Category Archives: Uncategorized

A studio: permission to create

It’s been a work of love and sweat this summer. The old garage that housed junk and critters is now re-purposed as a studio.

garage to studio

garage to studio


I can write anywhere, I can sketch anywhere. But I need a safe space (and I emphasize space) to pull a piece of artwork together. And I’m so grateful that Steve has the ability to stretch his building talents to put this space together. It’s looking pretty white right now–truly a blank canvas–but soon it’ll be messy with colour, textiles, found items, drawings. A comfy chair and drafting table too!

Shetland days

Love the way Kate carries traditions forward, still uses the land and environment for inspiration!

Rewriting the Future

There is power in story. Don’t let the media, your boss, your parents, your partner tell your story. Sit with it, write it, and revisit it until it fits just so.

Bronwyn T. Williams

A recent article in the The New York Times (“Writing Your Way to Happiness”) talked about the research by psychologists such as Timothy Wilson who maintain that writing can lead to changes, not only in mood, but also in our perception of self. There has, for a while, been research to indicate that if we write about how we’re feeling, there can be a benefit to how we handle trauma, or just our daily emotions. But the work of Wilson and others argues that, in addition, if we reshape the story we’re telling in our writing, that can have positive effects on our perceptions of self. To quote the article:

“The concept is based on the idea that we all have a personal narrative that shapes our view of the world and ourselves. But sometimes our inner voice doesn’t get it completely right. Some researchers believe that…

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Making peace

An orphan and a farm labourer, my grandfather, Fred, lied about his age, signed up for World War I under an assumed name, and left Huron County for the adventure of his life.

Fred returned a hero by virtue of his service, and yet he was horribly traumatized from his experiences overseas, and then by the loss of his young wife and a baby, likely from the influenza epidemic. He left Canada again, this time to make his fortune in the building boom in Detroit. In the giddy swirl of the 1920’s, he married my grandmother.

Helen's father brought her and Fred back from Detroit after the Crash. 1930

Helen’s father brought her and Fred back from Detroit after the Crash. 1930

When the stock market crashed, so did his contracting business.  His father-in-law drove to Detroit in 1931 to bring back his daughter and her family, including Fred, home to London.

Living in the peace and prosperity he fought for was never completely possible for Fred. He’d be triggered by anything, it seemed, and then act out a war-time scenario. Rumours swirled about whether the first wife died of natural causes, or had my grandfather become violent.  My mother and her oldest sister, along with my grandmother, took the brunt of many of his episodes.  In an instant, he would be back in Europe crossing a field or in the trenches, bombs and gunshot flying–as though he was there. He’d never talk about those incidents, but he did say he had been injured “by a potato masher.” In other flashbacks, he might think he was in the hospital, struggling with the nursing staff (a new concept in 1918!), calling them whores as they cared for his wounded body.

Through his untreated PSTD, I received my education about war.  It wasn’t glorious.  All my grandfather’s actions were motivated by fear, or the need to create fear in others. He did what he could to survive. I remember being four-years-old in the early 1960s and my grandfather being triggered by the light strobing through mature trees along a country road.  We had to get out of the vehicle, get into the ditch.  One learned not to cry, as it attracted the “enemy.” Survival came at a cost and a crying child was a liability.

The experience of war is secondary for me, via my grandfather. It was unreal, quite out of touch with the peaceful and secure lives we lived when he wasn’t around.  I learned that a war isn’t ever won or lost, and done with.  The acts of war carry on, rippling through generations.

Remembrance Day for me is very personal. Hostility, and aggression, and fear rippled around me as a child.  So did compassion, careful listening, and problem-solving. Even though my grandfather brought the horror and violence of war into his household, he was treated with respect and compassion by his family. Their actions gave me strength in situations of violence and conflict. I learned to greet this man, who could become a monster, from the point of view of compassion–and a healthy wariness.

On Remembrance Day, I remember Fred, and I remember to practice the lessons of peacemaking that my grandmother and her family, and my mother and her sisters, taught me.

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For Sue

From Righting the Mother Tongue by David Wolman (2008), and special thanks to the London Public Library and their wonderful website and book collection.

This is the theme song for the Society for Editors and Proofreaders, Great Britain:

On the twelfth day of the schedule

my client sent to me: 

Twelve sheets of briefing

Eleven text equations

Ten symbols lurking

Nine sexist pronouns

Eight footnotes missing

Seven misquotations

Six clauses dangling

Five chapters more!

Four fuzzy graphs

Three locked files

Two authors French

And a typescript all neat and tidee

Call of the Wild, really?

It’s funny what sticks in one’s mind.  There’s so much information around us that I find some of it isn’t quite what one thought after it’s been fact-checked.  Memory glitches, brain farts, stupidity, or perhaps, serendipity.

Recently I workshopped a short story about a farmer who was peeing to mark his territory against coyotes, and someone in the critique group mentioned Farley Mowat had done that, hadn’t he?  The bit of information seemed familiar, a sticky bit, and I wondered if I was referencing Mowat in the story.  I searched the library and came away with a totally different book, Call of the Wild by Jack London.  

Not the right book, not all.  Major brain fart.  But what harm could come from reading a children’s classic?  Through Buck, the dog, London develops a thesis of power and leadership that is cunning and Machiavellian, claiming it is “natural.”    What had inspired my story was a totally different way of being in the wild.   I made notes, mentally, about the way Buck went after power among his fellow dogs, how he became a leader.  I think I’ve used, and been on the receiving end, of some of the techniques.

Call of the Wild was not the book I wanted to read.  It’s a violent, Lord of the Flies classic where the wild is savage.  Yet it reminds me that there are narratives all around us about using violence to cripple others, to seize power.   In some areas of the world, the violence is physical.  Closer to home, the violence is more through withholding resources and information, character assassination, isolation.

This makes politics difficult, when it’s about power rather issues.  I can’t remember where I read this, but someone said that a campaign for justice is on the right track when the attacks become personal, when the isolating begins.  That it’s part of the cycle of change and it’s bloody.  But it’s a mark of being on the right path.  I think of Maude Barlow as being an example of this.

Another version of the wild is still stuck in my head.  It’ll be interesting to see if Never Cry Wolf is the story where the man marks his territory in the wild with his pee, and not with firearms.  I’ll be tracking the book down, circling the text, isolating the words when I find them–not to savage anything but to understand.

Parts of Canada we seldom see

My friend Charlotte and I went to the opening of the medium gallery (yes, it’s all lower case) in the Old East business district on Saturday night.  In 2011 a photographer, Johan Hallberg-Campbell, had flown into the bush of northern Ontario with the Canadian Red Cross to photograph their efforts to supply Attawapiskat with sleeping bags, heaters and winter clothing.


This poster photo is the least representative of the exhibit, a romantic, christianized image, and it was placed next to a photo of a beautiful but very sad young woman living in the crawl space beneath the floor of a house, her arms marked by cutting.

Hallberg-Cambell said, to paraphrase, that while he was in Attawapiskat, he didn’t want to traumatize the citizens there.  He found them to be gentle and kind people, and he knew the general media was using images for articles that would result in misunderstandings, or misrepresentations, that would further politicize the situation.  The images he chose for the exhibit were personal and sincere. It was well worth the visit.

Years ago I lived on another northern Cree reserve in housing that was trucked in, just as the housing is being trucked into Attawapiskat.  The 3 months I spent at the Red Earth IR have had a huge impact on me.

The newly built high school and two 4-plexes for used offices and teacher housing on the Red Earth IR, Saskatchewan.

The newly built high school and two 4-plexes for used offices and teacher housing on the Red Earth IR, Saskatchewan.  The only new buildings I saw on the reserve.

The trailer i lived in, newly trucked in and waiting for insulation and skirting.

The trailer I lived in while teaching in Red Earth, Saskatchewan, newly trucked in and waiting for insulation and skirting.

The housing I lived in was considered “new” housing on the reserve, a used trailer with frustration already punched into the walls. The gas for the stove came from a big propane tank that looked like a bomb at the edge of the clearing, beside the tree that the bear liked to maul. Our neighbour in the next trailer had a small gas explosion after he came home and lit the pilot light.  The hospital was over 80 km away, but luckily his burns weren’t severe.  And we were teachers, told that our housing was “nicer” than most of the residents.

As the seasons turned from Saskatchewan prairie summer to fall and then winter, I came to know more about the resiliency of the people who held on despite the incredible patronizing system that kept the once vibrant community dysfunctional for decades. I can relate to how Halleberg-Campbell photographed both the life-threatening poverty, the trauma and the beauty of the gentle souls in Attawapiskat.

Horses were still part of the treaty agreement, and they mostly ran in a herd fending for themselves against wolves and bears.  The Cree at Red Earth still rode them, just had to round them up first.

Horses were still part of the treaty agreement on Red Earth 29, and they mostly ran in a herd fending for themselves against wolves and bears. The Cree still rode them, just had to round them up first.

All those years ago I was shocked at discovering the biggest “secret” in the Canadian family closet.  The missionaries of my childhood church had us folding bandages and diapers, collecting school supplies and donations for Africa.  Our grannies should have have been knitting and praying for those on the reserve I worked at. I didn’t know third world conditions existed in Canada.  Our schools should have told us about contemporary “Indians.”  Our treatment of them remains appallingly political and needless to say, less than christian.  As a direct result, I became a feminist, an atheist, an activist.

The medium gallery is part of a community economic development project in the Old East area of London, Ontario, where a large percentage of the residents are also struggling with neglect, poverty, mental health, drugs and prostitution.  The anti-poverty advocacy group, Life*Spin has spear-headed this new development.  Their neighbour, Artisan Bakery, also opened on the same night.

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Dissecting style, a t-shirt intervention

There was a nice green t-shirt in my dresser drawer.  Nice, but I never wore it because … well … I didn’t like it.  An indefinable not-liking.

It became unwearable last November when I dissected it.  By picking apart the features that bothered me, I hoped to learn more about its character and nature.  The colour was great.  But not the band around the bottom and not the little gathered bit in front.  Surely there was a better way to put this garment together.

The interesting thing about dissection is that one knows it won’t go back together the same way. Ever. It’s like getting the recipe for a favourite dish a friend makes, and you have all the ingredients, but it doesn’t taste the same as your friends when you make it.  It’s like when a friend, spouse, family member shares something that’s normally hidden.  You can maintain the routines and habits, but the person is different, the relationship is different.  It’s risky to share, to look at the underside or inner workings.  I could truly wreck the t-shirt, but that was cool.  It was stuck in a drawer anyway.  Although, Goodwill or some other recycling enterprise might have found a better home for it.

So a choice had to made:  throw it out or reinvent.

And there the green tee sat on my workroom table next to a bright green and orange print fabric from already cannibalized blouse which had three really cute, tiny covered buttons.  The t-shirt sat for the whole month of December in the flurry of holiday card making and last minute sewing, flirting with the green bits in a brown print skirt, destined to be remodeled in 2013, or 2014.

Same nice t-shirt as the green with the original styling.

Same nice t-shirt as the green with the original styling.

Reinvented, and should be a bright Kelly green as you'll see from the sister tee beside it.

Reinvented, and it really is a bright Kelly green as you can see from the sister tee above.

So as the snow fell in January, the plain, proper, nice little t-shirt was reinvented into something a little different.  I will wear it now because it’s gone from nice to being fun.  It has some depth.  And if it had a voice, I could hear it praying for me to finish the brown print skirt, which was finished but also in need an intervention and became another victim of dissection by seam-ripper.  The skirt was nice, but not fun. Not flirty, or flattering … or interesting enough to wear.

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The memory quilt from t-shirts

cutting the t-shirts

cutting the t-shirts

Like all children, my daughter has grown up.  Now, we’re always sorting out closets, deciding what can stay, what should go,  reminiscing all the while.   She came up the idea for me to make a blanket from some of her favourite and well-loved t-shirts.

I’ve made traditional quilts, and crazy quilts from blue jeans, but never worked with knits before.  Joyce’s Sewing Shop on Wortley Road had a beautiful four-way stretch fleece that looked like shearling, so I didn’t worry about stabilizing the blanket.

the layout

the layout

Planning the blanket was a challenge.  The t-shirts and their logos were different sizes. So I approached it by cutting first, planning later.  The logos were cut out with generous borders and to get a sense of how to put them together, I laid them out on the table.  Nothing matched up.  In the end, I decided to make four rows and fill in the spaces with extra t-shirt fabric AND old photos!  I didn’t tell my daughter about the photos.

joining the logos and pictures with strips

joining the logos and pictures with strips

The design was kept to rectangular and square shapes, and because I wasn’t going to be fussy about squaring the corners and a consistent grid, I sewed the top so the selvedges were showing.  I figure after a number of washings, there will be a nice rag look to the borders of each piece.

joining top and back

joining top and back

Because of the thickness of the fleece, I didn’t put a layer in between top and backing.  I finished it by tying it at regular intervals so the blankie could stretch without tearing.  If I’d stabilized it, the folks at Joyce’s could have quilted by machine for me.

And my grown girl loves it!!

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One last Christmas “hurrah!”

It’s become obvious to me over the last few months that I don’t procrastinate.  I over-commit and then have to prioritize.  There are so many interesting things going on in my workshop and no elves to work in the night. I think that’s illegal, anyway.

Christmas tree skirt, in progress

Christmas tree skirt, in progress

One project was only half-finished, although presentable, by the time December 25th rolled around.  Deadlines are good.  And because it was a skirt for the bottom of a Christmas and the giftee lives miles away, I brought it home to fancy it up with a new deadline–next Christmas.  Months to finish it, months to procrastinate.

But I couldn’t do it.  Procrastinate, that is.  I couldn’t pack up the shiny organza and stick in the back of the closet.  A vision of flounce and shine was in my head, and so the yards of organza have been gathered and stitched, the trim applied twice around, the ties added and threads trimmed.

Some things you do for the joy.

Christmas tree skirt in January

Christmas tree skirt in January

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