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Archive for the ‘Wanderings and Ponderings’ Category

It’s July, and I’m on leave this year to work on my writing, but the news that is all over social media this week is something I can’t really ignore. My ‘day job’ is that of a secondary school English teacher. In that role, I’ve been lucky enough to teach a Grade 11 First Nations, Metis, and Inuit literature course. I took what was then called “Native Studies” at Laurentian University back in my undergraduate years. It was a while back now, but I’ve always been drawn to learning more about the First Nations cultures and the teachings of the people in Northern Ontario, where I live most of the time. I’m drawn to First Nations spirituality because it is truly holistic and resonates with me, and because it’s so closely woven into the fabric of the environment, as well as the belief that guardianship and protection of natural landscapes and wild spaces is important. As a writer, I’ve always read widely, and I love reading Canadian writers, but have–in the past four years in preparing to teach this course–read more Indigenous writers than I traditionally would have read. For that, I am really quite lucky. I’ve read Wagamaese, Maracle, Dimaline, King, Hayden Taylor, Scofield, Vermette, Van Camp, Dumont, and others. I’ve immersed myself in their bodies of work. I want to be as informed as I can be in bringing the right information to my students when I teach this course.

I’m not Indigenous. I always tell my students this on the first day of classes. If I don’t know the answer to a question (and no question is ‘stupid’ is the other thing I always tell my kids), then I tell them I’ll ask someone who knows. I’ll usually ask an elder, or someone at our school board who can point me to the proper resources. I would never tell a student something that I wasn’t sure was true, especially because I know how important it is to honour the teachings of our First Nations peoples.

This past year, I was blessed to have Joel Agowissa, our school board’s Aboriginal Support Worker, come into my class on Monday mornings. We would gather outside of our traditional classroom, coming into the school chapel in a circle. We took part in smudging and learned traditional teachings. I teach at an all-girls’ school in Sudbury called Marymount Academy. Now, if you teach girls, on their own, you know that they are spirited, independent and bright. They also tend to love to talk. They share their ideas widely, and they ask questions with curiosity. With Joel, I was amazed to see them sit quietly, with respect and interest. By the end of the semester, they came and told me that they were grateful for the course, and that they were upset they hadn’t known about the ‘true’ history of Canada before Grade 11 English.

Here’s the thing that pisses me off about this recent cancellation of curriculum writing: I know people think teachers are lazy. (It’s not true; we aren’t.) I don’t know that people know that many teachers take time in the summer to upgrade with what are called Additional Qualification courses, to learn new methodology and content, to make their classrooms more vibrant places in which kids can learn. I don’t know that most people know that teachers will travel to Toronto, from all over Ontario, and take part in curriculum writing sessions. You don’t just show up empty handed. When I’ve taken part in our local curriculum writing sessions, I’ve had to do research and come with unit and lesson plan ideas. You come prepared, to work with colleagues, to work through questions you have, to troubleshoot any problems that might arise at the various board and school levels in the province. You create a document that will help thousands of Ontario teachers teach better. You help teachers open doors for the kids they teach. These kids are your kids. These kids, I’ll say it again, are your kids.

To cancel a session of curriculum writing a day or two before it was slated to begin, and which was meant to pull in Indigenous educators and elders from across the province of Ontario, including teachers from as far north as Nipigon, you send a clear message to Ontario educators, parents, and (most importantly) students. “You aren’t important. Your voices don’t matter. Your time and effort doesn’t matter.” You might also, in some way, when you cancel $100 million in funding for school repairs and maintenance in the same damn week, be saying, “We don’t really care at all” and “Truth and Reconciliation was a nice idea, but implementing it within a curriculum and school system, and taking time to train teachers to teach it as respectfully and truthfully as possible, is just too expensive.” What the Ministry of Education puts out, though, in fine language is this: “In keeping with the commitment that Premier Doug Ford made to run government more efficiently, all ministries will seek to carry out initiatives in the most cost effective way possible.” It is, quite simply, bullshit of the highest order.

Here’s what I think, as a writer and reader who loves reading Indigenous literature and learning about First Nations, Metis and Inuit culture and history. I want my students to know as much as possible. When they finish a course that is completely not whitewashed in content, when they read about Saul’s struggles and triumph in residential school in Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse, or when they learn about the horror of missing and murdered Indigenous women through Greg Scofield’s poignant poetry in Witness I Am, and through Katherena Vermette’s poems in North End Love Songs, or when I show them the documentary Angry Inuk and we discuss the significance of seal hunting in Northern Canada, they want to know more. We don’t teach Shakespeare in this Grade 11 course at Marymount. We teach Drew Hayden Taylor’s brilliant play, Toronto at Dreamer’s Rock, and the kids love it when they hear references to place names that are in Northern Ontario. We took them to see the “Walking with our Sisters” exhibit that was spearheaded by the amazing Christi Belcourt. We gathered around sacred fires afterwards, on cold winter days, watching our breath rise up with the smoke of the flames. We are all related. 

I am not Indigenous, but I am an ally. That, in itself, is probably a problematic statement. I know that. But I’d rather be an ally than someone who doesn’t care, who would just sit by and watch a government cancel a curriculum writing session that is meant to address what has been lacking in a racist school system for most of the last century, and into this one as well. Here was a chance for Ontario to step up, to honour the hard work of Justice Murray Sinclair, and to the thousands of survivors who told their very difficult stories. The ‘truth’ is about telling and witnessing true stories of sheer horror, and of the Sixties Scoop, and of families broken up for inane and brutal reasons that spoke of colonization and racism. The ‘reconciliation’ is up to all of us, including teachers, students, and the very parents who likely were not even taught about any of the true history of this country when they were in school. Ontario’s cancellation of this curriculum rewrite just spits in the face of the Commission, and in the faces of those people who have suffered, and then suffered again by telling their stories in hopes that their truth telling will help to mend things, to move forward and not backward. Here is Justice Sinclair, in what I think is a helpful clip of how to explain what reconciliation is about. Perhaps Doug Ford should watch this, too.

I’m writing this in a little rented flat in Kingsville, on a cloudy morning, when the humidity presses down. It feels oppressive. I couldn’t sleep last night because all I can think is how I don’t recognize this province anymore. I can’t envision a Ministry of Education that is handcuffed and made to issue statements of cost cutting when I know that there are First Nations kids in my classroom who tell me stories about parents and grandparents who were traumatized by being in residential school, and who speak to me, quietly, just before lunch, on their way out of my classroom, about how addiction and violence is part of their family history. Or how I’ve seen sixteen year olds start to cry when they watch parts of the film Indian Horse because they feel they ought to have known about residential schools before Grade 11. “How,” they ask me, “did we not know this? Why wouldn’t they tell us before now?”

I don’t know what the answer to this recent revelation of institutionalized racism and idiocy is, but I know it’s terrifying because now it’s only going to be further reflected and embedded in a colonialized curriculum that is already too outdated. It means, likely, having to beg for money for buying new texts that will help us to teach the right stories, the real history of Canada. It means, likely, not having proper professional development in our various school boards across Ontario, so that some teachers (who were never taught about residential schools when they were students) will still not know the truth of this country’s history. I really don’t know the answer to my own worries and questions here. I only know that I’m going to keep speaking up, as an ally, as a writer, and as a teacher. This Ontario needs to listen up, to learn some of what we (as educators) call “active listening skills,” and make decisions that are compassionate and forward thinking.

We are all related. This is a common phrase that comes up in the First Nations teachings that I’ve been privileged to hear when I’ve sat in circles with Elders from Atikameksheng Anishnawbek or Wikwemikong in Northern Ontario. We are all related. It’s a relationship. As Justice Sinclair says here, “If we can agree on what that relationship needs to look like in the future, then what we need to think about is what can we do today that will contribute to that objective. Reconciliation will be about ensuring that everything that we do today is aimed at that high standard of restoring that balance to that relationship.”

I think we’d best remember that as we move forward. Otherwise, in my mind, it’s all more about truth and lies than about truth and reconciliation.

peace, friends.

k.

 

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My first experience visiting Detroit was almost two years ago, in October of 2016. I was down in Windsor for the Poetry at the Manor event, in my role as poet laureate for Greater Sudbury. I spent a few nights at an AirBnB in Kingsville, the very same one that I’m staying at now for the rest of the year as I finish my second novel. I took some time and decided to cross the river, via the tunnel, to spend the day at the Detroit Institute of Arts. I’ve written before, on this very blog, about my love of art. I always hang out in museums and art galleries. I had hoped to grab a friend, but none were to be had, so I do what I always do as a singleton — I hopped into the car and set off on my own, ready for adventure. It was that, indeed. I got a bit lost that day, ending up in a rather dicey neighbourhood and trying to plead with the GPS on my iPhone, reminding it that we were in America and no longer in Canada. Finally, I managed to figure it all out, after many episodes of talking to myself and pulling over to curbs to search out new directions. I loved the DIA and spent the whole day there, steeping in its atmosphere and writing in its beautiful little cafe.

I’ve been down here for a few months now, but back and forth because of literary things back home in Sudbury like the staged reading of my play at PlaySmelter, and the unveiling of our Project Bookmark Canada plaque in early May. Then, I was home at the beginning of June because I was nominated for the Mayor’s Celebration of the Arts Awards. Finally, I’ve come to rest (well, I’m writing a novel, so it’s not restful most of the time!) in Kingsville for the next two months, and beyond it, into the fall and winter. So, now that I’m here, I get to spend more time exploring, which is something I love to do. I want to see how the seasons shift here, too…how that works with the landscape I love.

Last week, my new friend, poet Melanie Janisse Barlow, took me on a day trip to Detroit. (I met her back in mid-March, when I first arrived in the area and went to hear her read her poetry at the Windsor Public Library. She is an amazing poet, and I’m a huge fan of her work. Thankfully, we hit it off and then had tea last month.) Our trip to Detroit last week was, to be honest, a bit of a revelation. It’s such an interesting place, all layered like a prism in its nature.

We drove out to Rochester Hills to pick up one of her wonderful “Poets Series” prints. She’s super talented because she’s a writer and a visual artist, and has now painted a number of Canadian and American poets. (You can read more about her brilliant project at http://www.poets-series-project.com). While we waited for the print to be ready, we dashed off to a Salvation Army store and spent an hour and a half or so in there. I have a thing for dresses now that I’ve lost a lot of weight in the last couple of years, but I am not very good at knowing which size will fit. I know, of course, what size I am, but my head tells me that I’m still a lot bigger than I am. She saw a beautiful teal dress with embroidery and held it up. “You need to try this on! It’ll look great with your skin and eyes!” I shook my head, “No way. That won’t fit.” She insisted, and so I tried it on. It’s brilliant, and she was right. It fit. And it made me feel beautiful, to wear that lovely blue colour. I’m a pale person so I do well in jewel tones. She’s got a good eye for fashion. After the hour and a half was up, I’d bought a small dress for just $3.50 American, alongside a soft-cover book of Synge’s Selected Plays for just ten cents! dress.JPG

After we finished that bit of the journey, we headed back into Detroit and Mel took me to what I think is the best Mexican restaurant I’ve ever been to in my entire life. El Veloz Tacos is sort of tucked into a factory on Toledo Street. On the way there, though, she gave me a tour of the urban decay that weaves itself through the city. Certain neighbourhoods are poverty and crime-ridden and she made note of them for me as we drove through them. Each neighbourhood has a distinct flavour and personality. Some are scarier than others. From June 25 to July 2, according to the Crime Viewer app provided by the City of Detroit (and intended to make the city safer), there were 1,387 crimes reported, including arson, forced entry and burglary, assault and battery, retail fraud, murder, and  manslaughter.  You can’t be naive about the state of this American city. It’s beautiful in so many ways, but so very complex in the roots of its issues. I wouldn’t even dare to try to explain it here. I don’t know enough, and I can only just say what I saw and how it made me feel. (I’m a ‘feeler,’ because I’m an empath, so everything imprints on me quite forcefully, whether I want it to or not.)

After lunch, Mel took me to see the Heidelberg Project, an outdoor urban art exhibition that ‘lives’ on Heidelberg Street. It was started in 1986 by Tyree Guyton, who returned to his old Detroit east side neighbourhood after having been away, and who wanted to transform the decay of an area which was then “riddled with drugs and deepening poverty.” As the Heidelberg Project website will tell you, Guyton “transformed the street into a massive art environment.” The mission of the project is as follows: “The theory of change for the Heidelberg Project begins with the belief that all citizens, from all cultures, have the right to grow and flourish in their communities…it believes that a community can redevelop and sustain itself, from the inside out, by embracing its diverse cultures and artistic attributes as the essential building blocks for a fulfilling and economically viable way of life.” (You can read more about the project at http://www.heidelberg.org).

Walking around the city block that encompasses the Heidelberg Project is an eye-opening experience. Tourists in small buses pile out, speaking German or Spanish, and then take photos and leave. It’s sort of nicer to take more time, to let it seep into you for a bit. It’s impressive, how urban art installations can make a difference in cities. Back home in Sudbury, I’ve seen this happen with the murals of the Up Here Festival. Helping to put up poems in city business windows, too, and on the streets, is something I really enjoyed doing when I was poet laureate. I like the notion that art can lift a person up, take them out of their regular routine, make them review their place in the world, and in their own lives. Art can do big things like this, from the inside out. Definitely.

Here are some photos of the Heidelberg Project:

heidelberg 5.JPGTime…heidelberg 6.JPGheidelberg 4.JPGThe Numbers House, with its angel on a chair…heidelberg1.JPG

After this, we went to Dabl’s African Bead Gallery. Dabl seems to be a fixture on the Detroit scene, and he has transformed a number of buildings on his land into works of urban art. There’s the African Language Wall and a number of outside sculptural pieces. Then there’s the actual bead museum, which is a bit like walking into a colourful kaleidoscope. At the centre of it all is Dabl, who will reach over and shake your head with a warm smile, welcoming you to his store.

dabls 3.JPGBeads! Beads! And more beads!

dabls museum .JPGdabls 2.JPGdabls 4.JPGWhen you walk onto this property, your eyes are taken by everything around you. It almost reminded me of a found poem of sorts, with pieces put together in beautiful and striking ways. There are mosaics of the highest creative order, with fragments of mirror reflecting your bent elbow, the curve of your waist and hips, the glance of a kneecap, or the lifting up of a stray hand, raised to block the sun from your eyes. You see yourself in fragments; you think about putting yourself back together again. It’s really a metacognitive process, to spend time in and around the buildings that are so beautifully and elaborately decorated. Again, this is another urban arts project that seems to fly in the face of decay, seems to encourage the value of community and peace, and to honour the way in which art can lift people out of despair in unique and inspiring ways.

Beyond that, we drove around the city, with Mel taking me through areas that had been decimated by the race riots of the late 1960s. Then, in the 1990s and forwards, the story of how Detroit struggled with economics. The rise of crime, including incidents of arson, is something that is commonly known. The arson, though, is unsetting. Even in the Heidelberg Project, there was talk about how fires are still being set, how grudges become much larger things when not contained. It doesn’t seem safe, in many places. In daylight, even, decimated houses have windows with a shutter or two hanging at odd angles, or shrubs that have taken over the front of what used to be grand houses. A drive through a very gentrified street or two had me gaping out the window of the car. There were mansions, really, from the earliest times of the Ford dynasty, when the car industry built the city and its wealthy citizens obviously benefitted. Now, there are streets where these grand old houses are being restored, but just one or two streets over, you’ll see burnt out husks of houses, or lawns that are no longer cared for. The difference between a street or two makes you realize that Detroit is complex: it has a surface, and it has a number of different depths. It’s rough and raw, and beautiful, even in the most difficult of places. The people are warm and welcoming, but you need to mind which place you’re driving through. Anger simmers underneath, a result of gentrification, racism, and elitist divisions of wealth. There are obvious ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ in this city, divided by race and gender, and so it’s not surprising that poverty and crime are common here. I would be lying if I said it wasn’t disconcerting or unsettling. It is, on both counts.

abandoned church Detroit.JPG

An abandoned church. Its back wall is a place where the plants seem to be taking over the sidewalk and abandoned parking lot. where a house used to live .JPG

One of the most unsettling things to see are the number of empty, grassy lots in places where the houses used to be, before the riots and incidents of arson occurred. Whole blocks are altered, visually, economically, and socially, by these empty lots.

Then there are the marked contrast between the posh houses on one street, and the run-down ones just a street or two away…

house2.JPGhouse 3.JPG

house.JPG

One of the last stops before we headed back to Windsor was a visit to the Guardian building in downtown Detroit. Mel had told me that I needed to see it, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. It delighted me on so many various levels, all of them artistic and sensual, and not very many cerebral ones–mostly because of the stimulation of the colour and the architectural beauty that you find on the building’s external walls, and the stunning nature of its lobby. When I entered the lobby, through a rather nondescript, sort of silvery revolving door, Mel went in first and then looked back to see my reaction: “The same thing. Every single time.” What she saw, I think, was me with my head tilted back, my mouth open, and me just muttering “Oh, my God. So beautiful! So beautiful!” I spent the next twenty minutes listening to her tell me about the building’s history, and just staring open mouthed at the elevator doors, the Tiffany-crafted clock, the elaborate tiling, and the wide expanses of marble.

Stained Glass Guardian building.JPGguardian building map.JPGThe mural wall with a map of Michigan at its centre. (This map makes me think of my parents, both of whom really loved traveling in Michigan just after they retired and were still healthy, going from Sudbury and then west to Sault Ste. Marie, and across the border. It also reminds me of the time I spent in Petoskey, when my dad was in hospital there after his accident.)

guardian5.JPGThe stunning tile work…

guardian3.JPGThis mosaic piece, above the main reception area…so beautiful.

guardian2.JPGThe Tiffany-crafted clock.guardian4.JPGElevator doors that are made of inlaid steel pieces…

guardian1.JPGMore of the tiles…

After that, Mel took us on a drive around Belle Isle, which is a place I want to go back and visit when I have more time. (It doesn’t have the same pull for me as Point Pelee does, though, and this is mostly –I think — because I love raw wild spaces and not ones that are more photoshopped and manicured.) There are so many lovely things to see in Detroit. I know a lot of people are saying that Canadians shouldn’t travel to America right now because of the Trump presidency. I understand that idea in theory. I do. But I also have a new sense, having been down in this area for a few months now, that border cities are different animals. They are so unique and often have such distinct personalities. Windsor and Detroit definitely seem to prove that theory. When you drive into Windsor, you can sometimes think that the tall skyscrapers of Detroit are part of Windsor, but they aren’t. There’s a whole different feeling to Detroit. It’s what I expected, and more. It’s complex: beautiful, rough, raw, violent, artistic, vibrant, and full of interesting people and history. I can’t wait to spend more time there and learn more. I love the DIA and want to spend a lot more time there. And I want to visit bookstores. Lots of them.

I love Windsor, too, for similar reasons. When I say I’m down here writing, people at home make faces. “Why there? Why Windsor? You could go anywhere…” And then I think: It reminds me of home, Windsor does. It’s got the same kind of working class mentality and hard work is valued. There’s a history of a union town that draws me, as I’ve come from one and understand how it works. There are unique cultural groupings, just like back home.  I’m not fond of the humidity, as a very pale woman, but I walk early in the mornings before it gets too humid. What I do love are the trails and the landscape. I love the birds, the trees, the water, and the words that seem to come to me more easily…for now, anyway. The flowers seem bigger and richer, and the gardens bloom in a more voluptuous way than they do in the north. It’s a fine place to write, Kingsville is…and the entire landscape of Essex county, and Windsor itself, draws me in creatively.

I’m not done with exploring Detroit…or Michigan. Next, I’m headed to Ann Arbor soon. An American poet friend who was born there, and whom I met on a retreat in Ireland six years ago, tells me that there’s a wonderful arboretum and hiking trails there. That’s a bit of a siren call to me, so there’s a day trip coming soon for that…

Sometimes, I’ve been thinking, over and over again lately, the things you see on the surface (of people and landscapes and cities) are not always as obvious as you’d initially imagined. There’s a great mystery to that, a sense of exploration and journeying that appeals to me, as a writer, but as a human, too. There are so many lovely layers of being in this life, and discovering them is part of the journey. I love new experiences. The difference now is that I used to want and long for new experiences, but then I would shy away from them out of fear. Now, though, I consider the risks, swallow the largely imagined spectre of fear, and step forward anyway. It’s a better, more richer way of living, I think…for me, in any case. Most definitely.

peace, friends.

k.

 

 

 

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My little love affair with letterpress printing started last year in an odd, unassuming but somehow fated kind of way, just as most love affairs will, I suppose. I read Merilyn Simonds’s book, Gutenberg’s Fingerprint: Papers, Pixels and the Lasting Impression of Books last spring and wrote a little review here, on my blog. I had known of Gutenberg, of course, and have always loved reading about historical periods, so it was, for me, the perfect book. Before that, I had little notion of how beautiful a letterpress could be. (Trust me: I know that sounds weird…)

In April 2016, I went to a historical fiction workshop at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity and met two women who raved about different types of font over wine one night in the Painter House. I remember thinking, “What are they on about?” One was Sandra McIntyre, who was writing a novel about Baskerville and his famous font, while the other was Monica Kidd, who owns Whiskyjack Press in Calgary and who happens to be a brilliant poet. I had had one glass of wine, so at that point I wasn’t in grand shape, but I remember thinking that I was intrigued.

My friend Tanya Neumeyer, a poet from Toronto, saw my blog post and wanted to introduce me to Hugh Barclay, of Thee Hellbox Press in Kingston. Both Tanya and Hugh are mentioned in Merilyn’s book as Merilyn had worked with Hugh on some letterpress projects, namely her beautiful limited edition handmade book, The Paradise Project. Hugh is a book artist, and you can tell this by the description of that project on his website. He speaks lovingly of the detailed and meticulous process that is typesetting and letterpress work: “What we will have is a 64-page book, hand-set in 14 pt. Garamond Roman, printed on an 1890 Chandler/Price press on Saint-Armand’s “salad” paper (cream coloured mould-made paper)…The covers will be wrapped in Japanese Ajisai Gold, which translates as Gold Hyacinth.” Pure poetry, I think, Hugh’s description of that stunning book.

When Hugh read the review of Merilyn’s book, he invited me, in my role as poet laureate (then) of Greater Sudbury, to visit him in Kingston, along with Tanya, to set and print one of my poems. So, there was a road trip down to Toronto to pick up Tanya and then on to Kingston, where I stayed with my second cousin, Mary, and her partner, Dale. What followed was a hot and humid nine-hour day in Hugh’s print shop, learning the ins and outs of letterpress printing. I was overwhelmed, but oddly attracted to it all.

Then, in March this year, I had a poetry reading out in Calgary, so Monica invited me to visit her letterpress studio in the old Grain Exchange building downtown. This was one of the loveliest afternoons I’ve had in my lifetime, peppering her with questions, setting type, and learning about how she works as a letterpress printer. It was too short, though, that time.

When I came down to Kingsville to work on my second novel, my friend Fe told me about Levigator Press and its proprietor, Jodi Green. Fe said that Jodi ran classes and a bell went off in my head. I wanted to learn more and maybe set and print some more poems. So, in April, I took a paper marbling class. It was brilliant. I have always loved art, and I write a lot of ekphrastic poems, but I never really considered myself to be artistic in a visual arts sort of way. Now, though, I’ve found a way to satisfy that need to be visually artistic in a literary way, melding my words with ink, beautiful paper, and elegant bits of ornamentation.

So, in mid-June, after I returned to Kingsville from Sudbury, I set off to Levigator to learn letterpress more fully. I knew I wanted to set the type for one of my poems, but I also knew that the full poem I’d done with Tanya and Hugh last year had taken nine hours. I was not up for that. (In a new relationship, even one with inanimate objects like type and a letterpress, you don’t necessarily want to spend every waking hour with the person. This probably means I am commitment phobic, if that’s even a phrase, but I know how I work. I get fascinated by something like letterpress and book arts, and then go fully into it, but I also know about balance and how I need to work on my writing projects, too. As a writer, you’re drawn to people, but also weirdly repulsed, I think. That repulsion part, for me, lets me spend a lot of time on my own, hiking, walking in towns, reading, and writing on my own.) So, after all was said and done, I settled on typesetting and printing just one stanza of a poem I wrote after hiking at Kopegaron Woods, in Wheatley, Ontario. I chose what I think is the most beautiful stanza in that particular poem, the one with birds. (I also have a big thing for birds, in particular crows and ravens, but that’s a whole other blog…)

title.jpgThe title of the poem, “A Walk in Kopegaron Woods,” which was shortened from its original title (because of its length!)

Jodi was incredibly patient and kind, listening to my peppering of questions and offering up answers and carefully worded explanations so that I could learn as I went. It was a lot of new terminology and I felt out of my depth. So, after four afternoons, and part of another day, I think, we ended up with the stanza set on beautiful paper.

Hugh and Tanya taught me so much last August in that one nine-hour block of time. I revisited it with Monica in March out in Calgary. With Jodi, over the last two weeks, I’ve had an intense immersion and review of letterpress. I remembered the terminology for things like the chase, the furniture, spacers, slugs, ornaments, the ink reservoir, and words like ‘kern’ and ‘quoin,’ which just make me think that you could easily write a poem using letterpress terminology and it would likely be beautiful…I could call it “A love letter to the letterpress.” 🙂

full layout .jpgDesigning the layout before printing the stanza.

The loveliest thing that’s emerged from all of that is that I’m giving one signed copy of my limited edition print run of stanzas to the Essex Region Conservation Authority, to auction off at a fundraising event in August. So, a place where I love to hike and which brings me great peace inside has inspired a poem, which inspired a letterpress broadside, which now allows me to give back to a protected conversation area. I love that circle. It feels very ancient and very Celtic. It feels very “me.” I love trees, as most of my friends know, and I love hiking out under these Carolinians. The trees back in northern Ontario are different. Just as beautiful, of course, but different.

completedpoem.JPGThe completed broadside. (I am so in love with it!)

Next week, and the one following it, I’m back in at Levitator Press for a number of hours in the evening, haunting Jodi and beginning to typeset a stanza from another poem. After a long talk last week over coffee, we decided to try another broadside, so I can get more comfortable with typesetting and printing, and then we’ll move onto a small chapbook of my hiking poems from my time in Essex County. We’re going to try using stanzas and make plates of photos that I’ve taken during my hikes.

What I love most about doing this, exploring the world of letterpress printing and book arts, is that there’s something very historical and traditional about it. These are two things I’m strongly rooted in within my life. I always feel as if I’m out of the loop of modern life, as if I was born in the wrong time period, and I know full well that I’m an anachronism. I’m old fashioned. This little project allows me to steep in the beauty of words and language in a new way. (Plus, to be honest, there is something very comforting about picking through a tray of type, searching out letters and tiny commas, and then trying to centre it all in the chase. Finding that it all magically works, after hours of meticulous work with your hands, is beautiful in a really true, authentic, and deep way.)

I’m down here in Essex County until the end of the year, finishing the first draft of my second novel, so I have the time and space to work on this project, too. I’m excited to start. I have so much more to learn, but I have time…I have time. 🙂

peace,

k.

 

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My eldest dog, Sable, is turning fourteen years old this week. I know she’s not very well. She’s had a heart murmur since the beginning of time, but in the last few years, she’s had a couple of weird cancer scares, a terrifying case of near-death pancreatitis just before my dad died, infected eyes that have been quite scary to heal, and now, she’s fairly deaf and blind, and dealing with vestibular disease, which means she’s tilted and a bit wobbly. She’s still happy and content, though. She loves her breakfast and supper dishes, and treats of course (especially bits of banana or carrot), and seems to want to snuggle more. I refer to her as the Queen Mum. She’s ancient, and wise, and rather crotchety. Still, she seems a bit more cuddly of late, fumbling across the chesterfield to my side and sitting there so that my hand rests on her head, my arm on her back. She snores horribly, as if there’s an old man in a tiny furry suit in the flat, rather than a small, barrel-chested shih tzu.

When you’re on your own as a single person without a lot of family members, and I have been for quite a while, your dogs are your closest family. They see you when you’re healthy, and when you’re sick in bed, with either a migraine or a bout of bronchitis. They know when you’re feeling unwell and snuggle up next to you without asking. They don’t talk back, but they do try to steal the banana peel, especially when they think that something of the banana might still be left in there somewhere. 🙂

Sable’s gone downhill a bit in the last three months, while I’ve been writing in Kingsville and away from home in Sudbury. In many ways, she does better here, mostly because I’m living in a tiny flat that is perched above a garage, tucked away behind my landlords’ home. She can navigate the space quite easily if you put her on the floor next to the bed, right after you wake up. She will snuffle, nose her way to the water bowl, wander outside to do her business, and then I tuck her up under my arm like a football, to carry her up the tall stairway that leads to my door here.

The saddest part of it all, really, is that she doesn’t walk with me anymore. From the time she was little, she was my walking and hiking partner. Then Gully came along, as my mum was dying in Fall 2008, and he joined us on our walks. In the last year, it’s been hard not have Sabe along for our daily morning walks. Since last year, Gull and I have gone on long hikes around Sudbury, and now, down around Southwestern Ontario. I have to leave Sable behind, in the little flat, but she doesn’t seem to mind. She mostly sleeps all of the day away now, and I cuddle with her whenever I can.

So. Here are the lessons that having an aging dog have taught me, and for which I am grateful:

  1. You can have bought a dog for your parents, and then suddenly find yourself falling in love with her. You can watch that dog sit by a failing mother, and then, after she has died, you can smuggle that same dog into a palliative care hospital wing in a red sports bag. (Sable grumbled and made some ‘talking noise,’ but she also didn’t seem to upset the nurses, who mostly turned their heads and looked the other way.) And then you can remember having watched that dog sit next to your father in a hospital bed, and how he and she had a little ‘grumbled’ conversation over the course of an hour, with a closed door, and hushed tones, so that no one would ever know she was there.
  2. You can learn that having an elderly dog with a disability is a teaching moment of the highest order. You can learn that love comes in small, furry packages, and that dogs are more often than not much kinder than humans. They love you unconditionally, which is a rare thing in these modern times.
  3. Aging dogs teach you to be even more patient than you may already be. They remind you to be quiet when you need to be, to be kinder than you already are, and, even more importantly, to be open and welcoming to those who may need to have someone listen, or else just sit next to them in silence.
  4. They teach you that walking into walls isn’t a bad thing, occasionally, and that you can learn a great deal about how to “bounce back” when you make the ‘wrong’ decision and need to re-route yourself. (Mind you, they also teach you to have eyes in the back of your head so that you can keep an eye on them…so that you can be their eyes now that theirs don’t work as well…so that they actually don’t walk into walls…)
  5. They can tell you about the value of being vulnerable and ‘soft’ inside, when you’ve only ever had to be strong and protective of your own self (if you’re on your own). Sometimes, fear can make you hard and resistant to others, but these lessons are about acceptance of having been hurt or tried, and of learning how to forgive, and to accept a space that best heals you, that best keeps you healthy.
  6. Older dogs are slower. They remind you, when you take them on short walks (or wobbles) down the laneway, that you should stop and smell the proverbial roses. Life is too fast paced, and we are all rushing to get somewhere, but these older dogs remind you that time is fleeting, that we need to find those with whom we can share time and energy on deeper levels, so that we can truly experience life. They remind you that slowing down is a good thing, not a bad thing.
  7. They remind you that life is short, that fourteen years is a fast-moving carousel, often populated with love and loss in various incarnations. They remind you to celebrate the love, no matter what. They remind you to share love, even while others would avoid it, or just take pale facsimiles of it into their hearts.
  8. And…they remind you that ends will come, whether you want them to or not. There is something in older dogs that will nudge a person, kindly, will tell them that life isn’t to be wasted, but to be lived fully, even if this means a slow, wobbly, snuffly walk in the grass that takes half an hour instead of ten minutes. It’s about value. It’s about quality, not quantity. It’s about depth, not surfaces. It requires commitment. It requires risk.

She’s not done. I know that much, but these are the lessons I learn from Sable every day. They come in small segments, portioned off like bits of clementine on a white china plate, so that you are more than aware of what their importance is as you move forward in a day, a week, a month, or a year. You savour the lessons. You love the time you have left. You mourn the times when you could hike together over rough rocks and bits of moss in Northern Ontario, and you still take her to Point Pelee to watch the sunrise, just for fun. Even if she can’t really see it anymore. She teaches me, you see, that sometimes what you see in your mind’s eye, in your imagination, is much more vivid than anything else you could sense in this less colourful dimension…and that hope is a thing that flies like a bird, or an angel.

…and she teaches me about gratitude and love and respect…and about being soft…and vulnerable…and trusting…even if it puts me at risk of being hurt…and even if it makes me feel uncomfortable.

She teaches me how to grow.

IMG_8722.jpgIMG_8352.jpgIMG_7503.jpgpeace, friends.

k.

 

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I’ve been lucky to have met some really amazing writers in the last two years. Some have turned out to be acquaintances, but some are dear friends. Patti Kay Hamilton is one of the dearest I know. We met at an April 2016 historical fiction workshop with Lawrence Hill. (I’m lucky; although I’ve not stayed close friends with other writers from other previous writing retreats, I’m still in close touch with quite of few of those Banff friends. They are particular kindreds, I guess you could say.)

When we were out in Banff two years ago, I remember PK talking to Larry about NorthWords, the Yellowknife literary festival. He and his wife, Miranda, were going out to take part in the festival in late May of that same year. I remember the photos of them down with the White Pelicans, thinking that it would be an amazing experience.

Imagine my delight, then, when PK rang me in the fall last year to ask if I’d be interested in taking part in the 2018 festival. One of the committee members had heard me interviewed about one of my poet laureate projects in Sudbury on CBC radio, through the internet, and had put my name forwards as a possible writer to invite. I said yes, of course. I love to travel and meet new people, but I also love to see raw landscape and nature, and I knew I’d get something of that as well. Plus, I’d have a chance to visit with Patti Kay, and I missed her.

So, on May 30th, I flew from Windsor to Calgary to Yellowknife. Imagine my fan-girl behaviour, then, when I was seated in front of Lee Maracle and Terry Fallis. (I hope I didn’t seem too weird when I turned around in my seat and said, “Oh my God! I love you guys!”) And then imagine my delight when I saw Cherie Dimaline and Richard Van Camp get on the tiny plane that would take us to the Northwest Territories. I kept thinking, inside my head, “Oh my God. So many amazing Canadian writers are on this plane. It better not crash.” The flight was uneventful, except that I was seated next to a very tall, rather musty-smelling Yellowknife resident. He must’ve thought I was mad because I became too excited as we flew over Great Slave Lake. It is, to be honest, one of the most beautiful things that I have ever seen in my entire life. It is the second largest lake within Canada, and the fifth largest in North America. Whenever you fly into (or out of) Yellowknife, you get to see it, and it’s stunning. As we began to descend, it crept into the space of the airline window. That’s when I think I freaked out my musty-smelling seat mate. I kept saying, “Oh, my God. It’s so beautiful. Look at that. Look at the ice!” Finally, he put down his book, which he was pretending to read, but couldn’t because I was muttering in amazement and craning my neck. “It is nice, isn’t it? We take it for granted sometimes, living up here.” Then we began to chat about what types of fish there are in the lake, and how long it takes for the ice to leave (sometimes it doesn’t go until July, and it reappears in October). In any case, the poor man didn’t finish his book, I was worn out from a long day of layovers in Calgary, and perhaps even more chatty because of it. (I talk too much…sometimes!)

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The ice on Great Slave Lake, during spring break up. Wednesday, May 30, 2018. (SO BEAUTIFUL!!)

After we dropped our bags at the hotel (where there was a large stuffed polar bear in the lobby!), we were ferried to a welcome dinner at the home of Judith Drinnan. She owns the brilliant Yellowknife Book Cellar, Canada’s most northern bookstore, which was founded in 1979. Her home overlooks the bay where there is a houseboat colony. From her deck, you can see the colourful full-sized homes that seem to float on the lake. I was totally taken with that little clutch of colour. “Are they on land? On islands?” I asked someone who was also out having a glass of wine on the decking. The woman shook her head and smiled. “No. They are on barges. They stay out there all year round.” Of course I ended up researching about them because I found them fascinating. They reminded me of the Jelly Bean Row houses of St. John’s that I so love. You can imagine, in places where the weather might be rough in winter especially, that bright colours like red, blue, purple, and green would perk up your days (and sometimes endless Midnight Sun-inspired nights!).

The houseboats have been there since the early 1980s. Some people have referred to the people who live there as ‘water squatters.’ In the 1990s, the town tried to work out the business of taxing people who lived in dwellings that weren’t actually on land. It didn’t work, so the people who live on the houseboats don’t pay taxes (you can’t tax houses that float on water, after all), and are in charge of their own sewage and electricity. Most use composting toilets, solar energy, or propane, to heat and light their homes. In summer, they boat across to the docks, and in winter they drive across. The “shoulder seasons” of spring and fall can be a bit dicey for getting back and forth to shore. A number of the people who live in the houseboat colony are said to be artists. (I can imagine that the quirky romance of the idea of living on a houseboat would be appealing for some, but with my luck I’d fall in during one of the shoulder season bits…)

 

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The Yellowknife Houseboats. Wednesday, May 30, 2018.

That first night, I met some amazing women. (Literary festivals always seem to feature the hard work of innovative and feisty women. They make for good kindred spirits and seem to know how best to plan things.) Charmaine Routery is the spirited executive director of the festival. She has a grand sense of humour, and a keen sense of organization. Then there’s Fran Hurcomb, the president of the festival board. (People always think that being president of a board of directors is fun, but I can imagine it’s a load of work…) Other key people I met were the brilliant Tanya Snow, who is a writer and who also does traditional throat singing; Robyn Scott, who is a spirited teacher who is also a performance poet; and Mary Elizabeth Kelly, the calm force behind things. Whenever anything seemed to get a bit frazzled or frantic, you could look to Charmaine and Mary to smile and speak calmly. (It’s amazing what having someone speak calmly will do to a group of writer people…) Patti Kay is also a board member, but she’s based further afield, in Fort Smith, an eight-hour drive south of Yellowknife. You couldn’t mention all of these people without mentioning the brilliant NWT writer, Richard Van Camp. He is one of the kindest people I’ve ever met, and his dedication to writing, and to being supportive and encouraging of other writers, is something that totally impressed me yet again.

The next day, I went to Fort Smith with Terry Fallis. His is a Cinderella story, in terms of publishing his first book, and then winning the Stephen Leacock Award about ten years ago. I’m a fan of his writing, and it’s always so good to hear stories of how people have succeeded as writers. We met Patti Kay at the airport in Fort Smith and spent the day whirling through town. First stop was a hike through the woods and down a steep ridge to edge of the Slave River, to The Rapids of the Drowned, where the American White Pelicans often fish. It’s the largest colony in North America, so they are quite plentiful. For a bird that is rather ungainly, they are so graceful when they fly. I was amazed at that. To be truthful, I didn’t want to leave them behind, but we went off to meet students at both the Thebacha Campus of Aurora College and then later at Paul William Kaeser High School. Both groups were spirited and I learned a lot from them. The kids at PWK met us within the space of a Cree language immersion classroom. (In between our school visits, we had a lunch of moose meat and barley soup, read from our respective books to a large audience at the museum in Fort Smith, and generally got to know people. They are, from every interaction I had during my four days in the NWT, truly hospitable, fun, and generous in sharing their hearts and stories.

 

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After a hike through beautiful woods, we stood on the shoreline of the Slave River, and the Rapids of the Drowned, and saw the northernmost colony of American White Pelicans. Fort Smith. Thursday, May 31, 2018.

 

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A visit (with Terry Fallis) to the Thebacha Campus of Aurora College, in Fort Smith, on Thursday, May 31, 2018.

 

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A visit to the PWK High School in Fort Smith, hanging out with Grade 7-9 emerging writers, with Terry Fallis, on Thursday, May 31, 2018.IMG_8938.jpg

Stop signs in Fort Smith, NWT.

In the Northwest Territories, eleven languages are officially recognized; nine of these are Indigenous, while two (French and English) aren’t. In Fort Smith, the main language spoken is Cree, whereas the majority of people who speak Inuktitut live in Yellowknife. The walls of the PWK classroom were covered in Cree translations of English words and phrases. As the three key cultures in the area tend to be Cree, Chipewyan, and Metis, students in school can choose to either take French or Cree from elementary school up through secondary levels. The classroom next to ours, too, was a traditional one, with the teacher showing us the community drum and giving us a short rendition of a sacred song.  Again, on the way back to Yellowknife late in the afternoon, we watched the beauty of the ice on Great Slave Lake. It reminded me of a paper marbling class that I took at Levigator Press in Windsor back in early May, seeing the water and ice blending in such a beautiful way.

On Friday, I had the pleasure of visiting two groups of high school students at Sir John Franklin High School. We talked about how pieces of visual art can inspire us to create poems. (This is my main area of interest as a poet, and likely more as a failed visual artist!) The students, and Tomiko Robson, their teacher, were spirited and really great sports in taking part in the writing process with me. I felt honoured to be there. Then, in the afternoon, I met with a group of local Yellowknife writers and talked about ekphrastic poetry. I also learned a bit about the history of the town.

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One of the fine groups of emerging writers at Sir John Franklin High School, along with their brilliant English teacher, Tomiko Robson. Friday, June 1, 2018. IMG_8988.jpg

A second keen group of emerging writers at Sir John Franklin High School. Yellowknife, NWT. Friday, June 1, 2018. IMG_9004.jpg

A fabulous group of emerging writers at the Yellowknife Public Library afternoon poetry workshop. Friday, June 1, 2018.

Saturday brought a morning panel discussion about the power of fiction, with Rebecca Hendry, Lee Maracle, Cherie Dimaline, and Terry Fallis. This was followed by a poetry panel in the afternoon.  Lee and I discussed social media, social justice issues, and the role that poetry plays in our modern world. (This was terribly intimidating for me, as I have loved Lee Maracle’s work for years…and am constantly amazed by her.) I also had the privilege of mentoring two local writers who shared their poetry and prose work with me on Saturday afternoon. I so loved that one-on-one experience, so I thank Elaine Gillespie and Robin Young for it.

Saturday evening brought me a slight heart attack. “Blush” is the NorthWords festival folks’ idea of fun. It’s an evening of people reading erotica. Yeah. I’m one of the shyest people I know when it comes to private things, and erotica is not something I’m good at writing. (Writing a few sex scenes in my first novel required soft music, candles, and a bottle of wine…) I write sensual poems, definitely, but they usually use trees and nature as metaphors for romantic relationships. So. As both Rebecca and Terry know, I had just gotten my first glass of wine for the evening and heard my name called. I was the first reader. Damn it. This did not bode well. I had hoped to at least not feel my ankles before getting up on stage and turning fifty shades of bright red. I basically told about two or three hundred people that I would be the sedate, Downton Abbey part of the evening. Then I read a couple of sensually-charged poems featuring birch trees that unveil themselves and stars exploding. Yup. Tame by comparison. For the rest of the evening, I drank heavily, sandwiched between Terry and Rebecca, and kept muttering “Oh, my God…” as people read rather explicit passages that they’d written. It was a night of terror and bravery for me. Let’s leave it at that. 🙂

What I most want to say about the NorthWords Writers’ Festival, though, is that the people of Yellowknife and Fort Smith are hospitable and open hearted. I felt so honoured to have been asked to take part. I was the most unrecognizable in a slate of very famous Canadian writers, so I felt like Cinderella for most of the festival. I worked hard as laureate for Sudbury, and I’m proud of what I did over my two-year term, and I’m so glad of the opportunities that it has afforded me since then. Visiting the Northwest Territories was a ‘life highlight,’ but now I’m desperate to go back. I would love to go on a canoe trip, or on a really long hike. The land is beautiful. The sun never really sets at this time of year, and the energy in the earth and high skies is powerful magic.

To Fran and Charmaine, as President and Executive Director of NorthWords Writers’ Festival, I can’t thank you enough for my invitation, and for making me feel so at home. To the other (big famous) writers who were there along with me, you don’t know how grateful I am to have sat next to you at breakfast, eating eggs and bacon, pinching myself under the table because this little Northern Ontario girl never grew up imagining she’d ever be meeting writers she so loved and respected when she grew up to be a woman. To Rebecca and Terry, well, how do you know when you’ll meet truly kindred spirits and want to hang out with them all the time for fun? To Patti-Kay, hmmm…how do you thank someone whom you know you were fated to meet two years ago, in amidst the mountains of Banff? I feel blessed, grateful, and more sure of my internal compass as a writer…even on days when I’m tired and my head hurts from trying to sort out a story’s plot.

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Last night…after my terrifying reading at “Blush,” on Saturday, June 2, 2018…with Rebecca Hendry and Terry Fallis. (Poor souls….)

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Patti Kay Hamilton, a dear friend whom I met in April 2016 at a (now infamous) Banff Centre for Arts & Creativity historical fiction workshop with Larry Hill. How lucky I am that we stay in close touch, despite the geographic distances.

And to Yellowknife and Fort Smith, I love your White Pelicans, your Wild Cat Cafe, your never-setting Midnight Sun that reminds me of my dad’s favourite Robert Service poems, and your endless hospitality and kind words. I may just have fallen in love with the Northwest Territories…and will carry it in my heart for years to come.

Don’t worry…I’ll be back. A hiking trail or canoe is calling my name…already. 🙂

peace,

k.

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The infamous Yellowknife landmark, The Wildcat Cafe. (Best bison stew and bannock I’ve ever had!)

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Sunrise, at 3:30am on Sunday, June 3, 2018.

 

 

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I was lucky enough to have been invited to take part in the NorthWords Writers’ Festival last week in Yellowknife, in the Northwest Territories. It was such an honour, and I got to meet and hang out with writers whose work I’ve admired for a long time. I’ll write more about that in another post later this week, but wanted to write about one workshop that struck me. It was about the power of fiction in the world, and how reading literature can transform you.

The people taking part in the panel were Rebecca Hendry (author of One Good Thing and Grace River), Lee Maracle (author of many books, including Ravensong, I am woman, and Celia’s Song, just to name a few), Cherie Dimaline (the 2017 winner of the Governor General’s Award for Literature with her stunning novel, The Marrow Thieves), and Terry Fallis (who has six novels to his name, including his latest, One Brother Shy, and who is also the owner of a keen sense of wit). Imagine the wealth of experience on this little panel on a Saturday morning in Yellowknife. (I should’ve had more coffee that day…lesson learned.)

The questions posed were ones surrounding the notion of how literature, particularly prose, can be powerful, can even invoke social change. The moderator asked first about the authors’ earliest memories of story. Their answers were interesting, varied, but all came down to the importance of storytelling and reading. I like that. Literacy is one of my pet causes, so it’s always good to hear authors speak of the power of books.

Lee Maracle began, speaking of not having been able to read until she was nine. Hers was a childhood of storytelling, and of recollections of myth-making. Later on, she spoke of how Chekov influenced her, how his work drew her to worry about his characters. Rebecca Hendry spoke of how she had been “writing since I can remember.” Cherie Dimaline spoke about how she grew up hearing two types of stories — the myth making history ones that recorded her culture’s origins and history, and the ‘play’ stories that allowed for fun, but still held meaningful teachings. Terry Fallis spoke of how his father engendered a love of literature and reading so that he “grew up to love reading.” He talked, too, of how he believes “we learn far more from fiction than from non-fiction.” All of their views could be summed up in Maracle’s statement that “story is our guide.” How could it not be, is all that I could think as I listened carefully and took notes. Maybe I’m biased, though, as an avid reader and writer. I write in three different genres, which often seems a bit schizophrenic to me, but all of them centre on what I perceive my truths to be, and this is reflected in what I write.

The notion of truth, and how we come to it as writers and readers, was broached. Fallis said, “Fiction is the best vehicle for telling the truth…because we create a story to perfectly convey a truth…” Dimaline echoed this notion when she said that readers can “fall in love with characters first…and then talk about the real issues underlying the story.” Her work, in terms of The Marrow Thieves, has a far-reaching ripple. As a teacher, I can see how kids fall in love with her YA novel for its vivid characters and situations, but then also learn about residential schools and colonization. Then, they take the novels home and let their parents read them, the very parents who may not have been exposed to knowledge of Canada’s “other” history, the one that tells of the persecution of this country’s First Nations, Metis, and Inuit peoples. Rebecca Hendry spoke of how “we all have different perspectives” and that “fiction has the ability to allow us to learn about one another…and triggers our sense of empathy.” Yes! It makes us feel first, and then it makes us think, if the author has done his or her job properly.

Quoting Thomas King, Maracle said, “we are made of stories.” I always think that my earliest memories are of stories told around my great-aunts’ kitchen table at 160 Kingsmount in Sudbury, the house my great-grandfather built after retiring from running his store and the post office in Creighton Mine. We gather, all cultures, in circles, to tell our stories. We share them in this way, through recounting them, through writing them down, through telling them over and over again, over time. How powerful is that? Powerful.

Some may think that fiction isn’t as powerful as non-fiction, but there is a power in “telling a story, but telling it back differently,” as Maracle says.  You take on the story and re-tell it in your own words. You make it your own, even if it began in your family a few generations ago. Dimaline said, “Fiction asks you to involve your whole self, your heart and your mind, and then you will want to invest in making change.” Fallis spoke of how he heard Donald Woods speak at a conference, citing Stephen Biko as a perfect example of how one person can make change real and tangible. He spoke to how satire can be a powerful tool in writing: “When you laugh at something, you disarm it, ridicule it, and then weaken it.” He also said that this allows a writer to “go at the issues by stealth,” so that falling in love with characters can help an author be a force for social change. I kept thinking of Swift’s 1729 essay, “A Modest Proposal,” when he speaks of the Irish selling their young as sources of food. He was not literally suggesting this, but was instead critiquing (rather forcefully) the poor treatment of the Irish by the English. That was satire at its best, and it has stayed as a touchstone in literature for that reason. Here is an example of Juvenilia satire that works and is still studied. He got at the issue by making fun of it, by pointing out how absurd this notion would be. He pointed out an issue that was serious by using satire as the vehicle.

In terms of Canadian Literature these days, the significance of truth and reconciliation is of great importance. Dimaline spoke to the notion that Can Lit has begun to include other voices, other experiences, but used the example of building a house. As she said, the ‘house’ of Can Lit was already built, largely populated by white men at first, and then women, and then other diverse cultural voices and experiences. In recent years, though, an ‘addition’ has been fixed onto the side of the house, and it ‘houses’ Indigenous authors. She suggested that, instead of seeing it as an addition, perhaps the house of Can Lit should have been destroyed and then rebuilt, including rather than excluding Indigenous voices as just a hastily tacked on ‘add on.’ I think this is true, actually. You can’t try to put a too-small sweater on if you’ve gained weight. It won’t fit. You can’t just shoehorn a whole kind of literature into another one. They need to work together.

That’s the whole notion of what ‘reconciliation’ is about. The truth part is about letting people tell their stories, as Maracle, King, and Wagamese would say, but the reconciliation part is about somehow learning to work together. I think it can be done, but all things take time. These strong voices in literature, though, bode well. In classrooms around Canada, kids are now reading stories by First Nations, Metis, and Inuit writers. This is a big change. Ten years ago, it was unheard of within our provincial curriculum in Ontario. Well, you might have had a poem by Lee Maracle in a textbook, or part of an essay by Wagamese, but you would never have studied Drew Hayden Taylor’s plays instead of one of Shakespeare’s….and that’s happening now…and it seems to me that kids are finding it resonates with them. Maybe, as Dimaline says, reconciliation will only happen with that next generation of Canadians.

My view is that story, of any incarnation, is powerful. From the time we are little, we like to gather around adults to hear stories. The easiest way to make friends with a little person under the age of six or seven is to put out your hand and ask if they’d like you to read them a story. (This is how I’ve bonded with a lot of my friends’ kids. I’m the one who buys them books, tells them stories, and lets them tell me their stories, too.) We just need to be story keepers and story sharers. This, I think, is how we will change the world, one story at a time.

 

 

panelNWT.JPGJust one story at a time.

peace, friends.

k.

 

 

 

 

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Fear is bigger than it ought to be, when you’re too often in your head, as I so often am. I’m a ‘feeler’ and an empath, certainly, but I’ve always been cerebral. I read a lot, I think a lot, I am on my own a lot, and I write. (I’ve had people say, “You’re too smart for your own good,” which always ticks me off because it implies that a person should apologize for being quick witted. It’s just as daft as someone saying to me, “You’re too pale for your own good,” or “Your hair is too curly for your own good.” And since when is being smart a bad thing?)

For me, it has been a blessing and a curse. I think quickly, speak (too often) without a filter. (This is either shocking, for some people, and for me, sometimes, too, or else it is something that causes people to laugh hysterically. I say stuff that other people think about saying, but then stop themselves from saying. I’m missing the filter. I’m a ten-year-old inside an adult body.)

Choosing to come to southwestern Ontario, and an area that I love to hike in, was a big choice that I made last August when I wrote on Pelee Island for two weeks. Taking a semester off to dedicate myself to trying to finish the first draft of my second novel is a bit overwhelming, when I get to thinking about it. I am dedicating myself to my work. By being away from home, I can’t distract myself. I also, though, need to stay slightly social. So, I have three good friends who make sure I see other humans occasionally, outside of random encounters with hikers.

I’ve known Fe since we went to high school together. She moved away, and we reconnected when her dad was ill in Sudbury, and later when he died. Then, two years ago, my friend Dawn asked me to take part in a writing retreat on Pelee Island, and I began to discover the beauty of the Essex County area, so Fe and I reconnected when I was down again in August of that year, working on a novel in Kingsville. We’ve been in touch ever since. I feel lucky and blessed that someone who’s known me for as long as she has gets me as I am. She always has, and likely always will.

When I got down to Kingsville, she opened her heart, family, and home, asking me to Easter Dinner with her family. It was lovely. Then, after dinner, over some kind of trifle in a bowl, she mentioned that she was doing aerial silks at the Windsor Circus School. Then she showed me a video. I gasped. How was she doing that? She suggested I try it. I scoffed. (You should know that I usually scoff when I’m nervous, overwhelmed, or when my head is trying to tell my heart that I should just *not* do something new. I have to fight against my fear.)

Fast forward to a couple of weeks later, in April, and a visit to try aerial silks. The first day was brutal. I have a staple in my left hip, so my range of motion in that whole leg is completely difficult. It moves just so far and that’s it. (This is why pigeon pose has traditionally annoyed me in yoga class. I can do pigeon pose on the right, but not the left. I am mismatched.) Tia, the aerial silks teacher, is brilliant. I told her about the staple, but she didn’t flinch. Nope. I shouldn’t let the staple in my hip stop me. She just said that working out on the silks would likely actually work out some of the scar tissue, and even likely give me more range of movement. (She’s actually been right about that and, though I know I’ve just begun, I can sense a more fluid motion in my left leg and hip, as if it’s learning how to breathe again).

She just stretched us out before we began, through exercises on the mats, which is called ‘conditioning,’ and then got me started on a simple starfish pose. You step up into the knot, and then you move your feet out until you are almost in a square shape. You look a bit like a weird, hanging starfish. (You also quiver a lot because all of the muscles in your body are holding you up and in position.) After that, I learned the ‘cocoon,’ which is fun. You get to swish fabric around, use your ‘safety arm’ to be sure you don’t kill yourself while only a foot off the floor (if you’re a beginner, like me), and you push your legs out into the silk in front of you, finally sinking into a cocoon of your own making. Then there’s ‘plank,’ which requires a lot of upper body and core strength. You end up, somehow, pulling your body up to a horizontal position, so you’re suspended inside the square of the silks. All of these moves and positions require you to engage your core and pretty much squeeze the crap out of any and every muscle in your body. You are, always, always, always, sore for a day or two afterwards. (It puts my experiences with Zumba and Pound to shame, to be honest, and it’s made me more aware of my physical and mental strength.)

The most challenging thing, for me, happened in my fourth class. Tia said that I would be inverting. Yeah, okay. I just made a face. She made a face back. “You are. You will. Today!” And then I think I shook my head again. She laughed, smiled, as she always does, and then said, “Get out of your damn head! Get into your body!” Leaning back into the knot of silk, positioned just above my waist, she helped me to tip backwards, so that my head went backwards, and my feet and legs went up above my head. I couldn’t stop laughing, mostly because I was terrified. I was completely upside down. (If ever having control was a real thought, even though it’s always an illusion in life, now was the moment I realized that I had to be vulnerable to be strong. That was a lesson. That was, indeed, a big lesson…)

There are side effects to doing silks, things I hadn’t expected: sore shoulders and arms, newly defined arm muscles that I didn’t know existed, emerging core muscles that I didn’t know existed, and a strange sense of grace when I walk or hike. I feel more rooted in my own feet and legs, and my arms swing with greater certainty. I take up more space in the world, even though I’ve lost weight. That is a very cool thing. A reversal of fortunes, and a reversal of mind. Then there are the ‘occupational’ hazards: the burns from the silks where you least expect them (backs of your thighs, behind your back, near your armpits), and even blisters on your hands. Cramps in your hands, arms, toes, and feet, too, seem common. It’s like your whole body wakes up and stretches open wide and says “Hey, look at this…you woke up! I can move!” when it’s only ever been scrunched up, trying to be quiet, or proper, or just invisible. This, I find, is about making myself visible to myself. (It’s also about feeling sexy, strong, and sensual. Definitely not bad side effects. 🙂 )

Here’s the thing: so much of what I’ve done at silks in the last four sessions has been psychological and mental. I’ve had a life of being fearful, of just being ‘safe’ in everything I try to do on a day-to-day basis. Boring. Learning aerial silks takes me out of my head and plunks me smack-dab into my physical body. You can’t control very much of anything, but you need to control your physical body when you do aerial silks. You need to be in your body, and not in your head. If you’re in your head, you might hurt yourself. When Tia turned me upside down, helped me to invert, tipped me, I had to trust my own physical strength. I had to trust that my body was strong enough to combat the fear inside my brain. Then, for me, who’s always had to be strong for myself, on my own, I had to trust her to tip me over myself, physically, and to give up that sense of control (and fear). The hysterical laughter was, I think, a combination of fear, shock, surprise, and (mostly) delight. I was out of my head for the first time in a very long time…and that was freeing.

I’m new to this aerial silks thing. I record my progress every week by videoing it on my iPhone, and I can see how I’ve improved over the four or five 1.5hr classes I’ve taken, but I’m not high off the ground. That’s okay. I’ll get there. Last week, I managed to invert by myself, to my great shock and amazement. Then I pulled myself back up. There’s core strength where there wasn’t before, but there’s something even greater…and that’s the best part: I’m more in my body than in my head and it’s changed the way I am in the world, in myself. Not a lot scares me these days. That, for a change, is a huge gift. I have Fe to thank for getting me there, and Tia to thank for always encouraging me, despite my Muppet faces and grimaces, and accompanied by some muttered swearing. (Last week, I struggled, after having been back home in Sudbury for a few weeks and a couple of literary events, so I felt awkward again. Tia was persistent, telling me that she could see it on my face, that I was lacking in confidence. “I can see it on your face, you know. You’re nervous. You think you can’t do it. Don’t let your head win. Get back into your body! Get out of your head!” She was right: it’s my new mantra. It’s working, even on days when I don’t do silks. 🙂 )

I know I’ll keep improving. I’m stubborn. I’m going to keep on keeping on, and I hope to get higher off the ground, because it already feels a bit like flying. On so many levels, it’s like flying for the very first time, and being vulnerable enough to trust that I won’t fall…and that you can be strong by being vulnerable and open after all.

Who knew? Who knew?

peace, friends.

k.

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