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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

peace,
k.

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My maternal grandmother was, really, if I’m honest, my best friend. When my mother went back to work after I was born, as a nurse and then as a social worker, I apparently stayed a lot of the time with my Gram Ennis, in her house on Wembley Drive. At that point, my dad worked in the copper refinery in Copper Cliff. I don’t remember those days, because I was very young, but I know she was dearest to me until she died when I was in my twenties. Since then, well, I think of her every day, and I envy anyone who still has their grandmother, and will likely tell them so. For me, she was the best person, the person who really raised me. My parents weren’t openly affectionate but, for me, Gram always welcomed me with smiles and warm hugs. She was the first person to give me a blank lined notebook in my teens, when she knew I started writing poetry, and then she gifted me with an old Underwood typewriter, telling me that I would be the writer in the family. Most of who I am, the best part of me I often think, is thanks to her guidance and warmth. (This is not to discount the role of my parents, but to say instead that they were not easy to comprehend as either a child or adult. My relationship with them, in my mind, was tainted, too, by my having taken care of them as they were ill and then as they were dying. It’s complex, to say the least.)

Caring for my parents, and battling the oddly structured health care system in Ontario from 2007 until 2012, when they were both stuck inside of it, led me to advocate for the frail elderly when I joined the Patient and Family Advisory Council at Health Sciences North. I thought, wrongly, that I could raise enough hell to change the world. I’m often idealistic and delusional, but I’m a poet, so I figure it’s par for the course. I thought that speaking up would change the way people perceived the elderly. I was raised in the bosom of my mother’s family, all Irish Catholic and unwieldy, so I knew older people from the time I was little, and I was taught how to converse as if I were adult.  We were never treated as being ‘little’ or ‘less than,” but were invited into big conversations and storytelling sessions. It all formed me into the person and writer I am today. It also allowed me to value older people and treat them as equals and my most powerful teachers.

Reading at Barrie Manor yesterday brought me back to the memory of all my wonderful Irish great-aunts and uncles, to my grandmother, and to my father, as they dealt with ill health in their 70s and 80s. I thought, again, of how the arts (literary, theatrical, musical, and visual) should be a more vibrant part of long-term care facilities in the province. I know there are some who espouse this, and Barrie Manor has an amazing advocate for the arts in the person of Dawna Proudman, a fellow League of Canadian Poets poet. She believes in the power of poetry and this is obvious in her passion to run such a poetry series, inviting poets from around the province to come and read to the residents of the Manor.  In my role as poet laureate, I’ve had the pleasure of reading there twice now, and I’m always  impressed by the residents I meet. (I know I won’t be poet laureate past the end of December of this year, but I hope I’ll be asked back as they are all dear to me there.)

It bothers me to see places (and I have, in the past) where people are cast off, left to stare out windows, or weep in chairs in their rooms, solitary and isolated. Barrie Manor is not such a place; it is alive, caring, and spirited in its programming and staff, as well as with its residents. Yesterday, I met an older woman who volunteers there. She struck me with her spirit, dashing around and offering people cookies, and then coming up to me with a warm smile.  “I wondered if I could give you a hug?” she asked.  “Of course! I don’t get many, so I’m always open to receiving them!” I answered, and we chatted about her youth in Yorkshire, a place I visited years ago. We talked of the Yorkshire Dales and the raw beauty of that landscape, and then she spoke of her husband, children, and grandchildren with me. Everyone has a story, you see. Every person has a tale to tell, and some only just need a single person to hear it with an open heart. And, too, every person likely feels a call to serving others, even if they might also face ill health or the challenges of ageing. I found this bright spirit in this lovely woman yesterday and it reminded me of my own grandmother, and then my heart ached for her.

Today, in Barrie, I decided to drive an hour south, in traffic, to see “Cutting Ice,” an exhibition of Annie Pootoogook’s drawings. Her story has been with me for years. I love art, all art, but am drawn to First Nations and Inuit art. I had known of her work before her untimely death last year, but I had never had a chance to see it in person. So I drove down to Kleinburg and spent a couple of hours breathing in the beauty of that place, a gallery that makes me emotional every time I visit because it is like being inside a giant tree house, with the light and trees outside of the big glass picture windows serving as another bit of art that tugs at my heart.

The first exhibition was of the work of Tom Thomson and Joyce Wieland, and titled “Passion Over Reason.”  I found the description on one wall quite funny. Both artists were unique, it read, because Tom Thomson had never married, and Joyce Wieland had never had children. Then, eavesdropping on an older couple as they discussed the panel of information, 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).

The first time I got teary was seeing a wall of small Thomson canvases. I love his work, as well as the work of the other Group of Seven painters, because it speaks to me of the raw landscape I know very well. Views of Georgian Bay and of central and northern Ontario bush always tears at me inside. These are views I’ve grown up with, views that pull at me from the inside out and make me grateful to have been raised in places where the landscape is stronger than human intervention. Other parts of the province, I often think, while less intimidating geographically, in terms of weather and physical challenges, have no notion of how survival plays into a person’s spiritual upbringing and personal development.

Then, moving into the Pootoogook exhibition, I felt unbelievably sad. The film of her life, shown in a tiny theatre room with classroom chairs, made me sit still and start to get teary-eyed. There, on a lit up wall, she spoke of how Cape Dorset formed her, and the landscape moved across the wall. Then, in the mid-2000s, she had had some success with her work and was heralded as a new artistic voice for Inuit art. By the time she died in 2016, she had somehow been caught up in addiction and had lost touch with her art. In the short documentary on her life, she spoke about how she was a third generation artist, and that got me to thinking again about how women connect with their mothers and grandmothers, how a female lineage strings itself through the emotional region of the heart, but also through physicality and familial inheritance, and through the gift of storytelling, whether with words or with visual art.

When I heard of her death in September of last year, of her having been homeless and living on the streets, and of her battle with addiction, I thought of how this country’s ignorance of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) continues to astound me as a woman. How can anyone just disappear without notice? Why do people (especially women) from communities in the far north of the country feel they have better chances in more major urban centres? The stories don’t usually have good endings. Again, I’m left thinking that there is a sort of apartheid that exists between urban and rural Canada, between the far north and the southern parts of the provinces. It’s about racism, too, whether or not people want to admit it openly.

In the film, Annie Pootoogook says “I wish I was born in the past…but I was not.” I get that. I often feel I don’t belong in this time period. It’s not about romanticizing the past, but of just not feeling that you ‘belong’ to a place or time. I don’t know if this is common to all artists or not. I’d like to ask a few friends, and then I’d like to know if they feel as separate from others as I do.

When you create art, you connect to a different energy, I think. It’s alive for you, inside of you, and you can hook into it, in a sort of mystical way, and it can feed you, if you feed it properly. But it can be very lonely, too, and I felt this in the ache of Pootoogook’s work today. Knowing she had been killed and that her body had been left in the Ottawa River shadowed my experience of the exhibition.  I just kept seeing the two big black and white photos of her face in my mind as I went through and looked at her drawings. It made me tear up.  She shouldn’t have died at 47. She shouldn’t have died after a ten year struggle with homelessness and addiction. It’s a loss of the highest order.

I’m not an art scholar. I’m not Indigenous. I love art and stories, and I love to learn about women artists and writers. They help me to find my place in the world, when sometimes I feel a bit lost inside myself. That she was taken as she was, so violently, and with the promise of more art hidden in her heart, breaks mine.

If you don’t know about her, you need to.  You can watch this little documentary…and then you can go and see the exhibition at the McMichael Collection of Canadian Art in Kleinburg.  It’s well worth battling the traffic on the 401.

No person should go missing and no one should be found in a river, far from her home, forgotten and cast off like rubbish. She deserved more. I know that much.

peace,

k.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Am always honoured to have work accepted for publication.  Both Mary Oliver and Gwendolyn MacEwen are dear to me, in terms of influencing my work as a poet, but also just as a reader and lover of poetry.  Some writers (like people) come into your life and never leave.  These two women are like that, in my heart and head.

With thanks to rob mclennan, for liking this essay, and wanting to share it on Many Gendered Mothers.  (I am a huge fan of the site!)

If you’d like to, you can read my reflective piece here…but you should also read some (MORE!) of Gwendolyn MacEwen’s beautiful work.  It was, and still is, a great loss that she left us much too early, in my mind.

http://themanygenderedmothers.blogspot.ca/2017/09/kim-fahner-on-gwendolyn-macewen.html

peace,

k.

 

 

I’ve been reading Richard Wagamese’s Embers: One Ojibway’s Meditations again.  It goes everywhere with me.  I bought it at Biblioasis in Windsor last October and it’s really a bedside read that comforts me when I’m struggling with things, with big decisions, both emotional and cerebral.  He centres me with his writing and teachings, reminds me that I should not imagine I have any real control over my life.  (I’m not that important!)  I need to trust the mystery of it all, this life I’m living.  It’s worked well so far, since then, since I started reading Wagamese late last fall.  I’ve added in some Buddhist readings, too, and returned to my yoga practice, so now it’s all about mindfulness and finding the poem in what I see every day.  I keep my eyes open for things that are full of wonder, for things that make me catch my breath, or things that stop my heart with their beauty, and then I ponder them.  One of my favourite pieces in Embers is when Wagamese writes:  “Creator is everywhere and divine light shines through everything and everyone all the time.  My work is to look for that light.”  Looking for that light has never been more fun, and it’s usually where I least expect to find it every day.

 

A wise friend said to me, rather recently, that human emotion is like weather.  If you think of the essence of the word “mood” and equate it to what we call “weather,” then you can kind of see what it’s all about.  The wind that’s come up tonight here on Pelee Island, on my second last night, seems fierce, but the sky is beautiful and alive. I can even go out on the hillside and see stars sparkling in amidst the clouds that shift across the sky.  Earlier tonight, I went out onto the East Shore beach and stood there, listening to the waves crash, and watching the sky transform itself.  It made me cry.

 

I’m like that when I’m in amidst landscape.  It’s mostly why I go into wilderness on my own, or with someone whom I really trust like my friend, Jen, because I know I’m going to feel blessed and tiny. It overwhelms me.  She’s good about it when I yell out spontaneously, for no apparent reason, while canoeing, pointing at birds, or a water lily, or a turtle, or a Killarney rock face: “Oh my God!  I can die now!  Look at that!  How beautiful is that!?” at random points in the journey.  She doesn’t judge me.  She loves it, which is kind of nice, because I think, most of the rest of the time, I sort of initially transfix, and then maybe really frighten, people.  I can be ‘too much,’ all witchy woo and mystical, but it’s good to have at least one friend who loves me and accepts me enough to think it’s a good thing.  And that she isn’t afraid to canoe and be alone with me for five hours straight is a bonus!

 

I’ve also learned, this year and last, with the waters of Lake Erie, and with the beauty of Manitoulin Island and Killarney, and the powerful energy of the mountains in Banff, and even in the Highlands of Scotland, that you can easily fall in love with landscape and its energetic soul.  It becomes a force, an energy, and, if you’re open to these things, these elemental shifts inside your soul and then in your physical body, well, it’s as good as the perfect kiss: magic.  (I still feel guilty about falling in love with Scotland.  I never expected that.  I always expected that Ireland would be my one true love, but my tour of the Hebrides changed that, especially in the way they seem so raw, mystical, and powerful.  (Don’t worry; I’m in therapy.)

Being here on Pelee Island for two weeks has saved me.  I’ve been tired.  I still am, but a bit less so. Being a fairly active poet laureate of such a supportive city as Sudbury is a great honour and privilege.  I take it very seriously, and I work hard to give the role the dignity it deserves.   I’m proud of the work I’ve done in the last year and a half in terms of going into schools, running workshops for new and aspiring writers at the library, promoting literacy efforts, putting poetry up in public spaces, talking to teachers about how to bring poetry into their classrooms in innovative ways, advocating for mental health awareness and palliative care, and just generally trying to be supportive of our local arts and culture scene.  (I’m sure people think I’m on social media all the time, but I’m not.  Curating other people’s interesting posts isn’t that time consuming and my mind really doesn’t slow down.  Plus, I do battle with insomnia, so that adds more hours to the day to read and write.  It’s both a blessing and a curse, my being so damn creatively and socially driven.)  My increased energy this year means that I’ve also shrunk a bit, and that just seems to have given me more energy.  I don’t know how that works, but I’ll take it.

 

Being here—on an island—has forced me to slow down. It’s a retreat, maybe even a self-imposed sort of exile.  Sometimes, well, I’m not good at taking care of myself first.  I’ve had to be too strong for too long, for so many damn reasons.  I have a history of caring too much for others, of giving too much and not receiving.  I didn’t really have a role model in my life for the receiving part, which is sort of sad.  I know.  It’s taken me a while to get here, but I’m here now.  My goal this year is about pushing against my fears, but it’s also about learning how to receive compliments, kindness and love in a more welcoming, believing and trusting way.  People will need to be patient with me as I walk this new spiritual path.  It takes practice and I’m breaking patterns I’ve had for half a lifetime.  I think I have a problem with receiving, too, because I haven’t valued myself properly, historically.  Now I do, value myself I mean, so I know I deserve to receive goodness just as much as I give it out to others.  (God, isn’t this just all Oprah, Chopra, Tolle?!  I’m trademarking that little phrase because it’s a line in my play!)

 

Since I’ve been here, just short of two full weeks now, I’ve spent hours walking down long roads on my own, or sitting on an empty beach, or meditating between two trees in the yard, watching the weather, the skies and the water, being mindful of how the birds, dragonflies, and butterflies seem to be trying to tell me secrets.  I’ve gotten less pale, walking in the sun and wind, and reading outside; I’ve been bitten by the worst little flies ever, and my legs look a right mess because I’m allergic to weird bug bites, and almost everything else in life, including cats; and, I’ve fallen in front of British tourists while tripping in a pothole on the North Shore Road because I was too busy looking up at barn swallows in a field, so now there are bruises and a huge scrape on my leg to add to the bug bites. So not attractive.  But happy.

 

I’ve been thinking about where I’ve been and, more importantly, where I’m headed in my life.  I have four months left in the role of laureate and I have plans for about three more projects, along with any poetic commissions and readings that might come along.  The call will go out soon for the next laureate, and I’m hoping someone in Greater Sudbury will be brave enough to apply.  It’s the best thing I’ve done in my life, in terms of how rewarding it has been, but I know now it’s more than what I thought it would be, and it’s been something I would never ever do “half assed,” as my dad would have said.  (I don’t do things in half measures…)

 

This fall, I’ve chosen to teach again part-time, so that I can really do the role of laureate justice and still give my Marymount girls my best as their senior English teacher.  I’m ready for the next four months now.  What comes after, though, is what I’m thinking about on a personal level.  I’m single, and my family has shrunk over the last decade because of death.  This is just a fact, not a way to gain sympathy or sad faces. I’m fine. Worn and weathered from too many storms, but strong.  So, in February, I’m taking another leave from teaching.  Coming here to Pelee Island was a way to sort through some plans, and it’s helped.  I spent time talking with two close friends who live in this area and I’ll see a dear high school friend on Saturday night in Kingsville.  (Fe knew I would be a writer long before I did, so I love that she lives in Harrow and that we’ve reconnected in the last few years.)  Here’s the thing:  I love the North with my whole heart, but I need a little sojourn to see what happens when I write somewhere new, for a longer period of time.  My images and metaphors change, my ideas stretch out into new yoga poses in my mind, and I write fairly quickly down here.  I have had debates with myself over the last few months, not knowing where I belong, or what place I should root in to see how its landscapes will move through me in terms of my creative process.  I’ve thought about how it might feel to just not feel rooted, to just “be” for a while, to see how that would change me as a person and a writer.  (I think too much.)

 

When I first came to Pelee Island last May for a writers’ retreat, I thought a lot of my dad, especially driving from Arthur down through Stratford to London, and then from London down to Kingsville.  I stopped in Park Hill, where my paternal grandparents were from, and the landscape felt wide open.  I loved the fields, and the skies that seemed to go on forever.  Funny thing, though, is that my heart opened up, too, like the skies and fields around me.  Landscape can do that to you, or to me, anyway.  Traveling through that landscape made me miss my dad even more.  We’d driven back and forth to London to visit my great-aunt, Clara, for so many years, and I really hadn’t thought that the landscape had made such an indelible impression on me.  It did, though, and then it’s somehow woven itself into my memory of my father.  He introduced me, too, to theatre.

 

In my mid-teens, my parents took us down to see plays at the Stratford Festival.  I began to fall in love with it all then—plays, actors and theatre—the sound, the smell, the lights, the words, the beauty of the theatres themselves even, and the sense of anticipation when the lights go down, how you can slip into another world without worry or care.  (I never imagined I’d also start to fall in love with reading and writing plays, but I have.)  They weren’t wealthy, my parents, so I was always aware that they had saved a lot of money in order to take us on the way to visit our rather nasty great-aunt in London.  She was very wealthy, but miserable inside.  I think they thought a visit to Stratford would distract us from our visit with her, which would usually crush our little souls, but it was hard not to dislike her.   I should be thankful, I think, because now I know that—because of my mostly negative experiences with her—I tend to judge people on their spirits, values, simple kindness and compassion, and not their monetary wealth or social status.  The two sides aren’t always connected, in my experience.  Things don’t impress me…people do.

 

I thought, last year as I went to down to the writers’ retreat, “Oh, God. I hate humidity.  I would miss my rock cuts and tall pines.  How would this work?”  I looked at the possibility of change (and changing) with a lot of negativity, to be honest.  I’ve changed since then.  I can’t recognize myself some days, but I like who I am now, so it’s a really good thing because I go to sleep with myself at night, and then wake up with myself in the morning.  Coming here for two weeks this summer was something I needed.  I love water, and I fell in love with Lake Erie last May.  It makes everything I’ve struggled with for most of my life seem tiny, and almost forgettable.  It makes me feel small, but not in a scary way.  It actually gives me myself back, in some odd way. It makes me feel like it will take care of me, which I know doesn’t make any logical sense.  I know.  I know.  Poets.  What are you going to do?!

 

So.  Sitting on the edge of Lake Erie late on a Thursday night in August, a lake that has won my heart truly, madly and deeply, I’ve come to decide that I’m going to spend most of next year somewhere down here in Southwestern Ontario, somewhere between Stratford and the Windsor-Essex area, in some little town I have yet to decide upon, trying to write my next novel. I know I’ll need to be close to this lake, though, so that’ll help me decide.  No rush.  The unfoldment is the thing that’s interesting now.

 

The dogs will come, too, and I’ll find someone to sublet my little brick house in Sudbury.  The novel I want to write is (weirdly) the sequel to the first one, which doesn’t even have a home yet.  Still, it needs to be written, and it’s sitting in my heart and head these days, stewing itself into being.  This fall, in terms of my writing, I’ll work on finishing two “in progress” plays, hopefully see my first full play read dramatically in Sudbury sometime in November, launch my next poetry book (Some Other Sky) with Black Moss Press in Sudbury in mid-October, go to a poet laureate reading in Windsor in mid-October, and wait to see if anyone wants to take up my first novel, The Donoghue Girl, and give it a place to live for a while on paper.

 

I’m grateful to the Sudbury Catholic District School Board, for giving me the second semester of the 2017-18 academic year off to pursue some literary dreams I’ve had for my whole life.  I would kind of like to see a really full spring (with green in March or April!) for the first time in my life, to be honest, so the notion of spending time with open skies, the sounds of waves on my favourite Canadian Great Lake, and living in a place where I can walk for miles without having to navigate a lot of snow and ice, well, it’s pretty tempting.  I love Sudbury and the North, but I also know I need to venture out for a little while.  I’m thinking a lot, these days, of Gwendolyn MacEwen’s “Dark Pines Under Water,” and how she writes that second stanza that so speaks to my heart:

 

Explorer, you tell yourself, this is not what you came for

Although it is good here, and green;

 

Sometimes, just sometimes, the things that you’ve known the longest, the things that are most familiar and safe and ‘green’ to you, are the things you need to venture away from for a while so you can grow and learn.  Does that make sense?  It might seem backwards, if you think with your head instead of your heart and soul.  It would have, if you’d told me I’d try this a few years ago.  I would’ve curled up, and ‘turtled,’ and said emphatically, “No, I’m fine where I am, in my little world.”  Now, though, I want to follow Wagamese’s suggestion.  In Embers, he writes, so wisely: “My scars have the strange ability to remind me that my past was real, and what is real offers knowledge, understanding, and an ultimate forgiveness.”  Then he writes about what home means to him:  “Home is the culmination of my hopes and dreams and desires.  Home is a feeling in the centre of my chest of rightness, balance and harmony of the mind, body and spirit…It is also knowing that home is what I bring to it, and in that it is the sure and quiet knowledge that home is within me and always was.”

 

So, I’m sitting here tonight, on the North Shore of Pelee Island, listening to the waves break at the end of this ‘yard,’ thinking that I’ve come through some very dark places, and so very grateful for the lessons those places have taught me.  It’s a miracle I’m alive.  Nine years ago, I walked around with suicidal ideation all day and night as a constant companion.  Some people will never know darkness, or will only come to it later in life, or will avoid it because it frightens them.  For me, the darkest places have made me bloom and value each and every breath I take, and every person I meet.  I don’t understand it, not logically, but I do know, in my heart, that it’s good and true.  When you step into yourself, when you push against fear, which is really all imagined and an illusion if you read Richard Wagamese or even some of the Buddhist teachings, then you bloom like a lotus, out of the muck and rubbish.

 

And once you bloom…well…happily…there’s no going back.  J

 

peace,

k.

 

P.S.  Keep your eyes on the @SudburyPoet Twitter account because I’ll be launching my new author website soon and starting a pretty funky little interactive thing that everyone can take part in called “Bookish Selfies.”  You’ll see.  I’m not done yet…and we’re going to have some fun with poetry this fall! J

 

Some days in your life mark endings, and for me, endings always seem to be synonymous with new beginnings.  It won’t work the other way around.  Yesterday marked my last visit to my psychiatrist.  Yup.  The only way to fight the stigma around mental illness is to blow it out of the water.  I’ve done it before on this blog, and God knows I’ve written poems about waiting rooms in hospitals, sitting next to people who were so much sicker than me, so that I remember thinking, “Well, it could be worse.  Major depressive disorder looks simpler than whatever that person has.”  It can be very scary, sitting in an out-patient psychiatric waiting room next to someone who is yelling and not making sense, especially when you don’t even care because your brain seems to have erased all emotion from you, so that your body doesn’t move unless you will it to, so that you can’t even make the skin on your face move into the semblance of a human expression.  When you’ve been to the brink of something that is more a void than a darkness, a place that is so much scarier than just darkness, then you know you need to try, once you’re well, to speak up.  It’s just the only way that stigma will ever really diminish.

Yesterday, walking into the Kirkwood site for the last time, I kept thinking, “When was the first time I was here?”  It was Fall 2008.  I was off work from teaching, on stress leave.  My mum had had a transmetatarsal amputation of her right foot, so I’d dropped her off at the Memorial site, along with my dad, so that she could have her foot assessed and debrided.  That happened once a week, in hopes that her foot would heal.  (It never did.)

While they were there, I went for my first psychiatrist’s appointment.  It had taken six months to be assigned to a specialist, while my family doctor tried me on various cocktails of anti-depressants and anti-anxiety drugs.  None of them worked and they were switched too often so I ended up much sicker because of the variety of medications and dosages, all while waiting for a specialist.  These aren’t drugs you dilly dally with, especially when you talk of dizziness, vertigo, and headaches.

I remember feeling so ashamed, so much so that I couldn’t even look at him for the first six months. I remember the floor tile pattern and I remember feeling fat, stuffed into old jeans.  I didn’t want him to know that I had thought of erasing myself.  I knew it wasn’t right.  I knew I wasn’t well.  I remember staring at the floor, hunched over, not looking up and only ever mumbling answers.  I curled inwards.

He was friendly, older, a doctor whom my mum remembered working with back in the early to mid 60s when she was a psychiatric nurse.  So he was my dad’s age.  He knew about some of the older drugs, so he tried me on Remeron, which basically gave me back my life, but ended up taking me to 230 pounds within a few months.  (These drugs affect so much of how a human body functions, so side effects are common and must be tolerated if you want to pull yourself out of the void.  Sometimes you don’t even want to do that, because it can be so exhausting, to even manage to take breaths some days.  This is when you most probably need a specialist’s help, but will be too ill to ask for it.)

My psychiatrist has followed me for nine years, from the time I was officially diagnosed with major depressive disorder.  (I had been ill my entire life, I think, though, but no one had given it a name or helped me to slay the dragon.)  As he said yesterday, “You were so ill.  Do you know how ill you really were?”  I didn’t.  I do now and that’s mostly because of all the work I had to do to get well.  Once he sorted out dosages and types of meds, and found Remeron was the ‘winner,’ we walked through 2008-2012 together.  These were the four years when I took care of my parents as they died.  He told me later that I wouldn’t have been as ill if I had not been in the situation I was in, as the main caregiver for elderly parents and living in the same house, and I know that is true now, but I also know that I did what I did because I felt I owed it to them.  The biggest mistake I made was confusing love with duty, though, and that’s only something I now realize after just as many years of therapy.

For a while, I didn’t forgive myself for being sick.  I have always been hardest on myself.  I blamed myself.  It’s easier to blame yourself, to put yourself down and build up walls, when you refuse to learn what the lesson is.  For me, now, life is all about learning lessons.  Our most emotionally wrought up experiences, whether good or bad (and who’s to say which is which, really?) should be about learning.  There’s no point in chastising ourselves about words or actions or things we might have done differently a year or two ago.  Better that we move forward, learning from our mistakes.  It’s what Beckett said that I so love:  “Ever tried.  Ever failed.  No matter.  Try again.  Fail again.  Fail better.”  You fall, you must get up.  You can’t just stay on the ground going “Help me.  I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.”  You also can’t just say that you made a mistake and then berate yourself forever and steep in that awful marinade.  It doesn’t serve you well at all.  If you do that, then you let whatever it is that has a hold on you win, and you won’t move forward.  (It reminds me of the old Catholics who used to whip themselves as punishment…as if your own conscience wasn’t bad enough!)  You could miss out on other things because you’re too caught up in the past.  It’s a bit of a mind trap, really.   You can’t let it diminish you–whether it is a failed relationship, or a weakly structured story you’ve written, or an illness that haunts, like depression.  If you give in, you give up.  That’s not an option for me.

So yesterday, when I told my doctor that I needed to thank him for saving my life in 2008, when I had a sharp memory of wanting to step into traffic after a long day of caring for my bedridden mother and having no real emotional or medical support from anyone at all, he just shook his head. “No.  You did most of it.  You did so much hard work.”  It made me want to cry, really, because it’s still hard, thinking of how furiously I fought to live and survive, and now to be blooming.  I never imagined blooming, so it’s still a bit shocking most days.  People see me as lighter, but some of them haven’t seen me in ‘the dark.’  The contrast, I think, would shock them.

The last bout of illness was in Fall 2015, not so long ago.  It was work-induced anxiety and it paralyzed me.  With the depression, well, you can talk it out in therapy and use meds, but this anxiety caused me to have chest pains and that terrified me.  Then I needed to be medicated again, but this time I researched a med that wouldn’t make me balloon up again.  I couldn’t do it.  I’d already gone down from a size 18 to a 14 in three years, so I knew if I was on Remeron again, I would puff up without even blinking.  I found Cipralex, and we tried that, and it worked.  The thing about anxiety is that it doesn’t even have to be tied to something particular, does it?  It flummoxed me because I’m terribly cerebral and I always try to sort things out.

I’ve been off all psychiatric drugs since February 2016 and have been healthy.  My doctor has tried to discharge me for a year and a half.  I refused to let him let me go because I didn’t want to go through the same thing with another doctor.  I know the system is broken, so I wanted to keep him until he retired.  This is the month he retires.  (In the last year, we have met once a month and have talked of my work as a teacher, writing, and then sometimes have compared notes about Walter Scott and how Scotland and Ireland haunt me.  He always checks how I am by asking me to speak about things I love, including poetry and art.  Clever doctor, he is, knowing that I love to talk with other intelligent people, and how he can assess my well being through conversation.)

This “me being well” is a purposeful and intentional choice, with more hard work.  It means yoga and Zumba, and walking, and hiking, and careful weight loss, and meditating, and singing, and writing.  The writing, more than anything else, has lifted me back into myself.  It means eating well, forcing myself to be social when I’m perfectly fine with reading books in my tiny house, pushing against things that scare me, and learning to forgive myself.  It also means knowing that I don’t always have to be strong.  When you’re on your own, and you’ve been so sick, you need to take care of yourself.  No one else will.  Now, though, I’m more apt to reach out if I flounder or just need a friend to listen.  Otherwise, my days are mostly filled in silence, or chatting to the dogs, or listening to music.  It’s an existence that fosters my having to be strong for myself, and I know that isn’t always good…but it is what it is.

Saying goodbye to my doctor yesterday was hard.  Walking away from that hospital, though, felt right.  Lately, I’ve been dreaming of crows, gorgeous strong feathered wings, and open windows and doors.  These things happen when I write new pieces of poetry or plays. Right now, I’m working on a play about an autistic boy who is transfixed by feathers and birds, and angels.  Of course, it makes sense I have birds in my head, then.  🙂  The open windows and doors, well, I’m sure they’re archetypal images and metaphors.  Yesterday, I closed a door behind me in saying goodbye to the man who helped me to save myself, who helped me to learn how to forgive myself and be more vulnerable and less strong.  Today, I opened a new door, and I threw open the sashes of windows that might have been painted shut for years.  These are big things for me.  Big things.

Sometimes things fall apart…but then they reassemble themselves in the most beautiful of ways.  Today, driving south, I got lost in Leamington.  I always get lost.  It doesn’t matter where I am, or how often I Google Map things, I always end up somewhere else, but I always learn something new in the process.  Today, I got lost on a long road that runs through farms with fields full of tall corn.  Those fields made me think of my dad.  Then, on that same road, a sweep of barn swallows feathered across the sky above my car and I shouted out loud to myself, “Oh my God!  So beautiful!”  So.  It’s official.  I’m an adult, but I’m ten inside.  Everything is full of wonder.  Why shouldn’t it be?  When you’ve been in the darkness, light seems so much more bright, magical, and transformative.  I’m grateful for that.

A seven hour drive today and I can’t feel my body.  That’s how tired I am.  Still, I drove out to the end of Point Pelee after I ate a quick supper.  I love it there.  Every time I am down in this area now, I go there on my own.  I always go out to the tip, so this time I was surprised to see it had all collapsed.  I thought, “God.  How has that happened? That pile of rocks out there, with the tree sticking up…I had a cup of tea there one Saturday afternoon last October after I visited the Detroit Institute of Art.  Now it’s rubble.”  It reminded me of how the crows in my backyard have been throwing their nests out of the maple tree.  They cast them off, caw over them like crazy fishwives, sweep down, and sometimes sort of swirl around them.  They, too, know that what sometimes looks like destruction, in how something falls apart, can mean a bright, new beginning.

After seeing the decimation of the tip of Point Pelee, a bit saddened by it all, I went to sit on my favourite beach.  (Most of this is simply because it has a beautiful name:  Black Willow.  The other part of it is that you can sit and be alone, and it stretches out forever.  I get a bit nervous about this now, about walking on my own in nature, because of a run-in I had at home with a bit of a scary person on one of my early morning walks in May down by the lake…so I’m less bold in walking on my own.  I need to be sure there are other people within shouting distance now.  I’m less naive and stupid about that after my unsettling experience this spring.)  So, there were other people there tonight, but I went off on my own so that I could listen to, and feel, Lake Erie.

I feel like I’m cheating on Lake Huron, but I love Lake Erie so much.  My favourite colour in the entire world is blue, and this lake paints itself with light and weather, as if it has moods that shift across its surface.  And it has such a grand voice, waves smashing and roaring.  It’s a bold lake.  Huron’s strong, too, but Erie has the birds I so love, and the trees.   The blues, though, are mixed with silver and gold and green, and sun.  It’s magic.  Then, when you close your eyes, you can feel the wind pushing at you, and then pulling at you, so you feel small.  Nothing matters then.  It’s only that you’re there, in the centre of the weather, in the centre of that lake’s great spirit, and it pulls out what you no longer need from deep inside of you, and then it casts it out (like the crow’s nests in my backyard tree) to make room for newness.

Who knows what the newness is, or what the next open door or window will bring, but half of the wonder of it is stepping through it all, into what’s next…and seeing what you’ll learn.  Even if you fall.

peace,

k.

 

Today was hard, but beautifully so.  There have been many days like this in my life so far.  In fact, my life so far has been far from easy.  People looking in just recently might think it’s all grand, but that’s because I’ve fought through very dark places and spaces, tooth and nail as they say, so I fight even harder to see bits of light, and to honour them every day.  (I know…idealistic poet woman.  So sue me.  I don’t care.)

Today, we put up a part of one of my poems in the oncology and palliative care wing at Health Sciences North here in Sudbury.  It’s a place that is hard for me to visit.  The minute I step off onto the Fourth Floor of the North Tower, my heart beat quickens, I have flashbacks, and I feel as if my dad died just yesterday.  It’s that vivid, and that hard of a space for me to walk into, energetically speaking.  (I’m an empath, so I feel energy deeply…which is not something you necessarily want to have as a gift.  Energy ripples for me, and I have a photographic memory, so that doesn’t help either.)

I thought of my dad’s transfer from the South Tower to the North Tower, which occurred on Remembrance Day 2011.  I remember we watched the Ottawa service on the little rental tv together, him sighing and saying that he couldn’t believe he was dying, and me trying not to cry in front of him, ducking out to get him ice water from the patient and family lounge or saying that I needed to wash my hands in the patient bathroom so that I could gather myself and not let him see I was upset.  He was given a couple of weeks to live, but he lasted until December 28th.  (Both of my parents died at Christmas, which is why I have the worst time with all of December, and can only find solace when I’m alone in the bush, outside of Bobcaygeon, drinking white wine at night and setting a fire in the fireplace of the little flat I rent to write in.  I love the long winding roads, how the wind and snow sweeps across them, the trees that arch over me when I walk for miles and miles, and the fact that I don’t really have to speak out loud at all when I’m there, except when David and Denise ask me in for a supper or two to make sure I’m still alive.  🙂

I thought, too, of how he said he saw my mum a few days before he died, telling me that she looked like Judy Garland, and was “gorgeeeeooouusss.”  (“Kim, she looks like she’s twenty five again! Maybe she found someone else…what if she found someone else over there?  In heaven?”)  So we had an hour long conversation one night, in a darkened room, about how I didn’t believe that could happen.  I used logic with him.  Why else would she be showing up in the palliative care room, I asked, if she didn’t fancy him at all anymore?!  She’d only just been gone four years, anyway.  She would’ve waited for him.   I knew it.  So he knew it, too, then, seeing how certain I was. He just smiled at me and said, “You know, you’re good at this…this spiritual and dying stuff.”  It was not, I must tell you, what I wanted to hear, but I just kissed him on the cheek, rubbed the top of his bald head, tucked him in before I left, and knew that I had the great privilege of being the person who would walk him to the doorway of heaven.  It was as far as I could go alongside him on his journey, but I know it was the most sacred experience we shared together.

So today was about honouring my dad.  It was, too, about honouring the journey that families go through.  Not all palliative care patients are comatose.  My dad wasn’t.  He was wide awake until the last minute.  (Of course, he was stubborn enough to wait to die until I went home for a break to feed the dogs…but I figure that’s because he didn’t want me to see him go in person.)  While he was stuck in a room that was bland and without art, I kept thinking, “I wish there was art in this room.” And then I would go into the lounge and see a stock Robert Bateman loon print and think, “God.  Another fucking loon.  I wish they had original art in here…”  Then, after Dad died, I sat on the Patient and Family Advisory Council (PFAC) at HSN for two years, advocating for the frail elderly and those with mental health issues (because I suffered with depression the entire time I cared for my parents in my thirties).  I also kept talking about wanting to put poetry and/or art up in the halls of 4North.  Nothing happened during my time on the PFAC, but my dream stuck with me.  I wanted to see it happen.

When I became poet laureate last year, I knew it had to be on my list of ‘most important’ things to do before you get kicked out and the next laureate comes in for a landing.  🙂  I spoke to my friend Martin Lees, who works at the hospital.  We had met in Fall 2015 through Playwrights’ Junction at the Sudbury Theatre Centre and I loved his dry wit and bright mind.  It’s never boring, having a conversation with Martin.  He had just done a paper on palliation and poetry, and, after he heard my idea about somehow finding a way to bring poetry into the hospital, he asked if I wanted to read it.  I loved it.  So, last year, when I became laureate, I sent him an email and said I’d like to see this happen.  We could use stanzas from all four poet laureates and put them in windows around the oncology and palliative care floor.  He was my best advocate inside the hospital system, organizing meetings with the appropriate people in administration and communications, and–when I felt like giving up–he kept sending messages with snappy sentences that made me think it might just come true…this little dream of mine.

I want to thank Martin for his help with this project, for having stuck with me through the sixteen month journey towards putting up that stanza this afternoon.  He’s a good man with a love of the arts, and a fine poet and playwright as well.  (His wife, Christy, too, is a brilliant English teacher, so I’m glad to know both of them.)

Now…how does lake swimming and canoeing fit into palliative care and poetry?  I can hear you from here, in the northeastern part of the province, wondering how they all connect.  To me, it’s about knowing that life includes death, and that death shows you how to live more fully and purposefully, if you let it.  You can’t push it away; you have to embrace it…consider it ‘sacred,’ and let it teach you the greatest lessons it has to offer.  That’s when your life will change…and out of darkness, light will emerge…even if you don’t think so right away.

On Sunday, I went to Manitoulin Island with my friend, Karen.  We went to Providence Bay, but it was windy and the water was cold, and I had my heart set on swimming in Lake Mindemoya.  Known as “The Old Woman” in Ojibway, it’s a lake I grew up next to, and it’s been in my heart ever since.  For years, my parents took my sister and I there for two weeks of summer holidays every August.  We rented a camp.  It had an outhouse.  (I still hate outhouses.)  So, after I burned the crap out of my knees on Sunday, even with sunscreen, we moved from Prov’s beautiful sand beach and found a tiny space on the edge of Mindemoya.  I thought I would cry.  You can walk out into Mindemoya for what seems like miles before you even begin to get close to having your shoulders covered.  It’s so beautiful and clear that you can see the bottom.  The shape of Treasure Island is omnipresent in the centre of the lake, and swimming there on Sunday felt like going home.

I thought of times spent with my parents, sister, and with my cousins, David and Tara, and my aunt and uncle, Rosalind and Terry.  I remembered games of Monopoly, and sunburns that hurt me terribly, popsicles that melted and stained my hands purple, and late nights with moths, as well as nights under stars, running all the way from the back sauna down to the lake, to swim.  Those were the kind of nights when it felt like you were swimming amidst the stars…because the lake water was so calm.   Swimming there again on Sunday afternoon, floating on my back and looking up at the clouds, I felt like I was little again, time traveling.  But, then, you know that you’ve lost so many people…and you can’t get them back…not really.  They only live in my memory now.  (For a moment, though, they were all there again…)

Yesterday, I went canoeing with my friend Jen, out in Killarney Provincial Park.  We set out down a little creek and then entered into Huron, part of the North Channel.  (Today at the hospital, Martin chided me.  “That’s not safe, you know.  That water is rough.” Maybe it’s a good thing that I’m a novice and was a bit naive about the water conditions. We watched the wind warnings, though, and Jen is an experienced canoeist, so I never feel I’m at risk when I paddle with her.)

I think I said this about one hundred times to Jen yesterday.  “Oh, my God.  I can die now. This might be the most perfect day I’ve ever had!”  (She likes that I’m so enthusiastic about canoeing.  I know I’m exuberant.  I just feel like every new thing is exciting and something to crow about.)  The moment we left the creek and started out into the lake, and the beautiful islands, rocks, and trees came into view, though, I thought I would start to cry.  I told her so, too.  “My God…I feel like I’m canoeing inside a Group of Seven painting!”  Then, when we landed on a few islands to eat lunch and swim, I thought I was in heaven.  If you think canoeing inside a Group of Seven painting is exciting, you need to try swimming into one.  Every time you come up for a breath of air, you think “How is this happening?  How can I be so lucky, to be swimming here, in amidst this beauty?”

Someone told me last year, after just having met me, that I seemed ‘young.’  It wasn’t a nice comment.  It hurt.  It wasn’t well delivered.  She kept looking at me as if I were a specimen to be sorted out, dissected.  “Are you really in your forties?  You seem younger…too ‘new,’ too trusting.”  My friend Kathleen, a poet from out west, sent me a note on Facebook telling me that it wasn’t a bad thing, to be filled with wonder.  I don’t care anymore.  If being full of wonder is odd, then I’ll own it.  The world is brighter, for me, because of the way I view and live in  it…and my closest friends don’t seem to mind at all. They’re the only ones who matter now, anyway.

I used to swim when I was a little girl.  Then I got really fat and really depressed.  Then I erased myself.  Then I took care of everyone else….except for me.  I don’t regret having cared for my parents.  I’ll never regret that.  I’m sad, though, that I lost a decade and a bit of my life, and that I confused duty with love.  But I know now that love must be something lighter than duty, more effervescent and giving.  I may never find that kind of love, too, and I’m okay with that.  I’m not simple….or maybe I’m too simple.  Not sure.  I’ll still live in wonder…and I’ll still love the smallest, most obscure things in a day’s passage.  It’s just how I work…

I don’t care about money (except for paying bills).  I don’t want material things.  I have everything I’ll ever need now….except for books….I’ll always buy more books…and maybe art.  🙂  I care about my health, my friends, my dogs, and how we can make the places we live better through harnessing art (both visual and literary) in creative and unique ways.  I know I’m odd, eccentric, out of the ordinary.  But I also know (finally) that it’s a gift I’ve been given, something to be cherished, and not something to be embarrassed about.  When you finally learn that you need to take care of yourself before you can care fully for others, you learn the most amazing lessons…and I’m hoping that I keep on learning until I die.

I miss my dad horribly.  Today, I missed him even more.  Walking by Room 4635 was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.  I haven’t been past that door in five and a half years.  Looking in, I had flashbacks of moments, most dark and sad, but some full of light and laughter. My dad taught me my greatest lessons as he was dying…and it changed me. Now, well, I don’t know that he’d recognize me…canoeing on the shores of Great Lakes, fit, athletic and happy, jumping off rocks into cold water, traveling, writing, gardening (not as well as he ever did) and exploring.  (Truth be told, I don’t recognize myself these days, either…and it’s kind of lovely and exciting, to feel new and fresh.)  He would, I hope, be proud.  He would, I hope, be happy to see me content and healthy and strong.

Parents, you see, aren’t forever…and some of us lose them earlier than others…so, if you have one or two of your own, try to see them, speak with them, love them, learn from them (even when they frustrate you),  and savour your families.  Sometimes, you lose them, more quickly than you can imagine…and then you’re constantly longing for the unconditional love you’ve lost.

That kind of love, well, it doesn’t come around very often…and it’s to be cherished and cared for…

peace,

k.

 

 

 

I know.  It’s not a subtle title.  I can’t sleep.  I can’t stop moving.  This has been on my mind for a while now.  I’ve tried distracting myself with other things:  reading, writing, listening to music, walking with my dogs.  None of it works.  The restlessness is lodged deep inside my heart.  I can only imagine that there are others out there who feel the same way, as if they are watching someone drown, and not knowing how to reach out and help.  A restlessness and a helplessness.  But there has to be something.

These Northern Ontario suicides up in Pikangikum First Nation, about 100 km northwest of Red Lake, are heart breaking.  Two twelve year old children died on the Canada Day weekend.  A fifteen year old girl from Nibinamik died on the Tuesday following that weekend.  A twenty-one year old man from Fort Severn First Nation died in Thunder Bay the day after that.  A report posted on CBC Thunder Bay’s website says that there have been eighteen suicides within the Nishnawbe Aski Nation’s territory since January 1, 2017.  Eighteen.

I keep wondering:  if there were eighteen suicides in any other region or city in Southern Ontario, or any other bigger, urban centres, would there be such silence?  Yes, there are the few stories that cross social media platforms.  Yes, there are tweets of protests and some Facebook shares.  Do people in the southern parts of the province know, or care, about what’s happening further north?

I live in Sudbury, which is in Northeastern Ontario.  It’s far from Thunder Bay, which is in Northwestern Ontario.  The two cities are eleven hours apart, by car.  Pikangikum is further north than Thunder Bay.  There isn’t a year-round road.  There’s a winter road, and then the rest of the year, people reach the community via a mixture of boat, car, and plane. This is the raw and real northern geography of this great land.

If you look at a map of Canada, and you see where Sudbury and Thunder Bay are located, then you’ll see, if you look further north, how vast those distances are, heading up towards Hudson Bay. That’s the vast distance we’re talking about when we talk about Northern Ontario.  It’s much more vast than people from the south know and, maybe, just maybe, it’s more easily forgettable.  Maybe that explains it.  But it doesn’t make it right.  It never will.

I can’t stop thinking about this.  I don’t have kids of my own, so my students are my kids.  I’m a secondary school teacher, so I’m well versed in how mental health issues can torment teens and young adults.  As educators, we are trained to be mindful of our students’ behaviours.  We know they suffer, even if they learn how to try and hide it.  Working at an all-girls’ school, I’ve learned to watch and listen carefully.  I’m sure all teachers have, regardless of whether they teach at a co-ed or single-gendered school, learned how to spot worrisome spikes in anxiety and depression.

You watch to see if your students avoid making eye contact (because they know you’re smart and you care), whether or not they seem too sleepy (in case they are having family issues), or if they cry easily (or not easily enough), or if they are too slim (in case they aren’t eating properly, whether because of poverty or because of eating disorders), or if they seem to curl up into themselves both physically and emotionally in class.  You can tell, too, sometimes (but not always) if someone is cutting or harming themselves.  They’ll be the kids who tug their sweaters down over their wrists, so that their hands and fingers stick out a bit more obviously than they should.  They might wrap their arms around their torso, as if they wish they could give themselves a hug, or else just try and disappear.

You know, too, though, that some kids are experts at hiding their pain.  Sometimes, the ones you think aren’t in crisis actually are.  They may be the best of multi-taskers, the smiliest of faces, the most welcoming and trying to please you as their teacher, and even the ones with the very highest grades.  Sometimes, just sometimes, they are also the ones at risk.  It’s not an easy thing to distinguish, to suss out who is at risk and who isn’t, but I know that it’s been made even more difficult for my colleagues in the far north because there is a discrepancy in funding between southern and northern schools in this province.

If you were to begin by visiting a classroom in a Toronto school and then continue on up the highways of this province, on a tour of sorts, I’m more than certain you’d see differences and even harsh discrepancies.  You might see smaller libraries (or libraries that used to be libraries but are now empty, without books), or you might see outdated text books, or you might see fewer Smart Boards or laptops.  There might be issues with Internet connections.  There might be issues with trying to retain teachers in far northern communities, even if you pay them isolation pay, because sometimes there isn’t enough emotional support for the teachers themselves.  (And, yes, you can have culture shock within the borders of a country as vast and ‘modern’ as Canada.)

The fuss about Canada 150 bothered me.  It still does.  I’m not Indigenous.  I know I carry and embody white privilege.  I know, even, that I probably shouldn’t even voice my opinion in some cases.  But I can’t not speak.  I can’t bear to see more media reports of kids killing themselves in far northern reserves and communities.  I can’t imagine eighteen of my kids just disappearing like that, and no one blinking an eye.  For a minute or two, in social media land, there’s a ripple effect, a wave that disturbs the reader of an article, and then, I think, the ripple evens out and the water is calm, so people forget, or perhaps just don’t want to admit it’s an issue.

Today, I read an article that says Ontario has announced funding for twenty new full-time mental health workers for Pikangikum First Nations.  About 380 people in the community are seeking counselling.  Of course they are.  Eighteen people have just killed themselves since January of this year.  Of course they are.  They are crying out for help.  Right now, there are only eight mental health workers up in Pikangikum.  Eight.  How would that work, in Toronto, or Windsor, or London, if eighteen people killed themselves? Would that be acceptable?

There are meetings in Ottawa this week, including Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler, who is the head of an organization that represents 49 communities across Northern Ontario.  This is good, I suppose.  I worry, though.  For years now, as someone who has lived in Sudbury for most of my life, I can think of having always heard on the CBC how the flooding in Kashechewan and Attawapiskat displaces people every spring.  So, each year, the floods happen.  Each year, people are displaced.  Each year, the same thing happens, over and over and over again.  For years.  For decades.  And, each year, it splashes across the media, and then disappears like a “little ripple” into a calming lake.  It’s more like a form of erasure and racism, I think.  The “little ripple” upsets people.  It makes them think about how this province, this country, has some deep and hard work to do if it wants to talk about truth and reconciliation with the First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples.  It jars them so they’d rather turn away and look at the pretty shoreline of the lake than see what the “little ripple” is doing on the surface of the water.

Here’s the thing:  the “little ripple” is actually a massive problem.  The issues of flooding, unsafe drinking water which results in boil water advisories all the time, the poor health care systems in northern reserves and communities, and the unsafe schools for children, all of this is hardly a “little ripple.”  It’s more like a tsunami.

I’m thinking of how the children have spoken up.  As a teacher, my students are drawn to the brave work of Shannen Koostachin, who fought so valiantly for safe and equitable schools in Attawapiskat.   They think highly of Autumn Peltier, from Wikwemikong on Manitoulin Island, who speaks up for the rights of water.  They relate to people their own age.  They ask me, as their teacher, “Miss, why is this still allowed to happen?  Weren’t the residential schools horrible enough?  What can we do?”  I only ever say what I think and believe is true, and I always say that I don’t know the answers to all of their questions.  I never lie to my students, or to myself or others for that matter.

I tell my girls that we can speak about things, we can raise awareness, and we can share what we learn with our families and friends.  This year, they told me that, after reading Richard Wagamese’s novel, Indian Horse, they told their parents about residential schools, and then were shocked when their parents hadn’t known the truth of Canada’s full history.  These young people, in elementary and secondary school now, are, I think, the ones who will carry the notion of reconciliation forward in a real and concerted manner.  They are incensed, but frustrated.  They don’t know what to do to change their country for the better.  They only know it isn’t right.

What I do know is that these suicides are not acceptable.  I don’t know how to fix it, but I have an idea.  I don’t think these band-aid solutions, of sending up a certain number of full-time mental health workers, will work for the long term.  It may help for a while, and I pray it does.  I do.  But…and I think I might be right, sadly, if it works in the way that the flooding and evacuation ‘works’ every year in Kash and Attawapiskat, then, I’m afraid it won’t be effective.  Longer term solutions need to be implemented.

I love the work of Richard Wagamese.  In One Story, One Song, he writes: “Suicide hurts everyone.  For Native people in Canada, it’s an epidemic.  On some reserves, the rate of youth suicide is horrendous, and there’s incredible agony for those left behind.”  He also says that, “every needless death lessens us and diminishes our light.”

Yes.  So.  Tonight, I’m thinking of the families of those eighteen people who have been lost since January of this year.  I’m thinking of the four young people who, this very month, have killed themselves.  There must have been such deep pain for them and that saddens me so deeply.  In Embers: One Ojibway’s Meditations, Richard Wagamese says, “the truth is that we are one body moving through time together.”

We are all connected.  We can’t forget it.  So, if even one falls, all of us should feel it deeply.  I do.  I do.

peace,

k.