June 2017. Published by beautiful Running the Goat Press. Inspired by the community I live in, Lismore Sheep farm, storytellers everywhere, artist Deanne Fitzpatrick and-- of course-- baby lambs. So grateful for this team and the art of amazing Darka Edjeli.
Can't write about, I told myself, just can't, just because I'm a writer, doesn't mean I can or that I should or that I am ready because some things exceed the grasp of words. I've talked about this day a wee bit.
This riff isn't edited and isn't poetic. It just is. Because I felt like writing today. I had other deadlines but this is what I had to write.
I'd just arrived in D.C. because Gilles, a few months earlier, had taken job as Technical Director of US Bureau of CBC, responsible for radio and television, English and French, Washington and New York. Yes, this feminist is one who'd follow the man I loved anywhere.
Gilles left for work that morning early and I went for a walk. We'd moved into our teeny one bedroom condo in Cleveland Park two days before and I was eager to explore our new neighbourhood.
It was such a blue sky fresh air day. Everyone remembers that. I walked up Ordway to Wisconsin, zigged and zagged towards the Cathedral, thought I was lost, made it sideways back home along Connecticut Avenue. I felt like was in some weird version of a Monopoly game-- I was so very far from home.
I loved where we'd chosen to live but we'd sold our three bedroom home on a lake ( our first and what I thought was my forever home ) for a shoebox size condo as homes in Cleveland Park were out of our price range. Still, it was to be our two year adventure, an experiment in urban living. For me, it was the first time without children in my home, the first time living outside of the Maritimes, let alone Canada.
I was unpacking the boxes marked kitchen, arranging juice glasses onto the shelves when Gilles called and asked could I start to pack a bag--- he had to rush home, fly out at once to New York : a plane had crashed into one of the Twin Towers.
I'd had my first visit to New York City only the week before. New York had never been on my dream destination list but I seriously and unexpectedly fell head over heels in love. I'd caught New York Fever a New Yorker told me.
As I threw together a change of clothes for Gilles,, I thought about the breathtaking view from the roof of the Bentley Hotel we shared that week before,about watching small planes weave among the skyscrapers. I'd even remarked casually they look like they fly too close, don't they? They could have an accident!
So of course that morning I thought that there was some horrible small plane accident.
When Gilles rushed in the door, he took over packing his bag, while I tried to find a radio station -- ( our TV wasn't hooked up)-- then--and this is how I remember it -- I turned on the radio and the announcer said, 'Jesus, Jesus,, they've just bombed the Pentagon'. Gilles! Gilles! I think I yelled but no sound came out and our home telephone rang. It was a friend who was somewhere in Cape Breton, and editing a poem I'd written. Her voice was chirpy and clear: 'Good morning, Sheree, is this a good time talk about the poem?' I have no recollection whatsoever what I replied before I hung up. Gilles' cell phone rang. He was to return downtown at once, he couldn't go to New York...airports were shut down.
I do remember he said come with me and I said no, you have to do your job and I'll only be in the way. I wasn't being brave, At ALL-- I just knew that was true.
He left reluctantly, going back on the subway one way as throngs were coming the other way --because downtown D.C. was being evacuated.
I knew no one. I called my parents and couldn't get through. I watched a line of traffic in front of my window, watched parents run out of their cars, one man leap frogging over hoods of those cars , as he rushed into the daycare in the Temple across the street, -- I watched as if my window was a television screen, as he and other parents and young children spilled back out those doors, and I saw and-- forever burned in my mind-- is the look of TERROR on their faces.
I found myself thinking but this is my dream, .. that recurring dream I used to have when my children were little -that dream that something horrible had happened in the world, and I couldn't get to my boys in time, that I couldn't find them. Sometimes in those dreams, I evenf heard them crying but still couldn't reach them . I figured all parents must have that dreams like that from time to time. The dream was constant and so disturbing to me that every time there was a disaster or bombing in other countries my heart caved because at some level, I'd almost felt the desperation of those parents. About then I started being very careful when I watched the news and what I watched. ( I still filter-today I turned off the radio when the sounds started up. But not because I do not care, not because I am not remembering. )
I see myself pacing that wee living room. back and forth, listening to the radio. By this time, news of the second tower being hit. Then I remember a weird "flash" I'd had two weeks before---in the daytime.
We'd been staying temporarily in an apartment complex near the airport. I was used to planes overhead. But this day, there was a deafening roar out of nowhere and I looked up to see unusually low-flying plane overhead. I almost ducked as Ilooked up at its underbelly.
I got a whole body shiver, had this distinct feeling, of something ominous, something to do with planes. The feeling was so powerful I told Gilles about it at supper because --and i'd told him that day too, it was the same feeling I'd had the afternoon before the Swiss Air disaster.
We'd shrugged it off then and we did that day too. My imagination is, after all, an active one.
That night I woke up dreaming we were in a fire. I woke Gilles up and told him that I smelled smoke in my dream and there was a fire in the building. There wasn't and we talked about how moving was stressful and this was a big change and went back to sleep--- BUT two hours later there really was a fire and we had to evacuate our building. It rattled us both.Both the fire and my "weirdness".
So on the morning of September 11th, like so many I've heard, I did entertain the fact that maybe this was not real, I was in some alternate reality, or nightmare. Worse, maybe there really was something called precognition after all--- that old nightmare had not been a dream but a warning. My children were grown, young men by then, but something horrible in the world was happening, and I couldn't get to them.
I knew No one.
I was driving myself a little crazy alone so I finally worked up the nerve to go outside. People were out but not exactly going about their ordinary lives.
I wandered across the street, sat down at a sports bar where people were huddled around three big screen televisions,. I asked Dave, the bartender, could I just order coffee and also,,, I'd just moved from Canada and my husband works for the CBC and he said so .. looks like this seat has your name on it,
A couple nearby gave me their number and said if you need us, call us. That evening, sitting in the bar my coffee turned into wine.
I wanted my husband, my parents, most especially my sons: to hear their voices. There was a young man about their age sittingbeside me. I just moved from Canada I finally said to him. Like a confession. (They kept calling it an American tragedy on the news. I got it, but I kept thinking no ,no this a human tragedy.) "I'm from Toronto!" he said "Tony." I am pretty sure we hugged.
There was so much comfort being with being with someone from "home." There we were, two Canadians, side by side. I said I miss my sons, they're about your age and he said I miss my mother and we laughed and watched the horror on the screen and we cried and we drank until we were drunk.
I remember wailing or maybe slurring-- I was wrong, I was wrong and my son, he was right. I was wrong these past years and when he was 15 he knew better than I did. Tony listened.
How many times in his teens had I tried to make him see that there was more good than evil or bad in the world, that his lens was cloudy, that he was being too negative, had watched too many bad movies, heard too many horrible lyrics, and that was WHY he was so jaded. Where was his faith ? I'd ask. Faith in what? he'd answer. If not in God, then in Love I'd say. In seeign beauty and acts of kindness because after all, it is all too too too depressing to dwell on that darkness because you'll get swallowed in despair-- so think positive. I remember one of those times he looked at me sadly and said kindly but wearily, Mama I love you but you are so in la-la land-- some day, someone's going to blow up the Capital of the US and then you'll see. I said how could you ever ever even think such a thing? Or something like that. I asked Tony from Toronto did he think like my son did and he said, actually, yes.
I know young people often do know better...see clearer than adults, I knew that, because my son had/have always been my greatest teachers, but ..like every parent/ child, there was a generation gap I was guilty of.
I did not want to hear what I did not want to hear.
Why didn't I ask him why he thought like he did, instead of telling him not to think that way ..more often?
That night that son called, relieved to hear my voice. I apologized over and over for not hearing him better and told him I was sorry that he had been right. I was wrong. His vision of the world, of reality was much truer than mine. And he said, Mum,mum,mum, mum, it's okay, it's okay-- and you are right too, there's still so much good in the world. There is, don't forget that.
Roles had reversed, My words came back through him to me to offer some kind of speck of light in that dark dark night.
I never saw Tony from Toronto again but Dave was a friend for a few years, until the bar closed but they both got me through those first few days --became the sons I could not get to.
Gilles and I drove to New York on Sept 13 to deliver a phone to satellite truck. When I scrolled though blog posts today, I found these , both written years afte . I editedone a wee bit. Some day I might write better and more. We'll see. This was the day I knew I would never know knew anything for certain again.
That day I roamed the streets of New York
ankle deep in smoky moondust
walked past people holding signs of missing loved ones
sat elbow to elbow with weeping strangers in St. Patrick's Cathedral
three days after that day
I died in some way
to a past life
an old world
a necessary lie
today I woke up to sun
warming a potholed dirt road in the country
our long dreamed-of Innisfree
there are woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees
I stripped beds, excited to hang sheets on the line
but these lines came first
that's the thing about dates on a calendar
asking who was born today or who died
or what happen this day
who right now cannot find their children.
Remembering is necessary but treacherous
you can suddenly find yourself lost
in a smoky jazz bar, or a church, or an old wound
scratch a forgotten yearning
for a time before you knew or saw
before the knowledge
that you are the blessed ones
the ones who get off easy every day
will never leave you
& you can only ever sing the blues
than old familiar
September 11, 2011 ( ten year . )
Ten years later, STILL NO WORDS
9/11, 2011 STILL
From notebooks of Lynnie Lucette Eliza MacGinnis,1968.
Yesterday all I worried about was the overpopulation of the planet, babies starving in Biafra, nuclear bombs, radiation, pollution, the extinction of the bald headed eagle, ignoring Jesus, going to hell and the possible invasion of freaky aliens who hover around our neighbourhood in spaceships called U. F. O’s or Youafoes, as my brother Fen says.
I also worry about Fen.
Fen is six, half my age and half my size. He looks like an excitable leprechaun with a brush cut. He’s got these pointy little ears sticking out of the side of his head and a grin that makes him look like he’s always up to something. He usually is.
Think molasses in my rubber boots.
Think rubber boogers dripping from his nose.
Think clothespins on my nose when I was sleeping once. Fen also has a speech impediment which includes pronunciation problems and what really creeps me out is that he seriously thinks little green men called moos come out of electrical receptacles every night. He’s so convinced they’re real he’s almost got me convinced.
I doodle. This activity helps quell my fear. Quell: To subdue, to overcome, to crush, to KILL. A good word that once earned me winning points in a Scrabble game. I also collect words-- in my personal campfire notebook.
I have a rule about my weird word notebook. The weirder the word the better. The latest addition to my never ending vocabulary list is pusillanimous. This word is an adjective which is an antonym to courageous and synonymous with cowardly and fearful. Like I am feeling right now.)
So..where was I ? Fen. Right. Fen.
Why I worry about Fen is because last year, he put bee-bees up his nose and ate half a worm. Not at the same time, but he did. Weird or what? He had to go to emergency for the bee-bees and the other half of the worm wiggled away. Seems worms can survive being decapitated.
Unlike that poor pig.
-from Majorly Weird and Frequently Wonderful, Doubleday Canada 2017.
Sometimes characters are hard to get to know. They play hide and seek, especially if you've been not paying attention to them--- but when they do emerge, they can just jump up from the page and knock you over. Lynnie Evans has been one those characters. The novel is almost over. She's still surprising me. I never saw the french kissing part coming. It's taken me so long to write this book, she's entered puberty!
If you are reading this, then you are one of The Star People.
If you are one of the Star people who know they are a Star Person I do not have to explain what that means.
If you are a Star person who does not know yet they are a sTar person don’t worry, it doesn’t hurt a bit when you learn that you have shining magnetic powers.
If you are reading this, I could be dead or alive because even with shining magnetic powers you can die.
ANY old how ….
Tonight’s the night!
Me and Sam man will make contact with Angelicaliens and either be abducted or killed or have the secret of the universe revealed to us by tomorrow morning and then be returned to earth. If, however, what happened at Magnetic Hill in May was just a figment of me & Sam-mans imagination, and the Angelicaliens do not not show up on Parlee Beach, well, no matter what, me and Sam man have agreed to try to French kiss.
I will write more – and tell you how it was—all of it I mean , not just the FRENCH KISS PART - if I am alive. I hope I will be.
—from Majorly Weird & Frequently Wonderful, Doubleday Canada/Random House, 2017
The Eloquent Young Elephant
Did you hear the elephants
Trumpeting last night?
They thundered past my bedroom
The earth rumbled back in fright.
They were going to fight a battle
Thump-galumping off to war
Did you hear a wee small voice say
"What are we fighting for?"
Did you see the elephant kerfuffle
As they stopped marching on?
A toppled pile of elephants
A jungle tangle until dawn
As they were unravelling
Their tails and trunks and ears
They had a chance to listen
Did you have a chance to hear?
The smallest of the elephants
The one who'd asked "What for?"
Crawled out from underneath and said
"I will not go to war!"
"I may be young but listen
I'm old enough to know
If I go on to battle
You could have heard the moon cry
As the night continued on
As that elephant elaborated
On what was right and wrong
Did you see the older elephants
Start to twitch their trembling ears?
Did you see those elder elephants
Weep enormous tears?
Did you think they'd flood the jungle
And we'd all float out to sea?
(I was a little worried—
I'm a fretful chimpanzee)
Did you hear their snozzles snivelling
A sound like thunder through a hose
You have to plug your ears when
An elephant blows his nose
(And there must have been a hundred
More or less, I suppose)
Did you see the early morning sun
Come shining through the trees
In a leafy shadow dance
In the early morning breeze?
As the elephants turned homewards
With the smallest in the lead
Did you hear them sing a song of
The smallest’s greatest deed?
Their trunks had turned from trumpets
That had been sounding off for war
Into flutes and pipes and piccolos
That played of peace forever more
Do you know it really happened?
As wild as it might seem
The youngest was the wisest
And peace was not a dream
Sheree Fitch, from If You Could Wear my Sneakers, Doubleday Canada 1997.
Art by Darcia Labrosse
Here, take my child.
He has a fistful of crayons,
Is ready to begin
To enter the halls that smell of chalk dust and lemon oil.
He wants to colour a picture.
Help him to see that the colour he chooses,
The pictures he makes, are beautiful…..
Before you ask him to paint the Sistine Chapel.
Here, take my child.
She knows one and one makes two.
I want her to learn to add,
Without being subtracted from.
I want her to multiply her abilities,
But not if it divides her against herself.
Here, take my child.
He has a book he wants to read.
Let him read it first,
Tell you why he likes it,
Before you ask him to read a book
You think he should read…..
To be up to “the level”.
Here, take my child.
She has written a poem:
“dandy lions are golden buttons in the grass”
Smell those dandelions, see the image,
Before you tell her dandelions are weeds or
Dandelions is not spelled correctly.
Here, take my child
but... TAKE CARE.
As doors close at River John Consolidated School and summer begins, the RJSOS wait for word and confirmation and time when Premier MacNeil will meet with them. We still believe, if all the facts are fully known, Premier MacNeil will help this community find a way to pilot their creative HUB School. The community will continue to rally.
The story is not over.
I met Margaret Atwood in person in the Arctic. Friend Bernadette Dean made it all possible. We were camping and "teaching" in a land-based literacy program. Mostly, we were learning from Inuit women.
There were tents. And yes, there was a polar bear. It was a surreal moment for me. (Women who run with the Polar Bears?)
Like so many of her readers, however, I'd "met" her, or felt like I already had, in the pages of her books. To me, everything she's ever written is a wake up call to action.Meeting her changed my life the same way her books did.I discovered more about what I thought and believed or rather what I didn't know that I didn't know and knew more about who I was or could be—as a result. I still read—love and/or wrestle with—her work.
I learned more about fearlessness and how I would live my life after meeting her. She's kind of like a very scary wonderful sheree's fairy godmother. A friend.
When I started down the path as a part of a wonderful team hoping to create a community hub model that would maybe save the local school in the village of River John, I turned to people I respect for advice and wisdom. Peggy was there, always, on the other end of the email.
This article appeared in the Halifax Herald. Below is the letter she wrote, one of many in the business case the River John SOS team submitted to the Chignecto Central Regional School Board on Tuesday.
Let it be said there are many many friends who care about rural communities and small schools—and have helped and who think our proposal is compelling. I think of the work of Paul Bennett and Kate Oland and Leif Helmer, of the women of Pictou 2020—women who inspire me. Every day. And many more.
I think of the elected members of that Board. Every DAY! The Board votes on June 10th. The school's fate and in a real way the community's fate is in their hands.
We've given it our best and we are still working. Updates soon at the RJSOS website.
Mostly I think of our students, our teachers, our families at River John Consolidated School. It has been /is tough. Will they have a school to come back to in the fall? Will Maitland and Wentworth? I think of those communities every day too.
And I think, no—I know—that besides being a writer of global influence, Peggy Atwood is a wise, kind friend and guide who embodies fierce compassion.
The first book Atwood book I ever read was Lady Oracle. I read it in a tent. I dreamt I would meet her one day. Funny, the way things work. Here's the letter:
RIVER JOHN HUB: A LETTER FROM MARGARET ATWOOD
I’m writing in support of the River John Community Hub proposal. This isn’t just because I know Sheree Fitch, with whom I taught in the Arctic. She’s an intrepid soul, and if she asks me to write a letter, I write one.
And it’s not just because Sheree was a good friend of my beloved aunt, Nova Scotia writer Joyce Barkhouse. (For those into the relatives: Joyce Killam that was, daughter of Dr. Harold Killam of Kinsman’s Corners, sister to Kae Cogswell of Berwick, and my mother, Margaret Killam Atwood. My mother and father met at the Truro Normal School, and both then taught in two-room schoolhouses in order to save money and put themselves through college. Both grew up in rural NS communities, my father’s so remote that he did high school by mail. My mother worked at the Pagwiak Tea Room in Pugwash, down the road from River John, which was set up by Cyrus Eaton to bring jobs into the region.
So there’s that: I know the area. And I’ve read at the charming Read by the Sea, where the folks bring their own lawn chairs and sun umbrellasand the volunteers pitch in. The thing about small communities is just that: the volunteers do pitch in. People in small places often have a surplus of initiative, inventiveness, and energy – because they need to have it.
I’ve lived in rural communities. I know the struggles, especially the struggles around schools. When the kids are little you can organize play groups, but once they get older the choices usually are to bus them (and it’s just not good for kids that age to spend hour after boring, depressing hour cooped up and breathing fumes), or for the family to move elsewhere. When a community loses its school it loses its centre of gravity.
Increasingly, scientists are studying the effects of making kids stay indoors, cutting them off from nature. Those who’d like to investigate could check out Forest Bathing and No Child Left Inside, with its accounts of Nature Deficit Disorder and Childhood Obesity.
At this time of new developments in education, a need for focus on the importance of the environment, and the adverse effects on kids of keeping them in virtual cages, it just doesn’t make sense to close a local school that has the passionate support of its community, in order to stick kids on buses for many hours a week. And for what? What will really be gained? Unless the idea is to destroy the community so the province doesn’t have to be bothered with it any more.
I know that if the River John hub plan gets the go-ahead, it will be supported, not only from within Nova Scotia, but from people outside it as well. Me included.
Here’s hoping for a sane, child-centered, family-friendly outcome.
Found this in a file folder today.
Someday I'll write about the first visit to Toronno and the Doubleday office on Bond Street.
For now, this made me stop and gasp. Almost thirty years later, I'm at work on Majorly Weird and Freak/wently Wonderful, a Doubleday title. I've never made it rich or famous. (But I got to meet Mr. Dressup and that's way cool. ) I've worked with amazing editors. I've told the stories I needed to tell the way I needed to tell them.
Grateful to the loyalty of readers. Grateful for THE WORK. Grateful to Doubleday Canada.
For almost thirty years, I've been a storyteller. I've spent most of that time in small schools in rural communities—all over the world.
Little did I ever imagine I'd end up living in a community and become part of a team fighting for their school. But it's a much bigger fight than that. It is about justice and finding a new way for rural communities. It's about sanity-making in a system so top heavy it's forgotten—is disconnected.
What does putting our students first really mean? And how can a rural economy grow by closing down schools in places where the school really is the lifeblood of a community.
Small Schools—can they survive in rural communities? How can any community flourish without a school? On the North Shore of Nova Scotia there are people trying—with everything they have—to create a school HUb proposal the school board will accept.
The clock ticks.
River John parents and community members have faced roadblock after roadblock—old-style politics and ways of doing things. They are trying to raise money because they have been told by the Board (staff) they must come up with capital costs plus operating costs in order to stay open. That is impossible and not public education.
So far, the Minister of Education seems to defer to the Board. It might even look like a game of good cop bad cop. The Auditor General's report on all school boards in NS might be too late to help RJCS.
On the bright side, there is groundswell of support. So bash on! I'm a come from away and so proud to be part of this amazing community effort. We have left no stone unturned—we are trying our best to create what we think is best for our children and what could benefit all children and families on the North Shore and Pictou County and beyond.
We are using imagination and innovation. And facts. We are speaking our truths. We are acting not just saying let's act. We are saying let's find a new way forward that depends on partnerships, in kind donations—and breaking the status quo.
Inventing the wheel means work. We are not afraid of work. We welcome it. Have a look! Email us.