Sunday, November 13, 2016

On hope, despair, Remembrance, Cohen, Kishkan...on November 11, 2016

Dear Friends,
Do not despair on this dark day. Instead, read this wonderful essay by Theresa Kishkan, whose novella, Winter Wren, is one of the finest books I've read lately. She blogs daily from her forest home on the B.C. coast and this one is particularly elevating and magnificent re: Leonard Cohen and the US election.
So do not let any bullies, those larger than life on our TV screens, lurking in packs in our schoolyards or smearing hatred on the internet as anonymous arbiters of taste, get us down. Nasty, mean people are deeply insecure humourless cowards. This is my less poetic and final response to this election.

Be even kinder, more welcoming, and helpful to the vulnerable, in word and deed. Defy hateful ignorance of all kinds. Speak up and name it for what it is. Rise above the crass, the petty and the corrupt and take the high road always. Be as fine a human being as you can be and do not succumb to despair. Transform ugly reality with your art, your daily work, and your love no matter what. Shock wears off, anger is self-destructive and denial is a self-induced state of limbo. I vow I will not obsess about the Ugly American whose "values" are utterly deplorable. That gives away my own power, my peace of mind, and severs my own brain and heart from my higher self. Desiderata and all that.

Today, instead, I remember my funny, smart, outspoken Dad who served in an Edmonton regiment for five long years of his youth in WW2 and who met my half-starved beautiful Mom in a celebratory street dance in Schiedam, Holland. Today I remember the incomparable Leonard Cohen who rose above the usual nay-sayers to offer his wisdom to the world, a world which actually heard him, Hallelujah!, and celebrated those words of wisdom, Bonus! Long live Leonard Cohen!

Understanding=empathy=peace. That is my mathematical equation for today. Numbers have never been my forte especially when merged with any attempt at analysis of the popular vote vs electoral seat results or in Canada, federal and provincial riding boundaries. Let's take heart in victories, small and great, like the very recent fourteen (14!!) year court challenge by the BC Teachers Federation vs the provincial government which finally ruled that teachers deserved the smaller classroom sizes they asked for and which the court back-dated to 2002. This was, of course,  when they first challenged the numbers due to extremely difficult working conditions, especially in cities and also in small K-12 schools I've worked in, schools populated by many first languages other than English and students with extremely varied intellectual and physical capabilities. A better quality public education means more children helped to reach their potential by less stressed-out teachers, which leads to deeper understanding. And learning in an environment where many diverse children are able to contribute fully, and are heard by peers and teachers and support staff, where bullying is called out promptly, where art and music classes are not the first to be scrapped, teaches empathy and non-violent expression which leads to tolerance which leads to peaceful, productive, talented and altogether fine human beings, of that there is little doubt.

So take heart, respect your own sacrifices and those of others and go forth willingly into the fray! Or the ocean spray in my case, all the very best, Caroline

Saturday, July 9, 2016

DeCluttering Out At The Lighthouse

There comes a time between the intensive labour of spring planting and the fulsome garlic harvest of mid-July. Sure, the berries must be picked daily or else the birds will get them and then there is the daily onslaught of English cukes from the greenhouse since late June and soon, zucchinis will spill forth from their old wheelbarrow and halved oyster barrel containers where their rampant enthusiasms are more or less contained. 

That time is when the deep freezer is scrutinized for containers and plastic bags of blackberries labelled July 2014, strawberries and raspberries hailing from June of 2015 and blueberries from a bulk purchase of unknown origins. Rhubarb, carefully sliced and somehow missed underneath all the other berries, but definitely elderly now. A bag of last year's frozen cherry tomatoes and a few late heritage varieties as well comes to over three pounds and yes, it takes up a lot of room as well. It's eat 'em up or compost, get creative or dine glumly on freezer-burned produce which really should be enjoyed no later than six months after harvesting and freezing.

Then there is the refrigerator, with about five pounds of apples, all with bruises and other signs of wear and tear, stored since May. My sourdough starter or biga is near the end of its natural life and the covered dish I keep it in takes up a lot of room on the fridge shelf. 

The grocery tender (our jargon for a Coast Guard helicopter on the once-monthly grocery delivery run) is scheduled for this week but fog, drizzle, rain and gale force winds have all conspired to delay it several days running. Still, chances look better for Friday, with a forecast for showers and not this relentless soft rain and fog. I need to clear out the refrigerator shelves for new perishables and to clean out the freezer for a big order of frozen specials from Thrifty's and for a half year's worth of an incoming meat order from the Tofino Ucluelet Culinary Guild. Also, Jeff went out on a rare calm early morning this week and caught a black rock cod, an orange rockfish and an 18 lb blue ling cod, and I am encouraging him to pay for our new/used boat by catching lots and lots of fish for us! Some salmon and halibut in particular... but we clean and filet and freeze most of the catch, saving some for a Mexican pescados tacos meal from scratch. Yum, yum.

Rain. Welcome, welcome rain in July. We've been conserving water since mid-May but now all three household cisterns are filling up and so is the big one holding 20,000 gallons (estimated), built in 1904. Rain also means we cannot paint and mow or do other outside chores. Rain provides a good excuse to stay inside and tackle inside jobs.....

So, in we plunged. Jeff heated up the ancient blackberries and put them through our berry sieve and began gelato production for our Donvier ice-cream/frozen yoghurt appliance. I made applesauce out of the bruised and cut apples and then launched into oatmeal applesauce cookies. I made bumbleberry compote from old rhubarb, old blackberries and a few more apples to cut the acidity. Jeff then made one of his amazing fruit crisps out of the bumbleberry sauce.

I made a big batch of sourdough breads and carved off two pizza doughs to freeze for later use. Then I blanched the frozen tomatoes, the last of the greenhouse crop of 2015 and slipped off their skins for Jeff's Moosewood tomato sauce. We had a lovely vegetarian pasta dinner last night and toasted our hard work. We had bare shelves and spare compartments in the fridge and freezer. The grocery chopper arrived on Friday and our fridge, freezer and pantry shelves were filled again. The cisterns are filled with water too. It looks like a bumper crop in the garden this summer judging by our early results.

All is well on the Lennard Island Lightstation.

Monday, June 6, 2016

My Convocation Address to the Graduates of Northern Lights College 2016


Thank you, Northern Lights College, for this great personal and professional honour today where we have primarily gathered to commend and applaud the hard work and sacrifices of the graduates and their families.  Thank you for the generosity and enduring patience of the Treaty 8 First Nations and the Kelly Lake Cree Nation on whose territory the beautiful buildings, the classrooms, labs and workshops of this College are built in the key cities of the North and South Peace region.

When I attended the two-and later three-room Transpine School in Cecil Lake, I did not read about our own rivers, lakes or our own wide sky or about the First Nations who have lived here for at least ten thousand years or the European immigrants, like my parents from Holland and Wales, who toiled as homesteaders on this northern prairie. I devoured the books that came in the Bookmobile two or three times a year with pioneer librarian Howard Overend at the wheel of what was to me, a truly Magic Bus, a bus that Mr. Overend named Parnassus, for the sacred mountain peak in Greece, the mythical home of poetry and literature.

I knew in my child's heart and mind that our rural lives were every bit as interesting, and as important to read about as the stories of children in England and America and, somewhere along the line, as I wrote songs and plays for my school friends and I to perform, I resolved to write books about our forgotten lives in this often-overlooked part of the world, then proudly claimed as Canada’s most northerly agricultural breadbasket and now treated as some industrial sacrifice zone for the rest of this province.

When I was a high school student and wrote a weekly news column for the Alaska Highway News for two years, I learned the three golden rules of journalism: spell everyone's name correctly, get the facts straight from the original source, find a second source with expertise in the subject to corroborate if my BS radar is waggling wildly, and always be inclusive and generous because every individual, every club and team and every issue of concern in the community matters deeply to someone and people deserve a fair and even-handed account. I learned to apply more nuance, more depth, and more edges too when faced with wily subjects and when writing in other forms than the “just the facts, ma’am” reportage bashed out on a typewriter in the Office Practices classroom every Wednesday by this Girl Reporter on the Loose. Later still, at the University of British Columbia far from home where I went for my post-secondary education long before these first-class facilities were built in the Peace, I learned not to be afraid to question Authority or anyone else. And to back up my curiosity with solid research, in other words, do my homework and consult with others because as the brilliant Canadian Joni Mitchell sings, Two Heads Are Better Than One, and I’d add that six are even better than two. The truth is out there, after all, and it lives inside our own hearts and minds too. Add solitude and wilderness to your lives as often as possible, to stay inspired. And never forget where clean water and healthy food comes from and where your waste materials go either, to stay grounded.

Writing as an occupation is as hard or worse than farming as our products are both subject to the vagaries of markets and mere opinions beyond our control, of urban trends and technological change that is inexorable wherein what may have worked once will not work as well ever again, so we must be humble and alert to the signs and change our ways. Adapt. Albert Einstein said, “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” (Just sayin') Einstein didn't say that. I did but his honest statement excites and drives forward the innovators among us in all fields! What if? Let’s try this! Great science and great art spring from experiment, from trying the so-called impossible. His wise words can also be interpreted to mean: Listen, observe, ask questions, be open-minded and tolerant of other points of view en route to creating a better world together.

If we choose to work at what we love, we will love our work for the rest of our lives with no regrets, learning from our mistakes, accepting them, working smarter, moving forward. That’s my strategy and I’m sticking to it. This is not to say that I don’t wish all of you a steady and substantial income for your talents rather than the minor feast and famine situation I’ve gotten myself into, don’t get me wrong! But if you have to leave your heart at home to earn cold, hard cash in a workplace where you feel unsafe and devalued, where you are paid to do work you find ethically reprehensible, find a way to work with others to organize change for the better, not just for yourself but for everyone else too, especially those more vulnerable than you are. Be open to the possibilities and the choices you have in every situation, always.

Becoming a writer, after trying out a good number of white, pink and blue collar jobs, has allowed me to ask questions and ponder answers, large and small, to research history, psychology, oceanography and countless other subjects, to wonder Why Not? and to imagine What If? Writing for me is an act of synthesis and of empathy, of imaginatively putting myself into another person’s shoes and walking their walk, in order to attempt to understand what motivates or torments or heals them. Writing is about reaching in and handing out what I’ve arrived at in understanding or gained as insight about this human condition thing we all struggle with. It’s why I write. It’s why I read.

No matter whether we choose, or are born to be, absolutely original artists like Ben Heppner or Brian Jungen or Roy Forbes, to cite three great ones whose company as honourees of Northern Lights College I must now strive to stand alongside, or if we offer the world our talents as administrators of ground-breaking social or medical programs to benefit humanity, as inventors of better technology to clean industrial waste water, as explorers, entertainers or veterinarians, it is really about becoming more evolved human beings, about being as kind and non-judgmental to each other as possible for we are all, despite outward appearances, carrying burdens in our hearts or minds or bodies. This is the inevitable truth of the human condition. We may start out “invincible, infertile and immortal” but we soon learn, unless we are chronically oblivious to cues from the real world, in which case learning is delayed -but still inevitable- that we are “fallible, frail and often foolish” in the Life decision-making department. In other words, we are each and everyone of us flawed yet potentially fabulous human beings, fodder for every writer and actor. To quote Marilyn Monroe, “we are all of us stars, and we deserve to twinkle”. I see a lot of twinkling from the seats here today and so you should. Gleam away all you grads, you proud families and yes, the instructors and professors who pushed and inspired the grads to get here today, too!

Finally, no matter where I've lived and worked in this world since first leaving to attend university, this landscape, this climate, the wild and the domestic realities of survival here in the Peace still resonate the most with me. I think we bond like ducks, to the earth and the water and the voices of the people we were surrounded by when we were very young and all the world was new. So spread your wings, fly high and wide, be of good cheer, it does get better, always do your best, be courageous and be kind. Don’t forget to call home, or your mothers will worry, and carry the Peace in your hearts forever. Thank you and congratulations to us all!

Caroline Woodward for Northern Lights College Commencement Address June 3, 2016, Dawson Creek where an Honorary Associate of Arts Degree was conferred upon yours truly for my "contributions to Peace River, Canadian and international literature."
Feel free to share freely but please do not quote or reproduce in part or entirely without acknowledging or asking permission from the source, i.e., Caroline Woodward, as I have done with quotes from Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe and Joni Mitchell.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Discovering Carlos Ruiz Zafon: review of The Prisoner of Heaven

The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafón


During a holiday to Isla Mujeres, Mexico in February, 2015, a jewellery shop manager and I started chatting about books while my husband browsed for a birthday present for his sister. Henry recommended Carlos Ruiz Zafon, a Spanish writer, in particular his trilogy called 'The Cemetery of Forgotten Books.' I loved that title. I'm also pushover for books in which bookstores play a major role, well beyond the 'backdrop denoting some nerdy intelligence' role allotted to bookstores by most of the movie industry.

My non-pushy, book-loving, jewellery store friend Henry had not read any Canadian writers because not many of us are translated into Spanish and he prefers 'epics', plural, which I took to mean a series of books which are connected, going by his description of Zafon's work. Henry's English was ten times better than my Spanish. I think I recommended Michael Ondaatje, Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Lawrence Hill and I hope I remembered to write down Fred Stenson and Miriam Toews as well. Honestly, I could easily have recommended about fifty Canadian authors if I'd had the time and a large enough notepad. But back to the point, which is the discovery of a wonderful new-to-me writer, Carlos Ruiz Zafon, who divides his time between Barcelona and Los Angeles.

As it happened, the remote library service which we lightkeepers use sent me Book #3 first, but somewhere on the book jacket maybe?, I read that the books can be read in any order. Certainly I felt that there was a Book #4 waiting when I finished this one. It is set in fascist Spain in the 30's and 40's, mostly, with well-paced fast-forwards to the 70's I think (the book has been returned so I'm going from memory here) and much of the action which isn't in and around the bookstore takes place in a hideous prison where unspeakable things are done by the sadist in charge to the usual threats to fascism: artists, novelists, union organizers, doctors, in short, the suspiciously literate and skilled who are possibly left-leaning socialists or rabid Communists to boot. No character is a stock 2-D persona, not even the sadist in charge who longs to be adored for his deathless prose and poetry and whose ability to social climb and to seek ways and means to self-aggrandizement sets a new high (or low) for bureaucrats with literary pretensions world-wide. Truly, a priceless character if he weren't so devoid of soul, heart, brain or basic humanity, of course.

A very famous novelist is in this medieval fortress of a prison and at first, the narrator (one of the bookstore employees) thinks he has gone barking mad but after prolonged study from a neighbouring cell, he arrives at the conclusion that this could be a most effective smoke-screen on the part of the novelist. The writing/translation is impeccable, the plot moves the reader along like a raft on a beautiful, treacherous river (this book kept me up until two a.m. several nights) and the characters are simply unforgettable. I now await the arrival of Book #1, The Shadow of the Wind and #2, The Rose of Fire and hope for a Book #4.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Interview with Sheila Peters for 'In The Shadow of the Mountain' radio program

I have always wanted to pick musical selections to go with an interview about my current book but no small or medium-sized publisher, armed with my latest death-defying prose or poetry, has ever been able to storm the barricades surrounding CBC's  Shelagh Rogers on my bookish behalf. Alas. Heck.

But hark! Just before Christmas this past year, writer, publisher and broadcaster Sheila Peters of Smithers, BC asked if I would do just that.  O Happy Day! I picked Good Morning Starshine, Canadian Serena Ryder's powerful version, from her album, If Your Memory Serves You Well. This great tune was written by Canadian Galt MacDermott who won a Grammy in 1960 for African Waltz and also is famous for contributing to musicals like Hair and Two Gentlemen of Verona. I often hum this joyous ode to stars (nobody sings it like Serena so I stick to humming) when I'm out doing weather reports late at night or first thing in the very early morning when the stars bejewel the sky and earthly jets and satellites soar far below them.

Right After My Heart from the Almost Overnight album by Roy Forbes has heartbreaking lyrics, about someone being trapped by life's circumstances, really feeling down and then getting out of that pit of despair and "looking all over the world, running right after my heart," which is so subtle, so bittersweet. I totally relate to both situations. The song showcases both his virtuoso guitar-playing and his amazing sense of timing and perfect pitch. Rolla's Roy Forbes and Peace River, Alberta poet and novelist Leona Gom were important role models for me when I began writing fiction, both such talented artists who wrote about Peace River issues and people, the long-suffering river and the climate, all of it. Their work inspired me to write my own Peace River poems and stories and radio plays.

Finally, after weeks of grey skies and the winter monsoons, there is the sweet George Harrison, my favourite Beatle by far, and his sublimely optimistic song, Here Comes the Sun. But the host got playful on me and Sheila substituted the eerily nutso song, I'm Gonna Marry a Lighthouse Keeper, forever an ear-worm thanks to the sound track of Clockwork Orange, a movie which gave me nightmares and which I cannot watch to this day! Oh well. Lots of other people like it and know all the verses to boot.

Do check out the great variety of writers and musicians Sheila Peters has interviewed for her weekly radio show. As well as being a co-publisher at the fine and discerning Creekstone Press, Sheila is a very talented writer of poetry, short fiction, librettos, book reviews and novels who came to my attention when I read her first collection of short stories in 2001, Tending the Remnant Damage. Wow. Really, really good as is her latest novel from Caitlin Press, The Taste of Ashes. Okay, check it all out and enjoy!