Sunday, February 22, 2015

HIKE: Benson Creek \ Ammonite Falls with the Nanaimo Outdoor Adventure Club

It was a beautiful day in the neighbourhood, and west of Nanaimo, too, where today I joined 8 others (including a young mom and her delightful teen-aged daughter, and a couple training for a Machu Picchu adventure) for a hike in the February sunshine.

Special thanks to Kit, who knows the area so well he would never get lost. Great landscape, fairly good workout, and fine new friends made.


Monday, February 16, 2015

Three New Book Reviews: Krause; Egan; and Jordan\Tureski\Hayashi

“Homage to Happiness”

by Judith Krause

Published by Hagios Press

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$17.95  ISBN 978-1-926710-29-7


     In her fifth collection, Homage to Happiness, Saskatchewan Poet Laureate Judith Krause integrates a multitude of subjects and voices to create a savoury feast of poems. The Regina poet throws her pen’s light on insomnia, family, horses, Regina (a long poem, “Cathedral Village,” is dedicated to that enviable neighbourhood), travel, love, poets, science projects, news items, the hourglass, the number 13, food (poems include “Gingerbread” and “Chili Tomatoes”), and much more. Discovering the surprise of where she’ll go next is half the pleasure of this book, which features a cover painting by William Perehudoff against a “happy” yellow background.

     The Acknowledgements reveal that the life story of SK-born abstract expressionist painter Agnes Martin inspired some of the work; I admire those writers like Krause who can take on another’s persona and get so deeply “inside” that they make readers believe they’re engaging directly with the subject.

     In the long title poem, Krause gives us both a literal and interior portrayal of the artist, Martin. She writes: “my large hands\at ease, hanging over\the ends of the armrests, as exotic\as two bunches of bananas” and, in this same sequence we find these lines [included here sans stanza breaks] of relatable brilliance: “I know the subtleties\of clear bright light. I know\the draw of clean air.\This is why we cross\a deserted beach\to stare at the ocean\or why we sit for hours\on the top of a hill\with the wind in our hair.\There are only two directions:\in and out.”  

     Another of this accomplished writer’s talents is knowing when, and how, to end a poem. In a piece titled “Rules for Falling in Love,” she writes about there being no rules in the game of love, and about “the inevitable\periods of sadness” that accompany love. She finishes like this: “You will recover.\Now tell me\the story of\how you met.” I love that returning, which for me harkens back to the book’s title: it seems to say that yes, in life there will be good helpings of joy, regret and sorrow; focus on the joy. This heartening sentiment is reiterated in the closing poem, “How You Reach the Sea.”

       A sense of regret is evident in the short poem “I Wanted to See the World,” in which the narrator expresses dreams of travel (“Maps hung on the wall over my childhood\bed”) but “time ran out and wave after wave\swallowed everything in sight.”

     Certain images leapt off the pages of this collection, ie: it was lovely to read about (and see) the pastured horses, with “the theater\of their rubber lips” (“Watching the Horses on Old Orchard Road”) and, to imagine (in “Ode to Discards”) the “faded denim of my mother’s eyes”.

     Sometimes—or perhaps often—with poetry, the simple is the most effective. “Sunshower Flowering Tea” details the unfolding of colourful tea leaves in a glass teapot. The simplicity and clarity of this experience—and the impact of poetry—is summed up in moments “that hold us still\for the time it takes\to be reborn”. Judith Krause, I well-enjoyed your meal.



“We’re Already Home”

by Terry Jordan, Lorna Tureski, Arnie Hayashi

Published by Wild Sage Press

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$18.00  ISBN 978-0-9881229-7-0

     It takes so little time to read We’re Already Home, a two-act play that draws attention to both cultural differences and universal semblance between two neighbouring families—one Christian, one Muslim—but the play packs a lasting emotional punch.

     Written collaboratively by Saskatchewan’s multi-talented Terry Jordan (who served as dramaturge and, interestingly, also created the book’s collaged cover art), and BC residents Lorna Tureski and Arnie Hayashi, the realistic play was created by the Interfaith Bridging Project in Vernon with a literary goal of connecting characters “to create story in a meaningful way,” and a social goal of connecting people of different communities and faiths “with imagination, understanding and tolerance.”   

      This play works on several levels. On the one hand it is a realistic representation of two Canadian families, each with a 17-year-old teenager, and how seemingly small matters—like a leaf and shoot-spreading chestnut tree—can irk one person and provide joy for another, but numerous well-placed metaphors and a sprightly “Senklip/Coyote trickster spirit” character, Violet, lift the story beyond realism and give it a multi-textured dynamic. The timeless Violet also serves as comic relief, ie: sweeping the offending chestnut leaves back and forth between the neighbours, and quipping gems like her admission that she’s a member of  the church “Our Lady of Fur-till-i-tee.”

     The central characters include MS-afflicted Roy Gibbons, a former seminarian who “wound up delivering the mail,” and whom the neighbours view as a spying busybody from his second floor perch, and his open-hearted wife, Ruth, who is keen to learn about the culture and traditions of their neighbours, Ali, Aisha and Sila Ahmed. When Ruth delivers a chicken meal to the Ahmeds and Aisha later confesses, somewhat worriedly, that they didn’t eat it, both because it was Ramadan and because the food was not “halal,” Ruth says, “You couldn’t offend me with a stick.”       

     The sweet interaction between the teens is especially interesting, as it effectively demonstrates romantic attraction (Jacob has a crush on Sila), and how tricky it can be to bridge cultural differences. When Jacob walks too closely behind Sila on the route home from school, she says “you can’t come any closer because I am a Muslim girl and it’s not proper for me to be alone with a boy.” She explains why she can’t accept the granola bar he offers, and he notices how her hijab makes her eyes “pop”. Jacob challenges his judgmental father, who at one point calls his son “Mister Muslimwannabe”.

     I appreciated Ali’s charming hobby of collecting air from various parts of the world and preserving it in glass jars. He says that they’re “history, family, honour to Mohammed (Praise be upon Him)”. The writers effectively gave the characters multiple dimensions, ie: when Ruth is talking to Violet about Roy, she remembers when he wore “Levis and a white t-shirt, very Bruce Springsteen.”

     Apparently it was a full house for the play’s opening night: 250 seats filled, and 250 minds and hearts enriched by a play that both entertains and informs, with “imagination, understanding, and tolerance.” I wish I could have been in that theatre.



“Bone, Fog, Ash & Star”
by Catherine Egan
Published by Coteau Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$12.95  ISBN 9-781550-505931
     Imagine a world in which “every stone and every tree has secrets to tell.” Where dragons, Faeries and great birds called “gryphons” are commonplace, and one has to be granted a permit to have a child. In this fantastical universe some have the ability to create protection “barriers” when trouble arises. Invisibility is possible, as is shapeshifting, and the manipulation of the elements. Potions are made from “the spinal juice of a Tian Xia invisible eel,” and the Thanatosi—strange, faceless, acrobatic beings called upon by Great Magic to serve as assassins—are a very real threat.
      As a writer who deals in realistic fiction, I have often wondered about my literary cousins who pen fantasy and science fiction. For me it would be intensely arduous to fabricate mythical geographies, beings, creatures, and names, thus I appreciate those writers who have the ability to stretch their imaginations in such far-flung directions and create these otherworldly novels. What a gift.
     Last fall Saskatchewan’s Coteau Books released Bone, Fog, Ash & Star, the third book in Catherine Egan’s trilogy The Last Days of Tian Di. The star of the story, sixteen-year-old Eliza Tok, is both Sorceress and human; her father is a Sorba (desert-dweller in the Great Sand Sea), and her mother “an unusually powerful and rebellious” Sorceress. As the book opens, Eliza is trying her best to change into a raven: these are her spirit birds\protectors: “She could see what they saw, not with her eyes but somewhere in her mind.”
     We learn that Eliza is studying magic with Foss, a Mancer and Spellmaster who is expected to bring the girl back from the world of Di Shang (“ruled predominantly by the laws of nature” to the world of Tian Xi (where “the very land and air … seemed to thrum with Magic”). Foss is a benevolent character charting the separation of the two worlds. He tells Eliza that “The life of a Sorceress is perpetual struggle … With forces both external and internal.” The girl needs no telling; she lives it every day.  
      For this realist, the most interesting aspect of this fantasy is the synchronicities between the “real” and the “unreal.” For example, both Eliza and her studious best friend, Nell, have teenaged crushes. Egan does a fine job of revealing this youthful attraction via passages like the following, which demonstrates how Eliza feels about her love interest, Charlie: “Lately she found it hard to look at him without her heart quickening, and when flying with him the joy was less in the flight than in the excuse to put her arms around him.” It’s so human (except for the flying on his gryphon back!), and for me, it is a large part of what propels this richly cast story.
     Charlie plays a major role in the 308-page novel, and is one of many who, interestingly, speak with a Scottish lilt: “didnae,” “aye,” “nay,” “Lah,” and “couldnay,” are peppered throughout the dialogue, and I smiled at how often expressions like “Oh, thank [or blast] the Ancients!” appear. 
      Egan incorporates much poetry into her text, ie: the character Aysu has “eyes like dying stars,” and at one point Eliza “slid like a tear from an eye into the earth, and the earth was made of slumbering bodies.”  
      The Vancouver-born author currently lives in Connecticut. To learn more about her or this fascinating trilogy, see her website at


Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Another home salon, another fine time in Tofino

On February 5th, several women gathered in my home for an I Wasn't Always Like This literary salon, hosted by Rachel Muller. Some kind of magic happens when you get a group of women together and talk about life. Here's what participants are saying about the salon:
"...a BIG THANK YOU to Shelley for sharing her book and herself with us and for creating a safe and open space for everyone to share in. She is an incredible woman in every way and is a real inspiration -- demonstrating the possibilities that are there for each of us, even with all our imperfections, fears, baggage (maybe even be...cause of them!)." - Sharon, Nanaimo
"Thank you Rachel (host) for the wonderful, intimate evening. It was one of the best nights I have had since moving to Ladysmith." - Joanne, Ladysmith
"I echo Joanne's words ... it was a wonderful, intimate evening. Thank you for creating the space and asking the questions that made it possible." - Rachel, Ladysmith
**If anyone is interested in hosting me for a home salon, please be in touch and we'll make it happen.** Thanks, Shelley
North Chesterman Beach, Tofino, BC
I have just returned from spending a spectacular weekend with my friend David in a beachfront house in Tofino.
We played on and in the water, explored, acted like the kids that we are, and gave our guitars a workout. Such a holiday!
What a setting for my morning coffee!

Monday, February 2, 2015

Notes on a tree.

I am taking a few moments away from writing book reviews to meditate on the winter tree outside the front room window at my friend David's home in Maple Bay, BC. I'm not sure what kind of tree this is -- if it were in leaf, I could better identify it -- but it seems an apt metaphor for what it is like to move to a new town, alone, and have to create community all over again.

See all the reaching out in this image?

I used to consider loneliness the most pathetic of conditions; now, it is a fairly regular visitor, and if it sticks around, it can quickly turn to despair. Like this tree, I am constantly "reaching out" to make new connections. It's not easy; most people at or near my age -- and especially most women, I'm finding -- are already thoroughly befriended and busy with their lives. There simply isn't time, energy or space for another. And I understand that. I'm busy, too.

But I'm social, rather ridiculously so, and love to meet and engage with strangers-who-quickly-become-friends. What I especially appreciate are people's stories. Life is just so damn interesting and full of surprise. How good it is when one makes a connection and feels they've been reacquainted with a long lost friend. This is what I have with David.

On Saturday night I performed at an open stage (Hardwick Hall, Ladysmith). I sang "All You Need is Love," and by the final chorus it seemed the entire audience (perhaps 75 folks) was singing along. Wow. Community! I have no great singing or guitar talent, but sometimes I can hit the right note people-wise. I first pushed myself onto that stage back in September 2014. I am thankful for Violet, who hugs everyone at the door. I am thankful for Senni, who joined me on stage on Saturday. I am thankful for everyone who contributed their own music, including David (mandolin), and his friend Dave (guitar).

Sometimes it seems so easy.

Last night David and I walked along the beach in front of his home. We skipped rocks. We swung on the thick, knotted ropes tied to trees. We watched the Harlequin ducks disappear beneath the water.
We are friends.

A few sailboats were moored in the bay. I said: "I can't believe this is my real life."

Today I am feeling grateful for the light rain tapping on a tin roof, and the smudge of clouds obscuring Salt Spring Island. I am loving the two kinds of moss that coat the unnamed tree that reaches out -- toward the water, toward the sky, toward me.

I leave you with a final image. If I were to name it, it would be the opposite of loneliness. "Friend," I would call it. Or simply "Joy."