Archive for the ‘Journeying, Inside & Out’ Category

I have to confess that this will be a biased piece. I have read a lot of Colleen Murphy’s plays in the last two years and fan-girled all over her when she came to Sudbury in May for Reading Town/Ville Lecture. What always strikes me about her work, when I read it and again when I see it on stage, is how carefully crafted it is. It’s the sort of work you wish you could write for the stage, and I always leave shaking my head and then checking my heart to see if it’s still there, beating regularly. Her work really is that powerful, and none of it seems to ever repeat itself, although some of the underlying thematic questions are common.

This play, “The Breathing Hole,” is one that she talked about in Sudbury in May. She said she had written a play about a bear that was five hundred years old. The play focused on the notion of a breathing hole in the ice, in the far north, in the Arctic, and would deal with Inuit culture. This idea seemed both mythical and magical, that a bear could live five hundred years. To me, that’s seductive. I love legends, creation stories, myths, and the idea of ancestry. I also love the notion of every living thing having a soul, and this is so much an interwoven part of Indigenous culture. I’m naturally drawn to being outside, in nature, and the raw landscape of northern Ontario plays a role in most of my writing.

The most beautiful parts of this play are sensual and visual. It begins with two children playing with shadow puppets, light casting shadows up on the back of the stage and telling the story of the Arctic, and colonization, and always returning to the shape of that polar bear. The first time you see the bear, it’s a tiny thing held in the arms of an Inuit woman who feels lonely. Then, it’s massive, lumbering across the stage, making noises that sound truly bear-like. It is anthropomorphic, this bear, so symbolic of spirit and culture, and it ends up being a great teacher by the end of the play. (I won’t spoil it in case you go to Stratford to see the play, which you should.) The sound of the Inuktitut language, too, when you hear it spoken, is so beautiful. Hearing it tonight reminded me of the first time I heard Welsh spoken, while I was on an Irish ferry between Wales and Ireland. It’s musical and, when I closed my eyes to listen to it, I could imagine ocean waves cresting and breaking, and then rolling back into themselves. Beautiful.

The notion of a Stratford play that has been produced in a year that celebrated the 150th anniversary of Confederation is also very telling. (I was asked to write a poem for Canada 150 in my role as poet laureate, and had a difficult time. I don’t believe in it because this country existed long before Confederation, and long before colonization. Indigenous peoples have been here for much longer.) What I love about Murphy’s play is that she has the polar bear serve as a sort of narrative image, or symbolic thread, that strings itself from the start, which takes place prior to contact by Europeans, through to the end of the piece, when we hear of oil spills and eco-tourism in the Arctic in a futuristic time. You hear it before it crosses onto the stage, its breathing and grumbling, and its big padded paws shuffling echoing through the theatre. You learn to love it, to let it into your heart.

This bear is a great teacher, as an elder would be, I imagine. The closer you come to the end of the play, the more you think about how humans are most detrimental to both themselves and the health of the natural world. Europeans have a history of destruction, of conquering with no real reason except to get more stuff–resources, land, and even to decimate and/or ‘gather’ and try to assimilate Indigenous people. There is also a reference to the ill-fated Franklin Expedition, to how pompous and vain it all seemed, trying to find and map out the Northwest Passage. (I always think of the Stan Rogers song.) Still, very little is ever told of the Inuit side of that story in Canadian history textbooks, and Murphy gets at it a bit here, in a quirky and satirical way.

Faced with the weirdness of eco-tourism and oil rigs (and spills), “The Breathing Hole” makes you think about what’s happening with global warming and how the Arctic has been the canary in the climate change coal mine. The Inuit have been warning about changes to the northern landscape for decades. They have noticed a change in polar bear and seal populations, in how plants flourish or fail, and how landscape is physically changing because of melting. The image of this great symbolic bear drenched in oil can break a person’s heart (it did mine…) but it should also make you realize that we are our own worst enemies sometimes.

This morning, we took our Grade 11 English classes to see the film version of Richard Wagamese’s “Indian Horse.” It was beautiful. The shots of the landscape around Sudbury and Northern Ontario made me get emotional. I’ve gone hiking and canoeing in those beautiful places. I’ve gone swimming out in those lakes and rivers, too. They are beautiful, in all types of light, in various seasons, and in all ‘genres’ of weather. Seeing Murphy’s play tonight made me think, again, of how much the natural world means to me. It’s why I’m drawn to the poetry of Seamus Heaney, Mary Oliver, and Wendell Berry. All three poets write of the beautiful rhythms of the natural world, and of how landscape can be one of our greatest teachers. According to Indigenous beliefs, the natural world is full of spirit. I can’t look at the sky at night without being amazed. I can’t walk out in the bush and through heavily treed areas without feeling more myself. When I’m worried or stressed, or sad, I go out into the woods. What Murphy tells us, and what Wagamese tells us in all of his work, I think, is that we need to be mindful of our environment. We are all meant to be guardians of this natural world, especially more so now that there is such a threat to the health of the environment.

This great spirit bear in “The Breathing Hole” opens a person’s heart even wider than it already is, asks you to let it in even further, has you feel comfortable enough to risk discomfort in the watching of the story, and reminds you that you have a role to play in a world that you are only really ever passing through…as a guardian and legacy keeper. (You forget, too, that the puppet bear is not real, which is brilliant. The actors inside the bears disappear and you only sense the soul of that bear.)

There’s good reason why Murphy’s play has been extended here at the Stratford Festival. It’s likely to become a Canadian classic. It’s beautiful, disturbing, clever, heart wrenching, and so damn moving. It makes a five and a half hour drive from Northern Ontario seem perfectly worthwhile.


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I’ve written about how yoga has changed my life before. This is likely redundant. If you don’t want to read it, do me a favour and just don’t. I’m at a place in my life, these days, when I think “Well, if I’m not for you, that’s okay. I’m for me, and that’s way more interesting on a soul growth level, anyway.” So. If yoga doesn’t interest you, or evolution of self doesn’t interest you, then…”Off you go!”, as my friend Pat often says at work. 🙂

Last year was my self-proclaimed “year of no fear.” I’ve written about it here on this blog before, so it won’t come as a shock of any sort. It may even have inspired another friend or two to follow in the wake of my chaotic evolution. This year is my continuation. A sequel, perhaps. 🙂

This year is about chrysalis making and breaking–coming to the edge of transformation, and then realizing that you don’t know who or what you are anymore. You might not even be the same person you were in November or December. That’s where I’m at now. It’s pretty intense, mostly because it’s hard to recognize the hallmarks of self that used to be solid anchors. They just aren’t there anymore. That’s exciting. It’s means I’ve evolved.

So. Yoga. It’s been in my life, on and off, for about nine years. I started into it while I was off work, on heavy anti-depressants, and taking care of my mum as she was dying back in 2008. I had gained so much weight, all because of Remeron. The medication was the thing that saved my life, but it also made me gain about seventy or eighty pounds within a very short span of time. After my parents died, Mum in 2008 and Dad in late 2011, I restructured my life and set about losing the antidepressant weight gain. I lost about fifty pounds between early 2012 and 2015. That was good, but then I stabilized and hit a plateau. It happens when you take weight loss carefully, without rushing. You just sort of know that’s the way it will be. If you want the fat to stay off, then you need to take it slowly.

Last year, after a plateau of a couple of years, despite regular Zumba sessions, I sort of rededicated myself to getting the rest of the Remeron weight off my frame. I was healthy, off excessive amounts of anti-anxiety and sleep meds, and knew the weight needed to come off. Both of my parents had issues with heart disease and diabetes. They didn’t eat well, they drank too much, and they didn’t exercise. They were, really, poor role models for good overall health. It’s not their fault, though, and I don’t ever blame them. They did the best they could, in so many ways. I guess I’m thankful because I learned from them, in watching them suffer from poor health choices throughout their lives. I know I don’t want that because I watched them suffer for their poor choices. Their endings, which were horrific really, were totally avoidable.

So, last year, I intensified my approach. Since then, I think I’ve lost about another twenty or thirty pounds. I’m guessing, though. I don’t weigh myself. I only know that I feel healthier and stronger. I went from a size 18 in 2011 to a size 14 in 2015/16, to a size 12/10 now. Numbers, in terms of weight, don’t impress me much. Feeling strong, and knowing I’m healthy, is more about what I’m interested in. I intend to live a very long time, so that I can write a whole lot of really cool stories and poems! 🙂

I won’t lie, though. Last week, I went through my closet and put together three garbage bags of donated clothes. I hate spending money on myself, which is silly. Today, I wore something that was too big and I thought, “Why are you doing this? You have hidden for much too long.” But I still like this little lacy blouse, so I keep it. By September, it’ll be much too big and I’ll move on to a smaller size. But, for now, it’s fine under a blue cardigan for work.

Last week, I found a skirt I used to wear to my twenty-something poetry readings. I loved this skirt. That’s why I’ve kept it all these years. It is pale blue, reminiscent of sky, really, with wonderful ivory daisies scattered all over it. (Daisies are my favourite flower, so there was no way I would ever give it away. I’ve been saving it for a reason). It’s a skirt I wore when I was 26, when I was still a girl really, and when I was deeply (and stupidly & painfully) in love with a boy from Nova Scotia. I kept that skirt. It’s beautiful.

Last week, I tried it on. It fits. This, for me, is magical. It’s not at all about going back in time. I’m fine with age and time’s passing. It’s all an illusion anyway. I like where I am in my life, having had really crappy experiences that have made me stronger. I look about ten years younger than I actually am, and this is mostly (I think) because I am so pale and because I’m happily content because I’ve entered into reading and writing more fully as a way of life. I’ve also avoided the sun forever…and I’ve never worn tons of thick makeup or foundation. Good skin runs in my mum’s family, so I’m lucky that way. So. The skirt fit. What does that mean?

For me, it’s kind of like Cinderella’s shoe. It means that, in my head, I’m finally in a place where I’m as physically healthy as I was about nineteen years ago. That’s an accomplishment. I’m proud of it. Really, it isn’t about weight loss, although that’s part of it. To be honest, it’s likely much more about evolution, and shedding of skin. It’s about moving into yourself, and finding that you’re really at home there, content and flourishing.

Tonight, at yoga class, I just about lost my mind with joy. My teacher, Willa, who has taught me on and off for about seven years, had us do hip openers. I always dread these poses because I have a staple in one of my hips, from a childhood surgery which really crippled me for a year or two. I am always fearful of whether or not my hip will ‘stick.’ (Don’t laugh, please. It actually happens. When it does happen, well, it’s like someone is stabbing me in the hip socket with a knife and I can’t move until it decides to let me go. Sometimes, if it happens and there isn’t something to grab on to, well, it can be nasty and make me stumble or fall into someone. So not attractive…)

Tonight in class, we did Warrior 1 Pose. I love the Warrior series of poses. Always have. I love how elegant they feel, when you’re doing them on your mat. You stretch everything out, and you bend over yourself with a fluidity that I haven’t found in regular everyday life moments of physicality. You root down into your feet, fire up your leg muscles, and find that you are much stronger, and much more graceful, than you have ever given yourself credit for. I also love the story behind the Warrior poses. It’s not a simple love story and, to be honest, which love stories are simple anyway? (They rarely go as smoothly as they ought to according to novels or films!) You can look it up elsewhere (and it’s worth looking up because it’s dramatic and poetic!), but it’s the story of a love affair between Lord Shiva and his bride, Sati. From this story, we get the Warrior series of poses. I love all of them, but Warrior 1 lights me up from the inside out.

Warrior 1 makes me feel strong, powerful, beautiful, and graceful, all at the same time. Tonight, moving through its ebb and flow on the mat, like a wave on an ocean, I just thought “Man, I love this!” You see, when I started taking yoga, I was very very ill. Major depressive disorder will do that to you. I remember that I went to yoga to save myself. Literally. I was dealing with suicidal ideation then, bound down by caring for someone I loved when I shouldn’t really have been doing nursing tasks on my own. I wasn’t qualified; I was just a teacher and a sometimes poet woman. To get a small break from care taking, I went to yoga class twice a week. I know it saved me, in so many ways. But now, as a truly healthy person, three years out of the darkness and grief, yoga is different.

Having lost weight again this year, I can now bend over myself differently. When your belly disappears, you have more space to move around. Sounds strange, but it’s absolutely true. Rather than yoga feeling like a life preserver, or a flutter board, something to hold my head up above water, it has become a celebratory sort of affair every time I practice, whether in the studio at class, or if I’m in my sunroom on my own, doing a series of sun salutations while the dogs peer at me from under their eyebrows.

I couldn’t stop smiling during class tonight. I likely frightened other people on the mats around me. I felt like I was twelve. Tree pose made me light up. I still recall first learning it, years ago when I was very depressed and anxious, and hating how I was too overweight to balance well on my feet. I didn’t feel balanced, and I really wasn’t well mentally or physically. It’s no wonder I could never find my centre…

It seemed clear to me, tonight, when the balance was almost faultless and as easy and simple as breathing, that I have managed to rise above so many awful things in the last nine years. This new tree pose of mine is just fine. It is strongly rooted in the grounding of my feet on the floor. I’m balanced now, I thought. It’s so lovely. It’s fine. As Willa says, though, “When I ask you how you’re doing, don’t tell me that you’re ‘fine.’ You see, ‘fine’ is the other ‘f word.” She’s right. “Fine” is too simple. “Content,” yes. “Certain,” yes. “Confident,” yes. And this, too, is due to her class, and to Zumba, and to walking, and to meditating, and to writing, and to knowing what it feels like to find that “Sea of Tranquility” within yourself.

The “Sea of Tranquility” is the spot where, when you put your hands into prayer position in front of your chest, you can rest your thumbs against your chest. You can feel your own heart beat. You are fully connected, soul to body. It’s intense. When you hear its name at first, you’ll likely think of the moon and one of its seas. I like this allusion because it’s poetic…and I’m a poet. 🙂 Still, the “Sea of Tranquility” is also an acupressure point at the centre of a person’s breastbone. When you press on it, with your thumbs, as when they are in prayer position in yoga, you can actually quiet any agitation and promote relaxation. Try it; it works. 🙂

Finally, friggin’ Pigeon Pose. Here’s the thing: I have always had a love-hate relationship with Pigeon. Bastard. I love the way Pigeon looks. I can do it on one side, but, because of the staple in my left hip, I can only do it properly on one side. So, for years now, I have only ever done Pigeon Pose while on my back. It’s not as amazing as doing it sitting up. It’s a modification. For the longest time, I hated that. I could hear the voice inside my head putting me down, “Look at you. You can’t do Pigeon Pose because you’re all crippled up in that hip of yours.” (Sometimes, the same thing happens with “Happy Baby” pose..but that’s another story!) Tonight, though, for the first time in years, I didn’t care. I had done Warrior 1 and Tree Pose with great grace and strength. Screw Pigeon Pose! The voice inside, the one that used to put me down all the time, has gone now. Some other person is here now, and she doesn’t follow the old patterns or listen to the old voices that just harassed and berated her when she was frustrated.

Yesterday, during an animal totem meditation circle at school, for my First Nations, Metis, and Inuit literature course, I came to know that the hedgehog is my (current) totem animal. It doesn’t matter that I’ve been seeing dragonflies and crows all week long. I had thought I’d see one of those in my meditation, but no, the hedgehog trundled into my mind. (I thought of Mrs. Tiggywinkle, whom I loved as a child. Beatrix Potter was one of my most favourite authors before I was ten.) So. Hedgehog. When I looked up its totem meaning, I learned that the hedgehog is all about healing and resurrection. It’s a small animal, but it’s strong. If it gets hurt, it pulls in and puts out its quills, in self-defense. (I know I do that, and I know it’s a way to protect myself and keep myself from being too vulnerable. I call it ‘turtling,’ though. If I’m unsure of someone, if they somehow have hurt me, whether intentionally or unintentionally, I just pull in. I can’t help it. That way, I think to myself, they can’t hurt me again. I’ll be less vulnerable and build up some walls again for safety’s sake. The hedgehog, though, is strong and true to itself. It represents intuition and being sure of what it feels. A lot of its qualities speak to me, so maybe I am best represented by a hedgehog these days, even though dragonflies and crows seem to be making themselves known, too.

All this to say that yoga still teaches me so many valuable lessons. Every Thursday night at 7, I find myself completely at ease, sitting on a mat on Cedar Street, listening to Willa say things like, “Put your thumbs up against The Sea of Tranquility,” and I smile to myself, nod, and think, “Yes. That’s where I’m at now. Finally. Finally!”

peace, friends.

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Note: I’ll say now that I won’t include any of the photographs here; they seem too personal, too intimate, for me to share without the photographers’ permissions. They seemed sacred and, if you’re interested, I’d encourage you, instead, to go and see the exhibit yourself at the McEwen School of Architecture on Elm Street. It’s more than worth the time for a visit. Take someone to talk to about the work, though, because you’ll want to…trust me on this one.


Just before March Break, I heard about a photography exhibit that would be at the McEwen School of Architecture. It had been organized by the Northern Ontario School of Medicine (NOSM) and was the result of a project that was undertaken to address the causes and effects of intimate partner violence (IPV) in First Nations communities. There are plenty of statistics in other places, but suffice it to say that domestic violence is an issue across Canada. The Noojamadaa Exhibit was important for me to take my class to see, I thought, so I scheduled a visit for this past Friday morning.

The class I’m teaching is a Grade 11 First Nations, Metis and Inuit contemporary literature course, but we also learn about indigenous culture, as well as social and political issues that affect all Canadians. Given that I teach at an all-girls’ school, and we often speak about what healthy dating relationships should look like for girls (in terms of them knowing to avoid boys and young men who may be abusive) it made sense to take them down to the McEwen School of Architecture, to spend the morning really immersing ourselves in the photography exhibit.

The goal of the project is best explained by a mission statement that was posted at the entrance: “This exhibit features thoughtful photography and images shared by the Manitoulin First Nations women during a four week research project. Originally inspired by the Photovoice methodology, The Noojamadaa Exhibit uses an experiential learning approach to foster and promote healing and reconciliation. It’s a space for indigenous and non-indigenous peoples to reflect on our shared journey towards wellness, through contemplation of our relationships with one another and our surroundings.” Dr. Marion Maar, Associate Professor of Medical Anthropology, is the woman who coordinated and spearheaded the exhibit. She, along with Gayle Adams-Carpino, a Lecturer of Interprofessional Education, were there on Friday morning to give us a bit of a talk about the project and a tour of the exhibit. It was one of the best field trips I’ve ever been on, from a teaching and learning point of view. Pedagogically, I know we’ll have lots of conversation and spirited debate in the classroom tomorrow, so I think that’s one of the benefits of getting students out to see how art can be socially active and can instigate change in how people view issues within their communities.

So much of what we talked about on Friday morning had to do with what we’ve already discussed this semester in my class. We talked about the residential school system, and about the notion of lateral violence, and of how cycles of abuse and the loss of traditional ways have influenced the shape of indigenous families and communities. We talked, too, about the notion that it will take seven generations to heal from what’s happened through colonization and the residential school system. It’s such a difficult topic, and rightfully so, but what this exhibit does is show how people can be resilient and manage to turn darkness into light. It reminded me, again, of Richard Wagamese and “Embers: One Ojibway’s Meditations,” and of how he speaks about light as the goal to aim for in our daily living.

The girls spread out around the exhibit, taking notes and choosing one photograph to examine fully. Alongside each photo, there were bits of text to explain what the photographs represented. One of my favourites was a photo of a pair of wedding rings on a table. The words offered by Tasha Behm, though, were what spoke to me as I looked to the photo and then back to the text: “People forget what a privilege it is to be able to grow old with someone. Marriage isn’t just a piece of paper but an endless vow to love someone unconditionally for the rest of their lives.” Another photograph, of a bride and groom, was complemented by a quotation that spoke, again, of how marriage was a partnership and not something temporary to just have and then throw away. Candice Jacko-Assiniwe, of Birch Island, wrote of her wedding day: “Our relationship is nowhere near perfect; we have had some difficult times. For all that we had been through together in the last sixteen years, we have always supported one another as individuals, acknowledge our mistakes, worked at forgiveness and strive to be best as we walk through this life together. In this picture on our wedding day, I told him “don’t let me fall” and he reassured me by saying, “don’t worry, I’ve got you.” And the image of him holding me, and me trusting him while laughing with one another, reminds me to always remember to support one another through our struggles, and always to make room for laughter.” The last photo that spoke to good partnerships and marriages was one of an older couple, taken from behind, and holding hands. The words that went with this one were the loveliest, I thought, to do with couples and long lasting love. It was Tasha Behm, again, who wrote: “Sometimes the greatest love story isn’t Romeo and Juliet who died together, but grandma and grandpa who grew old together.” All three of these pairings, of photos matched with reflections of words, spoke to me strongly. While I’ve been single for a long time now, I know this is the kind of relationship that I’m looking for, what I want, and what I’ll honour and value most during my time on the planet. There’s a worth to a union that is a true partnership of shared values, humour, compassion, friendship, and love.

Here’s the thing: our girls need to understand that healthy relationships and pairings aren’t all flash and glitter. The kids I see in high school are often tied to the whole popular culture thing in an almost oppressive and addictive way. A lot of make-up and over-exposure on the internet and cell phones seems to give them a sense of self, even just for a little while. It really worries me because you can see they have more to offer and cultivate. They Snapchat a lot, and they text incessantly. They take countless selfies on a daily basis and they seem to enjoy living on the surface of things. They also don’t really love to read, which is a bit of a worry for me as a writer and as a teacher. The problem, though, is that all of this superficial stuff seems to translate to their expectations of what a relationship with a boy/girl/ferret should look like. Still, “good relationships” aren’t at all about money and superficial things. They’re more about the values and qualities that will last, the assets of spirit that each person would bring to a union.

A lot of kids these days also come from broken homes and families. It does cause them stress, despite what some of their parents might actually think. I’ve seen it in classrooms, when a young girl of sixteen or seventeen will try to explain with whom they live. “Miss, my mum and dad divorced, but then my mum lived with this guy and he left, so now she’s alone, and Miss, is she ever depressed.” Usually I just nod sympathetically at that point and listen carefully. Sometimes, all they really want is to have someone listen to them. “And, then, Miss…my dad….he found someone else, and I really really liked her. I even called her my step-mum and we were friends…but then they broke up and there’s a new woman at my dad’s house. She has three kids, so now I guess I have step-brothers and sisters, but I’m not really sure.” This is the lineage of a lot of kids’ families these days. I think, somehow, that’s why teachers feel more responsibility on a daily basis. Sometimes, you end up being (and more often than you ought to, for the kids’ sakes) a pseudo-parent, the one person with whom they might actually feel safe with every day. So, I think it’s important for them to realize that quite a large portion of society is dealing with false and superficial issues around pairings and partnerships. Everything seems so fleeting, in my mind, anyway. People having to work at something is an old-fashioned concept. I often wonder if my parents ought to have stayed together for their lifetimes; they weren’t always content or happy, but they worked through things and I saw how much they loved each other in the end, when the chips were really down. The thing about this photography exhibit, though, and these three photos in particular, was that we could see that people were talking about relationship as something worth working at, something to cultivate in a sort of garden-ish and organic way.

We’ll talk, too, I’m sure, about how girls value themselves in relationships. I worry about this a lot, to be honest. I don’t have kids of my own, so these girls become like my kids. Sometimes, I hear snippets of things and wonder how they are managing in the world. They are so in a place where they are building their own senses of identity, questioning their sexuality, and wondering about which path they should take to move forward into adulthood. As an adult, and I often say this in class, it doesn’t get much easier, but sometimes, just sometimes, it helps to honestly tell them that the path is never clear in any of those areas of life. I do worry, though, that they tend to make themselves seem less than to attract boys, in some cases, and it’s something I’ve seen over the years as a teacher. If they pretend to be ‘less than’ smart or clever, then they aren’t desirable to boys, they sometimes seem to suggest. That just makes me very angry. They should never, ever, be made to feel that it would be better for them to be daft or permissive, or to absent themselves from being treated fairly and equally in a relationship, so I’m hopeful they’ll have seen that, too, reflected in the exhibit on Friday. Women should be strong and unique and independent. If that scares a man, or intimidates him, then it isn’t a woman’s fault. These photographers, these women’s voices, prove that in their documenting their lives.

The other photographs that struck me, in particular, were ones that told the story of a young girl who lost both of her parents, a mother to suicide and a father to murder. Next to her family’s broken story was a child’s drawing of a graveyard. It sent shivers through me. Both of these horrible things occurred on Manitoulin Island, just a few hours away from where I live. I remember hearing about the murder on the news, but not the suicide. The thing is, how does suicide get to be so easily swept under the rug? We know suicide rates are high on reserves across Canada, especially for young people. This is the ripple effect of residential schools through the generations. It isn’t simple to explain, and I dare not try here.

All I know is that I was glad that this young girl, the one who had drawn the horribly sad picture of the cemetery, was shown in another pairing of photographs on the wall next to it. There, she had grown up into a teenager, sitting on a rock on the edge of a northern lake, somewhere on Manitoulin, the sun setting behind her. And then, another photo, of her modelling a dress at a school fashion show. The text, for that panel of paired photographs, was all about the little girl, now a young woman, reflecting on how she’d managed to rise up out of grief and tragedy, to become a person with dreams and goals. The overwhelming sense of the exhibit was embodied in this one set of panels, the notion that First Nations women are resilient and strong.

Perhaps the best example of resilience came in seeing the photo of the little girl spinning round in a hoop dance. Her grandma, or mother, or auntie, or big sister, had taught her the various moves of the hoop dance. Each variation mirrors a spirit animal, as Dr. Maar explained it, and the speed with which dancers move, with such grace and elegance, always amazes me. The image of this little one, dressed in her regalia and telling her story through dance and drumming, was a photo that made me tear up a bit. Despite all of the disruption of culture, and most of it being the result of how residential schools and the 60s Scoop ripped families apart, somehow, an elder taught a youngster how to dance. That is resilience. That is truth.

There were so many beautiful and thought provoking photographs. I only hope that NOSM can get the exhibit out into the city and outlying communities. It raises many issues in a person’s mind: what makes a healthy relationship, between partners, between parents and children, between children and the school system? The variations on a theme are endless, I think, and should encourage conversation. I know the exhibit is meant to be a teaching tool for medical students, in an attempt at cultural sensitivity training, but I actually think that “regular” folks from the community around here would benefit from experiencing this exhibit. It shouldn’t be an exhibit that doesn’t see the light of day outside of university buildings.

I think it’s so powerful, to know that the university, and NOSM in particular, is making collaborative forays into using photography to do research into something like what constitutes a healthy relationship within indigenous communities, from a woman’s point of view. Both Gayle and Marion were so warm and welcoming to my class, and I know I’ll be able to carry on a thoughtful conversation with my students tomorrow morning.

Women play such a key role in Ojibway culture. They are the Water Keepers and the tellers of stories. They are the mothers, the aunties, sisters, and daughters. Intimate partner violence isn’t something that is confined to any one group in society. Women, though, are often the victims. What I thought, on Friday morning, after leaving that beautiful school of architecture building, was that it was fitting that Marion and Gayle had asked women to take the photos that best represented healthy relationships from their perspective. The result is an exhibit that feels intimate, raw, and beautifully honest. You don’t want to rush, taking in the photographs and the stories that go alongside them. You can hear the voices of the women, know the stories they need to tell, and you leave with a sense of their resilience and strength.

If you have a chance, do try to see this exhibit. I’m sure you can call NOSM and see where it’s being displayed next. I’m hopeful, to be honest, that it will be displayed around town and in outlying communities. It’s that powerful a tool and seems, to me, to have the ability to suggest social change and advocacy.

One little pebble, thrown into the water, causes a ripple…


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It’s been a week since Richard Wagamese died, and I’ve spent a lot of that time in the bush down near Bobcaygeon, in the Kawarthas. I went there to spend March Break on my own, in a place where I knew I could enter into the landscape. I need, when I’m seriously focused on writing, to be away from other people, or to maybe be with one or two others who are quiet, like me, and who don’t mind if I don’t talk. (I like to listen to people’s stories, and I love conversation, so I need to purposefully retreat and fill myself up with the spirit of landscape.) I need, I know now, to be in a place where I can play music, light candles, take long walks in the woods, and sit near water. I need trees, sky, stars, and maybe a full moon if I’m lucky. I want to sit on a night deck with bare legs, in the middle of March, and feel a bit cold. I want to feel the shiver of the weather and landscape having a visceral effect on my body and my soul. And I want to build a fire in the little fireplace, mostly so that I feel strong, Celtic goddess-like (!), beautiful, poetic, and empowered. Beyond that, too, as a woman who was born (and has lived much of her life) in the rocky nickel basin of Sudbury, Ontario, I need to move through spaces where barns sit on the edges of snowy fields and skies reach out without end, before I come to a set of gravel roads that lead me deep into the woods. So it was there, on the edge of Little Bald Lake, that I heard the news of Richard Wagamese’s death on CBC radio last Saturday morning. I sat there, at the antique table overlooking the water, working on a play I was trying to finish, and just shook my head in disbelief. How could this news even begin to be true? I had only just come to his work, and now he was gone? It seemed unreal…surreal…and it still does. I shook my head, too, because I had so wanted to write him a letter…and I didn’t.

I’ve written a couple of seriously honest and confessional letters in my life, at first on paper, when I was younger, and then via email. I only write letters when I feel strongly about things, and it’s as if emotion and thought demand to come through language, whether I like it or not. I can only imagine that the people who have received these letters must feel they’ve been hit by tsunami waves of words and thoughts, but it is how I ‘work’ in the world. For the longest time, I shut myself down, as a soul, and in recent years, well, I’ve blossomed. So, for months now, I had thought “Oh, I need to write Richard Wagamese a letter. I need to tell him what his work means to me.” And, for months, I didn’t do it. I don’t know why. Normally, if I feel the need to write a letter, or even a blog post, I simply follow my intuition and heart. Neither has served me poorly in recent years, so I trust them, without expectations. I trust that God/the Universe/Creator moves through me, and I know that the words I write are sent to me from somewhere outside of me. (Yeah, it sounds all ‘witchy woo,’ and maybe it is, but I imagine that there are a few creatives out there who understand what I’m talking about, so I’ll just know you’re out there…nodding your heads and smiling in support.)

I didn’t write the letter to Richard Wagamese, but if I had, well, I would have said something along these lines. I would have said thank you, for bringing me a new knowledge of First Nations teachings. As someone who is non-Indigenous (of Irish/Scottish and German heritage), I have always been drawn to Indigenous teachings and stories. They have always resonated with me. I grew up, as many northeastern Ontario kids will, to some extent, being surrounded by Ojibway culture. It didn’t mean I understood it, though, and so I became more and more curious about the art, culture, language and history of the First Nations in my part of the province.

In my twenties, I took “Native Studies” undergraduate courses at Laurentian University. (It’s now called Indigenous Studies, thankfully.) I learned a lot through that time. I was taught by Thom Alcoze and Barb Reilly, two people I still fiercely admire. I can recall specific lectures as if I’d heard them yesterday, so their teachings resonated with me and helped to make me into the person I am today. I’m grateful to them for that. I learned that it was okay to say you didn’t know something, as a non-Indigenous student in the classroom, and that you would be respected and encouraged if you tried to learn something new and understand it as fully as possible. I learned how to live differently from how I’d been taught through my non-Indigenous culture, to respect the Earth and the landscape through which I walked more as a spirit who was having a human experience rather than as someone who was just trying to ‘get ahead’ and ‘find a good career.’ I started to feel connected to the environment in a way I hadn’t before, to sustainability, in a way that made me feel as if the idea of union was not completely physical at all. There was a spirit that permeated all things, I began to realize, even if you couldn’t see it…

When I was told I’d be teaching a First Nations, Metis and Inuit literature course at my school, I was excited. I had been reading Indigenous authors for years, and loving the diversity and beauty of the work. (It was so varied in voice and in sharp contrast to some of the stuff I’d taught for years. Don’t get me wrong…I love Shakespeare and Harper Lee, but I knew that there were other writers whose work I wanted to share with my students.) When a friend shared Wagamese’s “Indian Horse” with me, I knew it was the piece I wanted to use with my Grade 11s. I can’t tell you how amazing it has been, to see the girls I work with at Marymount Academy begin to read this book and enter into it so completely. It has given me faith in literature again, as an English teacher, but also as a writer. There is something beautiful that happens, when you walk into a morning classroom of sleepy looking teenage girls, and you begin to discuss the story of Saul Indian Horse and his challenges and survival. For many mornings now, over the course of both semesters, I have had the pleasure of watching young faces light up, raising hands to offer opinions, and more often than not, to hear the girls ask, astonished at first and then angrily as the discussions continued, “How did this happen? Why did we not know about residential schools before now?” The conversations I’ve had with them all have been thought provoking and have made me question so much of my life and how I live in the world. It’s made me question my own identity as a Canadian, as a teacher, a person, and as a writer. Questions of what ‘truth and reconciliation’ mean, too, have had us debating Canada’s historical faults throughout the course. We’ve also talked about the education system, and how it has historically chosen what has been taught, and what hasn’t been taught, and how we need to know how to ask questions of our own institutional systems–to think with brains and hearts combined–and not to accept everything we hear without first thinking more critically about it.

What has been loveliest, from an educator’s point of view here now, is to watch how one novel has so shifted the minds of so many students. One girl last semester told me of how the book made her cry. “Miss, I never cry at books, but this one makes me cry.” Then she went on to tell me how she’d given it to her dad, because he wasn’t really “all that open” to learning new things about First Nations issues. He had read the book because she read it in school and talked about it at home, and they had had a discussion about Saul’s life. The character of Saul sprung off the page for so many of my students that I watched, amazed, as they journeyed with him. This witnessing, for me, was powerful. It always will be something I’ll remember of my career as a teacher. This was the one book that shifted lives while I watched. That was, and still is, pure magic. I wish I’d written to tell Richard Wagamese this, to let him know how deeply his words and this story touched the minds and hearts of young women in a classroom in northeastern Ontario.

For me, personally, I came to Wagamese later in my reading life. Last year, an old friend whom I’ve known for twenty years let me borrow her copy of “One Story, One Song.” I fell in love with the book, so much so that I didn’t want to finish it or return it. I rationed it, to be honest, reading a bit each night before bed. With “One Story, One Song,” Wagamese spoke to me, so truly and strongly, about how story works in human lives, and how it gathers and connects souls. This was what I believed, too, as a writer.

Then, when I was down in Windsor in late October to read at a poet laureate event called “Poetry at the Manor,” I stopped in to see my friend Bob Stewart at Biblioasis. (I always pre-order books when I go to Windsor now, because I love that bookshop so very much. It’s almost alive, it’s so warm and welcoming. It also helps, though, that Bob knows a lot about poetry and plays. He recommends good ones for me to buy and read, and has–so far–never been wrong in what I might like or fancy. He has a sense of what I like to read and that’s sort of lovely, really, to have in a friend who also happens to be a writer and a bookseller!)

When I told Bob I was looking for First Nations literature, he showed me the ‘new Wagamese’ that had come into the shop a week before and I fell in love with the book. First, it’s just visually beautiful. And then, well, I’m a tactile and sensual person, so when you hold this book in your hands, you feel it has a spirit about it. The cover is ‘touchable,’ and the use of gold and blue, and the image of fire on the front (something which intrigues me and always has, even though I can’t make one to save my soul!), and the beautiful photographs inside…all of this had me head over heels in love with the ‘new Wagamese’, as Bob called it. 🙂

The book’s title is “Embers: One Ojibway’s Meditations” and has, for me, resonated very deeply. Opening it to the introduction, I thought of how I love to walk at dawn, down by the lake in my city. I feel connected to the earth in a way I can’t fully explain. “Embers” made me feel less weird, less alone. Here, I thought, was a person who understood how I felt about being in the world. He seemed, I thought, to be so aware of the notion that there are veils between worlds that are material and spiritual, something which I fully believe and am aware of in my day-to-day life. That he had written these ideas, these teachings, in a book that I could carry with me…well…that did me in. How could he know some of my own thoughts, I wondered.

I often underline things in my books. When I lend them to friends (as I often tend to ‘prescribe’ books) they will laugh. My friend Tammy once gave a book back to me and smiled, “I feel as if, when I read the book, I’m reading the book, but then I’m also eavesdropping on the conversation that you’re having with the book as well.” I love writing in the margins of books. I figure it’s a bit like having a conversation with the author. So, in “Embers,” I underlined and wrote down some of these beautiful bits…

*”I am a dreamer made real by virtue of the world touching me. This is what I know. I am spirit borne by a body that moves through the dream that is this living, and what it gathers to keep becomes me, shapes me, defines me.”

*”Spirituality isn’t found in your head. It’s found in your heart…It’s found in silence. If you travel with your heart and your quiet, you’ll find the way to the spiritual.”

*”…be less concerned with outside answers and more focused on the questions inside.”

*”So I cultivate silence every morning…the people I meet are the beneficiaries of my having taken that time–they get to know the real me, not someone shaped and altered by the noise around me.” (Oh, I so love this one!)

*”We live because everything else does. If we were to choose collectively to live that teaching, the energy of our change of consciousness would heal each of us–and heal the planet.”

*”Creator is everywhere and divine light shines through everything and everyone all the time. My work is to look for the light…” (And then he shared it with us…)

*”I know the truth of what my people say: that we are all spirit, we are all energy, joined to everything that is everywhere, all things coming true together.”

*”Hard things break. Soft things never do. Be like grass. It gets stepped on and flattened but regains its shape again once the pressure passes. It is humble, accepting and soft. That’s what makes it strong.”

*This piece, on love and depth of connection…is just so beautiful: “I don’t want to touch you skin to skin. I want to touch you deeply, beneath the surface, where our real stories lie. Touch you where the fragments of our being are, where the sediment of things that shaped us forms the verdant delta of our human story. I want to bump against you and feel the rush of contact and ask important questions and offer compelling answers, so that together we might learn to live beneath the surface, where the current bears us forward deeper into the great ocean of shared experience.”

*And this one, for me, has proven to be more than true as I’ve journeyed over the last year or so into myself more as a writer and person: “…but there’s only one way to say ‘yes.’ With your whole being. When you do that, when you choose that word, it becomes the most spiritual word in the universe…And your world can change.” (Yes. He was right. Mine has.)

*”Time is an ocean, present and eternal…and the miracle is that we find each other at all…the mystery of our meeting is time’s gift to us. Swim with me now. We have no other chance.”

*”Intuition will teach you meaning.”

*This practice, of gratitude…”It has been proven in my life that when your prayers are about gratitude for what is already here, Creator and the universe ALWAYS send more. Always…Be thankful, offer prayers of gratitude for the blessings already in your life, whether health, prosperity or productivity, and more blessings will come.”

*”Home is a feeling in the centre of my chest…in that is the sure and quiet knowledge that home is within me and always was.”

*”Missing someone is feeling a piece of your heart gone astray.”

For me, “Embers” is a guide to living the life I must lead. His work has taught me so much and I know that, while I was sitting on that deck in the middle of the bush last night, wrapped in a Black Watch tartan cape from Scotland and looking up at the very brightest of night stars, I thanked him for the teachings he gave me through his writings. Of all of his work, this one beautiful little book has fast become my steadfast guide to how to continue to lead my life. So much of what he writes speaks to me, of how I have journeyed so far.

As Wagamese writes: “Life is sometimes hard. There are challenges. There are difficulties. There is pain. As a younger man, I sought to avoid pain and difficulty and only caused myself more of the same. These days, I choose to face life head on–and I have become a comet. I arc across the sky of my life and the hard times are the friction that shaves off the worn and tired bits. The more I travel head-on, the more I am shaped, and the things that no longer work or are unnecessary drop away. It’s a good way to travel. I believe eventually I will wear away all resistance, until all that’s left of me is light.”

You know, I don’t regret any of the letters I’ve ever sent from my heart. I do, though, regret this one letter that I didn’t send to a man who wrote words that speak still, and always will, to my heart. He was light while he was here, and he’s light while he continues to journey on. I know this is true because I can feel it in the wind that moves through the trees on a late night walk, or in the sound that the ice makes as it crunches and creaks at the start of the spring break-up on Lake Ramsey, or in the crows that follow me with feathers beating at the air when I hike through the bush near Bobcaygeon.

I’ll miss knowing that there won’t be more words…and that I never wrote and sent that thank you letter to him…but then I’ll re-read this piece from “Embers” and think that he really isn’t that far away from any of us. He knew that…

“It occurs to me that the secret of fully being here, walking the skin of this planet, is to learn to see things as though I were looking at them for the first time, or the last. Nothing is too small then, too mundane, too usual. Everything is wonder. Everything is magical. Everything moves my spirit…and I am spiritual.”

Bless. Thank you for the teachings.


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It’s no secret that I’m a wee bit addicted to art. I think, when you’re a bit cerebral, socially awkward, an introvert, and a creative person, it’s a perfect storm for eccentricity. I remember, as a teenager, always being drawn to the big art books at Coles. They were always very expensive, so my parents couldn’t really afford them, but I would linger over the piles of them and touch the covers longingly. I so wanted to bring them home, so I wouldn’t be rushed in sitting with the images and taking them in. You know the ones I’m talking about, I’m sure…they were coffee table books, as some people used to call them. Now that I’m an adult, and I visit galleries like an addicted woman, I always buy books in gallery shops. (My latest is from the Art Gallery of Sudbury and is a beautiful collection of Daphne Odjig’s gorgeous paintings. It hurts my heart to think she’s gone.) Anyway, I also remember spending way too much time in my bedroom, listening to CDs and wishing I could be in a musical on Broadway, singing my heart out; or, reading really big books and then trying to write my own stories. I was a smart, fat kid who was terribly shy. It’s hard to believe now, if you know me, but it’s true. The shy kid is still inside of me. I always need to nudge her out of the way, especially if I’m nervous. No one else knows that, but I do.

When I was a teenager, my parents used to buy calendars as Christmas presents. (My parents weren’t wealthy at all. They were working middle class. In Sudbury, back then, what they made–combined–wasn’t a lot of money. We lived in Minnow Lake, for goodness sake, which wasn’t a very ‘safe’ or well respected part of town in those days.) Christmas presents were things that were practical: calendars, socks, pyjamas, and books. They never, ever skimped on money for books, and I know this is why I love reading and writing with such a passion now. I only ever asked for books, when I think back now to those years. Mum would ask, “What would you like for your birthday?” and I would have one or two books that I was longing for, and they would be my gifts. Not having money then, as a young person, and seeing my parents struggle to manage bills without worrying us as kids, made me value the worth of hard work and I learned that I didn’t really need to have everything I always desired. There’s something to be said for that, now, I think. I don’t need stuff. I’m not impressed by brands or logos. They weren’t things we could ever afford as I was growing up, so they don’t impress me now. I do, though, need books. That will never change.

Anyway, why would calendars be important? Well, I loved art, so…if I couldn’t get my parents to buy the big fat coffee table art books, then it was easier to sort of say that I would love to have an Emily Carr calendar or a calendar with beautiful Celtic knots that had been copied from the Book of Kells. That way, I could have art in my room every month of the year. Still, today, I buy at least one ‘art calendar’ a year, for either my bedroom or my office at work. I love beautiful things that are created from people’s imaginations. The whole process of creativity fascinates me, and I love how that process can transcend genre…moving from music, to art, to film, to dance, to theatre, to writing. It’s so amazing, to think of how it all spirals or ‘vines itself’ together. (Sort of reminds me of those fabulous Irish Celtic knots where the fish’s tail is in its mouth, or the dolphins loop together in a circle around some other image.)

One year, I must have been in my mid-teens, I found a calendar of Heather Cooper’s work. I remember it seemed magical to me. I was reading teen fiction at the time…all novels about knights and quests and things. Of course, that’s when I first read The Lord of the Rings and fell in love with fantasy and Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and the Narnia series…the whole thing, not just The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (!), and Orla Melling’s The Singing Stone. Never mind the Arthurian legends, which left me absolutely spellbound…and still do. It was so much easier to slip into a world that was so magical and legendary than to live in the real one, I often thought…and sometimes still do. 🙂

So, one of the months on the calendar was Cooper’s beautiful piece, “The Lion and the Lamb.” It’s all about two sides of the same coin, I think, and the notion of perception. There’s the beautiful lion, standing above the surface of a pool, and the smaller figure of the lamb is reflected in the water. When I see it, I always think of the myth of Narcissus, but there is so much more inside the piece that speaks to me. I think of my great-aunt, Maureen Kelly, who always used to say to me, when I went up to visit my great-aunts (we all called them “The Girls”) at 160 Kingsmount, “Ah, it’s herself, isn’t it?” I loved that about her. She was unabashedly Irish. She also was the person, along with my great-aunt Norah, who introduced me to the Irish legends and faery tales. They still draw me in with a tidal pull I can’t ignore, those lovely big books of stories. 🙂 I also think of how Maureen used to say, at the end of February usually, “Ah, March! In like a lion, out like a lamb.” Every year, I remember her saying that. (She was grand for that, for knowing phrases that had interesting origins, and I always used to call her when I had grammar and spelling questions while I was doing my undergrad and graduate work at university. She was so brilliant.)

Cooper’s piece of art reminds me of times I spent with Maureen, and Norah, and Clare, up at 160. That’s Maureen’s phrase, or one of them, anyway. “In like a lion, out like a lamb.” She was also terribly fond of “Red sky at night, a sailor’s delight.” My favourite thing about her, though, was that she gave great hugs and her eyes always sparkled. If you drove with her at night in the The Girls’ car, she would always, always, always, see a car with just one headlight working. It was sort of like ‘her thing.’ She would be driving, and we’d be in the back seat, and she would shout out, laughing as she did, “Aha! One eye! There’s a one eye, girls!” (Funny…the things you remember about the people who were such a big part of your life so many years after they’ve left. I’m glad for my memory’s accuracy sometimes…it’s like a movie plays in my head…)

Funny, how a piece of art can have so many memories linked to it…how it can make me remember my family members and the stories they told me when I was little and growing up. I even know where that calendar was on my wall in my bedroom. It was right above my bedside table, above a little antique lamp I had found somewhere. The light from the lamp sort of glowed upwards, I remember, bathing the calendar page itself in gold light. It seemed magical to me. It still does.

That’s why, when I arrived in Bobcaygeon at the little cottage I’d rented on December 27th, and when I saw the image of Cooper’s “The Lion and the Lamb” hanging above the kitchen sink, I exclaimed, like a crazy woman, “Oh my God! That’s a Heather Cooper painting!” to the fellow who owns the place. He just smiled. “Yes. You know her work?” I reached out to touch it. “Oh, God. Sorry. I didn’t mean to touch it. It’s just…it’s been in my heart forever, you know?” Then he told me that she was a friend of his father’s and that he had prints of her pieces in the little cottage space. There was another Cooper print in the bedroom above the bed, but it just didn’t strike me as the other had.

I knew, when I saw that print, when I walked into that cottage space that day, that I was meant to have found this particular space to write in. Somewhere, in my head, I could hear Maureen’s voice saying to me, “In like a lion, out like a lamb…or the other way round, Kimmy Ruth, depending on how the month goes!” Then I thought, somehow, that I am now both the lion and the lamb. I used to just be the lamb, all sort of fragile and wounded, but now I’m letting the lion sit in my heart more often. It doesn’t have to be one or the other anymore, I’ve learned this past year; I can be both the lion and lamb, strong and vulnerable at the same time. Such a lesson! The universe amazes me, how it links and swirls and dances around you, sending out tendrils of green memory that pull you backwards, all so that you can move forward with more certainty.

It’s funny; I remember being entranced by that old Heather Cooper calendar all those years ago…and now it’s come back to me to guide me into more writing that needed to be revised, edited, and finished. So circular, so Celtic knotted, so magical and transformative. This is why I love art, and always will. Colour and texture and image pull me in, and then I imagine stories…and everything is right with the world, even when it may not always be. 🙂


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I get lost. Very, very often. Mostly, it’s a physical and geographical happening, but other times it has more to do with my metaphorical journey in life. My sister, Stacy, just shakes her head when I tell her how often I’ve gotten lost on the way to other places. This year, she gave me a GPS for my birthday, two months in advance of the date, so that I would (maybe) “get less lost.” Trying to find Stratford, for instance, can sometimes have me wandering along poorly marked county lines and concession roads for hours. Still, I love the idea and exciting actuality of getting lost, only to find yourself in new and unexpected, almost divinely-inspired ways. There’s nothing like getting yourself lost. It’s when I’ve met the most interesting people, and when I’ve found the loveliest little antique shops.

In August, driving down towards Kingsville through a bunch of beautiful wide, open fields outside of London, I searched out Park Hill, the place where my paternal grandmother’s parents had settled, all English and Scottish and longing for new lives in Canada. I went into a little antique store, looking for a teapot that would remind me of the one I’d seen on Pelee Island in May. That one had been crafted in the shape of a little cottage. Anyway, I went in there, waited for something to speak to me, and found an almost identical little teapot. Yesterday, on the way out of Bobcaygeon, I stopped at an antique shop and found a wobbly, narrow little bookcase. I live in a small hobbit-like cottage of a red brick house and it lacks space for the one thing I love most in my life: books. I always look for little bookcases that will tuck into corners, or sit on the edge of a stair. I’m here on my own, so I know I won’t bump into them! I’ve actually created a number of quirky, makeshift bookcases, mostly out of my parents’ old antique pieces. I stuff books into antique apple crates, or turn a telephone table my grandfather made upside down and stack books in there. He wouldn’t be impressed, I don’t think, but I don’t mind. What’s he going to do, anyway? Haunt me? (Bring it on!)

So. Getting lost:

Yesterday, leaving Bobcaygeon, I drove to Cannington. It’s a place I hadn’t driven through or visited until December 27th. It’s lived in my imagination for much longer because my first writing mentor, the late Timothy Findley, lived there in a house called Stone Orchard, with his partner, Bill Whitehead, for years. When I worked with Mr. Findley through the Humber School for Writers while I was in my mid to late twenties, I would get envelopes postmarked from Cannington, and then later, from Stratford, and then finally, from France. He was my mentor for about a year, but we stayed in touch after meeting in the Sault one night after a reading he did up there, and I have a wonderfully vivid stack of letters from him. I re-read them sometimes, but it makes me sad, so I don’t do it too often. (No one likes a sad poet, I’ve heard!) I drove through Cannington on the 27th, but I was on my way to Bobcaygeon, so I figured in the time it would take for me to get lost in getting to my destination. Yesterday, on the way home to Sudbury, though, I built in a few hours to wander and explore. There’s nothing better (I can’t think of anything anyway) than driving through the backroads of Ontario and letting yourself get lost…all to find yourself in the process. There’s magic in that, and I’m all about noticing serendipity and cultivating magic in my daily life these days. Life is boring otherwise.

I searched out Concession 11, where I knew Stone Orchard would be. At first, I missed it. Then, down near a tiny graveyard, I let the two dogs out of the car and they wandered up and down the shoulder of the road for a bit. In the meantime, I stood there, eyes to the sky, breathing deeply and letting myself steep in the early afternoon winter sun. Then, I turned the car around and found Stone Orchard. I parked on the edge of the road and got a bit weepy. Here’s why:

Sometimes, I’ve found in my life, you meet a person who speaks to you on a soulful level. They don’t come along very often, and I wish I’d been brave enough to tell him what he’d meant to me, as a new, young writer from Northern Ontario in her late twenties. He believed in my short stories even though, at the time, I only ever imagined and defined myself as a poet. Our letters, in the beginning, were all business. Then, half way through our time together as ‘pen pals,’ the tone shifted and we became friendly. He started signing them “Tiff” instead of “Timothy Findley” and I remember thinking, “Oh, this poor man…having to read my rambling words.” I remember telling him once about a man I fancied, (well he was really more of a man-child, I guess you could say, looking back now), and how he had inspired a character in a story I’d written. I also recall that he gave me a wee bit of passing advice about love. I remember thinking, “Jesus…how surreal is this? One of my favourite writers, Timothy Findley, is giving me advice about love.” I wrote more stories, and heard back about what he thought of them. I went through a romance or two. Neither was fruitful or helpful. They bruised my heart so that I was fearful of sharing it for a decade afterwards. Anyway, Tiff was kind to me, and made me feel that having encountered not-so-nice men was likely less about me than I’d initially imagined, and more reflective of their character, or lack thereof. I felt blessed to have known him, and for him to have given me the gift of having a bit more faith in myself as a writer –and as person — back then. It has carried me through for the last eighteen years or so, in a light-giving, soul-saving kind of way. He walks with me, somehow, in my heart. I don’t know that most writers are very confident souls, to be honest, so having someone who had succeeded at making a life in the literary world, and who was kind and not at all egotistical–as well as being a great teacher of writing for a writer–was a blessing I’ll always be thankful for.

The second ‘getting lost’ episode yesterday took place outside of Orillia, somewhere between Hwy 12 and Hwy 69 North. Yup. I always know how to get home once I’m on Hwy 69. It’s a tunnel of trees, especially past Parry Sound, so you can’t really screw it up. But, if you put me in the Kawarthas, and then turn me west in a vehicle, things just don’t go very well. The dogs slept on the front heated seat, and I sang my heart out. Lost, naturally (!), I pulled over and used the GPS to get directions. Satisfied, I pulled onto a side road and hit a patch of black ice. Before I knew it, I hit a snowbank that was really a bank of plowed ice. There were horrible crunching noises. Snow flew across the windshield and all I could think was…what the hell do I do? When it ended, my RAV was lodged into a bank at the side of the road and on a steep angle so that I couldn’t open the driver’s door. I had to crawl over the dogs and exit the passenger door. It was terrifying, if I’m honest, and it’s one of the times when I didn’t like being alone while driving.

I trudged up to the nearest house and asked the woman if I could borrow a shovel. In my head, I thought I could just shovel myself out. I’m delusional, likely, in some aspects of my life: this was one of them, definitely. She just looked at the car, shook her head, and went into the giant garage next to the house and grabbed her husband. Before I knew it, he was driving a little green tractor out to my car. After about ten tries, he dislodged the RAV (and I didn’t kill him by accelerating), and I pulled it into his driveway. “I’ve got to get my hands warmed up before I go back out to put that running board panel back on your car. Come on back here. Bring your dogs.” (I had just read Colleen Murphy’s brutally scary “Pig Girl,” so I felt a bit nervous about it all.) Still, this man named Mr. Fraser had saved me and seemed quite ready for a chat. I needed a chat after that, and I think he knew I was shaken up and probably needed a bit of time to gather myself. He used his cold hands as an excuse to make me feel less freaked out about what had just happened. And then he distracted me with conversation. It worked.

The garage was a mess. Cigarette butts all over the floor, a mix of tools on greasy and marked up tables and workbenches. There was a dog bed for Dougall, the dog that he said often visited from the neighbours’ place while he worked. He had two tractors in there, and then I noticed the half-made plane. “Um, is that a plane? Do you really have a plane in your garage?!” I was incredulous. He laughed and told me the story of how he used to fly, and how he wanted to build this one from the ground up, so that he could fly again. How amazing, I thought, to be so talented as to be able to build a plane! He was quite the inventor and builder. He reminded me of both my father and grandfather, in the way in which he had this space filled with things. Everything seemed to have a place. “I’ve been trying to clean up. I’m not what you’d call really tidy, as you can see.” We sat there together, for twenty minutes, with him smoking up a storm, the dogs sitting at our feet, and had quite the chat.

“You’re Scottish! Fraser!” I shook my head. “Of course a Celt would save me. It’s cosmic!” And then we talked about my trip to Scotland last summer and how I’d stayed in a place that was on Fraser land. Soon enough, he told me the story of his family ancestry, and of the ancient crumbled castle that he has yet to see, but wants to some day visit before he dies. Then he asked me what I was doing in Oro-Medonte, in the middle of nowhere, so I explained my tendency to get lost, and I talked about having been in Bobcaygeon to write. “What are you writing, Kim? Stories, like?” I nodded and told him the idea behind my novel. “Sounds good. What do you do up there in Sudbury, then? Just writing?” Then we talked about teaching, and how his friend down the road has a wife who’s a schoolteacher. By the end of the cigarette’s burning, and for about five minutes after that, he told me about having worked for Molson’s in Barrie. That made me think of Dad, too, and of how he had worked for Labatt’s. These are salt of the earth men, you know? They worked their entire lives, day by day, and then dabbled in garages on evenings and weekends, finding comfort in making things.

“You got any kids? A fella?” He was a bit blunt, but I just laughed. “No, just dogs!” He shook his head, butted out the cigarette on the floor at his feet. “Jesus, girl, what are you doing single? How’s that even possible?! Shouldn’t be on your own.” I just shook my head and laughed. “Well, I imagine it’s because I’m a bit difficult. I keep getting lost and running into snowbanks. Those aren’t necessarily marketable qualities on the dating scene.” He just laughed and shook his head.

We wandered back out to the car, he put on the running board panel thingy (which had become detached in the snowbank accident/episode), and then I turned and asked, “Can I give you a hug? You saved me today.” So he laughed and gave me a big hug and off I went with new directions from a Scotsman who was the true definition of chivalry and support.

I sent Mr. Fraser of Oro-Medonte a thank you note with a little gift card today. Yesterday, I told him I would and he didn’t want me to. I don’t care. I like giving people gifts. Sometimes you just need to thank a person for a kindness, for the gift of giving you twenty minutes so that you can stop shaking after a startling episode. Sometimes, I think, you need to know which people are angels in disguise and give them a little hug in thanks.


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Project ArmHer, which plays on the strong symbolism of the word ‘armour,’ is a collaborative and multi-media theatre piece organized by the Sex Workers Advisory Network of Sudbury (SWANS) and Myths and Mirrors Community Arts. It was given its first dress rehearsal, to a small and carefully invited audience of supporters, in an undisclosed location here in Sudbury this past Saturday, December 17, to recognize International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. The words, though, the words come from the brilliant local playwright, Sarah Gartshore, who also happens to be a close friend of mine.

Sarah and I met about fourteen months ago in Sudbury Theatre Centre’s “Playwrights’ Junction,” led by local playwright and novelist Matt Heiti, and found out we were ‘kindreds.’ She’s one of the few people in the world whom I’ve met these last couple of years who feels as if I’ve known her forever. That means a lot to me, when I sense a connection of depth. Some people are a bit uncertain of such a connection’s intensity, but I’m not; I know it’s there for a reason for it being there, and I know there’s a reason why I met Sarah, and why she met me. It’s cosmic.

In Sarah’s own words, “ArmHer was written after I was commissioned by Myths and Mirrors Community Arts to capture stories shared by the women of Sex Workers Advisory Network of Sudbury (SWANS). For ten months, Tracy Gregory, Lanna Moon, Cait Mitchell, Sarah King Gold, and myself met with the women of SWANS to share in art creation.” Sarah listened to the women’s stories and crafted them into a series of strong, powerful monologues. When I first was invited to a private staged reading in the early summer this year, I was moved to tears. Sarah’s work, if you know it, has a rhythm and cadence to it that draws you in as an audience member. (If she weren’t a playwright, she’d be a performance poet.) She writes in such a way as to “offer a platform for voices from the margins.” She is, she has also written, “from water and story tellers…from the words of women and writing every day.” Sarah’s work often embodies research amidst groups of people who tend to be disenfranchised. She will spend hours at a bus station, observing people, speaking with them, listening to their stories and the lilt of their voices and life histories. She moves between worlds, I often think, in the way she collects the material for her plays, and then transforms it into something that lifts up off the page and stands up on the stage and then, well, walks into your heart and mind. She is just that good.

Some of my favourite pieces from the first read this year weren’t in this week’s production, but I still loved letting the words flow over me. Sometimes, when I listen to Sarah’s work in a theatre space, I just shut my eyes and let the words wash over me. I leave that space a changed person, I often find, just because her work is some of the most evolutionary I’ve heard in theatre in recent years. I have a few favourite pieces that were performed on Saturday, including “Shoe Whore,” “Complicated,” and “Land of My Body.” The first, a monologue about how the word ‘whore’ is used flippantly in society, strikes me. The voice speaking that monologue is of a woman who is a sex worker. She wonders why she can’t complain about her job, as others in offices might on a daily basis. Why is her work any less qualified as ‘work?’ This is the question that is posed and which sits in your mind long after the monologue is complete. The next, “Complicated,” is about a woman’s relationship with sex. This is never simple, for any woman, but for a sex worker there is a different facet of complexity involved. The voice questions as to when sex last damaged her, and when sex last delighted her. She lists off the number of times she’s engaged in sex, willing and not so willingly. It’s a different dynamic when you are a sex worker, I imagine, as you may not want to have sex with someone but must do so to be paid, to live, pay bills, and feed your children. In ending the monologue in a positive way, with the notion that the woman who is a sex worker can still claim her sexuality and revel in it, that she can feel joy in a genuine orgasm and in being alive, Gartshore has empowered that woman’s voice and story. The final piece that sits with me still is “Land of My Body,” which speaks to the idea of violence and sex workers. Sarah’s tendency to use choral responses adds to its eerie echoes. There is, this piece tells us all, no reason for violence to be done to a woman’s body, or a man’s body, or anyone’s body. The linking of violence to sex makes you realize, not that you’ve forgotten as you watch “ArmHer,” that these stories, of violence against women sex workers are more common than not and need to be stopped.

Sarah’s other work is impressive, too. She will cringe when she reads this, I know, but I can keep my head about me when I write about friends’ work if it’s really good stuff. She recently premiered “Survivance” at Native Earth Theatre in Toronto last month. That piece of writing, too, is chalk full of social justice and activism, and speaks to her awareness of First Nations issues. Coming up in the new year, Sarah will debut “Streethearts” at Thorneloe University, in the Ernie Checkeris Theatre space. I look forward to that piece, as well, knowing full well that her words and rhythms will sweep me away, drawing me into a different world, and making me think differently about how I live in this one.

The work done by “ArmHer,” and by the collaborative group of women who took part, was one of the most moving things I’ve seen in years. The weaving in of traditional First Nations drumming and singing, too, was an honouring of the missing and murdered indigenous women across Canada. The multi-faceted way in which this piece embodied so many important social issues, raising awareness of women’s voices from across society, is what makes it so vibrant and significant in Canadian theatre. I hope it sees other venues and larger audiences. This is what good writing, theatre, and art can do in a world that is more and more fragmented, it often seems to me; art should inspire, transport, transform, unify, and make us question our own beliefs and values, helping us to better form our world in a new and more kind way.

Congratulations to all those involved, and especially to the women who acted for the first time. Being so brave, to use words that were crafted from their own life stories, and acting them out in front of an invited audience, well, it struck me that they are stronger and more powerful than they can even know or imagine.

….and Sarah…well, you are magic. You bring words from the page to the stage, lifting stories up and giving them breath…raising them up so that we all listen and learn. (Besides that, though, I lost my hands in my lap on Saturday afternoon, with tears gathering in my eyes, so I know it’s good writing and good theatre. Yours, my dear friend, is always good writing because it reflects your heart and soul. No ego…just purpose and art. A perfect combination.)


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Some choices you make in your life define you, and help you to discover your own identity, even years after you think you will do so. When I took a minor in Native Studies (as it was then called) at Laurentian University in my undergrad years, I did so because I had always felt drawn to First Nations culture, history, and art. I had spent parts of my summers with my parents on Manitoulin Island, and I still remember going to see an archaeological dig at Providence Bay, listening to the archaeology students explain how people had lived, and why they had chosen that particular place to live. I knew very little about First Nations literature while at Laurentian, but this was in the early 90s and I was young. It takes time to build a body of knowledge from reading literature. You can never read enough, it always seems to me, and if you have a favourite genre or author, you can spend years exploring that genre or person’s body of work. I guess that’s part of why I love reading and writing so much…it really is such a vast country for the mind and spirit.

When I took Native Studies courses at University of Sudbury, I had the most amazing professors, including Barb Riley and Thom Alcoze. I learned a lot from Barb, as she was an elder who had moved north from Walpole Island, and shared a great deal of wisdom. I took more than a couple of classes with her and learned so much. Thom was a popular prof at the university. He was charismatic, extremely handsome, and a born storyteller, and it was this storytelling facet of his teaching that really resonated with me as a student. The one thing I will always remember, and I can still remember it was a night class and everyone was silent, caught up in his lecture, was that he talked to us about living mindfully on the earth. He said, “If you feel stressed,” and I remember he sort of jumped up and down on his feet as if he were antsy inside, “you just need to take off your shoes and your socks. You just need to go out there, out to that front lawn, plant your bare feet on Mother Earth and look up to the stars. Breathe in and then…” he would rock on his feet again, “Breathe out.” I just remember thinking, “Holy man…this guy…who is he?!” But I would carry that teaching of his from my early twenties to the present day. Now, I’m even more routine in my practice of gratitude. When I wake up in the morning, I always go right outside with the dogs, plant my feet on the ground, watch the sun rise, and thank the Creator, or God, or the Universe, or whatever you want to call it, for the gift of a new day. That’s my first thought–to be grateful and to be of best service in what I do, and in how I speak and act. It sets, I think, an intention for the day. So far, it’s working well for me. 🙂

For the past two days, I’ve had the great pleasure of professional development that actually spoke to me on a deep soul level. Our school board indigenous support worker, Carla, brought her uncle, Art, an Ojibway elder, to our sessions. He is a quiet man, but you can see his mind working, and his heart comes through in the words he speaks. He takes his time, choosing his words, thinking of what knowledge he wants to convey, and this wisdom just sort of permeated the two mornings we spent with him. He speaks slowly, he says, so that people who are listening can take the time to listen, can take the time to hear what needs to be heard. So much of what he said resonated with me, and made me feel blessed and glad to be teaching a Grade 11 course in First Nations, Metis and Inuit literature this year. I feel like I’m more of a learner than a teacher this semester, and watching my students learn about traditional practices and true First Nations history has taught me more than I could have imagined.

There’s something wonderful in hearing about how a 16 year old has been so moved by Richard Wagamese’s novel “Indian Horse” that she has asked her mum to read it, so that her mum can learn about residential schools. Here is where the whole ‘truth and reconciliation’ piece can come to fruition, in the ways that our children will teach their parents, the very parents who were not taught the true history of this country because a governmental and educational system wanted to avoid talking about things that were ‘unsavoury’ or that it felt needed to be hidden. There’s something inspiring, too, in hearing a student stop and say to me, “Miss, I can’t believe how horrible this is…how this even happened…how people let it happen…and how no one knows about this. My Dad didn’t know about it when I told him at dinner last night…and now I’m getting him to read this book.” That is why these courses need to be taught, why our teachers need to be trained about the cultural traditions and teachings as best they can be, and how our students will help to heal this nation.

Art spoke about how his parents feared he would be taken away to residential school. He never was, but he also spoke of how he feels that “two cultures” live inside of him. This struck me to the core. I’ve been teaching Richard Wagamese’s “Indian Horse” and Drew Hayden Taylor’s play “Toronto at Dreamer’s Rock” this fall, and both pieces of literature speak of how people are torn between the traditional ways and this modern, Eurocentric world. Art spoke of how the older world is always at risk of being lost, as elders grow older and die, and that there is such a need for stories and true history to be passed down. He spoke poetically, which also resonated with me: “We would like to build a world in which many worlds may exist.” Why, I wonder, is this such a hard thing to do? Our world seems so full of discord right now–filled with violence, excessive materialism, disconnection, lack of simple courtesy and kindness, and crammed full of superficial things. Even when I observe people’s interactions, I see a sort of empty hollowness there. Whereas people used to cultivate a depth of connection in simple interactions, now, I think and feel, everything seems more illusory and shallow. (I think of Internet dating, for instance, and this stumps me completely. My foray into this area this spring wasn’t rewarding simply because it all seemed so false to me. Others will argue the opposite, that there can be depth, but it seems to me that–sometimes–people are afraid of really knowing people on deeper levels. We all seem to be walking through the world, making the motions, but are more likely pale ghosts of what we could actually become…if we trusted ourselves.) What Art said yesterday and today made me realize this is why I am so drawn to First Nations teachings.

He spoke of how we all come from the Creator, how we “enter this world as spirit, and we leave this world as spirit.” I’ve seen this. Watching my parents die taught me this lesson. You come into this world on your own, and you end up leaving on your own. What you take with you is what you’ve learned on the journey. You love well, you gather love, you carry that with you. Always. How open and vulnerable you are to the learning, to the journeying, is what will help you cross over without fear. I saw the differences in this in the way my parents left the world. My mum left with great fear, which still bothers me, while my dad left with love, open to learning even more as he moved on. The difference between the two deaths–physically, spiritually, emotionally–was stark in contrast. The lessons I learned, the last ones they taught me on this earth, changed me completely.

Art talked about dreams, and how we can learn from our dreams. There are symbols and teachings in the dreams we have during sleep, and this is common to a number of cultures around the world, not just our First Nations peoples. He spoke about the Creator as “that one you cannot hide from.” Someone, some force, some essence, knows us to the core. I believe that is true. Otherwise, how could I–or anyone–feel a deep sense of purpose in being here on the planet, right now. It’s a time of shifting energies, I think, a time of great potential, even in the midst of such turmoil. Think of Standing Rock. Think of how that has unveiled itself, how people have felt drawn to that part of the world, to speak out on behalf of protecting the water and land. Art says “the land is living spirit.” It seems that people are waking up to this idea in a new, more serious sort of way these days.

The water protectors are important. The little girl from Wikwemikong, Autumn Peltier, who is just twelve years old, is my new hero. Last fall, Autumn went to GlobeDays, a Children’s Climate Conference in Sweden. She spoke of her worry for the health of the water: “In my own territory there are First Nations families that can’t drink the water. I have any auntie, Josephine Mandarin “Biidasige-kwe”, who prays for the water every day. She understands the importance of water. The women of the world must continue to support her. We need to heal the earth; now is the time for the future of humanity following behind us.” She’s all over social media today, speaking about the water and being honoured by the Assembly of First Nations. She’s twelve. How amazing is that?

This year, I feel I’ve come into myself somehow, and a lot of it has to do with a new closeness with the land. It doesn’t matter if it’s here, in Northern Ontario, or west from here, on the coast of Vancouver Island, or at the base of the beautiful mountains in Banff, or on Manitoulin Island, or on the farthest spit of land on Point Pelee, or even in the Highlands of Scotland. What matters is that I can feel a new, more intimate connection to the land, to that spirit, that I couldn’t feel before. Art spoke about how you can feel lonely in the world. I’ve always said that there’s a difference between feeling lonely and being on your own. I’m on my own, but I’m not lonely. I feel great connection to the spirit of the land, and perhaps that is why I am drawn so strongly to big, wide bodies of water that tug at me, or why I need to put my hands on the trunks of trees, or why I need to reach down and put my hands in earth when everything else seems to be spinning wildly around me. I feel blessed, finally, to find a place where there is such peace inside, and so much of this has come from realizing that the land is spirited, and that I am always learning, that the land is somehow teaching me my greatest lessons. When I can hear the wind in the trees at 6:30 in the morning on the edge of a beautiful northern lake, or when I can walk out on long winding Highland roads in Scotland and hear curlews and eagles calling from tall pines, I know there is something greater than us at work. I like feeling small. I feel held, somehow, cradled within a landscape that is ripe with spirit and teachings.

The greatest gift I learned from Art was what he said today, that we should “learn to walk with a sense of being graceful.” I would add “and grateful” to that sentence. I think I’m getting there. I actually think I’m finally getting there. And for that…well…I am truly grateful. And blessed. So blessed.

Chi-miigwetch and peace, friends.


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It’s no surprise to anyone who knows me that I am truly, madly, deeply in love with art. (I love being outside in nature, near water, or on a worn path in the bush in northern Ontario, almost as much as I love art…but art has become a fixation and passion of mine in the last five years. It’s filled a void of love, grief and loss that my parents left, I think. Doors have opened in my heart and mind that were shut; walls have crumbled. A lot of that, I think, has to do with how much I’ve immersed myself in the world of art.)

I’ve been meaning to get into the Art Gallery of Sudbury to see the two next exhibits, but I was away reading at Poetry at the Manor in Windsor when the exhibitions opened two weeks ago, and this past week was Wordstock Sudbury, so I’ve been running myself off my own feet. Yesterday and today, and likely the next couple of weeks, will be times filled with internal work and what I like to call ‘turtling.’ Some people will say it’s anti-social, to pull in and just take stock of what I’m feeling and thinking, but sometimes the world is too much and –as an introvert and creative person–I know I need to tend to myself when I get to feeling a bit ‘spinny’ inside. Part of this means dawn (or late night) walks next to Ramsey Lake, watching the sun rise, or the moon and stars shiver in the sky, and a few hours in the afternoon and evening either looking at art, or reading, or maybe fiddling with a new blog entry or a poem. I’m working on “The Kingsville Sequence,” a small sequence of haiku poems inspired by my love of Essex County. (Before this year, I’d never been there, but now I’ve been down there three times in less than twelve months and cannot get its skies and fields and Lake Erie out of my mind and heart. Besides that, I’m creating a series of ekphrastic pieces based on some ‘ofrendas’ that I saw at the Detroit Institute of the Arts (DIA) a week ago Saturday. Yeah, I got lost driving around on my own, but I know by now that if I don’t do things on my own, in a braver-than-usual-me fashion, I just wouldn’t see the things I want to see before I die. Melodramatic, perhaps, but true. 🙂

Today’s visit to the AGS was a lovely deep breath in and out after what’s been a frantic few weeks for me. I just wanted the silence of the space and the beauty of the art to fill me up…and it did…as it always does. I worked at the art gallery in my late twenties and it holds a space in my heart. I’ve written poems and plays in which it features prominently, and its stories and history always haunts me. For that, I must say, I am eternally grateful…to know that a place can have such a hold on your heart after twenty years is somewhat anchoring and comforting in a world that seems rather shifty at times.

In Gallery 1, you can see Barry Ace’s “Nayaano-nibiimaang Gichigamiin: The Great Lakes.” You walk into the gallery to see five great ‘honouring blankets’, each one holding its own space in a solid and tangible way. If you stand in the middle of the gallery and just breathe and let your eyes follow from one to the next, you can feel the energy of those five Great Lakes. They are all Hudson Bay trade blankets, “adorned with individual blanket strips with intricate floral motifs composed from glass beads and electronic components (capacitors, resistors, and diodes). Each blanket is an homage to the Great Lakes as traditional homelands of the Anishinaabeg.” I found myself drawn to two in particular, namely Lake Huron, which is the body of water that surrounds my beloved Manitoulin Island, and Lake Erie, which has haunted me a great deal since mid-May.

When I was a little girl, my parents took my sister and me up to camp on the edges of Lake Mindemoya, a place where you can see the outline of a woman in the shape of what is now more commonly known as ‘Treasure Island.’ I remember late nights in saunas, and then racing down between rental camps to speed down a long dock and then jump into a beautifully shallow lake. Swimming under the stars as a girl, well, that is a northern Ontario memory that won’t leave me. I’ll have it, I know, in my mind when I’m on my death bed, and I’m thankful for that. That honouring blanket, for Huron and its sacred Manitoulin, is all about paying homage to the “Great Crosswaters Sea.” The floral emblems that sparkle alongside the image of the thunderbird spoke to me on a deep level, reminding me of images I’ve seen since I was little. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been drawn to Ojibway art, especially the work of those artists who are of the Woodland School. They entrance me. This blanket wouldn’t let me leave it alone this afternoon. It conjured up August afternoons of pale Irish skin that freckled and burnt too quickly, and of my mother reading bent paperbacks and smoking Cameo cigarettes with a big red floppy hat on her head. She would peer out at the water over the top of her book, a beer at the side of her lawn chair, and was always sure to keep an eye on us as we swam out into the far distance of that shallow lake called Mindemoya. This afternoon, I couldn’t move; she was there, just as the honouring blanket for Huron was there. It shook my heart.

The other lake that has seduced me this year, in a truly surprising manner, is Lake Erie. I have never been down to Windsor before this year. The only reason I went in early May was to attend a ten-day retreat on Pelee Island, and to get a chance to work with Margaret Atwood for an afternoon. I had driven down through southwestern Ontario, through Mennonite country, and down towards the place where my dad was born and spent so much of his youth. My last good memories of time spent with my dad are of a road trip we took together in May 2009, before he fell and became a quadriplegic. We drove down to London, spent time sharing memories and thoughts, and then I took him to Park Hill, the tiny town where his maternal grandparents had lived. So, by the time I had travelled down to Kingsville in May, to cross over to Pelee Island, I was a bit emotionally raw. I had come through landscape that conjured up my dad in all his vibrant spirit. I could have sworn, at points, that he was sitting next to me in the car as I wondered about where my life was headed. Then, being thrown into a cottage with people I didn’t know, all writers, and having been stripped emotionally raw on the drive down to SW Ontario, well, I spent a lot of time taking long solitary walks and writing in my journal and finding little coves covered in fossils, so that I could sort out how Dad was hanging around again in my heart. I didn’t write a lot that week, but I met a couple of amazing friends…and for that I’ll be forever grateful to the universe, or God, or the Creator, or whatever you want to call it.

Going back down to Kingsville in mid-August, to work on the second draft of my novel, I spent time at a friend’s heritage house that overlooks Lake Erie. It’s a yellow brick house and, for those who know me, I’m always on about the yellow brick house on McNaughton Terrace and the one on Kingsmount that used to belong to Judge Orange. The house on Kingsmount is one I’ve stood in front of for years, on long walks. I stalk it. So, arriving to a yellow brick house on the edge of Erie pretty much did me in as a poet. Instead of sleeping upstairs in a bed, most nights I just pulled a duvet off one of the upstairs beds and slept on a chesterfield in the front porch, so I could hear the water smashing against the shore, and so I could see the moon over the water, and the shadow of the swing in the yard. I didn’t want to miss a single sunrise. Erie pulls at me with a power I haven’t known in a long time. Huron does it, too, but to a lesser extent somehow. When I was down in Windsor two weeks ago to read at the Poetry at the Manor event for some Canadian poet laureates, I felt compelled to drive out to Point Pelee National Park. I spent about three hours out there, walking amidst Carolinian trees and scuttling down little paths to the beaches. I sat there, watching the water, seeing the sun set, hearing the birds overhead, and I wept. How can you not? These lakes are powerful entities. They are alive and sacred. The land that edges and embraces their water is alive and sacred. It’s hard to explain to someone who doesn’t ‘feel landscape.’ I do. I’m into touching trees, picking up stones on beaches and in forests. The energy of the landscape, for me, is alive and speaks to me in a visceral and spiritual way. It’s why, I think, I was so entranced by Barry Ace’s work today…because art has an energy, too. It has a spirit, if you’re open to sensing it.

The show in the upstairs gallery is also breathtaking. A series of jingle dresses is displayed, and each one has a distinctive story that it tells. At first, you just see the visual beauty of it all — the bright colours, the sharply bright jingles that hang in strings from the fabric, the suggestion of beading on a patterned blouse. Then, as you read the descriptive cards next to the different pieces, you realize the titles of the work hints at deeper things. One piece that has stayed with me is Leanna Marshall’s “She Swims With Fishes” (2004). At the base of the dress is a sort of ribbon of silver metal that is cut out and which curls to the floor, hinting at something like fins flashing in sunlight. When you study it, though, and speak to Demetra Christakos, the Curator, she tells you it symbolizes the missing and murdered aboriginal women, and your heart breaks. Of the jingle dress itself, Wanda Baxter writes: “It is a healing dress. When we make the dress, it brings you healing. As you go through the process of making the dress, everything you do and all your feelings go into that dress. And as the maker, you are the only one who really knows and understands the art that you do, the experiences that you go through, the way your making connects you to others and all of your relations.” Yes. And in viewing these symbolic dresses, each with their own story to tell, you feel the energy of the makers ripple through you in the silence of the space.

I left the gallery feeling less ‘spinny’ in my head today. It roots me, being around art, in a way that being in nature and in the middle of landscape does, too. I’m blessed to have figured that out, in the second part of my life, after a great deal of struggle. Art can heal. Art can lift you up. Art can transform your life if you open your heart wide enough.


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I’ve been away from teaching since February, on a pre-scheduled and pre-paid leave to take time to work on some of my writing projects. I’ve done well. (I’m honestly my own worst enemy because I keep thinking I ought to have done more work, even though I did do what I set out to do. I just feel I have so much more to write and now I’m juggling the writing with the teaching again, so that can be a tug of war inside my heart. It is for me, anyway.) So, it’s been a bit of time away from the young women I teach. They are full of spirit and emotion. I think, almost every day, how I wish I’d had a guide of sorts when I was their age. They remind me so much of myself at that age…all creative, smart, uncertain, and terrified at times of the unknown. It makes me want to help them all the more, knowing that I might be able to help make their path a little bit less traumatic than mine was…I know it’s idealistic, but I’m a poet, so you can just chalk it up to that. (I’m lucky that I have about five really close friends who get it…and don’t seem to mind me the way I am…which is a bonus!)

I’ve missed my little writers. There are about four girls in particular who kept in touch via my ‘teacher email account’ while I was off on leave and sent me pieces of their writing to critique while I was away. They just needed someone to say ‘yeah, it’s fab. Keep going!’ One is working on her first novel, while another tends to drift towards writing poetry. A new student of mine this year is an avid writer and has dreams of starting up a publishing house when she grows up. (She told me the other day that she’s written four novels already, in a series of six stories. I just shook my head and said ‘Well, I guess I’m far behind you, then!’)

Without fail, the girls who are writers find their way to me. It makes sense. I know. They hover at the doorway after the bell (if they’re not in my class) so they can chat and then ask if I’ll read their new work, or if they’re in my class now, they’ll gather around just before lunch and chat with me. I’m glad I can be there for them. Mentorship in writing, especially in Northern Ontario, is crucial to ‘growing’ new young writers. I wish I’d had a writer as a mentor when I was in high school. Instead, I always felt really alone when I was a girl, just retreating into my bedroom, playing music loudly, reading a heck of a lot of books (and falling in love for the first time with Mr. Rochester), and writing some of the weirdest short fiction and most depressing poetry ever known to any sworn-to-secrecy-journal. I know, though, that words saved me as I struggled with depression and isolation even then. It was easy enough, if you weren’t socially adept, to retreat into yourself and imagine worlds. When these little writers come to me, I know what’s going in their heads. They tell me they love the words, and escaping into them. “Yup,” I tell them, “me too.”

Sometimes, you feel blessed to be a teacher. Sometimes, on certain days, and without any kind of warning, a student comes along and asks you a question that breaks your heart. Today, a student I’ve only just begun to teach this year stopped by to chat. We talked about the book she’s been reading. Then she asked if she could ask me a question. She started to cry. (For some reason, kids cry around me. It’s okay. I can handle it. I cry a lot, too, at home or in the car, so I figure it’s just lucky I don’t spontaneously break out into tears at school, too.) She asked me about my parents. “You talk about them in class a lot, you know…and you seem okay with it…that they’re gone.” That shook me up. “Yeah, I talk about them all the time. We were close. But, no, I’m not okay with it that they’re gone. How could I be?” She kept on. “So…I wanted to ask how you got through it when they were sick, when you knew they wouldn’t get better…that they would die. That you would be alone afterwards.” Dear God. I was not prepared for that question this morning. How do you answer a question like that? How do you protect your own battered heart and put up a wall for a bit while you try not to be shaken emotionally by the bravery and vulnerability of the young person asking you the question? I just took a deep breath and tried to think about how I managed. (My friends might say I didn’t manage very well…there are only one or two who were there through the hardest part…and they knew how dicey it was for me. It’s a miracle I’m even still here. I know that more than anyone else.)

“I wrote. I walked. I cried.” I started there. “But I was in my thirties and you are much younger. It was hard for me then, so I can’t imagine how hard it is for people your age.” We chatted about writing, then. It wasn’t a teacher and student thing. It was a writer-to-writer chat about how words make us feel better when we’re not at our best. I talked about how journaling still helps me. Years later, I can go through my journals of that time, when my parents were ill and then dying, and I can see how awful it was…how hard it was…and I recognize how strong I was, and had to be. I thought at the time that I was weak, but I wasn’t. I wouldn’t be here at all if I was weak. I know that now. I did, though, have big walls that I built up. They’re still there and that’s my biggest worry these days. You need to be strong when you’re trying to be the ‘person’ for someone who’s really ill. You tend to protect them by running interference with other people, including medical folks. You create a bubble of safety for them. I did that for my mum and dad whenever I could, but it was at my expense in so many ways.

Then, after they’ve gone, you need to be strong when you’re on your own. You feel the loss of the people who’ve died even more when you’re single, I think. Well, therapy helps, but living with dogs alone just doesn’t cut it when I have a bad day and just want to cry because I desperately long to ask Dad a question or get a hug from someone who loves me absolutely. The problem, though, is that I’ve noticed this year that I’m trying to break down the walls I built up to protect myself from pain–well, from the world, really–from the inside out. Sometimes, I think, you hope to find just one someone on the ‘outside’ who will accept you as you are and will recognize that you need help breaking your walls down. You may not even know how thick those walls are, that you’re trapped behind them, but you can feel you aren’t fully out from behind…and that causes pain all over again. It means you need someone to help you feel safe enough to break down your walls, so that you can be vulnerable…and that is quite a task.

So what’s the point of me writing this out? Here? I guess it’s that I’m remembering how much my students teach me. It’s ironic that I’m labelled as a ‘teacher’ when, in fact, they teach me the most profound lessons. One student’s question cracked me open today, made me realize that she was brave enough to let down her guard to ask me a question that would go to my most grief-ridden place. I had to be brave enough to trust her, to answer her question, to try and offer her some ideas for coping. (I’m no expert in grieving, but I don’t hide it from my students. I know grief is a reflection of love. I don’t hide the fact, either, that my creativity has come hand in hand with mental health issues like depression. I hope–I always hope to God–that what I’ve learned about how to walk through darkness to light will help one of them. If it does, help even one single kid, then I’ll be okay with all the time I’ve spent teaching…with the time it’s taken from my writing, even.)

Walking with my friend this afternoon helped, too. We talked about how palliative care is a journey. We talked about how many people are afraid to speak about how we live and die. Our walk by the lake, and our chat on the bench surrounded by too tame gulls and nosy little brown birds, made me think about how we all have to be so brave in this world. We need to take risks with our hearts sometimes. It’s the only way we can grow, I think…and it’s probably why I have always continually walked through the world ‘breaking my own heart,’ as I say. Violet laughed when I said that today. Then she said, “Well, what would be the alternative? Not feeling? Building more walls and not breaking them down?” The universe…man…the universe sends you lessons in couplets or triads, it seems, and all in one damn day.

That little writer today made me realize that it’s okay to let down my guard, to let the walls fall, even when I’m unsure of how much my heart will be broken again, in either small or large ways…and what a lesson she taught me. This afternoon, I went out and bought her a journal. She said she’d write it all out, let the words guide her through this sacred journey she’s on with her mum. Because it is all sacred, even the pain of knowing someone’s going…because the love shared then–when you know they’re in the process of leaving you–is that kind of love that creates stars in the sky and sends birds soaring through the tree tops. It’s that beautiful, and it’s that horrible. But, above all, it’s that sacred and holy.

peace, friends.

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