Solo Adventure: Chester and Manchester

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Nearly a year ago, I travelled to the UK, starting in London, taking a train to Edinburgh, and ending in Chester for a friend's wedding. I've posted already about parts of this trip, but sadly, it's taken me a year to wrap up this series. Check out the other posts here:

London, Edinburgh, and the Scottish Highlands were busy excursions. I darted from landmark to landmark, town to town, in an effort to see as much as I could in my mere week abroad. Thankfully, my friend's wedding was in the outskirts of Chester, in a part of the country ruled by green pastures and lambs, and I was forced to take some time to relax and enjoy the scenery. 

I trudged around Chester, a city of Roman baths and beautiful architecture that lies on the River Dee, near the border of Wales, with my backpack, which was already weighted down by souvenirs. Then I took the greatest bus ride of my life, through tiny towns and over stone bridges, to reach Higher Farm Bed and Breakfast, a beautiful slice of perfection that I hope to one day revisit. I walked. I snapped pictures. I watched lambs chase one another and I relaxed. 

I wasn't planning on going to Manchester. After a week of moving quickly from city to city, the backpack's straps cutting into my shoulders, I was ready to stay in one place. But my flight was out of the Manchester Airport, and in order to get to my airport hotel, I needed to pass through the Manchester Piccadilly train station. I'm one of those people who live in fear of missed opportunities. Knowing it might be my only chance to see Manchester, I couldn't pass it up. I'm glad I didn't.

One quick book blogger anecdote before I wrap up these posts for good. I'm a fairly awkward human being — one who isn't the best at striking up conversations or meeting new people. But of all people in the world standing in the baggage line in the Manchester Airport, I spotted Steph from Bella's Bookshelf. After I checked her Twitter account, and confirmed she, too, was in England, I went to say hello. After meeting Tanya from 52 Books or Bust in Edinburgh a few days before, my first solo European adventure turned out to be way more of a #CanLit adventure than I ever could have imagined.

I'll end these posts with a quote by Terry Pratchett, an author the world lost only last week. It reminds me of the importance of travel, and more so, the importance of travelling alone, giving yourself the chance to escape your comfort zone and see the world in a new way.

"Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colours. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving."
— Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky (Discworld, #32)

LivingArts: (Don't) Quit Your Day Job?

Monday, 16 March 2015
This post originally appeared on the Hamilton Arts Council's Living Arts blog.

I'm writing this article at two o'clock, but for the first time in a long time, it's two o'clock in the afternoon, not two o'clock in the morning. I'm not writing this on a train or on my half-hour lunch break. I don't feel rushed, like I usually do.

Two weeks ago I quit my job. I walked into my boss's office with a letter in hand, and I gave my resignation after eight years. It wasn't an easy decision.

At 23, I landed what seemed to be a dream job, editing books to be used in classrooms. I was energetic and passionate, and I couldn't wait to get to work each day. I felt in control of everything, but that control was fleeting. Eventually, commuting, negativity, and the strict 9 to 5 began to feel suffocating.

As artists and organizers, we learn to find time, even when there isn't any, to do what we are passionate about. The small hours of the night and my already-busy weekends became my time to write, to create, to organize, to burn myself out. Sunday nights would inevitably come, bringing with them a feeling of dread. I worked all the time, and when I wasn't working, I felt like I should be, and with that came guilt.

For years, I've been an advocate for Hamilton, writing about it and talking about it as often as possible. But five days a week, I boarded a train that took me outside the city to work. It felt like a betrayal.

In the early days of my career, I'd see men and women on the train with misery painted on their faces. If they're unhappy, why don't they just quit? I thought in my naivety. I learned eventually that quitting a job isn't easy, even if it makes you unhappy. To state the obvious, financial stability is a luxury, and one that isn't easily thrown away.

Anaïs Nin once said, "And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom." They're words I'll eventually pin to the wall of my home office once I finally finish painting it (something I'll now have time for.)

It's easy to romanticize the allure of being a full-time writer. It's what many in literary circles aspire to become. It's also a luxury. One that most of us can't afford. In her recent viral article, full-time writer Ann Bauer wrote about her own privilege, saying "In this world where women will sit around discussing the various topiary shapes of their bikini waxes, the conversation about money (or privilege) is the one we never have. Why?"

I didn't have the luxury of quitting my job without a safety net, one that could cover my bills and buy my groceries. After two years of searching, I finally found one with an organization in Hamilton that does deeply inspiring work. It's a job that will allow me stability while I begin to take back control.

It's only been a few days since I've started my new life. I still have the comfort of knowing there's one more paycheck on the horizon, and I haven't yet needed to panic. I can't tell you yet if this move was a good idea or bad, but there's a freedom in knowing I'll get to find out.

Chances are, you'll still find me writing at two o'clock in the morning. It's when my mind feels most alive. But it's a luxury to know it's a choice I get to make. I've taken back control.

Playlist: Bookish CanCon

Saturday, 14 March 2015
It's Juno weekend here in Hamilton, which gave me the perfect opportunity to finally compile the Bookish CanCon playlist I've been thinking about for a while. It won't come as a surprise, but a lot of Canadian artists reference literature in both their songs and band names.

This list, of course, is just a snippet, but I hope to add to it. Send along your suggestions.

Arkells — Book Club 
Local favourites the Arkells are nominated in both the Group of the Year and Rock Album of the Year categories. They also have a song that features maybe the worst literary pick-up line in music: "You're my library. Always open for business." (Care to challenge me on that one?)

Broken Social Scene — Ibi Dreams of Pavement (A Better Day)
At first glance, there isn't much literary about "Ibi Dreams of Pavement (A Better Day)," the second track off Broken Social Scene's 2005 self-titled album. However, the song's namesake is author Ibi Kaslik, who attended the Etobicoke School of the Arts with members of the band. Though Kaslik wasn't quick to admit it, rumour is her novel The Angel Riots was inspired by the band.

Library Voices — Reluctant Readers Make Reluctant Lovers
Library Voices from Regina, Saskatchewan, have a lot of literary lyrics to choose from, but these ones (coupled with this catchy title) are a personal favourite.

"I've read Yates and Hemingway
Maybe in our time it's liars in love
Then you call out my name like lines from a page
Feel my sins washed away, feels like I've been saved
I don't wanna die heartless in the heartland"

Honourable mention: "Generation Hand Clap," which references to Coupland and Murakami

Gordon Lightfoot — If You Could Read My Mind
Gordon Lightfoot's "If You Could Read My Mind" has hands down my all-time favourite bookish lyrics.

"If you could read my mind, love
What a tale my thoughts could tell
Just like a paperback novel
The kind the drugstores sell
When you reach the part where the heartaches come
The hero would be me
But heroes often fail
And you won't read that book again
Because the ending's just too hard to take"

Awkward related story: I saw Gordon Lightfoot at the Ottawa Folk Festival a few years ago when he filled in for Neil Young. I waited all night to hear this song from the front row, figuring it was one of those bits of Canadiana I needed to see live. However, the overpriced beer caught up with me. Of course, the second I closed the outhouse door is exactly when Lightfoot started playing "If You Could Read My Mind," meaning I heard the first few bars of one of my all-time favourite songs from inside an porta potty.

Honourable mention: "Don Quixote" by Gordon Lightfoot.

Dan Mangan and Blacksmith — Offred 
Dan Mangan and Blacksmith's album, Club Meds, is brand new, but its opening track, Offred, references the main character in a CanLit classic, Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel The Handmaid's Tale.

Tokyo Police Club — Your English Is Good
This CanLit reference might be difficult to spot if you're not looking for it, but scholars of Canadian literature will quickly recognize this ode to Robertson Davies: "So we searched for you by night/ In the Deptford gravel pit/ Until the tramp finds Christ/ Injustice is my middle name."

The Tragically Hip — Courage (For Hugh MacLennan)
Local classic rock DJs play this song a lot, but I've never heard them mention that it has a subtitle, or that it was written with Canadian writer Hugh MacLennan in mind. The song's lyrics reference MacLennan's 1959 novel, The Watch That Ends the Night. This song was also covered by Sarah Polley. I've included this version as a bonus to this playlist, because (as every child of the 90s knows), Sarah Polley starred in the ultimate reference to Canadian literature — Road to Avonlea. 

Rush — Tom Sawyer
Rush is receiving the Allan Waters Humanitarian Award at this year's Junos Awards. Their 1981 album, Moving Pictures, featured this now famous opening stanza: "A modern-day warrior/ Mean, mean stride/ Today's Tom Sawyer/ Mean, mean pride. "

Shane Koyczan and the Short Story Long — Shoulders
To be honest, I don't know a lot about Short Story Long. I do know that they're closely associated with one of my favourite acts, spoken-word poet Shane Koyczan, and they've got one of my favourite bookish names.

Leonard Cohen — References the Bible in pretty much everything
In high school, a teacher cautioned me against studying Leonard Cohen in an independent study unit. She thought the religious references would be too heavy, so of course, I took that as a challenge. I spent the next few weeks gobbling up as much Cohen as I could. His religious references are plenty, and I could never choose a favourite, but I'll leave you with the ones that are probably most covered by artists in Canada and around the world.

"Now I've heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don't really care for music, do you?"

Living Arts: I Read Banned Books

Wednesday, 18 February 2015
This post originally appeared as part of the Hamilton Arts Council's LivingArts series.

I can't remember exactly how old I was the first time I read To Kill a Mockingbird, but I know for sure I was older than 13, but younger than 18. I was a high-school student, and Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel was mandatory reading. The book offered a stark contrast to my life in the suburbs in the late 90s, and I devoured it in just a few days.

To Kill a Mockingbird isn't a perfect book, and there are many others that could better teach high-school students about racial segregation. However, it's a book worthy of praise, and one that I could read over and over again. Not everyone shares this opinion. To Kill a Mockingbird has been challenged in schools and libraries repeatedly for five decades.

Freedom to Read Week is just around the corner, taking place this year between February 22-28. The annual event "encourages Canadians to think about and reaffirm their commitment to intellectual freedom, which is guaranteed them under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms."

Attempts to censor books in schools and public libraries happen today, and sometimes, right in our own backyard. In 1993, the principal of a Hamilton school removed To Kill a Mockingbird from a grade 10 reading list after a parent complained. In 2006, a parent challenged a title in the Burlington Public Library's collection, calling The Waiting Dog, a picture book for kids in grade 3 and up, "vile" and "revolting. In 2007, the Halton Catholic District School Board "ignored the recommendations of its review committee and voted to ban [a trilogy by Philip Pullman] from school." In 2013, a formal complaint was lodged against the Toronto Public Library by a patron who felt Hop on Pop, a classic by Dr. Seuss, "encourages children to use violence against their fathers."

At least book burnings are a thing of the past, right?

In 2012, Hamilton-based author Lawrence Hill was the recipient of the Writers' Union of Canada's Freedom to Read Award. At the time, Greg Hollingshead, Chair of the Union, said "We felt that he deserved this honour on the basis of his reasoned and eloquent response to the threat to burn his novel The Book of Negroes." Hollingshead is referring to a public burning of the book's cover, which took place in Amsterdam in June 2011 by a group that opposed the book's title.

"Burning books is designed to intimidate people. It underestimates the intelligence of readers, stifles dialogue and insults those who cherish the freedom to read and write," wrote Hill in The Toronto Star. "The leaders of the Spanish Inquisition burned books, Nazis burned books."

Artists, no matter the medium we work in, take on many roles. We push boundaries, share original thought, and cultivate ideas in interesting ways. We'd live in a boring world if writers only wrote books to please everyone.

The arts offer teachable moments, and instead of keeping books away from youth, we should do the opposite, encouraging dialogue about them. This Freedom to Read Week, I'm going to reread To Kill a Mockingbird or one of the many other books that have been challenged in Canada or around the world. I hope you do, too.

Hamilton WinterFest

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Hamilton WinterFest kicked off today at Pier 8. The festival, which is in its 37th year, runs February 7-16 at galleries, museums, and parks across the city. Today's WinterFest Kick-Off event included live music (notably Hamilton's Wax Mannequin), art installations, crafts, and a mini film festival, featuring two of my all-time favourite bits of Canadiana — The Sweater and The Log Driver's Waltz. The Brain was also there serving up one of my new favourite beers, Sawdust City's S'more Stout. (Seriously, that's a thing). 

Check out the full WinterFest 2015 event listing here

Before making it to WinterFest, I wandered James Street North. My favourite find was a copy of Lambert The Sheepish Lion at Newold's (240 James Street North). I don't remember the book, but the cartoon was one of my favourites growing up. If you don't know it, don't waste any time! It's on YouTube.

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