Aunt Rachel Says 13 Poems

At the beginning of September I moved to Saskatoon to attend grad school, and at the end of September I moved home. Uppermost in my mind when I realized that I could hurl myself back into my work in Edmonton was the desire to get Aunt Rachel out into her own community and into the world.

It’s been a minute since I’ve mentioned her. What can I say about Aunt Rachel? She wanted to incarnate. She announced herself first as a whimsical title for an already-drafted poem, and her wife Susan announced herself in a line that needed a couple more syllables. She is named for Rachel Carson. She is a prophet. She lives in my neighbourhood and walks in my ravine.

And she finally has her own chapbook. The pre-order for Aunt Rachel Says 13 Poems is open now and copies will be available on November 27 and mailed out to pre-order customers on November 28.

Aunt Rachel Says 13 Poems - cover.jpg

I am launching the book with a party at Glass Bookshop, where we will drink gin punch courtesy of Strathcona Spirits and a group of 13 women, ranging in age from 23 to 85, will perform the full suite of poems. It will be a free event, and I’d love for you to join us.

(If you plan on attending, please RSVP by emailing and I will put you on a guest list.)

Aunt Rachel Says 13 Poems will be in stock at Glass Bookshop from the 27 on, so if you can’t make the launch and would like an excuse to check out Edmonton’s newest independent bookstore, you are in so much luck.

Thank you in advance for hearing Aunt Rachel out. She has many things to say.

A Malt in The Vault


Hi friends,

Let me tell you about The Vault and its publisher, With/out Pretend.

The Vault is a digital subscription project, published by With/out Pretend, "an independent literary press founded in 2015 with the mission to produce, promote and distribute work by emerging women-identifying writers and artists.” The Vault commissions and publishes what is often called “confessional literature,” has it illustrated by wonderful artists, and for $5 a month delivers these stories directly to your inbox. The Vault is also published as a physical magazine, and I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a lit mag designed, printed, or bound so beautifully.

You may remember that, back in March, my poem “gate” appeared in an issue of The Vault devoted to the subject of pleasure and that the video for “gate” premiered at the issue’s launch event in Toronto. You may or may not know that by that point, I had been looking for a publisher for this longtime favourite of my own poems for about three years. With/out Pretend wasn’t only willing to release and promote it, they seemed just as enthusiastic about the poem as I was. It’s indescribably validating when a publisher seems to fully grok your work.

Understandably, then, I was thrilled when Erin Klassen, founding editor of The Vault, proposed a mini story collection comprised of three pieces from Modular, my short story collection about two kids growing up in a Bible college town in southern Saskatchewan.

The first of these three stories, “A Malt,” illustrated by Frankfurt-based artist Tatjana Prenzel, has already been sent flying through the ether into subscribers’ inboxes and is available to purchase online. A limited-run print edition, including “A Malt,” “Romeo and Juliet, 1968,” and “In the Game” will be published later this fall as a chapbook entitled Esther Spellicy in the Main Game. (Thanks to Erin Klassen and Elizabeth Polanco, who patiently and thoroughly edited it.) Fuck, I am so excited. Information about how to purchase the chapbook will be posted here and on social media as soon as it’s available.

In the meantime, if you’d like to subscribe to The Vault, you can do so here.

Thanks for reading.

Digging in the Dirt

Oil permeates Albertan culture. It paints our picture of prosperity. It writes our definition of productivity. It decides what it means to be a man. 

The oil patch is where we go to follow in our fathers’ footsteps, to assume our rightful place in the world, to make the money for a house, a truck; to make enough to raise a family.

Thus begins the voiceover narration I wrote for Digging in the Dirt, a new documentary about the crisis of men’s mental health in Alberta’s oil fields. Co-directed by filmmaker (and husband) Dylan Rhys Howard and journalist Omar Mouallem, with an original score by Edmonton composer Matthew Cardinal, this project has been almost a year in the works.

Digging in the Dirt is a film about what we think it means to be a man in Alberta. About how our ideas about masculinity have been informed and twisted by the extraction industry. And about how the men in our communities have been harmed by our social expectations, by unsafe work environments, by physical and emotional isolation, and by the compulsive earning and spending of boom-and-bust capitalism.

This is where I live. These communities are my communities. These men are the men I sit beside at the bar. These men create the wealth that (for better or worse) sets Alberta apart as the richest Canadian province. These men establish the standard that men and women in other industries—from nursing to writing—believe they need to hold themselves to. These men are my friends’ fathers and brothers. We need to do better by them.

Digging in the Dirt premiers on and CBC Gem September 13, and CBC TV in Alberta September 14 at 7pm MST.

This is not an essay about porn

Let us dispense with the 4,000-word essay I could write on why it is acceptable for me not only to make pornography, but to refuse to separate it from the rest of my body of work. I claim the right to do this.

As you may know, Dylan and I have been posting more-and-less experimental erotic documentaries on Make Love Not Porn, a “social sex” platform that aims (in a world where almost everyone watches highly staged porn on a semi-regular basis) to normalize the recording and viewing of everyday sexual acts and sexuality. Given that the internet is becoming an increasingly puritanical place (see, for example, Tumblr’s rejection of its own raison d’etre and the recent American legislation that severely limits the safety and freedoms of sex workers) and that representing oneself sexually online is still a surefire way to compromise many people’s (read: many women’s and many trans and non-binary people’s) reputations and job prospects, despite the fact that sexuality of some strain or another defines and affects almost every (if not every) human being on the planet, I believe it is vitally important to participate in this movement.

While MLNP is not an artistic (or, according to many definitions of the word, “pornographic”) platform per se, we’ve chosen it (over Vimeo, Porn Hub, or independent hosting) because: 1) it puts our videos in front of people who are already open and eager to explore explicit, unstaged sex on screen, 2) it’s not only free for us to use, but actually enables us to make a bit of money off of rentals, 3), it, unlike Porn Hub, presents material in a non-misogynistic, ethical, shameless light, 4) it makes it more straightforward to affiliate ourselves with MLNP’s extensive and admirable advocacy and education work on what it means to share one’s sexual life on the internet.

As an artist, the idea that sex, especially my own, should be off-limits (whether as subject, object, or mode of exploration) seems ludicrous. I will make work about whatever I find most compelling, and lately sex and polyamorous relationships are more interesting to me than just about anything else.

Which leads me to our most recent short, which is, I think, possibly my best piece of filmmaking to date. It is certainly the best-contextualized unsimulated sex I’ve ever seen on screen.

Screen Shot 2019-08-05 at 1.09.24 PM.png

I wanted to make a film to honour my own erotic imagination. A film about what I find exciting. And so this one opens with text, one of the most reliable ways to turn me on, and goes on to include rough sex, laughter, power exchange, community (our friend Hannah was in charge of the camera and ended up providing some directorial input as well), conversation, and references to one of Dylan’s other partners. This is a multi-dimensional look at one of richest, most telling activities that I participate in. It’s designed to be comprehensible and enjoyable to my audience. It attempts to expand what it means to make and watch pornography, and maybe even reclaim that activity as something beautiful, thought-provoking, healthy (and yes, hot).

Our MLNP handle is Hierophant. You can watch the film here.

For a look at what the professionals are up to, check out Four Chambers and (obviously) Erica Lust’s XConfessions.

(See? Only 553 words.)


At last at last. The video poem I made with director/cinematographer/amateur entomologist/best friend Laura La France premiered last night in Toronto at With/out Pretend’s launch event for “On Pleasure,” the issue of The Vault Zine in which “gate” the text poem was published earlier this month. Now that my naked body has spoken to a room full of 200 people, we hope that you, also, enjoy our film.


It’s the end of January. What’s happening? Where are you? More to the point, who are you? I keep meeting people who tell me they like my blog, remembering when they say so that writers write for readers. The internet is a lonely place these days. Introduce yourself, won’t you? Comment below, or send me an email?


Over Christmas, Dylan, Aerlan and I made a video poem called “the tap running.” (If you have a copy of Accomplice, you’ve probably read the text poem.) I showed the rough cut at January’s Open Apartment, and can say with confidence that y’all are going to like it.

This month, we’re all reading (re-reading) Franny and Zooey. Is there a more perfect book?

Aunt Rachel has delivered twelve monologues in the form of poems so far. I’ve been audacious enough to assemble them into a chapbook manuscript and submit said manuscript to two contests. One way or another, I hope to have a little book out sometime this year.

I am writing a novel. Unexpectedly, I am enjoying it. My narrator’s vocabulary is better than mine, which means I’ve had the pleasure of learning words like ‘candent,’ ‘lucubration,’ and ‘puissant.’ I think the first draft will be finished in June.

Dylan and I are working together with our friend Omar on a documentary for the CBC about men’s mental health and the oil industry. It’s an expansion of Omar’s groundbreaking article on what can only be called a crisis. Dylan’s directing, producing, editing. I’m writing the script. Production starts in February. This is an issue that permeates Albertan culture. An issue that quickly becomes snarled in the fearful, angry debate about the future of our environment. An issue that quickly loses its human face. If we accomplish anything with this doc, I hope it’s to remind our audience of the inherent value and vulnerability of every person, the need to put the well-being of workers ahead of corporate profits or personal wealth, the concrete ways in which the mistreatment of men affects women (and vice versa), and the damage we do to our society when we demand that anyone trade their physical and psychological health for money.

I have three poems coming out soon:

In February, “Viva Puff,” a poem about Ranger, will appear in the inaugural print issue of Edmonton’s own Funicular Magazine.

In March, “gate” (both in print and as a video poem directed by Laura) will be featured in Without Pretend’s new project, The Vault.

In early spring, “Aunt Rachel goes camping” will be published in Poetry is Dead, Number 19, the Drama issue.

I’ve also been exploring, more directly, sex and representations of sex in my life and my work. In November, I did some boudoir modelling for the first time. We made two more short erotic films. “gate” includes my whole naked body. Does anyone else find it strange that the artists are (mostly) still participating in the neo-Victorianism of our age? (Shoutout here to Amanda Palmer, the glorious exception.) It is as if we were all invested, above everything else, in producing 14-A blockbusters. Sex is un-serious. It is a liability. It compromises the artist’s statement on just about anything else. Women—artists, intellectuals, politicians, professionals—are undermined every day by the photographic evidence of their own anatomy. As for men, the erection is still seen as an attack. No one is allowed to admit that sex is an integral part of everyday life.

What else can I tell you? I’m going to be taking our local film co-op’s intermediate filmmaking class this spring.

I’ve done a lot of good knitting this winter. Mittens. A sweater. I’m in the middle of realizing a tea cozy I designed for Gwen.

Open Apartment has been happening once a month since September or so. There have been stunning performances and presentations—film, poetry, drama, animation, fiction—and many new faces. I think it gets better every time we meet.

Last Saturday we rubbed oil into our dining table and bought tulips from the only tulip grower in Alberta.

Theo has started publishing Sunday Poems again, and they are eminently worthwhile and pleasurable reading. We ate dinner over Skype with Theo earlier this week and talked about everything.

And it’s been almost a year since I abandoned my phone. You can find my first thoughts on the experiment here—certainly an honest account at the time I wrote it out, but one that has become more complicated, accruing unvoiced doubts and questions as the year has gone on. Time to voice them. I suppose I can summarize by saying that I did not anticipate how lonely extrication would be. I spoke with Laura about it the other day, and she said, of course—everyone else is walking around with a bright, buzzing, notifying, in-joking virtual landscape overlaid on the world. As if we were all in a movie where text bubbles pop up beside our heads and equations solve themselves in real-time as a baseball completes its parabolic arc. I am not trying to denigrate this. I am simply unsure, now, if I am willing to return to it. It comes down to the role of the writer in society. Is the writer meant to participate fully, understand intimately, represent in real-time and great detail? Or is the writer meant to observe from a distance, understand objectively, represent in the context of history and the constants of our species? Both, probably.

2018 in books

Free Women, Free Men - Camille Paglia, The Complete Stories - Truman Capote, The Year of Magical Thinking - Joan Didion, M Train - Patti Smith, The Information - James Gleick, Woolgathering - Patti Smith, Hold Still - Sally Mann, Call Me By Your Name - André Aciman, The Abortion - Richard Brautigan, Revenge of the Lawn - Richard Brautigan, So the Wind Won’t Blow It All Away - Richard Brautigan, Witch in the Bedroom - Stacey Demarco, The Lonely Hearts Hotel - Heather O’Neill, The Letters of Vincent van Gogh, Pastoralia - George Saunders, The Dispossessed - Ursula K. Le Guin, The Log From the Sea of Cortez - John Steinbeck, The Magicians - Lev Grossman, Silent Spring - Rachel Carson, The Magician King - Lev Grossman, The Magician’s Land - Lev Grossman, Travels With Charley - John Steinbeck, Terms of Endearment - Larry McMurtry, No Time to Spare - Ursula K. Le Guin, Between Ourselves: Letters Between Mothers and Daughters - ed. Karen Payne, A Tale of Two Cities - Charles Dickens, We Have Always Lived in the Castle - Shirley Jackson, The Mother Tongue - Bill Bryson, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit - Jeanette Winterson, Handywoman - Kate Davies, The Transit of Venus - Shirley Hazzard, Columbine - Dave Cullen, The Entrepreneurial State - Mariana Mazzucato, Watchmen - Alan Moore, Big Magic - Elizabeth Gilbert, Letters Home - Sylvia Plath, ed. Aurelia Schober Plath, Educated - Tara Westover

37 books. 19 by women and 18 by men.

18 works of fiction and 19 works of non-fiction. Of the fiction, 6 books by women and 12 by men. Of the non-fiction, 14 by women and 5 by men.

The novel that stunned me hardest with its sentences: The Transit of Venus, which was like a marriage of Dickens and Woolf.

4 memoirs. 3 collections of letters.

16 books from the library. 0 books from Amazon.

0 books in translation (to my shame).

The book that disappointed me most: The Mother Tongue, for its self-important tone, lack of rigour, and casual omission of women.

2 books written in the 1800s. 1 written (at least partially) in the 1900s before 1950. 2 from the 1950s. 5 from the 1960s. 3 from the 1970s. 5 from the 1980s. 3 from the 1990s. 6 from the 2000s. 11 from the 2010s.

The writer I imitated most worshipfully: Richard Brautigan.

6 books that I read right before or right after Dylan (Hold Still, The Letters of Vincent van Gogh, The Dispossessed, The Log From the Sea of Cortez, Terms of Endearment, Big Magic).

The book that changed my ideas most profoundly: The Entrepreneurial State.

The book I read in a single sitting: Educated.

The book I read in two sittings: The Dispossessed.

The books that showed up quite transparently in my own writing: The Information, The Abortion, Witch in the Bedroom, Silent Spring.

The book I’d read before: Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.

The book y’all should read, if you read one of these: The Dispossessed.

Happy New Year friends. Here’s to another year of learning and reading and thinking. It’s what’s keeping us human.


Back in July, Joanna, Hazel, Bevin and I decided to make an erotic bike film. We took sites like Bike Smut as inspiration in our quest to create a filmic celebration of the inherent sexiness of bicycles and the people who ride them. The timing was perfect, we thought. We could shoot it at the height of summer, on one of our endless Edmonton evenings, edit it, and submit it to the Blue Revue.

We did all of that, basically. Perhaps the finished film is more romantic than erotic. Perhaps the MCs at the Blue Revue screening called it the Zooey Deschanel of pornos. Perhaps it is mostly safe for work. Still. It features a song by Maggy France, beautiful people, and beautiful bikes. We like how adorable it is. Enjoy.

the summer and the fall

I got a roll of film back from a disposable camera. But the first two are Laura’s.

In June, to everyone’s surprise, I received the  Lieutenant Governor’s Emerging Artist Award  and we went to an awards ceremony akin to a royal wedding.

In June, to everyone’s surprise, I received the Lieutenant Governor’s Emerging Artist Award and we went to an awards ceremony akin to a royal wedding.

Laura, Hannah, and I made a 1-minute silent film called  GNOSSIENNE . It screened as part of the 2018 Gotta Minute Film Festival.

Laura, Hannah, and I made a 1-minute silent film called GNOSSIENNE. It screened as part of the 2018 Gotta Minute Film Festival.

We moved back into the same apartment and slept (almost) every night in the same bed.

We moved back into the same apartment and slept (almost) every night in the same bed.

I got to know this beautiful woman a bit better.

I got to know this beautiful woman a bit better.

I ate a lot of ice cream and spent time with my sisters.

I ate a lot of ice cream and spent time with my sisters.

Dylan sold his short film  PEAK OIL  to Air Canada.

Dylan sold his short film PEAK OIL to Air Canada.

We went to New York and visited a neighbourhood called Red Hook.

We went to New York and visited a neighbourhood called Red Hook.

We visited Dylan’s aunt and uncle and the Brooklyn library with its golden pillars.

We visited Dylan’s aunt and uncle and the Brooklyn library with its golden pillars.

We camped in the van.

We camped in the van.

We bought a new table and hosted our fourth annual Friendsgiving, crowding 30 people into our apartment.

We bought a new table and hosted our fourth annual Friendsgiving, crowding 30 people into our apartment.

We spent a lot of time at  FAVA . Dylan became Programming Chair and somehow I became Treasurer.

We spent a lot of time at FAVA. Dylan became Programming Chair and somehow I became Treasurer.

thoughts on tense

"According to any textbook, the present tense of the verb drive is drive. Every junior high pupil knows that. Yet if we say, 'I used to drive to work but now I don't,' we are clearly using the present tense drive in a past tense sense. Equally if we say, 'I will drive you to work tomorrow,' we are using it in a future sense . . . In fact, almost the only form of sentence in which we cannot use the present tense form of drive is, yes, the present tense. When we need to indicate an action going on right now, we must use the participial form driving. We don't say, 'I drive the car now,' but rather 'I'm driving the car now.'"

- Bill Bryson, from The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way

Bryson observes that present-tense inflections of verbs are more often used to describe events in the past or future than in the present. But surely this is simply because we rarely have cause to describe the present we are physically speaking or writing in (or the present we expect a reader to be reading in). The relevant present for most accounts put into words is either the one we have already lived through, or the one we anticipate. 

We don't say "I drive the car," because we don't need to. We do, sometimes, need to say "I did drive my car to the airport and I did leave it there in an egregiously expensive parking lot."

Using the present-tense verb inflection in a past tense statement conjures for the reader or listener a sense of a present unrolling at the same rate as the story. It transposes the audience backwards or forwards into the narrative present, which is the one that matters more than the present the speaker/writer/listener/reader inhabits in "real" time and space.

(This is even more true for past-tense and future-tense construction of the present participial form (driving), which is perhaps used even more than the simple present tense infinitive in storytelling.)

Big Mimic Productions

We took some About The Artist portraits of Laura, in anticipation of the legal registration of her production company and the submission of her first project grant. Laura is a writer, photographer, and filmmaker. She is also my best and oldest friend.


a not-very-young woman


Do I have the courage to start the novel? In her essay, Anna Moschovakis says, "I began writing the novel when a baby didn’t come." The baby isn't coming. Do I have the courage to write about that? Dylan asks me. Is it too personal, am I embarrassed? Am I worried about placing a burden of pity, impatience, or squeamishness on my readers, who perhaps weren't asking for a confessional account of what it feels like to be trying to have a baby? In this context, the utilitarian verb becomes a rib-poking double entendre of the worst kind, the kind an estranged great-uncle might enjoy.

I have gone so far as to apply for funding to write the novel. But I have not written a single word of it. I am revising Modular, my collection of short stories, instead. I have cut out a story and added two new ones. I have given one story that belonged to the little girl, Ess, to Sheldon the little boy. My hopes of publishing Modular with a large-ish press have been revived. It is becoming a better book. I am bored with it.

Nothing could be a more welcome distraction than thoughts of a baby. Dylan and I both know that our plan to have children is carefully considered, and noble (if not entirely unselfish) in its origin. We think the family dynamic is vital and interesting and important. We know that having children is a physical affirmation of our belief in the worthiness of humanity, as a project, continuing. Lately though, getting pregnant has seemed like one way out of a dilemma that perhaps I have not considered carefully enough.

The dilemma is this: Who am I, as a no-longer-very-young, but increasingly secure and accomplished woman? 

We still have no model for this type of woman. There are three options to which I might naturally turn. We have the stereotype of the young professional who rejects motherhood and whose success is still obtusely dependent on the maintenance and manipulation of her youthful sexual appeal. But I do not want to be what Cassavetes calls a professional. Or we have the spinster artist-intellectual, who similarly rejects familial responsibilities and often civic or cultural responsibilities as well, preferring to live as an outsider, an eccentric, a cat lady, an aging rebel. Or we have the mother, who has often (consciously or unconsciously) rejected everything but the care of her children, and her identity as their nurturer. 

Where is the woman for whom the pursuit of her life's work has come along with a respected, stimulating, at-ease place in society? Where is the woman for whom the practice of her work has not been at the expense of family relationships, sensual enjoyment, financial security, sexual appeal? Where is the woman whose artistic, financial, intellectual success is inextricably linked to her femininity, rather than a result of her rejection of femininity? (Sylvia Plath wanted to be this type of woman and identified her with the Wife of Bath.)

I watch Dylan approaching 30, becoming more and more the artist, the person, the community member he wants to be. I watch young women gravitate toward his increased self-assurance, compassion, understanding, success. I watch older people in our social circles look at Dylan with new respect, and entrust him with new responsibility. 

I watch myself at 27 years old. I too am growing as a person, writing more and better than I ever have, living with greater integrity, liking myself more. And the more I accomplish, the stronger and kinder and surer I become, the more awkwardly I fit into my young-woman's role. People simply don't know what to do with me. They aren't sexually attracted to me. They do not want to take me seriously. They are a bit afraid of me. I am not sure if I have outgrown everyone, of if they are the ones trying to leave me behind.

No one believes in the woman who wants to write books and have children and enjoy sexual agency and be married and get paid well and take an active role in her community and study for her own interest and knit sweaters and cultivate a spiritual practice and get drunk at a party and draw badly and have a bum knee and ride a road bike. And yet she exists. 


I only hope I can write my way out of this dilemma. There is always the novel, yes. But in the meantime, I have been composing poems for a new character, Aunt Rachel. She's the first recurring poetic persona I've worked with since Cat. Her main concerns are the meaning of life and the environment. She is not a mother. She is very smart. 


"For me, courage means being able to change the patterns of our lives, recognizing the faults and the beauty in our lives and always going beyond the limitations that other have imposed upon us."

- Leslie to her mother, 1979

Dylan and baby Ranger, a week or so after we adopted Ranger.

Dylan and baby Ranger, a week or so after we adopted Ranger.

a unified-field hypothesis

"We have thought how places are able to evoke moods, how color and line in a picture may capture and warp us to a pattern the painter intended. If to color and line in accidental juxtaposition there should be added odor and temperature and all these in some jangling relationship, then we might catch from this accident the unease we felt . . . There is a stretch of coast country below Monterey which affects all sensitive people profoundly, and if they try to describe their feelings they almost invariably do so in musical terms, in the language of symphonic music. And perhaps here the mind and the nerves are true indices of the reality neither segregated nor understood on an intellectual level. 

Bodin remarks the essential nobility of philosophy and how it has fallen into disrepute. 'Somehow,' he says, 'the laws of thought must be the laws of things if we are going to attempt a science of reality. Thought and things are part of one evolving matrix, and cannot ultimately conflict.'

And in a unified-field hypothesis, or in life, which is a unified field of reality, everything is an index of everything else."

- John Steinbeck, from The Log from the Sea of Cortez

Joanna at the trailer park. Mr Copperbottom in the background.

Joanna at the trailer park. Mr Copperbottom in the background.


"I have a high opinion of story. I see it as the essential trajectory of narrative: a coherent, onward movement, taking the reader from Here to There. Plot, to me, is variation or complication of the movement of story.

Story goes. Plot elaborates the going.

Plot hesitates, pauses, doubles back (Proust), forecasts, leaps, doubling or tripling simultaneous trajectories (Dickens), diagrams a geometry onto the story (Hardy), makes the story Ariadne's string leading through a labyrinth (mysteries), turns the story into a cobweb, a waltz, a vast symphonic structure in time (the novel in general)"

- Ursula K. Le Guin, from "The Narrative Gift as a Moral Conundrum"

Cooper and baby Ranger.

Cooper and baby Ranger.

the 'I' in poetry

"And this whole absurdity about doubting the 'I' in poetry I don't understand at all. The 'I' is the source of communication of things that matter. At least, that's what I feel. I want to trust the speaker of the poem. It's like biting into gold, to see if it's true metal."

- Jack Gilbert, from an interview with Chard deNiord

Dylan at the Bonanza Gold trailer park in Dawson City, YT.

Dylan at the Bonanza Gold trailer park in Dawson City, YT.


"Women must convert their 'love' for and reliance on strength and skill in others to a love for all manner of strength and skill in themselves. Women must be able to go as directly to the 'heart' of physical, technological and intellectual reality as they presumably do to the 'heart' of emotional reality. This requires discipline, courage, confidence, anger, the ability to act, and an overwhelming sense of joy and urgency."

- Phyllis Chesler, from Women and Madness, 1972

From the Yukon, last summer. Joanna and Cooper at the top of a mountain in Tombstone Territorial Park.

From the Yukon, last summer. Joanna and Cooper at the top of a mountain in Tombstone Territorial Park.

The Rolling Cabbage

(Cut from a grant application.)


In my favourite scene in any film, the camera has been set close to the floor and pointed through a kitchen doorway. Off-screen, a sack of groceries is dropped with a crash and a cabbage rolls into the frame, bumping across the linoleum and into the hallway before coming to rest. I can’t for the life of me remember what the movie is called. It’s a black and white movie; I want to say Polanski or Hitchcock directed it. I’ve never forgotten the scene because—at that exact point in the story, and because the black and white palette delays the viewer’s ability to identify out-of-place objects—the cabbage rolling into the room is, for a moment, a severed human head. 

It’s not the gruesome nature of this image that thrills me (though it certainly heightens the anxiety of the scene). What thrills me is that the cabbage rolling into the room and convincing the tense viewer, even for a second, that a violent act has been committed fulfils exactly the same dramatic purpose as a decapitation would have. It says the same things about the plot as it has built thus far and the characters off-screen, and makes an actual violent act wholly superfluous in the film.  

The rolling cabbage accomplishes all this by tripping some buried associative wire in the viewer’s mind. Further elaboration on the film maker’s part is unneeded; this simple, incongruous, mundane image has done all the subtle work of creating horror and pathos in a single shot. The effect is all the more profound because the viewer has to make the irresistible leap herself. 

The rolling head of cabbage is (more or less) what I have always strived to do with words and images in my own work.

against transcendence

I made bread yesterday. The simplest of activities, really just a few spurts of activity to mark intervals of waiting. Something to expand and fill the void I have to stop ignoring. Whether the void opened when I lost my Christian faith, or whether it opened when I lost my childhood's sensual attention, it's hard to say. At times, these things I've lost seem like one and the same thing.

I do know that my week in Salt Spring--a week of smells (lilac, seaweed, dog, cedar, roasting chicken, Dylan's hair), of building fires, of walking in the forest, sleeping deeply, watching basketball every night, revising the same poem every day--had me feeling more human, less digital node. 

And I guess becoming more human is an exercise in "spirituality".  A misleading word, implying a desire for transcendence. As far as I'm concerned, transcendence is the problem. Technology has allowed us to transcend almost everything--every physical need, every earthly measure of distance, most human conceptions of time. In our digital transcendence there is no place for the limitations of the body, the frisson between body and mind, the painful conjugation of the two that we have tended to call the soul. 

There is, increasingly, no proper place for anything. Almost all context is lost. And I think it is in the acknowledgement of context (as it shifts, as it remains constant) that "spirituality" lies. (If you use a better word, please let me know. Perhaps we can say "the sacred" instead.)

What is sacred about food? Knowing who tended the plants, the country where it grew, the plants and animals it was symbiotic with, the degree of relation to poisonous life forms, how long it took to become food and in how many steps, how your body reacts to it, the family or national or literary history of a recipe, the heirloom that is the serving dish, the medicinal properties of the herbs that have been used as flavouring--and on and on.

What is sacred about a book? The smell of the paper. The work's history of censorship or translation, how it got to you to read in the Twenty-first Century. Your aunt's name on the flyleaf in cursive, the girl you love who told you to read it, the author you love who quotes from this book--and on and on. 

Being able to shift and extend context is what we call magic. We also call it metaphor. A Google search has no context apart from the algorithms attached to it (and you). The personal is homogenized with the universal. Despite our furious hyperlinking, there is no wholeness of parts. Those algorithms exclude whole corners of the world, creating islands of people, islands of information, cut loose like mangroves on the ocean. 

(I just finished Steinbeck's The Log from the Sea of Cortez, so I have mangroves on my mind.)

Most people seem to have developed little practices to save themselves from the tyranny of techo-capitalism. They walk their dogs, or learn to make sushi from scratch, or go hiking in the mountains or drive the highways at night. Sometimes I am really amazed at people's ability to quietly survive.


letter from SSI

Hello. Writing to you from Salt Spring Island. Something moderately exciting has come up, for which I need a new headshot. This afternoon, Dylan and I went up on a scrubby bluff littered with aqua-blue piping and mysterious cast concrete forms, blooming with tiny yellow flowers. Bella and Ranger came with us. 

Thank you for your timely and detailed report. Bulky man in the leather jacket is certainly concerning; I've seen him before, as you said, sneaking. Luckily we have the dogs.

SSI activity is not as dramatic. The most exciting point of the day is usually the moment we leave the mansion to walk Ranger and Bella up the nearby mountain (criminally late, in their opinion). Then there are, of course, the ferry crossings, approximately 8 times daily, back and forth across the bay. The ferry crossings mostly serve to remind Dylan that he is frittering away his career. (Not.)

Food is very good, as are clothes. We've hosted several dinner parties already and outfitted ourselves handsomely. I've managed to engage the BC natives in a rousing pipeline debate, and our table has been graced by a charming one-year old and equally charming three-year old.

This morning I got up and baked no-knead bread, which I started yesterday morning. We made cookies last night. 

We've made several excursions to charming cideries and farm stands, accessible only by making a sharp turn onto a partially-obscured dirt road, all the while praying that a Subaru doesn't come careening around the bend before the sharp turn is accomplished. One farm stand had just been stocked with hot fresh bread when we arrived. We've also acquired blackberry jam, sprouted peanuts, fancy balsamic vinegar, lamb sausage, one distinguished wool shirt for Dylan, and one pair of skinny jeans for me. I haven't worn size 29 since I was fifteen, so you can imagine that I'm feeling very warmly toward the island boutique industry. 

Daily struggles include forcing myself to write a humorous and informative mortgage-concerning article for ATB, deciding how early to begin watching basketball, and building viable fires. 

We will be returning to Edmonton Sunday night, and sincerely look forward to our reunion.

xx Lizzie