Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Building a Workshop - by Committee, No Less

Photo: Peter Baumgarten of Creative Island Photography
Yesterday I had the fun of planning a workshop with two women I knew only a little before we started. But after a couple of hours together on a late February afternoon, we are all looking forward to doing this workshop. With snow and ice surrounding us outside, it was a pleasure to imagine a mid-March meander through the bush, followed by moments of reflection indoors to write.

Sarah Earley, of  4elements Living Arts, and Danielle Bourgault, an herbalist who also works at Noojmowin Teg Health Centre, joined me at my kitchen table to brainstorm the upcoming Write into Herbs & Teas. This workshop will combine an exploration of local plants with writing responses to the experience of harvesting and tasting them.

We tossed around ideas and approaches. What might Danielle  teach the participants about some of the many local herbs and teas she knows. Give them the scientific angle? The spiritual-emotional? How to pick the herbs, make the teas?

"Do it all!" Sarah and I enthused.

These two women have such interesting skills, intelligence and good will that the planning was a breeze. We had fun and sparked off each other in a trusting, cohesive way, while I marveled to myself that this might possibly be the easiest planning session of which I've ever been a part. The workshop itself, on March 10, will be a joy.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018


The phrase "to plight one's troth" has in recent times usually meant a vow to marry, but it actually means any promise or pledge. Troth and truth were once the same word, meaning faithfulness, loyalty and honesty.

The first known use of the phrase was by Chaucer in the 13th century. In his "The Pardoner's Tale," three friends have plighted their troths "to live and die for one another like brethren born..." Things went awry, as things sometimes do, but as with plighting any troth, at the time of utterance the pledge binds.

Wednesday, 7 February 2018


Recently I shared two posts on Facebook that gave us a good laugh at some old words that the post-writers at Vintage News and History Hustle suggest we bring back. Those posts reminded me of the book I read a couple of months ago, Ellery Queen's Poetic Justice, a collection of "23 stories of crime, mystery, and detection by world-famous poets from Geoffrey Chaucer to Dylan Thomas." Queen published this unique book in 1967, with stories ranging from Chaucer's late 1300s excerpt from "The Pardoner's Tale" to Thomas' mid-1950s story, "The Old Woman Upstairs."

The stories were variously entertaining, boring and really good. But the language itself was consistently rich! From the convoluted structures of some to many delightful words I'd never heard before, to the beautiful rhythms of master writers, this book was the proverbial treasure trove. Here are a few of the gems.

From "The Three Strangers" by Thomas Hardy come two great pairs of words, the second of which explains the first but is just about as rich: "When the shepherd and his family who tenanted the house were pitied for their sufferings from the exposure, they said that upon the whole they were less inconvenienced by 'wuzzles and flames' (hoarses and phlegms) than when they had lived by the stream of a snug neighbouring valley."

Edgar Allan Poe's description of young working men reminded me of what you might see in any large city today: "There were the junior clerks of flash houses – young gentlemen with tight coats, bright boots, well- oiled hair, and supercilious lips…a certain dapperness of carriage, which may be termed deskism for want of a better word..."

One term used by G. K. Chesterton in "The Blast of the Book" (an intriguing title if ever I heard one) could not be found even when I consulted the oracle – a.k.a. Google. Chesterton wrote, "Professor Openshaw, a lean figure with palleonine hair and hypnotic blue eyes…" Palleonine. No one seems to know what it means, so I used my brilliant deductive reasoning to decide that looking up "palleo" might give me a clue. It did. Palleo is an old word that seems to have roamed all over Europe in ancient times and means "pale" or "to lose colour." So I think we can assume that Chesterton's Professor Openshaw had very light blonde hair to go along with his mesmerizing blue eyes.

So whether or not you have palleonine hair, or whether or not you have a flair for deskism, I sincerely hope you will not suffer from wuzzles and flames for the rest of this winter.

Friday, 2 February 2018

I write against violence. I write against fascism. I write against one person dominating another. -- Timothy Findley 

When I read this quote it prompted me to consider my own writing. Why do I write what I do? Do I write for something? Against something?

In considering my current novel, Like Raisins in Scone (working title), it's clear to me that I am writing against "violence…and…one person dominating another," as Findley said. The story does its best to look at the early days of Indian residential schools in Canada and to explore what that world was like for those children and the people charged with their keeping.

What I discovered while writing it was that all the terrible things that went on in residential schools in all places and all times affected anyone whose life touched those schools -- the children, obviously and most egregiously, their families and communities in different but equally devastating ways. We know this now, thanks to Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission and all the research and seeking that preceded it. What has followed the TRC's mandate has brought many such atrocities to light and to a wider audience. These revelations are long past due.

In recent years I have heard several Indigenous leaders and writers say things like, "We are all treaty people." and "Everyone in Canada is affected by residential schools and their legacy." Such statements opened my eyes to new ideas. They broadened my thinking and invited the discoveries I made while writing my book.

I discovered through my research and through getting to know my characters more fully, that many staff were almost as trapped as the children. Instantly I must say that this is not an excuse for cruelty or the institutions that supported it…but I have come to realize that it is true nonetheless. Many nuns and priests took vows of obedience believing in their god and their church. Some naturally entered their new lives with already-bent hearts and minds, but some did not. What a challenge it must have been for them to find themselves living in remote places, ordered and encouraged to inflict strict punishments on "those" children. Other. Ungodly. Dirty. This is what many staff people, and the communities that raised them, believed.

But what of those who found themselves in these schools with no way out? At the mercy of the orders that trained and programmed them, they went where they were sent. They stayed because they were told to. They survived because they were human, and to some, releasing their inner brute was not what they wanted. They had to learn to survive in an environment that taught cruelty, suspicion and separateness.

I realized during my research and writing that just as some guards in prisons and Nazi prison camps and orphanages around the world have always found ways to offer whatever small kindnesses and relief they could, it was logical that some in residential schools would have done the same. My initial plea to the universe that someone, sometime, was kind to the children was answered in the form of Sister Mary Victor.

I learned that there were, in fact, other real historical figures who advocated for the children in Indian schools – matrons, teachers, writers, at least one physician. I'm sure there were others my research did not reveal.

Like Raisins in Scone is not an apology for white people or the churches or governments. It is an exploration of what can happen to twist a human being, how urges are managed and mismanaged. How human beings react and respond when they are themselves trapped in circumstances beyond their control. It is an examination and indictment of Indian residential schools, to be sure, but it also offers an opportunity to explore the mindset of individuals and reflect on how a society helps to shape those individuals…for good or ill.