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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

peace,

k.

 

My friend, Charlie…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

peace,

k.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

footselfie.jpgLong Lake.

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Lake Nepahwin.

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

peace,

k.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

peace, friends.

k.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The beauty of Bonvista, Nfld on an evening walk…

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

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

peace,

k.

 

I’d heard about Elliston, Newfoundland before I came to this province, but it was mostly because of my love of puffins. I have had a mad love affair with puffins since I first saw them, in Witless Bay, back in the summer of 2006. I loved how they zipped around, flying high and then dipping down low into the water. They flap their little wings over 300 times in a minute. If they stopped, they would fall from the sky. When I was last here, thirteen years ago now, I bought a pair of puffin mitts. I’ve worn them religiously since then, over so many winters. I walk outside a lot, and, like every other Northerner, I shovel snow a lot, so I’ve worn holes in them over and over again. My friend Karen’s mum, Helen, has kindly darned them for me more than a few times, but my main goal when I came here this time was to get a new pair of puffin mitts. I have, but they aren’t the same. They feel different, in shape and size. And then, yesterday in Trinity, I came upon a different style of puffin mitt again. So. Yup. I’m coming home with two pairs of puffin mitts for myself. It doesn’t mean, though, that I’ll only come back to Newfoundland again only after they’ve worn out and through. I’m kind of crushing out on this place, especially when I think of places to come every year or so to take time to write.

This time around, I’m visiting Newfoundland for two and a half weeks. Last time, I didn’t spend much time in the province, and I couldn’t really get a sense of how it ‘felt.’ (I’m a bit of a ‘feeler’ when it comes to both landscapes and people….so….) This time around, I’ve been out here to launch These Wings, a book of poems I’ve published with Pedlar Press, based in St. John’s, and run by Beth Follett and Monica Kidd. I was honoured to read with St. John’s former poet laureate, Agnes Walsh (whose book Oderin is one I really, really love), and with Monica herself, who’s just published her latest book of poems, Chance Encounters with Wild Animals, at Broken Books. Then, the night after that, we were joined by another St. John’s author, Sara Tilley. We had a Pedlar Press Salon at Monica’s house and spent a couple of hours reading excerpts of our plays and discussing the differences in genres. I found it fascinating, to be with two really amazing writers, and to be able to listen to their experiences. It energizes me to no end.

You can listen to recordings of these two evenings at Monica’s website, Curiaudio: Songs for Curious Girls:

https://www.curiaudio.com/

While I’m in places, I try to read literature written by authors who live (or who have lived) in that area. This trip is no different, so I made sure to read Sara Tilley’s novel, Duke, which I loved for its stylistic innovation, as well as its sense of place and character. Elliston is mentioned a lot in that novel, because that is where Sara’s family is from. I like that she’s written about her family history, as I keep trying to do that in novel form. (Whether or not anyone else will want to read my novel…I’m not sure…) Coming up the Bonavista Peninsula on Friday, I passed Elliston, but I purposefully ended up there yesterday morning.

I was up a bit later than normal, having battled a middle-of-the-night migraine and my regular insomnia, so I wrote from about 8:30 until 11:30. The time disappeared on me yesterday morning, which is always a good sign. I’m working on a longer poetic sequence, something about self-discovery and the metaphor of sea change. Shocker. I won’t reveal the title because I’m hoping to submit it to a contest or two, so you never want to jinx such a thing with the revelation of a title.

Around noon yesterday, I set out to see Elliston. I went straight down to the sealers’ memorial. Back home, we have a miners’ memorial, which I think is really quite beautiful. I always walk down in Bell Park in the early mornings with my youngest dog, Gully, so he and I often end up there, in amidst the birches. What I love about that memorial is that it is beautiful and bittersweet, as well as tragic. The sealers’ memorial in Elliston is beautiful, too. There’s a single grey stone wall, with the names of the men who died, along with the men who survived. I’ll try to briefly tell you about that tragedy here, but I’m not an expert.

You walk out to the sealers’ memorial, and the sea–on a day such as yesterday–reminds you of how treacherous it can be. It was damp and cold, and very windy. As I stood looking at the names of the men who were lost on the ice, two older Newfoundland gentlemen were talking quietly to one another. Then one of them looked over at me. He smiled, saw I was pretty much holding myself together against the wind, with my hair all over the place, and said, “Pretty cold out here today, isn’t it, my girl?” We exchanged a bit of conversation about the weather, but then he saw me looking at the names. I was eavesdropping, to be honest. He and his friend were talking about a man who had died alongside his two sons. His name was Thomas Jordan, and he was 50. His two sons were Bernard and Henry, who were 18 and 22. His brother, Stephen, just 43 at the time of the disaster, though, managed to survived. They were talking about how hard that would have been, to have felt guilty for surviving.  As we stood there, the man started talking to me about the disaster and, as usual, I just started asking questions. (I’m pretty curious generally, so I always chat up people when I want to know something.)

The men from the SS Newfoundland went out on the ice in March 30, 1914 to hunt seals. Their ship soon became stuck in ice. The 132 men were on the ice for a couple of days, but were caught in a fierce blizzard and only 55 survived. Not far away, the SS Southern Cross was returning to Newfoundland from the Gulf of St. Lawrence, a ship full of seal pelts after a successful hunt. That ship sunk and all 173 men died.  One side of the memorial lists all of the crew of the sunken ship, the SS Southern Cross. The other side lists the victims and survivors of the SS Newfoundland tragedy. They share the memorial wall because both ships were caught up in that same fierce blizzard.

To be honest, this is a very good little National Film Board documentary that tells of the tragedy in animated form. It uses excerpts of interviews with some of the 55 survivors, and it’s much more effective than me just writing about it. Michael Crummey, the noted Newfoundland novelist, wrote this so you’ll know it’s good work. You can read his blog about why he chose to take on such a challenging task here, on the National Film Board site:

https://blog.nfb.ca/blog/2014/03/26/54-hours-crummey/

If you have about 15 minutes, now you can get yourself a cup of tea and watch 54 Hours. It’ll make you sad, so I’ll warn you of that…because the whole story made me sad yesterday in Elliston.

https://youtu.be/S-XAoGcWLNk

The monument gave me chills, and it wasn’t because of the weather. The names and ages of the men who died, and the communities they lived in, are all listed there. Their bodies were retrieved from the ice and they were all taken back to their home communities, and buried in various graveyards along the coast. I thought of that again today as I was driving down towards New Bonaventure, passing tiny graveyards, wondering which graves belonged to those lost men. On the list of survivors, the eldest man was 71, while the youngest, a boy of 14 who was a stowaway, was lucky enough to live. On the list of the dead, of the victims, the oldest man who perished was only 56, and the youngest boy who died was 15. They had names, and ages, and families. They had wives, mothers and fathers, and children of their own. A large number, though, were very young men, in their teens and early twenties.

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The statue that stands beyond the memorial wall is unbelievably sad, especially on a day when the weather was extremely windy and often cloudy, and while icebergs hovered in the background. Morgan MacDonald’s statue shows a father and son, Reuben and Albert John Crewe, who perished together on the ice in March 1914. The statue is based on the way the two were found, frozen to the ice, holding one another. To see it…well…it’s beyond moving.

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Afterwards, I went up to Home from the Sea, the John C. Crosbie Sealers Interpretation Centre. There’s a detailed and thorough exhibition up in the building on the hill that lets you know a lot about Newfoundland history, and sealing history in particular.

To be honest, and I have an undergraduate degree with a minor in History, I am well aware of the costs that the people of Newfoundland have paid over the years. Theirs is a history of trial, of survival, and of flourishing. Beaumont-Hamel and the Battle of the Somme in 1916 is something kids know about through the Grade 10 History class that’s mandatory in Ontario. I don’t remember the story of this particular disaster, though, and I felt angry about that yesterday. I don’t like only knowing parts of our country’s history. I want to know as much as I can, and I want to know the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ parts, too. That’s what learning is about, if you ask me…

I know about Joey Smallwood and Confederation, and how can you not know about 1949 if you grew up here, in Canada? But there are so many gaps in curriculum, not the least of which is the First Nations, Metis, and Inuit peoples’ history. There’s a whole history of sealing with the Inuit that is fascinating and important, too. One of the most important documentaries I’ve seen in the last couple of years is one every Canadian should watch, and that’s the CBC documentary, Angry Inuk. It’s an important film to watch, too, when we speak about the history of sealing in what we now call ‘Canada.’

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I thought about the harp seal mug I used to have when I was in my late teens. It was something I knew nothing about, the sealing industry. It had a picture of a cute harp seal on it and, on the back, there was a paragraph that basically said that sealing was a horrible thing. It was a Greenpeace mug, or something. I knew nothing of the historical context of the sealing industry, over time and centuries, in either Indigenous or Newfoundland history. I remember being here in 2006 and there were t-shirts that a local company had made that basically attacked Paul McCartney and Heather Mills’s stance on the seal trade and Newfoundland. They were best-sellers, those t-shirts. I remember that. I also remember buying one that said “Free Nfld.” Still have it. Love it dearly.

It’s funny how it took me forever to learn about the sealing industry, and most of it was due to my teaching a Grade 11 First Nations, Metis, and Inuit literature course a couple of years ago. As I tried to learn new information, and to gather resources to teach kids about the importance of the sealing industry and Inuit culture, I taught myself stuff I hadn’t been taught in elementary or secondary school. There are so many gaps in traditional curriculum, and so many voices that need to be listened to, and heard, and allowed to speak. The story of the Newfoundland sealing disaster of 1914 is just one of those (likely) thousands of fascinating stories.

Now, please don’t send me nasty emails about how I don’t understand sealing and how brutal it is. I want to say that I love Newfoundland, and that I love the tenacity of the Newfoundlanders, and how their history speaks to survival, and how they flourish, and are so welcoming to those who visit. I have never felt so welcomed as I have these last two weeks. I’m grateful for that. I know I’ll be back to write. For me, it’s a magic place.

But I understand now why you’ll often see the pink, white, and green flag of Newfoundland flying more often on people’s properties across the province than the Canadian flag. They may have joined Confederation in 1949, but this is a distinct culture, and a storied people.

I want to say that the people of Elliston are lovely. The man in the craft shop, when I bought a book by a Newfoundland author, said to me, after I paid, “Thank you for supporting our shop, and our town.” Then, he shook my hand. I also want to thank those people out here who take such good care of the sealing monument. It’s so beautifully done.

And…a note of thanks to those people who put up with solitary tourists from Ontario who might ask odd questions. You are all so kind to point out the way to the puffin site, and who have put up roadside signs that say “Follow the puffin!”, and who then follow that sign up a half kilometre later with another sign that shows a puffin waving at you and saying, so encouragingly,  “Almost there!”

But I do want to say that, if you’re headed out to Newfoundland, and if you don’t know Newfoundland history, then a visit to the sealers’ monument in Elliston is far and beyond what any teacher could teach in a classroom. Don’t stay stuck in St. John’s, but get out a bit. It’s a massive province, this one is, and I have a dream to do Gros Mourne someday soon…but not on my own. That would be too lonely, I think. I’ll see. It’s on my list…

peace,

k.

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the value of art and the creative process. I’ve entered into it completely this past year, so that it’s the thing I orbit around every day. It’s my centre now, whereas before it might’ve just always been something I sort of worked into my days and nights. Now, it’s my centre–my North Star and my touchstone. I suppose, when you immerse yourself in something so deeply, it shouldn’t shock you that art moves you even more deeply than you’d ever thought possible.

On Sunday night, I listened to the Windsor Symphony Orchestra play excerpts of pieces that summoned up images of spring, but also of birds. For me, birds are important symbols. My current book of poems is called These Wings, and my last one was called Some Other Sky. I’m drawn to trees, lakes, seas, birds, and the sky. My first full play was titled Sparrows Over Slag, and my current one — which debuts tomorrow night at PlaySmelter at the Sudbury Theatre Centre — is titled Letters to the Man in the Moon. Yeah. I’m aware of how it’s working, these images and metaphors, these symbols and motifs, these philosophical and heartfelt anchors of soul. There were thunderbirds tonight, too, in Sarah Gartshore’s play, Remains, and that had me swept up all over again.

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Playwrights Sarah Gartshore and Garrett Carr.

Tonight, I first listened to Garrett Carr’s debut play, Shots, which focused on how the Pulse Nightclub shootings in Florida affected people who live here in Sudbury. I’m not a fan of verbatim theatre, to be honest. I often find it choppy in its structure and it doesn’t seem to grab at my heart as deeply as I’d like it to. Carr’s play, though, was powerful in the way he’d crafted its structure. The choral section in the middle, a piece that reflected on the gun laws (or the lack thereof) in America, was absolutely crushing. The final part, where the music juxtaposed itself with the reading out of the names of victims, along with their ages, made me shiver. What that work did tonight, for me, was to remind me that–at the core of it all–we need to remember that it really is all about our humanity. It shouldn’t matter about gender, race, gender preference, or physical ability. It should matter that we are all human, that we are all someone’s daughters or sons, and that we can all play a role in making this world a better place. Shots makes me long to hear more from this new young Northern Ontario playwright. He’s created a play that is timely, and which speaks to questions of social activism. As the playwright character within the play says, and I am paraphrasing of course, what else is there to do when you are faced with such a tragic event, but to just do something. I was left thinking, at the end of Shots, that the very act of creating something — which is what we do as playwrights — is an act of resistance, of protest, of activism, and also of deep hope and compassion.

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Matt Heiti discusses Shots with local playwright, Garrett Carr.

Then, one of my closest friends took on a key role in acting in her newest play, Remains, alongside Matt Heiti.  Sarah Gartshore’s newest play is part of “Project Uncle,” which is an initiative of Shkagamik-Kwe Health Centre. At the root of it, there is the question of how First Nations men are crucial to the health and well-being of their own communities. The play follows the story of Dust and Bone, two brothers. Dust is the younger one, and Bone is the elder one, someone who often ventures away to bigger cities. Both have secrets, but when Dust discovers what hell Bone has been through as a child, he struggles with the implications of that long hidden (and lately revealed) secret.

The pacing of the play is artful, with the darker, heavier scenes and conversations between the two brothers being balanced with excerpts of live music, courtesy of Lisa Marie Naponse. (The music is meant to be symbolic of a radio playing in Bone’s car.) There are funny parts. There is great love, even in the darker bits. You get a real sense of community, of family connections, and of how love really does gather people together, even after pieces of families have broken apart.

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Sarah Gartshore & Matt Heiti as Dust and Bone in Gartshore’s play, Remains, alongside local musician Lisa Marie Naponse.

What struck me, sitting there, was that we can drift from certain people we once loved, but then find ourselves with others who seem to step in. We create new families. We are mindful that time passes. Someone grows up and marries, while another doesn’t. Still, the bonds between siblings, between brothers in this case, can push and pull at the same time. Nothing is simple, and everything is tenuous and elastic. To have conveyed all of this in a short play is, in my mind, nothing short of brilliant.

Now. I will admit that Sarah is the person I consider my dearest friend. I met her in Fall 2015, when we were in Matt Heiti’s Playwrights’ Junction program at the Sudbury Theatre Centre. I remember, when I first sat at the long table with her, alongside other people I didn’t know at all, that I thought she was too cool for me. She was smart, funny, kind, and so present in the room. I wasn’t a popular kid in high school, but she struck me as being a bright light. I thought “Oh, this person is an actor and a playwright. She’s so far beyond me.” But, you know, she never made me feel that, and I soon realized that was just my own weird head playing games with me. Instead, we became fast friends.

I don’t see a lot of people socially, because I’m often writing on my own, but she’s one I do see on a fairly regular basis. We seem to have a shorthand kind of communication when we sit together. And we can crack each other up, which is always a good thing in my mind. Beyond that, she’s become someone I can trust to read my plays. I don’t share my plays with many people. There are about three I can think of, sitting here right now, and they are mostly playwrights who will be able to give me feedback on structure and dialogue. (I never did an MFA in Creative Writing, so I’m sort of self-taught in the genre. I buy and read a lot of plays, mostly Canadian but not always…and mostly by women, but not always.) Anyway, she reads every one of my plays, and a lot of my other stuff as well. Mostly that’s because I trust her sense of style, and the fact that she and I share a sort of sensibility about what plays can do, in causing ripples beyond the stage.

So. I was all fine until the end of the play, which was really rough and heartbreaking. I started to get a bit weepy, but recovered. (I mostly cry at home or in my car, on my own, but I don’t cry in public. When I do, well, I rush off like Cinderella.) Mostly, if theatre or music affects me emotionally, I’ll lose track of my hands in my lap. I’ll forget my physical body. I’m sure, if someone were to really watch me during a play or concert, they might see my soul lift up out of my body. I know this because I can sort of feel it happening when I’m in the presence of something artistically beautiful. My heart still beats when this happens, but it’s almost like I need to wake myself from my heart outwards, to pull myself back into my body, so that I can walk through a theatre to get to the car outside and then drive home safely. Yeah. I know…it’s weird.

What got me, though, was the short film that played after the play itself. It showed a group of musicians gathering together to work out the lyrics of the song that Sarah had written. The words made me start to weep. The stories at the core of Remains are about what First Nations men have had to go through over the years. There are, as was said tonight, some ‘good uncles’ and some ‘not so good uncles.’ The thing that hit me, though, is that all of this pain is due to–and descended from–colonization. It’s about the residential schools that Christian churches used to inflict torture on children. What got me tonight, and it gets me every time I hear these truths, is that so much damage has been done to families who have had loved ones in residential schools. This is what it means to have intergenerational trauma.

As Angela Recollet, the Executive Director of Shkagamik-Kwe Health Centre, said so beautifully, and I’m paraphrasing again, “women forgot how to be warriors, and some men forgot how to be healthy men.” It made me think of how much damage has been done in this country, and how it doesn’t just affect the person who was forced to go to residential school. The damage ripples, is passed down through families, generations, and communities. It’s beginning to be healed, but Gartshore’s Remains asks us to consider ‘at what cost?’

It also made me think about how ‘toxic masculinity’ is so much a part of this western culture now, too, and how that is something that is worth weeping for, as well. The gender roles we grew up with–just from my point of view as someone who is in now in her late 40s–are so dysfunctional. That we seem to be more aware of this now, as adults, is good. It isn’t easy, though, to break down social expectations around gender.

Men have culturally and traditionally been encouraged not to cry or express themselves openly, and I have met at least one or two in the last few years who have actually said out loud that they cannot express themselves clearly in terms of emotion, and that they have purposefully stopped themselves from crying. The few men I have met who do cry, and who openly say they do, are rare indeed. That they do, though, is hopeful, and speaks to the notion of how the present might help to heal the future. This was underscored in Garrett Carr’s play tonight, too…that idea that we get caught up in social labels, homophobia, racism, sexism, and deep pain. I feel that pretty viscerally, I learned tonight.

What struck me, in watching the short film that Sarah put together after the play, was that she is pure magic in the way she can work alongside other artists, in the way she can pull together people from different groups in society. She walks between worlds, this friend of mine. She is able to encourage people around her to take creative and personal risks, to be brave and courageous, and she always makes it clear that she wants every person’s voice to be heard. Sarah, even when I worked with her when she was directing The Vagina Monologues in February, is so mindful of how others are feeling. As a close friend, one of the things that makes me both smile and get weepy is when I get a text on my phone from Sarah that reads, “D’ahling, how are you feeeeeeeeling?!?” She is the only friend in my life who regularly takes me out of my damned cerebral head and puts me fully into my body. When I get caught up in a decision or dilemma, she is the only one who has ever figured out that I need to be reminded to let my body tell me what I actually think, from the inside out. “How are you feeeeelllliingggg?” is something she says in person, and then it’s usually accompanied by a laugh and a big hug. She never asks me “What do you think?” mostly because she knows I tend to think too much, I imagine.

That she can transmute this gift–making a person feel valued–also reminds them that they are their own best truth teller. Then, she takes that magic of hers and uses it to create a creative community in this town. She creates theatrical work that makes people question their place in society, makes them cast off complacency, and take up the mantle of positive social activism. You know, this is such a rare talent…to write, to direct, to act, and to transform. This is likely what made me weep so much: the pain of men who have lost themselves, their identity, their families, their lives, and the notion that this strong female playwright friend of mine can help them to reclaim it in the work she’s written for the stage. Yes. I think that’s it. If you can shine a light on something sad, if you can ‘rumble’ with your own demons and past, facing things that are hard to face in the light of day, then maybe you can begin to heal.

One of Sarah’s characters speaks of an uncle who has recently died. The uncle used to say to Dust and Bone, the two brothers, “Share your burden.” Yes. Here is the thing. If we can only trust one another to share our burdens, I sort of think the world might be an easier place to be. Pulling in, staying in our heads and not in our hearts, is what will be damning for humans. If we’re honest and vulnerable with one another, with how we’re feeling, and with telling our truths and our own very personal stories, then I sort of think that we can change the world from the inside out. I know. I’m a poet and a playwright. I’m a star-watcher and a song-singer. These things are not always valued these days, in this space and place, but sometimes you don’t have a choice…but to be in your body, in your truth, and in your heart.

This, I guess, when I really sit and think about it, is why I so love writing plays. They take such a lot of heart, and head, and really hard, hard work, but when you see and hear them acted out on a stage, even in their simplest forms, they can cause you to feel things so deeply. You never stay the same after you’ve read a poem, or a story, or experienced a play on a stage. This…is why art is so important: it moves people to tears and then shifts hearts and minds. Such a ripple!

If you’re around tomorrow, well, there are still two more plays to go. My play, Letters to the Man in the Moon, is about a little girl who loses her dad in a mining accident. It’s about a lot more than that, but you’ll only see that if you come along to the Sudbury Theatre Centre at 6pm. Then, at 8pm, my friend Matt Heiti is debuting his new play, Aviatrix, which focuses on Amelia Earhart’s final, fated flight. Tickets are just $12 a play. Really, it’s a good Friday night out in Sudbury if you like theatre. You can check out the website for Pat the Dog Theatre Creation, and PlaySmelter New Work Theatre Festival, at http://www.playsmelter.ca

peace,

k.

 

I’ve been meaning to go and see these two exhibits for a couple of weeks, but life has been a bit hectic lately. This afternoon, though, I had the pleasure of seeing both Elizabeth Holmes: Thinking About Loss and Ron Langin: terrain. These are two very different exhibits, by two very well-established and respected Sudbury area artists. Both exhibits are on until Sunday, April 21st.

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As Gallery 1 was a bit busy, I headed up to see Ron Langin’s exhibit first. Langin has been exhibiting his work in Sudbury since 1992. There are four different terrains that you journey through in this exhibit, from the Red Rock Coulee Natural Area of Alberta, to the mountains, to the prairies, and finally to the impressive hoodoos of Alberta’s badlands.

As I walked through the exhibit, I was taken by the beautiful colours and the way in which Langin chose to document and creatively interpret his travels through Alberta and British Columbia in 2017. The mountain paintings are my favourite, mostly because I recall the first time I saw the Rockies when I went out to write at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity in April 2016. They were breathtaking. If ever you need to sort yourself out, in any way, the best thing you can do is head to an ocean (either west to British Columbia, or east to Nova Scotia or Newfoundland) or go into the Rockies. Sometimes, you just need to feel how big something else is, so that you realize you’re small. It puts everything in perspective. Standing in amidst Langin’s paintings, I kept thinking of what it had been like, the first time I’d come to them, to see the Rockies out the windshield of a car, on that highway from Calgary to Banff. It was, for me, life changing.

I loved Langin’s mountain paintings most because even the way they are framed reminded me of the view out the car window I was in when I first went to Banff. And, again last March, while reading out in Calgary at Pages Bookstore in Kensington, my poet friend Emily Ursuliak and I went up to Banff for a day. It was, as it had been two years before, just as beautiful. Walking along that wall of paintings this afternoon, it felt as if I could recall those two trips. It brought me back to a place in time where I met very dear writing friends whom I’ve stayed close with since 2016. The same can’t be said of other friends I’ve met from other retreats, but those Banff friends are dear to me in ways I can’t quite explain. They’ve stuck with me, while others haven’t as much. Maybe it’s Banff, or the magic of certain spaces, or just timing. Whatever it is, this afternoon’s visit to the gallery made me think of all of them, and made my heart glad.

Heading downstairs again, I spent time with Elizabeth Holmes’s Thinking About Loss. I love the notion of layering images, so to spend time looking through a gallery with a number of beautiful collages was lovely. My favourite pieces are the ones to the right of the main door, the ones that highlight the beauty of old, worn down and much loved books. One, a mended prayer book with its spine taped, with images of Jesus and Mary on opposite covers, especially drew me in. So much of it spoke to me of memories I have of my maternal grandmother. She used to have little prayer books like these, tucked into the top drawer of her bedside table in the old house on Wembley Drive. I kept thinking: Who used this prayer book? Who used it so often that it fell apart? What was their life like? What trials did they struggle with, the very things that led them to the comfort offered by the ritual of prayer? I can imagine them heading off to church, to say a rosary or light a candle, offering up prayers to God. It reminded me of my grandmother, that one.

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Walking around the gallery, so many layered pieces spoke to me. There were collages with bits of envelopes, tickets from concerts, pieces of handwritten letters and burnt paper, stamps, and even imprints of leaves. Holmes uses layers of gesso wash and thin papers applied over the surfaces of images, suggesting the passage of time. All things, Holmes seems to be saying to the viewer, decay. All things wear down. As humans, we age and fall prey to illness and frailty. The detritus of our societies, too, seems to speak to this. We leave fragments behind. There is a sort of patina there, too, though, and I kept thinking of a sort of layered ambering that seems to take place as we get older, as we gain more experiences in our lives. What Holmes does, in this exhibit, is suggest that our own individual lives are woven things. What seems solid and sure is not often so for very long. A decade can bring a number of changes to a person, to a relationship, to a life. She gathers together the fragments, searching out the bits and pieces that seem to document our lives, and then places them carefully and insightfully into tapestries of image that speak imaginatively to the way in which we live our lives. Her works are haunting. They nudge at you, ask you to imagine how loss works in your own life, and how you shed your skin as you grow and change over the years. To not evolve would be sad. To be aware of these evolutions of self, well, it brings mindfulness, of time past, of people and of love and loss, and of the value we place on one another as we journey.

Time passes, she seems to say to you through her work. To pretend it doesn’t is silly. To gather up bits and pieces of your own life, to catalogue it, to document your life, is a way to witness a life. I think I do this with my writing, and I can look back on earlier books of poems to see how I’ve evolved, and how the people I’ve loved have come and gone, for various reasons. There comes a place, I was thinking as I stood there quietly, where you recognize that time is fleeting, and that you need to be sure you are content, that you have a path, that you are able to be inside yourself as you go, mindful of others and creating.

Leaving the gallery, I wandered into the tiny gift shop. If you’re a member, you get a discount. I fell in love with this little Sudbury water tower pencil case made by local artist, Sydney Rose. I didn’t really need it, but it’s an iconic image of my hometown, so I bought it. One water tower has already been taken down, but the other still stands perched on the Lloyd Street hill. (It’s the famous one that’s made national news, with the “Skoden” tag, but I still always think of how pretty it seemed to me as a little girl, how it was painted light blue and how it seemed to almost bloom from the rocks. It felt, to me, as obvious and certain as the Super Stack or the slag dump, in terms of how I defined ‘home’ inside my own head and heart. It kind of still is, in a weird way.)

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Sydney Rose’s Sudbury water tower pencil case is available for purchase at the Art Gallery of Sudbury.

So. This is blog is, too, a way for me to say that there are a few copies of my new book of poems, These Wings, at the Art Gallery of Sudbury. You can purchase them there, for $20 each, but they’ll also be available at a couple of other places around town.

And…this blog entry is also a way for me to say that, if you’re around next Thursday night, April 25th, the Art Gallery is having its annual gala fundraising event. It’s dear to my heart, this art gallery of ours. I volunteered there as an undergraduate in my early 20s, when it was still directly affiliated with Laurentian University. I actually met my first boyfriend through an art history class at Laurentian, and I have fond memories of time spent with him in that gallery space, looking at art. Then, I worked there for a while in my late 20s, after I finished my graduate degree in Ottawa and came home to find work. It’s the place where I had an encounter with Mrs. Bell’s ghost (whether or not people believe me doesn’t matter…) and it’s embedded in my heart.

You can buy tickets to the big gala, Party Art Tres Chic, at the gallery. They’re $65 if you’re not a member, but $55 if you are a member. (One more reason to become a member, eh?) You can call the gallery at 705-675-4871 for more information. Who doesn’t want to spend a night at the mansion, though, if you’re in town? It’s a night to celebrate art, fashion, and culture. That, for me, is more of what Sudbury needs…

Just be sure, friends, to pop in to the Art Gallery of Sudbury before next week rolls around. Do yourself the favour of experiencing the Langin and Holmes exhibits. They’ll settle into your heart and shift your soul. They’ll make you believe that spring is almost here…and that time is to be cherished and honoured.

peace,

k.

 

The first time I met Monique Legault was at a Sudbury Arts Council meeting in October 2017. She had been commissioned to paint one of my poems, which, oddly, had been commissioned by the Arts Council for that past summer’s Mayor’s Celebration of the Arts awards. I had heard of this whole thing before, a sort of ekphrastic initiative whereby a painter is present at a concert, but never one who would paint as (and after!) I read my poem to the gathered Arts Council members. I was, to be honest, a wee bit nervous. I shouldn’t have been, though. When she turned the canvas around at the end of the meeting, I nearly wept. Her work was beautiful. Her eyes sparkled. We hugged. And we’ve been friends ever since.

Last year, while I was in Kingsville, Monique messaged me and asked if she could paint one of the photos that I post on a daily basis on Instagram. She had been moved by the one I’d taken in spring, in early April, while I was out hiking on Point Pelee, along the marsh boardwalks there. It had reeds and lily pads, and the light was beautiful. (On my dying day, I’ll remember that view, that beauty.) So I said yes.

When I was home in Sudbury for the staged reading of my play, Sparrows Over Slag, in May 2018, she and I met and talked about a collaborative project. She proposed that she would paint my photos, and then I got to thinking that I would also write poems to go with them. We would, we decided, create little triptychs. We started off small, with only about four in our heads, but as I got a bit better at taking photos while hiking, we shifted to seven. Through the fall, we batted ideas and notions back and forth via email and Facebook messenger. When I was home again in early November for Wordstock, our literary festival, she and I met again, sitting perched on chairs at the back of her beautiful little gallery and studio on Elgin Street.

The result of this new friendship (which just started as a collaboration, really) was our collaborative exhibition, “Tracing Our Wild Spaces: photos, poems, paintings,” which ran from January 23-March 8 at the Fromagerie on Elgin Street. Our launch date was amazing, and my friend Sean Barrette offered to sing a few songs, which added a bit of ambience. I read the poems while Monique highlighted the paintings. We never, ever expected to sell four of the seven triptychs on that opening evening. It was snowy–a snowstorm really–so it was amazing to see a packed house. Further, it was amazing that my friend Gisele, whom I’ve known for over twenty years, decided to buy the one of my boots on a Killarney ridge hike. That one is dear to me because my friend Brad Blackwell, who is the coordinator of the Sudbury Catholic District School Board’s outdoor education program, let me borrow those big rubber boots on a very muddy day when we were hiking with kids in October 2017.  It was Brad, and my friend Jen Geddes, who helped me to love being outdoors in the last few years. As I’ve lost weight and gotten healthier, stronger, those two have been like little angels, guiding me along, teaching me to trust myself, and knowing, somehow, that I’d bloom because of being out in nature. I can’t even begin to explain how hiking has changed the way I write and see things in my head…

The title of the exhibit, “Tracing Our Wild Spaces,” comes from something I read in one of Robert Macfarlane’s books, The Wild Places. Macfarlane’s work is important to me, and it reflects so much of what I believe in, in terms of how I create my work, from walking, hiking, and canoeing through natural landscapes. What he has done, in raising awareness of the environment, and in terms of encouraging people to preserve and maintain wild areas around the world, is so important. He’s a sort of ‘light worker,’ in my mind and heart. He is a bit of light, as a writer and thinker, and then he’s the stone that’s thrown into the pond, a catalyst that causes a ripple of change to move outwards. Too, though, the title speaks to how I see women in the world, and how we have creative and wild spaces within ourselves. I’ve found my wild spaces by being outside in nature, so it’s all woven, all interconnected, in my mind and heart. So many of the poems in my new book, These Wings (Pedlar Press), are about how I’m woven into landscape, and how it’s woven itself into me and transformed my world view.

So: the show is over at Fromo, but there are still three triptychs for sale at Monique’s gallery on Elgin Street. Her gallery and studio is long and narrow, and full of beautiful things that she’s made. The triptychs will find their homes there for now, so if you didn’t get to see them, or didn’t get to read the poems, then you can drop in to say hello to Monique and see them. They’re still for sale, too. They’re one-of-a-kind pieces, and whoever buys them will have unique pieces. (We’ll likely do another collaborative project…because we work well together…but for now, I’m just enjoying the wonder of having my photos shown in public for the first time, and I’m also proud of the poems I wrote to go along with them. Beyond that, though, I’m constantly amazed by the beauty of my friend’s paintings. She is truly gifted.)

All of this collaborative creative work…feels rich and diverse to me. It feeds me, fills me up, and makes me more creative inside. I can’t thank Monique enough for being open to working collaboratively with me. She’s a bright light, and someone who has begun to teach me how to learn to value my work, in terms of assigning it a monetary value. That’s new to me. She’s a good guide. More than that, though, I have a new friend whom I love…so I feel blessed.

Here are the images that are still up for sale, in case you’re curious, and in case you feel like you might want to think about buying one. 🙂

IMG_2971.jpgThe Colchester tree photo and poem is dear to me because I took this photo while I was lost down near Harrow. (Well, maybe ‘exploring’ is a better way to say it!) I was in love with the Victorian house that stood on the opposite side of the road, and had pulled over to just moon over its architectural beauty, but then I turned my head to look out the passenger window and saw this. It looked like something out of one of Tennyson’s poems. I love his Arthurian pieces, and “The Lady of Shalott” is one of my favourites, so I could imagine her in her boat, like the Waterhouse painting I love, and I took the photo. It was such a moody, eerie day in early spring. I wasn’t used to not having snow in March, so I was quite taken by it all, the romance of it.

IMG_2970.jpgThis photo was taken during that same fall hike in Killarney. I was standing off on my own, away from the crush of giggling students, just wanting to take in the beauty of the view. From here, you can look out over Collins Inlet and see the shape of Manitoulin Island in the distance. It feels ancient, especially if you let it into your bones, into your soul. I remember standing there, and the clouds were shifting in the sky above me, and the sun came out in a bright beam. It made me catch my breath. That’s really how beautiful it was, how brilliantly it pierced my heart. The reflection of the beam, in the puddle of last night’s rain…well…it was a poem before it wrote itself.

IMG_2972.jpgAnd…for a switch…and so you can see Monique’s beautiful work…here is her painting of my Point Pelee marsh photo. If you go to her studio/gallery, you can see the original photo and the accompanying poem. Dawn walks at Point Pelee are something I miss a lot these days. Thinking of it, writing this, makes me get emotional. I want to cry because there’s a smell to the earth there, to the marsh, and to the lake, that I love. It’s the one place where I feel absolutely myself. I hardly ever want to share those walks with anyone, and only two friends have walked with me there in the last three years, since the first time my friend Dawn took me in August 2016 when I was down writing in Kingsville. So…this Point Pelee triptych pulls at me…body, mind, and soul. (My heaven would have parts of County Clare, Newfoundland, Vancouver Island, Lumsden, Manitoulin Island, and Point Pelee. My heaven would be full of hiking trails and changing skies and bodies of water that reflect my heart’s weather. But that…well…as Hammy Hamster would say…that’s another story.)

I do need to thank Demetra Christakos from the Art Gallery of Sudbury, who let me know about OAC grants for framing of exhibition works. We were lucky to apply, and get a small grant, that covered the cost of framing the photo-poem pairings. I also want to thank Leslie Morgan and Jane Cameron from Sudbury Paint and Custom Framing on Elgin Street, as well. Jane and Leslie are old friends of mine, and I love them both dearly. Leslie is my “go to” framer for any original art that I buy when I travel. Then, when I walk by a piece of art that’s in my home, I can think of the trip I took, whether it was to Spanish Point, or to Newfoundland. I’m blessed to know such artistic and gifted women. They’re everywhere here in town…you just need to know where to find them!

Sudbury friends: do go and see Monique some day soon, and let her know that you read about the three remaining triptychs here on my blog. She’ll tell you her side of the collaborative story. I only know I’m glad we’re friends, and I’m glad she’s in my life, and I feel blessed that the Universe has conspired for us to meet. Kindreds, after all, are really hard to find…especially the creative ones.

peace, friends.

k.

 

I’ll be honest here. My worst subjects in high school were math, French, and science. In math, I tried so hard, but numbers never really settled into my head in the right way. In French, I tried to impress Sister Mildred, and she always smiled kindly, but I still only got low Cs. In science, God, to be even more honest…

In chemistry, I had a ‘mishap’ with a Bunsen burner and my lab partner’s hair caught on fire a bit when she leaned over to adjust the flame. I also recall holding a beaker with something and the stopper flying off across the teacher’s front desk and bouncing off the chalk board next to her. I can still see how she raised her eyebrow at me, as if I’d done it on purpose. Then, in biology, I remember that I started to cry when we had to dissect a frog. I didn’t like the smell of the formaldehyde, and I thought too much of what a frog’s life would be like on a daily basis. I figured it had parents, maybe some friends. I also really loved Kermit the Frog at that point in time, so I could only ever hear “it’s not easy being green” repeating in my head. Anyway, this is all just to say that I didn’t do well in science classes at Marymount when I was a student there. Not at all.

In Grade 13, in our World Issues class with Mr. Krys, we had to do a research project that focused on environmental issues. Most kids in my school, then, were really worried about acid rain. That was the big worry back when INCO didn’t really care about environmental emissions. Many days, back then, you could taste the sulphur on your tongue when you went outside in the morning, and you could see it mark the leaves of plants in the garden in silvery grey. You could also set your watches by the slag dump out over towards Gatchell. I used to watch that slag dump when I stayed over at my grandma’s house on Wembley, or at my great aunts’ house on Kingsmount. We would turn off the lights so that we could spot it through the window frame. I thought it was magic. It was, certainly, a very different time in Sudbury.

My uncle, Terry Ennis, was an entomologist. When I was little, I didn’t know what he did. He and my aunt, Rosalind, lived in the Sault, so we often visited one another. He was tall, very smart and funny, but quiet. When we visited them, he would take us, along with my cousins, David and Tara, to see the ‘Bug Lab.’ I remember being freaked out because I hated bees. In my mind’s eye, in my imagination, I pictured a building with corridors full of free flying bees. He laughed, reassured me, and then took us on a tour. Everything seemed very clean, and I recall there were bugs in vials, and posters of trees and bugs on the walls. I didn’t see any bees, for which I was truly thankful.

Terry helped me by sending me a whole bunch of research in the mail. He was studying the effects of the spruce budworm on the forestry industry. I just remember thinking that he had a very, very specific job and was one of the smartest adults I knew. I also knew that he was interested in trying to save trees and birds, and animal habitats, and that made me love him even more. He liked Dylan Thomas and poetry, and Irish history, so we had all of that in common. We also used to go fishing once in a while, so he loved the outdoors. (I particularly remember standing next to my two cousins, watching him as he gutted a silvery carp on an old wooden table on the edge of Lake Mindemoya one summer afternoon, after a day spent fishing in a boat. He insisted that it would be good fish, but its belly was full of garbage and it wasn’t flavourful, even though he’d seasoned it as best he could…)

I did well on my research paper that final year in high school. I didn’t like bugs, and I still don’t. (I prefer trees and birds, but I also love seeing butterflies in shadow boxes. The possibility for extended metaphor fascinates me to no end.) The other kids that year did their research projects on acid rain, and someone likely did water pollution, but I asked to do something on the spruce budworm infestation and I remember my teacher gave me an A. He was impressed that I had a scientist in the family. (Acid rain, back then, was overdone, anyway…)

Fast forward a lifetime or two, and I discovered the poetry of Alice Major in my mid-twenties. I was a young woman from Northern Ontario, going to annual general meetings for the League of Canadian Poets, and feeling really out of place. Everyone else seemed to be in their late forties or much older than that, and they all had reams of books published, while I had just published one very slim chapbook when I was 26. I was star struck by the Canadian poets I met at the AGM in Winnipeg, but that’s when I first met Alice. Then, at another AGM in Ottawa, years later, with Margaret Atwood as the guest speaker, I ran into Alice again. We’ve stayed in touch, somehow. She gave me the best advice I could imagine, in 2016, when I visited Edmonton after being at the Banff Centre working on my novel. As laureate, she said, I would need to guard my time, and I would need to learn to say ‘no.’ She had been the first Poet Laureate of Edmonton, so I knew she knew what she was talking about. I love her work dearly. I love that she writes about science and the natural world in a thought provoking and beautiful way. (I’m a fan girl when it comes to Alice’s work in Canadian poetry, but that would need to be another blog…for another day.)

I wonder what Terry would think of what I’m doing now, especially since I’m working on a collaboration that links poetry to science in a more concrete way. (I would still fail the tests and experiments if you put me in a high school lab again, but I do love astronomy, birds, butterflies, and I am especially keen on advocating for the health of Canada’s bodies of water, especially the Great Lakes.) I can also see how writing about the natural landscape links to scientific pursuits. For me, my love of science is linked to how we can protect the environment. And stars. Because I have always loved stars, and the stories of constellations and myths.

Dr. Thomas Merritt is the Canada Research Chair in Genomics and Bioinformatics at Laurentian University. For six years now, he’s organized the SciArt exhibit at Laurentian University and Science North. Artists are invited to create work that is linked to science. He’s had people submit projects that include dance, sculpture, and visual art in past years. Last year, he asked me to take part by bringing in poetry, but I was away writing, down in the Essex region. This year, though, I’m back in Sudbury and so I said ‘yes’ to his kind invitation.  Now, there’s poetry to add to the mix. I’m always interested in collaborative projects. For me, poetry can build bridges where people assume there aren’t places to even put bridges. I work with visual artists, even though I don’t think of myself as a one. Now, well, I’m working alongside a scientist. My uncle would think that was funny, I know, because he knew me very well. He would’ve found all of this very ironic.

So! The SciArt Poetry Contest runs until Friday, March 23/19. Poets are asked to email their three (3) best poems to Dr. Merritt at tmerritt@laurentian.ca. The names of poets should not be on the individual pages of poetry. Rather, we’d ask that poets include a cover letter that includes personal contact information (name, phone, email, address), a short 30-word biography, as well as the titles of the poems that they’re submitting. Poets are also asked to write a sentence or two that describe how their poems are scientifically-focused. That means you’ll have one document with contact info and another document with three pages, with one poem on each page. We’d ask that you use a fairly traditional font (Calibri, Times New Roman, Baskerville).

Poems can be up to a maxium of 30 lines. The categories for judging are as follows: Gr 1-6 (Elementary), Gr 7-12 (Intermediate/Senior), Post-Secondary Students, and Community Members. All poets must be residents of Greater Sudbury. Poets are encouraged to submit their work in the language they are most comfortable in.

The judges in this poetry contest include myself, as well as the current Poet Laureate, Chloe LaDuchesse, past laureate, Tom Leduc, and noted francophone poet, Thierry Bissonnette. Prizes will be awarded in all four categories. Winners will read their poems on the evening of Tuesday, April 2ndat Science North, as part of an event called “Verse in the Universe: SciArt & Poetry.” There will be free admission, and after the prize winners read, the four featured poets will each read work that links to the competition’s central thematic focus of ‘science.’

April is National Poetry Month across Canada, and we’re very honoured to have received funding from the League of Canadian Poets (LCP), to fund the featured poets’ readings. This year’s theme is “Nature,” so it all seems that a bit of serendipity is at play.

I’m hoping that people who live in Greater Sudbury will think about taking part in this new SciArt Poetry Contest. I’d very much like to see it grow and flourish in coming years. Really, when you think about it, scientists and poets aren’t too different after all. They look at tiny things that lead to bigger ideas, and they document the beauty in the world around them in unique and carefully specific ways.

I won’t be writing poems about the spruce budworm, but I’ll always write poems that speak to wanting to honour and protect our waterways and natural landscapes. For me, my place in the world is defined by natural beauty. My uncle Terry would get that, and he’d likely be glad to know that some other scientist could see the value of poetry and art, too. I think that Terry likely would’ve written a poem himself to submit, if he were still around…so I’ll dedicate my work in this project to his memory. He left us too soon.

Please write poems, friends! And, then, please come out on the evening of April 2ndand hear the poets read. The world is so beautifully interwoven—from the way the lake freezes in late fall, to the way the sun rises over Copper Cliff in the early spring—that we’d best document the way we weave our worlds together, with poetry, science, and wonder.

peace,

k.