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Ghost streets, & The Cloth Masks Project

I had such a great plan, before CoVid-19 changed us. A working car-trip across Canada to Banff residency in the summer or fall (Banff is of course now closed, all programs cancelled into early fall), an artist residency in the Shetland Islands for a month, where the shore meets the land and the land calls to my soul. A beautiful story of seeking out my ancestral story, rooted in Scotland, but so deeply connected to Canada. A working study of the migrations of people, because of poverty, climate, famine, colonialism – humans move constantly now, as water does.

If water stops moving, it stagnates. This is rare though, since water will eventually find a way to flow even if through evaporation, then into rain. People are like that too, by nature. It’s my observation, so far at least, that humans will eventually find a way to transform themselves and their circumstance – in some direction. Those who don’t are the most miserable.

If ever there was a recipe for simultaneous, global human transformation, this would be it, right now. Here we are in week four of self-isolation, and all our outer quests have become inwardly turned questions. We’re all on a new level of RIGHT NOW: parents full time with their kids, partners full time with all the fault lines in their relationship; writers full time with their blocks (and no cafe’s to write in); siblings with their mutual woundings; extroverts climbing the walls and narcissists in denial.

I’m on my own, with a foster cat. Not a problem, I say, in the first week. I’ve been in self-imposed isolation for a over a year here in Hamilton – a city where I know perhaps three people socially. In the second week I get lost in news, definitely stagnant, as the truth sinks in and statistics climb.

In week three I realize how wide open and vulnerable I am in this solitary space. I’ve become deeply grateful for Cat’s presence and companionship, since I miss simple touch beyond what I could have imagined. I realize how relational I am, and how I must now relate meaningfully with ME – there is no one else, no one else is coming. I can’t hide from my own gaze; my heart, my ache and my joy is all right there on the table (or the floor, depending). There’s a lot I can see that I love, but also much that I’m deeply, richly uncomfortable with. In my bones I know that this long isolation is going to change me, permanently.

I am afraid – of everything I can sense but don’t understand. Then I realize I’m okay. Safe, just not in control. Thank heavens for the old trees in Gage Park. I lean on them, and into them.

It’s in week three that I go back into the studio. I’ve been avoiding it but now the building is closed to the public, and very few people are there working. What a relief, to be stretching those muscles, flowing again. After some good forward motion with my commission work I try out the online instructions* for a DIY cloth face mask, on a whim – not difficult, even for a pretend sewer.

I have a great old 1956 Singer and plenty of black and white thread; I see the stash of batik fabric I’ve been hauling around for three years and there’s enough to make a modest social media gesture – I will make and send a cloth face mask to you gratis if you need one – PM me your address & colour preferences.

I Imagine making ten or so, perhaps 20 over the next week, but over the next 3 days I receive orders for 100. Donations too – generous ones – to cover the cost of making and delivering. Orders continue to come in steadily, every day.

The first 12 are urgent – high-risk friends and family. I make them – oh so slowly, in retrospect – then drive 3 hours north to deliver them, personally, invisibly: I’m outside your house right now, will leave in your mailbox.

Home late the next evening I’m feeling overwhelmed by the response. …so okay, but what about my other work? and how do I triage these orders, from front line delivery folk to L’arche workers to Factory workers to people with high risk health issues and wow everyone in my family needs these too… What ARE the delivery costs, then? No idea. Orders from BC, Quebec, and five cities in Ontario so far – I did say anywhere, didn’t I. Damnit.

I figure out a system that could fulfil 100+ orders in a relatively short time, and learn how to be more efficient. I also figure out that if I want to to keep making and sending these masks, I need to cover my costs in this time of no-income. Inspired by Hamilton’s hugely successful 541 Eatery and Exchange I build a model whereby those who can afford to donate are given a pay-it-forward figure – one that will make the project sustainable for me (tho not profitable, on principle), and also include a percentage towards a mask for someone who needs it but is financially stretched, for whatever reason.

Orders keep coming in.

didn’t take pictures today, but here’s a pre-isolation Toronto photo from February. Seven weeks ago.

In Toronto this afternoon I drive past familiar and loved places, now closed and inaccessible. Old apartments, my beloved B&B, Dufferin and College, Parkdale, Queen East. Two masks there (high risk), three here (high risk), two more there (front line worker). The streets are like ghosts.

I’m still working on the Water/ Human Migration research project. I’m collecting tree stories from people (that’s another post). I’m working with these marvellous commissions which teach me more than I’d ever imagined a project could – so very appropriate to now.

And I’m making cloth face masks, too, for whomever needs them.

If you need a cloth face mask (or a few), please write to me here: I would be happy and honoured to make and send what you need. If you are able to donate, the minimum suggested donation is $10 per mask. $20 pays for someone else who is stretched and some delivery costs… etc. $200 which pays it forward to a bunch of people, and their mask deliveries (thank you thank you to the generous person who did this – I just ordered more supplies with your help). Wait time depends on the triage – health risks and front line workers are top priority – I’ll give you an estimate for when you can expect them.

*If you’d like to make your own, then Hooray!! Here’s the link to the instructions I’m using: I like it because the masks are reversible (fashion or mood options – black or pink today?), there’s a sturdy nose wire (mine require pliers to bend and anchor nicely on the face), they require high thread count cotton or cotton / poly (which I have a fair amount of) and most importantly, they are hand-washable – so, re-useable.

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The scent of change

I’m drinking beer in the solarium of a pub my band used to play in 35 years ago.  More nachos than I can eat, hanging baskets full of boston-themed plastic plants, my old cello safe and warm beside me. A guy with humperdink-voice just started to play a three chord song – now I get why, when I asked if there was a table I could write at, they put me in here the quiet room.

Change, like a subtle draft of air.


I’ve just finished the second of two intriguing community music classes, which came right after my excellent cello lesson with body-mapper and fine cellist Amber Ghent.  If any of those three experiences had happened separately they would have been the highlight of my month – but I get them all stacked into my Wednesday this week.  Workshop with Gary Diggins, who has used music as medicine all around the world and runs a very cool space in Guelph called Silence.  In the interdisciplinary arts Masters class my fellow students and I pull together dance, pottery, video, theatre, psychology, music education, history, anthropology and more to explore a more holistic approach to facilitation of music and arts gatherings.  Brave new world, this field, with humans such as these.

Change, like the lifting of one veil.

by way of contrast - this is my very real gardenia at home - blooming happily under the plant light, perfuming the room
by way of contrast – this is my very real gardenia at home – blooming happily under the plant light, perfuming the room

I’m home now, packed inside pillows and blankets on the couch, nursing flu.  Reading about Power versus Force; Leadership and storytelling (Howard Gardner); introversion (Susan Cain) who debunks the largely American myth that those with sparkling personalities are naturally also good at running businesses, countries, projects, programs; From Dictatorship to Democracy (Gene Sharp, 1993, 2012, many translations). This is information therapy, to address my bewilderment and anger at behaviours exhibited these past six months and more.  It’s working.

Change, like the practical, forward-pointed shape of canada geese.

Map for planned return from Ottawa. We ended up at the base of Algonquin Park. Much more beautiful than 401.
Map for planned return from Ottawa. We ended up at the base of Algonquin Park. Much more beautiful than 401.

Bow arm injury as a result of old rotator cuff damage I sustained nine years ago.  For the first time in many many years I need to not play cello, until I can get myself into the hands of a good physiotherapist next week (I read that as not play as much, since I can’t imagine not teaching, gigging or rehearsing with Cello Choir).  It’s the deep practises I miss – two or three hours of rotated 20-minute intense sessions – great incentive to dedicate myself to physio work.

Change. An involuntary lift of the eyebrows.

While in Ottawa we stayed in the Jail Hostel. In a cell one floor below the former skid row. I loved it there - sad to leave
While in Ottawa we stayed in a tiny cell one floor below the former skid row of the Ottawa Jail Hostel.  I was sad to leave my little bunk in the little cell with the iron-barred door.  Imprisoned then released, reluctant.

I did my taxes yesterday and three years worth of my daughter’s.  Every year for 23 years now I’ve taken my added-up receipts in to a gifted accountant and listened to his tales about life, human beings, and money.  He is a philosopher who is quite at home with his need to keep things clear and in proper order.  I left well-informed after he quietly and respectfully applied his philosophy to my particular situation and then to my daughter’s.  It’s quite a thing, to look forward thirty years with a wise and practical human and answer, as best you can, the question “Who will you be?”.

Change, like my body does.

death row. Four cells - the prisoners moved one closer to the noose each time someone was executed. Three men died this way officially, though when the jail was converted to a hostel they found the bodies of 150 more buried in a pit beside the building.
death row. Four cells – the prisoners moved one closer to the noose each time someone was executed. Three men died this way officially, though when the jail was converted to a hostel they found the bodies of 150 more buried in a pit beside the building.

In class this past week we were given fifteen minutes to write a memory (with a pen, onto paper), five minutes to edit, and another fifteen to trade written memories with a classmate.  The one read to me brought tears to my eyes.  Here’s my offering:

A snuffling in the trees wakes me – raccoon.  By the distance the moon has traveled it looks like two a.m.. I’d run around to this side of the hit at sunset, just in time to catch the first star, then moonrise over the sighing filed.  I read myself towards sleep soon after, but found my focus skyward instead and resentful of the candle’s glare, I’d pinched it out, lay back on the deck pillows to gaze up, and in.

Awoke without knowing I’d slipped into sleep.  I think the moon called from her new place in the sky.  I saw that the milky way had risen out of the northeast, an old road of ancient dust.  And there – Orion’s belt.  There Cassiopeia, there Mars, low and hot on the horizon.

Wonder took me back into dreaming until the raccoon’s busy-ness.  I look up; all has changed again. I’m dizzy with it.  In my belly I can feel the planet turn and spin, the moon dance around the earth, the earth around the sun, the galaxy through the dark along with millions of other galaxies…

This is the dizziness of knowing how small – how very small I am.

The Bar/breakfast canteen at the hostel, two floors below us. Australians, brits, teenager groups, tweener school groups, loner types, a hijabbed moslem woman reading a book, poet-looking people. Apparently it's hopping in the summer - and will be full up this year on Canada Day. Great place to stay - and not expensive at all.
The Bar/breakfast canteen at the hostel, two floors below our cell. Australians; Brits; teenager groups; tweener school groups with frazzled-eager teachers; loner types; a moslem woman in hijab reading a book; poet-looking people sipping coffee; me comfortable in pyjamas and bare feet.

We make effort in answer to things we value.  Go to watch the sunset; lean in to smell the flower; greet one another with positive news; wear smiles and show kindness whenever possible, as we hunt our future selves and befriend our demons.  Effort, my wise accountant might say, is a kind of currency which requires good investment.  The return is enrichment that equals the effort, or, if we’re savvy, far surpasses it.  If that’s not the return, then you’ve invested in the wrong place – working against your own efforts and so promoting injury (which is what my arm and shoulder muscles are doing, as it turns out).

Change, like the soft closing of a very good book, one long moment after you’ve finished the last sentence.

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I wake among the starlings, deep inside their morning discussion, which centres mostly on comings and goings.  It’s a boisterous, cultural ballyhoodle, ritualized by the turning of the year. Starlings time their arrivals and departures here to the spring and fall equinox, just as we do our school years, our arts industry seasons, interesting.  I adore starlings, always have.  Their fall flight patterns – great clouds of them sharing one mind – are I think called murmurations. I hope I have that right, since that’s such a good and appropriate word.


The vast, over populated ship of daily life turns slowly.  All events, micro choices, adjustments in thinking, new levels of perception are the increments of propulsion that churn it around the long curve of change.  For me, September is the moment when I look up and realize that there is an unfamiliar horizon both ahead and behind – always a moment of new understanding, a realization of the weight and measure of the year just passed. Heavy, light, compressed, expanded – the strata of the whole year, visible in one stacked moment of time.


Bon Echo lies on a fault-line.  The Group of Seven painted there, Walt Whitman wrote there at a time 100+ years ago when it was a cultural retreat for artists.  Magnificent old grandfather cliffs rise as the result of a fault, and continue to rise each year.  What an honour it was, to see and hear them.


Georgian Bay lies past the outer rim of the Michigan Bowl, the centre of which continues to sink every year, which in turn pushes the outer escarpment rim up, incrementally.  Nobody knows why this is so – not a fault, but a very old and ongoing geological ‘event’ that began when this part of the world was an ocean.  The rock that is pushed upward is in fact the bones of the sea creatures who swam here where I walk.

Faults and bowls and bones.  Oceans of time in one tiny summer.


It cooled down enough to paint in the last week of August.  We drove to Toronto and tasted friendship, then to Ottawa to install the fledged daughter into University, all in the space of five days.

The moment of stillness, of recognition that horizons have quite permanently changed stretches on, until we’ve had our fill of watching time, of bearing witness.


The starlings know.  Comes a time, close to every fall equinox, when you leap off the branch and begin the work of a new season.

Soon, soon.