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?

IMG_2347 - Copy

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.

♦♦

notes to friends

 

Friend A I love that you you threw a typewriter, a few boxes of books and a couple other things into the back of your car and drove across the country, leaving behind a painted red fridge in a turret across from a park and that in your new place we cooked on a hibachi on your back stoop and in your kitchen too, which always smelled like Joy dish detergent and in which kitchen you made possibly the world’s best meatloaf and that you are the person I know can call whenever my black forest cake falls over.

Friend B:  A prism in my window catches the light in a way that it shines on your ‘star charting’ picture in my office. My painter’s-dropsheet-furniture-covers are because of you. No one makes better bruschetta.

Friend C:  You may be the only person I know who hates bathtubs and you are definitely the only person I think of whenever I (still) stuff a sandwich into a container that was made for sour cream.
I love how you love playing the piano.

Friend D: Your laugh cracks me up and the way you ask servers in restos to guess which of us is older and how you tell them before they answer and the fact that you wear rubber gloves to do dishes and play catch with the dog while you’re on the phone.

Friend E:  You are one great dame and each time I think of you I’m reminded that there is really no higher aspiration for a woman. Thanks to a purple gallinule in my kitchen I think of you often.

Friend F:  I love that you are literal and that we share the beautiful DNA of speaking bluntly and that every walk we’ve ever taken stays with me, bits of each coming back as so much beach glass, hot city streets, gardens, and tea.

Friend G:  Who else would I call to ask why a certain scarf purchased in Halifax makes me so happy and who else would without hesitation give me the perfect answer.  I picture you paddling the Mackenzie River.

Friend H:  I love the story of why you paint butterflies.

And to friends a million miles away and those much much closer, some I’ve known forever, others I hardly know but the knowing feels like so much more. To book friends and food friends, to sharing the street friends, to friends who are family and family who are friends. To friends I’ve never met but which lack of meeting means almost nothing where our friendship is concerned.

To all of you, thank you… for being a friend.

kitchen gallinule

 

 

say their names

 

Geneviève Bergeron (born 1968), civil engineering student

Hélène Colgan (born 1966), mechanical engineering student

Nathalie Croteau (born 1966), mechanical engineering student

Barbara Daigneault (born 1967), mechanical engineering student

Anne-Marie Edward (born 1968), chemical engineering student

Maud Haviernick (born 1960), materials engineering student

Maryse Laganière (born 1964), budget clerk in the École Polytechnique’s finance department

Maryse Leclair (born 1966), materials engineering student

Anne-Marie Lemay (born 1967), mechanical engineering student

Sonia Pelletier (born 1961), mechanical engineering student

Michèle Richard (born 1968), materials engineering student

Annie St-Arneault (born 1966), mechanical engineering student

Annie Turcotte (born 1969), materials engineering student

Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz (born 1958), nursing student

imageimage

It’s been 30 years.

Sadly, violence against women continues.

And, sadly, it’s probably up to women to do something about that.

“Let’s not pretend that being hopeful is an easy or straightforward pursuit. Hope can be a fracturing, even a traumatic thing to experience… Experiencing hope may bring oxygen to a stifled set of lungs, but hope also brings the realization that if something else is possible, then the stifling wasn’t necessary or inevitable. Experiencing hope means running the risk of a kind of crushing disappointment and agitated torpor… cruel optimism. So yes, it’s complicated to be a hopeful feminist killjoy, complicated and necessary.”

Notes from a Feminist Killjoy,  by Erin Wunker

 

 

 

say the word

 

I just read this wonderful piece about seventh graders asking for tampons in their school and the powers that be who denied the request because of worries that the girls would “abuse the privilege”.

Because tampons are so useful for things other than menstruation. (Actually, I happen to know from an episode of Sex and the City that they can be used to staunch a nosebleed when cut in half lengthwise).

So the kids, instead of whinging and wailing

and crying about the unfairness of everything,

decided to bake cookies. Tampon cookies.

Which is lovely in its own self-evident way, but what got me even more than the cookies and the chutzpah is what someone in the article said about how things have changed, how once upon a time no one would have dared even SAY the word ‘tampon’. And when you think about that… I mean really think about it… it’s entirely mad. The silencing of what is so utterly normal.

Menstrual trivia: Not until 1985 did the word ‘period’ even appear in advertising, although, of course, many products were advertised (for ‘female conditions’ and ‘time of the month’ and other euphemisms. It was Courtney Cox who had the honours of finally outing the word in a TV ad for Tampax.

But for all the distance we’ve covered, we are STILL in this place where girls and women are made to feel a warped sense of taboo about their own bodies.

**

Two summers ago, in order to promote Gush, a book of essays, poetry, and stories about menstruation,  I sat at a little table on the sidewalk in downtown Uxbridge, outside the Blue Heron Book Shop, and chatted with passersby about menstrual memories. What were their stories? Etc.

It actually went brilliantly, as in PEOPLE (women mostly, but some men too, god bless them) WANT TO TALK ABOUT THIS STUFF.

They just need to know it’s okay.

All that’s required is to normalize it. By saying the words. By asking the questions. By sharing stories that make us laugh and cry and want to change the world in tiny ways that are freeing. All of which toward the goal of changing things in bigger ways, as in, oh I don’t know… research into women’s health issues? which remain sadly underfunded and/or overlooked.

For starters.

Because we’re far from done with this subject.

(Slovenian graffiti in Ljubljana; courtesy of WikiCommons)

 

 

 

not so wordless wednesday postcard

Dear Newfoundland Crafters Guild Women:

You may not remember me. I stopped by one of your places on the side of the road about a decade or so ago, wandered the few aisles in a sort of barn-like building with folding tables laden with homemade this and thats. A few of you sat in chairs drinking tea and knitting, chatting amongst yourselves, asking me if I was alright my dear… and if I needed any help to just give you a nudge. I bought this tea cosy for I haven’t a clue now how much… probably not nearly enough. A few dollars. I’ve used it goodness knows how many times since then. (How many times is almost every day for a decade?)

This was also the holiday of invading fog as we sat happily enough (and innocently) on the shoreline rocks with a glass of wine, possibly bread and cheese too, and then, looking up over the water the fog coming in at a pace and thickness like I’ve never seen before. A vast platoon of cold grey air that obliterated everything as it went, and us sitting there mouths full of cheese like targets. Soon it would be all around us and we’d never be able to get off the rocks safely, we’d never find our footing, never know what was land or water. So we scrambled like crazy while we could still see. Ran to the B&B we were staying at and no sooner landed on the porch than the fog was on us and you couldn’t see a metre in front of you. That we survived makes it one of the best memories ever.

Also the same holiday when I sat on a hillside at Petty Harbour, watched a few boats coming in and wrote a poem about the women who waited in those little outports; I wondered how many times they’d held their breath until they saw their chap’s boat return while at the same time enjoying a certain temporary freedom and community with each other.

Petty Harbour

They hide in square wooden houses
the women of the boatmen, leaning
on each other’s shadows, thighs
pressed together against the fog
until—all but one returns; thighs
loosen for a moment before they’re
alone, immersed in salt and gravy,
hiking cloud paths for berries to send
with him next time; yet for the one
whose boatman doesn’t return—
thighs loosen and life begins.

Anyway, I just wanted to say, dear crafter women, somebody made a pretty incredible tea cosy. And thank you. And I want you to know that I think of you often, your knitting and your chatting and willingness to be nudged in that barn with its hot beverages and cookies on offer and I am grateful for you and for women everywhere who work at these seemingly simple tasks to raise funds for hospitals and schools and families in need and how I”m not sure you realize what an enormous chunk of the planet you hold up…

I just want you to know this is what I sometimes think when I have my tea.

 

 

Other (not always) wordless friends:

Allison Howard
Barbara Lambert
Elizabeth Yeoman

 

jane’s walk — ajax, ontario — best parts

 

This year my Jane’s Walk was through a slice of Ajax , which wasn’t even established as a town until 1941, and then only by accident when a company set up shop in what was a field to make bombs for WWII. They made millions apparently… (40 million). And it was women from across Canada who made them. They arrived on trains from the west and the east and lived in dormitories built expressly for them (surrounded by 8′ walls and barbed wire).

Before that, Ajax was an unnamed area of fields, a scattering of farms, part of Pickering Township, east of Pickering Village, and west of the Town of Whitby. Then suddenly there are 9,000 people employed by Defence Industries Limited, all of them making bombs, and a wee town emerged.

After the war, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation built homes for returning soldiers. Our Jane’s Walk guide said they were meant to be torn down at one point but the residents put up such a fuss they were allowed to stay and are still the backbone of Ajax, lining the streets surrounding Harwood Avenue. (A few people on the tour grew up in, or knew people who still live in, those CMHC houses, and shared memories including how there weren’t a lot of cars initially and so the A&P would allow you to drop off a list of what you needed and they’d deliver.)

The best part is that in the centre of this beloved neighbourhood, where people still refer to houses by who lived in them decades ago, and in the very space where the women’s dormitories used to be, is now a park and community garden. Beans and tomatoes instead of bombs.

   

And a short walk away, the civic centre (Pat Bayly Square) features a memorial to the significant contribution by women to the war efforts of WWII.

The other best part is simply discovering a new neighbourhood in a town I very often drive past, assuming it can be summed up by a quick glance… because nowhere can be summed up that way. Everywhere has its stories, its nooks and crannies and spaces only the locals know about.

Importance of community is the best part of Jane Jacob’s philosophy, and the sense of connection to a place you thought you knew or a brand new place is the best part of any Jane’s Walk program. Keeping that in mind makes it possible to make all kinds of discoveries on your own anytime, anywhere.

Just throw a dart on a map and take a walk, reminding yourself that community takes many forms and is born in strange and wonderful ways.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

hey, cupcake…

 

Once upon a time there was a girl who grew up believing in bravery, truth, equality and heart. She thought everyone was the same.

She grew up.

She saw there was a difference.

And then one day so many voices sang a song she longed to hear… “same, different, what does it matter? !” What matters is brains and heart and truth sang the voices and the girl was happy to hear this happy song and packed up her brains and her bravery and her truth and arranged them on her new desk and on her shelves and she opened books that said this is allowed and this is allowed and this and this and she memorized it all and took it to heart and she was very good at keeping things true and there were pots of tea, and fresh cupcakes everywhere and they were marvellous and all was well.

Tra la, tra la, things went (or so it seemed) until out of the blue (or so it seemed) the people who said same different doesn’t matter said what are you doing? And the girl said keeping things true. And the same different people said why? And the girl looked up from her books, looked up into their faces, and she was confused, didn’t understand the word why.

There is no same they said (or maybe they implied it), everything is different. We thought you knew that. We thought you knew this was just a desk and those were just shelves (who cares that you line them with truth?) and you are just a girl and stop eating the good cupcakes… the stale ones are for you. We thought you knew that.

Once upon a time there was a girl.

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!).