Wandering Women

This past Monday (March 21) was World Poetry Day. A minor secular observance from UNESCO. Ordinarily, it would slip me by unnoticed and unobserved. This year, thanks to its inclusion in the Nudes of Wakefield calendar hanging on the wall in my study, I paused for a while and thought about the importance of poetry in my life.

Poetry has seen me through the best of times and the worst of times. Unlike other forms of writing it helps me to slow down and reflect on each line, often leading me down the rich veins of my own experience.

That day, the poem Among Women by Marie Ponsot, happened to appear in my Inbox. I don’t have the permission needed to reproduce it here, but I hope you click on the link and spend some time with the poem. Then read on, and spend some moments with me as I wander through my favourite lines. For me, it is the best of poetry. Nothing grand or flashy, just the carefully observed reflections of a woman who raised seven children, and who must have spent many hours “wandering” while rocking a baby to sleep, or soothing a fractious toddler.

What women wander?/ Not many. All. A few.

Each of us, Shelly-Ann; Yolande; Jenn; Hilary and I, the main writers of this blog are wanderers at heart. Our posts over the past three-plus years have ranged far and wide across mountains and valleys, through city streets, and along quiet wooded trails. 

Some, and I’m one,/ Wander sitting still.

COVID hit, and we were forced to wander sitting still, or at least within the confines of our close neighbourhood. What did that do to us? I know it forced me to wander more in my mind, to relive old haunts, to explore the cracks and crevices in memories, to look at them closely from a different perspective. My morning walks through the hills became even more precious.

… choose/ Your bread and your company.

My dog points: his natural instinct is to climb to a vantage point and stand stock still, while scanning the lay of the land with his keen nose, searching for any scent, signs of movement, or sound. I’ve learned to take in those moments of complete stillness with him, to tune in to the imperceptibly small changes: the days are never the same. I choose to stand in his silence…until inevitably he gets a sudden whiff of a message that his best friend passed by not five minutes ago, and if we run really fast we can catch up to them.

…sleep where you will,/ Walk out when you want

I missed the best of winter this year, as I finally boarded a plane again to meet my first grandchild. A few days old when I arrived in London, her world stretched no further than 12 inches from the end of her nose. Gradually, we left the house for short periods of time,  venturing, timidly at first, into the neighbourhood to walk the city streets, then through the parks and the adjacent woodlands. Gradually we journeyed further afield on the bus, and then down steep flights of stairs and on to the tube. I thought about this poem and about Marie Ponsot, who must have relived over and over the constraints of a small child, the inability to walk out through the door whenever you choose, to sleep whenever and wherever you feel like it. Freedom happens where you make it. So, I thought too of my sister-in-law and the last few years of her life. With chronic spinal issues, her world gradually shrank until she was confined to bed. But she continued to wander at will in her mind. Sometimes, when I visited we would walk the streets of her favourite city, Copenhagen, climbing up to the top of the Round Tower to look out across the city, and from there walk to her favourite bakery to buy the best almond pastries in the world.

She warned me, “Have nothing to lose“.

Like everyone, my mind has been wandering to Ukraine in the past month. My mother-in-law originated from the Carpathian Mountains, from the border between Ukraine and Poland. Her family were Hutsuls, who came to Canada during the great economic migration in the early 1900s. They were lured by the Canadian government’s promise of “free” land, and came with little to lose given the extreme rural poverty of their region. They left everything they knew, duped into believing that the Canadian prairies were similar to their homeland

I imagine myself back home
I'm high in the mountains
The wind is blowing through the trees, all the way to the Steppe
There is fear in the air
We have no land, we have no food, the children are hungry.

We are strong and fierce,
stalwart peasants who can till the land
Canada wants us
Canada doesn't want us
There is no Canada

In the pictures they showed us there was no sky
This country is all sky
There are no mountains
There is land -- land to be broken

We are so hungry, and now we are cold.

Gillie Griffin 
from UKanadian (work in progress), performed at The Origin July, 2017
with thanks to the City of Ottawa  

The Ukrainian women and children I see every night on the news are being forced to wander far from their homes. Far from everything that feels familiar and comforting. They have everything to lose, and nothing.

My small grandmother/ Bought from every peddler/ Less for the ribbons and lace/ Than for their scent

Like my husband’s small Baba, I rage against the Russian oppression of her people. History repeats, and through her voice, passed down to my mother-in-law, passed down to my daughter, we remember. I begin to blame Putin for everything; for my granddaughter crying in the evenings, for my daughter-in-law’s terror of a third world war. The days pass, and I find myself blaming Putin for my hyper-vigilance, and then for my constant search for signs of hope. In my morning wanderings through the East London parks, I find the yellow celandines of my childhood and the blue speedwell and bugloss, the long-forgotten scent of an English woodland. And then one morning, walking along the river, a white egret. Far from Picasso’s dove of peace, but I take it as a sign. Ukraine will and Could endure, endure.

She loved her rooted garden, her/ Grandchildren, her once/ Wild once young man.

I’m back home now, eagerly watching the snow melt, waiting to reclaim my garden. There will be time for more wandering in the months to come. For now, I’m happy to be rooted back in Canada, with my “once wild, once young man”, wandering sitting still.

My mind wanders back to London, to my new granddaughter, to the next woman to carry the family’s stories.

the song of me
carried down from the ages
sing it again in another voice

it is a haunting song
a song of loss, of hunger, of cold, of suicide, violence, rape

I sing it again and coat the music of my DNA

it is a song sung in another language, in another place
it is the same song

sing it again, with the sound of the trees and the lakes    and forgiveness
sing it again with the sounds of acceptance
it is a strong song
a song of resilience, of warmth, of gratitude, of love

I like that one says the land -- sing it again.

Gillie Griffin 
from UKanadian (work in progress), performed at The Origin July, 2017
with thanks to the City of Ottawa  

Women wander /As best they can

I’m grateful to have been reminded of World Poetry Day this year and to have wandered with you through Marie Ponsot’s poem Among Women.

Whether wandering with our feet, or with our minds, we hope that you continue to enjoy wandering with us, in and around Wakefield and beyond

With thanks to Hilary Jocelyn and Yolande Karin Fenny for photos of their wanderings