A feminist success story continues: Making Room

I went to a panel on Tuesday at the Vancouver Public Library on the 40th year anniversary of the literary magazine, Room, or Room of One’s Own as it was called in the past. What stood out for me is how challenging it is to capture and retain the many authentic voices that make up the oral history of an organization. I know that’s true whether that organization has been a feminist collective run by volunteers such as Room or a large private corporation. Anyone who has ever tried to write a history of an organization will know this to be agonizingly true.

You may not know, as I didn’t, that the VPL has in their catalogue, bound copies of every decade of the four decades that Room has now been published. A physical presence on shelves that leaves the complexity of what has actually taken place to sustain it to one’s imagination.

It was fantastic that there were a few women on the panel who had been participants from years gone by.  I wanted to hear a lot more of those types of personal experiences because they really highlight the struggles and the conversations in the inevitable tug o’ war dynamics of a democratic process that goes on in every organization that is concerned not just about producing something of creative value but of ensuring that the way in which those volumes come into being is also something to be proud of.

One of the women spoke about how she came to Room at a time when they were really challenged by funders who were questioning whether the journal was unique enough. There are only so many stories about motherhood and breast cancer, not that those aren’t important, that any of us can take.  They went so far as to hire a Branding specialist who began to ask them annoying but typical Branding type questions like “If Room was a woman what kind of woman would she be…?” And then at some point in Room’s history there was even a question about whether feminism needed to be central. Blasphemy!

Cynthia Flood’s response to why Room still matters, mimicked, dare I say, the response Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave when he was asked about why he felt a gender balanced cabinet was important and he replied, “Because it’s 2015.” Flood’s response was: “Because sexism still exists.” My apologies for the comparison, Cynthia, but the succinctness and the truth were comparable.

Chelene Knight as managing editor for the past year said that they want to be constantly questioning the type of work they are publishing, and questioning perhaps even what they aren’t publishing, and recognizing that it’s not just about the content but about the process and being open to involving women who may not have considered Room as a place for themselves or their creativity.

They spoke of how recognizing the evolution of Room is to recognize the entire evolution of print and how technology has impacted the way the magazine comes together. It’s been possible in the past few years to expand the editorial team to include Toronto and Montreal. They spoke to the way in which they now receive manuscripts through Submittable which has significantly reduced the amount of on-the-ground labour. At the most basic level, nobody has to trudge down to the post office and pull reams of envelopes out of the post office box and transport those back to the office. Formerly, the process involved paper being passed from one editorial reader to the next. Meetings no longer have to take place face-to-face, at least not as much.

Chelene acknowledged former editor Rachel Thompson as the catalyst behind her own participation for taking on the responsibility of managing editor, urging her to do it, assuring support, and pushing her to greater empowerment given that Chelene came from a background where envisioning herself in that role would not have been a part of the personal stories she told herself about herself.  Those are some of the women writers, artists, and editors the magazine hopes to embrace.

Forty years! It’s a quietly impressive legacy and if you’ve been paying attention in the past two years to what’s inside Room, it’s clear that an evolution is happening that has indeed led to an interesting diversity in the contributors and the issues overall. Chelene said that constantly questioning that, not getting complacent…making room…is the way forward.

For the first time ever, there will be Growing Room: A feminist literary festival in March. Tickets are selling fast.

Write for 5 for those who hate writing prompts

Call it serendipity but this morning I received an e-mail from a blog I follow and it was about hating writing prompts. And what it has to say is exactly why we shouldn’t look down our noses at writing prompt exercises.

Without ruining the ending of this story, and (begrudgingly overlooking the misuse of the word loose instead of lose) this little essay explains why writing prompts can have positive outcomes.

If you’re planning on joining us for Write for 5  on Saturday from an image posted on my blog here that day, this might give you an additional reason to participate.

If you have 10 minutes, read it here off Dinty Moores’ Brevity blog.

Getting inspired to Write for 5

It’s not too long until Saturday when I’ll be posting an image here on my blog with the hopes that some writer friends, or anyone who wants to give it a go, will participate in a timed writing exercise. I wrote about the idea on my last post, Using Imagery as Muse.

In preparation for that, I thought I’d remind you of what most of you already know, and that is, there’s nothing like reading some inspired writing, right before you know you have to write something to get yourself into the right frame of mind. That’s a lot of rights to live up to!

Maybe because of the free flowing nature of poetry, (at least until you try to write it and then you realize there’s actually nothing all that free flowing about it except maybe the first draft), I find poetry often inspires me to get into a creative mindset for writing on demand.

The other thing you also know is that the editor in your head, that dastardly perfectionist, must be slain or at least sent off on a long errand for a product that hasn’t been invented yet. Adopt a “This is not a test, this is an Experiment attitude.” It’s a jumping off point to investigate how the brain can rise to the challenge.

As an aside, I was reading the NYTimes on my phone last week (in bed), as I often do (sad but true) because that’s not what anyone should be doing in bed, and they posted the original short story of BrokeBack Mountain written by Annie Proulx.

I re-read it and couldn’t put my phone down and if you want to read something that is really amazing, you should read that story that the Oscar-winning movie was based on. It’s amazing how she uses language.

Unfortunately, that story come block-buster movie ended up causing Proulx unending irritation because people just didn’t get it. Here’s what she told the NY Times…“And one of the reasons we keep the gates locked here is that a lot of men have decided that the story should have had a happy ending. They can’t bear the way it ends — they just can’t stand it. So they rewrite the story, including all kinds of boyfriends and new lovers and so forth after Jack is killed. And it just drives me wild. They can’t understand that the story isn’t about Jack and Ennis. It’s about homophobia; it’s about a social situation; it’s about a place and a particular mindset and morality. They just don’t get it.”

And you thought that getting published would solve all your problems. Guess not.

My absolute favourite poem (getting back to being inspired) and I have to say that loving this poem hasn’t really changed since the first time I read it, although there are so many poets to choose from it’s kind of crazy to say that a poem can remain a lifelong favourite, is a very old poem by Margaret Atwood that was in her very first book of poetry, The Circle Game.

Here it is. Hopefully this inspires you in preparation for Saturday. And, I should say, there’s nothing that says you can’t write a poem in response to the image. The slate is blank. Colour it!

Against Still Life by Margaret Atwood
Orange in the middle of a table:
It isn’t enough to walk around it
At a distance, saying
It’s an orange:
nothing to do
with us, nothing
else: leave it alone

I want to pick it up
In my hand
I want to peel the
skin off; I want
more to be said to me
than just Orange:
want to be told
everything it has to say

And you, sitting across
the table, at a distance, with
your smile-contained, and like the orange
In the sun: silent:

Your silence isn’t enough for me
now, no matter with what
contentment you fold
your hands together; I want
anything you can say
in the sunlight:
stories of your various
childhooods, aimless journeyings,
your loves, your articulate
skeleton; your posturings; your lies

These orange silences
(sunlight and hidden smile)
make me want to
wrench you into saying:
now I’d crack your skull
like a walnut, split it like a pumpkin
to make you talk, or get
a look inside

But quietly
If I take the orange
With care enough and hold it
gently

I may find
an egg
a sun
an orange moon
perhaps a skull; center
of all energy
resting in my hand

can change it to
whatever I desire
It to be
And you, man, orange afternoon
lover, wherever
you sit across from me
(tables, trains, buses)

If I watch
quietly enough
and long enough

at last, you will say
(maybe without speaking)

(there are mountains
Inside your skull
garden and chaos, ocean
and hurricane; certain
corners of rooms, portraits
of great-grandmothers, curtains
of a particular shade;
your deserts; your private
dinosaurs; the first
woman)

all I need to know:
tell me
everything
Just as it was
from the beginning.

If you have any piece of writing you get inspired by prior to writing, feel free to share it in the comments.

Using Imagery as Writing Muse

Rummaging through some papers, I found this image from a magazine stapled to something I had written on July 18, 1998.

I was in a writing group then that met monthly – or tried to –  and re-reading it brought me right back into the small living room in the house where we’d meet. It was an old house, up rickety stairs, rooms all chopped up.

I was thinking how much fun it used to be to sit in that group, a bunch of magazine pages ripped out haphazardly, each of us taking turns choosing which image to pick so that we could scribble away during a timed writing exercise, letting whatever words come to us as they came. It was a form of writing meditation.  I think 5 minutes was what we settled on back then.

I was thinking how much fun it would be to let other writers look at a photo on the blog and see what they could come up with. It’s kind of a nice idea, a way to share. And then, you could post what you’d written after your own timed five minutes at home. No cheating!

If you feel inclined to try and time yourself and write to the above image, and then add what you ended up writing into the comments, it would make things a million time more interesting around here. I could then add a new image every week with whatever I’d managed to come up with in my own timed 5 minutes.

Here’s what I wrote back then although I will admit, I changed a few things after sitting down to type it out before posting it here. I changed her name. I decided this woman was Turkish and so Isabella didn’t seem like the right name.

Gülçin, a name bestowed eighty-nine years earlier, reveled in the spicy warmth of the nicotine as it streamed through the shriveled opening of her throat, lingered for just a few seconds, and was then expunged, pushing its way against the afternoon’s hot wind like an apparition.

She was safe in her chair, her favorite place. That same chair that had balanced her when the roundness of her thighs had not crept round the wooden corners of the frame but had fit snugly, like foam, atop the smooth wooden cup of the seat.

Her cane, carved by her grandfather over a few months the summer she turned eight, had been her most constant companion in the last few years. She had remembered him sitting near the red rocks, and bits of grass at the cliff edge near their home, the sparkling sea like a rug as far as the eye could see to the horizon.

She’d sit on her porch, perched above the dusty street in that town she’d lived in since she’d married more than 70 years ago now, and she’d watch the youth pass by in the way a factory foreman might watch assembly line workers. She never barked out orders or even greetings. 

When a neighbor or familiar face passed, she’d remove the cigarette and blow the smoke between the space where her two front teeth used to be and in that subtle shift, they’d know they’d been acknowledged, they’d been seen. And it was enough.

Most of the time she would not even notice the strays barking, the wrestling of small boys whose bare feet raised the dust to feather their ankles, or the bustle of women, beautiful full girls, and slap-dashed-together mothers hurrying back from the market in preparation for another day of the cooking, washing, feeding, cleaning cycle. She was there and she wasn’t. She was with all of them and she was with the images of her past that greeted her just as real as company, adding excitement and grief, love and energy to what would turn out to be just another 12 hours, like the 12 hours before that, wrapped in heat and routine.

 She’d think back to her best friend as a child and the hours they’d spent playing in the back alleyways, listening to adults they knew only by the first names their mothers used to refer to them as they gossiped. Mostly they watched. Anything to escape the one room they each shared with three generations who had perfected the familial folk dance, weaving around each other, ducking anger, ignoring bodily functions and even the tears everyone would have preferred to have kept hidden if they’d had the luxury of privacy.

Usually around midday, she would sometimes feel the phantom lips of her deceased husband as if they were grazing her forehead. A tear-dropped wet bead of sweat would seep from beneath her white headscarf and slip over the band of folded skin that decorated her chest like a handmade necklace.

She had loved the memory of his lips. Not just because they had become as familiar as her own but because they embodied everything they had shared together; framing the rite of two-as-one even though he’d been gone for decades.

Travel blogging the humanity of connection

Miniature felted yurts

For quite a few years now, I’ve been following the blog of this wonderful young artist and writer named Candace Rose Rardon. She is an all-round creative entrepreneur who travels the world sketching and writing. By birth, she is an American and by choice she is a citizen of the world.

Some time in 2012 or later, she lived in a yurt on Salt Spring Island for a while and I too love yurts arising from the first time I experienced a yurt in Northern New Mexico. I was out with two other women who were staying at Ghost Ranch at the same time as I was. We were driving around sightseeing and we stumbled upon this yurt on the side of the road. Intrigued, we hopped out and descended upon it only to be met at the door by a guy who was inside.  I don’t actually recall much about him but you can see him in the photo below.

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A yurt in Northern New Mexico near the Chama River.

Following her experience of living in a yurt on Salt Spring, Candace wrote a fantastic post about yurts the world over.

Her dreams have unfolded as she’s utilized her double whammy talents of writing and sketching to make connections in very organic, free flowing and serendipitous ways.

Recently she was doing a giveaway on her blog that got an overwhelming response from readers who shared their travel tales with her as a way to entice her into picking them as the recipient of a newly published anthology.

Here’s her original post for that giveaway of the Lonely Planet Travel Anthology.

She was overwhelmed by responses. In a follow up post, she decided to draw a map and put the names of all who contributed onto the map that she sketched so inspired she was by readers’ responses.

It’s such a great idea. You can see the map in her follow up post, The Geography of Connection. Readers’ comments were associated with 36 countries across five continents.

I submitted something related to my half day cycling trip to the Silk Islands off Phnom Penh.

Congratulations on your exciting news of being published in Lonely Planet’s literary edition for 2016. In 2013, on a trip through Thailand and Cambodia, I ended it in Phnom Penh and decided to go on a 1/2 day cycling excursion with Grasshopper Adventures. It meant arriving at the bike shop and gathering with a small group, getting a designated bike and helmet before heading off on a busy street right in the middle of the city which, at first, seemed very dangerous. Our guide was a young Cambodian woman who was really enthusiastic and we took off, traffic all around, which was a little scary and quite exhilarating. Luckily the ride to the ferry was very short (no more than 15 minutes) and once on the ferry we made our way across the Mekong to what are known as the Silk Islands.

It was so great to be on a bike, and to learn that a very rural existence was a mere ferry ride (10-15 minutes) away from the bustle of Phnom Penh. I loved the feeling of riding down an empty dirt lane way and as I passed by, little children would run out from their huts and yell “Hi” or “Hello” to us in English and we’d yell back. It was such a happy experience. Afterwards, we went to a silk farm, had a delicious fruit feast, and then on to another place with a temple and really unique wooden carvings that were quite ancient.

I felt like it was the S.E. Asian version of cycling a Southern Gulf Island in B.C., a place near and dear to my heart. We rounded it off with a feast at a local spot that, of course, our Cambodian guide knew would be really decent. A great day. A lasting memory.

Candace ends the blog post by saying, “There’s a lot happening in the world right now that would lead us to believe how disconnected we are from each other—but if this map says anything, I believe it’s that connection is real, alive, and important to us all.”

And that’s how you actually make blogs interactive. Something that I’m sorry to admit I’ve failed at miserably.

Monday, however, is a good day for dreaming about the next getaway, and for me, that’s as close as a visit to Candace’s blog. Check it out!

A tale of two Chinatowns

kingoftheyeesYesterday I went to Aberdeen Centre in Richmond for the first time ever in spite of it being around since the 1990s. There are usually only two reasons I ever go to Richmond: to get on a plane at YVR or to visit one of my favourite places, the village of Steveston. We CAN be creatures of habit, can’t we?

It was a dreary Sunday and I had no plans so I decided to act like a bit of a tourist. I’d heard that the food court is really good there with all sorts of authentic Asian cuisine and there was some photography exhibit that was on display. Okay, a plan was formulating, reason to get dressed and leave the apartment.

In addition, I’d noticed that a local playwright that I am acquainted with, Elaine Avila, had recommended on her Facebook page, a play, King of the Yees, by Lauren Yee, a San Francisco-based playwright.

The play was at the Gateway Theatre and conveniently there happened to be a 2pm Sunday matinee.  This play, according to Jovanni Sy, artistic director, as he wrote in the program, was “one of the most highly sought after scripts in the U.S. in the past year.”

There was also a good article inside the program written by a professor of history at UBC, Henry Yu, about what defines Chinatown? We could actually all just expand that question to ask ourselves what defines a neighborhood in general. Is it just the way it looks aesthetically? Or is it more about the feeling, the connections between people, the sense of belonging (or not)?  

Yu pointed out that the City of Vancouver still only defines Chinatown’s heritage through architectural details while many other places have accepted “intangible character” as a very important part of heritage policy. As an aside, I noticed that John Atkin, Vancouver Heritage Advocate, was in the audience.

Before I even got to the play, my experience of visiting Aberdeen Centre for the first time left me mentally comparing the experience of the old Chinatowns that I’ve visited — Vancouver, Victoria, and San Francisco —  to this newer version. The new version was like Chinatown in one of those snow globes, perhaps. I didn’t dislike it intensely or anything. I just couldn’t help feel a bit confused. Like I’d been left behind. Like, How did this happen? Is it good or bad or just different. And if THIS version existed did we really still need the old one? Who is the old version for? And when all the old Chinese people, the first and second generation, die off, would the old version still be relevant, and if so, why? These are the kinds of questions whirling inside my head.

In the new version, the herbal shops and the ginseng containers were tightly ensconced beside a Mercedes Benz dealership, under the shiny lights and the changing colours of the dancing fountain. The aroma of noodles and pho and steamy broths mixed in with the scent of refined petroleum products wafting from all that plastic in Daiso, the huge Japanese discount store. 

There was no honking or loud Cantonese ribbing between adjacent shop owners pecking the air in the new version. I didn’t see any chickens hanging upside down. Vegetables and fruits and things I was curious about weren’t nestled inside baskets along the narrow sidewalks. There were just shiny mall tiles and a world record for largest Pez container display.

It was like some altered universe. As if I’d just left the country for a short and curious interlude.

And with that experience lingering, I was primed for the play, King of the Yees.

It was a play that used some of a culture’s most obvious stereotypes– the dragon dance, the face-changer, the gangs, the benevolent Associations, the commitment to family and cultural organizations as fodder for entertainment.  At times it felt like a bit of a Chinese version of Harry Potter with the main female protagonist (actress Andrea Yu) on a quest to find her dad, Larry, the King of the Yees and there, again, was a disconnect between generations that occurs regardless of ethnicity.   

Some of the funniest scenes to me were the dialogue between the actress Donna Soares, who claimed to be Korean in the play, getting instructions from a Chinese guy, actor Raugi Yu, on the correct way to pronounce Chinese. She did such an amusing job.

It’s a creative, unique, and modern twist on an age old problem. What exactly is the definition of progress?  You’ve only got until Saturday, Oct. 22,  to play around with that question in your own mind, with the aid of this play.

Finding love and finding meaning, the human reasons to keep going

buddhaWhen we entered the temple last week we were told that we couldn’t go into the Hondo because a family was grieving and we’d have to enter in a little while.

Later we learned that it was actually the family of that young woman , Natsumi Kogawa, from Japan who had gone missing in September. Her body was found on the grounds of that mansion on Davie Street in Vancouver’s West End. They had come from Japan to plan her memorial service. It’s impossible to comprehend the sad reality that her family is now facing.

All I could think of was the excitement this young woman surely felt in coming to Vancouver, in improving her English. In thinking about all the new friends and experiences she imagined having before stepping onto the plane from Japan, and how unlikely it was that something like whatever transpired and that led to her death would happen to her here. 

As my attention focused back on the room, I wondered what had motivated all my fellow students to take an introduction to Buddhism course. I wanted to know their real motivation, deep inside, not the sanitized reason they shared about being interested in Buddhism and wanting to learn more.

For myself the past few years have all been about seeking, some people might say to my detriment. They would say that I just need to find a way to accept my life where I’m at. But I think I’ve finally recognized that it goes against my temperament to ever be satisfied for lengthy periods of time if things just stay the same and if I know I could be doing so much more, and I can’t seem to make that work where I’m at.  Isn’t that what “life” is about – experiences and moving through change?

Some things haven’t worked out, in fact, sometimes it feels like nothing has worked out very well in the past few years, and with  Salt Spring as the contrast where everything just felt like it was seamless and worked out with ease and little effort, the opposite has been a shock, another disappointment, an ongoing frustration and endless questioning about what I’m missing that surely must be right in front of me. 

On the other hand, the trying to make things work have led to the meeting of many people I wouldn’t have otherwise met and learning, and yet, I’m missing the key ingredients it seems: love in the way I feel I need it or would like to share it (which may be the problem and I’m smart enough to recognize that)  and meaning.

Zen Buddhism was the topic on our last week given by Reverend Michael Newton of Mountain Rain Zen Community at 2016 Wall Street and a professor in religious studies at SFU.

There were two things that really stood out for me from his words. The first was about how when we wake up from the stories we’ve been telling ourselves, stories that others have told about us since we were children that may or may not reflect who we really are, and we let go of those stories from the past, we can begin to step into the beautiful, clear presence, that’s the essence of Zen.

Each person according to their past and their uniqueness finds unique truths and that is why the truth cannot be told. Someone else cannot tell you your truth. You must find it within. Truth comes from your own experiences, your own practice.

That really resonated with me in the moment because I feel that looking around, looking at others isn’t giving me the answers I need, isn’t showing me my own very personal path. Their answers, their way of living, is not mine. So it requires that I get to the heart of what matters as my own very personal truth about my own life.

Yesterday as I was driving to a friend’s place to hear about her recent trip to Morocco, I was lucky to catch a radio show, Meaningful Man, on CBC Sunday Morning. It was about Viktor Frankl, the former Holocaust survivor, a brilliant man, and the author of  the book, Man’s Search for Meaning, a book that apparently poured out of him in nine days, and one that he had to dictate into a recorder to capture the manic stream of thoughts.

Today on Twitter, I’ve learned that Oct. 10th is World Mental Health Day, and I think some of the ideas spoken within the above documentary have the potential to bring comfort, or at least food for thought, to anyone who is struggling.  Please set aside about 50 minutes to listen to it.