Sotto voce Literally, Italian for “under the voice”; in English “under the breath,” in an undertone,” “in a private manner.” In opera or theatre, the phrase instructs a cast member to step out of the action to address the audience about what’s taking place onstage. Instead of raising the voice, the performer intentionally lowers it to emphasize the truth.Maureen Hynes. Sotto Voce. (Brick Books, 2019)
An Edmonton visit, October 30, 2019
Enjoying a visit by poet Maureen Hynes so very much. Our conversations prompt me to remember my own formation as a writer and a woman. This is one of those unexpectedly powerful transitional moments that occur when we retire. You find yourself thinking about possible futures and then your past arrives as a lesson to guide you.
I love Maureen’s poems and she gave a fine reading.
Afterwards, we shared a good talk about writing and she spoke of her ongoing study with other poets. I felt myself grow calm inside in midst of this conversation. Collected. As though the day was standing still. Like her poem “Inside My Quietness.”
We wandered through Audreys Bookstore exchanging recommendations. I bought a few that will keep me happily busy for a while. A portal.
On the way home, we talked more about writing and about living in the too very now. With all the ugliness and beauty that conveys. (Jason Kenney’s name was said in vain more than once. Doug Ford’s too.)
International Women’s Day Committee, Toronto (1978-1992)
Memories come flooding back. I was in my late twenties and early thirties when I was introduced to the Toronto Women’s Liberation Movement. In 1977, at 26, I had lived to tell the tale of a violent very short marriage, the suicide of my father, a rape, a kidnapping (brief), and the discovery of my infertily. For a privileged middle-class White girl I gleaned a few painful insights into the suffering of women.
It was a proving ground.
Maureen and I met in the early 1980s while I was in graduate school, volunteering for Women’s Press and participating with the International Women’s Day Committee. From 1978 to 1992, this collective was an effective and inventive socialist feminist group — a productive tuning fork from sounding through the Toronto women’s movement. Individual members of the group worked on various issues and with various organizations —immigrant women, Henry Morgenthaler’s abortion clinics, the peace movement, childcare initiatives, anti-poverty groups, unions, shelters, violence against women collectives. The group became a many-armed woman. Here I found a more nourishing family than I had come to know. Here were improvised sisters dedicated to making the world a more just place for so many women’s lives. The group mentored me just like every other woman who joined by sharing in the regularly scheduled gatherings that featured presentations on a relevant topic along with reports back from each member about the status of the feminist group they participated in. The group shared skills and developed activists by giving us opportunities to learn to lead, by inviting us to participate as organizers, and by sharing in the work of developing an annual coalition of up to 60 women’s groups to spearhead the annual Toronto International Women’s Day March 8 event when thousands of women took to the street. Many of these IWDC women became leading Canadian activists and feminist scholars and writers. And poets. Mariana Valverde, Lorna Weir, Meg Luxton, Carolyn Egan, Linda Yanz, Linda Briskin, Maureen Hynes, Judy Rebick, Sandy Fox, Connie Guberman, Cynthia Wright, Maureen Hynes, and others.
I learned so much from the talented remarkable women in the International Women’s Day Committee and I grew in ways that have shaped my life to this day. At one point, I was tasked with co-organizing an event with another more experienced IWD Committee member, a union activist in a nearby steel plant. I remember gasping with astonishment when she showed me the slashes of burn scars up and down her arms from the sheet metal factory line work she did every day. My only corporeal signs of labour were the hang-nailed stubs I chewed on while trying to write.
It was about 1982? or so when I co-organized a Saturday afternoon IWD Committee gathering called “Women & Revolution” (original title!). (I have to find my archive of posters buried in my office.) We invited Toronto immigrant women speakers who had come from all around the world from Eretria to South Africa to El Salvador and places in between and beyond. The event was a great success with remarkable women speakers telling of their histories and the liberation movements in their homelands, their voices sounding out in the big church near Brunswick and Bloor. I remember one of the more experienced members of the IWDC telling me how much she enjoyed the event and how many issues and she noted how many revolutionary speakers we packed into the event – (Reflecting back, I think it was about 8 hours long 😉 For me this was a very significant opening into the lives of these women – the brave and sometimes shattered lives, the cruelty of the regimes that harmed their families, their rivers of resilience.
My mother, my self — Ontario, 1972
What drew me to this feminist group at this moment in my life? My York University graduate studies where I returned to women’s writing provided the direct link. But I was resilient and on a quest to discover women’s lives along a trajectory that began in my childhood. I attribute this to my mother who understood the limits of patriarchy and her own life within it. She schooled me to not live her life, to rebel, to strive and move beyond her limits.
My mother’s unfulfilled aspirations were given shape in the 1972 Carleton University Women’s Studies undergraduate class I enrolled in taught by social historian Deborah Gorham and literature prof the late Joan Jonquil – their readings introduced me to a world of women like my mother. And to women women I had never met before.
I shared my textbooks with my mother — a Room of One’s Own or a The Golden Notebook — and I would return home to Pickering, Ontario, to find she had read another shelf or two of Virgina Woolf and Doris Lessing. My mother explored far beyond my bookshelves over the years. She was a voracious reader with an impressive intelligence. In her later mid-life, she had time and financial independence. She always regretted she didn’t go to university. Early in her life, it wasn’t possible as she was my father’s secretary. Later when she could afford it, she couldn’t. She was an exceptional beauty paralyzed by shyness and feelings of inadequacy. ”Beauty is a curse,” she told me.
Maureen’s poem speaks to my mother, and to me —
While Maureen and I visited, I wished Jane was here too. Maureen and I share the same dear dear Toronto friend all these years – Jane Springer. I still miss Jane through these decades though we see each other a few times a year now. I learn so much from her life, her travels, her deep relationships, her life that balances a bicycle, a garden, a book, a song, a friend, a lover, a son, and work. We keep in touch during my visits and she was a wonderful help to me when I was working on my Omar Khadr book — sharing her long experience as a professional editor. In fact, we first met in the Social Issues reading group of Women’s Press in about 1980.
Toronto remains my lost home: my 12 years of so of work and study there were so formative. On my return to the big city, I have new friends and old to visit, and favourite streets to remember. I still connect with my dear friend Kim Echlin through our mother work and our writing and our teaching. I loved hearing of the beginnings and middles and afterwords of her wonderful novels and nonfiction works. When Kim birthed a daughter, I shared in her delight. Then later, we pondered questions and developed insights as adoptive mothers whose daughters came from distant lands and cultures. Transracial families have their own navigational trajectories. Kim’s thoughtful care created a kind of hammock, a soft landing spot as I negotiated some of the hard parts of my later life. Over the years, we maintained close touch by phone and when together we walk the Beaches lakefront boardwalk — talking talking talking.
And I always visit my friend Susan Shirriff — we met even earlier, shortly after the end of my marriage and my move to Toronto in 1976. We worked together at a private women’s club when I was a young woman recovering from a life that left me feeling so gawd awful and inadequate. The club was dedicated to giving women a space to talk, get healthy, and rest. It cost $100 to join, too much for many women, but accessible to, for instance, freelancers who used it as their office in the midst of the city. I met so many women I admired there as I peeked through the Gauloise-clouded confines of my messy glassed-in office. Susan was a young single working mother of two and I watched the growth of daughters over time – a gift. As a single mother, she displayed grace under fire. Susan remains a touchstone in my life. Full of wisdom and good advice and laughter. When I see her, I feel touched by her care on first glance.
Regretfully, I don’t see much of Brenda Longfellow and Kim Sawchuck and Dot Tuer and Kass Banning and Pat Elliott — members of my graduate school Bad Sisters reading group. How sad I lost touch with my Bad Sisters after a few years of visiting. Thirty-two years living in a province across the country is a very long time. All of these women went on to great accomplishment as writers, thinkers, filmmakers, critics, curators, teachers, leaders, etc. Three out of six of us mothered — three daughters. Memo to younger self – don’t lose touch with your bestest friends. They don’t return when you do. (While writing this, I looked up Kim Sawchuck’s recent work that includes “activist ageing studies — must look her up as I want to plot!)
An Orange October in Edmonton Strathcona
But to recap the earlier part of this busy day. Not long after dawn an appointment with a doctor about my bone density. Horrors – it is declining! Almost Halloween and already disappearing. A frail skeletal ghost of a thing.
Then a meeting at home with a specialist about my basement flood catastrophe (a tedious tale I will spare you).
And later a beautiful lunch with two exceptional women — Erica Bullwinkle and Linda Duncan. Erica Bullwinkle has done so much to organize successful NDP campaigns of remarkable women here in sunny Alberta. We celebrated Erica’s amazing work – Heather McPherson’s win in the 2019 election and of course the earlier wins that Linda accomplished in this same federal constituency of Edmonton Strathcona. Now we are the only place in Alberta and Saskatchewan not populated by a conning conservative. And then there is Erica’s devoted work with the provincial NDP. She deserves many celebratory feasts.
While chatting we feasted on Zinc’s fabulous lunch menu devised by the delectable chef beyond compare, Doreen Prei, I had the melt in your mouth gnocchi. Erica the delicious eggplant walnut dish, and Linda, the scallops. The huge windows let the light stream in in spite of a solid grey day. I was glad to remember the wonderful dinner I shared at Zinc not that long ago with Deb Verhoeven.
After lunch, I picked up Maureen at the Red Arrow downtown office – she had been visiting a class at University of Calgary taught by the multitalented Vivek Shraya whom she had mentored in Toronto.
We had a short while at home for dinner so I whipped up a quick omelette. And then we carried on to Maureen’s Edmonton reading. And, well, you know the story….
That night was an underworld night. Earlier the sliver of a crescent moon hung over the river. But it was cloudy and dark walking the dog before bed. I kept her close to me, fastened onto her leash. The haunting yips of coyotes are never too far away in my ravine-side neighbourhood. A very large husky, exquisitely beautiful, passed us by with her owner, a long-time neighbour. The dog strained at her lead leaning into my delicious fluffy white morsal of poodle. The neighbour hauled at the leash pulling her into the street as we made our way along the sidewalk past a woman’s pensive hi as she smoked on her front stoop. We made our way home in spite of the dangerous terrain of this evening stroll.
This first day out of the house in five days of bed rest was a whirlwind treat. My miserable debilitating cold now lies more or less behind me. And by the late afternoon I sensed a surge of energy returning. Like my old self made new again. It was a long day. And I’m so excited to be well again. How precious is this good enough health.
I look forward to rereading Maureen’s poems and having more good talks and a long river walk tomorrow. Maybe we will get lost. Always a good strategy to navigate a city with a poet and a wander.
Indeed we did walk along the North Saskatchewan the following morning with the poodle Simone de Bebe. Skirting the slim road-side Nelly McLung Park, we trekked through the woods, descended the hill and walked across the passerelle that reminds me of the Simone de Beauvoir passerelle in Paris. (See my post on the passerelle here.)
From the Walterdale Bridge, we spotted ice pans dotting the surface of the river – this mid-season transition given over to ambiguous solids and liquids spinning in the frigid current.
At the end of our walk, we explored the Indigenous burial site just across the bridge with its poignant sometimes anonymous gravesite markers that read: “A Fort Pitt Cree Man,” “Infant,” “John Brazeau’s Wife,” “A Sarcee Warrior,” “A Blackfoot Indian Trader,” ”Tsuu T’ina Man,” ”Chief Lapotask,” ”Boy at Horse Guard,” “Sophia Bird,” “Lenny’s Little Girl,” “Napoleon Rowland.” (My visits here and further research are part of my “unsettling relations” writing project in process.)
Later Maureen and I make dinner – eventually the scent of Honey Cumin Chicken Roasted on a Bed of Parsnips, Carrots, Fennel, and Potatoes* will fill the kitchen. We are joined by a dear friend and colleague, poet Marilyn Dumont. And we talk about our walk. Marilyn identifies her maternal great great grandfather as one of Fort Edmonton’s Hudson’s Bay Company chief factors memorialized in the burial ground. Marilyn’s lineage leads her through the complex history of these prairies for patrilinial lineage descends from Louis Riel’s revolutionary Metis collaborator, Gabriel Dumont. But that is the beginning of another story….
*(Maureen emails me after her return flight to Toronto and catalogues the highlights of her visit ending with: “Oh, and how alarmed we got when you went to the oven and said ‘WHERE’S THE CHICKEN?’ Still chuckling over that disappearance.” I think of that chicken unroasted and resting quietly on the counter. Eagerly eavesdropping, like a poet, on our animated conversation. )
Note: Blog image: “Eighteenth-century theatre,” Victoria Albert Museum.