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I have always loved Heather Topp’s work. I’m no fancy schmancy art historian, as most of you will know, but I do love art, and, oh my, I so love hers. After I had what my late great-aunt, Maureen, would have called “a day,” I just felt I needed to immerse myself in the space and vibrant energy that is the Art Gallery of Sudbury. Creeping art posts on Twitter or spending hours on the sunroom floor flipping through my art books just wouldn’t budge the emotional grime and strange elasticity of the day, so I knew I needed to shift the energy that was bogging me down somehow. That’s when I knew I needed the gallery. It’s a place that’s dear to my heart. I’ve haunted it as a visitor and member for the last twenty odd years. It’s even where I met my first boyfriend. We were taking the same Canadian Art History course with Henry Best at Laurentian. There are stories there in the cosmic nature of the meeting between the two of us, but they’re best left for another day (or perhaps just forgotten and later written about in a play or novel).

I’ve loved Heather Topp’s work since I volunteered at the gallery back at university, and then, for a season, in my mid to late twenties when I worked there in communications and media. I remember meeting her and being so in awe of her presence. She wouldn’t likely remember me, but I remember her! 🙂 She struck me as a force of creativity, and I’m always so awestruck by people whose work I fancy, whether they are visual artists or writers. (Put me in front of Billy Collins, for instance, or Seamus Heaney, and I lose all sense. A fairly bright woman, well, I quickly dissolve into a stumbling red-faced mess of tongue-tied idiocy when I’m smitten with someone’s creative work. Seriously sad state of affairs. You can dress me up, but you can’t take me out. Sigh.)

What I loved most about her work, and still do, are the larger than life paper mache figures who stand in circles. The women are the ones who most strike me, and always have. I love their pendulous breasts, oversized feet, and rounded bellies. They remind me of the ancient Celtic goddess statues I’ve seen at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin. Specifically, they remind me of the Sheela-na-gig statues and carvings that are found around Ireland, pagan statues which emphasise the female genitalia. They are ancient, pagan fertility symbols. In the medieval period, they likely were meant to serve as moral warnings against the “sins” of desire and sex. In the pre-Christian period, though, Sheela-na-gigs are more likely to have been whimsical (but powerful) celebrations of female sexuality, sensuality and fertility. For me, they have always symbolized the creative force that I try to channel as a writer, as a woman, as a soul.

Topp’s female statues emanate the essences of fertility, creativity, and a sort of ‘fuck you’ mentality. I especially love the ones who give you the finger as you walk around the circle. The best part of today happened when I was up in Gallery 2, and I put myself right in the middle of such a circle. The faces are blank ones, which fascinate me, but I am always amazed by the moose teeth that jut out from where their mouths might be. The figures transfix and delight me.

I often think about what it means to be a woman. (I’m one with a curvy form that must’ve been genetically passed down on my maternal Irish side with the hopeful intention that I would breed, just as they all had. I failed at that biological and familial expectation, but my creativity has given birth to itself in other ways, so that’s okay!) I think, too, about feminism, and about how women make themselves present in the world, and how we give voice to our experiences. I like that Topp’s work makes me think so deeply about what it means to be a woman (not a girl) and how it feels to take up space (happily and healthily so) in the world when you are a creative soul. Here are two beautiful photos of the figures I’m talking about.

When I stood in the middle of that circle upstairs today, I felt almost as if I’d been welcomed in, gathered into a circle of souls who might understand me. They seem sacred, as if–when you stand outside of that circle–you might be intruding on some ritual or ceremony. But, the moment you silently ask them to let you come inside that circle, to turn slowly to see each figure on their own, and then as part of a whole, they say ‘yes’ and ‘welcome,’ and you can finally exhale. It’s a sense of sisterhood or something ancient and rooted in the earth itself. I love that. I love that so much that I can’t find the words…

Another part of the exhibition that took my breath away, and surprised me in a whimsical way, included the series of India ink drawings on paper that open up the walls of Gallery 2. When I went upstairs and came to these black and white drawings, they just seemed so damn brilliant and intoxicating. I think I actually stood in front of the first one and said, out loud, “Oh my God.” It was that amazing. These “Lost Horizons,” a series of eight pieces from 2006, make you feel as if you’ve almost intruded on a chrysalis of creativity. You are pulled deeply into the images. Always, at the core, there are figures of women, haunting and weaving visual echoes from piece to piece. Hips, breasts, eyes, and hair are all gathered together in a way that speak to a sense of creation, of a gloriously mucky, almost visceral and ancient sensuality that makes you think “Yeah, this is what it’s about. I can see myself in there, but I can also see things that make me think being a woman is much more vast and mysterious than I can fathom, even being inside (and aware of) my own body, beauty, and sensuality.”

Each pen and ink drawing demands that you stand there, awestruck, and that you look deeply to see the hidden things. There, in one piece, the skeletons of fish. And there, half of an apple, perhaps a reference to Eve in some biblical garden. Then, above that face, a two-headed bird that emerges with wings spread wide. It all speaks to how much of a mysterious universe might be inside one woman’s body and soul. The exhibition is empowering, curious and seductive, to say the least.

It’s a visual, intellectual, spiritual, artistic, and sensual experience. It’s a buffet, with courses clustered and offered up to the gallery goer. Here, a series of quirky stoneware statues in “No Trespassing” that peer out of wooden, boxy frames, and there, a bit of an old INCO sign that speaks to the mining company for which so many of our fathers and grandfathers worked. It made me think of my family history, on both sides. We often speak of how far Sudbury has come, and it has, and proudly so, but we can never forget that how much of what we are, city and soul, is rooted in the earth itself. Not all of us go underground to mine, but we all feel the ground when it shakes in a blast or rockburst.

“Livid Here” is a play on words, I imagine. Melissa, the staff member who stopped to chat with me this afternoon, explained it briefly. “Livid,” as in “lived here,” in Sudbury, in Northern Ontario, with organic works that seem to spring from some deep place of origin and birth. “Livid,” as in “I’m livid,” or “these things make me livid,” or “these things frustrate me.” Yes. Sudbury can be a place of great beauty, but it can also (at times) be a place of great frustration. People from away might only see a rough, rocky place, whereas people who live and create here artistically (in various artistic forms) would see the raw beauty underneath the surface. We’re all about mines, after all. It makes sense to me that some of us, as creatives, would be drawn to mining the metaphor of this place.

I would also say, today, after a frantic and divisive week in politics here in town, that I’m glad to hear of the funding that’s been given to offer the Art Gallery of Sudbury and the Greater Sudbury Public Library a new home in the downtown core. I think art and words go together. For me, it’s as natural as breathing, to put the two together, but that’s how I sense my way through the world. Always have. I’m hopeful, as a writer, that this bodes well for the arts in this town. We can’t forget the power of what art does–whether theatrical, visual, musical, or literary–within a community. I know people will always say we should fix a pothole, or make parking free in places where it isn’t, but the arts is about something bigger than just patching roads. The arts allow us to see something brighter and show us our human potential in creating things that lift us up. If we want to be more than ‘just a mining town,’ we need to invest in and support our artists. Without them, well, I can’t envision a place where I’d want to be.

I always think of one of my favourite Canadian poets, the late Bronwen Wallace, who used to say that she loved writing poetry because, for her, it revealed the extraordinary aspects that could be found in the ordinary rhythms of life. Yes. Oh, yes. That’s why I hope people can see the value of the arts in Greater Sudbury. Potholes, well, they will always be here. It’s a common, whining complaint, what with our northern winters and the frost heaving every spring, but the arts community isn’t about just filling holes. We need to have people realize that choosing to actively support the arts up here fills something much more crucial than a pothole. Supporting the arts creates culture and a vibrant place to live and work.

Now. If you’re looking for something to do in the next week, before this exhibition closes on July 9th, I’d suggest you pop over to the AGS and see “Livid Here.” Heather Topp is a brilliant Sudbury artist, and her creative contribution to our cultural history and atmosphere up here is beyond compare. You don’t want to miss this one. You’ll be kicking yourself if you do. Trust me. I may not have a fancy schmancy art degree, but I love art, and this show is one to see.

peace,
k.

This blog of mine offers me the space and place to reflect on how art weaves itself into my world, and how it intersects with poetry, literature, music, and memory, and offers me a heart’s anchor in my own life on a daily basis. Diane Schoemperlen’s essay, “One Thing Leads to Another,” centring on the art of collage, and dipping into the notion of how visual art and words go together so seamlessly, as beautifully and effortlessly as breathing even, is simply stunning. I’m sort of addicted to ekphrastic poetry, as most people who read my work (even this blog!) will know. I wrote ekphrastic poems before I even knew what they were all about. A bit daft, really, when I think back, but I should have known that I was drawn to visual art because I so desperately wanted to be an artist. (I still do, but that’s another story…and I’ve written about it all before, in one of my Bobcaygeon blogs from Christmas, so you can go digging through entries if you feel so compelled.)

For now, I find great joy in writing poems (and sometimes plays) that are inspired by the work of the artists I love. My favourites are Alex Colville, Georgia O’Keefe, Leonora Carrington, Mary Pratt, Emily Carr, Lawren Harris, Frida Kahlo, Nicola Slattery, John William Waterhouse (C’mon, “The Lady of Shalott?!” Love it!), William Turner, John Constable, alongside people like Whistler (I love his nocturnes), Hopper and Wyeth.  My deep love of First Nations, Metis and Inuit art, though, has its own roster of artists, including:  Leland Bell, James Simon, Kenojuak Ashevak (oh, her owls!), Daphne Odjig, Christi Belcourt, and Bill Reid.  The vibrant colours, beading, weaving, sculptures, and the stories behind all of these pieces speak to me in ways that other genres of art can’t.  I think, partially, that’s because I’m from up here, Northern Ontario.  It’s in me when I sit on the edge of Lake Nipissing on an early summer day, taking photos of rocks, my feet in water, surrounded by moss, ferns, and tall pines.  Landscape, for me, is ekphrastic, and this seems to only be intensifying as the year progresses.

Reading Schoemperlen’s essay today, I thought, “Oh, God. I hope to meet this woman some day. We would have a fine chat.” You see, I love how art can be tied to memory, and how photographs can string themselves together into a life’s memory, especially when people have gone on. Published by Grant Munroe, and as the inaugural publication for Woodbridge Farm Books of Kingsville, just outside of Windsor, this little chapbook is a joy to read and hold in your hands. The paper is textured and has a sense of presence, which is a big thing if you like to touch things, as I do. The most artfully elegant and thoughtfully poignant touch, though, is the red string that threads itself gracefully through the book, almost crossing its heart with a tiny knot between pages twelve and thirteen. The visual images that weave themselves into the text are lovely, too. This book is the kind of thing that you desperately want to read, but also don’t want to, because you know it will all be over too soon, and then you can only go and read it over and over again, late at night, wishing for more. That’s a good sign, I think, when you’re an avid reader. (I do this, too, with Gwendolyn MacEwen’s poems, or Neruda, or Rilke, or Yeats, or Heaney…when I can’t sleep. I usually end up with a book hitting me in the face and bouncing off a pillow or a nearby dog, but better a poetry book than an art book!)

What I love about Diane Schoemperlen’s work…is sort of endless. I’ve loved her writing for a long time. My favourite book is still, and probably always will be, Our Lady of the Lost and Found.  I remember reading it a while back and thinking of my Irish great aunts, The Kelly Girls. They used to gather late at night in the kitchen of the grand red brick house that my great-grandfather built, at 160 Kingsmount. I still remember one conversation about them being fascinated by any type of Marian mysteries (e.g. weeping statues, visitations, Lourdes and Fatima) and Medugorje when it first hit the news. I can’t remember how old I was, but I do remember that they were all sitting around that table, late at night, drinking their crappy instant coffee from badly crafted pottery mugs, their cigarettes billowing blue curls of smoke through the kitchen, and the conversation being heated.

Clare: “We should save up to go there. I’d like to see Our Lady. Imagine if she showed up while we were there?!” Maureen: “Wouldn’t you rather go to Ireland, see where the governess ran off with the gardener at Bunratty Castle? That’s family history! Or maybe visit the shrine at Knock?”  Clare: “Well, I mean, the sun dances in the sky at Medugorje. Wouldn’t we have a better chance of seeing Mary there?” Seriously. I think I remember it so vividly because it was so damn surreal. (I actually think Norah might have just left the room at some point with her mug of Ovaltine because I don’t recall her playing a big part in the conversation!)  🙂

They were devout Irish Catholic women. In their youth, they belonged to the so-called “Legion of Mary,” which seemed to me, when they talked about it in their last years, to be a bit of a cult, really. A bit over the top, if you ask me, but fun to listen in to them talking late at night, especially if they decided to spontaneously brew up Irish coffee with lots of Tullamore Dew. So, it was with that sort of cultural, familial background that I came to reading Schoemperlen’s Our Lady of the Lost and Found.  It was like entering into a hot bath full of lavender bath salts and Ivory soap.  That’s how much I love that book.  My childhood was lived in big old family houses that were liberally tagged with crucifixes over door frames, statues of Mary and Joseph stuffed into corners of book cases and china cabinets (where you would see them and try not to misbehave!) and spare plastic rosaries that were stuffed into bags in the top drawers of guest room dressers, in case anyone needed one in an emergency.   🙂

Reading this beautiful essay today, though, struck me. I love how Schoemperlen writes about photos, and finding them in odd places, and seeing how images can evoke memory, and how memory pulls at your heart and your mind. As a writer, that’s where I get a lot of stuff, really…mining family photos and old legends.  I have a friend and writing mentor who swears by it.  He always tells me, whenever I talk to him about my novel, “Kim, mine your family.  For God’s sake, most of them are dead, right? Perfect! Just write it!”  Yup. Rich material in there. Reading about Schoemperlen’s experience with Double Exposures, I thought of the photo that most haunts my imagination. It’s the one of my mum, being held by my great uncle, Brian Kelly, when he was home on leave from the war. My great-aunts, Clare, Maureen, and Norah, talked about how “your mum always had such a grand sense of balance,” and then showed me this photo, which has become iconic and mythic in my extended family.  It hangs in my little house, where I see it every day.

I’ve even written a poem, “Balancing Acts,” about it all, and how that house haunts me, and how she haunts me, even though I’ve forgotten how her voice sounded since she died, and how that in itself haunts me if I think too much about it…so I try not to.  My lost ones are like ghosts in my heart some days, but I’d rather have them there than nowhere at all.

Stylistically, I love echoes in poetic writing, whether it be in poems, plays, essays, or stories.  My friend, Sarah Gartshore, writes beautifully powerful plays about First Nations issues, and the thing that most draws me into her work is how she uses repetition and echoes to entrance her audience.  The lines that so beautifully do that here, in Schoemperlen’s “One Thing Leads to Another,” is the lovely little ripple of the title and of the line, “Please don’t ask me what it means.”  That struck me.  Yes.  When you have a busy, creative mind, and you’re intelligent, sometimes it’s hard to slow it all down.  You’re vaguely aware of how creativity works, I think, in how it comes upon you like a wave that moves up onto the shore of one of our Great Lakes, or how an ancient strand kisses the salt water of the Irish Sea in a rainstorm.  But, if you stop to sort it through in your head, well, it can be overwhelming.  Best to just let yourself go with it…at least for the first draft.  🙂

It’s a powerful force, creativity.  I very much like what Schoemperlen says about it, near the end of the piece, when she writes:  “I make these small collages to remember that creativity is an unlimited renewable resource, a joyful act of energy, adventure, and exploration…Create more, worry less.”  And then, finally, “Please don’t ask what it means.  I might say nothing at all.” I feel like that when I’m with friends who aren’t writers, or musicians, or painters, or actors.   My creative kindreds are the people I can most connect with, mostly because they get it.  They don’t need to have me explain how my mind works because, to them, well, their minds work in similar fashions. There’s comfort in that, finding your creative soul mates, even rooted here amidst the slag of Sudbury.

I’ve been dipping into Timothy Findley’s Inside Memory this week, in between trying to submit poems to literary journals, writing new scenes for my play, and marking culminating activities for my Grade 11s and 12s.  Tiff was my first writing mentor and I miss him.  So, when I miss him, and when I wish I could pick his brain, I pick up one of his books.  I can hear his voice in my head when I do that.  It centres me.  Roots me.  So, I found this little piece, which links to “One Thing Leads to Another.”  He writes, in his title essay, “It is a truth: a writer is a witness.  A witness of the present, a witness of the future, a witness of the past. Memory provides that witness with veracity.  Yes; even our memory of the future.”

In his essay, “Remembrance,” too, Tiff speaks of memory as ‘hope’ and ‘survival.’  I so love this.  I believe it.  It links to the notion that memory is rooted in personal experience, in the voices, scents, and touches of people you’ve loved and lost–whether through letting them go purposefully, or through them casting you off without a care, or through just drifting away from them in life, or by losing them through the finality of death; in the sounds of wind in the night trees; or rain on the roof in mid-June, on the night before Solstice; or in the geese that make themselves known when I walk at dawn on the edge of Lake Ramsey.  These are all pieces I could use in my own collage, I think.

So many people discount things that aren’t big, showy, and superficial.  So many people neglect to look beneath the surface, to see where the real beauty and light is at, if you want to search to find it.  What I love about this little chapbook from Woodbridge Farm Books is that it reminds you physically, intellectually, and spiritually of what really matters:  Schoemperlen’s story here is a personal narrative of an artistic process, an ode to creativity, and a metaphor for life itself. Her writing speaks to how images, memory, and the passage of time can all collage themselves into a beautiful essay. The piece can speak volumes to anyone who opens their heart wide enough to hear it.  (If you’re really lucky, and the rain has wooed you, you’ll have read the words with open heart, heard them, and then felt them resonate deeply in your body.  Good literature should move you, shake you, reshape you.  This piece does all of that, for me.  I quite like its poetic soul, too.)

When I go off writing, on my own, in the middle of nowhere, I always take a few key books with me.  I take Richard Wagamese’s Embers, and two or three of Mary Oliver’s books of poems or essays, a few plays to study, some Yeats and Heaney of course, and now I’ll add this one to my pile when I go to Pelee Island in August to try to finish two plays that I’m working on this summer.  It’s that good, this little chapbook.

One thing does lead to another…so that the literal stuff becomes metaphorical magic:  like daisies in a chain, or words in a line, or lines in a stanza, or images on a canvas mixed with words.  They palimpsest themselves after a while, all layers of language, visual images and memories, but that collage–rooted in heart and mind–is what makes a life vibrant and bright.

peace, friends.

k.

 

 

 

 

I’ve written about how yoga has changed my life before. This is likely redundant. If you don’t want to read it, do me a favour and just don’t. I’m at a place in my life, these days, when I think “Well, if I’m not for you, that’s okay. I’m for me, and that’s way more interesting on a soul growth level, anyway.” So. If yoga doesn’t interest you, or evolution of self doesn’t interest you, then…”Off you go!”, as my friend Pat often says at work. 🙂

Last year was my self-proclaimed “year of no fear.” I’ve written about it here on this blog before, so it won’t come as a shock of any sort. It may even have inspired another friend or two to follow in the wake of my chaotic evolution. This year is my continuation. A sequel, perhaps. 🙂

This year is about chrysalis making and breaking–coming to the edge of transformation, and then realizing that you don’t know who or what you are anymore. You might not even be the same person you were in November or December. That’s where I’m at now. It’s pretty intense, mostly because it’s hard to recognize the hallmarks of self that used to be solid anchors. They just aren’t there anymore. That’s exciting. It’s means I’ve evolved.

So. Yoga. It’s been in my life, on and off, for about nine years. I started into it while I was off work, on heavy anti-depressants, and taking care of my mum as she was dying back in 2008. I had gained so much weight, all because of Remeron. The medication was the thing that saved my life, but it also made me gain about seventy or eighty pounds within a very short span of time. After my parents died, Mum in 2008 and Dad in late 2011, I restructured my life and set about losing the antidepressant weight gain. I lost about fifty pounds between early 2012 and 2015. That was good, but then I stabilized and hit a plateau. It happens when you take weight loss carefully, without rushing. You just sort of know that’s the way it will be. If you want the fat to stay off, then you need to take it slowly.

Last year, after a plateau of a couple of years, despite regular Zumba sessions, I sort of rededicated myself to getting the rest of the Remeron weight off my frame. I was healthy, off excessive amounts of anti-anxiety and sleep meds, and knew the weight needed to come off. Both of my parents had issues with heart disease and diabetes. They didn’t eat well, they drank too much, and they didn’t exercise. They were, really, poor role models for good overall health. It’s not their fault, though, and I don’t ever blame them. They did the best they could, in so many ways. I guess I’m thankful because I learned from them, in watching them suffer from poor health choices throughout their lives. I know I don’t want that because I watched them suffer for their poor choices. Their endings, which were horrific really, were totally avoidable.

So, last year, I intensified my approach. Since then, I think I’ve lost about another twenty or thirty pounds. I’m guessing, though. I don’t weigh myself. I only know that I feel healthier and stronger. I went from a size 18 in 2011 to a size 14 in 2015/16, to a size 12/10 now. Numbers, in terms of weight, don’t impress me much. Feeling strong, and knowing I’m healthy, is more about what I’m interested in. I intend to live a very long time, so that I can write a whole lot of really cool stories and poems! 🙂

I won’t lie, though. Last week, I went through my closet and put together three garbage bags of donated clothes. I hate spending money on myself, which is silly. Today, I wore something that was too big and I thought, “Why are you doing this? You have hidden for much too long.” But I still like this little lacy blouse, so I keep it. By September, it’ll be much too big and I’ll move on to a smaller size. But, for now, it’s fine under a blue cardigan for work.

Last week, I found a skirt I used to wear to my twenty-something poetry readings. I loved this skirt. That’s why I’ve kept it all these years. It is pale blue, reminiscent of sky, really, with wonderful ivory daisies scattered all over it. (Daisies are my favourite flower, so there was no way I would ever give it away. I’ve been saving it for a reason). It’s a skirt I wore when I was 26, when I was still a girl really, and when I was deeply (and stupidly & painfully) in love with a boy from Nova Scotia. I kept that skirt. It’s beautiful.

Last week, I tried it on. It fits. This, for me, is magical. It’s not at all about going back in time. I’m fine with age and time’s passing. It’s all an illusion anyway. I like where I am in my life, having had really crappy experiences that have made me stronger. I look about ten years younger than I actually am, and this is mostly (I think) because I am so pale and because I’m happily content because I’ve entered into reading and writing more fully as a way of life. I’ve also avoided the sun forever…and I’ve never worn tons of thick makeup or foundation. Good skin runs in my mum’s family, so I’m lucky that way. So. The skirt fit. What does that mean?

For me, it’s kind of like Cinderella’s shoe. It means that, in my head, I’m finally in a place where I’m as physically healthy as I was about nineteen years ago. That’s an accomplishment. I’m proud of it. Really, it isn’t about weight loss, although that’s part of it. To be honest, it’s likely much more about evolution, and shedding of skin. It’s about moving into yourself, and finding that you’re really at home there, content and flourishing.

Tonight, at yoga class, I just about lost my mind with joy. My teacher, Willa, who has taught me on and off for about seven years, had us do hip openers. I always dread these poses because I have a staple in one of my hips, from a childhood surgery which really crippled me for a year or two. I am always fearful of whether or not my hip will ‘stick.’ (Don’t laugh, please. It actually happens. When it does happen, well, it’s like someone is stabbing me in the hip socket with a knife and I can’t move until it decides to let me go. Sometimes, if it happens and there isn’t something to grab on to, well, it can be nasty and make me stumble or fall into someone. So not attractive…)

Tonight in class, we did Warrior 1 Pose. I love the Warrior series of poses. Always have. I love how elegant they feel, when you’re doing them on your mat. You stretch everything out, and you bend over yourself with a fluidity that I haven’t found in regular everyday life moments of physicality. You root down into your feet, fire up your leg muscles, and find that you are much stronger, and much more graceful, than you have ever given yourself credit for. I also love the story behind the Warrior poses. It’s not a simple love story and, to be honest, which love stories are simple anyway? (They rarely go as smoothly as they ought to according to novels or films!) You can look it up elsewhere (and it’s worth looking up because it’s dramatic and poetic!), but it’s the story of a love affair between Lord Shiva and his bride, Sati. From this story, we get the Warrior series of poses. I love all of them, but Warrior 1 lights me up from the inside out.

Warrior 1 makes me feel strong, powerful, beautiful, and graceful, all at the same time. Tonight, moving through its ebb and flow on the mat, like a wave on an ocean, I just thought “Man, I love this!” You see, when I started taking yoga, I was very very ill. Major depressive disorder will do that to you. I remember that I went to yoga to save myself. Literally. I was dealing with suicidal ideation then, bound down by caring for someone I loved when I shouldn’t really have been doing nursing tasks on my own. I wasn’t qualified; I was just a teacher and a sometimes poet woman. To get a small break from care taking, I went to yoga class twice a week. I know it saved me, in so many ways. But now, as a truly healthy person, three years out of the darkness and grief, yoga is different.

Having lost weight again this year, I can now bend over myself differently. When your belly disappears, you have more space to move around. Sounds strange, but it’s absolutely true. Rather than yoga feeling like a life preserver, or a flutter board, something to hold my head up above water, it has become a celebratory sort of affair every time I practice, whether in the studio at class, or if I’m in my sunroom on my own, doing a series of sun salutations while the dogs peer at me from under their eyebrows.

I couldn’t stop smiling during class tonight. I likely frightened other people on the mats around me. I felt like I was twelve. Tree pose made me light up. I still recall first learning it, years ago when I was very depressed and anxious, and hating how I was too overweight to balance well on my feet. I didn’t feel balanced, and I really wasn’t well mentally or physically. It’s no wonder I could never find my centre…

It seemed clear to me, tonight, when the balance was almost faultless and as easy and simple as breathing, that I have managed to rise above so many awful things in the last nine years. This new tree pose of mine is just fine. It is strongly rooted in the grounding of my feet on the floor. I’m balanced now, I thought. It’s so lovely. It’s fine. As Willa says, though, “When I ask you how you’re doing, don’t tell me that you’re ‘fine.’ You see, ‘fine’ is the other ‘f word.” She’s right. “Fine” is too simple. “Content,” yes. “Certain,” yes. “Confident,” yes. And this, too, is due to her class, and to Zumba, and to walking, and to meditating, and to writing, and to knowing what it feels like to find that “Sea of Tranquility” within yourself.

The “Sea of Tranquility” is the spot where, when you put your hands into prayer position in front of your chest, you can rest your thumbs against your chest. You can feel your own heart beat. You are fully connected, soul to body. It’s intense. When you hear its name at first, you’ll likely think of the moon and one of its seas. I like this allusion because it’s poetic…and I’m a poet. 🙂 Still, the “Sea of Tranquility” is also an acupressure point at the centre of a person’s breastbone. When you press on it, with your thumbs, as when they are in prayer position in yoga, you can actually quiet any agitation and promote relaxation. Try it; it works. 🙂

Finally, friggin’ Pigeon Pose. Here’s the thing: I have always had a love-hate relationship with Pigeon. Bastard. I love the way Pigeon looks. I can do it on one side, but, because of the staple in my left hip, I can only do it properly on one side. So, for years now, I have only ever done Pigeon Pose while on my back. It’s not as amazing as doing it sitting up. It’s a modification. For the longest time, I hated that. I could hear the voice inside my head putting me down, “Look at you. You can’t do Pigeon Pose because you’re all crippled up in that hip of yours.” (Sometimes, the same thing happens with “Happy Baby” pose..but that’s another story!) Tonight, though, for the first time in years, I didn’t care. I had done Warrior 1 and Tree Pose with great grace and strength. Screw Pigeon Pose! The voice inside, the one that used to put me down all the time, has gone now. Some other person is here now, and she doesn’t follow the old patterns or listen to the old voices that just harassed and berated her when she was frustrated.

Yesterday, during an animal totem meditation circle at school, for my First Nations, Metis, and Inuit literature course, I came to know that the hedgehog is my (current) totem animal. It doesn’t matter that I’ve been seeing dragonflies and crows all week long. I had thought I’d see one of those in my meditation, but no, the hedgehog trundled into my mind. (I thought of Mrs. Tiggywinkle, whom I loved as a child. Beatrix Potter was one of my most favourite authors before I was ten.) So. Hedgehog. When I looked up its totem meaning, I learned that the hedgehog is all about healing and resurrection. It’s a small animal, but it’s strong. If it gets hurt, it pulls in and puts out its quills, in self-defense. (I know I do that, and I know it’s a way to protect myself and keep myself from being too vulnerable. I call it ‘turtling,’ though. If I’m unsure of someone, if they somehow have hurt me, whether intentionally or unintentionally, I just pull in. I can’t help it. That way, I think to myself, they can’t hurt me again. I’ll be less vulnerable and build up some walls again for safety’s sake. The hedgehog, though, is strong and true to itself. It represents intuition and being sure of what it feels. A lot of its qualities speak to me, so maybe I am best represented by a hedgehog these days, even though dragonflies and crows seem to be making themselves known, too.

All this to say that yoga still teaches me so many valuable lessons. Every Thursday night at 7, I find myself completely at ease, sitting on a mat on Cedar Street, listening to Willa say things like, “Put your thumbs up against The Sea of Tranquility,” and I smile to myself, nod, and think, “Yes. That’s where I’m at now. Finally. Finally!”

peace, friends.
k.

I’ve written about my friend Sarah’s plays before. I’m a big fan. I’m biased. May as well get that out of the way. She and I met two and a half years ago, when we were both members of Matt Heiti’s Playwrights’ Junction at the Sudbury Theatre Centre. At first, I just thought she was too cool to be my friend. She’s super smart, wise, talented, a stellar writer and actor, and she’s beautiful. I remember sitting next to her and thinking, “Oh, crap. I am so intimidated. She is so amazing, and she’s an actor on top of that.” In my mind, actors make the best playwrights because they know how things work. I was a newbie, taking lessons and notes from Sarah and Matt, as they were the most experienced in our little group. (This is not to say that our group was not good. We were. We just all came with less experience in the theatre world, and it really is its own unique entity. Actors seem more vibrant to me, somehow, and now that I have a few as friends, well, they beat teachers as friends hands down. They’re more willing to live in the moment, to embrace uncertainty. That appeals to me a great deal right now, which surprises me every day.)

I think I first heard parts of Survivance back in the fall of 2015, when we began to meet at STC on Monday nights. We each brought pieces of works-in-progress and workshopped them, something which I truly love about writing for the stage. It seems so much more interactive and collaborative than writing novels or poems or stories on your own. Playwrights and actors gather in living rooms, shuffle papers, and supportive and helpful actors read out parts so that they can hear nuances of voice and dialogue in order to do re-writes. It’s magical. I’m kind of addicted. (I think, too, that I’m blessed to have some actors as friends, because I still think they’re way too cool for me…they seem to walk through this world with magic cloaks or something…but I tend to romanticize way too many things, so it might just be that!)

Survivance is set at a protest gathering for missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. As the program says, “Indigenous storytellers will share their stories of worry, wonder, and what’s needed for their hearts to beat in a rhythm that feels right, feels forgiveness, feels humour, and ultimately feels hope for its oppressor’s future. The central voices are three generations of women who are grappling with the roles they will choose to play in this time of truth telling and reconciliation.” Beyond the description, Gartshore’s Survivance is a piece of theatre that will pull your heart out, squeeze it a bit uncomfortably, and then push it back into your chest cavity so that you leave the theatre space feeling a bit out of sorts. That’s good, I think, because theatre should make you think, should make you question your own views of current issues in Canadian society.

In Sarah Gartshore’s Survivance, Canada is a country that “breathes politeness and sweats smiles.” Questions of personal and cultural identity weave themselves throughout the piece, making audience members question their role in truth and reconciliation. (Is it just sitting and watching a play about residential schools, or the 60s Scoop, or alcohol addiction, or is it more about trying to find a place where you can listen to the truths of those who are survivors?  Sometimes, more often than not actually, listening is the best thing you can do in this life. You learn, from listening, and you allow other voices to enter into the conversation where space might not have been thoughtfully left before.)

I love Sarah’s use of language, mostly because I think she’s a brilliant poet at the heart of it all. Her monologues have hallmarks that are Gartshorian (if that’s even a word). She layers voices, incorporates repeated phrases, and creates a cacophony of sound and meaning that reflects the dissonance that mirrors Canada when it comes to the notion of truth and reconciliation. One narrative element that strings itself artfully through Survivance is her use of children’s songs to subvert meaning. Using common and familiar songs for kids, she changes the words so that the audience hears the sharp commentary with a ‘spoonful of sugar’ that reminds us that not all information about First Nations history should be tempered or made to seem less traumatic. It was traumatic, and it still is.

The monologue that Lois Apaquash gives voice to, in the piece about the 60s Scoop, is extremely powerful. She talks about needing to “pad and protect” her heart, absolutely aware of “what makes her heart beat,” even if it’s painful. In another part of the play, “Row row row your boat,” as it is sung by France Huot and Natalie Lalonde, turns itself inside out to speak about the issue of MMIW and poses the poignant question, “What would the grandmothers do?” Then there is the character played by Lanna Moon, the woman who carries a box with the names of all the missing and murdered indigenous women in it, names that are “a part of the whole.” Bill Sanders, in his work here, uses voice and a sense of stage presence to create monologues that are subtle and have nuances of voice. There isn’t a place in any of these monologues or sections where the audience isn’t moved, I don’t think.

There are no weak parts to this play. Yes, I’m biased. Sarah’s a friend, and a dear one at that. But I also know that I can see the work she’s put into the structure of Survivance. In the short time I’ve known her, she has never rushed through a play to get it to the stage. She isn’t full of ego. She has a purpose, and she’s aware of that, I think, when she writes her plays. She is one of the best writers I know, in any genre, simply because she keeps her wits about her and doesn’t let anything go to her head. She serves her work in a pure and steadfast way. Sarah knows that the wolf paw prints dancing within her soul will lead her forward with her work, and her bright light will help others come to her important work for the stage. She is the stone that causes a tiny ripple, reaching outwards and changing lives in small, steady ways.

What you’re left with, when Survivance is over, is a play that leaves an aftertaste that speaks to the concepts of the stereotypes and misunderstandings that have madly blossomed into things that are far more devious, like racism. In Gartshore’s work, “the point is to open a mind, change a mind,” even if it doesn’t always happen that way. She is, as she herself writes in the play, a “keeper of the story.”

Do yourself a favour: when Debwewin (“Truth”) comes to the Sudbury Theatre Centre, as part of Shkagamik-Kwe’s National Aboriginal Day celebration, go and see it as a pairing to Survivance. That’s happening at the Sudbury Theatre Centre on June 21st and shouldn’t be missed. There just isn’t time for avoidance anymore, and there certainly isn’t time for pretending that “we’ll all be okay” if we avoid talking to one another.

We all need to hear the truth of things, in the ache of the words offered by survivors of the residential schools, to those little children who were taken by government agents in the 60s Scoop and who lost full families because of it all. Those stories, the hardest to hear, are the most important ones to write down and tell over and over again. This is why the elders are so important in First Nations culture, and this is why the grandmothers hold a place of honour and respect. They are ‘story keepers,’ ones who pass down the stories to other generations.

What I hope is that plays like Survivance will result in more and more people hearing about the truths from the past, and that people from across Canada can spend time questioning what they think they know about First Nations, Metis, and Inuit cultures and history. Questions, you see, are some of the things that make us think, even when we don’t really want to.

These questions may not have answers, but at least they’re being posed and this is another way Gartshore trademarks her dramatic work.  She wants, I think, for her audience to consider the visceral power of a heart beating, and the compassion that lives inside people, and the possibility for positive change that we can initiate.

So, friends, let your heart beat.  Follow where it leads you and then see what you learn.

peace,
k

I’ve been doing a lot of letting go lately. It might be the hardest work I’ve done so far in life. Part of it, a lot of it really, is about going back to places that have been important to me here in Northern Ontario. One of those places, a place I hadn’t been to since 2004, was my family’s old camp out on the West Arm of Lake Nipissing.

I was out in Noelville this afternoon, to meet with Melanie Gleason’s Grade 12 English class at Ecole secondaire de la Riviere-des-Francais. It’s a small school in a small town, and the class only has three students. That’s the smallest class I’ve visited since I began with my laureate work last April. I drove down Highway 69 and cut in towards Alban and Noelville. Then I spent a really amazing hour with the class.

I love meeting with kids and talking about poetry and art, and how I wish I could be a visual artist. So I’m basically an artistically frustrated poet who wishes she could paint, too. (Can’t be greedy, I guess…so I’ll just keep haunting galleries and writing poems about art. It’s the only thing that tends to take the edge off sometimes.)

Afterwards, I continued on Highway 64, moving from Noelville and across to Monetville, Lavigne, out to Verner and Highway 17. It was a road I’d traveled hundreds of times in my teen years and into my twenties. My paternal grandparents bought a tiny little fishing camp on the West Arm back in the 1940s, when they moved north from Southwestern Ontario to Sudbury. My tall Germanic grandfather was a great wood worker, so he made a sign that named the place, “The Knotty Pine,” because it was surrounded by the most gorgeous stand of pines. So, today after visiting the students in Noelville, I decided to drive back on that long highway. I was nervous. They say you can’t go back in your life, and I know you can’t. I expected it would be hard. It was.

When I think back to my ‘under 10’ years, I remember going there to fish. Gramp would pull out the big wooden fishing boat that he’d made himself, in a Viking sort of style, and we would go out into the Narrows. We never went as far as the ‘big water,’ but I didn’t care. My favourite bay was just around the point of land beyond the camp. I could walk up the steep hill by myself, clambering over big pink rocks covered with lichen and topped with pines, and then through a gully of tall ferns, finally coming to the edge of a rock wall that overlooked the bay of lily pads. I loved that view. I loved it even more when my grandfather would take me there in the boat, steering it between the lilies slowly so that I could lean out and reach out to pick one or two lilies take back to the camp to float in old vintage bowls. Sometimes, I remember he grabbed a hold of the back of my shirt so I could lean out further from the boat to get at the blooms. Those images, those visuals, are still in my head and heart.

We spent most weekends there as I was growing up and, after my grandparents died, my parents tended to use it more often. Summers were glorious. You could sit out on the dock under blue-black skies and see constellations that weren’t visible at home in Sudbury because of the light pollution. I liked nothing better than, late at night, splaying myself out on that dock like a starfish, just watching for the Perseids in August, or seeing the dark shadow of a bat winging its way across the Narrows to the tree line on the island. (For the longest time, I stupidly thought those were birds, but then someone told me that birds don’t fly at night…and that sort of freaked me out because encounters with bats are never really lovely ones.) My favourite time of year on the West Arm was always fall. Everything turned gold and red, and the greens of the pines were there, too. The scent of the earth, though, is something that is so particular to that place.

Driving through those tiny towns, I recalled long walks, long games of cribbage while sitting with Dad at the table my grandfather had built, the knots of the wood clearly visible in its surface. Then there were the fish fry outings, and the times when Dad played Santa at Shanty Bay for the local kids. I also recalled the weekend parties I had there in my twenties, with friends, and how we would swim across the Narrows with beer bottles in our hands, and then perch on a ledge of rock that sat just under the surface of the water. It felt as if you were hovering magically above the lake. I loved that, especially if you swam across at sunset, or dusk. It felt like you were swimming into a painting, really…

Then I remembered reading books on the dock, and taking walks down the highway to a little waterside picnic area to write on my own. Mum always worried too much about us as kids, so Stacy and I mostly went together, but later I would just go on my own and write poems perched on the big rocks that reminded me of the backs of whales. I imagined what it would be like to ride a whale. I remember writing somewhere that they were like ‘bones of the earth,’ poking up at odd staggered angles and covered with reddened pine needles and lichen. (You always needed to watch the pine needles because you could slip so easily, even if you thought you had a grip on the rough rock and were wearing good running shoes.)

Today, I tried to find the entrance to the camp road that had snaked around a big rock, but it had disappeared. I guess the people who bought the camp from us in 2004, after Mum’s heart attack, built a new road, so I couldn’t find the entrance. I did go up that new road, but it felt wrong, mostly because it was a new road and I didn’t recognize its bends and curls anymore. I drove back out onto the highway and then could see where the old road had sort of folded into itself over the last twelve years. It hurt, to see it almost erased, so I knew I couldn’t have gone down that new road. I did try, though, but it felt like I wasn’t supposed to manage it. It felt like the woods were saying, “No…your time here is done.”

I thought, because I’m too stubborn sometimes, inside my own head: “Oh, I’ll just drive down there, explain who I am and why I’m here…” But then I thought about it some more. It wouldn’t do to go down that new road to the camp because it wouldn’t be the place I remembered. The people who bought it from us were more affluent than my parents, so they renovated it and made it more like a house than a camp. I remember they sent us photos. It was beautiful, but I knew it bothered Dad because he could see what the place would have been like if he’d had money to renovate it. That lack of money in his life must’ve bothered him because he only looked at those photos once after the place first sold. He had never really wanted to sell it, I don’t think, but he did because he had been very ill, and then Mum was so ill so soon afterwards. The dreams they had had for retirement didn’t work out as planned, so keeping the camp might have been more painful for them, to see how their physical issues would have prevented them from visiting it or enjoying it as much as they had previously. It was sad, going down that last day with Dad, to pass over the keys, back in 2004. It broke his heart, and it broke my heart to see his heart breaking.

So, when I couldn’t make myself go down that new camp road, I knew I still wanted to go and sit by the edge of Lake Nipissing. I went down to the old picnic spot. It was deserted, which is my favourite kind of time to sit in the woods. You can just find yourself a rock near the water, dip your feet into the lake, and have a good think about things. I brought some tobacco, to offer up in thanks, and I thought about how grateful I am these days, to have come so far in terms of my own health and well being. I am thankful for being able to write, and for loving it so. Sitting there for about an hour, I took deep breaths. You can almost taste the pine when you breathe there. The earth has its own particular “West Arm Narrows” kind of scent, and just smelling that again made me get a bit emotional. I closed my eyes and went through more memories:

Clare and Maureen in the camp kitchen, wearing crazy Tilley hats; Gail and Cathy doing puzzles on the home made coffee table in front of the picture window; Terry and David fishing off the rock just beyond the dock; Joanne and Mike picking pine cones to take home to Mississauga to make craft Christmas trees for vestibule tables; Stacy sitting bundled in a big coat in the fall, on the dock, in one of the old green metal chairs; Mum with a cigarette and book in her hand, a beer beside her, ‘getting some sun.’

Maybe the reason I didn’t want to go down that road was because every memory I have of that place, while so beautiful, is full of people who have gone on now. What was once a big Irish Catholic family is now very small. There are so many people whose voices I miss, and there are so many who loved me unconditionally. They always greeted me with open arms, gathering me in, offering a hug, and kissing me on the cheek in welcome. My mum’s family was magic, really. I guess that’s why I feel their loss even more deeply with every day that passes.

Two of my life’s saddest memories come from that place. It was there, on the edge of that beautiful lake, that we gathered to say goodbye to two of my uncles, Terry and Peter. They died too young. Their deaths seemed to start a series of other deaths in the family and people slipped away from me before I even had time to say goodbye. Those two days, in two different years, well, there was Irish whiskey involved, and a number of stories, and laughter, and tears. If I still had access to that place, I’d bring some of Mum and Dad’s ashes there, too, because they loved it so.

Sitting on that picnic area rock, I closed my eyes. There it was: the telltale whisper in the branches of trees, the wind courting them in a sensual way; the feeling of lichen under my fingers as I sat on that grand bank of pink rock; the bunch of pine needles that I gathered up into my palm; the water on my bare feet as I put tobacco into the water to pray. Then, well, the notion that I’ve been thinking about letting go lately. I don’t belong in certain places anymore, and that can be uncomfortable, knowing that you are walking between worlds. I don’t resonate with certain people or places anymore, and that means that change isn’t just coming…it’s already here.

I let go of the memory of the little girl who was too afraid of her own shadow, who was corralled into a life of fear by overprotective parents. I let go of still more grief, because it seems to sit deeply with me, at my core. I thanked my parents, and I forgave them, for many things, big and small. I let go of my own doubt and fear of stepping into a new life, and what that might mean for me in the next year. It might mean, I know, moving somewhere else for a while to write, to see how the writing shifts, and to see how I shift and evolve. It might mean leaving people I know well and trusting that there are others out there whom I’m meant to meet. I let go of the novel, confident that it’s a good little story on its own, and began to realize that, by letting it go, I can open up more space for new ideas and projects. I let go of past loves, some of whom weren’t really that kind to me, and I felt more space open up inside of me for hope. I let go of the notion that I thought I knew where I would be going in the field of education, whether into Guidance or Administration. I let go of that plan, knowing that the writing is playing a more significant role in my life these days than formal teaching. Then I let the pieces of birch bark drop from me, each slip a memory of the past.

They say you can’t go back. You can’t. I know that. I maybe ought to have known better. The camp road turned me back towards the highway, not allowing me to go back in time. The picnic rocks near that other bay, well, they offered me a spot to sit in the sun and I realized that Nipissing is part of me. All of those people who’ve died, whom I loved and now miss, well, they’re part of me, too. It’s my grandmother who nudges me to write letters and cards, to be sure I’m thankful and that I thank people properly, with thought and intention. She’s the one I’m most like, and she’s the one I miss the most, after Dad, because she raised me in so many ways, and showed me how to live life through love, not fear.

So, no. You can’t go back. If you want to, if you feel compelled to, that’s just fear talking–a semblance of ‘what was’ that just doesn’t resonate anymore. Offering up that tobacco to the water this afternoon, casting off those old fears and memories all on my own in the middle of nowhere, with memories dancing up all around me, means that I’m letting go to make space for what’s new. It’s exciting, opening up new space inside. The story seems more magical than I could ever have imagined…and I’m wondering how it will continue…a story that looks more to the future instead of to the past.

peace,
k.

All of the news about Frood-Stobie Mine closing has made me think back a bit in my life. My first boyfriend lived in an apartment that was on the top floor of a house on Turner Avenue, just off Notre Dame Avenue. You could see the head frame of Frood-Stobie from his driveway, so I remember a number of really lovely kisses in that driveway, with the headframe looming in the distance. It’s an odd image, but it’s there in my memory…so Frood-Stobie has been in my life, I guess, since my early twenties.

When I saw the clips online last night, of current and retired miners gathered under a rental tent on the mine’s property, and heard interviews with VALE spokespeople, I thought back to those days of my (too) young (and really stupid) love, but I also thought about the history of this city. Regardless of how much people may want to forget it, this city is built on the mining industry.

Yes, it has diversified itself in terms of industry, and we have an amazing university and two colleges. We have a vibrant arts community, which I love being part of, and we have a medical school and a school of architecture. Sometimes, though, I think we need to remind ourselves of how hard our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents worked to build this place. Underneath it all, underneath our feet, really, men toiled and lost their lives. Some may not have lost their lives in mining accidents, but instead have ended up with chronic lung issues. How many of us know of retired miners who have struggled with cancer or COPD? You can’t work underground and not be affected by air quality, especially when you look back historically at how the mines worked prior to health and safety legislation. I still remember my paternal grandfather’s cough, which was wedged deep in his chest. He worked at the mines, and my dad worked in the copper refinery out in Copper Cliff until I was about eight. Then he left, “retired” I remember he called it, but he wouldn’t have been retiring in his late forties. He left and started his own business, and while he mostly worked above ground while at INCO, he talked about going underground. I was little, so it’s all a blur now, and he’s gone so I can’t ask him. I can mostly remember the early morning shifts when he was up cooking eggs and bacon in the kitchen at ungodly hours before going off to work, and I remember him talking about a strike once.

My grandmother’s father owned one of the stores in Creighton, so I grew up seeing old photos of that place, with black rocks scattered around. I remember, too, being in elementary school and having the teacher ask the class which kids had fathers who worked in the mines. Everyone raised their hands. Everyone in that elementary school classroom had a dad with one of those old silver box lunch pails that they used as a makeshift seat at break or lunch. Everyone knew what it felt like to feel the earth shake and wonder if it was just a blast, or if it was something worse. You don’t grow up in a northern mining town and not have a sense that it’s a dangerous thing, to be a miner deep underground. There’s a reason why these brave men have always had bonuses. There’s a reason why it was called ‘danger pay.’

Stobie started as an open pit mine back in 1880, but the underground mine was built in 1914. It’s an old mine. It’s historic. It’s funny, but I always see the headframes around town as markers, reminders of what we live on top of, and of what’s been sacrificed over the years. One thing that has been sacrificed is life, and too often it’s to do with the loss of lives of our young men.

I know I’ve written about Jordan Fram before, but he’s been on my mind yesterday and today. I taught him early on in my teaching career. He was feisty, friendly, smart, and funny. His friends loved him. He was well liked by teachers at St. Charles College. He made the classroom interesting. Anyone who’s taught teenage boys, especially when you’re a new teacher, knows that they can be challenging, but now that I’m teaching at an all-girls’ school, well, I do miss the boys.

When he died on June 8, 2011, I remember feeling like someone had kicked me in the stomach. He was the first student I’d ever taught who died. He was 26. I still shake my head when I think of his death, and the way in which he lost his life. I still think of his family, even though I don’t know them, and they don’t know me personally. I still think of him, especially when I walk down on the boardwalk in the mornings and see the little bench named in his memory. I still feel my heart ache when I pass that bench while walking the dogs. No one should die in a mine at 26. No one. VALE was fined heavily, as the company should have been, but no amount of money paid to a family can bring back someone who should still be alive. That’s the long and short of it.

So, while I know people are feeling sad about Frood-Stobie Mine closing, because it’s a part of Sudbury’s strong mining history, I just can’t stop thinking of Jordan’s mischievous grin in an English class I must’ve taught back in 2001 or 2002, at the beginning of my career in education. I think of that boy, who was so full of life and spirit. And I think that we can’t forget him, or Jason Chenier, who also lost his life that day. Six years have passed quickly, but I can imagine all of this news about Frood-Stobie closing has brought up a number of memories for Jordan and Jason’s families. I’m thinking of them this week, knowing that this can’t be an easy time of year. Anniversaries of losses never are, and dates become markers of things that you both do, and sometimes don’t, want to remember.

I’ll remember Jordan for as long as I live. I’ll also remember another dear student of mine, Deidre Urso, who died at 27 years old in a snow machine accident two years ago. They don’t disappear after they graduate and then grow up, these children I’ve taught over the last sixteen years. They were children who grew up, but who didn’t have enough time to be adults, and that is what I grieve for.

So I guess I’m asking that you not forget Jordan. He deserves to be remembered. Closing a mine doesn’t mean that he’ll be forgotten. He’s too bright of a spirit for that. His soul still shines. I know it. I can feel it. We do, though, need to be sure mining companies are held accountable for what happens underneath our feet. These are our young men and women, going down deep into places a lot of us wouldn’t even want to go. Holding mining companies accountable doesn’t bring miners back, but it might serve to make mines safer for those who choose to continue to go down and dig. We need to be mindful of that…and we need to not forget the tragedies of our mining history.

In the meantime, though, and for as long as I live, I’ll choose to remember the bright eyed boy who often joked with me and made me laugh during lessons that were meant to be serious and important. I’ll remember him. And I’ll send him love and light, across the universe, always wishing him well. Bless.

peace,
k.

Sometimes your life stops you cold, makes you re-think where you’re at, who you’re with, and where you’re headed. This past year, I’ve been blessed to have listened to teachings from three Ojibway elders in large group sessions. In the fall, I listened to elder Art Petahtegoose’s teachings, and yesterday I met and listened to the teachings shared by Julie and Frank Ozawagosh with our Grade 11 students. We travelled to Killarney and the Killarney-Shebanoning Outdoor Environmental Education Centre as part of our Grade 11 First Nations, Metis and Inuit literature course. We wanted to have our students meet elders, so they could understand the cultural context for the literature we’ve been studying this year. We also wanted them to learn more about women’s role as Water Keepers, in a place that is surrounded by beauty and water.

When I learn from elders, I always feel so grateful that they are sharing their wisdom with me. I’m not Indigenous, but I teach about Indigenous writers and literature, and First Nations issues, in my course. What I love most is that these teachings are so rooted in story. My earliest memories of books, and of reading, are of my mum reading to me before bed. I always saw my parents reading during their free time. Neither had university degrees, but both of them valued education and literature. My parents weren’t wealthy people, but they always made sure that we got books as presents for our birthdays or at Christmas. It fuelled my love of reading, and of writing. I wouldn’t be a writer if it wasn’t for my maternal grandmother, who gave me my first lined notebook to write poems and stories in, or for my parents, who bought me books when I was very young. My great-aunts and uncles were story tellers of the highest order; they were Irish, so I suppose that was to be expected. So, when I listen to elders teach, I am pulled in by the cadence of voices, the ebb and flow of a story’s pacing, and the place (usually near the end of the story) where you learn the core of the teaching.

If you sit with elders, you need to listen carefully. When they share teachings, you need to slow down inside yourself. It doesn’t matter if your dog is really sick, or if you have a stack of marking, or a bear is sort of stalking your neighbourhood…you need to put that stuff aside and listen. Here’s the thing…people aren’t good at listening these days. In common conversation, I find, when I’m sitting with friends, I often find people love to jostle one another for floor space. I’d rather sit and listen, to be honest. I learn more that way. “Active listening” is something we talk about in the field of education. I see fewer and fewer people able to sit quietly in another person’s presence…unless they’re both on their cell phones. People are afraid to really connect. So much of life is conducted via electronic devices, even in terms of dating, that there is a lack of depth. Personally, I love thought provoking and stimulating conversations with one or two people, but I also love that deep peace that comes from sitting with someone who just knows it’s okay to be quiet and breathe. That’s a perfect evening, if you ask me…conversation and then just silence with one or two who are near and dear to my heart. 🙂

Julie’s teachings struck me. I always think, over the last year or so in particular, that I’ve been in places, in spaces, with people who seem to resonate with me. Whether you call it ‘serendipity,’ or ‘providence,’ or ‘fate,’ or ‘magic,’ I’ve been noticing that I’m meeting people who are teaching me big lessons. Julie spoke about the role of women as Water Keepers. The natural (biological) link is that women are the ones who bear and then have children, and that children grow within wombs, and that there is water there, in the womb. From before birth, then, we are all tied to water, symbolically and in an even more necessary, literal sense that speaks to physical survival. (I’m a fan of the metaphor and symbol of it all, though, as a poet. It appeals to the romantic and poetic soul in me.) As a woman who hasn’t had children, I can understand how that formed me, in my mother’s womb, but I can’t relate to it as someone who hasn’t been pregnant. I see my mothering happening in different ways, but I wrote about that in an earlier blog post this year, so you can search it out if you feel so inclined.

Her talk of water, though, made me think of how much I love the Great Lakes. I love all lakes, to be honest, and I go all weak at the knees if you put me on a shoreline with pebbles. I’m even worse, naturally, if you stick me next to an ocean. I’m lost, then. (If someone wanted something from me…money or whatever…they would only ever have to take me to a shoreline and let me listen to, and feel, the water.  The experience of being next to water melts my heart and I lose my mind and logic completely.) What I liked about the teaching of women as Water Keepers is that women mind the water, including the times when people need to speak out about pollution and the destruction of the environment. We spoke of how you can “go to the water” when you need help in balancing. Boy, do I need help in balancing. It’s part of why I walk by water every morning at dawn. It centres and calms me, being near water, in a way that nothing else can.

I’m a workaholic, I think. Well, no. I know I am. I can’t sit still. I don’t sleep well. My mind is always busy, thinking, and sometimes worrying. There’s less worrying now that I’m healthy after so many years of having been ill with depression, but now my mind is busy with new ideas and questions. I struggle to find balance between work and writing and life. I have a few very good friends who know me well, and I socialize with them. I’m mindful of my time, space and privacy. I guard it fervently. Otherwise, how would I have time to read and write? (I sometimes think that’s why the best writers marry writers, or why teachers tend to be with teachers…because they know the demands of the work they’re doing. Others, well, others just can’t imagine how much time goes into writing. It’s a vocation for a reason. You need someone who would get that sometimes days and nights just disappear into the computer screen or notebook page…who is confident enough to know that’s okay.)

Julie spoke about how women tend to take on too many things, and have difficulty with balancing parts of life. Yup. I go full steam ahead with things until I crash. Then, well, my physical body stops me completely, usually two or three times a year, with bouts of bronchitis or sinus infections. Charming. I know. 🙂 Then she spoke about how women are best at giving, and not receiving. A bell went off in my head. I was supposed to hear that yesterday morning. I am a gem at giving to friends. I love giving thoughtful, symbolic gifts. I’m known for baking bread and then dropping it off at a friend’s front door, or I’ll do random drive bys where I drop daisies off for friends I’m worried about, or I’ll just buy copies of a book I love and then gift them to people I think might need to read it. I give beautifully. Receiving, well, I’m not so good with that.  I’m working on it. For me, that part takes time because it involves trust.

My favourite First Nations artist is Leland Bell. I have loved his work since I was little. I remember going out to the university and seeing the beautiful mural outside of the Fraser Auditorium. It ignited my love of visual art, and of First Nations artists. So, a couple of years after my dad died, I found a tiny canvas at Sudbury Paint and Custom Framing that was one of Bell’s originals. When I asked Jane Cameron, the owner, what the title was, she said, “Oh, it’s called ‘Receiving.'” I remember I actually laughed out loud. She tilted her head. “What?” I shook mine. “Oh, I’m supposed to buy this one…I need to learn how to receive…mostly because I think it means I need to pull down walls and let myself be vulnerable.” She nodded (because I’m there so often getting art framed that she knows me), wrapped it in brown paper, and I left with it. I look at it every day, as a reminder to just be open to receiving, in whatever way it comes to me…inspiration, words, stories, love, thoughts…anything is fair game.

Julie also spoke about how we need to recognize that, as women, we take on too much to make others happy. Again, so much of a message for me. Up until about three years ago, I tried to please everyone. Now, well, I do what I know is best for me because I’m on my own and I need to look out for me first. Before, I took care of everyone else…which was detrimental to my own well being on so many levels. She said, “Listen, there are people who are what I call ‘cling ons.’ They only want things from you, and they don’t offer you anything in return, or they aren’t equally paired to you. You need to watch out for these people.” The gist of the conversation was that, sometimes, even when it hurts, you need to let people go…whether they are blood relatives, or friends, or people you may have even been in love with at one point. If they are only taking from you, in terms of energy, then they aren’t helping you to flourish or grow your life. Sometimes you need to let jobs go, cities go, and grief go…even if that hurts. That resonated, too. (It also reminded me of my favourite Billy Collins poem, “Forgetfulness,” which I love so very much.)

Letting go of things is hard. I still struggle to let go of grief. I hate that I’ve lost so many people I’ve loved. Most of them have gone because of their deaths, but some just left without reason or understanding. Those are the ones who wounded most. I used to try to figure it out, but as Julie said yesterday, sometimes you just need to let things go, and let the mystery be, knowing that the Creator will sort it out for you. We can’t always know the ‘why’ of things, even if our heads are busy trying to figure it out. And, here’s the thing again: what she was saying, what I heard from the teaching, was that the heart is so much more important than the head. You need to trust your heart over your head, and let go of trying to control it all. You can’t, so why even bother.

The ironic thing is that I thought I was doing well in terms of my career and life plans, in letting myself trust the Universe/Creator/God, but I wasn’t. I was holding on too tightly to a whole lot of things: memories of love, all variations and shadings, all of it mostly lost and gone now, shadowed and pale; labels which I gave myself and which now don’t fit anymore; a life path I thought I had figured out, but which is quickly shifting with each passing day, and a sense that I knew very clearly and firmly what I was all about. It’s also been about learning how to let go when I finish a major writing project. Now that my novel is done, well, there’s grief there. Letting go of that, when it’s been a part of my life for a couple of years, is harder than I imagined.  Right now, it’s teaching me my hardest lesson, that little novel of mine.  What Julie and Frank taught me yesterday is that there is power in letting go, in recognizing that admitting you are confused or struggling with your own path also means that you are freeing yourself in some way. Whew. Big lessons.

As Julie said near the end of our time together, “Every day is a ceremony.” Yes. I’m there, and I have been for a number of months. Mindfulness, even when I can’t quite figure out the daily stuff of my life’s path, has brought me certainty that I can’t find anywhere else. There’s no looking for it outside of yourself, I know. Being uncomfortable, because you’re evolving, means that you’re awake. This is not a bad thing. Being aware of what behaviour you are wiling to accept, and what behaviour you are not willing to accept, means that you can discern which people are best for you, and which ones have your best interests at heart. If they love you, on any level, and you love them back, on any level, then there’s a clarity there.

I”m drawn to fire more and more these days, both literally and symbolically. I spent Christmas with the dogs down in Bobcaygeon, writing and working away at projects. Then I was there again for March Break. The fireplace there had me entranced. I was wondering why, since December, I’ve been drawn to the image and symbol of fire. I think I’ve figured it out. Julie spoke about how we all have a ‘fire’ inside of us. We need to light it, stoke it, feed it, and keep it going. It’s ours to mind. Maybe, just maybe, I’ve finally figured out that I have a fire and that minding it is key to my own evolution. “When your fire is out of balance, you will feel sick.” Yes. Your fire needs tending all the time. Your purpose on the planet needs to be embodied. As soon as you figure that out, when you begin to step into yourself, the process seems to get a bit easier.  I also, sometimes, think that I love fire because of the phoenix image that it conjures for me.  My life has been one of reinvention in recent years, from flame to ash, to embers rising again, maybe even catching on a bit of pine somewhere in a metaphorical way, in my being.

Yesterday, after their teachings, we each got some tobacco to take out as an offering to the Creator, and to the spirit of the land. I thought of my fire, my days of ceremony, and how I am learning to let go of the heaviest parts of my life’s existence so far. And then I thought of how I need to learn to receive, so I offered tobacco at the base of a birch tree, in a little grove, thanking God for all of the very difficult lessons that my life has taught me thus far. I wouldn’t give any of them back, even though each one broke my heart a million different times.

This morning, on our 8 km walk up to Granite Ridge in Killarney Provincial Park, I thought again, looking out beyond that ridge of pink granite and out over acres and acres of trees, of how small we are. We fiddle with things that don’t matter. We stay where we shouldn’t stay. We hang on longer than we ought to, punishing ourselves for having hearts that beat and feel. We forget what it’s really all about.

So, on the way back down that ridge, I stopped, found a beautiful old tree with bark that peeled itself open, vulnerable, and put my hand on its trunk. There was a lot of energy there. Letting go isn’t easy, but sometimes it’s just the only way forward, even when you walk alone. Letting go means receiving, even when you can’t imagine it does…but you know you need to trust.

So…here’s to knowing your fire, owning it, and then to letting go and receiving. The big lesson: It’s a bit like breathing, in and out, this whole letting go and receiving thing…one needs to depart before the other can arrive.  Maybe that’s why I’m mourning the end of my novel, but I’m shifting this emotion, deeply, so that its departure just makes space for another story to tell, when the time is right.

peace,
k.