Saturday, January 30, 2016

How Sweet It Is

This past week, a friend from Vancouver was in Halifax for work-related meetings so we -- me, Dwayne and my mother -- went to the city to have supper and a nice, long visit with him over big bowls of chowder.
It turns out that he'd missed the announcement that I'd sold a book to Nimbus.
"So, are you still writing?" was his question after we'd ordered.
I stared at him long enough to determine he wasn't being sarcastic.
So our celebration at getting together after so long then became a celebration that I'd sold a book.
"It's about time," he said -- assuring me he meant that I've worked hard for this, not that it's taken me a gawd-awful long time (although he'd be well within the bounds of our friendship to admit that).
Funny thing, though, as I sat there and we talked about getting published, it still didn't feel real to me. Like a woman who has battled infertility for years, is this how it feels to be pregnant finally? Your creation is growing, you can feel it,you can see but until you are actually holding it in your hands, you can't believe it's actually happening.
This won't be real until the Advanced Reading Copy pops out of the mailbox and I see it with my own eyes.
My husband, on the other hand, is making up for my lack of faith, and my lack of excitement. He, at long last, presented me with my "Congratulations!" gifts this week. It wasn't like him not to have given something to me immediately but now I know why: One is a  handmade mug that he custom-ordered from our friend, Pugwash potter Jen Houghtaling, to commemorate the day I signed the contract. The mug says "My First Book" across the bottom while "December 9" is written on the inside of the handle and "2015" on the outside.
Then yesterday, the necklace he ordered finally arrived:

How sweet it is to be loved by this man, but also how lucky I am to find a partner and best friend who supports my work whole-heartedly -- who believes in me far more than I believe in myself.
I'm surprised that in the last couple of years, he never gave me a Houghtaling mug with "You can do it" written on it. After "I love you", it's what he says most to me.
But he keeps everything normal, and keeps me firmly grounded in reality, by complaining today about how many mugs he had to wash this morning.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Most Beautiful Gift

From the Alzheimer Society of Canada

This graphic popped up in my Twitter feed the other day, part of the Alzheimer Society's national campaign encouraging us to remember that people living with dementia are STILL HERE.
Right now, it seems as if the automatic reaction to someone with dementia is to believe they don't understand anything. But that's OUR fears and OUR despair talking -- perhaps a lack of empathy, too. If we change our default setting to assume a person with dementia is still here, understanding on some deep level, whether they respond in obvious ways or not, we will transform the care we provide.
As Alzheimer Awareness Month in Canada comes to an end, I'd like to share my most memorable witness of this truth, one I wish I'd known from the outset of our journey together with this disease: My father was still there, had been the whole time, and he was there until he died (another beautiful gift).

... Dwayne and I flew to Ontario for a week to visit my father on his birthday. It had been a year since I’d moved away and I wanted to be the one who fed him his birthday carrot cake.
The first few minutes of being with my father always were the hardest. First, there was the "I love you so much and I wish you were fine it's so hard seeing you like this Daddy" moment then I took a deep breath and said "Hi, Dad," and he smiled back and we were fine.
Dad looked happily surprised to see me; when I re-introduced Dwayne, he looked very interested. When I said, "Remember him? This is the guy who took me off your hands," Dad laughed. And laughed. And laughed some more.
After feeding Dad his supper, I told him we were going home for our meal and he puckered his lips for a kiss then Dwayne stuck out his hand, saying, "Shake my hand, Reg?" and Dad held out his hand to grip Dwayne's. He started to laugh and he had this great big happy grin on his face. Almost giddy. I couldn’t tell if he was laughing or crying.

On Dad’s 66th birthday, his third birthday since moving into the nursing home, I walked into his room and said, as usual, “Hi, Dad, it’s Sara.”
A few minutes later, Dwayne entered with a handful of bobbing balloons and my father smiled.
Seeing his smile, I pulled out my camera to take some pictures of us together. “Make sure you get the Happy Birthday balloon in the picture,” I instructed my husband.
“Here,” Dwayne said, handing me the digital camera, “make sure that’s what you want.” In the photo, my father was not smiling. He looked pale and miserable, fading away like a photograph that has hung on a wall for decades. Perhaps he thought he was responding when we said, “Smile, Dad,” but more likely he was thinking, “Please don’t remember me like this.”
I pulled a chair right in front of his wheelchair so that I was in his limited line of vision.
“I love you,” I said and touched his arm. “I love you, Dad.”
His face swung to mine. He was searching for my eyes. When we made contact, I said again, “I love you.” There was a flicker of response in his expression. His mouth shifted, he inhaled then the thought was gone. Dad couldn’t put it all together but he kept looking at me.
“I love you,” I said with a smile. “Do you love me too?”
His response was immediate and unmistakable, his use of actual words so rare as to be a miracle.

Because of an incoming snowstorm, we extended our visit by a day and the delay gave us the most beautiful gift. I continued to play music while Dwayne and I were there at suppertime and that evening, when "King of the Road" came on, I turned it up and sang along. Dwayne joined in.
Then Dad.
My father tried to sing with us. When he tapped his hand against his leg, a couple of taps, in time to the music, my hands flew up to cover my mouth. It was like I was witnessing – Not a miracle but certainly something extraordinary.

In his book, Musicophilia, neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote about witnessing deeply demented people respond to music: “Once one has seen such responses, one knows there is still a sense of self to be called upon, even if music, and only music, can do the calling.”

When I was home the previous October [2007], Dad had seemed to perk up for my first few days but then the effort to be "normal" had become too much for him to sustain. I thought that would happen this time but his perkiness carried on. Dad had laughed so much this visit, visibly enjoyed the company of his son-in-law; perhaps the voice of a man, the handshakes made him feel like himself again. Not betrayed by his own brain, not forgotten by his friends.
I didn’t tell Dad we wouldn’t be in to see him tomorrow. I just kissed him on the cheek and said good night but emotion overwhelmed me and I hurried out of the room, leaving Dwayne alone to shake hands with Dad one last time. He came out of the room with tears in his eyes.
“Your father wouldn’t let go of my hand,” Dwayne said.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Robbie Burns Day

The plaque marking where Robbie Burns sat down to write.
It's "Robbie Burns Day" because the Scottish poet was born on January 25, 1759.
Dwayne and I went to Scotland in May of 2010. It was a delightful surprise to discover the town of Aberfeldy where we'd booked to stay for my 40th birthday has a special connection to the poet.

We went canoeing on my birthday, out of Loch Tay, and after about 30 minutes, our guide took us to shore at the  Taymouth pub for coffees with a wee dram in them, to chase away the dampness. On the wall above the fireplace is the actual poem Robbie Burns wrote about the Birks of Aberfeldy.

The statue of Robbie Burns overlooking the birks (Scottish for beech trees).
Bonie lassie, will ye go,
Will ye go, will ye go,
Bonie lassie, will ye go
To the birks of Aberfeldy! 

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Cross Country

In the winter of 2009, I was dealing with a herniated disc so the skis went into the basement and the boots went into an upstairs closet and I just sort of forgot about them. But as my back has become stronger through daily yoga, and less gardening (an unfortunate reality is that working in my flower beds makes me painfully lame), I realized I could get on the skis again. It's not that I don't enjoy snowshoeing but if I can go farther and faster, then the dog gets a better run.
Being a writer's dog isn't all its jacked up to be. Sure, I'm home all the time but working on a tight deadline while completing all my other non-writing work means I'm shut away upstairs most of the time. So we have to make the most of our one walk a day (it sounds so wrong to say "one walk a day"). It'll take some conditioning to get my ski legs under me -- at one point, my pole got stuck and I lost my balance and fell  sideways and I don't know how I didn't break my ankle -- but once I'm grooving along with confidence, we'll be heading deep into the woods.
Maybe I'll take the walkie-talkie just in case I fall over again.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Hooked On Hearts

For some reason, this is the pattern what I want to hook.
The last Saturday of every month, there is an Introduction to Rug Hooking workshop at Deanne Fitzpatrick's studio in Amherst. With writing a column in mind, I attended the one at the end of November and decided to put together my own starter kit for hooking a heart.
When I pulled out the burlap for my first attempt, I realized that one, it was rectangular, and two, far too big for a first attempt. So I cut it in half and the result: Two hearts are better than one.
This second heart used up the leftover "accent" wool I had bought.
I want to keep creating hearts on my 11x12 squares so this afternoon, I'm going to slip into Deanne's studio and buy more burlap and select more wool.
You can't tell but I'm typing that in a whisper because it feels so exciting, so easy and fun, it makes me so happy, that it deserves reverence -- hushed tones and head bowing. Maybe I'll even cross myself as I stand before the Great Wall of Wool.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Public Art for the Public's Sake

As published in the Citizen-Record newspaper on Wednesday, January 20, 2016, by Sara Jewell.

Inside the gallery at the opening on Friday, January 15.
          Every time I interview artist and high school teacher Mathew Aldred, I come away with an infection – because his passion for creating art is contagious.
            Now he’s brought his infectious determination to inspire and encourage others to create art into the public domain.
            “I’ve wanted to have an art gallery here in Oxford for years,” he explained during a lunch break in his classroom at OREC last week, “but every time I looked into it, I realized I wouldn’t have the funds for rent and heat. Then I found out there was some space in the town hall.”
            Mathew sent a proposal to the mayor and council for turning part of the under-utilized Visitors’ Centre into an art gallery, and, six months later, after a fresh coat of paint and new lighting, the Riverside Art Gallery opened Friday night.
            The inaugural exhibition, entitled “Oxford Now”, features the art of 29 people. The 60 black-framed, white-matted photographs create a stunning collage against the red brick interior wall of the gallery.
            Mathew’s purpose in opening an art gallery in Oxford is simple: to inspire everyone in the community to practice art.    
“Everyone can take a photograph,” he said. “It’s just practice and experience; you don’t have to go art school to learn photography. That’s why we’ve started with it to get that message across.”
Mathew is emphatic that the gallery is for everyone, not just students, but he recognizes that this gives local students a unique opportunity. Visiting an art gallery is part of the art curriculum, but for rural students, that means a long bus ride and missed classes.
 “I think it’s going to be inspirational for all the students at the school. It’s a different experience going to an art gallery rather than seeing the art on the Internet. There’s a lot to be learned from other people’s art. It raises your own game.”
            Educational assistant, Archan Knotz, a painter, woodcutter and print maker, didn’t even realize she had game until Mathew insisted she borrow a school camera and take some photos.
            “In my previous life, someone told me I didn’t have an eye for photography so when Mr. Aldred said my pictures were really good, I was like, Really?” said Archan who has since bought her own camera. “I’m very excited about the Oxford gallery. We hear so many negative comments about things we are passionate so it’s important to have this as a positive outlet for the students and for everyone in the community.”

"Boy", by Kat Hickman. Used with permission.
            For Grade 12 student Kat Hickman, being able to study art at school has opened up new possibilities for her. She only began taking photographs for a class project, yet one of her photographs in the exhibit, titled Boy, was voted Best In Show by those attending the opening last week.
“I want to bring in as much contemporary fine art as possible,” said Mathew, who is currently working on his Masters degree in Fine Arts. “It’s going to be an educational experience so I’d like to get some emerging artists from the art schools in Halifax and at Mount Allison.
“It is my hope that this puts Oxford on the map culturally.”
The Riverside Gallery is open Monday to Friday from 8:30 to 4:30 at the Oxford Town Hall. For more information, check out 
For more on the art program at Oxford Regional Education Centre, check out
Mathew Aldred in his home studio in Shinimicas, NS, in 2014.

The Future of Trees

This morning, I'm working on one of the few opinion pieces in my Field Notes collection of essays so as I dive into my uncomfort zone -- and the heartache of writing about the clear-cutting of trees -- I'd like to share this quote from Herman Hesse, a German poet, painter and novelist:

"Tree are sanctuaries.Whoever knows how to speak to them, 
whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. 
They do not preach learning and precepts; they preach, 
undeterred by the particulars, the ancient laws of life."

Monday, January 18, 2016

Getting Hooked

Do the things that interest you and do them with all your heart. 
Don’t be concerned with whether people are watching you 
or criticizing you. 
The chances are that they aren’t paying any attention to you. 
~ Eleanor Roosevelt

I'm writing a column next month about why I I've taken up rug hooking so I won't say much about it now.
Only that it fills my heart with a deep sense of contentment to be doing this after all these years of ignoring a quiet, gentle nudging.
If something interests you, try it. Follow your curiousity. Even if someone asks why. You don't owe them an explanation, you don't owe them an answer. Let your answer be your brave, following-your-heart creation.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Read This Book

If you have an ounce of country in you, you need to read this book.
When my mother mentioned it to me in the fall, "it's a book about herding sheep," I said I wasn't the least bit interested in reading it. But my dear friend, Colleen, gave it to me for Christmas and I am so glad she did.
Who knew a book about keeping sheep in the Lake District of England would be so fascinating? Of course, it's all in the storytelling and I love the way James Rebank tells not only the unique story of his family and their sheep but the history of that unique way of farming sheep. He writes, "My grandfather and father would go just about anywhere in northern England and they'd usually know who farmed the land and often who had been there previously, or who farmed next door. The whole landscape here is a complex web of relationships between farms, flocks, and families."
I admire the way he organized the book, and the lyricism of his writing which does nothing to dull his bluntness about farming life: "Everything and everyone is at times covered in shit or snot. It's just part of farm life. You learn to accept that you will get spattered in shit at times, or slaver, or afterbirth, or snot. That you will smell of your animals. You can always tell how alien someone is to our world by how terrified of the muck they look."
If, like me, you wonder why on earth you'd want to read a book about sheepherding in England, then you need to read this book.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Winter Words

My mother's photo of mice prints in the snow.

This is a day with breathing space, with room to move.
The wind outside may take our breath away and brings tears to our eyes but the push to get the essays of Section Three of the Field Notes book finished -- the section with the fewest "pre-completed" essays in it -- is over. The old way of describing my work is to say that I put at least 13,000 words down on paper this week but in the 21st century, I suppose it's more accurate to say I keyboarded more than 13,000 words into the computer.
Not quite as romantic sounding.Can't work it into a metaphor about the foot prints of mice on the snow and the scratch marks of my pen on paper.
I discovered that writing three essays a day is not ideal for me; I can do it, and maybe I'd accomplish it by suppertime if I lived alone (not wishing! not wishing! just saying...), especially since my mother baked cookies during Wednesday's snowstorm and they were VERY distracting to someone trying to write! But for a slow writer like myself, and a writer who likes to take off on the snowshoes every so often for fresh air and fresh perspective, two essays a day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, three to four thousand words a day, is just fine.
So as I turn my focus this morning to writing a sermon for church on Sunday, I can breathe again. Next week, the final week of writing first drafts, is lighter, and the heavy lifting of this week puts me a week ahead of schedule.
Off I scurry, to make tracks on a blank page.

Saturday, January 09, 2016

Winter Sky At Dawn

Photo by my mother, early January sky.

It's appropriate to quote from Anne of Green Gables, by L.M. Montgomery:

I'm so glad my window looks east into the sunrising... 
It's so splendid to see the morning coming up over those long 
hills and glowing through those sharp fir tops. 
It's new every morning, and I feel as if I washed my very soul 
in that bath of earliest sunshine. 

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

I'm Gonna Get Me An Education

As published in The Citizen-Record newspaper on Wednesday January 6, 2016, by Sara Jewell.

The only three textbooks I kept from university. Two are from my major (English).             Note the third one.

After 20 years of hemming and hawing, I finally figured out what I want to go back to school and study.
            Ever since I graduated from university with a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Education, I’ve wondered what Master’s degree I should get. The choices have ranged from Medieval English, Religious Education and Fine Arts (for creative writing).
            In all those years, there was never the tell-tale “ping” from my gut that tells me when I’ve come upon the right answer. Then, two weeks ago as I was blow-drying my hair, I thought, If I could go back to school, I would study psychology. Ping!
Even though Psych 100 in my first year of university instilled in me a keen interest in social psychology, the subject didn’t count as a “teachable” nor did I see myself as a scientist so I focused on English and History.
            But with the passing of time and the gaining of wisdom, my mind finally filtered through 20 years of life and work experience to figure out that a psychology degree was exactly what I wanted.
            When I announced this to my husband, his response was, “What would you use that for?”
            He wasn’t being sarcastic or dismissive; he simply didn’t see how a psychology degree would benefit my work. Yet his response was a light bulb moment for me: If I had announced I wanted to go back to school for a theology degree in order to become an ordained minister, he would have been on board because that education would lead to a job. But going back to school simply to fulfill a missed opportunity 20 years ago didn’t compute with him.
            Amateur psychologist that I am, I was delighted with the dichotomy he presented. For me and the way I was raised, knowledge is an end in itself; the job prospects aren’t a reason for the study. Whereas my husband, raised as a working man, fails to see the point in going to school if you’re not getting a marketable skill out of your investment of time and money.
            Neither of us is wrong.   
            This is the frustration that comes with age and wisdom: We gain it when we’re not really in a position to use it. How can someone return to school when she has a mortgage, car payments, a couple of kids playing sports or taking music lessons, a job, maybe no a partner or family to help out?
            (It’s snowing as I write this. Weather is a factor in rural Nova Scotia.)
Yet there are ways to make it happen. There are countless women who have set their minds on returning to school, on fulfilling a dream to be a nurse, an accountant, a teacher, an artist, who have heard their inner ‘ping’ and faced the struggles to fulfill it.
I admire that kind of woman greatly. She is as fearless as she is afraid. She believes in herself and stays focused on the end result even when her life gets crazy.
If someone wants to return to school, this is the time to start investigating how.  
            It’s worth the risk and the effort. Because education is life-changing, especially when it happens to those whose courage comes from being older and wiser.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

And So It Begins

It's the end of the my first day writing essays for the book.
My favourite part of today? The four o'clock walk.
I suspect that will be my favourite part of every day for the next 60 days, until every essay is written and edited and rewritten and proofread, then submitted on February 29.
In order to get everything done, I've set this schedule: by the end of January, I will have the first draft of 24 essays completed. That leaves February for reading and editing and rewriting. I'm hoping this works out (I eased into the work last week by writing two essays) but to encourage my usual ahead-of-schedule completion, this is "Two Column Tuesday". Every Tuesday, the first day of my three book writing days, I will write two columns, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Ideally, I would like to write two columns a day for all three days (and after today, I think that is possible, and -- given how I feel about the column I wrote this afternoon -- it's necessary) but in case my brain fizzles out every so often, I know at least four essays will get written each week.
What happened to Monday and Friday, you ask? Monday is the day for writing the Field Notes column for the newspaper and for putting together the church service. Friday morning I write my sermon and community prayer.
Friday afternoons are for errands.
Sounds pretty stark and rigid, doesn't it?Sounds like a lot of work and no fun, right?
It's winter in rural Nova Scotia, people, and I'm writing a book. That's my idea of heaven on earth!

Saturday, January 02, 2016

Losts and Founds

We have an exceptionally large bathtub and the cats like to get into it and play.
I found a little blue rubber ball on a walk ages ago but didn't know what to do with it, because it was so small, so I dropped it into my purse and left it there. That little blue ball was perfect for the bathtub. You can actually hear them playing with it. During Christmas dinner, my mother-in-law paused in her eating to listen to the bang-roll, bang-roll sound coming from the other side of the dining room wall.
"That's the cats playing with a ball in the bathtub," I told her.
Last week, Remy wandered into the dining room last week with the blue ball in his mouth. This opened up a whole new play area for the little blue ball. A large, uncontained area. Within the day, the little blue ball was lost. 
Every so often, I get on my hands and knees and go searching for it under the furniture. The other day, I flipped up the reclining parts on the loveseat and discovered all the balled-up paper that Leonard likes to play with.
Along with a whole bunch of dusty cat hair.
I took a photograph because it's a snapshot of our life for the past two weeks: a couple of lottery tickets, a candy wrapper, a phone message, some wrapping paper. You can discern our lives from the piles under the furniture.
No blue ball yet but I haven't looked under the hutch in the laundry room. I'm afraid to; that's strictly cat territory and there might be more than scrunched paper and hairballs under there.