going for broke: 1975-1985  work & days: a lifetime journal project


This section has needed sub-sections because although there is one over-arching shape, it had three distinct eras that have had to have different section introductions.




Section introduction

Going for broke begins in January 1975 when I arrive in Vancouver from London. I am 29 and Luke has just turneded 4. In this period I edit my first film and shoot my second, work on what becomes the multimedia show Notes in origin, endure an 8-year lesbian relationship, and at the end get pregnant for a questionable reason. It ends in May of 1985, the day before my second son is born.

The Dames rocket period is the most chaotic of my life by far. I meet people who are compelling to me, and it seems that part of the way they have come to be compelling is drugs, so after having skipped drugs in the 60s, in the late 70s I try mushrooms, weed and acid. I don't do much of them, but they and my women lovers take me apart. I welcome being taken apart, have gone looking for it because I know there is something wrong with my writing and photographs, but I lose custody of Luke as a consequence, at terrible and ongoing cost to both of us.

The Up north time, though fraught in similar ways, is often sublime. Because I fear I've lost my soul, by which I meant the feeling of realness that had been a platform of security I hadn't known I had, I get a Canada Council film production grant to make a film in my home country in northern Alberta, to try to recover it. I live there in farmhouses among fields, mostly alone, for parts of three years. In these years my work begins to find its way. I photograph, film some, and in the end even grope my way to writing I like. These years are still a source: I remember them with love.

The years afterward, the first half of the 80s when I am back in Vancouver trying to understand and form what I've found, are called Edged out because although to my sense of it I am working well, the work is failing in local art contexts and I am being shut out of the friendships that had been my art community. My lover and I are foundering in confusion. Experimental film is out of fashion; I am still using welfare as an arts grant, but the monthly rate by now is so low I am often hungry. By the end of these years I feel I'll die if I don't somehow jump. There is a desperate, disgraceful solution and I take it.

Edit notes

Throughout this period the journal usually has no dates. Where I can guess time breaks from changes in handwriting I insert a spacer. At times I have also had to collate from several kinds of journals and notebooks that ran simultaneously, and where narrative is scarce I've sometimes spliced in letters to my mother or the lover of the time.

Early volumes are written messily in ballpoint. In later volumes I switch to pencil. After about * the original is in always in lower case. In later sections I sometimes transcribe as written, but mostly I regularize caps and punctuation.

The index page for each volume has excerpts that can function as summaries of a time. Usually these bits are chosen because they are somewhat better written than my common run, but occasionally also because they fill out the story.

To make it easier to pick out or ignore the ongoing current thread, I've color-marked dreams in green and reading or study notes, including quotation, in blue. During this period I often go through earlier journals and extract phrases or sections; I've also wanted to distinguish these assemblies from contemporary text, and so have marked these sections, usually a mix of quotations and my own phrases, with dark red. I may sometimes get this latter category wrong, not remembering which is the first appearance and which a later repetition.

Film and photos

I arrive from London with the Trapline footage uncut in my luggage. In the first few volumes of Dames rocket I'm having to find somewhere to edit it, and since I have used my Arts Council of Great Britain completion grant to move I am also having to find new money for prints. I earn $1000 making a tape-slide show for a Western Women's Conference presentation to business leaders. Students in the Vancouver Art School's film program sneak me into their cutting room after hours and I work through the night, freezing when I hear the security guard's footsteps. I'm cutting with rewinds and a viewer and I cut the sound stock by frame count, with just a squawk box. Don't have a work print, am cutting original reversal and frightened to see how dirty it is getting. Gordon Kidd wanders by and shows me how to clean the footage. Fills out the timing sheet for me. I write my titles with chalk on black construction paper and shoot the head title on filmstock I didn't know I had already exposed. I'm doing all of this fearfully and awkwardly, have never edited a film before. It is a simple project though done with great difficulty: 18 minutes, A roll only. When I bring my first answer print back to the art school to look for a projector Gordon asks Al Razutis to show it to his class. I'm seeing it finished for the first time standing in the back of a dark room full of strangers. Al says "Well, it's got soul."

I hear the Vancouver Cinemateque is buying experimental work so I take my movie to an appointment with Kirk Tougas and Tony Reif. They buy a print and suggest I send it to the Pacific Northwest Film Festival. I don't do it, but I understand that it means they like it. I also owe a copy to the Arts Council of Great Britain, and the first time I'm back in London I show it to David Curtis. William Raban programs it for Perspectives on British avant-garde film at the Hayward Gallery in1978 and Felix Thompson writes about it in Screen in 1979. It's included in the Paris Biennale in 1980.

When the Canada Council gives me a film production grant in 1978 to make a film in Alberta I buy a Beaulieu, a heavy wooden cine tripod, a Uher, a parabolic mic, a case of 400 ASA Ektachrome reversal stock and a 1964 Studebaker Lark. I'm equipped, but I'm still afraid of the camera. What I'm more comfortable with is my Nikon ftn, that I've had since Kingston. I like the color in high speed Ektachrome slide film and I love the depth-of-field preview button on the camera. There are a lot of slides posted all the way through Dames rocket.

When I come back to Vancouver from Alberta, I have slides I like, some taped sound, some writing, and a small collection of 100' rolls of film. Through the early 80s I gradually assemble Notes in origin, a 2-hour multimedia show with slides, audiotape, taped writing, 16mm film and a live reading at the end. Its first version is shown at Roy Kiyooka's studio space on Powell St in 1980, and its second at Women in Film in 1984. It eventually shows at Canada House in London, Pleasure Dome in Toronto, the Experimenta 1990 Festival in Melbourne, the San Francisco Cinemateque, and Cinema Libre in Montreal, but those are in the Aphrodite's garden section of Work and days. Film footage from Alberta is released as the film Notes in origin in 1986.


As writing, the journal in this ten year stretch is pretty much a write-off. At the beginning it is jejune, trying to be poetic. Then after I crack I don't have connected thoughts. Narrative almost stops and it becomes a mess of anxious bits, tedious to transcribe and painful to read. In this period I do begin to work from the journal though, to study it. It becomes a workbook and that use brings the small breakthroughs that later give me most of what's collected as in english. When connected journal writing eventually comes back (in the later Aphrodite's garden period) it's less false and less silly.


I am new in town so there's a lot of mention of landmarks in Dames rocket. The freighters in English Bay after a snowfall, the roar of a crowd in the Colosseum, baseball in Connaucht Park, Wreck Beach on an afternoon in late May. I eat at the Vancouver Vocational Institute's cooking school dining room, the Princess Cafe on Hastings, the Blue Eagle, the White Lunch, the Ovaltine. I love skid row's vestiges of the old lumber town: the Powell Rooms, the Avalon Rooms on Pender, the Cambie Rooms. My lovers all seem to live in Kitsilano: 5th and Vine, 3rd and Yew, 7th near MacDonald.

820A East Pender

Luke and I first live in an old house on the East Vancouver heights near the PNE, where we overlook a working waterfront and Second Narrows Bridge. We lose that house to redevelopment after a year. Our second house is in residential Chinatown, a 100-year-old house at the back of a lot on East Pender across from the Ukrainian Community Center, that I later discover had been an anarchist collective in the 1920s.

We have the top floor of this house, with windows in all four directions and a small upstairs porch. From the north windows we can see the Lions and from kitchen and bathroom windows facing south, MacLean Park and Koo's Automotive across the alley. When we move into this house our neighbours are almost all Cantonese. My landlord is Peter Choy, who runs the Ho Inn Restaurant and whose old uncle I can see smoking alone in his flat in the little apartment building at the front of the lot.

Lots in this neighbourhood are narrow. Directly below the west window at the top of the stairs is an immaculately kept Chinese vegetable garden where I see a grey-haired widow digging trenches for her peas and burying in them the shrimp heads she brings home from her fish plant job. The east window in Luke's room looks across a strip of ground the width of a parking space to a steeply sloped shingled roof.

I don't leave this house until 2002, though I sublet it between 1978 and 1981 when I go to stay in northern Alberta, and in1983-84 when I live in a cabin on Saturna Island. At some point the post office renames its address 824 E Pender.


The 70s in Vancouver are a relatively generous time for artists. Welfare rates are liveable and many people I know are on Local Initiatives Program grants. In the 80s these sources shut down. I have a Canada Council film production grant in 1978 and a project costs grant in 1982, and for the rest of the time patch together a living from welfare and odd jobs. I paint a big house in Kitsilano, roof an auto shop, work in the Hastings Steam Bath for minimum wage, plant trees and cook for Brinkman Reforestation, am relief camp attendant on oilrigs in Alberta and BC and work construction through one winter. When I am desperate Don MacLeod at MacLeod's Books kindly buys volumes I've learned not to mark up so they will be saleable if the time comes.

Lovers and friends

It's awkward to summarize these relations, that had so much urgency in their time, in several lines each, but at the same time the journal as written gives little background and not much story, so some kind of summary should happen here.

I meet Paul Kinsella almost immediately when I arrive in Vancouver. We're happy talkers and well-intended lovers, but I am coming from Roy's drunken brutality and lying, and am still angry at men and afraid of them. I am also half unconsciously calculating that since I am thirty I will soon be unattractive to men. Beyond calculation I am desperate for a quality of attention women give and men don't, so when I put my hand on Maggie Shore's breast in the fall of 1975 I am willing to make the leap. It is an unstable choice, but Paul is the last man I sleep with for nearly 10 years.

After Maggie I drop into the lesbian community and there find a feast of sex with Nellie van Leeuwan, a hockey-playing, womanizing woman-about-town. And then, almost as soon as I find that feast I give it up again, in favor of art and misery and mind-blown intimacy. I'm on Kits Beach one day while Nellie has taken Luke to a soccer game, and I see two women who look alike, dark and intense, concentrated essences and obviously a pair. Another day I'm at the Customcolor lab on Robson checking slides at the light table next to the window when I see the two of them passing and one of them sees me back. I assemble a list of women filmmakers when I am organizing a screening, and the first person I call is Cheryl D. She doesn't want to show her films but she comes to a screening. It's her - it's one of the dark women I saw through the Customcolor window.

There are more meetings. Cheryl comes as part of a set and that's the only way I can know her. Trudy R, Rhoda Rosenfeld, Don Druick, Sandy Rodin, Renee Rodin, Renee's kids, Cheryl's daughter Zoe. Trudy is Cheryl's lover, Rhoda is Trudy's ex-lover, Don is Cheryl's ex-husband. They know each other from years back at university in Montreal. I'm very outnumbered and I can't be anything but an outsider in this crowd, which is so very Jewish and so scarily and aggressively social, but I'm in deep love with Cheryl and then with Trudy too. For a while they are in love back. We do what we can and we all get blasted to bits.

My first meeting with Jamila Ismail is at a Thanksgiving dinner with these people, where she tells the table that quarks are named up, down, strange and charm. The second is when she wanders into a Sunday afternoon salon late and lets her wooly standard poodle interrupt my show. Afterward she looks dazed and talks about light metaphysics. She's part of the artist circle in Kits but she's not one of the girls and she's not a poor artist; she's coming from Hong Kong money and drives an MG the color of her dog. She's odd. I like that about her, and so do many others, she knows how to get away with it. She's remarkably smart, she's an Ezra Pound scholar - a professor at SFU - but she gives off a charming haplessness that excuses her from ordinary social being. We get together in the summer of 1977 and we don't finally leave each other, though there are a lot of separations, until the summer of 1985 just after the beginning of the Aphrodite's garden section of the journal.

It's a complicated connection. There's cultural misunderstanding. She has a rich person's impatience and guilt about my poverty and a city person's contempt of my rural simplicity. Her eyes seem cold to me. When I meet her I'm wide open and trying to remain so, and she's attracted to that but suspicious of it, hard with it. She doesn't understand that it's principled. She's misogynistic; she postures and bluffs like a man and it turns out that she believes she is a man, and wants me to believe so too. I don't, because what I see in front of me is not really a man. Maybe a woman wanting to be a man. I have been with men and I believe what I see. She hates that. It's a tension that never resolves, an undercurrent of hatred that defeats me in the end. At the same time the connection gives me what I wanted from it, something intellectual. I learn focus from Jam. I see with her. Even in our most excruciated last months we can walk in evening light together and be dissolved. I come out of our years wrecked and able to write.

Somewhere in the middle of our time, when I am cooking at a tree planting camp, a sweaty dirty breathstoppingly beautiful man walks into the cookshack without a shirt on, and I fall into frightened embarrassed conflicted enthralling lust. I intend to be faithful to Jam, and am, but I want Robert MacLean through the rest of Dames rocket. He is a poet; he has a St Andrews PhD in The four zoas; he is sunburned and wild haired and wears a yellow Alaskan baseball cap with the seven stars of the Dipper on it; he plays Gluck's Dance of the blessed spirits on the flute; he is the best tree planter and driven in everything he does; he walks like a god in his caulk boots; he is elusive; and he is starved, like me. I gape at him. He is Siubhne homeless in a tree. He is Orpheus and I am holding my breath in the dark waiting for him to come and get me, which he never does.

I give up my muses. Because they are angry and envious and won't see me, because I am alone and starving, because no one will read it, I give up on the beautiful writing. - And now am I going to have it back?

They were neglectful and malicious, but I was alone and starving for reasons other than their neglect. It was a misunderstanding. I had to back-track and reconstruct.


In these years there are a lot of reading notes of a lot of different kinds. I am doing what I can now see was foundational though obscure, finding my own intuition by recognizing shreds of it in other people. Because I am trying to be a poet I am always looking for material with emotional power. My literary heros at the beginning of this time are those heroic exaggerators, Isak Dinesen and Annie Dillard. Later I discover science fiction - The dispossessed , The female man, Dune, From the legend of Biel. In anything I read I'm looking for clues about how to become realer and more gifted, so there are always psychological notes: Idries Shah's The Sufis, Jane Roberts' Seth books, a lot of Jung. Notes in the early volumes are surprisingly more religious than I am now. More undiscriminating and devotional.


When I was at Queen's I liked Hegel, whose Phenomenology of spirit is a sort of novel about the historical development of self-consciousness. I loved the notion of consciousness. Thinking of whatever I was experiencing as consciousness turned it into a movie, something I could watch, and that felt sophisticated. I was also taken by the existentialists' notion of good faith. Both of these aspects of philosophical training go on having a lot to do with how I live in the Dames rocket period: very reflexively.

Drugs are artistically interesting. For instance if I have smoked a joint with my spooky artist friends and then take the bus home, I will notice things like rotating perspective in the lit second-floor windows of buildings on Hastings. And they are philosophically interesting too. When I take acid I notice that the distance to the other side of the kitchen has changed, that the experience of space itself has changed. In my brief drug period this mutability of conscious states impresses me so strongly that I take to living deliberately as an idealist. (There was a lot of this in 1975/6.) I walk around feeling I am in a dream. I interpret everything that happens. At the peak of this idealist phase I am so inward that when I speak people keep saying, What? They can't hear me.

I go tree planting and find self-consciousness unworkable on the slopes. And when my motor seizes, driving one day up north, I say, no, life isn't a dream, I wouldn't be dreaming this. I stop using drugs.

The philosophic work in this era doesn't look like philosophy. The essay-poem what will we know is break-through epistemology. In it I figure out something I had been dimly intuiting in philosophers for years. field and field, which also looks like a series of poems, documents finding this insight in dreams, bits of reading, little events with friends.