Article Category Archives: Editorial

Words > Stories > Action

This entry was posted on by .

RE Nature: Concerning nature.
Renature: To restore to original condition.

We began plans for this issue of Understorey Magazine over a year ago, in August and September of 2018. It seems like a long time has passed.

At that time, few people knew of Greta Thunberg, fewer had attended a Climate Strike. Extinction Rebellion did not exist. The IPCC had yet to release their game-changing report, the one that warned we had only twelve years to take serious action against climate change.

In the past year, it seems, our awareness has transformed. Even our language has changed. It is now commonplace to talk of the “climate crisis” or the “climate emergency.”

But while global awareness has recently surged, the situation itself—warming, melting, acidification—is not new at all. Half a century ago, back in the 1970s, Exxon (and probably others) accurately predicted and then actively buried the fact that burning fossil fuels would rapidly warm the planet. A quarter of a century ago, in 1992, nations met in Rio to sign the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The goal was to limit “dangerous anthropogenic interference” with the climate. And decades ago, Indigenous people, especially those in the Arctic, sounded the alarm, told us we are not doing enough. They have been living in a changed climate ever since.

The climate crisis has been called a “long emergency.” But things are speeding up—and it’s not just the climate we have to worry about. The UN has also issued dire, unprecedented warnings about species extinction. Some researchers say there are in fact nine planetary limits or boundaries; global temperature and species extinction only two of them. They say we have already transgressed four of those boundaries. Without a radical change of direction, and soon, we will not survive as a species.


Why write poetry? Why write fiction or memoir? Why take time to paint or weave or sketch? Even for one morning, why ponder stories when so much is at stake?

A guiding principle of Understorey Magazine is that stories inspire change. Unearthing stories that are not often or not widely shared can build bonds, strengthen community, fuel action. This is why, for 17 issues now, we have chosen themes that are vital to our everyday lives but tend to stay hidden under the surface of everyday conversation: age, blood, service, motherhood, and more. In telling these stories, we announce: This has happened. This is happening—to me, to us. Stories help move us forward, they urge the question: Now what?

But as author and environmental journalist Linda Pannozzo recently reminded me, both through her writing and in person, stories can also blind us. Told over and over, stories can mire us in “truths” that were never truths, ideas that never made any sense at all. Patriarchy, for instance. Or more generally, dominion. Terra nullius. Nature’s bounty. Limitless economic growth. Whose stories are these? How are they sustained? What happens if we erase them and tell something new?

In his essential book, The Truth about Stories, Thomas King says: “The truth about stories is that that’s all we are.” Think about this for a moment. We are the stories we tell. We become the stories we tell.

In this issue of Understorey Magazine, our contributors do not lord over nature’s bounty. Nor do they stand aside in reverence or awe. They do not separate themselves at all—from nature, or from a nature in crisis. “We are accomplices,” writes Anna Quon, capturing in three words an alternate and necessary story.

Mi’kmaw author Tiffany Morris asks about specific words and definitions: “there is not a word in every language for / extinction event,” she writes. What does it mean that the English-speaking colonial world now requires this term?

Many of our contributors look at the storytellers themselves. “Auteur theory is for the birds,” writes Tanis MacDonald, forcing us to question who is penning the stories we tell of nature. Who believes they are directing the plot? And what about those relegated to the wings? Those who are homeless, endangered, living precariously, already suffering, or already lost? How will their stories shape who we are as a society and a species?

Of course, we have to do more than sit and write. We also have to rally crowds, get our hands dirty, listen to the too-busy and the still-doubtful. And, yes, we must pause to acknowledge the absolute wonder and our place in it. But creating a new narrative requires brave new storytellers, as well as a place to tell their stories.

So we invite you to read, think, comment, share, and act—RE Nature.

Thank you to all of our writers and visual artists, and to all who submitted work. We could not publish everything but we appreciated and learned from everything we read. Special thanks to our poetry editor, Rachel Edmonds, who vetted submissions and provided editorial comments, all while undergoing chemotherapy and planning a wedding. And a big thank you to our cover artist, Jane Whitten. Jane creates woven art with non-traditional but sadly abundant materials such as discarded plastic bags, telephone wire, and fishing line. The resulting portrayal of natural beauty and nature in crisis suggests not only where we now stand in the world, but several possible future stories.

The cover for Understorey Magazine Issue 17 showing sea stars created by Jane Whitten with plastic bags and telephone wire.

Editor’s Note

This entry was posted on by .

To look up from my own work as a playwright and professor and edit this issue of Understory Magazine, with its focus on diverse stories of womxn on stage, was in some ways the pause that refreshes. It is inspiring to have this opportunity to engage with the unique and rich work being done by artists across the country. How invigorating to edit this issue at a time when equity, diversity, and inclusion are finally coming to the forefront of theatre and the performing arts! Pow.

Many thanks to Katherine Barrett for helping to shape and refine the idea for this issue. There were many ideas in the air when she asked me to edit an issue. Some might have easier but this, we felt, was the most needful and challenging. To have a glimpses into the lives, work, and artistic practices of the writers you see featured here, and to deliver their work to you, is a distinct honour. You will find excerpts from plays or performance texts, creative nonfiction about the inner lives of performers, and poems that capture the particular frisson of “liveness” and what it means to be on stage.

At the same time, editing this issue was also heartbreaking in some ways. As The Status of Women in Canadian Theatre, Equity in Theatre, and other similar initiatives reveal, there is a still a huge disparity between the challenging and rich work being done by womxn and what actually makes it onto Canadian stages. There are so many calls for “opportunities” for playwrights … that don’t offer much opportunity at all. There are so few opportunities for real play development and production. So much more work to be done.

It was a key and joyful part of this process to co-edit with writer and Mount Royal University student Audrey Jamieson. A colleague and I were recently discussing the fact that if you don’t have a mentee under thirty years old, you’re kinda doing it wrong. This is as true of editing a magazine as it is in the classroom or in the rehearsal hall. As I enter the middle (ahem, prime) of life as an artist, it is just as important to be a mentee as it is to be mentor. We must all strive to attune our ears to fellow artists in all stages of their lives.

We are really proud to offer you this issue, Diverse Stories of Women on Stage. It is in no way exhaustive, but it is certainly rich and diverse.

Assistant Editor’s Note

This entry was posted on by .

It was such an honour to work on this issue of Understorey Magazine with Natalie Meisner and Katherine Barrett. The amount of wisdom and experience—of both the stage and the life surrounding it—from the womyn who shared their stories was astounding. Natalie has been an amazing mentor through this process, but so have the amazing voices that I had the honour of reading.

This issue of Understorey is a platform for womyn across the country to share in our common struggles around equity, diversity, and inclusion, but also rise to the challenge of creating a world where we don’t need to struggle any longer. I wholeheartedly believe that art and literature are the keys to crafting this new world. 

(Se) détordre la langue

This entry was posted on by .


À quoi serviraient les expériences sans la perspective de les répéter ?
La vie, au fond, est un nombre infini de variations sur un même thème. 
—-Antonine MAILLET, Romancière et dramaturge acadienne

Ce numéro 15 d’Understorey Magazine se concentre sur les histoires des vies des femmes qui vivent une certaine francophonie au Canada atlantique, c’est-à-dire, leur propre francophonie, à elles. Nos auteures répètent, partagent, soulignent, à travers des plumes lucides, provocantes, luxueuses, traditionnelles, de formation et autre, leurs expériences; celles qui font partie de la mosaïque sociolinguistique de la région distincte du Canada atlantique.

En tant que locutrice francophone de formation moi-même, quelqu’un qui est née dans une famille immigrante punjabi-hindi-urduphone, un foyer enfoncé dans l’anglais du quotidien nouvelle-écossais, le français appartenait à une certaine population et par la suite, non pas à moi. Grâce à une formation solide à l’école et à une certaine affinité pour l’interculturalité, j’ai appris la langue française en Nouvelle-Ecosse avec enthousiasme. J’ai pris la décision d’outrepasser les barrières imposées sur et par moi-même pour poursuivre des études graduées en français.

To see someone that looks like you speaking French is really impressive.
Well, it is not what you expect.

Les mémoires des moments au foyer acadien continuent à travers la plume vivante de Paulette LARADE qui, par le biais de quatre strophes, raconte, de manière éloquente, toute une histoire familiale. La famille, vue parfois comme la vis quotidienne d’une langue, reste à la pointe de la plume poétique de Morgan MACKAY où l’espace, l’esprit et le pouvoir du message s’entrelacent pour offrir une image forte des liens familiaux. Notre dernière contribution poétique vient de Martine JACQUOT qui nous emmène sur un voyage chronologique de sons et de silences, de larmes et de rires ; les lecteurs (sur) vivent « un grand fracas, » comme elle nous démontre.

Les quatre contributions de non-fiction qui honorent ce numéro évoquent l’expérience de vivre la langue française aux multiples facettes. Sophie BEAULÉ donne vie à la notion de l’ailleurs, celui qui est subjectif, impulsif, constructif et tout simplement beau. Grâce à France SAVOIE-FRISON, l’acte d’écrire la langue française devient un moment poussé-tiré, perçant non seulement l’encre de la plume mais l’esprit de l’âme à la francophone.

Je suis tellement fière d’inclure deux contributions de non-fiction de deux de mes anciennes étudiant.e.s ; deux femmes pour qui le contact avec le français rend des émotions différentes. Pour Sonja WILLIAMS, la fierté d’être acadienne ne serait jamais en question, malgré le fait qu’elle a pris le nom anglais de son mari après le mariage. En ce qui concerne Ève POWELL, en portant déjà un nom anglophone, le français est devenu un certain kismet, un destin, car le français n’était pas présent au niveau d’héritage, mais par une introduction à l’immersion en école. Vive la Francophonie!

Carpe Diem

Au café, je prends une chaise
café crème qui fulmine mes lèvres pulpeuses
je m’assois.
Il n’est pas loin, aux cheveux roux
ses tatouages qui me rendent du confort, du désir
sont visibles

Et je parle français, via Skype or whatever…
Doigts croisés qu’il puisse entendre
les sons
les syllabes
les siffles

Je ne chuchote pas.

En périphérique, je vois qu’il m’écoute.
La vapeur de son thé
comme ma langue sur mes lèvres.

And maybe, just maybe…

Five Years Old

This entry was posted on by .

Understorey Magazine Issue 15 cover, with Age by Ildiko Nova



Welcome to Understorey Magazine Issue 14, an exploration of women, age and ageing.

The idea for this issue grew from many roots. There were discussions among our illustrious editorial board, of course, reflections on our own experiences of ageing: Reconciling that new face in the mirror or that oh-so-familiar but now elusive word. Contemplating how to act your age and then contemplating why the hell you care. Learning, all over again, how to ask for help—and how to give help in whole new ways. Many of these themes unfold in the eloquent, candid work by the writers and artists of various ages published here.

Our Age issue marks a milestone for the magazine, too. This autumn, Understorey turns five. As editor-in-chief for those five years, I have learned a thing or two about the creative process, about art and time. These ideas also inspired this issue.

I have seen, for example, far too many lists, prizes and accolades for “new” and “emerging” writers that in fact mean new and young writers. As if you might only emerge as a creative talent while young—and then either fizzle out or mature into an old, established voice. For some extraordinary young people, this is in fact their literary path. But they are exceptions, I think: art derives from experience, and experience comes with age.

Creators of the website Bloom recognise this. The site is dedicated to authors who have published their first book after age forty. Many other websites list authors who “got a late start,” first publishing after thirty or forty or even—gasp!—fifty. This is progress but, honestly, who has the means to write a novel in their forties? Why not a prize for “new” writers over seventy? An award for “emerging” artists over eighty?

Art takes experience but it also takes mental space, pauses in the day, the wherewithal to stop earning or caregiving—or both—long enough to gather snippets of images, cultivate a thought, nurture an idea into a finished work. Midlife, those moments are rare. As author, teacher and contributor Tanis MacDonald says in her book Out of Line, “I don’t have a life where it is possible to write every day, and I’ll bet you don’t either.”

Over the past five years, some of the most intriguing work has come to Understorey partly formed. These pieces were truly borne of lived experience but perhaps not into circumstances that allowed extended and studious polishing. This work is—like so much art, like most of us—both young and old. It offers wisdom but might still benefit from the guidance and wisdom of others. It is beautiful right now but will only grow more so with time and care, that is, with age.

Thank you for reading Understorey Magazine‘s fifth anniversary issue on Age. Please share with others and, if you are so inclined, leave a comment for our contributors.


This entry was posted on by .

Many moons ago, when I first started reading books about feminist theory, I ran across a chapter on menstruation and oppression. Like all young women I knew at the time, I’d hidden pads and tampons to make furtive trips to the washroom. I’d smiled and carried on through period pain. I’d spent far too much of my student budget in the “feminine hygiene” aisle. So the words menstruation and oppression seemed a logical fit. I kept reading.

The chapter suggested ways to free ourselves from the stigma and confines of the period. Quashing stereotypes and jokes about PMS was a good start. Advocating for reasonable prices and tax-exemption on menstrual products—I’d buy that. Giving up wasteful industrial products completely and sewing our own. I wasn’t much of a sewer, but sure.

The arguments made a lot of sense—right up to the final suggestion, a recommendation sufficiently ludicrous and thought-provoking that I’ve remembered it for decades. Forget “managing” your period, the author said. Just bleed freely.

The idea that women should not try to stem blood flow was new to me and I failed to see how it could possibly be liberating. Who would haul all that extra washing to the laundromat? Who would hire a free-bleeding chef or housekeeper or surgeon? Who wouldn’t stare at a free-bleeding shopper in the check-out line?

And yet free-bleeding isn’t new—or old. Or even that ludicrous.

Blood Red by Michelle de Villiers

The historical record on menstruation is, shall we say, spotty (most history is recorded by men), but it’s believed that women have bled into layers of clothing for centuries, simply because they lacked the time, resources or pressure to do anything else. Pads and tampons were developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, but a short and more overt free-bleeding movement arose in the 1970s, partly in response to toxic shock syndrome. The more recent revival of free-bleeding is sometimes attributed to an infantile, anti-feminist hoax but is more accurately a serious and conscious decision by some women to compete, practice and create art while bleeding.

So, yes, voluntary free-bleeding was—and is—a thing. These days, it’s not the norm but the women who practice it, whether for personal, environmental or political reasons, have helped to start a discussion, made a point. And for the rest of us, that discussion is the point. I may never be ready for free-bleeding but I’m most certainly ready for free-speaking.

There are over 3.5 billion women in the world and most menstruate throughout their adult lives. That’s a significant part of human history, society and culture currently confined to the bathroom stall. So can we talk about the cashier who is given a four-hour shift without a break? About the student who can’t leave the room during a three-hour exam? Can we talk about how displaced or homeless women can maintain dignity when society pretends periods just don’t happen? Can we recognise conditions such as endometriosis (my spell-checker doesn’t even know this word) as nothing less than a chronic disability? Can we stop disguising pads and tampons like some sort of contraband and aim for open-carry?

This issue of Understorey Magazine is all about blood—free-speaking about its many forms and the many ways it affects women’s lives. Through literary writing and powerful visual art, we share stories about the blood of the uterus and the blood shed, both literally and figuratively, during conception, miscarriage and childbirth. We hear of the blood that flows throughout our bodies and how that flow may be interrupted by something as tiny as a “delinquent” valve or as looming and eternal as illness and death. Several authors write of blood unleashed by intolerance and hatred but also through love and friendship. And we look beyond individual bodies to explore blood shared across generations, how bloodlines carry secrets, and how secrets revealed—secrets spoken—can empower.

Please enjoy, reflect and share.

From the Editor

This entry was posted on by .

I wear it joyfully. I wear it big. I wear it womanly. And I wear it Black. Black. Black. As night, deep and soft and endless with no moon. Just black and perfect splendour in life and in being a woman in this world.

This is an excerpt from “Mirrors” by the late Nova Scotian poet Maxine Tynes. Tynes was one of the first writers I met. I was about seven years old and she was reading at the Alderney Gate Public Library in Dartmouth. I was captivated by her composure, her elegance and her ability to bring an audience to unwavering attention with her beautiful rhythmic words full of truth and empowerment.

From the time I could put pen to paper, I was filling scribblers with short stories, poetry and random thoughts that I believed had the potential to blossom into literary greatness. Tynes was an inspiration. She was a radiant, strong and uniquely creative African Nova Scotian woman and I wanted to follow in her footsteps.

Since that meeting at the Alderney library, I have been fortunate enough to meet several other incredible women who have immortalized stories through the written word. They too have inspired me to write and that is why I was so honoured when Katherine Barrett, editor-in-chief of Understorey Magazine, asked me to guest edit this very special edition featuring many talented and extraordinary African Nova Scotian women.

This project became even more special to me when my husband and I welcomed our baby girl into the world this past summer. Upon her arrival, I experienced a completely new and overwhelming kind of love. I also immediately felt a great sense of responsibility to protect, inspire and educate this young mind. I am determined to fill each day of her life with positivity and hope. I want her to fully understand that the life she has–the opportunities she has been given–are because many strong women before her paved the way. I will tell her about Viola Desmond’s stand against segregation and how Portia White entertained royalty with her God-given, sultry operatic tone.

And now, thanks in part to Issue 12 of Understorey Magazine and the generous funding of the Delmore “Buddy” Daye Learning Institute, my daughter will be able to discover even more African Nova Scotian talent. She’ll learn about the great family tradition of quiltmaking, read about the importance of turning even the most negative situations into opportunities to give back and move forward, and her eyes will surely be dazzled by the beautiful interpretive works of artistic minds. All of this and so much more can be found within these pages and I am grateful to be included amongst this group of women.

I hope you enjoy this issue as much as we enjoyed putting it together. Just like that seven-year-old who listened in awe to Tynes recite her beautiful work, my hope is that young girls will be inspired by these women who were willing to share their creativity with Understorey Magazine.

Lindsay Ruck

About Our Cover and Print Edition

Our cover for Issue 12 features work by Nova Scotia artist Shreba Quach.

Shreba says, “I have been an artist all my life but only in the last five years have I called myself one. Creativity has been a tool for healing and recovery from a traumatic past.”

The full painting from which our cover was created is shown here.

Look for Shreba’s work in the print edition of Issue 12 now available. See details here.

A Message from DBDLI

The Delmore “Buddy” Daye Learning Institute is pleased to partner with Understorey Magazine on its latest edition: African Nova Scotian Women. This important initiative acknowledges the unique experiences and history of women whose families have lived in Nova Scotia for generations and builds community by inspiring and mentoring new writers and artists. As an Africentric-based institute that focuses on educational excellence, the DBDLI is pleased to provide a platform for their stories and art to be shared within Nova Scotia and beyond.


This entry was posted on by .

Our cover art, a spraypaint mural of a woman among ferns and flowers and trees, may not be the first image that comes to mind when considering our theme: service. But it’s an old word with a long history and many variations.

Service originated from the Latin servitium, which relates to slaves and slavery. Several of the prose and poetry pieces we publish here, our eleventh issue of Understorey Magazine, carry this sense of service as being bound by contract or duty or societal expectations.

Spray paint mural by Shalak Attack, Montreal, 2007

Susan Brigham tells of her mother who, at fifteen years old, travelled far from her home of St. Helena to become a servant in England. Other pieces consider a more subtle form of service as servitude, particularly the unspoken roles of women. Julia Florek Turcan looks at how service roles are passed down through generations of mothers. Dorothy Nielsen creates a fictional “Marie,” a wife and mother who always and unquestioningly puts the needs of others first.

Many of the stories in this issue invoke a more complex definition of service, one in which roles are taken on willingly but a deep sense of obligation, allegiance, and sacrifice remains. Often such forms of service involve tending to the direct needs others. Gayle Mavor tells of becoming wound into a web of caregivers for an elderly woman. Sara Jewell writes about caring for her father, who suffered from early-onset dementia, and how this experience compares with her becoming a lay worship leader. And Savannah Sidle touches gently but deeply on the unceasing service of mothers to their children.

Of course service often extends beyond personal relationships—out into the community, the country, the world. Emily Bowers writes of working abroad for many years and then returning to rural Nova Scotia to become a volunteer fire fighter. Several of our pieces look at military service, but none through the usual lens. Sheila Firth-Warlund offers three poems about her role as a military chaplain serving in Afghanistan. Wanda R. Graham tells of caring for a woman released from Canadian military prison:

she’s made mistakes
I look at her in wonder
she’s one of the country’s finest
what can she mean, what has she done?

Like Graham, collaborators Maya Eichler and Jessica Lynn Wiebe both honour and question military service. Their visual art and dialogue examines the red poppies often worn on Remembrance Day and asks readers to consider what—and whom—this symbol might exclude.

There is yet a further, broader sense of service represented in this issue, that of commitment to a cause rather than to a specific role. Liane Berry shares her story of addiction and recovery and how, through service, she now devotes her life to helping other addicts. And in Hannah Renglich’s work, service veers into the realm of stewardship, caring for the long-term vitality of the land and its diverse communities.

Despite differences in interpretation, the work published here invokes two enduring elements of service. There is commitment (willing or less so), hard work, sacrifice. But there is also growth.

All of the women represented in these stories are changed through acts of service.

Some find a voice. Some redemption. Many find community and belonging. Even those exhausted and undervalued are stronger in some way: a small salary sent home, a single friend, a self-made bed. Service roles are rarely linear, simply giving. They start from self, change many, and circle back to self.

In this sense, our cover art perfectly captures the theme of service. The mural was created by Shalak Attack, a Canadian-Chilean artist dedicated to creativity, community, and activism. It covers a wall in north Montreal, a public space available to everyone. And although the woman in the mural is rooted to the earth, she extends out into the world. She is engaged and essential. As she supports others around her, she becomes stronger herself.

Also in this sense, we present the Service Issue of Understorey Magazine as an act of service in itself. We work hard to bring stories of women’s lives to a wider audience. Many of the authors and artists published here are new to their craft. For some, this is their first publication. Yet all have vital stories of giving and growing as women among often conflicting obligations, desires, and communities.

We invite you read, contemplate, share. As always, we’d love to hear what you think. Leave a comment for an author or artist in the comment box at the end of the articles, on Facebook or Twitter, or through our contact page.

Thank you and enjoy!

X, Y, Z…?

This entry was posted on by .

Much has been made of the gulfs across recent generations: workaholic Boomers, lost Generation Xers, entitled Millennials or Generation Y—and now the plugged-in Generation Z.

But imagine a woman from each generation as a young, aspiring writer:

Baby Boomer Brenda scribbles ideas on loose leaf with a felt-tip pen. Later, she types out her story on a Smith-Corona. When Brenda needs to fill in facts, she flips through the card catalogue at the local library. If there’s no book on the subject, she consults her friends when they gather at the Dairy Queen.

Gen X Jessica jots notes in a knock-off Filofax. Later, she transcribes her story on the word processor in the basement rec room. When Jessica needs to fill in facts, she scans the computerized catalogue at the library or calls her friends on the wall phone in the kitchen.

Millennial Megan enjoys a latte at Starbucks and outlines a story in her Moleskine notebook. Later, she sits on her bed with her laptop, expanding her ideas into a finished draft. When Megan needs to fill in facts, she searches Google or calls friends on her cellphone.

Gen Z Zoe thumbs notes into her phone. Later, she composes a poem from those notes, also on her phone. When Zoe needs to fill in facts, she speaks into her phone to ask Siri or she texts her friends.

Gaping gulf or a smooth continuum? Is Brenda’s world bigger than Zoe’s or smaller? Is Zoe more connected or less?

Based on the youth I met while editing this issue of Understorey Magazine, I’d say writing tools have certainly evolved but the basic motivation—even compulsion—to write hasn’t shifted that much. Writers, and particularly youth writers, still wrestle with life’s big, tough questions: Who am I? Where do I fit in? How can I express my own power within the power structures around me?

In this issue, for example, Meredith Bullock describes how she discovered the power of her mind when that of her hands proved unreliable. Elayna Foran uses video to explore her place in a changing political landscape. And Guyleigh Johnson takes a broad look at inequalities across generations and how they affect her life and community of North-end Dartmouth.

Means of exploring these issues may have changed but I’d guess that if sixteen-year-old Brenda and her friends spent a day with sixteen-year-old Zoe and her friends (and brought Jessica and Megan along), they’d have a lot to share. I suspect they’d discover an articulate and diverse group of women connected to each other by their curiosity, their ingenuity and their desire to create.

With great confidence, I turn Issue 10 of Understorey Magazine over to today’s youth.

Night Feathers by Larissa Hauck

Home and Away

This entry was posted on by .

I have, so far, called twenty-eight different addresses my home. Some of these were childhood homes, as ours was a military family, always on the move. Many were student homes, me in constant search of lower rent, brighter rooms and better locations. I’ve lived in high rises and basements, above restaurants and below musicians. I’ve lived on Prince Edward Island and Vancouver Island and many places in between.

Few of these homes were perfect. When I shared chaotic flats, I craved civilized domesticity—a single unstained coffee cup. When I finally got my own place, I craved the chaos of living beings—cats and friends and family. But these were just details. Most of my twenty-plus moves contained an element of choice (even military moves) and a much larger element of excitement. Moving has always meant renewal: a fresh bedroom colour as a child, a decently scrubbed apartment as a student. Changing my place of residence never left me feeling adrift. I was never displaced, just replaced.

It was not until we moved to South Africa that I felt home—or the lack of home—in a deeper way. Our three boys were toddlers when my husband accepted a three-year job in Cape Town, a relocation that would in fact last four and a half years. South Africa is a beautiful and complicated place, still struggling with the legacy of apartheid. I have never been more aware of myself, of my identity as a white, middle-class Canadian, than during those years. That awareness surfaced in mundane ways: my search for molasses in the grocery store or a public swimming pool in our neighbourhood. But it manifested in more profound ways too. I drew parallels between the histories—and current realities—of our indigenous peoples. I also glimpsed what it might be like to leave your home country forever.

Though I grew to love South Africa, I felt the constant pull of Canada, that undefinable Canadian essence that somehow defines us. In a small way, I sensed unsettledness: part of myself in one place and another part permanently elsewhere. It was indeed a small way, as we could always return to Canada. Nonetheless, I learned that moving can change more than an address—it can alter a sense of self. I still cannot fathom true displacement. I have never left or made a home due to conflict, disaster, abandonment, discrimination, illness or economic crisis. For this I learn from others: everyday actions, conversations, works of art, the written word.

In this issue of Understorey Magazine, we explore many facets of home and away. The diverse authors and artists featured here portray the small, tangible items that define a home—carrots from a backyard garden; a hooked rug passed down through generations. They capture the more elusive qualities of belonging or exclusion—warmth of the sun felt across time and continents; small acts of assertion at a housing co-op. Our contributors also broach those more profound circumstances—negligence, colonization, war—that can tear down a home and impose its rebuilding.

Please read, consider, comment and share.


Four Boats by Joy Laking


This entry was posted on by .

The View from Underneath by Teresa Young

Welcome to the Women and Justice issue of Understorey Magazine. Here are a few numbers to ponder:

  • In the past ten years, the rate of federal incarceration for women rose by 50% while the rate for men rose by less than 10%.
  • In the same period, the rate of incarceration for Aboriginal and Black men and women rose by 50% and 69% respectively.
  • Almost a quarter of federal inmates and 35% of incarcerated women are of Aboriginal ancestry—yet Aboriginal people comprise less than 5% of the Canadian population.
  • The vast majority of federally sentenced women report being sexually and/or physically abused at some point in their life. Compared to male offenders, women are twice as likely to have a serious mental health diagnosis.
  • Aboriginal and Black inmates and female inmates with mental health issues are more likely than others to be placed in segregation.

These claims come from the latest report of Canada’s Correctional Investigator, a federal government office legislated to impartially assess our criminal justice system. The numbers are shocking and difficult to dismiss, no matter your political persuasion or appetite for social change. There is clearly something very wrong. Yes, right here in Canada.

Shouldn’t we be doubting that so much progress has been made/ When so many women aren’t waving but drowning —El Jones

But reports and statistics and headlines tell only a partial story. Behind the Correctional Investigator’s numbers, behind the federal inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women, behind the “I believe survivors” and Black Lives Matter slogans—are voices.

Sometimes, these voices are loud and gain attention. More often, and in contrast to a legislated mandate to speak out, they are muffled, unheard or actively silenced. Yet these voices, these disparate stories of everyday experience, are necessary to understand the whole. More than that, they are necessary for us to feel—and therefore to act.

For every time I’ve been encouraged to tell my story, I have been told three times to move on, forget it happened.

—Carling M.

In this eighth issue of Understorey Magazine, our first produced in partnership with the Alexa McDonough Institute, we present some of these voices—stories of women and justice told through essay, poetry, fiction and visual art.

Several pieces published here examine segments of our criminal justice system, our prisons, parole boards, history-making court cases and the work of enforcement officers.

She was not a person/ Under the law

—Lynda Lesny

Many contributors tackle issues of social justice. They capture subtle and shifting assumptions of power and privilege, or more deeply engrained divisions of gender, class and race.

One set of poems looks at environmental justice, at how we treat our natural world and how those decisions affect cultures and communities.

Separately and as a whole, the literary and visual art presented here shows that criminal, social and environmental justice are linked. The course of a life is shaped by personal choices, sure, but also by our choices as a society, by what we choose to value, who we choose to hear, and how we choose to see.

The arresting officer wouldn’t even touch me to put on cuffs.

—Naomi Sears

It is this willingness to really see the lives of others that Rebecca Thomas so poignantly describes in her poem “Etuaptmumk.” In doing so, we can become more aware of our own lives—past, present and future—and create a space for something bigger, something new.

Open your other set of eyes/ Recognize the pain you have caused/ Take a pause and start breathing./ Welcome to the world of Two Eyed Seeing.
—Rebecca Thomas

For many reasons, this issue of Understorey Magazine has been the most challenging to produce thus far. But I believe it is one of our best. Please read, consider, comment and share. If you feel so compelled, please donate to help Understorey continue publishing stories by and about Canadian women.

A special thank you to the Quakers Fostering Justice Committee for funding part of this issue, to Carole Langille for her encouragement and support throughout the long process of creating the Women and Justice issue, and to Emily Bowers for her assistance in vetting and editing submissions.

Why Tell Stories?

This entry was posted on by .

Landscape Illuminated 2 by Philippa Jones

Once upon a time, I worked in a research laboratory. I tapped test tubes, swirled flasks and, when strictly necessary, wore goggles and a boxy lab coat. My project, on the genetics of plant disease, offered an intellectual puzzle and plenty of time to tinker with cutting-edge technology. Should I discover it, the answer to that puzzle would intrigue the scientific community, benefit farmers—and afford me a graduate degree.

And yet, this wasn’t enough. I needed something more. So I’d often start an experiment, set a timer and leave the lab. Sometimes for hours.

I’d head to the basement of the student union building, to a scuffed white door with an unassuming sign: Photography Club. There I’d develop and print my weekend shots of birds and trees and graffitied back alleys until I had to rush back to the lab. This was well before Instagram. Photography was messy and magic: an image captured in a blink released into a pool of liquid and slowly nurtured into story. Yes, it felt like pure creation and I was hooked. Throughout my science degree, I developed hundreds of artsy photos. I marvelled at every story that emerged, packed the growing pile of eight-by-tens into black binders and used paper boxes—and printed more.

Then, one day, I stopped. Most of these photos would never be seen. They would not be displayed next to my name and biography. They would not change the world or the way people understood it. They would certainly not help pay my student loan or find a job. Why do it? I’d never asked myself the question and once I did, I found no reason at all.

Why make pictures? Why chisel form from stone? Why assemble words into lines and verse? In one sense all art is storytelling. But why do we tell such stories, especially when we’re busy, broke, stuck, tired or criticized?

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love and Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, notes that our ancestors began painting almost forty thousand years ago but started cultivating crops only ten thousand years ago. This suggests a strong, perhaps hard-wired, urge to create art, an urge even stronger than ensuring a steady food supply.

Curiously, it seems most cave artists—up to three quarters—were women and girls. We don’t know why they did it. We don’t know why we continue to paint, sculpt, choreograph and compose. But we have theories.

To make sense. Tracy Chevalier, author of The Girl with the Pearl Earring, says storytelling puts a frame (real or metaphorical) around everyday incidents. That frame allows us to focus on and make sense of our personal dramas. Research shows that our brains actually crave stories and will construct story-like patterns from almost any event. In a complicated, changing world, we simply think best in stories.

To purge. Aristotle believed theatre, especially tragedy, purged us of negative emotions. We still use his term catharsis to describe cleansing through art. It’s possible our ancestors painted caves as a purgative ritual. Recent evidence suggests writing that vents emotion—mommy blogs, for instance—offers a similar kind of therapy.

To feel better. Storytelling has more specific and measurable health benefits, too. Studies have shown that regular writing and other forms of art can help injuries heal faster, boost immune function, alleviate symptoms of cancer and depression, boost working memory, increase motivation—and even “turn lives around.”

That’s a whole lot of reasons to create stories—and a fair excuse for my stealing away from the lab to craft images of seagulls. So why did I stop? Perhaps because in packing those photos so quickly into boxes and binders I dismissed a further reason, perhaps the reason stories have endured for tens of thousands of years:

To connect. Storytelling, whether through writing, performance or visual art, means forging a relationship between teller and audience. A story is never air-tight and self-contained. Good stories leave blank spots, spaces to be filled through the active process of reading or viewing. It takes both to complete a story. Creating art may empower the artist but filling in those spaces empowers the audience.

In fact, Aristotle’s original notion of catharsis applied to the audience, not the actors and playwrights; he believed theatre purged negative emotions in viewers. Present-day research tends to agree. A study published last year showed that attending live theatre increased “literary knowledge, tolerance and empathy” among students. This one of a growing number studies on the power of stories for the audience. Collectively, they show stories are easier to remember than facts—stories help us learn. More than that, reading, viewing or listening to stories can increase our understanding of others. It can alter deep-seated biases and foster empathy. Look at the phenomenal success of Humans of New York: a twenty-line personal story can stir millions of readers to action.

That’s one gigantic reason to tell stories. But it means actually telling the story. It means embracing the creator-viewer relationship, taking the photos out of the box, the canvas out of the studio, the story off the laptop. It means honing our craft (there’s no way around practice) but, eventually, at some point, sharing our work.

Which is hard.

Most of my photos are still in boxes. I never went back to photography: I graduated, my cameras were stolen, the technology changed. I moved on to writing and again found that thrill of pure creation. And although I’ve posted and published my work many times, that old urge to hoard and safeguard remains. It’s not ready. It’s not original. It will only be rejected.

Putting yourself “out there” is hard, no question. Traditional routes to building an audience—through publishers, agents and galleries—can be particularly tough. Until that fabulous and elusive acceptance letter, it may feel as if no one is listening, that you really aren’t sharing work at all.

But there are other ways to cultivate a vital two-way relationship with viewers.

  • Find a writing group or start a new one.
  • Take a class, in person or online.
  • Open a pop-up store (this works best for visual art, but why not pop-up poetry or performance art?).
  • Join an online peer group like SheWrites or Wattpad.
  • Write micro-stories on social media.
  • Start a blog or post on open sites like Medium or StoryCorp.

You may not want to share everything, and in some cases you shouldn’t. You may still encounter criticism, especially if posting online. But as Brandon Standton of Humans of New York says, telling stories with “a spirit of genuine interest and compassion” tends to bring out the same in viewers. And sharing just some of your work, nurturing even a small audience, may keep you going through moments of doubt.

I said most of my photos would never be seen; most were still in boxes. There are some exceptions. Four are framed and decades after printing still hang on living room walls, two on Canada’s east coast, two on the west. They capture a singular place and time. They’ve been viewed by a few dozen friends and friends of friends. Over the years, they’ve prompted questions, stirred memories, started conversations. Is it enough to build a career? No. Is it enough to keep telling stories? Yes, I think it is.

Many thanks to Scotiabank (Bridgewater, Nova Scotia, branch) for funding this issue of Understorey Magazine.


This entry was posted on by .
Conversations by Flavia Testa

Conversations by Flavia Testa

Welcome to the “Extraordinary” edition of Understorey Magazine, a diverse collection of stories, poetry, and visual art on mothering through social, physical, and mental challenge. We are excited to publish work by both new and established writers and artists — Canadian women living in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario, British Columbia, the US, and the Netherlands.

Our title, “Extraordinary,” is meant to skirt (at least temporarily) sometimes disputed terms such as “disability” or “special need” while at the same time raising questions about what these words and categories mean to the people who live them.

Literally, extraordinary means outside or beyond the ordinary. But the word draws no definite or permanent line between inside and out — and makes no obvious value judgement. Extraordinary can mean rare, distinctive, atypical, and sometimes fabulous.

Likewise, through essays, fiction, poetry, and art, our contributors show that there are many ways to define, surpass, or simply live with our particular challenges — and those of our kids.

Andrea Nicki, in her poem on personality disorder, and Renate Lindeman, in her essay on mothering two daughters with Down syndrome, for example, raise pointed questions about definitions and authority. What is, or should be, the role of doctors, patients, and parents in proclaiming a diagnosis? And why should that declaration — the finding of an extra chromosome, for instance — trump all other ways of describing who we are and what we can do?

In fact, contributors Alice Evans, Kristin Proctor, and Carol Bruneau ask — in very different ways — whether Down syndrome, selective mutism, or schizophrenia are adequately described as a deficit. Are such conditions simply an absence that needs to be filled or fixed? Or can they be better described as the presence of something that, yes, brings challenge but also creates a new way of viewing and being in the world?

Indeed, for some people, symptoms and struggles are constant and unwavering. But for many, the lines between ability, disability, and even super-ability shift with age or task or surrounding. Poets Tracy Carruthers and Paula Follett-Comeau look at everyday events, a shared meal or a visit to the theatre. They ask, as everyone has asked from time to time: Is this normal? Do we need a name for this, a label? Do other kids and other mothers experience this too?

Motherhood, of course, adds layers of complexity to these questions. Mothers are supposed to protect. They are supposed to help their children. They’re supposed to want the best for their families, even at personal cost. Already, this is extraordinary. But contributors Sheila Morrison, Debra Reynolds Banting, and Susie Berg explore maternal responsibility, expectation, and love through the added challenges of autism, depression, substance abuse, and mental illness.

Cecile Proctor and Rita Kindl Meyers examine the flip side of these issues. What happens when a mother coping with traumatic brain injury or multiple sclerosis must learn to depend on her children, and learn to ask for help rather than provide it? How do mothers and their kids face this unexpected reversal of care, vigilance, and trust?

In all of these situations, the private slips into the public — and therefore into the political, the bureaucratic, and sometimes, as Rachel Edmonds finds in Sue Goyette’s new book, the legal. But while our social institutions might provide necessary guidance through our individual challenges, we can gain no deep understanding of ourselves, our families, our community — our motherhood — without telling our own, personal stories of everyday experience.

And so we present the “Extraordinary” edition of Understorey Magazine.

Thank you to the writers who sent in their work. Although not all submissions are published here, all took time, energy, and much courage to set down on screen or paper.

Thank you to the artists whose incredible work brings this magazine to life. Not coincidentally, several of the stories in this issue demonstrate an essential link between art, wellness, accomplishment, and empowerment. Written stories tend to get centre stage in our editorials, but the stories told through visual art are vital to Undertorey‘s mission, message, and aesthetic appeal.

A sincere thank you Disabled Persons Commission of Nova Scotia and the Family Development Centre for their enthusiastic moral support and generous financial support, both of which made the “Extraordinary” edition possible.

And, of course, thank you to all of our readers. Please leave a comment or two and tell us what you think!

On Rejection and Snow Angels

This entry was posted on by .
I'd Rather Be Reading than Ironing hooked rug by Laura Kenney

I’d Rather Be Reading than Ironing. Hooked rug by Laura Kenney

Winter. Discontent. There’s a reason Shakespeare bound those words for eternity.

When I was a kid, winter meant a puffy new coat, tunnels through giant snowbanks, and sweeping, ephemeral snow angels. Though I loved that first day of spring—running shoes on pavement!—I loved the whole winter, too. It was simply part of the year, part of life.

Now, as a trudging adult, winter means work. I blindly hope it won’t happen, that it will somehow pass me by. When winter arrives, as it always does, I feel injustice: What? Snow, again? I shovel the driveway, find mitts, wipe salt from the kitchen floor, find mitts, dry boots on the radiator, and find those very same mitts once again. The possibilities of winter are stifled beneath the weight of getting things done.

Of course, there are parallels to the creative process. Watch a kid who loves to paint or write. The first brush stroke or sentence, like that first plunge in the snow, begins an adventure, opens a portal to everywhere and nowhere at all. It’s thrilling. It’s magical. And then, well, it’s time for dinner….

But to be serious artists we must indeed be serious. Product matters. Success matters. We must buckle down, finish our work, package it neatly, and ship it out to the world. And then we wait as our creative offspring is surveyed, judged, scrutinized, and more than likely shipped right back home again. Turned down. Rejected. Like the fifth winter storm in February, rejection is unfair, infuriating—and inevitable.

The literary world is infamous for copious and cryptic rejection. Top literary magazines reject 99.9 per cent of submissions and most with a form letter or cold silence. The writer is left with nothing but their boomerang prose and a creeping sense of failure. No doubt visual artists vying for their first show experience the same.

I’ve dealt with rejection from both sides. As a writer, I’ve amassed my share of eternal question marks and Dear Submitter letters. As an editor, I can attest that sending rejections is the very worst part of running a magazine. Understorey is small and dedicated to nourishing creativity, so we try to respond to each submission with a personal note, either an acceptance or a reason for rejection.

Still, every writer and editor knows that rejection is part of the deal. Like winter, it will come. To ease the blow, we offer Understorey‘s alliterative emergency kit: four small Rs to better prepare for the the Big R.

1. Revel. Go on, take a moment to wallow. Feed your rejection letter through the shredder. Toss your writing guides in the compost. Furiously clean the house because that, at least, is productive. You might even co-wallow at places like Literary Rejections on Display, a nine-year-and-counting collection of merciless brush-off. Raise a glass with fellow failures everywhere!

2. Reframe. In the sober moments following your rejection-fest, you might consider the wise words of researchers who study failure for a living. Carol Dweck, for instance, suggests we reframe failure as “not yet,” as a necessary, neuron-building rung on the wobbly ladder to success. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell concludes that greatness requires a degree of aptitude and a ton of work—10,000 hours of work to become a virtuoso. So, yes, the early stages will be tough, collect yourself. In the immortal words of Debbie Allen: You want fame. Well, fame costs….

3. Recruit. You need to get to work. But given that two-word rejection letter, where do you start? How can writers improve when writing markets provide little or no evaluation? Some guidebooks are great; retrieve yours from the compost bin now. Writing websites offer valuable insight, too. People are best, of course, but finding available, willing readers to provide honest, constructive critique is tough. I’ve considered starting a match-making service through Understorey where writers can exchange work and feedback. What do you think? Would you use it? (Leave a comment or contact me.)

4. Regress. Yes, we need to work hard, get things done—but not all the time. Nearly every instruction on writing (and no doubt on other creative pursuits) suggests daily doodling, a time to create without critique. Natalie Goldberg popularized the idea of free writing, during which “the correctness and quality of what you write do not matter; the act of writing does.” There is no goal, just childlike freedom play. Goldberg and many others promise this practice will restore your spirit and improve writing. So put down the snow shovels, writers and artists, find your puffiest coat and the fluffiest snow drift. Fling yourself backward. Make angels.

Time to Grow Up, Mommy Lit

This entry was posted on by .
Waiting for the Parade by Kat Frick Miller

Waiting for the Parade by Kat Frick Miller

The “second oldest profession,” Erma Bombeck wrote of motherhood in her 1983 book on caring for “children, a husband, and oneself.”

Motherhood is indeed an ancient profession—or job, or calling, or stage of life—yet Bombeck’s book was among the first to discuss it candidly. We have printed and distributed books since the 1400s. Women have mothered since life began. And yet the history of books about motherhood spans roughly 40 years.

Feminist scholars have debated the role of mothers and motherhood at least since the 1960s, but Adrienne Rich opened the discussion to a broader audience with her 1976 book, Of Woman Born. Like Bombeck, Rich drew on her own experience as a mother and included entries from her personal journal. In this sense, Rich and Bombeck were forerunners of today’s mommy bloggers. Of Woman Born takes a broader, more political and feminist point of view than Bombeck’s book of humour and advice, but both authors aimed to dispel the idea that motherhood is easy, natural, private, and the most significant way to define a woman.

Following Rich’s book, motherhood studies gained some traction in the publishing world with The Reproduction of Mothering (1978), The Myths of Motherhood (1994), The Mommy Myth (2004), and The Maternal is Political (2008), to list a few. Despite this relative boom, books on motherhood remained fringe, a serious read for a dedicated few.

Mother-writing moved toward mainstream with first-hand accounts from the trenches. Anne Lamott published Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year in 1993. At twenty years old, the book is considered a classic of motherhood memoirs. Subsequent works by Ariel Gore, Rachel Cusk and others portrayed the messy reality of motherhood: hard, diverse, ungoverned yet public. These were raw, brave works that ushered a new age of mommy lit.

And then there was blogging.

Weblogs, as they were first called, provided an easy platform to chronicle motherhood as it happened. Blogging opened the doors to thousands of homes and the mothering within. Heather Armstrong’s Dooce (2001), The Mommy Blog (2002), Her Bad Mother (2006) and the many blogs that followed have shown motherhood uncensored. Projectile poop, morning swigs of vodka, post-partum sex (or lack thereof), toddler tantrums captured in video—nothing is too real, too irreverent, for the mommy blog.

It’s the irreverence that seems to sell. The most successful mommy blogs have become books, and the most successful of those have become bestsellers. From Armstrong’s It Sucked and Then I Cried and to the current hit, I Heart My Little A-Holes, mommy blogs-turned-books have given voice to the anti-mom. Popular mother-writers are self-described naughty, slacker, slummy, scary and/or sh*tty moms.

We ought to thank the anti-mom—the one on our bookshelf and the one in our head. Her swearing, drinking, and willingness to publicize her children’s toilet-training have freed mothers (in North America, at least) to rage, I’m so much more than this! Her storming through major publishing houses in pajama pants and stilettos has allowed books about “holy-crap moments” of motherhood to breach the New York Times bestseller list.

But it’s time to move on.

The toddler years of mommy lit, Adrienne Rich and the women who followed, broke the silence. We learned to speak and write about the everyday of motherhood. The delinquent teen years, rife with slummy mommies, let the world know that both kids and moms can be “a-holes.” The teen years shook us up, grabbed our attention—and that of publishers.

Let’s now move toward a sophisticated adulthood of mother-writing. Let’s move toward Pulitzer-winning journalism and memoir about the ways motherhood shapes women’s lives and every element of our world: schools, violence, medicine, garbage, farming, war. Let’s move toward Booker-prize-winning fiction with complex, diverse and fascinating mothers as protagonists. Writers like Maggie O’Farrell, Jenny Offill, and Ann-Marie MacDonald have led the way, crafting motherhoods neither sentimental nor snarky, women whose lives neither begin nor end with—but are clearly changed by—motherhood.

At Understorey Magazine, we hope to inspire this next wave of mother-writing. We hope the essays, fiction, poems and excerpts published here will spark the literary prize-winning books of tomorrow. We invite you to read our current and past issues, to consider, to comment—and of course, to write.


If you like what you read in Understorey, please consider making a donation. We are a non-profit organization and rely on grants and donations to continue our work. Thank you!