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My Piece of Remembrance

It seems strange now but I was a long way into adulthood before it truly dawned on me that soldiers don't just get sent out to get shot.  The recognition came through a photograph.  It was a large photograph -- the sort of photograph people who don't have much money only acquire through special occasions.  It hung in my grandparents' dining room where we only ever went at special times -- times that made eating in the kitchen not-good enough.

It was a picture of my grandfather, dressed in his uniform, with his sergeant's stripes on his sleeve.  I presume it was taken just before he went away to the trenches of the First World War.  After my grandparents died and their home was broken up, I didn't see that photo for a long time.  My mother kept it somewhere.  Then, she hung it up.  She put it at the top of the stairs.  I saw it when I went to England to visit her. 

Right away, that photo gave me a shock because I realized that the face that was looking at me was not just the face of my grandfather, but also of my son.  We'd always been puzzled as to who on earth in the family he took after.  As I came to the top of the stairs, I knew.

He was about seventeen at the time and we had been watching All Quiet on the Western Front.  It had weighed heavily on both of us that he was almost at an age where -- if there was a war on -- he would be called up.  "What would you do?" I'd asked him.  He'd'd waited a moment before he answered.  "I think I'd have to go," he said.

It was what I'd expected and yet I hadn't been certain for my son was (and is) very much a man of peace -- the go-to for others when difficulties abound.  A man of peace, just like my grandfather who was, in truth, the kindest man I've ever known.  He loved to laugh and he loved to make others laugh with him, even though the jokes were mostly at his own expense.  He loved his garden, he loved to send us home with great bouquets of flowers.  He loved to be with children.  He had not the slightest hesitation in helping my brother and me tear up his lawn in scooter races (which he timed for us); clutter it with boxes, chairs, junk, as we created a series of trains.

I have no idea why his picture was what brought me my epiphany.  I just know I looked at it -- there at the top of the stairs, in my mother's house, so many years after his portrait was taken.  All of a sudden I could feel all through me: soldiers aren't just sent out to get shot.  Soldiers are given guns.  Soldiers are expected to use them.  Soldiers, wherever they come from, kill.

So, had my grandfather?  He'd certainly never talked about it but then he'd hardly talked about the war at all. 

I remember this on Remembrance Day, when there is so much mention of the fallen; when I am called back to my childhood, born in England in 1942, raised very much with the sense that we were the ones who'd suffered.  It somehow seems important that I keep this knowledge front and centre -- part of the recognition of all that war will do. 



Arts Coalition Day, Parliament Hill

I have to admit becoming a political lobbyist wasn't one of my life's expectations.  Still there I was on Tuesday, October 25 -- Arts Coalition Day -- storming Parliament Hill in the company of 100 other Canadian artists, pleading our cause for continued funding for the arts. 

There were over 120 meetings organized with MPs from all parties. My team (consisting of Boomer Stacey from the theatre organization PACT and Francine Schutzman from the Canadian Organization of Symphony Musicians) simply had to take on two.  Still it was a daunting prospect although both Boomer and Francine had participated last year.  Coming into the day I was worried.  I need not have been.  The Canadian Arts Coalition ( made sure we were extremely well-prepared. 

In advance, we were told what we should actually be lobbying for.   This involved three crucial points the Coalition had made in its presentation to the Finance Committee during the pre-budget exercises.  At the day-opening breakfast a team from a professional group called Ensight Canada coached us in the presentation of  our "asks."  We were given leave-behind packages; we were provided with information on those we would meet.  This information included a description of the riding and of the MP's interests and affiliations.  There was also a list of Canada Council grants which had been awarded in the riding in the last twelve months.

All this proved crucial in postioning ourselves.  I was also helped by the fact that Jennifer Ferris, SC-CC's Vice-President, and I had spent the previous day at a meeting of National Arts Service Organizations hosted by the Canada Council.  (SC-CC stands for Storytellers of Canada-Conteurs du Canada for those who don't know!)  The highlight of the day had been the opening speech by CEO Robert Simard.  He had talked with incredible clarity in an all-out effort to help us understand the government's position (the big thing being that balancing the budget by 2014 is non-negotiable) and gain insight into a language by which submissions might be made. 

The biggest part of the message was that the Conservatives have in fact put more into the arts than any other government and that (whether we agreed with their methods or not) we needed to start in recognition and acclamation of this.  It was also stressed that positive approaches would be more useful than adversarial ones.  This was not what I had expected but, in this spirit and maintaining our awareness of the bottom-line, unshakeable requirement for fiscal restraint, we went forth.

Both our meetings were with Conservative MPs and both went well.  I cannot tell where it will all lead but I do know that a collegial atmosphere was established and I did have a feeling that this has the potential to serve us well.

At the end of the day, there was a reception hosted by the Deputy-Speaker, Denise Savoie.  The mood was celebratory.  The Honorable James Moore, Minister for Canadian Heritage, made his enthusiasm obvious.  He spoke of his recognition of the arts as being essential both to the economy and to quality of life.  He did it with heart. 

Part of me still wants to be somewhat sceptical (not being a card-carrying Conservative and all!).  Nevertheless,  I am extremely glad to have been a participant.  I also think I learned a lot.  I suppose I had imagined we would be called upon to rush to the barricades.  I was pleased to experience this other method of seeking to achieve our aims.  It's a method I've always used but always in other places.  I think I believed "the Hill" would be different.  I saw it didn't have to be.  That meant a lot.  Indeed, I have plans to approach my local MP -- whose name was not on the meetings list -- to see what might be managed.  I'll let you know how that turns out. 





Battle of the Trees

Christine Cooper's first performance of this compelling piece of storytelling is over -- 2wp's first event of the 2011/12 season -- a house concert in Ottawa with another to follow in Perth tonight. 

I've heard a large number of stories by now but never one quite like this.  The Battle of the Trees reminded me of a Celtic knot, an intricate weaving of elegant patterns where mystery is evident but where everything proves to be connected in the end. 

Connectedness is, in fact, very much part of Christine's artistic vision in this creation.  She's exploring how seeming disparities come together, how unrelated events touch upon one another, how coincidence is crucial to life.  The lynch pin is a story, related in riddle form, in the poetry of the ancient Welsh poet, Taliesin. The battle is against Arawn, King of Annun -- the underworld; on behalf of his king the magician, Gwydion summons the trees to his aid. One by one, he names them and, one by one, they pull out their roots and march forth at his call (shades of Tolkien's Ents)

But the story does not start in these long ago days.  It starts in the Great Storm in Britain in 1987 -- a time when 18,000,000 trees were destroyed in the space of a few hours.  It involves the work of Robert Graves and his passion for the White Goddess; the uncovering of a ritual tree circle on the Norfolk coast -- a circle constructed 4,000 years earlier when the site was not coast but part of a forest, far inland; it takes us to Taliesin's birth and to the summoning of the boy Merlin to come to Britain's aid. 

Christine does not claim to be a fluent Welsh speaker but she has the music of the language within her.  The names of the trees form an incantation in that language; there are portions of Welsh poetry to heighten the overall sense of landscape and occasion.  Truth to tell, Christine is also a fine folk musician.  Her singing and fiddling are threaded through all.

Those who came to listen went home delighted.  Christine is staying with us and Jennifer and I have been plying her with questions ever since.  We would like to keep her around a lot longer but tomorrow we must take her to the bus station and send her on her way.  She'll be touring in North America until November.  It will be some weeks before she'll be home in the U.K. once again. 

listen to Christine's interview on CBC's "In Town and Out"

Trailer for The Battle of the Trees:


Flying in the Dark

Flying in the dark is what we were all doing when Jennifer and I started intensive work with Kim on her new 2wp show.  We all of us knew there was good material in the script a-plenty but we also all knew it wasn’t coming together in quite the right way.

The work Jennifer and I do is exploratory.  Yes, I’m good at finding plot lines and building dramatic arcs but we believe that often there are preliminaries in terms of opening doors through voice and movement to emotional variety and depth. 

Truth to tell, Kim is one of the most positive people in the world.  She lives with joy and relish and finds humour in much that would otherwise be dark.  All that was there.  It was there in abundance but something was missing. 

We got her to shout, a clarion call of commitment to who she is.  We then suggested she try an exercise we’ve found to be among the most powerful in what we have to offer.  It has to do with claiming, with saying, “I am…” and then letting whatever words rise to the lips come out.

In this case, the task was “I am blindness.”  We were all of us surprised at the result.  We were even more surprised when Jennifer asked Kim to breathe, speak one word about the experience, breathe and speak again.  What came first to this oh, so positive person was “tightrope;” hot on its heels was “display.”

More work followed as Kim took on some of the characters in her story – characters who had come to be mere symbols for her but now emerged as three dimensional beings with full lives.  The experience was rich but, of course, also hugely disturbing.  Apart from anything else we had to physically explore why tightrope?  Why this image Kim has never “seen?”

As I drove Kim home, I knew she was exhausted.  The next day she emailed us to say she had a  sense that things were moving within.  What she didn’t tell us until later was that anger was emerging -- anger at what she has had to face in her life in ways sighted people don’t have to; anger at the dis-abling manner in which she is so often treated in the sighted world.  Anger and then groundedness: a more fulfilled awareness of what she has so vibrantly achieved.

This story isn’t over.  We’re still not quite sure where the script will go.  We just know Kim is writing to us with a muscle-y clarity that will make her performance leap into life as none of us has quite anticipated; a clarity that will allow her to evoke and make vivid the tale that, from the beginning, has been hers to tell.  And yes, of course, there will be laughter – in truth she seems to be laughing even more. 



Musings on The Odyssey


Once....not so very long ago I was listening to a panel discussion on CBC about what we should do should we happen to make contact with alien beings or should those beings land.  To my amazement I learned that there are protocols for this -- rules about who should be contacted if some grad student, keeping watch by some telescope in the reaches of the night, comes up against what he/she considers to be a signal from another world. The protocols having been described, there was a lot of discussion as to the appropriate behaviour on the aliens' actual arrival.  Various members of various learned societies discussed how we would, of course, want at once to question them as to how they had got here, what technology they had used.  Through all of this the eminent physicist who was also on the panel held silent.  Finally, he had his turn.  "That's all very well," he countered, "But surely, assuming we can talk to them and so on....surely we should show them some courtesy.  We should do what the Phaeacians do when Odysseus appears, weary and unknown, among them.  We should offer them food and a place to rest; we should honour and welcome them, show them our home at its best, before we even consider bombarding them with all the things we want to know."

Hearing that then reminded me of when I had been in university, ploughing my way through some obscure academic paper in some illustrious journal in the cause of researching for an essay.  Seeking distraction, I turned to the journal index.  A title that claimed to offer thoughts on The Odyssey caught my eye -- a title that promised something less academic than that which I was seeking so studiously to avoid.  And there it was -- the description of how an eminent classicist had found himself wounded and in hospital in the Korean War.  He was in a ward reserved for officers but, when she found out what he did, one of the nurses told him he had to go to visit the enlisted men.  "They're all reading The Odyssey she assured him.  They're all talking about it all the time."  He was sceptical but she was insistent and so he went.  What she'd told him turned out to be true and the men he met had no trouble explaining why Odysseus' story was at the top of their minds.  "It's our story," they told him.  "The story of us, getting back from the war.  Ten years Odysseus was away, ten years it takes him to get back.  That's how it'll be.  That's what we're facing now."  They then went on to pick out various episodes they believed exactly mirrored experiences they had had.

I couldn't forget that.  I couldn't forget it ever.  It's why, when I started the series of epic tellings in Ottawa, The Odyssey was where we began.  It's why I've been so moved each time we've brought the story to our small bit of the world.  Here I am again too, burrowing once more into the text as I begin the edits which our time frame will necessitate in preparation for our first gathering of tellers, October 2.  June 16 2011 -- when we step onto the Fourth Stage of the National Arts Centre in this wondrous collaboration between Ottawa Storytellers and 2wp -- is a long way off but this is a big project.  We want to make the most of it and live it to the full.

Each time there's something that comes at me differently.  This go round I'm struck by how -- ten years on from Troy -- this is still so much a war-torn world.  Menelaus, himself, took eight years to be returning; there is the fate of Agammenon referred to over and over in so many different contexts; there is the sorrow for dead comrades; there is the grief for dead sons.   "I would give up all my riches," says Menelaus, "If I could have my dead comrades back."

When we get together we will talk of some of this, knowing that the story will be different for each of us (as it will for each of our listeners) and yet striving to build the common ground that will help us in the setting forth.  I am hoping for a truly wondrous day of early October weather so we can sit out on the porch, looking out over the setting for our weekend epics, breathing in lake and sunshine and the changing of the leaves.


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