this is not a review — good night stories for rebel girls, by elena favilli and francesca cavallo

 

I only meant to peruse this book but ending up reading it in one sitting like a bag of chips… just one more, etc., until the bag was empty.

It was a beautiful few hours.

100 bite-sized entries (a single large print page each) of 100 women known and unknown, all of whom have contributed extraordinarily to all aspects of society.

Intended for children, it’s really a quite marvellous read for all ages, a kind of SparkNotes for anyone who’d like to be introduced to highly influential women of history (and present times), most of whom you’ve never heard of.

The condensed format is no small potatoes. As anyone who writes will know, making marvellous out of few words is hard work. (Consider the old saying….”Please excuse the length of this letter; if I’d had more time it would have been shorter.”)

And then there’s the art… beautifully coloured illustrations… one for each ‘bio’, each by various female artists from around the world.

In the Preface, co-authors Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo write “…trust is not something women get to experience very often… “  They’re referring in part to the women in the book who “…No matter the importance of their discoveries, the audacity of their adventures, the width of their genius… were constantly belittled, forgotten, in some cases almost erased from history,”  but this reference of trust is also for the ‘now’, in its acknowledgement of the overwhelming response to monies raised through crowd-funding in order to publish the book, people (from over 70 countries) who trusted and believed that a book like this was necessary.

The first entry belongs to Ada Lovelace, a 19th century British mathematician whose bio begins, story-like….”Once upon a time, there was a girl named Ada who loved machines. She also loved the idea of flying. She studied birds to work out the perfect balance between wing size…” etc., and ends about 250 words later with this:  “Ada wrote the first computer program in history.”

While each ‘story’ begins differently, they all have their own tone. I love Ada’s for its tra la opening, all birdies and the fanciful idea of flight, followed by that big tekkie punch of an ending.

And so it goes, each double page spread a whole new person and their world.

Among the stories featured, a cyclist (who broke records but was ultimately forbidden from competing because she was a woman), a blind ballerina who went on to found the National Ballet of Cuba, the President of Mauritius (who is also a Scientist devoted to the environment), the 22 year old Canadian inventor of a flashlight that’s powered by body heat (and which won first prize at the Google Science Fair), a Russian journalist who risked her life to expose the truth about Chechnya, an Italian woman who is today considered one of the greatest painters of all time.

And how lovely to meet Astrid Lindgren (Pippi Longstocking), and Catherine the Great who did great things in Russia (including having her creepy husband Peter imprisoned, and Bolivian skirt-wearing mountaineers, Cleopatra (I didn’t know how powerful she was or that she was the last pharaoh to rule Egypt…. given how the focus on her, historically, has been her looks and that stupid asp; in fact her motto was “I will not be triumphed over.”). And then there’s Hatshepsut, another Egyptian pharoah. Huh, imagine.

And Coco Chanel and Cora Coralina, a beloved Brazlian poet and baker, and Elizabeth I who was locked in the Tower of London by her rotten sister Mary and who, when Mary died, became Queen and created a merry court of music, poetry, painting and theatre, a great admirer of Shakespeare. She was a very good Queen.

The book is alphabetical and I’m only at the E’s so, really, I shouldn’t go on, except that I will because from E to Z there are activists, politicians, Florence Nightingale, Frida Kahlo, computer scientists (one of whom was crucial to the success of the moon landing in 1969), a couple of pirates and a sailor, Harriet Tubman, Helen Keller, war heroes, writers and astronomers, Jane Goodall, Empress Jingu of Japan who successfully led an army and who people assumed had magical powers because otherwise how could a woman successfully lead an army?, Joan Jett, Julia Child.

I’m leaving out several and haven’t even mentioned suffragettes and a formula one racer, an Apache warrior, astronaut, architect, doctors, athletes, a surgeon, a boxer, Malala Yousafzai, the Saudi Arabian woman who said screw it, I’m going to drive a car and you can too!, an archaeologist, paleontologist, a German naturalist who discovered the process of metamorphosis, Marie Curie, the first female tattoo artist, a surfer, Maya Angelou, trombonist Melba Liston (who began her career playing with Billie Holiday),  a drummer, a couple of spies, Queen Nanny of the Maroons who saved her people from starvation, the geneticist who discovered male/female chromosomes, Nina Simone, a Jewish scientist in Europe during WWII (a tricky thing to be), an explorer, a marine biologist, an orchestra conductor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg…

A nice touch is the very last double page spread, which is blank for the reader’s own story and self portrait.

“May [these] portraits impress upon our daughters the solid belief that beauty manifests itself in all shapes and colours, and at all ages. May each reader know the greatest success is to live a life full of passion, curiosity, and generosity. May we all remember every day that we have the right to be happy and to explore widely… [and] feel hope and enthusiasm [for] a world where gender will not define how big you can dream, how far you can go.”

This is a book for every girl.

Every boy too.

*

Also a web site which feels a little like a happy Revolution..

 

My source, Blue Heron Books…

(support indies!).

nova scotia, part one: one perfect pot of tea

 
My favourite kind of travel is the kind that meanders me down side streets where there are no attractions, where the door of a tea shop invites me to sit at a sunny window and read the local paper while enjoying the perfect blend of leaves and ambience and ambient conversation.

Where there’s a table of older people and two tables of younger people and every single one of them strikes me as someone worth talking to. A woman comes in and gets a cup of tea to go, a few minutes later, a man arrives to pick up a large paper sack containing an order of various teas, his personal stock is running low he says. He chats with the owner, who explains that he’s leaving for India soon (I don’t catch the name of the place) to visit his tea farmers and attend the wedding of a farmer’s son.

Later, when I’ve finished reading and eavesdropping and sipping, I get up to pay and I ask the owner, Philip, about his upcoming Indian tea farm travels and… well… the conversation goes on for some exceedingly happy time about ethical practices and the choice to support small growers rather than large companies, the difference in quality, the science and pleasure of blending leaves, the art of using natural flavours rather than synthetics.

Philip tells me that last time he was in India he helped with the planting of tea bushes, that the farmer whose son is getting married is his mentor, that he’s learning everything he can and that he hopes one day he’ll be able to plant tea in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley.

He doesn’t have to tell me this is a lifestyle, that he doesn’t sell tea to get rich. In fact he nearly went bankrupt when the city closed his street for construction one summer.

By the time I leave I’ve had a fabulous mini tea course. (I thought I knew tea. Turns out I know next to nuthin’.)

As with everything, what I learn most is how much there is to learn.

At home a week later I brew a pot of the same blend and the smell of it, the taste, is as gorgeous as I remember and… presto!… just like that I’m right back in that sunny window on a side street in Halifax.

Which is my second favourite kind of travel.

 

 

 

wordless wednesday: summer postcards

 

Greetings from the garden tour!

(aka outdoor galleries of love, green stuff incidental)

The woman whose backyard is a solid field of day lilies (hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of them) and who at first I think must be slightly unhinged until she explains her joy at every day coming outside to see what new bloom among dozens and dozens of varieties has opened. She not only grows them but cross pollinates to create unique hybrids and borrows her kids’ backyards because there’s no room in hers anymore. She wins awards.
Hers husband is on the patio, watching the crowds, and as I leave I stop and say to him, Nice place but you ought to consider getting some day lilies…

The woman who turned a tiny shaded downtown lawn into a glen of cool sanctuary complete with three locally made wrought iron pyramid towers and places to sit and contemplate them.

The woman with a deck full of passion flower vine and other tropicals who doesn’t have a sun room in her house but simply asks the plants to do their best in various windows and they oblige her and are stunningly beautiful and vibrantly healthy. Singing to them doesn’t hurt she says when asked for tips.

The woman whose yard is full of crazy objects, tea cups hanging from branches, giant wooden playing cards nailed over three sides of fencing, mirrors, bird feeders, figurines, mobiles, sun catchers, flea market and thrift shop finds… too much!!  my brain screams as I wander in and consider wandering out again but just then the woman appears and we talk and her joy changes the scene from something I don’t understand… to one that brings utter contentment and peace as she explains the pleasure it gives her to see it all from her kitchen, or from her place on the couch. She would rather look out the window than watch TV on a rainy day, she says. She puts this stuff out each spring and puts it away again in giant bins each winter. It’s time consuming and possibly a form of madness she laughs, but I shake my head, say it feels more like her form of art. She nods. Then she takes me round to the front to show me a few things I might have missed on my way in.

 

Other (not always) wordless friends:

Cheryl Andrews
Allison Howard
Barbara Lambert
Allyson Latta
Elizabeth Yeoman

 

menstrual memories anyone?

 
A new anthology, called GUSH: Menstrual Manifestos For Our Times, is making some people uncomfortable… why must these things be spoken of??

And making others relieved… thank god we can finally speak.

Because I have a short piece in the book (about the perils of attending a pool party in the 1970’s), and because I believe in saying the word menstruation out loud,
I recently sat outside Blue Heron Books with a little sign that said Menstrual Memories?  —  And waited to see what would happen.

Young children were rushed past.

Men looked uncomfortable. Women too. One woman actually sneered.

But after a while, I noticed people coming back, and some of them stopped. Then many more stopped. It was as if they’d been initially blindsided by the question… but… now that you mention it, yeah, I do have some memories I’d like to share.

And so they shared.

Menstrual memories.

And why not?

A man asked if he could take a picture of the table. I asked if he had any menstrual memories. He said no. We laughed and I liked that the word was spoken between genders. It’s hard enough sometimes just between women.

And that of course IS the whole point of the book, i.e.Why are women made to feel awkward and embarrassed about a basic function of biology?

The first to stop was an 83 year old woman from Cape Breton who whispered about shame and flannel cloths worn like diapers, about the horror of washing them and hanging them to dry. After a few minutes she stopped whispering as one memory twigged another and her friends got into it, all of them swapping stories, and I could tell they’d never had this conversation or anything like it before. As she began to leave, she stopped, smiled and said thank you, this has been fun. She seemed slightly surprised that it turned out that way. And I have no doubt that part of the fun was the relief of speaking the words… at last.

Following are memories so many women shared with me… on a sidewalk, outside a bookstore, on a beautiful summer night… in their own words:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My aunt was on holiday in Austria and her ankles got so swollen she went to see a doctor and discovered she was eight months pregnant. She’d gained some weight but still had her period and so it was a complete shock. My cousin was born the next month and my aunt and uncle quickly got married and moved in together.

When I got my cycle at age thirteen my mum told me I had to carry a purse for “my stuff”. The way she said it was like it was the worst thing on earth.

My dad worked in a factory that made menstrual products and got an employee discount but was too embarrassed to bring them home in the company box, which ‘advertised’ what was inside and so made a whole production out of wrapping the box in brown paper so that neighbours wouldn’t be any the wiser as he brought it into the house from the car. It was treated like contraband.

I was an immigrant and there was a questionnaire at school. One of the questions had the word “menstrual” in it and I didn’t understand, exactly. But I didn’t ask what it meant. It was like I had an idea it shouldn’t be said out loud.

My mom left a booklet about “being a woman” on my dresser one day. In my closet, that same day, on the top shelf, was a box that had a lovely picture on it of a lovely woman in a long white gown. I was very excited about my new dress (which I assumed was inside!!).

My period started on the way home from school on the #28 Davisville bus. Me in my school uniform: white blouse, kilt, knee socks, blazer. I felt the ‘gush’ and when I stood up I was mortified. I tied the blazer around myself as I exited the bus.

I can’t remember what I said, nothing big, I’d simply mentioned my period in conversation to my boyfriend, who became (immediately) enraged. The details are a blur. All I remember is how angry he was that I said whatever I said out loud, like blasphemy or something. I have never, not once, spoken a word about my period to any guy since. Including my husband.

Boys made jokes about girls who were on their periods. (On the rag & worse.)

Try using an outhouse when you have your period.

When I got my period my mother took me aside and said I was to avoid boys now. She didn’t clarify why or which boys so I avoided them all, including my brothers, to the point that I was afraid if our elbows touched as we passed on the stairs. It completely changed our relationship.

Got my period at eleven. I was on a toboggan with two boys.

My favourite menstrual thought:  I look forward to menopause!

A menstrual memory for me is when I was in my twenties and playing softball. I was either pitching or shortstop, and I felt something. Uh oh…

My periods were heavy and I didn’t carry a purse. I worked as an auctioneer.
I used to keep extra pads down the sides of my cowboy boots.

I remember watching TV with my dad and my brothers and running from the room in embarrassment when Kotex ads came on.

My periods stopped the day my mother died. I could feel it starting as I sat with her in the hospital. She died that night, and my period proceeded normally for the rest of week. And that was it. I never had another. I was only in my forties.

We didn’t have products. We used flannel cloths, like diapers, and they had to be washed and dried and re-used. It was an embarrassment when it was your time because people would see the bulge of the pin through your skirt.

My periods were so bad I had to take three days off school most months.

I lived near the ocean and it was a real concern, people would tell you not to swim, to be careful of sharks, and they weren’t kidding.

 

GUSH: Menstrual Manifestos For Our Times available from Blue Heron Books

Support indies!

 

 

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

 

trees R us

 

We had a couple of pear trees in the backyard when I was a kid.

And my dad had a movie camera. Super 8, I think. A big deal at the time. Fancied himself the Spielberg of home movies.

But the Spielberg of home movies he was not.

The pear tree and the Super 8 spent a lot of time together. My dad behind the lens and me up in the branches. Him on the lawn, red light flashing, yelling at me to go higher. This was before sound, so the footage more or less shows me shaking my head, mouthing noooo… looking terrified, then climbing an inch higher. And so on. For several minutes. (A kind of psychedelic bonus was the wobbling of camera due to his waving arms while yelling instructions.) (The fact that a pear tree is not very tall is insignificant to this story. Or is it?)

He had a thing for capturing the tree in different seasons. Blossom time, fruiting, fall colours. And what’s a tree without a kid in it? Climb high as you can. You call that high?? Higher!! Don’t be such a baby. HIGHER!! 

noooooo….

He grew up in the mountains, in a world of trees and, I think, felt most at home around them, so he planted a front yard full of evergreens and a backyard full of plum and apple, apricot and cherry. The pear trees came with the house, which was built on the site of a former orchard, the remains of which orchard was vast and right across the road, and probably the reason they chose that site.

He was in no way a slow moving person except when he went for a walk, then he’d ramble, take things in. My mother, the opposite, a snail in most things, but a fast walker. What’s the hurry? he’d yell from several feet behind.

I preferred his pace. It allowed looking and talking, imagining and what-if-ing. He was a magnificent what-if-er. The details of those conversations are gone but the essence of them linger and sometimes a bizarre what-if kind of question pops into my mind and it’s then I miss being able to say hey, dad… imagine this…

Occasionally he’d bring the Super 8, go all Spielberg and yell for us to stand here or there, to smile, pretend you’re having fun for god’s sake!

Not the best part of the rambles.

I often think of him now as I traipse about at my own between-fast-and-slow pace. Like him I usually have a camera in hand. Unlike him I don’t yell at people. Much.

I see things he would have loved, or things we might have wondered about. He was a great wonder-er. I imagine how I might tell him I’d still like to live in a tent, or a cabin, in the woods, and how he’d say who wouldn’t?

I’ve forgiven the film shoots.

And, remarkably, I have a great fondness for pear trees.

The best part though, the gift of his tree-loving nature, unintended as it surely was, is that reminders of him are forever everywhere…

 

Adding this, which I stumbled upon today and which so wonderfully fits.

“Hence in solitude, or that deserted state when we are surrounded by human beings and yet they sympathize not with us, we love the flowers, the grass, the waters, and the sky. In the motion of the very leaves of spring, in the blue air, there is then found a secret correspondence with our heart.”

— Percy Bysshe Shelley, “On Love”

 

mrs. moes cookies

 
Ten thousand years ago when summers were long and the sun shone every day, when you could play outside up and down the street after supper until the streetlights came on and the lawns had that almost-evening coolness that felt so good on bare legs and made a soft place to lie down and wonder how many leaves or blades of grass or grains of sand or snowflakes there were in the world and if numbers big enough had even been invented, when afternoons were lived on bicycles, beside the lake, or in trees, and long before your parents grew old, long before you even knew such a thing was possible, in the days when people were still called Mrs. whether they liked it or not     —  Mrs. Moes made some cookies and brought them over on a blue plate.

You had at least three at the picnic table with a glass of Koolaid (flavour forgotten) and your parents had coffee and your mother may have been a little miffed at how well those cookies were going down… it’s possible she said something like too buttery if you ask me… and when the plate was empty and washed and you were sent next door to return it to Mrs. Moes and to remember to say thank you…. you could hardly believe it when she smiled and said You’re very welcome  and did not refill the plate.

Years and years later, in your twenties, you asked Mrs. Moes for the recipe for “those cookies that day” and she knew exactly what you meant and she recited the recipe to you right there as you scribbled down what she said.

Maybe you got something wrong because they didn’t turn out anything like you remembered. Or maybe the magic was in the blue plate or the surprise of the gift or the happy unlimited picnic table munching.

Did she ever ask you how they turned out?

Maybe. Maybe not. You don’t remember.

Did you ever make them again?

No.

But you still have the recipe you scribbled that day.

Its purpose no longer to magic up a plate of possibly too buttery cookies, but as a portal to a time of cool nighttime lawns and numbers too big to imagine.