Rampant with Memory

Girl Power and the art of the pen


Floundering words, words in flight, people too distracted to slow to read them. Syllables flap while we bow our heads and tiresomely glide through the weeks, months, until we also head south.

Huh? What’s that you say? Death is what.

So before that sad moment shifts your eyes permanently away, clutch a fistful of fleeting words.

Maybe you think I’m demanding you read my words? One more flapping, tongue-wagging writer begging an audience? But no, not so, at least not entirely so. I am also an avoider but I am weary of it.

And so a few minutes ago I grabbed a pad of lined paper, two fountain pens, and a bottle of Shaeffer midnight blue ink and sped-walked to the closest café.

“I am an essayist,” I said to myself. “I am a poet.”

I fled from home to write and when not writing to read an Arden edition of Henry IV. Falstaff, born of the imagination of an early 17th century writer who still breathes for us.

The other day I was at the gym working out beside Jian Ghomeshi.

I checked it out with Cheryl, who works at the desk.

“Yep,” she said. “That’s him. He bought a pass last week.”

So there we were, Jian and I, two Torontonians with distinct pasts and recent media presence. I have bylined on death in the Globe and Mail and he has lived violence in presses across the country. Now, apparently, we quietly pump together.

He is short, sheepish, awkward; tiny and breakable and very, very sweaty. But here’s the thing: I lifted more than he did

And I’m only a girl.

A friend said: “You should have patted him on the bum and said ‘how do you like me so far?’

This needs to an essay, said another friend.

And so these few words introduce what I hope will be steadier writing up ahead. But I promise it will be less about Ghomeshi–none about Ghomeshi in fact–and  more about girls and strength. About writing and inspiration.

While being alive.

“You must change your life,” wrote Rilke.





Not less radical but more so


“As we grow older we should become not less radical but more so.”

A thoughtful dissection of these words and next an attribution to the writer.

As we grow older…

Images rise within me, as I rest on these words, beginning with my arthritic big toes that step painfully onto the curb while once they tore though beach sand following upon the heels of other children.


A fresh etch on my chin that wasn’t there when I went to bed –that one, there, next to the newly sprouting hair.


Whence once I stood, now I sit: “Would you like a seat?” The young man asks me on the streetcar. “Thank you,” I say, appreciating his kindness more than I do the seat. I try not to shout at him: Why would I? Don’t you know that I go to the gym three times a week where I deadlift, benchpress, and sweat?


Ah, there surely are endless ‘Ands’ only to be many more. Stay tuned; stay alive; they will come.

We should become not less radical…

Should. Become. We must fully become and then let go. And what do we do during that becoming? Fight like hell to climb that hill.

When I was pregnant I carried my belly during the heat of summer up to my Vancouver loft. I was 32 and my ankles swelled and my toes were fine. But it was a still a fight and now many another.

I was radical then. On the vanguard of gay parenting where I faced assumption, rejection, ridicule, and scorn. Since then, I strive to excel in radical but other preoccupations sometimes threaten best intentions.

Now I am an almost-old-woman ignored. My hands hold the back end of a shopping cart instead of a placard. Maybe someday they will hold a grandchild’s hand. Ah, but inside my heart and thought I am as radical as always.

…not less radical but more so

Margaret Laurence wrote that quote, the one that awakened a flood of words. She also inspired me to name this blog long ago when she gave voice to Hagar Shipley in the opening lines of The Stone Angel.

Laurence wrote that one small sentence but she couldn’t endure old age and killed herself instead. She tried twice, in fact, succeeding only once. Cancer struck her out. Which of her books remain unwritten? Was her final act also radical?

No answer because she can no longer speak it. We are held prisoner, wrapped in the mystery of her life, her death.

But let’s honour her words and fight on.


The resurrection of Hedy Lamarr


This is the story of a Hollywood actress, defined by her appearance, who was secretly a brilliant inventor and helped change the course of history. Until recently, Hedy Lamarr has laid in an unmarked grave in the Vienna Central Cemetery.

Susan Sarandon

This recent tweet from one fine, film star refers to another fine, film star who pleased the screen several decades ago. Ms. Sarandon praised Hedy Lamarr’s remarkable life while commenting on her marker-less grave; in so doing, she put Hollywood to shame. A hammered-down secret: Ms. Lamarr was a genius; she was one of the brains behind the invention of the Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and cell phone networks.

Each time we lift our phones to our lips we ought to whisper: “Hedy.”

But due to film-set starlet-branding Hedy Lamar was nothing more than a pretty face in a halo of hair coquettishly leaning up against Clark Gable’s grinning hulk. And until very recently Ms. Lamarr lay without a name in a Viennese cemetery.

Thanks to Ms. Sarandon’s insistence, we acknowledge the many talents of this woman. Sixteen years after her death, a memorial has finally been installed, .


“It incorporates 88 steel rods representing the 88 frequencies in Lamarr’s patented frequency hopping technology,” tweets Ms. Sarandon. These rods, when viewed from the right angle, generate an illusion of Lamarr’s face.


I remember Hedy but not for the right reasons. I remember tacking her photo above my bed beside one of Vivien Leigh. Not because I’m from that era but because I was in love with beautiful women and Heddy resembled Scarlet O’Hara. Heddy also knew Rhett Butler.

As an adolescent I was in love with all things Gone with the Wind; for so many obvious reasons, this is an embarrassing confession.

But now, like Susan Sarandon, I am provided with an opportunity to tear off the illusion and thank her for the head behind the halo and celebrate, every day, her invention. One day I’d like to visit Vienna, with a stop among the cherubs and alabaster angels, and raise a toast to Hedy Lamarr.



Kinesis means movement


I never married but I changed my name nearly 30 years ago. I did this after asking my grandmother how she’d feel about my borrowing her name and she said, yes, she would like that. Her name was Mercedes Shanahan; I took her first name too.

Back then, I became a writer while working for a feminist newspaper called Kinesis; that was where I posted my name change as well as in the B.C. Gazette.

Kinesis: News About Women That’s Not in the Dailies. That was our masthead.

Changing my name from Howes to Shanahan was, I suppose, a feminist gesture and one I never regretted. I killed off my old name because I loved my grandmother and once she died the name would die with her. So I took it–I gave it another life.

The old Howes half of my name will carry on: I have six siblings, most with children named Howes, so it’s safe. I love that name, just as I love them, very much, but Shanahan, now isn’t that better suited for a writer? Doesn’t it sparkle in a byline?

A while back I posted about my spinster great-aunt Mary Shanahan. That was after I visited the family cemetery and noticed that as an unmarried woman her tombstone only included “Mary,” dropping that last identifying name.

Sure it was her father’s name but Mary and Mercedes, and their four siblings, were raised by their widowed mother Sarah.

And I? I am another spinster Shanahan to follow Mary’s footsteps into the 2000s. It’s a tale of women, identity, and independence–spanning three generations.

“Kinesis” means movement. During the 80s and 90s when I wrote for that paper and honed my skills was also a time when the women’s movement thrived.

It was a time when our intrepid journalists exposed issues that are only now hitting the mainstream and raising the public’s consciousness.

We wrote about: PTSD; reproductive rights; sex selection in the Indian community; appropriation of aboriginal children; “comfort” women–who were abducted during the Second World War and systematically raped by servicemen.

We were also the first to report on missing and murdered aboriginal women. In fact, in 1986 I shot the cover photograph of a demonstration organized and led by prostitutes in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. These women lost sisters; they lost mothers and lovers; they feared for their lives. It was a generation before anyone listened to them.

Several of these missing women were slaughtered by Robert Picton. A name we won’t soon forget and wish we never knew.

A traumatic tour of Europe


How did this happen? Twenty-four years ago I birthed him and now I’ll watch him tour Chernobyl. Not with me, since he is grown up and plans his own travels, but I will imagine him there–there without his mother’s hand to hold; without the security of another box of crumbly goldfish crackers and tippy cup of juice.

How did it happen that he desires Chernobyl as a tourist destination–not one of the Seven Wonders of the World but one of the world’s greatest man-made disasters?

Greenpeace concludes that among the billions of people worldwide who were exposed to radioactive contamination from the disaster, nearly a million premature cancer deaths occurred between 1986 and 2004

A writer at the World Nuclear Association called it  “A direct consequence of Cold War isolation and the resulting lack of any safety culture.”

How did it happen that, in 2016, Chernobyl has become a tourist destination, like Auschwitz, another site my son will visit, no doubt chatting with guides in flawless German.

I remember the day the Dantesque blast tore though my relaxed radical life in Vancouver, silencing my work on other issues like stomping down the patriarchy; shouting slogans at demos.

Patriarchy-smashing returned, as it must, and so continues, but Chernobyl redirected our energies to The Hell that is Other People. Toward the Massacre of the Innocents. (With thanks to Sartre and Rubens here and apologies for my mixed art history references.)

When I spoke with Toto yesterday and learned of his plans to visit this city, and I expressed shock, he said he likes to view urban decay. I thought: Well, there is Detroit. No glibness intended.

And Auschwitz?

Furthering my son’s education on Nazi Germany is an important link to his ancestry. His father was born in in Germany, and while Angela Merkel generously welcomes refugees fleeing Aleppo and elsewhere, learning about that particular war was something I insisted upon as soon as Toto was resilient enough, resilient enough to learn about atrocity.




Fine women, fine art


Below is a story about life, legacy, death, and the passage of time & art.

The Beaver Hall Group of artists in Montreal, formed the same year as the Group of Seven in Ontario, 1920, seems like a cruel joke on the part of those seven boys–because Beaver Hall consisted mostly of women. Not entirely of women but at least they had a name and a claim for a little fame.

It wasn’t a joke though. In fact A.Y. Jackson–who was broke and went home to live with his mother–became president and promoter of the women and men who painted in that downtown limestone building at 305 Beaver Hall Hill.

He respected the group and he even proposed marriage to one of the artists, Anne Savage, who rejected him but stayed friends. Jackson also arranged for their works to be included in Group of Seven exhibitions.

A few years ago Heather and I spent some time at the National Gallery in Ottawa, perusing their permanent collection, and then we went for lunch at the nearby Chateau Laurier .

“How are you today?” asked the kindly server, pouring our wine.

“Great,” I said. “We were just enjoying some Group of Seven paintings at the gallery.”

“Who are they?”

We forgave him his ignorance but didn’t dare ask whether he had heard of the Beaver Hall Group.


Truthfully, it was only a handful of years ago that I learned about this group myself, so no arrogance allowed here. But I was surprised and disappointed at what we don’t know about Canadian art. Between the two of us it was enough to fill a gallery.

The server was young and interested in other things; no doubt his job didn’t offer much allure nor did he likely visit art on his off-hours.

My excuse? The education system, for one, and the invisibility of female creators of anything other than children. Incidentally, only one woman among the group was married.

Below: a list of the Group of Eight. They had them beat by one. Please learn their names by heart. Maybe hang one of their prints on your wall. Ah! I’ve forgotten Anne Savage, never rejected, never neglected. The last word.

  • Nora Collyer
  • Emily Coonan
  • Prudence Heward
  • Mabel Lockerby
  • Mabel May
  • Kathleen Morris
  • Lilias Torrance Newton 
  • Sarah Robertson


Death in advertising


There has been a proliferation of beauty sites springing up in my former working-class east Toronto neighbourhood lately and some have weirdly incorporated ‘death humour’ in their advertising.

“Don’t go to the grave wearing the wrong face,” warns one sandwich board outside a shop specializing in facials and hair removal. Staffed by falsely beautiful, striving young women. Patronized by similar young women with more disposable income, less need to earn, and a mad dash toward beauty.

My city neighbourhood has changed and I’m not sure I like these demographic shifts, other than to be curious and sightly intrigued by the advertising.

My discomfort and prejudice might have to do with this anti-aging hype and the fact that I’m staring down the road at sixty. Maybe when I was under thirty I uttered similar death jokes and shared this cruel disdain for older women who let themselves puff and droop and wrinkle and grey.

But to the grave? Really? Have we come to that as a draw or a warning? Are we to prettify for the embalmer now with eighty dollar face cream?

Meanwhile, a few doors down from the beauty spot is a Shopper’s Drug Mart where, each Thursday afternoon, I step proudly up to the cashier and request the senior’s discount. I am now 55 and entitled to receive it.

The first few Thursdays was challenging but now I’m fully over it and happily scoop up my goods and savings. Send whatever deals you can my way, I think, as the years build.

What I find more difficult is the increase of invisibility I’m forced to confront as an ageing female. The old invisibility I knew as a lesbian has morphed into the invisibility as an older woman.

There’s nothing good about it, when it comes to healthy ego and self-respect, but I guess you can’t beat the discounts. In my arms at Shopper’s: vitamins, bath oils, and cat food. But watch as I gaily slide past the aisles of promises to erase lines, histories, and hues from my skin, hair, and flabby thighs.

Bottom line, I goddamn hate the false promises and heckling from these so-called beauty spots and beauty aids that have swelled on my home turf. I truly wonder whether sandwich boards teasing about death compel women to put their faces into the hands of these younger women and the men who likely own the shops.


Molly Lamb Bobak, Canada’s first female war artist

Private Roy by Molly Lamb Bobak
Private Roy by Molly Lamb Bobak


A few weeks ago I posted about the death of handwriting. And today I came across news of this artist and her recently digitized diary entries preserved by Library and Archives Canada.

Above: a sample of Lamb Bobak’s painting. Private Roy was presumably her war comrade. She was also no doubt delegated to the canteen where women were often dumped. I’m not sure she looks very happy about her posting.

Below: the first page of Lamb Bobak’s war diary circa 1942 which starts with these words about the beginning of her four year tour of duty: “Girl takes drastic step!”  She wrote this right after passing her medical and being handed a khaki skirt and gas mask.

Diary of army life
Diary of army life


Another one of her early diary entries includes a drawing of herself striding down a street with a case of Canadian beer hidden inside her army overcoat.

According to LAC these were handwritten news bulletins providing “amusing anecdotes” and vibrant illustrations that revealed enlisted women’s experiences during the Second World War.

“To celebrate the 70th anniversary of Molly Lamb Bobak’s appointment as the country’s first female official war artist, Library and Archives has digitized her entire Second World War diary in colour, making this national treasure available online.”

Although Lamb Bobak’s first war duties included scrubbing pots and dishing out slop to her brothers-in-arms, she soon established herself as an artist.

Born in 1920, Molly studied at the Vancouver School of Art with Jack Shadbolt between 1938-1941. Her father was a wealthy art critic and collector travelling in the Group of Seven circles as well as befriending Emily Carr.

She died in Fredericton last March. At 94, she outlived the other 32 Canadian war artists, including her husband Bruno Bobak, by a good chunk of time.

For her work, Ms. Bobak was named to the Order of Canada in 1995. And now, from her pen, you can learn first hand experience of a Canadian woman warrior.




Mary, the dead spinster


Her tombstone marker read:


She lived a life, unmarried, and died at age 55–my age. I visited her grave last weekend at the Mount St. Louis cemetery, while burying my father’s ashes, and noted that she was buried in the family plot several years ago but not given a last name.

Not only was she bereft of her full name, but her first name is one of the most prosaic possible in anglo-Canadian terms. But there she lies. Mary. My grandmother’s little sister.

At some point, perhaps a handful of generations away, a 22nd century genealogist might stand before this tombstone and ponder. This descendent of Mary’s will be stymied.

Genealogical research frequently stumbles over the names of women. I mean how our names are stripped from us once we’re married, lost perhaps to the researchers.

But in Mary’s case, she is a blank and thus remains. Reduced to the ashes of four tiny letters. No husband; no progeny. No letters, diaries, no photographs.

While considering the problems of future genealogists I came across these tips to reading tombstones, published in Ontario Genealogy for Beginners by Ruth Burkholder. I enjoyed the precision and attention to detail. It might help. But it won’t bring Mary to life or give her a legacy.

“Try taking a reflecting object to change the angle of the light…white paper, aluminum foil, will work…a mirror is best.”

“Try wetting the area of the inscription; rubbing a little dirt around the area.”

“Talcum powder or corn starch will also  help provide contrast.”

“Never, NEVER, use a wire brush…it will scratch the surface of the stone and cause irreparable damage.”


Shanahan Ladies

This is my stock.

The woman on the left is Mercedes Shanahan. She leans a little outside the frame of her mother and sisters, in the shadow by a thread, and she is the only one who–as my mother commented earlier when I showed her the photo–is not smiling. That woman is my grandmother.

“My mother is not smiling,” said her 85-year old daughter Marion, her only comment other than to correct my identification of the two other sisters.

My stock, I say, but I really mean these four women–Marion, too, of course–are scattered among my genes and inchoately trifle with my moods. I am a part of their legacy, the flavour of their days. Mercedes leans, scowls, maybe demands the photographer take the darned picture, who knows? Or is the sun too bright in her eyes?

These women are all dead.

But Marion and I still live.

Mercedes born in 1897. Marion born in 1929. And me, Noreen Marion Mercedes Shanahan, born in 1959.

Before showing my mother this photograph I asked for a story as payment. She spoke about her grandfather, husband to the elder woman in the photograph, and how one day in the woods near their home he felt the branch of a sycamore slice into his skull, leaving her a widow with four young children to raise.

“She kept the farm, kept the horse, Barney, and started delivering mail,” said my mother. Between Moonstone and Mount Saint Louis she would hoist the sacks onto the horse’s back and complete her rounds with postcards from the great war.

Scribblings from trenches to farm kitchens of rural Ontario. Mothers would remove their aprons and stand all the steadier to receive the words and continue their prayers for life, and later to weep.

Such great sorrow; how could it possibly not affect my moods?

They are part of my breath, these women.






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