Blog # 125…January 2022

Here we go again, launching a new year with high hopes in the face of grim circumstances…never more important to take refuge in the joys and sorrows of a good story. And what a wealth of stories our Canadian writers have to tell!

They live in every corner of the country and come from every corner of the globe…they’re old, young and in between and from a range of ethnicities and genders. They tell true stories, their stories, and the stories of others, real and imaginary, set here and elsewhere. If you feel like a laugh or need a cry, you’ll find it in between the covers of a book. And Bruce Cockburn has some advice ”Pay attention to the poet, You need him and you know it”.

I’m grateful to books that have helped me process personal emotional conflicts over the years. My name in the front of The Alexandria Quartet is written in a tentative small script that reflects the way I felt in my early 20’s, when it helped me understand that the world is full of very different people and no one really fits in.  More recently the Mummy Noir genre has given me a sense of the real joys, but also the hard and ugly feelings involved in motherhood. I’m still struggling with understanding life and each book I read urges me along.

I haven’t taken up bread making or weaving or learning  a language this past year and have spent most of the time reading…here are some of the things I’ve enjoyed. I now give myself the luxury of abandoning something I’m not liking, so this is the cream of the crop.

First, although I love fiction, some nf sometimes creeps in…I was intrigued by an interview with Kamal Al-Solaylee, a writer and professor at Ryerson (wish they’d get that name change going) about the notion of returning to home. He left Yemen as a teenager and has lived in Egypt and England, settling in Toronto several decades ago, losing his fluency in Arabic along the way. Recently, he’s started thinking of leaving Canada’s safety, health care (and winters) to return to a cabin that he knows is really a figment of his dreams. Prompted to examine other returns, real or imaginary, he speaks to individuals who have gone back to Jamaica, the Basque counties, New Zealand, Ghana, Taiwan, Israel and the Palestinian Territories, discovering the unique qualities of each return (the book's name btw).

And the fiction I’ve loved: Watching You Without Me by Lynn Coady; And Miles to Go Before I Sleep by Jocelyn Saucier; Fight Night by Miriam Toews; A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson and Louise Penny, punching above her weight with The Madness of Crowds.

Books by Canadians looking at life through the lens of another culture: Scarborough by Catherine Hernandez; We Have always Been Here by Samra Habib; What Strange Paradise by Omar Al Akkah: Butter, Honey, Pig, Bread by Francesca Ekwuyasi and How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammasonga.

A nod to two American women, Samantha Power for The Education of an Idealist and  Stacey Abrams for a great thriller - While Justice Sleeps  - the latest in about a dozen books - when did she have time for politics…and a life?  

This is a partial inventory rather than reviews and this year I have no intention of learning a language, baking bread, weaving or doing anything other than reading more books!

HAPPY NEW YEAR, see you in February when it’ll be lighter later.


Blog # 124…December 2021

I know I mentioned writing about Canlit this month, but there are so few places to be spontaneous these days, so I’m going to change the channel and talk about a program  I just discovered that moved and encouraged me - important to focus on the bright lights that come along nowadays .

I’m starting this on the day before Remembrance Day – I was touched by a piece on The National last night about a piano teacher in Victoria who encouraged her young students to compose and perform pieces for individuals who had served Canada in war zones around the world. Each piece was personal, reflecting the individual veteran's unique experience and story. It was a great way to link ages, to give the vets the sense that they weren’t forgotten and let the young composers see that wars involve and affect real people.

Betty Carroll
It resonated particularly with me because I know Emily Armour, the musician and teacher who created the program. She contacted me about a year ago after discovering a profile I’d done of Phyllis Carleton, a physiotherapist who had served overseas in the Second World War. Emily was searching for information about her grandmother, Betty Carroll who had also been a physio at the same time and in much the same place. We weren’t able to find anything specific to connect the two women, but engaged in a series of lively and enjoyable conversations with a number of people.                                                
Phyll died recently, a few days before her 102nd birthday.                                 

Emily’s devotion to searching out information for her father about his mother Betty (who died when he was a young child) seems to extend to her interest in making connections between her students and veterans. Another prompt for her wish to honour the individuals who served us so well is her partner Devin, a veteran of the war in Croatia.

And her initiative has far reaching ripples. For many soldiers the aftermath of war is more profound than the actual experience. The 30 or so veterans involved, mostly in BC, but also in Ontario and Nova Scotia, valued the attention and feeling of appreciation.  Some were buddies of Devin’s, others connections through her students "I'm known not to be an emotional guy, but that really moved me." said one of the vets.

The students (one as young as 5!) learned some real and personal history along with a chance to experience empathy and a sense of making an important contribution to other peoples’ lives. A 16 year old composer expressed this about his piece, ' It has the sort of emotional overtone that I like...I tried my best to understand what other people would feel."

And Emily had the satisfaction of using her professional expertise as a musician and teacher to reach out - to her students, to the veterans, and to us, reminding us of fellow Canadians who take on the tasks of protecting us and making a difference in the world. She was immensely proud of her students and felt - "they were fearless about it."

Betty Carroll
Lullabies encourage us to sleep as babies, brass bands arouse us to patriotic marches - or maybe to clean the house - and romantic ballads evoke memories of dancing close at the end of an evening. Music crosses language and culture, age and taste, it soothes or invigorates, whichever we need at the moment. Taking the creative work of young musicians to veterans of war is another way music enriches lives. It’s a great memorial to Betty Carroll who would be proud of her grand daughter Emily, I am too!



Remembering Stephen Sondheim as we're Into the Woods for the second Christmas. They're dark and dangerous here but even more so in many other countries, so as we let some light in to celebrate, send some thoughts (and vaccines) around the world.
Back in 2022.

 

Blog # 123…November 2021

 Not often am I moved to laugh out loud while I’m sitting quietly reading but Tomson Highway got me going with his memoir Permanent Astonishment. It starts with his unexpectedly early arrival (recounted to him by his older sister Louise) in a rough tent while his family were on the road so to speak, checking their trap lines in northern Manitoba.

Throughout the book, we travel with Tomson on many trips by canoe and dogsled to fish, hunt and gather the berries and plants that contribute to survival on the edge of the Arctic circle. He introduces us to the Cree language and we meet his family and friends – Samba Cheese (the Cree version of Jean Baptiste) Father EggNog (Egenolf), many folks called Gunpowder or Mosquito and a handful of Moony-asses (non-Native people).  His love for the place and the people is strong and contagious! 

A trip by plane at age 6 takes him to the Guy Hill Indian Residential School, joining his older sisters and brothers, who’ve all gone with their parents’ agreement and encouragement. We hear gruesome stories of the scoop of children from their parents' arms by priests, nuns and Mounties, all horribly true I’m sure, but we see a more nuanced view of one school through Tomson’s eyes, or one might say. his rose coloured glasses. His 9 years at the school sound almost idyllic: reasonable meals, warm comfortable beds, sports, art and music, with the usual mix of teachers, strict, kind, supportive or harsh. And a sexual abusing Brother, who visits the dorms after dark, mentioned briefly, almost as an afterthought.

Tomson opens a window into a world we long to know and understand, giving us a glimpse of weather, meals, tent furnishings, family relationships, schoolyard bullies and a range of community characters, some of whom may sound familiar from our own lives. This helps to take away the sense of "otherness" but also is in danger of diluting the serious effects of colonialism on indigenous people. Presenting a comforting view of community life and describing his residential school as a rather pleasant place where he and other native children could get an education and learn to play a sport or the piano. obscures their purpose. They were designed deliberately to extinguish their culture and render them unable to right the injustices of having their land taken. And most of the schools weren’t at all like Guy Hill!

It’s astonishing that indigenous people and their culture have survived to give us. as well as Tomson - Mary Simon, Kent Monkman, Drew Hayden Taylor, Michelle Good, Murray Sinclair, Wab Kinew, Lisa Richardson, Jody Wilson- Raybould, Richard Wagamese and Alika LaFontaine (anesthetist president-elect of the Canadian Medical Association), As well, there are many less visible nurses, electricians, lawyers. artists, clerks, mothers and fathers, teachers – going about their lives amongst us, contributing to society - others struggle on the margins.

Tomson’s book tells an unusual and entertaining story - his own story. It’s important, while enjoying it, not to let it divert our thoughts from recognizing the wrongs that have been done to indigenous people and working towards righting as many as we can.

Without consciously thinking about it, I’ve read Canadian authors almost exclusively over the past few months…not hard to do when there are so many on international lists of best things to read. I’d intended to cover them in this post, but got caught up in issues around Tomson’s book, so you can look forward to Canlit in December, in time for Christmas.

 

Blog # 122…October 2021

Everyone knows the Group of Seven -  men who render our landscape of trees, rocks, lakes and skies…maybe contributing to the narrow and outdated view  people abroad have of what Canada looks like.  Not to put them down exactly, but the current exhibit at the McMichael Gallery in Kleinburg introduces another group of artists who present another wider and more complete view of our country and of us…women.

Uninvited, curated by Sarah Milroy is a captivating surprise, presenting a lively and complementary challenge to the Group of Seven’s centenary celebration show and, for me anyway, it not only expands, but trumps their familiar views. Indigenous, immigrant and settler women are all invited and we see two hundred pieces, wonderful objects from coast to coast to coast in both traditional and non traditional forms from the wide range of women artists creating in the time between the two world wars…roughly the same time as the Group of Seven were working.  And although some of them were supportive of women, they just didn’t invite them to exhibit in their shows, nor did they do anything to change the mindset that artists were men.

The McMichael always has a comfortable, homey feeling for me, maybe because my first visit in the 60’s was to the original house on the site where Robert and Signe lived surrounded by their collection of Canadian paintings. The location, then and now, complements the thoughtful mood of the place where the art reflects our history and identity surrounded by restful views of nature. This show adds dimension to our understanding of that history – adding the views from “the dark side of the moon” to quote Sarah Milroy.

The feeling I had entering the first gallery was “How come I’ve never heard of these artists?”  Sophisticated scenes of domesticity and urban street life as well as mountains and rural scenes, portraits, nudes, beautiful quillwork baskets and beadwork and photography -  all  giving us a glimpse of and making social comments on  the world inhabited by women as well as the larger world. The Group of Seven gave us the natural world, usually uninhabited, in a romantic way. 

Yvonne McCague Housser’s work shows the silver mining that was emerging in Cobalt to highlight the damage that resource extraction was doing to that world. 



A skilled painter, Pegi Nicol MacLeod’s radical and original work pushed representational art to its limit, 
when she died in her early 40’s she left us wondering what else she might have accomplished had she lived longer. 






Prudence Heward shared an aesthetic with the ten women who formed the Beaver Hall group in Montreal, although she never exhibited with them. Her portraits showed women as strong and athletic, as many were during those times. 






The intricate beading on animal
skins shows us how indigenous women worked with available materials, making ordinary household objects lovely to look at as well as to use everyday. Elizabeth Katt Petrant made this cradleboard to safely carry a baby


Sewinchelwit, a close friend of Emily Carr crafted coiled storage baskets decorated with porkupine quills, useful
and beautiful.





Anne Savage painted the Skeena Valley in BC as well as the mountains north of Montreal capturing the unusual quality of light and subtlety of colour that she also brought to her streetscapes. 




.

Memories of her Russian background were incorporated by Paraskeva Clark into her views of Canada and its people. She shook up the art world a short time after arriving when she told landscape painters to "Come out from behind the Pre-Cambrian Shield".




Margaret Watkins captures the beauty of common objects - a bit like Mary Pratt, only with a camera rather than a paintbrush. She said that photographers were often shocking juries with subjects that were original and painful to the orthodox.




The last gallery brings a sigh of “Whew, at last an artist I know”.  Emily Carr’s work completes the show, but this collection of 33 artists were chosen to represent many others who came like a “battering ram to open the doors to women artists”  Sarah Milroy says in her eloquent talk about the exhibition. There are more - always someone is uninvited! 

I've chosen a very small number to highlight - I was enchanted by many more - and am now starting to read the catalogue, over 300 pages and weighing about as much as my stove. I wanted to extend the experience and to know more...and it doesn't disappoint, with photos and a wealth of material about not only the show and the artisrs but how they fit into the Canadian art space. All the photos I've used came from the catalogue and I hope I can coast along on their clearance of rights.

If I’ve whetted your appetite for more, listen to Sarah Milroy at     https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=swkh1818qUE    

Wishing you a day to be thankful.                                                                                    Eat well and love your family and friends…Monday and other days too.

Blog # 121...September 2021 

So much is going on all around us these days to capture our attention ...every day bringing news of fresh disasters. Some of these disasters run the risk of slipping out of sight as time passes and the news cycle hits us with another one. The image below rests in the foyer of the Art Gallery of Ontario, the photo was taken by 7 year old Laalan on a visit with his grandmother, my friend BettyAnn, who took the pic below. His shoes are about the same size as those in the installation...and of the children wrenched from their families and taken to residential schools.
We noticed the tiny pink boots on the walkway leading up to St Peter’s church on Bathurst Street in Toronto while we heard of bodies being discovered near residential schools. Although the boots disappeared a few weeks ago, with no more explanation than when they appeared, the image is etched indelibly in my mind. And even if it would have been more culturally attuned to have a pair of deerskin moccasins, the point was made.
Let's never forget all those who suffered and continue to suffer from our attempts to remove and diminish their culture. Many of them are doing the heavy lifting on our behalf now to help save the planet. 

Rue Quatre-Septembre is a street in Paris commemorating the fall of Napoleon lll and the founding of the third French Republic in 1870. I like to think it also celebrates my birthday...another history lesson for you - I was born the year Edward Vlll  abdicated. So, Happy Birthday, whenever yours is and thanks for reading my blog. See you back here in October

 

Blog # 120…August 2021

Moore and Parker

Boxing came into my life unexpectedly in 1956 when I was a waitress at a summer hotel in Muskoka. The brother of the owner was a fight referee in New York and suggested the site as a training camp for James J Parker, a Canadian heavyweight who was challenging Archie Moore for the World title in Toronto in July. So I was serving meals to the fighter, his manager, trainer, sparring partners and an assortment of other Runyonesque characters associated with the game...I gave Rocky Marciano lunch one day, quite an experience for a 19 year old physiotherapy student!



I’ve maintained a marginal interest in the sport until recently when I started to notice a considerable following in an unexpected  group -  young women - and not just observing but getting serious and stepping into the ring. I felt intuitively that women seem ill-equipped to box, not just physically but emotionally, and decided to delve a bit deeper.

 I started with Joyce Carol Oates’  1993 book On Boxing to try and get a sense of why the sport, with its inherent violence would appeal to anyone, not only women. If you know her work at all, which I didn’t, she‘s an extremely thorough, prolific  and thoughtful writer of both fiction and non – and I thought if anyone could discover and tell me why boxing fascinates, it would be JCO.  She explored the sport from many angles and pondered its ambiguities, paradoxes and curiousities: boxers are often kind, gentle, well mannered people who become murderous brutes when they enter the ring; men usually identify with the winner, women with the loser; it’s the most primitive, yet most sophisticated of sports; its savagery is contained by a myriad of rules and regulations; it provides an outlet for poor, disenfranchised youth, holding out the promise of another life.  And on and on she goes, sometimes rhapsodizing and making comparisons to Greek and Shakespearean tragedies, still no clear idea of why so many of us find it fascinating.

Eastwood and Swank

Million Dollar Baby swept the Oscars in 2004, Hilary Swank playing a young girl determined to be a boxer , her coach played by Clint Eastwood. She had a promising career…until, well she didn’t.  Totally worth worth watching again so I won't spoil it.



US Olympian and Deming
And that brings us back to women in the sport and Sarah Deming’s 2019 YA book Gravity. Sarah brings her Jewishness and her experience as a NYC Golden gloves champion and as a boxing journalist covering the 2016 Rio Olympics into the novel. We get a chance to be backstage with Gravity Delgado in her life at home, in the gym, the ring and in her love life. Many of the contradictions that JCO mentions are here…before every fight, Gravity says the Shema, a Jewish prayer to keep her opponent, the audience and those she loves safe - she includes all of the people of Brazil before competing in her Olympic fight.

So we're left without the answers to many of our questions about why boxing holds such appeal mixed with revulsion for so many of us, some things are obvious, others more perplexing...a bit like life.

August already, half of summer gone. half left, enjoy the rest, see you in September. 

 

Blog # 119…July 2021


Craig

This year's PRIDE, virtual for the second year,  reminded me of being taken on a date (remember those?) in the early 70's to see Craig Russell at a hotel out near the airport. We were fascinated to see Craig appear convincingly and in quick succession as Judy Garland, Carol Channing, Marlene Dietrich, Barbra Streisand and Peggy Lee. In the language of the day, he was called a female impersonator and viewed as something titillating.  Now, a few decades later, we relish PRIDE, and RuPaul’s Drag Race is pretty mainstream watching for all ages.

Who doesn’t love the art of deception sometimes…dressing up and taking on another identity? Or disappearing completely - tempting in these times of perpetual display, the magic of invisible ink, or black light theatre…being a fly on the wall.


Enza
Back in the day when we used to go out and mix with people in the streets (remember that?) one of my favourite things was going down to Church Street on Halloween with my friend Frank, swaggering around in a sharp suit, dark shirt, pale necktie and fedora, five o’clock shadow achieved with Vaseline and pepper - a dead ringer for Al Capone.  I loved kibitzing with the drag queens, toying with my idea of the tough guy stereotype while they flirted coyly in a parody of Mae West. I have a great photo, buried somewhere, with Enza Anderson, transgender rights activist who ran for mayor of Toronto in 2000.


Kyne

These memories prompted me to think about a blog, and then I heard an interview with Kyne Santos, the Filipino/Canadian drag queen who appears on TikTok.  She’s a self-confessed math nerd and, under all the fabulous costumes and makeup she encourages people to see math as approachable as well as important. She also uses the platform to confront racism and let young queer people know that “It gets better”.

                                                                                                                                                        

Natalie

We have Baltimore to thank for many things…crab cakes, the Orioles in Camden Yards, David Simon’s The Wire, John Waters and Divine and a host of drag queens.  Natalie Wynn’s YouTube
channel Contrapoints explores politics, gender, ethics, race and philosophy, providing reflective arguments to right wing political positions. Taking the form of debates between opposing parties, Natalie plays all the parts herself and was called “the Oscar Wilde of YouTube” for fighting the alt right with decadence and seduction.


We’ve come a distance in our recognition and (sometimes reluctant) acceptance of variation, whether it’s race, gender or any of the other ways we differ from each other...we don't all fit into the same package. The bar has shifted on what gets said and shown and how, thanks in large part to these courageous artists.

As I'm writing this though on the eve of Canada Day, we've been shattered by the murder of four members of a Muslim family in London and the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves of children at residential schools in British Columbia and Saskatchewan. It's shaken our sense of who we are and what progress we've made. I'm struggling with that, maybe you are too?  I'm posting this with the thought that we need to ask ourselves - where do we go from here? 

This year Canada Day is different, a time for reflection rather than celebration. But, lets reflect on what we've done that's good and try and do better - for 9 year old Fayez Afzaal, an orphan with his life ahead of him, and for the thousands of living souls affected by the horrors of residential schools.

This country with all its defects and offenses is still a good place to live, lets make it that way for everyone.