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tea and sympathy

In Nothing Less!, The Birth House, The Witches of New York, Uncategorized, Witchy Wednesday by ami

morning light on teacups.

In certain circles in the 19th century, drinking tea was considered a dangerous habit. More specifically, working class women were discouraged from engaging in the practice because if they were taking time from their daily chores to congregate around a pot of tea, it could only mean that they were up to no good. In short: “Sipping tea was once thought of as a reckless, suspicious act, linked to revolutionary feminism.” (Alison Aubrey, for

No wonder I love it so! 

reading the leaves

My love affair with tea began in my early 20’s. Up to that point, I hadn’t given it much thought. It had been an occasional treat in my childhood home, mostly in the summer, when my mom would get out her sun-tea jar and brew up a batch to be served iced and sweet.

The summer I started grad school, everything changed. One afternoon, after weeks of drought, a thunderstorm cut loose and provided a heavy, welcome rain. My roommate Dawn and I were sitting on the front porch of our house watching the deluge come down when I told her, “I bet I could wash my hair in that rain.” She laughed and replied, “I’d like to see you try!” After lathering up, I leaned over the porch railing and started to rinse my hair. For a finale, I danced in the puddles on the sidewalk in front of the house and shook my curls clear of any remaining suds.

As I was towelling off, a knock came at the door. It was the woman who lived two houses down…a woman we knew very little about, except that she had a beautiful set of wind chimes on her front porch and a large back lot surrounded by a tall, solid wooden fence. (There was no way to see through it. We’d tried. )

“Hello,” the woman said, staring at me. “I was watching you. I saw what you did.” I looked to Dawn and she looked at me, both of us worried that our neighbour was there to complain about my raucous, weird behaviour. Instead, she gave me a warm smile and said, “I was wondering if you’d like to come to my house for tea.”

William McGregor Paxton, “Tea Leaves” 1909

Tea at Brenda’s.

I said yes, and soon discovered that my neighbour Brenda, was a witch. She used the word proudly and freely, and it suited her in the best possible sense. Her home was filled with all that you’d expect (pitted antique mirrors, crystal balls, tarot cards, owl wings…the list goes on.) And her back yard? A walled garden, lush with flowers and herbs, all grown in the service of healing and magic.

I started going to her house once a week, sometimes with Dawn, sometimes without, sometimes to meet other women who were part of Brenda’s circle. Tea was always the central focus of our visits—tea for stimulating the mind, for nourishing the body, for soothing the soul, for guiding the spirits, for telling the future, for conjuring dreams. It’s played an important part in my life ever since.

tasseography – the art of using tea leaves for divination.


“We had a kettle; we let it leak:
Our not repairing made it worse.
We haven’t had any tea for a week…
The bottom is out of the Universe.”

It stands to reason that tea would find its way into my writing. In The Birth House, midwife Marie Babineau brews tea on several occasions (medicinal and otherwise) and peers into women’s tea cups to “see what’s in store.” In The Witches of New York, witches Eleanor St. Clair and Adelaide Thom run a tea shop called “Tea and Sympathy” where women congregate to share their secrets and have their troubles solved. The rituals and superstitions surrounding tea are observed and noted throughout the novel: Two spoons placed on the same saucer mean a wedding will soon follow; two women pouring from the same pot means one will soon carry a child; tea spilled from the spout of a carried pot means a secret will soon be revealed; tea stirred while in the pot will surely stir up a quarrel. In once scene, teatime brings forth the spirit of a lost child. In another, tea fosters prophetic dreams.

In the play, “Nothing Less!” tea is served at a local suffragist meeting alongside plans for political rebellion. The intrepid band of female activists exchange information, ideas and aspirations all while sipping Red Rose and having their tea leaves read.

In my mind, tea and feminism go hand in hand. Grandmother’s teacups aren’t stuffy relics that should easily be dismissed. Great movements have been borne of teatimes past. Radical thought and blessed magic, too.

If we are to persist, my darlings…perhaps we need more tea. 




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a perfect day

In Nothing Less!, the writing life, Uncategorized by ami

Remembering my grandmother and my musical roots.

Opening night for Two Planks and a Passion Theatre’s 2017 season was absolutely glorious! The weather was perfect for both shows — Nothing Less! set on a hill overlooking the beautiful Nova Scotia landscape;  A Midsummer Night’s Dream performed around a roaring campfire, the Bard’s words rising up with a near-full moon.

I only wish my grandmother had been there to see it.

We all have those moments—at weddings or the birth of a child; or during a spectacular sunset; or even upon pulling a loaf of bread, perfectly browned from the oven — when we wish more than anything that a special someone who has passed on was standing next to us. My Grandma Bartz has been gone since I was sixteen, but I’ve felt the echoes of her influence in my life throughout the writing and rehearsal process for Nothing Less! I’m sure she would have loved it.

My grandmother, Elsie Irene, c. 1918

Nothing Less! was inspired, in part by my grandmother’s life on her family’s farm in the early 1900’s. She and her siblings helped run the Stewart farm in Michigan’s Shiawassee River Valley through good times and bad, growing everything from sugar beets to spearmint (the later for Mr. Wrigley’s chewing gum.)

Plotting in the hayloft…

Elsie Irene was born in 1894, and was in her early twenties during WWI. She and her sisters were a lively bunch, giving their brothers a run for their money when it came to both smarts and strength. She was a firm believer in women’s independence and in getting the vote. She was also an accomplished pianist, and even left the small town of Owosso, MI for a brief time to study at the Chicago Conservatory of Music. Not long after she met my grandfather at a picnic auction, they married and she gave up her musical aspirations.

Throughout my childhood she encouraged me to stick with my music lessons. For much of my youth, she lived in an apartment in Lansing, MI, so I only saw her during summer vacation. The rest of the year she was my pen pal, writing to ask how I was fairing in school and “at the piano.” When I’d complain about the drudgery of practising scales, she’d reassure me that it would all be worth it.

Great Aunt Florence, wielding an ax.

When I was in my early teens and she was nearly ninety, she came to live with us for a short while. Dementia was slowly pulling at her mind, but she enjoyed sitting and listening to me practice. My piano teacher lent me some old hymnals and a few Reader’s Digest songbooks with popular songs from the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s so I could play and sing the music of my grandmother’s youth. We’d hold little sing-a-longs, just the two of us in the living room, and when we were done she’d make me promise that I’d never give up music.

It was a powerful thing to have such an ally when it came to my artistic pursuits, especially from an early age. It made made me feel as if I had full licence to follow my dreams. So it was no surprise to anyone in my family when I went on to study music in university and later became a full-time musician, conductor and teacher.

The Stewart Family c. 1918.

When I moved to Nova Scotia, I broke my promise to my grandmother. After a brief stint of playing harp at a nursing home as a volunteer, and a few coffeeshop gigs here and there, I largely stopped making music. A number of tragedies had piled up in my life that were connected to my musicianship, and I just couldn’t go on with it. Writing became my path to healing, and then an occupation. I wasn’t sure I’d ever return to my musical roots again.

Fifteen years and three novels later, I’m finally back at it. I’ve spent the last several months writing, composing, arranging, singing and conducting my way through Nothing Less! and every minute has felt like a homecoming; the two halves of my artistic life—music and writing—now made into a whole.

Thanks dear Elsie Irene, (dancing out there between the moon and stars,) for everything.

Behind-the-scenes at Nothing Less with my Two Planks family! (costumes by Jennifer Goodman, photo by Chris O’Neill )

A Perfect Day, by Carrie Jacobs Bond, 1909. (from my grandmother’s music collection)

When you come to the end of a perfect day, and you sit alone with your thought,

While the chimes ring out with a carol gay for the joy the day has brought.

Do you think what the end of a perfect day, can mean to a tired heart?

When the sun goes down with a flaming ray and the dear friends have to part? 

Well this is the end of a perfect day, near the end of a journey too;

But it leaves a thought that is big and strong, with a wish that is kind and true.

For memory has painted this perfect day with colours that never fade,

And we find at the end of a perfect day, the soul of a friend we’ve made. 


Nothing Less! runs until August 19th at the Ross Creek Centre for the Arts. For tickets, visit:

Two Planks and a Passion Theatre. 

Read a review of this year’s productions: 

“Land, Fire, and Theatre make for a Thrilling Experience at the Ross Creek Centre for the Arts”


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In Nothing Less! by ami

                                                          suffragettes + jiu-jitsu = suffrajitsu

Suffrajitsu… the first time I came across the word, I thought Google was pulling my leg. Digging deeper I found it was indeed real; and with further sleuthing I discovered it had an amazing connection to a remarkable Canadian woman. (Naturally, suffrajitsu made its way into a scene in Nothing Less! )

Throughout the research process that went into writing the play, I unearthed many examples of   women involved in the suffrage movement (in Canada, the UK and the US) using boundless creativity and ingenuity to further the cause. Marches, rallies, speeches, tracts and petitions were all a given; but when times got tough, suffragists were quick to think outside the box.

Songs of suffrage were composed and performed; cookbooks filled with suffrage-inspired recipes were penned and sold; “mock parliaments” (where women debated why men shouldn’t be given the vote) were staged and performed in theatres across Canada.

                                                              a suffrajitsu demonstration.

Suffragettes in the UK, led by Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst, engaged in a more militant approach –  their bold actions often putting them in harm’s way. As tensions rose and anti-suffrage sentiment  surged, the women of the UK movement (the WSPU) looked to ways in which to defend themselves. Londoner, Edith Garrud (at 4′ 11″) had the solution. Married to a physical culture instructor, she’d quickly taken to the martial art of jiu-jitsu and touted it as an ideal form of self defence for women. She and her husband William gave numerous public demonstrations and because of their popularity, Edith opened a dojo where she offered suffragist-only classes. (She also choreographed fight scenes for the feminist play: What Every Woman Ought to Know.)

Jiu-jitsu became so popular, that women would hold suffrajitsu parties in their homes to encourage more women to learn the martial art.

Members of anti-suffrage mob tearing a suffragette banner to bits during protests outside the White House. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)


Emmeline Pankhurst attempting to deliver a petition to Buckingham Palace. (She shouted, “Tell the King!” as she was arrested.)

In 1913 a group of thirty women trained by Edith Garrud in jiu-jitsu formed a secret body guard to protect Emmeline Pankhurst.

Among them was Gertrude Harding, a twenty-four year old farm girl from Welford, New Brunswick. Smart, agile and formidable, she was chosen to be the leader of Pankhurst’s “Amazons.” Gert’s great-niece Gretchen Kelbough describes her as “a tomboy,” and says that, “Her memoirs talk of trying to duck out of doing indoor housework so she could go out and bring the cows in or go fishing and hunting.” Drawn to the UK movement while visiting her sister in London, she soon became part of Pankhurst’s inner circle.

After her time in the bodyguard, she became editor of the underground paper, The Suffragette. 

She returned to New Brunswick in 1920 and lived for a time in a cottage on Hammond River. She then moved to New Jersey to work as a Welfare Supervisor, continuing to fight for the rights of women and children for the rest of her life. When she became sick with cancer at the age of 87, she returned to New Brunswick to spend her remaining days with family. She died a year later at the age of 88.


Gert Harding, Canadian hero.

The indomitable Gert Harding is mentioned in Nothing Less!, and it’s my hope that more people will come to know her story because of it.

As a fun tribute to Gert and her sisters in the Pankhurst body guard, artist Alex Kehoe has created this wonderful illustration to be printed on a limited run of t-shirts available only via the Ross Creek Centre for the arts. It also sports the famous line spoken by Canadian suffragist, Nellie McClung, “Let them howl!”  (To order one, see link at end of post.)

Illustration by the amazing Alex Kehoe!

People, places and things mentioned  in this post: 

More on the history of suffrajitsu via The Martial Chronicles.

More about Gert Harding, including an interview with Gert’s great-niece, Gretchen via cbc radio’s Information Morning, St. John.

Order a suffrajitsu t-shirt from the Ross Creek Centre for the Arts.

Nothing Less! runs from July 8 – August 19 : Book your Tickets today!