Category Archives: Blog posts

There is a god of all things

“You might need to know again that there is a god of all things; that everything is connected; every raindrop, every tree, every molecule of the earth.” – Manchan Magan from Thirty-Two Words for a Field

My family left Ireland more than 200 years ago. They came to Canada before and during the famine. When they arrived, they likely only spoke Irish, a language that let them see both the material world and another world, the one beyond. They arrived, most probably exhausted and sick and those who survived quarantine eventually forgot Irish, though my grandmother knew a few words of prayer. I’m descended from them – I have an old spinning wheel that belonged to my many-times great aunt, who brought it to Canada from Ireland. It comes from another time, culture and world view, which seemingly has been swept away by the stormy sea they crossed to get here.

I have reflected on and written about Indigenous cultures that exist here on Turtle Island and caught glimpses of ways of thinking and seeing that go beyond the everyday – the mundane world as it is. But that exploration seems to have left mainstream thinking and become the purview of scientists with their strange ideas and experiments in impossible things, like quarks – how at the smallest level, everything is both a wave and a particle; everything is connected across vast distances; everything hovers between states of being until someone actually looks at it and then it takes form.

Could I learn Irish? I feel like it is a sort of birthright. I incur advantages from the English language – working as a writer, making understandable the decisions and intentions of government and its laws. My last name is English and that language is also a birthright, but when I speak it, it feels like something has been stolen away. Maybe Irish is hiding in its pockets, where it stealthily crept and stayed, hiding from the English who invaded Ireland almost a thousand years ago. Will I go to Ireland and study Irish and see what shakes out? Find out how many words there are for simple, beautiful things, like trees and raindrops and a spinning wheel rocking back and forth on the docks, where the boat first arrived in Canada?

Chasing the basics: bodhrán rhythms

When I was in Ireland in September 2023, my bodhán teacher set me up for a lesson with another teacher who plays both bodhrán and drumkit in a band. We were staying in a village in the west of Ireland and the drummer lived 2 doors down from where we stayed while we visited.

The lesson was a bit of a turning point for me. It reinforced the idea of developing a really strong motor rhythm, where your basic playing is really even and you control the dynamics–loud, soft, slow and fast. I have been told before that the most important aspect of playing is the basic down-up stroke. It should both be even and almost perfectly timed.

So when I got back home, I set up my metronome and I’ve been practicing that basic down up pattern along with a few other basic patterns. After many hours of down up down up down up, my playing is much better. I feel I’ve lifted it up another level through that practice.

I have also watched Ruairi Glasheen’s documentary on the bodhrán, which talks about Ringo McDonough and how he developed a motor rhythm, which is what I learned from the guy 2 doors down. Now I really get how important it is. McDonagh’s style was an innovation at the time and his clean, simple driving rhythm is all you really need to play well at a session. Maybe the triplets and fancy fills aren’t really the point. Anyway, it’s obvious but maybe not so obvious!

New Year’s Eve, 2023

Peace dove by Banksy in Bethlehem

For a long time, I believed that countries and governments would eventually stop waging war, because it threatens our survival as a species. Wars destroy our infrastructure, cause wide-spread trauma, death, sickness and starvation. So wouldn’t we eventually see that it’s a losing proposition?

I also believed that there would be an end to extreme wealth and sociopathic leaders—the Elon Musks and Donald Trumps of the world. The Vladimir Putins and Xi Jinpengs. The glorifying of powerful men who rule through fear, populism and disinformation.

Now I am not so sure. Maybe it’s just going to continue as it is until climate change and war undo everything we’ve become—what we’ve discovered and invented and all our dreams along with it. All the kindness and warmth that people have given to each other, especially to those who are supposed to be our enemies—blown out the shattered windows of our cities.  

These days it feels like just doing ordinary things, like playing music with friends or having guests over for supper, is a radical act. Being present and alive to one another seems to matter more than it ever has.

All I wish on the eve of 2024 is for you to find warmth and friendship and to hold onto it, and keep holding on. Light up the darkness.

Walking to the well

I’ve made a new friend who’s got a way about him. I mean, he is Irish and laughs the way I imagine an elf might. He’s small too, as an elf would be. Even though he grew up in the Dublin suburbs, it feels like he came into the world as a small creature curled up in a brown nest, tucked into a hedgerow of ivy. Then he grew, and tumbled out into a farmer’s field in County Clare, just missing a pile of ewe berries. How he got from there to Dublin, I couldn’t say. Though he is a modern person—he even owns a commercial van—it’s a Ford. Still, when I was visiting, I had to do my best not to stare at the faint drift of sparkles floating behind him and I definitely did not mention the green felt hat. Or the bells tied around his ankles. When he was a young fellow, he liked to leap in the air while wearing them. At least once, he arrived in an Irish village on a donkey that was wearing antlers. I’ve seen the pictures. But fair enough, it was nearly Christmas. He might have once led an ordinary existence in the city, but now he’s in the west of Ireland, where there are holy wells and old stone walls that you could follow for days. I know our time left on this earth is limited. We have only so many heartbeats and hours of sunlight. So I had better catch up with him one day soon, maybe in summer. I’ll tell him to grab his hat and walk with me for a while. We’ll follow the hedgerows, visit the well and wet our hands and faces in its waters.

Gaza, November

I’m feeling the pain and weight of grey November. The rubble of buildings in Gaza is that shade of grey. My computer screen is the same colourless glare. It’s seeping into my eyes, draining them of colour. All the leaves have fallen to the ground, staining the fields in red. Red runs through the sewer grates when it rains, then turns to brown and eventually, grey. It happens season after season, year after year, century after century. And I fear it’s been so much longer, but I can’t bear the thought of millennia of war. Thousands upon thousands of wars. Homes, playgrounds and children ground into grey dust, over and over. We know this story so very well. We even have the means to change it. But that doesn’t matter. The seasons will still roll around again and again, and the living will fall away, after spilling their blood. The buildings will crumble into the ground until everything is obscured in dust.

Long story

“…I had heard whispers over many years about a chamber of female divinity that was said to exist somewhere west of the Shannon, but I could find no reference to it in any book or journal. Then, finally, two years ago I stumbled upon the chamber, as some in the local community in Tulsk, Co Roscommon, had chosen to make it public again. It’s a cavern called Oweynagat in which an ancient goddess energy is said to reside…When the time was right, they were able to point small groups of individuals towards a tiny opening beneath a hawthorn tree in the bank of a field that led to it. The field is down a narrow laneway, apparently leading nowhere.”

Manchán Mangan: Indigenous people, Ireland and guardians of old lore

These are dark days. Sometimes, before dusk, I walk across the street from my house to sit alone in the field. After a while, I feel vibrations coming from a great distance through the earth into my body. The movements remind me there are places where the goddess lives, even in these times. I imagine they are hidden safe houses where she appears. They are not written down in books or recorded in databases – they’re hidden in plain sight – maybe through that small opening among trees that could be a fox’s den. Except it opens to a much bigger place, where from time to time over many centuries, people have sat in silence, holding each other’s hands, listening to the slow, soft whisper of time passing. They are listening for the long story, the one that opens up and folds back, further and further into the past until they find themselves at the roots.

In the dark and stillness, I feel afraid. I don’t have time for this. I check my phone, but there is no signal. I’m off the grid. But I’ve already begun to sense vibrations in all directions from where I stand, which is in an ordinary field beside the bike path. It’s as if I always suspected this place was here, and somehow found that fact reassuring. Right now, I have to force myself to stay still and not run back to the house. And resist the urge to get back to business. Because this place is deep and asks a lot of me. But I know the world is at stake now. Maybe it’s always been, but we’ve reached a tipping point. We need the goddess who loves gentle creatures, like my little dog who lies in a patch of sunshine on the floor. I love to look into his glassy eyes and smell the warmth of his fur. I need to visit the goddess. I must let time take me back and further back, all the way to its roots.

Cold Water Can Work Wonders

To help me deal with panic attacks and flashbacks that I now experience more often because of the pandemic, someone gave me an info sheet called the “Distress Tolerance Handout.” In it, I found a page called Cold Water Can Work Wonders:

“When you put your full face into cold water . . . or you put a zip-lock bag with cold water on your eyes and upper cheeks, and hold your breath, it tells your brain you are diving underwater. This causes the “dive response” to occur. (It may take 15–30 seconds to start.)

Your heart slows down, blood flow to nonessential organs is reduced, and blood flow is redirected to the brain and heart. This response can actually help regulate your emotions. This will be useful as a distress tolerance strategy when you are having a very strong, distressing emotion.”

I tucked this information away somewhere in my memory – maybe I’ll give it a try some time, I thought

I am glad I read about this technique because it helps me to appreciate the movie, My Octopus Teacher. In it, Craig Foster, who is both protagonist and filmmaker, talks about returning to False Bay in South Africa, where he grew up free-diving in the kelp forests of the Atlantic.

After many years away he returns, suffering from burnout and great emotional distress. He can no longer do the things he loves, like communicating with his son and making documentaries. There in False Bay, he begins free diving again — with only a snorkel and flippers – no oxygen tanks. He says:

“In the beginning, it’s a hard thing to get in the water. It’s one of the wildest, most scary places to swim on the planet. The water drops to as low as eight, nine degrees Celsius. The cold takes your breath away. And you just have to relax. And then you’ll get this beautiful window of time for 10, 15 minutes.

Suddenly…everything feels okay. The cold upgrades the brain because you’re getting this flood of chemicals every time you immerse in that cold water. Your whole body comes alive. And then, as your body adapts, it just becomes easier and easier. And eventually…after about a year…you start to crave the cold.”

Foster finds a way to slip inside of nature through his dives in the kelp forest and the friend he made there: a common octopus (octopus vulgaris). As much as I love the story of Foster’s octopus friend, I need to keep this story moving, so now I’ll talk about Claire Paris, another freediver.

Paris, a master at holding her breath, can do six-minute plus breath holds in a pool and dives more than 200 feet down in the ocean on a single gulp of air. Once she gets down there, she feels an immense sense of calm.

She prefers to dive without goggles to enhance the diving reflex, the body’s response to submersion in cold water. This mechanism kicks in when you immerse the nostrils and face in the water. Paris and other freedivers say that so far beneath the ocean’s surface, everything slows down.

I have a friend who lives by the Irish Sea and swims in the ocean every day—he loves both swimming and surfing. But it’s also a way to dealing with the stress of the pandemic. I’ve seen photos of him with his friends, pushing their way into the sea through the big frothy Atlantic waves. Soon enough, I’ll be up near Killaloe, Ontario, where I can swim in a cold lake and catch the last of the summer’s rays. Maybe I’ll try a few dives and see if cold water really can work wonders.

The time to act is now: Vaccines for poor countries

Dear Anita Vandenbeld,

Now that vaccines are rolling out here in Canada, it’s time Canadians and their representatives turned their attention to ensuring that citizens in poor countries around the world are vaccinated as quickly as possible. 

An internally displaced Afghan family on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan; People enjoying the sunshine in Ottawa. PHOTO BY OMAR SOBHANI/REUTERS; ASHLEY FRASER/POSTMEDIA
An internally displaced Afghan family on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan; People enjoying the sunshine in Ottawa. PHOTO BY OMAR SOBHANI/REUTERS; ASHLEY FRASER/POSTMEDIA

Currently, there are not enough vaccines to quickly inoculate high priority groups in poor countries. Canada’s vaccine plan puts vaccinations for all Canadians, even low-risk groups, ahead of the most vulnerable in poor countries. This is inhumane and even dangerous. 

By putting ourselves first, we are increasing the risk that more variants develop, some of which could evade our vaccines completely. As Hilda Bastian, the Australian expert in analyzing clinical trial data and founding member of the Cochrane Collaboration says: 

“We need to reduce the chances of the virus morphing into more dangerous variants — vaccines might not protect communities enough from new variants sweeping through. The notion that there can be countries where there’s going to be 40-year-olds and 30-year-olds vaccinated while there are terrible outbreaks in other parts of the world, and even the health care practitioners are unprotected, isn’t okay on any level.”

Given the limits on the number of vaccines doses that can be produced this year, wealthy countries like Canada are putting citizens of poorer countries at risk for severe illness and death while we put our low-risk citizens first. 

Canada has an obligation as a wealthy nation to help prevent this tragic outcome. 

The time to act is now. The Liberal government must reverse its decision to keep 50% of the COVAX vaccines and ensure that all doses go to poor countries. It must also look beyond that program and donate a portion of all vaccines to ensure that seniors, healthcare professionals and other vulnerable citizens in poor countries are vaccinated as quickly as possible.

Sincerely,

Jennifer Dales

Learning to play the bodhrán

For most of my life I’ve been a writer. And over time, I’ve learned that all creativity, whether it’s writing, music or something else, is an adventure.

Over the years I’ve seen many Irish music groups, and watched bodhrán players moving their sticks over their drums, performing rhythms and patterns impossibly fast. And they even played with both ends of the stick! I’ve always wanted to learn this instrument.

Just before we were all sent home in the middle of March, I picked up a cheap bodhrán at Long and McQuade and signed up for lessons through the Online Academy of Irish Music (OAIM).

By nature I’m an extrovert and usually find staying home for days at a time pretty hard to do. I like to be out and about, doing things with friends.

But suddenly I had more free time and all of it had to be spent at home. So I began to play the drum, doing online lessons and practising, sometimes for several hours at a time. The first thing I learned is how to pronounce bodhrán. It’s “bow-rawn.” Hard to say!

The OAIM drum teacher, Brian Fleming, was very good. So I thought I’d see if he gave lessons online. Sure enough, he does! We started meeting via Zoom in March—connecting County Kerry in Ireland with Ottawa for an hour or so every week.  

Since then, my learning has accelerated and I can even play the stick doubled-ended on the drum.

Bodhráns are made with goat skin and they can be finicky things—if the drum is not tuneable, you have to wet the skin every 15 minutes while you play. So, after a couple of months of dribbling tablespoons of water, I was ready for a tuneable drum.

Brian recommended bodhrán maker Ben March who lives in Country Clare. I gave Ben the specifications, he made the drum and FedEx delivered it a couple of weeks ago.

I was able to have Ben put an inscription on my bodhrán: “on the adventure.” I can’t wait to see where this drum takes me. Already I’ve visited the seaside in Ireland and discovered my favourite bodhrán player, Ronán Ó Snodaigh.

My husband plays the mandolin and we are learning jigs and reels so we’ll be ready to join an Irish session at our local pub when we can all finally get together in person again. Check out a video of us playing the Ashplant Reel together on our front step.

In the meantime, my wonderful drum will be my portal to a new kind of creativity and way to connect with others both at home and far away.

Lullaby of the land

I wrote this song recently, after doing a “deep dive” into the Pogues’ music. It’s a contrafactum, a song in which the melody is similar to another song yet contains different lyrics. In this case, the melody is from The Lullaby of London by the Pogues.

I posted the lyrics for the original side by side with my version on social media and asked my musician friends if they wanted to give it a try. My friend John Linehan (who is, of course, Irish) volunteered. We polished the lyrics some more and he brought it to life by performing it.

I recorded it live at the Irish Session at St Brigid’s Well in Ottawa.

Have a listen!

Sk’elep speaks

Canada’s residential school system for Aboriginal children was an education system in name only for much of its existence. These residential schools were created for the purpose of separating Aboriginal children from their families, in order to minimize and weaken family ties and cultural linkages, and to indoctrinate children into a new culture—the culture of the legally dominant Euro-Christian Canadian society…

– from Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada

Imagine a little boy or girl walking a gravel road on the reserve near home. Picture in your mind’s eye an Indian agent driving through town, opening the door of his truck and snatching a child from the road, to spirit the child away over a thousand miles to residential school. As you imagine the scene you may be in a safe place, such as your home or a café. Or on a train taking you to school or work. Unlike the child, you board the train willingly, whether following a familiar route or going on an adventure.

When the children board the train, it is icy cold and strange. They are all alone, without Mum or Dad or Grandma. The train conductor knows this—he’s done this run before, driving the straight rail all night through bush and swamp, his cars full of frightened children, crying for their families. Their lonely voices rise and pass through the windows into moonless sky. The train conductor hears the small voices and remembers them always.

If such a thing happened to even one white child—a child of privilege, the police would be called. The alarm sounded. Search parties sent out to shine lights in dark places. Every sighting reported. People running through the darkness with lights held high, through the neighbourhoods, searching for a sign.

In the image above, sk’elep is howling. I can’t tell if he feels rage or joy. I think his fierceness includes both. At night, he still visits the place where they kept the children. It’s been closed 40 years, but his ears still prick up when he hears the voices. He sings with them.

Sk’elep is still here, as people in their regalia still dance at powwows, as fires that went underground rise to the surface, crackling with tobacco and cedar. The shadows of eagles’ wings brush the darkness, bringing clean, cold air to the abandoned rooms of the old residential school, dispelling odours of mould and fear.

The train whistle is gone but sk’elep always sings at night. He passes through backyards and across suburban streets, sending his voice over the neighbourhoods, waking people from sleep. He walks the broken railroad tracks that come down from the north, and he remembers.

**************

Artwork above by Chris Bose of the Nlaka’pamux nation. The image includes a photograph of the Kamloops residential school building. The Kamloops Indian Residential School was in operation from 1893 to 1977. Sk’elep or coyote is the trickster figure in the Traditional Stories of the Secwepemc.

Writing by Jennifer Dales.