Prayer for St. Paulinus

This short story is part of a series I wrote while working in literacy settings with vulnerable people. In this one, the venerable tea-leaf reading Allegra works the system to get a new toilet for her house.

It’s been published today on a great site called Commuter Lit, out of Toronto, and it’s purpose is to entertain on the morning (or evening) commute. Read it for free!

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Song of experience

A lot of my life is spent wondering. And I wonder at my mom, how she manages living deeper and deeper in dementia. A while ago, her older sister, who also had dementia, passed away.

I wondered how a person with dementia would respond to the news that a loved one had died. I wondered how dementia might have affected the sisters in the first place. Would they still have a relationship, each in their own world?

This playful drawing came after writing a short bit of fiction about this. Sometimes drawing helps with the wondering where words fail.

Sketches for the garden gate for Song of Experience by Laura Wythe

The style of the drawing is based on  William Blake’s work and this poem:


I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen;
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And ‘Thou shalt not’ writ over the door;
So I turned to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore.

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tombstones where flowers should be;
And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys and desires.


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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

Knitting short cut


Start with a cast-off, men’s large pure wool sweater from Goodwill’s thrift store, and then go to the best yarn shop in town. Pick up beautiful yarn that costs more than three times the sweater  did.


Timberland pullover split for cardigan opening with bottom ribbing cut off and tacked on front openings.

Felt the sweater to within an inch of its life, and try not to poke holes in it as you agitate it in boiling water with a wooden spoon in the kitchen sink. Dry the sweater in the dryer on high heat, a cringe-worthy experience, or most gleeful.

Cut the bottom ribbing off the body of the sweater.  Unpick the short zipper from the placket at the neckline, and the collar too. Be careful to save the yarn from the pickin’s as it matches the sweater perfectly and can be used to sew it up again later. Separate the sleeve caps from the body of the sweater from where they start to curve for the underarm. You don’t have linebacker broad shoulders or want that bunchy look at the bust line.

Casablanca hombre yarn separated into tones.

Casablanca hombre yarn separated into tones.

Get out the beautiful hombre-dyed yarn and unwind it so that each hombre section is wound in in a discrete unit. Turn pale at the thought of cutting up such a lovely skein. Do not cut until you figure out exactly what you’re going to do with it.  A collar, yes. Something at the hem, yes. Some decorative yet sturdy stitch to hold the arms onto the body, yes. But what, exactly?

Fool around with the yarn. Don’t cry when it unravels and comes apart as you cast on. Make tea. Carry on.

Timberland sweater remake details of collar and inset sleeve.

Timberland sweater remake details of collar and inset sleeve.

Decide. Use the leaf motif that you love. It drapes perfectly with this yarn. Calculate for the hem and keep the stitches simple. Knit, knit, knit and it’s done. The tedious body has already been knit on a machine somewhere in the Timberland universe.

Put it together. Use the chain stitch for the major joinings–the front band and arm holes. Remember,  after the yarn breaks about 8″ in,  to twist the yarn tightly at ten minute intervals.  Strong now. When that’s done, use the yarn you unpicked from the sweater to tack the edges down. You don’t want it to look handmade-clumsy!

Finished remake of Timberland pullover.

Finished remake of Timberland pullover.

In the end, you will have tried the sweater on one hundred times.  Try it on one last time. Oh, you need some kind of pin or button to close it across the chest?  Return to the wonderful yarn store and pick something up. Take your sweater with you.  The saleswoman who helped you at the beginning of this project will like to see the proof of your creative madness. She didn’t see how it would work.  How could she, when you didn’t either?  You just had the intuition that it would.

Okay, so recycling a sweater seem like it’s as much work as knitting, but it’s different work–combining machine/mass market with hand knitting.  And I kind a like the result.

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Out of Africa quilt show

Volunteering for Out of Africa quilt show arranged by the London International Quilt Festival was really cool.  My friend and I spent more time with quilts than we normally would have, and with the other volunteers and the circle of vendors around the room.

Tent hanging hand sewn by the Men of Cairo, approx 14' x 14'

Tent hanging hand sewn by the Men of Cairo, approx 12′ x 12′

A quilt, apparently, can be broadly defined as a fancy top and a back, with a batting sometimes in the middle.  At this show, there were very few, if any, quilts like the traditional ones my grandmother would make.  Almost all of these quilts from the African continent were meant to hang on the wall.  Stunning “quilts” from the Men of Cairo collective were actually tent walls, and resembled Persian carpets or mosaics. African animals, cultures, traditional and everyday life were celebrated with brilliant colours, sombre desert hues, embroidery and embellishments.

Salamander Quilt, Out of Africa show in London ON, 2013

Salamander Quilt, Out of Africa show in London ON, 2013

Detail of salamander quilt, Out of Africa, London ON, 2013

Detail of salamander quilt, Out of Africa, London ON, 2013

I didn’t get to the lecture on the African quilts, but I did meet a volunteer, Hasebenebi Kaffel who knew the subject in broader terms.  I mistook him for a member of the Men of Cairo collective.  He really works for the UK-based ACORD and has been to Cairo many times, he said.  Also a member of ACFOLA, he was at the show to volunteer his knowledge of Africa.   He told me how long ago he fled his home in Eritrea with nothing, and then ended up in front of the World Bank to deliver a paper on the importance of gender in the economics of developing countries.  Very interesting!

Alas, I did not make any purchases.  There were vendors from all over the world, but instead of getting into something new, I vowed to finish the quilt that I started 30 years ago.  I know, I’m amazed at how quickly time has passed. “The Wedding Plate” is pieced bits of fabric from projects that my sisters and I made in our teens–dresses, PJs, blouses, pot holders, whatever–and I need to finish the quilting and bind it.

It’s good that Africa came to London, for the education, inspiration, and the joy!!

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Yarn “bombing” in the Capital

Tulip Festival, city Hall, Ottawa, Canada

Tulip Festival, city Hall, Ottawa, Canada

The Tulip festival was in full bloom when I visited Ottawa.  Ties between Canada and Holland, made during World War II, continue and I love that it’s through planting flowers and not through war memorials.  The activity of planting bulbs each fall and waiting for the winter snow to melt, for the tulip bulbs to burst into our Canadian spring, however short it may be, is full of hope.

I walked back to my daughter’s house after checking out the Tulip Festival activities at City Hall, past the Nanny Goat Hill Community Garden, and then I came across a yarn bombing by seniors in the trees in front of The Good Companions Seniors’ Centre.  They are getting ready for their annual Walk of Ages fundraiser.  All the flags attached to the trees were knit or crocheted.

Yarn bombing in front of The Good Companions Seniors' Centre, Ottawa Canada

Yarn bombing in front of The Good Companions Seniors’ Centre, Ottawa Canada

Yarn bombing at The Good Companions Seniors' Centre, Ottawa

Yarn bombing at The Good Companions Seniors’ Centre, Ottawa

Yarn bombing at The Good Companions Seniors' Centre, Ottawa

Yarn bombing at The Good Companions Seniors’ Centre, Ottawa

Imagine the history of the last century if this tactic had been used.  If Dickens had written not of Mme Lafarge merely watching the beheadings and knitting the names into the fabric, but of her knitting covers for the guillotines, crocheting a woman’s discontent and fixing it to icons of her displeasure.

Perhaps more lives can be saved as cunning fingers wrap yarn around people and place.

The Good Companions Seniors' Centre, Ottawa

The Good Companions Seniors’ Centre, Ottawa

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Mother’s Day memory

My mother and her sister were named after the months they were born in:  May and June.  Both have Alzheimer’s.  Patricia May has passed away and but my mother ticks on.  Here’s a section of a short story(fiction) that I’m working on about ‘June’ remembering Mother’s Day and then Father’s Day as she tries to take in the news that ‘May’ has died.  

They say no. She is not yet beside Mother and Father. Good. Tell them that on Mothers’ Day we pin a white carnation from the vase in the church narthex onto our cardigans and then we sit in the family pew waiting for the service. The pastor will deliver homilies of two kinds. May and I discuss how we would rather wear pink or orange carnations, and so we return the white ones to the vases in the narthex and pin the coloured ones on with long hat pins. The deacon notices and kindly says that there aren’t enough coloured flowers. Would we mind trading ours for the white again? We are mortified. Mother only pins coloured carnations onto our cardigans.

Father’s Day is less complicated. We take fish and chips to the pond and share a great bottle of dark ale, wiping our greasy hands on the grassy bank, putting off our shoes and socks afterwards to dangle our legs over the edge, fishing bits of coleslaw from the Styrofoam container and tossing the limp strands onto the water, calling up the fish as though they are our friends, kicking our feet hard in tandem so that whenever the minnows do surface, we have created tidal waves for the poor things. Father would like to choke us girls for scaring the fish away, for disturbing them, yet he has no qualms about tricking the fish with worms and impaling them with hooks in the first place.

For more reading about mothers with Alzheimer’s, try this graphic novel: Tangles: a story about Alzheimer’s, my mother and me by Sarah Leavitt.

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C publishers: ChiZine and Coach House Books

So, I’ve finished writing a novel, The Bones, and of course I want to put it out there.  But the business of writing differs hugely from the craft, so it’s time to to do some research. The overall goal is to find a kindred spirit who will love to get my  book out there.

At this time, I’m going through the directory of Canadian Publishers. B was interesting, with one nibble.  Then it was time for the Cs. I almost went down to Sarnia’s GenreCon in April to pitch my novel to ChiZine, publisher of DARK works. The World More Full of Weeping by Robert Wiersemaon was on their list, but the book wasn’t in the LPLibrary, so I got out Before I Wake by the same author. Really cool story, which I found not so DARK but rather hopeful.

After ChiZine, comes Coach House. They unabashedly like Toronto and all things related in their non-fiction. I do situate the beginning of my novel in Toronto, so that’s good. For research, I started with Andrew Kaufman’s All My Friends are Superheroes. From the title and book cover, you may guess this novel is a weighty tome about the existential angst of Canadian identity involving world events in the Middle East–or perhaps Brighton. You would guess wrong! It’s a perfect darlin’ of a love story.

Another title in the Coach House list that caught my eye was And the Birds Rained Down by Jocelyne Saucier and translated from French by Rhonda Mullens. It’s a story about the northern bush north of Timmins, but not in the usual CanLit way. There is suffering, but the woods are the remedy for Saucier’s characters. I don’t know a lot about translations, but I feel like I would enjoy this more in the original French, as the English feels awkward at times. The interspersed history of the Great Fires that raged through the area 100 years ago is pretty interesting.

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Setting the table

Linen napkins cut from a vintage tablecloth.

Linen napkins cut from a vintage tablecloth.

Maybe this is a generational thing, maybe it still happens, but family dinners on Sundays and holidays used be quite formal.

At the centre of it all was the large dining room table.  During the week, it might the place for doing homework, for cutting out sewing patterns, or once at our house, for a quilting bee.  On holidays, the table was extended to fit 12 or 14 people.  The boards that extend the length are called leaves, as though we were adding to a tree.  The final act of transformation came when the white linen cloth was placed on top.  Pure, fresh.  A sacred space created.

In the afternoon before the dinner, real silverware, bone china dishes, wine glasses, a centrepiece,  napkins, serving dishes, butter dishes, crystal stemmed salt and pepper shakers, and gravy boats were set out on the white sea.  The table was set.

Recently, I met Marilyn, who told me she is in her eighties and  how she found some table cloths that she had no use for, but there were memories attached.  She asked me over for coffee, then spread out her mother’s and grandmother’s linen table cloths on her dining room table.  They’d been well-used.  Here’s where the gravy spilled, still a large yellow stain.  And there were holes, small ones from the wear of weekly washings, and a large plate-sized one.  Perhaps a hot pan had burned through.  Marilyn asked if there was enough “good” fabric to make a set of large table napkins, as a keepsake for her niece.  To throw the linen out seemed wrong.

The Mary Campbell Cooperative on Talbot Street, London ON

The housing cooperative on Talbot Street, London ON named after Mary Campbell.

When I delivered the set of eight large linen napkins, Marilyn didn’t look at them right away.  Instead, she talked about another kind of table she’d sat around.  When she’d first come to London, she  became friends with Mary Campbell, also from the west, but an activist who would start a co-op movement in this rather white-collar city.

Marilyn remembers the Campbells’ table, how she read there, reading things she didn’t always understand: Communist treatises, trade union booklets, socialist literature.  She remembers falling in with a movement where working as equals was preferred, and then having the courage to leave a bad marriage and go to college to become a social worker.

Now it’s a choice for a woman to stay in a marriage, but 40 or 50 years ago, to leave brought on a lot of judgement and shame, like spilling gravy or red wine on the white table cloth.  I thanked Marilyn for her courage, for making it easier for the women of my generation.  It’s not that we don’t love the traditions, the white linen and beautiful place settings, but we know there are other tables, tables set with a different cloth.

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