adventures

BHUTAN. Happiness. Teaching. Writing. Children's Books.

If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales. ― Albert Einstein

Live fiction and write the truth. ― Helen Weinzweig

Back in the day, there was a groundbreaking book series entitled Best in Children's Books published by Nelson Doubleday. The series ran from 1957 to 1961. My parents bought the subscription through their local grocery store. Every month I waited breathlessly for the “mailman” to deliver the peanut butter colored unassuming cardboard package. But so much treasure inside: stories that sparked hours of imagining and exploration. Leading artists of the day contributed the artwork- artists like Maurice Sendak, Andy Warhol, and even Charles Perrault’s Cinderella! Forget Prince Charming, I loved the Godmother with those magical powers.

Every volume contained a mix of genres. From Poetry, (traditional and contemporary), to adaptations / abridgements of classics, folk and fairy tales, mythology, legends, biographies, history, science and geography. Best of all were the pictorial maps with information on different countries: Let’s visit France! Let’s visit Japan!  I still remember my father’s thumb pointing to a mountain range and the word beside it. "Say it", he'd say, "yes, just sound it out." ... "Him-a-lay-as". Yes, a book is where my wanderlust began.

To me, each book was a microcosm. Every book a world, an entry point to many worlds all connected to the bigger world of dream and far away places. Pure magic for an imaginative child on Johnson Avenue in Moncton, N.B., a kid who almost inhaled those pages. Some day, I thought, I'll go to those mountains called the Himalayas. I just will.

I got older and busy and worked—I put those exotic travel dreams aside for a time. Besides, there was enough to see in our own country.

In 1997, when I was 41, my children seventeen and twenty-two, I was at my desk when the phone rang. "Do you still do readings and writing worshops? " "Yes." "Would you like to do readings and workshops in Bhutan?"

"Bhu-where?" I think I remember asking—but I wasn't the only one who'd hadn't heard of this beautiful country at that time. People still ask me where the country is but more often than not these days they've heard of the country—the country where the concept of gross national happiness exists, the country many compare to the mythical kingdom of Shangri -La.

And so it was... through the Bhutanese Ministry of Education and an extra-ordinary teacher and educator, Nancy Strickland (who I'd first met in Pond Inlet in the Arctic) I was invited to give readings and offer writing workshops in the country of Bhutan.That first trip was funded partially through CEDA and held in co-operation with the Faculty of Education at the University of New Brunswick.

The day I stepped off the plane in Bhutan the landscape didn't seem strange or even unfamiliar. It seemed inevitable. No, I wouldn't go as far as to say it was deja vu but more like yes. Finally. Here I am. I am here. Am I here? Yes.

We travelled through the mountains on roads with views that did make me stop breathing. No lie.

But I learned to breathe.

We travelled from the capital of Paro in the west to Sherubste College in Kanglung in the east. We travelled—visiting schools, doing readings, giving workshops to teachers and writers.

Reading Sleeping Dragons in Druk Yul, Land of Thunder Dragon, 1997. Am I dreaming?

It was a celebration and it seemed almost historic because we travelled during the country's first ever national reading week.

I met so many gifted storytellers and writers in the writing workshops and years later, I was also fortunate enough to teach creative writing to Bhutanese students who attended the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. There has been a rich educational exhange for years between our countries.

I came away in 1997 knowing there's so much talent and culture, legends and history.There's an abundance of stories yet to be told and books by Bhutanese writers, books for children and adults yet to be published.

Gilles and I celebrated our third anniversary on that trip and to say our time in Bhutan was a life changing trip would be an understatement.

Those are clouds behind us. We joke it's been all downhill since then. Not really, but we fell in love with Bhutan and hoped to return. I felt it would happen if and when it was meant to be.

I've never written about Bhutan partly because I'm still processing the effect the experience has had on my life. The kindness. The pace. The peace. The prayer flags. The prayer wheels. The Stupas. The Trek to Tiger's Nest.

I have unfinished pieces—poetry of a kind—in scribblers. We have personal film footage from our trip—at the time there were strict rules about taking and showing film outside the country. But we were allowed for personal use. In fact this first trip was before television had been introduced in the country, although radio and media studies were thriving.

I wondered often how life in Bhutan had changed since 1997. I wanted to know what was happening in the world of children's books in Bhutan. I also felt in need of "a little happiness," I confessed to my husband one evening this summer. A  heart heavy year it's been. Two days after I said those words out loud an email arrived. Out of the blue. Again.  

So I'm leaving this week and will be in Bhutan for a bit, working again with Bhutanese writers, again to help develop indigeneous children's books for early childhood education centres. Through Save the Children, we are embarking on an ambitious project that will span a few years. This year, ten books will be the result. Five in English and five in Dzongkha. Sydney Smith will be along and he'll share his experience and wisdom as artist in the field of children's book illustration. It should be a wonderful creative time for all of us.

Children's books and the stories we receive in childhood, the ones we hear through our ears and have read aloud to us are important on so many levels and yes, crucial to the cultural landscape, national literary heritage, spoken and written arts and education of our children.

Also—children's books are for dreaming. Children's literature as Steig once said. "is largely a literature of optimism."

Children's books bring happiness.

The timing of this trip at the end of this year is a gift to me. I am so honored to be invited back. I look forward to the work and travelling with Syndey.

I wonder if I'm eight and still dreaming.

The soul is healed by being with children. — Fyodor Dostoyevsky

GREAT POET GREAT VILLAGE GREAT WEEKEND

"Good book?" I asked. She sighed and gave me the evil eye.

"It's a biography of Elizabeth Bishop, research for my essay topic."

"Who's Elizabeth Bishop?" I asked innocently. Skye made a sound almost like a growl.

"A poet," she said, "my favourite, she's famous."

"Well I never heard of her. Does she live in D.C. or something?"

"She's dead," she snapped.

"Soooreee," I said.

"Well, she did live in D.C. and in Nova Scotia. I've been to her house in Nova Scotia in Great Village."

Skye showed me her bookmark. "Here's my favourite poem." She shoved the book in front of me.

"At the Fish Houses," she said.

"Nice,"  I said after I pretended to read it.

"So I want to go to the house she lived in D.C. And take a picture."

"Neat," I said, not meaning it really. Chasing after photos of old dead poets' houses? Fish Houses? All I could do was think of the smell.

- from Pluto's Ghost, Doubleday 2010 pg. 139

In the end, that's all the room on the page I gave over to fictional character Skye and her love of poetry and obsession with Elizabeth Bishop. All the days of reading Bishop, all the research, and in the end? One scene, a passage that illustrates the tension and contrast between Skye and the boy who loves her -- Jake Upshore. An angry kid without a mother, labelled early as "learning challenged", Jake's secretly a wannabe singer songwriter-- a poet at heart. We meet him as the book begins and he's just been arrested. His story is his song and confession, a kind of narrative poem. The telling helps him accept who he is, what has happened and helps him begin to heal his past and recent trauma. Except the journey is not that... easy or tidy. He's functionally illiterate.

As for photos of dead poets houses?

Picture a writer mid-novel, (translate: lost in another world, eyes glazed over, often found talking out loud to herself) armed with a street map, a water bottle and an Elizabeth Bishop poem tucked in a zippered compartment of her backpack. Yes, yes, that would have been me. I (not Skye) treked along the shaded streets of Georgetown, got lost in a labryinth (a detour in a cemetery) until I made my way to the street and house she stayed in when living in D.C. HER house. Pilgrimage to literary heroes might seem cliche, but there's something powerful about encountering a place a beloved writer calls home. That day, I stood across the street and read a poem outloud despite the curious stares of a few passers by.

Not too shabby, but a long way from Nova Scotia.

This past weekend, I was fortunate enough to get inside her childhood home in Great Village Nova Scotia and be a part of the Elizabeth Bishop Centenary Arts Festival that took place from Friday to Sunday.

I'd been to Great Village before -- asked to do readings in the same elementary school Bishop attended. I read poetry-nonsense and narrative and lyrical. We talked a bit about Elizabeth.

That day was special.

The school is more than a little magical. A real ringing bell. Eager readers.

But this weekend was...enchanted. Poetry was everywhere. Poetry flapped in the wind in the brilliant blue banners created by artist Joy Laking, and poetry clipped-clopped in the hooves of horses -- Max and Woody -- as they pulled us around on a guided tour. I heard poetry in the prose readings of young writer Elizabeth Schoffield and others, winners of the writing competition organized by Laura Gunn. I was honored to MC that event on Friday, an event that closed with John Barnstead reading a Bishop poem so perfectly I felt she was there, in St. James Church, the same church she wrote about and attended with her grandparents. Poetry was on every page of Mary Rose Donnelly's brilliant book Great Village and the powerful dramatic reading by Lenore Zann, in her dual role as actress and MLA in Truro/Bible Hill . "Running to Paradise" was written by the incomparable Donna Smythe. Poet, author, scholar, and mentor to many, myself included, Smythe 's tribute to Bishop is honest, beautiful and electrifying. That was Day One.

On Saturday morning the roster of writers giving workshops and readings included award-winning novelists and poets: Michael Crummey, Anne Simpson, Joan Clark, Don McKay and myself. We read and answered questions. (Listen to Don and Anne in the links below.) There were boat races and a community supper. On Saturday night, the church was jam-packed as we sat transfixed, caught in the spiral of music performed by Rankin, Church, Crowe. Susan Crowe, Cindy Church, Raylene Rankin. (Stop reading. Breathe.) Go here to hear.

Sunday morning there was an "old time church service," followed by a blueberry tea. The hymns we shared in church prompted memories that brought tears to more than just my eyes. And oh---the poetry in hymns! Home. Hymns. There's only a vowel sound of difference. Home. Poem. There's only a consonant. Rev. Dan Gunn gave us a open hearted and wise meditation on the word home and read from Sandra Barry's new book. Elizabeth Bishop : Nova Scotia's Home-made Poet. Home-made poet. (A good book to own.)

Sandra Barry, whose life's work has been to know and study and remember the poetry and life of Bishop, all the other members of the Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia and all the volunteers who made this weekend possible are giving, generous, poet-loving folks. They are committed to the cultural heritage of our region. My personal thanks go to Heather who transported us writers to and fro and Shelly and Dave for hosting me personally. (Love to Spud.) I came away FULL -- cherished talks and walks with other writers and Bishop lovers, new friends, and an overwhelming urge to continue on discovering how Bishop speaks to me. I think Skye deserves a book of her own maybe. A verse novel. Yes. Maybe.

Great Village shaped Bishop's earliest memories and her imaginative landscape and gave her a sense of home, but for a few days last weekend, I saw how it took a village to raise a dead poet from the grave and give her life again. Bishop's words do that, too. Bring us home to ourselves.

Question: What writer's home would you want to visit? I welcome comments on this posting.

Listen to Sandra Barry reading here.

FOR MORE Amazing POETS Reading:

Don Mckay

Anne Simpson

 

 

Up in the Tree Part II: Review and Response

REVIEW in NB READER 2005. 

Almost thirty years after its first publication, Up in The Tree is being re-issued by Groundwood Books, House of Anansi Press. They’re calling it vintage Atwood.

The word 'vintage' is misleading if it brings the smell of mothballs to mind. It’s somewhat reductionist in this case too. Then again, my response is (contextually) biased when it comes to children’s books in general and this book in particular.

Context is almost everything.

Up in the Tree is almost as 'pure' as the Arctic air in Nunavut. This is exactly where I had the amazing opportunity to work with Atwood: to watch as she read the book to Inuit women.

It’s Atwood at her authentic best if one values children’s literature and the oral tradition as much as any literature. Certainly, those of us in that particular tent did.

The oral tradition in children’s verse and early childhood literature has always, is now, and forever will be dependent upon the human voice and a community of listeners to have its life.

Up in The Tree, then and now, is a gem of a book in that tradition.

Furthermore, it does what the best children’s books can do when read aloud: in the moment of the telling of the poem or the story there is the creation of a safe place.

I was there. I saw this magic happen. We forgot about how far we were from civilization and how close we were to the polar bear.

Up in The Tree does have a retro appeal, in one sense. The rhythms are slightly reminiscent of the good doctor himself, Theodore Suess Geisel. We live in a tree/way up in a tree / It’s fun in the sun / A pain in the rain. But we both have umbrellas way up in the tree!

There are also echoes of Go Dog Go! – a classic from this era. Hey ho, Off we go! It’s Tree party time!

Two adorable googly-eyed playmates frolic in their favourite tree. They hang on tight when the wind blows; they eat pancakes and sip tea until they realize they’re stranded because their ladder has been eaten by a…well that would spoil THE PLOT.

Are we stuck here forever in this horrible tree?

The two friends hug each other close, tears in their eyes. We are a little frightened for them. "We’ll have to eat leaves/ up here in the Tree," they fear. With some help from some vigilant brave ones, they are saved, discover a longing to return to their tree. Again, there is a solution.

They work hard hard, find a way back to their home in the tree and appear fearless, both now snug and safe enough to dream.

Text and art complement and complete each other in a fine balance. Atwood more than rises to the teetery- tottery challenge picture books present.

In a forenote, Atwood states because this book was produced before computer, "the techniques were primitive and the results look a little primitive too." Maybe. But primitive Canadian folk art is valuable. Thanks to Groundwood this could be a collectable—not just because it’s Atwood. Because it still rocks.

Under the big tent’s dome in the Somebody’s Daughter program, Atwood showed us the dedication page. FOR JESS. She not only wrote Up in the Tree for her daughter she "illustrated it and hand-lettered it as well!" Why? Not just because she could (she’s an artist also) but because she pretty much had too. To save on costs. In 1978, there was "a widespread belief that it was too expensive and risky to publish a children’s book in Canada." For those not up on the history of Canadian Children’s Literature, Dennis Lee’s Alligator Pie was published in 1974. So, it was "very early days."

To paraphrase C.S Lewis, there are three ways of writing for children, one bad way and two good ways.

The bad: to write for children as "a special department of giving the public what it wants."

The first 'good' way is to write for a specific child.

The second 'good' way consists in writing a children’s story because a children’s story is the best art – form for something you have to say.

What does Atwood say if anything, in Up In the Tree?

If one cares enough to look closely enough in excellent books for children, one can always see eternity in a grain of sand. There are, of course, in the words of Walter De La Mare, "As many different meanings as there are minds."

Some folks will be able to hear in this UNI- Verse of Up in The Tree whether intentional or not, a familiar refrain: here, let me offer you some wilderness tips.

I listened and heard: Go out a limb and dream, preferably, with at least one good friend.

This book is proof that technology makes things different not better; that so much can be said with so little; that Atwood has a tender mother- heart as well as intrepid trail blazing spirit.

Also: actions speak louder than words. Even Atwood’s.

When the polar bear looked as if he might be charging our camp she called to me. "Run! Come on!" She held out her hand. She’s a fast runner. All I could do , all any of us can do, who come after, is try to follow, not in her footsteps exactly. That would be impossible and also not the point. But we can be grateful, inspired, lend a hand to others, and maybe leave some footprints behind of our own as we go out on a limb—up a tree of our own. And dare to dream.

~ Sheree

 

Up in The Tree, In a Tent, Out on the Land in Iglurjuakuluit, Nunavut

You’re in a tent. It’s vast and cold outside, very vast, very cold. It’s a howling wilderness.

~ The Tent, Margaret Atwood

It isn’t that cold, especially when you’re among friends. It’s the end of July 2005. But we are in a tent on south east Southampton Island, in Iglurjuakuluit, Nunavut. The Canadian Arctic. It’s not exactly comfortable, but the landscape is breathtaking. It can be overwhelming.

It’s vast, very vast.

In the large communal tent, a pot of tea simmers on the propane burner, a lantern casts shadows against the canvass, which, in this raging wind, snaps, whips, whorls around us. We’re hours away from the nearest community, having traveled here by boat. Many of us are afraid of the water, even when it’s calm. And somewhere out there, a polar bear lurks. He paid us a visit our first evening. He was big, very big. I’ve been out on the land before, but this is a first.

Hunters with guns kept watch as we slept.

All of us are afraid of polar bears.

For the moment, however, we forget about the isolation, the weather, the wilderness, the sharp teeth and claws of bears. We’re wrapped around and snug inside the syllables of a simple, charming, story-in-verse. It’ s better than flannel.

We like our old tree,
Our home in the tree ;
We swing in the Spring
We crawl in the Fall
And we dance on the branches
Way up in the Tree.

Nineteen Inuit women, and one Quallanut huddle together; listening to the storyteller. The Quallanut would me; it’s an Inuktitut word which, loosely translated, means southerner.

These Inuk women, aged twenty and older, are here to participate in an innovative program called Somebody’s Daughter. Over the next two weeks, they will learn, laugh, cry, and heal. They will sew by day, reclaiming the traditional Inuit sewing skills of their foremothers: cleaning, scraping, stretching, chewing then stitching the skins of caribou and seal. They will make parkas, kamiks, mittens. By night, ulus, thimbles, needles and thread will be put aside.

They will claim their voices.

They will improve their literacy. They will tell their stories orally, or use pen and paper. Sometimes they will write poems that will crack my heart wide open. They will send messages to loved ones, letters to politicians and inspiring words to women around the world.

This storyteller is also their teacher. It’s her first year. But she will become, as well, both courier and messenger. At times, the voice is barely audible, competing, as it must, against the wind’s howl. So we lean in closer, riveted as she turns pages and shows us pictures. This story’s in a book. This book is called Up In the Tree. There’s more than a touch of irony in this; we’re miles above the tree line. Some of these women have never touched a tree, let alone climbed one. Fewer still know anything about this storyteller, either by name or reputation.

She is also "a picture book maker."

"So you write books?" they inquire shyly after she closes the book.

"Did I maybe see you on TV?"

And Margaret Atwood will smile and say, "You may have, yes."

In Inuit culture, the oral tradition is still revered. Art, film, song, dance and radio, are perhaps a better media to articulate this culture than the world of books will ever be. Legends and stories, especially from respected elders- are still a valued way of transmitting Inuit culture and history.

If or when there the world crashes, satellites go out, we might all remember such basics and rely on the storyteller’s very human voice. We might once again take sinew from whale, rinse it in salt, stretch it across a board and then wait until it dries in the sun, spun gold, transformed into thread. Thread with which we sew things together , or back together, stitch by stitch.

Bernadette Dean can do this.

Miqqusaaq.

It’s because Dean asked and Atwood said yes, that Atwood has the honor of being teacher and writer-in- residence out on the land with Somebody’ s Daughter. Dean is the mover and shaker behind the scenes, social co-coordinator for KIA, an association committed to the education of Inuit youth and preservation of Inuit culture. A long time educator and activist for healthy communities and a more hopeful future for her people, Dean has worked in ways than we cannot to begin to fathom.

Bernadette can shoot a caribou.

She also gives power point presentations. Yesterday she emailed a video of her first granddaughter made just that morning. Dean’s produced CDs. collecting the songs and chants she wants never to be lost. Her great- grandmother was Shoofly. She’s shown me pictures. Dean is Somebody’s Daughter, and great granddaughter. I still dream of her writing that book.

We met in 1992 at Arctic College. I was going by instinct, my first time teaching creative writing in a cross-cultural setting, painfully aware of my blonde hair and blue eyes, of being under scrutiny. It was my job, above all else, to create a safe place so authentic voices might come forth. On the third day, Dean wrote and read a poem about her mother ‘s bannock recipe and her mother’s battle with cancer. There wasn’t a dry eye in the class when she finished reading. Writing class stopped. Learning began. The women got out the flour and lard and baked bannock.

When the teacher is ready, the students appear.

Dean straddles, as many Inuit do: two cultures, two languages, two worlds, embracing the new, preserving traditions, negotiating through tangled beaurocracy. She holds a lot of stories inside . She hurts when yet another woman is beaten, or another community loses a teen or other loved one to suicide.

And she is also a woman of great faith. Let Go and Let God is on the silver cross she gave me first summer.

I hold many stories from the Daughters of Somebody’s Daughter but I will not tell them. They are their stories. I can tell, however, I ‘ve never met such brave or resilient women. This program heals and humbles me.

I chewed sealskin and sewed a miniature kamik, my first year, thanks to Hattie, my teacher. (I’ve barely ever sewn a button on anything.) When they clapped for me, my chest exploded and I cried as many of the women do when our sewing project is completed. Your hands are healing the elders told me.

They named me Naluaqq. White sealskin hung out to dry.

My tiny kamik, here in my office, holds insense and a piece of thread Bernadette made from the sinew.

In February, Atwood wrote an essay for the Washington Post on the writing life and on how participating in this program brought her back to some basics. Fundamentals such as : if you want to learn, teach. And that writing is always for someone. A few days later, Dean participated in that paper’s online chat to folks around the world. By some wonderful quirk of fate, Dean and I ended up in a cubicle at the Sheraton in Winnipeg airport together with a window of few hours. And logged on. Margaret Atwood was in New York.

A Inuit woman talking through cyber space to folks around the world—about her culture and what this program and literacy education means in the north—with a literary icon. A writer whose books, along with Alice Munroe’s, I once kept under my bed, dreaming of the day I might one day maybe be a published writer.

During the chat, when one person asked if sewing wasn’t rather degrading for women, my hackles went up. Atwood’s response was terrific, but, because she can be extremely generous , she handed over the forum to Dean. Dean calmly typed in, quoted a Buddhist saying. A line about humility, about making the best basket one can make.

I remain in awe.

Because of Atwood’s connections with UNESCO, and Dean’s ongoing commitment as she attends conferences on aboriginal education around the globe, Somebody’s Daughter could end up being a model for land -based literacy programs in other cultures. It’s both an experiential and contemplative model of education. Ghandi’s words on literacy education embody its premise.

"Literacy education should follow the literacy of the hand- the one gift that visibly distinguishes man from the beast. It is superstition to think that the fullest development of man is impossible without a knowledge of reading and writing. That knowledge undoubtedly adds grace to life, but is in no way indispenable for man’s moral, physical or material growth."

Those are challenging words for writers to wrap their heads around, or readers, or anyone in the book industry. In today’s world, most folks do need to read, write and keep up with technology. Employment matters. Survival. So it is a bit more tangible than Grace, though it is that too.

It is difficult to speak of grace.

Let me try again.

Atwood’s voice is hypnotic, the cadence consistently monotone, and her face, somewhat of a mask. Her pitch-up here is perfect. It’s also culturally appropriate; we are in the midst of a mostly modest culture—one where an animated expression is often seen as rude. Among Inuit, 'yes' is a barely discernible raise of both eyebrows, 'no' is a subtle scrunch of a nose. It takes some time to adjust. I’ve been trying to learn on and off for almost twenty years. Why?

Because when I was eight years old I read Farley Mowat and Jack London and Robert Service. I fell in love with the word aurora borealis as colours splashed across the pages of a Grade Three Reader. Because I had a recurring vivid dream that I was under a white dome. I was in an igloo with the Eskimos the only word I knew then.

The north—as it does for many, beckoned.

I made my first trek there in 1988 thanks to Canadian Children’s Book Centre and the Canada Council. It was dark and cold and I was glad to get home. There was, however, no turning back after that. Thanks to Peter Gzowski and his literacy fundraisers, a band of southerners going up to play golf on the ice, I ended up in Pond Inlet. Bernadette’s daughter Ashley, now studying to become a teacher, was in Grade Five then.

After that there were other calls to go work. Sometimes I said yes. Sometimes no. Bernadette’s CALL was no ordinary call. Want to come teaching in a camp at the top of the world?

I joke that maybe because I only had sons, I have had to go north to find my daughters. God-daughters maybe. But also, sisters, friends. Teachers. Truth is, I have them back home in the Maritimes and here in Washington—a real a cold place if you don’t have friends to remind you to follow you heart’s affections.

How is it that women who 'told' me stories in a tent , and three sentences written on a piece of torn paper, passed through a tent flap, by a woman who initially wept each time she tried to write—has become more valuable to me than any book I could ever write? To be of use, writes Marge Piercy on a poem by that title. It is work that makes me feel I am of use. Sometimes, I think my love of the north began with Santa. But it’s bigger than that – it might just be as close to heaven as I will ever get.

It is vast—this view at the top of the world. A line from one of the Somebody’s Daughters participants in summer, 2004 comes to mind: "Such large land and sky!"

There is a possibility of angels close by.

Picture my friend Bernadette spreading arms wide as if hugging the land— saying this—this—this—is my living room! Picture a storyteller in a tent keeping fear at bay as she gathers us around her. Vast, says Atwood.

 

~ Sheree Fitch, first published in New Brunswick Reader