Friday, November 17, 2017

What Are We Becoming?

This is what broke me this morning.
This image was posted on the Instagram account of The Ellen Show with the text, "I’m determined to do something about this. Please repost it. Use #BeKindToElephants, and for everyone who does, we’ll make a donation to The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust."
A couple of days ago, US President Trump announced his intention of rescinding the ban on importing parts of African elephants killed by sport hunters -- basically, allowing them to bring their hunting trophies home with them to hang in their dens. One of these hunters happens to be his son, Donald Jr.
What are we doing? What are we becoming? How much worse is everything going to get?

About once a week now, I say to my husband, "I can't people anymore, I just can't." It's getting harder and harder to watch the news -- I don't believe in saying, "I don't watch the news, it's too depressing," but it leaves me feeling frustrated and demoralized rather than informed and motivated.
I've been writing church messages about "being the light of the world" and it's been a struggle. This great and long-overdue turning point we've reached in hearing women's voices, in women feeling brave enough to speak out about how they are treated and have been treated has been a terrible and wonderful thing. I'm grateful that the flood of accusations and the conversations that have resulted are one big spotlight coming out of all those brave little lights who spoke out.
I wrote and delivered a sermon specifically about sexual harassment, the treatment of women and the church's role in establishing and perpetuating it. And now I'm referring to these stories in my sermons about being the light in the world. It's been emotionally draining because as a woman, as a writer and as a 'preacher', I can't ignore those voices, those stories.

Yet there is still a sexual predator in the White House, and now he wants to roll back protections for endangered animals (which now includes lions) by claiming it will help conservation efforts:
"The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said in a written notice issued Thursday that permitting elephants from Zimbabwe and Zambia to be brought back as trophies will raise money for conservation programs. A licensed two-week African elephant hunt can cost more than $50,000 US per person, not including airfare, according to advertised rates." (CBC News story)

This is personal to me. Elephants are one of the symbols of my writing. Years ago, when I was overwhelmed by the major rewrite of a book, a friend advised me, "It's like eating an elephant - one bit at time." It's a horrible analogy -- perhaps I can change it to, "It's like bathing an elephant -- just one inch at a time" -- but regardless, elephants became part of my life as a writer. My husband went out an bought me an elephant ornament that sat on my desk as a talisman, and since then, my collection of elephants has grown. A whole shelf on my book nook is devoted to my elephant collection.

Even before that, I'd read wonderful books about elephants enduring, even overcoming, the treatment they experience at the hands of certain kinds of people. I loved what I was learning about them, about their matriarchal society, and their intelligence and individual personalities. Like horses, they learn to work and live with humans.   

I even wrote about elephants in my Field Notes book, in the essay, "Good Vibrations". Here is just a brief excerpt, and I encourage you to read the entire essay (it's one of my favourites):
We do not remain untouched by the passing of a person, whether we know them or not. It is part of our human existence to mourn, to feel another's suffering, to share stories, and celebrate a life...This is why, as I sat at my desk staring at my monitor and waiting for the right words, I thought about elephants.... Intelligent and social creatures, elephants mourn  the same way humans do: with emotion and ritual. Those who study and work with elephants have witnessed familiar expressions of grief: elephants appear to cry and bury their dead...

Women can fight for themselves, and they are. That is changing, there is no turning back. But elephants and lions? How I wish they could band together and fight back. What we need is a good old fashioned stampede. Trump is turning conversation back, and it affects me, it affects us, it changes our world -- and not for the better. We are back-sliding and that's so very frustrating and demoralizing. What are we becoming?

As I write in "Good Vibrations", this is the elephant-like vibration that has rumbled me into awareness.

It's not that this resonates more deeply with me than the stories about sexual harassment; I have a pulpit for speaking out about that -- considering that I've been harassed as a lay worship leader, considering how the church as treated women for thousands of years, that pulpit is indeed the best place to address those issues.
But elephants? Who around here will care about elephants? This is why I care.
Actually, I care about everything -- and there is so much wrong in our world, so many terrible things humans do to each other and to animals and to the environment, it's hard not to be paralyzed by everything that needs to be done. How can I be the light of the world when there is so much wrong in our world?

Still trying to answer that question for this coming Sunday. Not peopling isn't the answer but it's so damn tempting.

The elephant shelf

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The Universal Language of Welcome

As published in the Citizen-Record newspaper on Wednesday, November 15, 2017 by Sara Jewell

Jabar and Shinda at their "Welcome to Oxford" party last Sunday.

When I walked into the Lions Centre in Oxford at two o’clock last Sunday afternoon, there were five other people in the room. Two tables were covered in bowls of snacks, and a large cake with red and white icing, inscribed with the word “Welcome”, waited to be cut into pieces.
By the time town councillor Dawn Thompson hollered at everyone to gather along one wall for an “Oxford family photo”, at least fifty people had attended the welcome party for Jabar and Shinda and their three year old daughter Dlda (pronounced “D-la”).
Surrounded by their new neighbours, members of the resettlement committee, and other resettled families who have been in Cumberland County for over a year, Jabar and Shinda would have had no doubt about the official and genuine welcome to their new home.

Oxford’s resettlement committee is made up of two co-chairs (including Dawn Thompson) and fifteen members of the community who serve on nine committees covering all aspects of the family’s arrival this past September, including housing, finances and fundraising, documentation, driver’s licenses, and language classes. Every single thing about living in Nova Scotia that we take for granted – and often complain about –represent to this young couple peace and security after years of uncertainty and anxiety.

The first and most important job for Jabar and Shinda is to learn English so they can work. Language classes begin immediately and when their English is good enough, there are opportunities available for them at Oxford Frozen Foods.
Maybe it’s because my work involves telling stories that I find the most frustrating part of welcoming a refugee family is the inability to communicate with them. It seems so unfriendly to not be able to carry on a conversation. Sure, we have the universal language of smiling, but at the party, none of us could talk without a translator, and that’s disappointing because how do we truly get to know each other better without asking questions and listening to stories?
There is much more to Jabar and Shinda than being former citizens of Syria forced to leave because of war. They are more than refugees; they are a man and a woman, they are parents. They have childhood stories; they have dreams; they have talents. What if we have our very own chocolate maker right here in Oxford?! We are more alike than we are different, but it will take longer to discover what we have in common since we are limited, for the time being, to smiles and nods and hand shakes.

I suppose the most important information was being communicated successfully: you are a part of the Oxford family.
I watched the beautiful baby girl born here in Cumberland County just a year ago being fussed over, and I saw Dlda’s face light up when a girl named Faith gave her the gift of a doll with long, dark curly hair, and I learned the young sons of another resettlement family are now able to translate for their parents, and I realized that’s where you really see the hope and promise of a fresh start.
Perhaps that’s the truly universal language that brings us together: the joy of children.

The Oxford Family Photo!
Please note: When I wrote this column, I spelled the daughter's name the way it is pronounced, "Dilla". The proper spelling of her name is Dlda. I've corrected it for this post. My apologies for this mistake.

And, for the first time, the paper printed my column with a photo! Here's how amazing it looks on Page A5:

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Status Update

Facebook is always looking for a status update: "What's on your mind?" or "What's happening?" Well, here's the status update I've been waiting for, my friends. 
When I returned home from my ride this morning, I showed my husband my shirt, covered in mud and poop from cleaning the hooves of a horse that had been standing outside in a very mucky paddock.
"You're covered in shit," he said. "You are now officially a country girl."

Do you know how happy those words made me? Officially a country girl!
Particularly because, at a book event this Sunday past, I read from the Field Notes essay about hanging with my friend Sue at her family's dairy farm when I was a young girl:
"To me, the visitor from Ontario, Sue was clever and confident, walking behind cows without fear of their switching tails, helping lug cans full of warm milk to the tank, unfazed  by the manure that as everywhere, including her shoes and jeans. It didn't upset her a bit; it was part of being an honest-to-goodness farm girl."

Learning to ride a horse -- facing fears that turned out not to be fears at all, gaining confidence around switching tails, heavy hooves and big mouths -- is the best thing I've ever done (besides marry my Nova Scotia country boy). When one is experiencing something as simple yet as transformative as riding as horse, what's a little dirt among friends?
I'm not fazed by the mud and the manure one bit, not even when it's flinging off the hoof pick into my hair. 

Saturday, November 04, 2017

Coffee and A Muffin

Mother and I stopped in downtown Truro for some shopping after her latest check-up with the bone doctor (her broken arm is healing well), and when she took an armful of clothes into the dressing room, I headed down the street to Jimolly's for a coffee.
The muffins looked so good, I chose a Morning Glory.
The patio looked so good, I decided to sit outside.
As I sat there, listening to the cars drive by, watching people walking by, hearing the grind of truck gears and the beeping of the assisted walk signal, I had a flashback.
To Vancouver.
The city I arrived in 21 years ago. The city I left 15 years ago.
It's so remarkable how the memories of a time and place you've put behind you, that you think about in the abstract like it has no connection to your here-and-now, can flood into your mind with the sip of coffee on a sunny patio next to a street.
For me, what's even more remarkable is the thought that accompanied that association: The roots of the writer I've become are in Vancouver.

In my first couple of years there, when I worked weekends, I spent a lot of time wandering around with my dog Maggie, learning the streets, writing in my journal, sitting and watching this new and unfamiliar city on the other side of the country. I was 26 years old, considered myself a "writer" (still qualified by quotation marks because I'd only published two articles), and was hoping for great things from my work, and my marriage.
I liked city living; I liked living in Vancouver. But one assumes, when great angst happens in a place, it becomes associated with those emotions, that heartbreak. Yet apparently, no. My memories of, my connection to Vancouver seem to be separate from the personal failings. Perhaps it's because my writing flourished in Vancouver. 
Maggie and I sat at a lot of sidewalk cafes, where I'd drink my coffee and share my muffin with her, where I'd read Natalie Goldberg's "Writing Down the Bones" and complete her writing prompts, where I'd write about everything but the truth about my work and my marriage. I'd already written a novel, and would write another one in a couple of years, but already, I considered myself a non-fiction writer and soon would begin my ten-year stint as a columnist with a national church magazine.

More than twenty years later, on the other side of the country, with non-fiction book published, with a list of books I'd like to publish posted on the wall above my desk (a list that includes two new novels), I think of Vancouver as the place where my roots as a writer were planted. My long and winding road to publication did not begin in Vancouver but when I think of the stories in the Field Notes book, and the stories I hope to tell in other books, I realize they grew out of those streetside cafes where the dog and I would sit and listen and watch, drink coffee and share a muffin, and take notes.

(Ah, but there are memories of Vancouver I can't bear to think about: Maggie. How I miss that dog.)

Thursday, November 02, 2017

The Air We Breathe

Every time a truck with a float carrying a large machine backs up the old road running alongside our home, it means only one thing: another clearcut is planned.
This will be the fourth logging operation in the woods behind, and next to, our home in the ten years I've lived here. For someone who loves trees, who loves walking in the woods, who values trees for the purpose they serve to the environment (and appreciates, as a consumer, what trees provide to humans), this is very, very hard on my heart.
I mean, just look at the background of that photo: the heartache came right to our doorstep in 2014.
The company bringing in this excavator and a bulldozer isn't responsible for the logging; it's simply building the road leading to and from the woods that will be flattened this winter. This causes me great consternation: the reason for the road is the loss of trees -- meaning loss of habitat and food for birds, animals and insects, as well as air purifiers for all of us -- but the road gives me a wonderful path to walk for a few years.
Ironically, I walk deep into the woods, past all the clearcuts. When I walk, my footsteps are heavy with guilt, remorse and fear for the future.

A few weeks ago, our neighbour hired someone to dig out the ditches around his field, but he insisted the excavator operator leave the contents of the ditch along the side of the road, instead of having his dirt and shrubs dumped on his own property. This wall of ditch dirt would prevent water from draining off the road and make clearing snow from the logging road difficult through that stretch.
So my husband told the manager for the logging company that it was in his best interests to get the bulldozer to clear that crap off the side of the road. He told him to dump the debris on our neighbour's property.
Imagine my surprise and disappointment when I went for a walk yesterday afternoon and saw all our  neighbour's ditch debris dumped on OUR side of the road, a pile of dirt and limbs that flattened six to eight poplar and birch trees.

This is what drives me crazy about us -- consumers, loggers, men, humans: we treat the natural world as if it is expendable, as if it doesn't matter. That bulldozer driver thought nothing of destroying a small grove of trees as he moved dirt around. Yet there was no reason to do that, no reason to "end the lives" of half a dozen or more trees who provide food and habitat, and prevent soil erosion.
Oh, yeah, and also produce oxygen.
Which we -- consumers, loggers, men, and humans -- need in order to live.
When I complained to my husband, he didn't care.
"I don't cut wire birch or poplar when I'm in the woods."
He processed my complaint through his own use of the woods: as firewood.
"You may not use them but birds and animals and insects do," I retorted. "Plus they filter CO2 and create oxygen."
He didn't care. He couldn't make the connection. To him, trees are either firewood or useless. 

A story on the news on Monday evening (a story I thought should have been the lead) was the United Nations World Meteorological Organization's report that CO2 levels in the Earth's atmosphere have hit record levels. In fact, CO2 levels are rising at "record-breaking speed".
CO2 is the gas we exhale when we breathe. We inhale oxygen and we exhale CO2.
Trees need CO2 to produce oxygen. We need oxygen to breathe -- we'll choke on the CO2. So what happens when there aren't enough trees to turn too much CO2 into enough oxygen?
WE NEED TREES TO BREATHE, folks. There is no other way around it.
Yet does anyone make that connection?
Does no one understand we need trees to live?
Just like we need bees to pollinate our food.
Just like we need safe, clean drinking water.
Air, water and food -- these are the basics humans need to survive. Yet we have the least respect for them.

I wrote about this in my book, in the essay "What Future Does A Tree Have?" and I'll keep writing about it as long as there is breath in me -- and trees to put it there.

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

In Praise of Homemade Pie

As published in the Citizen-Record newspaper on Wednesday, November 1, 2017, by Sara Jewell

Catherine Bussiere stands behind me in her kitchen and dishes about apple pie.

The bag of Cortland apples from Vista Bella Farm in Malagash had been sitting on our kitchen counter for over week. I’d bought them a few days after we’d finished eating the apple pie I’d made in Catherine Bussiere’s pie-making workshop, intending to make another.  
On this particular day, however, my energy was low and I couldn’t face making dough. I had a choice: sit on the couch with a remote in one hand and a bag of chips in the other, or go for a walk. I made the right decision – to be outside – but the walk didn’t lift my mood.
I looked at the bag of apples and decided to bake. Three hours later, an apple crisp and an upside-down apple cake sat cooling on the counter, and I felt happy again. I hadn’t made a pie but my husband wasn’t complaining as he shoved a bite of apple cake into his mouth.
It sounds facetious but for those of us who enjoy cooking and baking, there is nothing more healing than an afternoon surrounded by flour and butter, apples and eggs, glass bowls and wooden spoons.

The restorative power of making pie has been on my mind since I saw Catherine’s short film, Self-Portrait In May, which she created in 2016 on her rural property in Beckwith, and presented at the Atlantic International Film Festival in Halifax. In one scene, Catherine is collecting the first rhubarb of the season from her garden and making a rhubarb pie. She shot the scene showing only her hands mixing the ingredients, heaping it into a deep pie plate and covering it in dough.
“Everybody loves pie,” Catherine said when I asked what it is about pie that makes people happy. “When you create, it not only gives you joy but you’re giving joy to others.”
Even though I know how to make pie from scratch, I didn’t hesitate to sign up for her workshop in mid-November. I love the kitchen in Catherine’s old farmhouse, with its long harvest table her husband made when they first moved into the house with their family twenty years ago.
“We have this great orchard and this great garden, we have all this outdoor space,” Catherine said about why she wanted to offer the workshop. “I like to feed people and I like to cook. I want to use this space more. Let’s have a bunch of people around this table and make things.”
Things like a traditional apple pie we took home to share with our families, and in honour of Catherine’s French Canadian roots, two French apple pies we enjoyed with a cup of tea.
I take to heart the advice Catherine gave us as we mixed the dough: “Hands are the best tools.”

What is it about pie? For one thing, it brackets our winter, with the first pie of the growing season, rhubarb, and the last pie of the season, apple. Secondly, when you cook from scratch, and use what’s in your garden and back yard, when you mix with your hands instead of a spoon, when you create something lovely and tasty from basic ingredients, it becomes both a work of art and nourishment for the spirit.
Nothing banishes a bad mood like a piece of fresh-baked pie.

My mood-altering creations.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Guest Writer: Laurie Glenn Norris

Rockley’s Screaming Ghost: The Mary Harney Mystery


Is the River Philip River haunted?  Does the ghost of a young girl seek revenge for or peace from a wrong done to her more than a century ago? For years, many inhabitants of Rockley, Cumberland County, thought so. It all started back in 1877 after the disappearance of eighteen-year-old Mary Harney.

Mary lived with her mother and step-father Ann and William Harney, and two younger step-siblings on a farm in Rockley. One rainy evening in September 1877, Mary was sent out to gather up the family’s cows for milking. She never returned home. Weeks went by but the residents of Rockley, Pugwash, Port Howe, and beyond could not find a trace of her no matter how or where they searched. Many people suspected that Mary was the victim of foul play at the hands of her step-father. He, along with Mary’s mother Ann, was arrested eventually for her murder but they were released and Mary’s disappearance remains unsolved to this day.

As the years went by, people started to hear rumours of lights shining on the River Philip River and in the deserted Harney farm house late at night. Some claimed that they heard crying and screaming on the banks of the River and saw the form of a young girl floating over the fields. Was it Mary Harney seeking help as she might have done, in vain, so many years ago?

Today, few people walk late at night along the Rockley Road or by the banks of the River Philp River so the spirit of Mary Harney has no more witnesses to its search for answers and for peace.                

The Mary Harney mystery captivated my imagination back in 1995 when I first read of it in Lore of North Cumberland published by the North Cumberland Historical Society. I started to search for information on the story in the local newspapers of the time and finally came across a mention of it in the Chignecto Post. The little information that the papers provided left me with more questions than answers. I couldn’t get Mary’s story out of my mind and began to create my own version of “what might have happened.” Over twenty years later, my obsession with Mary continues and soon I will share her with others. In 2019, my first novel, Found Drowned, will be published by Vagrant Press in Halifax. In it, I retrace the mystery and attempt to give Mary the voice and the life that she lost so many years ago. 

Laurie Glenn Norris lives and writes in River Hebert, Nova Scotia. She is particularly interested in the lives and stories of nineteenth-century women. Found Drowned will be her third book.