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Sometimes you fall in with a group of friends who change your life, and even change what you’re writing, in terms of genre. I was lucky to find this kind of group when I met Matthew Heiti, Sarah Gartshore, Liisa Kovala, and Lara Bradley. I’d known Lara since university, as a classmate, but never as a fellow writer. The other three, well, I met them in the Fall 2015 Playwrights’ Junction workshops at the Sudbury Theatre Centre. Then I ended up meeting Lisa O’Connell, through Matthew and Pat the Dog Theatre Creation.

It’s funny, as I get older, that I can see how I meet one person, and then a couple of years later, I meet another who is linked to the first one. Without one, I would never have met the other. It’s sort of magical, I think. A daisy chain of serendipitous meetings, and a close clutch of friends whom I’d do anything for…except being hit by an ore truck. My life has been like that for the last couple of years. Before that, not so much, but now I’m very much aware of the synchronicity that tends to weave itself through my world, and I’m forever grateful to the Universe for that. 🙂

This week, Pat the Dog Theatre Creation (under the direction of Lisa O’Connell and Matt Heiti) brought PlaySmelter to Sudbury. It’s PlaySmelter’s fifth anniversary, so they asked me to write a poem to celebrate. (You can read it on the Greater Sudbury Public Library website, on the poet laureate’s page, along with others I’ve written as commissioned pieces…if you’re into poetry.) I was more than honoured to write that poem, mostly because I have become a convert to the brilliance of Canadian plays and playwrights. I’ve only written plays over the last two years, but I have fallen in love with writing them, mostly because I love the magic of seeing actors on stage, embodying the words I’ve written. It’s a bit like having a magic wand and seeing something that was one dimensional blossom into the three dimensional. It’s all about how a playwright’s work moves from page to stage.

The first play I saw this week was Lara Bradley’s brilliant, “Blind Nickel Pig,” which is set in Sudbury in the early 1900s. It begins with two sisters, Annie and Frannie Flyberry, selling illegal alcohol in the guise of medicine. The newspaper man in town, William Mason, exposes the girls, as well as the presence of speakeasies (also known as “blind nickel pigs”) and their lives take a turn for the worse. There’s a bit of romance between the Ukrainian police officer and Annie, which is sweetly written, and seems realistic in its shadings. The thing that amazed me, as a playwright and as an audience member, was how Lara Bradley had written such vivid characters, all evocative of a previous time in Sudbury’s history. It’s a time in our city’s history that I didn’t know much about, so I enjoyed learning about what it was like, too.

Daniel Aubin’s Piano Man was, in my opinion, so bright and vibrant. His at times caustic narration, but still comforting jovial presence, along with the puppet shows that were scattered throughout the play, made for quick and witty comic relief. The other part of the play that was clever was Bradley having a variety of actors take on the role of Pickles, the drunk immigrant miner. The tell tale miner’s helmet and long coat served all of them well.

France Huot’s portrayal of Annie Flyberry was real enough to make me laugh out loud at times, and then get a bit teary at others. I love watching how France’s face transforms when she acts. (I should say I’m biased as she did a dramatic reading of one of the characters in my play, “Sparrows Over Slag,” last year at STC at ‘Last Stop.’) Greg Tremblay’s portrayal of a cerebral and quirky newspaper reporter, though, was one of my favourite performances, because it was in such sharp opposition to his richly textured and brooding rendering of a rather devious and sexually charged merchant who cheats on his wife. How Tremblay moves between two such radically different characters stumps me, but that’s probably because I’m not an actor. When I asked him about it, how he moves between the two, he said that it’s probably easier because the two characters are so different. I imagine it must be a bit like hearing two voices in your head, and the only thing I can compare it to, in my limited experience with theatre, is that–when you write a play or a novel or a short story–you let the words come through you, and your characters’ dialogue is distinct and clear in your mind, before it comes to the page, and then is re-written and revised at a later date.

I am constantly amazed by these actors, in awe of how they seem to just shift in and out of characters as if they are putting on a new spring coat. It puzzles me, and I wish I could understand how they can remember all of those lines. (I will never be a performance poet, for instance, because I have such a poor memory of the very lines I’ve written! A page poet…always.)

The next play I saw was Matt Heiti’s “Receiver of Wreck.” Oh, this one has had me thinking for two days straight. This play tells the story of Pez, a shoe salesman who lives on the West Coast, and Chase, an aesthetician who lives on the East Coast. Both have lost a foot in a horrible accident. Heiti based the play around the story of the Salish Sea foot mystery, out in British Columbia. You’ll remember the one: Since 2007, detached human feet have been found along the coasts of BC. Most are found in running shoes. Heiti’s riff on this is brilliant. Sitting in the audience during a matinee performance with my Grade 11 and 12 students, I kept thinking, “Oh…what’s he saying here about what’s lost and what’s found?”

The entire play makes you really consider what, about life, is worthwhile. It asks you to think about what’s wasted, and what waste is made up of, and what the notion of ruin is all about. One of my favourite lines, which I jotted down in the margin of the program, was “There is a hole in everything.” How true. People will say that they are whole, that there aren’t holes in their lives or identities, but I think they must be lying to make themselves look better for the benefit of others. Yes, we can strive to know ourselves, and we can be content as we are, fully realized for the moment we are living in, but we can also evolve over time, and sometimes, well, sometimes we are more full of holes than at other times in our lives. This is what makes us human, I think.

The story itself is achingly bittersweet. There is the sense that neither Pez (played by Heiti) nor Chase (played by Jenny Hazleton) is very content with their jobs, and they lose them, and are evicted from their respective homes, and so they decide to set off across Canada, each one headed to the opposite coast. It seems inevitable that they should meet. In fact, prior to their departure, they unwittingly end up chatting on an online dating site, finding that they have things in common. When they actually meet up in person, in the middle of the country, in a bus station, you get a sense that they were always meant to meet. It’s not a grand romantic meeting, but rather one that seems fated and destined. It reminds me of those stories of people who think they’ve known each other before, in other life times or incarnations. It’s the notion that there are things we can’t quite always explain, in terms of how we meet the few people who will be the most important in our lives. These two were meant to meet, were meant to feel calm with one another, were meant to feel that they had found their ‘home’ in their meeting. As the character of the Weather Man (played by Len Silvini) says, “Two strangers…exchanging chance for risk…or nothing is whole.” Sometimes, you need to risk being vulnerable to live fully. I loved that line and that notion. Either you pull in and turtle, or you try to live more fully. You risk, you grow; you hide, you stay the same…and how boring is that? 🙂

There is, too, I think, a real sense in “Receiver of Wreck,” that the idea of being alone can be terrifying. I’ve been alone for a long time, and it isn’t terrifying, but it can grate on you after a while. Sometimes you talk to yourself, or your dogs, or you sing and play music very loudly. One of Heiti’s lines is “Who will own ‘alone’?” and another is “Don’t go back to alone.” Both, for me, were powerful ones that made me lose my breath for a bit. Maybe, in some ways, they struck too close to my life. Not sure. Still need to think about that for a while.

You sometimes meet people who change your life, even if you only know them for a very short period of time. In my life, I can think of about three such people. Fewer than five, they are, but unforgettable…every single one. They may not stay with you, and perhaps they aren’t meant to stay. The point is, I think, that you can never ‘unmeet’ those very important souls who have made some sort of impact on your heart and mind. There is, and always will be, a ‘before’ and ‘after’ for your having met them. There’s a real beauty in that, even if it becomes bittersweet and they don’t stay in your life. The longing is hard, sometimes, because of the sense of loss, but the lessons learned may be all the richer because of that loss. I’m not sure on this, though, because I’m still working through a couple of them…and maybe, too, I’m learning, lately, that you’ll never be able to figure it all out, and maybe you aren’t supposed to, and maybe (just maybe) there’s something to be learned there, too.

That Heiti’s work is this thought provoking makes me happy inside. Yeah. I like to think. Probably too much. In any case, both Bradley’s “Blind Nickel Pig” and Heiti’s “Receiver of Wreck” are brilliant pieces of theatre. I hope people outside of the north get a chance to see them. I want to see them again. (But you don’t want to see your friends’ plays too often or they’ll think you’re a theatre stalker rather than just a simple supporter of local arts, and who wants that reputation?! 😉

peace,
k.

If you know me, you’ll know I’m fairly straightforward. If I like you, I say so. If I’m not sure of you when I first meet you, though, in a social situation, I’ll likely just avoid you because I’m a quiet, polite person and won’t want to hurt your feelings. I won’t share important things with you. I’ll pull a ‘half turtle,’ as opposed to a ‘full turtle,’ as I like to think of it, until I’m sure I’m safe. Turning red is always another sign of my discomfort because I’m all pale ghost skinned and blush too tellingly. Introvert woman.

If you’re a writer, though, I have a history of being completely and utterly tongue tied, as if I were in love with you or something. It really is akin to what happens when I crush out on someone: I end up looking like an eejit, all shifty on my feet, nervous, looking at the person and then looking away, and all a mess of hands waving all over the place as I talk. Or I just avoid eye contact and look at the ground. It really isn’t very socially forward of me…another reason why I’m sure I’m living in the wrong time period, and another reason why I’m still single. 🙂 When it’s a writer I admire, it’s ten times worse and, I’m sure, very amusing for those people around me. Meeting Seamus Heaney in a pub one summer almost did me in. There are a few friends who witnessed that encounter and know how blushy I went that day, and then got physically shaky and went into a bathroom stall to just sit on a closed toilet lid to have a little cry.

Colleen Murphy is one of my favourite Canadian playwrights. As part of the National Reading Campaign’s “Reading Town Ville Lecture Sudbury”, Murphy came to town to take part in what is a grand celebration of reading and literacy. I didn’t know anything about her until I was part of Playwrights’ Junction at the Sudbury Theatre Centre (STC) back in the fall of 2015. As part of the Junction, Matt Heiti, our instructor, always brought in a big trunk of slim plays to the STC. Each week, we would sign one or two out and then, the next week, we would give a little review. That fall, I was overwhelmed at work due to a stressful situation, so the Junction offered me a safe haven, with other writers who were learning about the craft of writing plays. At the same time, though, I just didn’t have the energy to deal with the stress and anxiety at work, and then come home and read plays. I was teaching full time, with a marking load of about 80 students at the senior English level, so I felt like I was dead inside, just a work horse, especially in terms of what I could produce creatively on my own ‘free time.’ That’s how I felt. Exhausted and overworked…and longing for my words and writing.

As the session went on, week by week, I started to sift through that old trunk of Matt’s at the end of our Monday nights as a group, and found I loved how complete each volume felt in my hands. You could read a play, I quickly realized, in a night. You could slip into a story, completely, and imagine it on a stage. How would you light the stage, or what music would you imagine using to highlight parts of the play? I was beginning to fall in love with writing plays. It struck me that it was very much similar to that odd “in between” place when you first meet a person and recognize a little frisson of energy and attraction. That’s how reading and writing plays came to me, but now I’m totally in love with them and even pre-order them when I go to Windsor and visit Biblioasis.

I’ve said before that I don’t have a fancy MFA in Creative Writing. I have a Masters degree in English Literature from Carleton, and I was accepted to do a PhD in English at Memorial ages ago, but I turned it down, knowing it would stop me from my writing. I did the right thing all those years ago. The only thing, though, is that I knew little to nothing of how to write a play when I joined Playwrights’ Junction. I felt like a fraud, sitting there amidst a couple of notable local playwrights like Sarah Gartshore and Matt Heiti. I had written poems, mostly, and short stories, but never a play. Part of what Matt taught me, thank God, was that I could teach myself if I immersed myself in reading inside the genre. Now, well, I read a lot of plays because I’m in the process of writing one or two.

Seeing Colleen Murphy on Sunday night was brilliant. She said so many things that resonated with me. Theatre, she said, “is a living thing. You can’t press pause and there is no other artistic experience like it. It’s also a very powerful form because we are all here together…writers, actors, directors, and audience members.” I think that might be, truly, what I most like about it. I lead a solitary life. I love that working with other playwrights means that I can create a family of kindred spirits, collaborating in the writing process, and then seeing everything from a visual and artistic point of view, as well as a literary one, and a theatrical one. It also means that there is, as Caleb Marshall of the STC said, the notion that “theatre destroys itself in creation.” I love the idea of things changing form, of transformation, and of how we are never the same people two days in a row. You can see the same show three times and, each time, the nuances you notice in writing, or acting, or directing, will shift and shimmer. Each time it’s performed and produced, Caleb said, “a play is reimagined.” For me, in my mind, it’s sheer magic.

Why do I love Murphy’s plays so much? Well, I fell in love with her work when I read “Armstrong’s War,” “The December Man,” and “The Goodnight Bird.” I love her sense of humour, especially in the way she uses it to show us how humans manage really difficult emotions by leaning on humour and wit. As she said, “humour is essential, especially during life’s worst moments.” She spoke of needing to be “in your heart” when you write, and of knowing that the two dramatic masks are actually two sides of the same face, of humour and pain. You must, as a playwright, “live in the heart of the character.” Yes. When someone asked how she lets go of her plays after they’ve been written, she thought for a second and then replied: “You birth the thing…it’s published. If they are whole, living, breathing characters, then you can let them go, just as you would your children.” She begins, she said, by writing with and through the character. Writing “The December Man,” which deals with the Montreal Massacre, meant that she had to think of how she would get inside the head of such a killer. What she did, and what makes good sense as a playwright, is that she thought of the child. She thought back to what the boy’s life would have been like. “You go through the child, who was beaten or abused. You imagine what that would feel like, how that would affect a person later in life.”

In her Governor General Award winning play, “Pig Girl,” Murphy has created something that is visceral and heartbreaking. I read this play when I was alone in a cabin in Bobcaygeon, on Christmas break. I remember sitting there, in front of a night fire, my breath stuck in my chest. I can’t even begin to tell you how powerful this play is, but I did wonder how she managed to imagine herself into the mind of a Robert Pickton-inspired character. As she said the other night, “the thing we talk about the least as playwrights is imagination. You need to imagine how you would be, or feel, in a situation. You must ‘put blood on the page.’ If I’m not moved by my work, how can I expect an audience to be moved?” She often weeps, she said, when she writes. I get that. I’m Irish Canadian. You couldn’t ask for a bigger ‘feeler’ than me and, when I had to write a mining accident into my novel while I was writing on the edge of Lake Erie last summer, I wept into my cup of Earl Grey tea. Your characters, I always think, should live in your heart, so you can feel them, and know them, and even sometimes be surprised by them. It’s what I love so much about writing.

Murphy’s newest play, coming out at the Stratford Festival this summer, is titled “The Breathing Hole.” It tells the story of a polar bear, over a five hundred year period, from 1534 to 2034. She has not, she said, been a polar bear, but she imagined herself as a mythic one, able to come to a specific breathing hole in the middle of Arctic ice over a period of five hundred years, from point of contact and colonization with the Europeans, to create what I think will be a brilliant play. It’s the one piece I really, really need to see this season at Stratford.

When I asked her about her creative process, she shook her head and said she doesn’t have one. Sometimes her ideas come to her when she walks the dog. She writes each play in one place. Then, once it’s out on paper, she spends a long time going over and over it. “A play comes to you, as a playwright, as being fully formed. It just seems to come together.” It’s not the traditional tale of a struggling artist who sets the alarm for 4am and then gets up, makes coffee, sits on the back porch, and then sits in front of a laptop for a scheduled period of time each day. For Murphy, the process is much more fluid. The work that comes afterwards takes time and effort, and this is reflected in the beautiful plays that we can read, and then see on stage.

So, when my friend Sandy Crawley introduced us, before her talk, I nearly genuflected. I kept babbling, “Oh, I so love your work.” What could she say? She just smiled and nodded, and then signed her play for me. Of course she did. Why wouldn’t she? Sometimes, I think, the best writers are those who just love to write, and those who work through their ideas and put them down on paper. I write that way. The way she described her writing process (although she wouldn’t call it that!) is much like my process. The writers I most admire, especially in the last year of my time of stepping more fully into myself as a writer, are the ones who are tenacious, and humble, and students of the craft. They read a lot, widely and outside of their comfort zones, so that they can learn and better themselves in their craft. They don’t have big heads or egos. They share their ideas willingly and are good teachers. I’ve been blessed to have a few cross my life path recently. The notion of writerly mentorship, too, means a great deal to me. As a classroom teacher, for however much longer I will be one, I try to encourage young writers to experiment and see the writing process as an exploration, and not as a chore. For me, there is really nothing lovelier than an afternoon spent writing and revising, a cup of tea at my side, some Bach echoing through my tiny house, and slipping into a world I’ve somehow created on paper. People there seem so much more interesting to me, some days, than people here…

If you get a chance to go and see “The Breathing Hole” at the Stratford Festival this year, you ought to. If you haven’t read or seen Colleen Murphy’s work on stage, well, you should. Guaranteed…her voice(s) will change your world, from the inside out.

peace,
k.

If you read my blog regularly, you’ll know I wrote an entry on New Year’s Eve, in the middle of the bush outside of Bobcaygeon, in the Kawarthas and Trent Lakes region of the province of Ontario. I talked about 2016 being my “Year of No Fear.” It’s true; it was. Coming into 2017, I got to thinking that it didn’t all have to come crashing to a halt on January 1st. So, this is my second “Year of No Fear,” and I am now a quarter of the way through it and relatively unscathed.

I am, it seems, a glutton for punishment, mostly because I am pressing back against patterns of fear and shame that have been deeply embedded in me since childhood. None of this pressing back stuff is simple, and it often means you need to go deeply into yourself, on your own, and that means plenty of time in solitude, for reflection. That doesn’t frighten me because I’m used to being alone. I think most writers will admit to being solitary sorts. We read and write, and that means we need to dance that delicate dance between enjoying being around other people, and observing them, gathering scraps for future stories we might write (!), and then just wanting to go home, shut the door, put on the kettle, and play with the dogs. There’s a real tug-of-war there, in the balancing act that writers do every day. For me, it’s been lessened this year because I’ve been working as a teacher during the mornings, and then doing reading, writing and laureate work in my afternoons. It’s let me breathe, creatively speaking, but it’s also sort of lit me up inside. (Yes, Virginia, you can fall in love with the act of writing — and with yourself — in a way that you can’t fall in love with a person. It’s a bit mystical, I know, but I’ll just chalk it up to being a poet, an imaginative soul, and a woman with bits of Scottish and Irish background.)

Some people, I guess, would call it a mid-life ‘crisis,’ but I prefer to call it a mid-life ‘chrysalis.’ It’s more powerful, I think, when you don’t have family members, or a partner, around to say things like “Um, are you sure this is a wise decision, to teach part time and write the rest of the time? What about your pension?” or “Are you sure you might want to leave teaching in a year or two? Is that really that wise, to even entertain that thought? For what? To write? To work in some non-profit organization?” or “You think you might move from the North in a year or two? Why? What’s wrong with it? You never wanted any of this before…so why now?” None of these questions are unfounded, I suppose, but why do they really matter to anyone other than me? They shouldn’t. I think they matter to people because most people don’t like change. I didn’t used to like change, but now I crave it.

I think, too, when you’ve been very ill with mental illness, people will always wonder whether or not you are ‘healthy enough’ to make what seem to be big life decisions. It’s almost as if, once you’ve had a bad bout of depression or anxiety, you’re infantilized for eternity. Some people almost seem to want to (re)diagnose you and make you into a victim for a second or third time, depending on how well you’ve been over time. It’s almost as if, to be honest, some people would prefer to see you not well than to see you healthy…especially when you’ve maybe never, ever really been truly healthy. And herein lies the rub: sometimes, you being healthy and content (happy, even) seems so against your historical type that people realize that they don’t know you anymore. This frightens them more than you might realize, sometimes to the point where you lose them, or they just disappear so that you wonder why you spent (or wasted) time with them in the first place.

So, since I’ve written that December 31st blog, my life has morphed again. I had lost weight last year, but now I’ve lost more. I had a car accident on the way home from Bobcaygeon on January 6th that, I think, now, upon reflection, was a major wake-up call. It made me realize that life is short. You can lose it, in so many ways, without warning, so you need to be mindful of what you’re doing with the time you have now. There was no “I saw my life flash before my eyes” moment in my car when I hit black ice. I was alone with two dogs. It was, for a second, terrifying. And then it was strangely calm. After that, through January and February, I encountered a rush of energy that was like a tsunami wave. I did Zumba more often, joined yoga classes (for the first time in my life as a mentally healthy person) and walked every morning. Before long, I felt healthier, lighter, and my brain seemed less foggy. I had, I knew by mid-March, stepped into myself for the first time in my life.

It felt like zipping off a heavy coat and letting it drop to your feet after a long Northern Ontario winter. You step out of it, and then you just don’t look back. You don’t want to, actually, because you’re beyond where you were, and looking back never really serves you. So, my metaphorical winter coat was one that was heavily weighted with anxiety, depression, and deep grief. (You can’t lose as many loved ones as I have without feeling deep grief on a physical level. It would be weird not to have had a hard time, I think.) I ate my way through depression, especially because the meds were so intense. Then, when my parents died, I ate again, bulking myself up to hide. I hid under the fat. I felt unattractive and almost invisible. It was a good shielding system, so that I would never get close to people, but it was killing my spirit slowly. Nothing seemed bright and everything had a dull, tarnished edge. Through it all, thankfully, I had my words and writing, and I probably owe my health to them, as well. When I took off my metaphorical winter coat in February sometime, I could breathe again. I started to glow a bit. I cultivated good health and took time to ask myself what I wanted for myself. I didn’t think of anyone else, for the first time in my life. Shocking, I know.

In recent months, it’s been a sort of evolution that’s embodied itself so that other people have noticed it all. I noticed it a while back, even before New Year’s, maybe as far back as last February, when I finally spoke up for myself in a situation at work that had caused me severe stress. As soon as I voiced my thoughts fourteen months ago, it’s as if the process began. Once you speak up for yourself, the filters drop down, and then some people won’t ever know what hit them. It can be that dramatic. It was for me, and for some of my dearest friends, I know it’s been a bit of a ride. Thankfully, my nearest and dearest ones know me well enough and don’t have a problem. They aren’t the people who fade to black when I turn my head and look towards the sun.

This brings me to the notion of beauty. Since my dad died, I’ve been more and more drawn to landscape (especially to the farm fields and windmills of Southwestern Ontario), to visual art, and to aesthetics. I’ve become more sensory, somehow. My friend, Monique, calls me a ‘voluptuary.’ At first, I thought the word wouldn’t fit me, when she visited me back in February. The part of it that appeals to sensuality, though, does. The fact that I can’t stop touching textured surfaces, especially trees, is not a new thing, but it’s sort of intensified. I think it’s more about being mindful of what I’m encountering as I journey. My friend Nancy, who is a wonderfully spirited Newfoundlander, always says to me: “Kim, you’re walking through the forest. What do you see?” She knows I can overthink things, so her suggestion to just pay absolute attention to the moment is what I’ve most taken to heart. Richard Wagamese, in “Embers,” does that for me, too. Before I read that book, back in early November of last year, I thought I was odd because of all this, but then he wrote about how we need to celebrate the beauty of the world. I am drawn, it seems quite clear to me now, to the beauty of the world, and to the wonder of how connections are formed–between people, but also between people and the natural world. It intrigues me. I think it’s the elemental in me. 🙂

As a girl and young woman, I was always solitary and quiet. Shy, even. Always, too, melancholy and overweight, until my mid-twenties. I was too fearful, too controlled by strict parents, and too oppressed. That it took me until my mid-forties to ‘wake up’ from fear sort of shocks me now, but I know it’s all about divine timing and being open to possibilities. Beauty came to me through art, literature, and music. I never once, in all those years, thought of myself as being beautiful, except perhaps when I was in romantic relationships with men. I let their views of me help me to find myself, a self that ended up just being a shade of who I really was at the core of it all. This saddens me now, but it’s done, so I won’t look back. All of it had to happen when and how it did, I think, for me to come into myself now.

Perceptions of female beauty frustrate me, and always have…and maybe that’s because I couldn’t grasp it all, but it’s also because I don’t like living on the surfaces of things; I like depth….a lot. For the longest time, the idea that you should love yourself first sounded like a bumper sticker, and then somehow that idea made more sense. You can never look to someone else to be whole; you need to be whole, and creative, and content all on your own. You need to, as I said to a group of Grade 12s at St. Charles College a few weeks ago during a poetry visit, “Find the little bit of spark inside of you and let it glow.” Then I went on, all Oprah/Chopra/Tolle, and said “You can try, if you want, to suffocate that little glowy bit, but it won’t work. One day, after you’ve stuffed it down for too long, it will just sort of emerge and surprise you so that you won’t even recognize yourself anymore.”

One of my Grade 10s last semester turned to another student and said, “You are your own best rainbow,” and I thought, as I overheard the conversation, “Now that is some good parenting.” Someone had taught that little girl to love herself, to not look outside for validation or approval, and had also told her, somehow and somewhere, that she was amazing all on her own and that she could trust herself and that she could be brave and not be fearful of the world. I never had that when I was young, and then I hid inside myself, behind layers of fat and books. You can’t conceive of your own beauty when you hide from it because you fear stepping into yourself. But, let me tell you, when you step into yourself in all parts of your life, you soon find your own beauty…and then you begin to glow and radiate from the inside out. You might even become a painting. 🙂

I had some new author photos done yesterday. My friend, Gerry Kingsley, is an excellent photographer, and he has a grand makeup artist in Dana Lajeunesse. He’s been after me for about a year to have new photos done. I kept putting it off because I don’t like photos of myself. I don’t like narcissism. I have plans for all of the things I want to get done while I’m on the planet. No dawdling now. Staring at a mirror, or peering into a phone for a selfie…none of it will ever appeal or make sense to me. It speaks too much of looking inward in a narcissistic and self-serving fashion than in a way that speaks of reaching out and making soul connections.

I don’t wear lots of makeup. I never have. I remember trying, in high school, but I had such awful skin then, all cystic acne and visits to dermatologists. That, in itself, squished my self-esteem. Add weight to that, and being ‘too smart’ and oddly creative, and you had a perfect storm for bullying and ostracism. When I met Dana yesterday, I told her I didn’t want lots of makeup. I know my skin is good because I haven’t slathered on sheets of foundation over the years. I also know to avoid the sun, because I burn and then look like a Maritime lobster girl. These two things, and maybe some good genetics, mean that I often get mistaken for being about ten years younger than I am. It doesn’t matter. I’m more worried about the inside physical and mental health of my body. In any case, she didn’t use a lot of makeup and it felt all right. Nervous at first, and even worried, Gerry soon had me laughing in about fifteen minutes. (It might’ve been the bit of whiskey he put in the coffee, though, so it’s hard to tell.)

After the shoot, we looked at the photos and I kept hitting him on the arm. “I cannot believe that is me. I look beautiful. I look like a painting.” (For me, beauty is about art…so seeing some of the photos shocked me to no end. I saw myself differently, maybe for the first time in forever.) Gerry just shook his head. “You know. You’re too hard on yourself. All women are. This is how I see you…when we sit and have coffee…and talk…and when I take these shots. You can’t see it, or you haven’t been able to, but maybe you can now.” So. This is how my friend helped me take another step into myself yesterday, in claiming my own beauty, in seeing myself through new eyes. I know a lot of it has to do with the hard internal work I’ve been doing, and with the weight loss and exercise, but I also know it’s because I have connected with myself on a deeper level, accepted myself, found my little spark and made it glow so that it’s kind of hard to ignore now. I’ve stepped into being a writer. It’s who I was born to be.

Yes. You can fall in love with yourself, your life, and your writing. And then, if you’re really lucky, you’ll find your own beauty and light. It doesn’t matter who else sees it. Not really. You will bloom where you’re planted, as that old saying goes, and then you’ll bloom wherever you travel, because you’ll have stepped into yourself and found your voice. That’s the beauty of it all…not selfies, plasticity and surface living.

Go deep inside. Be the painting. Live in the moment.

peace,
k.

photomay12017

Photo Credit: Gerry Kingsley

April has been National Poetry Month. I say “has been” because it’s the last day. Am hiding in my tiny little brick house two blocks up from the shores of beautiful Lake Ramsey. My head has been spinning for the past four weeks, and I’m thankful to a small group of friends who have kept me grounded and breathing. (This includes my yoga teacher and dear friend, Willa Paterson. There’s something about someone who says, as you are in a particularly difficult upside down yoga pose: “I don’t hear you breathing! I need to hear you breathing! Breathe!” Those words have helped me get through April’s tornado of classroom visits and poetic appearances. Her words echo through whirlwind hours and days.)

Difficult days recently…the loss of dear, dear friend who’s been in my life for over twenty years; the loss of an important local Francophone poet who mentored and encouraged many poets in town; and, the anniversary of my dad’s birthday last week.

But grand days, too…a new book of poems coming out from Black Moss Press in Windsor this fall; a walk on Point Pelee to gather up more stones and sea glass bits; a reading of my inaugural poem from last year at City Council to celebrate National Poetry Month; confirmation of poetry in the palliative care wing at Health Sciences North, with thoughts of my dad wandering through my head and heart.

So….here’s the lovely little chat that Markus Schwabe and I had about a week ago. It tells you what else is coming up.

http://www.cbc.ca/listen/shows/morning-north/segment/12368916

May will be ‘lighter’ and I have plans to finish revisions on my novel. June 1st will be the date when I start sending it out to a couple of publishers. I’m not delusional. I know all good things take time. I’m patient and persistent. It’s part of my charm. 😉

This Wednesday afternoon, on May 3rd, I’ll be visiting Ms. Duguay’s class at Immaculate Conception in the Valley. Reading Town Sudbury runs from May 1 – 7th, so I’ll be taking part in this. I am a fairly vocal advocate, as a reader, writer, and teacher, of parents reading to their children and modelling reading for them as they grow up.

On the afternoon of Sunday, May 7th, at 1pm, I’ll be walking with my ‘laureate men’ at the Laurentian Conservation Area trails for a poetry hike. On the evening of Tuesday, May 9th, I’ll be reading a commissioned poem to celebrate PlaySmelter, Pat the Dog Theatre Creation’s grand series of plays. Local writers and dear friends, Matt Heiti, Sarah Gartshore, and Lara Bradley will have work performed. And then, on the evening of May 17th, I’ll be reading another commissioned poem at the Mayor’s Celebration of the Arts at the Sudbury Theatre Centre.

If you’re out in the streets of Sudbury, and you see one of the Sudbury Street Poetry Project poetry posters, please do take a photo and then Tweet it and tag me at @SudburyPoet. We’ll be having an urban poetry hike sometime in May, thinking of Jane Jacobs and her reflections of how we live, as humans, in cities. 🙂 In my mind, poetry and art make city living more palatable.

There you are, friends. An update from the poet laureate side of things. Keep an eye on the library website, and the poet laureate page, for new calls for work as we head into summer and fall. There’s an exciting project coming up! (I would tell you, and I want to, but I’ll hold myself back!)

Wishing you good reading, and (as always!) good writing!

peace,
k.
🙂

There are so many “I shoulds” in my head tonight: I should be marking a stack of essays (I’ve marked some of them, but my head is tired of the same story over and over again). I should be at Zumba (but I’ve run around all day putting up poetry posters and I’m physically spent). I should not feel sad (but I’ve lost a dear friend and his loss weighs heavy on my heart, and has for a week, as a dear friend’s loss should weigh heavily). I should be thankful…and I am, even though it’s a molasses kind of night, the kind of night when you sit, working away at marking, and then trying to jot down ideas for a newly commissioned poem on a piece of paper, and hoping that tomorrow’s reading at the library has a number of new poets who are brave enough to read their work in public. I should worry less about my students, but I can’t stop from wondering how one or two (in particular) are managing through difficult times in their lives. They are dealing with the loss of parents, or depression, or anxiety, or first-time broken hearts, and I feel it all when they tell me about it in the smallest of conversations on their way out of the classroom before lunch or between bells.

I should feel more rested, but I know I’m run down because I’ve started coughing and sneezing, so I rise early to walk near the lake, gaining energy and strength from the trees, the water, breathing deeply, and the sunrise. I drink cedar tea, hoping to bolster my immune system, and then wonder if I will be able to slow down any time soon. Summer, maybe. A week or two of writing time and quiet in the bush generously offered in Bobcaygeon, in the middle of nowhere, in a place where I can bring the dogs along with me and be myself, and maybe a trip out to St. John’s to write for a bit in July. Summer, then. Maybe. For now, a poem read in bed next to a cup of Earl Grey, or a swing under stars late at night, and a few hours of sleep because my mind is too busy…and a quick wonder how my lost ones are these days, because I miss them.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how I’ve come through things. D. H. Lawrence once wrote something, I remember, about ‘coming through’ difficult times in life. I know I’ve had my darkest dark night of the soul, and it was something that lasted through my thirties and into my early forties. It’s only now that I’ve emerged, or even arrived, inside my own body. I guess you compartmentalize things when you’re in the midst of chaos and pain. I’ve been thinking about this, not because I want to marinate in memories of sadness, but because I want to recall it when I speak to a student who suffers. I want my students to know that you can battle through the darkest of places, to pull yourself up through medication, therapy, exercise, writing, art, music, and persistence, even though the journey is the hardest one you’ll ever make while you’re in this physical body, in this lifetime.

I have one student who reminds me too much of myself. She is bright, looks ‘normal’ on the surface of things, but underneath, just a wee bit under the surface, she aches with sadness. You can feel it. Her grades are good, her parents love her, but I can see how she pushes away, pulls in, gathers herself in into a tiny ball and protects herself, builds walls, only making herself worse without knowing. She ‘turtles.’ I know. I know because I’ve done that. At the time, I thought it was a survival technique, and it might have been, but now I can spot it a mile away, especially in the young women I teach. A hard worker, a ‘pleaser,’ a perfectionist, a kind soul. These are the qualities that lead you into darkness, if you aren’t sure of how to find the light.

Here’s the other thing I’ve been thinking. I’ve read a lot about girls and anxiety. My go-to book is Leonard Sax’s “Girls on the Edge: The Four Factors Driving the New Crisis for Girls.” Yup. They are what you’d think they might be: sexual identity, the cyberbubble (selfies included), obsessions, and environmental toxins. In recent years, teachers have been trained in how to spot students who struggle with mental health issues. The most recent thing has been to watch for various versions of self-harm, with one being cutting. Girls tend to cut or ‘score’ themselves. They do it on their arms, the backs of their knees, and now on the inside of their thighs, so people won’t see. Before, you could spot a ‘cutter’ by watching wrists and lower arms. They would avoid your eyes, pull down their sleeves, curl into themselves like turtles retreating into their shells. It was painful to watch, but you did, and you do still, because you want to be sure your students are as well off as possible, in terms of mental health.

….but….I know what it’s like to suffer through mental health issues in dark times, and I know the ones who suffer most may actually be the ones who don’t look like they’re suffering. They may not cut. They may not do drugs or they may not be obviously promiscuous, looking for what they think is love in an endless line of faceless boys’ arms. I never did cut. I just kept acting. It’s the acting that takes it all out of you, leaves you without energy. At my worst, I could have won an Oscar for best actress, working full time, going home to take care of my sick parents at the end of the week, and then sleeping through the next forty-eight hours, paralyzed and almost unconscious under a pile of heavy quilts, only emerging to say that ‘Yeah, I have the flu’ or (even more effective) ‘It’s a migraine. It’s the weather.’ So, when someone says a kid is cutting I often think, ‘okay, it’s a cry for help, but maybe we should still keep an eye on the girl who doesn’t seem to cut…’ That’s because she’s the girl who often reminds me of me, at my worst, about eight years ago…a moment ago, and a lifetime ago, all in a flash.

You see, I think it’s the teenage girls who seem to be all right, all together, keen on grades and taking part in eighteen different extracurriculars who we really need to watch out for. They seem too put together, too perfectly in control. They are. They’re controlling the public image of themselves, like a ‘slight of hand’ trick to distract the other people around them. I know because I remember doing this. It’s probably why I’m too honest now. I was too much of a compartmentalizer (is that even a word?!) before. Then, when you break apart into pieces, well, it just won’t work any more. Truth is now the only way out, the only path to healing yourself from the inside out. It’s not pretty, by any means. It’s messy. You go from having suicidal ideation and being in a place where there is no emotion, a void, a dark that you can’t even imagine, to having to claw your own way out. No easy path. Lots of work.

A month or so ago, I spoke to a girl who said she had a flu, and that was why she was away from class. I stopped her and asked her if that was true. She crumbled. I had a colleague with me, thankfully. We sat on a set of stairs, me on my knees with one hand on her shoulder and the other on her knee, rooting her down as she worked through hyperventilation, telling her my muttered story of survival and asking her to believe that she could be well, too, if she tried. She isn’t the kind of kid who says ‘Look at me, I’m sad.’ She isn’t an after school special. She’s real. I can see her. She can see me. Maybe she just got the ‘wrong kind of teacher,’ someone who could see what she was doing, all chameleon and compartmentalized, someone who would call her on it and make her face the dragon so that she could slay it. I wish I’d had that. I was in my thirties, and so many of my friends just disappeared. Some have returned, but they’ll never really be close again. They abandoned me when I most needed them. Only one or two stayed the course, through the bloodiest part of it all, through both of my parents’ deaths, through my weight gain of something like eighty pounds, and then through my healing. Those one or two know who they are. The others hover now that I’m a poet laureate, but I can see them, too. I know they are surface dwellers…and I can’t live there anymore. I’m awake. Sleepwalking, and waking up, will do that for you. You lose friends and then you gain kindreds who really understand you. I told this to the girl I sat with last month, too. “You will lose people. They will say you are ‘too much.’ You may be. For them. They don’t deserve you. Your survival is your focus. For now, that is really all that matters.”

What bothers me most is how some people, young girls and even young women in their twenties, make jokes about anti-depressants or depression. It isn’t that simple. If it is the deepest kind of depression, the one in the psychiatrist’s big blue book of defined mental illnesses, the one that makes you go to a mental health wing of a hospital and sit between people who are much more ill than you will be, it isn’t ‘sexy.’ It’s hell. People who make it seem ‘sexy’ or something to use as an excuse for poor behaviour…well…I don’t have much time or care for them. They think they know what mental health struggles are about, but only serve to malign them and cause the stigma to deepen in society. There’s nothing funny about suicidal ideation, not when you go for a walk with your dogs because you might otherwise step in front of traffic. There is, trust me, nothing ‘sexy’ about that.

So…trees. I have loved them since I was little. I know it’s the Celt in me. My mother’s side is pure Irish, with a bunch of Scottish blood mixed in there. (Those Irish and Scottish folks often travelled across the sea, so it makes sense they’d be attracted to one another and kick start my mum’s ancestral side of the family.) When my mum was dying, the big tree in our front yard on Bancroft Drive was rotting. My dad called a tree removal company to take it down. Mum was bedridden, having had part of her foot amputated, so she didn’t see the tree come down, but I watched it from the front window of the house, in between checking on her. I watched them cut it, limb by limb, bringing down its canopy slowly but surely. My dad sat in the big chair, watching TV with the volume turned up too loud. I remember standing there, trapped in a house with two sick people, weeping silently, watching that big tree come down, and feeling as if it was so symbolic of my mother’s dying, my father’s gathering storm of frailty, and my major depressive disorder. That tree came down in the fall of 2008 and Mum died in December. The months that stretched between were empty and stark.

The big tree that sits between my house and the neighbour’s house is so reminiscent of that one on Bancroft. I’ve watched it for the almost four years since I’ve settled in this little house, how it gives shade to my little hobbit house cottage in summer and then offers me too many leaves to rake in fall. 🙂 My arborist comes every fall, trimming limbs in the back yard and telling me I really shouldn’t trust the tree swing. (Whatever. That’s where he and I part ways. He knows now that I’m a poet, and a unique sort of woman, so he just doesn’t mention it anymore.) So, after this hard winter, after the snow had all melted, I wandered out to the side of the house to see the state of its trunk. Last fall, there was a hole in the trunk, but this last week, the hole had stretched further down to the base of the tree. I sighed. I had just lost my friend, Tom Ryan. I couldn’t bear to lose a tree in the same week, too.

The arborist, Alex, came yesterday. He asked me what was wrong, and I said, “Look, we talked about having to monitor this tree’s health last fall, and the spring before that, because of that wound in the trunk.” (We use the word ‘wound’ whenever we speak of this tree, as if it is palliative or ancient, time sensitive.) He nodded, dressed in his comforting flannel shirt and brown work boots. (I like that he looks like a woodsman. I find it attractive and comforting at the same damn time. The fact that he ‘talks trees’ with me just makes for a perfect conversation, really.) So, the next twenty minutes were ones with me holding my breath while he circled the tree, head tilted up, eyes squinting, as he reached into the hole and tried to pull out rotten wood. He sighed. Finally, he spoke. “Listen, Kim. I know you love this tree. I think we can lessen the weight on the top of the canopy, reduce the sail effect, and it won’t topple.” I sighed. “Seriously? We don’t need to take it down yet?” He shook his head. “No. Not yet. We’ll lighten the canopy and watch it. The canopy is still healthy, though, so the tree isn’t dying.” I must’ve looked puzzled. “So, why is the hole there?” He smiled, touching the trunk. “You know, with wounds like this…it’s all about scar tissue. You know how we have scar tissue after we are wounded, and then we heal?” I nodded, liking the metaphor of it all. “Well, the tree creates a bandage on the inside, stronger than the tree itself. The fact that it’s survived the wound, and sort of healed itself, is what makes it stronger than it was before even.” I couldn’t speak. Yes. I know all about wounds, and scar tissue, and having to be strong, and even stronger. Then he talked about watching the ‘unions,’ the places where the branches meet the trunks, and warned me to look for any mushrooms that might sprout up there. “If they start showing up in the unions, then we’re looking at a problem. For now, it’s okay. It’s stronger than it seems.” An afternoon conversation, with rain spitting, and words like ‘unions,’ and ‘sail effect,’ and ‘canopy’ made me start to write a poem afterwards.

I’m also reading Peter Wohlleben’s “The Hidden Life of Trees” and am in love with each and every page. This is my favourite book right now. I have always loved the metaphors of trees, the symbology behind them, the Celtic aura of them that draws me in like a magnet. Sometimes, when I touch a tree, I wish I could enter into the landscape. For me, they are spirits, talisman spirits who walk with me and prove to me that I can exist, survive, and conquer simply because I have done so before. Now that I know about the tree’s scar tissue, and that I want to guard the tree until it’s time to do otherwise, I feel I can breathe a bit more freely again.

You can have these wounds, I think, and you can heal them, with a lot of hard work. You can imagine you will never be well after being mentally broken, but then you can find a bit of light in a few shared words and a hug and things can shift. You can lose a part of a limb, sometimes, in a physical amputation, and it won’t heal, as my mother knew. You can lose a dear friend, and nothing will bring them back, but you can always look up to the canopy of a tree and imagine those you have loved somewhere similar, in a place with trees, in fields, and with birds dipping through the sky in murmurations next to some big blue and weathered canvas that might be a lake or a sea, or the memory of a heart beat shared.

You can survive, and then flourish.

peace, friends.
k.

Sometimes, life shocks you, leaves you swaying a bit, wondering how things have happened when they’ve happened, and making you realize that you are right to live in the moment, being mindful and thankful at the same time. This past weekend, I went to visit my friend, Lena, in Amherstburg, just outside of Windsor. We met nine years ago when we both started our PhD in Education. Neither of us finished that degree, but we stayed friends, communicating over long distances, from Northern Ontario to Southwestern Ontario. Last year, on the morning I got on the ferry to cross over to Pelee Island for a writing retreat, we reconnected for breakfast and we’ve stayed in touch ever since. It was a grand weekend of catching up, and walks, and hanging out with her two amazing kids, Alex and Athena. Then, on Monday, I got a Facebook message from home, from my friend, Mel. “I wanted to let you know before you saw it on social media…that Tom Ryan died yesterday.” My heart felt like it stopped…and here is why:

My time with Tom as a friend goes back over twenty years. I was in my mid-twenties when we met. I’d just come home from living in Ottawa, where I’d finished an M.A. in English Literature at Carleton University. My focus was modern Irish poetry, mostly Yeats and Heaney. I’d managed to connect a bit with the Irish community there, so I could find places to listen to live traditional Irish music or take part in an occasional ceili dance. When I came home, I wanted to find a group to hang out with, so I tried the Irish Heritage Club, and joined a little choir, and then I found Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann (CCE), which translates roughly from the Irish Gaelic to the Sudbury Irish Arts Association. That’s where I met a whole slew of friends who have been in my life since then: Pat McGuire, Tom Ryan, Duncan Cameron, and Wally Kealy. Along with the late Ernie St. Jean, they formed The Friends of Erin, and then later, The Wild Geese. (Tom’s son, Patrick, also plays with the Wild Geese now, so it’s nice to think that tradition continues.) There were others who came and went over the years, people who played instruments and sang while the rest of us danced in the officers’ mess in the old Irish Regiment armoury on Riverside Drive, or in the Moose Hall on Frood Road. It didn’t matter where the ceilis happened; it just mattered that all of those people, my friends, were there.

I remember meeting Tom because he was tall, bald, and had a wonderful smile. He was welcoming and kind. Once he and Pat figured out I could sing, they included me at the annual Irish Celtic Fair each March for a song or two. Then, for years afterwards, whenever we were at a ceili, sitting in a circle, Tom was the one who would lean over, catch my eye over his concertina or tin whistle, and say “Let’s have a song, Kim. I’ll sing with you. What about The Fields of Athenry?” And we would sing. He and Pat knew, I think, that I was a bit shy about singing on my own. I loved Tom’s voice. I remember going to a ceili at his place, with Mary and the boys there, years ago. Now those boys are all grown up and missing both their mum and dad this week. It’s a loss. I could, I still remember, see the love within the fabric of that little family from the first day I met them all together in the house out on Long Lake. It was something to see…but even more beautiful to feel.

For all three of my book launches, in 1997, 2001, and 2012, the guys all came to play traditional Irish music. At the last launch, I even sang between readings of my poems. We spent time down at the old tapas place on Durham Street, practicing the songs so I would have the right key and know when to jump in after the intro. I often sat wedged in between Tom and Pat because they made me feel safe, somehow.

The thing I’ll miss most about Tom, though, and it makes me so sad to think of him not being here anymore, really, is that he would always make his way over to me to say hello when I came to a ceili. I always go on my own, knowing I’ll find someone to sit with and chat up, or someone to dance next to during The Haymaker’s Jig or the Siege of Ennis (which was my mum’s maiden name). He and I both had a great love of poetry, so we had some grand chats over the years in times when the band had breaks.

At the last ceili I was at, the pattern was the same as ever. Tom, walking across the Moose Hall floor, towards the back where I was standing with a styrofoam cup of tea, crying out: “Kim! How are you?” And then, the tallest man I ever knew would throw open his arms and give me a hug. We would have our chat, with his asking about my writing, and me asking about his soda bread recipes, and then he would go back to the stage for the next set. Before the night was out, he’d come and give me another big hug. It was a thing we did, and I will always miss it now for the rest of my life. He was, for me, a friend who was sturdy, steadfast, and always there. When I was sick, and when my parents were ill and dying, he always seemed to turn up in a small, quiet way, usually through a little email. Steadfast friend.

This week, that last ceili we were at together is playing over and over in my head. We stood off to the side of the wide wood floor of the hall, having our regular chat. “What are you working on now, for your writing?” I told him that my novel was nearly done and I was giving it to a few friends to read it over. “I would love to read it, if you’d want me to…” He tilted his head then, I remember, a small smile playing on his lips. He always looked a bit impish, I thought. “Really?” I said. “You’d want to read my novel? Give me feedback?” His smile got wider. “Yeah, of course! I’d be honoured.” I gave him a big hug then. “Okay! Listen, if you do that, I’ll make you a loaf of my Irish soda bread.” He laughed at me. “I make my own soda bread, too, you know!” And then we talked about whose soda bread would be better, and we promised to speak soon, and gave each other our traditional good-bye hug. He went back to the stage, to play some grand jig or reel, and I went back to dance a set.

Last week, someone I know just a little bit said that I was very giving, that I tend to say what I think and feel quite honestly, that I give gifts and cards often, and that I’m rare in that sort of approach to life. I just tilted my head in a quizzical way, “And what’s wrong with that? It’s who I am. If someone can’t handle that, then that’s all right. I think, you know, that we need to say what we feel and think. We need to appreciate people in our lives. People need to know they’re cared for, and about. You could get hit by an ore truck tomorrow and then you’d never have said what you most needed to.” The thing is, and I believe this totally, especially this week now, with Tom having gone so suddenly, that words are so important. Words and actions combined, really, are gifts of spirit. A few kind words and a hug are worth more than a fortune, in my mind.

Here’s the thing: I know that Tom knew I loved him as a friend. Having a friend for over twenty years makes it almost seamless, somehow. He knew when I most needed a hug or a kind word. We shared a sensibility for poetry, reading and writing. When I most wanted to tease him, I’d ask for a Scottish song, and he’d make a face at me, scrunch up his face, and say, scoldingly. “Kim, that’s Scottish, not Irish!” And I would laugh loudly and he would laugh loudly, and the world lit up a little bit even during my darkest days. He was that kind of magic. He was that kind of friend.

My heart is so sad this week. To think I won’t see him again, or hear him sing, or joke with him at another ceili…breaks my heart. My friend Wally recorded a CD a few years ago, so I can play a track or two and hear Tom singing as if he were right here in my little living room. I’ve been playing that CD all week, listening for Tom’s voice. I wish I could imagine and conjure him alive again, just so I could say thank you for his friendship over the years. I’ll never forget him. How could you? He was Tom Ryan. A fine man. A fine friend. A good soul.

So…I would wish him Slan abhaile this week, a good wish on his journey, but I know he’s grand where he is, with Mary again. I know I’ll see him again some day. I imagine, somehow, I’ll get to heaven and there will be Tom Ryan, his arms wide open, a smile that will reach up to his bright eyes, saying “Kim! Come on! Give us a song!” And we’ll sing again together. Of that, I am more than sure.

I miss you, friend.
Slan abhaile (safe home). Always.
With so much love,
k.

It’s no secret that I love handwritten cards and letters. I send them. A lot. I love getting them, too, and am always thrilled when someone sends a real envelope, with pen and paper. I’m a poet, a romantic at heart, so I like things that speak of past days, and of simple etiquette and elegance. (I used to be a stationery freak when I was younger, but that’s thankfully dissipated. Now, well, now I’m into beautiful art cards…so they serve to fill my addiction in a small way.) When I was in Banff last spring, I found a little paper store that set my soul on fire. The poor woman, Nicola, didn’t know what hit her and then offered me a tiny, glittery purple bird to thank me for my (slightly excessive) purchases of handmade journals and hand painted, decorative Chinese and Japanese papers. Sigh. I know; I’m in therapy. No need to worry. 🙂

My maternal grandmother, Gram Ennis, always taught me that one should send thank you notes. It was not, she said firmly to me once in my early twenties, something worth discussing or questioning: thank you notes, gifts, and sympathy cards were not archaic and certainly not negotiable. Now, well, I think I freak a lot of people out with my notes and gifts, but it’s all because of her…and our time together in that old house on Wembley Drive. Blame her. I’m the best of her, really, and I’m glad to say that with much love in my heart. She was so dear to me…and I miss her like mad every day. (This makes me think I need to make her oatmeal and raisin scones soon, something my mum used to do, too, when she was missing her mum.)

So. A week ago, I asked my sister to come over to my house and go through old ‘funeral home envelopes.’ There were three: one for my paternal grandparents, one for my mum, and one for my dad. They were all vinyl, either gold or burgundy, and had sat in my front vestibule closet since I’d moved in here three and a half years ago. Time to go through and sort out what needed saving, and release what needed letting go. We did it fairly quickly, saving a few photos and a prayer card or two, re-reading sympathy cards one last time, and then tossing what needed to be tossed. In the middle of my grandfather’s envelope, a stack of little yellowed envelopes, all scattered…from Chapleau, to Crediton, to Espanola, to Sudbury.

The gist of the letters: in the autumn of 1935, my paternal great-grandfather was up in Chapleau, working in a lumber camp I think, but I never really knew the details of the accident from my dad. My grandfather would never speak of it, only just ever showing me the wicker plant stands that my great-grandfather made in some CNIB shop. Until today, I just knew something horrible had happened, and that there were photos of him as an older man, with little round black glasses like the ones James Joyce used to wear. I knew he had been blinded in some accident, but there were no details until I opened those tiny yellow envelopes this afternoon, sitting in a beam of sun in the middle of my big bed with the dogs snuggled next to me. I just shook my head as I read, feeling as if I were eavesdropping and almost thinking that I shouldn’t really read any more. It felt intrusive, especially because no one writing the letters seemed able to say what they actually felt.

There was the one from my great-grandfather, beautifully written in cursive script, where he explained the details of his accident. It was understated, obvious that he didn’t want to upset his wife, Emma: “I was in a little accident while at work. Some lime powder blew in my eyes so they brought me here to the hospital for treatments.” He tells my great-grandmother and great-aunt not to worry, but the other letters sound dire. A pastor from Chapleau writes to tell my great-grandmother, Emma: “I expect you have heard all about his condition. As you know, his face and eyes were burned with lime in the camp in from Nicholson. I am sorry to say that he has lost the use of at least one of his eyes.” Then the pastor goes on to say, offering it up to God, “The accident is very unfortunate, but we cannot understand the reason for these things.” They talk of him being taken from Chapleau down to a hospital in either London or Toronto, hoping (possibly) for some recovery of his sight. Some nun wrote my great-grandmother a note, saying that her husband was “a nice patient,” despite his being blind. It all seems rather odd, until I read the letter he sent himself, to his wife, Emma, and daughter, Irene.

“Dear Em and Irene:

You don’t know what happened, do you? The foreman asked me to slack some lime and white wash the office. We had a little lime in a pail, slacking it, and I thought it was all done working, when all at once it seemed to explode and blew up into my face. This was on the eleventh of October, between seven and eight in the morning, and it was the next evening before we reached the hospital in Chapleau. We travelled by boat for miles and slept in another camp on the way out and next day travelled over a rough road in a wagon. It was a terrible trip with the burning in my eyes and face the whole time.”

God. What’s worse is how my grandfather, my dad’s father, handled the news. He was somewhere else, up near Espanola, working in another lumber camp, when he heard of his dad’s accident. My grandfather, Lloyd, the man who terrified me when I was little, standing in the open doorway of a bedroom –listening to us breathe to be sure we were asleep–had been emotionally broken by his dad’s accident.

He wrote to his mother and sister: “I would like to write to Dad, but just can’t do it. I hope he will understand. I just can’t write because I could not write what I would like to, so you just let him know that I am well as can be expected. I guess he is a whole lot braver than the rest of us…I mean myself in particular. I have a nothing to say, but a lot to think about and it keeps me busy too. I am glad that I work 9 hrs a day because it keeps me from thinking too much.” He goes on to say how upset he is to hear of his father’s loss of sight. He says he’s deeply affected, not sleeping and not eating. This is so not like the big, tall scary man whom I knew to be my grandfather while I was growing up.

There were other letters in the packet of envelopes, but none of them were as odd. One was from my dad to his grandparents in Crediton, where Charlie and Emma lived later in life, where he talked about toboggans and flying off a big rock into a snow drift in Minnow Lake. This is typical of northern Ontario kids. 🙂 Another letter was from someone out in Saskatchewan, a Cousin Violet, who says she’s sorry to hear about Charlie’s eyes, but then goes on to speak about her sad appendix and how the cows aren’t milking very well this year. Another envelope has the layout or blueprint of the old family farm in Killarney, Manitoba, laid out on it. (This last envelope makes me think maybe I have an affection for farms because of family history that was first rooted in the prairies and then in southwestern Ontario.) Time travel happens when you stumble upon letters like this.

I often wondered why my dad wasn’t good at expressing emotions. He never said he thought we were pretty or smart when we were little. He wasn’t openly affectionate. He could be scary when we were little. It took him until he was in the palliative care ward at the hospital five years ago to talk about how he wished he’d been more open with us, encouraging us to blossom more. I always knew that he did the best he could, in terms of parenting us. He was an older father, in his late 30s when I was born, and he was old when I was in high school. My friends all had fathers who were about ten years younger. He wasn’t a ‘fun’ dad. He had been raised by a strict German father and a repressed woman of British descent who really wasn’t very intelligent. When I read my grandfather’s reaction to his father’s accident, I thought, “Oh, God. Why didn’t they just say they loved each other? It would’ve saved them so much pain and grief in life, and we all would have been better for it.” But you can’t change what earlier generations did, and you can only read these letters with an open and forgiving heart, looking for glimpses of what people were like.

To me, as I read those letters this afternoon, I kept thinking of how it’s better to have said things with words, written or spoken, than to have not said them. Imagine feeling so much, and then saying you couldn’t tell your own father that you felt his loss and pain. Imagine that their emotions were so deep, but so quickly denied and stuffed down. It made me sad inside. If only he had written to his dad, saying he loved him…maybe he would’ve been a different kind of dad to my dad. Maybe my dad would have learned how to express emotions a bit more openly. Maybe he wouldn’t have died trying to make amends with me and my sister, for not having been more expressive. The circles…the patterns…made me sad.

I spent part of the late afternoon with my dear friend, Trish. We talked for two hours. She and I are soul sisters. Some people know the path I’ve been on, but she is one who has walked with me. At some point in the conversation, she looked over at me and said, “God. It’s like you’re a whole new person, like you shed your skin and stepped out, into yourself. You’re here; you’re finally here.” It made me want to cry. You see, the fact that she can see that, and say that to me, makes me so grateful. When you haven’t been taught how to emote or express yourself, it’s sheer hell, trying to lead an open hearted life. When you finally do step into yourself, you realize what you haven’t said over the years, and how it’s only wounded and stunted your progress. Reading those letters today made me realize it all over again. I somehow have managed to break my paternal family’s pattern of closing down, shrinking inwards, and erasing their emotions.

I may not have a family network anymore, because all of the good Irish ones have gone onwards, but I have a few very good friends who are so dear to me. Walking today with Trish and her daughter, Elsie, made me think, again, about how blessed I am. Elsie is a unicorn child, all magic and imagination. She’s a writer, too. At the end of our walk, I gave her a big flying hug and told her that I love her. I told her mum that I love her, too. Then, as they were leaving me with the dogs in the driveway, Elsie turned and said, “I wish you would come and live next door to us, Kim. Why don’t you move closer to our house?” And my heart broke open, amazed. See…and here’s the magic…I’ve broken the pattern of my dad’s family in a simple way. I open my arms up, whereas they all must’ve crossed theirs over their chests, shrinking inwards, terrified of what their hearts really felt. Their lives were so much more sad because of their fear that their hearts would take them down the wrong paths, I think. I can never do that now.

I wish, against all wishes, because he’s gone, that my dad would’ve learned all of this just a wee bit earlier—how to open his arms wider, earlier in his life. Our lives would have been so much different if he had…but at least I’ve learned from the mistakes he and his dad made, so I’m grateful, even in feeling that ache of sadness.

peace,
k.