Monday, December 12, 2011

Choir: A Tribute

Some babies cry when they’re born but I think I must have emerged singing.  To the untrained ear, my yowling might have sounded like that of any generic baby.  But I’ve never stopped humming, scatting or making my own versions of joyful noise ever since.  
I sang when I hoed the long rows of potatoes.  I sang when I rode our Percheron horse along the fence lines of our Peace River homestead. I sang when I walked to meet the school bus, across the fields and through the bush, saluting the trees and greeting cattle in a singsong litany, delivering a bovine benediction.  
Sometimes the adventurous teachers who came north to our two-room school in Cecil Lake could carry a tune and a precious hour or two every week was spent singing.  But except for rehearsals for the Christmas Concert and the Spring Talent Show, singing wasn’t much of an educational priority. So many of the children were too shy or too stubborn, in the case of the boys, to sing properly in any case.  The Christmas carols were a blur of mumbled verses, except for the first, perhaps, but the choruses were enthusiastically hammered home by those of us who were not petrified on-stage.
One winter my father came home from working away at a construction site with an old pump organ, discarded by a church because very few of its white keys functioned.  I learned to play the black keys, inventing a left-handed chord to accompany myself as I picked out the melody to O, Susannah or Red River Valley with my right hand.  
I’d been coaxed out several times to sing solos in the community hall, Silent Night or Danny Boy, rehearsing at home by standing in the farthest corner of the house and belting out the tunes for the musically discerning ears of my parents.   
“Sounds good.”  
“Don’t start off so high next time.”
“Can’t hear the last verse.”
            “Just stand up straight and don’t fidget with your hands.”
Bolstered by this heady praise, I’d made my forays to the limelight.  Frankly, I’d been too nervous to enjoy myself or even to look anywhere but up into the rafters so I must have given sweetly wooden performances.  There must have been applause but I’d not been taught to stand still for that reward, much less take a bow and enjoy the moment.  I’d quickly flee the imaginary spotlight to rejoin the chorus of shepherds draped in grey Army blankets.
Then a red-haired Mennonite boy came to our school and my brief reign as a soloist mercifully ended.  Johnny Siemens loved to sing.  He smiled at the audience, he waggled his cute little head and waved his small hands in ways that gave extra oomph to familiar words and made even the grumpiest old-timers at the back of the hall beam fondly at him.
From the vantage point of middle-age, I realize those retired school-teachers with their shrewd, assessing eyes and the sour-smelling elderly bachelors probably smiled when I sang Sewanee River too.  But I was too busy keeping my shoulders squared and my fingers flattened by my sides to notice any such approval while Johnny, our pre-teen boy soprano, observed all these good things, beamed right back and sang divinely, like the angel he all too soon became.
I remember my last solo as a child quite clearly.  It was rumoured there would be cash prizes given at the Spring Talent Show.  Unprecedented!  Inspired by Johnny, whose piercing high notes had lately started to crack and nasally splat, and by the promise of rare hard cash, I commenced serious rehearsals.   My parents, who could never be accused of being pushy stage-struck types, advised me that Danny Boy was out of the question since the histrionics required to hit the penultimate note were beyond me no matter how low a note I started with.  So I decided to stick to the tried and true.  Old Black Joe and Loch Lomond.
The term “show-off” was a black mark on one’s character in my family, revealing a shameless and inappropriate need for attention.  I was walking a fine line with this Talent Show hoopla, being twelve and all, which was too old for this sort of thing, if I was interpreting the silences and grunts and sighs around home correctly.  But I was determined.  I had no money and I wanted some. So, forewarned of being thus labelled and knowing the Hall would be jam-packed with the inevitable baby population, singers all, noisy toddlers, watchful peers, sharp-eyed mothers, and mumbling men, I made the short, heroic journey  to centre stage.
I sang Old Black Joe to the back of the hall, where the farmers stood holding their suspenders and coughing up grain dust.  I swung my head a little, from side to side, mourning my ancestors, all slaves down South, where my heart was yearning ever.  Despite the fact it was February and nearly 30 below Fahrenheit, closer to Alaska than Alabama, and that I was the first generation offspring of Dutch and Welsh immigrants, I did my best to convince the audience of my true musical roots.  In fact, I received a decent smattering of applause before I moved along to interpret Loch Lomond, a wee ditty I could have sung backwards in my sleep.  
I trilled along the high road, shifting my gaze row by row from the back of the hall to the middle, where I encountered the frizzled home perm, glinting eye-glasses and frowning face of my very own mother. Row upon beaming row of friends and neighbors and then this, my anxiously poised close relative. I delivered!
‘On the bonny, bonny ba..a..angs....’  I slid, spectacularly off-key, down the punishing banks of Loch Lomond.  The hall was silent.
“Oh, Gott!” declaimed the maternal voice and a nervous laugh was quickly stifled, but not quickly enough, by a gloved hand.  
I took a breath and climbed back up the bank.  
“Sorry,” I said and gathered air.
‘For me and my true love will never meet again, on the bonny, bonny banks of Loch Lomond!’  I finished triumphantly, nailing every pure, true note to the boards at the back of the hall, sending them out past the frost-spangled trucks and cars, some filled with men sharing  rye whiskey.  Up and out went my twelve year old voice, past the scrubby spruce and stunted pines and swamp tamarack, over the huddled willows in the muskegs and up to the indigo sky sequined with stars, there to vapourize among the northern lights.
The rest of that evening was a blur of the usual songs by the usual entertainers; the
Scandinavian father and daughter accordion duo, Mr. Cuthbert, the Irish patriarch of Erin Lea,
rising from the side bench to recite Yeats and Goldsmith to a Hall for once silent, and the
marvellously disguised matrons of the Women’s Institute presenting their collectively out-of-character skit of a louse-infested tramp claiming a park bench from all other comers.  If there were fabulous cash prizes, I certainly didn’t win any.
    I joined the fledgling high school choir when I left home.  I don’t mean that I ran away from the homestead to join the choir in the way that the truly adventurous join the circus.  I mean it was simply necessary for 120 teenagers to leave M├ętis, Mennonite, oil patch, cattle ranch or other just plain isolated places our parents had gotten themselves into in order to complete our education.  We lived in the Fort St. John Dormitory run by Miss Lamb, a 300 pound sixty-something Englishwoman with platinum bottle blonde hair and ice-cold eyes.
Gone forever were the morning sounds of wood blocks clunking into the heater, soon to crackle and spit sap, the kettle singing, the quiet murmurs of my parents, and gentle wake-up calls.  Dad’s Welsh baritone floated back to us as he made his way out to do the cattle chores, Mom sang comforting lullabies in English or Dutch or bits of both as she filled four lunch-kits and made hot cereal and cocoa.
Instead, clanging electronic bells woke us up, called us to meals, started and ended study periods, signalled curfew and the final lights out.  I adjusted to the hideous bells and the new regimes of dormitory and high school life but I needed to sing.
What I sang for several months were two songs: Bali High and Rolling Down To Rio.  About sixteen girls were in the choir, fourteen of whom thought they were sopranos until Mrs. Pullan sorted the melody-makers from the potential altos.  I had a strong voice, so without benefit of formal musical instruction, I was designated an alto.
Oh dreary, droning alto!  It just didn’t sound right and I struggled unhappily until one day when Mrs. Pullan whispered the best, most necessary advice in my ear.
“Don’t sing so loudly and listen to Helen.”
I was embarrassed and ashamed but I listened to Helen who could play piano and read music, as well as being blessed with a velvety alto voice. I learned to listen and to blend my voice with my neighbours in that choir.  At the Festival we were commended for our strong altos and our songs, whose exotic lyrics meant more to tiny, pretty Mrs. Pullan, who immediately fled Fort St. John, than to me.
Fast forward to my own first year of teaching back in Fort St. John. Not content with working 50 or more hours a week on a pilot program with high-risk teens, I also performed as an alto shepherd in ‘Amahl and The Night Visitor’ and joined my second choir.
The Cardinal Singers (white frilly blouses, long red skirts) were accompanied and directed by one of twelve Canada Council Community Musicians working in a program devised in the seemingly more affluent and culturally enlightened 1970's.  She was patient, thoroughly professional, and she put us through our paces every second Monday night.  I was, happily, found to be a soprano again, stationed between two minister’s wives who, like all minister’s wives I’ve ever known, were seasoned and capable singers.  
Finally, I was learning about The Voice, the physical facts of singing, little tricks for breathing properly, and the importance of smiling, thereby raising one’s cheekbones to create a resonant inner chamber which releases rounder, more pleasing tones.  Pear-shaped vowels, precise tongue-work on consonants, calibrated beginnings and endings, all these things and more I learned.  Almost every other Cardinal could read music.  I had to rely on my ears to memorize the words, the tune, the rests, the dynamics, everything.   
I was often too tired to drag myself to practice or to focus well enough to gather momentum once I was there.  Instead of feeling renewed by singing, it was just one more stress-inducing thing to do on my long, over-achieving list.  When the choir was asked to perform at a Health Fair in the arena, I blurted out that I couldn’t possibly make it because, once again, I had other commitments.  The director looked up, peered at me as if to recollect who I was or how well I sang, and then said in her mild-mannered way, “Well, I suppose it won’t make... much difference.”
The minister’s wife on my right clutched my hand, giving it a quick squeeze.  Chastened, I said that I would do my best to attend and I did.  We sang five songs, struggling to keep smiling, instead of collapsing into giggles.  It’s not every day that a person gets to sing in the acoustically-challenged environment of a hockey arena while hundreds of people are trying out treadmills, heart rate gadgets and healthy hors d’oevres, paying absolutely no attention to us.  
I don’t remember a single song, and only one name from that group of women in long red Fortrel skirts.  I did begin to learn the necessity of attending every practice possible and not relying on my talented musical neighbours in order to fudge my way through complicated arrangements.  Then I, too, left the rambunctious northern town and changed occupations several times until I landed a care-taking position on North Pender Island, B.C., complete with two dogs, a large garden, wood heat, and a four-storey cedar and glass mansion.  I did more off-site gardening for pay,  battled shrinking self-confidence at the typewriter, and played on the women’s baseball team with a great deal of exuberance. And I joined the choir of North and South Pender Islanders.  I was the youngest member by at least two decades.  
There was something so wonderful about walking into the little hall and having people smile as they greeted me with genuine affection.  I had been a rolling stone for the best part of twelve years, working in Asia, Europe and all around Canada.  It was quickly established that I was a full-timer on the island, not a mere weekender or summer cottage sub-species but a true islander.  The only thing better would be owning a place on the island like my choir pals did, all gleefully retired for the most part.  
One of our members took on the job of wrangling the thirty to forty of us through our sheet music while another good soul accompanied us on piano.  We made our way through great old tunes like Summertime, Stormy Weather, Hit the Road Jack, and of course, the familiar canon of singalong Christmas carols.  We dressed up in our individual versions of seasonal finery and sang at the Christmas Concert in the school gym, then promptly disbanded for the spring and summer to tend to visitors, gardens, grand-kids, or sailing up the Coast.  I toiled in island gardens, walked the dogs, wrote fitfully and sang with another friend in little pubs.
The second winter we imported a director from Saltspring Island, an ex-nun who quickly curtailed the quarter-hour visiting session we traditionally warmed up with before stretching our vocal chords with musical demands. We picked up the pace, learned our music faster and began to occasionally meet in small groups to tackle our parts.  I was discovered to be a mezzo-soprano in this choir and I enjoyed singing in my natural range at long last.      
I was definitely the oddball in this merry band of seniors, ‘that writer gal looking after the modern place up on Schooner’, but I blended in vocally and I rarely missed practices. Choir was a social occasion, a mini-community, as well as a place for learning and enjoying music. That was the gift I took away with me from that lovely place as I spread my wings yet again.
In Nelson, B.C., I joined the Images Ad Hoc Singers, an a capella feminist group featuring four part harmonies, feisty, often revisionist lyrics, and a two hour practice every Tuesday evening.  We appeared at five or more public events annually, the West Kootenay Women’s Festival, and other cultural shin-digs, like Vancouver’s Maywerks Festival, the national conference of Women in Trades and Technology, and a Peace Conference in the acoustically sublime Doukhobour hall in Brilliant.
It was great fun to be entertaining, I discovered, as we cheerily sang about a male contraceptive device or a satirical ditty about the pitfalls of marriage. We stood in a staunch semi-circle, the better to hear ourselves.  New songs took months to learn because only a few of the twelve singers could read music with any proficiency.  We learned by ear, mostly, and we increased our practices in small groups as performance dates loomed ever closer.  I learned much about dedication to practice in the seven years I performed with this group and I learned, again, about the undermining politics of some collective efforts.
Solos were frowned upon by some fiercely vocal members because they called attention away from the group and placed focus on an individual for a line or even a verse. Subversive resistance was the strategy encountered by any brave soul who stepped forward to conduct, nay, to lead the collective.  Several times during my stint, musically trained and talented women were asked, and even paid, to work with us in order to improve the glacial pace of learning new material or to tackle especially challenging new arrangements.  No one lasted more than a few months before tiring of us. Then we went back to spending a half-hour visiting and another half-hour warming up before devoting the final hour to several songs, stopping frequently for complaints about someone (else) being sharp or flat.  
Several times I would vow to quit when the semantic wrangling over possibly suspect patriarchal lyrics meant that we actually sang for only 32 minutes of a two hour practice. But we would usually sing beautifully when we performed, never using sheet music as a reference but communicating directly with each other and the audiences.  And the audiences loved us and our stage antics, our powerful message-oriented songs, and our well-crafted harmonies.  I learned to enjoy the applause, to smile and wave and clap along with the audience. We made them laugh and we made them cry and that’s as good as it gets.    
          *                                              *                                           *
Someday I want to learn to read music properly, to take piano lessons, but most of all, I want to play the banjo.  I have an unshakeable image in my head of being a sixty year old white-haired wild thing in an all-grrrrandma rockabilly band.  Meanwhile I have a living to earn in the bookstore my partner and I run in New Denver, B.C., population 650.  I have our son to help raise and more books to find time to write.  But I keep my ear in, I do, singing in the Valhalla Community Choir, as different and as alike as any choir in the country, I’m sure.  
This is the choir that, in my own middle-age, gives me a safe place to sing unafraid, to throw my plumb line down the well to find my voice and to release it, along with joy, forgiveness, sorrow, and stress.  The Choir is composed of over 40 people, aged 14 to 84, with musical “ringers”, which is to say exceptionally skilled singers, in every section.  Some have near perfect pitch, most of us have good ears, the rest sing softly or worse, loud and clear.  Our director is a beaming dynamo who says she simply loves choosing and then hearing a work of music evolve and, I suspect, seeing us evolve too.  Under her twelve years of direction, we are learning more and more difficult pieces at a faster and faster rate, many of us learning to read music en route, a thrilling fact.  We’ve sung in Latin, Spanish, French, and German so far.  
This is a most diverse choir, or at least the most diverse group I’ve ever sung with.  For starters, there are lots of men. We are the envy of several regional choirs for the breadth and depth of our musical males.  Our pianists, for two share the load and one sings while the other plays, are both accomplished musicians and talented singers.  The director constantly scouts for interesting arrangements, works full-time at the local hospital, and gets not one sou for her efforts.  To help all of us learn our parts, she and another choir member have learned to transcribe each part for each song onto audio tapes.  Choir members can be identified as those individuals wearing headphones for months and humming something not quite recognizable.  Sheet music plus audio tapes plus weekly two hour practices plus as many small group practices as we can manage... all this for several Spring concerts and the all-important Christmas concert, preceded by three studio recording sessions to produce CD’s and tapes.
When I walk up to the hall on a rainy October night to sing, after a long day of standing in the bookstore, I often sink gratefully onto the first wooden chair I see, rising only
when the sopranos must to sing our parts.  During that two hours though, something marvellous happens.  We get to focus on our vertically-challenged director, standing on her chair at the front of the hall, beaming at us when we’ve pulled it off, or arms waving frantically to bring an errant section up to snuff.  Then again, the whites of her bright brown eyes flash, alarmed, when the first sopranos screech, the mezzo-sopranos lurch off-pitch, the tenors warble off-key, the altos slow to dirge tempo, and the bass-baritones break up with laughter in the back row.     
Sometimes we are overwhelmed by the difficulty of the music we are handed at the start of the season and sometimes there is eye-rolling at the fondness she has for stretching our musical boundaries, for moving us well past our preferred comfort zones filled with old chestnuts and favourite hymns and easy listening singalongability.
In this choir there are people struggling with failing businesses, miserable marriages, unhappy children, broken-down vehicles, addictions of all kinds, deteriorating bodies and sagging spirits.  I swear sometimes I can practically see these spectres, the vapours of our daily afflictions wafting above our heads and away into the ether.  How can I worry about money or the wretched teacher inflicted upon my child when I am sweetly singing A Gaelic Blessing?  Of what import are the vagaries of earthly life when sixteen of us step forward and romp through the Magnum Mysterium, that lovely Latin call to wonder and awe?     
      To be sure, there are prima donnas, complainers, the less-than-gifted, the friends and neighbours with bad breath, gas and the compulsion to chat, the latter thereby attracting our tolerant director’s most baleful glare.  I’ve learned to appreciate how we’ve all dragged ourselves out to practice, on icy mountain roads and in pelting rain, that this is a community choir not the Bach Cantata Singers, and that we all have made a commitment to be present and heard from.  We all love to sing.  It brings us joy.  It eases our burdens and for some of us, I have no doubt, it is the highlight of the week.
But sometimes my love of singing is truly put to the test.  In my third year as a soprano, the director flummoxed me, and certainly others, by announcing that I would take the soprano part in a quartet singing Es Ist Ein Reis Entsprungen.  I was thrilled.  I also endured some gimlet-eyed scrutiny from reigning soloists and much encouragement from more generous quarters.  Still, I  considered using those adult diapers to get me, worry-free, through the concert.  But as soon as the quartet began practicing, the voices of my colleagues quickly dispersed my worries.  The beauty of our voices silenced the fearful nay-sayer within.
                *                                          *                                    *
Well over three hundred people attend our Christmas Concert in the Silverton Memorial Hall, arriving early to get good seats even as we are readying ourselves for the candle-light procession along both aisles to the stage, singing Dona Nobis Pacem.  We have greatly benefitted from the intense sessions in the studio where technology provided a virtual cathedral for our voices but has not spared us our timing gaffs, screeches or sour notes.  We are as ready for this concert as we’ll ever be, dressed in our simple white and black outfits.
We sing Gloria In Excelsis Deo, a zippy, complex version of Deck the Halls, the beautiful Kyrie, and others. All too soon, our quartet steps forward to sing.  Sam’s perfect pitch and gorgeous baritone, Barbara’s tenor, pure, velvety, immediately calming to the ear, Mary’s milk chocolate alto melting sweetly through the lyrics, and my own clear, unvarnished soprano voice.  We sing in German, a capella, note by note in complete accord with each other, no one grandstanding, no one hanging on for an extra eighth, just a delightful carol simply offered.  The sour, judgmental ghosts hovering over me, humming Loch Lomond off-key, were sent packing at long last.  I hugely enjoyed the rest of the concert and sang like a freed canary.
                        *                                      *                                      *
The hardest test is upon us.  Summoned with a day’s notice in mid-summer, nearly forty of us gather to rehearse Deep River, a song to comfort the bereaved.  For in one of this life’s random acts of senselessness, an aneurism has claimed Marian; mother, singer, teacher, artist, clown, age 42.  No one could belt out the rousing gospel tunes or wail on the blues like our Marian.  But now we must pull ourselves together and sing the sombre song of the final campground, for Marian, who would have sung the lead in better times.     
This time more than four hundred people jam the Hall and pay tribute, in speech and song, to a remarkable woman.  The choir sits at the back of the hall, many of us weeping, waiting to stand up and sing.  And as we stand on the stage, I know in my sad, grieving heart why the slaves sang for hours and hours, finding harmony with each other, sounding out the pain of existence, and altogether soaring beyond it, pure and free at last.
                                    *                                 *                                  *
We’ll walk each other home in little duos, trios and quartets, talking, singing, laughing, not fearing human predators but to alert the last bears of autumn rooting in compost bins or straddling the pear and apple trees. I’ll stand on my deck and listen for the final wisps of lyrics spiralling up from the streets of my village as we sing each other safely home.   

Saturday, October 15, 2011

In Praise of Librarians

In Praise of Librarians
The first librarian I ever met drove a massive white bookmobile he named Parnassus.  The librarian’s name was Howard Overend and I was a rural elementary  student from the two-room Transpine School in Cecil Lake.

I loved books as much as horses and there were never enough of them in my small world. At least my parents had a three shelf bookcase but most of the hardcovers were deemed ‘too adult’ for a nine year old. I started reading the biography of Marie Antoinette when I was in Grade 3 and therein discovered the word ‘puce’ which our dictionary described as ‘flea-coloured’. Puce was all the rage for a season of ladies’ dresses in her court. I marvelled and wanted to see a flea on our farm but never could find one. I read all our books eventually, surreptitiously tucking the Thomas Costain or Frank Yerby novel from the high seas or deep South back onto its shelf exactly as I found it.

Librarians know all about censorship and about nourishing curious minds as well. Librarians, like most sensible people, know that censorship begins at home and that’s where it should stay. 

By the time Mr. Overend drove the icy, snow-packed or soggy gumbo and gravel roads of the Peace to our school, three months or more had elapsed since the thrill of his last visit.  I had read the current stash of books at least twice over and in desperation, resorted to the school dictionary. Our little school did not even have a set of encyclopaedias, which I would have preferred to the dictionary. I stared at the wall map for ages, willing the world to come to life for me somehow. The teachers, and we had mostly very good teachers for some reason and I am grateful to this day for those adventurous young women and men who came to our isolated school, contrived to make entering the bookmobile a reward for work finished or good behaviour and the like. Happily for me, I was often one of the first onboard, admitted in small groups so as not to overwhelm Mr. Overend with our requests.   

Horse books. I wanted The Black Stallion and The Red Stallion  and/or any stallions worthy of a literary life at the hands of Walter Farley. I had My Friend Flicka and Thunderhead at home, read and reread. I remember Howard Overend gently steering me toward the Swallows & Amazons series, which I disdained, disappointing him with my provincial narrowness, I’m sure. I made up for it several decades later by selling scads of them in our bookstore and hooking our son on the entire series. But I had to have horses in my books for a few years of my young life. Nikki Tate’s Stablemates series did not exist then, alas, likely because Nikki herself was pre-literate and in diapers at the time. if you or a dear one suffers literary horse deprivation. 

The memory of those floor to ceiling shelves of books in the bookmobile, the dusty bookish smell of them all, the quiet delight Howard Overend took in helping each student find a book about firemen or flowers or fiddles lingers still. We didn’t have television or computers at home. Many homes did not house a single book let alone a small wooden bookcase filled with three whole shelves of them. Books were the most amazing, otherworldly things imaginable in some of our young lives. 

Later I would come to realize how many librarians were the last bastions of civilization, hiding banned copies under their desks from the philistines bent on burning them, keeping a kind eye out for children who just needed a warm, dry place to read and feel safe away from chaotic homes for a few hours, and tolerating homeless folk who also needed a warm, dry place to research Einstein or Tesla or just to nap. Thanks to public libraries, I’ve been able to write my own stories in quiet corners behind the foreign language shelves, my laptop plugged in to a handy source of electricity there. Thanks to librarians, I’ve been welcomed to read to children and adults all over B.C. and the Yukon, paid an honorarium for doing so, in recognition that what I do as a writer is real work. Living on an isolated lightstation off the B.C. coast, I rely on the excellent service of the Vancouver Island Regional Library to bring us books and DVDs in their heavy green linen bags, the sight of which perks us all up. Books! New books! 

I was overjoyed to find a certain book on the shelf of a ferry boat bookstore several years ago. I bought it on the spot and began reading Book Guy: A Librarian in the Peace by Howard Overend. It is a gem: a history of libraries in B.C, wonderful on the ground geography as Parnassus and her predecessors tackled the Alaska Highway and its byways, a memoir with deftly applied dry humour, all masterfully rolled into one delightful book by a pioneering librarian. 

It gave me a thrill, much like the giddy feeling of opening the bookmobile door to select three new books, to dedicate my reading in the Salmon Arm Library last year when I was touring with my new novel and children's book to Howard Overend, now over ninety years old, in attendance. I confessed that I was one of the “horse book kids” he’d tried so hard to widen the horizons of back in the early 60’s in a small Peace River school. 

Thank you, Mr. Overend for your wonderful book. You are forever at the wheel of Parnassus bringing us treasures in book form, as do all the stalwart and civilized librarians in this land.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Creative Mulch

I haul in seaweed, save some under a tarp, arrange the rest under my asparagus and tomatoes, suppressing the eager growth of weeds and saving water loss due to wind, more than anything. Seaweed is a gift here, not like some stations where the location of the lighthouses brings in vast swaths of it to the shorelines. The bears of Estevan Point love going out and munching on the generous drifts of it there, fresh greens, little crabs, dead fish, yum, yum, go the bears.
Summers here are usually on the dry side. Usually. I can see maybe 1/8 of a mile in fog and drizzle as I type on August 3rd....still waiting for summer. Each of the 3 houses on Lennard Lightstation has a 5000 gallon cistern and our non-potable water supply for fire suppression and watering the gardens is a 20,000 gallon unit in one of the two oldest buildings on the island, 1903-4. They knew how to make cement back in the day, studded with seashells and a strong mortar, not cheap grey soup with a bit of sand, destined to crumble within a decade. Arrr-be-darr, the cement there was then! I do like collecting our water as the way to go, having it go through several filters with a modest amount of chlorine to combat the crow poop and spruce needles that may have infiltrated the rain water.
I am hauled away to teach a 3 hour writing workshop and it's been a few years since I last taught so I fret and over-prepare as usual, in order to be able to leap from my careful hours of notes and to wing it happily once I finally meet my students and get an accurate sense of where they are in their writing practice.
Creative mulch is what I call the papers spread around on every horizontal surface in my writing room. Ancient journals, writing notes from my first classes at the Kootenay School of Writing in 1985, a great workshop I took with Diane Shoemperlein, another gem with John Newlove, more notes from my summer classes for the Kootenay Lake Summer School of the Arts and still more with Elder Hostel, Selkirk College, the B.C. Festival of the Arts, and the Kamloops Young Authors Festival, 6 years worth, and the wonderful era of the Sechelt Writing Weekends. I have adapted the Words in the Woods Workshop from all of these and a workshop with the theatre director, Kate Weiss, in Vancouver. This starts me on a reverie of my years with Theatre Energy in Nelson, working as a writer, as a publicist, 5 years on the board, and I think I'm in charge of the script of Runs Good, Some Rust as far as reproduction rights are concerned. I think I ended up as the guardian of the script because I had the eminently useful ability to do my own income tax, hence, I was deemed by the cast to be the responsible type! 
All this mulling and mulching, and finally, a workshop format emerges. I have taken far too long to pull it together but oh, the places I've been since starting out, and now, after teaching the class at North Island College in Port Alberni and meeting the bright sparks who are the writers underway with such interesting projects, I am happily spent. 

Strong cement, studded with shells and grit and fine sand...still standing. Arrr-beee-darrr!

Thursday, June 30, 2011

O Canada.. & CBC, it's time to stand up for thee

On air  

Tomorrow is Canada's 144th birthday. We are much more festive and jolly about July 1st than, say, 40 years ago when friends and I were threatened with eviction from a pub because we sang Happy Birthday to Canada at midnight on June 30th. The cranky bartender at the Fort Hotel in Fort St. John hated hippies, I suspect, even home-grown long-haired ones of both genders who all had jobs for the summer and certainly gave them enough business on the weekends! The Fort has since burned to the ground and I'm still standing here singing away whenever I please, so there!
Anyway, I am forwarding a letter from the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting about the upcoming CRTC licence renewal for the CBC, Radio & TV. I like radio better because it is commercial-free and we all have opinions on what has befallen CBC Two. In between making picnics and packing up for camping expeditions, please fire off the boilerplate below and add your personal flourishes.
Otherwise, contemplate Stephen Harper musing out loud as he did several weeks ago, about how Canada will become more conservative as a culture the longer the Conservatives are in power. 
Do not give Majority Control Central any excuses or opportunities to remove even more funding from a public broadcaster which is painfully fair-minded, bordering on bland, to many of us, as it is. We do not need our tax dollars funnelled to a Conservative propaganda machine, which is approximately Stephen Harper's idea of what CBC should look and sound like. The letter below is from Ian Morrison, whom many will remember as a reporter and who now volunteers for Friends of CBC. 
Photos by Jeff George of bear at Estevan Point and Orcas huffing and puffing through the Lennard Island channel.

As I mentioned in my note to you last week, the CBC's radio and TV licences are up for renewal and our voices as citizens that value public broadcasting need to be heard.
For the first time this century, the public has been invited by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to comment on CBC's plans for the next five years – including Radio One, Radio 2, the CBC Television Network and CBC News Network.
After considering all the evidence, the CRTC will issue licence renewals with a new set of conditions of licence and expectations that CBC will be required to fulfill.
This invitation provides a unique opportunity for you to speak up about why our national public broadcaster is so important for Canada's cultural sovereignty and a vibrant democracy, and to influence CBC's future policies and programs.
I am writing to urge you to take advantage of this opportunity by writing a personal submission to the CRTC now.
FRIENDS has designed an online system to make it easy for you to share your opinions and advice with the CRTC about CBC's future.
If you have time, I encourage you to review some background information before writing your comments to the CRTC.
While I am confident you will have your own ideas about how the CBC is performing and what it ought to be doing in the coming five years, I urge you to take into account the following issues which FRIENDS considers to be very important for CBC's future performance:
  • The Broadcasting Act states that the programming provided by the CBC should "reflect Canada and its regions to national and regional audiences, while serving the special needs of those regions". We believe the Commission needs to hear from you why this is so important – in your own words.

  • What do you think of CBC's decision to cut back classical music programming on Radio 2?

  • CBC Television has proposed a condition of licence that it devote 75% of its broadcast day and 80% of prime time (7 to 11 pm) to Canadian programming averaged over a full year. Is this a sufficient minimum commitment to Canadian shows?

  • Half the audience CBC Television attracts each year watches professional sports programs, mostly Hockey Night in Canada. Is this an appropriate balance for the national public broadcaster?

  • How is CBC doing in airing children's programming?
Submit your comments now
If you feel you will need more that 45 min to compose your comments, I recommend you first write them in a word processor, then paste your submission into our system.
Ian Morrison
Ian Morrison
FRIENDS of Canadian Broadcasting


Friday, June 3, 2011

Spring Has Sprung & the World is New, etc.

"I'm not afraid to use words like 'wonderful.' Sometimes it's the only word you can find when you're high on the world.  Robert Genn (from my Polestar Planner, a daybook without which I am lost, even on Lennard Island's 19 hectares)

I've been back a full week since leaving the island on May 3rd, bound for Book Tour #3, beginning at the Village Bookstore in Bellingham, Washington. I read Jim Lynch's novel, Border Songs, a sweet romp about cross-border shenanigans and the vagaries of the human heart, all set in the region I was travelling through once I drove off the Anacortes ferry.The rain poured, really poured, and my Google map had, along with my shaky sense of directions and big trucks obscuring road signs at critical moments, gotten me lost in the tulip fields of La Conner. I found a 1935 gem, the Rexville Grocery on the Mount Vernon Road, and inbetween buying some of their excellent cheeses and crackers for my supper, I was given accurate, local directions to Bellingham.
Then on through the rain to surprise my 86 year old Mum for Mother's Day, when the sun shone in the Okanagan, and onward to give presentations for children and adults at Kootenay libraries. The lilacs graced every humble home and downtown alley and the sun kept shining and the wild syringa gleamed whitely on the mountainsides. I was smitten all over again with the beauty and friendliness of the Koots. I use my 'I (insert heart) Nakusp Library' bag proudly!
So I zoomed around Nakusp, Cranbrook, Fernie, Fruitvale, Rossland, Kaslo and Grand Forks libraries and schools, a happy whirlwind of readings and questions and seeing old friends and experiencing the joy of having children spontaneously join in singing 'You Are My Sunshine' and 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star'. While the excellent Kootenay librarians had a conference, I drove on to Canmore and the Cafe Bookstore, Pages On Kensington in Calgary and Monkeyshines Children's Books in Calgary, and the sun shone and shone while my Dear Heart and other coastal friends emailed to advise me to soak it up as the wet stuff still lingered on the coast.
I was very happy to do an interview with Brenda Finley from CKUA's Bookmark program (to air Sunday, June 5th, 11:30-12:30 PST) and to see Penny Loves Wade, Wade Loves Penny climb onto the Calgary Herald bestseller list at #9 as well. But now I am home, sweet home, and the garden has claimed my attention. As I potted and planted and weeded and composted, hoping for a better year than 2010 when the fog rolled in for two months straight and stunted the gardens permanently, I remembered the bounty of 2009 and then an ecstatic ode to one day on Lennard. So, ever-hopeful, like farmers and artists tend to be, here is my spring poem for you. Copyright, of course, as is everything in Woodward On Words, in case Google or Cancopy need reminding! Harrumph, ahem, here goes:

Lighthouse Keeping
I slept for seven solid hours straight waltzed into the perfect
early dawn admired the stars a meteorite examined
the lights of a ship at sea delivered my first weather report 4:34 a.m.
read a wonderful novel for two whole hours in bed
with a large and excellent mug of coffee and my VHF radio beside me
started a batch of sourdough bread gave my second weather report 7:41 a.m.
checked the rain gauge the tanks the lines the engine room
washed two days worth of dishes (water rationing continues)
punched down the bread wrote a new poem a waka
revised five mondo poems watered the garden and greenhouse
delivered my final weather report 10:38 a.m. punched down the bread
sawed scrap wood and old plastic eaves troughs filled two giant bags
washed bird guano off the guard rails sanded blistered patches
painted 400 metal metres with Coast Guard red enamel in 32 degree heat
watched two humpbacks spouting off counted ten boats fishing coho and chinook
punched down the bread made two ciabattas one pagnotta
answered five emails in my sarong sipped an icy g&t
nuked homemade spinach manicotti wolfed hot bread and butter too
pulled on jeans picked two rows of peas composted all the vines
washed my feet brushed my teeth revised my waka nailed the last line
wrote the first draft of this poem smiled to myself took two Advil fell into bed

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Vote Early, Vote Often & Vote Smart!

Rachel Carson has said, "There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature---the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter." This comforts me in times of crisis and yet, and yet....
Like the tax deadline (see previous post), which is today, election times rolls around for us all and I have launched my appeal, my rant, my call to action, sending out a blind cc to about sixty people on my email list. I was in full gallop, full throttle, full flight (all terms I heard applied to me from those friends who thanked me for sending it out) and so I'm emboldened to go public in this forum. 
Please go to to check on what is happening in your riding so that the many millions of progressive, decent people in Canada can actually be fully represented in our federal parliament. I so loathe bullies, big and small, and Carson's gentle words do not lull me to sleep, not in the least. There is another way of being in this world and there is wisdom in changing paths and approaches when something is very wrong, when something is not working well as is the case with our parliament. 
I have been so heartened by friends who have responded to my plea, telling me that they are sitting down with or phoning and speaking with their adult children and imploring them to research the parties and to vote, no matter what. It's just too important to ignore, to play cynic or to be just plain stupid and then to complain after the fact that 'all politicians are crooked' and 'it'll never change', meaning the way things are run by 'other' people. 
Nobody is perfect and democracy is imperfect, especially the current first past the post method which does not represent many, many citizens in this country. We need to work together in good faith at all levels and to think our way through obnoxious fear-based ads and glossy ads with waterfalls and mountains and Stephen Harper waddling out into a crowd while the voice-over intones: We need courageous warriors. Oh, give me strength & consider the alternatives to democracy around this planet... here goes.
Hello friends, all thoughtful Canadians,
Please take 30 seconds to check out your own postal code as well as the handy map below in the email, riding by riding across Canada, okay, make that 2 minutes.... I'm certainly not telling you or anyone how to vote but just please do vote and, I beg of you, and I apologize in advance but this is truly necessary: please, on your unfettered way to your neighbourhood ballot box, please visualize Stephen Harper's smug, sneering face and hear his carefully coached, modulated new voice, topped off with that ghastly coif sprayed into submission (his preferred posture for all subjects, and objects, for that matter), ever on the lookout for ways and means to suppress dissenting opinions. Or to just take his toys from the sandbox, shut down the sandbox entirely, surround it with armed personnel and proceed to govern based on ideology rather than facts, gained from a proper national census or by genuine consultation in good faith with other democratically elected representatives, for example.
& just think what this fellow would do with a parliamentary majority to bully the House and the country, not to mention his clodhopper performance continuing on the international stage! Oh wait, he quashed funding for Canadian performance tours overseas or even just across the border for fear that artists, when beyond his control, might say or do something he might not approve of. Royal Winnipeg Ballet, be warned not to deviate from the choreography of Giselle! Although this Prime Minister with dictatorial tendencies gives me the Willies, straight out of that classic dance, so you see, it's all connected! Perhaps I should explain how I really feel.
I am such an amiable sort of gal, really, except when I'm furious with sneaky, bullying power-mongers and those bastards are everywhere, it seems. Time to stand up, be counted and to endure some flack for it, no big deal. I have two succinct words for flack-throwers at the sincere intent of this email and the second word is, with feeling, YOU!
The main thing is to vote in this crucial election. We need to rewrite the rules so that the antiquated first past the post system is not the only measurement of the will of the people, for starters, but vote now, as you see fit, perhaps for the party which has pledged true representation if elected. This is no time to be cynical (=stupidly snooty) or too busy (=self-absorbed). Do not ignore history-- recent parliamentary Canadian history or WW2 or the current upheavals in Africa and the Middle East where fed-up citizens are shedding blood just to get past longtime dictators to a ballot box! Vote smart, if possible, hold your nose if you must, but just vote. Apathy is the indulgence of the privileged and/or the blissfully ignorant and it is certainly not a reasonable response at this juncture.
Think of it as contributing to an underground citizen's coalition so that the tolerant and civilized values of the Canadian majority are not tromped on by a pack (less than 33% as of today, apparently) of retrograde individuals apparently itching to build more prisons and simultaneously cut programs for poor people and children, which might keep them out of prisons in the long run, of course.  To name but one topsy-turvy example of punitive righteousness run amuck.
Onwords! Upwords!
Caroline, now calmly heading for the garden


Thursday, March 31, 2011

Writers & Income Tax Time

I have the fondest memory of my Dad holing up in the basement, from which a cloud of blue smoke and colourful profanities wafted up for several days. It was income tax time and Dad went head to head with the Prime Minister of the day, determined not to pay “that bloody ......” or “that smarmy ....” a cent more than absolutely necessary to keep the Canadian safety net shipshape.

          Since 1981, I’ve filed my income taxes as a writer, thanks to hopping off the career ladder and lugging home 1500 rice paper fables I’d had made in Kathmandu, Nepal. Writers are allowed three to five years to produce a novel and to earn zero income while racking up research and travel expenses. I am proud to say I managed to earn more than zero from selling my writing every single year since 1981 but some years, especially those fifteen years when we ran a bookstore and then I worked as a publishers’ rep, it was a minor miracle for me to write a grocery list let alone a haiku or to sell a single bon mot.
          But if we writers don’t take our work seriously, then we will be hobbyists forever more and the fact is, a great many of us donate hundreds of hours and dollars to our communities and the causes of the world annually. You can be very sure that the Prime Minister’s minions will seek you out and pick your pockets when your next book is a bestseller and that they don’t much care if you took an eighteen year apprenticeship at very low ‘wages’ to become an overnight success.
          I’ve used the same one-page format to report my writing expenses and income since 1981. I ignore the reams of forms provided for professional and small business people and so far, the Prime Minister has merely sighed and accepted my puny efforts.

2010 Writing Income & Expenses

Caroline Hendrika Woodward
Social Insurance Number


  1. Advertising/Promotion…………………….$x (website, author photos, schmoozing costs at ½ the meal or pub bill. Sadly, not for new shoes to wear when launching your latest book)
  2. Automobile Expenses………………………$y (getting yourself to reading tours, workshops, etc. Fuel, repairs, insurance, parking. Keep a mileage log & yes, claim every trip to and from the Post Office)
  3. Office Expenses-ph/fx/internet………… $z (straightforward)
  4. Other Office Expenses & Materials……  $x (magazine subscriptions, stationery, books, a decent chair, bookshelves, computer)
  5. Light/Heat/Water…………………………… $y (if you live in a 5 room house with a one room office, claim 1/5 your annual costs)
  6. Travel, excluding auto………………………$z (bus, plane, hotel & meals for writing gigs not covered by publisher or hosts) 
  7. Office Rent…………………………………… $x (if you rent a separate office, otherwise, claim 1/5 (or whatever) of your household rent or mortgage payments)
  8. Capital Cost Allowance………………………$y (see guide, I used this once in the 80’s to depreciate the cost of a new computer but am no longer a reliable guide to this category)
2010 Writing Income……………………………$not nearly enough
Net Loss………………………………………… (-$sigh, net loss again-bonus, it can be applied to reduce your respectable income as a bricklayer, lightkeeper, ranch hand or writing teacher)


_________________________                     _________________
Caroline H. Woodward                           Date

During this humbling process, I offer up thanks to the determined writers who lobbied for the Public Lending Right so that the library usage of our books is compensated for, ditto for the Canadian Access Copyright group who pay us for our work being used in schools and universities and elsewhere. In memory of Dad, I curse Stephen Harper with gusto and with good reason.
Every year, I look long and hard at the description of the Vow of Perpetual Poverty. There but for the wimple, go I.
Two things: keep every receipt in tidy envelopes for seven years and be scrupulously honest (the karma thing). Also, try filing online. I just got my 2010 return deposited in my Credit Union in seven business days flat. Hurrah for newfangled thingeybobs!

This blog can also be viewed as a guest blog at my friend and writing buddy Paula Wild's site: very soon!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

One-Half Degree of Separation for Canucks

Post-Mexico Update

Yes, my blog has ‘gone dark’ for a while and I have returned from a wonderful four weeks in the Yucatan, browner, poorer and with my betacarotene levels nicely topped up thanks to mango consumption. Mangoes, nectarines, wild raspberries and rambutan-- these are a few of my favourite fruits and I sing their praises like Julie Andrews but an octave lower.
But I digress.
Today I must marvel in print at how Canadians have ½ degree of separation between us while the rest of the world has, apparently, 6 degrees stretching between strangers.
On the February Full Moon, exactly one month ago, mi casido and I were shuffling around an open-air dance floor in our water sandals and flip-flops to a great Louis Prima tune. The Merida Big Band was playing, the third and final band at the Full Moon Jazz Festival near the village of Telchac Puerto on the Yucatan Peninsula. It was the second year of fundraising for students who attend the free public school in the fishing village. But although all public schools in Mexico are free, each student must provide his/her own supplies, uniforms and sometimes, teacher and school supplies, like toilet paper. It means that most children can’t go beyond Grade 6.
The first Full Moon Jazz Festival in 2010 with 300 people attending raised enough money to sponsor 18 promising but financially poor students with the following list: a new backpack, all school supplies (notebooks, pens, dictionary, geometry set, etc), three uniform shirts or blouses, two pairs of uniform pants or skirts, a pair of uniform shoes, three pairs of socks, a sweater and a Christmas present.
The organizers wrangled great corporate support and for our attendance fee (roughly $21 Cdn) we enjoyed complimentary wine and wonderful appetizers, perfect weather, terrific jazz standards and Cuban-influenced Latin jazz too. If you are in the Yucatan next February 12th, catch the bus from Merida or Chelem, Progreso or Chicxulub and support some bright kids while having a good time meeting other music lovers.
Speaking of meeting other music lovers, we invited two women over to our table, Jacquie and Rosie, and really enjoyed talking with the two Canadians after being holed up in our beach casa writing by ourselves for the best part of two weeks. Turns out that Rosie was named for Grace Rose Darling, an ancestor who was a revered Victorian lightkeeping heroine!  In 1838, Grace Darling rowed out in a storm with her father, the lightkeeper at Longstone Lighthouse on the Farne Islands off the coast of Northumberland, to rescue survivors of a ship which had sunk after hitting the rocks on this treacherous bit of coast (rather like the West Coast of Vancouver Island’s Graveyard of the Pacific reputation). So Rosie was delighted to chat with real Canadian lightkeepers and then we four enthused about music, all forms of it.
Turns out that one of Rosie’s sons is a classically trained guitarist who also plays jazz and moreover, he is a favourite rockabilly musical act of ours, having seen him perform at the Vancouver Island MusicFest, none other than Cousin Harley aka Pigby aka Paul Pigat!
So that’s what I mean about Canadians getting together. Sooner or later, we’ll find out who and what we have in common and then laugh at all the connections and celebrate them too. It’s a great big country in a beautiful, small world.