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Archive for the ‘Wanderings and Ponderings’ Category

I’ve thought about writing this blog post for a few weeks now. My city has just put out a call for its next Poet Laureate. I am what I like to call–quietly–a ‘past Poet Laureate,’ but I’ve also heard the more officious ‘Poet Laureate Emeritus’ used in other places around Canada. Whatever you call us, after we’ve left the office of laureate–and as we continue on with our mostly quiet work of thinking about and writing poems–doesn’t really matter to me. I’m more thinking about why it’s crucial that these roles be defended and protected in North America these days. Here’s why…

‘Poets Laureate,’ as they’re properly called in the plural form, have been around for a very long time. The tradition finds its roots in England, but poets have been important since the beginning of time. In the Irish tradition, the seanachai would travel around the country and tell stories in the ‘courts’ of different chieftains. Stories, for all world cultures, carry power and help us–as humans–to pass down our traditions, beliefs, and humanity. Anyone who’s had a parent who read to them when they were little will remember the magic of sitting quietly with someone and listening with great anticipation. Poetry is magic.

So. England. Laureates go back to the 17th century, with John Dryden being named the first one in 1668. (One of my favourites, Tennyson, was a laureate for 42 years, during the reign of Queen Victoria. I can’t quite imagine that job…for 42 years!) Poets laureate have traditionally been appointed by governments, so you can’t just name yourself one simply because you feel you might have a kick ass sonnet in a shoebox under your bed. You need to have some publication credits. You need to show that you’ve taken the work of being a poet seriously. And you need to have a vision for what you’d like to do with the position, for how you can serve as an ambassador for the literary arts, and for your community, during (and after!) your time as poet laureate. There’s a sense of purpose, of responsibility, that definitely goes with the role. Perhaps that’s why some people are fearful of applying for it. I’m not sure…but I am sure of the fact that I want to talk about why I think it’s important for a city to have a Poet Laureate, and for emerging and established writers to consider applying, even if they’re a bit nervous…

This week, the City of Victoria, out in British Columbia, put out a call for a Youth Poet Laureate. This is something I’m very much in favour of as I met some dynamic young poets when I was laureate here in Sudbury from 2016-18. When I began to travel more in my work as laureate, and in promoting my book at the time, I met laureates from across Canada, and I soon found that I had made new friends who loved poetry as much as I did. It’s a fine group of people, ones who know that they speak and breathe poetry each and every day, and ones who do sacrifice their privacy to take on the role. That may have been the thing I didn’t really expect.

While I’m quite comfortable in being in public, in reading my work to large groups of people, I was surprised that I sort of found myself being recognized while out buying tomatoes at the grocery store, or tampons at the pharmacy. Neither of these things is really fantastic when your hair is a mess and you aren’t expecting to have someone ask if you’d want to write them a poem for their sister’s birthday next month. You become a public figure and–while you might have known that was part of the role, as an ambassador of arts and culture–you also really don’t know how it feels to put out the garbage and have a stranger talk to you while you’re in your skivvies and wearing a wild purple kimono. Those moments still happen for me, even though I’ve been out of the role for almost two years now.

So. Why bother? You might ask that question. And now I’ll tell you why.

In a world that is so very dark, the various arts (and I’ll include literary, dramatic, visual, musical, and theatrical in this grouping) are slivers of light that pierce the negativity. Each Poet Laureate around Canada is asked to propose a legacy project. I had many notions of what I’d do with my honorarium. I didn’t want the money itself, but I wanted to roll it into projects that I’d do around the community. My goal, I suppose, was to bring poetry into places where people wouldn’t normally expect to find it, and maybe make them reconsider their preconceived notions of what good poetry might do in a community.

For me, one of the projects that meant the most to me was bringing poetry into Health Sciences North, to the palliative care and oncology wings of the North Tower. Both of my parents had been in palliative care prior to their deaths, and I was surprised at how cold and sterile it felt to me. I only ever wished for art, and for words. There were always issues about where you could post a poem, or stanza, without it being unhygienic or too expensive. Working with Jessica Watts at the Greater Sudbury Public Library was my godsend, mostly because she always just nodded when I floated my ideas out towards her. When I started talking about putting poems on windows, and about my notion of how poetry helps us to see (and be) in the world in a different way, she seemed interested. We asked the previous three laureates to gather stanzas that spoke to hope, and to the landscape that we all love.

It took most of my two year term, but we got the poems into the hospital in the last few months of my time in the position. It made me cry. I could only just think of my dad, and how much time he and I had spent together talking in his rather bland palliative care room before he died. I wished he’d had a poem…but he never did. Going up to that floor to install the stanzas on the windows was the hardest thing I’d ever done, as I hadn’t been up there since he died in late December 2011. I hadn’t the fondest memories of that time, so it took every ounce of bravery I had to do it. I’m glad I had Jess alongside me, and my poetry-loving friend, Martin Lees, who works at the hospital, and who was so instrumental in helping me to make my dream of palliative care poems come true.

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IMG_5881.jpg IMG_5879.jpgIMG_5878.jpgIMG_5882.jpgTrying to get the right photo of Tom Leduc’s poem meant a strange bit of angling on the floor in the long-term care hallway. (His was sneakiest to photograph because it looked out onto a roof space and there was a silvered box on the roof outside.)

I also love the airport poems for the same reason. Any place where you have to wait can be a difficult place to be. Waiting of any sort is hard. It means you have to find a quiet place inside yourself, go inside and find the place where you know there isn’t much you can do but just ‘be still.’ My favourite things are the photos that people took of their little kids with the poems at the airport. One woman messaged me through my blog and said that she had memorized my stanza. She had moved away to British Columbia, but every time she came home to Sudbury, she loved to read my airport stanza about the trees and lakes. That she memorized my work…well…that makes me amazed. Still, and always, my favourite photos are of the little ones with the airport poems.

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My absolute favourite is courtesy of Gen Waszczylo, who took a photo of her grandson, Izaak, back two years ago.

Then there are the really ‘far out’ things, as my mum would’ve said: the invitation to represent the city at the Governor General’s Literary Awards at Rideau Hall in Ottawa in November 2017, and then the invitation to read at Laureate City in Ottawa that same week. There were the two lovely readings at Windsor’s Poetry at the Manor, which was organized by Marty Gervais, who ended up publishing my book of poems, Some Other Sky (Black Moss Press). And then, there was a glorious trip to Yellowknife and its Northwords Literary Festival in late spring of 2018, where I met new writer friends, with whom I still stay in touch. These are the ripples of having been laureate, and they’re the things I love. That I can travel and stay with fellow poets, and sit with them for a cup of tea and then have a chat about words, is a great gift to my life. I’m so grateful for it. I can’t even begin to tell you…how much that means. IMG_8347.jpg

I never went to prom in high school, so this was a big night…all dressed up at the Governor General’s Literary Awards, and chatting up writers whose work I love.

IMG_6805.jpgLaureate City in November 2017, with my cousins, David Ennis and Lisa Ennis, at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.

While I was still laureate, a small group of us managed to get Project Bookmark Canada to install a plaque honouring the work of local writer, and friend, Matt Heiti. Matt’s been my playwriting mentor since Fall 2015. 20180501GD11926.jpgIMG_8570.jpgIMG_8572.jpg

What I love about Project Bookmark is that it’s all about creating a tangible literary trail across Canada. It promotes local authors, and literacy, and weaving words into communities in new and unique ways. Again, I love it when words get onto walls where you might not expect to see them. The element of surprise is always magical…

And then there was The Rain Poetry Project…which I loved for its whimsy, but also for its power. Here’s one of my favourite little poems, with one of my favourite local poets, Ignatius Fay, down next to his poem at The Market downtown.

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After my time as laureate ended, the ripples continued rippling. That surprised me the most. I was invited to read in Calgary, where I got to reunite with three of my favourite people, all writers I’d met at my Banff workshop.

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Blurry photos in a Calgary pub with Monica Kidd, Emily Ursuliak, and Sandra McIntyre.

IMG_8871.jpgSeeing Great Slave Lake from the air, on the way to Yellowknife, and the way the ice breaking up reminded me of doing paper marbling at Levigator Press in Windsor last year. IMG_8988.jpgWorking with the magic kids at Sir John Franklin Secondary School in Yellowknife. June 2018. IMG_8936.jpgMeeting more magic kids in Fort Smith, NWT, with Terry Fallis. June 2018.

IMG_8929.jpgAnd speaking to more young writers at the college in Fort Smith, NWT. June 2018. IMG_9049.jpgMeeting the Great American Pelicans at the Rapids, Fort Smith, NWT. Thanks to Patti Kay Hamilton for the photo of me and Terry. June 2018. IMG_9050.jpgHiking down a hill with Terry. Worried about slipping into the water…which isn’t far out of frame. Fort Smith, NWT. June 2018.

 

IMG_9031.jpgNew and steadfast friends in Rebecca Hendry and Terry Fallis. Yellowknife, NWT. June 2018.

IMG_9040.jpgPatti Kay Hamilton…and me…at 11:30 at night in Yellowknife. The light…oh, the light in the sky! PK and I met at the Banff Centre in Spring 2016, when we both took part in Larry Hill’s historical fiction workshop.

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Meeting Kirby at the Detroit Book Fair in July 2018 brought me a new and amazing friend. She owns Knife Fork Book in Toronto, a poetry-only bookstore that I love and support.

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Reading at Knife Fork Book, from These Wings (Pedlar Press, 2019) in March 2019.

So. I posted a bunch of really amazing photos here, and I know I’m blessed to have gone to these places, to have been invited to read in such beautiful bookstores, and worked alongside other writers from across Canada. None of it would have happened, though, if I hadn’t applied to be laureate.

That’s a big statement, I know, but the doors of possibility that open to you if you’re lucky and blessed enough to be a poet laureate are many. The community of poets is a small, woven one throughout Canada, and it’s much tighter than people would imagine. Geography and its vast distances obviously mean that we mostly stay in touch via social media and email, but literary festivals and shared retreats and readings mean that we’ll see each other more often than people would imagine.

I know that when people see the call for Sudbury’s Poet Laureate, a number of local writers who are mostly poets at heart will flinch. They will say–to me, or to the other past laureates–“Look at all that you did! I can’t possibly do that!” but I also said that before I applied. I was the most reluctant of applicants back in the Fall of 2015. I was battling the dregs of a depression and a fierce bout of anxiety at work as a teacher, but I knew that I needed to commit myself in a new way to my writing. The honour of being laureate, and the responsibility, and the gift that it has given to me since, has almost completely been rooted in the amazing people I have met. My work with young poets has been the most rewarding thing. When I think back to when I started to write in high school, there really wasn’t a person who knew what I was about, or how to encourage me. I had a Grade 8 teacher in Tony Armstrong, at Pius XII, as well as an OAC teacher in Rick Carter at Marymount College, but outside of those two, I didn’t have writers in my life to read my work and offer constructive feedback until I worked with Timothy Findley through the Humber School for Writers in my late 20s.

We have so many talented young poets and creative writers in Sudbury. They are likely the way I was back then: shy, a bit uncertain, likely very much cerebral and in their heads, artistic, and maybe just feeling out of sorts within their schools. I’m hoping that their teachers are encouraging them to continue writing creatively. The Ontario curriculum doesn’t allow for much creativity, sadly, as it’s packed to the gills with dense information, and leaves little time for creative expression. I know there are great English teachers in our public and Catholic school systems. I hope some of those writers of theirs will find a mentor who writes, and who will encourage them to continue onward. I wish I’d known a ‘real writer’ when I was their age…it would have helped me a great deal.

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Meeting with the lunchtime Poetry Club at Lo-Ellen Secondary School in January 2019, talking about ekphrastic poetry with Poetry in Voice Canada.

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Hanging out with the Writers’ Craft students at St. Benedict’s in March 2019, talking about eco-poetry and the SciArt Poetry Contest.

A poet laureate can do so much, if they let themselves be open to the possibilities of partnership and creative collaboration. While the initial response to the call for applicants to the role might be one of dread and a bit of nervousness, I’d challenge local poets to seriously think about what they might offer the role, and the City and its citizens. You can make of it what you want, and you aren’t limited by what previous laureates have done or not done. The canvas is yours alone to paint.

I believe that poetry is personal and political. I also believe that we are here for a purpose, and only for a very short time. I’ve said it before here, in many blog entries, but I’m constantly mindful of the fact that the first part of my life wasn’t always light.  A few close friends know that it was much darker than I’d imagined. The last three years of my life have been about getting healthier, about focusing on my written work, and about trying to find a way to channel creativity in a positive way into my community. We live in a beautiful place, I think, and it can only become more vibrant and beautiful if we invest in its future. It isn’t really for us, and it really shouldn’t be, if you ask me. It’s about what we want to sculpt it into for those generations who will come after us. The arts and culture sector needs to be fed, made healthy, encouraged, and the role of Poet Laureate is one vital piece that can help do that. Yes, it’s a volunteer commitment, and yes, it is a lot of work, but I can also say–without any reservations–that it is the most amazing thing that has ever happened to me. Sometimes, you know, you take a calculated risk…you follow your heart, even if your head is a bit wary. (It might be a bit like falling into love…or moving towns…or shifting careers…or taking up a new hobby…and taking that sort of hopeful risk, if you’re looking for an analogy…)

If you’d like to think about applying, please see the call below and check to see if your literary c.v. might match up with the requirements for the position.

The short description is here, on the City’s website:

“Applicants for the position of Poet Laureate must be a published poet, recognized for their achievements, and active in the cultural and literary community. Additional requirements include demonstrated leadership skills, public speaking ability and flexibility to carry out all duties required of the position in a manner that reflects English, French or Indigenous heritage.”

The URL with the link to the application form can be found here:

http://www.sudburylibraries.ca/en/booksmuchmore/poet-laureate-call-out.asp

If you have any questions, just reach out. There are at least five laureates who love poetry enough to sit and chat with you. Trust me on this!

peace,

k.

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There are two exhibitions on at the Art Gallery of Sudbury right now. One features the work of Dennis Geden, a veteran North Bay visual artist. There are ten oil paintings, completed within the last ten years. They are portraits that focus on what the gallery calls ‘the stories of arcane figures, historical and contemporary.’ What I like, mostly, is that I’ve always been drawn to the faces and eyes of Geden’s people. They have, when I first volunteered and worked at the gallery back in the late 1990s, sort of entranced me. They look out at you (or not, depending on the painting) with their sculpted faces and their haunting eyes. I also really liked that there were cell phones in the paintings. It seemed, to me, quite timely, given the state of our western society. What I love about Geden’s work, though, is that, when you look at his paintings, you find yourself drawn in close, as if you might step right inside the canvas and enter into a different world.

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Rising the Black Dogs, 2010.

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Sea Onion with Botanist, 2019.

The second exhibit, though, is my favourite right now. It’s Joshua Mangeshig Pawis-Steckley’s Oshkimaadiziig: The New People, and it’s in Gallery 2, upstairs. I’m a fan of the Woodland School of artists. Some of my favourites are Daphne Odjig, Alex Janvier, and Norval Morrisseau. I’ve always been entranced by the work of Leland Bell and James Simon. (I once stood in Simon’s art studio on Wikwemikong, waiting while he ran into town for something. His wife let me in there, so no one needs to think I broke in illegally or anything. He and I never actually met, though, because I felt too weird, waiting in an artist’s studio for quite a while and feeling as if I were intruding on his personal and very private creative space, so I left after a bit.)

 

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Many people cite Norval Morrisseau as the founder of the Woodland School of Art. You can see his work at the McMichael Gallery in Kleinburg, Ontario. I was there last week, so I had the pleasure of going up to that loft gallery and being alone with his wonderful spirit fish. Artists who fall into the category of the Woodland School often tend to paint with bright colours, bold lines, and a sort of ‘x-ray style’ of vision that looks inside the people, plants, animals, and landscapes that are the focus of the work. Most often, the style of Woodlands Art is such that Anishinaabeg stories are translated to canvas. These paintings are beautiful to see in person, especially if you can go on your own, or maybe just go with one friend who is also fairly quiet. You need to sit down right in front of a piece and let it sink into your heart and mind. Chatter would disrupt the effect.

Oshkimaadiziig: The New People/Le nouveau peuple is a stunning exhibit. It has a sacred essence. Based on the teachings of the The Seven Fires Prophecies, Joshua Mangeshig Pawis-Steckley’s paintings embody the various prophecies, leaving the viewer to consider the scope of history as well as the forecast of where the prophecies lead.

In a release, Pawis-Steckley wrote of his work: “(The prophecies) speak of the poisoning of the Indigenous spirit and our lands, and our resiliency to survive and overcome it. They speak of restoring relations between Indigenous settler society. They also educate Anishinaabeg youth on the history of the great Anishinaabeg migration from the mouth of the Saint Lawrence River over to the land surrounding the Great Lakes.” Pawis-Steckley is from the community of Wasauksing First Nation, but now lives in British Columbia. He’s a graduate of the graphic design program at Nova Scotia Community College in Halifax and has been exhibiting his work across Canada since 2015. IMG_2593.jpg

The Great Migration, The Third Fire.

The prophecy of The Third Fire speaks of how a ‘light skinned race’ arrives on Turtle Island. This is the time of colonization. “Beware if the light skinned race comes wearing the face of death. You must be careful because the face of brotherhood and the face of death look very much alike. . .If they are indeed your brothers, let them prove it. Do not accept them in total trust. You shall know that the face they wear is one of death if the rivers run with poison and fish become unfit to eat.”

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Deceit, The Fifth Fire.

As a settler, I can only say that viewing Pawis-Steckley’s work is a powerfully emotional experience if you open yourself up to it. You should, I think. Better to be open than closed off your whole life, and experiencing art that makes you think and question what you’ve been taught in the traditional school system is the best way for you to grow. Part of the legacy of the Truth and Reconciliation work is that settlers learn the truth about Canada’s history, that we make ourselves aware of what this country’s true history is, even if it makes us uncomfortable at times. There are references in the artwork to colonization, to illness and pollution, to friendship and to warfare, to the brutality and horror of the residential schools, and to the loss of Indigenous women who are missing and murdered.

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The New People, The Seventh Fire.

 

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The resurgence comes in the prophecy of  The Seventh Fire, when the New People emerge.  In The Eighth Fire, there is some hope offered. If the light skinned race chooses the right road–between a choice of two roads–then the Seventh Fire will light the Eighth Fire, which is one of peace, love, brotherhood, and sisterhood. “If the light skinned race makes the wrong choice of the roads, then the destruction which they brought with them in coming to this country will come back at them and cause much suffering and death to all the Earth’s people.”  These are the words approved by Pawis-Steckley in the exhibition booklet. They aren’t mine, and nor should they be.

What I was left with, after viewing the Pawis-Steckley exhibit, was a sense of awe and gratitude, actually. I’m so glad that the Art Gallery of Sudbury has this exhibit up in Gallery 2. The show runs until November 10th, so people in Sudbury and the Northeast part of the province should really try and see it. It’s thought provoking and stunning.

If you know you don’t know enough about Canada’s history, I’d suggest you go to see this exhibit. Take your children, and take your parents and grandparents. Then, on Thursday night, see if there are any tickets left to hear Justice Murray Sinclair at the Fraser Auditorium at Laurentian University. The only way we can begin to try to understand how we can all live together respectfully is to be open to listening to the teachers who present themselves to us at the right time. In this case, in this particular week, I am deeply thankful to Joshua Mangeshig Pawis-Steckley and Justice Sinclair for being my teachers…and for letting me listen.

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As always, as a member of the Art Gallery, I want to suggest that, if you aren’t a member yet, you should think seriously about becoming one. You get little perks at the Gallery and around town, and they’re all outlined on the website, but really it’s important that we support these arts and cultural institutions in our town. For me, art is part of life on a daily basis. A day without a piece of visual art would be a day without breath, almost. (Melodramatic, I’m sure some would think, but for me, it’s absolutely true.) You can check out the Art Gallery website at http://www.artgalleryofsudbury.myshopify.com, but you can also follow their good work on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, too.

peace,

k.

 

 

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I have loved Maud Lewis’s work since I was young. Somewhere, somehow, I remember seeing her bright colours and whimsical scenes. Might’ve been on an art calendar at Coles, or in a pile of art books in a bargain bin. I remember hearing, or learning, that she was a Nova Scotia painter, and that she was sometimes referred to as “Canada’s Grandma Moses.” That she charged $5 for her paintings back in 1965 astounds me. If she could see those paintings of hers now, as I did yesterday morning at the McMichael Gallery, she might be shocked beyond all belief. She didn’t want to be greedy, but she actually undersold the beauty of her gift.

Now, in the gallery gift shop, you can buy Maud Lewis mugs, key chains, art cards, and books. Everything, all of her work, is bright and lively, without shadows. The irony is that she had a difficult life, living in poverty and with serious physical challenges, with many shadows. In that way, she reminds me of so many women artists (literary ones, too) throughout history. She sold her work from her tiny house, often times with the paint still wet, for $5 a painting. Imagine that. Imagine her selling those little pieces for $5, and worrying that $10 would be too much to ask. She made herself smaller than she needed to, but so much of that was due to her life experiences.

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Still, then she made her life brighter than ever by painting every inch of her home with her husband, Everett. He was someone who interests me. He didn’t like that she had her own mind, that she spoke it, and he was recorded once–in an old 1965 documentary–saying that she really ought to pay heed to his ideas, but she never did, and somehow they worked as a couple. Maybe it was because she was a commodity for him, and there are stories about how he buried the money she made from the paintings in jam jars around the property. He didn’t trust banks, and he likely didn’t trust her. Today, I wonder…would she have stayed with him. I kind of hope she wouldn’t, to be honest, but I also can see how he helped her to paint and how he afforded her that space, even if it was one that was rooted in poverty.

Maud was born in 1901, but she said she was born in 1903. Her childhood was purported to be a ‘happy period,’ but she was mercilessly teased because of the way she looked. Some people said she had been stricken by polio, but she actually had juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. She disliked what she thought of as a deformed chin, and often hid her hands in photos, tucking them into her elbows. Then, they called it ‘teasing,’ but now we would recognize it as bullying, pure and simple. The videos and photos of her, when she lived in the tiny house with Everett, show a tiny woman who seemed frail and fragile. She never really went beyond her part of Nova Scotia. She didn’t care to. She had Everett. She had her paints and brushes. She travelled through the paintings she made. She escaped into them.

If you’ve seen the film Maudie, with Ethan Hawke as Everett Lewis, and with Sally Hawkins as Maud, it’s rather a romanticized version of their relationship. If you didn’t know the story, you’d think it was a pure love story. She was thirty-seven and he was forty-four. She was an old maid by most people’s standards. Everett was looking for a housekeeper. He found a wife. Some stories say that he was terribly controlling. The film version doesn’t show that, of course, because Hollywood likes “biographical romantic dramas.’ After her parents died, Maud went to live with an aunt, which is how she came to meet Everett.

Who is to say what love looks like, from the inside of a relationship, or from the outside? Everett knew Maud had her own mind, even if he didn’t really like it all of the time. They say he was the person who bought her the paint brushes and encouraged her to paint. Some would say he did this because she began to make money, but he did this before she was famous. Maud and Everett were what people in the area called ‘characters.’ I think Everett met Maud and knew that he had been living in a world that was painted grey. Maud brought him colour and light. She literally painted every surface of that little house. When her health got worse, Everett cared for her. There was, I think, some sort of love there, not in a romantic sweeping orchestral way that Hollywood would prefer, but in the way he accepted her as she was, and in the way she accepted him as he was, and in the way he cared for her near the end of her life.

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Despite what people say about Everett, he’s usually in quite a few of her paintings. You can tell him by the outfit and the specific sort of hat that he liked to wear. Maud must’ve held him in high regard, to include him in so many paintings.

 

I’m likely not qualified to speak about how relationships work because I’ve been on my own for quite some time now…but as a writer, I’m fascinated by other people’s relationships. Often, what they look like on the outside (to the world beyond a house and its walls) isn’t what they are on the inside. All of that ‘surface and underneath’ stuff intrigues me, as an observer and writer, as someone who watches how people work. This fascination works its way into my plays, novels, and short stories more than into the poems, most likely because I’m working with characters rather than stanzas. It’s also a fascination because I think of my parents’ marriage and have questions about how it worked, or didn’t. Maud and Everett intrigue me, mostly I think, because they were thought to be ‘odd’ by most of the people around. How are they ‘odd’ when couples like Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, or Georgia O’Keefe and Alfred Stieglitz, or Mary and Christopher Pratt were often perceived merely as ‘eccentric’ or ‘artistic.’ Put an artist with an artist, and chaos ensues. None of these pairings were without anger or passion. It may speak to how artists shouldn’t be with artists, even though some would think it smart. Maybe why Maud and Everett worked was because they were different. However it worked, it did.

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What I love about Maud is this: she was a survivor. She faced the loss of her parents and her erstwhile brother, and then went to live with an aunt. She faced physical hardship and often ignored pain in her hands and body when she painted. She painted with a passion that I understand. When something comes through you, creatively, you’re hard pressed to stop it, and you do what you do because there’s nothing else for it. I love that Maud–despite her poor health, as well as living in poverty–painted such beautiful things of the world she saw around her. She didn’t need to go far; she only needed to watch, to observe, to see what she saw, and then paint it. I don’t like the notion that her work is simplistic. For me, I guess, I see it as an art that is pure, without smoke and mirrors. She rose above her life’s challenges and found her freedom and joy in the art she created. That is inspiring. IMG_2479.jpeg

Maud Lewis painted shutters for people in the area where she lived. Of all the things at the McMichael exhibit, I loved these best. Her common motifs are birds, butterflies, flowers, oxen, and cats.

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Sally Hawkins as Maud Lewis in the film “Maudie.”

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What I love most about Maud, though, is her smile and spirit. You wouldn’t know she was living in a tiny house, with a challenging husband who might have tried her patience more often than she would have liked. You wouldn’t guess that she was missing anything in her life. She loved creating art. You can see it in her eyes and smile. That, to me, is one more reason to love Maud…

I’m not an art historian or anything fancy schmancy like that, but if you want to see an exhibit that will touch your heart deeply, then this is the one for you. It’s on at the McMichael until Jan 6, 2020.

If you go, take a deep breath, let the colour inside, and then feel Maud’s work light you up. She was a lighthouse. If you ask me, she still is…

peace,

k.

 

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I always walk early in the morning. I don’t sleep well. There are a multitude of reasons, no doubt. In any case, this morning, I did my usual thing, which is to get up while it’s still dark, after a very spotty sleep with surreal Dali-esque dreams, and then to head down to the lake with Gull. We have our spot. Lately, he tries to steal it. It’s an old concrete lifeguard setting that’s fixed into a rock overlooking the lake. I love to sit there every morning. Usually a few rowers go by, and it’s lovely to hear the sound of someone moving back and forth on the slide, and the sound of oars on the water, but I mostly just want it to be absolutely quiet, before the other people who walk dogs come down to the boardwalk. I mostly just want to be with the sky, the water, the ducks and geese, and with Gull. It’s the place where I begin my day, where I centre myself and then find a still space inside so I can come home and write something.

Today, I opened my messages on Facebook, when Gull and I got home, to find a note from  a friend who had written to say that a mutual friend, Charles Ketter, died yesterday. My heart broke. If you know Charlie, then you’ll know why. He’s been a friend of mine since the day I met him at the hospital. Here’s my story of our friendship. (His would likely be different, I’m sure…but he’d smile and he’d have those twinkly eyes sparkling and likely interject in the telling of the story once in a while.)

Our first meeting was at a media conference, a big thing in some fancy schmancy hospital boardroom. My friend Carol Mulligan was there, too, covering it for the newspaper. I joined the Health Sciences North Patient and Family Advisory Council (PFAC) seven years ago, in September 2012, and was a member of that council for two years. I joined because I had been a rather tenacious and vocal advocate for my parents’ care in our health system through the 2000s. My dad died in December 2011, so I guess I hoped that I could make a difference by joining a small group of committed volunteers who cared passionately about making noise where noise needed to be made. My areas of interest were advocating for mental health and also for the proper care of the frail elderly. I had seen–from my own time as a mental health out-patient at the Kirkwood Site of HSN–that the way through a system, when you’re mentally ill, is markedly confusing, isolating, and alienating. Then, at the same time, caring for my mum first and then my dad, I was nearly defeated by the indifference I met when I had to advocate for both of them. I kept thinking…”What will happen when I get to be that age? I won’t have an advocate. I won’t have children.” I knew that health care at the end of your life shouldn’t be dependent on whether you were single or married, male or female, rich or poor. It should matter that there be equitable services for all frail elderly people. Not everyone gets to hospice, so palliative care needs to be just as thoughtfully designed, and I have always believed that dying is a part of living, so it’s about how you live as you die. Charlie…well…Charlie knew that living was the best way to fight his cancer. He taught us many lessons in bravery and tenacity in the last few years.

While I was on HSN’s PFAC for those two years, I kind of fell in love with Charlie a little bit. If you knew him, you’ll know why. He was (and I find this so very hard, to write of him in past tense this morning) clear minded, vocal, passionate, caring, brilliantly quick witted, and it seemed to me that he would live forever. Today tells me a different story. Charlie fought cancer for the last few years, with a passion and dedication to the knowledge of his own care that I’ve rarely seen in anyone else, not even when I worked as a fundraiser at the Cancer Centre in the late 1990s. Charlie researched his type of cancer, the treatment possibilities, and, even when he was in hospital because of his illness, he had Joe Pilon and David McNeil in to his room regularly to give them a piece of his mind about spotty internet service when all he wanted to do was monitor how the various high school basketball games were progressing around town. He was the guy who, when Daffodil Lodge sort of changed its path, knew that–for people who were isolated–the internet and social media could serve as a connection to a wider world, a community of care. He refereed basketball games for years, and many Sudburians will most likely know him from that part of his life. He was also a beloved teacher, so thousands more will remember him from a classroom. I can only imagine that he was very special in front of a group of kids.

I find it funny that I didn’t meet him before 2012, given that he must’ve keenly attended a number of my uncle Peter’s Lady Vees basketball games back in the day at the old Ben Avery, when it didn’t look as posh as it does now. His love of basketball would have paralleled Pete’s own love, I imagine. In any case, the Charlie Ketter I knew and loved was a good man. He cared for his son, who had special needs. He cared for his family. He cared for others and knew that, through his advocacy work at the PFAC, he would at least make himself heard. I met two very good friends at the PFAC: Charlie Ketter and Nancy Johnson. Some days, when I hear about the way seniors and frail elderly are still treated within HSN and through the nursing home system, I think we didn’t accomplish very much. I worry a lot about that. I wonder if it was lost time and energy. It seems, to me, that people don’t mind much about things until they happen to them personally…until they fall ill or need surgery, or until they have a poor experience with an ailing parent in the hospital and health care system. There is a discrepancy between care for those who are under 60, and care for those who are over 60, and this is discrimination, no matter how you try to dress it up.

Back in 2017, Charlie was one of the people who quietly but persistently lobbied to have space in Daffodil Terrace Lodge renovated for alternate level of care patients, those who tend to be frail elderly and who are waiting for a nursing home placement. He was, at that point, in the battle of his life, but also between places in terms of housing. He had plans to sell his house and move into an apartment because he thought he was dying. The doctors had told him that. Two or three years ago, he thought his time was short. He kept defying all odds and everyone around him was grateful for that. While he was in the Lodge, Nancy and I went to visit him one day. He talked about how he had been evaluating the way in which this new pilot project for ALC patients was working, from the inside out. Senior admin knew this and often stopped by to visit him. He told them clearly what he thought needed fixing. They listened. I don’t know to what extent they changed things, but they knew enough not to ignore Charlie Ketter.

I could write about Charlie all day long. Seeing his face here makes me want to cry. I did cry this morning. He was a good man. His heart was so lovely. He was someone who, when the chips were down, always looked for the positive in people, even if the system itself felt a bit rotten inside. He never took “no” for an answer, not backing down when big wigs might’ve thought they could intimidate him in meetings. He asked pointed and well thought out questions. He demanded answers. He had a quiet but certain voice.

Most of all, though, he was loved. By many.

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I loved him a lot. When I was away down south writing last year, he would send me little notes of encouragement and say how great it was that I was working away at my writing. He kept reminding me that life was something to be valued. The way he lived his life is the way we should all try and live our lives: to be true to yourself and not drift from your internal, core principles and ethics; to serve others in your work–whether it be paid or volunteer; to be kind and generous with your time, and with just listening to someone else; to be present and mindful when you are with others; to hug people often; to tell friends that you love them, and mean it; to believe that things can always get better, with a bit of heart and head commitment, and with a bit of hard work.

It takes someone really special to keep at his volunteer work while he was struggling with poor health and its challenges, its ups and downs, over the last few years. It takes someone really devoted to his causes and his community to be so selfless. His heart was…vast and generous. Anyone who knew him knew that, and anyone who was touched by his light was lucky to have met and known him. He made a difference. I hope he knew that.

Charlie…I would’ve liked to have had just one more chat…just one more hug…just one more “keep at it, kid.” Bless.

peace,

k.

 

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I’ve written here before about how being physically active over the last few years has changed my life. It’s changed my body, definitely, but it’s also changed the way I deal with emotional, mental, creative, and intellectual challenges. The freedom I’ve found in becoming fit is, for me, the thing that will carry me into my later years. Watching my parents fail physically was enough to terrify me into making major changes in diet, exercise, and life philosophy over the last eight years.

My friend, Jen, got me hooked on hiking and canoeing two and a half years ago. Once I’d slimmed down enough to exercise more, I found excitement and freedom in being outside every day, no matter what the weather or the season. Okay, I still don’t like -30ish degree winter days, but my goal this winter will be to try cross country skiing again–to get better at it–and I also want to be brave enough to learn to skate. I really want to learn to skate, but I’m afraid. My dad fell and hit his head on a rock out in the bush and was paralyzed; since then, well, I worry about my head when I slip and fall by mistake anywhere near sharp edges or ice. Anything to do with hitting your head, for me, makes me nervous…just from having watched that scenario with my dad unravel. I know it’s likely silly…but it’s something I am afraid of…

I love exercising now. Someone told me the other day that I might be ‘addicted.’ I bristled at that notion. The thing that it does is that it allows me to be healthy mentally and physically. I wouldn’t be well without it being a part of my everyday life now. Four or five years ago, I would’ve likely hated the person I am now, but I know it would’ve been more born of jealousy and even apathy on my part. Then, I wasn’t well at all.  It has been quite the journey…and the lessons have been big ones.

Last year, I took aerial silks classes in Windsor. I loved it. I’ve been missing it horribly since I’ve been home in Sudbury. I always seem to need to find things that challenge me physically now. This summer, I tried stand up paddle board yoga…but it didn’t go as well as I’d hoped and that really disappointed me. I could do the yoga poses, in some cases, but I had the hardest time standing up and finding balance on the water and board. Having one leg a centimetre shorter than the other makes me angry sometimes, because it does stop me from doing certain things. Having a staple in one hip does affect me and what I can or cannot do. When my leg stops me from doing things I want to try, I get angry…and usually when I get angry, I cry…mostly because I’m frustrated with myself. And then I feel sad and just start to cry all over again. (Such a charmer…why I’m still single, likely…)

This summer has been hard. I’ve come up against a pretty big personal challenge, since early June. There’s no need to go into detail here, and I won’t. I choose not to. I’ve written about it in essay form, and there are some new poems that speak to it all, and maybe they will see the light of day sometime, but now isn’t that time for me. A few very close friends know a bit about it, but very few. I’m working through it. It feels massive to me, and most days it feels as if I’m pushing a boulder up a hill. It isn’t depression, but it has to do with the past, and that’s something I thought I’d already grappled with and moved away from. I’m learning that our minds are vast countries, and that memory is a tricky animal. I’m learning a lot…and some of it…well…I’d rather not learn about, but will.

Then, through June, my eldest dog was very ill. Sable was my mum’s dog, so having to euthanize her was one of the most difficult things I’ve done. Her going brought back a lot of grief from my mum’s death. Odd, I know, but true. (I have made peace with death, with loss, and with grief over the years…and it’s all taught me the most important lessons about valuing life and about not wasting time. Life is too short not to be happy, I’ve learned, or maybe just even to be content.)  In any case, these two things–events really–made me feel as if I was wearing a heavy, wet wool sweater through the middle of a humid July. I’ve pulled in a lot because of this personal challenge that’s arisen without warning, and I’ve turtled a bit, and if you’re too nice to me, I might cry. These things happen…I guess. I explained it to one friend by saying, “These days, my insides are on my outsides.” Not exactly where you want them all to be, but it’s just part of the process…

I’m not writing this for sympathy. I’m writing this to be honest, but also to say that when things happen and when things really shock you, you need to have tools to manage, especially if you’re on your own. For me, over the last eight weeks, this has been mostly been about being even more physical than usual. An overload on the mental and emotional fronts means that I need to be more active, and more often outside in nature. There, I know, I can be strong. For me, dancing for about five hours a week has been a lifesaver over the last few years. Even when I’ve walked into a class with a metaphorical heavy wet wool sweater on, I’ve been able to forget while I’m dancing, and to get stronger as I go.

The thing, though, that has given me the most peace this summer is swimming. My friend Nancy lives on a lake and I’ve been swimming there for a couple of years. (I honestly didn’t even like my body enough, when I was depressed and overweight, to wear a bathing suit, so the Summer of 2017 was a new kind of baptism for me. I might have been a size 12 then, but was not comfortable in my own body. Years of medication weight gain will do this to a person, I think, and you fight a lot of demons inside your head as you get well. Your view of yourself is always off kilter, somehow, and you are always “in process” as you get healthier.) Now I’m a size 8…and I’m fully happy in my body. It took time…for so many reasons…

Last year, when I was living down south, there really wasn’t a place I knew where I could go swimming — or even a friend who I knew would love hiking, canoeing, or swimming as much as me — so that was something that was lacking for me. I missed home a lot because of that. I hiked all the time, but it was solitary and that was hard. Gull’s good company on hikes, but I always love a conversation with someone smart and funny. This year, being back around the lakes I love, has been a great joy. This year, I’m swimming more often than hiking, though. Things shift. This is all right.

What I love about swimming is that I feel strong, yet graceful at the same time. I feel free. So, with a difficult couple of events happening, I’ve gone straight to the water I love so dearly. When things seem a bit much, I can breathe again when I get into the water and set off on a long swim. The distances I started with this summer have grown, and I’ve gotten stronger. I’m faster, more certain, and I think a bit more fearless, which is something I always try to strive to be in life. It’s a new kind of love affair. I rowed in my 20s and 30s, but gave that up when I was very ill. In the middle of the coldest winters, now, I get a thrill from snowshoeing on frozen lakes, and that’s relatively new, too. My love of swimming, though, has blossomed beyond what I had ever imagined.

I’m not the best swimmer…not by far. My uncle, Jeno, was the swim coach at Laurentian when I was young, and we often had swimming classes there. Had the little coloured badges to prove it, too. But that sort of chlorinated swimming never really interested me. In my 20s and 30s, when my parents had their camp on the West Arm of Nipissing, I used to swim along and across that swift current of The Narrows, and I loved that place dearly, but it still didn’t have the appeal that this new sort of swimming has for me. Now, I can’t stop swimming. I love swimming at night, under the stars, and I especially love swimming alongside geese and ducks. I don’t like when lily pads hit me in the shoulder (as one did yesterday), or when I brush up against a small log with leaves attached (which happened tonight on a very rough swim in Long Lake). But I do love diving under, knowing I’m going to come up and take a deep breath, and knowing that my stapled left hip and shorter leg is stronger than I had imagined. I like that I feel a bit like a bird…when I’m swimming or dancing. I may not look it, but I feel it inside my body…and that’s all that really matters to me these days.

The most difficult thing I’m dealing with right now isn’t something I can just push through or over. It’s a ‘go deep inside’ kind of journey. It’s a twice a month therapy session and a lot of journaling. It’s thinking about what the past was about, even though I really don’t want to, and it’s about trying to know what truths are real, and which ones aren’t. And it’s about knowing that your mind is much more complex than you’d ever given it credit for. It isn’t simple, even if I’d really like it to be. I’m having to pull in to deal with it, which I’m sure is confusing to people around me. It means that I need to be quiet inside, so I can hear more clearly. It’s about learning that the word ‘trauma’ carries a weight with it, and it’s about being okay with crying when you need to cry. Mostly, it’s teaching me that being vulnerable is hard, and that being less afraid is hard, and that this life is a real lesson in how to find beauty in places where beauty may not have usually or typically lived.

I’ve grown a lot in the last two years. I’ve grown a lot, and I’ve lost a few friends because of that growing. I can’t apologize for that, though. Sometimes we walk each other along the path for varying periods of time, I’ve learned. It doesn’t lessen the beauty of the time we spend with one another. We can still value and honour that time, but it also doesn’t mean that you should hang on too tightly to people or places that you once loved. You can still love them, but in a different way, and sometimes that has to be from a distance. I’ve learned this lately, too. Things that I used to think were ‘broken,’ that I could try and ‘fix’ by apologizing and changing myself to suit someone else…well…that just doesn’t work anymore. It means that I’ve lost people. But it also means gaining some new ones, too.

When I think that I almost chose not to stay on the planet ten or eleven years ago, when I was very very ill, I am so grateful that something made me stay. I fought hard to stay and, even when difficult things arise–and there are always difficult things–I can see the beauty in the darker bits. I can see why I am who I am now because of what nearly broke me. That really is…well…it’s a gift.

The poem I come to most often these days is Mary Oliver’s piece, “The Uses of Sorrow.” I have always loved Oliver, and I love that my yoga teacher and friend, Willa, introduced her to me in a class a long time ago. In “The Uses of Sorrow,” Oliver writes: “Someone I love once gave me/a box full of darkness.//It took me years to understand/that this, too, was a gift.” That quote’s on my fridge. Has been for a while.

Right now, I am in a solitary space. I’m inside myself, in a quiet centre, trying to sort through a bit of a messy memory. I know it’s just a plant that needs pruning. I’m working on that, on pruning and taming this wild little plant from the past. I don’t love it. I’m trying not to hate it because hate is a useless emotion for creating new things. It’s really very uncomfortable and painful, but I just know that it is what it is for right now. It’s not forever. It’s just for right now.

In the meantime, I’ll be swimming a lot, and I’ll be dancing a lot, and I may be a bit of a turtle. Some people will go, and some people will stay, and I’ll definitely emerge from this particular turtle shell as another new sort of woman. In some ways, I suppose, it’s how things emerged from ancient seas, up onto the land…(re)creating themselves as they went. I’m curious to see how this goes…and what’s coming next.

To quote that famous little fish, Dory, “Just keep swimming! Just keep swimming!” Wise little fish, that one. Wise. Little. Fish.

footselfie.jpgLong Lake.

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Lake Nepahwin.

(Thanks to Larry and Nancy for the Long Lake dock, and for the Newfoundland stories. And thanks to Nancy and Kirsti, for the friendship, the laughter, and the swims….and for the peace I find there. I am always grateful…and glad.)

peace,

k.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

peace, friends.

k.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The beauty of Bonvista, Nfld on an evening walk…

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

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

peace,

k.

 

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