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Until last year, I didn’t even know what ‘ghosting’ was about. I teach Grade 11s and 12s, though, so I heard them talking about how they had “erased” people on Instagram and Snapchat. We’d been having a discussion about social media, bullying, etiquette, safety, and all of that. It’s something typical that we talk about in secondary schools these days. Teachers need to teach kids about how to be in the world, and now teachers need to guide students in how to act with thought and maturity on the Internet. It took me a group of seventeen-year-olds to help me realize that someone, a man I thought was a friend, had ghosted me.

That’s embarrassing, I know, but I’m really not that worldly. I’m too trusting. I’m gullible and too naïve. I see the best in people. Then, when they show me other sides of themselves that they may have initially hidden from me, I’m usually pretty shocked. I turtle. I never know how to deal with them after that happens. How can you tell what is true to the person, and what is false? If they’re a good actor, then maybe they’re used to dealing with people in this sort of thoughtless way. I don’t know. I’d hope that wasn’t the case with this person, because I thought I was a good judge of character, but it might be. These days, it seems, any kind of poor behaviour on the Internet is acceptable. So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, disappointed, or hurt. But I am. I’m soft hearted.

Sometimes, in real life, when you see a person often in your town, a friendship will end quickly, or, alternatively, after a period of drifting apart. A person might say something that is triggering for you. That has happened only once, rather dramatically, in my life. I was triggered, and I’m not even sure how. Sometimes, you just drift when it comes to growing apart from friends. You grow in different directions. Sometimes, the drift is too great, the space between too hard to mend. The silences grow slowly, stretch out, become spaced out Morse code dots and dashes that draw themselves out into nothingness. Humans are complex. When friendships end without my knowing why, I usually blame myself.

If anything, in these cases, I blame myself, for a very long time. I’m of Irish Catholic stock, so that means, when a friendship ends without closure, whether with a woman or with a man, I blame myself. I try to figure it out. It isn’t good. I feel ‘less than’ and then need to try to build myself up again. That I let other people make me feel this way is a worry I think about every day, actually. I need to be stronger, I think. I tell myself that I need to be less trusting, less compassionate, less caring. That is what happens, for me, when these connections seem to end suddenly and without reason. It’s likely because I take friendship seriously, and because I don’t have much of a family anymore. My friends are my family, so losses feel – to me – very painful. They linger in my mind and heart for too long.

The person I was when I was very ill a decade ago, the one who only wanted to please people, only wanted to listen to gossip and then share in its toxic buffet because it felt like something that included rather than excluded me, well, that person disappeared when I began to get healthier. There were, too, friends who disappeared from my life when I was very ill, taking care of my parents. I don’t blame them, either. They didn’t know how to help. I didn’t know how to reach out. I felt I was a bother, and having major depressive disorder makes you feel like you’re only ever a nuisance to others, that you aren’t worthy enough to be friends with others, so you pull in harder and faster. You turtle.

I still deal with that when I’ve felt friendships weakening, or even when friendships are new, the feeling of being a ‘bother,’ never knowing if I’m wanted, and it’s something I struggle with still, how to know if it’s your fault, or if you just don’t value yourself enough yet because no one ever taught you how to do that as a child. I don’t know that it’ll ever go away. That’s like the evolutionary leftover of a prehensile tail, or the wisdom teeth that we don’t really need anymore. I think I just need to admit it as a part of my character now, a leftover that proves I survived the tsunami of depression and anxiety that was inside my head and heart. For me, it’s a painful badge of honour. It’s a reminder, too, to always be mindful of my own mind and moods. I’m my own best guardian. I have to be. The ghost of mental health always hovers, makes you hope depression doesn’t come back to your front door. It’s hard, exhausting work, this staying healthy thing. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying. And maybe they need to, to keep up their own scaffold of being, to convince themselves that they’ll be okay. And that’s okay, too. Whatever it takes us to survive.

What arises instead, after picking up a life in ruins, is a woman who knows herself in her newest, perhaps her truest form. She has been broken, has nearly erased herself with suicidal ideation, and has – against all odds – rebuilt herself in a new fashion. What I’ve noticed is that some people who’ve known me for longer than five years just don’t understand who I’ve become. Most days, I don’t know who I’ve become, either. The last three years have been transformative for me, physically, spiritually, and intellectually. You just need to expect that you will lose people you care about along the journey. They may not resonate with the new you, or maybe you will no longer resonate with them. That is, perhaps, a good thing. It means you’re growing, that you aren’t stagnant in your own evolution of self.

What a social media ghosting by a man does is different, though. It perhaps speaks to the role of men and women in a patriarchal society. Perhaps. Or, perhaps it speaks to the way in which women view men, or men view women. Perhaps. Or, perhaps, it just speaks to the way in which our society is cannibalising itself slowly, from the inside out, so that kindness and compassion—even what you think is a half-decent friendship—is to be feared and then destroyed quietly. Maybe it’s just that being friends with a single man, when you’re a single woman, is coloured, sometimes, by attraction. I’m not sure…still thinking that one through.

I have a feeling that younger women are more accepting of this ghosting and blocking practice. I’m on Twitter, so I’ll often see millennial women speaking of it in passing, as if it is to be expected. I don’t expect it, especially when you are only just friends and not even dating. I can’t accept it, I guess. I don’t know how to deal with it when it happens. So, in this one case, I just kept on, rose above it, didn’t want to think it was actually happening to me when I really couldn’t figure out what “I’d done wrong to offend him.”

After a while, though, if you stay connected on social media feeds, you almost feel as if you’re a voyeur, not a friend. Then, you have no choice but to unfollow and unfriend on social media. It’s too weird to see what is going on in their life when they don’t stay in touch in tangible ways. The man has forced your hand, made you feel even more ‘less than’ you did before, if that’s at all possible. He’s made it clear he wants nothing to do with you. It doesn’t feel good to be ghosted, and it doesn’t feel good to disconnect from someone you thought was a friend because it will always feel as if you have done something wrong. That, I think, is what is so toxic about men ghosting women on social media. It’s dismissive and cruel. It’s an erasure, and, to someone who nearly erased herself by way of suicide ten years ago, that can be quite horrible.

The other thing that happens is that you wonder what was even true: was the man you first met, who you were first impressed by, and who you felt very much drawn to, the ‘real’ version, or was it a fake one? I can’t tell anymore. It worries me. If it was that first person—who was funny, kind, extremely smart and witty, who had a good family and cared for them deeply, who was handsome but not full of himself—well, if that was the real person, then what is this person you see (or rather, after the erasure of ghosting happens, don’t see) now? Which is true? Is there one ‘true’ person, or are humans always constantly putting on masks for different people? Then I wonder, was he manipulative or deceptive? Does he do this regularly with women? Can he cut people out so easily, even ‘just’ as friends? Was I reading things wrong? Am I stupid?

Mostly, to be honest, I think it’s me being stupid. And then, even now, a long time after I’ve been ghosted and ignored, I blame myself for being stupid, for trusting someone and sharing things with them, and then realizing that I’m not worldly enough for some men. I get angry at myself, angry for feeling stupid, and for feeling too much. It seems to me, these days, men and women only ever play games and create drama, and it makes me wonder, too, if it’s even possible to have decent friendships with men. I don’t know anymore. This has all thrown me for a loop, made me question all of my friendships, and made me think it’s me. (My dad always said I was ‘too smart.’ That still bothers me, the phrasing of it. He worried that my intelligence and creativity, my sharp wit and weird, blurt-it-out-without-thinking-honesty even, would prevent me from knowing people, from trusting them, from not being fearful, and I think he wished I was less naïve.) Still, it’s probably what makes me have a sense of wonder when I go hiking and canoeing, this naivete and gullibility. I know it works into my poems and prose writing, this sense of being amazed by things that most people don’t even notice.

Worst of all, though….I just can’t stand that I would miss a person who has treated me poorly, but I do. I miss the person I thought I knew…and I know, because of being ghosted, that it isn’t a mutual ‘missing.’ He can’t miss me if he’s erased me, is what logic tells me. If you erase someone so completely from your life, then you must not miss them at all. You must not have ever cared a single stitch about them. And then I feel stupid again, for having trusted him. So I’ll just feel a bit sad about that, and try to sort it out in therapy, or just over drinks with a couple of close, trusted friends.

For a moment, just the other day, I thought of a theatre stage. Sometimes, you’ll see a line of actors on a stage, acting out their lines, written by someone else. You’ll see a character step forward, out of a line, or maybe another will step back, into shadows. What ghosting by a man on social media makes you do is take steps backwards, away from the pain of being treated as if you never existed. You take a step back, you take another step back, you hope the person will turn and extend a hand of kindness, but they don’t. So you take another step back, then another, until you disappear into shadow. You won’t even be the last person picked for the dodgeball team. (You might get a ball in the head as you leave, for good measure.) You’ll be exorcised to the open gym door, and then escorted out of the school and into the parking lot. You’ll walk home alone. You’ll take another step back, knowing the other person wants this more than anything else, to just erase you from his memory. So you’ll honour their wishes, but you’ll need to find yourself again afterwards. Somehow.

What I’ve learned, sadly, is that I need to be more careful in making friends. I’m too open and friendly. I’m too warm and generous. It leaves me open to being hurt. Some will say this gives the man in question too much power. I can see how someone would say that. As a feminist, I just berate myself some more. What it does do, though, is make me question my own judgement, of myself and of others. My sense of discernment and intuition must be off. It makes me pull my small circle of close friends closer still. It doesn’t make me love my friends any less. It makes me look to my few current men friends, whether they are single or in couples, and feel glad that I have them in my life.

I’ll hope that this has just been an anomaly, this particular ghosting. I’ll hope I’ve learned something, but, for now, I just feel sad because I’ve lost a friend I cared about. Obviously, that part was an illusion, wasn’t shared, and now I know that I’m too easily toyed with or manipulated by words. Despite that, I’ll only ever wish him well on his path. I forgive him, but I’m having a harder time forgiving myself for being too trusting and kind. And maybe we were never friends to begin with, and maybe I was stupid and naïve enough to believe we were, and maybe I was only a ‘friend’ while I was useful, or a strange curiosity. It makes me doubt myself, question my own internal barometer. That upsets me. I’m trying to find my sea legs again…

In a world where people swipe left and right as mindlessly as if they’re picking ripe avocados at the grocery store, and in a world where true connection seems fleeting, I just hope I can somehow fit in, that I can trust again. Right now, it doesn’t much feel like it. Right now, it feels like I can’t trust people, especially men, and, even worse, that I can’t trust myself and my own intuition and judgement. Sometimes, it seems, you can feel you don’t belong in the time period into which you were born, and this, for me, is one of those times. I never imagined that, with the rise of technology, there would also come a rise of cold erasure.

While this person once said that I was ‘too intense’ on social media, I’ll continue to use my various platforms to speak of issues that are of importance to me—like literacy, conservation of wild spaces, speaking out against violence against women, as well as speaking up for mental health awareness (especially for the kids in the far northern communities), and against stigma. I’ll write about poetry, and I’ll write about grief, and I’ll write about kindness. And, no matter what, I’ll always use social media to connect communities of friends, artists and writers in northern areas where geography can so easily distance us from one another, and I’ll hope—at the end of the day—that I’ve been helpful in some way. And I’ll hope, in some way, that the world will be lighter for me having been here on the planet. I don’t want to be worried that someone thinks I’ve liked too many of his posts on Instagram, or that I’ve made a comment under a posting someone’s made on Facebook or Twitter. That way is madness…and life is too hard  when I already feel like such a weird anomaly.

I’ll never apologize for the woman I’ve become, because there was a time, not too long ago, when this woman wouldn’t have made it past 2014. I’ve learned, in coming through the darkness of my own family’s life, that you should never make yourself less of yourself, or make yourself a paler, more conservative version of yourself for a man. You must only ever be yourself. As Dr. Seuss says, so wisely, “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”

The man who ghosted me won’t read this, and that doesn’t even really matter anymore. What matters is that maybe some other man will read it, and then will think twice of ghosting a woman. Or, some woman will read it and, as a result, not ghost a man. No person should just ghost another person on social media. If they can do it so easily, it’s terribly worrisome. If that is what social media has done to the world, to humans, values, truth, and connections, then we’re in a leaky boat, indeed. We need to get back to a world where people communicate—with their words—in writing with a pen and paper, and through speaking, one to another, face to face. Otherwise, we will just hand off a world that is technologically advanced but heartless and lacking in compassion. That, I think, is one of my greatest fears.

Be kind to one another, friends. Be yourself, in person and online. Be the same person. It really isn’t that hard, even if it makes you vulnerable and open. Maybe, just maybe, some of this pain will be worth it in the end. Right now, though, I’m not so sure….

peace,

k.

 

 

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Ten years. A decade. How it seems like forever, but also just like a blink. Today, it’s ten years to the night I lost my mother. What I remember is the last week of her life, the pain that led up to her end, and the way in which she taught me to live through her dying process. The greatest gift, the most important lesson she taught me, was that living with(in) fear will not bring me peace inside. She lived with great fear, I know, for most of her life. I don’t know why, or how, but I can imagine reasons based on what she told me in fragments, gathered in the months before she died, while she was bedridden. The stories we tell, near the ends of lives, are strong and clear and true.

She was sent off, as the eldest daughter of an Irish Catholic family, to an all-girls’ boarding school in North Bay, from Sudbury, when she was just fourteen or fifteen. From Grade 10 on, a life went on there that she didn’t want to talk about much with me, until she was dying, and a life went on back at home, where her four siblings grew up together while she was at a distance. It doesn’t matter now, but it still bothers me, on her behalf, that adults actually thought it was better to send a young girl to a boarding school rather than to let her stay with her family. If that had happened to me, well, I wouldn’t have done as well in coping.

What it did to her ruined her somehow, made her fearful of making connections with others, fearful of being close to other people, made her pull in and be strong—having to build walls to protect herself and her well-being—when what she really needed most was to be open to love, and the notion that she was worthy of receiving it. That fear made her life more emotionally and spiritually confined than it ought to have been, and it influenced me for a large part of my life as I grew up. What matters most now, though, is that I choose love and bravery over fear in my own life. It means risking being vulnerable, and it means risking great hurt and pain, but it means maybe having fewer regrets when it’s time to go. She taught me that, in her going, and I’m only sorry that she had to endure it at all.

My mother was good and kind. She had a true heart. She was afraid of her heart, though, never sharing it with many people, keeping it ‘safe’ and not realizing that she made herself weaker because of this. She was private and proud, gathering herself too closely to herself. With people she loved, her family mostly, she gave of herself to a fault. When I was little, I had a surgery at Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto, one that left me with a staple in my left hip. She took care of me there, away from the north, and for the two months back home when I had a body cast on. I was immobile, in a hospital bed in the living room. I was in pain a lot of the time, and then later, in great discomfort. Two months seemed like an eternity. She made it lighter, trying her best to make me forget how uncomfortable I was. She cared for me when I was ill, and then, later, much later, I cared for her before she died. This is the unspoken vow we must have taken at some point, and the one I honoured until she took her last breath.

She likely sacrificed her personal happiness for my dad, and for my sister and myself. I don’t know, though. I can only imagine, ten years on. I can’t ask her the questions that cluster incessantly in my head these days. That bothers me. I can’t remember her voice anymore. That bothers me even more. I have memories of its musicality, her voice, and of how it seemed so unique, and of a laugh that, when she was caught up in mirth, would often have her double over in hysterics until tears ran down her face. I remember that. I do.

The night she died, the world outside the hospital was a snow globe. My car had been parked in the farthest parking lot, down near Walford Road, for four days straight. I had been afraid to leave her in case she died alone. I wanted to be there for her, even if she didn’t know I was there. When I finally went to get my car, a half hour after she died, it was covered in thick ice and two feet of heavy snow. Her going was laboured and painful. She fought hard, her body a ruin but her soul rebellious. She pulled into herself, shoving the rest of us aside. In the last weeks of her life, she slept in a darkened room, refusing water and losing her appetite. She knew, I think, that she was dying. Someone, somewhere, must have told her. She must have chosen not to tell us.

So we tried: to feed her, to give her water, to comfort her, to lighten her darkness. None of it worked. She stayed in a darkened room, curtains pulled, glaring at me when I went in to care for her. It was, for me, the worst year of my life, watching her die as I tried so desperately to keep her alive. You cannot, and she taught me this, will a person to live. It will not work. She taught me, too, that each person has a path, has a choice, and that each person must honour and respect the other person’s path. I still don’t understand it, why she chose not to let us be with her as she went, how she pulled in and erased herself from the inside out even as we tried to gather her in closer to us. I likely never will understand that. But, and this is so important, I’ve accepted that she chose that path, even though it broke our hearts as she went.

The night she died, I watched her chest rise and fall, the nurse having told us not to watch her breath, but to watch, instead, that ebb and flow of her chest, that rise and fall, that frantic intensified heart beating through the thin cotton hospital gown. So I did. The night she died, my sister and I left my father alone with her, to say his goodbyes. We came back half an hour later, worried we would miss her going, only to enter the room to hear him singing to her, crying, and saying that he loved her, his head resting on her chest. That image will be with me until the day I die. That image is what I think love must be in one of its deepest and truest forms.

Despite a marriage that had its ups and downs, its challenges, at the end, my father was the strongest man I had ever seen. At the end of his own life, too, he showed great courage and love, opening up as he died because he knew what my mum’s closing up before she had gone had done to us, to Stacy and myself. He offered a bit of a counterpoint, a warmth to the departure, and that still makes me so grateful to him.

There were times when I wondered, as I grew up watching them, why they had stayed together. They fought a lot, going off to separate parts of the house to glare at one another in silence. It wasn’t always what people on the outside saw, but how often is it that, anyway? People’s lives are lived in the dollhouses they construct for themselves, the ones that others see from the outside in. My parents weren’t openly affectionate with one another and, as the years went on, they got crustier with each other. As they began to weaken and fail, though, their love rose up again in the tiniest and most unexpected of ways.

When she fell ill, first with a middle-of-the-night heart attack that nearly killed her in 2004, and then with the gangrene, peripheral artery disease, and (supposed and likely) with the lung cancer that took her away from us in December 2008, my dad softened, got teary eyed more often than not, and sat for hours with her on the edge of her bed at home after she lost part of her foot to trans-metatarsal amputation. He held her hand, flirted, smiled sweetly, told funny stories, and tried to make her laugh. And it worked. For a while. As she got sicker and sicker, soon after their 40thwedding anniversary on November 16, 2008, it was like she became a ghost of herself, a “shade” as the Irish might have said in James Joyce’s time. Then, well, none of us could pull her back. She stopped reading, which is something she loved. That worried me.

It was only after she died that I realized she had got herself, somehow, on a mailing list for a macular degeneration information package. In the last few months of her life, she couldn’t see very well, it seemed, but she never told me that, even when I tried to suggest new books, or wanted to sit and read to her. That she could no longer read broke her spirit. It had been the thing she had done all her life. It offered her a respite, an escape, from a reality she maybe didn’t always like very much. When she stopped reading, I knew it wouldn’t be long. She was a husk of herself, huddled under heavy blankets, not asleep and not awake, full of pills that made her feel so ill. I hated that: I hated seeing her have to give herself shots of warfarin in her belly, watching her wince, knowing that it all didn’t seem much about quality of life at that point.

I hated having a home care nurse in twice a day to debride and clean her ruined foot. I didn’t see it, the ruin of it, until the night before she died, when a nurse cleaned and wrapped it. That moment, for me, seemed so awful, so invasive, so private, and it also explained why she had been so defeated. A foot without skin and muscle and tissue is not something anyone wants to see. Halves of toes, skeletal, are not things you ever walk on again. That I saw her foot, so ruined and unhealed, made me realize that she had—against all odds—tried to will herself to heal, but her body hadn’t agreed. It wasn’t her fault. She had tried. She had.

My mother’s dying, her ending, has informed what I think about the way in which our society deals with the ends of a life. At that point, really, she ought to have been in hospital and, likely, if we’d known how sick she was, in a palliative care wing somewhere. Her end might have been less awful for her. It is, I think, why I feel so strongly about palliative care now. Keeping people alive by filling them with medications doesn’t make their lives better. You end up having them there, physically, for a bit longer, but at such a cost, to both them, and to you.

I don’t think she wanted to die in hospital. I know that. There were days when her breathing was laboured, when I sat next to her in her bed at home, begging her to let me call an ambulance. She was fierce. “No, you are not to call,” she hissed at me one Sunday. Finally, though, during one bad bout of breathing, I had said, “I have to. It will be all right. You’ll be home soon.” Her face, then, told me that she knew more than I ever would. She smiled sadly, shook her head. “No…I won’t…but I know I need to go now.” A week later she would be dead. I had lied to her, said she would be well, but she had created a fiction, too, likely knowing she was terminally ill, but not sharing it.

She hid her pills, the ones that would have helped to thin her blood and keep her alive for a bit longer, tucking them into the zippered pockets of her wallet and then stuffing them back into her massive black purse at the side of her bed. We wouldn’t find those hidden meds until after she died, and there was a day I still remember, sitting next to my sister on the edge of an empty bed, looking at a clutch of pills discarded in a wallet, knowing she had known something about her health that we hadn’t. We felt angry and betrayed.

People will always say, “Look back to your memories before she was ill,” and “There were good times, you know, Kim,” as if they are annoyed that I can’t remember them, but she was so ill for the last five years of her life, and I helped to care for her for the last year and a half of it in my parents’ house, so it’s hard for me to remember a time when she was healthy. She smoked heavily, drank and ate too much, didn’t exercise, and didn’t have many friends beyond her family circle.

Here is what I miss about her, though, ten years on now, and what she taught me:

My mum loved books. She read in front of us when we were little and, even when my parents didn’t have a lot of money, they always bought us books for Christmas and our birthdays. She read while my father watched TV, putting ear plugs in so she could focus, and sneak-eating chocolate bars from the table next to her chair in the living room because he was diabetic. When I asked her why she didn’t just go somewhere else in the house to read, she said that she liked to be near him. At that point, he had had a heart attack, so she was more worried about him than about herself. That changed after she had her own heart attack and began to fail, but at that point she didn’t want to be apart from him because she was afraid he would die first. She didn’t even want to be in a different room…

My mum’s full name was Sheila Mary Elizabeth. Her aunts and uncles referred to her by an abbreviation of her name, either just “SM” or “Sherry.” Sometimes, I remember my great-aunt Clare Kelly referring to her in a rush as “Sheilamary,” or, even more oddly, even more quickly, “Shamerry,” so that, if you didn’t know, you’d wonder what her actual name was. That was my extended family, and she was the first born of the grandchildren, so there, in 1939, and onwards, there were a slew of photos of a beautiful little dark haired girl with big eyes. She had a beautiful name, and I want to use it often, to prove that she lived and hasn’t been forgotten.

She was an excellent cook, especially when it came to chicken and dumplings, turkey soup from the bone, chili, and shepherd’s pie. She would often bake my grandmother’s oatmeal scones, slathering them with butter and strawberry jam. She made the best (or worst) strong Irish tea that I’ve ever had, letting it sit on the stovetop element until it sometimes burned itself dry in the kettle. (I’m, thankfully, much better at making tea. Hers, well, hers could have stripped something off of your insides…but she always said that she ‘liked it strong.’ She thought the tea I made was too weak and sometimes drank it unwillingly, making a face, and laughingly calling it ‘cat piss.’ It made me laugh, every time, because it was something we disagreed on, the strength of the tea we liked to drink.

When we were little girls, she would often sing us to sleep with Doris Day’s “Que Sera Sera” and Judy Garland’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” She had a beautiful voice. It’s likely why I love to sing so often to myself. She liked it, too, when I sang. She loved playing piano, and we’d often come home to hearing her playing a song from West Side Story on the upright grand that sat in the kitchen. She loved musicals, so we grew up on Oklahoma, Brigadoon, West Side Story, and The Sound of Music. I think she loved The Wizard of Oz the best, though, because of that song. I can’t really watch it anymore…and I cry if the song comes on somewhere while I’m shopping. One time, I left one of those little single-person-red-baskets at the grocery store sitting on the edge of a floor of an aisle, full of oatmeal and almond milk and clementines. I just left it, abandoned, tried to force my face to look normal, and then rushed out to the car to weep.

She loved her work, first as a nurse, and then for the Children’s Aid Society, and later advocating on behalf of people with disabilities. She had a big heart, and she poured it out into giving love to the people who were closest to her. She taught me how to share that sense of wanting to be of help, too, of how to be an advocate for causes I feel are important and maybe not always popular or well known. When she was well, up until her early sixties, maybe, she was a different person. That’s the one I try to recall so desperately now, but time apart from someone in the physical world can weaken a memory.

She loved gardening. Her favourite flowers were peonies, lilacs, columbine, and purple iris. She loved going to our camp on the West Arm of Lake Nipissing, reading on the dock, a big floppy hat shading her pale skin. She gathered pine cones and wild flowers on walks there in the bush, and on our walks into summer fields when we rented a camp each August on Lake Mindemoya, on Manitoulin Island.

She had three favourite quotations that I know of. While she loved Kahlil Gibran, she really loved Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince. The quotation she often mentioned to me was this one: “ ‘Goodbye,’ said the fox. ‘And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” The other one was: “In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing when you look at the sky at night. You—only you—will have stars that can laugh.” Beyond that, the one quotation that spoke to her in the last few years of her life, after her heart attack, was one from the Dalai Lama: “My religion is kindness. There is no need for temples, no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple: the philosophy of kindness.” She had drifted from the Catholic church, found comfort in this notion more than in the notion of the god of bent knees and rosaries that she had been raised on. That god, I think, she often might have thought, had left her without hope…

Mum was glad I was a poet, I think. She once told me, when she was bedridden, that she’d been glad to have known what a poet was like, that she had never imagined having a child who would grow up into being one. She and my dad came to almost every single poetry reading I ever had, with the exception of ones that happened after they both fell ill. Once, at an Ottawa reading back in my mid-twenties, she had sat next to me in a pub, drinking her beer and getting a bit drunk, and leaning over to tell me, when someone else was reading a very long epic poem, “I don’t like much of this stuff, Kimmy, but I do like yours. Why are these ones so long? What do they mean?” And she’d roll her eyes and smile in a sneaky way, as if she knew it wasn’t great to be saying such things in a loud whisper at a poetry reading in a big city. “People try to make themselves sound like more than who they are…” She said that once, too, after we walked back to the hotel that night. “There’s no reason to do that. Just be yourself.” So. She taught me that lesson, too. Being yourself is always the best option. Always.

When I was at Carleton doing my Master’s, I had my first big run-in with depression in my early twenties. I didn’t know, I don’t think, but she did. She called often and wrote weekly letters, sending them in funny cards and putting the dog’s pawprint on the outside of envelopes. She was proud I’d gone so far in my schooling, urging me forward to completing the degree when I thought I wasn’t good enough to do so. I pushed myself to do it in a single calendar year, probably faster than I ought to have done. I didn’t know that I was beginning to get sick then, in my early twenties, but she could likely sense it. She had worked in psychiatry as a nurse in her twenties. Ironically, when she fell ill later in her life, she wouldn’t have admitted to being depressed herself, to isolating herself, but she knew enough, while I was young, to keep an eye on me…even from a distance. Looking back now, I’m glad she offered me a life jacket…

Mostly, though, what my mum taught me was to be kind to others. “You can never know what another person is going through,” she always said. People are one way on the inside, and one way on the outside. What looks okay on the surface isn’t always so. She taught me to be the same person inside and out. That might have been the greatest gift, I think, that she left me. To be kind, and to be genuine and honest.

While she taught me many good things, she also left me fearful of living fully. There were strict rules and expectations. There wasn’t a lot of room for being daring in our house. She was afraid if we biked too far down the road, or if we went for walks after dark. Everything, it seemed, might take us from her when we were little.  She was afraid something would happen to take us from her. Maybe it was that she had been taken from her own home, placed in a boarding school without being asked. I don’t know. That kind of fear impresses itself on you when you’re a child. It took me forever to take apart that fear she had instilled in me as a girl. Seeing her die made me realize that life is short. You can be fearful, and not tell people you care about and love them, but you may regret it later. She had so many regrets when she died. That translated into anger and fear.

The way she lived, and the way she died, taught me to press against fear despite what I’d been taught as a child. There are small pings of leftover guilt and worry when I go out hiking alone, or when I risk opening my heart to tell someone I care for them, or when I let someone get close enough to share my truths. I have, for most of my life, only ever been taught how to build walls of fear and protection. I have, since she has gone, spent a decade learning how to tear them down. Sometimes, your biggest lessons in life are the ones you try to unteach yourself, the ones your parents taught you, and the ones that their parents taught them. Teaching myself to pull down my own walls, to be vulnerable to feel both love and pain, is the hardest thing I’ve ever done as a human. It’s solitary work, most often, and many won’t know how difficult it’s been.

I used to think, in that last year of her life, that I could save her somehow. I researched proper nutrition, ways to cook meals that would give her the nutrients that would help her wounds to heal. I learned everything there was to learn about amputation and debriding. I tried to fix her, even though she likely knew it wasn’t fixable. I was tenacious and depressed at the same time, throwing myself into her care with a fixation that wasn’t healthy. I was unwell. It was firestorm of fear.

I don’t know how ten years has passed. It seems like forever, and also a blink. If I had three wishes, I’d likely spend them trying to get an hour to sit and talk with her again, to ask her questions that I’ll never get the answers to now, and to listen to her voice, to make myself remember it. I would also thank her for her life, for her lessons, because they made me into the woman I am now. She would likely think me mad, taking aerial silks classes this year, traveling and hiking places on my own. It would make her cringe, but her fear isn’t mine any more…and that might be the best gift she ever gave me.

Today, in an hour or so, I’ll go off to spend a few hours walking on the trails at Point Pelee. I’ll take some tobacco to give to Lake Erie, to thank the Creator, the god I love, for the gift of her life. And I’ll release a lot of leftover grief to that lake, knowing that it will shore me up as only it can. I’ll touch trees and pick up stones. I’ll wish she could be with me, see the beauty of the place that speaks to me as no other place in this world does, and I’ll cry. I’ll always wish I could’ve saved her, but I know now I need to let her go…and Erie will help me do that, and has done so all year long.

Mostly, though, I’ll remember those words in my head…. “In one of the stars, I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all of the stars were laughing when you look at the sky at night. You, only you, will have stars that laugh at night.”

And so, tonight, I will look at the stars and try to laugh, or at least maybe smile a little bit.

 

Peace, friends.

k.

 

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A Visit to Park House…

I’ve walked by Park House a number of times since I’ve been down in Essex County this year. It’s simple and small, and you wonder what stories it has seen happen both inside and outside of its walls. Built in the 1790s at the mouth of the Rouge River in Michigan, it’s a house that moved across the Detroit River and shifted countries after the American Revolution. Its Loyalist owners moved to Upper Canada when Detroit was handed over to the Americans by the British in 1796. (I like this story because I like stories about houses that have been floated across bodies of water. The houses in Newfoundland, and those beautiful old black and white photos that have been preserved there, from re-settlement of the outports, have figured in my writerly imagination for over fifteen years. There’s a sense of tenacity and survival about houses that move across water…said the romantic, imaginative poet woman.)

First images of the house can be seen in an 1813 painting, “A View of Amherstburg,” by Margaret Reynolds. Alexander Mackintosh bought the property in 1817, and the Park brothers ( Thomas and Theodore) bought it in 1823. It stayed in the Park family until 1941. Fast forward to the early 1970s and the Rotary Club of Amherstburg bought the house, moved it to where it stands now, and preserved it to prevent it from being demolished. Smart thinking, I’d say. It was officially opened in 1973. In 1978, the Park House Tinsmiths (a volunteer association) was created to make reproduction tinware to help finance the museum. Now, it captures the way it would have felt to have lived in the mid-1800s. Park House was named a National Historic Site on October 4, 2018.

I first encountered Park House in April 2017, when I came down to Amherstburg to stay with my friend, Lena, for the Easter weekend. (I never do well with the big holidays that involve family now that they’ve all gone, so her invitation in 2017 to visit her, in an area I love, was quickly accepted.) We never went into Park House then. We had a fish and chips supper on Good Friday at the Legion in Amherstburg, and then we all walked down the street. There were daffodils. (For a girl from Sudbury, where there is still snow in April, daffodils made me giddy inside!)

That’s when I first saw Park House. It’s beautiful. All white and simple, and a bit rough looking on the outside. I love historic sites, though, so it, along with Fort Malden, captured my imagination. Lena took me to see Fort Malden this summer, and it was amazing to spend time walking through the grounds and into the house, which is now a museum. The best part was visiting the kitchen, though. I find myself transfixed by kitchens when I visit historic places. I think that’s because I love to cook and bake, and also maybe because I think sharing food and conversation is sacred in terms of making connections with people. It was hundreds of years ago, in simpler times, and it still is now. In the Irish tradition, there’s a lot of cooking and baking, and gathering in kitchens around hearths as the centre of a home. A stove, I guess, has taken the place of a stone hearth and fire, but it’s still what happens when I cook up a supper for friends at a dinner party. It’s the best way to take care of people you love.

Here’s what Park House looks like:

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The beauty of the place is enhanced now that it’s entered the Christmas season. Everything is decorated in a Victorian style and you feel as if you’re slipping back into a novel. The day I visited, on Thursday afternoon, the curator, Stephanie Pouget-Papak, was decorating for a Dickensian storytelling session that was set to happen the next night. She apologized for things being pushed up against the walls, but they had set up tables so that people could be seated. I told her that I thought it was a fabulous idea, to be so creative in bringing people into the house who normally might not visit it. The scent of cedar branches, wreathing the windows and doors inside, also made the place smell lovely. (Scent, for me, is a big thing…in making something evocative.)

Stephanie took me for a tour around the main floor, and I was especially amazed by the main fireplace and the kitchen. I loved the old hardwood floors and the beautiful rounded doorways. (I always touch wooden doorways and windowsills. I don’t know why I’m so tactile when it comes to old houses, but it is a problem. Put me in an Irish or Scottish castle, and I’m a basket case: I touch everything, and am even more tempted to touch things if there are signs that say not to touch things. People should really watch me, and maybe even follow me through historic places…)

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She was busy setting up tables, but told me to go upstairs on my own. The stairs were beautiful, and I told her later that it reminded me of being on an old ship. The upstairs rooms are dark, but the windows make you think you can step back in time. Standing there, looking out over the back roof towards the Detroit River, I kept thinking I could imagine a woman standing next to me, in a long green dress, watching and waiting for someone to arrive. With no one else there, it was easy to imagine people living their lives, and history creating itself slowly, spinning itself out in a woven tapestry.

Everything is so beautifully presented and well-curated. I’ve been in many historic places and some are not very well done. This one, though, is one of the best and most authentic that I’ve ever seen. IMG_1752.jpg

I had a little wooden rocking chair like this when I was a girl. My paternal grandfather had inherited it from somewhere in southwestern Ontario, likely Exeter or Park Hill. This one made me think of him, and of how he built so many beautiful pieces of furniture. I’m lucky to have a few things he made, in my house in Northern Ontario. The quilt reminded me of my paternal grandmother, who used to quilt when she was a girl. Such craftsmanship just doesn’t seem to be valued as much anymore, so when you see it embodied in recreations of historic places and buildings, I’m always impressed by the authenticity of artifacts that make you feel as if the people who lived there once have just stepped out the back door for a walk…IMG_1751.jpgI love the weight of this stove, but also the Scottish tartan that is artfully draped over it. (Yup. I touched it.)

IMG_1750.jpgThis was my favourite window in the entire house. I’m not a big fan of Christmas or December because I lost both of my parents in this month, so I normally cringe when I see things all ablaze with tinsel. Seeing this window, though, made me smile. It harkens back to a simpler, more classic and elegant sort of time. Etiquette and courtesy was expected then, and today it just seems that it is so much lacking in our society when I’m out around people. It’s all so rushed and about buying things, when really — especially if you’ve lost people — it’s not about that at all. Simplicity, for me, is to be honoured. This window does that for me.

IMG_1748.jpgIt was at this window, also looking over the back yard towards the Detroit River, though, that I imagined a woman standing just to the side of me. How difficult it must have been, to have lived then, to have been a woman, maybe a servant, and to have not felt as free as women do today. I thought a lot about that as I walked through the house. It’s beautiful now, all preserved and brought back to life, but then it would have been a much harder life. The moss on the roof, though, well, that, for me as a poet, is something beautiful. The images here spoke to me in clear ways.

When I went back downstairs, I looked through the Park House Tinsmiths’s works of art. They’ve made amazing items with tin, all of them accurate reproductions of things that people of the 1850s would have used. There are lovely little candle holders that sit on window sills, and there are ornate punched tin lanterns that would have offered them sources of light. (My friend, Lena, gave me one as a gift two years ago and it’s my favourite thing back home, to light it with an electric votive candle, and to watch the light flicker through the punched out patterns in the tin.) There are even tin Christmas ornaments for sale there right now. If you’re looking for reasonably priced gifts, but ones that are unique and historically-minded, then a visit to Park House before Christmas is a good idea. You can buy things that range from $8 and up.

The one thing that Stephanie told me that made the writerly nerd in me very excited was that artifacts from Park House have been borrowed to be used in the film versions of Alias Grace (a brilliant film of Margaret Atwood’s equally amazing novel of the same name) and in Outlander (yes, that one with Claire and Jamie…). You can buy copies of candlestick holders that were used in both productions. Imagine!

If you live in Essex County, you can still get tickets to next Friday, December 7th’s event “Dickens by Candlelight: An Evening Tea and Reading.” Those tickets are only $10 a person and I imagine it would be quite an experience, to slip back into time during such a busy, hectic time of year. You can also, though, become a member of the Park House Museum. A family membership is $40, a single is $35, and a student membership is just $30. It’s the time of year when you can make your annual donations to charities you might love and care about. Just a thought to consider would be to offer a gift that would offer support to a place that is very special—all history and stories and a curator who loves her work. It shows in the care she takes with her displays, and the knowledge which she shares so openly and warmly with visitors who stop in…

peace,

k.

 

You’ll have seen Benjamin Chee Chee’s iconic images on coffee mugs and calendars, but maybe not even have recognized his name in conjunction with the art itself, which makes me feel incredibly sad. This makes it even more important that Sudbury folks, and people from across the Northeast, try and get into the Art Gallery of Sudbury before next Sunday, November 18th, to see this exhibition. It covers both Gallery 1 and 2 walls, and you need to take your time to let it sink in. Don’t pass by the crucial soundscape that plays in the tiny conservatory at the foot of the stairs. If you listen carefully, you’ll hear Chee Chee’s voice, and feel his presence, then, as you walk amidst his works of art. That is the very least he is owed, given what beauty he left us.

When I arrived, I spoke to the gallery attendant. I knew I couldn’t take photos of the art, but I took photos of the text, so that I could think about what I wanted to write here. Then, a man who was looking at some prints that were for sale nearby, turned and asked me, “Do you want to know more about Ben?” Of course, this intrigued me. Turns out, this man had been friends with him. He asked me, “Do you know how he died?” I shook my head, “No, not really.” He went on. “He died in a jail cell. They say it was suicide, but many of us think differently. I was one of the pall bearers at his funeral.” It’s hard to know what to say when someone says something so bluntly to you, especially when you’ve only just introduced yourselves and shaken hands. “He was a real artist, not a businessman. He struggled through his whole life. His whole life was a journey, a deep quest for something. He started with abstract paintings, but later moved into depicting the animals. You know, he was lost.” I kept thinking, as he was telling me his story, how we are all lost, really, if we’re honest with one another. (We are rarely honest, though, and so to hear someone speak so openly about the journeys we make in life, struggling as we go, moved me a great deal.)

Chee Chee went to residential school as a child, and struggled with alcohol addiction as an adult. He tells us, in the soundscape, that the first time he tried alcohol he was eleven years old. He himself says that he lacked direction at home, that he stole things in his early teens and so was sent to what he refers to as “the training school.” Whether you call it a ‘training school,’ or a ‘reformatory school,’ what it actually was was a residential school. The damages done there are only alluded to by Chee Chee in his own voice, in the soundscape, but it is clear that he was negatively affected by abuse and racism.

His father died when he was just a baby, and his mother was largely absent when he was a child. Some say part of his drive to become a well-known painter was less about ego and a quest for artistic fame in Canada, and much more about the notion that he might somehow find her, hoping that she would hear his name and know that he was her son. (He reunited with her later in life, and they were together at the time of his death.) He died much too young, just shy of his thirty-third birthday, in an Ottawa jail cell. There has been much speculation about how he died. Some people say he committed suicide, while others imply that he encountered a violent end in a system that did not (and still does not) treat First Nations people fairly. He was Ojibway, from the Temagami Reserve at Bear River, Ontario. He was a member of the second generation of the Woodland School of painters. The soundscape speaks of how there were several artists who tried to copy the stunning work of Norval Morrisseau, but it also speaks to how Chee Chee’s work is quite distinctive. He had his own ‘voice,’ didn’t want to fashion it after anyone else’s, and it is still a style that is obviously his alone.

In the soundscape, you learn that he considered himself to be “a loner,” and that he enjoyed swimming in northern lakes. He only ever wanted to be “a modern painter.” He didn’t set out to be what he called “an Indian painter.” He said he “wanted to be an artist first.” He was drawn mostly to his abstract work. One will never be sure (because he died in 1977) whether he pushed against his culture because of how badly he was hurt at residential school, and by his troubled time as a young person. Based on what he says in the soundscape, you do get a sense that he was lost, searching for some centre that always seemed to be just beyond his reach. His frustration is clear.

In Gallery 1, you get a sense of Chee Chee as an abstract painter. There are bold colours and suggestions of forms, but nothing that you can pin meaning on in a concrete way. I could see allusions to puzzle pieces, a quasi-humanoid shape, a paisley teardrop, and maybe even the essence of an ear. (Just a note here: I’m not an artist, as I always say in these blog entries that I write about art, and I mostly let myself ‘feel’ the art in a sensual and emotional way, in a way that lets the art come into my body and sit there. It’s an embodied and poetic way of viewing art, I suppose you could say, and I’ll never say that I know very much about art beyond what I’ve researched out of my own interests.)

I’m not terribly fond of abstract art, to be honest, but I can see how Chee Chee was searching for a style and form, as all artists and writers do throughout their lives, As you move from Gallery 1 to Gallery 2, you can see how he moved from abstract forms, to more concrete ones, including some city scapes of Ottawa streets; these were the paintings he knew would sell to Ottawa folks, so he could make a bit of money there. As he said, “The kind of drawings I’m doing right now, I’m doing that because people like it and it pays my rent.” They were practical pieces, and you can sense that when you see them. He was so talented, to be able to shift between these various styles, but I am — as always — so drawn to his pieces that speak to his Northern upbringing.

As I walked through the exhibit, I thought of Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, and the notion of finding your ‘personal legend.’ People who journey, on spirit quests, or who retreat from the world in various ways, I think, are searching out personal truths. I think Chee Chee was doing that in his art, and I can understand that as someone who has been journeying this year with my own writing and life. They are difficult paths to walk, but perhaps necessary for artistic souls.

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The pieces that most spoke to me, as someone who hikes and spends a lot of time outdoors and in the bush, are the paintings of the animals. In 1974, he painted pieces that were later referred to as “The Animal Series.” The ones that are most well known, though, are the beautiful bird paintings that are so iconic here in Canada. In 1976, he returned to Bear Island for a bit of time, painting pieces that are now considered to be part of the “Bear Island Works” portfolio. Be sure, when you go to the Art Gallery of Sudbury this week to see the show, to take note of the ‘untitled’ piece on the staircase landing. The shadowed line of bison is stunning. Don’t rush by it! Take the time to let it sink in. It’s worth every bit of time you spend on that landing.

My favourites, and I will admit that this is because I have been taken with the beauty of birds for a long time in my life, are the bird paintings. The geese are so beautifully captured. You’ll likely recognize the iconic elegance of “Friends” (1974).

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And then there are the others, including: “Taking Flight” (1976), “In Flight” (1977), “Family in Flight” (1977), and “Together” (1977). His two paired pieces, “Father and Son” and “Mother and Son” (1977) are all the more poignant given the lack of familial connectivity with his parents. The use of gold, yellow, green, and black as his main colours are effective, especially with his elegant and simple lines. He captures, in so very few strokes, the essence of a northern landscape. Perhaps that is what has always called me to his work, as a woman who grew up as a girl, clambering over black rocks, following rabbit tracks in snow, and touching birch trees in winter. I am made up of northern landscape. It is my language, my heart, my soul. Chee Chee’s paintings feel like home to me.

Here are his beautiful birds….

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“Flying Geese,” 1974.

Whetung-CheeChee-Wait-For-Me_1024x1024.jpg“Wait for Me.”

These three give you a sense of Chee Chee’s work. Already, I can hear you going “Ohhhh, okay. I know this guy’s work.” If you’re Canadian, you know his work. And now, if you live in Sudbury, or in the Northeastern part of the province, you have a chance to see it at the Art Gallery of Sudbury.

What I most want to say, and it has been sitting inside me for two and a half days now, is that what happened to Benjamin Chee Chee, at the end of his life, is uncertain. It shouldn’t define his artistic work, by any means, but it is a concern. As I walked through the art gallery the other day, I kept thinking of another brilliant artist, Annie Pootoogook. She, too, died in a way that is unsettling. Both were too young when they died. Both were Indigenous. There is something that is wrong in this country. It didn’t start in 1977, and it hasn’t been healed yet. Pootoogook died in Ottawa in 2016, her body found in the Rideau River. Too many First Nations, Metis, and Inuit women are ending up in Canadian rivers. Endings like these, deaths that aren’t clear, only further point out how much work still needs to be done. You can’t have “reconciliation” if you don’t listen to the truth. And, it seems, ‘truth’ is so often not what we think it should be anymore. You can’t sweep these premature deaths under a proverbial carpet. You shouldn’t. But, what we can do to honour both Chee Chee and Pootoogook is to see their work, to appreciate it, and to thank them for it. Their legacies are strong ones. For all Canadians.

Benjamin Chee Chee: A Life & Legacy is on at the Art Gallery of Sudbury, on John Street, in the beautiful old Bell Mansion, until Sunday, November 18th. It’s open Tuesday to Saturday, 10am-5pm and Sunday from 12-5pm.

While you’re there, please consider buying a membership to the Gallery. It’s only $20 for a student membership, $35 for an individual, and $60 for a family. For me, it has only ever brought me great joy, contemplation, and the gift of creativity. In the North, we need to support our non-profit arts groups more and more enthusiastically as the provincial government makes cuts. For me, and I’m sure for a lot of you reading this blog, the arts are a vibrant part of the place and community within which you live and work.

peace, friends.

k.

 

 

Being away from my eldest dog, Sable, for two weeks, was hard. She hasn’t been in the best of health. I was in Ireland, and I was so grateful for the time I had to walk and write, and to stand by the sea and remember how small and insignificant we are.

Sable’s fourteen. Almost fifteen. Shih tzus live long lives, but the last few years of any dog’s life can be challenging. They have beautiful big eyes which, later in their lives, sometimes become problematic. You learn about how you can look into these gorgeous brown eyes, watch them blink at you, and then feel a tiny nose nuzzle your neck, and you can feel that you have been blessed to walk alongside such a little creature for so many years.

There comes a time when all you want to do is spend time with that little ‘furry person,’ knowing that time isn’t promised to anyone, or any dog. This is what I’m learning this fall from this tiny furball:

~You can worry a great deal about a tiny heart, giving it daily doses of medicine and wondering what time will be granted to you because you’ve invested in a very expensive bottle full of capsules that are striped yellow and white. You think you will never be as thankful for a bottle of yellow and white striped capsules. You will think they are pure magic. You know, though, that they aren’t, and that you need to spend the (extra) time being thankful for the gift of the creature with the big, beautiful brown eyes.

~You can find a vet, in a different city, who says that glaucoma in shih tzus means you should remove an eye, but you know that fourteen is a good age, and fourteen is a long life, and fourteen means she saved you when you needed her most…when the darkness of depression nearly erased you nearly a decade ago. (Sometimes, removal of an eye isn’t the answer to the question. Sometimes, you need to realize that an eye may be the end of a creature you love…and this…this is painful.)

~You can find your vet, back in your home town, in early September, who lets herself slowly slide down a wall, sits down on the floor so she can gather your eldest dog in her arms, and smiles sadly up at you from the dull scuff of the linoleum squares. You can ask that vet about ‘end of life’ care, and plans, and endless questions about ‘how’ and ‘when’ and ‘what is best.’ You can be grateful for the time that vet has given you, almost a whole year, and know that you’ve had extra time.

~You know that you shouldn’t spend extensive periods of time with dogs on your own, avoiding other humans, as a single person, but you also feel it’s sacred time, time that isn’t promised, but always honoured.  It’s time that you will be grateful for later, when you can’t remember how she ‘speaks’ to you in grumbles or snuffles.

~ You learn to cherish the time when the eldest dog, who is mostly blind and mostly deaf, wants to snuggle. This isn’t normal, historically. She is affectionately referred to, by your friend, by her breeder/groomer, and by yourself, as “The Queen Mum,” so any sort of snuggling is cherished and appreciated.  Affection isn’t always promised, so you soak it up like a sponge when it’s offered.

~The lessons are many and vast…but some of the key ones, from what I’ve seen in just this week at home, in Ontario, in Kingsville, are:

a) Patience is a virtue. Sometimes your dog needs you to be calmer, because they are slower, more methodical and almost narrower in terms of what they take comfort in. They slow you down, even when you don’t think you really need slowing down.

b) Food, for dogs, is a comfort. The right kibble, even if it costs a bit more than it naturally should, can make an elderly dog feel right at home. Breakfast and supper can serve as a time of bonding, in ways that you never imagined they would before. Kibble, and treats, I would say, is key. It gives the elderly dog great comfort and serves as an anchor.

c) Water bottles are better than dog bowls. You wouldn’t have imagined this, but older dogs who are slightly geriatric really quite enjoy drinking from hanging guinea pig bottles rather than bowls. It amuses, but confounds, you.

d) You learn that life is short. Love is to be cherished, even if it comes dressed in the likeness of a tiny dog in a furry suit. That bond is to be honoured.

e) Your greatest gift, in this life, might come from an animal rather than a human. I know. Hard to understand, but it could be mostly true for quite a lot of people. Animals love unconditionally. Animals offer their hearts, without expectations, and without (intentionally) painful results.

f) Life. It’s precious. It’s short. You should love whomever you want, whenever you want. The bullshit we surround ourselves with, when it comes to love, is unnecessary. It’s the essence of everything on the planet, whether you know it or not. It’s the building block, the foundation, the premise behind everything. If you have it, be thankful. If you have it, honour it, cherish it, cultivate it, and, mostly, yeah, you should fight for it. And you should also know when to let it go…because letting go is always key.  Acceptance.

This dog, this little furball named Sable, teaches me patience, and compassion, and gratitude, and resilience in the face of great adversity. This is what caring for an elderly dog has taught me this year…and, for that lesson, well, I am most thankful.

peace,

k.

 

 

I have had a long term relationship with Bunratty Castle. Over twenty odd years. I first visited it when I was in my early twenties. I visited with my uncle, Michael Ennis, my aunt, Joanne, and my cousins, Sheryl and Lisa. Mike died this past March, so being there again today, I could remember how excited he was to take the tour of the castle and how we drank Bunratty mead together. He was the reason I first traveled here, inviting me to come along on a trip of Ireland and England with his family, probably knowing my parents would never be able to visit such far away places. It’s because of him, I often think, that I have a deep love for travel and new places. I know it’s one of the reasons why I love Ireland so much.

Bunratty (or Bun Raite, in Irish Gaelic) was built in the 1270s, but the castle you can visit today was built somewhere around 1425. Still very old. Very. Old. The little brochure will tell you that during the 16th and 17th centuries, “Bunratty was a stronghold of the O’Briens, the kings (and later earls) of Thomond or North Munster. The furnishings are all original, not reproductions, and mostly from the 16th and 17th centuries. The main block of the castle has three floors, with each one having a single great hall. The four towers have six storeys each.” It’s big. It’s grey. And it’s damp and cold. But it’s also really, really quite beautiful.

I have fond memories of visiting it. The loveliest thing, and the thing I go to ‘visit’ each and every time, is something that is referred to as the “Sheela na gig” or the “Sile na gig.” It’s the figure of a pagan goddess and often symbolizes fertility. Some people say that, if you touch the figure, you’ll have better luck conceiving a child. Well, I touched that thing in my 20s and haven’t had children, although I’ve taught quite a few, so maybe that counts somehow. I have, though, had great luck with my writing and I figure that’s just as creative an enterprise.  In any case, I do love going back to see it. I’ve touched it three times in my life now and, while some people say it’s a crass thing, I like to think of her as a sort of creative guide. As someone with Celtic blood, I’m drawn to these old images and symbols. It was good to see her today, to feel the stone that surrounds her image, and to remember the first time I saw her years ago. She’s all about the earth, and of conceiving and birthing things, and of sensuality and creativity. She’s feisty. I like that.

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The “Sile na Gig” at Bunratty Castle, County Clare, Ireland.

Once I’d seen her, I moved through the rest of the castle quickly. It sort of made me feel a bit sad. If you aren’t there for the big medieval banquet, with the costumes and the music, and the storytelling, which costs an amazingly expensive 70 Euros, then you’re shuffling through it with people off big tourist buses. I arrived at the same time as a class of German high school students who were huddled, in one little alcove, hunched over their cell phones. That’s a hard thing to see when you love history. I like to be in places like this when there’s no one around but, these days, it’s hard to find that quiet. I did, though, have about four minutes of absolute solitude in the South Solar section, where the guest apartments are located. It was, for a few minutes, as if I’d slipped back in time. I could imagine the sounds and smells, hear the voices and laughter. When more tourists arrived, I left. The veil had fallen again, and I had lost the image that lives just under the surface of what’s there now.

The folk park itself is lovely. It’s well done, with a variety of different cottages, all representing various regions across Ireland. You’ve got the Loop Head House, the Cashen Fisherman’s House, a Shannon Farmhouse, a Bothan Scoir, and even a church. Here are some photos of lovely things I found while walking around that park. The things that pull at me are the colours, the images of Mary (my grandmother and great-aunts loved her, and I always say that she’s my “home girl”), the Sacred Heart, the crosses above doors and windows, and Brigid’s Cross. Each and every image, each symbol, has great meaning to me.

IMG_1042.jpgIMG_1047.jpgThis lovely place, Ardcroney Church, was moved stone by stone from Ardcroney in County Tipperary to the folk park. When you walk in, it’s like moving back in time.

IMG_1057.jpgI have an affinity for doors and windows, mostly (I think) because of the metaphors you can create if you’re a poet!

IMG_1054.jpgThis recreation of a village street, with shops and traditional crafts, was lovely and quite well done. I just loved the colours here, and the way the textures work together.

IMG_1033.jpgI’ve always loved Mary, mostly because it’s nice to have grown up with a woman to pray to. My favourite prayer has always been the ‘Hail Mary’ and I always find myself saying it in my head if I need to calm myself down in an emergency, or if I need to send some light to a friend. (Also, to be totally honest, I love that her statues always show her in lovely blue dresses. The big draw for me, though, growing up, was that she always seemed to hover, magically, in a cloud that was laced with stars. She was, to be sure, as the old Catholic hymns say, “Queen of Heaven.”)

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This was a Mary that was just too big for a bedroom, to be honest. She had a place of honour in the corner. It was, I thought, a wee bit creepy. Small statues of Mary around the house, yes, okay, but big, eavesdropping-watching-too-closely-over-your-romantic-moments-Mary statues take it too far, if you ask me.

IMG_1053.jpgThe faery garden at Bunratty made me smile. Some parts seemed a bit stereotypical, but I loved the ribbons that were tied in the trees. When you visit the Hill of Tara, you can go to a faery tree there and see the offerings that are tied to the branches by local people asking for the faeries’ favours. I love it that, here, faeries are just part of the fabric of the universe. For me, anyway, it makes absolute and perfect sense. IMG_1029.jpgNext to my beloved triskele, this image, that of the St. Brigid’s cross, is one that always speaks to me. I love the way it’s woven from rushes, and the way it speaks to the Celtic sensibility of the cross, and the notion of the importance of the four directions and four elements. I have one in the vestibule of my house, over my door. It’s meant to keep evil, fire, and hunger away from your home.

I wandered over to the print shop, which I recalled having been there from my last visit in 2012. Now, I’ve fallen in love with the who process of letter press work and printing, courtesy of Jodi Green at Levigator Press in Windsor. Getting to speak with a printer today for a half hour was just one of the loveliest ways to end my trip, and I peppered him with questions about ink, wood blocks, and lino cuts.

The thing that I love most about Bunratty is the story that my great-aunt, Norah Kelly, told me when I was in my twenties. She was so smart, Norah was, and she was an excellent storyteller until she fell ill in her later years. But, when I spent time with her, she told me stories about the history of our family, and how they came to Canada after the Famine. There were snippets, and the one that still sticks with me is the story she told me of how one of our ancestors,  a gardener at Bunratty, eloped with a governess of some sort. I haven’t verified the story, and I’ll have to do a lot more research before I get there, but I know Norah. She would’ve heard that story from her parents and grandparents, and so I trust her completely.

Standing in that castle today, I put my hand up against the thick stone walls, took a deep breath, imagined a world where people worked very hard, in times that weren’t romantic or poetic. (A castle can look beautiful, but when you’re inside, you realize fairly quickly that it’s really all about defences, ownership of property, and living in difficult and uncertain times.) I imagined how many thousands of people might have lived in or around that place, and how many stories there would have been to tell. And then I thought of how much my uncle, Mike, loved that place, and I thought of him then, too. I miss him…

So…I’ll leave you with this image of my Bunratty, all shadowed in twilight and edged with trees. There was rain tonight, a brisk wind, and a flutter–again, as always–of blackbirds.

peace,

k. IMG_1063.jpg

 

Someone I know (slightly) back home in Ontario said to me, in a grocery store, in August, near the yogurt section, “You really love writing, don’t you?” He tilted his head a bit, as if trying to figure it out. “Yes,” I said, “I really do. Most often, I like it more than people. Writing can’t hurt you.” This year, I’ve given myself fully to it. When I put myself into a writing retreat sort of situation, nothing else matters. I usually go away from home, in Sudbury, where I can get too complacent, or too apathetic, or I can procrastinate by cleaning and organizing cupboards to no end. I can meet interesting people, especially at writing retreats, but my best times are those on my own. The only exception to this rule was my time at the Banff Centre for Creativity and the Arts in April 2016. That stay changed my life and I made life-long friends who stay in touch fairly regularly. (Some people say that social media is negative but, for me, without a big family network anymore, it’s a necessary lifeline to connection and friendship. People who are blessed with partners and families might not get that, and that’s fine, but it’s all very true if you’re on your own most of the time.)

Banff changed my life. That sounds overdramatic, but if you’ve ever been there, and you’ve had to apply to get into a program with your own work, and then wait for an acceptance, and then meet other writers who love writing and reading as much as you do, well, it’s a magic place. It’s the only place, really, where I’ve been able to leave my life behind, to not pay attention to people I know, to escape my own life, and to devote myself solely to my craft. And doing that, giving time to myself alone, changed the way I viewed myself as a writer. It was an immersion that served me well, in terms of my development as a person and as a writer.

Since then, I’m very aware of how I am in groups of writers. I don’t do as well. I can’t be as productive. I’m distracted. I’m terribly curious and usually very shy at first. Then, I like to talk to people and I find them interesting. Plus, when you’re on your own, you usually talk to dogs a lot, so being around other writers is always interesting. I get a read of people quite quickly, which is helpful, but if I’m at a retreat, I usually have a purpose. I also really despise drama of any sort, and people always have drama. What I need most, then, as a writer, when I’m focused on a project or two, is to be on my own, and to be able to walk and hike on long roads in the middle of beautiful landscapes. That’s why I love Point Pelee and Essex County’s various conservations areas, and why I love the trails back home in Sudbury and on Manitoulin, and why I have so loved my time here in County Clare in the last two weeks.

So. This is a love letter to County Clare. Turn your head and avert your eyes if it’s all too much for you. I’ll understand.

I need to thank my friend, Frances, whom I’ve known forever and a day, for letting me stay in her family cottage in Spanish Point. It’s a magical little cottage, with a turf and coal fire that I’m quite adept at setting now. (My experiences in setting fires in Bobcaygeon were less adept, as some of my friends will remember!) There’s something absolutely lovely about being able to provide heat for yourself, and to sit in front of a fire and write into the night. It’s a bit primal, I know, but oh-so-poetic and romantic in a literary sense. I think a lot about Yeats and Heaney, and of Synge’s plays, so many of which were set in places in the West of Ireland. Now, well, they’ve come alive in my head and heart. I’ll re-read them when I’m home in Ontario…and know them all again in a new way. My favourite memories of my trip here will be of hiking the White Strand with Fran, standing on the edge of the Atlantic, and thinking of my favourite poem by Seamus Heaney, “Postscript.” I started to cry. She didn’t care. I’m glad of that. Sometimes, when I’m faced with something beautiful, something poetic, something immensely moving, I can’t help but get weepy. It makes me a poet, I suppose. Then, the next day, we spent time driving up to Loop Head, which is the most beautiful coastline I’ve seen in my entire life. Since then, I’ve mostly stayed here, in O’Neill Cottage, in Spanish Point, walking for hours every day, and writing for just as many, letting ideas slide through me, and trusting that something good will come of them at some point.

I visited Kilfenora, the City of Crosses as they call it here, because of its seven Celtic crosses, and the Cathedral of St. Fachnan (which dates from 1058). If you know me, and a few of you do, you’ll know that I touched a lot of stone that day. For me, stones are so powerful. They radiate energy and ancient wisdom. Step into a cathedral, a ruin, and touch a bit of an ancient Celtic cross (I know…I shouldn’t have, but I did!) and you’ll feel you’ve been transported back in time and place. There, too, I got to walk down to see St. Fachnan’s holy well and, in a moment alone, dipped my hand into the water, thinking of how many thousands of people would have done the same thing over hundreds of years. Faith, for me, anyway, is rooted in landscape, so being able to see one of County Clare’s famous ancient wells was a highlight I won’t soon forget.

The visit to Caherconnell, though, was one I won’t soon forget. It’s a Neolithic stone fort. Always circles and stones for me. This love of circles, the one that the Celts have, is something that I am drawn to, as well, in studying First Nations, Metis and Inuit cultures and traditions. So much of these ancient cultures makes more sense to me than any of the materialistic things we see in the world about us today. There, walking into a five thousand year old stone circle fort, seeing the remains of a fire pit, and a couple of little graves, split my heart open. The stone walls, in particular, are so beautiful. You can see waves of movement in the way the stones were placed, all those thousands of years ago, by people who lived, loved, and died inside those walls.  Most would have died by the time they hit the age of 40, which is unfathomable when you think of how healthy we all are now in our late 30s and 40s and 50s. (We’re likely much healthier at these ages now than our parents were at the same point in their own lives.) Life back then, even at Caherconnell in the 1500s, would have been hellish at times, especially in terms of health issues, but there is still such a sophistication of culture and spirituality in these ancient places and lives. The land at Caherconnell vibrates with energy. It’s the Burren, all limestone, and skies, and windy roads, and ghosts that walk across the landscape in my mind. The next time I come, I’m going to go out on a full day hike with a guide. I want to really walk it out and let it sink in. Hiking does that for me. That’s on my ‘next steps’ for County Clare, I know.

What else do I love about this place? Here we go: walking down to the beach as the tide begins to come in, searching for stones and shells, and watching the sun set over the black rocks; the yogurt at the Super Valu that is made with real Irish cream; the scones that you can buy fresh from the oven; the barman at Johnny Burke’s who says “Hello, love,” and who remembers that I’d like a pint of Hop House beer, even if I haven’t been in for a few days; the taxi cab driver who says something wise and, when I ask him who said it, looks over at me, laughs heartily, says, “Oh, my dear! I just made it up! Write it down! Sure! Write it down, darling!” Then, well, there’s the Clare crab claws and the fresh cod and asparagus; Sean’s bookshop in Miltown Malbay and the way he says, when you ask him if he has a specific book or author, will say, gesturing to a shelf absentmindedly, “Have a right good browse…take your time…and, if it’s there, it’s there.” I also love the cows that live along this Old Bog Road, and how they come over to speak to me when I start talking to them from the edge of the road, turning their heads and giving me lovely photos. Then there’s the weather, and how it changes on a dime. You can start a long walk along the roads, edging green fields divided by old stone walls, on a fairly fine morning, and within twenty minutes, the sun has gone behind the clouds, the rain is pushed up in a fine steady mist from the sea, and the hood on your jacket won’t stay up. I love it. By the end of yesterday’s walk, I was a bedraggled, smiling mess. The afternoon was a fire and lots of reading and writing. Heaven. And I’m glad I brought my hiking boots, not letting muck or wet fields deter me from getting closer to that gorgeous ocean.

What else? Listening to “The West Wind” on Clare FM every night from 7 until 9 in a darkened room, lit with candles and heat from the fire, loving the beauty of the traditional Irish music as it spins, dancing, through the room. I’m already set to get out to weekly Irish ceili dances back in Ontario this month, so this’ll just cement that love of music for me. And, today, cleaning up to leave, singing “The Parting Glass” out loud, letting the song rise up to the rafters and echo in the little house. It was, for me, a perfect song. And I love how they announce local deaths on Clare FM around 10 pm on a Wednesday night, giving names and funeral information for the people who’ve gone on, ending it all with “May they rest in peace.” (My grandmother would’ve fit right in here…)

Finally, and in the most lovely of ways, I’ll miss the birds here. They sing with a mad joy that I’ve never heard before, hiding in thick bushes that line the roadways, and then darting up into the sky with abandon. The magpies, too, have pulled at my heartstrings these last two weeks. (The cover of my new book of poems features a lovely magpie, and I sort of wasn’t sure of whether it would speak to me, as a poet and person, but seeing them everywhere here lets me know that that magpie of mine was meant to be. Magic. Serendipity. And gratitude. Such gratitude.)

I’ll miss County Clare a great deal, but I know I’ll be back. It’s a fine place to be, if you’re up for being on your own and writing. If you’re a real writer, you’ll know the pull of it all. It’s stronger than anything I know, this deep need to put words on paper, or screen, or to just say them out loud. Not a lot of people will get this, but some will, and might even nod a bit in reading this.

I feel blessed I’ve been able to give myself the space and time this year to cultivate my writing, to let it take a front row seat in my life, to let it lead me forward in ways I can’t even envision yet. There’s magic in it all, even when I’m frustrated by slowed progress, or by rejections, or by the way in which a head cold, or a sad heart, can slow me down. But this, even this, too, is all part of what I’ll put into my writing as I move forward, not knowing where I’m going all the time, but trusting I’ll get where I need to be going. All in good time. All in good time.

Ah, and there’s a side note or two here: 1) My hair, here, has found its place. It’s always bothered me, but I can’t count the number of women I’ve seen who have my hair and super pale skin, and it’s sort of divine. My hair’s been getting longer and wilder every day this year, and now I can celebrate it, knowing I can always pop back here when I feel uncertain about its mad curl. And, well, here you go. 2) The men of Dublin (or at least the ones I encountered last weekend) are fine men. They are well dressed, smell lovely, and are clean shaven with handsome faces. Above all, though, they know how to flirt in clear and sophisticated ways, so it’s lovely to feel yourself blushing when a compliment is so handsomely and artistically offered. It’s lovely to feel so flattered when you aren’t used to that sort of clarity and sophistication with Canadian men. These ones, though, they’re quick on their feet, and with their words and manners. These Dublin men. I’ll raise a glass to them any day. (I may just put my name over to Willie Daly’s matchmaking book at Lisdoonvarna…if he can find me a Dublin man. We’ll see. That’s next year. 🙂

peace,

k.

Here are some of the photos I’ve taken while I’ve been here…

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Blackbirds on an afternoon walk in Spanish Point, County Clare.

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Water main cover, Ennistimon, County Clare, featuring my favourite symbol, the triskele, at the centre of all things in life.

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The painted buildings of Ennistimon, County Clare.

 

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The loveliest tree I’ve seen in a very long time, at Ennistimon, The Cascades, County Clare. thumbnail-2.jpg

The Cascades and that lovely bridge, Ennistimon, County Clare.

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O’Neill Cottage back window view. Birds.

thumbnail-4.jpgMe, watching the sunset on the beach at Spanish Point, County Clare. thumbnail-5.jpgCaherconnell, The Burren, County Clare.

 

thumbnail-6.jpgKilfenora, The Burren.

thumbnail-7.jpgMy corvids…on the sign leading to the holy well down the lane at Kilfenora, County Clare.

 

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Kilfenora on a rainy day. (And always my doorways and windows…)

thumbnail-8.jpgAnd one from Dublin…a new favourite bookstore found: The Winding Stair. In the window reflection, the image of the famous Ha’Penny Bridge over the Liffey.

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Lost tin whistle, September 30, in Miltown Malbay.

IMG_0887.jpgThe Witch’s Cauldron, Spanish Point, County Clare.

IMG_0593.jpgA night walk, at Spanish Point, County Clare.

IMG_0422.jpgObligatory sunset photo by the sea, courtesy of Fran, Spanish Point, County Clare.