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Issue 12

 November 2023

Cannery Row Magazine

A Literary Journal . . . with Benefits

The Education of

Little Munch

by Tanja Rabe

Editor's Desk

Secret Ninja Squirrels

by Randy Eady

Nature's Critters

Opening Up the Cottage

by Roger Nash

Poetry & Musings

Tiers of Justice

by Mat Del Papa

Mat's Musings

Your Hand

by Rebecca Kramer

Musical Interlude

CB & BC

by John Jantunen

Short Fiction

Dream On

by Katerina Fretwell

Poetry & Musings

One of Those Days

by John Jantunen

Editor's Desk

Ode to Nikola

by Craig Matheson

Poetry & Musings

Miss Alice's Assignment

by Cheryl Romo

Short Fiction

Bending Tranquility

by CJ Jackson

Poetry & Musings

Far From the Maddening Crowd

by Tanja Rabe

Fishbone Gallery

The Cookie Deed

by Rebecca Kramer

Creative Nonfiction

Mason's Jar

by John Jantunen

Book Nook w/Mat

  Born in Kingston - Made in Canada

Raising Munch
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Editor's

Desk

The Education of Little Munch

by Tanja Rabe

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November is chill, frosted mornings with a silver sun rising behind the trees, red cardinals at the feeders, and squirrels running scallops along the tops of the gray stone walls.   - Jean Hersey

There is a gnarly, old maple tree in front of our house. Two of its upper limbs have large holes in it that shelter a grey and a black family of squirrels. Every year in late spring, a new scurry of young ones scamper about its branches, brave the hydro wires spanning the street and frolic along the fence and amongst the treetops in our yard.

     Since we moved into this house three years ago, watching the squirrels' antics has never failed to entertain and it wasn't long before the peanuts in our kitchen cupboard made their way to the backyard to feed the plethora of everhungry, but oh-so-adorable, critters. By this point, we've even given them names based on individual traits, such as Sweetpea, Pigpen, Dimly, Crazy and Fluffy. Some have more than foregone their natural caution to our presence, regarding us as little more than oversized peanut dispensers, with the odd ones regularly placing their order at our backdoor like it's the Hop-Thru window at a McNuts. 

The story I want to share with our readers begins in the spring of this year. Seated in my 'office' at the diningroom table with the window open on a balmy, late-April day and chipping away at my next editorial, I was distracted by an unfamiliar birdsong plaintively calling from the front yard. A curious peek and there at the bottom of the old tree lay a tiny squirrel mewling pitifully at its gray mama while two crows leered with cocked heads from the hydrowire above. I watched as Gray - as we call her - carefully took her baby by the scruff and scurried back up the tree to their nest-hole.

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At first, I assumed the little critter had accidentally fallen out of its dray when, a couple of hours later, the same chirping called through the window. This time around, mama was nowhere in sight but, just at the edge of the driveway, a large crow stalked back and forth, not two feet from the little gray squirrel lying curled up on the asphalt. I dashed out of the house in my socked feet, shooed off the blackbird and gently picked up the tiny thing that fit easily into the palm of my hand, its eyes closed to the bright sun and its paws hugging my thumb, still whimpering.

Just then, Gray appeared on the roof above us, jumped onto the closest tree branch and scurried frantically down the trunk to meet us at the bottom. I laid the kit down about a foot away from her, then backed up to give her space. For a moment, I worried that my scent on the little one's fur might deter her from reclaiming her young, but she just fussed over it for a while, trying to get her baby in the proper position for the trip back to their nest, and up they went. Needless to say, I kept a close eye and ear on the front yard that day, realising the crows likely dragged the tiny thing from its nest rather than it falling out on its own.

       Sadly, as I stepped into the backyard the following morning, I noticed one of the crows perched on a branch, pecking at what looked decidedly like a piece of gray fur. Its partner, stalking along the fence close by with its chest puffed out, fixated me with what-appeared-to-be gleeful eyes, cawing derisively as if to say, "See? We win!!" It certainly put a deep pit into my stomach that day and I had to remind myself this was nature's way; squirrels are an essential part of the food chain in more than one aspect and the crows have to feed their young as well.

Spring moved along and April turned to May as more warm days heralded the summer ahead. Soon, critters abounded on wing and paw in the neighbourhood. One day, halfway through the month, the first bunch of tiny, black squirrels left their nest in the old tree, scampering cautiously amongst the branches under the watchful eye of their dark-furred mama - a squirrel we'd come to jokingly call 'Greedy' for its persistent appearance at feeding time in our backyard; well, mama was hungry and rightly so.

       

Dusk fell slowly on the day, the air chilling perceptively under a clear sky. As I moved to close the front window against the evening's encroaching cold, John called my attention to the front door. There on the porch sat the tiniest black squirrel I'd ever seen out and about, mewling softly and looking quite lost. It startled when we opened the door and disappeared quickly under the entrance's lower ledge. I peered up into the nesting tree scanning for any signs of movement but all appeared quiet, the resident squirrels snuggled peacefully in their tree holes as the last light of the sun bid farewell to the day. Not sure what to do, we decided to wait a bit and see if the foundling's mother might yet notice that she was short on her brood's count and return to collect the wayward child.

      Half an hour later still no sign of her as the little guy kept sounding the odd whimper from his hideout, now barely illuminated under the streetlights. By this point, our son Kai had joined us as we'd moved our vigil from indoors to the bottom of the raised front porch; a spot that afforded us a proper view of the tiny critter huddling in his hiding spot.

As we cooed softly to the baby squirrel, it started to quiet down and cautiously stuck its face out from under the ledge. Traipsing hesitantly back and forth towards us, he was soon well within arm's reach and surprisingly unafraid - unlike his young kin which, we knew from experience, were extremely skittish around humans. Within minutes, the tiny foundling climbed on Kai's invitingly outstretched hand, then settled onto his lower arm, curiously sniffing his sweater and resuming to whimper as if asking for help. It proved the start of a beautiful if, at times, turbulent friendship and an unexpected dip into squirrel fosterage for our family.

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Munch, as Kai ended up calling him, moved into the house that night - much to the consternation of our dog Roxy who'd always prided herself on having been an expert squirrel chaser in her younger years - even if she consistently got bested by those acrobatic treehoppers. She generally gave him a wide berth, her furrowed brow (part Boxer) speaking volumes as to what she thought of having to share her home with one of those pesky rodents that always insulted her from the treetops.

Our foundling's first 'nest' was a large storage container, conveniently manufactured with air holes along its upper rim. In one corner, an open cardboard box lined with newspaper served as a makeshift toilet and, to our surprise, Munch learned within a few days to take his 'business' there. A water bowl, a few shelled, unsalted peanuts and a lot of padding for nesting completed the setup. We figured his age - with the help of Google - to be around six weeks, the earliest a young squirrel leaves its nest, but couldn't figure out why his mom had neglected to bring him home at the end of the day.

Runt of the litter that couldn't keep up, orphaned, or just lost in the neighbourhood - no matter, here he was, affectionate like a young pup as he curled up in my lap exhausted from the day's ordeal, falling asleep with my hands cupped around him. Once he'd peacefully passed out, I gently transferred him to his nest-in-a-box. 

Little Munch was just stirring under his pile of soft rags when I lifted the lid the next morning, stretching and yawning in the most adorable fashion. He thirstily lapped up half of the small bowl of water, then curiously explored the pile of peanuts on offer; at first fumbling the unfamiliar food awkwardly in his tiny paws, then trying out his barely visible baby teeth to gnaw the nut. Since he quite obviously had little to no experience with solid foods, most of it and the rest ended up in a heap of crumbs at his feet, though his hunger seemed to be quelled after soldiering through the small pile.

Then it was time to explore his new home. Keeping a careful - although unnecessary - eye on Roxy who watched his movements with slight alarm from her spot on the couch whenever Munch ventured close, I followed him along on his hesitant journey through the house. Right away, he was deeply intrigued by the full clothes hamper in the bathroom adjacent to our kitchen which conveniently sits under a towel rack and a small, curtained window with a deep sill that in turn borders another towel on a hook. The perfect set-up for a baby squirrel to practise its amateur climbing skills complete with, as it turned out, a secondary nest to burrow into for a nap after tiring from all the excitement.   

      The clothes hamper never grew old in all the time Munch stayed with us and quickly replaced the storage box that the little guy soon took to chewing a hole into in an effort to get out before we got up and opened the lid in the morning. More than once did the hamper come in handy when trying to settle a tired-but-wired baby critter at the end of the day. All we had to do was put him on the bathroom windowsill with a peanut, then head into the yard for a smoke, thus depriving him of stimulating company. By the time we'd get back inside, he could be found snuggled deep under a pile of laundry, wrapped in one of my or Kai's shirts for sensory comfort.

 

Munch started to grow in confidence - if not so much in size yet - and, by the end of the first week, was going decidedly stir crazy in the house, so much so that I had trouble putting the final touches on the May edition of the magazine as he tirelessly scampered all over me and the dining table, threatening to add his own, rather chaotic, touches to the journal with his paws bouncing over the laptop's keyboard. Anyone with a cat can likely sympathize.

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John's patience tends to run dry a tat faster than mine and, before long, he put his foot down. Time for Munch to re-acquaint himself with the outdoors to blow off some steam and restore an ounce of peace to the household. We took him out into our beautifully treed backyard and watched while he rather timidly explored the area around the porch, then let him back in when he kept hanging from the backdoor's fly screen, gazing longingly into the house.

       Over the following week we'd take him out back with us every time he started going 'squirrely'. It didn't take long before he'd get curious about the large maple closest to the porch and began to explore its lower branches, often sitting for an hour or so in his favourite crook about ten-feet-up enjoying the scenery - long enough to tire himself out and come in for a snack and a nap in the hamper. (Baby squirrels sleep up to 16 hours a day, thank goodness.)

Curiosity proved the best teacher and, before long, Munch would venture beyond the backyard's big maple, following the fence trail to the neighbour's tree bordering the end of our yard with the vine-covered roof of a storage shed conveniently bridging a large gap. For a week or two, he happily bounced about its branches and, I was glad to see, took to gnawing on the tree's bark and seed pods, thus naturally working his tiny front teeth and supplementing the questionable diet of store-bought peanuts, almonds and root vegetables (not a fan) we fed him.

      Soon enough though, his inquisitiveness would draw him to roam further afield still. Since it was just a short hop, skip and scurry to the small, secluded nook of Friendship Park tugged away conveniently behind the houses' fence line, we assumed that's where he was hanging out when we lost sight of him for hours at a time.

I have to admit, I was often quite anxious about his safety out there in the 'Wild'. We'd acquainted him unsuccessfully with the other resident squirrels in our backyard and none appeared to claim him as their kin; in fact, most displayed a rather hostile demeanor towards our little foundling, eyeing him as an intruder on their territory. He was also still small and inexperienced enough to warrant concern about predators (cats, crows etc.) and car traffic, so it was a relief every time he popped by the backdoor for a snack and some playtime before heading back out into the neighbourhood.

The first time he was gone all day without checking in with us was particularly nerve-wracking. Worried, I'd scan the trees in the yard for him whenever I was outside but, just before twilight succumbed to the dark, there he was hanging from the flyscreen at the backdoor, ready to pack it in for the day.

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His nesting instincts developed slowly over the months. Having found the clothes hamper low on cushioning at times when his human mom oh-so-cruelly ran a load of laundry in the evening, he discovered the eight-inch gap between the top of the fridge and the cupboards above it and chose the large cake pan stashed in the space as his secondary nest. One morning, to my surprise, I found the kitchen's Kleenex box raided of most its tissues. Neatly shredded into even-sized strips, the cake pan was now lined with a thick layer of padding. He also squirrelled away a few extra nuts under its bedding, in preparation of possible supply chain issues.

Over time, a certain routine developed in the comings and goings of our frisky fosterling. Heading into the kitchen in the morning for my first cup of coffee, he'd jump off the fridge onto my shoulder as I grabbed the cream from its bottom shelf, impatient for me to take him (and Roxy) out into the yard. Juggling a full cuppa Joe's with a squirrel scurrying impatiently all over me while corralling the dog out the backdoor for her morning pee and grabbing a handful of peanuts on the way without spilling my coffee proved a minor feat unto itself at times and coffee stains soon abounded on the door's rug.

Usually he'd be gone most of the day, dropping by for a quick feed if he noticed one of us in the yard, then off he'd go again until the curfew of twilight called him back home. Once inside, it was time for a thorough feed and drink, then he'd hang out with us on the couch while we watched a movie.

Wired from the adventures of the day, he was always game for some frisky play-fighting and - since his claws and nips soon took their toll on our hands - one of Kai's stuffed animals pulled from storage proved a worthy opponent and skin protector. After about an hour of playtime, with the odd tumble off the couch wrestling the stuffie, he'd curl up in my lap and groom himself meticulously from head to tail before drifting off into snoozeland. Once he was down, I'd gently plop him into his preferred nest. He'd be up again for a quick snack and drink later as we got ready for bed ourselves and then we'd all call it a day.

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Looking back now, we've come to realize that these hilarious evening antics served more than to simply let our little friend blow off some steam before sleep. Play-fighting turned out to be essential survival training for this young, human-raised squirrel, giving him the skills and confidence to, eventually, face off against his long-tailed competitors outside. I'm happy to report he now tends to be the chaser rather than the one scrambling to get away, although Gray still gives him a good run for his nuts; being the resident matriarch, she rules the backyard menagerie with iron claws. 

June turned into July then August, and we began to wonder whether Munch, who was definitely old enough by this point, would ever be fully rewilded. So far, he'd always come home as it got dark, except on a couple of occasions; once during the downpour of an evening thunderstorm that barred his way home and another time when John and I went into town for an N. Q. Arbuckle concert at the Grad Club and Kai forgot to check the backdoor as night fell. In both instances, he showed up the next morning, ravenous but in good spirits, so we could safely assume he'd found a proper hide-out for the night.      

None of us had the heart to keep him intentionally locked out of the house to encourage more independence and, in hindsight, we likely did the right thing by following our soft gut. Motherhood tends to be a balancing act between nurturing and a proper dose of healthy neglect. We've come to understand collectively that children who receive large amounts of love and care tend to liberate themselves from their parents with confidence rather than become coddled codependents. And so it turned out with our little foundling as well.

We'd planned a three-day trip across Ontario towards the end of August to touch base with friends and family. Our oldest son, Anyk, volunteered to stay home to care for Roxy who was getting too old for any extended kind of outing. Since, due to allergies, Anyk and Munch weren't particularly close, we left it up to him whether he wanted to keep an eye on the backdoor to feed and let our little rascal in at night. 

When we got back from our short sojourn, he reported that Munch had asked to come in on the first night and, finding most of his family and playmates gone, had disappeared into his nest right after his usual dinner. (By then, our baby had outgrown the cake pan and built himself a nest in the perfectly squirrel-sized alcove behind the top cupboards.) This was to be the last time Munch would return home for the night. It soon dawned on us that, likely, he hadn't needed our shelter for quite a while now and had come home either out of habit or just for company.
        We actually wouldn't see him for some time after our return, a bittersweet ending to our fosterage, or so we thought. Then, a month later, Kai pointed out something curious. One of the resident black squirrels - namely Greedy who had mothered the latest brood of dark kits - suddenly seemed to have sprouted male parts between her legs and lost her chest bumps. Greedy had been one of our tamest nut solicitors at the time, the only one willing to forgo all natural caution as she'd gently climb onto our laps to get the proffered treat. 

Now, all of a sudden, here was a squirrel acting just as friendly but decidedly of the opposite sex. It couldn't be anyone else but Munch, although of slightly larger body and certainly a bit on the wilder, more cautious side. Fending for himself out there in the neighbourhood had obviously restored some of the healthy mistrust squirrels need for survival and our little guy had grown beautifully independent during that short time. No more cuddles for this young critter - just "pass the nuts and see ya later" in universal teenage fashion.

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Even though Kai's 'discovery' was, at first, met with a bit of scepticism on our parts, we were more than willing to be convinced - and ultimately felt quite relieved - to find our little Munch was faring well and had properly rewilded while also choosing to stay in the vicinity of his childhood home. What happened to Greedy, we will likely never know, but there's been a brood of young, black squirrels hopping about the gnarly, old tree out front since September, so her legacy remains plentifully assured, as is nature's way.

 

Coincidentally, our old Roxy-dog would succumb to the last stages of heart disease a week after we returned from our little trip. With her and Munch gone so suddenly from our lives, the house often felt lonely and eerily quiet. Any slight sound would remind me of the patter of her paws on the wood floors and, at times, I swear I could still hear her breathing close by.      

        As is the prerogative of youth,  Kai wasted no time to fill the hole left in our lives, suggesting we get our first feline companion, despite his father's persistent claim over the years that we'll never harbour a cat in our house - over his dead body, if I remember correctly. For all that, John ultimately proved no match to Kai's youthful stubbornness; as they say, like father - like son.

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And so, here we are . . . at the mercy of a rambunctious, young tabby that's already threatening to shred the couch and turn our lives upside down. Maus, as we ironically named the kitty due to her being on the wee side, wasted no time to ensnare us all with her wily, feline charms. And, wouldn't you know it, her favourite spot in the house turns out to be the coffee-stained rug at the porch's backdoor, offering endless, interactive episodes of her favourite Reality TV show: "Hijinks at the McNuts Hop-Thru" - starring Munch & Co.

The End

 

Postscript: Take a dive into more fun facts about these spunky treehoppers with Secret Ninja Squirrels, a collaborative endeavour with Randy Eady to compliment the tale of raising Munch.

As always, my deepest gratitude to our wonderful contributors and readers near and far across the globe.

Stay well, keep engaged and have a bright and peaceful Season!

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Fluffy's First Halloween

(Tanja Rabe)

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Nature's Critters

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Secret Ninja Squirrels

by Randy Eady

Like most people who have bird feeders, I've aspired to steer squirrels from the bounty meant for my fine feathered friends. Most times to little avail. Despite my frustration, I have acquired a deep respect for these creatures.

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It occurred to me, after observing a human "squirrel" named Levi Meeuwenberg on American Ninja Challenge one day, that I was actually being bested by an applied philosophy and that, by golly, I was in the presence of furry "ninjas". Ninjutsu is usually translated as the "Art of Stealth". The Japanese character, "nin" (also translated as "shinobi") has many meanings, such as perseverance, endurance, and sufferance.

The idea of insurmountable hurdles is not part of a squirrel's playbook; nor is giving up. Another video I came across featured an obstacle course designed to prevent squirrels from getting to bird seeds. It included slides, revolving doors, and at least a dozen more hurdles. Hm, certainly sounded like a Ninja Challenge to me - though it did more resemble "Kunoichi", the women's competition, than the male version. Remarkably, it took the squirrels less than a month to figure out what scientists had painstakingly deliberated over for a year to create.

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Have you ever wondered how a squirrel always manages to stealthily hide from you on the other side of a trunk without taking a peek as you circle the tree?

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Similar to a bat's echolocation ability, this puff-muffin's mega-whiskers can pick up the sonic vibrations of movements in the air and those sensors are not just located around their nose, chin and eyes but also on their legs. These highly sensitive hairs alert them of approaching predators as well as warn them of barriers and tight spaces around them that they might get stuck in as they scamper about at break-neck speeds. They can literally feel the path ahead with their eyes focused elsewhere.

A particular marvel amongst this family of rodents is the Flying Squirrel, a variant gifted with flaps of skin membrane joining its limbs (think frog toes and bat wings) that enables it to paraglide up to 300 feet between trees. Since the flaps impede its movements on solid surfaces to a considerable degree, these squirrels are mostly active at night to avoid potential predators. They communicate via ultrasonic calls as bats are known to do, can turn 180 degrees during flight and have larger eyes than their daytime cousins for improved night vision. 

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Surprising new research has also discovered that almost all species of flying squirrels exhibit a bright pink glow on their belly fur when exposed to a certain spectrum of ultraviolet light that is within their range of vision. This biofluorescence (porphyrin) is rare amongst mammals, although observed in many species of owls as well, and assumed to serve as a mating signal or social cue visible in the dark of night.

     Flying squirrels can be traced back about 160 million years to the Oligocene epoch and of its 43 known species, 40 are endemic to Asia with only three being native to the Americas.

Intrigued by their resourceful capabilities, I decided to dig deeper into all things "Squirrel". Here are some additional Fun Facts unearthed in the process:

More than 270 native species of squirrels are found across the globe, with Antarctica being the only exception. (Australia adopted the American Gray and the Northern Palm Squirrel to correct their natural deficit.) They include everything from tree-dwelling critters, such as flying squirrels, to ground-burrowers like marmots and chipmunks. Even though these different species exhibit somewhat divergent looks and instinctual behaviours, they are all members of the same family.

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Their name originates from the Greek "skiouros" (Shadowtail), describing one of this small mammal's most recognizable features. Their tail serves to protect them from predators (raised-tail silhouette confuses visual impression of front and back), provides balance while 'treehopping', communicates excitement, anger, frustration or fear, and keeps them warm while semi-hibernating during the cold season. Using their body and tail as a parachute, they can fall from a height of up to 30 meters with little to no damage.

        Although squirrels tend to be solitary creatures, they often form nesting groups (drays or scurries) during the winter months for communal warmth (wrapped in their 'tail blankets') and to share the work of procuring food.

The Red and White Giant Flying Squirrel is generally considered the largest in this family of rodents (excepting ground dwellers such as marmots) with a head-to-tail length often surpassing one metre and a body weight of up to four pounds. These imposing creatures are commonly found in mainland China and Taiwan.

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The award for smallest squirrel goes to the African Pygmy variety which averages a length of no more than five inches and weighs in at under an ounce. These tiny critters do not cache food. They live on insects, fruit and the scrapings of bark that, it is theorized, supply them primarily with the oily spores from microscopic fungi.

Squirrels have up to 22 teeth (no canines, mostly premolars and molars) with their four prominent incisors growing continuously at a rate of about half an inch per year. They keep them 'filed down' by gnawing on wood, hard nutshells and even bones. (Editor's note: I often find bone pieces with small rows of teeth marks in the backyard that our resident squirrels 'retrieve' from the neighbour's dog.)

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Despite most species living primarily on nuts, seeds and fruit, they classify as omnivores and also consume bird eggs, snails, mice and insects (gray squirrels specifically) and eat carcass meat if in dire straits. Some ground squirrels are known to even hunt and eat rats up to triple their own size. As prey for predatory birds, tree snakes, wild canines/cats and, historically, humans, they are an invaluable component of the food web. (Squirrels were a main food source for early American settlers.)

With their long, muscular hind legs, squirrels can jump up to 20 feet horizontally and six feet upwards. Their ankles are double-jointed and able to turn 180 degrees to face any direction. This feature, coupled with sharp, protruding eyes positioned to allow 360 degree vision, allows them to scamper sure footedly and zig-zag at high speeds amongst the tops of trees when escaping predators or their fellow kind. Young squirrels in particular can often be seen gnawing their chow hanging upside down from tree trunks. 

       By the way, our Canadian black squirrels are the same species as their gray counterparts, with a few fox squirrel genes added to the mix.

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Canadian squirrels have up to two breeding periods per year, one in mid-summer and another in early spring. They are fertile for just a few hours and male squirrels can smell a female in estrus from, literally, a mile away. Following a 25-44 day gestation period, two to four (at times up to eight) kits are born per litter.

    After mating, the males tend to be antagonistic towards each other and the females will keep them away from their litter, raising the young on their own. Once the kits are developed enough to leave the nest (after a minimum six weeks) they will spend their time outdoors learning survival skills from their mother. They can live up to ten years in the wild and twenty in captivity.

Squirrels can easily sniff out and retrieve food caches even when buried under a foot of snow. To shake off the competition habitually spying from the treetops during autumn, squirrels have developed 'deceptive caching' manoeuvres, i.e. they pretend to stash a nut in the ground, putting on a big show of covering it with soil and leaves, often repeating the 'fake stash' several times before they finally settle for a spot. Since many a cache remains buried and forgotten over time, these lovable rodents unintentionally claim top spot as tree planters and forest conservationists all across the globe.

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The squirrel is a powerful symbol of perseverance and willingness to adopt different methods as the key to successful outcomes. Hence, it's not really dumb luck that lets the "blind squirrel find a nut sometimes" as the old adage goes. This smart rodent also teaches us the importance of preparedness. No animal is busier than this critter during autumn as it gathers nuts and seeds to bury them. For us humans, preparedness is not only important on the physical level; it can mean being as flexible as a squirrel when it comes to allowing and initiating change.
 

The squirrel also reminds us to gather only that which is necessary. This animal's methods can be a valuable antidote not only for the syndrome of hoarding physical things, but also for the habit of hoarding emotions and memories which are no longer needed, and which limit our trust in love and abundance.

Busy as this critter often is, it always has time to play. Squirrels can be seen to pause in the midst of frenetic nut gathering to leap at each other and roll about in the leaves. They also seem to enjoy simply resting ('splooting') on a tree branch or deck railing in a pose which certainly projects contemplative meditation. In this way, the squirrel teaches us that there is time for everything in life and the balance between work, play, rest and contemplation is vital to our overall feeling of well-being and harmony. Perhaps they are here to serve us up a Ninja-like message: overcome adversity with a determined yet calm and happy spirit.

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You can celebrate our furry friends - and nature's most endearing treehuggers - on January 21: National Squirrel Appreciation Day.

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"Trinity" - Kate O'Hara

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Poetry

&

Musings

Opening Up the Cottage
by Roger Nash

puddles shrink
frogs’ croaks
grow shorter

 

quilt on the line
grasshopper’s chirp
airs it well

 

running to the outhouse
already occupied
by a pregnant fox

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A Teaching of the Elders

by Roger Nash

Two women in the retirement home
tell me, forthrightly, that they remember exactly
where they “lost their innocence” as young girls.
Which wheat-field and hotel-room, respectively.
And that they’d lost it with such joy as to have stayed
forever eagerly innocent with men.

 

Lost for good, but continually regained.

Tiers of Justice
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Mat's

Musings

Tiers of Justice

by Mat Del Papa

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Life isn’t fair. You’d think growing up with a disability I’d have learned this harsh lesson early on in life, but you’d be wrong. Thanks to a caring and close-knit family, not to mention residing in the almost picture-perfect, Norman Rockwell-esque town of Capreol, I lived a blessed childhood. It wasn’t until I ventured out of my hometown’s cozy confines to attend high school in Garson that I discovered injustice.

      It happened in Law class, a subject in which I excelled at kicking ass in mock trials and grasping complex legal theories with ease - so much so that I even considered making ‘lawyer’ my future profession. Then the class went to the Sudbury Courthouse to witness the Canadian legal system first-hand and everything changed.

       

Two courts were in session that day. All my classmates, my teacher, and seemingly half the city opted to sit in on a prominent murder trial. The courtroom was so full I didn’t even try to squeeze in. Instead of complaining, I went to the other court and - with almost the entire, intimidating room to myself - got to watch a half dozen cases from start to finish. Going in, I’d been a true believer, convinced that justice was served daily in Canada’s courts. The first case taught me better.

       A fireman was on trial. Charged with domestic abuse for the third time, the defendant - a large and muscular man in his thirties - got a slap on the wrist. He broke his wife’s arm, but because “he was a pillar of the community,” as the judge made a point of saying, there was no jail time. Just anger management courses. I was shocked!

       Several other cases followed, none of which left a similar impact, until the last session of the day. A young Indigenous man was charged simply on account of "possessing tools for breaking and entering". The judge let him off with a weak-worded warning, saying, “There’s enough of your kind in lockup already. All you’ll learn inside is how to be a better criminal.” Not only did that decision seem a miscarriage of justice, it was insulting, demeaning, and even in 1991, deeply racist.

 

Leaving disillusioned, I realized the law was not the calling I had imagined it to be. I told my teacher what had happened and he insisted I must have misunderstood, that there could have been "extenuating circumstances" or something. But I knew better. It took a while to reconcile what I'd been taught - the high ideals of our textbooks - with what I’d witnessed - the gritty human reality. I aced the course but took no pleasure in the accomplishment. I realized the hard truth that Canada doesn’t have a justice system; we only have a legal system. Right and wrong don’t enter into the process. Even legal and illegal definitions aren’t nearly as black and white as the courts would have us believe.

     So, what’s got me sharing yet another example of my limitless, naïve idiocy? A whole host of questionable judicial decisions, both at home and abroad: the SNC-Lavalin scandal that nearly brought Justin Trudeau down, the Roger Stone trial in the US and how easily a morally corrupt president can put his fat thumb on the so-called Scales of Justice, and the heavily biased, legal stance against the pipeline protests across Canada. Each and every one is an example of how the law treats people differently.

       

It often seems there’s one set of laws for the average Canadian and another, much more forgiving, set for various special interest groups. If you’re rich enough or have the right connections, then you can get away with murder . . . literally. Donald Trump bragged about this fact while campaigning in 2016. People wrongly thought he was joking. As has been proven since, the man has lived a life free of consequences, protected by his daddy and his daddy’s money. That same privilege is exercised in courts every day, from ‘Chair Girl’ to the ‘Affluenza Teen’. People with wealth are shielded from justice.           

       There isn’t enough time nor space here to get into all the ways money and influence can sway the legal process. Just know that innocence is no defence, not when the rich walk away scot-free and boast about their guilt. Justice is an illusion. And my illusions have been shattered a long time ago.

(The Capreol Express - Feb. 1, 2023)

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Musical

Interlude

Tree by the Rail
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Tree by the Rail

by Rebecca Kramer

The lake the tree the rail the rock

The silence keeps the timeless clock

Of rhythms found on waters fat

With breathless blue and rivers flat

 

Who gaze at islands docking where

From time to time will graze a bear

Who wears a fur as dark and thick

As any tree with needle prick

 

That stands alone or in a group

Like soldiers tall or in a stoop

Beside a lazy tired rail where

Trains do screech and grind and wail

 

Of manmade beats and manmade time

In hurry worry flurry find

A moment to reflect on this

The lake the tree the rail the bliss

 

Of standing on this rock 

Shhhhh…

The silence keeps the timeless clock

Of rhythms found in me

CB+BC
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Short

Fiction

CB + BC

by John Jantunen

“The heart was blacked out. And I knew he’d done it.”

       “Done what?”       

       “Killed her.”

       “I see.” Gillian tapped her pen on her open notebook and looked at the woman sitting across the table from her. There were enough lines on her face to make her sixty but Gillian’s intuition told her that she couldn’t claim any more years than she did, which was forty-three. Something about the woman's eyes. They were a greenish shade of grey but clear and, when she looked at her, there was a challenge in them like she hadn’t quite given up the fight. She was bundled in a blue parka, a latticework of stitches criss-crossing it and the zipper broken so that it hung open. Underneath there was another coat, a ski jacket with a lift ticket dangling from a metal clip. A memento, perhaps, from a time before she’d become what she was, sitting across from Gillian in interview room three: a bag lady, years on the street aging her double time, but not so far gone that she’d given it all up to the bottle or the pipe. That’s what the tag said to Gillian, though it could just as likely have come with the jacket, picked up for free at the clothing closet or given to her by someone making a stab at sainthood over at St. Vincent’s.
       The stink coming off the woman was starting to play mischief with her sense of time and it seemed like she’d stared at the ticket for hours. Finally she asked, “Could you give me a moment?”, and pushed herself up from the table. The lady folded her arms over her chest and pursed her lips.
       “I ain’t going anywhere.”
       “I’ll just be a second.”

 

She found Riis and Mathews heading for the door and called after them. Riis, the slimmer of the two Detectives, waved his hand backwards but didn’t stop his slow plod into the parking lot. She caught up to them as they made it to their car, though it didn’t look like they were going anywhere. Riis handed Mathews a smoke and Mathews repaid him with a light. Neither man so much as glanced at Gillian though she was pretty sure there’d be two sets of eyes on her for the walk back.

       “Are you shitting me?”

      “What?” asked Mathews who managed to at least keep a straight face about it. He was dyspeptic, she’d heard, so maybe that was working in his favour.
       “You called me downstairs for that?”
       “Not me.”

He thumbed in the direction of Riis, but Riis had turned his back to her. He was sputtering and his shoulders shook and he sounded like he was having trouble breathing.
       “I’m busy. I don’t have time for -”
       “She asked for a female officer. Said she don’t trust men.”
       “What about Delmar? She’s Community Relations.”
       “Off sick.”
       “And Crane?”
       “Now that’s a hell of a good question,” he said, then turned to Riis. “You seen Crane?”
      Riis tried to muster a no but it came off like the cap from a bottle of pop and he bent over trying to stem the spray of laughter. Gillian shook her head and tried to think of something that would suitably express the way she was feeling. Beyond taking out her 
sidearm and popping a couple into their Sedan, nothing sprung to mind and she settled for walking back towards the station.
      “You should thank us,” Mathews called after her. “You said you wanted someone who talked and she sure won’t shut up. Think of it as some good news for a change.”

 

On the way back to the interview room, she passed the kitchenette. She could hear fresh coffee brewing. Officer Crane was wiping the counters when she stepped in to pour herself a cup.
       “There you are,” Gillian said, fishing her mug from the cupboard.
       “Sorry?” Crane gave her a quizzical frown and dropped the dirty rag in the sink without rinsing it.
       “Nothing.”
       God, she’s so young, Gillian thought, not really meaning anything by it but still watching the crease of her pants winking at her as Crane left. Must have had her uniform tailored. Surprised the Sergeant hasn’t said anything, but then it occurred to her that he probably had, grinning while he'd said it like he’d have a chance with her even though he was married and carried enough weight to qualify for disability.
      She drank her coffee leaning against the counter and stewed over what Mathews had called after her. She tried being angry 
at him but, really, she was angry at herself. She’d trusted him, thinking he was different because he listened when she talked and didn’t stare at her like she was a child being unreasonable.
      It’d only been three days since she’d told him she couldn’t get any witnesses to come forward in the shooting deaths of two young women in broad daylight on a busy Eastside street and she’d let a decisive whine creep into her voice when she’d pleaded for some good news to come her way for a change. They’d both had a laugh at that - they were on the same side after all and he wasn’t a bad officer, nothing like that - and she’d gone back to her day, never thinking that he was storing it away, waiting for a chance to use it. And now there it was between them, that wall, the same one that stood between her and damn near every other male officer at the station.

      So, yeah, it was true, she could use some good news. Pouring a second cup of coffee, she freshened her own then carried both back to interview room three. The woman was still there, chewing on the skin at the end of her thumb. When Gillian set the coffee in front of her, she spit a chunk of it onto the table amongst a half-dozen shards of fingernail.

       “You took your damn time,” the woman said.

Gillian sipped at her coffee then picked up the pen. The woman’s odour had settled, making the room its own, like the couch in her parents’ basement that smelled of cat piss. The challenge in her eyes had become a fire and she was sitting with her arms folded over her chest. It had to be eighty degrees in here and there she was still wearing two jackets . . .
       “I wasn’t sure what you took in your coffee so I─”
       “I ain’t here for no damn cup of coffee.”
       “Of course.”
       “You a goddamn police?”
       “A detective.”
       “And you’re paid to listen, that right?”
       “Depends on who’s talking.”
       The woman cocked an eye at her and licked her teeth and Gillian hoped that she was mad enough to storm out of the room but the woman just went on staring at her.
       “I didn’t get your name,” she said at last.

       “Didn’t give it.”
       “That’s the way it’s gonna be then?”
       “It’s Doris.” Gillian wrote it on the top line then paused. “Silman . . . with one l.” Gillian sounded it out as she wrote and when she was finished she dotted the i and thought about underlining the name but stole a glance at the woman instead.
       “You said there was a murder.”
       “No, I said he’d killed her.”

       “Who?”
       “BC. Though I guess it could just as likely have been CB.”
       “I don’t -”
       “They’re initials written on the wall of the tunnel, like I said before. Had a big heart around them.”
       “And where exactly is this?”
       “Under the expressway. By the dog walking park. You know it?”
       “Sure,” she lied. “You said someone painted over it?”
       “That’s how I knew he done it.”
       “Killed her?”
       “Yeah.”
       “And that’s all you have to go on?”
       “It’s enough.”
       “Not in a court of law.”

       “But it’s evidence, ain’t it?”       

       “Could be. We’d need a body first.”       

       “That ain’t nothing to do with me.”       

       “Is there anything else?”       

       “Anything else? I ain’t even started yet.”

Doris’s hands settled on either side of the coffee cup like she was cold and she was stealing a bit of warmth before taking a sip. Gillian tapped her pen on her notebook, ticking off the seconds, trying to distract herself from the stink, wondering how long she’d have to do it before Doris got the picture. It took a dozen taps before she began.
 

“Been going there for a few years. Stumbled on it, yeah, must be three, four years ago. Well, I didn’t stumble . . . that’d be wrong to say. I was pointed in the direction. Led there by a man I used to know. He died a few winters ago, Bernie was his name, froze up in the back of a pick-up truck. I hadn’t seen him for two months. Said he was going to Vancouver, to beat the cold, then he died not three blocks from the shelter I was living in. Couldn’t face me I guess. I’d told him I wouldn’t come along for the ride, that it was a fool’s errand. We’d had words. Short of them was that he told me I was wrong. But I wouldn’t budge.       

       Time proved me right, I guess, though it’s not the kind of right that makes you feel good inside. Wish I could see him again, tell him I missed him laying beside me, even though he was about the same age as my dad and his breath’d curdle milk. Bernie and me’d made a fine pair for the six months before he said he was leaving for Vancouver. Got a lot of looks, him being so old and the two of us so ragged, like we had no business smiling and holding hands and carrying on, sometimes like teenagers. Weren’t all good, of course. He was a right pig when he was drunk, which was most of the time, and he made comments about other women that I thought were unnecessary, and he’d get mad for no reason and kick things like light posts and newspaper boxes and one time he broke three of his toes. And he’d cry at night. When I asked him what was wrong, he’d say he was a coward and that if he wasn’t he’d have ended it long ago.  

     It’d felt like a slap in the face and the next morning I’d try to ignore him but he’d be clowning and doing fish lips which was a trick I’d told him my mom always did to make me laugh. I’d tell him to cut it out, but he wouldn’t and I’d lash out at him and he’d grab my arm and wouldn’t let go; he was strong though he looked like he was made out of toothpicks. He’d hold on until I gave him a smile and things’d be good for a couple more days. And that’s how we got through six months together.”

 

“First night we met, one of us’d had a bottle. When he told the story it was always me but I swear it was him because it don’t make sense the other way. It was late, after midnight, and I hadn’t settled anywhere for the night. Too hot to be in a shelter and I was too restless to lay down anywhere else.

     I was in a sore state. I was thinking of my daughter - yeah, I got one, don’t look so surprised - and wondering if I’d ever see her again. I was letting my imagination run away with itself. Playing a game I did sometimes. Walking the streets, looking at the doors, imagining that one would open and there she’d be, pushing a stroller. Couldn’t get the baby to sleep maybe, or couldn’t sleep herself on account of the heat and she had no air conditioner or her husband worked the graveyard and the quiet was keeping her awake. Thinking that a little air’d be just what she needed, she’d bundled up the baby and now there she was trying to get down the stairs in front of her house.

      I’d slip into the shadows, or crouch behind a car because I didn’t want her to see me, or I was afraid that, if she did, she wouldn’t recognise me or she would and it’d turn into something ugly.”

“I’d wait till she was a good way down the block, then I’d follow her, far enough away that even if she did turn she wouldn’t be able to tell who it was and we’d circle the block, apart but together. She was always a real good singer, or at least I thought so but then that’s a mother’s - , what do you call it?”
       “Prerogative.”
     “Right. So I’d imagine she was singing to the baby as she walked, a whisper just loud enough that I could hear. I used to sing the one about the old lady who swallowed a fly, that was her favourite, always made her laugh and she could do all the animal sounds by the time she was two, so that’s what she’d be singing and I’d sing along with her. Then we’d get back to her house and she’d pull the stroller up the steps and I’d go looking for a place to bunk down for the night.

       I’d imagined this little scene so often that it began to feel like it had happened and that if only I could remember which building was hers . . . could be that it would happen again. Never did. Far as I know she’d moved up north, or that’s what I’d heard. Couldn’t say from who so maybe that was just in my imagination too - but it took away the restlessness I always felt when it was too hot to sleep.”

 

“I was down in the south-end. Don’t so much like it there, I stick out like a leper and I’ve even had someone call the cops on me when I tried to sleep in one of their parks, but my feet had a will of their own and that’s where they took me. Heard Bernie before I saw him. A whimper coming from someone’s front yard. Thought it was dog left outside, forgotten by someone who’d fallen asleep in front of the TV. I stopped and tried to pinpoint where the whimpering was coming from, thinking that maybe I could borrow it for the night, bring it back in the morning or when I saw the reward signs posted. I’d seen one for a German Shepherd offering five hundred dollars, though this dog sounded small, a lapdog or a puppy, and thinking what I’d do with the money, my imagination started running away on itself again.

       I bent down and called it, 'here boy, come here boy' and right away the whimper stopped. Damned if I didn’t see it running towards me, but that proved to be a trick of the light because, just then, Bernie said, ‘You talking to me?’

      Boy, did that give me a start. I stood straight up and took a step backwards and fell off the curb. Went down right into the street. Cut my hand on the asphalt and banged my knee and the pain in my right shoulder was unreal. Thought I’d broke my collarbone or something and I just sat there, cursing my stupid luck and whoever it was that had scared me. Breathing hard and tasting blood - I’d bit my tongue on top of it - I pulled myself up onto the curb. The pain was starting to dull in my shoulder and I knew that I wouldn’t need a doctor, just a few minutes to catch my breath and maybe a couple of band-aids.

      Well, I wasn’t fast enough getting to my feet and he asked me to come over, said he’d make it worth my while, so I did. He was sitting propped up against the tree and in the dark he looked just like a set of clothes that had been left there, he was so thin, and I couldn’t see his face at all. He’d fallen, he’d tell me later, trying to take a piss. Tripped over a root and had been sitting there for he-didn’t-know-how-long. I was the first person who’d passed by.

       ‘I got a bottle at home,’ he said to me. ‘You help me up and you’re welcome to share.’

        ‘And what if I don’t drink,’ I said, acting all coy, and he started coughing again.

“I felt sorry for him so I reached down and took him by the arm and dragged him up. Couldn’t have weighed more than ninety pounds. Looked like an old scarecrow missing most of its straw, that was the first thing came to mind. Still, the way he looked at me when he held out his hand told me he had plenty left where it counts.
       ‘Name’s Bernie,’ he said.
      ‘Doris,’ I answered and shook his hand. It was like squeezing a tree branch it was so thin, but his skin was soft and I wondered what it’d feel like if he brushed it against my cheek. And the way he was looking at me, Lord, you’d have thought I had parents waiting up for me.

       ‘Said you got a bottle at home,’ I reminded him. ‘You live far?’

     ‘Just around the corner,’ he said, then slipped his arm in mine and tried to manage a little jig. His ankles were weak with the arthritis and if it weren’t for me holding onto him he would have collapsed, but I appreciated the effort nonetheless.”

“Home turned out to be in a tunnel going under the expressway, maybe a couple hundred feet long. On one side there’s a dog park and on the other side there’s a bunch of houses that I mostly knew as pinpoints of light, like stars, except they weren’t up in the sky, they just looked that way. When you stood at one end of the tunnel and looked out the other it was like the world had gone all topsy-turvy and really you were looking up because all you could see was the dark and these specks of light. Kind of magical really, though that first night it didn’t strike me like that. Scared me it did, standing at the one end looking into the darkness.

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       ‘I ain’t going in there,’ I told him.     

      ‘Suit yourself,’ he said and walked right in, no thank you or nothing, though if it weren’t for me he’d still be sitting against that tree. Oh hell, I thought, he’s too old to do me any harm, so I stepped inside.             There’s a sidewalk with a rail along it and I stood a moment holding onto it, letting my eyes adjust. When they did, he was gone. Vanished into thin air, or that’s how it seemed anyway. I crept along the sidewalk, clutching the rail, and I saw a spot of light appear about halfway down. This was from the recess he’d taken to sleeping in. It’s maybe six feet wide and four deep with a big, old metal door in the back. It’s got a sign on it - 'No Trespassing - City Property' - and a rusty padlock. In the ceiling over top of it there’s a light. The bulb has a grate around it made of steel. I’d find out later that Bernie’d loosened the bolts around it so he could take out the bulb when he went to sleep and also so that the kids who smoked dope there didn’t smash it, which they always did if he left it in.     

      ‘Home sweet home,’ he said when he saw me standing there looking, I’m sure, like I’d just wandered into the Twilight Zone and was none too happy about it. ‘Now where’d I leave that bottle?’” 

“He stood with his hands on his hips, deep in thought, then said to himself, ‘Probably in the kitchen.’ He walked to one corner and made a play like he was opening some cupboards or the fridge, then shook his head and went to the other corner.
       ‘Sometimes I hide it under the bed,’ he told me, then got down on one knee and pretended like he was checking underneath it. I was about ready to hop-skip it out of there - enough fools in my life already that I didn’t need to be picking up anymore - when he stood and patted his jacket. He had on a sports coat, about three sizes too big for him, navy with a crest on it, the same one he wore every day we was together. Inside there was a pocket and out of it he pulled a plastic bottle with the label wore off. He held it up to the light. It was about half full of some clear liquid.

       ‘There you are,’ he says. He gave me a wink, then unscrewed it, took a sip and passed it over. I smelt it and, sure enough, it was gin. Not the highest quality, mind you, but I’ve always had a weak spot for gin so I had a drink and that was the first night we spent together, Bernie and me.”

 

She stopped talking then and stared into her untouched coffee cup. There was a smile pulling at her lips and Gillian knew that if she got up right now and left, Doris’d never know it and maybe that’d be the end of it, but she couldn’t push past the murder pictures she had waiting for her on the computer upstairs. She looked down at her notebook. The only thing she’d written under the woman’s name was 'CB and BC'.       

       “You said that the initials were there already?”       

       “What?”       

       “CB and BC.”       

      Doris cleared her throat and took a sip from the mug, the coffee already cold though she didn’t seem to mind. 

      “That’s right. There were a lot of things written on the wall, teenage scrawl mostly, big dicks and foul language. An endless stream of nonsense. On my first morning with Bernie I read through it. I was stiff from sleeping on the two strips of cardboard Bernie used for a bed - in time I’d get us some foam rubber and string a blanket up from these two hooks on either side of the recess and it’d be right comfortable - and reading took my mind off the way I was aching all over. T'was like the end of the world, I tell you, in spray paint and permanent marker. Oh my goodness, the things they wrote - though I don’t have to tell you, being a police and all. Seen worse things I’d imagine than a few kids writing profanity on the wall of some tunnel, but that morning it made me feel like there wasn’t a scrap of decency left in the world. That everything was tainted and there was no helping it and that if I had any sense I’d get wise and get out before Bernie woke up. So that’s why I walked towards the other end of the tunnel, never once looking back.

     The sun was rising just then over the houses that had looked like stars the night before and it was pulling me with it even though there was nothing on the other side of the expressway that’d get me any closer to a bowl of porridge and maybe a piece of fruit, the most I could expect for breakfast down at the Mission which was in the exact opposite direction.”

“That’s when I saw the heart. It was painted right at the far end of the tunnel where the cement was angled towards the slope of the hill. I knew right away that the person who’d put it there had chosen this spot because of how it shimmered when the sun caught it. I don’t think I’d ever seen anything so beautiful: a real human heart, not like on a valentine card but one with arteries and veins and blood like someone’d torn it out of his chest and plastered it up on the wall. I can’t . . . I can’t express how it made me feel; marvelling at it, thinking there must be a reason why someone had gone to all that trouble.

       And then the answer came to me. CB plus BC. It was written inside the heart, hidden unless you were looking for it or had taken the time to stop and stare because it had awakened something in you that you’d thought was dead and now you knew it wasn’t because you were crying like a little girl, which was silly because, really, it was just something a love-struck teenager had painted on a wall.

       If it wasn’t for that heart I’d have never made it through the day with Bernie, much less the six months we had. So, after he died I went back there once in a while if I needed a good cry or I just wanted to see it. It was always the same, shimmering in the light, the paint as brightly preserved as those pictures on the cave, I think, in France that’d been there for thousands of years. And not a giant penis or a vulgar scrawl anywhere around it. It was like someone had been coming back to tend it, to repaint it or blot out the swear words with grey spray paint if they got to close. And it stayed that way right up until this morning.”

 

“I hadn’t been there for almost a year. Had a touch of the pneumonia last winter and it’d kept me in the hospital for a few months. I’d got better, but my legs weren’t what they were before and it was a terrible chore for me to get to the south-end. Today’s our anniversary though, me and Bernie’s. That’s why I went down there. Three years ago we met, or maybe it was four, it’s getting harder and harder to keep it straight.
      Yesterday I’d bought a bottle of gin, ’specially, and I’d saved half of it and on my way I picked some daffodils, you know, from beside the expressway where they grow wild in the ditch. When I got there, the sun was hitting its mark just above the houses on the far side and I was anxious to get a look at the heart. I was a bit nervous too. I always was. Afraid the heart wouldn’t be there or it’d be defaced or vandalised and seeing it like that would take something from me, something I couldn’t get back, and, in an instant, I’d become one of those people you see on the street everyday: the ones with empty eyes and mouths that open and close without saying a word. Hell of a thing to hinge your sanity on: a piece of graffiti. But that’s how I felt in my weaker moments and this morning I was feeling plenty weak from the gin last night and the regrets I had about me and Bernie and too many days between the last time I had a good laugh or someone had touched me and meant something by it.

       The heart’s on the far side of the tunnel, as I said before, so I had to go through to get there. Written on the entrance in black marker, where the cement slopes into the hill same as at the other end, it said, 'I Miss You So Much'. I’d never seen it before and it made me stop and hold my breath. It was a message from Bernie, I was sure of it. He’d made it back, maybe he'd been waiting for me, to come and hold him, all curled up on his two pieces of cardboard that weren’t much better than the concrete beneath them, but I hadn’t showed and he wrote the message on the wall before the day stole him away, maybe forever.”

“How long I stared at the words, I don’t know. Long enough to come to my senses, I guess. I took a deep breath and plunged into the tunnel. I left the flowers leaning against the big, old metal door and said a small prayer, then took my time getting to the other end. When I got there, there was a black hole where the heart used to be. Or that’s what it looked like anyway. Someone had gone over it with a marker, erasing all signs of it. I reached out to touch it, half-expecting my hand to sink into the cement like in those old cartoons. It didn’t, of course. It was hard and cold and the moment I touched it, it felt like the black was seeping through my fingertips, leaking into my veins.

    Suddenly, I couldn’t feel my arm, I couldn’t feel anything. It was like it had turned me to stone, this creeping blackness, like it had cursed me and I’d never move again, and when they found me I’d be a statue and people would marvel at the detail, the crimp to my lips, the tear caught on my cheek. But the tear wasn’t having any of that. It ran down my cheek and dropped off my chin, and the spell broke. My legs gave way and I collapsed against the wall. I thought of Bernie and told myself that everything passes, the good and the bad, then remembered my bottle of gin. I fetched it from my pocket and took a drink and closed my eyes.”

 

“My hands went limp and one of them touched upon something on the ground. It was a black magic marker. The cap was missing and the tip was all mashed in. It was the one that he must've used to blot out the heart, I thought, and it struck me - sitting there, wishing like Bernie that I had the courage to just end it all - that the marker was the same kind that someone had used to write 'I Miss You So Much' at the other end. I returned to the tunnel entrance and traced my finger over the 'I Miss You So Much', then went in search of any other messages he might have left. I found a bunch but something else too: answers. Someone else had written back, the handwriting smaller, neater, so that I took it to be a woman’s. I wrote them out, exactly like I found them on the walls.”

     

She slid a mud-splattered piece of cardboard across the table and Gillian turned it around so she could read it. This is what it said:
 

I MISS YOU SO MUCH
Just leave me alone
I ♥ YOU

 

You've embarrassed yourself enough. Stop!
YOU ARE EVERYTHING TO ME. MY 1 AND ONLY.

 

You want a number? 7. That's how many guys I've fucked since you!
100. THE NUMBER OF TIMES I THINK OF YOU EVERY HOUR.

Don't you get it? Are you that stupid. To think of how much time I wasted with you. You ignorant fuck!
PLEASE FORGIVE ME.

Do everyone a favour. Die, you fuck, die.
LAST NIGHT WAS A MISTAKE. I’M SORRY.

 

You come around here again, you're dead, I swear it.
I DIDN’T MEAN WHAT I SAID. I’D NEVER HURT YOU. YOU KNOW THAT.

 

I’ve called the cops on your crazy ass. So leave me alone. Or else.
 

I’LL FUCKING KILL YOU.
ARE YOU LISTENING?
THIS ISN’T THE END.

 

“So what do you think?”
       “I’ll look into it.”
       “That the truth?”
      Gillian fixed her with a smile that felt genuine enough to be real and Doris seemed to believe it. She stood and reached for the zipper on her jacket before her fingers remembered that it was broken.
       “She’s someone’s daughter, you know.”
       “I understand.”
      “Well . . . anyway. Thanks for your time I guess.” She shuffled past and out the door, leaving only her stink and a half-hour left in Gillian’s day.

 

On the way back to her office, Gillian dropped the cups into the sink, mindful of the sign on the wall that read, 'Please Wash Your Own Dishes', then took the stairs to the third floor. She sat at her desk and jiggled the mouse so that the yearbook pictures of the two young women who’d been shot came up on her screen, then she picked up the phone and dialed the city morgue.
      “You have anyone come in there with the initials CB, or maybe BC?” she asked, without even saying hello.
       “What’s the time frame?” the man on the other end asked. He sounded young and eager.
       “Go back six months and, if you don’t find anything, then go back a year.”
       “Give me a few minutes?”
       “Sure,” she said, then gave him her number and hung up. The piece of cardboard Doris had given her was sitting on her desk. She picked it up and scanned it idly, looking for anything she might have missed. She read it a few more times, then read it backwards and it struck her that maybe Doris was wrong. Maybe CB had blacked out the heart and that’s where it had started.
       Hmm, she thought, could be good news after all.

Dream on
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Poetry

&

Musings

Dream On

by Katerina Fretwell

Inspired by Angelica Whitehorn's “Let's Kiss”

Let's kiss the orca and narwhal
before they decimate freighters.

 

Let's kiss off shopping bags and plastic wraps
before they shred coral into slick ticker-tape.

 

Let's kiss Mama Earth
before She typhoons the tycoons to confess:
dehydrating the helpless, oiling scarce habitats,
warmongering to grease their portfolios.

 

Let's rise up and rescue enterprise from robots
before we lose our creativity and compassion
and yes –

 

let's embrace all creatures and orientations
before I-versus-All slides into everyone ostracized.

 

Let's kiss land masses and waterways
before our blue planet boils into off-colour dead-dun.

One of those days
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Editor's

Desk

One of Those Days

by John Jantunen

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I arrived at the Integrated Care Hub just before two in the afternoon, as I did every Friday since I’d become a harm reduction worker at Kingston’s safe injection site/homeless shelter. As usual, there were a couple of people sitting on the bench next to the southern entrance and a few others on the row of irregularly shaped granite rocks that run perpendicular to the building. All of them were smoking cigarettes and chatting while they drank from the cups of tea that the Hub’s kitchen doled out - as ubiquitous as the needles, glass pipes and other harm reduction supplies we provided 24/7 through the kitchen vestibule's window.

      I’d barely dismounted my vintage Gary Fisher Wahoo mountain bike when one of the regulars - a mid-fifties man whose dapper style of dress and silver mane of slicked back hair lends him the appearance of an aging movie star - greeted me with, “Did you hear about J.?”

        “I heard he's missing,” I answered. Five days earlier, one of my fellow workers had sounded the alarm by way of this message on our team’s Slack: “Has anyone seen J. lately? No one's laid eyes on him since the day before yesterday so 48 hours with no eyes on him. Becoming concerned.”

       Another staff member replied, “Saw him yesterday morning walking on Rideau St. right next to the Hub". Two days later, a third staff shared a post on Facebook from the missing man’s sister in which she’d asked anyone who saw J. to tell him to call her. This morning, his sister’s Facebook post had been deleted and I was pretty sure that could only mean one thing: J. had been found. I hoped, of course, that he’d been found alive and well but, having worked at the Hub for the past six months, I was keenly aware of just how fine the line between life and death was for so many of the people who access our services. That his sister’s post had simply been deleted, rather than edited to announce that her brother had finally checked in with a family member, didn’t exactly bode well in his favour.
        “He was found last night in his tent,” the man informed me.
        “He okay?” I asked, still hoping for the best.
        “He’s dead.”
      Shaking my head, I swore, “Fuck” through gritted teeth, more an expression of utter defeat than a curse. And that's what I was feeling right then: an overwhelming sense that if we couldn’t even help such an amicable, intelligent and resourceful young man as J. had proven himself to be, then what the hell good were we doing here anyway?

     

Matters of confidentiality and a respect for basic human dignity preclude me from saying much about J. beyond that he was universally liked by Hub staff and residents alike. I’d never once heard anyone say a disparaging word about him - a distinct rarity in a world were desperation can so easily sow the seeds of discord between even the closest of kin.

Though he’d grown up in Kingston, he’d always struck me as being a country boy at heart and chatting with him at work came as easily as jawing with a neighbour over the fence in my hometown of Bracebridge. Sometimes, I’d run into him cruising around town on his bike when I went on a late night walk trying to settle my mind after work.

     

The last time had only been a few weeks previous. It was a Tuesday, meaning the neighbourhood sidewalks were lined with garbage cans and recycling containers for collection the next morning. Moments earlier, I’d found a couple of tires amidst the refuse on Clergy Street which, I was pretty sure, would fit Tanja’s bike, her rear tire having exploded with a Pop! almost as loud as a gun shot during a recent excursion. I was only a few blocks from home when J. pedalled past. During my onboarding at the Hub, I’d been advised that, when running into a 'client' in the community, I was to wait for them to address me first. This, the reasoning went, allowed them to maintain a certain degree of agency while also ensuring that I wasn’t invading their privacy which is a limited commodity, at best, for many of the people who access our services.
       Whenever we met outside work, J. always greeted me with a sprightly smile and a congenial, “Hey John”, and I wasn’t surprise that he did so this time as well.
         “Hey there, J.,” I answered. “How’s it going?”
      “Oh, you know,” he said, turning his bike around and circling back towards me. It’s what he often replied when I greeted him at work - a response I attributed to the fact that he was in constant pain from a medical condition that could have easily been corrected by surgery and, quite frankly, probably would have been already if he wasn’t an unhoused substance user living at the Hub.
        “Lots of good stuff out there tonight,” I offered, assuming J. was out scavenging. Holding up the two  bike tires, I added “Found these for my partner’s bike. She blew a tire a couple weeks ago and I keep forgetting to get a new one.”
         “Sweet.”
         “Saved me forty bucks anyways.”
         “Can’t beat that.”
        “You’re telling me.” We chatted for the remainder of the block while he looped his bike in a series of figure eights, though I can’t exactly remember about what. Probably we spoke about similar mishaps we’d both had while out riding our bikes, for we’d often engage in such idle chitchat while I was on a smoke break or had a few moments to spare between doling out harm reduction supplies, food, tea or coffee from the small alcove that served as the Hub’s kitchen. I do, however, remember how the conversation finished.
       

Clergy Street ends at Skeleton Park, a densely treed greenspace replete with the requisite play structure, splash pad and basketball court which, having served as the city’s primary burial ground up until 1850, lends our neighbourhood its nickname. Located only a couple of blocks from the two-story brick house we rent, the shortest way home was straight through the park; though, to be completely honest, I knew that I’d be taking a slightly more circuitous route home that evening as I always did when I ran into one of the Hub’s residents while out and about in the neighbourhood, worried they might follow me and find out where I lived. 

It’s not that I didn’t trust J. but, during my onboarding, I’d been warned about disclosing personal details to the people for whom we provided services. Phone numbers and addresses are foremost among those and 'better safe than sorry' is a common refrain when such matters are discussed amongst staff. And, even though I was almost certain that no ill would arise from J. finding out where I lived, the potential risks inherent in that almost meant that, by necessity, 'better safe than sorry' has become a guiding principle; as applicable off shift as on.

        It’s possible that he sensed a certain reticence in my demeanour as we approached the park for, when we’d come to the crosswalk at the end of Clergy, he commented, “It must be weird running into people from the Hub outside of work.”

        “Sometimes,” I replied, for that much was true, “but it’s never weird running into you.” That was also true notwithstanding, of course, the circuitous route I’d be taking home. That earned me another smile. Then, turning his bike right and setting off down York Street in the opposite direction I’d be taking, he gave me a wave and wished me a good night.
         “You have yourself a good night too,” I called after him, already feeling foolish for turning left to take the long way home, telling myself it wasn’t really necessary even as I knew that, in fact, it most certainly was; if only for my own peace of mind.

 

Moral Injury is the blanket term used among health care professionals to describe instances whereby “morally injurious events threaten one’s deeply held beliefs and trust”. (Moral injury: the effect on mental health and implications for treatment, Victoria Williamson et al., The Lancet, March 17, 2021.) Theft, for example, is rampant among residents at the Hub as well as in the adjacent encampment bordering Belle Park, and it’s understood among staff that leaving, say, one’s phone unattended for even a few seconds might result in someone absconding with it. My decision to take the long way home that night was, admittedly, a rather mild symptom, stemming from the kinds of moral injuries I experience regularly at work - though, I would argue, it’s far from an insignificant one. Similar to the way deeply traumatic events result in PTSD, the negative effects caused by instances of moral injury are cumulative.  

         Going a few blocks out of my way to ensure that my home's location doesn’t become public knowledge among the people I serve might not seem much but I am, by nature, a trusting person who has also spent more than a decade writing novels with an aim of dispelling the stigmatism surrounding poverty in this country. So it’s hard to overstate just how emotionally taxing it is for me to be forced to mistrust, implicitly, the people I’ve been tasked with supporting, simply because they happen to be the most impoverished members of our community.

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That I’ve come to care a great deal for many of the people who live in and around the Hub only adds to the cognitive and ethical dissonance stemming from such moral injuries. After all, having teetered precariously close to homelessness on multiple occasions myself - both alone and with a family - it’s hard not to view many of the people who live at the Hub as a sort of flip-side of myself had my own life taken a slightly different turn. I also see in some a reflection of my younger sister who, during her formative years, shared experiences similar to many of the young women at the Hub, though she was lucky enough to avoid incarceration and its lifelong effects, which have marked so many of their lives. Likewise, quite a few of the young men who come to the Hub tell personal stories that are a mirror reflection of the ones my oldest son has told me about the years spent in foster care and as a habitual cocaine user during his twenties while living on Vancouver's East Side.

So when I say I have come to care about these people, what I really mean is that I have come to feel, if not exactly a familial, then at least a kind of spiritual kinship with them. One can imagine then how vexing it’s become that I’m unable to extend them the same benefit of the doubt as I would to, in the very least, any member of the housed public in general.

       

Of course, this is merely one of the milder impacts of moral injury. Most damning are the feelings of abject helplessness when confronted with the acts of, all-too-often, horrific violence perpetrated against the unhoused members in our community. It's disingenuous at best, then, that lawyers for the City of Kingston would use this very real violence as their primary argument when seeking the Superior Court’s sanction to clear the encampment, suggesting that this violence poses a danger to the residents in the area surrounding the Hub, when it's really serial predators within the housed community who pose a much greater threat to encampment residents than the unhoused campers do to me or my neighbours. At worst it’s a blatant, and decidedly self-serving, lie and if the above-mentioned court proceedings have accomplished anything, it’s to prove just how far the City is willing to go to propagate that lie.

        During his opening statements, the lawyer representing the City of Kingston claimed that members of the Kingston police were afraid to come to the Hub, which is why they supposedly never drop in unless called. The City alleged as well that when the fire department responds to an emergency at the Hub, its crews are equipped with stab-proof vests - the only location in the city where they deem such a precaution necessary. Such 'revelations' were contained in sworn affidavits from higher-ups within our emergency services and, while unquestionably compelling, both are pure fabrications. Police officers routinely come, uninvited, to the Hub to execute warrants or to search for missing persons and if any of them are afraid, they certainly do a damned fine job at hiding it, while not a single staff I’ve spoken with has ever seen a firefighter outfitted with a stab-proof vest.

To anyone with even a cursory understanding of the dynamics at play when it comes to stigmatizing unhoused populations, it’s clear that such misinformation is merely being spread to distract from an inescapable truth: that if the mayor and his cabal of developers do succeed in clearing the encampment, it will most certainly end up costing lives. Unhoused drug users will be distanced from the safe injection site located at the Hub - leading to more drug poisoning deaths - and the most vulnerable of our clients will be dispersed into the greater community, which makes them even easier prey for those committing violent acts against them in the first place.  

The problem is further compounded by two factors: anyone speaking openly and honestly of the violence perpetrated against the people who access our services runs the risk of lending credibility to the City’s legal argument of the physical dangers inherent in the camp. Moreover, many of the people experiencing harm at the hands of these predators have also been brutalized or, in the very least, further marginalized by a criminal 'justice' system which, as we all know, has an abysmal record when it comes to investigating instances of sexual assault and/or domestic violence and has actively employed this country’s draconian drug laws to criminalize the most marginalized people in Canada for over a century. With recourse to the law almost non-existence for poor people in this country - an especially dire situation when it comes to unhoused substance users - it’s effectively meant that these violent predators can operate with impunity.

Such complacencies have become so egregious that many of us who work with unhoused substance users can’t help but feel that the members of our police services tacitly condone such predatory behavior. Hardly a surprise, perhaps, since it’s become well documented of late that many of those trusted to 'Serve and Protect' the general citizenry have themselves openly engaged in violent, targeted, predatory behaviors against our homeless and, hence, most vulnerable population in Canada.

     

Frequently overwhelmed by feelings of abject helplessness in the face of all this despair does, of course, take its toll. For me, it’s manifested more and more of late as a bristling at the very mention of 'hope' itself. In my darker moments, I’ve often wondered whether hope, as it’s become fashionable for so many journalists, authors and activists alike to espouse, isn’t merely a new, and particularly pernicious, form of denial.

      In the afterword of Robyn Maynard and Lean Betasamosake’s book Rehearsals For Living, American historian Robin D.G. Kelley frames this denial thusly: “A change is going to come but it could just as easily take the form of more violence, accelerating the inexorable descent into planetary extinction. Yet we are saddled with a 'woke' white liberal belief that this world is worth saving, and the very communities on the frontlines of the catastrophe will save the planet . . . a crisis created by a parasitic class whose power was built on genocide, land theft, slavery, white supremacy . . . and unbridled resource extraction.”
 

Those on the front lines of the unfolding catastrophe who have to bear daily witness to its human costs - while all-too-aware that any changes our elected officials are inclined to propose will only lead to more violence, more suffering, more despair - are uniquely positioned to recognize the underlying truth of these words better than most: that nurturing genuine hope, by necessity, requires a radical dismantling of the ideological constraints which have brought us to this precipice in the first place.

         The foremost of these constraints, as they relate to the eradication of systemic poverty, is the deeply entrenched belief that a person's value is determined solely on the basis of their socio-economic status. Such classism is so deeply entrenched in Canadian society, it’s effectively meant that when it comes to discussing matters concerning poverty in this country, poor people themselves have been almost entirely excluded - one might even say excised - from the conversation.

      In point of fact, when the Kingston Writers' Festival hosted a panel discussion 'On Class' this year, the programmers didn’t feel the need to include a single practicing author who could be considered of low income. Having written extensively about poverty throughout all seven of my published novels as well as within the pages of this magazine, while also having been denied participation in all three of the previous festivals, it was a rather conspicuous omission in my mind and I couldn’t help but imagine the public shaming which would have occurred had, let's say, the same festival facilitated a discussion on matters pertaining to Indigenous, Black or LGBTQ2+ culture without inviting a single participant from their respective communities. 

But then, poverty continues to be perceived solely as a liability and while the potentates overseeing late-stage capitalism - and the vast majority of our citizenry - would label any who’d suggest otherwise as crazy or worse, it’s also eminently clear that it doesn’t have to be this way.

     Cynicism, after all, arose as a school of thought in protest against the excesses practiced by rulers in Ancient Greece through which its adherents rejected conventional desires for wealth, power and glory and, unlike modern philosophers, its practitioners actually chose to live by their principles instead of just talking about them.

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It’s hardly surprising then that the term 'cynicism' itself has become imbued with such a negative connotation, even as Cynicism, the philosophy, offers us a clear path forward if we are to have any hope of avoiding the seemingly inexorable. What that path might look like, and where it might lead us, is a matter of pure speculation, but I am certain of at least one thing: Kingston’s Integrated Care Hub offers us a window into a possible future in which we - as a city, province and nation - have chosen compassion as our primary virtue, rather than continuing to elevate greed beyond even its current, exalted position.

       That the Hub faces such fierce opposition, and even hostility, from city officials and from so many members of the general public is an all-too-troubling - and telling - sign that, as a society, we are doubling down with the business-as-usual model which has both brought us to this impasse in the first place and is also shepherding us into an even grimmer future.

Being constantly reminded that we, as harm reduction workers, are fighting a Sisyphean struggle in our efforts to merely stand up for the values Canadians pretend to hold so dear, has had almost as dire an effect on my own mental health as has the aforementioned helplessness in the face of the violence being perpetrated against the people who live in and around the Hub. Like many of my fellow staff, I’ve been feeling more and more that the task ahead of us is an impossible one - mainly for a distinct lack of the political will required if Canadians are to truly blaze a new path ahead.

The only foreseeable outcome for any individual who's drawn to engage in such life-affirming work is complete and total burnout, the inevitable endgame being a descent into unemployability which is, so often, a precursor to homelessness itself.

 

All this is to say that when, on October 12th , I saw one of our managers post a message on Slack offering free tickets to Cost Of Compassion, “An evening looking at the effects of compassion fatigue and empathetic strain”, I was more than a little intrigued. In the very least, I told myself, a light dinner and refreshments would be served and, who knows, maybe I'd even learn something.

       The event took place the following day at the Donald Gordon Hotel and Conference Centre, a two- story limestone building situated on the campus of Queen’s University. At the check-in station, I was provided with the ubiquitous name tag sticker. After writing JOHN on it, I added ICH below because I wanted to show a little of - what ICH staff commonly refer to as - 'Hub Love'. Besides, I thought it might serve as an icebreaker during the Meet and Greet taking place in the hotel’s lounge.

      That none of the dozen or so health services professionals in the bar took the bait, or really even acknowledged my existence, pretty much set the tone for the entire evening. It also didn't help matters that I was the only one from the Hub in attendance and, when the presentation convened in one of the conference rooms, I found myself sitting alone at a table along the far wall while lively conversations amongst attendees sharing the other tables burbled all around me.
 

The headliner for the evening was Francoise Mathieu. The promotional material I’d been provided with described her as a former front-line mental healthcare provider and the current Executive Director of TEND, an organization which offers consultations and training to professionals on topics related to secondary trauma, empathetic strain, burnout and organizational health. While a thoroughly engaging speaker, I found her overly jocular approach to the material a trifle wearing at times and when she recounted a story about a couple of police officers who’d stood in the back of a previous presentation, grim-faced and with their arms crossed, I suspected she told the anecdote in reference to how conspicuously alone I was sitting with my own arms crossed and my expression stony and unyielding.

But learn something I did and, the next day, I summarized my findings for my fellow employees in a Slack post: "My main takeaway from last night’s presentation was that 'burnout is primarily a system level problem driven by excess job demands and inadequate resources and support, not an individual problem triggered by personal limitations.' This differs from secondary trauma stress, also known as vicarious trauma, which is 'the possible impact of an individual being continually exposed to other people’s stories or experiences of trauma and violence.' Recognizing this distinction MUST be the first step in addressing the root causes of both problems . . ."

 

Given how all mental health resources at the disposal of harm reduction workers are geared towards alleviating vicarious trauma - mainly through counselling - I was quite discouraged that so little mention was made on how to correct the far more debilitating culture of burnout due to the systemic shortcomings in one's work environment.         

      Mind, I was hardly surprised. It was mainly administrators in attendance and nothing’s more of a buzzkill than having a speaker you paid fifty dollars to see 'wasting' an hour of your valuable time explaining how it’s you, and the work culture you have created that are supposedly the real problem. The only allusion to a solution for the burnout endemic within our health services at all were the very last words of the talking points projected on a screen behind the speaker’s podium: “Collective Action”. Disclosed as a mere afterthought, it felt, as if Francoise herself was reluctant to even entertain such a 'radical' concept and, given her audience, I can well understand her concern.

       Still, by so diminishing the very notion of 'collective action', it made the whole exercise feel mainly like just another lost opportunity and a further sign that those in leadership positions within our healthcare system aren’t yet anywhere near ready to implement the kinds of wide-ranging changes desperately needed if we are ever going to genuinely transform our health services.
 

Regardless, I’ll concede that I did walk out of the presentation feeling a certain lightness in my step, largely because of what the presenter who came on before Francoise Mathieu had said. Speaking of her own challenges with addiction and mental health issues, Robin Robertson, an administrative assistant for the Mental Health and Addictions Care Program at the Kingston Health Services Centre, spoke passionately of her experience combating moral injury by performing radical acts of compassion and celebrating the small victories which, right across the harm reduction spectrum, do happen every single day. Her words reminded me precisely of the reasons I had pursued work at the Integrated Care Hub after I’d answered a callout on Facebook for firewood the previous February, renting a U-Haul truck and transporting three loads of skids from Leon’s to the Hub so its residents might have some means to keep warm during last winter’s harshest month. It was my first real contact with the Hub and the work they were doing there impressed me to such a degree that when, some weeks later, I learned they were hiring, I hammered out a cover letter the very same day.

Performing radical of acts of compassion and celebrating the small victories that do happen at the Hub became my daily bread and made those first few months some of the most exciting, and satisfying, in my entire working life. It was inevitable, Robin assured us, that one would feel a deep level of helplessness in the face of all the misery and despair we witnessed during our work there, but simply having Robin validate the lessons I’d gleaned on my own provided my flagging resolve with a much needed boost.

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On the day I found out that J. had died alone in his tent from a suspected drug poisoning, I was more in need of a boost than ever. Radical acts of compassion take many forms at the Hub. They can be as small as taking a moment out of a busy day to scrounge up a change of clean clothes for a person in need or just listening to someone who’s having a particularly rough time.       

Towards the end of my shift, the opportunity would present itself to do both in the form of a young man, deep in psychosis, who’d taken up residence outside the bathroom door at the drop-in centre. My main job manning the bathroom station is to perform five-minutes checks to guard against the possibility of a fatal drug poisoning while residents are doing their business inside and I usually relish the chance to engage in the lively discussions which often arise while people are waiting to use the facilities.

       That night though, J.'s death had created a deeply sombre mood at the drop-in and its usual hustle and bustle had been replaced by the subdued atmosphere of a wake for a man who, beloved by all, had died far too soon. The quiet was broken sometime shortly after eight by the young man in question, yelling just outside the bathroom door. When I investigated, I found he was barefoot and naked to the waist and screaming an endless litany of angry gibberish at any and all passersby. Seeing the look of concern on my face, another resident told me that the man was okay.
        “I know him,” the client assured me. “He won’t hurt anyone.”
      Another resident asked me if there were any shoes around and maybe a shirt. Earlier that day, a volunteer from The Katarokwi Union Of Tenants, a local social justice organization, had dropped off several pairs of runners. I’d put them in the office and, after retrieving a pair, scrounged up a light sweater from one of the black garbage bags filled with donated clothes that were piled against the staff lockers.

     

The man in psychosis rejected the clothes with the ferocity of a badger backed into a corner and so I offered him one of the cheap smokes I purchase by the bag at the nearby Tyendinaga Reserve just for clients of the Hub. This he did accept. The man was sweating profusely, a common side effect of methamphetamine use, so I left him outside and hastened to get him a glass of water. When I returned, the man was at least wearing the sweater and he responded with a hug to the proffered water, thanking me profusely. I checked in on him regularly over the next hour, offering him cups of tea and cigarettes and spending a few minutes simply listening to him when I could find the time.

During our conversation he admitted to not using meth all that much but being quite partial to smoking weed. Earlier that shift, another regular had pressed a small bud of marijuana into my hand after I’d given her a couple of smokes. I figured it might help calm the young man down a bit and went to retrieve it from my locker. I then grabbed one of the straight glass tubes used mostly for smoking fentanyl and added to it a screen so he could use it as a pipe. He was, again, profuse in his thanks and, over the next hour or so of my shift, he calmed down considerably.

After our team’s debrief in the office, I checked in on him one last time as I was leaving on my bike. He thanked me again, this time for being so nice, and I replied that I was just glad he was feeling better.
      “Are your eyes blue?” he then asked me, somewhat anomalously. I answered they were. “Mine our brown,” he said. “The colour of shit. It’s because I'm filled with shit.”
       Leaning close, I looked him straight in the eye and, even though in the dark I couldn’t see anything but two black pits, I offered, “No man. Your eyes are chestnut.”
        “Really?”
        “Yeah, man. They’re chestnut.”
       “Chestnut, yeah,” he said with a sort of subdued reverence before his face broke into a grin as warm and welcoming as the one J. would often greet me with whenever we crossed paths.
      “You have a good night,” I said, mounting my bike. As I pedalled off, the man called after me, with genuine aplomb, “You have a good night too, John!”. It was a minor victory in the grand scheme of things for sure, but it was enough to have me smiling the whole way home and, after a day such as this, having any reason to smile at all seemed nothing short of a miracle.

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Poetry

&

Musings

Ode to Nikola
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Ode to Nikola

by Craig Matheson

Born within a village, a Croatian mountain range,
Ended out in New York but pennies to his name. 
It was 1884 — Man of Peace heads west,
The more souls he sought to help — trickier the test.

 

He imagined a world where his inventions could aid
to supply enough energy to end war, he prayed.
Not so taken by wealth’s ways . . . rich contracts he destroyed
to help George Westinghouse stay many people employed. 

 

Once landed in the U.S., with bright Edison he met,
Thomas offered the man work, Nikola thus seen a threat;
Calculated as ‘the nemesis’, was kept close for tabs, 
on Tesla’s deft discovery, fire burned down his labs. 

 

Two inventors clashed certainly on which current was best:
Tesla's AC . . . or . . . Edison’s DC above the rest. 
Thomas demonstrated the AC as a cold killer,
yet his DC won out as the electric chair chiller!

 

In the end it was Tesla answering social calls,
his AC system pulled power from Niagara Falls.
Thomas was beyond hurt, Nikola died in his eyes,
like Freud hated Jung, Tesla was held in great despise. 

 

Westinghouse trusted Nikola whereas some sensed naught,
Tesla returned favour when George was in a tight spot.
Westinghouse Electric ergo survived to rebound;
Tesla's selfless way was mocked ‘financially unsound’.

 

It's been said he was born on a stormy summer night,
A current through the air may've charged him with good fight.
His mother too displayed a unique knack for invention,
Her son sought not to make machines for war, but prevention.

His father - a priest - advised some on a loving God,
His giant gizmos told of no carbon, soot or smog. 
Yet, in the wrong hands even a hammer can take life,
but does that mean don’t slice bread for sharpness to a knife?

 

The history of this world, so riddled with destruction,
He said Einstein's fission was unnatural by deduction;
Nikola warned to split atoms tears holes in natural law,
whereas the Sun’s fusion combines ‘em for tempering thaw.

J.P. Morgan - in the flesh - banked big interest in both,
Thomas-n-Tesla were signed by his Money Mastered growth.
Morgan held sick sway to make or break such an image,
Tesla was spun hence ‘Dark Evil from foreign village’. 

 

Alas, with much dejection Nikola adapted to the world,
His hails for higher energy had elites whipped up in a swirl. 
Regardless of real heartbreak, Tesla earned patents old in age;
passing by 1943 — 86 years for the seen stage. 

 

Ultimately, the media sparked folks to let him down,
Therein, reporters were paid to write him off as a clown.
So - seeking balance - he embraced 'simpler mind' in a bird,
less grand socially than tween humans . . . which can get absurd. 

 

As for Tesla’s Elon Musk, more fawned over by the news,
To obtain Pentagon deals seems sings opposite to him the blues. 
This ‘spacey’ military contractor — a.k.a. Mr. “X”,
the more possessed to profit the more mass struggle there to vex. 

 

While his cars may run clean, their driving force makes a real mess,
Cobalt mines in Africa —fiendish foul if a social test. 
Them batteries need minerals which starved kids dig to scour,

Long way from most’s sight . . . the full story’s more sad-n-dour. 

 

Will the real Tesla please stand up and offer us a bow!
(or) is there too much trauma from the carbon-farting cow?
Does known-Earth soon meet an end if not more
In Musk We Trust?!
Perhaps Nikola better shunted electrifying lust.

Miss Alice
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Short

Fiction

Miss Alice’s Assignment

by Cheryl Romo

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At the tender age of eight, I'd already become quite serious about my education. By that time I was reading books, tutoring younger students, had my own library card and began writing stories to entertain my friends with. I entered the fourth grade in the high hopes of, some day, becoming a professional writer.
      That year, unbeknownst to me, a nightmare would arrive in the form of Miss Alice, my new English instructor.

 

Miss Alice was an out-of-the-ordinary contradiction for an elementary school teacher. She had a habit of forgetting what lessons we were learning and, over time, consistently lost our homework assignments. A decidedly curvy woman, she favoured bright-red lipstick that glistened like Vaseline. Her auburn hair, streaked with silver and purple, looked as if it rarely encountered the services of a brush and her green eyes always appeared bloodshot.

        In all my young life I’d never seen anything quite like Miss Alice’s voluptuous breasts - at least not unless you count the field trip to a dairy farm with my Brownie Troop where we observed cows being milked. On top of that, she tended to favor low-cut nylon dresses that scandalously hinted at a lack of undergarments and left little to the imagination. With childish curiosity I noticed that she seemed to enjoy bending over in front of my immature male classmates. The boys would giggle and snort rather disrespectfully behind her back as she paced around the classroom - a behaviour I scoffed at as a sign of moral weakness on their part.

 

One day well into the second term, Miss Alice announced to the class that we were having a penmanship contest. She instructed us to write our names and addresses on white index cards, making sure to execute our task with the utmost care and attention to detail. The following morning I was called into her 'office', a cubbyhole at the back of the classroom. Miss Alice informed me with an indulgent smile that my writing skills far surpassed those of her other students and I had won the contest by a mile. 
       “Congratulations! I’ve selected you for an important assignment,” she announced, then her voice dropped to a secretive whisper. “You must tell no one about this, it has to stay just between us. And, as a bonus, you won't be asked to do any other schoolwork while you’re busy with this.” Flattered by the compliment, I followed her to a desk next to her office. There, spread out on a large table, were stacks of blue cardboard boxes and lists of names and addresses. This turned out to be my 'secret' assignment.

       

For the next several weeks as the school year neared its end, I would sit alone at that table feeling like a condemned criminal sentenced to forced labour while addressing hundreds of invitations to my teacher’s upcoming June wedding. My hopes of a future career as a writer started to feel like a pipedream as, day in and day out, I faced a task so mind-numbingly monotonous, it made even less sense than dusting underneath my grandmother’s giant mahogany dining table every Saturday morning.

At the end of each school day, Miss Alice would stand behind me as she examined my handiwork, the cloying scent of her perfume stifling the air and making me sniffle. Then she'd collect her completed blue boxes, on occasion tipping me with a piece of chocolate mint candy when she was particularly pleased with the results of my labour. It was truly a wonder that I survived the fourth grade without completely losing my mind. Drifting along on daydreams of spending the entire summer vacation reading at the public library proved my only mental salvation. I was, after all, an introverted nerd who, as the years passed, would spend much of her time bent over a keyboard.
 

As my summer vacation neared its end, I fervently hoped that Miss Alice’s lesson had ended for good and I would finally be allowed to resume my intellectual education. Life just had to be different. As I arrived on the first day of school with my notebooks and a new Mickey Mouse lunch pail in hand, I was quite startled, then, to find myself summoned to the principal’s office. It was my first time to ever enter this den of iniquity where - I’d heard it rumoured - badly behaved students were paddled on their behinds by the man-in-charge. I trembled with fear, wondering what I’d done wrong to incur such cruel punishment.
        Much to my surprise however, the tall man behind the wooden desk regarded me with grave but kind eyes as he asked me to take a seat. 
“I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but I thought you might want to know. Sadly, your fourth grade teacher, Miss Alice, has passed away over the summer holidays.”

        I had no idea how to respond to this - obviously grievous - turn of events, having had no personal experience with death other than the time my dog was hit by a car and a woman brought him back to our home wrapped in an old blanket. I had loved my dog very much and mourned his passing deeply - much unlike the conflicted feelings I harboured for a teacher who had managed to steal a good chunk of my precious education for her own, selfish purposes.
        The principal went on to explain that, after having returned from their honeymoon, Miss Alice’s husband had inexplicably shot her to death before turning the gun on himself.

       “You were one of her favourite students and I wanted to be the first to tell you,” he said. “I knew you’d be upset at losing her so suddenly.” My head was spinning and I had to sit down for a moment. The principal asked if I was all right and offered to have one of the teachers take me home or get my parents to pick me up. I politely declined and walked out of his office, aware that what I was thinking right then had to be a grave sin - completely inappropriate in the face of such tragedy.
       

Although I’d never seen a dead human being before, I mentally envisioned and scripted the following scene in gory detail: Miss Alice limply reclining on a bed in a blue silk kimono with one of her big breasts escaping its folds and blood trickling from the right side of her ruby-red mouth onto the white satin sheets. Her husband, a handsome rake with a black mustache, using his last strength to throw himself dramatically over Miss Alice’s chubby legs, sighing a final farewell on his dying breath. The gun, still smoking, next to an empty champagne bottle straight out of a scene from my grandfather’s 'True Detective' magazines.
     All I could conceive of in my young, somewhat naive mind was the potential for great story material. Hence, my faith in my career path had been restored, leaving no doubt that, one day, I would become an accomplished writer.

Bending Tranquility
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Poetry

&

Musings

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Bending Tranquility

by CJ Jackson

When in doubt, when the troubles pour down like rain, when you reach the end of your rope, and you no longer know what to say, how to face another day, how to deal with one more change.

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Let your feet find a quiet trail, a path away from the noise, a wooded forest, a deserted beach, turn off the cellphone, turn down the world, because you are twirling too fast & everything seems a blur.

In this space, away from the mass of humanity, in the tranquil serenity of nature, breathe deep, in and out, focus on the lungs that feed the trees, as they in turn grant the same, feel the symmetry, the connection to the land.

We are not just meant to go, to do and to see, we are also meant to just BE. It may seem difficult at first, as the mind is a clutter, with one thought or another. That’s ok, we are prone to wander; don’t you know it? Let each one go, with the lightest of touch. Like the stroke of a butterfly’s wings, it doesn’t have to be that tough.

When you seep deep into a space where flowers bloom, snails and ladybugs catch your eyes, suddenly seeing so much more. Tiny universes within a microcosm of living things in this place. Colors seem brighter, smell crisper, the very air is fresher, and the dappled sunlight is as light as a baby's first kiss.

Refresh, let the peace wash over you like a waterfall, trickling over your head, sparkling and clear down through the heart, realigning your body with its pure, sacred art. Let the stress drip off your fingertips, slide off your toes, flowing into Mother Earth. Don’t worry, she knows what to do, just honor her and the Creator for being steady and true.

Let the roots of your soul reach down through the soil and the sand, ground yourself and then reach up to the skies, with praise and wonder, once again ready to restart. You cannot go under, every journey has a beginning, an end, yet it is what’s in the middle where we learn not to break . . . but just to bend.

Stick'n Ripples

(Tanja Rabe)

Maddening Crowd

Fishbone Gallery

Far From the Maddening Crowd
Tanja Rabe
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Whooo goes there...

Peak of Solitude

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Troll Crossing

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Forest Guardians

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Sneaky

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Busy

Antsy

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Blue Skies (R.I.P. Les)

 Rest Azured...

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The Calm Before...

Fading out...

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Polarity

(Tanja Rabe)

Cookie Deed
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Creative

Non

Fiction

The Cookie Deed

by Rebecca Kramer

Doing my laundry costs me $40.00 a trip in North Bay: $10.00 cab fare there, $20.00 laundry, and $10 cab fare back. Over time, I have managed to collect enough clothing to only pay a visit to the laundromat every three months.

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One day, before heading out to take care of my laundry, I noticed on my web map that a new laundromat had opened closer to where I live. I called the place and, coincidentally, they were having their one-year anniversary that day, celebrating the occasion by offering homemade cookies to their customers.

      Let me tell you what a truly awesome day I had simply getting my laundry done. I will begin the story by first introducing the five people that played a role in it. 

 

In the furthest back corner of the smallest laundromat imaginable stands a kindly, mentally challenged man who opens and closes the doors of the washers and dryers for the customers.  The next character is an older woman in a wheelchair. Then there's another woman of rather startling appearance - 68 years old but looking like she is in her nineties with makeup running all over her face and greasy hair, smelling like urine and pushing a walker.

    Then we have a strongly built woman of 53 years with a voice as deep as mine. I'd find out in conversation that she used to be a personal support worker, took anti-smoking meds trying to quit the habit which caused a seizure while she was horseback riding. She fell off her horse and landed on her head. Her brain injury was so severe, she ended up losing everything - her house and her husband - and had to learn how to walk and eat all over again. That's how she ended up working a minimum-wage job at this laundromat. 

       Lastly, the fifth character is myself: a small woman with a childlike frame and an adolescent face, 56 years old, deep of voice with a calm and gentle reassurance about herself.

     All these characters, myself included, would be quickly rejected by society as misfits in any other setting. So, intrigued by this colourful ensemble, I decide to carefully watch the scenario unfold around me and take my cue as to when to jump in and mix things up a little. The memory of this day will always make me smile.

     

Lily, the laundromat worker is deeply worried about the woman with the walker.

       “I had to wash her clothes twice,” she tells me. “I was a PSW working at a home for the elderly; she is one of the worst cases of neglect I have ever seen. I told her to take care of her hygiene, that she needs to take to bathe more often.” 

       I'm listening to her and know exactly where this could lead. Fear can cause bullying behavior. Fear can be the parent of cruelty. Do I find myself concerned for the old, unkempt woman? No. Not at all. She is taking care of her hygiene. She's at a laundromat after all, minding her own business and washing her clothes! I ask myself quickly, “When was the last time you took a bath, Rebecca? Oh good, last night. I'm safe!”

Once my laundry is loaded into the three washers, I take a walk down to the lake, which is just a two-block stroll away. I sit on a tree stump letting myself think about everything and nothing all at the same time. The lake always inspires my mind to pleasantly drift along in any direction it chooses. 

     When I return, I see the old woman is now sitting on her walker. I walk over and say, “Hi.” She replies, “Do you want to have a smoke?” Surprised, but ready for some fun as this lovely creature offers me a smoke, I say, “I have some too. If you want, we could trade.” She looks at my menthols and wrinkles her nose, “Na. I don't like those.” She shows me her bag of smokes from the Rez down the highway and I say, “Na. I don't like those either.” So, we go outside and each smoke our own, enjoying another's company

      She says, “When I still had money, I could buy my favorite brand, but afterwards I had to pick up butts from the ground. You take what you can get. Beggars can't be choosers.” Our eyes meet on that truth, very firmly in agreement. We continue our conversation which wanders into the direction of all the benefits of living alone. “You can do anything you want to. No one tells you what to do,” she says with conviction.

 

Back inside, I take out my washed clothes but, before I can put them into the dryer, I have to wait for the woman in the wheelchair to fold her finished load. When she is done, she has to roll her wheelchair backwards out of the cramped space to leave with her clean laundry. “I am so sorry, I am in your way,” she says to me apologetically. I smile and reply, “I can wait. I have the technology.” Everyone chuckles and any tension in the room disappears. I put my clothes in the big dryer where the mentally challenged man offers to hold the door for me. With a big smile I thank him and he says politely, “That's what I am here for.”

​       As I am about to step outside again, a pivotal moment occurs that changes the entire mood of the scene. The retired PSW starts laying into the woman with the walker. “Is anyone taking care of you? Is someone coming in to check up on you regularly? Do you live with anyone or are you all alone?”​ If I were that old woman, my comeback would be, “And just what question would you like me to answer first when you're firing a dozen at me all at once, looming over me all the while? Why should I answer even one of your questions? I don't have to answer to you. Who do you think you are, my mother?”

​      The tattered, old woman responds very well. She says emphatically and sharp, “I’m good. You're good. We're both good.” That's her strong f-you message. I think, 'Good for you', and decide, now is the time for me to leave the premises and let that sting settle in a bit.​ So, I take a second walk down to the lake and ponder my opportunity to infuse some magic into this scene. What that might be, I do not know yet, but I do know I’ll find  a way

When I return, the woman with the walker is getting ready to leave. The PSW retiree offers us the rest of the cookies to take home. I quickly count them out and there are exactly two dozen left. I put twelve in a baggy for her and twelve in a baggy for me. I walk over to the older woman who's still scowling from being condescended to earlier, and say, “There are a dozen cookies in each of our bags. How about every time you eat a cookie, you think of me; and every time I eat one, I think of you?”

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       The evil spell breaks. Her face dissolves into the most beautiful smile and I make sure that this tiny gesture is witnessed by our well-meaning but bossy laundromat worker. Lily is now pleasantly taken aback. Once again, all shoulders are set at ease. Then, the cheered old woman sets out with her walker and continues to live her life the way she wants. It feels good to know I've made a positive impact on both their lives.

The kind 'door'-man has left; the friendly woman in the wheelchair has gone home as well; and now it is just Lily and me. 

​        As I fold my laundry, she finishes up for the day and we talk - really talk. We have a smoke together outside and we continue talking. She ends up offering me a ride home. I can hardly believe it. I am glad she is, for it is already well after dark. She graciously saves me a $10.00 cab fare home.

​       Conveniently, my place is right on her way so we continue talking in the car. When we arrive I tell her, “Three months from now . . . that makes it January. See you in January, Lily.” We both smile broadly at one another and wave goodbye. I made a friend today, a friend for life. 

 

CONCLUSION:

This is what happens when we share power; we achieve equality with our fellow human beings, no matter what condition we find them in. Each of us is spinning down a long list of circumstances that we sometimes have control over, but mostly not. We are where we are. We can't be expected to 'hop-to-it' to satisfy others' expectations of us, to prove those wrong who assume everything about us, and who disregard that we are aware of what is happening to us. We do! We will tell you about our life, if only you'd ask. We all deserve equal rights to love. Equal rights to inclusion. Equal rights to having our intelligence respected, and our purity of heart cherished. If we have dirt on us, maybe we didn't dump it there; maybe someone else did?! 

 

The last thing we do in any situation is what counts the most!

      If it begins well, it must end even better. There is no clocked time when we are working towards a happy ending. We are completely dedicating our efforts to living in the moment, which could take seconds, hours, days and sometimes even half a lifetime. We do whatever it takes. 

​        The last thing the woman with the walker experienced at the laundromat that day was an invitation to remember me, knowing I would remember her by the simple act of eating a delicious cookie. Anything negative that happened to her that day would pale in hindsight, redeemed by a tender gesture of compassion and love.

​        The last thing I did for Lily was to offer her my friendship, and show her absolute grace because she may never have seen someone like me make someone else’s day in such a simple and fun way. The moment she witnessed the 'cookie deed', I saw her whole body, in one huge wave, saying loud and clear, “You, Rebecca, have the touch. I get what you are doing - and why you are doing it - and all the tumbleweed good that this smallest of ideas could generate. I deeply respect you for your kind deed.”

I sense in my heart that she will become a creative advocate at her laundromat, using simple acts of kindness that will bring equality between herself and others, no matter what walks of life they hail from; and, thus, she will enjoy doing her job immeasurably more each day. The value of money means nothing when we discover the gratification of valuing people around us. I demonstrated what an act of love for a fellow human being can accomplish: a simple, caring gesture that potentially causes ripples throughout time in the remembering, maybe for generations to come. The last thing we do is the most important deed of all! 

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Hand to Heart For Peace

(Tanja Rabe)

Mason's Jar review
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 Book

  Nook

   with 

 Mat

Mason's Jar

by John Jantunen

ECW Press, Fiction, June 2023 

Review by Matthew Del Papa

Open "Mason’s Jar" to sample some damned tasty fiction.

Forget overpriced gourmet cuisine and Michelin-starred meals, it’s time for some more straightforward fare.  With his latest novel, Mason's Jar, author John Jantunen has cooked up a feast, as honest and GMO-free as the preserves that once lined grandma’s basement shelves . . . provided your ‘Gammy’ traded her spice rack for hard-to-swallow truths. No need to worry, though, there’s enough humour skillfully mixed throughout to assure a balanced meal.

 

Things may be bad out there now but, at least, they can’t get any worse, right?

      In Mason’s Jar, Jantunen sets out to prove otherwise. He takes our modern world as a starting point and posits a near-future where the entirety of our present-day crises - mental health, opioid, housing, and climate change - have all been left to fester. Readers will need to bite down firmly as this literary bone-saw chews through their preconceptions.

     All too often, modern Canadian literature feels confining. The lid is screwed down tightly on this country after all. For many readers, ‘CanLit’ has become a bloated, cliché-ridden monolith - home of the easily digestible narrative and nation-building pablum force-fed to kids at school. Toss literature’s rotten fruit - those well-intentioned but bland books offering little beyond stale conformity; Jantunen’s work presents a much needed purgative.
 

Violent pasts and uncertain futures abound in this searing mash-up of Western, Sci-fi, and Horror genres. Mason’s Jar asks the hard questions and provides even harder answers. Luckily, the novel blends gut-wrenching loss, stoner humour, and shocking violence into a whole that rises above its, often deeply troubling, ingredients. In short, Jantunen dials the dystopia up to eleven. And in doing so, creates the sort of story that sticks to your ribs.

The drug epidemic is the main course served piping hot in Mason’s Jar.

     Tired of stewing in his own misery, retired police chief Mason Lowry is cracking under the pressure of trying to care for his increasingly senile and resentful wife when his biggest arrest - and nemesis - Clarence Booth is released from prison. Certain that the man is hungry for revenge and convinced that Booth and his biker gang are behind the spread of Euphoral, the drug which killed Mason’s teenage granddaughter and is now ravaging the city he once pledged to serve and protect, the ex-cop goes on an all-out offensive - commando-style. Therein lies his path to redemption, if only he can convince himself that he deserves the chance.

 

Mason’s Jar presents a less-than-appetizing Canada, one deeply troubled and increasingly divided. Generational trauma and decades of band-aid solutions have left our nation in ruins. It is a future as predictable as it is plausible. Jantunen serves up a textured novel full of lingering resentments, tragic consequences, and characters who lie consistently . . . to themselves and each other. Feeling all too familiar, Mason Lowry’s world isn’t far removed from modern reality which, in my opinion, is the novel’s only flaw.

      Taking a meat cleaver to Canada’s self-indulgence, Jantunen grinds our comforting delusions down to a nub and plates a novel bursting with outrage. Mason’s Jar serves as stark warning to readers grown fat and complacent on literary comfort foods. There is nothing vanilla about Jantunen’s style nor does he spoon-feed or coddle his audience. No one escapes unscathed, not his ‘heroes’ or his readers, and it is the type of book that will weigh heavy on the mind. You’ll want to hasten through every delicious bite as if gorging on fast food but, much like a perfectly grilled steak, readers would be well advised to linger over Mason’s Jar.
     

The novel is a powerful indictment of the ever-widening chasm in Canada’s wealth-centric, class-based political system. Jantunen shows his audience what happens when society’s civilizing cloak is stripped away and those poor, downtrodden, and unwelcome amongst us move from being benignly forgotten to being stigmatized and even persecuted. 

    The novel’s central question is one of redemption. Can Mason Lowry, who once took pride in upholding ‘the System’, cope with the long-delayed realization that he might have had a decided hand in escalating the cataclysmic events unfolding around him? Long past his own best-before-date and resigned to living out his last days in self-condemnation and heartache, Mason Lowry learns - to his surprise and shame - that his fate is not set in stone and his sins may ultimately be forgivable. All he has to do is sacrifice almost everything he ever believed in.
       

Mason’s Jar is sure to offer red-meat to genre-lovers. It could easily have come across as yet another cheap cut, full of gristle and bone, but, prepared with the utmost skill by a consummate professional, it - like all of Jantunen’s Fictions - proves more than satisfying in the deliverance. 

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