Archive for the ‘Wanderings and Ponderings’ Category

I am forever looking up art galleries and museums when I’m traveling to new cities. I was in Calgary for a poetry reading with the Flywheel Reading Series (established by Filling Station Magazine) this past weekend, so I knew I wanted to visit the Glenbow Museum. It’s a fabulous place, but add in the lure of an exhibit of Frida Kahlo’s home photos and, well, I was bound to find it.

Kahlo’s father was a professional photographer, so she grew up around cameras. I’m assuming, too, that as a visual artist, other artistic mediums would appeal to her. As a writer who is inspired by visual art and photography, by images, I can see how this connection would also appeal to a visual artist.  The Glenbow exhibit includes 241 photos of the 6500 images that were revealed to the public in 2007 by the Frida Kahlo Museum. These 241 photos are fascinating, but I left the museum wanting more, mindful of how much I am drawn to Kahlo’s life story. (Her work intrigues me, but I can imagine that such brilliant work would have been the result of a unique woman who would’ve been interesting to talk to over a cup of tea. I’d say the same of other creative women who inspire me as a writer. They would include women like Virginia Woolf, Georgia O’Keefe, Emily Carr, and Leonora Carrington….and then I’d probably throw Maud Gonne into the mix because I find her to be a Yeatsian paradox of the highest order! Now, that would be some dinner party…)

What struck me most about this exhibit, and there were plenty of photos to look at on Saturday morning, were the photos that documented Kahlo’s life after her tram accident.  Her love of theatre, and costuming, too, intrigues me. She became an artistic subject, the ‘leading lady,’ really, in her own life, and in a life which she created as a sort of living mythos. I don’t know how many artists do this, take (and paint) their self-portraits to such an prolific extent. I think, somehow, of Emily Carr, and of how there are plenty of iconic historical photos of her, some of my favourites being the ones with Woo, her pet monkey.  Still, she really didn’t paint herself into those beautiful, raw British Columbia forests she so loved to capture in colour.

The thing about Frida is that her accident changed the way she viewed (and lived in) her physical body. If you think of how complex women’s relationships are with their bodies, and then you add something like chronic pain and amputation to the mix, I can imagine the story a woman would tell herself would be a source of creative material. This sounds rather sadistic, but as a writer, I think it wouldn’t be too far fetched for a woman to feel out new ways of being and experiencing the world through her physical body, even if it’s so badly wounded. It is, after all, still her body.

Kahlo’s tram accident, when she was just eighteen, broke her body.  As Mauricio Ortiz writes in an essay titled “The Broken Body,” the effects of the tram accident included: an abdomen “pierced by an iron bar…” and “her elbows, spine, pelvis, right foot and right leg were fractured in various places.” Ortiz goes on to say that her life was complex, indeed. She had a miscarriage and two surgical abortions, as well as suffering from alcoholism, nicotine addiction, and anorexia. Kahlo died in 1954, at 47 years of age, under suspicious circumstances that point to suicide. One can only imagine the body and breadth of art work that would have been created after such a young age, if she had only lived longer. But one can also imagine the intense and constant pain she must have suffered from after her accident.

There are a number of Kahlo paintings that speak to her physical agony. They are well known. The photographs are so raw, though.  There are the ones where she is draped over herself in a hospital bed in New York City, in 1946, her long hair obscuring her face, but her hands are clasped together in a pose that evokes a keen sense of despair and defeat. The photo of her head in traction, taken in 1940 in Mexico City, depicts a woman who stares directly and defiantly into the camera lens. She wants to make you feel her discomfort, so that you can imagine and feel how trapped she was in that body of hers.

And then there are the photos of her painting in bed, a canvas rigged up above her head, her right arm raised and her head still in traction. It looks painful, definitely, but you can see from her face that she delighted in creating paintings. It was a way to escape from the physical pain, her creation of art. In 1953, she dealt with the onset of gangrene in her right foot. This was the year she lost her right leg and foot to an amputation just below the knee.

I had known of Kahlo’s amputation before seeing “Frida Kahlo: Her Photos” at the Glenbow Museum last weekend. For me, amputation has a strong personal connection. My mother suffered from vascular issues and gangrene in the year before she died, and had a trans-metatarsal amputation of her right foot. She was bedridden for the rest of her life, directly as a result of that amputation. In my experience, physical amputation is unlike any other pain, but I can only say this from close observation. The psychological effect for a woman, of having part of a foot or leg taken off, is damning. The importance of the human foot, which we often won’t spend time thinking about, is key to all ambulation. We balance on the balls of our feet, we wiggle our toes, we swirl our ankles in circle when they are stiff. We walk. We dance. We shuffle. We don’t think about our feet, really, until we lose them.

In Frida’s case, she wore beautiful long skirts to hide her damaged legs and feet. In the case of modern amputation, people will bandage up body parts in gauze and try to hide the carnage. When you see the state of an amputated foot, with toe bones emerging from an unhealed forefoot, well, you can imagine that being bedridden is often par for the course. In a diary entry dated March 11, 1954, Kahlo wrote: “My leg was amputated six months ago. It feels like years of torture, and I have almost lost my mind at times. I still feel like killing myself…I’ve never suffered more in my life. I’ll wait a little longer.” The despair is there. How could it not be? This does not, either, take into account the surreal experience of phantom limb pain, and of how the amputee must deal with pain in a part of the body which no longer exists. The mind plays cruel tricks…

Before the amputation, though, Kahlo’s photos in hospitals are interesting because she juxtaposes images of chronic pain with images that are highly seductive. There is one photo, taken in New York City in 1946, where Kahlo is on her belly. Her face is tilted towards the camera, her hair cascading around her shoulders, one hand on the pillow next to her, and her back is partially bared. What changes this photograph from being one of pain to being one that is almost sensually charged is that she looks directly at the camera. This, in itself, is nothing out of the ordinary. She seemed to like looking directly into camera lenses. There is, though, a sense of something secret in her gaze, a sparkle, a bit of seduction, as if she is owning her sexuality despite her brokenness. There’s a great sense of spirit and rebellion in this pose and photo. She is not “done” in this photo. She is still fighting. It comes eight years before the pain became too much and before the morphine became the better lover.

And then I will come to Susan Sontag’s fabulous book, On Photography, which I’m reading right now. (It’s funny how books come to me when I most need them to…all divine timing and serendipity of the highest order.) Fiddling with notions of Kahlo’s broken body in my mind, and of how women view their physical bodies, and of how men view women’s bodies through the infamous ‘male gaze,’ and jotting down lines for some ekphrastic poems that will investigate these notions, I was sitting in Pages Bookstore in Calgary on Saturday night, right up next to a shelf of books. My friend, Calgary writer and editor, Sandra McIntyre, ran her fingers along a shelf, found one, pulled it out, passed it to me, and said, “Oh, Kim! Have you read this? By Sontag? Not just a book about photography, but a piece about art. You’d love it.” So, this is the way I have come to spend time with Susan Sontag this week: during a delay in the Calgary Airport, sitting with a cup of cinnamon tea on a Wednesday night after listening to a poetry reading in Windsor, and reading next to a snoring shih tzu who is pretty much totally blind now.

First released in the early 1970s, a lot of what Sontag writes about is now even more timely, especially given how even the most inept among us can ‘point and click’ our iPhone camera and seem to be Instagram-worthy world renowned photographers. As she wrote in the 70s, “To photograph is to confer importance.” This works for me, as I am forever taking and posting photos of trees on my Instagram account. Well, trees, dogs, skies, bodies of water, and also abandoned houses. These are the things that seem to draw me in, as a viewer, a human, and as a poet. I gather images when I photograph things. I pull my car over on back roads, or I have my friend, Jen, stop the canoe when I see the sun hitting a high ridge of rock near Killarney in a soul-stirring way. (I can be an annoying hiking or canoeing partner…gathering images….always exclaiming “Oh, my God! So beautiful!”) So. All that is to say that I confer importance on the natural landscapes into which I choose to enter. I don’t really like cities, but give me the woods, or a lake, a brilliant sunrise or sunset, or just a general preponderance of trees…and I’m lost. As Sontag writes, the compulsion to photograph something is a way “to turn experience itself into a way of seeing.” Yes. I get that. A lot. I also see my love of photography as a way to remember things I’ve experienced, a log of my life’s moments. Maybe some will transform themselves into lines of poetry, or find themselves in a short story or novel or on stage in a play, but I mostly just want to see where I’ve been, to capture that essence in memory. Social media just serves as a way to archive or catalogue, I guess…and if a few friends stop by along the way, that’s okay, too.

So, when I think of Frida Kahlo’s collection of old family photos, and then of Susan Sontag’s On Photography, I think about how images work, how we notice things that begin to gain our attention, our “poignant longings for beauty” as she says in her essay, “In Plato’s Cave.”  (This is probably why I like William Morris and his views of art and beauty, and of aesthetics, but that’s another blog.) When Kahlo pressed a lipsticked kiss to the back of a photo or two, or cut out the faces of someone who hurt her heart, I can imagine she was a woman who lived her life fully, despite the physical limitations she dealt with after that fateful tram accident.

I’m drawn to Kahlo’s notion of the female body as broken (due to injury, or maybe even to the rhythms of life itself), whether that is visible or (in)visible. I’m also drawn to the way in which she speaks to a woman’s sense of her own sensuality and how it never really leaves you, even when you think it might have. It’s always there, just under the surface of things, waiting to emerge. Sometimes, too, when you think you’re whole, you really aren’t….and when you’re broken, well, that “brokenness” might be the best teacher you’ve ever encountered. And maybe, just maybe, we become whole by working through our brokenness. I kind of like that idea. It works for me.






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I’ve written before about my battle with depression, anxiety, and weight. If you’ve known me for a while, it’s not a secret; the person I was in 2008 is (thankfully!) not the person I am ten years later. There are three reasons for this, I think. One is Zumba, one is writing, and one is yoga. All three led me to step into myself with a passionate abandon. (Sometimes, I think I’m too intense now, so full of wonder and a bit scary that I lose people along the way…but, then, I think, maybe they weren’t meant to be on the journey with me for the long term. We all have our paths. I learned that in yoga class.) When I lost weight through Zumba and hiking, or walking, then yoga got easier. I had less fat to bend over. I felt stronger. I felt graceful and beautiful. I felt centred.

Here’s the tale of Zumba…with thanks to Zumba Vibe Sudbury. Owned by Christina Chicoine, this group of dynamic instructors has somehow woven themselves into my life in varying degrees, and a few are dear friends now. So, to Christina, Danielle, Brigitte, Mary, Martha, Julie, and Tor, I owe so many expressions of thanks. And this is why:

I came to Zumba in January 2012. My father had died just a week prior to this, and my friend, Pat, dragged me to a school gym in Coniston. I still remember it. I was overmedicated with anti-depressants, anti-anxiety pills, sleeping pills, and Ativan on the side. I had gained a lot of weight on Remeron, the only anti-depressant that seemed to pick up my mood. (I remember a very intense affair with trail mix in the middle of nights…while my mum was bedridden in 2008 and then again when my dad was dying through 2011-12. Not a good scene. I still can’t look at trail mix. I can eat the bits separately, but not together.) So, that night in January 2012, I weighed 230 lbs. I was a Size 18. Yup. I wasn’t dedicated to dancing, then. I did, though, start Weight Watchers and, over a year or two, went from a Size 18 to a 14. The last time I weighed myself, I was somewhere around 182lbs. That was in February 2016.

That year was my first “Year of No Fear.” It was monumental. I took a semester off from teaching and focused on my writing. I went to Banff to work on my historical novel. I went to Pelee Island to write and fell in love with the beauty that is Lake Erie. (I still feel like I’m cheating on Manitoulin Island when I’m there…but I’m hoping Manitoulin doesn’t mind!) I became the poet laureate of Sudbury. I stepped into dancing and yoga with a new kind of commitment.

During my time as laureate, I worked part-time, teaching two English classes instead of three each semester. This allowed me to get out into schools to hang out with kids and teachers, and to talk about poetry.  I thought working part-time would give me more time to write, but I actually ended up doing a lot more planning and marking than I thought I would. My evenings, though, became freer, so I was able to dance at night more often. On average, I was dancing about four to five hours a week, and then I added Pound to the mix, with at least one class a week.

From 2016-18, then, I went from a Size 14 to what I am now, an unfathomable Size 8. I don’t weigh myself. I don’t care. What I do care about is my health. I’ve been off anti-depressants and other such drugs since about April 2016. That was the tail end of being medicated. That was also the tail end of me listening to my broken mind. I believed the stories that it told me twenty-four hours a day: that I was not worthy of happiness or love, that I was ugly, that I was obese and so should be quiet and invisible, and that I should just be ‘accepting’ of what my life was like after caring for my parents for a decade. My thirties, I thought, should have been mine…but I lost them. Now, though, I can see that everything does happen for a reason. My caring for my parents, and my being very ill with major depression at the same time, served as a catalyst for my own evolution.

Ten years ago, I was suicidal. I was obese. I was caring for a bedridden mother with gangrene and a transmetatarsal amputation who didn’t want to speak to me (even though I fed and nursed her) and was angry that she was dying. I was managing a dad who was in failing health. Ten years ago, I was very very close to erasing myself. I remember taking the dogs for a walk, the only way out of the house I shared with my parents, and thinking, “If I didn’t have the dogs, I could just walk in front of that car. It would be fast.” So…I knew enough to take the dogs for walks. I kept at it. I tried to save my mum. It didn’t work. I tried to save my dad when he fell on a fishing trip in 2009 and became a quadriplegic. It didn’t work. Now, in 2012, after he died, I knew the only person I could ever really save would be me. It would be hard work, but I would do it. This would be about weight, on the surface, but it would also be about living with passion and mindfulness, with great compassion for others, with poetry, and with a really keen  awareness of how there could be light after darkness.

Now, please know I am not advocating that people who are struggling with mental health issues just go off their meds. I was on and off meds for a number of years, for most of my adult life, but especially between 2007 and 2016. I always worked with my psychiatrist (when I had one) and my family doctor. It was a delicate dance. A painful one, too. There was an episode of massive anxiety due a work issue between 2014-2016 that caused me to have chest pains. That time, no depression, but anxiety, and a visit to an emergency ward thinking that I was having a heart attack. Nope. But that then led to a thrice daily timed dose of Ativan, while I was teaching, with me trying to stand up straight, fight vertigo, migraines, and nausea, and make my lips form the right words. I didn’t fool anyone. I was too broken.

The leave to write, in Feb 2016, released me from the stress of that oppressive work issue, removing me from the source of the pressure. (When people say that bullying doesn’t happen in adult workplaces, they would be wrong. It does. And it’s insidious, secretive, manipulative, and can make you feel broken, especially if you’ve dealt with stigma. People who know you’ve struggled and gotten better can then use your past history to make you feel crazy again…and it’s like a re-victimization of a sort. It can break you.) Or you can break it. I chose that last one…

I’ve often heard that people’s health journeys begin with a wake up call of sorts. For me, it was having lost my thirties to caring for two very ill parents. Both of them didn’t exercise, drank too much alcohol, ate badly, were obese, and just weren’t connected with people. My mother, in particular, pulled in. She pushed people away. When she was dying, it was worse. My father was social, but deferred to my mother, so the house in which we lived while I was their main caregiver was made smaller and smaller. It was like living inside a box, with no way to open the lid. Suffocating.

My mother died in December 2008, just before Christmas. My dad died in 2012, just after Christmas. (December is a bad month for me. I turtle. My friends know I surface in mid-January.) So, my catalyst was the notion that I had lost ten years of my life. I had confused love with duty. Now, well, it was time to stop hiding behind layers of fat and eating emotionally to fill voids that I didn’t want to address. Therapy and healing is hard work. Anyone who tells you differently is lying. It would have been easier to have committed suicide, if I’m honest about it. But that wasn’t my path. Instead, I wanted to sculpt my life. Zumba did it.

Zumba did it…but there were some amazing women who helped me believe that I could do it. I didn’t do it alone. They led me. Now, I’m less afraid. I don’t know if they know it or not, but they should, so I’m writing it here. They helped me be fearless. I’m brave now. I remember the time Mary saw me having a panic attack, a few years ago in the back of one of the school gyms, because I didn’t have enough space. I was about to leave, but she came back there, her arms open, and pulled me next to her in a row where there was space. She didn’t know, and I hope she does now, but she was the one who made me stay on when I was about to give up. There’s Martha, who yelled out, “Squeeze! Core tight! Blue dress!” (knowing that I was now in love with dresses because I could wear them without looking pudgy…but more sleek and confident). Then there’s Julie and Victoria. These two, oh well, they are like magic. Last month, knowing I was readying to leave for my writing retreat and that I was still wearing clothes that were too big for me, Tor said, at the end of one class: “Look. You and I can fit inside your coat! There’s something wrong about this! You need to buy new clothes. You need to give the old ones away.” And so, she and Julie came for supper one night and then I had a great deal of rum and pineapple juice, and watched as they vetted my closet. It came down to this. I felt a bit naked, vulnerable, afraid. Tor knew. “Why are you hiding now? You need to come out and stop hiding. These clothes hide you. No more.” And so, I sat on my bed, a little bit drunk, while they went through and ruthlessly pulled out anything higher than a Size 10 or a Medium. Julie was the one who was most ruthless, and Tor was the one who tossed the big clothes onto the floor at the end of the bed. I just sat there, a bit frantic inside. Tor knew. “You okay?” I nodded. “Yup. It’s just a bit like leaving behind part of yourself, though…”

I’ve taken this semester off to write, but this time, I’m going down to the Windsor-Essex area, so I can sit on my favourite beach on Point Pelee National Park, and touch some of the most beautiful trees that I’ve ever seen on the planet, and walk down those lovely trails by myself, and figure out how my next novel will evolve. I know, in my heart, where it’s heading. The characters have been nudging me for months now, waiting for this retreat to come to the front of my head and heart. They’ve been patient. I’ve been nervous. Stepping into yourself takes more courage than I imagined. It means that you now value yourself enough to give yourself the time to write, to trust that you can do that hard creative work, and that you will need the time away from your home to get centred and focused.

All this is to say that dancing, especially Zumba, has changed my life. I’ve already figured out where to take classes when I’m away…but it won’t be the same. My friends won’t be there. I’ll miss them horribly. These women have become part of my family. (I don’t really have much of a family, so they are a large part of it, if I’m honest…) I’m coming back home in late April for a couple of weeks, to attend literary things, and to do a bit of yard work, and to hike The Crack in Killarney with my friends Jen and Brad. I’m also going on my first three-day canoe trip with some kids from school. I’ve fallen in love with canoeing and swimming in lakes…all because I have a strong body now. I can see trees. I can hear birds. I’ve fallen in love with landscape that I could never enter into before, all because I was too fat and not fit enough to carry a canoe over my head, or jump off a Killarney island and go swimming in the North Channel. Dancing has done all of this, too…given me a new way of being in the world.

I’ll find a ceili dance in Windsor if it kills me, too, so that I can feel the music that I most love, that true traditional Irish stuff, move through me. Sometimes, I teach myself what I try to teach my girls at school: you need to go beyond your comfort zone, and you need to stretch out and then also go inside yourself to find out what you’re made of. For me, it’s about trusting that I am valuable enough to take time to write this novel, on my own, and on the edge of a lake that I love more than any other I’ve ever encountered in this lifetime. (Who knew…you could fall in love with a lake and a sky and a murmuration of birds?)

So…to anyone who says that you can’t refashion yourself, that you can’t –with a bit of very hard work and focus — sculpt a new life…ignore them. It’s up to you, really, to pick up your own life and make it vibrant and beautiful. If people don’t want to come along, well, it’s their loss. You’ll find those who resonate with you more truly as you journey. You’ll know them because they will smile when you come to Zumba class, hug you as you leave, and smack your ass after a particularly feisty salsa or meringue, proud to share your progress and success with you.

I’m going to miss my Zumba family for the next six months…but I’m thankful for FaceTime and my phone. I love them…more than they know. They really did save me…I hope they know that. I do.  Because of them, well,  I’m strong. I’m graceful. I’m beautiful. I’m here. Fully present (Maybe now…they will…) I love you people…in case I get hit by an ore truck.

peace, friends.






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The tragedy last week in Florida has sat heavily in my heart, and in my mind, for many days now. In late 2012, I remember writing a blog about the tragedy in Newtown. My thoughts remain much the same. Automatic guns aren’t necessary. You can’t try to persuade me as to how they are acceptable in a democratic society, or how American teachers should be asked to get trained and then carry them into their classrooms, ostensibly to defend their students. That is, to be completely honest, just pure and simple bullshit. And here is why.

If you ask a teacher why they came to the profession, most will tell you it’s because they love to learn, enjoy being with young people, and want to share their love of learning and knowledge with their students. William Butler Yeats’s quote about gathering knowledge is one of my favourites. He wrote: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Yes. Now, some who don’t teach will always say that teachers join the profession because of long summer holidays, or health benefits, or they will say, as some have said in my range of hearing, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.”  It’s actually a quotation taken from a work by George Bernard Shaw, but it’s been bastardized over time. Now, it’s often used in an insulting way, if you teach, and it’s a mindless way of trying to devalue the good and hard work that educators undertake each day. My blood boils when I hear that quote used in flippant conversation, usually by someone who thinks teachers aren’t worth their salaries.

In the length of time I’ve been teaching, about sixteen years or so, the profession has changed a great deal here in Ontario. (I can’t speak to America, but I have American teacher friends, so I’ve heard different stories.) When I began, parents seemed to value the work that teachers did. Now, it is not always so. There have been times, in the last five years, when I’ve opened my work email account, or picked up telephone messages, or had parent-teacher meetings, only to be berated by someone who won’t let me respond to their accusations while their voice(s) increase in venom and volume. Some phone calls can leave you physically and emotionally shaken, and then you think to yourself. “Why? You haven’t even met me…” It seems now that this kind of treatment of teachers is acceptable. I’m not sure how, but it seems to be rooted in the poor health of our current society. I see it reflected even in local businesses where owners need to post notes about how their staff should not be verbally abused by patrons and customers. In the school system, we struggle with bullying, but it seems to me that the entire society within which we live now is saturated with it, in one way, shape or form.

Having said that, I want to say that I love teaching my students. They show me that there is great potential in the world, if it is encouraged and supported by family and by educators. Here is the thing, too, that has altered in the last sixteen years. Family structures have morphed into more diverse forms. This is neither good nor bad, but it does change the way a person teaches. In a semester, I will watch kids struggle with emotional issues. They are more anxious, but yet less likely to be able to cope. Helicopter parents have swooped in once too often and now kids aren’t sure how to deal with failure. You can’t learn how to deal with a failure, to turn it into a success or strength, if someone else older than you has erased it from your field of vision and experience. So, we see kids dealing with mental health issues like anxiety and depression. They aren’t “made up” and it doesn’t help (as some people seem to think) if you just ignore it and think it will go away. And, contrary to popular belief, mental health issues don’t “spread” if you talk about them in public spaces and places. Being open with kids is the best way to encourage adaptability and mental health that will serve them well now and throughout their lives.

Last week’s shooting in Parkland chilled me to the bone. Whenever we have a lock down drill at my school, my heart rate speeds up. We never know when it will happen because our administrators want us to take it seriously, want us to feel fearful, helping us to learn how best to cope if such a horror were to take place. We tell our kids to go to the back of the classroom, to group together tightly and quietly, and we ask them to silence their cell phones in case a shooter were to hear a ping or ring. Then, as they go to the back of the classroom, we rush across to our open classroom doors and lock and shut them. I always check twice. I’m on leave from work this semester, to write a novel, but the last lockdown we did, I saw two frantic girls running towards my open door. The other teachers down my hall had already locked and shut their doors. I can say to you that I felt like a mother bird, pulling them in and slamming the door shut behind them. Their faces told me they were afraid, as I’m sure my face did for them. It isn’t ‘fun’ to do a lockdown drill. It’s not a fire drill.

When I heard stories about Trump saying American teachers should be trained in firearms use, and that they could deal with ‘taking out’ any shooter, I shook my head. What we do as educators isn’t about killing anyone. We have come to education, we have come to kids, to help them grow and learn and flourish. We are all about life, and nothing about destruction. That someone can think it wise to arm teachers astounds me. It would go against every fibre of my being. You can tell this when you hear the stories of the brave teachers who sacrificed themselves for those kids in Parkland last week, or the kids in Newtown, or the kids in Columbine. Scott Beigel, 35, was a geography teacher. He unlocked his door after it was locked, pulling kids into his classroom so he could save them, and he was shot. Aaron Feis, 37, was an assistant football coach. He was shot when he threw himself in front of the shooter, to protect his kids. Chris Hixon, 49, was the athletic director and a wrestling coach. He died, too, trying to help kids who were wounded.

What’s the common theme here? These are teachers who tried to save their students, against all odds. They loved those kids. They gave their lives for those kids. Guns wouldn’t have saved those teachers, or those kids. They wouldn’t have. What would need to happen first, and who knows what will happen because it is America, which is so very different than Canada in terms of gun laws and acceptance of openly carrying weapons, is anti-gun legislation. The National Rifle Association would have to agree to stop courting and funding political campaigns, and politicians would need to say no to NRA funding. That would be a start.

And then, well, then there are the kids who were lost. I can’t imagine losing a student in such a way. I’ve lost two prior students to tragic incidents, one in the depths of the mines here in Sudbury, and another in a snowmobile accident. I think of them both very often. I can’t imagine the trauma that the students and teachers of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are dealing with right now. I can only tell them, and their families, that my heart breaks for them. When we gather in our kids during lock down drills, and when we hush them while our hearts speed up, we can only just imagine a fragment of what they all felt that day last week. Their losses, their grief…there just aren’t words.

What education systems need now, in Canada and America, are influxes of funding for other underlying issues. Not guns and firearms training. Teachers need support in their classrooms. We see troubled kids all the time, and we watch them, and we report them to Student Success teams, Guidance counsellors, and administrators. We watch for poor attendance patterns, or poor hygiene, of a pulling in of spirit and personality. We watch for kids who seem to be anxious without reason, or who can’t cope with simple challenges, or who might even have suicidal ideation. We watch for these things every day because we are teachers. We are, while our kids are with us, “in loco parentis,” or “in place of a parent.” We watch them, we stay awake at night worrying for them if they struggle academically or emotionally, and we try really, really hard to save them. But sometimes we can’t. We need help there. We aren’t social workers. We aren’t trained psychologists or psychiatrists, but we are more and more often called to do this deep work on top of our underlying ‘original’ work.

But, at the end of the day, we’ll still rush to the classroom door to look outside into the longest of hallways, and we’ll hear the terrifying thud of doors slamming shut and echoing hollowly. And we’ll see school bags abandoned by open lockers like ghosts, while we lock our doors and try to keep our kids calm. That’s what teachers do. That’s what teaching is about.

I’m sending my thoughts out to the staff and students, and the families, down in Parkland. Teachers around the world are thinking of you…I hope you know that.

peace, friends.



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One of my strengths (or perhaps weaknesses!) is that I never really think of how things might not work, but instead just imagine that things will work, with just a bit of vision, elbow grease, and determination. As poet laureate over the last two years, I’ve had the privilege of being able to make connections and partnerships with a variety of local and national non-profit organizations that support literacy initiatives. One of my most beloved ones is with Project Bookmark Canada. (Don’t worry, National Reading Campaign and Reading Town Sudbury! I love the work you do just as deeply!) 🙂

Both of these nationally-based, but locally-inspired, non-profit organizations do things that I love and support as a writer, an educator, and a human. I came first to Project Bookmark Canada and the amazingly inspiring Miranda Hill through my time at the Banff Centre for Creativity in April 2016, when I was part of Lawrence Hill’s historical fiction class for a week. I had met Larry back at the Sage Hill Writing Experience in the summer of 2014, when I was lucky enough to work with Ken Babstock as a mentor for my poetry. I had read about Project Bookmark Canada, so I knew that Larry’s wife was its champion. So, on the day we were quietly discussing my progress with my historical fiction novel, at the very end of our meeting, I snuck in a question about Project Bookmark Canada and asked Larry to introduce me to his wife. He did. This is how I began to work away at getting Project Bookmark to come to Sudbury. I sent off a selection of local Sudbury-based books, of poems, novels and short stories to Miranda that summer, but I mentioned the one that I thought was truly evocative of our town.

Matthew Heiti’s novel, The City Still Breathing, was the first book I’d ever read about my city that actually reminded me of my time growing up here. There were mentions of Elgin Street, Ramsey Lake, Bell Park, the slag dumps and the black hills behind Gatchell, and of Dino, the Popcorn Man, who used to sell bags of popcorn from a little wheeled cart around the downtown core. Even the way he described winter in Sudbury seemed alive to me. The novel is a great story on its own, but the description of my home town was what sold me. Matt had managed, as a writer, to make Sudbury into a living character of its own, sort of salty and weather-worn. But, and here is what I love about working class towns like Sudbury (and Windsor, too): there is a pride and beauty underneath what seems to be a rough, tough exterior. I love the notion that you can see something and then need to explore it, discover its true essence, by entering fully into it and beginning to really know it. Nothing is what it seems, and a book (or, in this case, a city!) shouldn’t be judged solely by its (supposedly obvious and stereotypical) cover.

It took a while, some months, and then I heard back that Project Bookmark Canada was interested in putting a bookmark here in Sudbury, and that they thought Matt’s novel was a fine match. I was thrilled. Matt was…hmmm…not so much thrilled as continually cringing when it all came up in conversation. If you know Matt, then you know he’s one of the most humble, brilliant, creative, and kind souls you could ever encounter. If he likes your work as a writer, he’s open to critiquing it with an honest, yet thoughtful, approach. He’s a fine teacher and a good friend. (He’s also extremely funny, because he’s so smart, so that’s another bonus.)

In the middle of my trying to submit work to Project Bookmark Canada, and after my time out at Banff and then down at a writing retreat on Pelee Island in May, I was asked to partner with Reading Town/Ville Lecture Sudbury in Spring 2016, to write a poem to celebrate Reading Town’s arrival in Sudbury. I was thrilled. Then I met Sandy Crawley, who is the dynamic and spirited Executive Director of the National Reading Campaign.  This is the organization that creates Reading Town events across the country, and its main mission is to make reading a national priority. Its vision is, even more brilliantly, to create, sustain and grow a society in which everyone has an equal opportunity to become and remain a lifelong reader. In my work as a writer, but even more so in my work as a classroom teacher, I have seen how having books in a child’s home is crucial to their development, not just intellectually and psychologically, but also imaginatively and creatively. Reading, for me, is central to my life. It always has been, and it always will be. (I once had a boyfriend who said I loved books more than him…and…he was right! He wasn’t a reader, or a writer, or much of a compassionate thinker…so that relationship obviously didn’t work, and for that I am extremely thankful.)

Fast forward ahead to last summer and fall, and a new Executive Director for Project Bookmark Canada in the person of Laurie Murphy, as of January 2017, a truly spirited Maritimer who has been encouraging us to move forward over the months. Finally, now, our bookmark has been approved, and we have a spot to place it, a home where people will be able to go and read the excerpt from Heiti’s The City Still Breathing. On Thursday, May 3, 2018, at 4pm, we’ll gather outside the Townehouse Tavern, and unveil our Sudbury bookmark. Here’s an interview I did with Markus Schwabe at CBC’s Morning North back in December.


Now, we need to raise some money…just a wee bit…but you can help if you’d like…by going to the “Give” tab on the Project Bookmark Canada page at


Look for the photo of Matthew Heiti and his book cover, under “Help Build a Bookmark,” make a donation, and then receive a tax receipt for being a donor. If donating online doesn’t work, you can easily drop off a cheque (made out to Project Bookmark Canada) at the main branch of the Greater Sudbury Public Library on Mackenzie Street. You can address the envelope to the attention of Tammy DeAmicis. She’ll be forwarding all of the donations to Project Bookmark Canada in Toronto, so that they get there safely!

You can also get to know National Reading Campaign…because any organization that gets kids and families reading together is, in my books, an organization to get to know. (Look at me: matchmaking for other people on Valentine’s Day! You should know I have successfully set up at least one couple…and they’ve been together for two years. Not so good at it for myself…but that’s another blog…another day…)


I need to thank some people here now, because I couldn’t have envisioned this larger project coming to fruition without supportive friends in the arts and culture community. So, first, to Jessica Watts, of the Greater Sudbury Public Library, who supported me throughout my time as poet laureate for the city. From Project Bookmark Canada, thanks are due to Miranda Hill and Laurie Murphy, whose vision for this organization amazes me. From National Reading Campaign, Sandy Crawley, who makes a fine dinner companion when you’re at the Governor General’s Literary Awards and you’re nervous because you’ve never worn a fancy schmancy gown before (!). From Reading Town/Ville Lecture Sudbury, a big thank you to Derek Young, who has patiently helped me to figure out how to write grant applications for local arts and culture funds. From Wordstock, Sudbury’s Literary Festival, a wave of thanks to the entire Board of Directors, but especially to Dinah Laprairie, Heather Campbell, and Celina Mantler. From the Sudbury Arts Council, warm thanks are due to Board member and amazing community ‘giver,’ Judi Straughan, as well as to Linda Cartier, who (with the help of Adric Cluff at the SAC office) made up fantastic postcards and distributed them at Nuit Blanche Sudbury. From the CBC, to Markus Schwabe, who always offered me a bit of media space to speak about my projects, and from Sudbury.com, Heidi Ulrichsen, who always sent me little notes via Facebook messager when she heard I had a new project to share. To Sudbury’s new poet laureate, Chloe LaDuchesse, who has offered her support of this project…I’m so thankful! From the Townehouse Tavern, the place where the Nickel Bin lives on, thanks are due to Paul Loewenburg, and to the Desjardins family, who are giving us permission to put the plaque on their building’s wall, in support of arts and culture in Sudbury. And, of course, a note of thanks to our mayor, Brian Bigger, for his support of my work during my time as poet laureate.

Finally, well, you can’t say enough to thank the person who wrote the words that will be placed on the Project Bookmark Canada plaque, can you? So, for Matt Heiti, a thank you for your excellent novel, your fine words, and your continual support of the Sudbury literary scene. I know you are hesitant about this whole thing, but you’re part of a national literary trail that helps put Sudbury on a larger scale, a project that shows we are a vibrant, diverse, artistic community…where beauty hides itself in the most unexpected of places, nestled amidst slag dump hills and impressive rock cuts.

There is such beauty here in Sudbury, and I’m hoping that people come to see the plaque…and stay to experience our warmth, the beauty of our raw northern landscape, and the stories that make up the fabric of this very grand and dear place.

peace, friends.




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When I was in Ottawa for the Governor General’s Literary Awards at the end of November 2017, I knew I wanted to go and visit the War Flowers exhibit. I had read about it somewhere and was drawn to its own story.

IMG_9712.JPGTaking a tour with artist Mark Raynes Roberts and my friend, Judi Symes. (Photo credit: Adrianna Prosser)

I have always loved letters. They have a power that pulls at me. I know I’m a poet, and a romantic, and a lover of story and handwriting, and how letters can travel through the years, tied up in yellow ribbons and tucked into shoeboxes under beds or in hall closets.  I also love sending mail in the old fashioned way…through the postal system.  I can think of nothing as lovely as receiving a hand written note in the mail, and I know it’s rare these days, but I still cultivate epistolary conversations…with pen and paper, or via email. (Even my texts are unbelievably wordy. If I don’t know you, I can sometimes seem to either be shy or else snobby when I first meet you. I won’t be wordy, either in person—with my voice,  and in my speech—or on paper or screen, if I don’t feel comfortable with you. But, if I think I trust you, well, you’re going to get words in some way, shape or form. My dad used to just laugh and shake his head when I got to babbling and thinking things out through talking out loud or writing; I stymied the poor man.  🙂

That day in Ottawa, on November 30th, the day after my birthday, I came upon the heart-stopping architecture of the Canadian War Museum. It’s one of my favourite Canadian museums, because you can wander through it and feel the ache of history. It’s a place that really resonates with me. I had had great-uncles in WWII, and I had once been grand friends with a WWII veteran who had helped to liberate the concentration camps. That friend, Ernie Schroeder, taught me so many lessons about the nature of our own humanity, and about how we should be in the world in a compassionate and humane way. We should always be thinking of others, and being grateful for the peace those veterans had fought so valiantly for, often at the cost of their own health and well-being, and so many times at the cost of their lives.

Seeing War Flowers at the Canadian War Museum was so moving that I started jotting down words right away, just fifteen minutes ahead of a group of touring elementary students. I had very little time before that group of feisty students came in that morning, and I felt hurried and rushed. I was alone, and the exhibit was tucked into the hall with the ‘first drafts’ of Walter Alward’s stark, but stunning, Vimy Ridge statues. That was enough to give me shivers. (I had also learned about Alward through Jane Urquhart’s stunning novel, The Stonecarvers, which is still one of my favourite Canadian novels of all time.) Inside the museum, Regeneration Hall echoes, and then there were the haunting sounds of a young girl humming, birds twittering, a fog horn calling out, and guns firing. The soundscape of the exhibition echoed through the hall and then through my heart. The words, the poems, started to pour out.

Here, so you get a sense of its raw beauty and emotion, is a video about the exhibit itself. It doesn’t do it justice. It never could. But it gives you a sense of why you ought to go and see it in Toronto, at the Campbell House Museum, before it leaves for Vimy after March 25, 2018.


And this, too…so you understand the curator’s view of the exhibition’s purpose.


And this, about how you can use crystal to tell such a story of loss and love…


Here is the story of a man, George Stephen Cantlie, who wrote two letters home each day from the Front—one to his wife, and one to his little daughter, Celia. He called her ‘dear wee Celia’ in his letters, and he picked one flower a day, pressing them into envelopes and sent them back to Canada. Years later, they emerged, and this exhibit was born. I was struck, when I first saw the exhibit in late November, by how poignant it was. Here was a man, in the field, facing the wretched battles of trench warfare in France and Belgium. He might have picked a bit of heather from a roadside ditch, or a bit of stitchwort from some wild bunch in a field, or even snagged a little yellow rose from outside a local hotel. Each flower has a meaning. This is what floriography is all about. It seems Edwardian, and it reminds me, on some level, of the little flower faery books by Cicely Mary Barker that I used to get as a young girl. (I have always loved flowers, but I have always loved faeries even more…)

The fact that the flowers each have a symbolic meaning, and that each meaning weaves itself into a theme for the exhibition, and that each theme inspired artist Mark Raynes Roberts to capture its essence in crystal etchings, well, that just overwhelms me. The notion that a father so loved his daughter, too, that he would pluck one flower each day and send it home to Canada with a short note, touched my heart. When I first saw the exhibit, I got teary eyed. When I visited it again yesterday, but with my friend Judi Symes and Mark along as our private tour guide, well, I got teary again.  The multi-sensory aspect of the exhibit does this to you…pulls you in and surprises you with waves of deep emotion. You feel the losses of the 68,000 names. They become humans with lives and families, men with girlfriends back home in Ontario or Quebec, and men with family homes and farms left behind so that they could fight for things like king, country, faith, and valour.


Now, just so you know, I love Instagram because of photos. I only really started taking photos a few years ago, and I really see them as visual poems in a way. So, the day of that exhibit, I posted an Instagram photo and tagged Mark Raynes Roberts. That is how we connected. When I told him I was so inspired that I had begun to write a series of poems, he offered to take me on a private tour when I visited Toronto in February. I was amazed and so excited! I love speaking with artists. It doesn’t matter if they aren’t writers, I am intrigued by how the creative process works with different mediums. (I love ekphrastic poetry, so this exhibit pulled at me, not letting me go.) In any case, I think it’s funny when people say social media is problematic; really, it’s only problematic if you can’t use it in a positive, creative way. For me, it has been a way of making creative connections around the world, especially with other writers and artists.

Yesterday, my friend Judi and I went to meet Mark at Campbell House Museum in Toronto. It was a bit of a snowstorm, which made me laugh. I had flown in the afternoon before to read at the Art Bar Poetry Series, which had long been a dream of mine. The night had been lovely, and I had met up with some old traveling friends, and even a few former students. But I must admit I was most excited about going through the exhibition with Mark as our guide, mostly because I had struggled with a couple of the thematic poems I was writing.

The morning was brilliant. Mark explained his process as an artist, and how he was inspired to create the various crystal pieces. Each one is beautiful, but I have my favourites. I won’t list them here because it could sway a potential viewer of the exhibition. Then, add in the William Morris-esque flowered wallpaper, and the Gothic arches that remind me of church windows (or the prows of boats!), and the scents that have been created by perfume artist Alexandra Bachand, and, well, I am lost. The curator, Viveka Melki, has a clear vision of what this multi-sensory exhibition should be, and I love how beautifully all of it dovetails together. Along with Raynes Roberts, Bachand, and Melki, there is botanist and archivist, Celine Arsenault, and Normand Dumont, who worked on exhibition design and layout. Alexander Reford plays a role, too, in relation to Reford Gardens in Quebec.

I can only say that this exhibition has moved me since I first saw it in late November. It haunts me, if I’m honest about it. The images, scents, and soundscapes of it, all of that imprinted itself on my heart and mind, and the poems have emerged as a result. I’m not sure where they’ll go, but I know they’ll likely find a spot in my next book of poems, which I’m working on.

I think of the 68,000 names that are listed on the banners that hang above the staircase in Campbell House Museum, and then I think of the lives lost, and of the lives shattered back home in Canada, and I think of how these little flowers, pressed and faintly shaded now, were sent from a father to a daughter.

And, then, well, I think of how, despite the horror of war, there is hope for humanity in the lessons we learn about love…and how love connects one to some other. That, for me, is beautiful, even in the face of great loss. It makes me weep when I see this exhibit, every single time, because I think of those boys and men in trenches, and then I think of those letters and pressed flowers, saved for over one hundred years…and the light they offer is hope…and that is beautiful, even in the face of despair.

I’m so thankful to Mark Raynes Roberts for that quiet tour, and for the conversations we had about art and humanity, and about creative process. I’m thankful, too, to Viveka Melki, for her kind words via email. I’m thankful, finally, to Judi Symes, who put me up in her beautiful home for one night, in a room with a night bird perched in a window, and am so glad she came along with me to experience the exhibit.

Sometimes, I think, this world is a wonderfully knit spiderweb of soul connections.  So, when we find them, we need to make special note of them, and then thank the Universe (or God, or the Creator, or whomever!) for the mystical machinations that bring us one to another. This brings us, I think, to a greater understanding of how light works against darkness, in creativity and in love, written out in letters and pressed flowers, and then sent across the sea…

I’ll leave you with one of the poems, titled “Names,” from a suite of poems that I’ve tentatively called “The War Flowers Sequence.”



Those who were lost,

but not forgotten,

like stitches in a handmade scarf–

singular souls, woven together

sometimes only by their endings

and by the blurred ghosts of maple leaves,

fallen crimson in sharp beams

of late autumn sunlight.


peace, friends.





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When I first started teaching my Grade 11 First Nations, Metis and Inuit literature course two years ago, I read a great deal about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) in Canada. The Red Dress Project further raised my awareness, and then the various documentaries that I watched to learn more also helped. I knew the statistics were staggering and brutal. For a few years now, I have heard of the “Walking with Our Sisters” exhibition, so when I heard it was coming to Sudbury, I was keen to see it. I didn’t know, though, that it would break me open as it did.

When you first walk into the eight-point star lodge, which has been set up inside the McEwen School for Architecture downtown, on Elm Street, you think of how impressive it is, with various pathways that are fashioned on a red floor so that you are guided around each series of moccasin tops (or ‘vamps’). They are set out in colour coded blocks, so the reds are on their own and the blues and greens are somewhere else. It feels fluid, in this way, in how the colours are like waves. The eight points of the star shape represent the Seven Grandfather Teachings of honesty, truth, humility, love, wisdom, courage, and respect. The eighth point of the star is symbolic of how we relate, as humans, to the Creator.

There are over 1,810 unfinished sets of moccasin vamps, beaded and decorated by the loved ones and friends of those women who have disappeared or been murdered across Canada. This is, my friend Charmaine told me, only about one-tenth the number of the estimated lives lost. Not everyone saw the initial call to send in beaded vamps back in 2012, when the call was put out via Facebook. Christi Belcourt was at the head of that call, and this exhibit has a great deal to do with her work as an artist and activist.

Walking through the installation today, I noticed that some families only chose to include one, rather than two, to show the symbolism of a woman’s life that was unfinished, cut in half. You journey through the installation on a path that is a symbol for a person’s life. It curves, bends, circles around, and sometimes comes to a sharper point. You walk without shoes, and you stop to see the various designs, each one representing a woman’s particular spirit.

And then there are the children’s vamps. They are not included in this exhibition, but there are hundreds, and they represent the children who died in residential schools across Canada. They were often buried in unmarked graves, discarded without thought or worry. One banner, with smaller vamps decorated and then attached, was created by students at White Pine Collegiate in Sault Ste. Marie. It serves to remember the children who lived and died in Shingwauk Residential School in the Sault. It closed in 1970.

You carry tobacco with you as you go, and there is cedar carefully attached to walls around the open space of the room.  Then you walk. You need to take your time, to not let yourself be too rushed. The intensity of it all startled me. Each set of vamps represents a woman who is missing or murdered. Each set of vamps means an unfinished life. Each set of vamps reflects the love that a woman’s family and friends hold for her, a mourning that you can feel with an ache inside your heart. One pair is made of soapstone; another is made of birch bark, with the likeness of wildflowers etched into the it; many are beaded so beautifully, full of flowers, or rainbows, or sea horses. One pair was purely black felt, edged only by blue and green beads, leaving me wondering about what had been left undone, what space hadn’t been taken up in one woman’s life, and how many other lives were affected by her loss.

One pair had the image of a woman reaching up to the moon on the left vamp, and then the words “Sing her to the light” on the right one. She needs singing to the light, and she needs people to care enough to guide her. This one, in particular, reminded me of Gregory Scofield’s beautiful poem, “She Is Spitting a Mouthful of Stars,” from his collection, “Witness, I am.” You can hear that poem read by the poet here:


Through it all, in an hour of quiet walking, reflection, and prayer, I kept thinking (over and over again in my head): “So many. Too many.” What struck me was the amount of love (and grief) that was put into each pair of vamps. Here was someone who had written a poem for a lost sister or mother, affixing it to the top of the vamp. There, a few rows up, a pair with one faery and one mermaid made by a mother for her daughter. Then, in another section, a pair with Scottish thistles, while another had infinity symbols on them. Each set of vamps reflected the personality of a lost, but not forgotten, woman.

I was fine until I left. The smudging, I think, helped. The keepers of that lodge space smudge you as you go in, but then also smudge you when you come back out. When you leave, they smudge the front and the back of your body. It’s as if they know how heavy that experience can be. It’s as if they know that your heart will be affected, even if you don’t think it will be.

When I left, my friend Charmaine showed me the book that listed out the names of the people who had created the individual vamps. That’s when I started to cry. Divided into provinces and countries, there were endless lists of names. These were not the names of the women who were missing or murdered, but the names of those who loved them. It was a big book, and the names went on and on and on. She had shown me their names…and I couldn’t stop crying.

Walking downstairs, I had to duck around behind a bank of elevators to try and gather myself, but it wasn’t of much use. Here is what I kept thinking:

Why does this happen? Why are First Nations, Metis, and Inuit women so vulnerable? I know the logical and official answer. I do. Many, we know, leave their communities and reserves in the far north and move towards larger, more urban areas. Maybe they think they will be safer, or will find work, or will make better lives for themselves. What happens, though, is often the opposite. They may find drug or alcohol addiction, or poverty and homelessness, or prostitution, or relationships that are domestically violent, or cycles of abuse they can’t escape. They will lose their families. They will be disconnected in places that aren’t ‘home.’ They will be lost…and in need of feeling connection…to others and to the land itself.

All of it seems to stem from this country’s broken history of trying to colonize, segregate and then annihilate Indigenous people. Something is still so wrong, so broken, that we can hear of women like the great Inuit artist, Annie Pootoogook, found dead, floating dead in the Ottawa River, pregnant, and only in her forties.  We can talk of “Truth and Reconciliation” as if that will solve everything, but then you walk through an exhibition like this one, and you think “How? How does it stop?”

And here is the other thing I kept thinking, and the thing that made me weep even harder, after sitting in a sacred fire outside. “If this were to happen to non-Indigenous, white women, would this be the response?” My answer: no. How can so many women have been erased in such violent ways? You only need to do a bit of reading and research to hear their individual stories, and they are–quite simply–some of the most brutal things I’ve ever read about. How are Indigenous women so expendable, and non-Indigenous women not? It’s racist. It’s inhuman. It’s unacceptable.

If this were to happen to non-Indigenous women, if white women were found brutally battered and left for dead on the sides of highways in the northern parts of our Canadian provinces, or at the bottoms of some of the long prairie rivers, how long would this go on for? It makes me cry. It will continue to make me weep. It’s wrong. As a soul, as a  woman–regardless of race–I find it unconscionable.

I don’t know what the answer is…I don’t…and I’ve been thinking about it all day, and now into this darker night. I just know it can’t continue. This exhibition, “Walking With Our Sisters,” closes here in Sudbury on Wednesday morning. You have tomorrow, and part of Wednesday morning to experience it. You should be warned, though, that it may very well trigger you. It will make you want to shout, to question, to weep…and to pray for those families who have lost their daughters, mothers, aunties, sisters, and grandmothers.

They can’t be forgotten…they are our sisters.




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This is the end of my second self-professed “Year of No Fear.” The third is about to begin. Here, though, are some of the lessons I’ve learned in 2017, some of which have trickled over from 2016. (I’m imagining there is a pattern here and that 2016 has rippled into 2017, and then all of that energy will ripple, logically, into 2018. Energy doesn’t disappear, after all!)

I have learned that the most important gift you can give yourself is to “step into yourself.” It’s taken me such a long time to actually love myself in a genuine way. I had always thought I was unattractive, physically, and that I was not very much of a presence in the world, that maybe I didn’t deserve to take up too much space. I had always felt that I didn’t belong, and I often still feel that I’m living in the wrong dimension or time period. I’m old fashioned at heart, an anachronism, a poet and romantic whose heart is often broken by the way the world works. I’m sensitive, too sensitive perhaps. I’m honest, and I say what I think, and this often puts me at a real disadvantage. I’ve lost friends because I’ve said what I thought in a truthful way. (Sagittarians are like this, I’ve learned, as I’ve begun to look at astrology more closely in the last couple of years. Sagittarians are known to be blunt, and this can be a deficit in a world that would rather lie to itself than tell itself the honest truth. Sagittarians are rooted on the earth, but reach for the stars…which can definitely be a precarious sort of tension when you are, in fact, a Sagittarian.)

I’ve continued to take good care of my physical and mental health in 2017. I’ve been much more physically active, walking on a daily basis, hiking in the bush, canoeing around Killarney and Sudbury with my friend, Jen, doing Zumba about four times a week, and keeping at a fairly regular yoga practice. The result of all this activity has been a healthier body that makes me feel strong and graceful, when I never have before. I’ve shrunk from a Size 14 in Spring 2016 to a Size 10 in Winter 2017. It’s not about size, though, or weight for that matter. Instead, it’s a matter of me feeling lithe, strong, and active. I’ve kept stripping away at the layers of fat that I used to use to protect me from interacting with the world, and people, in a meaningful way. (Some days, I think it might have been easier to stay hidden, to hide under the fat, but then I go for a long walk and think ‘Nope…this is divine’ because I can breathe and not feel like I’m carrying a small child on my back.)

Feeling graceful and strong has also led me to feel beautiful, too, and I have to thank my photographer friend, Gerry Kingsley, for his help in making me view myself differently. I didn’t want a lot of makeup on in my photos, because I don’t wear a lot on a daily basis, so Dana Lajeunesse did a good job of making me look myself. The author photos Gerry took of me in May made me realize my own beauty. My thirties were dominated by major depressive disorder and taking care of my parents. That decade of my life nearly disappeared to suicidal ideation. It’s scary when you know that you almost erased yourself, but I somehow managed to survive that quagmire. What’s happened now is that I feel more driven to live fully, to tell people that they are important to me when I feel something must be said, and to put my energy into creative and artistic projects that I truly believe in. I feel like a strong, beautiful and creative woman, something I’ve never felt like before in my entire life. That makes 2017 a year of chrysalis breaking celebration of sorts.

I’ve had some deep heart pain recently, though, that’s brought me back to some old wounds of grief. In early December, my oldest dog, Sable, had what looked to be a stroke. She fell off the bed early one morning and then couldn’t move her legs. I took her to the vet’s that morning, fully prepared to have to put her down. I was broken. I was an emotional mess at home and at work, and I’ve been struggling all through these last four weeks. (The poor guys in the Math office have not known what to do with me!) I’ve pulled in, turtled, spending time at home with her while I still have her. She has vestibular disease, which means that she may have a lesion on her brain. There’s no way to know, though, and I know the vet has told me that I’ve got a bit of ‘borrowed time’ with her. She tilts to the left now, walks with a wobble and uncertainty, and can no longer jump up on the sofa or climb stairs on her own. She sees the world from an angle that I cannot understand; she’s teaching me to see the world from a different angle, too, surprisingly. But she still loves cuddles (maybe even more now) and having her food, and nosing around in the backyard snow, so she’s well enough to stay for a while longer.

I know we (Sable, Gully and me) are waiting for the other shoe to drop and, for people who are in couples, or who have kids, well, I know they can’t really understand the pain I’m experiencing. For me, this dog is the dog that chose my mum back in 2004. This was just after my mum’s open-heart surgery, and before my world changed and I became more of a personal nurse and caretaker for my parents, rather than my own person, for a big chunk of my life. This dog was my mum’s dog, and then my dad’s dog after my mum died. This is the little shih tzu who ‘speaks’ by grumbling, and who gives ‘head hugs’ between your shins if she wants a bit of love.

This incident with Sable has made me go back and somehow re-grieve my mum’s death. It’s been very, very rough. A few good friends have been here for me, and I’m thankful (as always) that they’ve called, texted or emailed, or just stopped by for a cup of tea. I’m also glad they know that there are times when I just really need to be alone. These two dogs are my family. For me, December is a month of great pain. Mum died on December 18th and Dad died on the 28th, so my Christmas is always painful and I fight against it, walk through the emotional molasses of it, and am thankful that my closest friends know it’s natural for me to pull in. I can’t find the energy to pretend I’m okay anymore when my heart hurts. (People pretend too much these days, anyway; they want everyone to think they’re fine, even when they’re not.)

I think it’s okay to actually admit that you are struggling with your life and emotions. I can’t hide it. My face is too transparent. It always has been. If I fancy someone, my face reveals it through blushing, I get quiet and nervous, and my eyes drift constantly to the floor, even when I wish I could stop myself. If I am sad, or angry, or hurt unexpectedly by someone’s words, my eyes pool up with tears so that I have to turn my head and pretend to be fascinated by the pattern in the rug under my feet. I turtle. I can’t stand conflict. I wish I could be stronger, wish I could hide my emotions a bit to protect myself, but it’s fine. I think, in some ways, my emotions being so close to the surface is what allows me to write poetry, but that’s a whole different blog post.

I’m taking second semester off from teaching this next year to write for a while in southwestern Ontario. I love the birds, the trees, and the water there. It all makes me feel small, but more connected somehow, to a larger network of meaning. I’m going to work on the first draft of my second novel, to complete and revise some plays, to work on some non-fiction pieces, and to put together the start of my next book of poems. I want an absolute writing retreat, outside of my comfort zone, where I can see how my writing will likely shift in terms of imagery and metaphor, and away from any distractions here at home, and to also be close to Point Pelee National Park, where I intend to walk as frequently as possible. It’s a place that has become a part of me and I love to be there on my own. It’s like the landscape gathers me in, so I feel comforted somehow. It makes for a good place to write, to breathe, for a while. I’m also going to be able to explore southwestern Ontario, a place my dad loved, including Stratford and more plays (!). I want to spend more time in Detroit, because it intrigues me on many creative levels. Then, I intend to spend another chunk of time on Pelee Island, and I’m planning on spending some time with three good friends, Dawn, Fe, and Lena (and Lena’s two amazing kids, Athena and Alex, whom I love to bits and bits!).  As well, I’ve never really experienced a true spring, and I’d like to…because who knows when you might be hit by an ore truck. So, for once at least, I’d like to see things grow in April instead of late May or early June.   🙂

Taking months of time, away from the North, to work on a novel…well…that is a terrifying thing. It would be more comfortable to just stay in Sudbury and try not to be distracted. But I love Lake Erie, and I want to walk along its shores on a regular basis. Whenever I’ve written down there, in Kingsville or on Pelee Island, I’ve written quickly and I find my writing is different, stronger somehow. I’m curious to see how changing my geography will shift my style of writing. My work changes there. It’s an experiment, in pressing against fear, in believing that I can really write, and in gifting myself with the time and space to really devote myself to it. I’ve written in other places before, but for much shorter time periods. I squeeze serious writing projects into holiday blocks, hoping and praying that something half decent will emerge. (The fear, I suppose, is that I won’t do well with my writing, or that I won’t write as much as I’d like to in five or six months…or maybe even, on the other side of things, the fear that I might find out that I’m more a writer than anything else…and how that might change my life.)

In 2017, I’ve also learned more about friendship. I value it a great deal, not having a big, close family anymore. People with families, or who are in couples, won’t get this. I understand. You still have big groups of people who love you, unconditionally, so it’s easy to feel connected and part of something. You have a familial net into which you can fall if you struggle, or if you need someone to say they love you, or at least care for you. It’s hard to be strong on your own, and so I choose my very small network of close friends carefully. They gather me in, and I hope I somehow gather them in, too. (Also, they know there will often be random drive-bys with gifts of flowers or Irish soda bread…or a book…or something. I like giving, but I do know, too, that I need to get better about receiving and being more vulnerable. I’ll work on that in 2018.)  🙂

I’ve learned, too, that you can’t make yourself less than who you are to suit other people’s requirements. If you’re told that you are ‘too much,’ or ‘too intense,’ or that you should maybe ‘dial down’ your spirit or personality so you don’t frighten people off because you might be too bright, or too smart, or too creative, it hurts. When you’ve nearly erased yourself nine years ago, you won’t make yourself smaller to suit anyone else’s requirements. When you’ve managed to survive mental illness, to get well, and then thrive, you have to cultivate it, mind it, guard it. Casting off good health is not in the cards.

I used to be fearful of offending people, but now I’m not. I believe it’s best to have a very small group of good friends who know me on a deeper level, than to have a load of fair-weather ones who hover about. You can like a whole lot of people, can be friendly, too, on a surface level, but–as a creative and an introvert–you may not always have the space or energy to be close to all of them. To some, it might look like you are distancing yourself from them, but you are just doing all you can do, energetically, to be well, content, and creative inside. Sometimes, too, despite all efforts, you outgrow people, or they outgrow you, and I’ve learned to accept that painful lesson of letting go, too. We learn from one another, and that’s the key thing. We grow.

The most amazing thing that has happened to me this year, though, is that my friend, Jen, has introduced me to hiking and canoeing in Northern Ontario. For someone who has always been timid, for no apparent reason, I’ve surprised myself. I’m athletic enough now that I’ve canoed across the mouth of the North Channel of Lake Huron, hugging the shoreline and reaching out to touch the boughs of a tree hanging out over the water. I’ve gone leaping up onto those small Killarney islands in Collins Inlet in the middle of hot July weather, and then become what I like to call a “rock jumper.” Now when I go canoeing, I wear my swimsuit under my t-shirt and shorts and life jacket, and Jen and I look for islands or places along a river’s shore when we can jump off a rock and swim all afternoon. It is, to be honest, the most joy I’ve had this year. There is nothing like swimming into something that looks like a Group of Seven painting. 2018 will bring more canoe trips with Jen, I know.  For me, her gift of introducing me to hiking and canoeing now means that I have a new sort of spirituality that is firmly rooted in the natural world. God is reflected and embodied in the details of what has been created, and so that’s where I feel closest to the Creator these days. I also know that’s probably why I’ve been drawn to Mary Oliver and Wendell Berry for such a long time. I’ve grown into entering landscape, even though I was fearful at first, wondering if I’d be strong enough to lift a canoe or paddle for four hours in hot summer sun. (Sunscreen, yet again, has proven to be my best friend!)

What I’ve learned, in 2017, is that my second “Year of No Fear” is about realizing that what we fear…is really not to be feared. It is all an illusion. So, I intend to make 2018 my third “Year of No Fear.” Going away to write for a chunk of time (and coming back every so often to hike and canoe!) is a big part of that plan. This time, I can just write, be me again, and not be a busy poet laureate with a lot of projects. I’ll have more time and space. It also means that I’m trusting that I am truly worthy of giving myself the gift of time and space to work on my writing. It’s the truest love I’ve had since I was just a geeky outcast of a girl: words, and poetry, literature and art, and shuffling words around on paper until it makes a ‘thunk’ sound deep in my heart. We’ll see what else emerges. (And I still haven’t gotten my bird tattoos for my parents…so that’s a fear I have yet to manage…sigh.)

I tell my students, often, that we must venture out into internal spaces that are uncomfortable, go away from what makes us complacent, so that we can grow our souls. I keep doing this, in the smallest of ways, every day, and (so far) it’s working. There is fear, though. The thing is that I choose to look at it now, in the face, and say “Yeah, I’m terrified, but I’m doing this anyway…” An old friend of mine always said “Leap, and the net will appear.” That’s what I’m putting my money on, especially for my writing and my own personal growth, for this next year. I’m a rock jumper now, after all! 🙂

It all reminds me of one of my favourite Mary Oliver poems from her collection, Blue Horses. It’s called “If I Wanted A Boat,” and Oliver poses the question that most speaks to me:

What kind of life is it always to plan

and do, to promote and finish, to wish

for the near and the safe? Yes, by the

heavens, if I wanted a boat I would want

a boat I couldn’t steer.

I guess I’m at a place now where I have a boat that I can’t steer, and I’m not completely comfortable with this because I tend to like to have some sense of control (which is an illusion, too!), but I know that the water holds up the boat. For me, the water is about trust—trusting myself, my heart (and not always my too-busy, too-smart head), my writing, and my relatively newfound longing for adventure that will undoubtedly help me to grow my soul. The water will hold up my boat, and maybe even steer it without my knowing, and I’ll be richer for it in the end…

Here’s to a boat you can’t steer, friends. Here’s to a boat you can’t steer….and friends who will cheer you on. 🙂







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