blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

"I have a problem. I'm too earnest."

So said Colm Toibín, the Irish writer who was in Ottawa on my birthday this year. He was being interviewed in front of a full house as part of the Writers' Festival. The event was televised. When I arrived at the venue I was put on a waiting list and didn't think I'd get in.

Toibín is a novelist, playwright and travel writer as well as a journalist and teacher at Columbia University. His articles often appear in the London Review of Books. His writing––he writes in longhand––has been translated into 30 languages and he has recently had a series of essays published called New Ways To Kill Your Mother.

Testament of Mary (a monologue for the stage which later became a novella and which was briefly performed in New York last month) was the main subject of the interview, Elizabeth Hay asking the questions. Toibín sees himself as a lapsed Catholic, having been brought up in a very pious household, his aunts praying to the Virgin for the sake of his exam results. Because of poverty his mother was uneducated, bringing him up with the message: don't mess this up. You're the one with the chance. His play imagines Jesus Christ's life and death from his mother's point of view, although "putting a shape to Mary's story is probably a sin." The book / play took two months to complete, an intense piece of work. When Toibín emerged from his room after writing about the crucifixion, his companions looked at him and said, "Are you all right?" He wasn't all right; he had lived through it. He goes quiet under stress, he says. He writes "out of silence"; the starting point for a new creation is "the sound of a sentence" from which he generates all the other sentences he needs. "Knowledge becomes rhythm," he says. Writers are vultures, he confessed, using what they need from other people's stories, but they put a structure on things. He has an untidy desk. "I'm awfully unstructured," he said.

At the Ottawa event, Toibín read an extract from Testament of Mary aloud, the part that describes Jesus' raising of Lazarus from the dead. Mary does not approve: "The dead must be left alone with their new freedom from affliction ... [Now] he will die twice and only sorrow will come from that."

"A dark festival"
In the voice of Mary he found a sharpness, an edge, an element of anger. "I found a rhythm for that voice." In Toibín's vision of her, she's the most intelligent of the dramatis personae, a constant trouble maker. His interviewer, Elizabeth Hay, called Mary's character (in the play) ferocious: she's as headstrong as her son, but with survival skills He doesn't have!

To immerse himself in the subject, Toibín went to Ephesus as well as hearing J.S. Bach's St John Passion over and over, the recordings with Kathleen Ferrier or Janet Baker singing the alto part. "I did loads of work!" he commented. The painting of the crucifixion by Tintoretto also fascinated him. He called it utterly chaotic, a dark festival.

Toibín is aware of the appositeness of his subject matter to current affairs. "There's a crisis in Rome over the maleness of things ... the exclusion of women ... it would be a liberation if [women could be ministers] in the Catholic Church." The audience applauded.

He likes Fiona Shaw, the actress who played Mary in New York (he had previously seen her act Medea and Hedda Gabla). The Testament was a collaboration, Ms. Shaw finding humour in the part where the author had not intended it (being "too earnest") but "who am I to criticise?" he said. "I met my match."

Toibín doesn't like being called an Irish story teller. People aren't telling you the whole thing when they speak, he has noticed. Speech is a form of concealment, but the reader of a well written story can deduce what was nearly said, like the man in the corner, observing the conversation. In fiction, the interesting moment for Toibín is where one of the characters (in particular one who's trodden upon) starts to take control. He is interested in family members who are undermined / bullied, and in the tensions between siblings. His sympathy lies with characters who can "navigate around difficult people."

As I was queueing up to buy my ticket beforehand I heard people saying that they intended to tackle this man about his blasphemy and presumptuousness, but in the event no hostile questions were asked. In Ottawa, at least, he had quietly but effectively silenced his critics.

Saturday, June 1, 2013


The word means "New Beginnings" and refers to "the dark moment before dawn, when magic happens."

Our Diplomatic Hospitality Group was welcomed to the new Wabano Centre on Montreal Road with a joyful chant, sung by three young women and a man to the beat of a drum, "the heartbeat of Mother Earth." Carlie Chase, Director of Initiatives (on the left in my photo), said, "We want you to get to know us and our culture, not just the building. You can help to tell our story of what's here."

People call it a health centre but there is no word for health in the aboriginal languages, because their word meaning "good life" encompasses emotional, physical, mental and spiritual health, as well as pride in one's heritage and a sense of belonging (prosperity was not mentioned).  "A long, long time ago," said Bruce, "the Creator gave us four different medicines." He held them up and passed them around, to show us: sage, sweet grass, tobacco and cedar. Sweetgrass grows all over North America and has a purple root. They braid it for various purposes. Cedar leaves are used to make a tea full of vitamin C that has been used as a cure for scurvy. Tobacco is their ceremonial incense, used when making a prayerful request from other people or from Mother Earth.

We were introduced to the Smudge cleansing ritual, reminiscent of what happens at the incense burners in Buddhist temples. The sacred herbs are burned in a shell, a symbol of water, and the smoke fanned towards the supplicant with a feather, representing the wind, so that she can pull it across her head, her ears and eyes, and breathe it in, thus taking away negativity and encouraging kind thoughts. It "reminds us to be quiet." Silence is important in the aboriginal way of life. "We don't have a religion. There's no dogma. We only offer what's needed."

The coloured dome of the building, yellow, red, black and white, represents a medicine wheel and also stands for the different races of the world's people, the colours of their skins. Preventative medicine is a basic principle of indigenous culture: "You are to reflect the beauty that you see around you. That's the teaching!" The medicine wheel also shows the four stages of life, which "don't divide; they connect." Therefore on Wabano's Cultural Nights "... seniors, youth and everyone are together. It's a little chaotic."

By contrast, Carlie Chase was critical of mainstream Canadian society that's "set up in silos."

The Montreal Road Wabano Centre has enough room for a reception of 500 people, exhibition space, a rooftop garden where traditional medicines will be grown and used for teaching, a sewing centre where women can use industrial-strength machines and take sewing classes, a catering business, likewise offering people the chance to learn employable skills, a medical clinic, youth programs, day care for young children, mental health and homelessness care, and a "maternal wellness" centre. While we were there we saw a very young baby being carried home, after a check-up. Since 1998 the Wabano health care providers have been helping to deal with the marginalised people in our city. Bruce, for example, had spent 11 years locating and helping homeless aboriginals on the streets. At present they have a 6-member outreach team for the homeless and a team visiting vulnerable seniors as well.

The Conflict Between Good And Evil
Contrary to popular perception, the federal government does not fund this work because it happens "off-reserve" and it surprised most of our group to hear that 70% of First Nations people in Canada do not live on reserves. In fact more than half of these people come to the cities for the sake of jobs or education, but often find themselves "blocked" (as Carlie put it) because when they arrive they have no idea how to use the buses, the health system, etc. and have to be helped. Wabano's mission is to break down the barriers. In Canadian schools indigenous culture is only taught as an optional (elective) subject and even then, not until Year 11, so non-aboriginal Canadians tend to be ignorant, prejudiced. Police and social services personnel and the general public are encouraged to come to the Centre and learn.

The federal and provincial governments contributed $2.3 million each to the building project, but a further $9.6 million was required. The star blanket tile design on the floor of the Fire Hall, where individual tiles are being donated for $200 each, is part of this fundraising campaign. $400,000 has been raised so far, and by renting parts of the building to visitors for meetings and celebrations such as weddings, more money will be made. The board room is an impressive place for meetings, with tongues of flame on the table.

"Fire" in the board room
The architect Douglas Cardinal intended the building to be symbolic; it is on four levels. The earth floor is the basement where children are cared for. Water, represented by a blue floor and glass or glazed surfaces, is where the new mothers go for guidance (women are traditionally the keepers of water). The reception area up a curved flight of steps is inspired by fire (the community) and above that is "the sky world, where all is possible" on Level 4. We were taken up to the top of the building in groups and peered through the windows of a classroom where women were being taught to make quilts. In the corridor, pictures of "the Seven Grandfather Teachings" were hung displaying Wabano's core values: Humility, Truth, Honesty, Love, Bravery, Respect and Wisdom. Again, I was reminded of Asian culture.

We were shown inside the washrooms, even the Gents', decorated with wampum belts. The Ladies' featured a strawberry mosaic, strawberries representing the heart.

Pictures and artefacts like the heron sculpture (standing for provision and patience) or the feather head-dress gave us further insights. A corn husk mat hung in the main hall. During winter the women of the family would braid corn husks together, a laborious task, and tell the story of how the Sky Woman brought corn, beans and squash to Mother Earth.

Andrea decorating a stick
While one group was touring the premises, the rest of us could help ourselves to coffee and bannocks and decorate "talking sticks" in the Fire Hall. This was to demonstrate how family therapy worked. The idea is that (s)he who holds the stick is the one who may talk. (Sometimes a feather, antler or rock is used for this purpose.) The others must listen, because, as Bruce says, "When jaws are wagging, ears don't hear." When a troubled family comes to the Centre each member of that family has to contribute "something dear to their hearts" with which to decorate their communal talking stick. Our Diplomatic Hospitality members each took home such a stick. I decorated mine with a foil cone on a strip of leather, some red embroidery thread, three plaited coloured ribbons with beads, larger glass beads, a strip of fur and a feather. Some of the others were more flamboyant!

Finally it was time to "complete the circle" and finish with a Circle Dance around the star on the floor, everyone joining in: foreign diplomats, their Canadian friends from Ottawa and the Wabano people.