sunfire and stardust.

sunrise- r.kennedy

the day started with sun fire streaking the pink sky. it was hot by breakfast and i couldn’t stop sneezing. our tin box bedroom is being taken over by ants and i was shaking cinnamon with wild abandon, grasping at old-wives straws that somehow the spice would convince them to pick up and move house. in the still heat of the morning i was folding all the laundry that i’d washed by hand the day before in my preserving pot basin with cold rainwater and eucalyptus oil soap. somewhere in the middle of the ants and the heat and the folding i heard music. bagpipes calling out Amazing Grace. it was strange and surreal and i stood still, listening and wondering, and then realised that over the hill was the old cemetery, usually forgotten and overgrown in this tiny country town, but today it was singing. today there was dying and remembering. today there was music. so i stopped and i listened because that felt like the right thing to do for a stranger life that lived and lives-no-longer. pay attention. 


in the afternoon i dug my hands into the bounty of tomatoes we’d been given from friends abundant gardens, and let them roast till they popped with basil and garlic and olive oil, the smell of late summer sticking to the sweaty air. i sang bob marley songs while fingering wool and tried to funnel my hazy mind into acts of creation. i watered thirsty plants. i made sage brews and laid flat on the concrete floor of our half-built house. when the sun went down i put headphones on and danced my bones under a galaxy of stars. because i can. at the end of it all i stared up at the night sky and let moments and remembering move through me. it was a day that marks an anniversary in the calendar of my mind. sadness and celebration. loss and gain. it’s a journey full of feelings. full of learning. 


the day started with sun fire and ended with stardust.
so many people tell me that my life is a dream. 

i’m here to tell you it’s as real as the sweat on my skin; as full of loss as the fresh dug grave; as delicious as late summer tomatoes; as true as the breath in my lungs when i dance my bones in moonlit skies.
i couldn’t dream this. i wouldn’t dare.
pay attention.
this living is so real.
xx

when your best dog dies

bruce 1

it wasn’t the way i had imagined it
but i suppose it never is.
you lived long, but never got old.
i never saw your beard grow grey,
your whiskers turn wild.
you had that sore leg that gave you trouble sometimes;
you no longer played as hard as you used to.
you slept more.
stayed closer to home.

for a big dog you always loved small spaces.
when you were a puppy you slept underneath the couch
till one day you got big and couldn’t get back out.
famous for sitting on small chairs and end tables,
your strong bones would curl in so tight,
shrunk through sheer determination.

i shouldn’t be surprised that you chose to die
curled up underneath my caravan kitchen table.
the smallest space in your smallest home yet.

you didn’t give much warning, little dog.
or maybe we were just reading the signs wrong.
it wasn’t arthritis or cancer.
it wasn’t a passing car
or other tragedy.

it was a farm field on an overcast Saturday.
it was after your tail wagged and your pal came to play.
it was a tiredness in your wise eyes.
it was your resting bones, your drooping head.
it was with me on the floor beside you.
it was a knowing in my gut.
it was your laboured breath.
it was a few short cries.
it was before the rain came.
it was while the birds sang.
it was your time
…and then something took your breath away.

i believe in good deaths.
i don’t know if i could have chosen a better one for you.

DSCN9828

there are people who will never know or understand
the space that a good dog leaves behind.
good love, like a good life, doesn’t need an explanation.
it speaks for itself.
loud.
clear.

your love, your life, howled, Brucey boy.
your echo will ring for a long long time.

thanks for being the best four-legged this girl coulda hoped for.
i miss your goodness already.

good night littl pal.
xo

IMG_2047

still, these years later

granny 6

some times the shadows make it hard to see the light.
some things don’t get easier with time.
some days the road feels too long. too hard.

just keep going.

just keep going.

the first, the wildest, the wisest

there is no promise of growing old,
whether it’s alone
or with you.

there are things around the bend,
unexpected outcomes,
tragedies,
a lifetime of unknowns that will write
the end of our stories.

and on this sunny, blue-skied morning
this may read as cloudy thinking;
a gloomy way to begin a day.

but
in the wake of one more sudden ending,
i find myself needing to remember what is true.

there is only promise of right now.
this
very
moment.
this morning.
that bird singing.
this breath.

if i forget this
then i flounder.

but when i remember,
i pause,
and i listen,
and i breathe deeper;
i say thank you
and i love you
and i work harder to be here
right now
in this
very
moment.

because it’s what i know for sure.
and i’m grateful for it.
and bless, aren’t they all over too soon?

57

travel as equals

i drove old familiar roads today to attend a celebration,
a memorial,
for a beautiful woman
with mischievous eyes.

not bound by walls or coffins or concrete crosses
this honoring, this grieving,
was happening among the trees
and their changing leaves
and the beauty of mid-september skies.

i knew the route to the forest like the back of my hand,
my mind barely aware of the landscape,
the landmarks,
as my car rambled by.

i was thinking about lives lived, lessons learned.
i was trying to put my finger on the words
that could explain what remains
after her passing.
what it is she leaves behind
in me.

those sorts of words don’t easily come.
i search for them anyway.

my friend was a woman who didn’t travel light in heart in this world.
her story was not simple nor easy to share.
but her laugh was contagious
and her perseverance relentless
and i think it would be safe to say
that her footsteps got lighter the longer she walked.
i don’t know if she would claim
that the journey got any easier,
but i do think she could write you poems
about the beauty she was learning to see along the way.

and i know that she knew
that she wasn’t travelling through life
alone.

in the afternoon light,
with black eyed susans and burning tobacco,
we brought our still-living bones
to gather together
to tell stories
to whisper prayers…pleads…blessings

to express our gratitude.

for so much.
for the way we are changed when we let ourselves walk close enough to someone else.
for the way a heart, even (especially?) a broken one, can be a vehicle for so much blessing,
so much light.

i don’t know, at the end of it all, if there is anything more that i aspire to,
anything greater that i could hope for,
then to have a community gather under autumn leaves
and say
we are better for having known you.
we are thankful for your life.

thank you, dear girl, for living your story with such courage, generosity, and humility.
you are already missed.

[ on my drive home, with the sun dropping lower in the sky, this song came on the radio. i had never heard it before today, but it seemed strangely fitting. If there is one thing that my beautiful friend and her gracious community have taught me, it’s that “the only way we can survive, [is to] travel as equals or not at all”. ]

early in the morning, when the church bells toll

1. orchestra of song birds singing the sun up outside my bedroom window

2. sad news on morning radio

3. the stillness of a dark room

...

...

a library burned…

“When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground”

...

...

I parked outside the bakery and decided to walk to the church. The sun was warm and even though I didn’t know exactly where I was going, I figured the village was small and surely it wouldn’t take me too long. Besides, the fresh air would do me good. Clear my head. I wanted the walk to give me time to wander through some memories.

I didn’t know Lavern for long, or even very well. He’d lived out his 93 years in a village where everyone seemed to know him by name, and it was only in this last year of his life that I had the privilege of meeting him.  I think I loved him the moment I met him – he was alive in a way that was contagious. His roots went deep, his feet so planted in community…he was a man who knew where he came from…and every time I saw him he seemed to be living every day fully, completely.

All I really knew about this tall, bright eyed man, were his stories and his smile. To me, he really was a walking, living, library. Nearly a centuries worth of tales were stored in his bones, and he let them flow out of him like water…this unstoppable river…He was a story collector in the truest sense. Binders full of paper clippings and a mind full of memories. He kept the history of a village alive.

I eventually found my way to the church, the walk a bit longer, the village a bit bigger, than I’d expected.  Most of the faces in the pews were unfamiliar to me, but the one in the casket was the one I knew so well, the one I came to see. It was just a shadow of that beloved story collector…the sparkle in his eyes now gone, the smile faded. It really is that spirit part of us that makes us come alive, isn’t it?  Our bodies, just a shell. Today, in that little church, Lavern was the subject of all the stories shared. And I saw how the ordinary life of an ordinary man could touch an entire community.

I will miss his light in that little place. And I regret all the conversations I wanted to, but never had, with him. But I can’t really think of a better sign of a life well lived, then a village church full of laughter and tears and stories, and a community who, even after 93 years, was nowhere close to feeling like they’d had enough.

Thank you, dear old story teller, for bringing such delight to this girl’s heart. A library burned to the ground with your passing, but the gift of your life is a story that won’t soon be forgotten.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
– Mary Oliver
……

a found poem, or something like it.

...

...

It’s Saturday afternoon, the end of March. There was snow on the rooftops this morning, but that didn’t last long. I saw two crows fight it out in an eavestrough, while at another house, the hyacinth bloomed. By noon the sun was so hot coming through the window of the Mexican restaurant that our skin was feeling parched. My legs are stretched out on the brown striped couch in front of me. For a couple of hours they sat cross-legged on a carpeted floor. A live version of Such Great Heights is floating up to my window from a car speaker a few stories below. Today those kids really sang the blues.

I made the hot chocolate a bit too hot, but the almond milk was a nice touch. That cactus salad sure is hard to beat. Where does cancer come from and why does it happen and why did they have to die so soon? If you sang the song of your past it sure would be a heartbreaker.

That guy on the rollerblades must have been in the military. Lightening bolts on his head and all. As soon as you took off your glasses, I remembered everything. Fireflies don’t always bring light to dark places. It was 2 years yesterday, I wish I’d remembered.

You want to bring her back to life to make your future bright. That monster still sleeps in your sweater pocket. I wish it was easier for all of us to live with our losses. What should we do when our fears keep us up at night? It’s tradition now, you know. I could tell by your face that I’d lost you. I’m just not sure why you left.  I want to change my address too. Damn knocking.  You asked the question we’ve all been dying to know, little sage: If God is real, why doesn’t she answer?

……

sounds of silence.

...

...

standing in the bakery kitchen, apron covered in flour, spatula in hand, mid- mix in a bowl of chocolate brownie cookie dough, the clock turned 11 on 11.11.11 and everything went silent. stirring stopped. mixers off. like someone just pressed pause on the world.

i let my eyes drop to the counter in front of me, my right hand still gripping the bowl. for those first few seconds my mind ran in circles, trying to find a thought to focus on, trying to remember how to remember.

i thought about being a kid at school, parading out to the yard every remembrance day, poppies properly pinned, standing in classroom rows, performing a ritual year after year that felt so far from my lived experience but so weighted in importance.

releasing balloons. reciting poems. visiting veterans. never really knowing what any of it meant. really.

i thought about my schoolmate just recently killed while serving in Afghanistan.

i thought about the kids i’ve met who lost their dad to war. their questions. their fears.

i thought about the sadness that takes over hearts.

i thought about the anger that capsizes bones.

i thought about the way we hurt the people we love the most.

i thought about how fear is a powerful weapon.

i thought about the questions i can’t find answers to.

i thought about the way conflict tears us apart, piece by piece.

…and i thought about peace.

peace.

and then somewhere in there i think i stopped thinking altogether.

somewhere in the silence, apron clad, mixing bowl in hand, all my thoughts turned to whispers and my mind stopped moving…i think my heart just started yearning.

i can’t tell anymore the difference between yearning and longing and praying. it all feels the same to me. wordless and desperate. a hoping for something. a surrendering to something. a fight for something that feels at the same time both weary and brave.

whatever you call it, whatever it is, that’s where i found myself today in the quiet.

in a desperate place. asking for something so big and elusive and simple…asking for peace.

i’m not even sure that it was world peace i was after, whatever that is or would be.  i think today that kitchen quiet was more about asking for peace within.  peace for our hearts. peace for my heart. for freedom from conflict. for courage. for release from fear. for comfort in sadness. for gentleness. compassion. forgiveness.

those silent moments took me somewhere.

i didn’t release any balloons or recite any poems. i didn’t even wear a poppy.

but in the quiet of the late morning in a bakery kitchen i remembered what it is i want to fight for.

lest we forget.

Each time I have come, I have learned something more.

image courtesy of The Peterborough Examiner

image courtesy of The Peterborough Examiner

Brian Nichols is a dear friend and teacher of mine. His life truly is his art, and it is some of the most inspiring I have seen. He is just finishing up a month long visit to Zimbabwe. This article is one of a series that was published about his time there in our local newspaper this week.

……

It’s mid-afternoon on the men’s ward. The sun has reached its peak in the sky, throwing sunlight through hospital windows onto beds and patients.

A man with cloudy, cataract-filled eyes is on one bed; an infection has resulted in the recent amputation of his left leg above the kneecap. He’s extremely skinny but has lean muscular arms. He appears to be in his 30s.

He speaks broken English and says his name is Americo. He was born Zimbabwean but came to the hospital from neighbouring Mozambique. He is alone. No family members have visited.

Peterborough psychotherapist Brian Nichols, a 58-year-old who runs his practice from his 160-year-old East City home, has been visiting Americo for several days.

Nichols arrived in Zimbabwe in early January with Millbrook lawyer Julie Kirkpatrick and Peterborough carpenter Jeff Mathers, owner of Hickory Lane Kitchens on Perry St. The three will spend a month here before heading home. They will donate all their possessions and leave solely with the clothes on their back.

It’s Nichols’ sixth trip to Howard Hospital, a Salvation Army facility 80 kilometres north of Zimbabwe’s capital Harare in the Mazowe district of the country’s Mashonaland Central Province.

Nichols fell in love with Zimbabwe, and the work at the hospital, during his first visit six years ago.

“It gets in your blood,” he explains.

He now calls the grounds his second home, flying in every year with thousands of dollars in Peterborough donations and suitcases full of clothes and supplies.

If the hospital had the time or resources to erect plaques, Nichols’ name and those of a loose affiliation of Peterborough volunteers including Larry Gillman and Jenn Reid would be here.

Peterborough donations, collected through Donwood United Church, have contributed to everything from bricks and mortar to bed sheets to school sponsorships for the Salvation Army schools on the hospital grounds.

Reid, a midwife who teaches health sciences at Fleming College, first came to Howard Hospital in 2001. Gilman and Nichols soon followed, making annual pilgrimages.

Nichols figures Peterborough raises about $30,000 in cash and supplies for the hospital each year.

But it’s the intangibles, the hands-on care provided by Nichols and the volunteers such as Kirkpatrick and Mathers, who make the two-day voyage to Zimbabwe, that leave a more lasting impression.

Here lays Americo, wearing a beaded bracelet on his skinny wrist. His eyes light up as the white-haired, bearded Nichols enters the ward, taking out a MP3 player and placing speakers above Americo’s bed. Shona music echoes through the ward, which has 20 male patients.

The dull mood in the room leaves. Patients sit up and start talking.

Nichols pulls out a container of beads and cuts a line of fishing wire for Americo to start a necklace. He then prepares him for a massage.

“There is a lot of pain from lying in the bed. The muscles waste and the patients get bed sores, so this prevents some of that,” Nichols said, performing a Thai massage on Americo. “I believe the energy in my hands can be transferred to the person.”

Americo moans in gratitude as Nichols moves on to the next patient.

It’s estimated more than 60% of the hospital patients are HIV-positive.

As stigma surrounding AIDS remains prevalent in Zimbabwe, family members are often wary of touching loved ones with the disease.

It’s likely Nichols will be the first person to touch some of these patients in many months, said Dr. Paul Thistle, the hospital’s chief medical officer.

Nichols has worked hard over the years to teach family members, and even hospital staff, that touching is not only OK, but beneficial, Thistle said.

“He provides this physical, spiritual support -hands on -to patients who traditionally would not be touched. Because of the stigma of HIV/AIDS, they have been the untouchables,” Thistle said.

“Brian comes in and tears down those barriers and shows the nurses and the staff and the patient’s family that there is no concern.”

Nichols, who along with his wife Paulette, has raised two children in Peterborough, said a sense of calling draws him back to Howard every year.

“When I arrive, people say welcome home,” he said. “Each time I have come, I have learned something more.”

Learning to overcome suffering is a work in progress, he said. Howard Hospital has fewer than 150 beds, but it’s not unusual to be dozens of patients over capacity, lining the halls and cramming into the four wards.

Zimbabwe has one of the world’s worst infant mortality rates and is prone to epidemics such as the 2008 cholera outbreak that claimed thousands of lives.

Death is a daily part of the hospital’s reality.

Part of the hospital’s role is to provide palliative care for dying patients. Nichols often finds himself accompanying people in the last days, hours and minutes of their lives.

“I have held people as they struggled to die,” he said. “We don’t keep track of numbers, but one week I did, and there were 14 deaths in the children’s ward.”

Every death leaves a scar, he said. To wake up and bring joy to the ward the next day, he has had to hone his coping tools.

Those tools became oil pastels, paintbrushes and paper, tools he uses to create an ongoing series of paintings, his attempt to share with the world what he sees in Zimbabwe.

“I’m able to take the suffering here and make meaningful work that can connect to people in the Canadian context,” he said. “I want people in Peterborough to care.”

The paintings adorn the walls of his home and were featured in September at The Spill on George St.

An introspective person at heart, Nichols spends sundown with his fellow Peterborough travellers reflecting on the day’s events.

Sitting on the porch of a small shop in a neighbouring village, Nichols sips a quart of cheap Zimbabwean beer and talks about Americo.

Thistle has given the man a 50/50 chance of surviving his amputation.

The conversation is interrupted by a local man the Peterborough group has nicknamed -Wire Boy -an untreated schizophrenic named Tonganai Chakenetsa who wears a wire crown on his head.

Many of the local villagers tease Wire Boy, who is intelligent but struggles to make sense of his words, often rambling on for minutes at a time.

Nichols stops his conversation and begins a dialogue with the young man.

Within minutes, the two are on the ground, using a stick to scrawl images into the red, dirt road. The art project turns into a dancing match. The two perform flips and break-dance to the entertainment of about 50 onlookers who have circled them.

“I just wanted people here to know he’s likeable,” Nichols explains as he walks back to the hospital grounds in the dark.

For Nichols, coming to Zimbabwe is about making connections, if only briefly.

Faced with the daily reality of death, Nichols has developed a positive outlook in the past six years that he attempts to teach each new visitor.

“I know many of the people I see on the ward won’t make it through the night, but wasn’t I fortunate to make that connection with them before they died.”

(Written by Galen Eagle, The Peterborough Examiner )

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Words + Photos + Credit

Unless otherwise noted, all original photography and text are property of Raechelle Kennedy. If you see or read something here and feel inspired to share it somehow, please be considerate and give the artist (me!) credit, or even better, drop me a note and make sure I don’t mind.
Thank you!

Here + There

Secondhand Sainthood and the gift of losing it all – Topology Magazine, December 2015

Ten Things Made – Topology Magazine, December 2015

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