A Costume Party on a Snowy October Night

Betty Kovacic as a Magritte Painting and me as the poem “King John’s Christmas” by A.A. Milne

Magritte and Kahlo (Melanie Desjardines of Groop Gallery)

Last night, as snow fell on Prince George, we joined dozens of other people in astonishing costumes at Two Rivers Gallery downtown, for Menagerie: A Night to Let It Out.

The entertainment started in the washroom where we adjusted our costumes watched over by four young women of the undead category. For a few minutes we thought they were just hanging out. Then Betty shrieked, “I get it! You’re performance art.” And they were. During the evening they seemed to multiply, showing up everywhere, adding atmosphere.

The evening continued from there, as we mingled with Marie Antionette, the Queen of Hearts, Amelia Earhart, complete with plane, a coffee table with a lamp that actually turned on, several gauzy pumpkins, ghoulish brides, the whole troupe from the Flintstones and on and on. Peter Thompson, managing director of the gallery, came as Unzipped. Or I believe that was what he called his costume. I wish I had a picture to show you. His costume was one of my favourites, featuring a zipper on his face.

At the end, there was a prize for best costume and twelve people were shortlisted including Betty, who gracefully spun down the stage showing off the painting on her back as well as her front.

Just after midnight, we drove home, on deserted streets buried in snow.

 

High Drama: Morning and Night

Parts of my costume

 

This morning, Betty and I went to see Otello, which was my first real experience of opera, though it was on a screen. Amazing to see the simultaneous broadcast, to be taken behind the scenes during screen changes. I was  moved by parts of it, but I’m not quite a convert yet. We’re going to see The Tempest in two weeks. I’ll report back.

Tonight, we’re going to Menagerie: A Night to Let it Out at Two Rivers Gallery downtown. We’ve both been working on our costumes for days. I rarely dress up for Hallowe’en and it has been enormous fun to come up with an idea and turn it into reality, with an artist on hand to coach me through each step (and help out when needed) and her beautiful big studio in which to do the work. I am going to be King John from A.A. Milne’s poem King John’s Christmas, which I have loved all my life. It is a sad poem, and funny, with a lovely bit of momentum in each verse and a redemptive conclusion.

I’ll post photos of us actually in our costumes tomorrow. Now, it’s almost time to start applying our makeup!

Betty Kovacic trying part of her costume

Crossing the Continental Divide

I’m in the Peace!

Me at Fort St. John viewpoint in front of the Peace River                               Photo credit: Roland Kokke

Last Saturday, I picked Roland up at the Prince George airport (his flight an hour late because of low-hanging fog) and we headed north. First, we stopped at Huble House, on the Fraser, near its northernmost bend. It’s a beautiful historic site, and we caught it on a gorgeous fall day, warm enough for a picnic.

That seems remarkable to me now, because this morning Fort St. John was blanketed in snow, cars careening, and my little ice scraper virtually useless. The temperature remains well below zero, but the sky is clearing now, at the end of the day. Roland has just left to drive back to the viewpoint over the river, for more photos. Perhaps I’ll post one here a bit later on.

Last Saturday, after our picnic, we drove to Dawson Creek, a town that I think I had vaguely confused with Dawson City, even though I knew it wasn’t. (I probably shouldn’t admit to such ignorance.)We enjoyed finding ourselves at Mile 0 of the Alaska Highway, and driving in we saw two moose.  We stayed at a Bed & Breakfast outside of Dawson Creek on the way to Grande Prairie on Swan Lake. Rising Moon, it’s called. An idyllic interlude! I recommend it to anyone coming up this way. Sadly, though, we had timed our visit for Sunday and Monday, and the local museums and galleries were closed.  And tragically, Dawson Creek’s landmark, the Alaska Hotel, burned down a few weeks ago. We stood and gazed at the fenced-off ruins, where a bulldozer was hard at work. We did happen upon the Sunday entertainment in the mall parking lot: autocross.  A course was laid out with orange cones and cars of all sorts lined up to drive it in the shortest time. People had backed up their pick-up trucks to make comfortable viewing areas, and we watched for a good while. It was fun.

While we were there, I went into Mark’s Work Wearhouse (which I notice is trying on the cooler name, Mark’s) and bought a winter coat. Just in time! Saturday picnic notwithstanding, I was grateful for that coat within twenty-four hours. And I was certainly grateful for it today. I bought a hat too, on Tuesday at the store in the Fort St. John Cultural Centre. Boots are next.

On Sunday, we drove here, to Fort St. John, and we took the long way round, the more picturesque way, detouring to see the WAC Bennett Dam. The whole drive was spectacular, and it gradually came home to me that the rivers were running east, not west. We had passed through the Rockies, crossed over. (Actually, we did that on Saturday.) I am in a new (to me)landscape where the rivers run east, not west. I stare at them, puzzled.

The Peace River southwest of Fort St. John               Photo credit: Roland Kokke

I came here to give talks and meet writers, and that is what I have been doing all week. Three talks at Northern Lights College/UNBC so far, one more tonight; a writers’ workshop aimed at the Nanowrimo crowd on Wednesday night; six appointments with writers yesterday; two sessions with senior students at the local high school this morning; and a session at the library for six-to-ten-year-olds tomorrow morning. Busy. All of it has been wonderful. The welcome from everyone has touched me.

I find myself exhausted, though. Since Tuesday I have given five talks related to my sister’s murder (one more tonight). Last week I gave three. Next Tuesday, I will give another one at an alternative school in Prince George. The topic is important. The interest is high. The response is warm. But I didn’t realize when I came north from Vancouver that I would be asked to speak about Sarah so much, or what a toll it would take.

For several years, I have been saying that I was going to stop, and I have not. I read Sarah’s words and audiences fall still. I feel her reaching them through me. I love reading Sarah’s words; it feels as if I need only step aside and let her speak, and she will reach people. The experience continues to feel profound to me. So I continue. I’m not sure how to come back from it each time, though, how to give myself the time and space I need to heal.

It’s been lovely having Roland here. We drove down to the Peace River just south of the city twice to see the view, and he’s back now from a third trip of his own, and pleased with his latest sunlit photos. This afternoon we spent some time at the local museum learning about the history. I was interested in how recently roads and railway went in here, in photos of families arriving here with all their possession in the thirties ready to begin anew. And I was interested in oil. More ignorance on my part, but I have never associated oil with this part of my province. I was wrong. This is oil country. There is enormous wealth here. There are jobs here. Every building has a help wanted sign in front of it. There are expensive homes here. And, of course, there is poverty here. Living in the north is expensive. Rents are high. Single mothers struggle to make ends meet. The other morning, the woman running the breakfast buffet told me that a man was crying outside the hotel that morning. He was not allowed in because he had been drinking. And he was worried about his friend, who was outside in the cold. She had called an ambulance, she told me.

I’m going to stop now. It’s suppertime. More to come!

Two Poets

I am in Terrace now, on the Skeena, preparing to drive back to Prince George today, and off to Dawson Creek tomorrow, with my husband, Roland. (I’m picking him up at the PG airport tomorrow morning at ten. We’ve been apart for almost two months. Can’t wait!)

Last night, before sleep, I spent an hour rereading Jacqueline Baldwin’s book, Threadbare Like Lace, much of which is set on “my” river, the Fraser, though far, far from my Vancouver home. I wept. I laughed. I was taken into the beautiful and harsh details of Jackie’s life, back when she was raising her children on the river. And I was struck over and over again by her insight, and by her ability to lead the reader to conclusions the reader cannot see coming, often by repeating a single line in two contrasting circumstances.

Last week, Jackie and I both read as part of Weaving Words at UNBC, an Aboriginal festival now in its fifth year, if I remember correctly. Our event was titled “Allies and Activists” and Rob Budde, Si Transken and Daniel Gallant also read. Jackie has given me permission to quote a portion of her poem here.

River Reverie© by Jacqueline Baldwin

We lived at Loos, in the midst of a beautiful ancient rainforest. Our farm stood on a fertile peninsula into the Fraser River. …

From the road, the land descended to the river in three terraces: on the top level stood our two storey wooden house and greenhouses, surrounded by an acre of vegetable gardens; on the middle level were pastures, barns and outbuildings; on the river-bottom level, the hayfield and fifty acres of forest. Between the end of the peninsula and a wooded island there was a river back-channel which formed a superb swimming place in summertime, a tree-fringed fresh water pool. Across from the island, turquoise waters poured into the Fraser from the Smoky River as it ended its journey from the heights of the Rockies at the Great Divide.

She goes on to describe a chorus of wolves, geese. We share in her reverie.

Last weekend, I took part in the Rural Writers’ Residence up at Banner Mountain Lodge in the hills above Smithers. As part of that weekend, another poet, Rob Budde, spoke to us about place. One of his points involved the human gaze, the way we possess the world with our gaze, as if it had been placed around us for our pleasure. When we talk about a beautiful view, he said, we diminish it in some way, we make it ours, and we fail to acknowledge that it exists, that it teams with life, whether we look at it or not. That the life it contains, the life it is, has nothing at all to do with us. (Please forgive me, Rob, for my paraphrasing!)

In her poetry, Jackie does not gaze at the “natural world” from afar, admiring its beauty; she slips into it, and she takes us along. One of the poems in Threadbare Like Lace is about an ornery cow, Gunnhild, who falls and breaks a bone, I believe, though the poem does not state the precise nature of her injury. She heals herself, that cow, gets on with her life, keeping humans at bay. At one point, Jackie guesses at the cow’s thoughts: “watch out   I am unpredictable   get off my farm.”

And I laugh, but I’m moved at the same time. I am feeling awe and respect for a cow.

Thank you, Jackie. And thank you, Rob, for turning my attention to that objectifying human gaze.

I encourage all of you to seek out Jackie’s and Rob’s work. I have not yet sat down with Rob Budde’s poetry, but I have heard him read on two occasions, and like Jackie, he has turned my thoughts in new directions, startled me into insights, moved me, and made me laugh.

 

 

A Guest in the Nisga'a Nation

 

How to write about Gitwinksihlkw?

Kathryn Kervel, Stephanie Azak Deanna Nyce, me, Lori Nyce and Angela Percival

I am one hour north and a bit west of Terrace in the Nisga’a Nation. The drive was beautiful all the way, but at first the landscape was not unfamiliar: lakes that stretched on and on, a windy road. After a time, though, it changed. The drive became surreal, to me at least. I had heard about the lava beds, (In fact, I was booked into a B&B called Lorene’s Lava Lodge in New Aiyansh, though, in the end, I wasn’t able to stay there.), but it took me some time to connect the strange landscape with lava. Large areas among the trees were filled with big dark lumps covered in greyish green lichen. As I drove further, the valley opened out and the lumps went on for great distances in all directions.

Lava. It was lava. And it was strangely beautiful. I was in Anhluut’ukwsim Laxmihl Angwinga’asanskwhl Nisga’a (Nisga’a Memorial Lava Bed Provincial Park). I will drive through the park tomorrow on my way back to Terrace. I won’t be in a rush, then, and I plan to stop and look around. The volcano happened several hundred years ago. It killed many Nisga’a people and caused the survivors to relocate to the far side of the Nass River.

In 1969, a pedestrian suspension bridge was built across the river. Before that, people travelled back and forth by boat. And almost twenty years ago, in 1994, the highway was extended and a vehicle bridge was built. My host here at the Nisga’a Salmon Lodge, Ron Nyce, played a part in the building of the bridge, and the elder women in his family led the ceremonial first-crossing on foot, cars lined up behind waiting to be first to drive into Gitwinksihlkw.  Today, the highway continues along the north side of the Nass, all the way to the sea. I plan to follow that highway tomorrow, down to Kincolith, before I retrace my steps to Terrace.

The Suspension Bridge

I came to Gitwinksihlkw to give two readings at the local UNBC campus, which is part of the Wilp Wilxo’oskwhl Nisga’a Institute (WWNI), and stands right beside the Nass below the suspension bridge. The rain blew away today, and the mountains across the river revealed themselves while I was working with a group of high-school students. I told them how far away this part of my province has always seemed to me. It means a great deal to come here, to draw it close, in a sense. When I followed the treaty negotiations on the news, when I looked on maps, this area seemed remote.

Now I am here.

And I don’t feel far away. I talked to my husband on the phone tonight, and he looked on a map, and marveled to see where I was, but I simply feel present in this place. Now I am here.

I am grateful for the welcome I have received from everyone. I shared my sister’s story with the adults last night and the teens today, and talked about her writing and my own, while suggesting strategies they might use themselves in their own writing. They listened, laughed with me, cried with me, and last night, shared their own stories with me. I feel honoured and humbled every minute. And present. I feel present.

This afternoon, Ron and I stood out on his front deck, just up the street from the school, and he pointed at the mountain directly across from us. “That’s where our people went during the great flood,” he said. Then he told me that his father trapped all along the foot of that mountain. And he, himself, fished up and down the BC coast for forty-five years. On the wall of his living room hangs a chart of the coast with his fishing boat, the Nisga’a Prince, painted onto the open water.

I try to imagine living across from Mount Ararat, being able to point to the mountain that figures in the story of the great flood that I’m familiar with, having all the stories of creation within reach, so to speak.  His telling moved me, that closeness. His stories, his history, happened here. Right here.

I must stop this now, and begin preparations for my next reading, a writers’ workshop tomorrow night in Terrace. I’ll write about tomorrow’s journey as soon as I can.