Monday, July 13, 2020

Feeling for the Bottom

Swimming in the Northumberland Strait with my friend Alison.

This photo is a nice metaphor for how I woke up feeling today:
Floating with no destination.
Getting pushed farther from shore. 

As I walked early this morning, I tried to figure out why I felt crappy. Not depressed, per se, but down. Edgy. Not sure of what to do with myself.
Ah, yes, I realized. Post-book funk. 
This is how you feel when you're finished the book you've been working on for a year. The book you said was the last one you'd ever write if it didn't get published.
Now what do you do? The advice used to be to start your next book but these are not those times. These are end times, my friends. No matter how badly people want to return to The Way Things Were, a whole new way of living and working is unfolding. 
I have no idea where I fit into that world. 

Can no longer feel the sandy bottom with my feet.

With the way publishing is right now, and looks to be in the future...sure, people are still buying books and publishers still seem to be accepting submissions and planning catalogues, but I've kept myself afloat with magazine publishing and I think that's going to collapse by the end of the year.

Wondering where these waves will take us.  

It's a good thing my mother and I have a Top Secret Book Project. The state of the world, the state of human existence has reminded me that life is short, too short, there aren't enough days to accomplish what you want to do so, you can wake up one day not feeling well and a month later be dead so -- "Mother," I said, "F**k it. We're doing that book project." 
Life is too short to not do the damn project -- and too worry if you're swearing too much. 

I mean, there are two ways of looking at that ocean and that sky: As a reminder of the limitlessness of one's life -- that there are no boundaries to what you want to do and be -- 
you're a small speck in the vastness of this world so you might as well just dunk your head below the surface and not do anything. 

I'm going to keep swimming. 

Friday, July 10, 2020

Oh, Baby, Bye Bye

Little Cheeps went to her new home this week. It wasn't upsetting because from the outset, I knew she was being raised for my friend's flock. Even though we became attached to her, and to having her and Phyllis doing their hen-and-chick thing around the yard, there simply is no way we can keep any chicks we hatch because they'd be part of a flock whose rooster is their father.

We did ponder starting a second flock, so we could raise our own Barred Rocks, and perhaps that will happen next year, but for now, we know Cheeps is adjusting to her new place across the river. 

There was a moment, however, when I did get upset...
We'd agreed on the day I'd take the chick over but early that morning, my friend messaged to say she had to work and did I want to come another day? Because Mother and I were making a one-day (therefore a long day) road trip to Cape Breton the following day, I wanted the chick gone so Dwayne didn't have to deal with her (I was worried he'd forget to keep an eye out; he's not as watchful about the chickens as I am). 
When I arrived in the afternoon, her husband took me to the barn where I was to leave the chick.
In a cage.
In a small cage with two other chicks a bit larger than Cheeps. 
In a cage sitting on a table. 
By the time I returned home, my whole body was clenched. 
"I don't think I can leave her there," I wept. "I can't bear the thought of her in a cage for three or four months until she's big enough to join the flock."
I kept picturing her running across the backyard to catch up with her mother. I couldn't bear the idea she'd never feel grass again or eat a strawberry. 
So after supper, I went back. I wanted to tell my friend to her face why I was taking the chick back. 

Turns out, I'd forgotten what she'd said weeks ago about the cage: It's just until Cheeps gets used to her new surroundings and bonds with the two other chicks. She doesn't want Cheeps to run off. 
"I only put them in the cages when I'm at work," my friend explained. She, too, has a husband who isn't as watchful as she is. The animals are her thing (she has goats and a pony, too). 
I was embarrassed, but also grateful I'd gone back right away to speak with her. She wasn't mad, and despite the initial awkwardness, now I know the truth rather than thinking awful things about poor Cheeps new life and making myself sick with worry and regret. 

It was hard enough, I'll admit, to think of Cheeps, who I saw sitting on the roost in the cage that evening, and know she was wondering where her mother is and wondering why she isn't roaming free in the grass. But all along, I knew Cheeps was going to join another flock, and I also know my chickens have a lot more freedom than most chickens. I used to think my coop was pretty dirty but now I realize, it's really clean and roomy, and the outside pen very large and green compared to most places where the hens aren't completely free range. 

Phyllis squawked most of the following morning (when Mother and I were away) but she seems to have moved on. I'm sure she's still wondering where her chick went but this is life. This is farm life. 
I'm just grateful Cheeps didn't turn out to be a rooster because it would have been hard to give the chick to another neighbour, knowing it would be raised to be butchered. 

We all miss Little Cheeps. She talked (chirped) a lot and it was so much fun to watch her and Phyllis together. They spent every morning in "the cottage" while I worked inside then I let them out to free range around the property at 3 o'clock. Andre Poulet would fly out of the pen for a family visit; that was always sweet. 
It was a good spring for raising a chick; not too rainy or cold. In fact, the hot June weather was great. 

I'm glad of this experience, my first experience with a hen hatching out a chick and raising it. I'd like to do it again; maybe it's time for a second flock. 

Phyllis and Little Cheeps on their last morning together.

Monday, July 06, 2020


My niece, Mimi, made this sign; it's nailed to a tree in the front yard of her family's home in Atlanta, Georgia. Good place for it. So far, unvandalized. 

Making this for our home is one of my vacation projects. I'm going to add a brown and black board with a red heart in the middle to the bottom. I think I might stake it between our two sunflower gardens where everyone who drives by can see it.  

I have the paint and the board, but it needs to be cut into smaller boards -- and the last time I asked Dwayne to cut something for me with the table saw, he cut the end off his left thumb so I'm wary of asking him again. Not because he's clumsy but because I might be the jinx! 

Sunday, July 05, 2020

On Vacation, On Staying Home

The late-afternoon view from my reading chair in the gazebo.

The first week of my three-week vacation is over. Of course, for me, "vacation" simply means I don't do any church work. Otherwise, I'm still working but not having to ponder a message for Sunday frees up brain space for pondering other writing.  
Before the creative writing and painting begins, I'm "polishing" the memoir about my father, which cleans up and tightens the text. Also, I continue to maintain balance by spending each evening out in the gardens, watering and weeding. I have another three weeks of vacation at the end of August when I'll get to enjoy the evenings NOT watering and weeding.  

Writing, watering and weeding: these are my vacation plans. Not much different than my pre-vacation plans of worship, writing, watering and weeding. When you do work you enjoy, nothing seems like work, but my brain appreciates the chance to think less serious thoughts.

Two times on Friday, I was asked how I fared during the pandemic lockdown. 
My answer was honest: I didn't impact my work, but I've realized how happy I am to stay home. I'm loving this simplified life. I'm wearing last year's walking shoes. I'm wearing last year's sun dresses. I'm only washing my hair twice a week because it's in a braid or ponytail all the time. I don't need more stuff, I don't want to eat restaurant food anymore. I'm writing and gardening, hanging out with the chickens, puttering in my not new but improved greenhouse. Home is where my heart is happy.

My husband, the extrovert, is missing people but I'm not. Humans are hard work. Humans are exhausting. 
I went grocery shopping on Thursday, wearing a mask, and once I was back in the truck, my face was aching. I realized I'd clenched my jaw the entire time. Even wearing a mask, I'm finding it stressful to be in stores. I don't like wearing a mask, either, no one does, but if it's the best way to protect my mother and my husband from contracting a virus that would kill them, I'm all in. 
I'm here for the common good. I'm here to do the greatest good for the greatest number. 
I'm here to be in service to others.  
I clench my jaw because I can't believe how many people -- and 99% of store employees -- are not masked. It's an airborne virus! It's in the air because it's expelled when people breathe and talk. Wearing a mask is such a simple way of protecting each other; I'd rather wear a mask than be injected with an untested vaccine with side effects (I'm not anti-vaccine; just wary of medicine that's not been fully tested). 
At least by wearing a mask, I stopped holding my breath in the grocery store so I'm less likely to pass out in the cookie aisle. 

I'm quite happy to stay home, watching my chick grow, working my way through a high stack of books, going for boat rides with my husband, and counting my tomatoes. 
As well as my blessings. 
I know I'm lucky I don't have to leave the property for work. I know I'm lucky to be safe and loved and protected here, well-fed and happy. I know I'm lucky to be healthy and pain-free, and not waiting on rescheduled appointments. 
Eight tiny green tomatoes, and eight hundred blessings.

You can pass an afternoon just watching the chickens...

Wednesday, July 01, 2020

A Father-Daughter Story for Canada Day

The author of The Stone Thrower (2012, Thomas Allen Publishers, now owned by Dundurn Press), Jael Ealey Richardson (JER), is a Canadian Black woman, born to two American Black parents. 
When JER tweeted out the question, "Is your bookshelf racist?" I answered Yes. No qualifiers. No "But I read magazine articles" or "I have a couple of books by Indigenous authors." I realized that her question required a simple Yes or No answer and since there no books by Black authors on my shelves, there was only one, unqualified answer.

So I ordered her memoir direct from the publisher. It's not available at the usual online bookstores but I actually received it faster from Dundurn Press than I've received any books from Chapters online. 


Friends, this is the first book I've come across that compares to the memoir I've written about my father (which is now in the "polishing" stage, the final stage before querying). Although our family experience is different -- Jael Ealey Richardson was raised a middle-class Black Canadian while I was raised a middle-class white Canadian -- the theme of our books is the same: Who am I because of who my father was?

You know, unless it had been recommended to me (You should read this because you're writing about your own father) I wouldn't have chosen it; not firstly because it's about a Black family, although I'm sure that unconscious conditioning would play a role, but because it was about football!
I should know better: Some of the best books I've read are about subjects I have little interest in. And that's the gift of good writing: to take a personal story about a specific topic and event, and make it appeal to a wide range of people. 

I mean, I'm writing about funeral homes...and everybody dies. The universality is kind of a given. 
But this book about a football player AND about racism is a wonderful book. I cared about the football, I cared about the racism, I cared about JER's search for identity.  It's well-written but also well-woven; she blends her father's past, the near past (her upbringing) and the present very well. It's not confusing. 

On this Canada Day, I've chosen to highlight this book because JER is a Canadian author, and her book deserves amplification -- published in 2012, it's more relevant than ever -- and because of this passage about 2/3 of the way through her narrative. We like to say Canada isn't racist -- but here's what JER wrote about the Black American refugees who escaped slavery in the 1800's by settling Canada:

"The refugees who were interviewed back then informed the [Freedmen's Inquiry Commission] that prejudice in Canada was rampant, that is was often worse than it was in America, but they also explained...but the LAWS in Canada supported freedom.
"It pointed to what my father had been up against all of his life -- a nation where the laws reinforced racism, segregation, and inequality. American laws created obstacles for basic rights and necessities..."

On a personal note, I dog-eared a whole lot of pages: 

There are that many instances where Jael Ealey Richardson's narrative paralleled mine, where an expression, like "my father's quiet grace", made me yelp and underline because that's what I was trying to say.
This isn't a case of her book beat me to it so my book has no market; our books are very different -- Black and white, football and funeral service, US/Canada and Canada/East Coast -- but it actually makes my heart hum with excitement that our theme is the same. It tells me I've written the right book. It tells me that my book actually has a chance. 
It tells me I should have read this book a long time ago. For ALL the reasons. 

Happy Canada Day. 
Remember that we are built on the backs and with the lives of our Indigenous Peoples. Without them, we are not a nation. 
Remember that racism exists in Canada, and has despite the fact we were the end of the Underground Railroad. The Black and Asian people who helped build our country, and who contribute so significantly to it despite how they are treated, are a vital part of our nation. Our diversity is something to celebrate, to bring us together as HUMANS, not something to divide us. 
Stereotypes are wrong. Us versus Them is a waste of time. We know better; we should be doing better.

We can protest even as we celebrate because we are Canada. We are the true north strong and free -- and we must do better.  

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Summer Reading: True Stories

I'm fortunate to call Cape Breton-based author Marjorie Simmins my writing mentor AND my friend, and I'm delighted to share her latest book. 
MEMOIR: CONVERSATIONS and CRAFT is an excellent resource for those who want to write a story from their life and are curious about how to get started, and for those who love reading those life stories and are curious about how they are created. 

Marjorie's conversations are with Canadian authors Lawrence Hill, Linden MacIntyre, Edmund Metatawabin, Donna Morrissey, Claire Mowat, Diane Schoemperlen, and Plum Johnson. 
Following each conversation, Marjorie walks through the craft, or process, discussed in that particular conversation. So there is in-depth information about why an author wrote, as well as practical writing advice and guidance. 

My copy of this book is dog-eared, and many of the pages contain hand-written notes. I read this book before I started editing my memoir, The Funeral Director's Daughter, again, and made this note at the start of Marjorie's conversation with Plum Johnson, who said, 
"There is an age range when one is in a home. I think especially around eight, nine, ten years old, it's such an influential time in one's life...Whatever home you're in at that age seems to take on this incredible significance."
I asterixed the first sentence and underlined everything because that was the age I lived in the first funeral home my father owned, and those years and that place remain vivid and clear in my memory. 

What also resonated with me was something Linden MacIntyre said: "I finally did the memoir and since I've published the memoir, I've published four novels. So something got cleaned out, something got cleared away." 
I'm wondering if perhaps that will be my experience, too. 

I share these personal examples to show there's something for everyone in this book. You might be amazed at what gems of ideas you find in this book, and what you might learn from hearing the diverse experiences of these writers. 

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Prayer Flags for the Gazebo

A friend of mine lost her husband recently. It was a sudden and unexpected death, happening within a few weeks of a surprise cancer diagnosis 
Their last week together was spent in hospital; thankfully, oh so thankfully, restrictions on visitors for people in palliative care had just been eased in this province so my friend was with her husband for his final week on earth. 

A few days later, she returned home, not with him as she'd expected when she'd left ten days earlier to pick him up after a biopsy. The next day, her first full day at home without him, with the full weight of the loss settling upon that quiet home, with grief unpacking and settling into every space, she noticed her husband's prayer flags in the garden had fallen onto the ground. 

Traditional Tibetan prayer flags are those multi-coloured flags we see most often in photos of the camps at Mount Everest (at least, that's what I think of first). Mount Everest is the climbing mecca in the Himalayan Mountains between Tibet and Nepal, so prayer flags have become part of the scenery. 

When my friend saw her husband's flags on the ground, she went outside and re-hung them. In an email, she called that "the best bit of work of the day". I'll not soon forget the phrase or the action. So much so, as soon as I read it, I went online and searched for a Canadian site selling Tibetan prayer flags. 
They arrived by mail yesterday. Handmade in Nepal, with a donation from the sale being made to a local school. 

Although prayer flags are a delightful idea, I've never bought and hung Tibetan prayer flags; I considered it inappropriate since I have no connection to Tibet or Buddhism; sadly, they aren't part of my faith tradition. But my friend's work of the day gave me a connection, gave me a personal need to buy some flags and hang them from my gazebo so every time I see them, I think of my friend, I remember her husband. It's about honouring a life, and a friendship. 

The packaging that the prayer flags came in has a description printed on it. It reads in part, "Prayer flags are used to promote peace, compassion, strength, and wisdom." That certainly describes my friend's husband and the way he lived and worked. Also, the description explains that prayers flags are auspicious because they contain images of dieties, mantra and prayer that are believed to bring happiness, peace, prosperity, good fortune, health and victory over obstacles. 

Even though these flags were an impulse buy, with no benefit to my friend or her husband's memory, I felt compelled to have them. I couldn't go to her, and the celebration of her husband's life was held online, so hanging these flags gives me a tangible way of honouring a beloved life that was so important to my friend (and to many others) while creating a healing, caring energy that my friend will receive when I think of her. 

The packaging also says, "Just as life moves on and is replaced by new life, Tibetan Buddhist renew their hopes for the world by continually hoisting new flags alongside old ones." 

There are prayer flags hanging on both sides of the gazebo and I see the prayer flags hanging between the birch trees when I'm sitting in my reading chair.