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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 Stories come seeking

Stories that want to be told come in through the eastern window in the morning, or sometimes down onto the roof with the rain.

There’s a beautiful one that follows me everywhere I go now, about the water that washes the eastern shore on Georgian Bay and how that is like, and also not like the ocean that kisses and smashes and chortles the eastern shores of the Shetland Islands. This story is long like a river that runs deep then dives deeper, to run beneath the desert.

There’s another about trumpeter Swans who were many, then few, then gone for a hundred years, hunted into oblivion by europeans. Now the imprint of those wild ones on the land teaches the new, tame ones how to be who they are. The tame ones teach the humans to be …better.

There are the stories a Mother Tree whispers to me – the one that once grew right here, the beating heart of the great breathing forest that lived – lives! she says – along the flanks of Lake Ontario, sheltered by the arms of the limestone escarpment.

They come in the window and through the roof with pictures and sounds to show me. Listen. Can you hear this? Can you see how this is, how it connects with that? Look at this marvel! Listen.

And so I get to work, and write. Draw containments for these, paint them, sing them, play them.

I’ve just sent two applications in to Banff Centre for the Arts for month long residencies this year, timed after my commission work has been completed and distributed with love.

What I’ll build at the Banff residency is a visual language that matches the stories that come in, asking to be told. I’ll work with colour, water, gravity, resist, paper and time. The musical language will develop too – downstairs in the room I’ve made for it, in car rides between here and my cabin, and on the road between here and Banff this summer and early fall.

That Banff Centre will of course choose to invite me or not; I’ll know by May. If not Banff, then from a back yard studio in Vernon, or a cabin on Lake Superior. From the blue artist’s studio at the edge of the ocean in the Shetland Islands. Either way, the stories will be told, and I will find a visual and musical language for them. This is the road I’ve chosen.

I will need help. I can’t tell the stories the way they’re asking to be told, without readers, without input, without research and connection, without funding assistance. Without performance venues, walls to hang the work on, other artists to work with and pay with respect, audiences to sing the music with. Without a family of collaborators.

Become a Patron

This is a link to my Patreon site, where you’ll find some options for collaboration with me and these stories. Benefits, too, as sincere tokens of my appreciation and love. If you join me as a patron, I will take you with me on the road, into the studio, the residencies, the water, the forests. Your story will mingle and connect with these ones, and you will be included in the books, songs and paintings that will be made. You will have my rich and enduring gratitude and love.

Most of the content on this website will continue to be free. I’ve been writing here for ten years and many life changes, and I love the connection it provides. Please consider, though, that this space takes great time and effort to build, develop, evolve, enrich. If you feel inclined to support this, even for the cost of a good coffee every month, the space and the work I do will only get better.

I am and will continue to be eternally grateful for your collaboration and support. Nothing in this world happens in isolation; we’re all in this together.