Saturday, December 23, 2017

Made In Nova Scotia

"This is for you," my mother said, handing me an unwrapped, pre-Christmas gift. "Because your other aprons are all so grotty."
But how perfect is this one? The Nova Scotia tartan to wear in the heart of my home: the kitchen.
"Are you going to take pictures of yourself or are you going to help me make this pie?" my mother finally asked.
But how perfect is this one? Baking a Maritime mock cherry pie for a pre-Christmas chowder supper with some of my husband's clan (who told us, "We look forward to this all year!").

These are the Christmas moments I crave now: a meaningful gift like this apron, and time in the kitchen creating with my mama. Blessings, for sure.

May your holiday be filled with such as these, as well as peace, joy and love.

(and darling Ethel, I will wear this apron when I bake your long-awaited upside-down apple cake. I promise you'll get it before next year!)

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Christmas Is Just Another Day

This is a photo of my father from December 1997. There's Mother's seasonal afghan and Dad is holding onto one of her Christmas mugs. Given that he's wearing black and white, he's in his funeral suit; he'd come home for lunch and to change before an afternoon funeral.
Because people die at Christmas time.

My sister and I have known this since we were children. Since my father was a funeral director, and we lived above funeral homes for most of our childhood, we knew that if the phone rang, Dad had to drop everything and go. If the phone rang on Christmas Eve, or Christmas Day, or Boxing Day, and someone had died, Dad couldn't say, "I'll be along after my kids have opened their stockings" or "We're just heading out to a family gathering; I'll drop by on my way home."
Death didn't wait because someone wanted to spend Christmas with their family.

Less than ten years after this photo was taken, my father would move into the locked unit of a nursing home two weeks before Christmas because of the impact of Alzheimer's disease on his abilities.
So this news story about the elderly couple in New Brunswick being separated just before Christmas, who will now spend Christmas apart, because of the husband's dementia? The TV news is building their predicament up as a "heartless social services, the Grinch stole Christmas" story but there are many families who have lived, and are living, through that and they're not complaining to reporters.
It's the way life goes. Life doesn't stop because it's Christmas.
We lived through that. My mother lived through that. Countless families will live through it this year.

This is what Christmas of 2005 taught me about Christmas: Life does not stop because it's Christmas. We aren't put inside a protective bubble for 31 days so that illness and death, pain and loss won't happen. Living and dying doesn't take a break because it's Christmas.

I made it to the age of 35 without this reality check; my sister received it at the age of 28 when her in-laws were killed in a car accident on December 16.
(And now I recall that my first marriage ended over Christmas.)

Let's be honest: Christmas sucks for a lot of people. Everyone is missing someone. Is that why we have become so frenetic about celebrating it? We want to forget the bad stuff for a day, a week, a month. In doing so, however, we've made Christmas harder and harder to enjoy. 

The way we do Christmas -- the multitude of decorations, the orgy of gifts and food, the pressures to party and achieve perfection, the stress of shopping and wrapping and getting everything done by that magical Christmas Eve -- is crazy. It's insane. We set ourselves up to not be able to cope when shit happens.
And it will. It always does. Even if the worse thing that ever happens is a beloved family member dying at an old age after a well-lived life, there will always be, at minimum, The First Christmas Without...
I still can't buy a Christmas card for my father-in-law because I can't handle the Dad cards. The first year after his death, I cried just looking at them in the store. And now, knowing how much -- yet how quietly -- he enjoyed Christmas (something I didn't realize until I was looking at all our photos after his death and noticed the red and green combinations he wore), Christmas is always about missing my father.
Excuse me while I wipe my eyes and blow my nose.

Some justify our culture's Christmas Extravaganza by saying, "We need this 'most wonderful time of the year' to make up for all the pain and suffering the rest of the year."
But that's a fallacy. The way we do Christmas, the way we've allowed Christmas to take over our lives, creates stress. anxiety, and financial burdens. The way we do Christmas ignores the reality of pain and suffering that is ongoing. The families lamenting that their parent, their spouse is in a nursing home over Christmas? On Christmas Day 2005, I was the only visitor in the nursing home that day; I was there all morning, through the Christmas dinner at lunchtime then all afternoon. I can't speak to who visited in the evening but knowing that the residents were affected by "sun downing" and that the staff began the bedtime routine right after supper, I doubt many, if any, family members showed up.
Because no one wants their perfect family Christmas ruined by real life.

Have you read this far? Because people hate a downer like me, don't they? No one, trust me, no one likes a reality check. But they happen. Somehow, the true meaning of Christmas -- the hope and the peace and the love -- are revealed by them.
Of course I'm not saying we should cancel Christmas, I'm not saying Christmas isn't nice or special. It's just that once you've been alone in your home on Christmas Day, once you've spent Christmas Day in a nursing home, once you've woken up on December 26 and Christmas is all over, you realize IT'S JUST ONE DAY.

And life doesn't take a break for that one particular day.
Instead of making life about Christmas, we need to make Christmas about life. Whose life doesn't need more hope, peace, joy and love?

Merry Christmas. May your memories sustain you through this holiday season. xo

Tuesday, December 19, 2017


Today's Advent word is "release" and it wasn't until I stepped from the field, over the ditch, and into the tree plantation that I knew what photo I would take.
Even though I'm supposed to walk with my ultra-lite knapsack, carrying my phone, knife and whistle, I didn't bring it on our late day walk because it's snowing and sometimes,
it's nice to leave everything behind. To be released from the phone culture.
But as soon as I stepped into this scene, I knew I would trudge back to the house because this is the photo for "release".

This is a photo of the moment when you step into this scene and
let go
Watch the snowflakes fall (it was movie snow! when I looked up, it was like being in the ice rink scene in the movie "Serendipity"!).

this scene,
this tree plantation,
this space,
is why I love living here.
This is why
I am at home here.

I can breathe here.
I can create here.
Here, I am free.
This is my release.

This photo is my prayer of gratitude, my thanks to the guardian angels who brought Dwayne and I together,
who brought me to this place
where the snow is soft, the trees are welcoming, and the sky is large.

I don't need Advent to remind me of hope and peace and joy and love.
I just have to walk out into the woods to know they are part of this life.

(And THANK YOU! I just figured out what I'm going to say for my message about "peace" on Christmas Eve.
Isn't this place amazing?)

Monday, December 11, 2017


I'm doing an "Advent Photo Challenge" on Instagram which requires me to post a photo each day on my account (JewellofaWriter) that reflects the word of the day. Although it doesn't stress me out to skip a word or two, it helps to know what a couple of days' worth of words are in order to be aware when I'm out and about, so I was thinking of today's word, Silence, when the dog and I were walking along the river yesterday.
I chose a different photo for Instagram (a photo of the snow falling on the goose decoys on the pond) because this photo of "silence" comes with a story that's more suited to this space.

This photo is of my six year old Boxer, Abby.
My previous dog, Stella, who came with me when I moved to Nova Scotia in 2007, was very athletic and energetic, as well as headstrong and stubborn. When we lived in urban Ontario, I spent hours walking the streets with her, and every couple of days, we headed out to the trails in the forest or to a friend's farm so she could run off-leash. She loved to run -- for every kilometer I hiked, she ran five -- but this meant she took off from me, often disappeared from sight. I started clipping a bear bell on her so that I could always track her; then it sounded like one of Santa's reindeer was running around.
I seemed to be yelling for her, and at her, all the time, and it exhausted me. It made me angry, irrationally so, but the anger was also full of worry: that she would get hurt and I couldn't find her, that she would attack another dog if she came upon them (I later realized she actually played with the dogs she met; she only attacked them with me out of an overdeveloped protective instinct). 

Then I read an essay by author and writing coach Natalie Goldberg about a walking meditation she did as part of a Buddhist retreat she was attending in a city. She walked through the city silently, without ever speaking. It was liberating, she discovered, to walk in silence, to quiet both one's mouth and one's mind.
It was worth a try so early one Sunday morning (before I'd started attending church again, my worship happened in the reforestation area) when I knew there wouldn't be anyone else around, I set out on the C Trail through the forest. I would hike for 90 minutes without speaking to my dog. I would not call her, I would not speak her name, I would not say anything. I would simply walk in silence.

I'd also read that speaking softly gets a dog's attention far better than shouting, which seems true considering we humans tune out shouters and whiners and cursers. Dogs also get most of their information from our body language -- from what we do rather than what we say.

So I did this silent meditation walk and felt calmer and not exhausted by anger at the end of the hike. Stella still ran around, sometimes out of sight, but I do believe she was intrigued by the novelty of my quietude once she realized there was nothing coming out of my mouth. I think this meant she realized she had to watch me for information rather than tune me out.

This is what I think of when I walk with Abby, when we stand looking out at the river, when she doesn't chase the ducks that fly out of the swampy area, when we pass through these fields or the woods behind the house, and she stays with me. Even when she disappears into the tree plantation, and I eventually call her, I don't get angry like I did with Stella, the "Whatever" dog, the canine equivalent of a teenager. Stella would disappear for so long, I'd be walking home before she appeared again.
It's much nicer to not walk and worry. It's much nicer to have the dog actually walking with me.

I appreciate being able to walk in silence with my dog.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Delivering Hope and Joy

Our seven shoeboxes + a bag of extras were delivered to My Home Apparel in Truro on Tuesday afternoon. Our donations were happily accepted by business owner, Miriah, who donates 5% of all sales to organizations dealing with people at risk of homelessness. I told her how easy it made it to participate in the Shoebox Project because her store was a drop-off for shoeboxes.
Can't wait to do this again next year!

Friday, December 01, 2017

Hope Is A Star

I love my star lights. It takes a whole afternoon to string these lights the length of our front yard but it's so worth it. I cover most of our property with lights, including the chicken coop (my mother says it looks like a casino). I enjoy it for the month of December, for Christmas, but if there's one light I'd keep up all winter, it's this one. The star of hope.
Especially this year. This afternoon, as I was decorating inside the house in preparation for this Sunday afternoon's "Project Shoebox Social", a woman arrived at the door with four bags full of gifts for the shoeboxes.
The response to my call to "be a light in the world" has been remarkable. Amazing grace. I called (read about it here), you're answering. Six women who can't make it to this Sunday's gathering have donated money or dropped off items. That's not something I expected. I certainly didn't expect a woman to recognize me while shopping in Bulk Barn and give me forty dollars.
It makes my heart shine like a star.
It gives me hope because it means that everything I say from a church pulpit -- a spot fraught with issues of relevance and hypocrisy and doubt -- aren't just words that get caught up in the ceiling fans of these sanctuaries and never follow anyone out into the world. It means, too, that we don't need churches to connect with other loving, passionate people, to find people who are willing and able to answer a call to help others, to offer hope and joy and love to strangers. But we need more than Facebook and Instagram; we do need a place to gather and we do need a project around which to rally, and I'm grateful to offer that "heart and home" this weekend.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Last Day of November

This morning was the kind of November morning that I love: cold, crisp and clear. Long shadows from the rising sun as the dog and I walked across the field to the pond where the goose decoys wait patiently to be taken in for the winter. A thin layer of ice, barely discernible, pushed to one side of the pond by overnight wind.
But no wind this morning. A perfect November day.
And then it is done.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Treasure Hunting With the Queen of Frenchys

As published in the Citizen-Record newspaper on Wednesday, November 29, 2017 by Sara Jewell

A couple of months ago, when I overheard Donna Hutchinson talking about stopping at Guy’s Frenchys in Amherst on her way home from visiting her mother in Moncton, I pounced.
“Teach me to do Frenchys,” I told her.
It sounds weird to ask someone to show you how to shop, I know, but although I’ve popped into Frenchys twice, and both times scored an item of clothing I love, they came off the racks against the walls. The bins totally intimidated me; they looked like giant messes. 

To help me understand what I was getting into, I asked Donna about her 30-year history with Frenchys as we drove to Amherst for our shopping trip earlier this month.
“I discovered Frenchys when I taught school in Dartmouth,” the retired Gulf Shore resident said. “I would buy a really decent outfit for work then I’d get ink all over it. All of a sudden, I found this shop in Lower Sackville where they were selling second-hand clothes.”
Now as then, Donna considers it “treasure hunting”, saying she doesn’t know what she wants or needs until she sees it.

“Get a basket,” she commanded as we arrived. “One with a handle.”
We went to the very first bin inside the door, filled with scarves and hats, Donna got right in, pushing and pulling scarves out of the tangled pile. I had no idea where to start; I kept grabbing the same scarf but it was wrapped up around other scarves so I couldn’t ever get it loose.
It was the same at the bin of Ladies Long-Sleeved Shirts. To me, it was a mass of shirts tossed in a heap but Donna seemed to know how to move her hands through the pile and pull out interesting pieces. She was efficient, methodical and quick. I kept picking up the three same shirts.
Are any rules to pawing through the bins?
“Be the first on a new dump,” Donna told me. “Don’t grab something out of someone’s hand, and don’t think, ‘I really want that’ if someone is looking at it, or at least, don’t let them know you want it.”
A woman overheard us. “Is this your first time?” she asked me.
Linda, from Sackville, NB, told us the first time she was in Frenchys, she was elbowed but she doesn’t want me to write that down because that really doesn’t happen at Frenchys.
“You get to meet some very nice people here,” Linda said. “I’ll tell you the bad thing about Frenchys: I buy for everyone I know. My husband says I’m not saving any money.”
Donna chimed in, “I dress skinny girls and babies,” and Linda nodded.

In the end, I managed to get the hang of the bins, and without ever reaching men’s or children’s clothing, my basket overflowed. As I piled my stuff on the counter at the cash, Donna laughed.
“You’re the only person who folded her clothes. Sure sign of a newbie.”
I had a great time, I’ll do it again, but it won’t matter how many bins I paw through at Frenchys looking for treasures, I’ll always be the one folding her clothes before she puts them in her basket.

I didn't make it to Men's Clothing but found this great hat for my husband!

Thursday, November 23, 2017

November Is Limb-itless

I realized the other day that I don't take many landscape photos in November. After the fullness of summer and the grandiose colours of fall, November is very stark.
Yet that's what makes November lovely: its simplicity, its briskness, its clear-eyed acceptance of the grey skies and frozen puddles, of its own barrenness.

What a wonderful season is November. For it is its own season, don't you think? I tried to think if any other month is its own season but no, not even March. Only November. It isn't autumn and it isn't winter. It is the season of November.

As I was walking, I wondered if this is why we rush to decorate for Christmas: November unnerves us. Those bare branches, those crunchy brown grasses, the thin layer of ice on the puddles in the morning. Such a thin layer, it crackles apart as soon as the dog walks on it.
We have the green lushness of summer and the yellows and oranges of fall, the red and greens and blues of Christmas but what does November offer?
Bitter winds.
Cold rains.
Flat, grey clouds hinting at snow.
Rotting pumpkins.
Blackened sunflower heads, emptied of their seeds.
Pale sun low in the sky, setting at five o'clock.
Chickens settling onto their roosts before we've eaten supper.

So we hurry November; we rush it; we transform it into a pre-December period. We anticipate our anticipation. We crowd out November after the brief pause on Remembrance Day with its blood-red poppies. We don't want to deal with the death of nature, with the decaying leaves, with the still waters. We don't want to live in the darkness so we fling lights onto those empty branches, stick Santa and his reindeer on the brown lawn, glitterize our houses.
Yet that is precisely why we need November. This is our dark and dormant space before the frenzy of the holidays, before the whirling storms of next year. This is our breathing space. This is our stargazing space. We need this pause between the lazy energy of summer and the busyness of harvest, and the sparkly wildness of Christmas and New Year's Eve.
We need the wilderness of November, that time in between when everything pauses in its cyclical ambitions -- after the leaves fall and before the snow covers.

I type that -- and pause myself. What is it like to live in a place where there is no snow? Perhaps this is a uniquely Maritime post. Perhaps only those of us who experience four seasons also experience the fifth, orphaned, unappreciated season of November.   

Monday, November 20, 2017

Following the Path to Heart and Home

For those of you not on Facebook, or who don't follow my author page on Facebook (JewellofaWriter), I wanted to share what I posted yesterday [Sunday, November 19]:

Something amazing happened at church this morning, something that wasn't part of the plan. The plan was: pass out candles right after the sermon about being the light of the world (don't burn out, don't give up, the darker the space, the brighter a small light shines). By the time I returned to the pulpit after getting the candle lighting started, we were already into the last verse of the hymn. When I looked out at the congregation, all I saw were twenty little flames burning all over. It was the perfect illustration of what I'd been speaking about.
My intention was to provide a symbol for the congregation but I ended up seeing exactly what I needed to see.

Because I stand in that pulpit week after week and I talk about compassion and justice and acceptance, I talk about taking care of others, I talk about how the world needs more Jesus (the peacemaker, the table tosser, the game changer) but I don't feel like I walk my talk. It's been bugging me for awhile, and thankfully, while washing the dishes yesterday, the solution to my problem came to me.
The subtitle of my book has the phrase "heart and home" in it and this is my inspiration. There are two stages to my idea.

Here's stage one:
I shared a post last Sunday [on Facebook] about the Shoebox Project -- a Canadian initiative to provide gifts to women in our province who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. These shoeboxes don't go overseas, there is no religious strings attached to them; they help women in crisis here at home.
This is an opportunity to bring a little light into someone else's darkness: Anyone who is willing and able is invited to my home on Sunday, December 3 at 2 pm for tea, coffee and goodies (including my famous heart-shaped oat cakes) and together we'll pack some shoeboxes.
Bring with you a couple of good quality items any women needs and wants: shampoo, lip gloss, earrings or a bracelet, body lotion, socks, etc., I'm hoping a group of us can put together several shoeboxes. I'll add whatever we're missing, and deliver the shoeboxes by the December 6 deadline.
Please consider this: It's not a chance to get rid of all those small hotel shampoo bottles you've collected. These are women who don't have the means or opportunity to use "nice things" so please bring items that you would buy for yourself or your daughter or your best friend. Buy them on sale, but buy the good stuff. Go big or go home, as they say.
Sunday, December 3 at 2 pm. You bring your heart, I'll provide the hospitality.

[For more information on what we'll be doing: ]

Stage two will be announced in early January. It's an idea that's been tugging at my heart for a long time and it will take place in Oxford. I hope you'll be as inspired as I am to share "heart and home" with others.

As Anne Berube said yesterday [at her book event in Amherst], "What would happen if you let your light shine as brightly as possible?" Let's find out.

That's Anne on the left, unofficially endorsing my book!

Friday, November 17, 2017

What Are We Becoming?

This is what broke me this morning.
This image was posted on the Instagram account of The Ellen Show with the text, "I’m determined to do something about this. Please repost it. Use #BeKindToElephants, and for everyone who does, we’ll make a donation to The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust."
A couple of days ago, US President Trump announced his intention of rescinding the ban on importing parts of African elephants killed by sport hunters -- basically, allowing them to bring their hunting trophies home with them to hang in their dens. One of these hunters happens to be his son, Donald Jr.
What are we doing? What are we becoming? How much worse is everything going to get?

About once a week now, I say to my husband, "I can't people anymore, I just can't." It's getting harder and harder to watch the news -- I don't believe in saying, "I don't watch the news, it's too depressing," but it leaves me feeling frustrated and demoralized rather than informed and motivated.
I've been writing church messages about "being the light of the world" and it's been a struggle. This great and long-overdue turning point we've reached in hearing women's voices, in women feeling brave enough to speak out about how they are treated and have been treated has been a terrible and wonderful thing. I'm grateful that the flood of accusations and the conversations that have resulted are one big spotlight coming out of all those brave little lights who spoke out.
I wrote and delivered a sermon specifically about sexual harassment, the treatment of women and the church's role in establishing and perpetuating it. And now I'm referring to these stories in my sermons about being the light in the world. It's been emotionally draining because as a woman, as a writer and as a 'preacher', I can't ignore those voices, those stories.

Yet there is still a sexual predator in the White House, and now he wants to roll back protections for endangered animals (which now includes lions) by claiming it will help conservation efforts:
"The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said in a written notice issued Thursday that permitting elephants from Zimbabwe and Zambia to be brought back as trophies will raise money for conservation programs. A licensed two-week African elephant hunt can cost more than $50,000 US per person, not including airfare, according to advertised rates." (CBC News story)

This is personal to me. Elephants are one of the symbols of my writing. Years ago, when I was overwhelmed by the major rewrite of a book, a friend advised me, "It's like eating an elephant - one bit at time." It's a horrible analogy -- perhaps I can change it to, "It's like bathing an elephant -- just one inch at a time" -- but regardless, elephants became part of my life as a writer. My husband went out an bought me an elephant ornament that sat on my desk as a talisman, and since then, my collection of elephants has grown. A whole shelf on my book nook is devoted to my elephant collection.

Even before that, I'd read wonderful books about elephants enduring, even overcoming, the treatment they experience at the hands of certain kinds of people. I loved what I was learning about them, about their matriarchal society, and their intelligence and individual personalities. Like horses, they learn to work and live with humans.   

I even wrote about elephants in my Field Notes book, in the essay, "Good Vibrations". Here is just a brief excerpt, and I encourage you to read the entire essay (it's one of my favourites):
We do not remain untouched by the passing of a person, whether we know them or not. It is part of our human existence to mourn, to feel another's suffering, to share stories, and celebrate a life...This is why, as I sat at my desk staring at my monitor and waiting for the right words, I thought about elephants.... Intelligent and social creatures, elephants mourn  the same way humans do: with emotion and ritual. Those who study and work with elephants have witnessed familiar expressions of grief: elephants appear to cry and bury their dead...

Women can fight for themselves, and they are. That is changing, there is no turning back. But elephants and lions? How I wish they could band together and fight back. What we need is a good old fashioned stampede. Trump is turning conversation back, and it affects me, it affects us, it changes our world -- and not for the better. We are back-sliding and that's so very frustrating and demoralizing. What are we becoming?

As I write in "Good Vibrations", this is the elephant-like vibration that has rumbled me into awareness.

It's not that this resonates more deeply with me than the stories about sexual harassment; I have a pulpit for speaking out about that -- considering that I've been harassed as a lay worship leader, considering how the church as treated women for thousands of years, that pulpit is indeed the best place to address those issues.
But elephants? Who around here will care about elephants? This is why I care.
Actually, I care about everything -- and there is so much wrong in our world, so many terrible things humans do to each other and to animals and to the environment, it's hard not to be paralyzed by everything that needs to be done. How can I be the light of the world when there is so much wrong in our world?

Still trying to answer that question for this coming Sunday. Not peopling isn't the answer but it's so damn tempting.

The elephant shelf

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The Universal Language of Welcome

As published in the Citizen-Record newspaper on Wednesday, November 15, 2017 by Sara Jewell

Jabar and Shinda at their "Welcome to Oxford" party last Sunday.

When I walked into the Lions Centre in Oxford at two o’clock last Sunday afternoon, there were five other people in the room. Two tables were covered in bowls of snacks, and a large cake with red and white icing, inscribed with the word “Welcome”, waited to be cut into pieces.
By the time town councillor Dawn Thompson hollered at everyone to gather along one wall for an “Oxford family photo”, at least fifty people had attended the welcome party for Jabar and Shinda and their three year old daughter Dlda (pronounced “D-la”).
Surrounded by their new neighbours, members of the resettlement committee, and other resettled families who have been in Cumberland County for over a year, Jabar and Shinda would have had no doubt about the official and genuine welcome to their new home.

Oxford’s resettlement committee is made up of two co-chairs (including Dawn Thompson) and fifteen members of the community who serve on nine committees covering all aspects of the family’s arrival this past September, including housing, finances and fundraising, documentation, driver’s licenses, and language classes. Every single thing about living in Nova Scotia that we take for granted – and often complain about –represent to this young couple peace and security after years of uncertainty and anxiety.

The first and most important job for Jabar and Shinda is to learn English so they can work. Language classes begin immediately and when their English is good enough, there are opportunities available for them at Oxford Frozen Foods.
Maybe it’s because my work involves telling stories that I find the most frustrating part of welcoming a refugee family is the inability to communicate with them. It seems so unfriendly to not be able to carry on a conversation. Sure, we have the universal language of smiling, but at the party, none of us could talk without a translator, and that’s disappointing because how do we truly get to know each other better without asking questions and listening to stories?
There is much more to Jabar and Shinda than being former citizens of Syria forced to leave because of war. They are more than refugees; they are a man and a woman, they are parents. They have childhood stories; they have dreams; they have talents. What if we have our very own chocolate maker right here in Oxford?! We are more alike than we are different, but it will take longer to discover what we have in common since we are limited, for the time being, to smiles and nods and hand shakes.

I suppose the most important information was being communicated successfully: you are a part of the Oxford family.
I watched the beautiful baby girl born here in Cumberland County just a year ago being fussed over, and I saw Dlda’s face light up when a girl named Faith gave her the gift of a doll with long, dark curly hair, and I learned the young sons of another resettlement family are now able to translate for their parents, and I realized that’s where you really see the hope and promise of a fresh start.
Perhaps that’s the truly universal language that brings us together: the joy of children.

The Oxford Family Photo!
Please note: When I wrote this column, I spelled the daughter's name the way it is pronounced, "Dilla". The proper spelling of her name is Dlda. I've corrected it for this post. My apologies for this mistake.

And, for the first time, the paper printed my column with a photo! Here's how amazing it looks on Page A5:

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Status Update

Facebook is always looking for a status update: "What's on your mind?" or "What's happening?" Well, here's the status update I've been waiting for, my friends. 
When I returned home from my ride this morning, I showed my husband my shirt, covered in mud and poop from cleaning the hooves of a horse that had been standing outside in a very mucky paddock.
"You're covered in shit," he said. "You are now officially a country girl."

Do you know how happy those words made me? Officially a country girl!
Particularly because, at a book event this Sunday past, I read from the Field Notes essay about hanging with my friend Sue at her family's dairy farm when I was a young girl:
"To me, the visitor from Ontario, Sue was clever and confident, walking behind cows without fear of their switching tails, helping lug cans full of warm milk to the tank, unfazed  by the manure that as everywhere, including her shoes and jeans. It didn't upset her a bit; it was part of being an honest-to-goodness farm girl."

Learning to ride a horse -- facing fears that turned out not to be fears at all, gaining confidence around switching tails, heavy hooves and big mouths -- is the best thing I've ever done (besides marry my Nova Scotia country boy). When one is experiencing something as simple yet as transformative as riding as horse, what's a little dirt among friends?
I'm not fazed by the mud and the manure one bit, not even when it's flinging off the hoof pick into my hair. 

Saturday, November 04, 2017

Coffee and A Muffin

Mother and I stopped in downtown Truro for some shopping after her latest check-up with the bone doctor (her broken arm is healing well), and when she took an armful of clothes into the dressing room, I headed down the street to Jimolly's for a coffee.
The muffins looked so good, I chose a Morning Glory.
The patio looked so good, I decided to sit outside.
As I sat there, listening to the cars drive by, watching people walking by, hearing the grind of truck gears and the beeping of the assisted walk signal, I had a flashback.
To Vancouver.
The city I arrived in 21 years ago. The city I left 15 years ago.
It's so remarkable how the memories of a time and place you've put behind you, that you think about in the abstract like it has no connection to your here-and-now, can flood into your mind with the sip of coffee on a sunny patio next to a street.
For me, what's even more remarkable is the thought that accompanied that association: The roots of the writer I've become are in Vancouver.

In my first couple of years there, when I worked weekends, I spent a lot of time wandering around with my dog Maggie, learning the streets, writing in my journal, sitting and watching this new and unfamiliar city on the other side of the country. I was 26 years old, considered myself a "writer" (still qualified by quotation marks because I'd only published two articles), and was hoping for great things from my work, and my marriage.
I liked city living; I liked living in Vancouver. But one assumes, when great angst happens in a place, it becomes associated with those emotions, that heartbreak. Yet apparently, no. My memories of, my connection to Vancouver seem to be separate from the personal failings. Perhaps it's because my writing flourished in Vancouver. 
Maggie and I sat at a lot of sidewalk cafes, where I'd drink my coffee and share my muffin with her, where I'd read Natalie Goldberg's "Writing Down the Bones" and complete her writing prompts, where I'd write about everything but the truth about my work and my marriage. I'd already written a novel, and would write another one in a couple of years, but already, I considered myself a non-fiction writer and soon would begin my ten-year stint as a columnist with a national church magazine.

More than twenty years later, on the other side of the country, with non-fiction book published, with a list of books I'd like to publish posted on the wall above my desk (a list that includes two new novels), I think of Vancouver as the place where my roots as a writer were planted. My long and winding road to publication did not begin in Vancouver but when I think of the stories in the Field Notes book, and the stories I hope to tell in other books, I realize they grew out of those streetside cafes where the dog and I would sit and listen and watch, drink coffee and share a muffin, and take notes.

(Ah, but there are memories of Vancouver I can't bear to think about: Maggie. How I miss that dog.)

Thursday, November 02, 2017

The Air We Breathe

Every time a truck with a float carrying a large machine backs up the old road running alongside our home, it means only one thing: another clearcut is planned.
This will be the fourth logging operation in the woods behind, and next to, our home in the ten years I've lived here. For someone who loves trees, who loves walking in the woods, who values trees for the purpose they serve to the environment (and appreciates, as a consumer, what trees provide to humans), this is very, very hard on my heart.
I mean, just look at the background of that photo: the heartache came right to our doorstep in 2014.
The company bringing in this excavator and a bulldozer isn't responsible for the logging; it's simply building the road leading to and from the woods that will be flattened this winter. This causes me great consternation: the reason for the road is the loss of trees -- meaning loss of habitat and food for birds, animals and insects, as well as air purifiers for all of us -- but the road gives me a wonderful path to walk for a few years.
Ironically, I walk deep into the woods, past all the clearcuts. When I walk, my footsteps are heavy with guilt, remorse and fear for the future.

A few weeks ago, our neighbour hired someone to dig out the ditches around his field, but he insisted the excavator operator leave the contents of the ditch along the side of the road, instead of having his dirt and shrubs dumped on his own property. This wall of ditch dirt would prevent water from draining off the road and make clearing snow from the logging road difficult through that stretch.
So my husband told the manager for the logging company that it was in his best interests to get the bulldozer to clear that crap off the side of the road. He told him to dump the debris on our neighbour's property.
Imagine my surprise and disappointment when I went for a walk yesterday afternoon and saw all our  neighbour's ditch debris dumped on OUR side of the road, a pile of dirt and limbs that flattened six to eight poplar and birch trees.

This is what drives me crazy about us -- consumers, loggers, men, humans: we treat the natural world as if it is expendable, as if it doesn't matter. That bulldozer driver thought nothing of destroying a small grove of trees as he moved dirt around. Yet there was no reason to do that, no reason to "end the lives" of half a dozen or more trees who provide food and habitat, and prevent soil erosion.
Oh, yeah, and also produce oxygen.
Which we -- consumers, loggers, men, and humans -- need in order to live.
When I complained to my husband, he didn't care.
"I don't cut wire birch or poplar when I'm in the woods."
He processed my complaint through his own use of the woods: as firewood.
"You may not use them but birds and animals and insects do," I retorted. "Plus they filter CO2 and create oxygen."
He didn't care. He couldn't make the connection. To him, trees are either firewood or useless. 

A story on the news on Monday evening (a story I thought should have been the lead) was the United Nations World Meteorological Organization's report that CO2 levels in the Earth's atmosphere have hit record levels. In fact, CO2 levels are rising at "record-breaking speed".
CO2 is the gas we exhale when we breathe. We inhale oxygen and we exhale CO2.
Trees need CO2 to produce oxygen. We need oxygen to breathe -- we'll choke on the CO2. So what happens when there aren't enough trees to turn too much CO2 into enough oxygen?
WE NEED TREES TO BREATHE, folks. There is no other way around it.
Yet does anyone make that connection?
Does no one understand we need trees to live?
Just like we need bees to pollinate our food.
Just like we need safe, clean drinking water.
Air, water and food -- these are the basics humans need to survive. Yet we have the least respect for them.

I wrote about this in my book, in the essay "What Future Does A Tree Have?" and I'll keep writing about it as long as there is breath in me -- and trees to put it there.

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

In Praise of Homemade Pie

As published in the Citizen-Record newspaper on Wednesday, November 1, 2017, by Sara Jewell

Catherine Bussiere stands behind me in her kitchen and dishes about apple pie.

The bag of Cortland apples from Vista Bella Farm in Malagash had been sitting on our kitchen counter for over week. I’d bought them a few days after we’d finished eating the apple pie I’d made in Catherine Bussiere’s pie-making workshop, intending to make another.  
On this particular day, however, my energy was low and I couldn’t face making dough. I had a choice: sit on the couch with a remote in one hand and a bag of chips in the other, or go for a walk. I made the right decision – to be outside – but the walk didn’t lift my mood.
I looked at the bag of apples and decided to bake. Three hours later, an apple crisp and an upside-down apple cake sat cooling on the counter, and I felt happy again. I hadn’t made a pie but my husband wasn’t complaining as he shoved a bite of apple cake into his mouth.
It sounds facetious but for those of us who enjoy cooking and baking, there is nothing more healing than an afternoon surrounded by flour and butter, apples and eggs, glass bowls and wooden spoons.

The restorative power of making pie has been on my mind since I saw Catherine’s short film, Self-Portrait In May, which she created in 2016 on her rural property in Beckwith, and presented at the Atlantic International Film Festival in Halifax. In one scene, Catherine is collecting the first rhubarb of the season from her garden and making a rhubarb pie. She shot the scene showing only her hands mixing the ingredients, heaping it into a deep pie plate and covering it in dough.
“Everybody loves pie,” Catherine said when I asked what it is about pie that makes people happy. “When you create, it not only gives you joy but you’re giving joy to others.”
Even though I know how to make pie from scratch, I didn’t hesitate to sign up for her workshop in mid-November. I love the kitchen in Catherine’s old farmhouse, with its long harvest table her husband made when they first moved into the house with their family twenty years ago.
“We have this great orchard and this great garden, we have all this outdoor space,” Catherine said about why she wanted to offer the workshop. “I like to feed people and I like to cook. I want to use this space more. Let’s have a bunch of people around this table and make things.”
Things like a traditional apple pie we took home to share with our families, and in honour of Catherine’s French Canadian roots, two French apple pies we enjoyed with a cup of tea.
I take to heart the advice Catherine gave us as we mixed the dough: “Hands are the best tools.”

What is it about pie? For one thing, it brackets our winter, with the first pie of the growing season, rhubarb, and the last pie of the season, apple. Secondly, when you cook from scratch, and use what’s in your garden and back yard, when you mix with your hands instead of a spoon, when you create something lovely and tasty from basic ingredients, it becomes both a work of art and nourishment for the spirit.
Nothing banishes a bad mood like a piece of fresh-baked pie.

My mood-altering creations.