Why We Should All Celebrate National Poetry Day

As soon as you hear National Poetry Day, some of you may flinch a little, thinking  ‘oh for Pete’s sake, a poetry day? Do we really need a national day to celebrate poetry?’

I would say yes, more so now than ever. The fact is, poetry is not for the faint-hearted or wishy-washy. Poetry is not a woman in a patchwork sewn cape staring at daffodils wearing colourful cheap jewelry who you imagine might make a good zucchini loaf.

No, my friend, poetry is the synthesis of our deepest life, the hidden sorrows that quietly rip through you while you eat a sandwich at work and try to keep your life together.

Poetry is the moment—the only moment—captured as if the poet held your own heart, like a spear of lightning in his or her hand, not minding that it’s shredding open their skin, caving in their hearts or keeping them up at 3 am. It’s not a magic trick or a reading at a local library to small children or red roses tucked into a Hallmark card—it’s an act of courage, defiance even, to snatch the electric emotion out of thin air and transcribe it, with all its burning or tender or dying life and deliver it like a pure child to the universe.

Poetry is our defence against a shallow world spinning itself towards a crash landing. Poetry is our respite, a quite breath, a gentle tug into the sacred, into a kind of wisdom we had all along, that longed to look to a sparse page with black letters and be saved.

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A Solo Architectural Adventure

I’ve been shivering like a hairless dog for the past few weeks. Why? Because I was in Palm Springs for Modernism Week. And it was miraculous weather. Well, miraculous in that it wasn’t winter in Vancouver—cold, wet and gray for as long as the eye dared to look out from under an umbrella. It was luxuriously sunny with a high of sandals all day and a low of thin sundress at night. For those darling loyal readers, you may remember I went to Palm Spring last year and fell in love. With the topography and architecture—there is a dearth of mature-ish heterosexual available men, so nevermind, I wasn’t there for that.

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During that trip I went on an incredible architectural tour of Palm Springs that was helmed by a masterful storyteller who had an encyclopedic knowledge of mid-century architecture and I was transfixed by his telling and obvious love of the design ethos the early visionaries had when they descended in Palm Springs in the 30’s and 40’s.  It was during that tour I heard a few architects talking about Modernism Week and decided there and then I’d go back and so I did.

Once again I stayed at the Movie Colony hotel which is an architectural gem itself. Initially built by Albert Frey, an architect whose designs saturate the landscape of Palm Springs with over 200 buildings, the small boutique hotel has a certain faded glamour about it that I really adore. For a solo traveler, Frey’s design suits me quite well as there is an intimate courtyard area where everyone gathers for a continental breakfast outdoors, reads their paper, pours coffee, talks about the horrible weather they just came from and likewise at 5:30 pm on the dot everyone comes back and gathers for free martinis and California wine and yaks about their day. It just so happened there were very interesting people there including a group of friends who’d known one another since college and were having a hooray-to-the-west trip together. An invitation ensued and David and Dan, Mike and Mark and I all went out one night to a restaurant that had a lot of buzz but we were all kind of disappointed. I was impressed with the copywriting of the menu however, as it really upsold the food in a creative way. Gravy was described as ‘huntsman’s jus’. I thought that was very clever. Another night I went out with Deb and Tim from Michigan, perhaps the nicest people I’ve ever met, to a night market that seemed to stretch the entire length of the San Jacinto mountains. Truly remarkable and entertaining experience I highly recommend if you are in Palm Springs on a Thursday night. There is nothing not being sold at this market, trust me.

The fact is, Palm Springs is the warmest city I’ve every visited and I’m not talking desert climate. For the first few days I was shocked when people warmly greeted me on the street and said hello. I looked over my shoulder, sure they were speaking to a friend that happened to be walking behind me but no, it was me and I responded, a beat too late, appearing suspicious and well, probably like a Vancouverite. Vancouver is well-known as a cold city, a city that doesn’t say ‘hello’ to strangers on the street, a city that has increasingly become about development—sadly, at the cost of its heritage and many neighbourhoods that were once bustling communities of unique personality and spirit.

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I tried to balance the week with a mix of sun, walking, swimming, tours, reading and lectures. I wanted a true holiday and not one where I was running around trying to find the next tour bus. This is the blessing of solo travel—you have only yourself and your own agenda to live by and if you can be confident enough to sit with five or six couples all talking about their adventures and happily talk about your own then you are likely a good candidate for solo travel. There’s no room for self-pity in solo travel—you have to live each day how you want and not give a whit what anyone thinks.

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One of the highlights of the week was visiting Albert Frey’s house high up the mountain overlooking the city and surrounding San Jacinto mountains. It’s said he liked to hang about nude and put a cow bell at the entrance so folks could alert him should they make their way up to his aerie in the mountains. The house just makes you weep with the elemental design of it, the ideal of desert life distilled down into this architectural gem and it whetted an appetite in me to one day build my own writing retreat in the desert region of Osoyoos.

Lectures on architects and design were held daily at the Palm Springs Art Museum, which is a gem in and of itself. I was very impressed with the collection for a city this size. I really loved learning about designer cum architect Walter S. White who designed affordable small concrete houses throughout the Coachella Valley for ‘real people’. His use of soaring curved roofs with floor to ceiling glass windows in his Alexander House are stunning.

The entire aesthetic of mid-century architecture inspires me in a way that makes me want to build. The low horizontal profiles, the exterior designed for intense privacy, happy breeze ways, patterned concrete, gobs of light, interior transparency, with a respectful relationship to the environment, in particular, the desert sun—all this design thinking continually delights me and I hope I can one day replicate some of it for myself.

 

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Frank Sinatra’s Twin Palms estate

 

At the beginning of the week, as I sat in the airport fussing about whether my son would remember to feed the cat, another voice interrupted me and said, in a calm and adult-like voice: Just live the hell out of this week. Forget work. Forget the sore knee, dry eyes and achy neck. Forget about dishes and cat hair on the pillows and the weird niggling sound when the car is in reverse. Just live.

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And I did. I really lived the hell out of Modernism Week and I’ll do it again next year.

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Three stories that might change your life or at least cause you to read through the night

I have just finished reading All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews. In fact, I did so at around 3:34 am, just after my new 3 am waking time, give or take 6 or 7 minutes because apparently something is very important that I need to wake up for at that time. Every night. But nevermind me, let’s focus on the brilliant Miriam. I cried several times reading this novel, not out of sadness as in a linear kind of translation (this happened oh how sad) but rather from Miriam’s ability to tell the truth. The truth of life just exactly as it is in all its absurdity, its terrible exactitude and inestimable love and attachment. The fumbling kind of truth, the kind we never read much about or see in television shows or in news media, the vulnerable truth we don’t show anyone, the hidden layer of our foiled, failed selves—this is what Miriam gently teases out in every scene.

She reveals elemental truths about love, death, family in such a nuanced way that you are in no way convinced it is fiction and yet entirely desperate to stay in her fictional world, if that makes any sense.

I don’t like novels or movies or plays that dress up life, that dramatize it to get a reaction or manipulate an audience with an obvious eye to who is sitting in the front row. The protagonist, in fact all the characters in All My Puny Sorrows, are so genuine that you find yourself often putting down the book and weeping as they remind you of someone you once knew and a scene you had with them in a hallway or in a grocery store lineup or when you last spoke with them before they died and you were meaning to tell them how they’d always been in your heart all along and were sorry it didn’t work out. Death bobs along on a resilient wave of hope that nearly drowns continually through this precious novel but is fished out of swampy humanness by the main character—Yolanda— and her various family members throughout the story so that one is left with a real desire to go and shake one’s child up at 3:34 am and tell them they love them and how special they are and how there’s no one else like them in the universe and how lucky I am that I get to have you as a son.

Speaking of my son, he and I have overly sensitive bullshit meters and can be hard on media we consume. There’s a fair amount of poking holes in storylines at dinnertime. While I likely can’t get him to read All My Puny Sorrows (he’s obsessed with Ghengis Khan at the moment) he did watch Broadchurch which is an English series on NetFlix about the murder of a young boy in a small, tightly-knit rural community. We both agreed it was uncharacteristically like real life and particularly with regards to grief and how grief really behaves and shows up in people when something wretched happens like losing their child or brother. Grief is not an aria sung once with feeling, it winds itself around you and through you like smoke, sometimes thickening so you can’t breathe other times clearing and thin like a vapour gently enveloping you but it is always there. Broadchurch delicately weaves its tale with immense attention to the subtleties of sorrow and human dependence and love. Trigger warning on this one of all kinds including sexual abuse.

And then there’s Eve Ensler. Oh Eve. I said to myself after I finished her harrowing book In the Body of the World, non-fiction will never be the same for me. It likely won’t until she writes another book. Saying Eve is a ‘force’ is like saying the wind sometimes erodes things or the ocean has been known to get angry. In this book she tells the story of getting stage IV cancer and surviving it but it is so much more than that. It tells the stories of women all over the world that she has met through her activism, stories of unspeakable horrors of rape, incest, violence, degradation and emotional bludgeoning masked in marriages or families. She doesn’t lay out suffering like a buffet for the reader, instead she pulls you into her own, private discourse on what it means to question our worth, our physical identity as a woman, to unpack the lies we tell ourselves as women to be accepted, loved and cherished and the cost of those lies in our day-to-day relationships. It makes you wonder who will show up for you if you are ill? It causes you to dig down into your own moral set of rules and chuck out those that don’t serve you anymore, ones that might be leftovers from a family that never really loved you, or a marriage or friendship that subjugated you, squashed your voice, killed your creativity. Eve pulls no punches—she’s on the mountain speaking names, she’s fearless, she’s a warrior, on fire, alive—she is truth. And yet so human and fragile and imperfect, just like life. May she live forever.

These are stories that have changed me. I know something is percolating from all three, something to do with my own truth, my own voice and finding fearlessness to express it. I hope I have nearly enough courage as these creators have.

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On aging eyes, secret drawers and a long lost neighbourhood

My eyes are a mess. I stare at computer screens for a ridiculous and unhealthy amount of my life so it’s no wonder I have chronic dry eye and issues with my vision. I take the equivalent to a salmon farm’s worth of Omega vitamins and all sorts of potions and concoctions to no avail. While visiting my ophthalmologist the other day, she pointed out my lenses didn’t have a very big reading area (they have three sections to them for people who are aging but not yet ‘old’ I guess). She pointed out I should get some reading glasses and I said, Well, I just spent the same amount on these glasses (indicating to the ones on my face) that I spent buying my first car. Her face remained passive. I realized in that moment she had clients that had glasses for different parts of their life like brunch or the opera or driving and who didn’t have a budget for just one pair as I did.

She astutely picked up on the fact that I was unable to afford another pair of fancy glasses as in not one of her regular clients and ushered me over to the far end of the store. In a hushed tone she signaled to a drawer below us. “We do have some glasses for (in sotto voice) only $75.00.” She nudged open the drawer then put her hand on my shoulder and said I could take as long as I needed. It was as though she’d just delivered some heart wrenching news about a loved one and it was likely I’d need some time by myself. Or as in this drawer does not qualify for a sales person to help you.

So, this was the poor drawer.

I looked around the waiting room. It had Herman Miller furniture and was bright and airy with orange and gray accents that mirrored the brand colours. A woman was sitting with a Hermes scarf and coiffed as in I don’t do rain hair and had the largest diamond ring on that I’d ever seen in my life. Another woman had the Point Grey look of “I don’t work, I just workout” complete with a body entirely clad in Lululemon which hugged her like a green screen suit. I quickly turned away should either woman see me scrounging around in the poor drawer.

And yet, here were some nice frames in the back of the drawer. Albeit they were for children but since I am roughly the size of a nine-year-old boy, they worked for me. I found a very nice pair and walked up to the counter. The woman smiled and then frowned as there was no Fendi, Channel or Tom Ford to indicate what to charge me. I whispered, “They’re from the drawer.”

She nodded solemnly, thrilled she could be so discreet and I smiled limply, feeling shame somehow clinging to my aura as I made an appointment to pick them up the following week.

As I drove away, I thought of how much this neighborhood had changed since I was a child. Across the street from that optometrist was a hairdressing shop my mother used to go to when I was little. Her hairdresser’s name was Phillip. Not Phil. Phillip said with a real emphasis on the last p. No slang for him. My mother clearly loved this man who gave her some dignity every four weeks. The salon still exists though it’s lost it’s seventies fabulousness. I loved hanging out with her in that shop. None of the woman who went there wore giant diamonds or ever had designer clothing on. They were local women, women I’d seen at bake sales and in the basement of our church or answering friends’ doors. They were moms and grandmothers yakking and sharing stories. Point Grey was a community, not a real estate listing whose subtext was: please tear me down. Okay, maybe that’s going too far but it’s hard not to wonder what happened to Point Grey in the last 30 years and what it will look like in the next quarter century if we keep developing and tearing down our heritage at the rate we’re going. Point Greyers (my own name, let’s start a club?) who remember when underprivileged, over populated families could still live on West 11th and West 8th and West 13th on Crown and Trimble and Discovery and Wallace will know exactly what I’m talking about.

Something’s been lost and I’m not sure we’ll find it again except in our memories.

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West 11th, circa 1973. My dad and a long lost Vancouver.

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A Gift Just in Time

It was in yoga just a few weeks ago when I stopped hating my body. There was no great ah-ha-a-la-Oprah-esque moment, no mid-forties screech and halt, no drum roll or tears of joy. There was only silence and the thrum of heat in my ears as I poured myself into a downward dog, grumbling at my sore elbows, wrists and ankles as I asked them to release. Then I suddenly thought, Hey this body is doing its best, lay off it already!

And just like that, I became its friend.

For decades I’ve acted like my body was my enemy, something to be vigilant about, hard on, like I was its personal drill sergeant marching it to a cacophony of jeers from an imaginary audience, whose voices hovered above me like comic captions: ‘c’mon, you can do better than that, just look at those thighs, my god, what is happening with your hair? To a point where my body was in fear of my mind, always trying valiantly to contort to the must’s and the should’s and the early morning prods. Like some kind of vaguely Russian Olympic gymnast coach from the seventies, my mind asked my body to be things it could never be and wondered why it failed me year after year? When in fact it was I that was failing my dear, imperfect hard-working, slightly pale and in parts doughy but sincerely loving body.

My body eventually caved in with all that unkindness surrounding it. This year was the year my body gave up and said fuck it. Or more to the point: Fuck you. It rose up in all its pale five foot glory and said, you know, I’m not serving you anymore. I’m tired.

I got very sick and stayed sick for a long time. I still have an immune system that is misfiring, like a spaceship that has righted itself but can’t communicate with NASA anymore. This is what happens when your body goes off the rails with a lonely, bereft wail of its unlovable nature.

Recently, while reading Anne Lamott’s brilliant book on writing, Bird by Bird,  I was struck by her recounting of what a friend told her about ‘emotional acreage’. Her friend said that “every one of us is given an emotional acre all our own.” Lamott explained that we own it and can do with it as we wish; it has a fence and a gate. As a child, I didn’t live in a home that recognized I had a defined acre of emotional land. Mine was more like a closet with gaping holes in the door and hinges that wouldn’t allow it to close properly. My acre was never my acre.

Later, because I didn’t know I had a whole acre, people camped out in it, leaving refuse and anger and leftover half-hearted love that I was never sure what to do with. Recycle? Bury? Burn? Publish? Who knows. And in my body I felt it was wrong–knew it was wrong– but couldn’t say it out loud. They were squatting on my life but I didn’t really own it so it was okay. I apologized and stayed indoors.

When your body doesn’t belong to you, you don’t notice when it is hurt. Sometimes I would tell someone something that happened to me and they would look shocked and I’d wonder why? Because I hadn’t felt the pain; it had only happened to my body. But I knew, by looking at their faces, that something wasn’t right and there was more to this picture than I was seeing. Or feeling.

It finally came together in, of all places, an upside down pose in a hot yoga studio just before Christmas. What I came to–among many other things that slipped into place like a Rubik’s Cube–was this: the moment you befriend your own body is the moment you defend it. You put your arm around it and say, you’re actually trying very hard and you are actually doing quite a good job. In fact, you are so beautiful it hurts my heart a little. Your hardworking toes, your delicate clavicle, haunting veins, and persevering breath. All elegantly formed and intentionally unique.

Your mind stops ordering your body under the stairs. You say instead: sit with me, breathe deeply, don’t rush, I’m here with you for the whole day and night–take your time.

You get the acreage thing. You see your boundaries. You feel your whole space and the abundance of beauty within it. Fragile beauty, broken beauty, learned beauty, another day beauty. Wisdom.

And when someone rushes onto your acreage, demanding this or that–or confessing, loitering, bartering, intimidating, or worse, telling you what is really happening–you can pause and consider it and say yes or no. You can say Get on out of here if the spirits are dark and hold no love for you. You can hold up your imaginary rifle and fire a warning shot. You own your body and its acreage is sacred.

When you finally, at long last, love your body with all its peccadilloes and late night habits, its public crying at movies, its soreness in the morning, its drying eyes and swelled knees, elbow or neck, you begin to really see the edges of that acre, the beautiful waving grass that has grown wild over the years, the small shrubs with hints of new white blossoms, and the tall Oak trees in dignified repose, as though they had been patiently waiting all along for your awakening.

When you sit on your deck (I imagine now my body like a graceful, simply designed modernist house in the middle of a field) and look out over your land you will realize what a gift it is to have it. And when someone comes along and just tosses open the gate and starts camping out or dumping garbage and saying your acreage is kind of messy and disorganized and doesn’t have any proper landscaping, you can say, Well, that’s just fine, here’s the exit.

But if someone raps gently on your gate and says, I have some homemade soup to share, interested? You say, Yes, I’ll get the bowls, come on in. Pretty sure I have some crusty bread we can break together. You sit together, with your old or young bodies or brown or white skin, your green or gray or brown eyes alight with life, with friendship and sharing that comes from a deep place of security, safety and love.

Because you love your body. And you are grateful for it.

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When a writer has had enough of words

I am craving white space on the page. Only what remains after the burning of many words can be left, and even then it should be a shadow and wake no emotion.

The crowing of words from every digital precipice is all together too much noise ‘signifying nothing’.I rest my eyes on the white snow outside, turn my head to eliminate the shivering arms of a maple.

The cat turns to me as though to say, when will we rest?

I answer, soon, soon. The holidays are soon.

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Bohemian Forest Love

In the narrow window between work and home, between duty and laundry, feeding the cat, trying to sleep, getting my ass to yoga, and tweeting, I have been working on a poetry book. I have until the end of November to submit it to the publisher so I’m focused. Even if it is only in that narrow, intense little pocket of time. So because I have nothing to say except through poetry, I thought to give a few highlights of some of my fave poems.

The book is called ‘Surrounded by Water’ and it is a capsule of my time living on Vancouver Island. It was 7 years and I had a lot of ups and downs, as in broken hearts and falling in love and broken hearts and–yeah, . It’s behind me and a big namaste to all that pain. I’ve put it all in compact collection that I hope will be a nicely balanced boat I can finally sail off into the distance. If you are a writer that has spent a lot of time with something you will know what I mean but feeling excited I’m almost ready to be done with this collection of words.

A lot of the poems have the ocean flowing through them. When I lived on Vancouver Island, I used to go to a fabulous place called Mystic Beach (check it out, it’s magical) and there was this amazing experience of walking through the cool, mossy, lush, brown bark filled forest and then down worn driftwood steps to the ocean I never tired of.

Down, down the rooted path

the blue areola draws us to her

through the womb of old growth forest.

It feels a little–or rather a lot–west coast but the summers there brought out the Bohemian in me. It is very hard to edit nearly a thousand poems and think about which ones need to go with which. I see many books there but which book is this one I have to ask myself. It’s sometimes a lonely journey and one full of memories.

I don’t miss being bound by ferries on an island but I sometimes miss being able to get out into nature more. One of the things I did love about living in a smaller community was the smell of cedar. Before the island, I used to live on the Sunshine Coast and many of the homes I rented had a wood stove that required me to, of course, chop wood and I got highly accomplished at slivering cedar for kindling. The smell and heat from cedar is like no other. Here, a little poem I wrote after getting wood for the stove one day:

Getting Wood

This morning at the wood pile

A crow or raven?

Flutters overhead

Then is gone.

Now a day full of longing

From some umbilical place

As though my infancy

Could be explained by wings.

Now I live in a big city, well not as grand as New York or Berlin but Vancouver is a growing city, a cosmopolitan city and one that has an intense pace that can blanket the mind with a hum twenty four hours a day. The other day I found myself in the Spirit Forest on the farthest western edge of the city–isn’t that a great name, Spirit Forest? As a kid I just called it the Endowment Lands but now it’s a proper park with beautiful trails that nestle deep into its barky, woody, wet, green dripping west coast heart. And I kept inhaling and inhaling and there was something there at the edge pulling me in, reminding me of my connection to nature and then I knew–it was my own voice. The forest just gave me the silence to hear it again.

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