in the literature of their chosen time period. You need to research enough about the ‘big story’ of history to be able to imagine the intricacies of your own ‘small story.’ All details, she said, “must serve the story, moving forward either the plot or the character.” Too many historical details, or trivia really, will bog down your reader. “You need to leave your reader enough room in the book to walk around.” Good advice from an amazing writer, I thought.

Simonds suggested that there are three kinds of details: 1) useless ones (“windowdressing” and clichés); 2) essential details (but sometimes maybe a wee bit boring!); and, finally, 3) golden “telling” details (the ones that encapsulate something really important about the character or plot; the details that “make the reader see the world in a different way”). She said that writers need to take a step back from their work and “kick at the details to see if they stand up to inspection, to see if they ‘work.'”

A few things that struck me as Merilyn spoke about her experiences included her suggestion to use primary sources when building a character, including photographs, paintings, and letters. Certain suggestions were ones I hadn’t thought of, including using horoscopes to build character traits, using online historical naming databases to find names for your characters that are era-specific, and using the Oxford English Dictionary to search out the etymology of a word you’re using. (You can’t, for instance, use a word that only sprung into the popular lexicon in 1965 if you’re writing about a person’s life in 1870. It’s sloppy research and writing.) You can use “a small bit of language to indicate or reflect a specific time period in history.” That can be enough of a hint to help create a setting or atmosphere in a work of prose. You also, though, need to be aware of the importance of cadence in terms of how a person (character) speaks. You do not, for example, ever want to take your reader out of your story. (This makes me think, as always, of the Wizard of Oz. I think the writer is like the Wizard, standing behind a closed curtain and trying to create a world. The reader really shouldn’t see you behind the curtain, as a writer. Your work should be strong enough to create an illusion, so that you can weave the world you’re creating and not distract the reader. You need to suspend disbelief. I’m hoping this analogy makes sense to someone other than me!)

I’m juggling a few books right now, but the next on my list to read is Merilyn Simonds’ “The Holding,” which draws on Scottish history, as well as the history of Canadian settlement in Ontario in the 1850s. I want to see how she does it all in her novel. I also think, as writers, that reading is the most important thing we can do. How else will we learn what works, and what doesn’t work? If we can recognize our weaknesses and transform them into strengths–as I teach my own students when they write–then we will be better thinkers and writers, as well as readers, moving forward.

So, if you’re writing historical fiction, and let’s face it, even yesterday is a bit of historical fiction in some respect (!), then knowing the strength of your ‘little story’ (as it sits inside the ‘larger story’ of history) is what it’s all about at the core of things. Create characters who step off the page and into your heart and mind, that stir a reader’s imagination, and then the historical part will always weave itself in with careful work, research, crafting, and attention to detail. We all know, as writers, that the first draft is just that, a first draft. There are many more to come after that…


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I’ve been thinking a great deal about mentorship this week. Mostly, this is because I was asked to write a poem in honour of Helen Ghent, a notable Sudburian. I’ve known Helen for 25 years. (When I was in my late teens, I was very, very overweight and she owned the Diet Centre with Jeanne Warwick Conroy, so they helped me whittle myself down to a reasonable and healthy size.) During my time with her, as I was focusing on my physical self, and on bettering my physical health, Helen and I spent time chatting. I remember long conversations about her love of Shakespeare’s plays and poetry (something we had in common, definitely), and her stories of growing up in Newfoundland. I remember, especially, being entranced by her stories of St. John’s. When I finally visited there in the summer of 2006, I remember thinking, specifically, about her stories of that place. They had lodged firmly in my heart and imagination. The place itself lived up to her stories. It’s still somewhere that I think of often, reminding myself that I really ought to return–next time, maybe, to attend the literary festival in Woody Point, and perhaps spend some time in the midst of the beauty of Gros Mourne National Park. (I have a ‘thing’ for whales….they are so ancient and wise….so anywhere that offers me whales and puffins has got my heart on a string, for life.) 🙂

I had Helen over for tea a couple of weeks ago and we spent the afternoon catching up, so that I could ‘mine’ her memory a bit for imagery to use in the poem I wrote to honour her. The Sudbury Theatre Centre has done a fine job in recognizing the work she’s done over the years, from fundraising back when the physical building didn’t exist in 1970, to her commitment to hosting visiting actors in her home. She has the biggest heart. If you’re lucky enough to know her, and even more lucky to call her a friend, you’re truly blessed. Just being in her presence is like feeling light. She’s a unicorn, as my friend Laura often calls people who are super special and bright souls.

What I think of most, these days, is that there are women who mentored me in my 20s. They weren’t all involved in the arts. Some were involved in advocacy of women’s issues, through LEAF Canada, and some were involved in health care, advocating for better cancer care for northerners. Their names are etched on my heart. My first two mentors were Jeanne Warwick Conroy and Helen Ghent, in my late teens and early twenties. I had the worst sense of self then, and they were bright lights, encouraging me to keep on with my writing and nudging me along. I didn’t feel worthy of very much, as an overweight and bullied teen, but they got at my soul and nurtured it back to life as my body shrunk through good diet and exercise practices. They were also both so involved in volunteerism in the community, and I remember thinking that that was so honourable–to give back to your own community in strong, passionate, and committed ways. The next ‘clutch’ of important female mentors in my life included Mary Lue Hinds, Corinne Matte, and Trish Hennessy. All three recruited me to be on the LEAF Person’s Day Breakfast committee, and I learned a great deal about humanity, and feminism, from them. Beyond that, though, I learned not to be afraid to ask for something, in terms of fundraising and supporting a good cause. If you were true in your intention, they taught me, then there was no harm in requesting a sponsorship, or selling tickets to an event. All of that volunteer work got me ready for a short-lived ‘career’ in fundraising for the Northeastern Ontario Cancer Centre back in the late 90s. There, I had the pleasure of meeting Maureen Lacroix, who was the chair of the then Northern Cancer Research Foundation. She had fought for the Cancer Centre to be built in Sudbury, to serve northerners who had been diagnosed with cancer, rather than have them travel to Toronto for treatment. (Someone from Timmins or the Sault, for instance, would have such a long way to go. Now, they come to Sudbury and are, at least, surrounded by the beauty and comfort of the Canadian Shield, right next to the jewel that is Lake Ramsey.) Maureen taught me that ‘hard work is the rent we pay in life.’ I still remember that she had that little quotation tucked into her wallet, on a little piece of paper.

I hope I’m as much of a mentor to the girls I teach at Marymount Academy. I think I am, but you never know, as teachers teach and kids grow up and leave. I hope, especially, that I’m a mentor to the girls who love to write, whether obviously or secretly, with their bedroom doors closed, or quietly tucked into the far desk in the back row of a classroom. I know I’ve cheered on a couple of my students, offering feedback and edits on works-in-progress, both before and after graduation. I hope, some day, to see their poems or stories in print. I have encountered some brave young women who speak their minds through well chosen words, and I am so honoured to be part of watching them grow and blossom.

So….here is my poem for Helen. It’ll be in the next book of poems, so don’t worry fellow writers….I know I miss out on a publication credit if I publish a poem of mine online, either here or on Facebook. This, though, was a poet laureate commission piece, so I feel it’s a bit different. (Still, you can slap me on the hand later if you think I’ve buggered it up. 🙂

From there to here
(For Helen)

You remember that place,
where you came from,
which never leaves your heart:
taxis out to Topsail Beach,
picnics near shoreline rocks,
swimming into blue of ocean,
and the words to the Ode to Newfoundland
woven into the hand knit scarf of your spirit.

You remember your parents,
how stories and music and theatre
lifted you up, lit the world with passion.
How your mother read you poems by Blake,
and how you can still recall bits of Troilus and Cressida
over endless cups of tea, the words
still there, steeping in your mind.

And coming here, westwards,
away from sea’s edge,
to curved ridge of basin,
finding that rock linked the two,
from the red iron ore earth of Bell Island
to the coppered cliffs of this space.

Here, you found new friends,
gathered them up and held them close.

On that other island, in MacGregor Bay,
you found beauty in the blue of water,
in the camp that was built like a sailboat—
found freedom from the clocks that
hung on the walls, found peace
in the small birds that darted between trees.

From there to here,
you were drawn to the similarities,
to water, to rock, and to people
who soon became friends.

Here now,
the two come together,
so that northern lakes
and your Atlantic ocean
swirl artfully in your one grand heart,
leading you in a shared dance—
one very fine jig.

I love Helen to bits, and I’m so glad that the Artistic Executive Director of the STC, Caleb Marshall, and “STC Honours” recognized her good work in the Sudbury arts community last night. She really is someone to look up to, and someone to aspire to become. I hope I grow up to be just like her one day. (As I’m writing this, Helen rings to thank me for her poem and to say it’s on her plaque, so she can read it whenever she wants….That, my friends, is why I like being a poet. Giving gifts of poems to people you love…it’s the best feeling in the whole, wide and wonderful world. 🙂


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