Category Archives: People

A message to Phill

I spent four years in an emotionally abusive relationship.

To this day I don’t know if he knows how abusive he was. Maybe if he reads these words he’ll change his ways. He’ll become softer, gentler, more responsive.

I loved him. So hard. Our voices melded like honey. We could have brought tears to anyone’s eyes. But he was jealous. Or more likely scared. And I was about to go through the scariest adventure of my life.

And so our relationship ended.

My family hates him. I do not. He is not a bad person. A misguided male at best. With potential to learn from his past and grow bigger and better.

Do it.

Become better.

It will not be with me, but, let’s be Frank, you never needed me anyway. You took a lot from me. But you never needed me.

Phill (with two L’s), the future is female. Be kind. Be gentle. Listen to her. Pleasure her. Worship her.

Do it for her and you will be happy.

When it all unravelled we both marvelled that we will be better off without each other. Prove me right.

Happy International Women’s Day!

I first became conscious of International Women’s Day, perhaps a little later than the average woman, around the time I was editor of the Harlequin Blog, at the age of 25. I wrote up a piece about it and Mary Wollstonecraft. Looks like my byline has disappeared, but I’ll vouch those are my words!

Five years ago, I wrote this:

The romantic heroines I have always admired have been fearless and tenacious. And no matter what they might look like, what obstacles are thrown in their way, even in the darkest moments, they have always stayed true to themselves.

Ignore all the passive tense.

I’d like to expand my definition to include not just romantic heroines (I was writing for a romance publishing house after all – context!) but to all of my heroines. These include the likes of Tina Fey, Lena Dunham, Erika Jong, Edith Wharton, Frida Kahlo, Patti Smith, Nora Ephron, Mary W. from above, and Amanda Palmer.

Amanda’s a new addition to my fantasy team of lady heroes. I’m reading The Art of Asking right now and I had to stop myself from barreling through the book as is my usual wont because there’s TOO MUCH GOODNESS. If I read too fast, I might miss it.

When I think about what makes these women so awesome in my mind, it keeps coming back to the fearlessness and tenacity that I admire.

A good friend of mine once described me as tenacious and, although I was in the midst of a pretty large and deep hole of self-pity at the moment, I tucked that little comment into the back recesses of my mind to draw strength from every time I want to give up.

Give up at life, give up at love, give up at just being a human being.

I learned in these past five years between my first post on International Women’s Day to this one what makes a woman fearless and tenacious – it’s not the absence of fear or laziness – it’s the perseverance in the face of it. Just because I am scared out of my wits end doesn’t mean I’m not gonna do it. In actual fact, that fear has become one of my biggest instincts in life. It tells me that something usually is worth doing precisely because it’s so frightening it scares me out of my wits. Of course there’s reasonable limits to that – I’m not going bungee jumping any time soon, but someone else may feel that fear with those cords wrapped around their legs and still take the plunge. And I think that’s amazing. Good for you!

And similarly, my tenacity isn’t this relentless steam engine, sloughing off problems like a cowcatcher through the thickest snow. It’s more like an ox-wagon trudging slowly into unknown territory. Sometimes those damned oxen are lazy and won’t be made to go faster by whip or insult. Sometimes they damn near stop altogether. But eventually they get going again. Eventually they pick up the pace. Eventually things get back into a groove.

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These are my oxen, not giving a damn that I want to keep going.

So happy International Women’s Day, friends! I suppose this reflection isn’t mutually exclusive to women, but I especially like women who exhibit these characteristics. How about you?

Korzenie

Today I got to hear my 87-year-old great uncle recount life in Poland during the war, with his brother, my grandfather. So many things to comprehend. I’m exhausted. I took copious notes. I strained to hear and understand. I’ll need my mother to fact-check.

My roots continue to unfurl before me. There is depth where I once saw nothing at all. My dad’s eyebrows. A curiosity for motor vehicles. An inexhaustible sense of direction that spans decades and street names named and then renamed over wars and occupations. A love and easy grasp of language. In my grandfather’s — and my great uncle’s — case: German. My father: English. Me: Polish. Without it, I would be nowhere in this country, unable to make any connections, with any family member, or friend.

As it happens, thanks to this genetic predisposition for language, I have rekindled family relations, made connections with cousins who, for years, were only part of photographs that I long forgot to look at. Even my childhood girlfriend, who was born a month before me, in the same hospital, our mothers shared the ward, we were able to talk like old friends, thanks to our connected language.

Amid the conversation tonight, a 14 month-old babe, my cousin’s son, hung around, watching us all with curiosity as we strained to make funny faces to make him smile. My mom was the biggest hit. He’s learning language too.

But I was all ears for my great uncle. I don’t know what sort of relationship he had with my father, or my grandfather, although from the way he spoke about Dziadek, he seemed to respect him a whole lot. There aren’t many people in this world who ever did. My grandfather was not well-liked by members of my family. I was too young to really know why or care all that much, and I was still far too self-involved to get to know him before he passed away in 2006. But at least I got a glimpse of who he was to someone else tonight. And I got to learn what life was like in Poland — at least one little corner of it at least — when the Germans came to town.

I won’t forget this night.

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Three generations. Not pictured: the golden-haired baby!

 

A Cautionary Tale

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I cheated myself, like I knew I would.
— Amy Winehouse

Amy Winehouse has been on my mind lately. July 23rd marked the fourth anniversary of her passing and even here in Poland radio stations have been playing her music in tribute.

It’s hard to separate the Amy Winehouse of everyday, who was a complete mess, and Amy Winehouse, the musician. She wrote a lot about her struggles, candidly documenting her weakness for men, alcohol and other substances. I’ve often shied away from admitting she’s an influence on my own singing, but I don’t think I should any longer. For one thing, I know I’m not like her. And for another, I see her life as an example of how not to live so that, even in death, she is an inspiration to me.

Maybe cautionary tale would be a better term to describe how I feel about Amy.

Amy was consumed by her base hungers and her ill-placed love for a man who served as an instigator for her own addictions. I don’t want to be that kind of person. I think much of why she allowed others to dictate her life was because she was deeply self-conscious and wanted to be taken care of so she wouldn’t have to think about problems herself. That’s not the kind of person I want to be.

Amy never got the chance to change her ways. Her body gave up on her long before she was ready to change and so now she is frozen in time, a specter that will not change or evolve. Thankfully, blissfully I live and I can change. We all can. Each day that we live we have the opportunity to change the way we act or feel or behave. That’s one step forward that Amy Winehouse will never get to take. That’s the biggest tragedy of her death and why I will continue to mourn her for years to come. She didn’t want to die, but she couldn’t continue to live the way that she was living. She could have changed that, but the effort was too much for her. Those of us who want change, welcome renewal, are the lucky ones because we get that opportunity. Let Amy Winehouse be a cautionary tale for all of us.

The first few weeks

Eighteen years tends to change a country. While there are parts of Poland that have not changed (and likely will not ever change, thanks to preservation and interest), a lot has in fact changed. There are suburbs where you can drive-through a McDonalds on your way home, stop in at a big box store for groceries and other household goods, and I daresay the malls are even bigger than the ones back home. I guess economic freedom has really taken off in Poland.

But like I said, many things are still the same. The best bakery in Kazimerz still sells their delicious sauerkraut rolls and blueberry rolls. The main square hasn’t changed either. Maybe the items in the souvenir shops have evolved, but again, not much. It’s the same ol’ postcards, jewelry and prints that were there eighteen years ago.

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One thing that has definitely changed is my family. All of my cousins are older than I. They have all had children. I’m the last one in that respect, but it’s to be expected when you are the youngest. In a lot of ways, my cousins are like my siblings that I left behind. I don’t know what it’s like for other cousins, but I feel a sisterly bond with my cousins. Ewa took me dancing on one of our last nights in Wroclaw. Ania took me shopping for a birthday gift for her seven-year-old son and we had a great heart-to-heart. In fact, we’ve been very open with each other since I arrived.

When I was little I wanted a big family. I even drew fake siblings into a family portrait I was assigned to create when I was in the first grade. I think part of that came from feeling so isolated from my cousins who, up until we left Poland, we saw on a regular basis. Now, 25 years later, I’m rekindling a relationship with my cousins. It’s like time never really passed and we’ve been in touch all this time. Of course we haven’t, but it’s not too late either. We can still have a relationship — perhaps even a better one — now that we are all adults.

I’m happy that I’m here, but a part of me misses my old life in Toronto as well. Catching up on Facebook these days is a study in trying not to get too down about things. Most days are okay, but there are occasional moments where I wish I hadn’t seen something because it makes me miss life in Toronto. Luckily there is enough happening in Poland that my mind is occupied, but there are still days. There will always be days like this, I think. The trick is to not give into the dip, but to soar out of it and back onto an even keel.

Kuzynki! #mygreatpolishadventure

A photo posted by Olga Kwak (@piratecakes) on Jul 11, 2015 at 2:25pm PDT

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The other pleasant task I’ve put myself in charge of is helping my mother gather information about our family into a comprehensive collection. Lots of things happened in Poland before I was ever a glimmer in anyone’s eye and it’s exciting to find clues. For instance, we found the church my grandparents were wed in and my father was christened in. It’s a stone’s throw away from their first home in Wroclaw, which we also visited. While many buildings in the neighborhood stood decaying, covered in the soot and grime of city life from nearly a century of standing, my father’s old building was beautifully renovated, clean and dignified. I believe he would have been pleased to see it standing so well when so many others looked old and decrepit.

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My mother and I have a few plans ahead of us. I’ve picked up another two Gogobot contracts for Warsaw and Krakow, which I will work on in August and September. It’s nice to be able to work while I’m away. Mom and I want to visit Lodz to see the church where her mother and father were wed in, much like we went to find my father’s parent’s church. We’d like to go to Lublin and Swidnik, where I was born, to see some of the old familiar sights. Then there’s also talk of spending some time on the Baltic and maybe even a jaunt outside of Poland, but that’s all very up in the air.

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If you’re reading this and are interested in a postcard, shoot me an email at olga (at) olgakwak.com with your address. It’s always fun to send them (and receive them.)

Sun Flares Galore

Before I left for Poland, I got an opportunity to shoot some really fun photos in Ashbridges Bay.

Phill asked me to get some shots for his upcoming solo album and he had one unique request — to include sun flares. We also had the opportunity to play with a vintage T-bird.

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We could all be like the Doctor

Times are hard right now. It feels like there’s a great separation between men and women. The Jian Ghomeshi scandal. Gamergate. It’s hard to see the good for the bad, so when I came across this Facebook post last night I had to share it because it gives me hope. I hope it does the same for you.

Heather writes,

I finish my job at the Y After School Program tomorrow. This year I was lucky to have a fellow Whovian under my care. Throughout the past two months he has shared his fears of being viewed as different or weird by his classmates. Anybody who knew me as a child knows that I had some of the exact same issues, and I shared my own stories with him, hoping to encourage him and show him that it gets better. Simon Pegg said it best – “Being a geek… Means never having to play it cool about how much you love something”. He wrote that in his agenda so he would see it every day.

Today, as he was leaving, he came to me with a card and this necklace. He hugged me, cried a little bit, and gathered his things. I was upset to see him so sad, but his mother reassured me that I needn’t be. “He’s proud of who he is now. He’s not afraid to wear his Doctor Who stuff, and tell people about this thing he loves so much. And I attribute that entirely to you… You’ve shown him that he doesn’t need to be afraid to be himself. He’s told me he wants to help people just like you helped him”.

Now, because of this, Whovian has taken on a whole new meaning for me. Now, it’s a helper. And a reminder to keep helping people. Just like the doctor.

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When we share our experiences with others we help them understand that they are not alone. Through mentorship and support he was able to realize that he is not strange and there are other people who share his experiences. Who knows what will become to the little Whovian, but I believe he’ll be okay and he will pass that same feeling on to someone else in the future. Can you imagine how powerful that is? Let’s all be Whovians, whether or not we watch the Doctor. It’s not about the fandom, it’s about helping one another. Why else do we band together anyway?