workshops at the shelter: aka, what we write about when we write about avocados

The rule is this: write fast. No thinking allowed, no revising, no stopping. The rule is to write fast and only for a few minutes at a time. It’s important not to wander into the everyday stuff that takes up all the space in our heads. Especially now. For the length of this workshop we are not given over to thoughts of everyday muck, nor do we dwell on the why of why we live in a shelter— why they live in a shelter. I’m a volunteer. I can go home.

They choose their own notebook, their own journal for the writing exercises. People donate dozens, all of them in a variety of colours and sizes, and this is a big part of the workshop, this gift of blank pages. They take their time choosing, some have difficulty with decision.

For the writing, we use visual prompts and random words, things like cuticle, dragon, avocado, and the women always go Avocado? For fuck’s sake, we’re running for our lives, do you know how hard it was to leave, to come here, to not have the first clue about what happens next, because we don’t know what to do because all we’ve ever known, all we’ve ever been told, is that we’re stupid and worthless and all we’ve ever done is give away our power because we believed, still believe, we’re stupid and worthless, because we’re deflated, broken, so fucking broken, and because he threatens suicide unless we come back, threatens to kill our dog, mess with our kids, he’ll find us he says, so why the fuck are we writing about avocados when all we can think about is what’s happening to our dog, because we couldn’t take our dog, we didn’t have a choice because this was the day we had the strength to make the move and it might not come again and so we just ran and it doesn’t make sense to be writing about avocados when all we want to do is cry, to replay it all over and over in our minds, the way it started, the way it was only emotional in those days, he has a temper, sure, but he loves me, he loves the kids, he always says he’s sorry, and how this time was always the last time, the last black eye, the last broken arm… he promised, he cried, he begged, because he’s really just a teddy bear underneath, he is so in need of love and we need to be needed, what else do we have? And you’re telling us to write about avocados? Why? Tell us why.

This isn’t what they say out loud, no one person has ever said it all out loud, but it’s there with every new group, in the expression on their faces, the impatient tap of a foot, the slump of their boredom, the question why?

And so I tell them: I don’t know… let’s see why.

And remember, I say, write fast, don’t think, don’t revise, and I’m amazed, every time, that they pick up their pens and begin.

And what happens is that avocados take them to the colour of a sweater they once loved or hated, which reminds them of the aunt who knit the sweater and that freezing night it rained and they all played Clue and somebody made popcorn with sugar instead of salt… and it goes on from there.

And this small memory always comes as a big surprise as they break the cycle of everyday thoughts, even for a short time. Not only that but they often tap into a part of themselves they’ve never shared with anyone because they didn’t think it was important.

And this is where the magic happens: when they read their work out loud and realize people are listening and laughing and crying and for a moment it occurs to them that they matter, that they are so much more than their present circumstances, so much more than what they’ve been told they are.

And so the woman with missing front teeth writes about shelling peas during a time of severe abuse, how the garden was her refuge. Another remembers her mother’s stew pot, the colour and texture, the smell of pork and cabbage, the way it felt to warm her hands on it. She says she hasn’t thought of that for twenty years, been too busy on the streets, making a living.

The woman who writes about leaving home at thirteen, the way she pauses and looks up to see if you’re shocked and how in that half second you can see that thirteen year old kid in her eyes.

A woman who was working as a trader in the NYC office of Merrill Lynch on 9/11 writes about how she left the building minutes before the plane hit, how she remembers bodies falling. She has the idea she made eye contact with some of them. She had a life until then, she writes, a career. But after that she fell apart, nightmares, survivor guilt; she took refuge in drugs. She’s all bones now and her face is scarred and covered in scabs. She says one of the great things about the shelter is that no one cringes when they look at her. She says that this group, the writing, the sharing of stories is the first time she’s felt joy, the first time she remembers smiling in years.

A 31 year old woman with six kids tells us about something called fricot, a New  Brunswick comfort food, and a former journalist with a black eye gives instructions for making a no-fail pot roast she swears will melt in your mouth.

The young woman with seven kids who has driven across the country.

The 17 year old who writes about praying for a baby so she’ll have someone to love her.

The woman who writes: I remember the soft hum my mother makes while baking.

The woman who writes: I want to acquire the skill of being able to say the difficult things.

The one with pink hair who writes about peace…peace be with you, she writes, peace out, I wish I had a piece of blueberry pie.

The teenager who writes about arriving at the shelter at one in the morning, alone and scared and how the next day was her birthday and how the shelter staff and residents surprised her with a cake that afternoon and how she’s still in awe that anyone could be so nice.

And the woman from India who, through an interpreter, tells us about a happy childhood, playing tennis, her mother’s cooking and the mango tree outside her bedroom window and then how, in Canada, she was essentially a prisoner in her home, beaten by her husband, not allowed to go outside or talk to anyone for six years.

From a selection of visual prompts that I bring in and place on the table… a button, Canadian Tire money, a stone, a crayon… a woman picks the bar of soap and, in tears, describes the hugs of a grandmother who smelled of Ivory. And in another workshop, on another day, another woman picks the same bar of soap and writes about how when she was five or six, her father asked her to have a shower with him, and how it turned out to be… in her words… not a normal shower. She reads her piece without emotion, the only tears are ours.

The woman who chooses the stick and I immediately think how ridiculous of me to bring a stick. You never know what will trigger bad memories, but a stick? That pretty much screams poor choice. And yet. The woman who chooses the stick writes about how one day in the park with her kids her son picked up a long thin branch and at home snapped it into four pieces and said This is us, we’re broken, but we’ll always fit together. She still has the pieces and writes how she plans to mount them on the wall above everyone’s bed if they ever find a home.

I bring the stick to another workshop and the woman who chooses it writes about the beauty of trees without leaves.

This is the part I never get used to. These women who’ve just done possibly the most difficult thing they’ll ever do, leave their homes, almost always with nothing, their abuser’s voice still ringing in their head, telling them if they walk out that door I’ll kill you or someone or something you love, and it will be your fault they say. They won’t be accountable for what they do. You’ve been warned, they scream, it will be your fault.

And yet… they write about the beauty of trees without leaves.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that even though they don’t know each other and will only share bedrooms, the kitchen, the TV room and smoking area in this shelter for a few weeks, a couple of months, they have an uncanny ability to feel each other. I marvel at how they know exactly what to say and when, or when to do no more than silently pass a box of tissues down the line.

One afternoon, close to the end of a workshop, after we’ve been writing and sharing stories for an hour and a half, I put out the visual prompts for one last exercise. A woman who has an easy laugh and leans forward to hear the stories of others, chooses a red feather and writes about a daughter who committed suicide two months earlier. No one in the room had any idea. She smiles as she reads, knowing how her words will affect us but wanting somehow to keep it light, to not become a downer. Her daughter, who is now an angel, she writes, loved to collect feathers and had this idea of maybe opening a shelter for women called Free to Fly.

And the woman who can’t decide between the prompt “I remember…” and “I believe” so I decide for her, I suggest she use I remember and she groans and starts writing and when she’s done, she drops her pen and covers her face, her shoulders shake with tears and I say how sorry I am, that it was a stupid prompt, that I should have given her I believe instead and she says, no, that she needed to do this, she needed to see it, she says, to remember, and then she reads out loud all the remembered things, the smell of her mother’s Exclamation perfume, her child’s birth, the love, the song, the dance, the chardonnay, the pain and the hunger, the strength she needed, the power her ex held, the day she changed, she remembers the money, she writes, the death, the rebirth. I remember never forgetting.

The women named Dylan and Raven, Cheyanne, Sue and Brenda, some of them tough as they get, who cry when they write about lilacs.

And the women not mentioned, and those who have yet to leave their homes, who stay because he is her family, because For Better or For Worse. Because to leave is failure; because she came from a broken home and doesn’t want her kids to come from the same place. Because she will be seen as pathetic for having stayed so long so it’s better to stay even longer and not let anyone know.  Because she looks fine and manages to function even though she is so messed up emotionally, mentally, spiritually and physically she can’t even see straight but still, it’s easier to hope than leave, so she hopes he will be in a good mood today, and when he isn’t… it’s too late again.

And the youngest of women, no more than a girl, who chooses a dark brown feather and writes about the elders looking down from the eagle’s nest, how grateful they are to those who have come after them, who continue to tell the story of their people. She can hear them, she writes…

I can hear them. Can you?

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This essay originally appeared in The Malahat Review,  (Summer, 2018)
The shelter’s writing program has not been running since covid. I think of the women often, the women who make the hard choice of coming here to save their own lives, who with other women and children build a community, and who eventually create a new world beyond these safe walls… who knows where and how.
I think of those who because of covid no longer have easy access to safety.
I think of them often.
And I miss writing with them… and talking… about avocados.

♦♦

see?

 

‘Second Chances’ is the name of the donation centre at a local women’s shelter where items are arranged ‘shop style’ so residents can help themselves to whatever they need… especially when moving on to new housing, and for a year afterwards. Someone I met there this morning, a former resident, told me how much the ‘free shopping’ meant to her (I got a kettle! a bath mat! shower curtains!), how much the whole shelter experience meant to her… how terrified she was when she arrived, how much the staff did to help her at a time when she felt like she was losing her mind, but even more, how they helped her move on, to find peace and beauty again, to give her kids a safe home, and how she loves to come back occasionally to say hello or sign up for a program.

I watch as she and a staff member hug with genuine affection, you look great!  and I can’t help thinking what I know of her life, the utter awfulness of her past and the extraordinary changes she’s made in the years since.

I can’t help being in awe that she’s standing here so relaxed, wide open, all kind soul and grateful heart.

As we pass the stairs leading to the basement ‘store’ she stops, points to a wooden sign on a bare plaster wall and her face lights up like an epiphany.

See?  she says. That’s what this place is…

 

 

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
For further information and assistance, including a list of shelters in Ontario, and across Canada:

OAITH

Public Health Agency of Canada

 

whoa nellie!

 

I’m not a joiner of things, not a clubbish person generally. This has always been the case, although when I was about ten I invented The Boogie Woogie Club and invited friends to join. Amazingly, on opening day, a few showed up in my parents’ basement where we sat around until someone… Kathleen Erickson possibly… said so what’s this club about… I mean what do we do?

Good question, Kathleen, I thought. But I didn’t have an answer. To this day I have no idea what the Boogie Woogie club was supposed to be or why I’d thought of starting it. I do remember seeing the words boogie woogie  in a song title in one of my lesson books for accordion and, knowing me,
I probably just wanted to incorporate it… somewhere. A club with no purpose would have seemed as good as anything.

The club disbanded shortly after Kathleen’s unanswered question and we headed over to the school to do long jumps in the sand pits. Or similar.

Which more or less brings me to 2018.

Where I find myself part of another group, only this time I’m not the inventor (which bodes well for the group’s future).

Also, this group has that essential ingredient: a purpose.

The Wild Nellies is the result of two women having coffee one day and wondering what they could do to benefit the lives of other women, specifically women moving on from abusive relationships. What they landed on was the idea of women celebrating women through various disciplines — visual art, music, literature, sharing their own work or the work of someone that’s inspired or influenced them in some way. The event would be free, they decided, and held in one of the area’s most wonderful spaces, and all of it would be done to bring attention to the needs of a local women’s shelter.

That they take their name from Nellie McClung — writer, legislator, suffragist, activist, public speaker, one of Canada’s original feminists, and a member of The Famous Five, who met over tea to change the political shape of this country by having it declared (after extraordinary campaigning) that women were indeed ‘people’ — is most fitting and wonderful (not the least of which wonderfulness being the coffee/tea origins).

Women have always found ways around being invisible, of having no voice, of being ‘talked over’ and told to be quiet, that their passion and their interest in fairness is too ‘shrill’—

(A woman who knows what she wants and gets it, is often seen as headstrong, difficult, a force of nature, while a man who knows what he wants and gets it, is a man who knows what he wants and gets it.)

—Yet despite not having their voices listened to, and the sometimes even greater obstacles of being isolated, unable to speak the language, being penniless, afraid for their lives, or tied down with childcare, women continue to find ways to meet, to gather, to band together and bring about change for the betterment of not just themselves, but for all women, for community, the benefits of which ultimately reach beyond gender.

Which brings us to 2018 again.

And the announcement today of new legislation that requires employers in Ontario to pay all workers equal wages for equal work. While it has, for some time, been technically illegal to base wages on gender… until now it’s been okay to pay part-time workers less than full-time for the exact same job. And those part-time workers are often women.

It seems there’s no end of bits to take care of and so the tradition of women gathering continues.

Put the kettle on!

One of the the things I love best about Nellie McClung is that she used her fiction, her writing, as a springboard to discuss relevant issues of the day. This was unusual for a woman at the time. Women were meant to write about fluff and leave it at that.

And it’s what I love best about her namesakes, The Wild Nellies, who propose to do the same thing… use their art to bring attention to important issues.

I’m so happy to be a small part of their first ‘performance’ at The Robert McLaughlin Gallery on April 8th, along with eleven other women who will use their artistic voices to honour and celebrate the power of female creators in sculpture, film, theatre, illustration, literature, music and more, and in the process hopefully be part of that women’s domino effect that continues to try and make this pale blue dot a fairer, safer, and better place for us all.

Note: I have no problem at all making an exception to my otherwise anti-clubbishness ways for these chaps. Also, I think long-jumping  might actually kill me at this point.

 

 

why she stays?

 

So why did she marry him, move in, have kids? Why, when the feel of his fist is still fresh on her face??

Or maybe the abuse is not physical, but only emotional. Or financial. Maybe she’s only allowed to do what he says, go where he says, see who he says.

I met a woman once who said she came to this country with her husband in good faith… until, once here, he said she was to go nowhere without him. She didn’t know anyone else here so she became a virtual prisoner inside her home for six years.

Why didn’t she leave sooner? She and she and the other she and her and the hundreds and thousands of ‘she’ everywhere… why doe she stay?

It’s always the first question. Sometimes the only question.

And the answers…  not so simple.

She stays because she’s afraid, isolated, shamed. Because it’s her home. Because she’s given away her power, been told she’s stupid and worthless one too many times. Because she’s been told her whole life she’s stupid and worthless. Because she believes she’s stupid and worthless. Because there are kids and pets and threats to harm them or take them away.

Because there are threats. Always threats.

Because she is deflated, broken, and because he threatens suicide if she leaves. Always threats. Because to leave is failure; because she came from a broken home and doesn’t want her kids to come from the same place. Because she will be seen as pathetic for having stayed so long so it’s better to stay even longer and not let anyone know. Because people blame the victim. Because people blame the victim… Because people blame.

She stays because she’s fought this fight ten thousand times and hasn’t got the strength it takes to fight back anymore much less start a new life, no matter how right and good and sensible she knows that would be.

She stays because she doesn’t even know she’s being abused. It started small. It was only emotional. He has a temper but he loves me, the kids, he always says he’s sorry. Because this time is the last time. Because this black eye is the last black eye, he said so. He promised. He cried, he begged. He’s really just a teddy bear underneath… he needs her, he said. And she needs to be needed. What else does she have?

She stays because he is her family. Because of For Better or Worse. Because even though she looks fine and manages to function, she is so messed up emotionally, mentally, spiritually and physically, she can’t even see straight. She stays because it’s easier at this stage to hope… so she hopes he will be in a good mood today and when he isn’t… it’s too late again.

She stays because she doesn’t want to be seen as weak, or overly dramatic. No bones broken, just a little scuffle. He’s got a temper. I mentioned that, right, the temper?

She stays because the most dangerous thing she can do is leave. It’s bad enough under normal circumstances but if the guy has money, that danger is multiplied. He can have her watched, followed, hurt or worse. And he almost always does.

And where is she supposed to go? Family? Friends? He’ll find her. A hotel isn’t safe. So you tell me… where does she go?? In this weakened state. Where?

That she leaves at all is extraordinary. It takes monumental courage.

And the women that manage it should be applauded and protected. They aren’t just ‘leaving’, they’re fighting for their lives. I see them at the women’s shelter where I volunteer. They land on the doorstep not because it’s an easy fix but because, for a short time at least, they’ll be safe. The windows are bullet proof; there are cameras at the door, you have to be buzzed in. The police are on speed dial.

Sadly there are never enough beds, never enough shelters. The problem of abuse is only getting worse. Sometimes women are sent out of town, wherever a place can be found. Imagine leaving your home with nothing, your abuser’s voice still ringing in your head, screaming that if you leave he’ll kill you or someone or something you love, and it will be your fault he says. If you leave, he won’t be accountable for what he does. It will be your fault.

What now?

The shelters are a place to breathe and think and get some help with what to do next. They’re a place that reminds women they aren’t alone, that their problem isn’t unique to them.

Why does she stay?

Because until she finds the strength to do anything else, it’s all she can do.

And even if she finally musters the courage to leave, she may very well go back at some point. For all the same reasons.

She wants things to be better. She really does. That’s part of the problem.

Factor in a situation where names and faces, celebrity and corporations and big money are involved and you can be sure there are those that will do their best to convince her staying is to her advantage, in order that those others save face. And money.

Her face for theirs.

Now factor in having nothing.

Or being somewhere in-between.

Because it doesn’t matter, rich or poor, abuse is the same.

So…

Why does she stay?

Here’s a better question: why does he  stay?

But you’ll notice no one’s asking that.

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(Note: The woman who was a prisoner in her home for six years, finally escaped. I met her at the shelter she ran to, where she found safety and community for the first time since coming to Canada and where, in a writing workshop, she wrote about the taste of mangos, the memory of a tree outside her childhood window. As she read aloud it occurred to me that she will heal, she will survive and maybe even thrive, not in small part because she was careful to leave at the right time. When she was ready, when she knew where to go, when she had enough courage. So many factors to consider.)

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
For further information and assistance, including a list of shelters in Ontario, and across Canada:

OAITH

Public Health Agency of Canada