Lorri Neilsen Glenn is a poet, essayist, ethnographer and Understorey Magazine advisory board member. Poet Laureate for Halifax Regional Municipality from 2005 to 2009, Lorri has received numerous awards for her writing, teaching and scholarship. She is Professor Emerita at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax and serves as a mentor in University of King's College MFA program in creative nonfiction. Author and editor of fourteen books, she recently published Following the River: Traces of Red River Women (Wolsak and Wynn, 2017), a bricolage historical memoir about her Cree and Métis foremothers and their contemporaries. @neilsenglenn
the great moon
long nights she waxes and wanes, is new, crescent, quarter,
gibbous, full. To some, a mirror of emotion, to others,
Queen of Life and Death. Hecate,
Grandmother, Luna, Eternal One.
Works tides, holds a lantern to the dark, promises renewal
and perseverance. Without her, we are not. Learn
under her watch: strength, courage, respect, how
to scrabble for truth, be guided by
honesty, walk with humility.
Grandmothers Ke-Che-Cho-Wick, Wash-e-Soo-E’Squew,
Kitty (Catherine), Sally and Catherine—
under the same moons as cousins, strangers,
the unnamed, notorious, ordinary, extraordinary,
your stations in life
both promise and threat;
The Bible, solace
and weapon; blood, the source
of strength and shame. Few of you knew old age. I sift
for detail in the words of those who whittle lives with a pen,
a rare instrument for a woman. A shred, debris, a tendril—
a past you lived we cannot fully know. Not the rustle
of your coats, footsteps in the night air, the touch of silken
or calloused hands. The tangy scent of ashes cooled
in the hearth. Wisdom—
in the stirring of life under sugar moon,
storms of thunder moon, in falling-leaves moon when
loss is all around. You have watched the river rise
and fall, known it packed with ice, muddy
in spring rain, swift in summer. A red stream.
Many granddaughters later, countless first cries
and graves, and here I am, time waning.
The moon glints on the river,
water rises like blood.
Excerpt from Following the River: Traces of Red River Women by Lorri Neilsen Glenn (Wolsak and Wynn, 2017) Note: Grandmothers mentioned are Neilsen Glenn’s Indigenous ancestors from Northern Manitoba and the Red River colony. Reprinted with permission.
I am trying to remove clutter. That, too, is difficult.
By silence I mean moments of stillness longer than a few seconds. You know: when nothing hums, beeps, whistles, dings, roars, revs, crackles, or chirps. When no one talks, cries, yells, or mutters. When I can see an idea form in my head without interruption and can dwell on it for more than a millisecond.
And by clutter I don’t just mean the discarded bags, random receipts, single glove, broken pencils, and never-to-be-opened mail that gather by the door or spill over the counter. I also mean the to-dos waiting for me in my computer, on the desk, in the kitchen, or rattling around in my brain. It only takes few seconds after I wake in the morning for them to swarm around my mind, poke at me for my attention. They cling to me all day, despite my efforts to flick them off.
Like most women, I have no idea what it’s like to have nothing to do.
Quiet. An empty morning. A clean slate. Virginia Woolf, you’ll remember her, said every woman should have a room of her own.
Room? I’d be happy to have an hour.
The rare time I think it’s possible—usually when the chaos of the morning is over—a tiny bubble of effervescence forms in my chest. This is it. I can concentrate. I can go to ground. Begin to remind myself who I am, what I’m here for. Plan something. Read a page. Write a paragraph. Eat lunch in peace.
But when I pour a coffee, I notice jam stains and important mail on the counter. To heat my soup in the microwave, I have to put the turntable back on its moorings and scrape the red splatters off the walls. Does no one else notice these?
And those precious twenty minutes? Gone. Eaten up in the dishrag, expended on the phone, or flown into cyberspace in the form of “urgent” emails.
This is such an old story it’s cliché. I felt the need for quiet decades ago, and I’m still talking about it, but now with friends in the next generation. If it’s not doctors’ appointments or soccer games or all-night puking or the late-night run to the grocery store then it’s the meeting with the school psychologist (again) or a ripped zipper on the snowsuit. It’s the missing button, the late registration, and what the hell has the dog rolled in now?
We can crow all we want about how feminism has improved ordinary women’s lives. And to some extent, that’s true. I was chief cook for our first thirty years of marriage; my husband is in charge for the next thirty. Our one remaining resident offspring cooks and cleans. Okay, not to my standards—red splatters, remember?—but it’s a start.
I often leave my own house to have a thought. I am lucky to be able to do this; most women I know cannot. Recently, I flew across the country to go on retreat with my sister in an abbey outside a prairie city. I found a room, uncluttered days, and avoided email. Or tried to.
As I sat watching the magpies on the tops of the pines, looking at the snow sparkle on the horizon, I remembered my mother’s words when she was old and blind and only a year away from death.
I feel useless, she said. No one needs me. What’s life if you’re not useful?
I argued with her then. Don’t be silly, I said. None of us needs to be anything other than our selves to be valuable. We only need to be: that’s what’s precious. You are you.
I believed what I was saying then. I believe it now. But I still struggle. What would happen if I didn’t write that letter, clean up that mess, call the clinic, answer the door, attend that so-important meeting? Would someone else see the crud on the sink? Remember the birthday? Would I feel freer, or would I feel guilty about not showing up, not pulling my weight? The forces of our culture—family habits, community and gender expectations, that rushing river of life pulling us forward–are difficult to resist. How much noise and clutter in my life is out of my hands? How much do I create? Do I have a secret wish–god help me, Mom–to be useful?
I’m not sure. But I’m off to make coffee in a clean kitchen (not my own) and to settle into a chair by the window where I can overlook an unfamiliar horizon, and think about it.
A story. A story under a story. And a story under that, and behind that one, and—wait!—there is another, larger one.
When my first child was born, the doctor threatened forceps, and so I pushed. But once out of my body, my son seemed never to want to be close again; for a decade as a young man he may as well have been orbiting a space station. My second child, born eight years later, was lifted from the gash in my belly in a dark room while I waited for a nurse, the doctor—anyone—to explain the abrupt silence. All I heard was the clink of instruments, low whispers. The doctor who should have known better moved to Ontario shortly afterward.
You see what I mean. Stories peek out from under stories, bubbling with energy and steeped in significance. Being a mother—whether we birth a child, adopt one, take in our cousin’s orphaned daughter, or simply open the door to the stray in the neighbourhood who prefers our house because he feels safer—makes each of us a constellation of stories. Stories leak out of our pores; they hovered like mist around the body of our own mother. We create them with family, we inherit them, we draw on them for inspiration, and we shrink from them when they haunt or frighten us. That scar on our face is a story untold. A photograph, a ring, or the child-sized jean jacket we won’t throw away? A story. Every woman I know mothers a person or a creature or a cause or a place. And everyone I know is a universe of untold stories.
We tell ourselves stories in order to live, says the writer Joan Didion. The truth about stories is that’s all we are, says Thomas King. And he adds: Don’t say in the years to come that you would have lived your life differently if only you had heard this story. You’ve heard it now.
And that, for me, is the power stories hold. They inspire change. Once I have heard the details of the rape of a friend’s daughter (as statistics show, every 17 minutes across Canada a woman is raped), I cannot un-know that story. After December 1989, when 14 young women were murdered in Montreal at École Polytechnique, violence against women became a public story none of us can now refuse to know. These stories invite me to focus my lens on the epidemic of gendered violence in the world. Each woman’s story is singular, but it’s universal, too. I am taken to Saskatoon or to Highway 16 (The Highway of Tears) between Prince George and Prince Rupert. As a women with aboriginal roots, I am galvanized by the profound losses in these communities: I am implicated. As a woman, as a mother, I am connected. But the connections reach beyond Canada: I look across the globe, to India, to the Sudan.
Sometimes it all seems overwhelming. What can any of us do in the face of such enormous pain and horror in the world?
What’s important to me is to remember the sanctity of each woman’s life, and the need for each of us to claim our own story and to write it or tell it, if we can. Writing and speaking what we know force us to pay attention, to honour experience. When I’m walking on the beach I look at the stunning detail the tide scrapes in the sand; I watch the movement of clouds, or the occasional ship on the horizon. When I listen to a young woman’s story, I try to hear beyond her words. I cultivate awareness, and when I work with women as they write their lives, I try to help them become aware of their singular vision and their strength. Each individual carries a world.
It’s also important to me to create a space to talk with young people, especially young men, about their beliefs about girls and sex; I can call them on their jokes, push them on their offhand remarks (especially those two sons, whom I mentioned earlier, and who are now good men). I can bring to my classroom glossy ads I find in the local newspaper, ads such as the one showing a girl wearing little else but hockey gear, bearing the caption, “pull the goalie and score!” My students (male and female) will discuss this ad, search for more ads in print and electronic media that consider women as available sex objects. (I can—and I did—phone the company that distributed the ad and sent a note to Advertising Standards Canada). Equally important, though, I can continue to create a safe environment for awkward and sometimes tough conversations, for young men and women to make connections among, between, under and beyond the stories around them.
A story under a story can move each of us. Mother Teresa said it best: I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.