Author Archives: Katherine J. Barrett

Katherine J. Barrett

About Katherine J. Barrett

Katherine J. Barrett is Understorey Magazine’s founder and editor in chief.


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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…?

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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

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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


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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?

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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.