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I’ve been away down south for a couple of months, writing my next novel, working on some new plays, and putting together my next book of poems, as well as a little collection of non-fiction essays. (It sounds exciting, but there’s a lot of coffee being drunk, late nights and early mornings, long hikes and trying to work out characters and plots, and a bit of hanging around from aerial silks at the Windsor Circus School to cut the tension and pressure I put on myself to complete my writing work.)

What I was thrilled to hear about, via Facebook and other social media feeds, was that the brilliant exhibit, “Sudbury Women in Art,” would be extended, moving from the space of the Open Studio on Durham Street to the Art Gallery of Sudbury. There was great coverage of the opening on social media, so I sat down in Kingsville all restless and dying to see the show. Then there was mention made of an accompanying book, highlighting the work and careers of a number of stellar Sudbury women artists. (I’ll say right now that I know, or have at least met, quite a few of them. I’m a fan of their work, so this will be a blog that is celebratory and unapologetically laudatory.)

Here’s the thing, Sudbury friends: tomorrow is Mother’s Day and it’s the last day that the exhibition will be on at the Art Gallery of Sudbury. If you’re like me, and Mother’s Day is a hard day, this is a way to lift your spirits. Art does that for me. It may do it for you, too, if you give it a try. So, this afternoon, I wandered over to the old Bell Mansion. I love it there. I’m happy that the gallery and library will find a new space in the downtown core, but I do hope that people will fight to keep the Bell Mansion as a historic place. It deserves that honour. It’s so storied, and it has facilities that could be used for event planning and poetry readings. It can’t, regardless of what else happens, be let to fall into ruin. It just can’t…

Today, there was a right mess of boy and girl scouts at the gallery, a whole lot of them to be honest, so it was loud in the high school art exhibition in Gallery 1. I quickly made my way upstairs, entering into a very different space, populated by images of this place and space. I could breathe deeply again in that silence, feeling pleased that Sudbury’s widely loved Heather Topp would have the first couple of pieces on the wall. Rightfully so. I’ve written about Heather’s work on this blog before and am a huge fan.

There are so many beautiful pieces on the walls of Gallery 2. I’m going to list all of the women here, as they’re mentioned in the book that accompanies the exhibition. They include: Adrienne Assinewai, Rachelle Bergeron (those photos!) Leesa Bringas (a woman who, like me, seems torn between Sudbury and Windsor), Kathy Browning (her Irish photos always pull at me), Rose Cardinal (whose tattooing artistry is well respected in the North), Joan Chivot, Danielle Daniel (whose work I have long loved, and whose beautiful downtown mural just off Durham Street, titled “Dear Sudbury,” is fairly famous in town), Laura-Leigh Gillard (those butterflies, birds, and moths are just a bit mystical), Sarah King Gold (who is the mastermind behind the gorgeous mosaic mural down on Elgin Street, just opposite the tracks), Tennille Heinonen, Stacy Lalonde (more photos!), Monique Legault (who painted one of my poems last year and who is now lobbying for local artists to create a mural on the Elgin Street Underpass), Rosie Maddock (whose typewriter skirt is one of my favourite pieces of clothing), Kim McKibbon, Rae Miranda (whose work in textiles is fabulous), Neli Nenkova (who is most well known for the brilliant mural on the Kingsway), Ruth Reid (fabulous watercolourist, but also a former voice at CBC Sudbury), Carole Rodrigue, Sydney Rose (!), Trish Stenabaugh (who is one of my best friends and whose work has graced the covers of the last two books of poems I’ve published), Colette Theriault, Heather Topp (those paper-mache goddesses and so many of her feisty and spirited canvases), Dineen Worth, and Chantel Abdel-Nour (a co-editor of the book that goes along with the exhibit), Johanna Westby (another co-editor of the book!). Whew. That’s quite a list.

Each and every piece was beautiful, when I looked at them today, but there were a few that stood out, so I’ll mention them. As I’ve already said, I love Heather Topp’s work. I find her whimsical and organic style, especially in terms of her life-sized paper-mache women, always transfixes me. Sydney Rose’s piece, “The Joy of Sex and Indoor Gardening,” made me laugh out loud: who knew that a series of houseplants might be so quirkily placed. I loved that one. Then there’s Trish Stenabaugh’s work. I’m beyond a fan of Trish’s work. I began teaching at the same time as Trish and she’s one of my dearest friends. I have, just let me count here, um, four of her paintings in my little red brick house. Her use of colour and form always gets to me, in the best possible of ways. Next, you can’t have an exhibit like this without the stunning work created by Danielle Daniel. She’s up for Emerging Artist in this year’s Mayor’s Celebration of the Arts on June 6th. She’s a triple or maybe even a quadruple threat: a visual artist, a singer and ukulele player, and a brilliant writer. The piece up in the gallery, “Water Warrior,” made me think of how important it is for all of us to mind our waterways. The image of the woman with sad eyes made me nod in agreement: you can’t live in the north, and you can’t have enjoyed swimming or canoeing or fishing or hiking, without knowing that the water is so dearly in need of our advocacy and protection. Then there’s Leesa Bringas, someone I admire a great deal. A ‘transplant’ from Windsor, Leesa is a relatively new spark in the community, and almost always behind some of the most brilliant artistic initiatives here in town. Her cyanotype photography is just so beautiful, and the piece up at the gallery makes you sort of want to just walk right into that deep blue colour. (Or maybe that’s just me…it could just be me…) 🙂

I really loved Johanna Westby’s piece, “Wading in the Evening.” It is, truly, I think, so evocative of what a northern woman is all about. If you grew up here, you probably learned to swim in a lake. I did. The notion of skinny dipping in a northern lake, too, isn’t farfetched at all. I loved this piece because of the ‘above and below’ of the surface of the water. Throughout it all, the image of a naked woman, seen from behind. Above the water, the trees our region is famous for, and underneath, a couple of stylized blue fish and a mess of reeds. (I still call those ‘weeds’ or ‘seaweed’ when I go swimming. There’s not a summer when I don’t think I feel fish brush by my legs when I’m swimming, even though it’s likely just a mucky lake bottom with weeds!) Anyway, Westby’s a featured artist at the gallery right now, so you can buy some of her beautiful notecards and there are some originals on display at the main desk.

Laura-Leigh Gillard is well known here in Sudbury. She does those amazing acrylic and ink pieces of birds and butterflies and moths. They are stunning to see and you know right away, when you see a Gillard piece, that that’s who made it! Her two pieces,  “Patience, Darling” and “Cataclysmic Catalyst” are simply stunning. The colours, like those used in Daniel and Westby’s pieces, are jewel toned and bold. Love it. Further on down the gallery is the work of Rosie Maddock. Originally from England, Rosie lives here now and is fairly famous for her pillows, tote bags, and (yes! thank God!) quirky typewriter skirts (which are perfect for writer women like me)! Her two pieces are so touching, from her ‘Mum Makes History’ series. In one piece, the artwork is accompanied by a pair of tiny white leather shoes and some old photos of a little girl. In another, there is a tiny antique stuffed bear and a multi-media piece that is too beautiful to even begin to explain with words. Then, there’s Rose Cardinal. She’s on my list because I still need to get two little barn swallow tattoos from her, in memory of my parents, but I’m still a coward in that department. In any case, two of the most striking pieces here are photos of her “In Memory of Pierre,” which is a tattoo of a miner’s face, as a memorial. Then there’s the stunning, “Underwater Parenting,” with the image of a mermaid breastfeeding a baby mermaid. What?! How fantastic is that!?

These are the pieces that struck me most, but all of these women artists are producing unbelievably beautiful and thought provoking work. The exhibit, “Sudbury Women in Art,” is only on until the end of day tomorrow. Yup. That’s Mother’s Day. So, if you’re looking for something to do on a day which can be hard when you’re missing your mum, as I am, then the Art Gallery of Sudbury is the place to be. Where else can you celebrate the force of the women in this community in a tangible way? Please remember to make a donation when you walk past the welcome desk. The only way we can ensure that the arts flourish in Sudbury is to pay artists for their work. Seeing their work in a gallery is just as important as buying a piece, if you can. Skipping past the donation bin is a no-no. Come prepared to celebrate and honour their work as women artists.

Now…the next thing…would be to have this tour around a bit. I can imagine it at the McEwen School of Architecture, for example, or maybe at the Living with Lakes Centre on Ramsey Lake Road. Why not just keep it going, extend its life span, keep the ball rolling, as my old dad used to say? Just a thought, Sudbury friends…just a thought. 🙂

peace,

k.

 

 

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You never know when death will actually arrive. It’s the worst part of it, to begin. There are other ‘worst parts’ to it, but that whole ‘it arrives when you least expect it’ part of it is what shocks the heart first. It’s always the phone call, I find, when someone you haven’t heard from in a long while ends up ringing you and you pick up and see an area code from far away, a hand of dread fisted around your heart. You usually already know it’s not good news. In my family, it has happened too often…mostly because we were big and Irish Catholic. There was a time, when I was little, when family gatherings were massive. They’re not as much now, except at funerals and wakes.

My grandmother was the glue that held her five kids and their families together. When she died in 1998, while I was in my twenties, someone in the family (I forget who, but I think it was one of my cousins) said “Now…we won’t see each other as often.” I remember I scoffed, shook my head, and thought there was nothing to that farfetched prophecy. Then, the house on Wembley Drive sold and the centre could not hold. From 1997 until the later 2000s, a whole slew of relatives died. It was one loss after the other. The worst ones were my uncles, Peter and Terry, who both died at the age of 50. Then my great-aunts and uncles started dying, their goings like sea swells, or badly placed and timed contractions. Then my uncle Jeno died in spring 2007, and my mum followed a year and a half later. Dad was to follow just three years after that. It was a lot.

Getting the call from my cousin, Sheryl, on March 24th, was a bit of a shock. I was alone in Kingsville, so it was a bit hard. I went walking afterwards, trying to shake it into my head and heart, sitting on the edge of Lake Erie on a windy day. I’d known my uncle, Mike, was sick through the fall. He had struggled with heart issues. (My mum had heart issues, too, so I knew what that decline was like. She used to call it “The Ennis Heart,” and the phrase would hang over the kitchen ominously whenever she referenced it. It’s part of why I’ve gotten so focused on my own physical health in the last six years, with a key intensity in the last two. I don’t want to suffer as my mum and dad did. Being healthy and strong is key to living a healthy life, no matter what your age. It’s not enough to say you don’t drink, but it’s okay to eat excessively. Excessive eating is just as poisonous as excessive drinking; they both kill you slowly if addiction is involved. Addiction is addiction, in my mind, and whether it’s food or alcohol doesn’t matter. In some cases, in my immediate family, it was both, with my parents…)

I still can’t believe that I’ve lost my very last uncle. He was only 76. It’s not long enough. It isn’t. And here’s why: He was loved by many people, especially family and friends. Yes, he was so accomplished in his work field, but I can only think of the memories that have to do with him as someone who was encouraging to me, as a niece, and someone who had a great sense of humour and who cared about my grandmother. She spent part of every summer at Mike and Joanne’s house in Mississauga, and raved about time spent swimming in their pool, how beautiful his garden was, how fabulous Princess, the dog, was, and she so enjoyed spending time with Lisa and Sheryl. Whenever Mike came home to visit, I remember, she always had a list of things for him (or for Terry, too!) to fix. She used to cut out scrap paper slips, long and narrow ones, and keep them on her telephone table, so she could jot down notes in advance of their visits. Once, I said to her, shaking my head, “You have such a list of things for these guys to fix and mend! Why? Aren’t they coming to visit you?! And you make them work?!” And she giggled (she had a lovely laugh that I really miss a great deal), “They’re so good at it. They like to help. They like to keep busy when they come to visit.” And they did. Both of them. I remember they would trundle off to Canadian Tire during visits home to Sudbury with their wives and kids, and I’d find them doing something or other in the basement or kitchen. Mike always seemed to have a screwdriver in his hand when I saw him at Gram Ennis’s house, and he always explained what he was doing to me. He took great pride, too, in having written on the fruit cellar wall in the basement, and it was always kind of cool, I thought, to see the Latin translation of “Don’t let the turkeys get you down” in the basement of 350 Wembley. That was Mike’s scrawled writing. I remember it still…

My earliest memories of Mike are of his face and his laugh. He had a wonderful face. He did. It was soft and friendly, and he when he laughed, his smile reached his eyes. He really was the kind of guy who had stereotypically ‘twinkly eyes.’ He loved laughing and joking. When I was young, he and I had an exchange of notes that lasted for most of my teens. I was “The Shadow” and he was “The Mineola Ghost.” So, when we visited Mike and Joanne’s place on Mineola, in Mississauga, I often brought gifts for the Mineola Ghost, and was rewarded with crazily scrawled riddles that rhymed on bits of white paper. I need to try and see if I can find some of these notes now. They’re likely in boxes in my basement.  Anyway, while we were together, in person, neither of us would speak of the Ghost or the Shadow. We acted as if they were completely different people to us. They were alter egos or something. It was weird, but we delighted in this exchange for about eight or ten years. I had a vivid imagination and a sense of humour, and he liked rhyming, and it worked beautifully.

In my late 20s, I drove to Nova Scotia with a man-child who broke my heart. (He was, I thought, wrongly, the love of my life.) Before I picked up said fellow in downtown Toronto, I stayed overnight in Mississauga at Mike and Joanne’s house. Mike was protective. “You know: you have a phone, if you need anything, you can call us. You’re sure he’s decent?” And I was like, “Yeah, but I’ll be in Nova Scotia. It’ll be fine.” And he was like “Yeah, I know, but you can call us if you need to.”  He knew I was naive and hopeful, and massively in love with someone who (he probably knew from talking to me the night before I left) was likely going to break my heart. What he didn’t expect me to do, before I went to pick up the guy in Toronto, was that I stole a plastic pink garden pig from the back garden near the pool. I stuffed that thing into the trunk of my car and took it hostage. I left a hostage note, all penned mysteriously in cut-out magazine letters glued to white typing paper, with the help of my cousin, Lisa. She knew it would drive her dad crazy. He loved playing pranks, but no one ever dared to try and prank him. I stole that pig, and the handsome man-child and I took photos of it all over the East coast. On my return, I took the photos and put them into a photo album, returning the pig to the garden, with the photo album in a Ziploc bag next to it. Yup. He was actually pretty angry, Lisa told me later, that I’d kidnapped the pig and held it hostage, but those photos (who knows where they are now?!) were pretty funny. We stopped at the Magnetic Hill and took a pig photo, the Citadel in Halifax, the longest covered bridge in New Brunswick…you get the idea. There was even a photo of the handsome man-child pretending to throw the pig off a cliff just outside of Mahone Bay. Afterwards, I remember, when I brought the pig back, Mike laughed, his face sort of transformed, and he just nodded. “You’re pretty funny, Kimmy…” (Only my parents, grandmother, aunts and uncles even called me “Kimmy” or “Kimmy Ruth,” and it was always with such love…)

The most important thing that he and Joanne ever did for me, and I wish I’d had the notion to tell him when I saw him on November 30th last year, was that they took me to England, Wales, and Ireland when I was just twenty-two.  I remember they were taking Sheryl and Lisa across on holiday, and thinking what a fantastic trip it would be for them. I was in undergrad at Laurentian University and studying English lit. I loved Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Yeats, and the Brontes. I was all into poetry and the Romantics and Victorians. Then, one night, there was a call and my mum was sitting at the telephone talking to Mike. Afterwards, she and Dad came into the kitchen and said “Michael and Joanne want to know if you would like to go with them, and Lisa and Sheryl, on their trip this summer.” I think I started crying. I loved being at their house, because they were so welcoming. I just remember thinking that it was a dream, to go to a place where the writers I most loved had been born and lived. I was beyond excited.

That trip changed my life. Mike and Joanne knew Mum and Dad didn’t make a lot of money. They knew I wouldn’t have a lot of opportunities to travel just then, that I was pushing through university. They let me pay my way, and I budgeted my savings for that trip, settling up with Irish and English currency as we went each week. It was a trip that I will recall fondly for the rest of my life, and it cemented my love of literature and writing. We went to the Bronte’s parsonage in Haworth, and we saw Wordsworth’s cottage in the Lake District. We went to Stonehenge, and then in Ireland, we went to Dublin Castle, the Irish Writers’ Museum, and saw the Cliffs of Moher. I still remember the ferry trip between Holyhead, Wales, and Dun Loaghaire, Ireland, and how I got all emotional when I first saw Ireland through the mist that rose up off the Irish sea. There were dolphins that danced in the wake of the ferry, and jellyfish that bobbed in the harbour, and even a few seals. It was, to be honest, one of the most magical experiences I’ve ever had. And, thankfully, it made me grateful to have cousins like Lisa and Sheryl, ones who loved legends, history, ghosts and faeries as much as I did…

My mum’s dying and death was hardly easy. It was, when I think of it now, and I actually try not to think of it too often because it still hurts almost ten years on, really really awful. She pushed everyone away, especially the people who loved her most. She pushed me away, and I was her main caretaker when she was bedridden with a foot amputation. And, well, she pushed Mike away. He loved her, and she loved him, and I still don’t understand why she didn’t let us love her while she was dying. That will always stymie me, confuse me, and hurt me deeply. I know, near the end, in those months when she slept with the curtains drawn, and wouldn’t even speak to me as I fed her and helped bathe her, that she must have been terrified of her coming end. She pulled in and she pushed everyone away, especially the people who loved her most. I couldn’t understand it, and I still don’t. It still hurts.  A lot. I know that both Mike and Cathy were the most hurt by her, but I can’t make amends for my mum, and I’ve learned to let it go. She did the best she could with the news she received (whatever it was, and no matter why she thought she couldn’t share it with those who loved her most). She was angry about dying. She was only 67. Much too young to die. In any case, she pushed Mike away. It hurt him. It hurt a lot of us. And no one ever knows what to do with love that turns itself into hurt, do we? We cry, we mourn, we get angry. Then Dad was ill and I lost time and years again, losing track of relatives. Then I was sick, really sick, and losing time again. And I lost track of people who loved me all over again.

It took me a long time to get healthy after my parents died. A long time. The last two years have been lighter, more creative, more joyful inside. In late November, though, I was going to Ottawa to attend the Governor General’s Literary Awards, and then to attend an event called “Laureate City” in Ottawa. I arranged to spend time with Lisa and then to meet her husband, Michael, and to have lunch with Michael and Joanne. We spent the most amazing afternoon together in Westboro, an artsy area of Ottawa. I loved seeing my aunt and uncle. It had been too long. Geography had separated us, and time…and the lack of that amazing grandmotherly centre that Gram Ennis and 350 Wembley brought us all. We reconnected, caught up, and I sort of knew it would be the last time I would see him. It felt deeply rewarding, to catch up, to mend fences broken by Mum’s illness and death, and to know that love really does mend things when you least expect that it can. Saying goodbye to him, on a side street, I gave him a hug, watched his face shift with emotion yet again, once more, and saw him get into the car. My heart ached.

When the call came on March 24th, I just shook my head. I’m glad we reconnected in late November. I feel sad it took so long to do so. You just get yourself together, get healthy, reconnect with someone you love, and then the person you have known your whole life, well, he just sort of goes away. It feels to me, hard. Really hard. I said to one of my cousins, yesterday, at the family gathering and dinner, “This has really sent me for a loop, you know?” And she nodded. Then I said, “It’s made me think back to Mum and Dad’s going…and how hard that was…it’s triggered a lot of stuff for me.” And, then, thankfully, she nodded, and smiled sadly. “Yeah, I’ve been thinking a lot of Dad in the last six weeks…It’s been hard.” And I said, “Okay. So I’m not crazy…it’s all coming up again.” You see…in a family where there was once a centre, whenever someone else dies, well, the remembered centre opens itself all over again, and you go down through the rabbit hole, mucking around in your own losses all over again.

It makes me incredibly sad, to see Mike go too soon. He was still active in his community, in giving of himself in volunteer work. He was still in love with Joanne, and she with him, which was evidenced when she played “On Eagle’s Wings” at yesterday’s celebration of life. He was still so proud of his daughters, his two son-in-laws, and of his three grandchildren. He had a lot more to offer, to do.

I am not afraid of death. Everyone I love is over there. They are, I know, all there. And I love them still. I am afraid of dying. Nothing I’ve seen about it in the last ten years is easy. It has taught me the greatest lessons about love, though, and I suppose I am tremendously grateful for those lessons. I value people more now. Some people find me too much, and I understand that. Maybe they haven’t lost as many people as I have. Maybe they haven’t looked darkness in the eyes and survived. It’s a lonely way…this way…but it also teaches you that love is the thing we should all strive to find. It is, I think, the only answer. Really…really…the only answer.

I miss Mike tremendously. Since the news of his death, I’ve been hiking down south, on Point Pelee, in Maidstone Woods, Kopegaron Woods, places I have come to love for their quiet spaces and rhythms, and just sitting on the edge of Lake Erie, trying to find some peace in his going. It’s hard. I know it’s even harder for Lisa, Sheryl and Joanne. I miss Mum and Dad and Gram…and everyone else. There are too many to count now…and that breaks my heart open again and again and again.

I’ll always think of one night, in Newton Abbey, when Lisa and Sheryl and I were lagging behind Mike and Joanne on an evening walk. The trees were all green and leafy then, in July, as they are in summer, in England. It was like walking into a poem. I watched Mike and Joanne, that night, reach out to one another, and hold hands. Lisa and Sheryl were astounded, I remember, because it wasn’t a common thing. But I remember what I saw: I saw love, in these two people who held hands, who walked into a shaded evening, with birdsong, and the sound of wind in leaves, and I thought, “That, now that is love.” And I saw it again yesterday, at the service at Beechwood, and in the words of my aunt, and my cousins, and in the love that my extended family had for Mike.

How do you ever say goodbye, I wonder, when you don’t want them to go…how…

Hug your people, friends. Mend your fences, and then hug your people. Life is too short not to love fully, live deeply, and share it all with people who share your ancestry and story.

Slan abhaile, Michael. Say hello to them all for me…and mind that front door for when we all show up someday…save us a spot around the table…and a glass of Tullamore Dew, too.

Slainte to you, Mike…

peace,

k.

 

 

 

I’m writing a play with two women’s voices in it, so any time I get a chance to see a play with parallel structures, I want to see it. A few nights ago, I saw Pat & Emilia, a mixed-media chamber opera. I wasn’t sure what to expect, to be honest. What’s ‘mixed media’ when you meld it with chamber opera, anyway? This ended up being a theatrical and musical collage of operatic and dramatic conventions. The first act was spoken and sung from the point of view, mostly, of Emilia Cundari, who was a world renowned opera star who lived in Windsor. She died in 2005. The second half is mostly told from the perspective of Pat Sturn, who was a photographer who lived until she was a hundred years old. One woman had a dream of being an opera star, and traveled the world from Canada, to New York City, and to Italy. Then, she fell in love and married, returning to Windsor to raise her family. Some sources say that she “killed her career” in favour of having a family. Cundari was photographed by Sturn at some point, and Sturn followed Cundari’s career via local Windsor media.

Pat Sturn was a well known and respected photographer in Windsor. She died in 2011, at the age of one hundred. I kept thinking, while watching the play, that I don’t think I would want to live to be as old as a hundred years old, that it would be hard to see friends die before me, that it could be isolating. Sturn found a dear friend in current Windsor poet laureate, Marty Gervais, though, and he’s had a hand in remembering her, and allowing other people (like me) to come to know her legacy.  She called him “Mr. Poet.” She sounds like she would’ve been interesting to have a cup of Earl Grey tea with, that she would have been fascinating to talk to.

There seems to have been a friendship of some sort between the two women, but it isn’t clearly defined in the play, so you’re left to make your own suppositions. You do know, though, that both women were strong individuals, just with different life paths. Sometimes, two strong creative women might not be able to be friends, even if they really wanted to be. It happens.

The play is thought provoking. You get a sense of how both women were living before their time, and how they must have struggled, with family and friends not understanding their drive to pursue creative careers rather than traditional ones. The more I listened and watched, the more I thought that it really hasn’t changed that much. The women I know who are creative are either single, or paired with others who are creative, too, or maybe in relationships with those who have a deep appreciation of the arts and creativity, even if they aren’t artists themselves. How else to manage your artistic and creative gift? Being a writer, a singer, a musician, a visual artist, whatever the medium is, it feels (to me, anyway) like there’s a compulsion to do whatever it is you’re meant to do while you’re here on the planet. You don’t get a choice, in my view and experience. It tends to come first. It’s part of your DNA, so how can it not?

I remember being very young and loving stories and poems, and songs that told stories, and singing those ballads. I don’t remember thinking, “Oh, I should write something down.” It was just something that came from inside of me. When you know it’s such a deep part of who you are, this creative part, then you know it’s going to be with you for life. A lot of people can’t handle that, in terms of relationships. There is, to be honest, a great deal of creative work that must be done in solitude. You’re an introvert and creative, but you still need humans around. (After all, you use humans in your stories and plays, don’t you?! 🙂 ) But you also need someone who understands that there’s a balance of time needed to create on your own, as well as time spent together. That takes confidence on both people’s parts, I imagine, if it’s to work. Still, I wince at the suggestion that you can only be creative and that this in itself prevents you from being in a successful relationship with a partner. It seems archaic, as if you need to give up one in favour of the other. It seems too simple and sacrificial to me, somehow.

I remember seeing an exhibition at the McMichael Gallery in the fall last year. It was called “Passion Over Reason: Tom Thomson and Joyce Wieland.” I was more familiar with Tom Thomson, given his paintings of Northern Ontario landscapes. I had gone canoeing through those scenes last summer, so I felt even closer to his work than before. What I remember, though, is that I read a snippet of text about Wieland in that McMichael exhibit in late September. Born in 1931, Wieland was the first woman artist to be accorded a 1987 retrospective at the Art Gallery of Ontario. She was married, for some time in her life, to Michael Snow, who is a famous Canadian artist in his own right. In an article published in Canadian Art magazine last year, author Allison Macduffee wrote that the McMichael exhibit was a love letter to both Thomson and Wieland, but that it also raised questions of “gender, myth-making, and nationalism in Canadian art.” Wieland’s work—in terms of feminism, visual art, and also in filmmaking—is groundbreaking and brilliant. The pairing of the two artists made me think a lot about the notion of nationalism, and of the differences between gender of the artists, and the time periods in which they both lived and created art. (My head gets busy sometimes…too busy!)

There was a bit of text, on some wall, at the start of the exhibition. I read everything at art galleries. I like to look at the art first, let it sink into me, and then I read the little explanatory notes. As I wrote in a mid-September blog, there was a bit of text that spoke about Thomson never having married, and about Weiland never having had children. The text implied that this is why both artists were so unique. I found it funny at the time. Then, listening in on an older couple: “I heard the husband say to his wife, with certainty, ‘Well, you know…artists…probably why this is a good exhibit.  They’re too odd to be with other people, aren’t they?’ I just shook my head and thought of all the artists and writers I know who manage to be in relationships and still produce brilliant creative and artistic work. Both Thomson and Wieland had romantic relationships, so it’s not like they were that odd, but perhaps just that they were not conventional for their time(s).” (Conventional is boring, I think…but I’m a poet…)

What I kept thinking on Thursday night, while I watched the play, was how beautiful it was. Here were two vibrant and creative women, who were productive and gifted in their own respective fields, who seem different on the surface at first glance, and separated by years, but who really were more similar than they might have cared to have admitted to themselves or one another. The piece where Pat Sturn reflects on turning one hundred years old, and how she loved someone who offered her a ring, was bittersweet. She loved him, he knew her best (her character sings this in the second half of the play), but she chose her love of photography over the man. She was a feminist, but, I think, so was Emilia Cundari. They both followed their dreams; the paths were just different ones. One was not better than the other. They likely both had regrets near the ends of their lives. I have yet to meet a dying person who doesn’t have one or two regrets. The notion of artistic women making creative choices for themselves, though, resonates with me. It niggles at me, likely because I’m making what some might deem to be ‘selfish,’ creative choices and decisions right now in my life. They aren’t simple, but you breathe through them, as you would through the movements of a challenging yoga pose. (It’s uncomfortable in Sun Salutation until you push up from Cobra, into plank position, and then into the release of that Downward Dog…it’s sort of like that.)

There was one line that both characters sang in a duet near the end of the chamber opera that really struck me. It spoke about both women having made their choices, and mistakes. Here is the thing that bothered me most: that some people equate the notion of ‘choices’ to the notion of ‘making mistakes.’ I’m of the mind that we make choices in our lives. I used to believe we could also make mistakes, and perhaps we can, in small ways. But, at this point in my life as a creative woman (and after having had a lot of encounters with deaths in my family) I now believe that we just make a series of choices. A choice is not good or bad; it just is.  If we think of it from the Buddhist perspective (can you tell I’ve been reading Pema Chodron this year?!), we need to not assign something a value of being ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ A choice is made with the most accurate information that you’ve gathered for yourself, and, if the choice does not work out as you’d imagined or hoped initially, then you just make another choice, again rooted in where you feel you are at the time, and with what information you have. You need to, though, trust your heart and mind when it comes to all of this. You must also have hope…and a sense of adventure and exploration. A question posed, and then answered, may point you in a different direction. It isn’t a ‘mistake’ because that just sets up a dynamic of polarities or something.

So, Pat Sturn and Emilia Cundari seem to have had a falling out. Their friendship wasn’t mendable. They couldn’t build bridges after they were burned. No one knows exactly what was said, or what happened, to precipitate the end of their friendship. (Sometimes women’s friendships are complex.) What seems clear, though, is this: they were both amazingly spirited women, ahead of their times; they both made great strides in their respective creative fields; they both fell in love, with their art and with men who cared deeply for them; and, they were unique, and stubborn, and vibrant. I don’t think either of them made a ‘mistake.’ Neither one’s path was better than the other’s, even though they probably couldn’t see that…

Emilia sang around the world and then had a family. Pat felt like she only had her creative work and, so, perhaps pushed away thoughts of love. Maybe, I was thinking as I drove home afterwards along Highway 3 from Windsor to Kingsville in the dark that night, she thought that love and relationships with men would distract her from her devotion to her creative work. I get that. But I also think that love (which is spirited and creative in and of itself) might have surprised her and lit up her work in a new way that she could never have foreseen. Maybe she just didn’t find the right person. It happens. She would have seemed strong and powerfully creative, but was likely vulnerable at the core of it all, underneath any supposed facade of great strength. Who knows? This is all supposition on my part. I’m a writer. I make up stories in my head. I didn’t know either woman. The beauty of the play, though, is that I feel as if I care about both of them, and that’s the sign of a decent piece of theatre, I think.

The thing I think is most sad, though, is that Emilia Cundari doesn’t have a proper memorial plaque on her grave in Windsor. So, the actor who played her in Pat and Emilia, Tara Sievers-Hunt, is spearheading a Go Fund Me account to raise money for that little bronze plaque.  There’s a link here, to an article in the Windsor Star, if you’re so inclined to find out more. Emilia was a pretty amazing woman, and so was Pat.

http://windsorstar.com/news/local-news/keeping-the-memory-of-windsors-opera-diva-emilia-cundari-alive

And here’s a bit about the initial process of creation of this piece of theatre, and the conversations that spurred it all:

http://windsorstar.com/entertainment/nadine-deleurys-tale-of-two-women

 

peace,

k.

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

peace,

k.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

peace, friends.

k.

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

peace, friends.

k.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

http://www.cbc.ca/player/play/1121570883723

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

http://www.projectbookmarkcanada.ca

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

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

http://www.nationalreadingcampaign.ca

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

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

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

peace, friends.

k.