Wednesday, December 28, 2016

A Bonfire of Creativity

Photo courtesy of David Learoyd
There is an essay in my book called "A Walk In the Woods". In that essay I write about how moving to rural Nova Scotia "was like piling all my suppressed ideas inside the fire pit in the yard and lighting a match: I became a bonfire of creativity. All I wanted to do was write. Walk, write, write some more, and then walk again."

Now that Field Notes, the book, is published and the fall book events are done, now that Christmas is over and the long, cold winter months are upon us: The bonfire of creativity is about to light up the grey country sky once again.

I love this time of year, the anticipation of projects about to be started, the thrumming of ideas inside my body, the energy that is coursing through me on every walk with the dog.
I can't speak for other writers but the winter months are prime writing months for me. This is when I get shit done. 

And here, my friends, is the power of the field: My cousin David posted this photo and a brief statement about it being the wedding gift of his grandfather to his grandmother ninety years ago and that it is now his to tune and play and enjoy. One, that would be my great-uncle Everett and my great-aunt Vera, and two, as soon as I read his sentences, a short story started poking me.
Since a week earlier, I'd received a notice about a short story contest, now I had both a deadline and a story. Or rather, the poking of one; it was time to get this story flat out slapping me.
Off I went for a walk with the dog; this is my process, so much so, I think it's time to install a hut with a chair and table inside it at the edge of the woods so I can pause in my walking in order to write. Normally, I only do one loop around the neighbour's field but on this day, "We're going around again," I told the dog, because I was working out the plot of that story.
"If you know the ending, you can write the story," I'd told my mother earlier in the day, and by the time I'd completed the second loop around the field, I knew exactly how the story would end.

This is what the first few months of this particular new year means to me: For the first time in my life, the writing truly will come first. I have my projects -- three books, one essay and a short story -- and nothing will distract me. I have my part-time job and a book event in February, there are movies to watch that we missed seeing at the theatre last  fall, but the writing comes first. No matter what, no matter who. Even if it means ignoring someone or being late, even if it means the laundry stays piled on top of my dresser, I will write first; I will not let the bonfire of creativity die down.

And in the spirit of that revolutionary resolution, I came inside the house after our walk, waved to the visitor in the living room, and high-tailed it upstairs to my office to write down the outline of the story and its ending. The time has come to sacrifice everything but the ideas.

Bring on the cold, bring on the wind, bring on the snow flurries and the rain. It is a new year, I am finally a published author, and there are logs to be thrown on the fire.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Best Christmas Present Ever

For the last five years, whenever my husband asked me what I wanted for Christmas, I always answered, "My book published."
Poor man, it was the one gift he could not get for me.
And until the summer of 2015, it was not the Field Notes book! It was another book entirely (and that's a whole other story for January...). But I am very, very grateful and elated that "Plan B" turned into such a delightful and rewarding "Plan A".

Thank you to everyone who has purchased, read, gifted and shared Field Notes, the book, for the last 12 weeks -- it's been an amazing three months! Thank you for the kind words, enthusiasm and generosity you've shown in talking about the book. Thank you for liking "my cruddy writing" -- as I called it this morning during a lovely Christmas Eve walk with my friend Jane who she told me she's read the book twice and still gets goosebumps. Really? About something I wrote?
That's the magic, folks. The magic of writing and the magic of Christmas wishes. Thank you for giving me the gift I've always wanted.

As we head into the next few holidays/holy days, I wish all of you a time of peace, moments of joy, days as quiet or as noisy as you want. No matter what is going on in your life, I hope your heart is full of love, and your spirit calm and bright. Remember to breathe and to give thanks.
You are part of my life now in an entirely new and special way, and this makes Christmas 2016 the Most Wonderful Time of this year.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Power of Christmas Stories

My parents in 1994.
There are a lot of made-for-TV movies out there and I wonder where the writers get their ideas from. For sure, the stories fall into a few of categories, like a man and woman hating Christmas so they make a pact to spend the holidays together or a boss hates Christmas so someone like Santa or the Spirit of Christmas comes along to give him or her a change of heart.
Most movies involve two people falling in love. 
I suppose like all stories, an idea comes from something simple, from the writers' own lives, a little bit of inspiration that can be worked into a movie plot.

It could be an idea as simple as this one that I wrote about on my Facebook page in 2013, four years after my father's death. I thought of it the other day because the week before Christmas reminds of my father and his penchant for red-and-green. I'm sure the seeds of a Christmas story are here:

"It wasn't until the day after my father had died and I was going through the family photo albums selecting pictures for the video display that I noticed the pattern: Dad wore red and green at Christmas.
There I was, 39 years old and my father gone 24 hours and I'd just learned something new about him.
It was never obvious, this Christmas dress code of his. He wasn't the Santa hat type of guy or a Christmas tie type but going through years and years of photos all at once made me see that he would wear a green sweater over a red shirt at Christmastime. Then there was the memorable photo that couldn't be included in the video: my sister snapped him as he walked through the kitchen wearing nothing but a pair of white boxer shorts and red socks. We laughed about that...but failed to see the pattern and the deeper meaning.
Learning that Christmas was special to my quiet, generous father is a joyful memory. How many people get the chance to discover something wonderful like this about a parent they have just lost...and have it make Christmas more meaningful, more joy-filled despite the loss? It doesn't make me feel sad; it makes me feel lucky.
To discover how my father really felt about Christmas is a gift he gave me for the rest of MY life. Merry Christmas, Dad. And, as always, thanks."

As true now as it was when I wrote it three years ago. I wish I'd paid closer attention to my father, I wish I'd appreciated him more while he was alive. Memories are a poor substitute for the real thing but I'm grateful at least to have this very special memory.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Marilyn's Christmas Wish List

As published in the Citizen-Record newspaper on Wednesday, December 21, 2016, by Sara Jewell

Marilyn Williams with her canine crew: Oreo (back), Happy and Austin (left).

In the dark, running late, and wound tighter than a ball of yarn, Marilyn Williams rushes into my house with another delivery of Lillian Allbon Animal Shelter calendars.
“Sara, it’s just one of those days when everything that could go wrong – I was at the vet all afternoon with my new rescue dog because he couldn’t pee and I’m supposed to meet Eleanor for supper at 5:30 in Springhill.”
We both look at the clock on the stove: It reads 5:26.
“And I have a feral cat that I picked up at the vet bawling in my car because I have to drop him at his new home in Springhill,” Marilyn adds.
She may be leaning against my wall in a pose of exhaustion but this is Marilyn Williams at her best: Friend to all, especially those in need. After the death of her son in 1997, Marilyn retired from teaching and found herself drawn to volunteer work that allowed her to care for others, including starting a spay and neuter program for feral and stray cats.

“I have a very busy life,” says Marilyn a few weeks later when we sit down in her cozy cottage near Heather Beach for a conversation. “I never know when I’ll be going with a trap and I’m at the shelter as much as I can be. I still volunteer with palliative care for sitting through the night. When I don’t have to be somewhere, I’m thankful to be here.”
She calls her cottage her sanctuary, adding that she loves being alone, although by alone she means with her furry crew of three dogs and six cats (plus the occasional feral cat in the laundry room).
“My life has changed a lot since I moved here six years ago,” she says. “My life is very simple. I can’t tell you the last time I went into a store and bought something. Everything I get comes from a thrift shop. The less I spend on myself, the more I can give to charities.”

It doesn’t take Marilyn a moment to come up with her Christmas wishes:            
1) For every animal to be tucked in and warm on a winter night. “I lose sleep thinking of the stray and feral cats trying to survive in the freezing cold. I look at these pets around me. They’re all rescues and I want this for every animal.”
2) Homes for the ‘long timers’ at the shelter. “Most of them have come from homes, they know love, they know what it’s like. If Bear and Taz could find a home for Christmas…Those are the two black cats, the brothers.”
3) For people to take responsibility for their animals. “Don’t get them when they’re cute then biff them when they’re older. Don’t take a puppy and not train it, then bring him in to surrender him because he’s ripping everything up, nipping at the kids and peeing on the floor.”
4) For more money for spaying and neutering. “I’d love to get more ferals done.”
5) “I would like people to be grateful for what they have.”  

One of the dogs crawls onto Marilyn’s lap and she hugs him tight. His name is Happy so now I know what a Happy Christmas looks like.

You can find both the Lillian Allbon Animal Shelter and Marilyn & Friends Spay/Neuter Fund (@spayCats) on Facebook.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Moments of Emancipation

I think life -- no, not life but maturity is made up of moments of emancipation.
We think everything that changes our life should arrive like a big moment, obvious and momentous, fireworks and blazing sunset, fighter jet flyover, ticker tape parade big. So we don't realize the smaller moments that set us free.
And since those small, quiet moments of emancipation often come after a battle with oneself, a beating up of oneself for being stupid or easily distracted or persuaded by others, we are too exhausted, too relieved, too busy cleaning up a mess to appreciate what we've just done.
We've said Enough. We've put our foot down. We've stood up for ourselves. We've set ourselves free.
But I'm old enough now -- no, mature enough now to recognize a moment of emancipation when it happens.
For weeks, I've been dragging an expectation and an outcome along like an overstuffed backpack, attempting to carry this load of what other people expect me to do, what I think I should accomplish for some kind of truly uncertain future opportunity.
All the while, my husband has been gently and patiently commenting, "You have published a book. You don't need to do anything else but write more books."
Where was this man when I was 26? And when did he become so patient?
Once I realized that I actually don't need to do what I'm doing, that the outcome won't matter once it's achieved in two years, that I'm actually messing with my writing by continuing to pursue that outcome -- Bam! It was like getting smacked in the face with a snowball.
When faced with a choice between writing books, work I absolutely love doing, and completing a course that has given me nothing but grief, headaches and cold sores for six weeks -- a course that would interfere with the three books I plan to work on this winter -- well, it was easy to shovel everyone else's expectations, everyone else's rules and regulations, into a big pile at the edge of road and watch the plow scoop them away. 
And how did that moment of emancipation feel? 
Say hello to a good night's rest and getting up at six a.m. for yoga.
Say hello to a snowy walk in the woods with the dog during which I didn't think about anything but trying to catch snowflakes on my tongue. 
Say hello to feeling like myself again.
Free as a bird.
Free to do nothing but write more books.

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

The Christmas Story of Hope and Home

As published in the Citizen-Record newspaper on Wednesday, December 7 2016, by Sara Jewell

Seba, Tarek, Zaid, Rina and baby Reem in their Amherst, NS, home.

Deep inside the annual frenzy to buy and shop and give-and-get, deep inside the music blaring at every store, there is a story. In that story is the reason for this season we call “Christmas”. And it’s a universal story, one more of us can relate to than we realize.
Because it is the story of family, of a long journey into unfamiliar territory, and of the life-changing birth of a baby.

Last February, Tarek and his wife Rina arrived at the Halifax airport with their daughter, now five, and their son, now three. They came from Syria via Jordan, where they had been living for four years after fleeing the civil war in their homeland. Rina’s mother and sisters are still in Syria; her father and brother are dead while a second brother is missing. Tarek’s family is now scattered throughout the Middle East trying to rebuild their lives.
In Jordan, Tarek and Rina were refugees and not supported the way Canadians have welcomed and helped them. They received only coupons for food. Tarek, a mechanic, could not work in Jordan; if he was caught trying to earn money for his family, he would be thrown in jail or sent back to Syria. Their daughter, Seba, was born in Syria, while their son, Zaid, was born in Jordan; that country refused to issue a birth certificate for him because his parents were refugees.
A family without a home, a baby without a country.

Sitting in their living room in Amherst, using a translator, Tarek described arriving in Canada this way: “I felt human again.”
The story buried deep inside our cultural Christmas of Black Friday sales and mall Santas and elves on shelves is a story about home, about belonging, about being a citizen.
Tarek and his family first settled in Parrsboro, a community that embraced and assisted them. Soon after they arrived, however, Rina became pregnant and it was difficult from the start; the doctors thought she might give birth two months prematurely so they moved closer to the hospital.

Through the translator, Rina said the health care she receives here is much better than in Syria or Jordan. Her biggest struggle, and also for her husband, is language. Imagine you are pregnant and only speak Arabic while your doctor and nurse only speak English.
“Most of the time I understand but I can’t say it back,” Rina explained. “I want to learn more English so I can understand what’s going on with my baby.”
Fortunately, the baby held on for the full term and was delivered by C-section a month ago.
“Our little Canadian girl,” Tarek called her. The implication is huge: this newborn daughter, named Reem, is a Canadian citizen. She is a citizen of the country in which she was born, in which she will grow up in safety and prosperity. She is home.

A baby is born and it is a time of joy. Looking at her tiny features, her little fingers and cheeks, we are filled with hope and we pray for peace so that she grows up safe and healthy. There is such love for a sweet little Canadian baby with thick dark hair, whose first words will be both Arabic and English.
This is the true meaning of Christmas, this story of hospitality and home, of welcome and acceptance, of being human.  

Friday, December 02, 2016

The First Snow

Why is it we need to post photos of the first snow every year?
Every year this happens. There is a first snow. Why is this more dramatic, more compelling than rain -- or the first leaves to turn red or even the first snowdrop?
Well, maybe not the first snowdrop. The first appearances of spring flowers are pretty special.
But there's something about snow...

Like last year, the ground did not freeze before the snow arrived. Under the heaps of heavy, wet snow, the ground is saturated with water. After such a dry summer! Amazing. And as I type this, there are long drips passing by my window as the snow on the roof melts in the drizzle. Everything is slushy, everything is muddy. It's a mushy, mushy marshmushy world.
Snow and rain. Say what you will about mild weather, I prefer my winters cold and snowy. This stuff is crap to walk in.