Monday, September 21, 2020

Taking Down the Prayer Flags

 The season is changing. 

My morning walk now begins at seven o'clock, just as the sun crests the trees on the other side of the river. This means I get to wave at Debbie, the bus driver, as she heads up the road to start her route. 
The mornings are gorgeous, but it means my work days begins later than it should. I'm not ready to shift yet from the morning walk in the crisp air to morning yoga in the living room, and the treadmill in the basement. 

We had two nights of frost, and all the flowers are done. The red poppies that suddenly emerged in the middle of the messy lawn where the two spruce trees blew down last year are shriveled up into memory. 
I was able to salvage enough sunflowers for two bouquets for church, and one more for the house. They are dripping pollen all over the dining room table. 
The chickens are able to roam outside the pen now, in the yard, in the cucumber patch. 

A husband and friend died this morning, and I know those who are grieving. My own husband sat down on a concrete block in the sunshine, to think about the news. Death is closer to home these days. 

The prayer flags are down, tucked away safely as the tropical storm that was Hurricane Teddy gets set to arrive tomorrow. I listened to the sound of their gentle flapping throughout our hot, dry summer. Now I'll listen to the rain and the wind. 

The sun shone today and it is warm. It is always the way before the storm arrives, and afterwards, we'll wake up to another sunny day, as if the storm never happened. 
The chickens peck at the grass and climb up the steps to the back deck. They follow me across the yard, hoping I have bread in my pockets, and curious as to what happens next. 

Friday, September 18, 2020

River Supper

Something happens
in the midst of turmoil and uncertainty,
in the middle of the familiar routines and new protocols,
at the end of a weekend,
at the end of the summer,
and you don't expect it. 

You don't even see it coming.

You arrive and greet everyone, 
you accept a glass of wine and help pass around 
bite-sized bacon-wrapped chestnuts and mushroom-cheese melts. 
The host hops in your husband's truck to go light the bonfire
and the hostess rallies everyone in the kitchen to carry food. 

You are handed a foil-covered pie 
and you follow the path through the woods to the gravel road 
that winds down
and down
towards the river. 

At the end of the walk, the pie still safely in your hands,
you come around a wide copse of poplar trees
who leaves are rustling in the evening wind,
the sound of water rushing in a stream,
and you see it before you:

a table covered in bottles and beverages,
a bonfire and a barbecue,
the field and the trees. 

Two men in conversation. 

Your breath catches in your throat and you think,
This. This is what I've been missing. This is what I've been craving.
This is what I need right now. 

This spot.
These long-lost friends. 
This sunset meal. 

Supper by the river. Hamburgers and sausages, sweet potato salad and green bean salad. 
Wine. Mint water. Iced tea. 

I've never done something like this. 
We're so used to gathering on decks that this -- what words describe it? It felt like entering another world. It felt like coming home.
I don't know why I felt like that. I don't know why my heart leaped. I don't know why I exhaled like I'd been holding my breath for a very long time.

Perhaps it was just the unexpectedness,
the visual impact of the space,
the al fresco setting,
all coming together in that moment,
during this time
when gathering
is done with caution. 
Outside. Where it's safe to breathe.

That's it: This was abandon. This was freedom. This was elemental. 
Sky. Earth. Water. Fire. 
Friendship. Food. 
And laughter. 

All the while, the river flowed past us,
the tide rising,
as always, not unexpected, 
like our breath,
and we didn't even notice.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Our Season of Sunflowers

The Giant Russians alongside the chicken coop

Despite knowing they won't be here for long,
they still choose to live their brightest lives.
~ Rupi Kaur

We've reached the end of the sunflower season and what a season it was. Our best ever in the seven years we've been growing sunflowers on our property.
For the first few years, they were small patches here and there -- in front of the chicken coop, or in a strip alongside the vegetable gardens. For the past five years, Dwayne has planted six rows -- 400 seeds! -- on the lot next door by the road. 
People ask, "Why do you plant so many sunflowers? Do you sell the flowers? Do you sell the seeds?"
It's not a business venture at all. We do it because it makes people happy. We live on a busy road so lots of people watch the progress from tilled soil to sprouts to the first blossoms. All through June and July, people would stop Dwayne in town and tell him about how well his plants were growing! 

I decided to plant sunflowers in the "dirt bath" area I created for the chickens along the sunny side of the coop -- a spot they've not yet used because they prefer my flower gardens! Once they are let out into the yard for their fall forage, I figure they'll see the sunflowers and make a beeline for the dirt underneath them. 

Speaking of bees, I'm not seeing as many this year as in previous years. In fact, every year, there are fewer and fewer bees. Over in Dwayne's patch, I should be able to hear the buzzing of bees flitting from flower to flower but sadly, it's too quiet. Only the occasional bee, instead of a bee per blossom. 

We need to pay attention to that, unless it's really too late. 

Dwayne's sunflowers are visible from a half a kilometre away.

Friday, September 04, 2020

In This House


It took me all summer, but I finally finished the signs inspired by my niece, Mimi, who made the same ones that her father nailed to a tree in the front yard of their Atlanta, Georgia, home. 

Only I can't bring myself to nail them to the pine tree by our driveway because our winter weather will be hard on the signs, even if they're lacquered, and I just don't want to drive nails into my tree. I'll have to work out how to wire them together then hang them from one or two nails. 

For now, my easel works perfectly as a display since these signs inspired this week's church message: In This House. They're in my kitchen right now but on Sunday morning, those signs and that easel will travel into town to the sanctuary where I get to say, "In THIS house, we believe..." 

You better believe it. I'm getting a little radical but you know what I say: I'm too old for this shit. We don't have much time left to fix this world and start living like decent human beings. We know how we are supposed to live; we simply choose not to do it. 

Please: Love your neighbour. Take care of each other. Don't be an asshole. 

That last one is from the Gospel According to Sara. 

Thursday, September 03, 2020


Inspiration is everywhere these days. I received a text this morning from a friend who bought Field Notes, the book, a couple of years ago, but moved -- and didn't find the book until she unpacked! 
Receiving her text and another friend's email inspired the following: 

These are discouraging days for everyone. A teacher friend who has started back to work in Ontario emailed me last night to say she didn't phone because she was in a crying kind of mood, "all work-related, everything's fine, just overwhelming".

Yeah. These are the days of the "crying kind of moods". Our work lives are complicated, even disheartening, at the best of times, let alone now, in the worst of times.

I'm filtering this through my personal experience as a writer to illustrate what we need to do: Reach out to each other and give a compliment. Right now is the right time to tell someone they are good at what they do.

Every day I wonder if I'll ever publish another book. I try to be okay with that, but honestly, I'm not okay with that - but I don't know what else to do. This morning, I received a note that read, in full:
“Good morning! I finished Field Notes last night – I loved it!! It is like you have taken the words from my own heart and put them on paper…so many similar stories ha ha. I even have a Christmas tree ornament I bought here years ago with the word “Laugh” on it. Scary & awesome. The story Funeral For A Mouse made me cry, I really felt that one. And the stories of you driving the car and teaching in the outdoor school made me laugh out loud ha ha. Such a good read – I will treasure this book!”

A book to treasure. Oh, my heart. 
It's amazing how one simple yet joy-filled text can give a person the energy to keep going, can help a person believe in themselves and what they do, even when everything is overwhelming.

We can't hug with our arms so let's hug with our words.

These are hard days but you are good at your job. Whether you're a teacher, a nurse, a barista, a janitor, a cashier -- just to name a few -- your work matters and makes a difference. Even if you don't see it, you will make a difference in at least one person's life each and every day. Keep going. Keep doing what you do. You are good at what you do. 

We need you.

Even when you're in a crying kind of mood.

~ by Sara Jewell, originally published on Facebook 

Tuesday, September 01, 2020

The Starbucks Story

It's been a busy two weeks since I last posted, including two days last week at a Mental Health First Aid training course in Halifax. I stayed at the hotel where the course was being held and lucky for me, there was a Starbucks nearby so I could pick up a coffee on my way back from my morning walk on day two. 

Inside the store, I was doing everything wrong – like not realizing we no longer pour our own cream – so I finally ended up explaining that this was my first trip away from home, away from my own home where everything is organized according to my needs, not according to pandemic protocols. 
I have no idea if the young woman serving me really heard my story through my mask and the plexi-glass barrier but regardless, it was a very good cup of coffee that I quite enjoyed. 

Later, I went back to that Starbucks during our mid-morning break. Different clothes, different mask; I didn’t expect to be remembered or recognized as the hillbilly who couldn’t even find the door to go in three hours earlier. 

This time, I had to wait for my order and as I stood on my designated spot on the floor, I looked around. 
“This section temporarily closed” said the sign in the middle of a long, wooden table with eight chairs around it. 
“This section temporarily closed” said the sign on a bank of seats along the window. 
It was disheartening to witness in person how we can’t gather anymore at any of our favourite places. Most of our former activities – much of our former lives – are truly off-limits now.

Then I heard, “Here’s your coffee, Sara.”

How did she know my name? Wow, these guys are good. I grabbed my coffee-to-go and MY NAME WAS SPELLED CORRECTLY on the sticky receipt. How did they know? 

Because I was wearing a name tag for the course. 
I laughed, the person behind the counter laughed, and I said we should all wear name tags.  
I headed out feeling special and light-hearted.


As I crossed the parking lot and hit the grassy verge at the street, a wave of emotion swelled up in me. 
For everything we have lost. 
For the way everything has changed. 
For what has been lost and may never be regained.

In that moment of upswelling emotion, I could have cried. For the way our world used to be. When we could be around others and chat and laugh without fear. When we could connect with others without face coverings and hand sanitizer. When we could hug and touch, comfort and acknowledge. When we could pass on the sidewalk without averting our heads, or stepping out  onto the street. 
When it didn’t feel like we were avoiding each other. 

Yet consider what happened: On that morning, in the early days of our “new normal”, during this new way forward into a different future, I was called by name. 
I felt recognized and known. 
In the midst of the shitstorm that is the world right now, when the news is distressing and overwhelming yet we need to sit with our discomfort because this IS our world right now, someone spoke my name.  

It happened only because I was wearing a name tag so it’s not the literal fact that matters but rather what it represents: The power of speaking a name, the impact of hearing your own name spoken unexpectedly in the midst of all of this chaos and uncertainty.
There is so much we don’t know about the weeks and months to come but – 

I know you.
You know me.
We still connect. Even if it’s fleeting.

Remarkably, life is going on. 
We are the same yet different.
We are finding the way forward; even if the path seems more treacherous, it is still familiar. 
We are figuring out ways to do what we need to do. We are willing to give up our wants. 
We are more resilient and creative, more adaptable and innovative, more compassionate and thoughtful than we give ourselves, and others, credit for.
Which is why we need to work together – with, not against each other. 

It’s why we need to wear a name tag when we go out into the world. 
Because hearing your name spoken from behind a mask, from behind a barrier is the sweetest encouragement we can get in this brave new world we’re living in. 

~ by Sara Jewell
cross-posted on Facebook at @JewellofaWriter

Thursday, August 20, 2020

The Last Word on Humility and Truth

Our August holiday on PEI, 2019  

Honestly, the morning flung some serious words at me, so thank goodness it was the day for washing windows. That offered me the time doing mindless physical activity to process the words and their meanings, and how they make me feel.

I follow a writer and painter -- a creator -- named Morgan Harper Nichols. Her words of inspiration and encouragement (in her newly published book) got me through my "season of angst" last fall.  But she posts every day on social media and this morning, I read this: 

Let this be a season of slowing down and revisiting.
What beautiful things can come to life in the waiting. 
Sometimes it's the gritty in-between that helps you focus and see:
Now is the time to eliminate distractions and concentrate 
on what you actually need.
There is no shame if you're not further along. 
You don't have to pretend you have it all together. 
You have been waiting for so long...
You are also learning to be strong -
you are gathering wisdom and you are learning
the lessons you need for the rest of the journey. 

Now, those are words that went straight to my heart.
Then came straight out of my pen. 
I immediately copied those words down to re-read whenever I think I'm not doing enough or accomplishing enough, or even good enough. I mean, "You have been waiting for so long... you are gathering wisdom and you are learning..."

THAT'S how I fell. 

Then I read a blog post by Canadian writer Deryn Collier; she lives and writes in British Columbia. I found her mystery novels a few years ago -- only to discover, as I waited for book three, that her publisher had dropped her. What? So that's what publishing is like. All about the market, not the book or the writer. 
I receive her email newsletter so I've followed her struggles to figure out what to do next, her determination to recreate her work, and be true to herself. 

Her blog post is entitled, "Five Reasons Why I Hate Giving Publishing Advice". 
Two of the five points really stood out for me: 
1) (her #2) Publishing is like musical chairs, and when the music stops, not everyone gets a chair. 
2) (her #5) Traditional publishing may not be the only way. 

Collier wrote, "What makes a book great is the author’s vision, imagination, creativity and willingness to do the work. What makes a book sell is a whole other matter."
That's what I keep running up against. I can do the work; no one wants what I've written. 
I can't help myself -- I have to add, Not yet, anyway. (Ever hopeful. Can't give up.)
Her blog post is one I'll read over and over, and find something new -- encouraging, discouraging, inspiring -- each time, depending on the kind of day I'm having 
But as Collier says, being creative, honouring one's own creative vision, pursuing that vision every day, is what matters most. 

So I've been thinking about the musical chairs idea, and hoping that you don't get just one shot at that game. I'm hoping that musical chairs is played over and over, and one of these times, I'll be the last one sitting when the music stops. 

Best-selling author Cheryl Strayed shared this quote from James Baldwin on her Facebook page this week, and it now sits beneath my monitor so I can see it the whole time I'm working: 

"Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: disciples, love, luck, but above all, endurance." 

Or as my friend, Sarah, always tells me, "Just keep swimming, just keep swimming." 
Even Dory has words of wisdom for me. 

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Persistence and Pep Talks

My father with "Bob the Bull", Pugwash Point, August 1991
It took a few minutes to land on the right title for this post, but each one I chose made me laugh, because the photo put a whole different spin on them. The photo really has nothing to do with what I'm writing, but I didn't see the point in another sunset over the field. Instead, here's a nice memory from our summer holidays in Nova Scotia. 

I had a lovely, long catch-up phone conversation with my friend Jennifer, who lives in Toronto. (She's mentioned in Field Notes in  my essay about the chickens, because she's the friend who was with me when I bought my fancy red boots in the Bloor West Village.)

We both turned 50 this year, and have been friends since university. Jennifer's life is different from mine -- she's a mother of two, lives in the city, has a good job -- but like me, she's feeling like she's still searching for what she really wants to do. In her case, it's feeling stagnant in a job she's done, and done well and enjoyed, for 20 years. For me, it's trying to get around the obstacles that are keeping me from publishing more books. 

I told her about the branding/platform/ten-thousand followers that risk-adverse publishers are looking for. She told me the story of a Toronto novelist whose first book was rejected not because it wasn't a good story, but because "no one wants to read a story set in Edwardian times", the publisher said. Then the TV show, "Downtown Abbey" hit -- and suddenly, the publishers were panting for her novel! Jennifer said so much of publishing about timing, and I agree; there's a lot of "right place, right time, right story" -- pure luck -- involved, and that's what I'm up against. 

Afterwards, as I thought about our 2-hour conversation and all the things we discussed, I realized I'm a columnist and an essayist; it's my job to be interested in a lot of different things. And now so much of my writing is interconnected; even if I'm not doing the city girl-country girl persona as much, my rural life in Nova Scotia is always a through line, whether I'm writing about food, death, or faith. 

(Ha! Right there -- three of the major themes of life!) 

As I progressed through my chores after supper -- washing dishes, watering plants, cleaning kitty litter, having a bath -- all those quiet, physical activities that promote contemplation -- I realized I'm okay. My work is okay. If I'm truly committed to this work, and I am because I love it, as discouraging and disheartening as it can be, then I must persist

After all, 2020 is the year when some of my persistence paid off. Two articles that I've been pitching for several years are finally being published. Both come out in October issues (one was bumped from the June issue because of the impact of the pandemic). It seems like whenever I think it's time to give up -- and I started out this year believing that and planning for that -- something happens that tells me to hang in there. 

Jennifer really believes that my memoir, The Funeral Director's Daughter, will get picked up because "everyone's talking about funerals now" and that's all the encouragement I need to keep doing what I'm doing, and doing it my way. 

I'm still out standing in my field -- and not letting other people's bullshit chase me over the fence. 

Sunday, August 16, 2020

A Lesson In Humility

Sunset over the field

I'm on another three-week vacation from church work, which allows me to focus on other writing projects. The "secret" summer book project is coming along nicely, and I might be able to reveal what it is in September. A friend wants to give it as Christmas gifts so it's good to have a deadline. 

My other not-a-secret book project is getting The Alphabet of Faith (TAOF) -- as a collection of 26 essays -- ready to pitch to a publisher. I decided to spend Friday working on the book proposal and expected to have a lot to show for the effort.

I hit a wall almost immediately, and it flattened me. Even the emergency ice cream cone at two in the afternoon couldn't pull me out the downward spiral. The kind of spiral that has me almost frantic about what I'm going to do if I can't be a writer. 

For some reason, I starting working on the book proposal for TAOF ass-backwards. Perhaps because the book feels ready to go -- there's a title and the essays only need to be edited -- I thought I could just skip the whole "What is the book about?" and start in with "Who is the target audience/market for this book?"

Thinking it would give me good guidance, I looked up the guru of non-fiction book proposals and her suggestions for statistics about my intended audience and analysis of what the market is looking for ended up overwhelmed and discouraged, to the point of despair.

I'm not the kind of writer who things like a business person. Book proposals are hard enough -- self-promotion is hard enough! -- without adding in market analysis and statistical representation.  

Part of the problem is something that has dogged me for years: The demand a writer have a brand, a platform, and now, since social media, tens of thousands of followers. 

This is not me, never has been, never will be. I'm a writer, not a YouTuber; when I post on social media, I'm posting prose, not videos. It's my instincts, to write, not to pick up my phone and record myself talking. 

I don't have a brand; I'm not one thing, and I don't have only one interest. Sure, the whole city girl/country girl is one angle I write from, but I also write about faith, and dying/death (funeral service). Here's the thing: when I pitched a second Field Notes book and the Field Notes cookbook, I mentioned my "Field Notes brand" and was told, "You don't have a brand." 

It could be my great life flaw that I've never landed on one interest, one topic and made that my entire life's work; a lot of people do it, but it's not me. That's just the way I'm wired, unfortunately

It's not unfortunate. It's just who I am. I'm trying to accept that instead of letting it discourage me and make me feel like a failure. A failure because I don't have a brand or a platform or ten thousand followers.

Be true to yourself. That phrase is a life raft I cling to. Sure, everybody needs a bit of tweaking, but if sharing my thoughts via video is not my instinctive activity, then doing it will look and sound awkward and fake. 

What pulled me out of my funk was humility.

Rick Warren says, "Humility is not thinking less of yourself. It's thinking of yourself less." 

I sat in the gazebo and thought about the publishers I was thinking of pitching, and the faith-based writers I read, and realized 1) I don't have the chops to play with those big girls of Christian publishing, and 2) there's nothing wrong with a small publisher who probably will recognize my name and snap this book right up. I won't gain ten thousand followers with this publisher, but I'll reach a lot of people, and a lot of people who know me and like my writing will support this book. 

Humility. It took hitting that wall to make me put aside my ego and truly look at the situation I created. It's not wrong to aim high, but I was not being realistic, or sensible. I don't have a brand or a platform or a specific angle. That's not who I am. I've always believed the right book at the right time would open up a path for me. Field Notes was not that book; perhaps The Alphabet of Faith will be, perhaps The Funeral Director's Daughter will be. 

Who knows? The point is to to pick myself up off the ground, put a Bandaid on that big scrape on my nose (and ego), and find a way around that wall. And find a way to live through the uncertainty.

Best-selling author Cheryl Strayed posted this quote by author James Baldwin on her Facebook page: "Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but above all, endurance."

Humility AND persistence. I can do both.

So how do I get around the wall? Simple: Start with editing the essays for a wider audience than my congregation/Facebook friends, and figure out what the book is about. It really is simple; why didn't I do that in the first place? 

Ah, yes: Ego.  

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Introducing Ethel's Echinacea


This is Ethel's Echinacea. It's not an official name, but they're in my garden so I get to call them what I want.

These flowers are a gift from the garden of my friend Ethel, and they are thriving in this garden by the back deck, with the rudbekia transplanted last year, and the phlox transplanted this year -- saved, in fact, from being crushed by the effort to move the greenhouse. There's also honeysuckle clumping up in there.

On the right in the photo are the Stella daylilies planted in memory of my dog, Stella. I can't remember which Stella's they are but they are a darker red than I expected. That's how it goes with gardens; you never know what is going to pop up, what is going to thrive, what is going to bloom one year and never show up again. 

Audrey Hepburn said, "To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow."

Here's a little announcement related to this two-level back deck: next year, Ethel's Echinacea will be overlooking my kitchen garden. This fall - or even as soon as the heat wave ends - we are going to tear off the lower deck and start the work to transform it into a space that will grow herbs and other kitchen gardeny things. My winter project will be figuring that out. 

We're also going to create the space for a salsa garden where we will grow the tomatoes, jalapeno peppers and green & yellow peppers that go into Rose's Salsa (recipe from my friend Rose). 

What would I do without my gardening friends?? 

"Friends are flowers in the garden of life."

A word about the lighting of that photo of Ethel's Echinacea. I was watering at sunset last night, the sun going down as it does over the far trees at the edge of the field. But the opposite sky was full of grey clouds -- teasing me about the possibility of rain -- and this combination turned the light pinky and orangey, depending on the moment. 

When I saw the light on Ethel's Echinacea, I wanted to capture it. Every blossom coming out, thriving, offering its healing and its hope. Keeping me in the pink. 

Wednesday, August 05, 2020

Rain Before Seven

The 60 per cent chance of showers came through! 
This wasn't enough water for the roots but I swear you could hear the leaves gulping down the drops. 
As well as a huge sigh of momentary relief from all the plants: "Ah, moisture!" 

Yes, you can hear these things. Nature speaks. 

But so does the Nova Scotia country boy: "Rain before seven, fine by eleven," and it is supposed to clear off by noon, leaving us with sunshine and gusty winds, courtesy of what's left of Hurricane/Tropical Storm Isaias. 

Tuesday, August 04, 2020

Heat Wave

This is crazy.
I really hoped we'd get a day of rain from Hurricane/Tropical Storm Isaias but it's heading west of us. 
The chickens get four buckets of cold water a day; I'm been a bit lax on the frozen treats but it looks like they're going to get them for the next few days. 

This is not good. 
We're lucky -- we draw water from a spring along another country road, and fill four or five water barrels in order to keep our gardens watered, but anyone who relies on a well... by the beginning of next week, we might be hearing stories of people in trouble with water. 

People love to complain about precipitation, whether it's snow in winter or rain in summer, but the ground needs the water. Snow fills our wells and rain grows our vegetables and flowers. It's a country thing -- we need water.

And on a personal note, I was hoping for a break from watering just to give my right arm a break. I've developed a case of "bucket elbow"! 

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Righting A Wrong

I made another sign

For thirteen years, an injustice has bothered me.
As injustices go, this one is small and very personal -- it happened to someone I love, and I have an overdeveloped sense of fairness. But it also was an injustice I could do something about.

Dwayne and I are both survivors of divorce, but he lost far more than I did when his long marriage ended in 2002 (at the same time mine ended). The canoe in these photos was his but she sold it. That's the simplest way to tell the story. And it's a typical divorce story. There are no unique divorces, just He said-she said, who did what when, I want-you want, Let's just get this over with. 

After we married, Dwayne told me about the cedar strip canoe he bought from a maker in Ontario (see? all good things come to him from Ontario!) when he was forty, and how he'd added his nickname to the thwart in front of his seat in the stern. It was perhaps a harder loss to bear than anything else he lost.

He's nicknamed "Flint" for his hard head, but he has a soft heart.

I knew where the canoe was -- tormentingly close, in a garage just up the road -- and  I knew who owned it -- a really nice guy. It bothered me that Dwayne lost his cherished canoe. It bothered me that he didn't fight for it, that he just gave in and said, "Fine, take it."
Because she only wanted it to sell it. 
Yet even as I fretted about the injustice of it, I never felt the urge to spend the money to buy it back. It didn't feel like my job to correct the decision he made in another lifetime.

Then in June, on a boat run upriver, as we passed by this guy's house and I thought about what was in his garage, the voice inside me, that voice that speaks clearly and it always, unfailingly right, said, "Get it back". 
I've learned not to ignore that voice. In 1996, when the voice said, "Break up with him," but I ignored it, I ended up in my own unhappy marriage, so that's how I learned to trust the voice.

I thought at first the canoe would make a perfect birthday gift but realized I couldn't wait until the end of August -- one just doesn't know what could happen, right? So I decided to give it as an anniversary-and-birthday gift. 
I made the deal to buy the canoe on July 13th, and Dwayne's father died the next day. So for two weeks, I knew that as he struggled with the loss of his father, he was going to gain a piece of his life back. 

The voice is always, unfailingly, and sometimes freakishly, right. 

I love all the serendipity in our life together. We ebb and flow, we give "for better or worse" a proper workout, but this time, Dwayne married a fighter. He married someone who doesn't give up, who won't give in, who forgets nothing and remembers every detail, every date, every word. 

Who trusts in the voice that guides her life. 

The voice that brought her back to the East Coast when her marriage ended.
The voice that brought a beloved canoe back into Dwayne's life just when he needed it. 
That voice brought brought the canoe back into our marriage right when we need it. It's been ten years - ten! - since we canoed. Life just got complicated; for awhile, we were physically unable to lift a canoe or paddle, then eventually we stopped making time. I got Dwayne a fishing boat for his 60th birthday and that's what we use on the river. 

But this canoe is who he is, and canoeing is who we are together, how we started out as a couple. And I couldn't have planned the day better for taking the "new" canoe out on the river and getting reconnected; the day was hot and the river was calm. Without saying a word, we renewed our vows: to keep paddling together, honouring the gentle strength up front and the power steering in back, taking up the slack with the other needs to rest, always moving forward yet going with the flow, knowing that even as the tide goes out, it will always come in again.  

There's no place he'd rather be. 
As Henry David Thoreau said, "Everyone must believe in something. I believe I'll go canoeing."

Monday, July 27, 2020

Dedicating the Sunflowers

As I watched the slideshow of family photos at my father-in-law's funeral on Saturday, July 18, I saw photos of Donn with the sunflowers he'd grown along the back of the barn or later, around the flagpole. It was before my time so I never saw those gardens, but they were his thing, a fact reflected in the sunflowers in the flower arrangements around his casket and the sunflower bouquets his great-granddaughters laid at his grave.

That's when I realized it had become Dwayne's thing, without him even realizing he was picking up where his father left off. We inherit a lot of traits and habits from our parents, some good, some bad, but planting sunflowers is definitely a good one.

So I decided to paint a sign dedicating this year's sunflower garden to Dwayne's father. The sign says, Donn Mattinson Memorial Sunflower Garden. 

At bedtime on the night of the funeral, I was reading a few pages from "The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver", and came across How Would You Live Then? Although the whole poem is a must-read, the final lines in particular made me think of my father-in-law:

"...What if
You painted a picture of a tree, and the leaves
began to rustle, and a bird cheerfully sang
from its painted branches? What if you suddenly saw
that the silver of water was brighter than the silver
of money? What if you finally saw
that the sunflowers, turning toward the sun all day
and every day -- who knows how, but they do it -- were
more precious, more meaningful than gold?"

~ Mary Oliver

Sunday, July 26, 2020

The Power of Gardening To Change Our Lives

Bee balm hinting at future redness in the tomatoes. 

In committing this summer to creating balance in my life between inside and outside, brain labour and body labour, sitting down and moving around, books and dirt, I have felt so much better. I look forward to and enjoy my work around the yard in the evenings, even with the deer flies buzzing and biting, even with feeling like most of my work is pulling weeds! 

There is balance even in the weeds. Although currently the balance of weeds on my property has the weeds winning! 
Nevertheless, spending more time outside in my gardens, watching my kale regrow after being eaten by, mostly likely, the groundhog, seeing the bright red bee balm flourish everywhere (!), and being in the "new and improved" greenhouse at least twice day now, I can say I feel the difference. I feel a balance restored to me that a mere hour-long walk every morning couldn't do. There is something about gardening -- tending to the soil, the seeds, the plants, the fruits and the flowers -- that truly taps into something essential. 

This is from the opening of an article in the July/August issue of Spirituality & Health magazine. The article is actually an excerpt from Sue Stuart-Smith's book, "The Well-Gardened Mind" (Scribner, 2020). 

~ We are a grassland species that emerged in the savannah landscapes of Africa.

Over the course of evolution, our nervous and immune systems have been primed to function best in response to various aspects of the natural world. This includes how much sunlight we get, the kind of microbes we are exposed to, the amount of green vegetation around us, and the type of exercise we take. 

When we work with  nature outside us, we work with nature inside us. It is why people feel more fully alive and energized in the natural world, why gardeners report feeling calmer and more vigorous, and why spending time in nature awakens the connection-seeking aspect of our human nature.

Later, Stuart-Smith wrote, 

~ The contemporary emphasis on self-improvement and self-investment can make caring for something other than ourselves seem like a depleting activity, but the neuro-chemistry of care is not like that. Care has inbuilt neuro-chemical rewards. The feelings of calm and contentment that accompany nurture have benefits for giver and receiver alike, and there are obvious evolutionary reasons why this should be so. The anti-stress and antidepressant effect of these pleasurable feelings arises through the action of the bonding hormone oxytocin and release of beta-endorphins, the brain's natural opioids.

What a beautifully written argument for more nature, more gardening, more outside. Everyone needs to spend time taking care of plants, putting their hands in dirt, hearing water pour over plants. It's healing, it's uplifting, it's essential. 

Tuesday, July 21, 2020


I managed to grow something from seed.

I planted tomato seeds, daisy seeds, coneflower seeds AND poppy seeds and not one, seriously, not even one seed germinated. Not even in the lovely heat of the relocatedgreenhouse. 

Not being one to ever give up, I put eight romaine lettuce seeds and eight spinach seeds in two different planters on the back deck. 

And I actually grew something -- enough to make salads! I'm not a complete grow-my-own-food failure but one cannot live on spinach and lettuce.

Especially considering my experiment with growing strawberries in hanging planters is an utter failure, even with the fancy hanging planters hanger my husband built. 

Not being one to ever give up, I'm going to build (okay, well, Dwayne will build) a raised bed for the strawberries. 

Like bee balm, I won't quit until I'm knee-deep in strawberries, too. 

Saturday, July 18, 2020

The Death of a Wealthy Man

Donn Mattinson in the 1950s

My father-in-law died earlier this week; his funeral takes place this afternoon. Although I have known Donn Mattinson for merely 13 of his 94 years, I had the pleasure of writing about him and Mary, his wife of 72 years, for several stories in Field Notes, including the opening one, “A River Runs Through Him”. 

Donn was born and raised, and worked and lived his entire life in rural Nova Scotia. He came from that pre-WW2 generation that made do with what they had, that did more with less, reused and repurposed everything, and didn’t waste resources or time. Donn’s generation did not take for granted what they earned and what they were lucky enough to be given. There was no concept of privilege or entitlement. You certainly didn’t maintain a balance on a credit card, or spend beyond your means. 

Even as the world changed and he struggled to keep up with, or just understand, new ways of doing things, Donn remained steadfast in what mattered most: his devotion to family and to work, his dedication to his church and community, his generosity towards his wife and his children, his faithfulness to every aspect of his life. 

In June 2018, Donn had a heart attack. While he was recovering in hospital, I went to visit him just before regular visiting hours so we enjoyed a rare hour alone together. He shared some of his stories from his then-92 years of life with me.  

He reminded me of his advice to his two sons (and likely to his grandsons): “There’s no point in wearing a pair of pants if they don’t have a jack knife and a handkerchief in the pocket.”

He spoke a lot about being poor. He said his parents were poor, he said he and Mary were poor. “I’ve never had those things other people have. Two cars and a cottage and a camp. They take their wives on a trip down south,” he told me.

In response, I asked Donn, “Do you have any debt?” The answer was no.

It shocked me he could still see himself as poor – despite his large house, the barns and the field along the river, and his nice truck. He had everything people want, yet he couldn’t see what was so obvious. He was wealthy beyond measure when it came to the one thing money can’t buy: Love.  

I’m sure the devotion, generosity and faithfulness Dwayne gives to me, he learned from his father. How a man treats the woman in his life – his mother and his wife – says far more about the man than the money he makes, the truck he drives, and the house in which he lives. 
More and more, I see Donn in my husband, and for that I am grateful: Donn’s values, and what he valued in life, live on in my husband. 
What also lives on in Dwayne is a tendency to exaggerate, and leap to the worst-case scenario; on the other hand, Dwayne waits patiently in the truck for me, no matter how late I’m running or how long I’m taking in a store.

My impression of my father-in-law is that he was affable – easy-going and easy to get along with.
“Actually, he was,” Dwayne agrees. “He had to be really mad to get mad. I’ll never forget the day he beat the power saw to pieces because it wouldn’t start in the cold.” (That story ended up in Field Notes.) 

I wrote a version of the following for a newspaper column in 2012: 

Whenever we go four-wheeling through the family’s 300-acre woodlot, Dwayne tells stories about “working in the woods” with his father when he, Dwayne, was a teenager. He says it both hard work and good exercise. 
Hearing the affection in his voice, and the longing, I finally asked him why those memories mean so much to him.
“I miss spending time with my father,” he answered. He also misses the fresh air and the camp jays that showed up every day once father Donn signalled the start of dinnertime by building a fire. For Dwayne, those days of frozen sandwiches in his lunch pail and hot tea in a thermos are inexorably tied to the opportunity to the bond with his dad.

(These are the memories Dwayne still turns to now, following his father’s death. These are the memories in which he finds comfort and reassurance.)
“My father’s greatest strength was providing for his family,” Dwayne told me. “He worked steadily. He had a gravel truck and the farm. He sold wood. He’d come home from haying or putting in grain, have a bit to eat then out and turn on the tractor lights so he could sharpen fence posts till ten o’clock. Dad used to say, ‘Hard work and honesty pay off’. And he’s right. He proved it. And so did I.”

Sometimes, we see older people as entrenched, as stubborn, as “backwards” and “out of touch”, and yet, the values that our elders cherish (or “cling to”, we might say) are the foundation of a good life. If we are fortunate, those values are the wealth we inherit. 

Faithfulness. Honesty. Dedication. 

In the end, at his end, as Donn looked back on his life, he had 
no debt
and no regrets. 

He died as he lived: at peace with his life, in love with his wife, and at home in the hearts of his children and grandchildren. 
He died as he lived: with the greatest wealth any person could hope to acquire during their lifetime. He can’t take it with him, nor does he want to. 

Dwayne and his dad, August 2013

Friday, July 17, 2020

Love Balm

This post is from a sermon I gave last June...
but the photo is from this week. Prayer
(and good soil) works!

I love bee balm. 
I love its vibrant colour, and its spiky flowers.
I love its name – bee balm. That’s B-A-L-M. Something soothing for the bees in a world that is dropping pesticide bombs on them.  

BUT – for all the love I have for bee balm,
I cannot get it to survive on my property.
I probably have spent a hundred dollars on bee balm plants over the last seven years, and so far, not one has returned the following spring. 

On the other hand, 
I love clematis.
I love its colours and its wide-open flowers. I love the feathery seed puffs left after the leaves fall off.
I love its name – clematis. Its symbolic meaning is ingenuity and cleverness because of its climbing prowess. 

I have several thriving clematis plants. They love growing on my property.
So…I bought another one.  Because: “Plant what will grow”. 

You also need to know that I bought another bee balm this spring [2019], and planted it in a new spot, a tried-and-true spot of good soil and lots of sunshine. 

Why? Why would I plant something that will not grow?!

Because: HOPE. 

If the clematis represents LOVE and JOY, the bee balm is HOPE and PERSISTENCE. 

It’s the hope that if I try something different, if I don’t give up, if I’m down on my knees in the dirt saying a persistent prayer over this new plant, this time will be different. 

I admit: this is the last time, the very last time I’m planting bee balm. While I don’t want to give up until I’ve exhausted all attempts, the spot it’s in right now is my final option. If it can’t grow in that spot, with the sunshine and good soil, if it doesn’t come back next spring, there will be no bee balm in my gardens.

You’re likely thinking – give it up already! Just plant what will grow!

But it’s about hope, and persistence, and not wanting to give on something we love. So we keep planting bee balm, just as we keep adding water and sunlight to a dry, withering plant.
A bit of water, a bit of light – and everything is better.  Everything is better when we love each other. When we treat each other with even a little bit of kindness. 

That’s just what humans need, too: Just enough water, just enough light, just enough love to keep us going – to keep our faith and our hope alive. 

That seems to be what we get these days. 
For every moment of terror and horror, we get an act of kindness, a measure of mercy, a story about saving grace.

I honestly don’t think we could keep going if we didn’t have the action – pain and suffering – followed by an equal and opposite reaction: LOVE and COMFORT. 

So: Plant what will grow. 
Protect the seeds, nurture them, watch over them. Persist. Don’t give up. 

Because there’s this Zen proverb: “No seed ever sees the flower.”

That’s what love is. A small seed with the potential to grow into a great big self-propagating plant. And we are in charge of that seed, my friends. 

No matter what “fertilizer” the world, and those neighbours we’re supposed to love, throw at us, we will continue to water and fertilize that seed of love. 

Let’s think of it as…love balm! May it grow in the driest of soils, and the rockiest of patches. 

Thursday, July 16, 2020

The Peace of Feathered Things

(in the way of Wendell Berry)

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my future and what the world’s future may be,
I go and hang out where the rooster
crows in all his beauty in the grass, and the hens peck around in the dirt.
I come into the peace of feathered things
who do not tax their lives with forethought 
of grief. I come into the presence of freshly-laid eggs.
And I feel above me the dusty cobwebs
clinging to the familiar ways. While I clean the coop,
I rest in the grace of the flock, and I am free.

~ inspired by a popular poem by Wendell Berry, The Peace of Wild Things, published in his first collection of poetry in 1968 then reprinted in a collection in 1985. 

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...