Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Persistence, Perspective & A Pep Talk

As published in the Citizen-Record newspaper on Wednesday, December 30, 2015 by Sara Jewell.

I believe there are plenty of times during the year when we have the opportunity to start over, start fresh, start again, or simply start. A birthday, the first day of school, the first day of spring or the first day of a new job (or retirement).
            The new year is the obvious time and so this column is the pay-it-forward column, where I take the kick-in-the-butt I received and pass it on to you. In a good way, of course; gentle yet firm, emphatic yet encouraging.
            Two winters ago, I wandered into Deanne Fitzpatrick’s rug hooking store in downtown Amherst, wanting to absorb some of that inspiring atmosphere but also seeking guidance from an established artist and writer. I told Deanne I was working on a book proposal for a collection of essays but I was stuck on one of my sample essays.
            “Stop stalling and just get on with it,” she replied.
            And that’s exactly what I needed. Not just the kick-in-the-butt but the accountability; now that Deanne knew what I was doing, she would ask about it the next time I saw her.
            A few months later, I submitted the book proposal to a publisher and after six months of back and forth which included submitting a few more sample essays, the publisher said the concept was close but he couldn’t see how to market the book I’d proposed.
            Time to be disappointed but also time to decide: Should I keep working on it? Or should I move on to a new book idea?
            I wondered what Deanne would have to say about do-overs. Can you pull out the yarn from a piece of burlap and try again? Or is an ugly rug simply a failure to move on from?
            “Start again with something fresh,” Deanne told me after I found her at her store working on a rug. “You don’t want to work something to death.”
            At the same time, Deanne keeps old mats she’s not happy with to remind her of what she doesn’t want to do.
            “That’s not where you want to build your next rug from,” she said. “I learn something from every rug.”
            Since the collection of essays I was proposing was inspired by these Field Notes columns and other stories about Cumberland County, I didn’t want to give up on the project but it was clear I needed to start over with something fresh.
As I pondered what went wrong with my original idea, Deanne’s words guided me. Encouraging words from the publisher meant I could re-submit but the next proposal had to be different. I knew what not to build my next proposal on. What did I learn from my first attempt?
1) Don’t try and reinvent the wheel. You only need to ensure your vision is unique.
2) Listen to your instincts. You don’t get stalled on a project if you are excited about working on it.
            Those lessons may seem obvious but when your head gets full of advice from others about what you SHOULD be doing and how you should be doing it, it can be hard to hear what your own true creative voice is telling you.
            My do-over worked. Field Notes, the book, is coming out next fall.
            What idea do you have that deserves a fresh look and a do-over? Make 2016 the year you pay attention to your instincts, find your excitement and believe in your unique vision.

Deanne Fitzpatrick, in a photo from her Facebook page.

Monday, December 28, 2015

In Winter Mode

Day Two of the post-Christmas snowstorm. Awesome!
Don't hate me for saying this but it could do this for the next two months -- not blizzard, just snow -- and I will be perfectly happy. I write best when it's precipitating and lots of snow will help me plow through the writing of 25 essays.
(I know what I did there!)
So yeah, I'm back at my desk today, about two hours later than planned because when I woke up at six o'clock this morning, my usual wake-up time, I wasn't quite awake enough or motivated enough to get out of bed when the house was cold and the dog was warm, and then Leonard showed up for pillow snuggles and well, it was 7:30 before I knew it.And we're still drinking the Holiday coffee which is soooo delicious so it took awhile to enjoy those two mugs then, well, here I am, finally, at least before 11 am.
This is why I planned a gentle re-entry for the first day back to work! Church service planning and tidying up my office in advance of tomorrow, when the --
-- I started to write REAL, then deleted it, then I wrote HARD, and deleted it, and poised my fingers over the keyboard to write IMPORTANT but my Sunday services are just as meaningful to me as work as writing my essays for the book. So let's just say I'm going to be extremely busy five days a week doing extremely meaningful work that makes me extremely satisfied.
Cheers! Here's to snow days, my dears, may you not curse me when they interfere with your plans. 

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Merry Christmas Past and Present

Christmas 1977, in the apartment above the funeral home in Cobourg, ON.
Look at my mother's face.
All her work to make Christmas 
beautiful and special and memorable
All her work
as we emptied stockings and exclaimed at what "Santa brought".
This is just a photographic moment, one of many
throughout this Christmas Day, one of many,
perhaps the first for my father with his new camera.
It worked, Mama,
all your work,
to create the memories.
It worked. 
You can relax now, and enjoy the day.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Another Early Christmas Gift

Two Christmases are deeply and indelibly etched in my memories:
The Christmas of 2005 was my father's first Christmas in the nursing home. Hard to believe ten years have passed. That experience transformed the meaning of Christmas for me for the rest of my life (and it remains a challenge to be so changed when no one around me feels the way I do).
The Christmas of 2013 was spoiled by the clearcutting of the woods right beside our home. I will never forget the sound of the machine working at five o'clock Christmas morning and the bright lights shining into our bedroom. Ruthless, thoughtless and greedy, those are the nicest words I have for those days of heartbreak and the the following two months of tree-slaughtering hell.
This year, as I provide pulpit supply for Trinity United Church in Oxford and River Philip/Collingwood United Churches, I've spoken about that Christmas in the nursing home in my Advent messages.
Then this morning, I received some good news as I returned from a walk with Abby: The woods are going to be replanted next spring.
I met the two young men who were surveying the acreage early this morning and it was more of a shot of happiness than the mug of coffee awaiting me at home.                     
"If it wouldn't be really weird for you, I'd give you a big hug for giving me this news today," I told the two boys as Abby danced around their legs.
All is calm, all is bright.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Christmas Flashback

This is our Christmas tree five years ago. It was a beaut.
I post this photo because we don't have a tree at all this year. With both the cats being climbers, with Remy being a chewer and Leonard being a climber, we decided it would be a lot easier on our nerves -- and on my very sentimental collection of ornaments -- to not put up a tree this year.
Verily I say unto you, it is possible to do Christmas without a tree. We get so hung up on "the way things are supposed to be" and "the way we've always done things", we get so caught up in the rituals that we forget the purpose of the ritual in the first place, we lose sight of the reason we do the things we do.
Our Christmas will be no different, no less peaceful and joy-filled and lovely, no less memorable than any other Christmas we've celebrated together since 2006.
But this is the first time since we married that we haven't put up a tree. Even the year we were flying to Georgia on December 26, we still used my lighted palm tree (supposedly for a summer patio) as a holiday tree -- and spent much of our days pulling Archie the kitten off the top of it.
Another reason for not putting up a tree this year is the simple fact that as soon as December 28 rolls around, I am back to work with a vengeance. Back to church work, on the same schedule I've followed since September, but also getting to work on the 25 essays that need to be completed by the end of February for Nimbus.
So I've put up a minimum of decorations this year -- only stars on the mantel, only a few Santas (Faron's, of course), the mice on the TV table, and of course the family Christmas photos -- in order to be able to un-decorate in one evening. There are so many lights outside, however, including the shooting star and -- wait for it -- the Snoopy inflatable (yes! we inflated this year!) that we don't really miss the tree inside.
Well, only a little. 
And this is how I figure it: next Christmas, when I'm taking a break from promoting my book, I have the joy of decorating the tree and the thrill of seeing my precious ornaments again to experience. Being tree-less in 2015 will make the return of the rituals of Christmas 2016 even more meaningful.
Besides, we all know I've already received my best Christmas gift!

Thursday, December 17, 2015

I Am Number Five

The whole reason my husband told me to get another cat -- little realizing I fully intended on getting a bonded pair the next time I adopted -- was to control the mice population that might emerge from the wood that had just been stacked in the basement.
In less than three months, the two cats have proven my husband's wisdom: This morning, Remy trotted upstairs with Dead Mouse Number Five in his mouth.
This was the best photo I could get, and then it was time for incineration in the wood furnace.
Of course, Dwayne wasn't home. It's all well and good to have the cats catching mice but I'm not the kind of wannabe country girl who nonchalantly scoops up a dead critter and disposes of it.
But I donned the dishwashing gloves and did it today because of Dead Mouse Number Four.
Early yesterday morning, while I was doing yoga, the cats came upstairs with a dead mouse and since they seemed to be having such a good time playing with it and since I didn't want to interrupt my yoga practice, I let them play.
But when Dwayne got up and couldn't find the mouse, and when Remy wasn't interested in his breakfast chicken, I learned that playing eventually leads to eating so now I'm under strict orders to dispose of any mouse that makes an appearance on our dining room rug.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Fewer Treats In Christmas Food Boxes

As published in the Citizen-Record newspaper on Wednesday, December 16, 2015, by Sara Jewell.

The Christmas Food Boxes prepared every year by the Oxford Lionettes are now filled for 45 families, including 62 children, who are receiving this seasonal help.
            “The boxes are meant to give a little extra help to those who can’t quite make it through the Christmas season, with all of the costs involved,” explained Heather MacDonald, president of the Lionettes club and also a volunteer with the Oxford Food Bank and a member of Trinity United Church in Oxford.
            According to Heather, some of the people on the list use the food bank regularly but she said for more than half, it’s a one-time thing.
“They’re trying to buy Christmas presents and pay the bills so that little extra, like a turkey and groceries, just helps out.”
            But while demand for the boxes is not dropping, the number of donations is. The community groups and organizations that the Lionettes have received financial support from for more than 20 years are dwindling in membership, or even disbanding. Heather sent out eight fewer letters to churches and organizations this year.
            “We also have struggled with food donations for a number of years,” she added. “It started out with all the churches doing white gifts. On the day we used to do the White Gift service, we would take all the gifts into the vestry then they would come pouring in from all these other churches and we would have at least four long tables set up and they’d be loaded.”
            Now many churches are closed or not doing white gifts so a couple of small tables are enough to hold this year’s food donations. It also means extras like baking supplies are now being slashed from the grocery list because of fewer monetary donations.
“We also used to buy pancake mix and syrup because it’s not just dinner,” she said. “You want families to get up Boxing Day and have something to eat. It’s Christmas Day, and a little bit on top of that. But the on-top-of-that is disappearing.”
            Going public with her pleas for help has generated more private donations.
“We’ve had a few more individuals step up which has helped,” Heather said. “Either people will have to step up or we’ll just continue to slash the grocery list.”
            So that’s where this is heading, folks. As fewer of us participate in church and community groups, we need to fill the gap as compassionate, generous individuals.
            And yet, all the calls for donations during the holiday season can be overwhelming, draining both on the emotions and on the bank account.
            Here are a couple of ideas: This year, instead of exchanging gifts, members of the United Church Women’s groups donated boxes of chocolates to be included in the food boxes as treats.
            My own solution is better organization. I’ve gone to my 2016 calendar and written “Xmas Food Boxes” and “Mittens & Socks” on the page for October. I’m going to start that month to collect items for those two seasonal drives. At the same time, I’m going to start buying items regularly for the other organizations I supported this year that have ongoing needs.
            It will take only creative thinking, and a few new habits, to keep the Christmas tradition of helping others alive for another twenty years.

Proof I take my own advice.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Field Notes, the Book

Celebrating a signed book contract.
Yes, that says 'book'!
Field Notes: A City Girl's Observations of Country Life has been sold to Nimbus for publication in October 2016.
Thank goodness they had a gap in their fall catalogue for a book just like mine because there is no way I'd be able to wait until spring 2017! It's been hard enough waiting a month to make the official announcement. I wanted to wait until the contract was actually signed, which I did in Halifax yesterday. And how appropriate that my husband, who supports my writing by keeping me fed and the house clean and leaving me little notes that tell me to keep going, was the witness to the contract.
So a big leap forward in the big red Bog boots!

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Portrait of a Bird At Impact

I am a negligible, and rather negligent, housekeeper. I have no qualms about admitting this; I used to be more dedicated to cleanliness but now I've morphed into an absent-minded writer. I'm kind of like Pig Pen of "Peanuts" fame, churning up puffs of dirt as I wander through the house carrying a mug half-full of hot lemon water. Thinking about stories, not dust bunnies.
It's always a question of priorities and deadlines now. When nine o'clock comes, I head upstairs to my office, not to the closet to haul out the vacuum. When four o'clock arrives, I head out the door for a mind-clearing walk with the dog, not the kitchen to tidy up the day's dishes.
Because of this, sunny days drive me crazy. It makes me wonder why we have such big windows. The sunshine lands on cabinet tops and picture frames and reveals the layer of dust that has gathered since I last wielded my dusting glove. This morning, the low angle of the almost-winter sun slanted across the countertop in the kitchen and revealed the crumbs and salt shakes left behind by my husband's evening snacks.
So it's nice to discover remnants of a hard-working life left on a screen that are actually worth saving, worth photographing, worth admitting still exist. No bird was harmed in the creation of this portrait. An angel among us. Delivering a message? I take it as a sign to keep writing and not worry about washing windows.
Which reminds me, I washed the bed sheets this morning and really should try and get them dried and back on the mattress before bedtime.

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Local Muslims Find Acceptance & A Life of Peace

As published in the Citizen-Record newspaper on Wednesday, December 2, 2015 by Sara Jewell.

Alia Kamareddine & her daughter, Zaynah, serve tea and sweets to guests in their home.

Perhaps what makes the Syrian refugee crisis a struggle for some people to understand is that most of us don’t have first-hand experience with living inside a war-ravaged country. We may have grown up hearing stories about our great-grandparents and the circumstances that often forced them to leave their country of birth but that’s not the same as living the experience.
            Alia Kamareddine of Port Philip, Nova Scotia, knows first-hand what it’s like. She and her husband, Sam Mohamad, immigrated to Canada from Lebanon in 1988, shortly after they married at the age of 18. They left Lebanon because of the civil war that ravaged their homeland between 1975 and 1990.
            Alia and Sam and their four children are Muslim. What does it mean to be Muslim, to raise children and run a business and have a social life in Nova Scotia? To be one of “those people” in a place like Cumberland County?
            “We’re very happy to be living here,” Alia says. “There’s lots of nice people, and I never get any backlash from anyone. I’ve never experienced that ever.”
            So when Alia reads comments about Muslim refugees being a drain on Canada, or that all Muslims are terrorists, it makes her feel very sorry for the refugees.
            “They’re running away from ISIS and lots of them don’t have houses or water or electricity, they don’t have anything,” she says. “I really sympathize with them because we went through the same thing in Lebanon during the civil war.”
            Alia and Sam have three sons and a daughter, Zaynah, who at 15 is the youngest. She is more than willing to engage in conversation with others about the realities facing the Syrian refugees.
            “I feel like some people don’t understand what the Syrians are coming from,” she says. “They’re trying to leave their country of war. My parents were in the same situation, not as extreme, but they came from war and they came here and started with nothing. Now we have a business and a house and food, we have everything we need, and I feel the Syrian refugees can do the same thing.”
            Zaynah, who is fluent in Arabic, sees both sides of the story presented through the news and shared on Facebook.
            “There’s been a lot of wars in the Middle East so I feel the people there who are writing the news have been through the same things the Syrians are going through now. When I see Facebook posts from Canada targeting the Syrians, saying they are terrorists and they don’t belong here, that really breaks my heart.”
            What breaks her mother’s heart is the impact the war in Syria is having on children.
           “The children are hungry and they can’t go to school. None of them are going to school now. The UN should do something about that,” Alia says.
            So really, any immigrant, any refugee, any Muslim is just like any of us. The average person in Syria, in Lebanon, in Turkey or Ukraine or any other place of conflict just wants to work, raise their kids and be safe.
            “We want to live in peace but politics kills people,” Alia says. “It’s not the people, it’s politics. It’s like you have a checkers game and someone big is moving those checkers.”
            “Canada is the most peaceful and accepting country,” she adds, “so we expect Canadians won’t have a problem letting in Syrian refugees.”

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Soul Walk

When you leave the familiar path, abandon the usual way, and venture into the unknown, the undiscovered -- at least to your own eyes and feet -- you often find something you didn't know you were missing.
Like a memory or a feeling. Or both.
The memory of feeling this way before, when I was a child walking in the woods behind our cottage on Rice Lake in Ontario.
So this walk through a field, along the barbed wire fence keeping the cows in their pasture, this walk along a faint deer trail, this walk through a deciduous wood, reminded me of my father, reminded me of my childhood, made me feel that way again, young and free and safe, exploring and learning and opening up, made me sense my father's presence not beside me but inside me, alive, living on.
The field was deeper than I realized, larger than it looks from the road, a long way down to the river, to a little point of land my husband had told me about, a point he sees from a boat and feels calling to his spirit, begging him to come in and be still.
I sat there for awhile, on that secret, cherished point, listening to the choppy river lap at the shore, listening to the wind through the tall, brittle grasses, hearing the dog's short bursts of exploration and return, breathing in, trying to make my eyes wide enough -- panoramic -- to take it all in: the wide swath of water, the sparkling sunshine, the dry yellow river grass, the morning air, the autumn breeze, the place, the feeling, the longing.
And so through my husband, who has lived here all his life, who has this river running through the veins of his body, I reached through and found my father, found a memory of a feeling that brought my soul to the surface, floating like a leaf on the edge of a wave.