Wednesday, 24 July 2019

“Another Birthday”

We were talking yesterday, my cancer buddies (who are also writing buddies) and I, about the way most people seem to fear or even hate old age, and how some, who are fighting to make another birthday, see every extra year as a tremendous gift.

I'm somewhere in the middle. I am grateful I am still alive, but I do fear the lack of independence that many of us, especially those with no money, face as age or infirmities increase. I think that, even more, I fear dying before I have managed to polish off my roughest edges and be the kind of person I know myself to be underneath the crust. Someone who can really embrace life.

So this is what I wrote.

Another Birthday

I don’t want one more birthday
I want a thousand
ten thousand
I want to live so long and so well
that all my fears die of old age
and I wait my stiffness out
outlast all infirmity
lose interest in whether I’m
remembering right or not
tire my fatigue
bore my hesitation
give flight to every
impulse toward life I ever have
and spend my days protecting insects
nurturing plants
feeding   giving water
giving shelter and a sense that is
the absence of all panic
to birds   and rats   and dogs
I want to live so long my crusts
crack and split and fall away
till I respond with tenderness to those
as brittle as that near-forgotten me

Image: "A woman's 78th birthday on 4th December 2005. Ardencraig Care Home (Glasgow)" by I Craig from Glasgow, Scotland.   Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

Tuesday, 4 June 2019


Leanne Mya's Audition, BGT, May 2019

I belong to a group that meets to write together on very personal themes. We read a few short pieces--poems or snippets of essays, we let everyone know how we are doing, and then we write on our theme for half an hour or so. It is meant to be heartfelt and honest, not polished and literary. Afterward there is time to read aloud what we have written, if we want to. The option is always there to not read so that we will write what we most need to say, not edit it for public consumption.

Toward the end of March we took the theme "disappointment." This is what I wrote.


My first thought was, “What is ‘appointment’?” How can I think I understand disappointment when I don’t know its root word?[1]

I don’t go in for disappointment as much as I used to, though it still runs through the seams of life. Every time I listen to the news or go on Twitter I’m confronted by disappointing things. How can we make such bad choices for ourselves and our world, over and over, repeatedly? Why is so little of the news we see extraordinarily good? How could Robert Müller hand over the results of his two year investigation to a Trump appointee who of course would bury them? So very disappointing.

Perhaps that’s why I feed the birds, and make space for spiders and insects in my home. Why I like to watch joyous auditions on Ireland’s or Britain’s Got Talent: as a partial antidote to that onslaught of disappointment, heartbreak, and yes, fear. To see someone throw heart and soul into a song or dance, then burst into tears when the audience and judges praise them; to watch a Russian crow roll down a snowy windshield for sport, a longhorn bull play with a giant inflated ball, a long-tailed tit try leaving the nest for the first time—and change her mind. These tiny singularities are poised against a supermassive black hole of sorrowful news. Tiny but powerful. They blow air back into my lungs and life into my soul.

(Click on these photos to see the videos.)

Russian Crows

[1] For the curious: The Online Etymology Dictionary tells me this: disappoint (v.): mid-15c., disappointen, "dispossess of appointed office," from dis- "reverse, opposite of" + appoint, or else from Old French desapointer "undo the appointment, remove from office" (14c., Modern French from désappointer). Whereas: disappointment (n.): 1610s, "defeat or failure of hope or expectation," from French désappointement or else a native formation from disappoint + -ment.

Thursday, 30 May 2019

Interview with Eileen Kernaghan, Author

In the midst of a night of sleeplessness, it struck me that I wanted to ask my friend Eileen Kernaghan a few questions about her writing life and current project, it having been a long time since I'd last done this. So I tapped together some questions and sent them her way, and she has kindly consented to indulge me on this.

Eileen is one of my favourite writers. She doesn't produce floods of books, nor are they great door-stoppers. They are beautifully written, thoughtful, magical adventure stories, each one evoking a time and place that fascinate, peopled with characters I could happily befriend--or avoid at any cost.


🌿 Can you tell our readers a little about yourself and your career in the literary arts?

I grew up in a small farming town where outside of haying season there was very little to do but read books, and in time that led to writing my own stories.  I launched my literary career when I was twelve, when I sold a story to the children’s page of the Vancouver Sun. Publication came with an illustration and a modest payment, my classmates and my parents were impressed, and though my next attempt at fiction was politely declined, there was really no looking back. For the next couple of years I turned to journalism as the local correspondent for the Enderby Commoner, which according to its masthead covered the (North Okanagan) valley like the dew.

There followed a long hiatus, during which I finished high school, went to UBC, earned a teaching certificate, got married, and had three children. I started writing again when the kids were in elementary school and I had mornings to myself.  I produced a couple of quite unpublishable stories, and then I sold a somewhat better one to Galaxy magazine [1]. My name and an illustration for the story were on the front cover.  Success! But when my next attempts at short fiction went nowhere, I decided to write a book.  My fantasy novel Journey to Aprilioth and the two that followed, Songs from the Drowned Lands and The Sarsen Witch, (making up the Drowned Lands trilogy) were published in the eighties by Ace Books.  However, my next novel, Winter on the Plain of Ghosts, failed to find a home with New York publishers, and eventually I self-published it [2].  (Thanks to modern technology it’s still out there, available from Amazon as paperback and e-book.)

At about the same time, though few Canadian publishers were doing adult speculative fiction, there was a growing Canadian market for YA fantasy.  My next book was a YA, set in eighteenth Bhutan and it sold to Thistledown, a Canadian literary press. To date Thistledown has published Dance of the Snow Dragon, followed by Wild Talent (fin de siècle London and Paris) and Sophie, in Shadow  (India under the Raj).

Along the way, I’ve co-written a writers guide -- now long out-dated; the book version of a documentary film, some short stories and poems, and a poetry collection, Tales from the Holograph Woods.

🌿 Are you working on any writing projects at the moment?

I’m working on the third book in the family story that began with Wild Talent.This one is set in Paris of the 1920’s, and it’s the story of Alex, the younger daughter. 

🌿 I've read frequently that writers need to create an outline to their stories before writing them. Is that how you approach your writing? Why do you organize it in this way? If you create outlines of any sort, how much time would you say the outline for this book took, how complete is it, and how much is it likely to change?

I should create an outline. It would be nice to have an outline. But I tend more to the jumping off a cliff without a parachute approach to plotting.  I have a central character and I have a time and a place.  I start out by researching the period for the sake of the plot. Then as a rule the research starts to shape the plot, and takes it to places I was not expecting. As an example, here’s what happened when I was writing The Alchemist’s Daughter, set in Elizabethan England. I started out by reading a great deal about sixteenth century alchemy, which in turn led me to stories of unsuccessful alchemists who, having promised gold they couldn’t deliver, were very likely to be tortured and executed. That gave me my basic plot – how the daughter of a very unsuccessful alchemist set out to save her father from a foolish promise to the Queen.

It also led me to read about Dr. John Dee, the Elizabethan alchemist who was rumoured to have discovered the philosophers’ stone and buried it at Glastonbury. That fit nicely into the story  and set my heroine, Sidonie Quince, on the road to Glastonbury.

🌿 What effect does that have on you, not knowing ahead of time how it is all going to go? Do you love it? Does it drive you to distraction?

I wouldn’t say I love it. But neither does it drive me to distraction.  I take a lot of time to write my books, and usually something – perhaps some bit of research—will turn up.  There’s a certain excitement in wondering how the whole thing will turn out.

🌿 I have read all of your novels, and one of my favourite aspects of them is the fascinating elements you draw from history and weave into your story. Without giving too much away, are there any social movements or characters from history or other intriguing things that you are particularly enjoying exploring for this book?

Yes. Russian exiles in the Paris of the 1920’s; the search for immortality; inherited wild talents.

🌿 What is the role of the supernatural in your books--if indeed it serves the same purpose in each of them?

In my recent books the supernatural exists not so much in the external world as in the unusual talents the characters possess. I think of them as traditional historical novels with a touch of the strange and inexplicable.

🌿 You have a very respectable collection of books, stories, and poems under your belt, in addition to the nonfiction writing you have sometimes done. Can you give readers a sense of how you go from the initial spark to a complete tale?

The initial spark is usually an interest in, a curiosity about, a particular time and place.  Some research about that era usually suggests a main character, and how that character might interact with the society.  And from that comes the plot. For instance, I chose to write about Bhutan (Dance of the Snow Dragon) because a friend was very impressed with a performance by the Bhutanese Royal Dancers when they came to Vancouver, and she suggested that Bhutan would be a fascinating setting for a book. So I started researching. 

🌿 Have these explorations in subject, history, theme, and craft affected your life in any ways that you might not have expected?

I suppose a deeper knowledge of earlier times and other places than I could ever have gained in school or university.  
🌿 Do you find any value in belonging to writing groups, even though you are by now an accomplished writer? What do they offer you? What about teaching writing? Does this support your own writing in any way?

I managed to finish my first novel, Journey to Aprilioth, because I was determined to bring a chapter for critiquing to every Burnaby Writers Society meeting. The feedback from the small writing group to which I’ve belonged for many years has been immensely helpful.  And I wouldn’t feel right about teaching writing if I were not writing myself.

🌿 Where can readers find you and your books? Will you be doing any readings or participating in panels, and so on in the coming months?
You can find my books in libraries, at amazon and at lots of other online sites. All but the earliest ones are now available as e-books. You will likely find me at the 2020 Creative Ink festival

For more of Eileen and her writing:

Eileen Kernaghan's website (with samples from her novels)

Thanks so much, Eileen, for taking the time to answer these questions. I'm very much looking forward to the third novel in the Wild Talent/Sophie, In Shadow series, so I won't pester you any more and will let you get back to work.

[1] "Starcult" by Eileen Kernaghan, Galaxy volume 32 number 3 (1971). (All text and images preserved at the Internet Archive. Read Eileen's story there!

[2] It has always baffled me that this novel didn't find a publisher. It may possibly be my favourite.

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

Beginning Today

I am moved by what I participated in tonight--the first profession of vows of a new Sister of Saint Joseph of Toronto. Her parents, the nuns who supported her through her two years as a novice, cousins and friends and as many of her community of sisters as could come were all gathered to witness and celebrate her profession. There was so much joy in the room. The joy of the newly professed sister and her community swirled around me till my own eyes were tinged with happy tears.

These days we don't see droves of young women becoming nuns; indeed, we are barely aware that Catholic nuns still exist, as very few wear the habits of yesteryear. Observe the two photos above. The first is from the 1950s, and the second is from the current decade. You could pass a whole busload of nuns and have no idea who they were.

I am visiting here because of my friend and grade four teacher, Sister Cecelia. We've known each other for more than fifty years, from our first meeting in Winnipeg's St. Anne's School--a three room elementary school in the basement of the church--to our days living in Vancouver some years later, to occasional visits in Toronto, to the weeks I spent with her in Haiti, an event which led to my living there for a short while and learning things about myself and the world that I never would have otherwise discovered.

Because I have stayed connected to Sister Cecelia and her community, even though I left the Church myself many years ago, I have had the opportunity to grow in my awareness of the good that they have offered to the world and received from each other. I have had to process the bad news that has been revealed at different times, of abuse and so forth, of course, but in knowing these women and the caring and hard work they bring to their service as health care professionals, teachers, and so much more, I have come to better understand and more deeply cherish them and their vocation. I have been sad at the thought that the days of Catholic women religious might be coming to an end. It isn't enough to work toward the ordination of women in the Catholic church. The sisters are extremely important, too, and have something very different to offer than priests. I know this won't make sense to everyone, especially to people who have been badly hurt by Catholic religious or the institution itself, or to others who have only been exposed to the worst stories. And I know there is still a lot to change. But this is one baby I don't want thrown out with her bathwater.

I am so happy that this woman has had the opportunity to deepen a call that she feels to live in a spiritual community that is also committed to serving people who suffer in many different ways. It isn't for everyone, clearly. But for some of us, having that spiritual dimension and the support of others for whom it has meaning makes the work we do in the world deeper, stronger, more sustainable, and more joyful. I am glad that there is still some space in the world for this type of vocation.

The congregation this new sister has entered is very different in some ways from the one Sister Cecelia entered. It will continue to change over time. I am glad that women like this new nun are here to bring that renewal to their congregation and to our world.

Blessings on your journey, Sister.

Images: Two Sisters of Saint Joseph (1950s); some of today's Sisters of Saint Joseph.

Wednesday, 6 March 2019

Teenage Women in Tough Times: Novels by Sally Rooney and Caitlin Moran

A few days ago I finished and returned Sally Rooney's Normal People to my local library and while there picked up How to Be Famous by a comedian I like, Caitlin Moran. I'm about to go where I generally never will, and discuss the books in a way that scatters spoilers like pollen.

There are a number of areas of overlap between the two. The writers are women of Irish stock--one from Ireland and the other from England. The protagonists are female teens, each faces public shaming at some point, each has challenging parents, each is in love but not in the boyfriendgirlfriend relationship they would choose.

There are many differences, as well. Sally Rooney is herself twenty-seven years old. Caitlin Moran is in her early forties. Marianne, in Normal People, is traumatized by her young life to the point that she becomes self-destructive; Dolly Wilde is as innocent and audacious as can be. Both are brilliant. Rooney traces the lives of Marianne and Cornell with a deeply serious and delicate touch; Moran writes in a rumbustious and frequently hilarious style, giving her book a lighter feel for much of its length.

In fact, they are equally serious novels, examining abuse, desire, and self-understanding. Moran squares off against sexism and sex in a way I have never before seen. It is brutal and beautiful. Rooney focusses on the ways we betray ourselves in answer to betrayal, and can help each other mend.

One thing that upset some readers of Normal People was the "stereotypical" roles the female and male protagonists played. I disagree with that assessment; portraying sexism doesn't invent it. But even I hesitated when I saw the way in which the resolution came about, with Marianne needing Cornell in ways that leave the reader, in particular the feminist reader, squirming a little bit. Dolly Wilde has no such problem. Her resolution is entirely--as soon as I wrote that word I knew it wasn't quite right--independent, or at least largely female generated.

But that's all right. I don't need all my female protagonists to soar above their wounds. Some wounds don't heal so completely. Nor do I need to leave every book feeling settled, and sure. I like that I've had to reflect carefully on Normal People and on its ending, just as I like that Moran makes it very clear how this particular aspect of sexism works, and how women can combat it in ways men can't.

I love that my library has these books for me to read. Now. On to David Chariandy and Brother.

Normal People by Sally Rooney was longlisted for the 2018 Booker Prize and won the 2018 Costa Novel Award. "Irish writer Sally Rooney wins 2018 Costa Novel Award for 'trailblazing' book, Normal People" by Jane van Koeverden for CBC Books.

"How to Be Famous by Caitlin Moran review – sex, drugs and Britpop" review by Kitty Empire for The Guardian.

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

Some Guy Sitting in His Mother's Basement

Every time I hear this phrase my hackles rise.

This Guy--who is he? Some ill-informed, jobless jerk who spends his time trolling good, valuable, employed people, who spreads lies and seeds dissent, who wastes our time. Apparently.

What is this? Why have we as a pack decided to blame our ills on Russian spies and young men who we have decided are too afraid or too stupid to join the world as we have in a responsible way? It is such a familiar story. Russian spies aside--these are very real indeed, if we can believe our ears and eyes--time after time as a society we find a scapegoat for all our bad behaviours and blame them. Generally someone who cannot possibly defend themselves. Faggots. Jews. Fallen women. Guys in their mother's basements.

I don't know a lot of mothers who have basements, but I know a lot of young men who are consigned or consign themselves (where the line lies, I don't know) to withdrawal into the relative safety of their parent's home, away from a world that has battered and at times defeated them, who participate in that world mostly through their interactions with their families and the internet.

They are not trolls, funnily enough. Some I don't know well enough to fathom, but some I do. These are deeply intelligent, deeply perceptive, and deeply wounded survivors of a world that grinds people who fall outside the norm into a bloody paste. They are my beloved friends, whose futures I fear for, and when callous and thoughtless pundits and otherwise fair-minded people allow themselves to lazily blame people who are in many ways victims of the same system they themselves decry instead of looking carefully into why we normal every day people do terrible things to each other at the drop of a hat, I fume inside.

Not everyone who lives in his mother's basement is even wounded. Some of them simply live in a society that makes it impossible for everyone to make a good enough living to have their own home. Some of them are taking care of their mother, who is ill or old or lonely. Some of them are just young, and haven't figured out what move they want to make next.

Sure, some guys in their mother's basements are treacherous goofs. Lots of guys in high towers are, too. Why? What makes us this way? This is the question we need to ask ourselves, honestly and with vigour. And leave the wounded isolates alone.

Image: "Are online gamers really unpopular, overweight, and socially inept? Science weighs in.By Seriously Science | January 7, 2014 7:00 am

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

A Walk on the Mild Side

Image result for "beaconsfield park" vancouver

I woke up this morning to a beautiful day, and though I had lots of things I had to get done today, what I really wanted to do was go for a walk around the park next door to enjoy the last moments of golden light and shirtsleeve weather before autumn refuses to release its hold. I've been so busy since moving in, and I've been longing to explore the neighbourhood more.

But I didn't. Deadlines are crushing in, I have way too much going on and am getting so little done because I am absolutely wiped. So I got up and started my day.

Since last night, though, I have been feeling very yukky. So tired I feel ill, and so ill I feel very tired. Naturally, this is a perfect combination for neither being able to sleep nor able to work. After dragging myself around and feeling increasingly unwell, trying to figure out how to stop feeling sick to my stomach and get some real work done, I phoned Susan, She Who Knows All (except when I know better). After a careful assessment she prescribed rest.

So I lay down for almost a minute, in which time I felt even worse because of the pressure on my body, and decided, what the heck. One little walk. How long can it take to walk around the park?

A very long time, apparently.

I started by going into the courtyard, something I seldom do because I still feel like it isn't my yard to walk in, and I smelled the ripening pears where they hung unblemished from the tree. Then I went across the yard to the extended care wing, because my neighbour told me today that there is a chapel in there that we can use, and I wanted to check it out. I eventually found a way in, and was shown the way to the chapel (no holy water in the fonts!) where I spent a few minutes looking around and then sitting quietly. Unfortunately sitting did not help my nausea, so I travelled on.

Out to the front boulevard where the bus was pulling out with residents seated, on their way to some adventure. Past the gardeners mowing lawns and bagging up leaves. Off the sidewalk and onto fresh green grass, speckled with late flowering plants. I was already in a different world. Such a pretty park, undulating up from one playing field to another, gulls squawking as they landed on the towering playing-field lamps. The upper field extends out to a lane behind a row of houses, several with old garages or tiny caravans. Tall trees grow across the rising land from west to east, and more fringe the fields. In the lower part of the park on the eastern side, instead of a playing field there are well-ripened, raised community garden beds. I walked among them to enjoy the company of the plants and earth and wood and string, making mental notes of things I might do in my own garden next spring.

A hummingbird, smaller than an Anna's so I am guessing a Rufous, landed in a sunflower next to me. When the hummingbird left a chickadee took its place, burrowing its face into the seedhead for a coveted treat. Mental note: plant sunflowers. I don't want to eat them necessarily, but I do want birds in my yard.

One of the plots belongs to a Montessori school group--a new revelation. The Italian Cultural Centre is not only responsible for starting the community garden (whose first rule is "Be excellent with each other") but it has a Montessori school (0-grade 7) within its walls.

Having spent this wonder-filled time in the park, I was feeling less sick. I stopped a woman to ask if she recognized the structure I was looking at. Was it a kiln? Was it a pizza oven? (It was a pizza oven.) She had just picked up her Fresh Roots vegetables for the week from the Italian Cultural Centre. These are grown by students at Van Tech, just up the street. You pay in January and pick up your veg all summer long (till 10 October). The kids are totally into it and she figured it worked out to about $20 a week for veg. Not organic, she thought. But good. She also buys her grains from a farm in Agassiz--whole, organically grown grains--on the same basis: pay in January, pick up through the summer. If the farmer loses the whole crop to bad weather, you lose your contribution. Fair enough. (This applies in all three cases. Makes the whole food thing more real, it seems to me.) She has the same deal with a woman at Trout Lake Farmer's Market. Unfortunately my memory couldn't hold all of that.

By the time we were done talking I felt gross again. But I still took time to look at Women’s Work : Reflections upon the History of Women in Textile, the exhibition on at the museum in the Italian Cultural Centre from 12 September to 30 December. There are a couple of pieces I quite like, and most of them I at least enjoyed contemplating. And a few more minutes to peek in at the Bocce rink and the Osteria (both closed) at the Centre. This is such a happening place, and so much of it comes down to the Italian Cultural Centre. Who'd have thunk it?

So here I am. Feeling vile and not having accomplished a thing today, with those deadlines not getting any further away. But what a lovely walk I had, and how amazing to live in such a place, where there is beauty right outside, and so many threads between the people here--a real community.

Image result for "beaconsfield park" vancouver

Images: Beaconsfield Park, City of Vancouver site.
Il Forno Community Oven, Italian Cultural Centre site.