Choices

Today I decided to put the Cytopoetics Events blog on hiatus.

The thing about this choice is that it saddens me a great deal. I feel the resource provides a great one-stop shop for people looking for information about spoken word and poetry slam in Toronto. It was needed at a time when the number of stages for artists was increasing rapidly, and audience wanted to know where to go and when to see their favourite artists.

It was a labour of love, but as I start to labour a bit on the personal side it came down a cost-benefit analysis for my own health – sometimes you have to make that kind of a choice in your work to maintain a proper balance. With a lot of projects on the go and a need to slow down a bit, something had to give. And the “something” in this case turned out to be the blog.

I will still be writing about spoken word on a monthly basis for blogTO so be sure to check out the updates on the first of each month.

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A Quick Reflection on Depression

some may say
that you’re not really that sick if you have depression

to those people i say
try to live in my shoes
see what i experience
understand what i understand
feel my pain
replay my mistakes in your mind
address the crush of self-doubt
of negative self-talk
of feelings of worthlessness
of despair and devastation

i will then pass you a stone.

feel free to hurl it
if you still think
depression isn’t real.

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BC Schools Tour, Day Eleven: The End of the Road

I was up before the roosters on my last day of performance on this long, eventful, instructive tour. I packed my bags, accepted a cup of coffee kindly made for me by my paramedic host, took a shower and got the car started (ten minutes later than I’d hoped, actually). As I scrambled to get things together and get to the first school building of the day, my host scraped at the iced-over windshield of the Versa. I had no time to wait for the car to thaw out at all. I threw the car into reverse, then drive, and got on the country road back to the highway.

Taking care to avoid the free-roaming cattle, I made my way back to Highway 20, then left into town. By the time I was at the city limit my windows were finally fully defrosted.

At the school I met the coordinating teacher, who brought me a cordless mic and a lot of warmth. He came to me as I parked my car and directed me inside to the gym. The students filed in and it was time for performance number ten of eleven on the tour.

The kids were pretty into it. This was the junior school of a two-campus creation presided over by a principal who spoke to me just before I started performing. He said to me “just have fun,” and I did. The daughter of the Mexican couple was in the audience cheering me on as I went through my set list. Lots of great questions and a lot of pictures followed. Before I left the school, I visited with the coordinating teacher’s science class. They peppered me with more questions. I was convinced it was more to avoid getting into the science lesson, but their eagerness for a group shot before I left made me think twice about their motivations.

I retreated to Tim Hortons to kill time between shows, then made my way over to the senior campus. The audience there was much smaller, and much less energized. I felt like doing more of my light and fun performances, and even dropped a music-backed track at the end of my set. I felt this might have been the most disappointing show from my perspective. There was little energy for me to use to amp up the show, and I felt I was flat and not at my best. It was an unfortunate way to end the tour, but everyone has performances like that once in a while.

After a few quick goodbyes I left the building, got in the Versa, and found my way out of Williams Lake for the last time this time around. The open highway stretched ahead of me. Next stop, Vancouver.

I decided to drive back along the Trans-Canada Highway in the Fraser canyon rather than taking the Sea to Sky. I think that turned out to be a good choice. The drive was spectacular, not too twisty, and showed me a different part of the province that I hadn’t yet seen. It was a long drive, however, and I settled back into familiar routines – I listened to CBC Radio until I lost the signal, then went into contemplation mode until the radio station came back. Bizarrely, at one juncture I picked up a feed from VOAN radio, which is a station in Newfoundland. I couldn’t figure out for the life of me how I was getting a station from The Rock on my radio when I was deep in rural BC.

After an absence of about three and a half hours, I got back my telephone signal at Hope. I took that as a sign that perhaps at the point of hope in my own life I will get back the signal I need to be in touch with what truly motivates my art and my heart. This kind of thinking carried me the final stretch into the city and to East Vancouver.

Originally I was supposed to go back to my friend’s place on the downtown east side, but a miscommunication led to her not being available. So instead I went to find my friend Jess at the Foxy House – an address of note in the Canadian spoken word community.

Upon arrival I walked in (because that’s what you do) and found Jess in the living room, playing a tune on her computer and working on some kind of project. She told me she was creating clothing. I was impressed, because I could never do it. She may have found it a bit perplexing, however:

She offered me some beer and a couch for the few hours of sleep I would get before heading to YVR. I gladly accepted the beer and we proceeded to select songs we really wanted to hear – throwbacks to a time when we were younger (and obviously not quite as cool). I took to the DJ job with relish, throwing on tracks like “Hey Mr. DJ” by Zhané, “Buffalo Stance” by Neneh Cherry, “Rumpshaker” by Wreckx-N-Effect, “I Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” by TLC, “Keep On Movin'” by Soul II Soul, and so many others. The two of us laughed and danced with anyone who came in the door (a few people did), and went next door for a refresh of the jug of home brew more than once (I didn’t drink that much – remember when I said I don’t handle liquor so well?).

After the hoodie had been completed and the hour-long old school reggae had been set to play us to sleep, Jess retired to her bed in the Nook (a small area at the front of the house that was once a sitting area of the living room) and I collapsed on the couch. A few hours later the alarm went off on my cellphone. The screen screamed 5:30am at me. It was time to get to YVR for my 8am flight home to Pearson.

I threw my bags in the trunk and made the final drive in the Versa. When I had checked the car out I’d bought a tank of gas, so I was looking to bring it back on fumes. I succeeded. The tank I got in Williams Lake was just enough to get me to YVR. The gas indicator was flashing an impending apocalypse at me when I pulled into the car rental area of the airport parking structure.

So after driving from YVR to White Rock to Maple Ridge to White Rock to Vancouver to Squamish to Courtenay to Whistler to Williams Lake to Bella Coola to Williams Lake to Vancouver, here’s the grand total on the odometer:

After just shy of 2800km on the roads of BC, what am I taking away from this adventure?

I have the new friendships I made along the way, the breathtaking scenery I saw, the students I met, my first-ever flight on a bush plane, performing for kindergarteners and having them dance to my poetry, explorations of the history of this country, a few new lessons about First Nations, a ton of time to think and to contemplate my next steps, and the opportunity to get in closer touch with who I am as a person and who I truly wish to be.

So as I finish this final entry in the chronicle of this trip, I hope that you have taken something away from the scribblings of a poet on a roadtrip, searching not just for stages but also for a new stage in life.

It’s just about time to board the plane. Take flight, y’all.

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BC Schools Tour, Day Ten: Travel Day

On the morning after my air-assisted adventures on the central coast, it was time to leave for Williams Lake. After spending some time doing some writing and making an audio recording for CBC Here and Now (my poem about the Prince Edward Viaduct played to air in the afternoon), I grabbed all my bags and tossed them into the trunk of the Versa. The operator of the hostel rode into the driveway on his bike just as I closed the trunk. We went inside, took care of business and I shook his hand. I’ll be back one day, I told him. And I meant it – Bella Coola is a beautiful place to be.

I pulled out onto Highway 20 and headed east towards Tweedsmuir Park and The Precipice.

I have to admit, going up The Hill is far less scary than coming down. Mind you, it’s no less dangerous, but the effect of gravity slows you down when you’re climbing, and never having that feeling like the car was starting to get away from me as I approached a switchback was a welcome change. Thankfully I also didn’t have to pass anyone in one of the narrow, steep sections of the road, which was another stroke of fortune in my favour.

I eventually reached the top of Heckman Pass once again. I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to see a road sign in my life.

I also decided to stop at the viewpoint and take a few pictures of the central coast before I left for good. Here’s one of them:

From there to Williams Lake I made no stops and drove a bit faster than I normally would. I wanted to get there. I’ve spent so much time on the road this trip, and I knew the trip to Vancouver the next day would be even longer, so I wanted to make this one as short as possible. There was a significant stretch of road where I was unable to get any sort of signal. I shut the radio off and allowed my brain to sink into deep thought.

I’ve decided this is a good practice I want to introduce to my life. My activities have me moving at a fast pace when I’m in Ontario, and the lack of time spent in reflection and contemplation, I’ve come to realize while on the road, is a disservice to me and to the people I deal with on a daily basis. In order to be better to everyone, I determined it would be wise to create time in my crazy days to ponder and/or meditate.

The drive also gave me a chance to work through some personal issues that have been giving me a lot of stress and sleepless nights. The time to work through your own troubles is the main benefit of stopping every once in a while to do purposeful self-work. Such work is important for personal matters but it also has a residual effect in all other aspects of your life. The beauty of being forced to do it over the last ten days has not escaped me. The challenge will be to do it when work seems like a more attractive option.

Before long I’d crossed Chilcotin territory and reached the Fraser River valley, the last major landform to conquer before arriving at the top of the hill into Williams Lake. I captured it as I descended the highway towards the bridge across the great river:

Thereafter it was smooth sailing into Williams Lake. I knew I was close when my cellphone, locked out of service ever since I left to go to the central coast, started lighting up with text messages and voicemail notifications. Rogers/Fido has no service in Bella Coola, so it was nice to once again be able to make phone calls and send texts to people without iPhones.

As I got close to town, I was listening to Tapestry on CBC Radio. Interestingly, the last segment I heard as I descended the hill to the city centre was a piece about the chaplain at Duke University and his practice of thinking regularly for an hour or two every day as part of his Islamic beliefs. He stressed that anyone can do a similar thing, that it is not limited to Muslims and that in a world that is so fast-paced, taking time to exercise your thought process in the vertical (connection with a higher power), horizontal (with humanity and nature) and the central connection between the two (the self) helps keep one balanced. It is striking to me how such interesting coincidences happen. I will take it as a sign and endeavour to make it a part of my life henceforth.

My first stop in town was at the home of the Mexican family where I’d had Thanksgiving dinner. The wife was just coming out the door when I walked over with the tire chains in my hand. “You didn’t need to use them, did you?” I said no. Her party-a-holic karaoke expert of a sister pulled up in front of the house at the same time I arrived. They were going for coffee. Did I want to join them? I respectfully declined out of fatigue, but pledged to return another time. “You don’t really have to go catch that plane,” the sister said. “The rental car has to be back at YVR on Saturday and my flight is stupid early too,” I said. “But I appreciate the sentiment!” Warm hugs and pledges that this was only see you later and not goodbye were shared. I got back in the car as they set off for Safeway.

I’m fortunate. I have new family in Williams Lake BC. Never would have thought that would happen.

I drove back to the small house beside the old residential school site and was greeted by the paramedic. I rested, then had a fabulous meal before retiring for the night.

The morning brings my final two performances of this tour in the local high school, followed by the long drive back to Vancouver. I’ll check in with you about that a little later, once I’m back in the Lower Mainland.

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BC Schools Tour, Day Nine: The Central Coast

I drove to the Bella Coola airstrip and eventually found the right place to be – the building that houses Bella Coola Air. I checked in at the front counter and headed outside to the plane. There I was met by Leon, an ex-pat Kiwi with a passion for bush flying.

Our itinerary was to take us from Bella Coola to the tiny communities of Shearwater and Oweekeno before returning to Bella Coola. The plane is a four-seater and I was to strap in beside Leon. I climbed into the cabin after putting on my safety vest, buckled up, and braced myself. We taxied to the end of the runway, built up a head a steam and were airborne.

During the flight to Shearwater the fog had not fully lifted, so Leon decided to stay low under the clouds. Made for a bit of a bumpier ride, but the view was spectacular:

Upon arrival at Shearwater (and experiencing the first water landing of my life), Leon pulled my bag out of the small cargo hold behind the seats just as the teacher from the school came to greet me. Sharon is a really kind woman who apologized for having to take me through the local grocery/liquor/Sears/postal outlet to grab a few items. “I forgot it’s Healthy Snack Day,” she explains. After checking the mail and picking up a couple of parcels for the school, we head up the small hill to the schoolhouse.

Three kids are absent from school, meaning 11 were in attendance. Shearwater has less than 100 people now, since the fishing and mining dried up and people left to find opportunities elsewhere. Apparently at one time there were many more kids enrolled, but the ones who were there were adorable. Mostly boys, they were also jittery and had a hard time sitting still (this looked familiar to me, because I was exactly the same way as a child). But they did like the poetry, particularly Child of the Beat. They made me repeat it while they danced to the rhythm of the words! After they swarmed me for autographs, Sharon took me back down to the waterfront, where I met Leon in the restaurant.

Since there’s nowhere to eat in Oweekeno (a fact I was reminded of several times), I ordered a big pile of food with tons of fish. When in Rome, right?

We got back into the plane to make our way to Oweekeno. We took off down the channel, regained altitude and came around, leaving Shearwater behind. This time the fog had lifted significantly, so we were able to fly a bit higher this time:

We approached Oweekeno through a narrow cut between big rocky hills and made our way down to the airstrip. There was a road leading from the settlement to where the plane was landing. As we came in lower we could see the van coming to meet us. Lina was there when we touched down. There was also a shipment of groceries for the teachers I was about to go and meet. In Oweekeno, there is no store so everything has to either be shipped or flown in. After we loaded the boxes into the van, Lina got behind the wheel and brought me (and the boxes) into Oweekeno.

I met the teachers at the house of two of the staff members, where they asked me if I was hungry (clearly no). They offered me, of all things, a fresh maple dip donut from Tim Hortons. Not entirely sure how I came to be offered such a delicacy in a fly-in community of 60 people, they said another plane had brought it in this morning from Port Hardy. Awesome! I took one gratefully.

When lunch was over we went over to the school where I met 11 more wonderful young people. They ranged from kindergarten all the way to grade 12. One of them had actually graduated the year before and wanted to see the performance. It was amazing to be there with these youth who so rarely get the opportunity to interact with people like myself who are making a living as artists. “The kids in Toronto are exposed to so much,” one of the staff members said. “Most artists refuse to come out to places like this.” To me, it makes sense for us to go everywhere we are asked to me so long as we can physically make it there. You never know where a seed you plant will sprout, as I was told in Oweekeno.

Michelle came to get me to drive me back to the airstrip. We bumped our way along this road and came back to find Leon relaxing. He’d snagged a day-old newspaper from the restaurant in Shearwater. We loaded up the plane and took off for our final destination – Bella Coola.

For those who may not see it, “BE COOL” is the call code the air company uses for Bella Coola. Too good.

The flight back was the most spectacular of the three – by then the sky was completely clear and we were able to fly over the highest peaks in our flight path. I took a few videos as we flew over huge glacial deposits and tree-covered slopes (some scarred with the imprint of logging operations). I was breathless at spots.

Leon got me safely back onto the ground. I shook his hand warmly, then departed for the hostel. We had a tasty and filling meal of Caesar salad, roast and tasty flan courtesy of my bus-inhabiting Quebecoise friend and her compatriots. I’ve been treated very well here. I slept soundly with a full belly and happy thoughts about this region.

It’s been an amazing time here on the central coast of BC. I have learned so much about the natural beauty, the complications of remote life on unceded First Nation territory, the need to respect pace and the requirements of the soul. I’m ready now to drive back up The Precipice and head on to Williams Lake for my final two shows on this tour.

Once again, I’ll see you on the other side.

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BC Schools Tour, Day Eight: Bella Coola & Hagensborg

A foggy Tuesday morning greeted me as I prepared to step out of the motel in Bella Coola. It was early but I was keen to make my way over to the local elementary school to meet the kids. I hurried over and met the principal, who worked as hard as she could to find me a microphone. After checking the battery in the cordless we were ready to go.

This was the first time ever that I had presented my work to such a young audience in a school. In the past, the youngest I’d ever had in a session with me were grade three students (and that time there were only a couple of them – most of the kids were in my comfort zone). This time, a significant chunk of the room were kindergarten kids, as well as a strong showing from primary aged children. I attempted to perform poems I thought would resonate with the kids. I would say I met with middling success. Many of the students were highly engaged, but the full span of the room (K-5) were not completely sold.

The teachers, however, told me they thought it had gone well, so I took them at their word. The kids were lovely, though, and super cute as I wandered the halls before I stepped out. The most interesting reception was from the grade 4/5 class, where we had another quick discussion around the social justice thrust of my work. I thanked everyone for their time and headed back to the motel.

Upon opening my computer, I noticed a message from a friend of a friend in town who had arranged for me to check into the local hostel in Hagensborg, the small community beside Bella Coola. That was amazing news, as I would be around other people my age and not by myself (satellite TV doesn’t count as company) in my room at the motel. She also invited me to stop by and pay a quick visit before I went to the high school for my second performance of the day. I packed everything up, threw it in the car, and headed over to the school bus to meet my newest friend.

There it is – a bus parked in the bush, converted into a home for the lady you can see in the doorway. She is fabulous and a real life of the party sort. I liked her immediately. There is no confusion in my mind as to how she gets along with my friend in Vancouver who connected me with her (the same friend who accommodated me between my visits in Maple Ridge and Squamish earlier in the tour). The bus was also hosting a friend who’d come by to visit for a few days, and they had just returned from an overnight kayaking trip to the local hot springs. After a bit of conversation and a coffee, I pledged to meet up with them later at the hostel later that night.

Over to the high school I went, where I had a room of about 80 students for my performance. The principal (who is also the socials teacher) greeted me and directed me to the gymnasium. The teacher who helped set up the sound was a really pleasant guy, and the staff in general were terrific. The students were really into the performance and asked a lot of really great questions. They were fairly impressed with the historical references in the work. The principal teased he would have his work cut out for him in socials after watching the way I walked through issues in a few of my pieces. But I hope the poems have stoked their interest in history – an outcome the principal is also hoping will come to fruition.

I drove over to the hostel after the show. It was a short drive, as the house was just a few doors down from the school. The guy who owns the place has a pigpen in the back and trees heavily laden with apples beside it. There were other friends hanging around the place as unbeknownst to me there was to be a crab feast that night. I picked a room, dropped my stuff, wrote my op-ed for Cytopoetics Events, and returned downstairs.

By then my new friend from the school bus had arrived, along with a few other people as well. A huge pot filled with crab was set to boil on the wood-burning stove, a roast was placed in the oven, and the music was cranked up for all to hear and enjoy. We had a fascinating talk over dinner, as one of the guests at the table is the son of a key First Nations leader from the area. The complicated politics of the region were laid out in front of me as this gentleman got into sometimes heated discussion with one or two others around the table, as other folks chimed in from time to time. Land usage, mining, fishing, treaty negotiations, the role of money in government / First Nations relations and stewardship of the community were examined with a great deal of passion. Without doubt it was an education for me to experience and listen to local people talk about issues that are local in nature but global in terms of impact.

The crab was delicious and the company was fantastic. I was so pleased to be there and not on my own at the motel. But after a very early morning and with an even earlier morning to come, I took my leave just as the party was starting to run out of steam. I headed upstairs to rest and to mull over a day filled with a wide variety of stimuli – the youth, the weather, the physical setting, the dinner conversation – that have added yet another dimension to this tour experience.

When I went to sleep I knew the next day was a new challenge – shows in fly-in remote communities along the BC central coast. In the next post I’ll tell you all about how it went.

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BC Schools Tour, Day Seven: Tiptoeing Along The Precipice

I awoke to a beautiful day. There was cloud cover but no sign of precipitation. The paramedic was out on a call when I got myself ready to leave. After her friend made me a cup of coffee, I got everything I had with me into the Versa and said goodbye to the little house beside the old residential school site. I drove into town to the Mexican family’s house, where I not only got to say goodbye to the paramedic in person (she had stopped by for food on her break), but I also borrowed a set of tire chains. The change in travel plans actually permitted me to get some in case I needed them. I said thanks and see you later to everyone. I grabbed some snacks at Tim Hortons and then headed out of Williams Lake on the Bella Coola Highway.

This was always the part of the trip that held the most concern for me. BC Highway 20 heads west from Williams Lake, weaving through beautiful countryside on its way to the coast.

The paved section from Williams Lake was an easy traverse. The mountains loomed in the distance and I had become adept at crossing cattleguards at speed. There were many free ranging cows on the sides of the road at different spots along the way. It was quite lovely. I was beginning to think all this talk about the highway was overwrought. Then I arrived at the community of Anahim Lake and decided not to stop for any snacks or breaks. The distance to Bella Coola was not too much farther. I know there’s something I’d have to deal with in the mountains but I was feeling good.

Just beyond Anahim Lake the road was no longer paved. I slowed down a bit to navigate the portions that were covered with loose gravel. A couple straightaways let me drop the throttle. Then I passed the chain up area (since by then the skies were clear and temperatures were in the mid-teens, I didn’t stop to put them on).

And then I saw a sign for a viewpoint. I decided not to stop since I was building up a good head of steam. There was a sign there too – one that marked the high point of the Heckman Pass. Just beyond the sign was the gate for the road. With glorious weather, the gate was up. Nothing to worry about in terms of the condition of the road.

However, my personal condition was about to change markedly. Here’s why:

“Highway 20 is famous for the portion of the westernmost stretch, between Anahim Lake and Bella Coola, known as the Hill or The Precipice. From the point where the road crosses the Coast Range via Heckman Pass in Tweedsmuir South Provincial Park at an elevation of 1487 m (4879 ft) the road descends 43 km (27 mi) of steep, narrow road with sharp hairpin turns and two major switchbacks to the Bella Coola Valley. The descent includes a 9 km (5.6 mi) section with grades of up to 18% (about 1 in 6). The road is winding, in some places only wide enough for one vehicle, and in many places bordered on one side by cliffs and on the other side by a drop of hundreds of meters (many hundreds of feet) unprotected by guardrails. Tourists who have driven to Bella Coola from Williams Lake have been known to refuse to drive back and have had to be taken out by boat or float plane.” (Source, Wikipedia)

Not really sure what that might look like? Here’s a video that shows someone driving up the road, where the resistance of gravity is on your side. Remember as you’re watching that I was driving in the opposite direction:

It was the most harrowing experience of my life. I was saying prayers all the way down, but especially in the steepest section. There were a couple of moments when I wondered if life was about to end for me. Weaving my way down the side of a sheer cliff was a clarifying and humbling experience. This entire journey has served to crystallize for me what is truly important in my life, but nothing was quite as effective as the moment I tiptoed along The Precipice, and survived.

At the bottom, through Tweedsmuir Provincial Park, I was significantly less stressed out, and the scenery was gorgeous.

Shortly thereafter I arrived in Bella Coola, in one piece. After checking out my accommodation options I got a room in a small cabin at the Bella Coola Motel, drove back to the grocery to get some food for the fridge (I have a fully stocked kitchen here), and settled in for the night.

I have no telephone service (for some reason Rogers doesn’t service up here – big shock!) so I’ve been using internet when I can get it to make calls, send messages and post blog updates. Today I’m visiting the two schools in this town. Let’s see how the day goes.

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