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Amy Reiswig

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  1. Mythic dam battle at Site C is a showdown between “progress” and those who would preserve the valley. FOUR-YEAR-OLD CALEB helped pull late September corn stalks at Ken and Arlene Boon’s farm, uncovering the pumpkins he’d eventually choose among for Halloween. There on a bank of the Peace River, this boy with blue glasses and dirty hands is the fifth generation to harvest in this garden, likely unaware that he may be the last, as the new highway for Site C will run through this part of his grandparents’ expropriated land. Nearby at Tluuge sus (Bear Flat), First Nations families have gathered for thousands of years—long before the Boons arrived. Cultural camps allow the sharing of ancestral knowledge and help maintain a spiritual connection to the land…for now. Site C construction will claim it, too. Farther out, downstream in the river itself, is what locals call Eagle Island. Named for its nests, every tree there has already been cut down. These aren’t scenes you’ll find in government reports, industry-commissioned studies, or mainstream media accounts about the now-greenlit hydro megaproject taking shape in northeastern BC. Rather, they are some of the intimate stories told in award-winning journalist Sarah Cox’s new book Breaching the Peace: The Site C Dam and a Valley’s Stand Against Big Hydro (UBC Press, May 2018). Through in-person visits, detailed interviews, and dogged research, Cox takes us to meet the place, its people, and its rare and little-studied ecosystems—all in peril. She reminds us that for local First Nations, farmers, and hundreds of species, the Peace River Valley is not a hydro opportunity; it’s home. Sarah Cox Billed as climate-friendly clean energy to meet future demand, the Site C dam was first proposed in the 1950s and has been a topic of hot debate, and resistance, for decades. Designed to produce 1100 megawatts on some of the province’s best agricultural land, Site C would affect 34 farms, the traditional territories of the Treaty 8 First Nations, 450 known archaeological sites, 900 areas of “paleontological sensitivity,” and more than 100 species at risk by flooding 128 kilometres of the Peace River Valley and its tributary valleys. As Cox encourages us to imagine, that’s the area between Victoria and Nanaimo under up to 15 storeys of water. The zone widens when you include the stability impact line and the wave impact line (where reservoir waves caused by landslides would reach). Oh, and there’s the new highway. It’s all going to cost us $10.7 billion, as of the January 2018 estimate. That’s a lot of numbers, and I often lament that “number” contains the word “numb.” While Cox, with a saint’s patience, sifts through the tens of thousands of pages of environmental impact assessments to tell us, for instance, that “fourteen at-risk butterfly species will also be impacted by the project, including the Old World swallowtail and Aphrodite fritillary,” she clearly knows from her own experience that it takes more than data to help people understand what’s at stake and what’s been happening in the now bittersweetly named Peace. Like most British Columbians, Cox had never been to the Peace region. That changed in 2013 while working for Sierra Club BC. Being there, her expectations of “just another pretty BC valley” were blown open, and she describes what she instead encountered: “something of a biological curiosity…a northern Garden of Eden.” After that personal contact, her ideas about conservation shifted, looking at nature to include “the preservation of other values as well: traditional way of life, human history, the smaller green spaces that connect protected areas for wildlife, how everything fits together.” From that, the spark was lit. “I remember the end of a conversation with a friend from the Peace,” she tells me, tucked into a quiet upstairs nook at Nourish Cafe. “I said, ‘I wish there was something else I could do.’ I literally woke up the next morning with the idea for the book.” Personal contact is truly at the heart of Breaching the Peace. We hear the voices of expropriated landowners, of First Nations Chiefs and activists, even of birds like the endangered yellow rail, or the slow drip from the delicate geology of tufa seeps. Cox’s hands-on approach produces an ever-surprising series of “who knew?” moments: in the Peace you can grow everything from artichokes to watermelon; you can find 11,000-year-old taiga vole bones on the same land as prickly pear cactus growing farther north than Moscow; BC doesn’t have stand-alone legislation to protect endangered species; and methylmercury from flooded forest and agricultural land means Chief Roland Willson of West Moberly First Nations must already lament, “Nowadays what I get to do is to teach my son how to throw contaminated fish back into the river.” “I was surprised all the way along,” Cox tells me, “by the extent of the damage—the damage to First Nations communities and rights and title, the damage to the environment, the damage to farmland.” And she’s not easy to shock. With an MA in political science, a freelance journalism career (earning a Vancouver Press Club Award, a BC Journalism Award, and two Western Magazine Awards), and a background with science-based conservation organizations, Cox has more recently been the legislative reporter for DeSmog Canada, focusing on energy and environmental issues. Site C wraps all of Cox’s interests into one big, unruly ball which she deftly untangles. But Cox doesn’t just gather and chronicle information. The beauty of her book is that it allows us to stand in closer, deeper relation to this threatened place and its determined people. And we should. Its loss is rationalized as being for our collective gain, so there’s a responsibility to know what is being sacrificed for our supposed good. You can’t fight for—or mourn—what you didn’t even know existed. The public also can’t stand up against an invisible process; that’s the other side of her story. Cox wanted people to see exactly what expropriation in BC looks like, and how BC Hydro quietly bought up land in the Peace, spending millions, all through the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, and early 2000s until the BC Liberals made good on their intention to push Site C past the point of no return, despite previous rejections. She wants people to see the tactics employed—not by a foreign-owned corporation, but by their own Crown corporation —in an intimidating BC Hydro civil suit against First Nations protesters in order to discourage potential future involvement (a suit, Cox notes, that’s still open). Quite simply, she says: “The story of what’s going on up there needs to get out.” So while BC Hydro and the Canadian Hydropower Association wouldn’t speak to her, she ducked underneath and behind official lines to gather evidence through one-on-one talks, digging through stashes of letters and clippings, conferring with scientists, making FOI requests, excavating unsorted museum archives, hiking out on the land, visiting an international hydro conference, and meeting with alternative energy producers. She also considers the global context of hydro megaprojects dating back to the 1920s and through to cautionary contemporary examples of Muskrat Falls, Newfoundland, and the Keeyask Dam in Manitoba. Big dams once stood as symbols of progress, independence, and ingenuity, but later represented corruption and arrogance, as environmental and human costs became too great to defend… until now. She writes: “One project that was dusted off and polished with a climate-friendly cloth was Site C. It joined big hydro dams around the world…as a phoenix rising from the ashes.” The climate has changed indeed. While Cox’s prose is controlled, deliberate, shot through with wonder, deep respect, and empathy, she injects a sense of the mythic, conveying the enormity of the larger principles at play—and also at risk. Despite NDP Premier John Horgan’s giving the go-ahead in December, Cox doesn’t believe the fight is quite over. With two First Nations court cases and major geotechnical issues (she says they still haven’t found bedrock), she believes Site C’s fire may still go out. “The public turning against the project could also stop it,” she says. “I think most people still don’t know.” With Breaching the Peace, we’ll all know a lot more. Writer and editor Amy Reiswig continues to believe that our greatest natural resource is one another—to listen, ask questions, find solutions, and stand in support.
  2. Claire Sicherman delves into the silent stories of her family’s traumatic past. AN ARRAY OF OLD PHOTOGRAPHS stands on a wooden table: grandparents, great-grandparents, great-aunt and -uncle, even a great-great-grandmother against a backdrop of fruit trees. It’s Yom HaShoah, and writer Claire Sicherman, her husband, and their young son stand together, honouring their many relatives murdered in the Holocaust, as well as those who survived—the ones who made this family’s life possible. For each cherished name, they float a red anemone blossom in a bowl of water, saying: “We love you and we will always remember you.” Sicherman tells the story of this personal ritual in her new book Imprint: A Memoir of Trauma in the Third Generation (Caitlin Press, December 2017). It’s a perfect illustration of her writing project as a whole. Her book, like her creative ceremony, is about learning how to keep memory alive; how to grieve, not just alone, but together; how to heal; and, ultimately, how to make meaning from that which makes no sense. Claire Sicherman Sicherman’s maternal grandparents, her babi and deda, were each the only members of their extended family to survive the Holocaust, and it was something they didn’t discuss. Though she’d occasionally see her grandmother’s Auschwitz tattoo peeking out from her sleeve, Sicherman writes: “We were all too scared to ask, to enter their trauma, to hurt them, to break them open.” And so when her grandfather committed suicide when she was just 4 years old and, much more recently, when her grandmother died at age 102, many stories went with them to the grave. “For me,” she explains over tea, “it was a twofold grief: my grandmother’s death, and then the stories that were going to be buried with her—the ones I knew and the ones I would never know.” Being third generation, several removes from the events, Sicherman has photos and facts—and even her name, Claire, which connects her to her great-grandmother Klára. But who were these people whose lives filtered down to hers, shaping her? The third generation is a tricky place: distant enough to be able to tell stories others couldn’t (or wouldn’t), but also bearing the scars without the wounds—or living with different kinds of wounds. How do you heal from those? How do you own stories full of holes, questions, absence, silence? Like that moment in her grandparents’ life, about which she can only write: “I don’t know how they are taken.” Or when she imagines what the Nazi gas van drivers did and felt while their human cargo, including her Klára, died in the back. “Would the driver casually light a cigarette?…Would he roll down the window and yell at his buddy, something funny, a joke maybe, and they’d both laugh?” And then what do you do with everything that can’t be written on the backs of photographs, or on paper at all, but is instead carried, in fragments, in the body through inherited intergenerational trauma, a genetic imprint? How do you talk about it all with the next generation to make sure we never repeat, never forget? This book offers Sicherman’s tender exploration and determined excavation toward answers. Sitting in the colourful Rock Salt Café on Salt Spring Island—where Sicherman, her husband and son recently moved (from Vancouver) in order to live more slowly and closer to nature—her warmth and generosity convey resilience and wisdom, specifically the wisdom to be curious rather than stay stuck in grief. But Sicherman doesn’t see herself as courageous; rather, she says she was compelled to enter the dark places to connect to the stories, to the people, and, in many ways, to herself. “I felt something simmering beneath my skin,” she tells me. “And as I began to write, I felt it was my ancestors voicing and encouraging me to tell their stories. I didn’t have a choice. I felt like either I would write and it would kill me, or I wouldn’t write and it would kill me. In the end, I think I chose the healthier path for myself,” she smiles, “because it didn’t kill me.” She also lets the book shine with the light of her life—her 11-year-old son, Ben—although we learn that he came into this world wrapped in a trauma of his own, asphyxiated by his umbilical cord and painstakingly revived. He was named after his father’s favourite uncle, a Holocaust survivor, and Sicherman notes that some scholars have interpreted “Benjamin” to mean “build” or “rebuild.” She writes directly to him in the book: “Ben, you are the son of our family…We are slowly gathering the pieces and building a life, creating a narrative. Your story is one of rebirth.” It turns out hers is, too. Told in four sections—roughly: the Holocaust and extended family; Ben; her relationship to herself; her journey into healing—each is a mix of memoir, journal entries, letters, and lists. With that fragmented structure, Imprint reflects Sicherman’s inner experience, the movement of her mind as she makes discoveries and finds threads. And it shows her need to touch in and out, to protect herself as she (re)connects her ancestral past, her daily present, and her family’s future. At the end of their Yom HaShoah ritual, after the list of names has been read, there are so many flowers floating that they can’t see the water. They carry the bowl out into the afternoon and together place the red anemones around the base of a blossoming cherry tree. Ben, now the fourth generation, pours out the water onto its roots. Like Sicherman’s book, it’s a gesture of transformation. For just as beautifully, she has poured out her tears and memories and love onto the page, and with an open heart has done her part to nurture strength, growth, and life. “I don’t feel brave,” she tells me quietly but sternly. “But I do feel a bravery that’s connected to being vulnerable. We see vulnerability as a weakness in our society. I’ve felt that myself: ‘What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I be this strong person?’ We wear masks in the outside world, and those masks are what keep us from connecting. I think those masks are a weakness. For me, healing is a process that’s going to take my whole life. It’s just something that I do, day to day.” Through her writing, she graciously lets us into her process—and encourages us to undertake a form of it ourselves, in relation to whatever family circumstances and unexplored family stories we, too, may have. Her hope is that we can all find a way in. In Victoria, the Yom HaShoah commemoration event, organized by the Victoria Shoah Project, will take place 11am to noon on Sunday, April 15, at the Victoria Jewish Cemetery on Cedar Hill Road. In her research and editing work at McGill’s Holocaust oral testimony archive, Amy Reiswig was daily humbled and inspired by the power to be vulnerable and break the silence.
  3. Amy Reiswig

    Whale in the Door

    Author Pauline Le Bel’s personal journey of losses, learning, and hope for Howe Sound. OUTSIDE PAULINE LE BEL'S FRONT WINDOW on Kwilákm/Bowen Island, the Coast Mountains become something new. In what maps call Mount Strachan, Le Bel sees the head of a Sleeping Woman whose pregnant belly carries much more than the mundane name of Saint Mark’s Peak. Sometimes blanketed in snow, sometimes clothed in cloud, the reclined giant faces the sky and silently tells a new story—one about seeing differently, seeing what could be, seeing with love. Written under that view, Le Bel’s new book, Whale in the Door: A Community Unites to Protect BC’s Howe Sound (Caitlin Press), is all about making space for a new story to shape the way we see and approach the land. A spectacular fjord reaching inward from the Strait of Georgia, with Gibsons on one side and West Van on the other, Atl’kitsem/Howe Sound stretches 42 kilometres up to Squamish. Historically home to the Skwxwú7mesh Úxwumixw/Squamish Nation, Captain Vancouver named this area after Admiral Earl Howe, someone who Le Bel notes never laid foot or eye on its beauty. From mountains she calls “custodians” of the forests, to the deep regions of the ancient glass sponge reefs, Howe Sound is and has been many things to many people, and Le Bel chronicles ways in which use of the Sound has divided people. More importantly, she has now begun to unite those who dare to see it differently—to see, as Le Bel writes, with “eyes that have learned to see source, and not just resource.” Pauline Le Bel (Photo by Virginia Penny) Whale in the Door is partly a chronicle of Le Bel’s own learning. From First Nations history to modern industrial despoilment to current ecological and cultural renewal, Le Bel digs into what has shaped this sharp stretch of land and water. Though full of information even locals will likely not know, it’s not at all academic. While her previous book, Becoming Initimate with the Earth, took its energy from sadness and loss, this one, she tells me, is born out of gratitude and love. As in any love story, it’s all about relationship. Le Bel came to the area 19 years ago, at first falling for the green winters of Vancouver during an eye-opening work trip from Edmonton, and eventually settling on Bowen. A professional artist who’s made a living in theatre, music and writing—and won an Emmy nomination for her feature-length drama The Song Spinner (also an award-winning novel)—she says the Muses descended upon her with extra force the week after she arrived on Bowen. She was inspired, breathed into. For a curious, bold, and energetic doer like Le Bel, that also meant learning and being changed. One of her core beliefs, she tells me by phone, is that we are born not just into a place, but into the stories of that place. Which means when we move or exchange places, we can therefore seek out and meet the stories of a new place. That is precisely what Le Bel has poured herself into, and what she shares here. As a result, Whale in the Door is more personal than history or journalism. With her, the reader learns things they’d never know unless, like Le Bel, they went salmon counting or looking for forage fish embryos on the beach with a marine biologist or interviewed industry executives or humbly listened to First Nations Elders over bowls of soup. Yes, we learn shocking stories about Howe Sound becoming one of the most polluted places in North America, thanks to pulp mills, mining, chemical plants and other industrial use. But remember, this is a book about relationship. Losses and damage on the land and in the water mean great losses and damage first and foremost to the First Nations whose lives have for centuries been tied to that land and water. Le Bel’s care, not just as a writer but as a person, is what leads us into the book’s heart, and hers. Her desire to connect means we get introduced to individuals living the story of Howe Sound, like Randall Lewis, environmental advisor for the Squamish Nation and president of the Squamish River Watershed Society. He remembers football practice in 1973 when a chemical plant explosion sent up orange-green clouds, and Elders warned not to eat the berries and plants. He recalls how a 2005 CN derailment sent fish jumping out of the Cheakamus River to escape the burning caustic soda. And when in the late ’80s DFO shut down the crab and shrimp fishing in Howe Sound because of dioxin and furan levels, Elders continued eating the seafood because, as Lewis explained, “there was no other choice and that’s all they knew.” But the Howe Sound story is also one of activism and hope, for we see many sectors of the community pulling together to create a new narrative, one of environmental and cultural renewal. Whether it’s large-scale industry change, elementary school Squamish language classes, or eelgrass, estuary, and food restoration projects, we see the growing commitment among Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities to work together to change the story—a story where people and place are inseparable. We become more aware of the need to recognize relationship. As Randall Lewis told Le Bel: “If you want to fix things, fix the land. We need to make the spirit of the land strong again. If the land is strong, it will make our spirit strong. And future generations will receive the blessings of the land.” That goes for all of us here. With a foreword by federal Green Party leader Elizabeth May, the book celebrates successes, but begs for caution with regard to future plans. The resilient but still recovering area faces pipelines, a gravel mine, resorts, commercial and residential developments, an estuary-impacting connector road and, looming largest, the proposed Woodfibre LNG plant which is again dividing communities. “Of course we need industry,” Le Bel tells me. “It’s how we do it.” And how we do it depends on the story underneath it. What we need to ask, she says, is: “What story will help us live well?” Le Bel sees the artist’s role as “reclaim, reframe and rename—without shame.” She hopes the book will inspire people in other communities to realize that the kind of renewal going on in Howe Sound is achievable elsewhere. “It’s a good book for any community wanting to take charge and get that connection,” she says. “It’s possible.” It’s possible to look differently at what’s outside your window. Most people look at the mountains we call the Lions, but don’t know the story of Chíchiyuy, the Twins or the Sisters, and their example of how conflict can be resolved with dignity, respect, and peace. People climb what they call the Chief but don’t know the story of Siyam Smanit. We can learn. We should learn. Imaginatively giving the area itself a say by writing in the voice of Howe Sound, a voice inspired by her Sleeping Woman, Le Bel says: “In this place, you may come to understand the meaning of your own life.” Heading into a new year is the perfect time to ask: What role can I play? Part of Whale in the Door’s proceeds will be donated to Squamish Nation youth programs. Having grown up with a glass sponge expert father, writer and editor Amy Reiswig always gets excited when someone else, like Le Bel, knows what they are!
  4. In his new book, award-winning writer Tim Lilburn begins the process of “personal decolonization.” HOW WOULD YOU ANSWER THE SEEMINGLY SIMPLE QUESTION: Where are you? Not the political construct of municipal boundaries or overlaid names from colonial mapmakers, but the land under your feet—where are you? How do you meet it, belong to it, and why does that matter? Tim Lilburn has been wrestling with such questions in his writing, his classrooms, and his heart for decades. In his new book of essays, The Larger Conversation: Contemplation and Place (University of Alberta Press, October 2017), he continues his search by zoning in on the issue as it particularly confronts descendants of European settlers: How to be here and, as he writes, “What does justice ask of us?” Tim Lilburn An award-winning poet, philosopher, creative writing teacher, editor, and former Jesuit and CUSO worker, Lilburn is an existential and intellectual explorer who keeps coming back to ideas of home. Born in Regina and attached to the landscapes of Saskatchewan—evident in poetry collections like Moosewood Sandhills and To the River—his transplantation to Victoria was difficult. He felt like he was bouncing off of things in unfamiliar territory. But no matter where he’s been in his life, his sense of being “unmoored” has rooted his research and thought as he walks the long interior path of trying to understand, and seeking nourishment to appease, a deep hunger and sense of loneliness for place. The Larger Conversation picks up threads from his two previous books of essays—Going Home (2008) and Living in the World as if It Were Home (1999). But this new volume adds Lilburn’s relatively recent insight into how his malaise, his feeling unsure of how to be at home where he is, is related to colonialism and the worldview that drives it. Therefore, as he writes in the introduction, “This book represents a ragged beginning at a personal attempt at decolonization” which aims to dig underneath the foundations of imperialist thinking. It’s a process he calls “psychic archaeology.” This personal renovation, he says, is necessary work. In a series of essays, lectures, confessions, and interviews, all based on years of reading and research, Lilburn shares not new but old, reclaimed ways of thinking—long-ignored riches from the Christian, Judaic and Islamic contemplative wisdom traditions in thinkers like Plato, Ibn ’Arabi, Julian of Norwich, Marguerite Porete, Suhrawardi, 14th-century Flemish mystic John Ruusbroec, and more. Their phenomenologies are based on the kind of interior practice that results in what Lilburn calls “a feasting attention.” Values of courtesy, humility, and permeability can help him, and us, lay groundwork for a meaningful relationship to place that is the wellspring of ethics—ethics reaching beyond the individual self. It is fitting that on October 10, Lilburn was awarded The European Medal of Poetry and Art, also known as the Homer Medal, whose jury considers artists whose works offer “a universal message to the world, close to the ancient patterns.” Over coffee on a sunny Friday afternoon, Lilburn soft-spokenly yet passionately explains that for him, philosophy, which grounds politics, is interior practice. “I have a deep personal—as opposed to professional—interest in this. I feel that these folks can help me. It’s not like a hobby. It’s a fighting for air, fighting for intellectual and interior air.” As a result, this book is more personal than his previous essay collections, and he opens up about his own difficulties and despairs, as well as transformative non-rational experiences of beauty that cast doubt on an ultimately deficient Cartesian system which he calls “the starvation rations of a brutally literal single-ply empiricism.” He’s seen that other people are desperate, too, and has recognized a similar hunger in seekers also “floating above land,” as he says, in late-capitalist modernity. “I’ve been long convinced that there is not enough in the culture, as it’s narrowly and usually construed today, to support a deep interior life,” he tells me. “There’s no grounding in wisdom that our culture provides. We live in the midst of this lack. It’s become normalized for us. We tolerate it to the point that we forget that it actually exists.” The book is one not just of renovation but retrieval. In order to undo the Western extractive, colonial approach to land—one that uses, warehouses, and dominates—we have to return to our former strengths, what Lilburn calls “cognitive rebar.” “Primarily,” he says, “what we lost was a valuing of, and our capacity to practice within, a contemplative discipline. It’s as simple as that, really. There are stories, belief systems and spiritual exercises all around it, but that’s the core. It doesn’t matter what your background is.” I’m not going to lie: Lilburn’s book is a hard read. Sometimes I felt lost. Often I felt dumb when hitting phrases like “tesseraic understanding,” “sacerdotal ascesis,” or flipping to the glossary or reaching for my dictionary for terms like apokatastasis, haecceity, phronesis, anachoresis. “But then,” Lilburn laughs with delight, “you realize a word isn’t even in the dictionary!” Lilburn has a quiet but impish sense of humour, and he’s keenly aware that some readers will see the book as too scholarly or too dense, despite his protestation “I’m not a scholar. I’m just a panic-stricken individual who has a library card.” My own master’s thesis focused on poetry in the eremitic tradition, meaning I could hear the faint ring of a few bells as I went. Yet, I confess I almost gave up several times. But I’m glad I didn’t. Abrasive as the process could be, it peels you. And this is precisely what’s needed. The more I persevered, the more I realized how little I’d critically examined my own inherited Eurocentric culture. I can tell many of the myths surrounding our names for planets and constellations, but how many native species can I identify in my Fairfield backyard? Where exactly am I? “This kind of disorientation that you experienced is not wasted time,” Lilburn affirms after my confessions of difficulty. “This is an important contemplative moment, this kind of rearranging of the intellectual molecules.” I’m glad I ultimately gave up only on the dictionary, and started trusting the text to give me what I needed, trusting myself to rise up to meet it. I became attentive, humble, permeable. And it became a conversation. The book brings a sense of urgency, set against the backdrop of climate change and of this past strangely-twinned “Year of Reconciliation” and “Canada 150” celebrations. What Lilburn shows us is that the settler side has a long way to go to get its philosophical (interior practice) house in order if we want to come to the table meaningfully in terms of the land and those we share it with. “This retrieval will be helpful,” he says. “It will give us a set of interior skills, capacities. This book is interested in the possibility of a new start, a new epistemological start for Europeans here that includes the possibility of spiritually deep conversations with First Nations.” What justice asks of us is that we do the work to prepare for conversation. Writer and editor Amy Reiswig is grateful for every moment of being able to call this place home and will approach it and its people with deeper attention and listening every day.
  5. Victoria poet laureate Yvonne Blomer combines literary forces to appreciate and protect our large salty neighbour. HERE ON THE WEST COAST, we’re on the edge of something big. Quite literally, I mean the ocean, but also more. For now is a time of urgent concern and, hopefully, a shift toward responsive action to help save our big blue neighbour. Those twin engines of fear and hope have propelled Yvonne Blomer, Victoria’s poet laureate, into curating a new anthology, Refugium: Poems for the Pacific (Caitlin Press). These works invite us into greater conversation with ourselves and others as we contemplate just how we face the sea—with everything that means—here on our shared fragile edge. Refugium collects the voices of over 80 poets and takes its title from the biological term meaning a place where something can survive a period of unfavourable conditions. While the Pacific is huge and daunting in its power, it is in peril. Rising water temperatures, increasing acidification, accumulation of plastics, over-fishing, increased shipping noise and tanker traffic, toxic residential and industrial waste (everything that runs off or out of the greedy core of a commerce-driven civilization)—all threaten various ocean creatures and ecosystems. But the overarching unfavourable conditions producing those threats are less tangible: our attitudes. Can the ocean survive us? Blomer, who also recently published Sugar Ride: Cycling from Hanoi to Kuala Lampur (Palimpsest Press, May 2017), a memoir of her travels—as a longtime diabetic—by bike through Southeast Asia, is an idealist at heart. She intends Refugium itself to be a kind of refugium for the Pacific. Which is why, in a nuanced word choice, these are not poems about or to the ocean, but for it. “I hope the book isn’t the only place that the Pacific Ocean thrives in 20, 40 or 100 years from now,” she tells me. “But in creating a book that is for the Pacific, a refugium for it, I hope we’ll inspire creation of real-world or outside-the-book refugia.” Yvonne Blomer The project was first conceived in 2014, when Blomer was applying for the City of Victoria’s poet laureateship, and initially focused on local poets. Eventually, Blomer decided the theme warranted a broader call-out. For one thing, she explains, “issues like Kinder Morgan are known across North America.” But also, she finds that many poets express a more personal link to the Pacific. “We have a connection to this large salty body. Fewer of the submissions were about creatures than our social or individual connection to the ocean. ‘I go to the ocean to grieve.’ Or ‘I enter the ocean to feel whole again.’ Even if you’ve only done it once, you’ll remember it.” And so the anthology brings together coastal locals (like Jordan Abel, John Barton, Brian Brett, Lorna Crozier, Gary Geddes, Anita Lahey, Isa Milman, Arleen Paré, Patricia and Terence Young, Jan Zwicky) and farther-flung voices from across North America and as far away as Hawaii, New Zealand, and even 19th-century Japan, in a modern translation of a poem entitled “The Memorial Service for Whales.” While some of Refugium’s poems have been previously published, many were written specifically for this book, as fresh expressions and explorations covering a range of emotions big enough to suit the subject. We share in specific, place-based remembrances, observances, and stories—praise for the beauty of a particular beach or cove; how a daughter holds her aging mother’s hand as they walk into the ocean, feeling powerful. We are brought to focus on individual ocean inhabitants going about their business, like urchins, sea turtles, orcas, and tideline birds picking through the plastic-choked seaweed. We can delight in wordplay, like Nancy Pagh’s “Moon Jelly” evoking “a name to spread on evening toast/ and eat/ bite by tiny bite” or Tim Bowling’s collection of Shakespearean-sounding ocean insults: “Yeah, you heard me, you Suborbicular kellyclam Twelve-tentacled parasitic anemone.… You’re nothing but a Flap-tip piddock with an Aggregated nipple sponge.” And, of course, we can mourn with those who chronicle losses and issue warnings. For example, Fiona Tinwei Lam questions what will be left, grieving for “That beauty/ we remember, but/ cannot resuscitate.” And in the timely-titled “Northern Gateway,” Lorna Crozier imagines “every spirit the salmon feeds,/ every man inside a bear, inside a whale,/ inside the throat of frog and eagle,/ every woman whose chopped hair/ tossed into the sea, grew into eel grass” all singing “a lamentation that will not cease./ You don’t want to hear that song.” Like the ocean, Refugium pushes and pulls us, comforts and terrifies us, in poems that are playful, grief-stricken, awe-struck, hopeful, condemnatory, speculative, historical, personal. But the undercurrent is all of love. For as newly elected Green Party MLA Adam Olsen writes in his introduction, “No matter how long you have been here, one month, one year or a thousand, the Pacific is part of the family.” That sense of relationship deepens through contact with so many individual perspectives in this book. For instance, relatively recent Victoria transplant Anita Lahey tells me that the call for Pacific poems gave her the nudge she needed “to try to get a sense of my relationship with this ocean and even perhaps to help build one.” And native West Coaster Barbara Pelman explains: “I can’t imagine living so far from the sea that I’d lose the rhythm of water as part of my cells. There is nothing quite so soothing as the tide coming in, and the rituals around its waters: throwing stones, skipping stones, walking on sand, collecting shiny things. A book that would both celebrate the ocean we live beside, and warn of its degradation, is a book we all need.” But with relationship, as we all know, comes challenge. How do we engage, and how deep do we go? Often, what we see looking out from our edge is just surface—the ocean’s impassive enormity. And enormity can create a false sense of security. We’ve said “too big to fail” before. Refugium takes a stand against seeing shallowly, and reorients our perspective—not just about the Pacific, but about our ability to act. As Heidi Greco’s simple poem “Edgy” asserts, “Here at the shoreline, a world/ begins:/ waves lapping,…granting a second/ chance.” And in “Three Peninsulas” Sijo Smith reminds us of our collective power: “I alone am a drop,/ but we are an ocean.” Refugium will launch, with an accompanying exhibition of artworks inspired by the poems, on October 5 at The Maritime Museum, 634 Humboldt Street. Doors at 6:30; reading at 7:30. Early bird tickets $15 (available through the Maritime Museum), $20 regular. Ticket sale profits will go toward supporting eco-education at the Maritime Museum. Daughter of a world-renowned glass sponge biologist, some of writer and editor Amy Reiswig’s most cherished childhood memories involve Pacific tidepooling with her dad. So much love starts in the sea.
  6. An out-of-the-box thinker, writer, editor and translator believes in daring to be different for the social good. paulo da costa’s new book, The Midwife of Torment & Other Stories, is with Guernica Editions, an Ontario publisher specializing in world literature. Their motto, “No Borders No Limits,” is an apt summation of da costa’s work. He brings an international, multicultural background and vision to a genre that pushes readers into strange and sometimes uncomfortable territory. Through his lens, we can expand our ideas about ourselves and our place in the larger, magical connectivity of the world. Even the way he lowercases his name is meant to expand our thinking. He is, he explains, disrupting “naming patterns” which reflect human self-importance in an effort to promote the equality of creation. da costa comes from a culture of storytelling. Born in Angola, he spent the first five years of his life in a country that, at the time, didn’t have television. Those early years focused on play—either with others or within his imagination—meant he became, at a young age, accustomed to creating his own universe. paulo da costa (Photograph by Tony Bounsall) After his family moved back to Portugal, he grew up in Vale de Cambra, a small village where the family home went back several centuries, and everyone knew them. While valuing tradition and the role of strong roots, da costa also quickly learned the limitations of understanding the world from a single perspective. “Reading became my raft,” he tells me, sitting in the sun among the fruit trees of his Fernwood garden—his home the brightly-coloured anomaly in a row of neutrals. As a child, he says, his world was opened up by books like Marco Polo, and “I realized my tiny village was a mote in the universe, and that the possibilities of being were so much vaster.” Those myriad “possibilities of being” are precisely what The Midwife of Torment is all about. In a series of 60 very short stories—most under 1000 words, one as short as a two-line sentence—da costa offers a literary potluck of flavours and styles: from the whimsical to the tragic; the contemporary and domestic to the speculative and tech-oriented. Some are beautiful, simple stories that pull us out of our own busy time into small villages. Others invite us into the voice and consciousness of other creatures: cougars, fish—even trees. While the tone and style shifts, sometimes jarringly, from story to story, it’s not inconsistency or lack of coherence. Rather, that diversity is the point and strength of the book, and of da costa’s worldview. “My approach requires a certain courage from readers,” he says. Often, the stories contain a surprise: What we initially think is happening isn’t so at all, and the plot takes sudden left turns. For instance, a seeming stalker turns out to have quite unexpected intentions; characters in a painting decide they no longer want to please the viewer; and a tree tells us, “As I sat idle, the entire Forest arrived.” In this book of brief, imaginative leaps—which da costa describes as a combination of “zen simplicity and rich dessert”—relationships between people, other creatures, and events stand out in ways we have not seen before. To da costa, reading is very like travelling, and you won’t grow if you simply see your own universe repeated. To expand our experience, one of da costa’s goals is to make us think philosophically. “My stories are often questions,” he says, recalling that the most important people in his life were the ones who opened the window of “what if?” As a parent of young children (aged two and five) and as a writer, da costa hopes to do the same. Every story is a quick push of the reset button of what we know. He makes us aware of the invisible forces and webs that shape us, within and without, with stories as potent as a lightning strike or as gentle as the silvery shake of olive leaves. Written over approximately 20 years, this series of short pieces is also a way of capturing da costa’s prolific creativity, which he sees as both an extension of who he is in the world, and a challenge to all of us. “I don’t separate creativity, in a professional aspect, from living,” he says. “Every moment I live and breathe, I’m making connections.” Ultimately, he sees that sense of connectivity as integral to how we take care of each other and the land. “When you’re not connected,” he notes passionately, “your caretaking is not the same.” In that sense, the book has not just a philosophical but a political aspect, as it proposes other ways of seeing, being, and organizing. Energetic and optimistic, he says: “We have to have dialogue and friction in order to keep things moving,” whether in literature or in politics. “We can overcome with our imagination, with stories.” da costa’s work is therefore very much connected to hope, although in this book he stretches himself into some darker corners than his previous collections. These include The Scent of a Lie, which won the 2003 Commonwealth First Book Prize for the Canada-Caribbean Region and the W.O. Mitchell City of Calgary Book Prize; and The Green and Purple Skin of the World. In The Midwife of Torment he consciously wanted to feel the minds of people in different kinds of pain as a means of gaining entry into greater empathy—another kind of connectivity he hopes to promote. da costa’s shifts and twists don’t feel gimmicky. Rather, he disrupts and forces you to confront the expectations and assumptions you’ve silently generated as you went along. They put me in mind of the by turns meditative and turn-you-upside-down short works of Kafka, Victoria’s own John Gould, and Yasunari Kawabata (collected in the perfectly-titled Palm-of-the-Hand Stories). The narrator in his story “The God of Shadows” says, “What you feel as you read my words will say everything about what you did not know about yourself.” That is the starting point for opening up to seeing and understanding that which is beyond borders, daring to live creatively and connected in a way that is perhaps beyond conventional limits. And so da costa’s story sends the reader off with good advice: “So long, and be brave.” Writer and editor Amy Reiswig felt instantly connected to the book’s message, as its epigraph—”Those who don't believe in magic will never find it”—was read at her vaudevillian wedding last year.
  7. A coming-of-age story invites us to step out of the comfortable. ON THE OPENING PAGE of Eden Robinson’s new novel Son of a Trickster (Knopf, February 2017), we learn that Jared is different. As a small child, his maternal grandmother called him Wee’git—“Trickster”—and told him: “You still smell like lightning.” While she’d treat his cousins to fudge and caramel apples, for his birthday she gave Jared a jar of blood and animals’ teeth. Like the reader, Jared has a lot of learning to do. For in this book, the seemingly normal and the magical inhabit the same space. Telling them apart can be, well, tricky. But that seems to be part of Robinson’s point, as she explores simultaneity and the opportunities that come when you have to face it. The story takes place in Kitimat, 10 kilometres north of Kitimaat Village, where Robinson spent her own youth. It follows Jared, a 16-year-old living in his mother’s basement, who has to navigate shifting mysteries within and without as the world he thought he knew turns into something he doesn’t know at all. Dealing with more than just the typical teenage escapades with booze, drugs, sex, and fickle social circles, Jared’s world of domestic dysfunction teeters between extremes of tenderness and violence. This young man, who says things like “good gravy” and cries over his dying dog, has to define himself. He must choose how to be in the face of his addicted and gun-toting mother’s mantra, which is part warning and part command: “The world is hard. You have to be harder.” But how can you know how to be when you aren’t sure who you are? How do you untangle all of what makes you who you are in the first place? How do you determine what is real and what isn’t? Not small questions for someone who had been hoping he could finish grade ten “before all this shit blew up.” Yet the coming apart is where Robinson shows us Jared’s learning happens, and she seems to take delight in blowing up the limitations of his knowledge and perspective. In a description of magic early in the novel, she reminds us that “our reality is shaped by our limitations.” “When I left Kitimaat,” she tells me by phone, “I assumed everyone knew who the Haisla were, that we make the best [oolichan] grease. I assumed everyone knew what grease was! Across North America, we all have the same blind spots. We assume our reality is the only reality. But there’s more than one reality.” Eden Robinson A member of the Haisla and Heiltsuk First Nations, Robinson once again makes her home in Kitamaat Village, population 700, on BC’s central coast. Growing up in a community rooted in oral tradition meant everyone told stories, and many of the stories Robinson heard around the family table were about the transforming trickster Wee’git. Oral storytelling wasn’t her forte, though. “I wasn’t very good at it,” she laughs. “I tend to wander.” Instead, in grade 11 Robinson started writing, a medium that could encompass her containment-resistant thinking. “Originally, I wanted to be an astronaut,” she says, “but then I found out NASA had a height requirement.” So, science geek that she was, she started writing short science fiction and, from there, branched out to the dark stories of Traplines (winner of the UK’s Winifred Holtby prize); the downtown Vancouver Eastside-based Blood Sports; and her critically-acclaimed novel Monkey Beach (shortlisted for the Giller prize and a Governor General’s Literary Award, and winner of the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize). In 2016 she was awarded the Writers’ Trust Engel Findley Award, honouring a mid-career body of work making a significant contribution to Canadian literature. It’s not surprising that Robinson began exploring her talent as a teen. In both Monkey Beach and Son of a Trickster, young adulthood is a particularly powerful time, where that universally awkward experience of self-discovery includes awakening to, and shaking hands with, unusual gifts. While most teens won’t discover that their parent is a supernatural being or start seeing the dead, Jared’s story of painfully growing into the truth is important for young people. And its lesson of listening to and learning to accept what sets you apart is good for all of us. Robinson is also interested in exploring what makes us similar. In a series of interstitial moments stepping out of the ground-level, expletive-laden action, a narrative voice—perhaps the aeons-old Wee’git—shares more meditative thoughts about the Earth’s past and present history. “Every living creature, every drop of water and every somber mountain is the by-blow of some bloated, dying star.” We’re told that the difference between one human and another “is probably one DNA base pair in every thousand” and that we are “transitory vessels built from recycled carbon like every other living thing on this planet. Bits and parts of you have probably been a cricket or a dinosaur or a single blade of grass on the prairies.” In these moments, Robinson’s love of science peeks through and shows us a way of seeing another kind of magic, in our world and in ourselves. One of the strengths of this kind of magic realism is that it forces us to look with new eyes at the so-called “real world” we already inhabit. For instance, when Jared sees a monster underneath an old woman’s skin, it doesn’t really match the submerged monstrousness of his mother’s ex-boyfriend, who took perverse pleasure in a scene of torture I won’t describe here. Robinson shows us that the seemingly “normal” can be just as bizarre—in both beautiful and horrific ways—as anything the supernatural world can offer. “The Earth has had so many purges,” Robinson says. “If we get purged, it won’t be a big deal—well, to the Earth, I mean,” she notes, laughing. But she’s not laughing when she adds: “Now we’re doing it to ourselves.” Living so close to Kitimat, the threat of the Northern Gateway pipeline provided what she calls “a non-stop drumbeat of activism” that slowed down her writing of this story, which began in 2008 and is the first book of a trilogy. Not surprisingly, political and environmental themes lurk on the edges of Jared’s teenage maelstrom. “When I was young,” she explains, “there was always a moral we had to pull away from the books we read. I tend to go in the opposite direction. The goal is not to tell you what to think. I just introduce the characters, and let people come to their own conclusions.” Despite having created characters that literally and figuratively push the limits of humanity, Robinson, hilarious and ultimately undampened by cynicism, also reveals the unexpected beauty of different kinds of relationships, and of expanded vision. Hers is an invitation to step out of the comfortable and throw off the limitations that shape a restricted reality. In that sense, Son of a Trickster is a little like a run through a dense forest. You’ll be scratched up, a little bruised, maybe scared—but you’ll also be exhilarated and newly attuned to what’s different around and within you, things you otherwise might have never seen, never understood, and never valued. Writer/editor Amy Reiswig believes that indeed there are more things in heaven and on Earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy. On YouTube, Miriam Toews interviews Eden Robinson:
  8. John Shields died on March 24, 2017. Shields lived a life full of purpose, dedicated to the pursuit of meaning and justice. A former Catholic priest, he also led the BCGEU, worked for women’s rights, explored the mysteries of consciousness, and recently led the Land Conservancy of BC out of its financial misery. In March, 2012 Amy Reiswig interviewed John Shields about his book The Priest Who Left his Religion: In Pursuit of Cosmic Spirituality. As she writes: “Influenced by Joseph Campbell, Shields sees story as key to how we perceive our world and, therefore, how we act within it. And his version of the story is science pointing to a universe that is ‘not dead matter, but a living consciousness.’ Seeing the universe as conscious and ‘spirit-filled,’ where everything is interconnected, purposeful energy, means how we act matters profoundly because we are co-creating the universe every day, which leads to Shields’ fervent call for an Earth-based spirituality recognizing our connection to nature.” The Mystery of Life John Shields’ journey from priest to union leader to spiritual seeker. By Amy Reiswig HOW DO YOU approach mystery? Do you suspend disbelief and assert with Hamlet that “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,/Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”? Or is your instinct to look behind the curtain—seek out the facts, test and prove? The seeming divide between faith and science has been the subject of debate for centuries, and their dynamic tension has led to rich exploration in many disciplines. In The Priest Who Left his Religion: In Pursuit of Cosmic Spirituality (Influence Publishing, Sept. 2011), Victoria’s John Shields—a former Catholic priest turned social worker and union activist—shares his own exploration and conclusions around “the potential of reuniting science and spirit into a unified way of knowing.” More than a memoir, Shields’ book is a spiritual autobiography, a memoir of the soul that goes beyond “Here’s what I’ve done in my life, why and with whom.” We move through his narrative of life in the church, his dizzying array of secular work experience (Victoria Family and Children’s Service, Victoria Day Care Information Services, Vancouver Island University, Leadership Victoria, the BC Government Employees Union, The Haven, the Centre for Earth and Spirit, among others) to, finally, his spiritual reawakening. What becomes apparent is that the book unfolds two stories: Shields’ and the readers’ own as they react to his ideas, some of which offer bold challenges to mainstream thinking. The first part of the 230-page book chronicles Shields’ experience of institutional religion: his childhood as the only son of Irish Catholic parents in New York, Brooklyn Prep education, seminary studies and eventual ordination in 1965. Backdropping Shields’ theological studies and work was the civil rights movement, Kennedy’s brief presidency, the Vietnam War and, most importantly for his spiritual development, Vatican II. It was a time of profound national and global questioning, and the potential for grand change was everywhere. Shields was particularly excited by advances in areas like archaeology and textual criticism that reoriented Biblical interpretation and, therefore, the role of the church itself. This, alongside a growing involvement in social justice, meant Shields’ life was brimming with a sense of sacred purpose. However, Shields writes that when Pope Paul VI “rejected every insight that emerged at the Council,” he felt profound disillusionment, abandonment and betrayal. The silencing of theologians—including Shields’ own removal from his teaching and preaching duties—and the general suppression of new scholarship and ideas “shattered my sense of spirituality,” Shields writes. He left the priesthood. “I was leaving a failed relationship with the church…but I believed that my church had left me.” This sense of betrayal was shared by those who longed for meaningful church reform, and Shields identifies them as a main audience. “It’s that group in the middle who have left religion but haven’t yet found anything else,” the bespectacled, avuncular and enthusiastic Shields tells me over morning coffee in Cook Street Village. “I’ve crossed that threshold and I want to report back. I’m like a pioneer who has gone over the mountains into a beautiful valley and want to tell people: ‘Hey, there’s something really magnificent! Let’s go there.’” But what is over the mountain of disbelief? Shields reveals years of grief and confusion, of learning how to live, love and work in the secular world, and it becomes clear that even defining the term “spirituality” is a tricky task that can turn people away. For instance, over his 25 years in union work and, eventually, as president of the BCGEU (the John T. Shields building stands named in his honour), he came to see working on behalf of others and integrating one’s inner values with outer action as a spiritual endeavour. He explains “spirituality” to me as “a level of quality, of value, of relationship—being in harmony with the deeper nature of the universe.” Which leads to another question: what is the nature of the universe? Which is where the second story begins—that of what the reader believes. Shields became fascinated with “secular science,” and in it found the basis for a new cosmology and spirituality. Citing various thinkers and research initiatives, like NASA’s Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE), Shields discusses evidence for the Big Bang, the expansion/evolution of the universe and the idea that all things are essentially made of the same stuff. He writes: “What shines out from all the work done on the new story is that everything in the universe is interconnected.” Influenced by Joseph Campbell, Shields sees story as key to how we perceive our world and, therefore, how we act within it. And his version of the story is science pointing to a universe that is “not dead matter, but a living consciousness.” Seeing the universe as conscious and “spirit-filled,” where everything is interconnected, purposeful energy, means how we act matters profoundly because we are co-creating the universe every day, which leads to Shields’ fervent call for an Earth-based spirituality recognizing our connection to nature. It also means that boundaries between life and death, body and spirit become fluid, and Shields mentions using copper dowsing rods to communicate with his first wife after she died from cancer. “I know these ideas are controversial and that people will be twittering me,” Shields laughs. “But being in the conversation of challenge is why I wrote the book. I didn’t see anyone else saying these things.” The Priest Who Left His Religion therefore opens a space for readers to do some self-questioning on the nature of mystery, which Einstein says is “the source of all true art and all science”: What do I think of these ideas? Why do I have the reactions I do? What are my beliefs, fears, assumptions, and in what are they rooted? While Shields is clearly seeking converts to his new cosmology and nature-focused world view, he also invites us simply to look through his lens and enter the dialogue. As Einstein also says, and Shields quotes him: “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.” Writer and editor (and lapsed Catholic) Amy Reiswig thinks believing in what can’t be seen or proven makes life much more interesting. See also the May 25, 2017 New York Times story "The Remarkable Death and Life of John Shields" by Catherine Porter
  9. The Millies give voice to their daring, fun-loving, theatrical selves in a benefit for Hospice. DORIS DAY, in the title role of Calamity Jane, sang: “Once I had a secret love that lived within the heart of me. All too soon my secret love became impatient to be free.” When Day sang it in 1953, “Secret Love” was a somewhat meditative confession about an unspoken crush. When belted out with silky sass and playfulness by Victoria a cappella trio The Millies, it’s more like a joyful collective confession about their artistic practice and gratitude at having found one another through an act of daring to ask for what their hearts desired. In fact, that’s part of their appeal. The Millies are not just witty, entertaining and gorgeous singers weaving exquisite harmonies crafted by an expert arranger; their performances also offer a passionate reminder for all of us, at any age, to never stop seeking and giving ourselves permission to pursue our own secret loves. Lynda Raino (Lynda Millie), Mollie Kaye (Mollie Millie) and Elizabeth Adilman (Lizzie Millie)—left to right in the YouTube video above—came together while singing in a jazz choir, after the director offered the opportunity for small ensemble work. The chance to break out of being vocally and physically buried in a choir seemed to answer a need they each felt, so last spring they began arranging Patti Page’s 1954 hit “Cross Over the Bridge.” As Kaye struggled with a three-part harmony, Raino (founder of longtime Victoria cultural icon Raino Dance) offered to enlist the help of a composer friend, Governor General’s Gold Medal-winner Stephen Hatfield. While it was supposed to be a one-off collaboration, the process proved magical for all of them. “As he was walking out the door,” Kaye tells me, recalling that moment of excitement and longing, “I thought, ‘He’s an internationally recognized composer. Why would he want to work with us?’” But she blurted out: “Do you have any other ideas of songs we could sing?” His answer: an enthusiastic “Do I!” As Hatfield says, “We were all looking for something we needed.” Since then, they’ve been meeting twice a week, and they staged their first public performance in May 2016. From the tightness of their sound, the flow of their moves, and even their coordinated costumes, it’s hard to believe they’ve been singing together for under a year. Though they each have decades of experience with various styles and genres in other contexts, in this group they’re exploring a very different and difficult, though ultimately liberating, kind of performance. “It’s not simply a soprano up on top carrying the melody with some harmony lines underneath,” Hatfield explains. “It’s like that illusion where you have an empty birdcage on one side of a card and a bird on the other. If you keep flipping it back and forth, you eventually see the bird in the cage.” What excites him as a writer is the challenge of creating the depth and density of jazz or of an orchestra with just three voices—what Kaye calls “sleight of ear.” In fact, after one show, an astonished audience member came up and told them: “It sounded like there was a whole band behind you.” From poppy ’50s broadway hits to swingin’ jazz, sultry torch songs and even vintage commercial jingles, The Millies aren’t just trying to recreate or capture bygone sounds. Hatfield’s original arrangements, created specifically for their voices, means they avoid being simply a nostalgia act appealing only to those who grew up in a certain time. Rather, they’re reinventing and re-exploring each piece even as they pay homage to the past. When working on “Cross Over the Bridge,” Kaye recounts, Hatfield explained that it was actually about making monogamy and marriage sexy again in the post-war era, which led the group to some new flirtatious gestures and attitude. Kaye says, “It opened me up to performing in a totally different way. He coached us to really change the whole context of that music.” The secret love they all had for theatricality was also let loose, allowing them to not only inhabit the characters of The Millies but, within those characters, to also each truly be themselves—fun and fearless. “We are really set free,” a beaming Raino tells me. “Personally, I was looking for salvation after letting go of my dance world. This has absolutely been a phoenix for me.” Adilman agrees: “I think it’s the way we’re connected to each other. You can see us looking at each other, weaving in and out with each other.” And, still seeming a little surprised, Kaye admits: “I do things on stage with them that I’ve never done in my life as a performer.” When they sing, they each radiate an unabashed, uninhibited joy, revelling in not trying to steal but share the spotlight. As a result, the audience is also treated to a show of trust, respect and solidarity. It’s something the singers themselves all value just as much as they love singing uplifting repertoire while wearing white gloves and ’50s taffeta party dresses. In fact, the matching outfits are a symbol of the group’s unity. “There’s something very poignant about the fact that we are women of a certain age,” Kaye notes. “We’re not the same. We’re not three lithe young women in our 20s, so there’s something a little bit tongue-in-cheek about wearing these. But to me, there’s a lot of meaning in the fact that we’re wearing these matching outfits even though our bodies are different, our ages are different, our lives are different. There’s something really bonding that happens to us. We become The Millies. To me, the harmony starts with the outfits.” Raino, who found the dresses in a Fairfield shop, shares that sense of empowerment. “If you ever said to me, ‘You’re too old or you’re too big or you don’t have the right feet to do whatever,’ to me it would be a call to arms to say: ‘Watch me.’ It’s been the mandate of my school forever, and I don’t feel that a certain-aged woman is not supposed to sing or perform. I think we feel pretty committed to doing it until we can’t.” Indeed, as they huddle up for the 1958 jazz standard “Centerpiece,” the line “Our happiness will never cease” seems to sum up their feelings about the group and about each other. Inspired by what they have accomplished and are still becoming, my mind floats back to the first song of their rehearsal, and I hear it like a Millies’ mantra: “At last my heart’s an open door. And my secret love’s no secret anymore.” Turning that love outward, The Millies are putting on a benefit concert for Victoria Hospice on April 28 at Hermann’s Jazz Club. Adilman, who has volunteered at Hospice for several years and whose parents both died in hospice, brought the idea forward. “I’ve just always been very moved by it,” she says. “We’re hoping to have a sellout show!” Tickets are available through brownpapertickets.com. To hear more, visit www.themillies.ca. Writer Amy Reiswig found her secret music love playing percussion with early music group Banquo Folk Ensemble.
  10. Andrew Struthers takes readers on a long, strange—and fun—trip through marijuana and human culture. MANY WRITERS AGREE that stories are found in the strangest places. Like experiencing cosmological visions while bobbing at the bottom of a Tofino hot tub, stoned to the gills on cannabis-infused chocolate cake—although, sans actual gills, breathing through a length of rubber hose that once connected a heater to a propane tank. It’s from here that writer and filmmaker Andrew Struthers tells much of his tale in his new two-sided non-fiction book The Sacred Herb/The Devil’s Weed (New Star Books, launching in April). The subject is timely. In downtown Victoria, you can barely walk a block without passing a pot shop. Since the federal government declared its intent to legalize marijuana, cannabis dispensaries have sprouted like, well, weeds. Even though many aim to serve customers for medical reasons, dispensaries currently occupy a legal grey area, and different municipalities take different approaches. Esquimalt won’t license dispensaries, and one that tried to open in Langford was shut down after just a day. Clearly, the cannabis controversy persists, and Struthers—the author of three previous books and contributor to publications including The Tyee and Monday Magazine—saw an opportunity to break into the conversation. But the book isn’t what you might expect. This is no stoner puff piece or simplistic “marijuana good/marijuana bad” debate. In fact, the book’s flip-side structure highlights the incomplete understanding that comes from such cut-and-dried dualistic thinking. Instead, Struthers represents two ways of accessing the story of pot—or, really, any story you might engage with. For Struthers is less interested in what there is to know than he is in how we know it. Take his tale from the tub. He writes that he “embarked upon that inward voyage Joseph Campbell would call the hero’s journey, although I ate the cake by accident, so to be honest this trip is what my friend Olaf would call a total fuck-up.” It’s all about how you interpret the experience, how meaning is made in the mind. Anyone who’s read Struthers’ 2014 Victorian travelogue-style Around the World on Minimum Wage will know he’s no stranger to bizarre circumstances. Now living in Victoria, he was born in Scotland but moved to Holland when he was three; to Uganda (under Obote and his right-hand-man Idi Amin) until he was seven; then back to his Scottish homeland as a refugee (where Struthers was beaten up for having an English accent); and finally to Prince George when he was 13. Before he’d ever smoked pot on his last day of high school in 1978, Struthers had already been on a long, strange trip through human culture. At his Chinatown studio—a dreamworld of film props he’s collected and created, like his mind turned inside out onto the shelves—Struthers recalls events like seeing a man getting stoned (not the smoking kind) for shoplifting in Uganda. Part of his early formative questioning therefore was: How do you make sense of the world when you grow up in a sea of contradictions? He also describes discovering in Uganda the disconnect between what you hear on the news and what you know from family experience—the idea that there are very different sets of stories. The book’s format reflects that fascination with different modes of knowing. The Sacred Herb side, structured as a series of questions and answers, represents the perspective of the rational, with data from scientific studies, archaeological finds, and neuroscience alongside paeans to teenage camaraderie, the highs of toker friendship, and creative living. But to make the point that this is just one, incomplete way of approaching the world, Struthers uses deliberately selective studies, seemingly contradictory data, and the dryness of terminology that turns most of us right off. Like when he discusses how “the neurotransmitter Anandamide…is perfectly shaped to fit into a neuroreceptor slot called CB1. Together, Anandamide and CB1 form the so-called endocanabinoid system.” But he stops himself, adding: “The problem with all of this is that when you saw the word ‘neurotransmitter’ your eyes glazed over. I felt it happen.” Trying to reach people with clumsy science jargon, he laments, “is like wearing clogs to a discotheque.” As he puts it to me: “You can understand that way, but you can’t be that way.” The Devil’s Weed side, structured around the seasons, is a weave of human stories, tales of personal experience that lead, sometimes improbably and sometimes naturally, one into the other—anecdotes of misadventure that express misgivings and dangers, not a-la “reefer madness” hysteria but in terms of real consequences for real people’s lives. Implicit is the fact that being only this way (in a world of prohibition, particularly) might well get you killed. Like the guy who “finds a bag of bud under his couch with yellow spores on the leaves like tiny buttercups,” and with optimism of the will but neglect of the intellect bakes it into muffins, eats them and “recoils like a rattlesnake bit him. His throat swells bullfrog-style and he spends the next hour dry-heaving into a Coke can wondering if this is how Rasputin felt when he was poisoned.” The two sides offer a kind of balance. Struthers, who studied astrophysics at UVic, says: “I see the world through connections,” noting that he had to go deep to find what unites us after the fractured experiences of his youth. Connectivity is one of the book’s prevalent themes, and he sees out-of-the-box, divergent and lateralized thinking as some of pot’s greatest gifts, hammering hierarchies into networks and dissolving dualities, even in the seeming isolation at the bottom of the hot tub: “down here in the roaring dark everything is connected to everything else in an endless ouroborean ring.” But part of his point is that you don’t really need pot to get there. Pot can grease the wheels, but the real vehicle is your own mind. As a single dad to a daughter, often having to be both mom and dad, he feels like he got to travel between worlds, and he believes the biggest block people face to growth, openness and change is their own thinking. “People mistake the story of their lives for reality,” he tells me. “People cling to their rules of traffic as if they’re the laws of physics.” That’s partly why he uses humour, because when you laugh, you lose what he calls “headlock,” and so he delights in disrupting expectations. Like in his well-known Spiders on Drugs video—currently with over 41 million YouTube views—which plays on the old Hinterland Who’s Who series, or in his illustrated account of Clayoquot protests, The Green Shadow (originally serialized in the Georgia Straight), which won a National Magazine Award for Humour in 1995. In this book, he again sneaks the serious in on you. For example, in answer to the Sacred Herb side question, “Will doobies derail my perfect life plan?” Struthers answers: “Hopefully.” With his analytical apparatus constantly dialled up to 11, Struthers builds the book with cerebral playfulness. His microlevel referencing and riffing on books, movies or lines from songs and poetry is a reflection of what the book is doing as a whole—flipping suppositions, inverting expectations, giving your skull a little shake so that things come a little unstuck and can settle back in a slightly new way, as in the Sartre-ian inversion “Help is other people” or his twist on Nietzsche: “What does not kill me makes me stranger.” While the topic here is marijuana—both revered as sacrament and reviled as scourge—the real story is about how we construct and receive stories themselves. From this, we can extrapolate out to how every academic report, scientific study, news article, presidential order or personal anecdote is an opportunity to expand our thinking a little bit sideways. Is there a difference between what you’ll read about pot and what you’ll learn? Hopefully. The Sacred Herb/The Devil’s Weed launches April 20 at the Union Pacific Coffee Shop, 537 Herald Street at 7 pm. Writer, editor and musician Amy Reiswig has smoked marijuana a grand total of five times in her life since moving to BC but has worked at expanding her thinking a lot more often.
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