Thursday, March 24, 2016

A Book With Heart

We have a subtitle for the Field Notes book!
I'm not surprised it didn't take long to hear back from my editor because we are on a tight schedule to get this project into production for a fall release. She needs my title set for the catalogue.
Out of  my three suggestions, she reworked one and we have this:
"Field Notes: A City Girl's Search For Heart And Home In Rural Nova Scotia"
In choosing a subtitle that included the name of the province, we needed to strike a balance between the concept of 'field notes' -- observations & notations -- and the fact not every essay in the book is about me.

What tickles me is that the subtitle speaks to my collection of heart photos, like the one posted today. This knocker sits on the door of Inn the Elms, a B&B and restaurant in Pugwash, and matches the first essay in the collection. The title of my introductory essay is "100,000 Welcomes" which is the English translation of the Gaelic on the knocker. The claddagh is always full of heart....and mine is overflowing today.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Holy Moly Week

I don't even remember when I took this photo. Last week sometime. But I think we're into our third snowfall since then because there are six or so inches of soft March snow on the ground right now.
So that's where I go -- into the snow -- when I need a break from the computer.
It's Holy Week for Christian churches and in providing pulpit supply for several local United Churches, I'm experiencing the busyness of this week, which runs from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday, for the first time from a minister's point of view.
It's not doing the extra services that makes this week so busy; it's the work of creating them and organizing readers and the choir and extras, like nails and -- crap, I still have to do up the hidden messages for the Easter eggs!
See? Yet again, I come to a greater appreciation for the job that ministers have. Because this is the job part, the compiling of services and writing of messages; the vocation part of being a minister -- the call to guide people along a path of faith, through a spiritual journey -- is what makes the job part easier.
Perhaps "easier" isn't the right word; it makes the job rewarding, it makes the call undeniable.
I'm enjoying this work, as fraught as it is with the pressure of being a minor (and "unqualified") leader of those spiritual journeys.

At the same time, my editor at Nimbus emailed with comments about the graphics for the book and also with a request to tweak the subtitle; they want the name of the province included in it. And this, my friends, is why I know better than to read work-related emails after supper!
As soon as I'd closed my book and shut off the light, part of my regular bedtime routine, one that usually leads -- much to the annoyance of my husband -- to me falling asleep within ten minutes, my brain said, "Well, NOW we can get on with the business of thinking up subtitles!" So as my husband fell asleep, I was scribbling away on my bedside notepaper.

It may not seem that there is a unifying thread between these two jobs -- being a worship leader and being a book writer -- but for me there is: the creation of ideas that I need to communicate to others in order for them to have something significant to think about. Getting the words of a prayer to say exactly what needs to be heard or coming up with the perfect title for an essay about roadkill (um, yes, that's for the book) means every day I sit at my desk and do the work I'm meant to do.

I came THISCLOSE to signing up for a Master of Divinity degree -- the closest I've come in twenty years of making inquiries, this being the third time  -- but again, the answer was the same as it was when I was 12: Keep writing. My ideas can reach more people through books than they can through rural churches.

Friday, March 18, 2016

That Doesn't Look Like A Squirrel

The other morning, my alarm clock barked.
I had to be out of bed at six but I'd already hit the snooze button once; when it's dark in the morning, I takes me about 30 minutes to get up and moving. Not that I'm lazy but honestly, a big part of my morning ritual is lying in bed, waking up, and letting thoughts pop into my brain. Sometimes, that's how my next writing project gets figured out.
My point being that when the dog barked from her couch in the living room, I sat up and said, "Raccoon."
For I knew it was her raccoon bark (which is not the same as her skunk bark, let me tell you!).
The cats scattered off the bed in with a thumping of paws and I put on slippers and glasses to go and see who was on the deck, in the bird feeder, eating bird seed.
You'd think we'd done this before.
Yes, our first sign of spring is a raccoon's pre-dawn visit.
My husband decided this is a female full of babies so we've named her Darlene.
That seemed to go with our squirrels, Oswald and Dorothy.
Despite the hackles up on the dog's back, and the cats' backs just up -- crouched safely back from the sliding door -- we let Darlene have a proper feed. Because she's pregnant.
"Before I met you, I would have shot the damn raccoon," my husband muttered after I caught him talking to Darlene through the glass.
County Boy has been Disney-fied.
Once the sun broke over the treeline on the other side of the river, Darlene crawled down from the feeder -- evoking a cacophony of nails on the hardwood floor as three indoor animals scrambled to the living room window to see where she was going. I watched as Darlene rambled across the lawn, through the ditch, and then across the road. Shortly after, three cars passed by.
"Oh, for gawd's sake," I said. "Now that we've named her, she's going to get hit by a car."
I wonder if my husband has been Disney-fied enough to put a "Raccoon Crossing" sign along the road?

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Waiting For The Pour

As published in the Citizen-Record newspaper on Wednesday, March 16, 2016, by Sara Jewell.

When I arrive at the small cabin at the edge of a 25-acre sugar woods outside Springhill, Nova Scotia, smoke is billowing out of the chimney. Stepping inside, I breathe in the warm, sweet, moist air and instantly crave a feed of pancakes.

Because syrup is boiling in the large, stainless steel evaporator sitting in the middle of the small room.

Jack Simons greets me then grabs a homemade tester (made from a soup can and a wire coat hanger) off the wall behind him. He dips the tester into the small pan above the wood stove and brings it out again, watching what happens as he drains the dark syrup back into the pan.
When the syrup sticks along the edge of the can, it’s ready to be poured.
“I like to do it the old-fashioned way,” Jack explains as he returns the homemade tester to its nail on the wall. The modern way would involve a gauge in the pan that automatically detects the perfect temperature.
Between tests, he takes me outside to show me how a tree is tapped and explains the systems of lines that brings the sap from all the trees down to one main line into the cabin where it ends up in a 75 gallon tub.
Since sap is mostly water, it takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.
“That’s what takes the time, boiling the water off,” says Jack who’d started boiling this batch of sap three hours earlier. “But it’s better than the big pot over the bonfire.”

There is no television or radio in the cabin; the only sounds are the hiss of water boiling, the snap of the wood fire, and the drip of condensation into a large steel pot. Although Jack compares the waiting like watching grass grow, it’s peaceful work, and genuinely productive.
Jack, who is 77, began making syrup for family and friends in 2008 once he’d fully retired from the military, trucking, and working in Noel Smith’s sugar woods. When his son, Justin, retires in a few years, they plan to expand into a commercial maple syrup business. 

This is an early year for tapping up; Jack says their first pour was March 1st. Last year, after the heavy snows, their first pour was March 29.

As the syrup thickens, we stay inside. This is not a process you can rush, or neglect. The fire needs stoking, the thermometer needs checking. With each dip, the syrup runs off the can a little stickier.
“Almost,” we say at the same time, and laugh. We say it four times until Jack, finally, declares, “That’s it.”
He opens the spigot and rich, sweet syrup flows through a filter into the waiting jug. After that pour has been filtered into a larger container, Jack hands me a steel mug with a measure of syrup in the bottom.
“It’s so dark,” I say.
“That’s because we tap white and red maples,” he explains.
I tip the mug back and into my mouth flows a taste that defies description but I realize one important fact: Sweet, pure, freshly-made maple syrup is best served warm. 

Monday, March 14, 2016

Interrogating the Cats

"So do either of you boys know anything about the jar of pussy willows and osprey feathers lying on the floor?"
"Nope. Wasn't us."
"Did you see who did it then?"
"Nope, we didn't see anything. I think we were having a nap at the time."
"So you have no idea who would be interested enough in feathers to climb up on my desk and walk across the bookshelf and try to pull the feathers out of the jar and run down the hall with them?"
"Oh, THOSE feathers. I was just returning them to you."
"Really. And where did you find them?"
"On the floor by your desk."
"And how did they get on the floor?"
"I'm not sure, I was napping, but I think Oswald knocked the jar off the window ledge."
"Oswald the squirrel? The one who is at the bird feeder all the time?"
"Yeah, him. I bet it was him. You know, I think I saw him outside your office windows earlier. I was waking up from a nap."
"Really. So it wasn't either of you boys who knocked the jar off the ledge and dragged the feathers down the hall?"
"No. We have no interest in that kind of thing. None at all. Now, Oswald, on the other hand... You know what squirrels are like."

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Want Versus Need

For next week's column, I spent a day at a sugar shack watching sap boil. Knowing it was still an hour or so away from reaching the one particular boiling point that say the syrup is ready to be poured, my host, Jack, insisted I take his four-wheeler for a drive through the sugar woods.
What I discovered partway along the trail is this: It's easy to give directions -- "Just keep going straight" -- when you know the area like the back of your own hand.
Because for a stranger in the woods, the fork in the road kind of muddles things.
I knew I was out of the sugar woods because there were no more green or blue lines umbilically connecting the trees. So I had a choice: go back the way I came and explain why I was back at the shack so soon. Or carry on.
I sat at the fork in the trail and look left then right. Both were tracks leading through the woods. Both were pristinely snow-covered.
In my head, I heard Jack talking about the loop. "When you make the loop around." But I didn't know if he meant loop around back to my starting point or loop around past his son's camp?
But on the right was a set of fox tracks and having nothing better to judge my decision on than those tracks, I allowed their presence to make the decision for me.
It's that mysterious, that unlikely and that obvious. I didn't have to see the creature who made the tracks in the snow to understand I could follow them.
And sometimes that's all it takes. Making a choice based on what is right before your eyes: The tracks are there so follow them. If you don't want to get lost, follow the clearly marked trail through the snow.
Pay attention, girl! You can't miss the message.

When I got home from the sugar woods, the mail was sitting on the counter and the much-anticipated envelope from ArtsNS was sitting on top of the pile. I could tell by the thinness that it did not contain the grant money (via cheque) that I'd hoped to receive in order to take six weeks off from my church work back I have to rewrite a book.
And as I looked over my photos as a way of figuring out what to write about, I realized that listening to the voice inside or praying to God or watching for signs or trying to figure out if it's a coincidence or not is about need, not want.
I wanted that grant but I don't need it. I'll still do the work; it just means juggling other writing at the same time. I wonder if perhaps I need to continue working that hard, and perhaps I need to keep writing sermons even more.
I wanted to figure out my way through the woods but I needed help. So the tracks were there to show me the way. And you need to know that the tracks were there showing me the way ALL THE WAY BACK. As soon as the snow cover had melted off the trail, taking the sure and steady imprint of the fox tracks with it, I could see the shack in the distance.
Here's the common sense: Use your senses. Watch, listen, feel, taste. Understand the difference between want and need. The first is a question you ask over and over. The second is an answer to the question you haven't asked yet. 
It's always that mysterious, that unlikely and that obvious. As simple and as fleeting as tracks imprinted in the melting snow. 

Monday, March 07, 2016

Nosy Neighbours

One of the big differences between city living and country living is the concept of "nosiness".
In the city, you keep to yourself, you don't get involved, you mind your own business. It's a form of NIMBY-ism: If it's not happening in my back yard, I'm going to pretend it's not happening.
This is how people can lie dead in their apartments for days, even weeks, without anyone knowing until someone notices an unpleasant smell.
In the country, however, knowing your neighbours' business isn't just acceptable, it's expected.
If you see someone's backdoor light still shining at ten o'clock in the morning, you phone the house to make sure everything is okay.
I've struggled with the nosiness of rural folk far more than I struggled with the anonymity of the city. Raised in a small town (small relative to Toronto, not small relative to Halifax), I hated being told that because my father owned a business in town, my behaviour and activity reflected on him; I was expected to avoid a poor reflection. Fortunately, I wasn't inclined towards bad behaviour so it was more a personal reaction to being told whose house not to park in front of. When I lived in Vancouver, however, I relished that I could walk down the street and no one knew me. At the same time, no one cared about me, either.
Despite living in the country for almost nine years, I still balk at the constant barrage of "Who-What-When-Where" questions that fill the days of people living in an underpopulated area. Yet I know why the questions are asked, know my recoiling from them is more about me than it is about the people who ask them. The questions are a way of life; who am I to question the questions?
Just don't expect me to answer them. 
Interesting, then, the conversation at supper the other night. I mentioned that it appears the house sitter for friends of ours hadn't made an appearance four days after they left town, and I thought I should email them and let them know.
My city-born-and-raised mother said, "You don't want to be a tattle tale."
My country-born-and-raised husband, on the other hand, "I'd tell them."
Maybe I'll just start taking the long way home so I don't have to drive past their house for the next month.

Friday, March 04, 2016

Happiness Is A New Tractor

I came across a note I'd made to myself a few years ago about how a marriage is like an old tractor: No matter what it looks like, if it starts right up and get the job done, you're taking good care of it.
The idea is a work in progress. Our marriage is a little young yet for that quote.

But I'm thinking about this as I work in my office upstairs on this cold but sunny March afternoon because I hear a deep rumble in the backyard. Not the kind of muffler-free rumble one has to shout over, close windows against, covers ears because of, but the gentle rumble of a diesel engine learning new territory, and making one man very, very happy.
A week ago, after he'd paid the money and signed the deal, after he'd brought home the spare key and instruction books, my husband sat at the end of the bed and said to me, "Twenty years ago, I thought that for my retirement, I'd get a tractor, a good tractor, and spend my days tinkering away in the woods. Now I can do that."
He appeared almost shocked, as in pinch-me shocked: His wish came true.
That good tractor arrived on Monday.

Shiny and new, this is the first new vehicle my husband has owned in 15 years. After the struggles he's faced the last five years, struggles with health and work and family, he deserves this happiness, this reward for a lifetime of hard work and heartache. It's the next chapter of our country life together: The Tractor Years.

Speaking of tractor years, it was hard to see the old tractor go. Once shiny and new, that 1958 Massey Ferguson had done its job well, serving the family farm for over 50 years then serving us, tilling gardens and plowing snow, for the last few. My husband restored it with paint and few new parts but it needs a muffler (hence our mouth-open amazement at how quiet this new tractor is; you can stand next to it while it's running and still carry on a conversation). Happily, the old tractor is in good working shape so no junk heap for it;  some connoisseur of antique farm equipment will be excited to give it a new home.

And it doesn't matter how young our marriage is, or how old it gets, I will always get up from my office chair and look out to watch my husband driving his tractor around the yard. It's nice, though, to see him doing it now with a big grin on his face.
My Nova Scotia tractor boy is happy.

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

The Parable of the Rural Hospital

As published in the Citizen-Record on Wednesday, March 2, 2016, by Sara Jewell.

June Masters with her almost-healed arm.
 The fight is on to save the hospital in Pugwash, and now that her arm is on the mend, June Masters of Oxford is coming out swinging in support.

A few weeks ago, June landed on my doorstep with a story to tell me, a story about an injury and a small hospital in rural Nova Scotia.
In January, she burned her right arm badly while attempting to make French fries at home with just a pot and oil.
“The result was a second-degree burn on my right arm,” she said, adding that she doesn’t recommend that method to anyone. “I called friends of mine and they took me to the hospital in Pugwash. The nurses took me right in and treated me. You never have to wait there.”
The community surrounding the North Cumberland Memorial Hospital has been waiting since 2010 for the fulfillment of the promise to renovate and upgrade the hospital. The lack of modernization is affecting the area’s ability to attract and keep doctors.
“We’ve been using the hospital since 1994 and between my two daughters and myself, we’ve always had the best care,” June told me. “The staff is wonderful.”
She planned to attend the town hall presentation on March 1, which occurred after the deadline for this column. She is one of many who want to the hospital in Pugwash to remain open.

But it’s not enough for the 50-year-old hospital to stay open; it must become viable. That’s why the government needs to honour the promise of a new health care facility.
Otherwise, Pugwash is going to suffer the same fate as Wentworth and River John.
At church this past Sunday, we talked about the parable of the unfruitful fig tree. The owner of the tree was upset that it had yet to produce any fruit so he told his gardener to cut it down. The gardener replied, “Give it one more year. I’ll dig around it and add fertilizer.”

This is the perfect analogy for hub school and hospitals.
The provincial government does very little to support community initiatives in rural areas yet expects those initiatives to flourish without extra help. The people who live and do business in rural areas ask for one more year and some resources in order to make it happen.
Yet what happened to the hub schools effort? What happened to the Pugwash hospital?
Even as they showed promise, the government cut them off. You’re not fruitful enough.

Rural people know what to do with a little soil and some fertilizer; they have faith in hard work and know how to adapt to new ideas. Government bureaucrats armed with financial spreadsheets and consultants’ reports think the soil and fertilizer and new ideas cost too much.
It’s says a lot about a government when it drops the Department Economic and Rural Development in favour of the Department of Business. Only, it makes no business sense to cut down a flourishing rural area by refusing to invest in its well-used hospital.
And they call country people backwards?

Update on the March 1st public meeting in Pugwash, from a reliable source:
There is no new hospital coming any time soon. Instead, there's another 1.5 million dollars to make a plan for a new hospital and present it to the government by April 2017. What happened to the last  plan that was presented to the government? Oh, right, the government failed to come up with all the funding. So...another beautiful example of classic government stalling. Honestly, how many governments are going to pass along this project? If they'd taken care of this 20 years ago, when it first became an issue...