Dawson Daily News Print and Publishing Festival

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If spring is a slow burn, summer is a bright flash in the pan, and we are right into it: days without rain, the ground dry, a thin and persistent layer of dust settled on everything. It’s hot and busy as locals hustle to make their money, plant their crops, and take in the weddings, concerts and festivals happening almost every weekend.

Last night was the beginning of the Print and Publishing Festival, which was once a symposium held at the same time as the Riverside Arts Fest, in August. Now, all grown up, it is a 5 day festival featuring readings, workshops, lectures, demos, and printmaking. I’m excited to be hosting a spoken word open mic in honour of the festival, tonight at The Westminster Hotel. If you’re in town, I hope you’ll come have a listen or maybe even share your words with us. I’ll be reading 3 new poems and trying to keep a lid on the raging impostor syndrome that’s reared its ugly head in the past few days. Wish me luck!

Book Review: The Break and If There Were Roads

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I somehow managed to read not one, but two books in the last month: a book of poetry and a novel! I’d like to review them both here for you today.

Book Review #1

The book: “The Break” by Katherena Vermette

What it’s about: A Metis woman is up late one winter’s night, nursing her baby, when she sees an attack taking place in “the Break”, a barren strip of land outside her house. She calls the police to report the crime: it takes them hours to arrive, and they seem skeptical of her story. The novel is structured as a series of shifting points of view, all giving the reader pieces of the events leading up to the attack, and the days following it, detailing a history of trauma, healing, and family love.

What I thought: This book is both powerful and heartbreaking. Although the story is set up in such a way as to make it a compulsive read, I found I had to put it down frequently. There is a lot of recounting of abuse, making it very intense and possibly triggering. That being said, Vermette showcases an incredible resiliency in the characters of First Nations women. The deep and constant love that holds these women together is beautiful. I found myself frustrated, though, that they had to be so strong, time and again, in the face of repeated abuses. It made me angry that this isn’t just fiction: it’s a reality for so many, and in that sense, it’s an incredibly urgent and important book.

From the opening pages: “I’ve always loved the place my girl calls the Break. I used to walk through it in the summer. There is a path you can go along all the way to the edge of the city, and if you just look down at the grass, you might think you were in the country the whole way. Old people plant gardens there, big ones with tidy rows of corn and tomatoes, all nice and clean. You can’t walk through it in the winter though. No one clears a way. In the winter, the Break is just a lake of wind and white, a field of cold and biting snow that blows up with the slightest gust.”

Book Review #2

The book: “If There Were Roads”  by Joanna Lilley

What it’s about: The poems in this collection are largely a meditation on place: the places we’ve come from, the places we’ve been, the places we are now. Notions of home, a tension between solitude and connection, and a sweeping geography–from Scotland and England, across Canada and into Yukon, thread through these poems.

What I thought: I really love Joanna’s poetry. She has a way of taking ordinary moments and making them into something special, so that I begin to look at my own ordinary moments differently. Her poems are accessible, too, something I value in poetry. Much of this book resonated with me: from what it’s like to travel alone, to ideas about home and ghosts and animal welfare, and of course, her writing about the north. I often found myself pausing in recognition, her poems leading me deeper into my own ideas about the world.

From the book: 

Bare-faced

She needs large skin
to smear her self back on
each morning after a shower,
smoothing it with her lifeline,
her fingertips, twisting her hand
to reach between her shoulder blades
which are not the nubs of atavistic wings.
They’re the bones that will be most
ambiguous when unearthed,
collapsed onto shifted ribs.
She is a woman in all the right places,
a man everywhere else.
She is brazen, bare-faced.

On a Woman’s Body Hair

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Since I wrote that post about my body, I’ve tried to be aware of how I think of myself. Try to catch myself in negative self-talk when I look in the mirror. If I can’t replace it with something positive (why is that so difficult to do?) I at least try to let the thoughts go, rather than chase them down. These things have been simmering in the back of my mind, mostly, until yesterday.

There was an article in my Twitter feed about how 1 in 4 young women have stopped shaving their armpits. Later, I read an interview on Bustle with a beauty blogger who stopped shaving. This caused me to reflect on my own history of body hair. It’s something I’ve probably spent way too much time thinking about over the years, but such is the life of a person inhabiting a woman’s body, I suppose.

I must have been 18 or 19 when I first stopped shaving, both my legs and my armpits. I think I may have been prompted by reading Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth; it was around that time that I also started using cloth pads and a menstrual cup. Deciding not to shave was absolutely a political statement, and it was absolutely a hard thing to do. In the beginning, I’d get comments about how it was “time to shave.” I was told that it was unsanitary, to which I’d challenge: “what is less clean about my body hair compared to a man’s?”

Having dark hair on my legs and long, curling hair peeking from my pits wasn’t (isn’t) an easy way to walk through life. I often wonder why I was imposing this on myself. Why bother making myself uncomfortable every time I wear a tank top, or shorts, or a bathing suit? I suppose the answer is that my discomfort is a result of others’ discomfort. I’m uncomfortable because other people might be uncomfortable with my body hair. And that’s bullshit. I didn’t quite articulate it like that in the beginning of not shaving. I think in the beginning it was a pretty simple “fuck your beauty standards.”

That being said, I must acknowledge my many privileges. I’m white, of average size, and I present fairly feminine in general. I don’t have much facial hair (though my eyebrows have been called caterpillars, and I’ve had more than one hair stylist come at them with scissors and a wax strip).

There’s also something to be said for living where I do, in a bit of a “hippy” haven. There are a lot of women in my small town who don’t shave their legs or armpits. Living in the Yukon was the first time I went out in shorts or a tank top and didn’t even think twice about my body hair. Back in “the city” is another story. In fact, I started shaving again during the year we lived in Ontario. I stopped again when Charlotte was born, because someone has to show her that there are myriad ways to be in this world.

As I get older, I find dark hairs sprouting at random on my neck. More than once, people have tried to brush them away as though they are stray hairs from my head. I try not to feel any shame when I tell them that actually, that hair is growing from my neck. It’s not my issue that they squirm at the realization. It’s hard, though. It’s hard not to apologize for my body at every turn. I’m sorry my eyebrows are unruly. I’m sorry I have hairs on my neck, between my breasts, on my belly.

But on reading that article on Bustle yesterday, something struck me. The woman being interviewed, Dana Suchow, says:

“But I have decided I will not go back to shaving until I am comfortable with my unshaven body. I have to be comfortable being intimate with another person. And I have to be comfortable wearing shorts in the summer.”

It made me realize that I am STILL not fully comfortable with my unshaven body, after something like 15 years. For most of my adult life, I have been unshaven more than shaven. And while I may feel okay about it here in Dawson, as soon as we go to Ontario in summer, I am aware of the dark hair on my legs. I wonder if it offends. I change from pants to shorts and back again. When I do shave, I tell myself it’s my choosing. But is it really? Sure, no one is telling me, explicitly, to shave. But just feeling the pressure to do so, implied by media, movies, friends, family, all being smooth and hairless, is enough to remove my agency. I’m shaving because I don’t want to rock the boat.

Body hair should be neutral. Neither masculine nor feminine. It grows on us because we are mammals. We should all, no matter our gender, be fully free to choose if, when, and how to remove it. It bothers me that making that choice, as a woman, is still a radical act.

I wanted to close with a favourite poem of mine, by the late Al Purdy. I love it for its intimacy and its low-key celebration of body hair. Maybe I’ll go write an ode to my leg hair.

Winter at Roblin Lake

Seeing the sky darken and the fields
turn brown & the lake lead-grey
as some enormous scrap of sheet metal
& wind grabs the world around the equator
I am most thankful then for knowing about
the little gold hairs on your belly.

 

Sprung

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Last night, around 2 am, I was woken by the sound of banging on our shed. Coming out of sleep, it sounded like Paul was trying, unsuccessfully, to get in. Why doesn’t he just open the door, I thought in my haze. Then I came fully awake, and could hear him snoring softly in bed.

A bear, then.

I shook Paul awake, quietly so as not to wake the kids, and asked him to go downstairs and lock our front door. It opens out, but with the new handle we installed recently, a bear could potentially swing it open. A bear in the house is one of my greatest fears. I sometimes lie awake in bed, wondering what I’d do if a bear got in. Could it climb the stairs to the loft? What then? Could we jump out the window? Where would we go from there? I’d have to run back in to get the keys to the truck.

Stop. It will never happen.

Back to last night, and Paul and I standing in the kitchen with a flashlight, peering out into the rare darkness, watching the shadow of a big black bear lumber away from the shed and barbeque, in the direction of the garbage cans; heard the bear find the cans, knock them over, the “wildlife proof” lids no match for a bear’s strength; watched the bear lope off behind the shed towards the woods, dragging a bag of garbage with it.

Everything was quiet again. We went back to bed. What else is there to do? The bears are awake, curious and hungry. They’re not just a problem at our place in the bush: they are sighted in town, too, and on the hiking trails that surround town. As I drift off to sleep, I wish for a dog. I think about how the garbage cans are right by the outhouse, and of how I had to pee. If I’d woken with that urge just 20 minutes sooner, I might have encountered the bear in the yard, in the dark. Another of my greatest fears. Stash bear spray in outhouse. Learn to use a gun. Get a dog.

I’d intended to write about summer unfolding, and then a bear happened. It’s too good a story not to share!

The leaves are all coming out now: what was a buzz of new-green has become a roar. Wild lupin and bluebells push up from from the soil; the crocuses have already bloomed.

The ice has gone out on the river, and the ferry that carries people across has gone back in the water. Soon, the first tour buses will roll into town, covered in dust, off-loading people who will walk around town in matching jackets, all wearing name tags, standing in the middle of the road to take pictures of decrepit heritage buildings. They will creep past the bar, most too afraid to step foot in the local watering hole. The braver ones will find out we don’t bite and it is, in fact, the best time you can have in town. (But I’m biased).

I said I wouldn’t plant a big garden but of course I am busily getting all four of the beds ready, turning the soil, adding in sheep manure, digging out the grass that overtook two beds the summer we were in Ontario. In another week, I’ll plant potatoes, bush beans, sweet peas, radishes and lettuce. This weekend is the Gold Show, a mining trade show that has grown to include much more than mining: the local nursery, and the one from Whitehorse, will set up with bedding plants and herb and vegetable starts. I’ll buy flats of flowers and plant my pots the first week of June, hoping we don’t get a late frost.

We spend more and more time outdoors these days. Like with plants grown indoors from seed, I harden my children off, leaving them outside a bit longer each day until they can tolerate the elements, the change of atmosphere. They “help” me in the garden, or we kick a ball around or we walk in the woods. With bear spray. Singing loudly.

Summer here goes by in a flash: it is packed full of festivals, Saturday markets, friends, picnics, camping, and work. I try to slow down, savor each day. I hope you do the same!

Putting Myself in the Way

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When I first came to Dawson City twelve (!) years ago, I was struck by the different birds I saw. A sparrow wasn’t just a plain old sparrow anymore: it had a bold black and white striped head, and a beautiful song belted out from tree tops. Ducks were more than just mallards. Tiny, bright yellow birds flitted among the willows. I felt a desire to know them, to name them, and so my love of bird watching began. I got myself a field guide and a better pair of binoculars, and over the following five or six years, I became a bit of a bird lady.

I used to spend an afternoon sitting on a sandy spot of riverbank, my binoculars in hand. I watched the bank swallows skim bugs; watched a common merganser teach her ducklings how to dive; once saw a bald eagle defend its catch from gulls. Hikes to the Moosehide Slide, or on the trails in Tombstone Park, always included my binoculars, swinging around my neck. I started writing a bird column for The Klondike Sun, and friends would come to me with their bird queries: “What’s this little brown bird I see at my feeder? The one with the stripes?” Bird watching was a part of how I came to define myself; when people saw an interesting bird, they thought of me.

On a trip to Mexico, weeks pregnant with Aedan, my friends and I went on a bird watching tour. We rose at dawn to be collected by our guide, and went out on a boat in a mangrove swamp. We saw something like fifty different species of bird that morning. Four or five different herons, frigate birds, cormorants, ibis, scarlet tanager, vermilion flycatcher, to name just a few. It was one of my last great bird outings, before having kids.

After having kids, birdwatching was one of the first things to go.

It’s hard to wear binoculars with a sleeping infant carried on your chest. And toddlers are not known for being quiet, or sitting in one spot for hours so mama can watch the birds. I let it go, like I did writing, reading, and hiking. I wasn’t sure if or when I’d pick it up again; a casualty of the intense early years of parenting, I suppose.

Lately though, like the other passions I let fall by the wayside, I feel an eagerness to get back to it. These past few weeks, with the spring migrants making their way through, I’ve had some exciting incidental sightings: a sharp tailed grouse displaying in our yard, its wings held out to the sides, thrumming; a bald eagle gliding over the driveway where we were playing; ducks, so many and varied ducks in the ponds we pass on our drive to town. The ducks were the tipping point for me. I just could not stand that I didn’t know them, that I couldn’t name them. I decided then and there to put myself in the way of bird watching again.

I’ve been putting myself in the way of poetry again, too, looking for poems just as I look for birds. Making sure to read some poetry every day. Committing to working on new poems, to writing down the ideas and lines that come to me, following different threads like I follow a bird sighted in my binoculars. In the past month or so, I’ve organized a poetry reading with Whitehorse poet Joanna Lilley. I’ve read at an open mic and have committed to read at two more in the coming months. I’m working on some poems to complete the chapbook manuscript I’ve been thinking of for the last year. If I let my vision go soft-focus, if I leap just a second before thinking, I find that I’m pulled in the direction of poetry, of a writing life.

Two days ago, out for a walk in the woods with Colm and Charlotte, what I think was a boreal owl flew over head, a pair of robins in pursuit. I wanted a closer look, but of course, I didn’t have my binoculars with me. The following day, as we got ready for our walk, I took my binocs off the hook by the door. I dusted off the glass, and slung them around my neck. Where we rested, while the kids threw rocks, I watched a yellow rumped warbler move from tree to tree, spotted a say’s phoebe (a bird I’d never seen before). It was exhilarating! It struck me how easy it is to pick up again. How easy it is, now that I don’t have to wear all the babies, to take the binoculars with me. How easy it is to sit and observe not just my kids, but the birds, too. I just have to open myself to it, to the birds all around me, the inspiration all around me.

To practice birdwatching, poetry, running, whatever it is, requires effort and discipline, yes. It is a choosing, every time, to do that thing over not doing it. But I’m also learning that it’s a matter of repositioning, if that makes sense, like an adjustment a chiropractor would make, so that things align again. The more I do this, choose these things, the more I put myself in the way of my passions, the easier it will be to get swept away by them.