Not that kind of revival: Lekwungen

The other evening I went to the Royal BC Museum to an event billed as a storytelling event by Indigenous people.

In my mind, I was going to show up and First Nation’s people were going to tell me stories that I could romanticize all chock-a-block with salmon and ravens and full moons and North West Coast mythology. And afterwards, I’d be full, as if I’d eaten too much bannock. My belly would ache but emotionally, I’d feel satisfied, probably self-satisfied to be more accurate.  Reconciliation with a capital R. I’m all in.

Sady, it’s beginning to feel, to me, that the planet is going to melt and implode before true reconciliation makes any significant inroads. Too many non-indigenous people aren’t willing to listen and try and understand and it pains me to hear their ignorance.

But on Wednesday evening, I was in the small amphitheater on the fourth floor of the museum where I quickly realized, these stories weren’t going to be told in English. They were going to be told in their own languages, in this case, Hul’q’umi’num’ [Hull-ka-mee-num] and SENC?OTEN [sin-cho-ten].

An elder, Sarah Modeste, was there. Apparently, she’s the woman who turned the knitting of Cowichan sweaters into an entrepreneurial endeavour and, at one time, she had 300 knitters under her coordination. There was a linguist there named Andrew Cienski who works with First Nations’ speakers to develop language skills and resources for teachers and community members working to revive their languages.  The Lekwungen language has one native speaker left. It’s almost extinct.

The moderator who, unfortunately, was non-Indigenous, told us to listen to the pacing and the tone and the sounds. And as Sarah Modeste began to speak, even though at 82, recovering from a recent stroke, she’d sometimes have to pause when she forgot a word, I began to visualize her with her dad, on the beach or in a long house and how he may have spoken to her as she shared a story called “Clam digging with my dad.”

Afterwards, she shared a memory, in English, about how she’d be sitting on the beach and she’d hear the sound of the paddles from his canoe, returning to her, and how they’d knock against the side of the boat, the wake of the water and we’ve almost all heard that somewhere. She brought that alive.

Hearing the language, not knowing the words, brought home the reality that, OH MY GOD, THERE WERE ENTIRE FUNCTIONING CIVILIZATIONS THAT EXISTED LONG BEFORE US in a way that I hadn’t truly internalized before. It’s hard to explain it. Of course I knew that. But I hadn’t really internalized the implications of it until I listened to the people who spoke share their languages.

Sarah Modeste said that when she speaks in her own language, she’s always thinking about the trees and the water and the animals and everything that is the natural world. When she turns to speaking English, she immediately begins to have thoughts like, “I wonder what’s on sale at Walmart? How much did those shoes cost I saw at The Bay?”  English is a universal language of trade.

Other Indigenous people got up to speak, mainly women, and one of them was a Grade Two teacher. Unfortunately, I now can’t recall her name, but when she told her story, she used her entire body, gesturing and modulating her tone and when you hear someone speak a language the way she did,  you understand that when you refuse a people their language, you have destroyed the foundation of their lives.

Right moves and the universe moves too

Moving to new places is so weird. Like relationships, each experience, and how it comes to be, is completely unique.

When, in my mid 20s, I finally moved out of my parent’s house into Vancouver, I lived in a bachelor suite full of suites directly across from Vancouver City Hall. Amazingly, that house is still there, I think. One morning, I opened my door to leave and a dead mouse was perfectly positioned right in front of my door. I thought someone had put it there as a joke. I was indignant. I knocked on my neighbour’s door, who, at the time, I’d never seen nor heard nor met. I quizzed her on the dead specimen on the ground between our feet. Her name was Kelly. We became fast friends. She was at BCIT doing radio broadcasting. That’s how friendship happens. She’s in Edmonton now where she has lived for a long time and has been married forever, which, at the time, I would not have predicted.

When I moved to Salmon Arm all those year ago for a community newspaper reporting job, I moved there in a whirlwind, tears streaming down my face, because I didn’t really want to leave my former Journalism instructor who I was in the throes of the honeymoon phase of a relationship with. And we all know how that ended. Well, those of you who need to know, know. If that was SO LONG AGO, why is it still so completely vivid in my mind, like maybe it just happened ten years ago or something?

When I moved to the West End around 1999 or thereabouts, I moved into an old Art Deco building on Haro Street. It was so hot, every single window in the building was flung open 365 days a year. My landlord was a former youth care worker but a designer/artist at heart. He was in his mid-fifties at the time, I think, and he had a long grey beard and long scraggly grey hair always topped off with one of those square hats. When I walked into his apartment I was completely shocked. It was like walking back in time into some 16th century castle, all dark wood and iron, as if some Benedictine father might emerge from the galley kitchen.

In the West End, I became good friends with a woman named Heather. We met at work. Her husband, whom she’d been married to from the time she was 20, (she was about 40) had just passed away in six months from Multiple Myeloma. I can still recall us sitting in Delaneys coffee shop on Denman, surrounded by mostly gay men, tears streaming down her face, which I could usually turn into that hugely relieving crying-laughing emotion. We had a good friendship for a reason and a season.

When I moved to Salt Spring, I can still go immediately to that time in my mind and be filled with the most overwhelmingly joyous feelings. That little cottage had a little hot tub under the evergreens and a delicate feathering of wisteria climbing up the deck. Heaven! I would be in my car and I’d just be letting out sounds of happiness. I can say without a doubt, I’ve never been happier than when I first moved to Salt Spring.

I tried so many different things in the past five years. I mean, honestly, I don’t know too many people who put things “out there” as much as I did in the past five years trying to make SOMETHING happen. The Writer’s Studio. All those psychology and counselling psych courses trying to gather pre-requisites to apply to a Masters in Counselling Psych. Oxford Seminars, ESL course. Temping. I have the resume of a writer even if I’ve never written a book.

You want to talk to me about your shit. Go for it!  I won’t be taking it on but I’ll listen, with compassion because I. Have. Been. There. At least in my own unique way. Mine all mine. Get your own!

You know you’re really getting on when you’re suddenly proud of all you’ve overcome instead of being ashamed of it. THAT only took 50 years.

The last few years have been job interview after interview and so many stupid questions as if nobody has a brain left in their judging little heads and can’t use their intuition, references, and best of all, me, right in front of them as a good enough reason to say, “Okay, get your ass in here five days a week and we’ll pay you.” I’m still pissed about it but I just have to let it go.

Just a little while before this latest move, I was seriously preparing, mentally, to pack up and just move to Thailand. It’s why I took some ESL training in December even though teaching kids how to speak English, mansplaining in a female way, has never been all that high on things I’ve ever really wanted to do. Still, I was ready to do it.

I even got offered a job working in a place called Buriram or City of Happiness in the North of Thailand. I accepted the job, sent them a copy of my passport and never heard from them again. It just wasn’t MY happiness, I guess. Although I do think it would have been such an adventure. Thailand for the winter or a government job. Which would you take? I accept that if it was meant to be it would have happened. Besides, I’ve already been to Thailand.

I now have a very intimate understanding in a hugely positive way, (Salt Spring), and a not so positive way, (New West), that when The Universe thinks something isn’t quite right, it just won’t budge. And when it thinks it is right, you can practically just ly down, have a nap, forgetaboutallofit and things just fall into place, handed back to you on a silver platter.

I’m now here in Victoria, employed, within walking distance of my workplace which is in a brand new Leeds Platinum complex, which I can actually see from my balcony. Walking to work ETA: 10 minutes or less.

It’s as if your thoughts really do create your reality or something. Go figure?

Not getting on any kind of transportation to get to work was probably my number one criteria for a job, and yes, I realize that doesn’t actually have ANYTHING to do with work but that was my criteria. Now, done!

I’m feeling very positive about this move. I’m feeling like all that stuck nothingness leading up to this is going to be a distant memory very soon.

Hallelujah and gratitude!

A happy introduction to Victoria’s literary community

Victoria Literary Festival at The Metro- (L-r)Patrick Lane, Lorna Crozier, Esi Edugyan.

Last night I went to an event as part of Victoria Literary festival. I had never heard Gregory Scofield read and I have yet to read any of his books. Last night he gave a reading of his long poem, Muskrat Woman, about MMIW and it was really compelling. It’s such a great reminder that when writers can also read really well, the audience is silent and they are right there, present, in the belly of the delivery and changed in some slight way afterwards.

I was introduced to Zoe Whittall through her readings. She’s another writer who, I’m sorry to admit, I’ve never read or even heard of. I’m impressed that she can write for some of CBC’s really successful shows such as Baroness von SketchSchitt’s Creek and still have the ability to go back to her own personal writing. And of course, I’d seen/heard Patrick Lane read. The  last time was a long time ago when his book, There is a Season, came out. It was at the Sechelt Writer’s Festival. What year was that? 

I’d only seen Lorna Crozier read at the introductory Growing Room Festival last spring or whenever that was. But to see them together, and the banter between them, was pretty entertaining. I think I know who wears the pants in that family and it isn’t Patrick Lane. But I’m sure, in reality, it’s very give and take. They just seem like the kind of people you’d love to be able to linger around a dinner table with. The evening was quite wonderful.

As a newcomer to Victoria, I got a real sense of the strength of the writing community here just from attending that one event. And it was clear, even with Esi Edugyan facilitating the conversation, that this pair have had a hand in the careers of so many writers who have gone through the UVic Creative Writing program. It was like witnessing a family reunion or something. 

It also made me think that anyone ranting on about the history of CanLit and its white roots, should just get over themselves because these are the people who historically made things happen. Like anything, evolution is a part of that, and the transformation is happening right now as it should be. It’s because of that foundation that a Canadian literature even exists even if it isn’t yet as representative of all realties in the country as it needs to be.

As I sat waiting for the event to begin, I was eavesdropping on the conversation behind me, well, not really eavesdropping so much as not being able to avoid overhearing it. It was that somewhat excruciating navel-gazing about a personal writing process that as writers we’re all so familiar with, especially if you’ve been involved in any kind of workshopping. I feel so done with that.  I just feel the need to find the time to focus on my own writing and it’s pretty clear to me that I just need to show up for that and there’s no need to discuss anything really. I know that might sound harsh but it feels like that phase is over. Let’s not get all precious about putting some words on a page or the process. As Patrick Lane so perfectly described it. “I’ll sometimes write a sentence that I really love  and get really excited about that, until I realize, Oh fuck, I need to write an entire paragraph.” And then keep doing that over and over. Again and again.

I’m not saying I wouldn’t love to have just one person who I could rely on to be a reader of my stuff to give me feedback, someone whose opinion I trusted and who actually would give me feedback when they said they were going to. Someone who understood the process, especially when it comes to first drafts,  but that’s so hard to find unless you pay someone, or they’re in your life as a partner and into literary things or you just luck out. Not having that is a real lacking for me in so many ways, much more important ways, of course, than just writing feedback.

I also met a young woman who was working for a new self-assisted publishing company (I found that terminology interesting) called TellWell Talent. She is the digital media marketing person for them and we talked about how a lot of authors these days are choosing to self publish because of the control it gives them, the ability to get things done more quickly than traditional publishing and to market the book as effectively, if not more so.

In my books, that all counts as a very satisfying evening. 

Admitting to the story under the story

This week, I got this short piece published in this online magazine out of Nova Scotia called Understorey. Its own underlying story is that it launched in November 2013 as a project of the Second Story Women’s Centre in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. They published seven issues on the many facets of motherhood and in 2016 Understorey formed a new partnership with the Alexa McDonough Institute for Women, Gender and Social Justice (AMI) at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax. Under an editorial board and editor Katherine Barrett, its mandate has diversified to include a whole range of themes important to Canadian women.

A million stories in one

Initially, the piece I wrote, The Trouble with Margaret, was written way back in 2012 like many of the Salt Spring stories I have written when the experiences I had while living there between 2008 and November 2011 were still really fresh.

The original version of this story referenced many other aspects that this final version omits. I edited it down to 1,500 words from 3,500 in order to meet the callout for stories related to a theme of “Service.”

It’s still hard for me to believe that I chose to take on this part-time, overnight care-giving role that I write about and it’s an episode in my life that was, I’m not afraid to admit, the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Because in addition, sometimes after not sleeping for most of the night, and making Margaret breakfast and dealing with whatever might have happened during the night, I’d have to get ready to go to my other four-day-per-week job at the employment centre by 10 am. I know, if you’re a parent, you’re like, so? What are you saying? What’s weird about that? Well, in an ideal case, at least as a parent, you theoretically end up with engaging adults at the end of it that have brought you some amount of joy. We can only hope. No guarantees!

When I re-read the story, I think, I’m not being honest. I haven’t described any of my own really negative feelings about what it was like to be on that overnight duty. The story doesn’t really tap into that aspect at all. But that’s the thing about stories. As the writer, you get to mold them. I could write ten stories about this experience, each one different which could be an interesting exercise, actually. And so, it’s true that stories are never really done. As soon as they are printed, many writers’ obsessive and doubting selves want to start all over again because they see what’s on the page and they also see everything that has been omitted.

The most predictable relationship in life

But there are only so many days in a lifetime. Other stories are calling out to be wrestled to the page. And that reality emphasizes, yet again, that the most important and predictable relationship — the most intimate, the most vivid and long-lasting and yes, ultimately the most satisfying — is the one between the writer, their thoughts and the blank page. It just has to be that way.

A tried and true solution for retreating from the world: fiction

“Buddies” by gayle mavor

I’m sure I’m not the only person feeling overwhelmed by the ugly events in the world this week, this month, this year. It occurred to me that not since 9/11 have I felt so overwhelmed by circumstances out of my control. Today feels especially bad. I was wondering how to rid myself of these feelings of anxiety and angst and worry.

You could meditate, I told myself. I closed my eyes. Breathed in. Breathed out. Breathed in. Breathed out.  But I couldn’t stay with it. Not for more than a few times. I couldn’t stay with the breath. Not today, a day that most certainly is the kind of day that would benefit from such a practice, even though, my day, my safety, at this moment, unlike others, has not been threatened or decimated.

I opened my eyes and looked around.

I noticed a book on my coffee table. I’d checked it out of the library earlier this week. Flash Fiction International. Very Short Stories from Around the World.  I began flipping through it at random. I inhaled the one to three page stories and then I came across a story that seemed so perfect in its irony and in its sad truth that even though I shouldn’t feel better, I did. The act of reading, going somewhere else, words delivering an unexpected journey, beckoning through sentences, an escape from social media, was comforting. It reminded me that retreating into books, enduring monuments to the best of civilization, can help.

The book, Flash Fiction International, was published in 2015 and edited by James Thomas, Robert Shapard and Christopher Merrill., director of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa.

The story I’m referring to above is called My Brother at the Canadian Border by Sholeh Wolpe (for Omid). On the story, the author, a woman, is identified as Iran/United States. I hope you’ll click on her website  and read this short piece of flash fiction.

The fastest trip to Japan from Vancouver

I spent most of this past weekend at the Powell Street Festival which has got to be one of the best entertainment deals in Vancouver taking place at Oppenheimer Park and the streets around it with events at the Firehall Arts Centre, the Japanese Language School, and the Vancouver Buddhist Temple.

This area was home to the largest concentration of Japanese people in Vancouver prior to WWII before they were banished from the West Coast in Canada and the U.S. as a result of Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbour and a build up, prior to that, of racism and fear-mongering.

I had to get my little fix of Takoyaki (Osaka Balls),  those tasty street vendor treats that instead of the traditional style which are filled with octopus, these are filled with shrimp and scallops, a creamy middle with a crunchy deep-fried outer and with fish shavings on top. I stayed traditional but you can get the wasabi version or with mayo. 

So many interesting offerings  at The Firehall Arts Centre. We were introduced to a HAPA comic from L.A., Katie Malia and her Almost Asian vignettes which are being picked up by Netflix in the near future.

Listened to Dr. Asato Ikeda from Japan talk about a Third Gender in early modern Japan, a spin off from an exhibit at the ROM in 2016 A Third Gender: Beautiful Youths in Japanese prints. Descriptions of wakashu or boys between the ages of 12-18 who fulfilled the pleasures of men and women and how to hear about that part of cultural history in Japan without imposing contemporary North American values on that part of Japanese history which has been kept under wraps mostly because, if I understood the speaker correctly, of how it fits into the Kabuki theatre in the Edo period. Since Kabuki has been designated the official theatre of Japan, there’s a reluctance to acknowledge the roots of it in this expression of sexuality. Super interesting!

Introduced to two men (both Gaijin or caucasian) Jay Rubin and Ted Goossen, Americans who are elders in the translation of Japanese literature. They spoke about the novelist Haruki Murakami and mostly that stood out for me because it’s always amazing to me how some people just fall into their professions without any effort on their part and that becomes their entire life.

Admired that Joy Kogawa who is looking very fit and in her eighties was open to participating in an experimental performance that included her poetry, a young Hapa poet Soramaru Takayama and a wonderful mime (whose name I can’t find, unfortunately)  as part of a 20 minute performance.

 

Also took in two interesting short films called Born with it and Blasian Narratives about Black-Asian kids’ experiences. I’d never heard the word “Blasian” before.

Listened to a wonderful shakuhachi player who resides on the Sunshine Coast.  Alcvin Ryuzen Ramos, is one of the leading teachers and performers of the shakuhachi in North America who teaches at the Bamboo-In Retreat Centre.  His performance was exquisite and a rare treat. I love the breathy, haunting sounds of the shakuhachi, an instrument that may be the hardest instrument to learn taking years of mentorship and practice.

And of course George and Noriko, a crowd favourite. He’s known as the Japanese cowboy and she’s the Tsugaru shamisen player. Together they have a fun and unique sound. 

Taiko. Walking tours. Ikebana. Martial Arts. My god. It’s a veritable trip to Japan without the hell of the long flight.

Must do a shout out to Leanne Dunic (seated in photo) who led the curation in her first year as the new artistic director.  It’s been a busy year for her. She’s a writer, singer and multi-instrumentalist who plays with the band The Deep Cove. Her book To Love the Coming End published by Chin Music Press was released this year as well.  The weekend was awesome and it didn’t cost a dime. The only thing wrong with it was that I didn’t win the trip to Japan for two or dinner for six put on by Hapa Izakaya restaurant chefs.

The definitive example of how ideas come

July 31, 2017: Watched a Youtube video of a talk from 2001 by *Ray Bradbury recommended on Facebook by a stranger named Pauline Probyn.

August 1, 2017: Woke up to a neon ball of orange as if a graphic on the cover of Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451 was plucked from the page and pasted onto the sky, your very own slice of sky, a single sky of a billion views.

Met artist for coffee. Artist in search of a home, artist who speaks eloquently about the devaluing of art and the desperation to achieve (needle in haystack in Lower Mainland),  the base level of Maslow’s Hierarchy: shelter.

Listen.

Go about day. Buy tabbouleh and falafel for lunch.

Read one piece of short fiction afterwards luxuriating in a rare ability to focus lately, completely.

Feel the space in device-free time.

Breathe.

Turn on computer in spite of last line.

Scan the Places for Writers’ website. Notice a call. Infinity’s Kitchen. Seeking experimental work that emerges from recipes.

Visualize my mother’s girlhood notebook from her Home Economics classes. Grade VII. Grade 8. Grade 9.

Recognize the feeling of an opening.

Visions of photographs taken from that black book, mixing with her perfectly straight handwriting, remnants of a lost way of life. 1940s.

Stirrings of inspiration.

Every heading in her ever-so-tidy handwriting a historically domestic tombstone.

Duties of Dishwasher
Experiments in Potato Apparatus
Luncheon Creamed Vegetables
Preserving of Peaches
Canning
Flour Mixtures
Sandwiches

Marvel at her achingly neat drawings.

Wonder about the 12, 13, 14 year old she was then. Internal brightening. 

Letters and photos and possibilities collage across imagination as if I am spool knitting (corking, French knitting, Tomboy knitting) who she might have been back then onto the page.

This is how ideas come.

_____________________________

*I don’t agree with Ray Bradbury that “modern” writers can’t write short stories or poems or that we’re all looking for ourselves. Sometimes we’re looking for those who are completely foreign. But I listen to this through the lens of knowing to accept opinions in the context of the age, race, and gender of the opinion-giver.