Blog # 153...May 2024

Hooray hooray, it's finally May and, as promised in #152, I've been to British Columbia and have a few tales to tell about it.

But first, to digress, something about women in history. We've all heard of Cleopatra, Eleanors both Roosevelt and Aquitaine, and our own country's politicians - Flora McDonald  Iona Campagnolo, Alexa Mcdonough, and now the wonderful Jane Philpott, with a great new book about how to fix our healthcare system. But wait a minute, how about the women backstage,  the ones we've never heard about who shaped our world too?  

A new play Women of the Fur Trade takes us back a few hundred years and gives us a peek at the time when settlers were arriving and the place of the women who were already here...those of the First Nations. Born in Winnipeg at the Vault Project, nurtured by the  National Arts Centre in Ottawa and produced last summer at the Stratford Festival, the play introduces us to three women who tell stories - some sad, some hilarious of their daily lives. Although it's set around the mid 1800's their concerns of love, loss, joy and sorrow could be today. And Lois Riel makes a dazzling appearance too.

Now about BC...there's such an indigenous presence there, and just after we arrived in Victoria, we came upon a crowd outside the BC legislative Assembly -  the Haida People in full regalia were celebrating the first reading of the bill recognizing their Aboriginal title throughout Haida Gwaii. Here's a link to more about this and a pic (that I can't seem to load after many tries!) 

Moving right along, as we did, to Campbell River - about half way up Island, as they say here. It's fishing, logging and mining territory and the town has a great small museum reflecting these important influences on life in the town...the most interesting thing for me was a life sized recreation of a floating house. These were complete dwellings built on wooden rafts, sometimes as many as a dozen, forming communities of workers and their families who could be floated from site to site to follow the work.

We were also aware of the art of survival, people appearing with tents at night after the local patrol had passed, gone in the morning. The climate is much more friendly to living rough and also to being old, so although I was at my usual level of discomfort with the homelessness, I certainly felt at home with the age cohort.

Sorry there are no pics, lots of images in my head but my energy to load them is flagging so I'm going to post this and see you in June.


 Blog #152...April 2024

March has come and gone with another long night of Oscars on the 10th...we usually think of it as an adult affair, but kids have occasionally taken part too. Supporting actress awards went to 10 year old Tatum O'Neil for Paper Moon  in 1993, and 20 years later to Anna Paquin who was 11 when she won for Piano.                                                                                                                                                                            

The highlight of this year's show for me (although Ryan Gosling's turn was amazing!) was the little girl who took the stage with the crew of The Last Repair Shop, winner of best documentary short.   The film opens with her talking about health difficulties in her family, how they take up so much time. "I don't know what I'd do without my music," she says. looking with affection at her violin -  repaired and provided by the LA workshop featured in the film. She wore the most beautiful frothy sky blue dress for the Oscars, I'm sure she was creating life long memories, she certainly did for me.

My friend Louise has been the manager of Fiesta Farms Garden Centre for the past few years and has made it, and the grocery store across the road, a centre of learning and involvement for the community, particularly two local schools - Essex and Hawthorne. Classes visit the Centre and contribute to decorations for seasonal events, like Valentine's Day. 

I thought they were also making an Oscar ballgown, which gave me the idea to focus this blog on kids and the Oscars...I misunderstood and it was the store staff who did the ballgown but I liked the idea about kids and proceeded with it anyway. Building on their experience creating a gown last year, staff members collected materials during the year - net bags from onions, wrappings from Mandarin oranges, colourful packaging - using their imaginations to discover what would provide background. And this was the result... did you guess that the necklace is made from grapes, reduced for quick sale!

Two very interesting films that are in theatres now will be up for awards next year...Perfect Days and The Taste of Things. They have something interesting in common, both are set in a very specific culture, with a director from a totally different background. The Taste of Things is very French - cast, setting, language, but with a certain difference, brought by Vietnamese director Tran Ann Hung. Director Wim Wenders brings his German sensibility to Perfect Days, exploring the daily life of a man who cleans Tokyo's public toilets...architectural wonders every one. 

I've yet to think of something to write about in May, so it'll be a surprise for all of us. I'll be in British Columbia at the end of April, so may appear a few days into May, and may bring some BC flavour.

 Blog # 151…March 2024

To go back to February for a moment, I’m happy to see Jen Gunter’s book Blood jump to # 1 on the non fiction best seller list. And I forgot to mention an interesting find at the McMichael…a wall of paintings by Frederick Banting, that’s right one of the founders of insulin.  Science and art together again!

In December, I wrote about Medical Assistance in Dying. It's front and centre in the news again with the controversial issue of an extension to include intractable mental illness. In January I mentioned Good Grief, a film about the death of a loved one. And I wrote a piece on death for Moods Magazine in 2011 which began “When we’re born we’re issued with a return ticket” and went on to list the ways we avoid saying die or death…passing on, kicking the bucket or, for sports fans, the final inning. I’m starting to rest my eyes sometimes with audiobooks and just finished listening to Foregone, Russell Banks' final novel, the protagonist a dying man. Banks died in January 2023 and the book came out later last year. It's the first of his book's I've read  (although I remember Atom Egoyan's film made from The Sweet Hereafter) but it won't be the last! Not that I’m preoccupied with death exactly but I am trying to desensitize myself to the thought as I move through life. 

International Women's Day is coming up on March 8, we'll be celebrating online again so we can reach many people far away. Sorry to miss the tasty dishes we used to share but hope everyone can enjoy some yummy food and maybe get together with a few friends in your own corner.  On Zoom here in the studio (my kitchen) we'll have Mary Newberry in conversation with BettyAnn Mckenzie about the book she edited on disability activist Beryl Potter, followed by Maria Meindl talking about her experience with Heart to Heart, an agency that brings groups of Israeli and Palestinian teens for a week of summer camping together in Ontario.  I'll be sending some loving and supportive thoughts to Yulia Navalnaya who is bravely taking up her late husband's work, feel free to join me.

And while we're in that part of the world, there's a new book out about the amazing Volodymyr Zelenskyy who said, when someone compared him toWinston Churchill, that  he felt more like, Charlie Chaplin.  Reminding us of how Chaplin used the power of his art to demean fascism...both Zelenskyy and Navalny bring tears to my eyes with their humour and their bravery.

So Happy Birthday to any of you who are Leap Year people and we're moving towards spring, see you again in April.

 Blog #150...February 2024

When the new year begins, as it just did, there's a sense of change in the air, often targeting our behaviour, frequently to do with eating and exercise. Makes me remember using a formal stress scale to launch cognitive groups when I was in that business. Top of the list was death of a spouse, no surprise there, but there were some seemingly positive events further down a work promotion, or a marriage. What they all shared of course as well as stress was change.

I sometimes think of what's not changed or what seems to be a similar situation. Is it too much of a stretch to compare the multitude of cruel scams afoot these days - online, at the bank machine or in a car - to the sharp teeth of animals our ancestors feared if they stepped outside their cave, or even stayed inside?  But back to what has changed.

Changes come in many forms - from beginning, or leaving, a relationship or job to the more subtle changes that can emerge slowly in attitudes. The wonderful Canadian gynaecologist Jen Gunter points out in her latest book -  Blood: The Science, Medicine and Mythology of Menstruation - how, as recently as 1974,  Britain's medical journal The Lancet published a piece speculating that menstrual blood could wither plants. I know 1974! She does a great deal for women btw, with The Vagina Bible  in 2019, The Menopause Manifesto in 2021 as well as Blood in 2024.

We all had to change quickly and pretty drastically when the pandemic struck, and I was reminded yet again how important friends are. Dan Levy has just released his first feature film, pivoting from his TV success with Schitt's Creek. In Good Grief  Dan blends the sorrow brought by the loss of a loved one with the life saving support of friends. It's set in the gay community and although it portrays that community as unique, the feelings connected with grief and with the importance of friends is universal.

 And Mathew R Morris in his first book Black Boys Like Me shows how topics to write about have changed since, say 1974 (when women were wilting plants). A teacher, Mathew brings his own experience at school to share with black students in his classroom, pointing out their individuality within the stereotypes of sports and music...or crime. Good for the white kids to hear too - lots to think about here.

And finally, I was lucky to visit the McMichael Gallery outside Toronto last week - how I adore that place!  I love stepping away from appreciating Canadian art to the large windows to appreciate the beautiful Canadian landscape outside. I say lucky because the Gallery is not accessible without a car, except for a once weekly bus in the summer. And the only opportunity to eat is a rather pricey and definitely not family friendly restaurant, no spot to eat a packed lunch in the winter other than a couple of benches in the lobby.  This is such an important collection of Canadian art, including thousands of indigenous pieces celebrated in a wonderful new book, that I'm always disappointed it isn't accessible to more people.  Maybe that'll change?   And, the show I enjoyed was the work of Marcel Dzama, a Winnipeg artist influenced by Federico Garcia Lorca and Tom Thomson... I know, weird, but the resulting work is beautiful and interesting.

So, this month's blog is a bit of a pot pourri, like life these days. See you in March.


Blog #149…January, 2024

I’m starting 2024 with a suggestion: to replace the acronym STEM, which has flooded the field of education in the past few years, with STEAM.  So the important foundations necessary for innovation, problem solving and critical thinking would be Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics. Seems obvious doesn’t it?

I’ve just read something that unleashed a flood of nostalgia -  one of the great things about books - and this may prompt memories for you too, I hope so.

When I was a kid, my best friend Barra's backyard sloped invitingly into the Don Valley. Our parents warned us not to go ‘down the Don’ as we called it, but of course we started drifting down to see what was there, being content at first to go as far as the path that stretched a couple of hundred yards through green and perfect woods, maybe originally an Indian trail.  Pretty soon, we started venturing further and further, to the railway bridge, down to the River, there was no Don Valley Parkway to get in the way, and along to the Brickworks - in full production then. We’d occasionally see a solitary shabby man and know to take off even without any street-proofing. Our little gang spent hours running, hiding, discovering plants and small animals, laughing,  poking each other and playing games we made up. Someone’s dog called Skipper was a good sport about being part of the games. I’d arrive home for supper, not feeling it was important to mention to my parents where I got so dirty.

So when I heard Lucy Black on the CBC talking about her novel The Brickworks,  I immediately got on the phone to Ben McNally and ordered a copy. Historical fiction isn’t usually on my list, but this promised to be close to home, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Alistaire and Brodie are a couple of Scotty guys who meet up at work  building bridges around Buffalo. The time is late 1800’s and Lucy Black captures the times with its differences and similarities, totally drawing me into the lives of a couple of working class immigrants more than a century ago. They become friends through a common love of fishing and on a trip over the border, they discover a place in southern Ontario with an abundance of shale and clay - the ideal materials for bricks. The story unrolls with misfortunes, adventures and ultimately their success at building a business - The Brickworks - and finding love.

 Maybe it was my Scottish roots that piqued my interest in this, or maybe the word brickworks triggered a visit to memories of running through the Don when it was wild and beautiful, and with the sense of being somewhere I wasn’t meant to be, which still has a certain appeal. Losing myself in the world offered by a book is a great way to end this difficult year.

Here's hoping for some relief from the pain and suffering of so many people in the world - abroad, here too. I'll keep blogging along, it helps me make sense of some of it and tolerate the rest. 

Wishing you health and happiness in the new year that arrives in a few days...I'm off the grid for a bit to regroup after the holidays, back in February when the afternoons will stretch out and spring will be just down the road.


Blog # 148…December, 2023


Another November’s come and gone, this year bringing an added depth of darkness - both real and existential. We’ve turned the clocks back and put poppies on our lapels to honour fallen soldiers from old wars. Meanwhile, new wars rage in Sudan, Ukraine and Gaza killing civilians against all laws of war and decency. Hard as it is to avoid despair, it’s not an option.  My glass is still half full (not sure of what) and I manage to find the occasional bright spot, or pony as the old joke about optimists and pessimists goes. 

I met Emily Armour several years ago  after she'd discovered a profile of Phyllis Carleton I'd writtten on a University of Toronto alumni website and she contacted me in hopes of finding some connection with her grandmother. Phyl had been  a physiotherapist  practicing in England during World War Two, as had Elizabeth Carroll, Emily’s seemed possible they had met, maybe even worked together. I asked Phyl shortly before her death (at almost 101) and examined various physio contacts but wasn't able to find any evidence of Elizabeth Carroll and the search seemed over. But in the many messages back and forth with Emily, I discovered something wonderful about her passions and her creative talents. 

She’s  a musician and teacher of music in Victoria,  British Columbia and, as well as a curiosity about her grandmother, she has an interest and reverence for other individuals who served in WWll. She searched out some surviving soldiers in and around Victoria and introduced them to her students (aged 8 to 18). Each student was assigned an individual to interview and then compose a  piece of music reflecting the veteran’s experiences during the war and since. Presenting the pieces to the larger group was a poignant experience for both the aging veterans and the young students - and Music for Veterans was born.

The project began in 2021 and most of the original students remain involved, with the addition of some new youngsters. This November they produced their first public event, held in Victoria’s Royal Oak Burial Park, the beautiful spot where Elizabeth Carroll is buried.

Music by the young composers commemorated the lives of eleven local airmen who died in training exercises during the war, never seeing active service and often not recognized in memorial services. Four of the older students then travelled with Emily to Ottawa to perform at a Remembrance Day ceremony on Parliament Hill, where they honoured Indigenous soldiers killed in battle as well as Romeo Dallaire.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

Emily's persistence in searching out traces of her grandmother had led her to discover the obituary of another physiotherapist, Helen Metcalfe who had also served in England. Emily contacted her daughter Sue in Ottawa who remembered her mother mentioning Betty Carroll and even found a photo of Betty treating an injured soldier to send to Emily. While she was in Ottawa for the Remembrance Day event, Emily met Sue and they shared memories of  their beloved grandmother and mother… and the circle closed. 

Since Canada brought in Medical Assistance In Dying (MAID) in June of 2016, more than 40,000 individuals have chosen this way to end their life.  Many family members and friends have participated in conversations about the decision making and other arrangements involved in this important social phenomenon  - new to us all.

Three of my friends have chosen to die with MAID in the past few months, the first sent a message with the reason for his decision and the fact that it would take place in a few days  - giving us a chance to express our affection and what his friendship had meant to us...sad but comforting. As individuals make different choices about their lives, they also do so about their deaths...and maybe the conversations that emerge in discussing MAID will lessen our avoidance of this sensitive topic. 

This starts the holiday season and finishes off 2023. I'm wishing peace and joy to you and for the rest of the world. We'll be back in 2024.

 Blog # 147...November 2023

 "Oh Canada, our home on native land," I love Jully Black's tiny one word switch in our national anthem that corrects the picture from  coast to coast to coast. Since I flew east recently, my thoughts are moving first in that direction - to Suzanne Stewart in Nova Scotia, then to Manitoba with Wab Kinew and out to Naomi Klein in British Columbia...and finally to a great Arctic/Amazon collaboration in Toronto.  November brings its own darkness, this year we're already drowning in serious difficulties at home and brutal horrors abroad, so we need flashes of brightness to keep us afloat.

When I was in Halifax I was pleased to have the ideal gift to take to friends who made me enormously welcome. Although it was a bit like taking coals to Newcastle, I gave them Suzanne Stewart's book The Tides of Time. A long time resident of Antigonish where she teaches at St Francis Xavier University, Suzanne began to think of our relationship with time and with the seasons, and has produced a contemplative book centred around the rural labours unique to Nova Scotia taking place each month. Starting in September (the beginning of the academic year) she meets and tells stories of tuna fishers, apple growers, beekeepers, sheep farmers, cranberry farmers, maple syrup producers, concluding in August with wild blueberry harvesting. It's a quiet, calm book, just the thing to neutralize the crowded, noisy and worrisome lives we lead...even in Nova Scotia.

And a few weeks ago, we rejoiced in the result of the election in Manitoba that gave us our first Indigenous provincial premier. Wab Kinew's first act in the legislature was to introduce a bill to formally recognize Metis leader Louis Riel as the province's first premier and to modernize the education curriculum to accurately reflect his life and accomplishments. Faced with corrosive criticism about his troubled past during the campaign, Wab was forthright in turning it into a wish that  people whose situations were not so good right now could see in his life, hope for their own.  Coming from a background somewhat different from most politicians (as well as being Indigenous, he's been a CBC journalist and broadcaster and a successful writer) gives Wab an edge on relating to Manitoba citizens. His memoir - The Reason You Walk, a story of reconciliation with his father who had been a residential school survivor, is both candid and moving. We'll be watching him with hope. 

A few years ago, Naomi Klein moved to British Columbia to be close to her parents. By this time, she had begun to realize that she was frequently being confused with Naomi Wolf: Same first name - not just them but their husbands - both Jewish, similar hair colour and style, and, perhaps most confounding, similar views early in their careers. Naomi Wolf wrote The Beauty Myth attacking the beauty industry in 1990; Naomi Klein wrote No Logo in 1999 poking at the "brand bullies".  Naomi Klein (our Naomi) continues to examine aspects of our world from the left while the other Naomi has swung to the far right, become an anti vaxxer, conspiracy theorist and frequent guest of Steve Bannon on Fox News.  In her highly personal Doppelganger, our Naomi examines how easily doubles can confuse our  thinking and upset our perception of reality...I hope it clears up who she is! 

The Image Centre at Toronto Metropolitan University is home to a clever Arctic/Amazon project, an outside mural that brings together artists from two Indigenous groups, one from Nunavik,  the other from a remote area of Peru. Intending to unify the traditions and cultural legacies of these two regions and honour global indigeneity, the mural appears on the west wall of Kerr Hall, on Gould Street and Nelson Mandela Way, near Yonge and Dundas.

And since we're in the realm of Indigenous culture, this year's ImagiNATIVE, the annual celebration of media arts was bigger and more inclusive than ever. Since its founding by Cynthia Lickers-Sage in 1998, they've brought Indigenous film and video makers and other visual artists from around the world to present their creative excellence and innovation to each other and to us. Ten programs of shorts on different themes, animated programs for the "grandbabies", feature films, an art walk to gallery shows and a gala finale at the Art Gallery of Ontario are some of the attractions to whet our appetite for next year.

And as I write this, my heart aches for all the Indigenous people harmed by the immensely complex controversy over legitimacy and the damage to our progress towards reconciliation. 
With all that's going on in the world there's still lots of good and we need to relish it to cope with the awful stuff.  See you before Christmas to put the lights on for that season.