The Queen suggests…

The first few hours of the year 2020 are dressed with finely sifted snow. No hollering or screeching of tires, just the old trees rumbling peacefully in Gage Park. Some fireworks to the northwest begin at 11:55 and continue for fifteen minutes. I sense a breathing out in the world, like a photographer does, after taking a shot that requires patience and utter stillness.

2010 to 2019. Quite a decade.

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Houses. Ten years ago I lived in a house I’d spent five years building with my husband. Three years later I walked away from both – a good move. I will forever miss the trees there, and the walls I built with my parents but to stay would have been unthinkable.

I lived in four beloved places in that decade after I left the house with the trees. Released two of them, built a tiny, sacred one that will anchor my soul for lifetimes to come. It’s a seven-generation kind of place. Has a heartbeat.

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Cars. Chelsey the Tercel, Sam the 20-year-old red Impreza. Katie the silver Fit, and now Indigo Thomas, just cleaned inside and out by my family, in time for Christmas. All cars loved, two of them grieved like old friends when they passed on – Sam developed a hole in his gas tank, but for two weeks after I kept driving him anyway. The unbelievable cost in gas was necessary in my process of letting him go.

Music… a decade of cello – teaching, playing, cajoling, gigging, laughing, snorting & cursing (happily) at tricky bits. No regrets there, but I did eventually injure my bow arm and now must pay attention and play differently. My old friend  – (now ninety) with whom I bonded when I was sixteen – came back into my life. He sits across from me now like a strong anchor in stormy seas. Not an instrument, really. More like my grandfather whale.

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A great deal of learning and discovery about the capacity and stretch of my own minds (heart, brain and gut). Their limitations, too. Funny how doing a Masters in Community Music extends my awareness and insight into so many things that I’d once thought were not related to either community or music. Like writing. Painting. Or just …art, in the world. For and about people of all species, for and about provocative relations with the world.

Family. Our home was packed up, distributed and sold; my dad passed too after a slow battle with dementia, having mostly made his peace with humility by the time he chose to go. I read in his chair now, my book is lit by his lamp. I hear him every time the train passes my house. Ten months before the decade’s end I moved into a place five minutes by foot from the house where he lived between his ages of nine and twenty-five. Up the street from the stadium where the Tiger Cats won every home game last season. In a way that makes sense to me, I know they did this for Dad.

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Briar Hill was built in 1867 by colonial scots stonemasons, my parents bought it in 1968 as a decommissioned rural school complete with desks, a centralized woodstove, a wall of slate blackboards, institution green paint, and big white globe ceiling-hung lights. A house of many many great gatherings.

I live two minutes by foot from Gage Park, whose trees were no doubt climbed by my dad in the late ‘Thirties, and twenty-two minutes by indigo blue car from the park where Ontario’s reintroduced Trumpeter Swans spend the winter.

I moved myself here to make art in whatever form it comes, in collaboration with past, present and future. To make a meaningful third anchor for myself in this Treaty 3 land (1792) of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the Attiwonderonk and the Anishinabek nation., this city of immigrant workers, artists and broken old industrial buildings, where 125 years ago the wives of the cotton, then steel industry magnates made certain there was an art gallery of note, and began collecting good work.

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These broken old industrial places are connected to our shame, that as a city we prospered early on the labour of African slaves stolen from their villages, as we deforested then paved over the astonishing beauty of 10,000 years of traditional Haudosaunee territory. The rows of immigrant worker houses are connected to the fires raging in Australia, the melting ice caps in Antarctica. the steam and fire still belching from the steel mill to the tar sands in Alberta and to all those who continue to insist that money is the most important thing.

Now the artists are here, to tell the story of where we’ve come from, and where we are going.

Here in the beginning of a new decade, our payment for unchecked colonial, industrial and now neo-liberal greed comes due. We all arrive, willy nilly, at the place where we question our entitlements. Each of us is called to be accountable to ourselves, and then to all others – including other-than-human others.

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Rage is good as a fire-starter, but it can’t be sustained; it burns itself out, leaves a dry husk behind. I much prefer curiosity as fuel for creativity. It is sustainable, can participate in a full spectrum of observation and emotion, can offer up epiphany and insight, understanding and compassion, but it cannot live in a place of fear.

It’s my sense that we need to find our way to courage, to muster enough curiosity to balance the fear. That this, not anger, is a good way forward.

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At age ninety-three, Her Majesty The Queen of England maintains her dignity and decorum, even as she carries the inherited sceptre and shame of British colonialism. She suggests that we take this next decade one well-considered step at a time.

…small steps, taken in faith and in hope, can overcome long held differences and deep seated divisions

In Christmas

It’s the 18th of December, one week before Christmas day.  I’ve rehearsed and planned and delivered and engaged, I’ve painted and written and talked and sang and posted, I’ve cooked and sorted and laundered and cared-for and now all of a sudden on the eve of my first day off in what feels like centuries I’m hearing the call that maybe only dogs can hear, that no other human around me seems to acknowledge but nevertheless has got my full attention in this moment…

…. stop.

Not sure why this image. Something to do with Christmas I think.
This feels correct to the moment just previous to the moment I turned off my Christmas engines.

Basil Johnson once said to me, “Simple, and good – that’s all you need.”  We’d been talking about art, and what makes it resonate with human culture in the short, medium and long term.  As I remember, I’d been talkative and keen then – about socioeconomic indicators of health and growth, artists in the workplace and some utopian ideas around the political value of the arts as a generator of individual authenticity.  In 2004 I was Cultural Capitals Coordinator for my town of 22,000, doing my best to imagine and then somehow impossibly manifest a bridge between national and local, micrososm and macrocosm, embracing all issues visible and audible under the sun. I’d been given my rein, was impossibly curious, – a single artist-mom on the eve of a lifelong marriage that would only last a decade. I was provocative, insistent and intense, flailing.

“What kind of painting do you do?”, he asked, in a pause I’d left open.

again, no articulate explanation for this choice

My answer was long and exhausting.  He listened and gave me two words in exchange.

I heard them enough through all that noise in my head to swallow them whole and keep them alive in my belly.  They sing to me now.

 

I love these ladies with all my heart. This was a gig we played at the Tom Thomson Art Gallery six days ago.
I love these ladies with all my heart. This was a gig we played at the Tom Thomson Art Gallery six days ago.

The planet, the politics, the migrations of people and animals; conviction, passion, intensity, art and music; friendship, hurt, joy and the passage of time….  our response can be simple.  And good.

It’s a choice, to live and work that way.

 

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I choose therefore to fill my tomorrow with simple rituals.  Instead of a phone, a computer, a list of errands, I will make a breakfast, a burning, a giving-away, a silence.  I will listen to what lies under all the Christmas noise.

This is good.  Thanks, Basil.  I can feel you smiling.

Forest-maker

I have a little time to say some things that are important to say about my dad, now 81.

oak stairs designed by dad, built by Lou Currah.  The ones I climbed to get to my room were spiral - climbing them was wild like a circus act.  This replaced them after I left
Oak stairs designed by dad, built by Lou Currah. The ones I climbed to get to my room were spiral – climbing them was wild like a circus act. This is what replaced them after I left

There are some people who are reliable in their ‘rightness’, who – if asked a genuinely perplexing question about human complexity and what to do next – will listen, consider and then dig deeply for an answer.  Without fail, that answer rises out of compassion, intuition and a razor sharp insight into what, to most others, cannot be seen.  My dad had that.  It’s close to mystical for me – what he knows, almost without knowing.

Fireplace - designed by dad, and build by an artist-stonemason circa 1973.  Back room (to balance the cool dark cave of the schoolhouse), designed by dad, and built by him, my mom and all their friends.
Fireplace – designed by dad, and build by an artist-stonemason circa 1973. Back room (to balance the cool dark cave of the schoolhouse), designed by dad, and built by him, my mom and all their friends.

We painted together, when I was a tweener.  It was mom’s idea I think – but a good one.  It means we were terrified together, met our internal demons together, screwed up lots, burned bad pictures regularly, found humility together.  With me, 31 years his junior, he was always the teacher, always suggesting, offering, nudging.  But I knew that we were also partners on the torture road to find-your-place with paint.  I was glad he was with me then and I still am, now.

from the dark into the light. Designed by Dad. There's a rightness to this.
from the dark into the light. Designed by Dad. There’s a rightness to this.

While dad and mom were teaching full time, raising my sister and I (which involved the normal feeding, cajoling, suggesting and exploding that parents do, but also gymnastics, piano, cello, spinning and weaving lessons; 2 orchestra rehearsals a week, piano trio rehearsals and concerts; a farm with 24 head of cattle, six goats, twelve chickens, and a half-acre garden), my parents came to every single concert I played.

Dad, in the back, front or corner of every venue, cried joy at me with a wet face beaming.  I didn’t need to look – without seeing him, I felt him there.

Briar Hill was built in 1867 by colonial scots stonemasons, the year Canada became a country.  My parents bought it in 1968 as a decommissioned rural school, complete with desks, a centralized woodstove, a wall of slate blackboards,  institution green paint, and big white globe ceiling-hung lights.
Briar Hill was built in 1867 by colonial scots stonemasons, the year Canada became a country. My parents bought it in 1968 as a decommissioned rural school, complete with desks, a centralized woodstove, a wall of slate blackboards, institution green paint, and big white globe ceiling-hung lights.

Dad was my teacher in  grade 12 french – not a good idea, since I wasn’t academic, and that’s the way he taught.  It was okay though.  He was also careful to carefully mention that my hair looked nice that way every once in a while, when he sensed I might be down.

I remember waking up here as a child in the early 70's.  The green ceiling was coming down to make room for 18 feet of elevation.  In the mornings I would go into the bathroom and half my face would be covered with plaster dust from overnight sleep.  I loved it.
I remember waking up here as a child in the early 70’s. The green ceiling was coming down to make room for 18 feet of elevation. In the mornings I would go into the bathroom and half my face would be covered with plaster dust from overnight sleep. I loved it.

In 2004 dad and I went to Scotland together.  I was shocked to feel myself crying, face wet, as the Glasgow train climbed north into the rising highlands.  We stayed in Oban, and later Campbeltown, where McArthurs are from.  We walked the entire circumference of Kerrera, dad getting faster and faster as the hours of walking went by.  I ran beside him, as I had when I was a child, trying, but not quite able to match his strong stride.

In his life here, dad has planted thousands of trees.  The cornfields I once ran through -  powered by joy with my sister- are now pine forests - habitat for deer, birds ... for flora and fauna that Used to live there, until the trees were taken.  Dad is forest-maker.
In his life here, dad has planted thousands of trees. The cornfields I once ran through – powered by joy with my sister- are now pine forests – habitat for deer, birds … for flora and fauna that Used to live there, until the trees were taken. Dad is forest-maker.

Happy fathers’ day, James Robert.  I’m fu’ the ‘nu with love for ye.