Monday, February 17, 2020

This Is Your Groundhog Speaking

It's going to be an early spring, my friends. It was three degrees at four o'clock yesterday afternoon when Dwayne spotted these from the tractor as he plowed a path for me up the old road.
I love winter, and yesterday was a perfect winter day, but it's not wrong to be excited about an early spring, either.
Because I love daffodils as much as I love pussy willows.

Happy Monday, darlings! Hope your week is fuzzy and hope-filled!

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Feeding the Wild Birds

The staging area in the garage where I fill all the bird feeders every morning. 

"You know, birds are tough," my husband said this morning, when it was minus 28, as he watched the wild birds clamouring at the bird feeders I'd just hung in tree branches around our front yard. "They are here all summer and then all winter -- wearing the same feathers the whole time."

I suppose he's thinking of how the cattle he grew up tending thickened their coats every fall in anticipation of winter.
"You'd be amazed at the insulating power of feathers," I told him.
Those little downy feathers close to the body keep the cold from reaching them. In the summer, well, they need cool breezes as much as we do.

We've been feeding the wild birds since our first winter together, in 2007. Every year, the kinds of birds changes. We used to get a lot of evening and pine grosbeaks and blue jays; this winter, we are inundated with finches. Four dozen of them, I'm sure. So many. Plus starlings, and always mourning doves. Chickadees but not as many as in the past. The little ground feeders: juncos. They arrive early in the morning.

Ah, mornings.
My morning routine:
6 am - get up, turn on the kettle and get the fire going in the furnace
6:15 - make chai tea and do yoga
7:00 - feed the cats and make coffee (but don't turn it on yet)
7:20 - fill up all the bird feeders, get dressed and take the feeders outside
7:40 - turn on the coffee, let the dog out, feed the dog
8:00 - drink first cup of coffee and watch the new

My mornings are very busy and keep to a tight schedule. This is why I don't get upstairs to my office until 9 am, or even later.
But having the wild birds around our home is important to us. Why else would we have two huge picture windows and sliding glass doors across the front of our house if we didn't want to see what's outside?!

"Good morning, birdies," I say every morning. I can't always see them but they are there.

Do the birds know me? Do they recognize me in the long black jacket with its faux-furry hood, my blue hat, the hot pink cuff of my heavy polyurethane boots? Do they recognize me because I walk the same worn-down paths in the snow? The route to the maple tree then the birch tree, each with one large bird feeder, then the far lilac with two smaller feeders. The route to the near lilac where four feeders hang. The route to the pine trees down front where the crows and the pheasant feed on cracked corn and peanuts.
In the tops of the trees, the finches chirp. They sing for their breakfast. They tell me I'm late, that they've been waiting.

The birds show up after dawn breaks but before the sun appears over the trees on the far side of the river. And it's getting lighter earlier, but I'm not changing my morning routine. Not getting up at 5 o'clock just to feed the birds!
I do toss out a few cupfuls onto the front and back deck for those early birds, the ground feeders, who like to get there before the big birds show up and take over.

Two early birds (juncos) getting the seeds on the back deck. 
In the evenings, just after the sun sets, the only birds left flitting through the spriggy branches of the near lilac are the chickadees. They are very talkative, using several sounds.
I don't know what they're saying. 'More peanuts', perhaps; 'more sunflower chips, please'. 'Don't take the feeders yet!'
I bring all the bird feeders in every evening, otherwise the raccoons will demolish them as they try to feed. On these very cold winter nights, the raccoons don't venture out; the tracks I see belong to two young foxes. They may be the two siblings who survived last spring's doomed family (the father was shot by our neighbours, one baby I found dead on the side of the road, don't know what happened to Mother).

I'm sure I should be writing about the meditation of my morning, how how I stop to admire the vibrant colours of the morning sky as the sun rises above the river, how I breathe and the birds breathe and our breath mingles, and how their song fills my heart, and how they do know me and sing to me...
...but all I think about when I'm outside trudging my paths, shaking corn on the ground, is that first cup of hot coffee waiting for me in the kitchen...

Friday, February 14, 2020

Saying I Love You

A frozen deer hoof print heart. 

I had just told my best friend Kim that my husband and I were separated. That I would be moving away from Vancouver. And it hurt more to think about leaving her than leaving him.
“Oh, honey,” she said and held out her arms. I took one step towards her and she wrapped her arms around me. This woman started out as a mentor for my career in radio then became my boss and is now a very, very good friend. Kim is the older sister I didn’t have. She is twelve years old than me with long blonde hair and two children. It is because of her that my bellybutton is pierced.
“I love you,” she said.
“I didn’t realize you were so tall,” I replied. Apparently, this was the first time in our two year friendship that we had hugged. “I love you too.” And it was the first time I’d said that to her even though she tells me all the time.

Kim tells everybody that she loves them. At least, the everybody that she does love. Like her kids. Her husband. Her sister. Her friends.  Me. I tell my dog and my husband. If I try and tell my parents, I start to cry.

We are weird that way in my family. All my life, love was shown, not spoken. We expressed our love through eating meals together and taking drives together and by giving two or three cards – at a time, to the same person, for the same occasion – signed always with “Love”. We also gave gifts. Lots and lots of gifts. Not big expensive buy-your-love gifts but little plentiful thinking-about-you gifts. That’s how I knew I was loved without ever being told.

When someone says I love you, it’s very hard to not say it back. It seems rude. It implies you don’t feel the same. To say those words out loud to Kim, “I love you”, while standing in her kitchen wrapped in her arms with my nose pressed to her shoulder, felt very, very good. A little crack appeared in my heart. That crack wasn’t merely letting love in; it was letting love out.
Love can take us to some pretty strange places. Some pretty, some strange but most of the time, entirely unexpected. It’s like love suddenly has to pee really, really badly and jerks the car over to the side of the road then dashes into the woods without leaving any markers to find the way back.
I was quite content to hold my pee until I reached a washroom even if it was nearly impossible to press the gas pedal with my leg bouncing up and down while trying to squeeze all those down-there muscles together. But love has a way of leaking out.

After I said goodbye to Kim and her family, my dog and I drove all the way back across the country to my parents’ home. I thought I was going to hang out at the summer house in Nova Scotia for a few months and figure things out, but shortly after arriving my mother told me that Dad had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. This pretty much answered the question that had been dogging me for a couple of thousand miles: “What do I do now?”  I would help care for Dad. 

Alzheimer’s changes the way you love someone. Alzheimer’s makes you say things you could never bring yourself to say before. In my father’s case, Alzheimer’s took away his ability to say anything. The plaques and tangles attacked his language and visual-spacial abilities first.  But in the early days, we didn’t see the significance of this. To us, he just needed an extra moment – sometimes a little help – figuring out what he was trying to say. I couldn’t see that this would mean some day he couldn’t talk at all.

One evening during that first summer in Nova Scotia, my father and I were sitting side by side on the couch watching TV and I had this sudden urge to say “I love you, Dad”. It was right there on my tongue; all I had to do was open my mouth and say the words. There was no reason why I shouldn’t tell my father that I loved him, especially since one day he wouldn’t understand the words, but I hesitated, I thought, “I will cry if I say it,” and the words remained unspoken. 
That’s the problem with thinking. It takes the place of acting, of speaking. But a disease like dementia has a way of forcing an issue. First, you move your father into a nursing home but that awfulness compels you to tell him that you love him. Once you start, you cannot stop. You tell him over and over because it is what he understands best.

A few months after Dad had become a resident in the secure unit of the nursing home, I arrived after lunch to find him pacing the hallway as was his habit. When he saw me, he put his arms up in greeting and walked towards me. I kissed him on the cheek then walked to his room to lay my coat on a chair. My father followed me in and indicated he wanted me to sit next to him on the bed. He took my forearm and my hand in his and started to tell me something. By this time, he was increasingly unable to speak his thoughts clearly; what was in his brain came out his mouth as gibberish. I could tell by the way he was patting the back of my hand and by the words he was trying to form what he was trying to say and my eyes filled up with tears.
“Dad?”  He looked directly at me when he heard my voice crack.  “Are you trying to tell me that you love me?”
“Yes, yes, yes!” he exclaimed and I laid my forehead against his cheek.
“I love you too,” I squeaked.

Almost two years after we’d moved Dad into the nursing home, shortly after I’d met the man who would become my second husband, I picked up the phone in the kitchen even though my mother was there preparing supper. The conversation was short and then I said, “I love you, too. Bye.”
After I hung up, my mother looked at me and I was embarrassed. I had known Dwayne only a few months yet it was serious; expressing our love for each other had come easily after a few dates and, with a thousand miles between us for the time being, an important part of our conversations. Yet when it came to saying “I love you” in front of my mother, I had hesitated before responding.
“I wish we were a family that said that more,” my mother said to me.

Dwayne and I have been married for 12 and a half years, and my mother has lived with us for almost nine years. I’d like to tell you that I learned my lesson, that I say "I love you" as easily to my mother as I do to Dwayne and the dog and my friends. I'd like to tell you that I say “I love you” to my mother every day – because I do and I should – but I can’t.
I will cry if I say it.

Sunday, February 02, 2020

Deep Into the Woods

If I want a long walk, the destination is the top of the hill you see in the distance.
Here's the thing: (Part One)
I'm not an ambitious person, or possessing a single-minded focus. I'm not seeking fame, just a bit of name recognition (in a good way) and the fortune I need is merely financial reliability, but I don't need to win awards and sell books in airports all over the world (those are nice surprises, but not goals, you know?) I know what I like to do, and I work hard, and I love a deadline; that's why radio was a great fit for me - a deadline every fifteen minutes!
That's also why writing is a good fit; I'm good at self-directed work, and with deadlines.

I am a simple person, and my wants are simple: I want to walk and I want to write books (or, because the universe likes us to be specific, write and publish books).
That's what I remembered during my long walk this afternoon.

It didn't start out as a long walk; I just got tired of the dog staring at me so I put down the novel I was reading as part of my Sunday afternoon non-work time, and said, "Okay, let's go for a walk."
I figured it would be a quick one but once I got out there into the cold air, once we reached the beaver brook too soon, I just kept going because I needed to keep moving. The snow isn't deep, just enough to feel the calf muscles engage. I could feel all my muscles engage as we went deeper into the woods (what is left of them, I must add, as always). It felt so good. It felt like physical work, and my body loved the feeling of its heart pumping and the blood flowing.

And as I walked, and looked at deer and partridge and mouse and porcupine tracks criss-crossing the snow, I realized that this is all what I want to do.
Walk and write.
It's that simple. I love walking and I love writing.
This is why I love living in rural Nova Scotia, why I still believe I'm meant to live here.
Which reminded me of what my heart told me in January, early one morning on the yoga mat: Believe in your skills.
That's my mantra, that's what's getting me through these days and weeks and months of uncertainty, of waiting and wondering, of not knowing -- all territories I am profoundly uncomfortable to be walking through. Believe in my skills: writing and editing, speaking and presenting. It's what I do best, and what I enjoy doing. So I'm trying to stay focused on that, since I'm doing it all the time, and letting the future unfold by itself, deep in the woods where I can't see, because, you know, the forest for the trees and all that.

Here's the thing: (Part Two)
SOLVITUR AMBULANDO: It is solved by walking.
I figured something out about myself today, something that's been bugging me since the memory resurfaced 18 months ago. After that supervising teacher told me, during my final teaching practicum, that I shouldn't be a teacher, why didn't I tell anyone? I TOLD NO ONE. Now that I've remembered this, I can't believe I said nothing to anyone - not my mother or father, not my best friend, not even the guy I ended up marrying.

Turns out, that's simply my MODIS OPERANDI. (Thank goodness for Latin, right?!)

There's all this angst and worry in my brain, a constant thrum of anxiety at the back of my mind all the time. But no one knows. I haven't told anyone the true depth of my fear that I will never publish another book, that after June, I will no longer be a writer, that the church work isn't my real work, that teaching isn't my real work either. That I have no idea what I'm going to do if I'm not doing any of that.
Et cetera.
I have friends at church who likely think I'm ignoring them because I don't call, I don't drop in, but I don't want to tell them what's going on because they won't get it; most people won't get how I feel.
Because I act like someone who had her shit together. How else am I supposed to act? I put my head down and I keep working and I keep hoping for the best. Talking about it is the last thing I want to do; I want to be distracted from what's bothering me.
Today, during my walk, I realized this is what I do, have done always: I don't talk about it, and obviously, the deeper it cuts, the less I talk. As in, someone told me I shouldn't be a teacher -- and I never told anyone.
I don't seek advice, and I don't ask for help.

This isn't as bad as that time -- when my entire future was simply smashed into bits -- because there is a different little hum at the back of my mind -- a quiet little hum of hope. I don't fully trust it any more but it's still there. I can hear it; I so desperately want it to turn symphonic,
but then again,
I like things simple
so right now,
a quiet little hum of hope
is enough.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

C is for Comfort

This seemed like a good idea at the time, way back in December when I was looking ahead to a church work schedule that would accommodate my goal to have the book about my father done in six months, but let me tell you, the Alphabet of Faith is really working my brain.

Here's my idea: There are 26 letters in the alphabet. There are 26 Sundays between January 5 and June 28. Ta da! Six months of work guaranteed (with a three Sundays off).
So far, out of four Sunday, I've presented two letters: A and D. Snow kiboshed the other two (and now it looks like a huge snowstorm is on its way for this Sunday!). All I can say is the amount of thinking required with this worship plan means I'm earning my pay cheques whether I present on Sunday or not.

I decided I would post a condensed version of my Sunday message each week on my Facebook author page, but I realized my friend Shelagh, oft-mentioned here and who is mentioned in the message about Comfort, is not on Facebook so she doesn't get to read these messages. It's a shame for her not to experience more of my brilliance.

This is a long-winded way of saying I'm going to post my favourite messages here, 1) for Shelagh to read and 2) so that not every post is a Life Sucks post. They are not a typical "field notes" post but I do a lot of tromping through the field as I try to figure out what I'm going to say, and to clear my overworked brain at the end of the day.

The photo is of Shelagh and I at our church in Cobourg, Ontario, taken in May 2017 when I did a sermon the day after my Ontario book launch of Field Notes.

C is for Comfort: A condensed version of my Alphabet of Faith message for January 19.

In the summer of 2006, my mother was diagnosed with colon cancer.
It was most unwelcome, as most diagnoses are, but especially since we were six months into my father’s residency in the dementia unit at a nursing home, and our days revolved around taking care of him.

The first step of her treatment was surgery to remove the offending tumour in her colon. It happened on the Friday before the long weekend of July, and I was scheduled to read the scripture at church that Sunday. I went ahead with it, and beforehand, I said to my friend Shelagh, Wait till you hear it! It’s the perfect scripture for me to read.

I don’t remember now what it was in that scripture I was referring to, that I knew Shelagh would appreciate – because something completely different tripped me up during my reading.
And I mean, tripped me up.

Three days after my mother had surgery to remove a cancerous polyp, I had to read the words, “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace and be healed of your disease.”

Now, you all know that I can get choked up with some of the things I say, but I have never sobbed my way through a message or prayer! But that’s what I did that Sunday in July 2006– as soon as my brain saw that line and connected it with what was going on in my life, and with my mother, I started to cry.
And I had to keep reading to verse 43. I didn’t know what else to do – I’m sure no one else did either! No one came to rescue me so I kept going.

Later, during the prayers of the people, when a friend of my mother’s called out her name, a ripple of awareness passed through the congregation.

And afterwards, people came up to me and thanked me for bringing such raw and honest emotion to the reading.
I was mortified – Shelagh was laughing – and people were thanking me.

We forget that church is, and should be, a place where we can ‘let go and let God’.
Where we can get emotional, where we can open our minds and our hearts, and express whatever raw and honest emotions come to us.

We call this a sanctuary.
A place of refuge, of safety, of solace.
This is a place of COMFORT. A place where we come to worship God, sure, but where we come to find God in the midst of our lives – in the midst of our joys – but more importantly, in the midst of our sorrows and sufferings, our heartache and grief.
In the midst of our letting go.

We come here to find COMFORT – when we are letting go of burden we carry: the guilt, the shame, the regret – when we are letting go of the negative emotions we cling to: anger and resentment and bitterness – when we are letting go of love, through the end of a relationship because of distance, or divorce, or death.

We come here to find COMFORT – because this is supposed to be our COMMUNITY of faith, our faith family – where we are CONNECTED to each other based on our beliefs and values, on our history and friendships – based on what we have in common through Jesus: the assurance of love, acceptance, welcome.

Yet church is often the last place we come when we are suffering, when we are waiting, when we are lost and lonely, when we are afraid, when we are mourning…because we don’t want to get upset. We don’t want to upset others. We don’t want to make a fool of ourselves.

Let me tell you, as someone who bawled through an entire scripture reading, I’m totally over worrying about making a fool of myself by showing raw and honest emotion in the pulpit.

It’s okay to cry through a hymn. It’s okay to cry during a Christmas Eve service.
Hey, most of get all teary-eyed during a baptism – so tears of joy and tears of sorrow: every kind of raw and honest emotion is welcomed and encouraged here.

But we deny ourselves that healthy release. We deny ourselves our uniquely human response. We hold in our emotions, we deny our need to cry – often by pretending to be strong and in control, or by avoiding church all together.
Thereby denying ourselves the comfort that comes from this place, and from our faith.

“I can do all things through God who strengthens me.”

And we can do all things, get through all things, endure all things through our faith friends who strengthen us.  
“Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”

You know how we take a moment at the start of our worship to breathe? To relax the muscles of our backs and chest and shoulders?
That’s is how I live out that verse: You carry your weariness and burdens, your worries and responsibilities in your body – so when you come here, and sit inside this sanctuary, I help you find some rest – a way to put down those burdens, set aside the worries by reminding you to find connection to holy spirit through your breath, through breathing deeply into every cell of your body.

So this is what I want to say to you, at whatever level of comfort – and need to cry – you are at:

Have faith. Have faith in yourself.
Because everything you have endured so far in life, you have survived.
Because having endured the worst thing you, you were transformed into a better, stronger, wiser version of you.
You became more you because of what you went through.

The same goes for those of you who have come feeling weary and burdened: Everything you are enduring now – you will survive. And because of what you are going through, you will be stronger, wiser, and more at peace because of it.

Everything we fear – crying, dying, hurting, suffering, waiting, wondering – becomes something we appreciate and understand once we’ve survived it, and perhaps thrived because of it.
We don’t fear what we know,
so…  Trust in your experience. Trust in your strength. Trust in your own heart’s voice to guide you.

Remember what Jesus said:

“My friend, by your faith, you are healed. Go in peace.”

by Sara Jewell

Monday, January 27, 2020

Cleaning Up After Animals

In July of 2018, I wandered outside in the warm day to sit next to my husband on a pile of milled lumber he was going to use for a small structure to house two horses.
"Are you sure we should be doing this?" I said to him. "I mean, can we really afford to build a kind-of barn and keep two horses?"
He looked at me, and answered, "I've been thinking the same thing."

Less than a month later, he had a stroke, and I was glad we had cancelled that build before we started. It would have been hard for both of us to look at a half-finished structure; me seeing the end of my dreams of having a horse, and him feeling frustrated that he couldn't make that dream come true.

On Sunday afternoon, with a mild spell bringing temperatures up to plus six (Celsius), I cleaned out the chicken coop. I love doing this. I get such a feeling of accomplishment by scooping up all the dirty shavings and piles of poop and dumping everything into the wheelbarrow, then spreading fresh, dry shavings all over the floor.
I also like hearing them talk to me while I'm working; chickens being a skittish bird, it's mostly in protest when I get too close. They walk around saying "berk-berk-berk", or when I shovel right under their spot on the roost, they raise their voice, "bok-bok-bok". They are funny birds, and I enjoy caring for them. It's good for my soul.

For an hour, it's a time to focus on their needs, on the work, on the muscles in my back and arms, on getting the job done the way I want it done. It's a time to be part of their space, a welcome break from being in my own office space too much. For an hour, I don't think about what I'm working on, or need to work on, or won't get the chance to work on. It's a time of peace and quiet for my brain.

So now I wish I had horses or donkeys or goats to take care of, to be able to be in their space and be entirely focused on them, to take my mind off my worries. I'm really struggling these days, feeling adrift, sometimes even lost, wondering what meaning my work has (not only as a writer but as a worship leader and as a teacher) and what my future work will be -- because right now, I simply don't see it. I don't deal well with uncertainty, with waiting and wondering, with not knowing.  Having a couple of horses or a pair of goats to take care of would help alleviate that feeling of not having any purpose anymore.

In my first job in radio, when I lived in a new community where I knew no one and worked the morning shift which meant I was home all afternoon but went to bed at eight p.m., the cure for my loneliness was to get a dog. It changed my life. Suddenly, there was a purpose to my hours outside of work: walking twice a day, getting to know this other creature, restructuring my life to include her.
Having Maggie in my life meant I spent a lot less time focused on myself -- and that was a good thing. It's something I need now, desperately. I know it can't happen, it's simply not feasible (we don't have a building, for one thing), but it would be nice.

Having responsibility for an animal is a healing practice, a way of getting out of one's own head, and remembering there is purpose in serving others. It's the therapy of hard work, and the symbolism of heaving one's own crap out the door into the wheelbarrow.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Walk And Talk

Silence is essential. We need silence, 
just as much as we need air, just as much
as plants need light. If our minds are crowded with
words and thoughts, there is no place for us. 
~ Thich Nhat Hanh

Every so often I'll call my best friend in Ontario and say, "Wanna go for a long walk and talk? I could use about six hours!"
And she laughs and says she'll meet me at the corner.
Then we sigh and wish it were so.

This is what I miss about living so far away from my very best friends: doing the Walk-and-Talk. I'd started this with my then-new friend Shelagh just before I moved to Nova Scotia, and now a morning Walk-and-Talk is one of the reasons I like to stay at her house when I visit Ontario.

Walking alone over the field and up the road and through the woods doesn't stop me from having a Walk-and-Talk, however; I simply talk to myself. That is just as effective, albeit without the good advice. But hearing myself speak the problems that are dogging me, and hearing the one-sided conversations I'm having with other people helps me realize what I want to do, and what I shouldn't be doing -- and also how brilliant and eloquent I am when I am walking alone in the woods.

Also: this helps me sleep.

I came up with this theory this past week when, after the day of ice pellets on Sunday, there was a great base for walking. During the dark days of winter, I hit the treadmill almost every day because, without sidewalks and streetlights and our wonky weather, it's simply not as easy just to head outside for a walk. Honestly, I get tired of walking in mud.
So it's been a treat this past week to walk every day, twice a day, taking full advantage of the concrete-like walking base under a light covering of snow to go for long walks into the woods.

Since Monday, I've been sleeping through the night. I haven't been waking up at two o'clock in the morning to worry about giving up writing and getting a job, to think back over all the bad decisions I made in my 20s, to berate myself for not planning better, being braver, going back to school sooner.

That's because I'm doing all that while I walk. Because I've provided time during the day to do that kind of thinking.
When I'm on the treadmill, I'm watching TV, and wearing headphones so other people's voices are close and loud. I can't think.  But when I walk outside by myself, I'm walking in silence. I'm able to think because there are no voices in my head. And that thinking is kinder and more productive than the middle-of-the-night thinking; I'm not as hard on myself, and can pull out of the negative spiral with plans and reminders -- finish this project THEN worry -- you have six months THEN you can deal with that -- The gut-clenching worries dissipate in the daylight, thank goodness. The work seems possible, the goals seem achievable.

The best part is by the time I turn around to head home, I'm done thinking. I'm doing yacking. The Walk-and-Talk becomes just a walk, and it's quiet inside my head as well as all around me.

Funny, so often we don't want to walk in silence, we don't want to fill that space with our thoughts but now I know how essential it is -- we need to face our worries, we need to talk ourselves down from the DEFCON 1 of fretting about the future. We need the cold fresh air and the distraction of snowflakes and the beauty of bare tree limbs against a slate grey sky.
Sleeping through the night makes facing the work (and the worries, let's be honest, they're always there) much easier. Tossing and turning solves nothing; doing the work gets me closer to my goals.

I am grateful to have experienced this -- to have been reminded of something I didn't realize I was missing. Grateful to have had several good night's sleep. Grateful to have completed another draft of the manuscript about my father's life and sent it off to the printer to be ready for another go-around next week.
Grateful to have had a week of breathing in the silence and breathing out the thoughts. Grateful for lungs full of snowflakes and a mind empty of useless information.