Sunday, May 26, 2019

A posthumous award for Ray's book, 2019

Ray's last book before his death, Through Sunlight and Shadows, won the 2019 New Brunswick Book Awards prize for fiction. It was presented at a New Brunswick Writers' Federation gala at the Moncton Press Club May 25.

I was very grateful to be there and to have the privilege of accepting the award as Ray's former spouse and as his literary executor. I spoke from notes and this is approximately what I said:

One of the great moments in Ray's life happened when he was a very young man living in Chatham, New Brunswick. He saw a poem by Alden Nowlan and it was the first time he realized that you didn't have to be British, or American, or dead, to be a writer. If he were here tonight, he would see so much more evidence of that early realization.

I know he would want to thank his publisher, Lesley Choyce at Pottersfield Press for making such a beautiful book. And he would thank his many friends who so willingly proof-read and critiqued and edited to make sure it was the best book it could be. He had become a lot mellower as he got older and actually allowed people to make suggestions and possible changes.

My husband, Dan, is here tonight. Dan and I were with Ray during his final hours and in the days leading up to his death, while he was still able to communicate, we could see that one of the things he was most concerned about was his literary legacy.

Because of that, I want to thank the archives at the UNB library and the archivists who worked with us for their careful and loving collection of his works.

The archivist who helped us clear out Ray's apartment was amazing. It was like watching someone panning for gold and pouncing regularly on what was obviously a nugget for her. Pure gold. Ray wrote always and everywhere. He left behind countless notebooks packed with writing that was almost illegible to anyone but him. A scrap of paper on his kitchen table might have been a grocery list or it might have been a list of synonyms — a search for the perfect word. Notes scribbled in the margin of a sports magazine left in his bathroom might be the perfect scrap of dialogue he was looking for.

Christine gathered and filed every one of them and when I was able to tell Ray about the process — he was already in palliative care — it seemed to bring him to a place of peace.

Ray's funeral was held in the church of his childhood and he's buried just a stone's throw from the house where he was born — the house and the church that figure so largely in this very book.

It seems a fitting ending — full circle, in fact, and I think he would see this as a perfect conclusion to this part of his story.

He left some unpublished work so there will be a sequel — I'm his literary executor so I can say that — but talk of that is best left for another day.

Thank you all, so much, for this wonderful honour.

Dan didn't want to be obtrusive while I was speaking — which I think was very considerate — so he shot the pictures from his only possible angle.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Fire! Noise! Music! how much excitement can you take?

Today, March 19, is the feast day of St. Joseph. He's the patron saint of Canada and of many worthy causes but nowhere is he more revered and celebrated than in parts of Spain. In Valencia today, a days-long festival will come to an end with fireworks, parades, lots of music and finally, bonfires throughout the city as massive statues built for the occasion will be set ablaze.

This is the statue in Valencia's main square and it will be the last one to burn tonight. It will be sometime around or after midnight their time — sometime after eight here in Atlantic Canada. (They haven't set their clocks ahead.)

The festival is called las fallas, literally "the fires."

I was once in Valencia for las fallas. When I got out of bed on March 19, I thought I had awakened in hell. The cacophony was deafening. I looked out the window and the air was filled with smoke. People were crowded into the streets, laughing and singing with bands that were playing in most neighbourhoods. We went out and joined the ruckus and got swept along in an almost helpless state; it was impossible to fight against it. I noticed at a certain point that many people were wearing earplugs, an excellent idea although too late for us.

There were firecrackers going off everywhere but also day-time fireworks. You couldn't really see them but seeing them was not the point. You could definitely hear them. Bars and caf├ęs and restaurants were open and doing a grand business selling mountains of paella and gallons of wine and beer.

We followed the crowd and saw lots of the crazy statues before they went up in flames. As so many of the festivals in Spain do, the symbols incorporate a lot of religion and politics and they're often viciously satirical. Trump shows up a lot this year.

Here he is in the company of Franco, Stalin and Hitler. We will probably hear the cheering from here as this one burns.

I'm going to watch the main statue burn on the webcam from the Plaza del Ayuntamiento (Town Hall Square). As I write this, they're already making the pre-burning preparations.

We survived it, being there in person, and I have to say it was very exciting even though in many ways, it was pretty scary.

Join me at the webcam though. I recommend it!

And tomorrow, the first day of Spring, the neighbourhoods will be back planning and drawing and collecting materials to get started on their statues for next year!

Monday, November 26, 2018

Finding the origins of Ray's spiritual growth

Ray Fraser 1941 — 2018: writer and poet, story teller and singer

A few days before he died — he was in palliative care at the Everett Chalmers Hospital just before a move to hospice care in downtown Fredericton — Ray told me that the doctor had been in and offered him the option of an assisted death. He asked me what I thought of that.

I told him it didn't matter what I thought. What mattered is what he thought.

"I don't think the Catholic Church thinks much of it," he said, with a wry smile.

I said it was a very complex issue and it often took the Catholic Church a couple of centuries to reach a fixed conclusion on this kind of thing. That amused him.

He dozed off then and it didn't come up again. I didn't want to bring it up because I didn't want to sound as if I were trying to influence his thinking or to push him into a decision he didn't want to make. Or an opinion he didn't want to have. I did, however, make a point of telling him that if he wanted to talk about it again, I didn't mind but I'd wait for him to bring it up. It never came up again. After his move to the hospice, it was no longer an option and that was okay because I think everything had been said that was going to be said.

After Ray's death, when I was back home at my own computer, I was going through past emails, looking for addresses, people to be contacted, dates of certain events. I came across an email from myself, written on March 2, 2016:

Did you read this? It’s quite an astonishing story and much of it is about Al Purdy. I’m still trying to get my head around it.

The article I linked to was from Toronto Life and was written by John Hofsess. John was a right-to-life activist and before his own death (by assisted suicide), he had facilitated the deaths of eight people, including the poet Al Purdy.

I thought the story would interest Ray because we knew Al Purdy a bit back in the Montreal days and also because he liked Al Purdy's poetry. Ray had started a literary magazine (the infamously-named Intercourse) and he had well-known, high profile contributors — among them, Leonard Cohen, Elizabeth Brewster, Alden Nowlan, Irving Layton and yes, Al Purdy. Ray not only liked Al's poetry but he liked the tough-guy persona that Al affected.

We met him a couple of times at parties where he would usually be the centre of attention — except for the time when he and Margaret Atwood showed up at the same party. She had just won the Governor-General's Award for poetry and Al appeared to happily relinquish the centre-of-attention position to her — for that one time anyway.

Ray's response to my email and to the Hofsess article about assisted death held much more significance for me when I read it last week — a month after we'd talked about it in the hospital — than when I read it two years ago. He wrote:

Interesting. I think a body should do his time and leave when he's meant to, speaking for myself. Although if you turn into one of those brain dead vegetables in old folks homes it might be nice if someone shot you.

All the pain I've known so far has had a lesson in it. As the saying goes, "Pain is the touchstone of spiritual growth". You find things out that way you wouldn't any other. And none of it is needless. That's so far, and so far has gone on for quite a while.

"So far" for Ray amounted to 77½ years.

In a subsequent note, perhaps having re-read the article, he said it struck him that "Hofsess is more an egoist than an altruist." And concluded, "Anyway, I think if you live right you'll probably die right."

I'm thankful that it ended easily for him but I know that "living right" doesn't always guarantee an easy death. Far from it.

The only guarantee is that there are no guarantees.

Even still, I find something comforting in his words that turned out to be prophetic — for him — and displayed a profound belief in some of the origins of his spiritual growth.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

A sweet little cat says good-bye

Our dear Junior cat is gone now. He left yesterday, April 30. I didn't accompany him on his final journey. I petted him and told him to be a good kitty. Dan was with him all the way.

Junior's prognosis was never encouraging from his initial diagnosis on March 2. He put up a good fight, as we did and as his friends and admirers and caregivers at the Atlantic Cat Hospital did — Dr. Julia and all the dedicated staff.

In the end though, we couldn't ask any more of him. I knew it was up to me to make the final decision and I knew he would let me know when it was time. His world had become very small and he wasn't eating enough to sustain his strength. He needed help with some of his everyday motions and he was losing interest.

Junior was 12 years old. He was born at the SPCA where Dan and William went and chose him. He chose them really. He was so vocal in his demand to be chosen that they couldn't ignore him. He was so young when he joined us, he still had the blue eyes of a little baby kitten. He was too tiny to climb the stairs. I carried him up at night and put him on the bed. During the night, he would find me and burrow into my hair at the back of my head. He would gently knead and purr and yes, suck a little bit, thinking he'd found his proper Mama. The back of my head didn't suffice, unfortunately.

He and Grizzly grew apart over the years and didn't really like each other but it was clear they liked each other at one point.

He got his name because to a casual viewer, he and Grizzly looked somewhat alike so to allay confusion, we just decided they would be Grizzly and Grizzly Jr. And so Junior he was.

We would have liked him to be an indoor cat but no such luck. He turned out to be the most outdoorsy cat of them all. Even in the worst winter blizzard, he would wait patiently until he heard Dan or William shovelling the deck and that would be his signal to demand the door be opened. They would make him a little path and he would go down one or two steps and then scoot under the deck where he apparently had his own designated restroom. In all the time we lived with a backyard, I think he only condescended to use a litter box a handful of times and clearly found the whole idea quite distasteful.

He was definitely a lover of Nature.

I suppose he found it hard when we moved to an apartment and his outdoor days were over. We couldn't let the cats out on to the balcony because we live quite high up and couldn't take the chance. He became contemplative and enjoyed spending time on the high perch where he watched the comings and goings of pigeons and wished he could get his paws on them.

William is out-of-town but he said an affectionate farewell before he left, knowing that Junior wouldn't be here when he returned. When we talked on the phone later, William said, "I think he knew that he had a good life."

And insofar as cats give much thought to the quality of the life they're living, I guess William is probably right.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Santa Claus Years

I was a fervent believer in Santa Claus. When I was seven or eight years old, growing up in Chatham, N.B., a kid at the White School in Chatham told me that there was no Santa, that the stories about him were all lies and the presents he supposedly left were all bought by my parents. I scoffed at her. Scoffed! She might as well have told me there were no stars in the sky.

I saw plenty of Santas when I was a little girl: we used to go to the old Opera House on Wellington St. in Chatham for a visit with Santa. We sat on his knee and told him what we wanted for Christmas. He said, "Ho ho ho," and gave us a small paper bag of hard candy. This happened again at the Sunday School Christmas concert in the United Church hall and at other public events around the town.

I was never fooled for one minute nor was I bothered by these little ceremonies. I was as polite as I could be, saying, "Hello, Santa," and listing off my heart's Christmas desires. I always thanked him and walked away.

Never once though did I believe that any of these fellows was really Santa. I didn't even believe that they were — as some people posited — some kind of official "helper." I knew they were just guys from around town, playing the part of Santa, and that was fine with me. I didn't give them a second thought. I only believed in the real Santa.

Many of my ideas and impressions of Christmas came from a book that came out every year at the same time as the decorations and the special candles. It may have looked like this:

although by the time I was able to remember it, the hard covers were gone and it was a little ragged around the edges. The book had poems, carols, drawings and stories at least two of which were almost unbearably sad: The Little Match Girl and The Happy Prince.

There were things in the book I didn't really understand but they created a Christmas image that stays with me to this day. Many years later, my husband found a similar book which now comes out every Christmas in our household. It has all the old favourites and reading The Happy Prince can still bring tears to my eyes.

In those days, little girls wore long brown ribbed stockings. They were held up by garters that were attached to an undergarment called a waist.

The stockings went all the way up and they had some "give" so they could easily accommodate lots of goodies and these were the stockings we hung on Christmas Eve. We hung them in the archway between the living room and the dining room and after the ritual of choosing a selection of cookies and fruitcake and making a cup of tea for Santa, off we went.

The magic of Christmas morning has never changed for me. When we crept down the stairs and peeked around the corner, the first thing we saw was fresh snow that had been tracked across the living room carpet. That was our first clue that he had been there. A few more steps and we could see the lovely array of presents and the fat bulging stockings. Our father would have stoked the furnace, our mother would have started the Christmas music — and those stockings beckoned.

The stockings always included small toys and books, maybe a hairbrush and comb and barrettes, maybe some perfumed bath powder. I mostly remember the wax paper packages of fruit and candy though. Of course, the legendary orange was always in the toe. But at regular intervals throughout the stocking, there would be bunches of grapes, a banana, an apple — always a Red Delicious called, in our house, a Christmas apple or more often, a Santa Claus apple.

There were also wrapped packages of hard candies and of peppermint-cream-filled chocolates. There were those once-a-year specialty sweets: barley toys and ribbon candy.

And — as sure as Christmas had arrived — there were Ganong's chicken bones. They were as much a part of Christmas as the turkey and the tree and they still are at our house.

I remember some of the big presents over a number of years — the toboggan, the sled, the skates, all the dolls. I have a special memory of the dollhouse. How I loved sitting at its back open wall, spending hours moving the family members and their furniture around from room to room, imagining interesting lives and activities for all of them. This was in the days before everything was made of plastic and my dollhouse was made of tin. It was simple but wonderful.

But as we're so fond of reminding one another — and especially reminding the children — it's not the gifts we remember, it's the magic. The magic for me was all about Santa Claus. I know there's some controversy these days about whether it's good to deceive your children by letting them believe in Santa. I don't think anyone could have stopped me from believing in Santa so it was never an issue for me.

I believe in him still. Nowadays, when I creep down the stairs on Christmas morning and see the fat, bulging stockings, the old magic returns and I feel the same way that I did all those years ago. It's even more interesting and magical when you consider that I filled those stockings myself, before I went to bed.

Have a happy and blessed Christmas and a wonderful 2014.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Betty Peterson: Full-time worker for peace and justice

Betty Peterson, 77, is an activist for peace and social justice. During the Persian Gulf War, she kept a peace vigil for 88 days in front of the Halifax Public Library. In 1993, she was an organizer of a weekly demonstration of Women In Black to express solidarity with the raped women of the former Yugoslavia.

She and her husband Gunnar emigrated to Nova Scotia from the United States in 1975. Gunnar died after they had been here one year.

This story, which first appeared in The Women's Almanac in 1994, is in Betty's own words.

We lived in Chicago for 23 years where we both became very much involved in the civil rights movement – in community work, community development, teaching people to read and write. I was active in the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, League of Women Voters, War Resisters' League, the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

When I would pick people up at the airport, I would make it a point to drive them through the ghettoes and my kids would say, why do we always have to drive here? Why don't we drive down one of the beautiful streets?

Well, I wanted people to see how terrible it could be. I think I probably overdid that.

I had been a music teacher when I first graduated; then I was married, then the war came and the kids came and then you stayed at home. Oh gosh, I was very unhappy in the middle-class bedroom community in the south of Chicago – coffee klatches, bridge parties. Those bedroom communities are terrible.

Gunnar always had very exciting, demanding jobs – organizing people, helping people – and I just sat at home, talking baby talk. I had to get out.

So I got involved again. I was holding two almost full-time jobs – one with blacks, heading up a literacy centre, recruiting teachers. Then I worked at teaching English. There were Vietnamese brides coming back, people from Europe still coming over and no one to teach them, so I took the old idea of Frank Laubach, one of my heroes, with the worldwide literacy program – each one, teach one – and began working up my own materials.

Looking back now, I realize how I would call home and tell Gunnar that I wouldn't be able to make it for dinner and he'd have to take over. He was always wonderful but I felt guilty. It was years before I realized that this was the beginning of the women's movement and I didn't even recognize it.

I don't know how things went so wrong in American cities. We brought about a revolution but it didn't go far enough; there weren't enough people committed and we didn't come up with the support services to help people implement change. I don't even want to visit the States any more and that's my native land.

We had such hopes that the ghettoes were going to break down and those great apartment complexes were going to save the world. They did just the opposite.

Well, we fought for civil rights, fought against the Vietnam war and then the Watergate story broke. The system was so corrupt, right through. We wanted out of it.

So we came to Canada and bought a little place in Cape Breton – we used to come up in the summers. After Gunnar died, I decided I was going to live up there and make it on my own. But after a few years, I realized I'm a people person and I had to get active again in the world. So after a series of events and meeting good friends and social activists, I came to Halifax.

My exposure to Voice of Women, to the women's movement and to people who believed in the same things I do just opened everything up to me.

Betty with long-time friend, ally, fellow Quaker, fellow Voice of Women member, Muriel Duckworth.

I also became very active again in the Quakers. Back during the Second World War, I became exposed to the Quakers. They suited me. I got tired of standing up and sitting down, singing hymns, reading scripture and all that. I wanted something that was more challenging and robust and interior too – more meditative. Quakerism fit me like a glove.

Among other things, Quakers are against war and for anti-violence. The main thing is the belief that there's not much point in faith without work. You put into practice what you believe – you don't just go to church on Sunday. So I began working with Canadian Friends Service Committee and then I was asked to serve on a National Native Committee. I'd never worked with Natives. As I got heavily involved, I travelled to other parts of the country and I began to realize that the time for Natives had come – just as the time had come in the States for the civil rights movement.

My first heavy duty involvement was with the Innu. I was asked to go – as a Quaker – to a Native assembly in Sheshatshit, Labrador. And here was the ghetto all over again – people forced to live away from their usual style of life in unbelievably awful conditions. I had never been to the ghettos in the south so this was really my first experience with terribly deprived conditions in a rural setting.

I had never seen real Third World conditions but this was it. Since then, I've been to Labrador six times, always working for the Innu. When I realized for the first time the Innu elders and chiefs were getting together to tell their stories to each other, in their own language, of their experience with low-flying aircraft, it grabbed me and when they said go back and tell people what's going on here, I took that message literally.

People have come to realize that there are no single issues, that they're all connected – peace, social justice, the environment, women's issues – and we realized that there is a different way of going about things. The way Natives go about things is so similar to the way women have come to see things. And the way Natives worship is so close to my interpretation of Quakerism.

Native spirituality came to mean a great deal to me. My first introduction to it was going into Native prisons when, because of my being known as working with Natives, I was invited to go to the native brotherhood meeting in Dorchester Penitentiary. When I saw some of the Native women and men working with prisoners at Dorchester and Renous and Springhill, that was eye-opening for me.

I'm very much interested in how people are working for alternatives to violence. I'm encouraged by Native people talking about taking back their own justice system. The jails are filled with Native people, many of whom can't relate to our system. They don't even have a word for lawyer or for offender. So turning it back to the community and giving them the power is a wonderful thing.

I sometimes joke in a bitter way and say that all my life I've believed in the coming revolution. I remember back in the early '40s hearing Norman Thomas, the great socialist, speak. He said, don't think this war is going to be the end – which we all did. We thought we were going to have a better world when the war was over. He predicted that we would live to see the Third World War – between blacks and whites, or between the poor and the rich. Oh, the shudders and gasps that went through that audience. Well, I'm afraid it's going to come true if we don't continue to work for change.

What can we do, what can we do about it? We have to face the fact that people who have worked so hard for non-violence and peace and love and understanding, we have to admit that we're stymied right now. How do you stop the carnage around the world? It's absolutely overwhelming.

I think we just have to be as loving and caring and supportive to other people around us as we can. I think we have to work at building community – sounds old hat, everybody says it, but I've come to believe that's what we have to do, until we get through this period.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Sexual harassment: it wasn't discovered yesterday

I wrote this column almost 30 years ago for The Daily News in Halifax. It seems to suggest that although sexual harassment was widespread, it wasn't yet talked about openly by women, even with one another. I've written here that I was surprised at the widespread incidence of the problem. I had examples in my own work life and knew what my friends had told me but clearly, I didn't yet know everything there was to know.

June, 1990

Last winter, I wrote about the many instances of sexual harassment that seem to be taking place in the universities – most of them having been reported to me firsthand, many of them by women looking for suggestions about what could be done about it.

I confess, I was surprised at the apparent widespread incidence of this frustrating problem and I had no definitive answers or suggestions. I don't today either, although I've concluded that sexual harassment in the workplace is probably just as endemic as it is in the schools.

Sexual harassment is the only legal term defined by women. It was allegedly first used by women working on a case in Ithaca, N.Y. in 1974. Since then, it's become a term that many women who work outside their homes understand very well; many men still have a problem understanding what falls into the category of sexual harassment. They respond to it in different ways.

“It was just a little harmless flirting,” one defence might be. “If they want equality, they better be prepared for life in the real world,” goes another one. “All she needs is a good you-know-what,” is an old favourite. And that old standby, “C'mon, lighten up. Can't you take a joke?”

But even men who take a pro-feminist stance have a hard time dealing with the feelings aroused by sexual harassment. “Unwanted sexual attention” is not a concept that they can easily relate to. That's part of the reason why women who lay complaints about sexual harassment get so little support.

Another reason is that many women have never had any work experience that doesn't involve this kind of atmosphere – as Gloria Steinem once said (approximately), “For many women, what we call sexual harassment is what they call life.”

Still other women have been socialized to believe that sexual banter aimed at them is flattering – and for that reason, they've been willing to ally themselves with the bantering men against those women who are unwilling to tolerate such behavior. The complainers can't attract men themselves, the line goes, and they resent the fact that other women are getting all the sexual attention.

So what can be done, other than quitting school or quitting your job?

One of the important things to remember is that sexual harassment occurs in situations where the balance of power is uneven. It's rare that a woman in a senior position would be harassed by a male assistant. (Of course, it's also rare that you would have a woman in a senior position and a male assistant, isn't it?)

Very often too, the man in the more powerful position has control over the woman's immediate future – whether he is a professor who can withhold marks or a supervisor who can withhold promotions, pay raises, or could jeopardize job security. This makes it risky for women to raise the issue.

And it happens in hallowed university halls and in federal government offices; therefore, it obviously happens everywhere because those are the two locations where it should be least likely.

But without definitive answers, if you were to ask me what to do about sexual harassment, I would tell you to approach the guilty person and tell him how you feel about it. That usually doesn't help so then I would suggest that you determine how much support you have in your classroom/office/plant. Life becomes a lot harder if you find you're fighting this battle all alone.

Do you belong to a union? Does your union have a sexual harassment policy? Would it work on one if the idea were introduced? If you're not unionized, does your workplace have any guidelines of any sort? Is there someone in the organization (in universities, you can go to a sexual harassment counsellor) whose responsibility it is to deal with such cases? Can you recruit the people who seem to support you and hold regular discussions on topics like “dignity in the workplace”?

No matter how you answer these questions, it's important to keep a written record – times, dates, incidents – of the harassment; do it openly, let the guilty party know it's being done.

And read. Get material (through the Advisory Councils on the Status of Women, for example) that will help you understand that this is not an issue of your lack of sense of humour, will help you see the seriousness of this behaviour and how debilitating it can be to all aspects of your life.

And when you do solve it, share your experiences with other women – one at a time or in groups or through relevant publications. When I'm asked, that's my last piece of advice: just keep chipping away.