standing with family

31 years ago, I stood with the children of a family I lived with in Senegal, West Africa, while on a Canada World Youth program in 1989.

These are the children helped to change my life in ways I have not fully been able to articulate. Not even sure I could now. They helped me to understand life and death, helped me to be me without me being able to speak their language properly or at all, helped me to find joy. I am so deeply grateful to have had that chance to become their friend even for a short time.

Their mother was a traditional doctor, and took care of everyone – her family, her extended family, the villagers of Diakene Diola and the surrounding villagers in the part of the Casamance where we lived. She took care of me when I was sick with malaria. Their father worked as a nurse in at a field hospital in another village/ town.

The kids and I played together whenever we were at the house – which lead to a lot of laughter and singing. I would spend the small allowance I would get from the program to buy them soccer balls and treats for them.  We got water together, collected fruit, ate meals together and I walked with them to their school.

The children and their grandmother used to call me Akibio. When we played together, the kids would rub and pat my arms to make sure I wasn’t lying about the colour of my skin. They were sure my skin was dark underneath the white paint. It made them laugh because no matter how hard they tried, I just turned pink instead of the colour they hoped I would be underneath. This impacted me on so many levels. I have not written a lot about what that period of my life was like for me. One day maybe I will. In the end, when they did try to scratch away at the surface, I would point to my heart, cover it with my hand and then point to them. I would say “mon coeur, ton coeur, même coeur” (which also made them laugh because as an anglophone just learning the French language, I had not mastered pronunciation at all). Underneath it all, we have the same heart. Now they have all grown up, had families of their own. I think about that time in my life and about them almost every day. We took this photograph together so that I could have it printed and sent to the family to have. So we could remember. I am so glad that I still have it.

The lives of these children were not easy in any way. They all had dreams and hopes for the future. Their mother, father, grandmother had dreams for them. The situation they found themselves in living where they did was not so different from anywhere else in the world, except they had very little in the way of material things back then. To me, they were rich beyond measure in what they had in family. The children most often left the village to move to bigger cities to got to school if they were lucky, and in pursuit of jobs and better lives.

Most did not want riches and fame when they left the village. They wanted to earn enough to send home to their families to make sure there was enough food for everyone, but sometimes there wasn’t. They wanted to earn enough so their younger brother or sister could go to school and be trained for a job too. They wanted to earn enough to be able to get the medicine they needed to stay healthy. They wanted what we take for granted: food, running water, electricity, clothing, a roof over their heads and for those they love to have the same. They had the hope to dream. The youngest of my Senegalese family was named Opportun. Her name spoke so loudly about these hopes and dreams.

This experience was a turning point for me – a huge (and sometimes hard and harrowing) blessing to my life. I learned so much about life itself while there. We weren’t there to change anything. We did not go to convert or build or influence the lives of anyone we were living with. We were there to learn, to help where we could and ultimately broaden our understanding of the world around us.

Because of this family, these children, I went on to do many things to help children like them, to help families, to help others follow those dreams. I came home to Canada, ready to go to university and got my degree in Anthropology and French. , I started working with children and families with low incomes in London, ON in 1991. 29 years later I am still doing it – working and volunteering to help locally and internationally. I volunteered with Arts for Aids International (now 17 Colours) for fifteen years. Now I work for an organization who operations homeless shelters and runs addiction and mental health programs. I became a mother in the midst of all of that and have raised my two children to view the world with clear open eyes, to fight against what is wrong in the way they can, to call out injustice and to care for those who are in need.

I don’t share this to give the impression that I have any say or voice in what is happening today. I share this because I believe it is everyone’s responsibility to do what they can to bring hope, love and compassion to the forefront. I do not see this as weakness but as part of the force of change.

When there are people everywhere, here in London, around the world, who do not have the same opportunity to follow the path that is laid out in front of them, we must advocate for systematic change. That change is coming. It is like birthing a child. It is painful and at times excruciating. It is also filled with deep love.

This change requires us to lift up and amplify those voices that need to be heard right now. It’s not enough to be satisfied to hear there is a problem, any more than it is to see it. The work has to be done to change it. Every single day, not just today. When I am called upon to help I will be there. In the meantime, I am standing with everyone, in the background.

la

#blacklivesmatter

peace of mind and a Nan blanket

It has been 36 days since I started working from home. I didn’t start when the many others day a week before because I work for an essential service, but when it was decided it was best for those who could work from home to do so, I packed up my work, set up an office for the first time in my life at home.

Like many others, that days have brought waves of different emotions, a lot of anxiety and concern for my adult children, loneliness and isolation. It is a kind of darkness that is hard to get out of sometimes, but working full-time hours still helps. I am still volunteering for another nonprofit that I love, that helps but also comes with its own kind of heartache. I sit on the board and like many other summer festivals, we just had to postpone until next year. In amongst all of the stress, worry, anxiety and grief, I find being creative in any way that calls to me the best way to climb out of the darkness. A couple of weeks ago, I started making a new blanket. Before then I was trying to decide what to make, what to do, and nothing was really settling me down. Then I watched the first episode of Tom Power’s “What’re Ya At” on CBC. (definitely check it out.. it’s wonderful)

I listened while he interviewed frontline workers and others about how things were going for them during this pandemic lockdown, but my eyes were glued to the beautiful handmade blanket his Nan made for him. It hung on the back of his sofa like a beacon. I suddenly had the inspiration I needed to make myself a special blanket to take my mind off of the abject loneliness I had been feeling – still feel most days right now.

I am lucky. My grandmother, Beryl and great aunt Jan both taught me valuable skills as a very young age. My grandmother taught me to bake, can, quilt and knit. My great aunt taught me how to crochet (and bake too, her sticky bun recipe is a treasure). For as long as I can remember, I have wrapped myself up in yarn work, have made many blankets that have been given away as gifts over the years to friends and family, and over the past couple of years donated blankets to fundraisers to help my neighbours who are at risk or experiencing homelessness. I have spent hours with these blankets, knitting and crocheting them like they were long hugs going to someone else. Doing that brings me peace of mind.

Each stitch grounds me in the memory of my grandmother and great aunt and reminds me that whatever goes on around me I can at least make something bright and cheerful at the end of the day. I still have quilts and tablecloths that they made me years ago when they were both still alive. I passed on their legacy to both of my children, teaching them everything that I know. It is not so common now to share these traditional arts, to teach them and embrace them. I was so struck by the way that Tom proudly displayed his Nan’s blanket. How could I not be? It was what I needed to see in that moment – to be touched by that sweet, precious care of a bright, cheerful handmade blanket.

I counted the number of squares I have made since April 12th… 72. That’s almost halfway there. There’s no way to rush making this blanket, I have to make one square at a time. It’s just like getting through this current lockdown. Have to take it one day at a time. Before I know it, it will all be done. (I will update when I am actually finished the blanket).

any ordinary day project

I started a project that I am calling ‘any ordinary day’ not so long ago, in an effort to redirect some anxiety and stress that I was feeling while in lockdown due to Covid-19. I am not sure how well it is doing to help me, but I am enjoying sharing some black & white photography on my Instagram art account: @leifraserart

Today I shared 20/365 ordinary days. I’m sharing randomly, photos that remind me of ordinary days that I maybe spent wandering with my children in the woods, in the park or at the beach; maybe just staying at home and photographing around the house.

I need to be reminded that there is beauty in ordinary days, when the days feel extra heavy like they do today. I need to be reminded that I can see that beauty, and have many times – more than a years worth I am certain.

For the days I miss hugging my children, seeing friends, family, coworkers, anyone, this collection save a place until I can go out once again with my camera.

~

la

change

my face reflects in the window
blue lit gaze
my fingers move
across keys
while I watch the rain
the days blur into each other
even checking the calendar
can be dangerous
I counted three times 
before I was sure
that sixteen days had passed
water drops mix with fog 
on the glass
I tap the screen 
to make them dance
some fall away 
only to be replaced by others
night is quiet now
after the storm has passed
sleep steels me
in this cocoon 
until tomorrow

~
day 7 
national poetry month

enough

I turned just far enough
in my chair to see
through the window to the trees
outside as the storm pounded
the concrete with surprising fury
lightning cut the sky into white ribbons
thunder echoed between the buildings

I thought
not moving
about where I stored the candles
should the power go out 
again
what would I do in the morning
if the power still is not on
and I have to work?
I cannot leave the apartment
anxiety mounts
it still storms outside
inside

The power is out across the street
I watched lightning strike 
straight down to the ground
like an arrow
alone in the darkness
I go into the other room
to find the source of a beep
I hear every time more lightning hits 
I ask myself as I go
why was it not enough
to just turn 
and watch the storm?
~
day 6
national poetry month

apology

I wandered the unused path
heavy and overgrown
looking for small opportunities
to see sunlight overhead
something to guide me forward
but each step betrayed me
drawing blood 
warning root and stone 
to hold me still

night apologized for truth
only opportunity
the past undressed 
bare, empty 
unwritten by the moment
do you remember? 
the darkness asked 
and I did

day apologized for truth
beautiful inevitability
one after the other
lifted from the page
like a butterfly flying 
on beach sand in the summer
then with the wind
dissolves to nothing
do you remember? 
the light asked
and I did

In turn, 
I apologized for truth
for wandering, 
for rising and falling
like a breath over my lips
clearing the path
untangling the roots 
and sitting in the sunlight
so you could find me again

~
day 5
national poetry month

union

rising with the breath
to sit in between that one
and the next
a conversation
born in the swell
under the wide evening sky

nothing to hold
wind through my fingers
the day rests on the horizon
slipping beneath the rolling sea
your words land
like the crashing waves
on jagged rock worn by years
between who I was and am

morning brings the same
as waves touch the shore
shaping the sand
stone stands in salute
to the passing light
drawing long shadows
to greet the ocean's return
~

day 4
national poetry month

[yellow notebook]

still has the price tag on the back
neon orange sticker 
warning me 
that for a $1.99 
broken
wounded lines
will scatter themselves
in black ink
visible in the sunlight
scrawled over
torn pages 
until the crisp cover 
is worn 
down

a hundred days of verse
upturned 
by the rage of existence
separate me from the stones
rolling in shallow river water
set me heavy
against the current
until I am smooth 
from the turning

you will be 
the only witness
catching drops in the creases
hidden beneath to cover
fingertips reaching out 
to hold what cannot 
be touched

keeper now
between two pale cards
like cupped hands
drinking
along the riverbank
balanced 
on the
edge
toes grip the sand
drink deeply
before letting go
once more

make room for more
more stones
broken wings
tears
laughter
sunlight dancing in the ripples
I watched you go
with the clouds
another storm passing 
wind bending
the trees low
tearing the earth
like paper 
until
stillness stumbles in
held my breath long enough
before going under
turn the page
to write I love you
the poetry of
wildflowers 
caught in the reeds.

~
day 3
national poetry month

swift

I wake before the sun again
listen to the passing train wind its way 
into the city
through the trees and sleeping streets
to greet the downtown
blue-violet sky not ready yet
to welcome the soft pale pink tendrils
of morning into its grasp
pull the blankets around me against the chill
a few moments longer
I left the window open 
frosted-night breeze slipped in to remind
my hand lies empty in the darkness
calling to you to hold it
while the rest of me falls away

silence sits heavy on me
can't move until the next breath
or the next in between
waiting
not ready to let go 
sheets and blankets tangled limbs
stumble to the kitchen for coffee
I watched through the glass
another day unfolds itself
to steady march across treetops
until blue-violet night unrolls again
to fill the frame
~

day 2
national poetry month

anything to say

I threw down 
the dusty bag 
untied the cord
and pulled the fabric wide

golden face of the sun, 
white orchids and blue morphos 
greeted me, 
a whisper 
of what remains unsaid

old photographs, 
half-finished stories, 
unsent letters 
fill the darker folded corners 

and I, 
I am left still looking 
to see
if I have
anything to say

~leigh-anne fraser
day 1 Napowrimo

50 before 50

It seems like a lifetime ago now, but it has only been ten years since my last birthday project when I wrote forty stories before I turned forty. To honour my fiftieth birthday next month, I decided I would put a gallery together of fifty pieces of art that I created before I turned the ‘big 5-0’. My hope, plan, loosely put together plan for this year is to create more space and time to get back to the brush, back to clay and stone, back to pen/pencil and paper. It is not certainly because I stopped being creative. I think would find a way even if my arms fell off to create art, but my intention is to do more.

My oldest, Andrew, is finishing up their BFA at Western University this year. I will admit that I have lived vicariously over the years of their time at Western and I have learned from what they have shared with me. One of the more challenging pieces I have learned this year (and have not yet attempted) is a formula for writing an artist statement. In fact, it is a series of questions that can be answered to create the statement.

Perhaps this is my next task after sharing the gallery. I will try to tackle answering these questions in a more intelligent way than current response: Gah! I don’t know.

In the meantime, fifty pieces of me:

I did not ask


I did not ask 
After the sun had left
For anything
Not in the darkness
Or the darkest part of the night
As the rain fell outside
And sirens wailed
Somewhere in the streets
I did not ask one word
In the stillness 
Within the walls of
Concrete and plaster
But I lay within listening
To the wind dance 
With autumn raindrops
Waiting for sleep to steal in 
Between one breath
and the next
The weight of knowing 
Like pouring honey over
A hornets’ nest
until no longer 
Can I stay in place
To receive the consequence
Or help those
Who must bear it
I should have asked 
To be taken
Like a leaf newly turned
Dropped from the limb
Swept up from the ground
By the wind then left
Plastered by the rain
On some other window
Waiting to be seen
To be discovered in time
Then discarded long enough
To return to the soil
I know well
I should have asked 
To scream my silence
Pierce the night
Until dawn broke in 
And let the light reveal
As it could
I should have
But could not
Instead in the darkness
Waiting 
Wrapped in blankets 
against the chill
I listen to the rainfall
And imagine parts of me
Washing away with it
Into the deep night
Hoping dreams
Will take me there
~
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