Monday, July 13, 2020

Feeling for the Bottom

Swimming in the Northumberland Strait with my friend Alison.

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

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

Can no longer feel the sandy bottom with my feet.

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

Wondering where these waves will take us.  

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

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

I'm going to keep swimming. 

Friday, July 10, 2020

Oh, Baby, Bye Bye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phyllis and Little Cheeps on their last morning together.

Monday, July 06, 2020


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

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

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

Sunday, July 05, 2020

On Vacation, On Staying Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 01, 2020

A Father-Daughter Story for Canada Day

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Summer Reading: True Stories

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Prayer Flags for the Gazebo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Summer Reading: Local Stories

My life wasn't really impacted hard by the shutdown caused by the pandemic. The only real loss I experienced was having to cancel a literary event I'd planned to host this July. 

I wanted to get the authors of these three books, which are set along my stretch of the Northumberland Shore, together for an evening. Not local authors but local stories -- stories with a local setting we all recognize, stories set right here in Pugwash, Rockley (across the river!), and Tidnish. I'm really sorry to be missing that evening. 

But I can still recommend the books for summer reading, and encourage you to support authors who aren't getting their events and promotions this year. 

LARKIN ON THE SHORE by Jean Mills (Red Deer Press) - Young Adult - "Larkin Day is a mess up 16-year-old. She just escaped a nasty year in high school to spend a summer of refuge in seaside Nova Scotia. But when an arsonist attempts to destroy the one thing she holds dear..."

FOUND DROWNED, by Laurie Glenn Norris (Nimbus) -  Adult -"Mary Harney is a dreamy teenager in Cumberland County whose ambitions are stifled by her tyrannical grandmother and alcoholic father. When Mary's mother becomes ill, an already fragile domestic situation quickly begins to unravel until the September evening when the girl goes missing..."

A BEGINNER'S GUIDE TO GOOD-BYE by Melanie Mosher (Nimbus) - Middle Grade - "Every summer, Laney's family visits their cottage on Tidnish Beach. But this year, the baking heat and bright read sand provide cold comfort. This year, Laney's little sister, Jenny, is gone. Ten-year-old Laney must learn to acknowledge her grief in order to overcome it. When a situation arises and Laney needs to help her new friend, she finally understands that even though she will miss Jenny forever, she can find happiness again."

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Seeds of My Failure

This is my epic fail as a country girl. 
The whole not being able to shoot a gun? No problem. Don't really want to kill anything anyway.
The whole not being able to hop on the tractor and do the work? No problem -- yet. It's just hard to do the work when Dwayne is wanting to do the work. I watched him yesterday afternoon puttering around the yard on the tractor, pulling out stumps and moving dirt and he just looked so darn content.
And honestly - I'm not that keen on plowing snow if I don't have to.  

But this -- the failure to sprout -- this hurts. 

Tomato seeds on the left. I planted those May 3rd.I spritzed them daily for six weeks. Twenty-four seeds and not a single sprout. 
After a month, I bought four large, healthy tomato plants and they are growing happily out in the garden. There will be salsa after all. 

Two weeks later, while there was hope for the seeds because it was too soon to assume failure, I planted daisy seeds. I COULDN'T EVEN GET MY FAVOURITE FLOWER TO SPROUT.

So, more research on seeding is needed. Everyone else seems to get it done. Some people even complain about how quickly their tomatoes grow. 
Do people "harrumph" anymore? Because I feel a necessary "harrumph" coming on. 

Honestly, am I not the slowest person? Thirteen years and I'm just trying -- and failing -- at seedlings now. 

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Don't Mess With My Rhubarb Pie!

When you bake with fresh, homegrown eggs,
the orange yolks make for a very yellow custard.

The pastry recipe I like to use for pies comes from The Harrow Fair Cookbook, "Prize-winning Recipes Inspired by Canada's Favourite Country Fair" (edited by Moira Sanders and Lori Elstone, published by Whitecap Books in 2010). 

This being the season of rhubarb -- lots and lots of rhubarb -- I discovered the only rhubarb pie recipe in the cookbook is Rhubarb Custard Pie. Normally, I'm a purist in all things food related, and so my rhubarb pie contains only rhubarb. But looking at 4 cups of chopped rhubarb (with nine cups already frozen in the freezer), and seeing that the recipe calls for 4 cups of rhubarb, I decided to give it a try.  

It makes a big, sweet pie so likely best for sharing. 
The recipe for the pastry follows the recipe for the pie. 


1-1/2 cups granulated sugar
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg (which I don't have so I sprinkled ground nutmeg) (*you can really taste the nutmeg in this so adjust according to how much you like nutmeg)
1/4 tsp fine sea salt
3 large eggs, beaten
4 cups sliced fresh rhubarb (is there a difference between sliced and chopped??)
2 Tbsp unsalted butter 

Preheat over to 375 degrees F.
Combine the sugar, flour, nutmeg, and salt in a large bowl. 
Add the eggs and mix well. Stir in the rhubarb and mix well.
Roll out one disc of Favourite Pie Crust (see recipe below) and fit into a 9-inch deep-dish pie plate, trimming the pastry to 1/2 inch. 
Dot the filling with butter. Apply a lattice crust (the cookbook provides instructions for this but I still screwed it up - lattice is harder than it looks). 
Whisk together the egg and milk. Brush the lattice with the egg wash, then sprinkle with sugar. 
Bake for 30 minutes. Reduce the heat to 325 degrees F. Bake for an additional 45 minutes or until the custard is set and the crust is golden brown. A toothpick inserted into the centre of the pie will be slightly sticky when removed, but the custard should look set. 
Cool to room temperature before serving. 

EGG WASH for crust: 

1 large egg
2 Tbsp milk
1 Tbsp granulated sugar 

The filling and the bottom crust. 


2-1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp fine sea salt
1/2 cup lard, cubed
1/2 cup cold unsalted butter, cubed
1 large egg
2 tsp white vinegar
Ice cold water

Sift together the flour and salt in a large bowl. Incorporate the lard and butter using a pastry cutter or a food processor. The crumbs should be the size of peas.
Beat the egg and vinegar together in a liquid measuring cup. Add enough ice cold water to equal 1/2 cup of liquid. 
Pour the liquid over the dough. Knead, or pulse in the food processor, until the dough comes together in a ball. A little extra water may be required to incorporate all the flour (I find this to be so).
Divide the dough into halves. Shape each half into a flat disc and wrap it in plastic wrap. Chill the dough for at least 1 hour prior to rolling. 

A very deep golden brown in my too-hot oven. 
But look at that wonky lattice! Good enough to eat. 

This cookbook -- The Harrow Fair Cookbook -- includes the recipes for 7 pies that took First Place at the fair (including Rhubarb Custard Pie and my all-time favourite, Raisin Pie), and I think this might be the summer and fall I make the other six pies as well. 

Happy pie baking! Happy pie eating! 

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Rest and Renew

While doing research for this Sunday's message topic (for the letter X), I found this from Maya Angelou. It complements yesterday's post and a lot of my own experiences: 

"Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for. Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not with draw from us. We need hours of aimless wandering or spates of time sitting on park benches, observing the mysterious world of ants and the canopy of treetops.

"If we step away for a time, we are not, as many may think and some will accuse, being irresponsible, but rather we are preparing ourselves to more ably perform our duties and discharge our obligations.

"When I return home, I am always surprised to find some questions I sought to evade had been answered and some entanglements I'd hoped to flee had become unraveled in my absence. 

"A day away acts as a spring tonic. It can dispel rancor, transform indecision, and renew the spirit."

~ Maya Angelou, from her 1993 collection of essays,
Wouldn't Take Nothing For My Journey Now 

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Losing My Mind In Manual Labour

This was a day of work. Non-writing work. For the first hour this morning, knowing I wasn't going to my office, knowing every plan for the day involved things other than writing, I was a bit twitchy. Because writing is what I do, it's what I want to do. There's always something to write (ahem - as I'm doing now at the end of a non-writing day). 
But in my quest for better balance, I decided physical labour was called for. A day of work.

And as you know, I love cleaning out the chicken coop. It's not such a chore in the warm weather, when there are fewer layers of poop and shavings to dig up. As I shovelled and swept, I thought about when I was taking riding lessons in 2016, and how about a week after the election of you-know-who in the United States, I needed to get out of the house. So I went to the barn and cleaned my lesson horse. I did his hooves and curried his coat then brushed him out all over, and combed his mane and tail. The barn was empty and quiet, the radio wasn't on, and I didn't say much more to the horse than, "Good boy". 
I needed the silence and the work. The distraction from the world that silence and work provides. 

I needed the sense of accomplishment -- the sight of accomplishment -- that comes with physical work, with cleaning or building or planting or mowing. Something gets DONE and it looks good so it feels good. 

That's what I remembered today as I worked away in the chicken coop, cleaning out the main coop and the "nursery" where Phyllis and Little Cheepers are living. How I needed to "escape" and find quiet, to "escape" and rest my mind. 
As in November 2016, there is so much -- sound -- shouting -- discussing -- telling -- so many words -- so much information -- so many ideas -- coming at us these days. 
Read this, say that, don't say that, do this, don't do that. A mind cannot absorb it all in two weeks. A mind cannot process and realize and alter its patterns with all that -- noise -- all those -- voices. 
We need to step away from the TV and the timelines, from flipping channels and scrolling feeds, from listening and watching and talking...
...and find silence and manual labour.

Change only comes after contemplation. And contemplation is only possible when the body is engaged and the mind drops into neutral. 

We must learn to sit with what we're being told, with what we're being asked to believe and accept and act upon. Without silence and manual labour, we can't begin to do that other work. 

We must learn to sit  and be still.
To not think -- and let our subconscious do its work of revealing and releasing and showing us the way. 
We must take a moment to sit and watch a hen and her chick. To listen to the work she does of teaching, to hear the different sounds she makes that indicate a different kind of knowledge. To learn from her how to scratch for food, how to watch for danger, how to sit in the sun and let your feathers get warm, how to snuggle in under a wing and rest. 

The chick is starting to show her Barred Rock feathers. 

Thursday, June 04, 2020

The Words and Work of This White Person

I've been thinking about this photo this week, as the words of Black people, the pain of Black people, the fear and rage of Black people really hit me. 

Honestly, I've been complacent. I live in rural Nova Scotia, in an area that is not diverse, and I keep to myself, so it's only occasionally when I'm forced to call out someone for using the phrase, "Those people". Because I keep to myself, both in real life and online, I'm not confronted with racism. But it's there. Of course it is. 
I didn't grow up in a diverse area, either, and in the seventies and eighties in southern Ontario (but outside Toronto, where I was born), anything about race came from the television: Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers' Neighbourhood, M*A*S*H. My life and my world, right up to this moment writing this, is white. All white. Nothing but white. 

Here's my confession, and I've never admitted this out loud or in writing until now, only alluded to it in a church message: When I was 19 and 24, on two separate occasions, I made a racist remark. I complained that the local dance bar played "too much Black music" and I mocked a co-worker for sounding "too Italian" on the radio. 
Fortunately, both times, a person of the race and ethnicity I commented on was standing behind me. 
I say fortunately because their presence caught me out, made me feel ashamed. That shame made me think about what I did. 
That's all it took. I was so ashamed -- and remain ashamed to this day -- that I am still thinking about what I did. It changed me profoundly and made me conscious of how I speak, how I use my words, what attitudes and beliefs I have and why. It makes me conscious of the lens through which I view the world. It infiltrated my entire system - not just race and ethnicity but also sexual orientation and identity.   
This is why calling someone out on their racist comments works. It won't work on everyone, some people are just hardcore racists and their beliefs run too deep to excoriate, but it will work on enough people. And you know what I've learned in the last 25 years? 
Acceptance and compassion feel so much better. Being accepting of everyone no matter who they are, who they love, what they look like makes life so much better, so much sweeter, so much easier. For one thing, you're embarrassing yourself by putting your foot in your mouth. You're not living with the fact you made someone else feel like crap. 
Acceptance AND inclusion. Compassion AND justice. 

Of course it was Martin Luther King Jr. who said, “Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it. Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens life; love illuminates it.”

I've been thinking about this photo of my sister and my brother-in-law, of my husband and me on a visit to Georgia in September 2010 (three more kids came later!). My sister sent it to me for Christmas that year (it's a terrible photo of me but I still cherish it for everyone else looking so happy. Natan was a big boy to hold onto!) and it hung on the wall next to the phone in our pre-renovation kitchen. 

One afternoon, a six-year-old boy was visiting us and he pointed to the photo and said, "What's the name of the boy you're holding?"
He didn't ask, "What's the name of the black boy?" but used a description that had nothing to do with skin colour. 
The idea that children are born "colour blind", that they are not born racist, but instead are educated to become racist, has been widely debunked. Researchers say children as young as two can show racial bias. 
That moment in my kitchen was the first time I'd witnessed that from a child. My assumption is his mother influenced the way he viewed that photo. 
His question made me try my very best from then on to describe someone in a way other than by race or ethnicity. It's not always possible, but it certainly is a worthwhile endeavour. 
But I wonder at the idea of being "colour blind". I wonder at not using race or ethnicity as an identifier because for most of us, that's such a part of our identity. Being Italian, being Black, being Greek, being Indigenous, being white, being Asian, being Sikh. 
I suppose the problem is -- white people. We are racist. We've always used those identifiers to mock and ridicule, discriminate and exclude, hate and bully. Rather than celebrating our diversity, we've always, ALWAYS, throughout human history, for thousands and thousands of years, glorified white, and oppressed Black, Indigenous and all other People of Colour. 

Even those of us who weren't raised by overtly racist people and who have tried to be mindful of thoughts and speech still have these "micro-aggressions" we're not even aware of, but the BIPOC hearing it certain recognizes.  

I've been thinking about this photo because I'm holding my nephew, who is now 14 years old, and who is Black. Who is terrified. Who is not allowed to leave their property in Atlanta without one of his white parents with him. 
Because I have a nephew who is Black, and a sister who is fiercely protective of him, and aware of the issues of racism, I haven't done any work. I haven't read books about racism by Black people -- or even by white people who study racism. I've been complacent. I can say I have a stake in anti-racism, in dismantling white supremacy, in making the world a safer place for my nephew and all Black people, but I haven't done a lick of work to making that change come around. 

The books have been ordered. 
The videos are being watched. 
And I'm committed to keeping this awareness, and doing this work, not just this summer, when everyone is talking about it, but for the next 25 years. 

Because Black Lives Matter. 

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Our First Real Hatch

My friend, Shannon, across the river, wants some Barred Rock hens. Only one of the six eggs I gave her hatched in the incubator, so when Phyllis became broody, I said I'd put some eggs under her and we'd see what happened. Let me tell you, those eggs are quite hot underneath those feathers. 
Thankfully, I put a "P" on the three eggs so whenever an extra egg showed up -- how? I don't know, likely a certain pushy brown hen who I'd have to remove from that nest box -- I didn't lose track of the ones Phyllis was working on. 

We knew if something was going to hatch, it would be this week. Eggs incubate for roughly 21 days. 

Yesterday morning, when I went out to the coop, I could hear cheeping from underneath Phyllis. One egg had a pip in it! 

When I went back into the house to tell Dwayne, he looked up from his seat at the dining room table and told me that someone I know through church had died suddenly. 

By mid-day, this little chick had made its appearance. Exhausted but alive and well! 

Over the past 12 years of keeping chickens, we ordered day-old chicks and hatched out eggs in an incubator. This was my first time seeing a baby born naturally, with its mama right there. I was surprised by how moving the experience was - after all these years of having chickens. 

It was a needed moment of joy, and distraction, on a day when the human world was full of anger and sorrow and worry and fear. When the Covid-19 restrictions on gathering for funerals finally hit close to home for me. When email updates don't come and those that do are full of words like "progressing" and "comfortable". When the news is full of chaos and cruelty, bullying and brutality. 

Here's our little chick at the end of its first day of outside-the-egg life, snuggling up to mama Phyllis for the night. Funny little cheeper! 
I even went out at 3 o'clock in the morning to check on them. I was a little worried Cheeper would fall out of the nest box but everyone was asleep in their box and on their roosts, and didn't really appreciate me wandering around in the dark with my (muted) flashlight. 

Phyllis continues to sit on two other eggs; there's weight in them but no signs of life. The first chick peeping usually encourages the others to pip out so I'll give those eggs until tomorrow morning. 
One baby is more than enough joy for this moment, this day, this first-time experience. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Finding Balance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

PANDEMIC STORIES: In Conversation With... Dorian Dorn

Photo courtesy of Pridham's Studio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ by Sara Jewell

Saturday, May 16, 2020

A Month Ago

Photo taken in May 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

PANDEMIC STORIES: In Conversation With...Crystal Murray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ By Sara Jewell 

Monday, May 11, 2020

Countdown to 50: The Big Day

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

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

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

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

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

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