Sitting and drinking coffee just after sunrise. I’m watching a kingfisher in the branches above the shallow water near the shore. Mary Lou Driedger’s thoughtful observations of Sarah Klassen’s new book of poetry–many of the poet’s verses a loving look at the natural world–make the perfect complement to my morning and add another book to my buy list.
In a book chat featured on the 2020 Thin Air Writers Festival site, Sarah Klassen and Sally Ito talk about Sarah’s latest volume of poetry TheTree of Life published by Turnstone Press.
Since I had just read The Tree of Life I was interested to learn from their discussion that many of the poems in the section of the book titled Ordinary Time were inspired by things Sarah observed in nature while standing on the balcony of her fourth-floor apartment.
Sarah introduces us to a convoy of geese as they “contemplate, courageously, the next long flight,” the sparrow with its “claws like little commas”, the hawk that “hovers, hungry, wings wide open as if in benediction,” and the bald eagle “in transit across the sky’s blue canopy.”
Readers are enchanted by foxes “yelping, chasing, wrestling on the grass like children unrestrained by fear of predators or vixen…
One of the joys of writing is meeting and connecting with other writers. It’s interesting in a capitalist context to see us buzzing together like communist bees to build a plenary body of literary work: Fiction, Essay, Journalism, Criticism, Opinion, Poetry, Theater, and so on. All done in what are often intensely personal moments of recollection, self-awareness and exploration.
We band together in critique groups, associations and guilds, in events, readings, book launches and on the internet.
Since March 2020, a LOT of internet.
A pleasure and a point of professional courtesy that (no surprise) pays off as much for the giver as the receiver is to read and review work in progress. I’ve been both beneficiary and provider in this regard—giving an increasing amount of effort to reading and less to being read. (Those who regularly get my feckless Momma’s boy pleadings for them to read a story and report back may disagree… You know who you are. But in my defense, we built a loft on the water just to bribe you, so, you know, soldier on.)
Here is a fresh-voiced realist who walks the streets of Every Damn Day Another THING and knows how to tell it on the mountain. I’m pleased to give you one of her stories, below. A pick-up truck with a rose-hued patina on the outside powered by a Boeing jet engine and driven by a hot-rod pilot with one elbow poking casually out the window, even around the bends.
The School of Forgiveness
by Ramona Jones
Electives or required courses? Forgiveness and Patience, two subjects failed time and time again, reappearing and taken until I get them right. I wouldn’t have to study these if I had majored in something quantifiable. Forgiveness paired with betrayal…Do I have to sit here until the class is over? Ramona, pull your head out of the emotion and recount the facts. I don’t like going to hard places in my head without good reason, because those subjects are really tough.
I understand why people block out memories and shore them up behind facades and alcohol. I just forget, or replay parts, over and over until they wear out. Maybe this time I can turn a few off.
In 1981, I lived in a house in Vancouver with my boyfriend, a medical student, and four other students, paying ridiculously low rent. So low in fact that Ron and I saved enough money for a road trip to San Francisco. Two days before departure the phone rang, connecting me to my unpleasant family life in Toronto.
“Mom’s had a stroke.” I could hear the tearful catch in my brother’s voice. There was no choice but to go. No time to do anything but book a hotel. I could not stay with my father, where my strength would be drained to construct mental defences and avoid, whatever.
Clint told me to come quick, this was very serious. I took a cab from the Toronto airport, straight to Saint Michael’s Hospital where my mom lay fresh from surgery. The smell hit me first, alcohol fumes rising through the air to my nose. The next thing—the visual—reminded me of Egypt. Her head was swathed in bandages, a lot of white bandages in a turban. In the peripheral view, tubes entered and exited her body.
I don’t remember the last time I spent conscious time with my mom before that day. My memories of commonplace days with my family of origin blur and soften. That day I only had love. I reached for her hand because she could not see me.
“Mom, it’s me.” I held a swollen hand. It had to be the right hand, because her left hand remained paralyzed for the rest of her life. She squeezed me back, releasing some of my numbness.
My dad was very upset that I would not stay with him and my brother, but Jacqueline—my dad’s cousin, a school counsellor living in BC—supported my decision to go solo. The hotel offered refuge and calm space at night, while part days were spent shopping and walking on Yonge Street, waiting to see if my mom would make it. Saint Michael’s is downtown, 30 Bond Street, to be exact. I had access to record stores and the Hudson’s Bay bargain floor. I bought a size 10 navy skirt, a red sweater and brown shoes, with gracefully thin straps and low but stylishly flared heels, perfect for my job in a Vancouver government office. I wanted badly to go home, to work, as soon as possible.
I scold myself for being so self-centered. No thought of Clint or my aunts and cousins, who are just as upset, maybe more, as me. Two of my mom’s sisters flew from Manitoba to be there. Neither travelled much—living pure, simple lives in the country, but they came, like me, knowing we were all near death in Toronto.
Only, it didn’t happen. I have a comforting memory of sitting with a nun at the Catholic hospital. She never preached or told me anything about God, just offered me a mug of hot chocolate. So sweet, in the midst of everything. I found out more about what they did and thought about my mom’s cerebral aneurysm after I got home. Dr. Howard, who is my cousin, and is renowned in his specialty, Geriatric Medicine, told me afterwards that he arranged for my mom’s stay in Riverdale Hospital. In her situation, with inadequate support at home, she lived in rehab for an entire year.
I used to think, Eva, my mom, was a bit of a chicken—always anxious, always evading the direct questions I would fire at her from my position as her dependent but selfish child. The stroke threw back the covers, exposing her truth. My mom worked so hard in rehab, she became the bravest woman I ever met. She learned to walk again.
Every challenge was met with a search for a personal solution, not complaining or blaming. With her new outlook, she went shopping, once a week to a mall, travelling by a bus for handicapped people, for treasured time outside of the house.
She never took another drink and assumed a mental independence she never had before, returning home where she relished every minute until the day she died, 26 years later.
My brother had a huge part in her story, but not mine. He told me he prayed hard, hours on end, begging God not to let her die. There is more to what he told God, but that is not mine to share. Clint told me Mom had a dream before the stroke. Jesus appeared to her. He told her, “Eva, Life is going to get very hard for you, but you are going to be alright.”
What did I make of that? This: Forgiveness does heal. My mom showed me how it is done but I am still working to graduate from that course. Patience? If you saw what I felt, watching Mom navigate from a wheel chair, in a walking world, you might not have enough either.
British Columbia’s Dr. Bonnie Henry has nailed this now, in Covid context, but my mom learned it, miles back:
Be calm, be kind, stay safe.
~ ~ ~
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A quick ramble through the blackberries: I write about my Mennonite and my secular experiences–what I love and what I disrespect–as it occurs to me and in roughly equal measure. As a non-baptised cultural Mennonite, and a self-named Mennonite imposter, I am outside of the permission loop that may constrain others who write about the same topics.
But I’m not immune to restraint and inhibition just because I don’t surf the hemlock pews on Sunday morning. (Another one of those surf-slash-theological and pinophytically-correct metaphors, dudes.) Externality, it could be argued or at least considered, gives me and those like me the freedom to be hyper-critical.
In fact, I am rigorously beholden to all of my personal relationships, long held and cherished, with those who DO “surf the hemlock.” Seriously, a perceived outsider (or imposter) has internal motivation–not church-imposed–when speaking out. An equivalent influence? Sometimes jo, sometimes nay.
So… audible inhalation… I would like to and should make it my professional beeswax to know what has gone on in various church groups, conferences, etc. in the history of Mennonite writing. I need to understand those who held or now hold formal rank and wield the power of censure or absolution. The fact that those bodies-politic were, or still are, all-male and seem as intellectually homegenous as those identical rows of psuedotsuga benches upon which they, uhh, ‘hang ten’ bugs me not a little and diminishes their validity in my view. But still.
So, yeah… I’ll work to enhance my knowledge of the history of “insider” writing in the Mennonite fiction canon. It will enhance my POV even as I see my externality as an equally worthy, and perhaps in the final analysis, less incumbered point of origin. My lifetime of personal experiences continue to kick me “right in the back pocket” and won’t allow me to ignore their painful presence. Plus, considering the depth and context of my personal Mennonite experience–with both a Russian delegate and a shunning in my antecedents–and my 50-years in one of the central milieus and eras of Mennonite evoloution… I feel I should tell the stories I have lived.
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Winnipeg blogger and author MaryLou Driedger (“What Next?”) had this interesting post on her site recently: Flash Fiction and The Group of Seven. I’ve re-blogged it here partly because she mentions me in her post.
She has pointed out that photographic artist Phil Hossack and I will draw from people and places in Manitoba to create an ekphrastic prose-filled artbook. The photography will offer one interpretation and prose another.
MaryLou accurately points out some similarities between our concept and the excellent new book, The Group of Seven Reimagined published by Heritage House in Victoria and edited by Karen Schauber.
Like the Group of Seven book and other artbooks that combine visual art and the written word, we too will be called upon to create an aesthetic that is worthy of the subject matter. Our “design charette” has paid attention to the design on the printed page. Some benchmarks: Unity & Variety; Balance; Emphasis & Subordination; Directional Forces (visual flow of pages, spreads, covers, bleeds, etc.); Contrast; Repetition & Rhythm; Scale & Proportion.
Leading our design… the recurrent themes or stepping stones will be People, Places, and Light. Phil and I are excited, eager to begin, but we’ll wait for the all-clear Covid siren to sound before we hit the road.
Below: One of Phil’s evocative images, Roseisle artist Stephen Jackson near the Sourisford Linear Burial Mounds. This photo provides a possible example of how People, Place, and Light might combine to suggest a fictional narrative with a distinctive Manitoba inflection.
This project, with the working title, “People, Places, and Light — a Manitoba journey” is assisted by a “Create” grant from MAC | CAM.
I have a new story out today. The inspiration for this tale comes from my real-life friend Irene M. and her mom. Taking the plotline related to me last summer, I created a composite small-town mom, mixing aspects of Irene’s wonderful tale of resolve with memories of my own mom and her steely side.
The result is the short fiction, “The Grittiness of Mango Chiffon.” This story is live online now, August 10, on the great Canadian literary journal, Agnes and True.
It’s a special story for me in lots of ways—timely too—and so I’m hoping it will get lots of reads, shares, forwards, and reviews. If you are able, please give it a glance and send it around to friends who might have a special understanding of some of the conditions and the times and places described, or who might relate to the overall grin-and-shimmy of it.
I’m hoping that someday my granddaughter (Hurricane) Hazel will read this and say, “What the crease-resistant Fortrel was Gramps talking about? Could it really have been like that?” You see, Hazel—like all of her aunts, great-aunts, grandmothers, great-grandmothers and definitely her mom—is made of stern stuff, just like the main character in the story.
In art and design the quatrefoil is an important and frequently used element. I don’t know too much about them but I enjoy them for their simultaneous blend of simplicity and complexity. A quatrefoil consists essentially of four overlapping equal-sized circles, with variants on that theme. Like a meander or a spiral, there is an innate optical pleasingness in looking at a quatrefoil and that is one of the reasons why it is a fundamental of visual art and design.
Both the quatrefoil and the spaces between its evenly aligned ranks and files are visually soothing. Looking at these shapes scratches an itch in your brain, the one you did not realize you had until it got scratched.
I think. I did not look all of this up on Wikipedia, nor have I studied this in the past nor do I have special intuitive knowledge powers (“super genius stuff”), like some C- grade undergrads from Wharton. Wharton is in Pennsylvania. I think.
Four. 4. Quarters. Quatro. Four anything can be represented by a quatrefoil. Four lads from Liverpool, the Ninja Turtles, four ripe plums, or four asteroids in orbit around one of the nine moons of Endor…
Today, I have four good things to talk about. I have listed them as Quatrefoil One through Four:
Nice people are overrepresented in the business of fiction. Thank goodness. If it wasn’t for the nice people, I would lose my mind because this writing shit is super genius stuff and that means, for me—a non-graduate of Wharton undergraduate studies, Cambridge University or Endor (or any of its moons)—it is hard as f*ck!
Quarrel One. The diamond-shaped pieces between adjacent quatrefoils are sometimes called “quarrels”, especially in a description of fenestration — like the stained glass windows in the King’s College at Cambridge. (A place, like Endor, where actual “super genius stuff” takes place.) Quarrel is a fine word and so I’ll use it here to describe the fillers I have inserted into each space between my four good things. Each of the three quarrels will describe something about quatrefoils. There is no extra charge for these trequarrels of sublime, intermediary (or interlocutory, cuz that is also a fun, six-syllable word) information.
I am able to enjoy the lake we live next to in almost any condition. If it is warm, I can swim in it. There’s fishing, but somehow I don’t get around to that much. In summer, on calm mornings, I can row across its surface. When it’s really windy, I can windsurf. Windsurfing is basically a showing-off activity so when I am out windsurfing I am thinking super genius stuff like: “I bet those people sitting on the dock over there would be prett-ty-prett-ty impressed if they knew that I’m a GD pensioner!” Meanwhile, the person on the dock is actually busy wondering if Regina really does rhyme with “vagina” or whether that Canadian guy was just having them on…
If it is just a little windy I can windsurf on a board equipped with a hydrofoil. This is a new windsurfing invention and it really ramps up the “bet those people are impressed” thoughts in my show-offy brain. It may also increase the shoreline spectator consideration of other Canadian city names like Moose Jaw, Upper Rubber Boot, Crotch Lake, Dildo, and Climax.
Quarrel Two.A quatrefoil arch is a common feature in gothic architecture. Cathedrals are loaded with ’em.
Quatrefoil Three. I have work out soon in three exceptional Canadian publications and one based in the U.S.:
On Sunday, July 19th, at 2pm Pacific time, I’ll be part of a virtual (online) launch for Pulp Literature Issue 27. The launch will be on PL’s Discord server channel, and I hope you’ll be able to join in. Just like an in-person launch, there will be door prizes and chances to chat with the authors, who will be reading from their work. The event has contributions from Denmark to Western Australia. But none from Elbow. (Saskatchewan… there may be one from Elbow, Ontario, though — home of the Elbow Roughriders.)
August will see the launch of a new issue of Agnes and True, an exceptional Canadian online literary journal. I’m super genius excited to be in this market and can’t wait for folks to read my story, “The Grittiness of Mango Chiffon”, a tale of fashion, warmth, and redoubtable resolve.
My pick-up truck saga, “The Sunshine Girl” will shine its ever-lovin’ light on Cowboy Jamboree, sometime this fall. “An interesting slice-of-life vignette…” according to Editor Adam Van Winkle.
“A grit lit rag promoting fiction in the vein of Donald Ray Pollock and Larry Brown and Dorothy Allison and the like.”—Cowboy Jamboree, About.
Quarrel Three.Are quatrefoils lucky? Do they have special, magical powers? Do they stay crunchy in milk? I don’t want to influence your religious beliefs or otherwise stray onto private property but I’d say quatrefoils are never considered unlucky.
Quatrefoil Four. Drumroll, please. My grant application to the Manitoba Arts Council | Conseil des Arts du Manitoba has been accepted! My proposal to produce a Manitoba artbook will be going ahead as soon as Covid-19 allows free travel around the province. My collaborator, photographer Phil Hossack, and I will work together to create an ekphrastic collection of Manitoba-based short fiction and photography. The three-part theme we want to focus on: People, Place, Light. We’ll travel the province to gather extraordinary stories and pictures from ordinary folks.
More on this project soon, but for now, please let me know if you have a Manitoba location, a person, a story, or if you know someone with a printing press sitting around not doing much. These are all things we could use!
PEOPLE | PLACE | LIGHT
Manitoba is endowed with remarkable people. From Louis Riel to other famous individuals like Gabriel Roy, Cindy Klassen, Miriam Toews, and many, many more, there are lots to choose from. There’s also a plethora of the not-so-famous—but just as interesting. It’s predominantly this latter group we hope to meet and share with our readers, though story-telling and visual arts.
Our province is one of diversity not just in the origins of its people, but in its geography too. The North, the prairies, the boreal, rivers, lakes, a great city and numerous smaller communities with singular stories to tell and show. Manitoba places make for fascinating discovery and study.
Sunny Manitoba. As every Manitoban who has spent time out of the province knows, it is our light, both in terms of the vast size of the sky over the flat prairie landscape, and its year-round abundance that makes the sun’s absense felt most acutely when we are away from home. Whether it’s sitting on a Whiteshell dock in the unfading light of a late June evening, or waiting impatiently for the sunrise on a frozen January morning, Manitobans’ relationship with daylight—with the sun—is special and unlike any other place. So too, light plays a dominant role in the art of photography and we believe that by paying special attention to light in our photos (and in our fiction!) we’ll uncover truths that may otherwise have gone, uh… unilluminated.
So that’s it. Four cool things. A quatrefoil.
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I don’t enter too many contests. They almost all charge a fee, which is understandable. I am a cheap Menno—also understandable to those who have taken the pledge of frugality that is part of every Oma’s hand-me-down tool kit for survival in the wide welt.
A contest I have entered a few times is from Pulp Literature Press. It’s called the Bumblebee Flash Fiction Contest. In 2019, I made the longlist. This year, my story was named the Editors’ Choice. A ground-rule double, which I will take with as much bat-flippin’ humility as my over-caffeinated morning-person self can muster. I’m damned pleased.
Furthermore, I felt as though this story was, in part, a product of my excellent Writing Circle in Wpg, led by Wpg Public Library Writer-in-Res, Carolyn Gray. It’s a talented group and I’ve learned a lot from our meetings.
PL is an exceptional lit mag… small press… group of editors and artists… and a judge with plenty of creds. It’s an exemplary part of the white-hot West Coast writing community; home to a blintering sky full of starry writers and poets. As a former BC resident (nine years in the WACK) I am proud of what Pulp Lit has done and is doing.
I read a lot of short stories. Not as many as a literary journal editor—the former editor of Crazyhorse (or maybe it was The Literary Review) estimated at one time that he had read 10,000! That’s a lot. Crazy many. Wilt-like.
Not counting my own stories—read and re-read on a seemingly endless cycle, editing or not—I read at least a story a day and usually two or three. This has reduced the amount of fiction I read in novel form. And, kind of contradictory to the novel result, I now read far more poetry than ever before. I don’t write (much) poetry, but I sure love reading a verklempt-provoking line, even if I don’t quite know WTF is going on, distracted as I am by the many swooshing sounds I hear over my freckled skull.
I no longer read newspapers, something I used to love—right up there with beer, bacon, and baseball. Now I get my newspaper calories from the internet. Columnists and pundits, wags and woebegonists.
A treat these last few years is to read the CNF and ramblings of my friends and those I would like to befriend. ML Driedger and Hoss Neufeld are among the former. (Two Snowbird Western writers who resemble Miss Kitty and Marshall Dillon. Or more so Marshall Dylan, when the gunsmoke clears.)
I also read many writers like me, whose lariats spin sometimes wild, sometimes lazy as we seek to lasso the moon. Some oh-bah-fine shorts I have read lately (or revisited, like Hwy 61) include:
“The Laughing Man”, Salinger. Find it online as easy as Bananafish pie.
“Bullet in the Brain”, Tobias Wolff. Also just a gecko-twitch away, via Google. (This month’s group read for the Wpg Public Library Writing Circle, led by W-I-R Carolyn Gray.)
“The Tree Planter”, Spencer Sekulin. On *Fiction on the Web* a UK joint edited by Sir Charlie Fish.
“Sparking Spot”, Ramona Jones Go to Ms. Jones FB page and track it down there.
All this is part of my latest (and one of my bestest) rock-strewn trails: “Travel widely, experiment boldly, love deeply… ” Words to live by from one of my painting heroes, Winslow Homer. I can handle the second and the third as well as any cheroot-chewin’ gunslinger who cares to draw down on me. The travel one too, with buts and caveats—I can go where I wanna go, do what I wanna do, so long as Swoop flies there for next to frickin’ nuthin’, or our grandkids are there/going to be there, or I win the lottery. (The less common kind of lottery for which you don’t have to buy tickets to win.)
But maybe I don’t need to travel as widely as ol’ WH would have me do… I live in the four seasons of nature surrounded not by people and parking lots and coffee spoons, but rather by small-but-tough animals, white-capped water, and a forest of cross-country skis and tall timber. The love of my redheaded life sits across the dining room table from me each day and inexplicably, loves me deeply with her big brown eyes.
So, I hope interesting, unusual, flaky people can drop by Jessica from time to time, so I can hack the Winslow directive to travel widely. We’ll “welcome widely!”
8.26.20—And another, read with passion and intelligence at 28:55 in this open mic (San Fran Mechanics’ Institute) by Bay Area author Francee Covington… her BLM essay, “Uneasy Lies the Head of the Black Mom.” https://youtu.be/CwijFbQ-YcM
P.S.—I chime in with a reading of “Freight Trains and Jet Planes” right after Ms. Covington’s performance.
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