Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Finding Balance

A friend recently told me I need more balance in my life, and she finally gave voice to the word I didn't know I was searching for. 

It's been obvious for the last couple of years that I'm spending too much time sitting at my desk and far too much time saying, "I'm so busy!" Not wearing my busyness like a badge of armour, martyring myself for some internal image of my life; I just was/ am really busy, juggling three jobs. Not balancing -- feeling like I was trying to keep three balls in the air and really wanting not to cut back on the balls but to stop juggling completely.  I still had my walks, I still got out into nature, I still spent time away from my phone, but it was clear I needed to manage my time and my tasks better because there are things I want to be doing -- drawing, painting, and gardening -- that just weren't getting picked up.

Listen, I even bought a sketchbook in January with the plan to teach myself the drawings for a children's book I'm working on. The plan was simple: Draw the same picture once every day. 
Haven't even opened the sketchbook yet. 

Cue the pandemic. Suddenly, time slowed, the days melded into each other, and I went from three jobs to one. 
Our spring has been very dry, compared to the spring of 2019 which was a long, wet, cold season so there was little motivation to be in the gardens. In April, I started going outside to rake the yard every evening after supper because I really felt the need to be outside. First the virus and resulting state of emergency, then the season of Lent (which challenges us to take a long, hard look at our lives), then the mass killings... I had to get away from my desk, I had to shut my brain down. 
And as I raked, I remembered how therapeutic physical labour can be. I remembered the satisfaction of seeing immediate results: tidy garden beds and piles of leaves and sticks. I remembered what I'd been missing -- the work and the gardens, but more importantly, that word: Balance. 

Balance is not something that simply exists, something that just happens. Balance needs to be created. We lose balance, it's up to us to find balance again. 

My walks through the field and woods are about my brain; gardening is about my body. Getting out of my brain and into my body. Working out the kinks of sitting all day by creating new kinks. Another point about turning 50: My hamstrings aren't making the transition from sitting to wheelbarrowing quite as easily as they did ten years ago. 

I still haven't started drawing or painting, but the strawberry plants are in their hanging baskets, the marigolds are planted under the orange blossom bushes (in attempt to win the war against the aphids), and I'm digging a new herb garden. 

Busier than ever! Like Albert Einstein said, "Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving." 
But this is the right kind of busy: the balance between words and worms, digging into stories and digging in the dirt, planting ideas and planting seeds. 
Finding balance means being more efficient with my time, and I find being busier makes me use my time better. In fact, the more I want/need to accomplish in a day, the more efficiently I use my hours, and at the end of the day, THAT makes me feel really good. To get it right. 

And once the gardens are growing, I'll learn to balance weeding and watering with sketching. Perhaps the trick is to take the sketchbook into the garden... 

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

PANDEMIC STORIES: In Conversation With... Dorian Dorn

Photo courtesy of Pridham's Studio

“Hard to believe it’s already the middle of May,” says Dorian Dorn when I reach him at home in Wallace, on the north shore of Nova Scotia. “I just don’t know where the time has gone. Every day seems to be the same because we don’t go anywhere but in that, it’s all new, too. It’s a very weird place to be.”

Dorian is a teaching administrator, which means he’s the principal of Wallace Consolidated Elementary School (WCES) and he spends part of the morning teaching the P-3 class. The school in Wallace is small – three full-time staff members teaching Primary to Grade Six – but this is what makes the school so special to Dorian. 

“Being a small school, we’re big on relationships, and connecting to the kiddos. The staff and the students, you become like a family because you get to know them so well. We’ve essentially been out of school for two months; it’s almost like summer has gone by,” he says. “So we’re missing the relationships and the connections we had with the kids as a family.”

According to Dorian, the pandemic and resulting state of emergency turned education completely on its head. Perhaps the biggest change/adjustment/challenge has been the unavoidable shift from five-hours of instruction time in a six-hour day at school, to one hour of online learning each day. 
When the school year ends on June 5th, staff and students in Nova Scotia will have had nine weeks of online learning and learning at home. 
“Teachers have continued their planning,” Dorian says, “but it’s pared down to find out what is the best use of their time and what can they provide for students that families can support them with, and what we can support them with when we’re not face-to-face.”

That paring down perhaps reminded everyone in education what really matters most: in-person interaction. Dorian says people get into teaching because they love kids, and he believes this time apart, in isolation, adapting to new ways of communicating, is actually “reinvigorating”. 

While the sudden move to total technology put some teachers out of their comfort zone, “they’ve been really creative in exploring and doing their own professional development, and looking at different ways they can do things,” says Dorian, praising those teachers who had to ‘hit the ground running’ and learn online platforms quickly. 

Dorian expects the increased use of technology will benefit his small school. 
“It’s going to be great for collaboration between teachers. At bigger schools, if you have four Grade Three teachers, you can all get together [in person] and plan and collaborate. For us, as a small school, we have two full-time teachers plus myself then everyone else comes in to do music, French, and gym, then leaves. So digital collaboration will allow teachers to meet virtually and discuss planning, student achievement and professional development.”
He also believes it will keep pushing teachers out of their comfort zone. 
“I’m as guilty as anybody for finding what works and sticking with it. Finding new ways to engage the kiddos is really important.”

I asked him how, on a scale of one to ten (ten being normal school life), he thinks he and his colleagues are doing?
“Seven to eight,” he says after a moment of consideration. “There are the challenges of internet connectivity but there’s also problem-solving and being creative. Staff everywhere are meeting all those challenges and dealing with them head-on.”

When he thinks about the positive stories he’s heard, along with the frustrations and confusion, Dorian concludes that those happen on a daily basis during a normal school day, and a lot of what happens is beyond anyone’s control (like how the weather affects internet connectivity on the north shore). 
“As teachers and administrators, we got to slow down and really focus on well-being and taking all that tertiary stuff out. Not that it’s not important but in these times, it’s more important to make sure everyone is well and safe and happy before we worry about all the other stuff.”

This resonates especially with Dorian, an educator for ten years, because this is the school and community in which he grew up so he feels particularly protective of and connected to both.
“This was my elementary school, and now I’m living at home and working at the same school I attended,” he says. “It’s a different perspective [being a teacher/principal] but it’s my elementary school and I feel very invested in it. I loved going there, and I love going there every day; I always feel like I’m home. I think that fosters the family feeling with the kiddos. They know me and I know them. On a good day, we all get along very well, and the staff works really hard all year to build that.”

He admits what he misses most is chatting with the students, parents, and staff before and after school.
“We’re so fortunate to be in a community that supports the school and we support the community.” He laughs. “I love being here and hopefully I’ll stay here for years to come.”

~ by Sara Jewell

Saturday, May 16, 2020

A Month Ago

Photo taken in May 2014

The other day, my mother said, "It's hard to believe it's not even a month since the killings took place. Life goes on and no one thinks about it anymore."

I told her I think about that Sunday morning in April every day.
Every morning, when I step up to the access door in the garage to take out the bird feeders, before I unlock the door, I look out the window. 
I look around. 
Just to see what, and who, I can see. If there's anything, or anyone, to see. 
I've never done that before. It never occurred to me before mid-April 2020 that I had to look around first before I unlocked and opened a door here in rural Nova Scotia. 

Sure, life goes on. I still walk every morning. But to say no one thinks about those killings -- 22 people killed by one man on a rage-and-alcohol-fuelled rampage -- isn't accurate. Many of us are thinking about it, especially those even closer to the devastated communities than I am. And it wasn't just that it happened close to home; my personal connection is simply being a morning walker like one of the victims. 
I don't look out the window every morning and think, "That could be me" or even "That could've been me" but still, my actions are affected. I pause and look around before stepping outside my home. 

When you think of how minuscule the impact of that rampage is on my life, it makes you realize how even the smallest trauma can affect us and change our lives. So imagine how great trauma -- like a shooting or a rape or fighting in a war -- impacts people for the rest of their lives. We worry about jobs and the economy but what we really should be worrying about is health and safety. 

We need to take better care of each other on a community level. More listening, more accepting, more acknowledgement, more resources. Less "pooh poohing", less "there's nothing we can do", less "sweeping under the rug". 
If there's one thing this pandemic has shown us, as humans, we need to take care of each other. That's our job as humans, as citizens, as neighbours. The common good as a guiding principle. 
If there's one thing the killing rampage has shown us, as a country and as a community, we need to take the long-term effects of trauma more seriously, whether we're talking the PTSD of a member of the military or the PTSD of an assault victim. If we take care of each other, we can heal together. 
That's our real job: taking care of each other. 

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

PANDEMIC STORIES: In Conversation With...Crystal Murray

About a month ago, I received an email from the editor of At Home On the North Shore magazine (where my Field Notes column has appeared for the past two and a half years), letting me know that,  despite the bottom dropping out of print media because of the pandemic-related shutdown, she was not shouting “Stop the presses!” There would be a summer issue. 
But it won’t happen without some juggling.

“A lot of the stories we already had in the works because we shoot a year in advance for our cover stories,” Crystal said over the phone from her home in Pictou County. “We’re mindful of the stories we have in production for all of our magazines because a lot of them are no longer relevant. We’ve pulled content because they were stories about all the wonderful things to do in Atlantic Canada during the summer.” 

Despite the recent opening of trails and the expansion of gatherings to ten people, Crystal said the summer issue couldn’t tell people to go to the beach, make reservations at a B&B or attend a music festival. 
“Many of the things we celebrate in our communities and are the fodder for our editorial content, we can’t promote right now,” she said. 
Not only that, some of the people interviewed and photographed a year ago for cover stories decided they’re no longer comfortable with the subject matter in light of the current situation, and also as a result of the tragedy in April.  

“We are putting stories out that we collected pre-pandemic,” Crystal said. “We’re prefacing some of them and letting people know when the story was curated. And now the stories in the front of the magazine are about turning your shelter into a sanctuary, homes into havens.”

Along with being the editor of At Home, Crystal is also the President of Advocate Media, one of Atlantic Canada’s oldest and largest media companies. It publishes six community newspapers and 26 magazines, including East Coast Living and Saltscapes (for which I also write). 

She said the pandemic has had a significant impact on the company since newspapers and magazines are revenue-based, and advertising dropped away almost immediately. 
“One of the first things we knew we were going to have to do was downsize our organization. That was a really tough thing for us to do because even though six newspapers and 26 magazines sounds like a big organization, from a human capital perspective, it’s really not,” she said. “We’re a very tight-knit media family. It hurt to have to lay off staff we consider family.”

But Advocate Media decided to keep publishing, particularly the community newspapers (which cover Tatamagouche, Truro, Pictou, the South Shore, a wide area around Port Hawkesbury including Antigonish, and Saint John, NB) even with reduced staff. 
“Some other media organizations decided to stop most of their print publications and shift to digital-only properties but because we feel so connected to our communities, we wanted to do everything possible to maintain our print products in as many markets as we are able.”

Crystal said in times of crisis, community journalism is needed even more to tell the stories of those communities. 
“It’s one thing to be able to turn on a national broadcast and get statistics and understand what the Prime Minister is saying about the current situation, but how it’s affecting your neighbour, how it’s affecting your local businesses? Those are the stories we’re focused on in our communities.”

She admitted the decision to keep publishing means the company is struggling.
“When we made the decision to continue with our print products, we really made ourselves more vulnerable from a sustainability perspective because the advertising just isn’t there.”

There is an advertising-to-editorial ratio for publishing (for example, every page needs an ad on it to pay for the page) so with ads almost non-existent, there are fewer pages being printed. 
“But where our newspapers are weekly community newspapers, and because of our digital platforms, we can still be daily, if not hourly,” Crystal explained. “Technology has given us more to work with but we still felt our historic presence in these communities is our print products. It’s getting tougher every day to do this but we want to continue to make those products available to our readers.”
She’s hoping when everything returns to “some sort of normal”, the readers and advertisers will remember that their local newspapers continued to be there for them. 

I asked Crystal how, as a journalist and editor of a magazine focusing on the north shore of Nova Scotia, she sees the impact of the pandemic on her community where she lives and works.  
She paused for a long time before she answered. 
“I think the answer you’ll get from anybody right now is that it’s tough,” she told me. “The pandemic has consumed almost every part of our daily lives.”
She went on to say, “For me, as a journalist, I’m curious about how we are going to emerge from this, how we are going to land on our feet. The stories I really love to tell are the stories about the opportunities rather than the stories about the crisis – the stories of the ways people have come together and supported each other.”

She wondered how we, as communities, as businesses and industries, and as humans, are going to find the right new balance after the pandemic passes. 
“I’m really hoping that, in our part of the world, we’re going to be mindful of the sustainability we need but still find a way to engage in business, build our communities, and have our citizens live with dignity,” she said. “I hope we emerge from this as decent human beings, as people who are mindful of the way we do business, and the way we take of each other and take care of our planet.”

~ By Sara Jewell 

Monday, May 11, 2020

Countdown to 50: The Big Day

Well, I made it. I'm fifty years old and at the very start of a whole new decade.
Which started out kind of dicey, which isn't good because I'm superstitious about birthdays: 
Start as you mean to go on, right? 
I woke up late, feeling ill. Because it was late, I didn't get to do any yoga 
nor have any quiet time because my mother and husband were up early, too. 
I made the wrong coffee; I use the good stuff on the weekends, 
but instead I used the Monday to Friday coffee. 
And then, worst of all: I actually forgot to feed the cats and dog! 
So things started out very discombobulated, which -- superstitious as I am about birthdays -- made me nervous. 

But after coffee, and scrambled eggs, made by Dwayne, I remembered there were gifts and cards to open. 
I decided to get dressed -- it was my 50th birthday after all -- and that made me feel better.
But then: the cake! That beautiful, handmade cake (from a young mother in Wentworth).
And Prosecco to go with it - cheers! 
All of a sudden, it was a proper birthday, despite no party to look forward to. 

Around one o'clock, Mother and I were sitting on the couch as I shared some social media stuff with her 
when I heard honking outside. I jumped up to see our friends' car slowing down out front and turning in.
I smiled.
Then I heard more honking and recognized the car behind them then saw a whole line of cars!
My church family was doing a birthday parade for me!
It was wonderful. 
Thank goodness I'd changed out of my pajamas at noon! 
My friend Audrey arranged it by phone and it counts as my surprise party. 

When I interviewed the minister for last week's In Conversation With... he talked about participating in a funeral procession -- 
driving by the widow and her daughters after a member of his congregation died.
He told me he's seen it on TV and thought it was silly -- until he actually participated in it.
He realized it was quite meaningful.
And that's how I felt about my birthday drive by. Who would have thought a line of honking cars,
people waving and calling out Happy Birthday, 
Joanna getting so tangled up in her floppy sign that she almost drove into the ditch,
would be so much fun and be just as meaningful?
It's a gesture I'll never forget. 
And it was so good to see everyone. 

Later in the afternoon, I had a Zoom conference call with five of my besties. 
We were supposed to have an entire weekend at a resort in Ontario at the start of May,
but this was just as nice, getting to see them and talk and laugh with them. 
"Anyone peed themselves?" I asked.
No one had so that bodes well for our fifties.
I didn't say it out loud but I'm grateful my lifelong friends are all still around. 
How lucky is that? 

One of my gifts came in this box, and Leonard had a good long nap in it.
A good time was had by all.
Turns out, having a birthday during a pandemic quarantine wasn't so bad.
Since my motto is "Start as you mean to go on," there's absolutely nothing for me to be suspicious about. 
My fifties started just the way I'd want them to: with love and laughter, joy and good food. 

Saturday, May 09, 2020

Countdown to 50: Day 4

How friend Shelagh addressed my birthday package! 

My forties began in Scotland -- the trip a gift from my mother -- and from there they were a ten-year adventure. And as with all adventures, not everything was smooth sailing; there were rocky paths as well as easy valleys. I won't flog those metaphors; you get my drift. It's the same for you: Ten years is a long mix of joy and sorrow, happiness and grief, successes and failures, epiphanies that are both liberating and exhausting. 

It was a good decade for me, in part because I finally published a book, but it was a terrible decade for Dwayne. Over the past ten years, he was plagued by health problems, like a debilitating shoulder injury and a stroke, but also by sometimes-ugly family issues. His was a decade of loss and letting go, of adapting and accepting, none of which he did well. I will say, however, he remained my steadfast, devoted and generous husband so we weathered the adventure, with its ups and downs, its challenging terrain and lovely rests together. 

Most of what happens to us is a learning experience, and there were many in the past decade. I want to share one of them: What I learned from living with the unluckiest person I've ever known is that my creative energy is drained by other people's bullshit. Not so much by Dwayne's health crises, those I can take in stride -- partly because he is so stoic, it's hard to get caught up in something you're shut out of -- but by other people being selfish and dramatic. 
I'm sorry I allowed any of it to affect me so significantly, but from it, I learned to guard my creative energy. I learned to say "STOP" to myself, to my brain, whenever the wrong thoughts were taking over a walk or a yoga practice or the middle of the night. 
Of course we get sidetracked by the drama. We take to heart the personal attack, the nasty comment, the lies and manipulation, but then we need to take breath, go for a walk, talk to a friend, and say, "It's not me. It's her/him. This is more about that person than it is about me." I learned to acknowledge the feelings and to put the situation back on the other person. Because to dwell on the hurts, on the disappointments, on the frustrations just distracts from what is really important. And for me, it's writing. 

I think this is why I prefer to write intensively: To throw myself into a project every day, all day for three or four months. Being wrapped up in a project, being consumed by a story creates a barrier. This hit home when I was writing my novel because someone tried to create a crisis out of nothing one afternoon and after ranting about it for a while, I just went back to work and forgot all about it. My creative energy and the unquenchable flow of it is more essential and more life-sustaining than anyone else's drama. 

As I head into my fifties tomorrow, into a new decade, I feel more like a writer than I ever have. I feel more in control of my writing life and my creativity (despite the long-term uncertainty caused by the pandemic) and as a result, more protective of it, more capable of protecting it. Twice today, talking with two friends on the phone, I said I wasn't ready to leave my forties because I feel like I'm still learning, that if I move into my fifties, I have to start applying everything I've learned but I'm half-joking. 
I'm ready. I'm old enough (sigh) to pull on my big girl panties and be a woman in the prime of her life.

Ha ha ha ha ha ha! Never. It'll always be more enthusiasm than skill, more laughter than tears, more sweet than sour. I'll be 29 forever! 

There is something to be said, however, about the psychological effect of a new decade, of new possibilities, of the potential that comes from being wiser, calmer (but no less energetic!), and too old for anything but courage and confidence. 

Thursday, May 07, 2020

Countdown to 50: Day 3

My younger sister & I during my "private detective" stage.

It's been a busy week; had to keep reminding myself that today is Thursday. And despite the fact I'm turning 50 in a few days, I find I'm not spending much time in reflection, even on my morning walk. I'm thinking of other things, like finding suitable people to interview for In Conversation With and whether or not Phyllis the hen is going to stay on the three eggs we want her to hatch out. Big thoughts, friend, big thoughts. No room for something minor like looking back on my life.  

I can, however, share a story, which is infinitely better: 

In 1973, after seven years of marriage, and a lifetime of living in Toronto, my mother moved out of the city with her husband and two small daughters. Dad had bought his own funeral home in Cobourg and we all moved into the apartment above the business. Every so often, my mother would sit down at her typewriter, set up on a desk in the dining room, and type an "Epistle to the Relations" -- to her cousins and aunts and sister in Toronto and other places. There aren't many, or rather, not enough, letters but the ones she did type and are charming and funny and full of typos. 

From these Epistles, I get glimpses of myself as a child, and from them, I could try and glean glimpses of myself now. For one thing, I get my creative writing from my mother. Also, the propensity for typos. 

From an epic two-page Epistle, dated April 4, 1975, my mother wrote this about her children: 

"Our children are fine. Their normal, active selves. Sara's artwork is becoming voluminous and, I think, quite good. Dolly [my sister Araminta's nickname] likes to draw too. She is at the circle stage. I guess that is normal for her age [2 1/2]. She also knows most of the alphabet and some of her numbers. To what purpose she can use most of this information, I do not know. 
The other morning, my husband called me at ten to nine, and told me to get out of bed because the children were on their way up the street. I did as he requested. (He was shaving.) I donned my fur coat with my lovely white legs showing beneath and went to retrieve them. They were almost up to the Guy's house (Auntie Guy and Uncle Stewart, that is). They were both dressed in their proper winter clothing, hand in hand, with Sara carrying a six-quart basket over her other arm. I discovered that they were on their 'picture' route, handing out pictures that were contained in the basket. They had drawn these masterpieces in the time between six and 8:30 that same morning. Regretfully, they returned with many explanations and wailings. By the way, they can unlock the doors and escape. 
Sara said she would not do it again (that is, until the next time.) Dolly had whined to go so Sara said she could. It's like putting King Kong in charge of an orphanage."

(Notes: When Dad said "street", he meant Buck Street, the one-way side street, not the main street that was the address for the funeral home; we were never in danger, and we knew all the neighbours. Also, I don't know why we called Marg Guy "Auntie Guy"; just one of those things.)

I have lived with that line -- "It's like putting King Kong in charge of an orphanage" -- all my life. It really does go with my natural approach to everything: More enthusiasm than skill. It also might explain why I love kids, but didn't want any of my own!  

This is one of the losses of our modern world wherein we email and text and take digital photos with our phones: In the future, there will be no letters. No file folder full of typo-riddled letters from a mother to her family. No memories recorded on paper, in ink. With a typewriter! No stories to go along with photos in photo albums. There won't be any of those either. All our photos, all our letters, all our memories, all our stories won't be preserved in a way that is tangible, that is real, that is accessible. They will be floating around in a cyber cloud, locked away or lost, or deleted or scrambled. 
I feel lucky to have these letters, these famous Epistles. I've been reading them over for years. They are my history, my childhood. They are who I am, who I came from, why I exist. Like me, they came from my mother's body, from her love, from her creative spirit. As I turn 50, I get to read these words over again and realize that I'm still that same creative, curious, uncontainable girl from 1975:  

"Sara, or Cinderella, or Sleeping Beauty, or Snow White, whoever we are at any given moment, is fine. She told some kids up at Zeller's the other day that she was from the Jewell Funeral Home. We should put a sandwich board on her and send her up and down the street."