My second road trip

Thanks Douglas & McIntyre for the image

When we pulled out of the driveway on April 29th, 2015 I had one thing in mind—getting to Newfoundland in six weeks. I couldn’t have imagined that six years later, almost to the day, I would be sharing the story with you.

Six weeks felt like a dauntingly long time. But we had over 7000 kilometres to drive, 60 or so workshops to deliver and 40 or so destinations to visit. “We’ll just take it one day at a time,” Tex told me. We met hundreds of knitters. We told stories. We listened to stories. I met sweaters and examined their stitches, yarn and designs. I made note of their frayed edges and people’s earnest attempts to fix the holes and give the beloved garments a few more years of service.

Somewhere around Kenora, Tex started to question what he’d gotten himself into. “I had no idea knitting was such a big thing.” If he said it once he said it a dozen times.

Knitting is a big thing, but I was struck by the expanse of Canada…bigger…much bigger than knitting. The country is truly awesome. It is all the things you already know…the coasts, mountains, prairies, lakes, farms, forests…stop me…I don’t want to get started on the superlatives. It’s all been said so many times before and said much better than I can say it. But I never grew tired of the changing landscapes. Even when we finally visited the tiny outports in Newfoundland, exhausted and eager to return home, I was fascinated by the craggy coastline and the temperament of the Atlantic Ocean.

I hadn’t intended to write a book about the road trip. I was writing my Phd dissertation at the time and that was enough to put me off writing altogether. But once I graduated and put the gruelling project behind me I began revisiting in my mind the places we’d been and as the experiences moved into the past they became story…a story I wanted to tell.

Writing the book was much like the road trip itself—daunting but fascinating. I was peering out the window again. I could hear the hum of the road and feel the wheels turning. But this time they weren’t taking me through wheat fields and stopping so I could wonder about the height of land or the red rock outcroppings. This time they were taking me through the questions I had about my country. The wheels stopped at issues of race, naming, colonization, business, gender, privilege…so I could reassess the social, economic and political aspects of being Canadian. I ended up a less critical Canadian and a more self-reflective, patient and hopeful one.

The book is available on line and will be in your bookstore this week. Thanks to Douglas & McIntyre for their hard work and awesome team…and you really need to get this book so you will be able to see for yourself its very very cool cover (even if I do say so myself). I designed and hand knit it in the mood of the book. The review in the photo is in the April edition of Chatelaine Magazine.

My porcelain (20 years) publishing anniversary

It all started with my best friend, Diane Harris

I started writing stories 21 years ago. I was a natural story-teller and an inquisitive listener—I loved that part of being an oral historian—but I was not a writer.

My vocabulary consisted of a handful of words and the collection of strange phrases my father used like heebie jeebie, oddie moddie and sixty-fifty. He was a worldly-illiterate Bible reader (almost the only book in our home). But I always loved his wonderfully creative, if unsophisticated, way of communicating. I attended university during the 1990s so I was marginally more literate than him, but when I tried to write I couldn’t find words to fit my ideas. Stringing one sentence after the other, after the other, after the other made my head literally hurt to touch. Worse yet, making sense out of pages of sentences was excruciating.

The only reason I was writing stories 21 years ago was because in 1992 Diane, my sister-in-law, had interviewed more than 70 former students of Kuper Island Residential School. I had gone along to write the notes. She promised the people that we would share their stories—that other people would finally know what went on at Kuper. We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. No one did in 1992. What we heard was horrifying. 

But Diane would not let it go until we had fulfilled her promise. She pestered me to write the stories into a book. “I can’t,” I would tell her. “I can write notes. But I can’t write a book. Especially not this book.” Can you even imagine? How could I put such profoundly disturbing and, up until then, almost entirely unwritten stories, onto the page using my pathetic vocabulary and almost non-existent writing skills? From my Bible background I called up the feelings expressed by Moses who also felt inadequate, “Please, Lord, send someone else”.

Fast forward to the late 90s. A group of us decided to write residential school stories for our local school using Diane’s interviews and others we had collected. A long story truncated. I drew the short straw. The writing was left up to me. Difficult does not begin to describe the process. I found an editor to help. A publisher found my stories and offered to publish. I said no. Diane continued to pester me. She had made the promise. This was her way to fulfil it. Finally I conceded. No Time to Say Goodbye: Children’s Stories of Kuper Island Residential School was published in 2001. Twenty years ago.

I had never imagined becoming an author. Being published was the furthest thing from my mind. In fact I found the very idea of people reading my writing terrifying.

Being an author was an odd thing. My name (along with Rita Morris and Ann Sam, who worked on the project) were on the front of the book but they did not, in any way, reflect the crowd of people who made the story. I’ve always been uncomfortable with that. I was a tiny piece of an unimaginably complex and distressing puzzle but I didn’t know where my piece fit. Amazingly, the book is still in print. It has sold many thousands of copies and in 2018 it was put on the BC schools’ curriculum list.

Awful as that experience was I was hooked on writing and I soon began what I call “Stories from my kitchen window”. From where I lived in Tsartlip First Nation I watched my kids and the neighbours’ kids making sense out of their world. The view from my kitchen window was a cross cultural landscape where people got along, where they didn’t get along, where who you were was determined by the colour of your skin and where you were defined by your parentage. As you can imagine my whiteness coloured everything.

My stories were wispy glimpses of kids getting up in the morning and facing the day in the sort of world that I lived in. I crossed cultures. Of course I did. I lived in an adopted home. One where I was never entirely comfortable nor entirely welcome. But I was a mother and it was my kids’ home so it was my home as well and it provided the window from which I observed the world.

I didn’t just write kids’ books and young adult novels, although at that time they were my favourite stories. I dabbled in social commentary, history and personal essays—18 books altogether by 2020.

Twenty years after my first book was published, books number 19 and 20 are finished and will go to press in the spring of 2021—at least that’s the plan. In April, Douglas & McIntyre will publish Unravelling Canada my first travel book. You might have guessed that it’s travel through a knitting lens. In May, Orca Books will publish Growing up Elizabeth May, my first biography (for middle school age kids). COVID might mess with the publication dates so I’ll write more about these books later.

I am celebrating this anniversary in an unusual space for me. I don’t have a book on the go. Don’t worry. I have a textbook to start and an interactive ebook to write, so I’m not out of the business. But I am enjoying a very short calm. For once I am not struggling to find words. Or bewailing the ones I have found. I am riding out 2020 in this empty space. Perhaps not an entirely empty space, you might see more blogs than ever before because, as you can tell, I’m a bit of a writing addict.