Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Rhubarb! Rhubarb! Rhubarb!

My one regret related to my move to rural Nova Scotia ten years ago is that I didn't plant rhubarb immediately. I don't know why I didn't but it seems I was caught up in turning sod on flower gardens around the house. A decade later, I'm still kicking myself that we didn't plant rhubarb, sour cherry trees (because we had one on Pugwash Point and they are soooo hard to find) and highbush blueberry bushes.
Oh, and strawberries. A manageable patch for my breakfast, not the seemed-like-a-good-idea huge patch my husband planted several years ago and then stopped weeding and ploughed under. What happened? I have no idea but it was too big a patch for two of us to keep ahead of the weeds. It broke my heart when the plants disappeared.

So these rhubarb plants, stuck away in a corner last year, are ripe and ready for harvest. The plot of ground around was tilled up then left alone (what is the matter with us?!?) so I'm determined to take charge of this plot and make it fruitful. Two more rhubarb plants and -- ta! da! -- strawberries. Just enough for my breakfast. The local farmers can provide my jamming berries.
I know it's another garden and my right wrist and lower back are protesting already but darn it, the flower gardens are fine and I put two bags of chopped rhubarb in the freezer today for Glorious Winter Crisp right when we need to be reminded that winter doesn't last forever. It's definitely time for my other country garden dreams to come to fruition.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Summer of the Horse: Serendipity

Sign on the wall of Galloway Stables in Linden, NS.
Three things happened to me last year that resulted in me being in this barn this morning with a curry brush in my hand.
One, I wrote a book and one of the essays in that book is called "Communion With the Livestock" in which I described getting to know the cows and horses on my rural walking route.
Two, I took a writing workshop with Nova Scotia author Marjorie Simmins who had just published a memoir called Year of the Horse (Pottersfield Press). When it came time for blurbs to be done for my book, Field Notes, Marjorie agreed to read it and blurb it. She also corrected my mistakes in that particular essay regarding "mini ponies (there are ponies and there mini horses; there is no such thing as a mini pony).
And three, I met Gail Simmons at the Pugwash Farmers Market, who recognized me from a reading I'd done a week or two earlier at Art Quarters. I ended up interviewing her for a column, and we hit it off immediately. Shortly before she was heading back to her other home in Ontario, I stopped by the stable to give her a copy of Marjorie's book, and Gail let me ride her horse for a bit.

As I explain in the Field Notes essay about goats, I grew up knowing that horseback riding was out of the question because of my mother's severe allergies. Not being an "F*** you" kind of girl -- meaning that attitude of not letting anything or anyone stand in your way -- I never insisted, never defied, never resented. I merely longed all my life.

Until now. I'm in my forties, damn it, and that's the middle of my life. I live in rural Nova Scotia and while I'm happy keeping chickens, I'm ready for the next adventure. I haven't lost my love of horses or my envy of those who live and work with them. So, Mother's allergies be damned, I decided these horsewomen with the same last name came into my life for a reason: to help me fulfill a lifelong yearning to be confident and competent -- fearless -- around horses, and to be their companion.
As the 19th century writer George Eliot (a woman who had to publish under a man's name) said, "It's never too late to be what you might have been."

Guiding me on this journey is Dawn Helm, who owns Galloway Stables in Linden, Nova Scotia, and has had horse companions since she was five years old. This morning was my introductory session. Dawn knows I want to learn to ride but she also knows I want to know everything. Riding a horse isn't merely about climbing onto a saddle and kicking your heels so the horse moves forward then hollering "Whoa" when you want him to stop. All that other stuff -- all the communication and the care, the body language and the brushing -- I want to know it, every bit of it.
Even the challenging "lead with your bellybutton" command.

With her teaching horse, Dakoka, in the cross ties, Dawn showed me how to use three different brushes on him and as I brushed his thick, muscular body, sloughing off the dust and bringing out the shine in his coat, Dawn talked about being the boss around a horse.
When you're working with an 1800-pound animal, she said, you can't let yourself be pushed around.
"I think of young girls, when they're 12 and 13, who are timid and quiet, who don't have much self-confidence, how they end up in relationships where they are controlled, even abused," she said. "They don't know how to stick up for themselves, to speak up or defend themselves. This sport is the best thing for them. It's 100 per cent life-transforming."

This is so much more than merely learning to ride a horse. My education in horses, and in a unique breed of strong women, has begun.

Dawn posted the above sign inside the barn because of random visitors in the summer who just show up and walk around wearing flip flops. Who walks into a barn without boots on their feet? Sheesh, those city people! 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Let's Not Be Crabby About the Weather

I love this quote by Alberta photographer Sara Jewell, who I follow on Instagram:
"Living with four seasons means you never get bored and your world seems to morph into each new season with anticipation and excitement."

Ah, a tribute to different seasons, a celebration of the rich variety of weather in our seasons. Not just sunny and warm every day but wind and rain, snow and ice, sunshine and white clouds edged in silver. Who wants the same old-same old every day?

Perhaps those who have lost someone to cancer, to a car accident, to a suicide bombing. Their new normal will never be the same.

It drives me crazy, it drives me to shout at my television when news anchors lament about the weather. "Oh, no, not another rainy day," or "When will this rain end?'
Since when do news anchors have license to whine?
We had three days of sunshine but all anyone wants to talk about is the cold wind. 

Welcome to the land mass sticking out into the Atlantic Ocean.

My mother overheard a woman complaining at the grocery store this morning about how depressed she was because of the weather. "We can't even go to the beach."
1) How often do Maritimers get to frolic at the beach in May, hm? Honestly?
2) An eight year old girl is among the dead in yesterday's suicide bombing in Manchester and you're complaining that a rainy day makes you depressed? You're lucky. There are 22 people dead in the UK who will never go to the beach again.

I'm grateful today that I can feel raindrops on my face.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

A Discussion About A Concussion

As published in the Citizen-Record newspaper on Wednesday, May 17 2017, by Sara Jewell

Paige Black relaxes in the gently-lit living room of her parents' home during a recent visit.

Every time Sidney Crosby, the Nova Scotia born-and-bred captain of the Pittsburgh Penguins, gets a blow to the head, hockey fans hold their collective breath, waiting to hear if he’s suffered another, possibly career-ending concussion.
If a concussion can bring down an athlete of his calibre, what about the average person, say a 21-year-old woman playing recreational soccer in Halifax?

Just as she was heading into her third year at Dalhousie University, Paige Black of Oxford sustained two concussions in two weeks as the goalie for her recreational soccer team.
Three years after the injuries, Paige explained that concussions are an “invisible injury” that are not readily seen like a broken arm. 
“Give yourself 24 hours because it’s not always noticeable right away,” she said. “It tends to take a little more time to see if your head hurts.”
Her main symptom was wanting to sleep all the time. “I’d get up and three hours later, be so exhausted. I couldn’t stay awake.”
The concussion also left her with a sensitivity to light and sound. Wearing sunglasses in a classroom because of the fluorescent lighting or leaving a party because of the noise makes her seem anti-social but it’s the result of her symptoms.
“After the second concussion, I was in my apartment for three months with the blinds closed,” she said.
Now 24 and living with these symptoms, Paige described her head as feeling like she has elastic bands wrapped around it. “It always feels like my skull is shrinking inward. It’s hard to stay positive,” she added. “Not to mention you’re more irritable with a brain injury.”

Active, outgoing and hardworking, this brain injury has forced Paige to slow down. After taking a year off school to learn how to live and work within the limits imposed by her symptoms, Paige anticipates graduating this coming December with an arts degree in international development.
“It’s required me to be mindful of what I’m able to do and not take on too much,” she said. “I started this past semester with ‘Health first, study second’. And the semester started out really well; I got the best marks I’ve gotten in university so far, and I really enjoyed what I was doing.”
The university provides accommodations for any student, whether for a broken arm, a hearing impairment, or a brain injury. Unable to both move her eyes up and down to take notes during class as well as pay attention, Paige receives a classmate’s notes. 

Fortuitously, she was already working part-time for the university’s Accessibility Department when she was injured. When she realized she was helping other students find accommodations for their concussion symptoms, she sought help herself.
“It’s been neat to discover that my personal experience is very helpful. When someone  tells me they have a concussion, I know what to do,” she said. “It makes my job more rewarding because I appreciate being able to use those services so I really want to make sure other students get what they need.”
All too often, a disability can be a barrier to employment but in Paige’s case, it’s made her a more valuable employee. Her future’s so bright, she’s gotta wear shades.  


Paige Black began her studies in international development before she'd even reached university.  After graduating from Oxford Regional Education Centre, she travelled to Kenya, then three years later, to Rwanda. 
She described the trips as "getting her feet wet" for her future studies and work. 
"We went to learn from the community so in thanks, we ask what we could do back. We built gardens and donated chickens,” she said of the initial trip to Kenya. “I was really lucky that we got to do that in a respectful way. I was 18, I didn’t know any better, but starting my degree, I discovered a lot of people did ‘volun-tourism’ which wasn’t very good for the communities they went to.”
Once she graduates at the end of the fall semester, Paige said her next step towards getting a job in her field is an internship which likely will happen overseas. There is a lot of flexibility with the work she'll do, and a lot of work in the community. 
"In my work, I can focus on things like poverty, the environment, politics of international trade with affects developing nations,” she explained.  
Her dream job is to work with the Romeo Dallaire Child Soldier Initiative, which is based at Dalhousie University in Halifax.
“They’re overseas training people and working with the UN. The instances of people using child soldiers is going down, and the rate of recruiting them is down. They do amazing work,” she said.
As will Paige, I'm sure. The personal traits that got her through her injury and allowed her to help others -- determination, mindfulness, and empathy -- are well-suited to the work she hopes to do with international development.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Throwing Colour on the Whitewash

Image courtesy of FOLD, Canada's Festival of Literary Diversity

If you watch CBC News, or keep track of literary goings-on in Canada, you are aware of the outrage that erupted over the editorial in the latest issue of the Writers’ Union of Canada’s magazine, Write. The issue was devoted to Indigenous writers yet what the magazine’s editor wrote in the opening piece was a smack in the face to the very writers the organization wanted to support and encourage.
There’s more to the story, more to the reactions of other (white, privileged, well-off) editors at other media organizations but the fallout has been this: Publishing still doesn’t get what diversity means. Calling the industry (colour) blind and ignorant doesn’t begin to cover it.

In an excellent opinion piece published online Sunday by Maclean’s magazine (whose editor-in-chief was one of the editors who responded awfully to the Write magazine scandal), Phillip Dwight Morgan provided a succinct overview of several recent examples of the double standard and ignorance, faced by writers of colour, including at Write magazine.  
Morgan wrote this powerful sentence: “We have seen, time and time again, that ‘advocacy’ is a flexible term that is often mobilized primarily against marginalized writers.”
It’s true. Editors and publishers encourage people of colour to write until what they’re writing is attacks the status quo, makes them – us – uncomfortable, challenges us – and our institutions – to do better, to change. Then the great white silencing machine mobilizes to shut down those voices – calling them “strident” and “shameful” and “fundamentalist”.
As Morgan wrote, “Mobbing, fundamentalists, riot, sad, shameful: is it just me or are these words better suited to describing issues like carding, boil-water advisories, and immigration detention? Should we not reserve our anger for these kinds of issues, human rights issues affecting vulnerable populations, rather than protecting someone pushing for a racist award?
Yes. We should.  

For the past while, I’ve been reading a collection of essays edited by Manjula Martin called Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making A Living, and the day the TWUC scandal exploded on Twitter, I opened the book to the next essay.
It was entitled, “ Diversity Is Not Enough: Race, Power, Publishing”, by Daniel José Older. So at the same time I’m reading the reactions of Indigenous writers to an editorial that completely undermined the whole point of the magazine issue, I got an in-depth look at the systemic lack of diversity in publishing.
My family is now a mixed race family; my nieces and nephews are white and brown and black. When I look for Canadian books to send to them, I’m consciously seeking children who look like them. Hard to find. Yet I don’t feel it’s my place to write stories for them. I can’t write authentically about what it’s like to be a child, or person, of colour. I won’t even try. But there is something else I can do as a writer.

Older expressed eloquently what the Canadian Indigenous writers, and their supporters, have been saying online and on air since last Friday. Near the end of the essay, Older writes, “Diversity is not enough. We’re right to push for diversity, we have to, but it is only step one of a long journey. Lack of racial diversity is a symptom. The underlying illness is institutional racism. It walks hand in hand with sexism, cissexism, homophobia, and classism. To go beyond this same conversation we keep having, again and again, beyond tokens and quick fixes, requires us to look the illness in the face and destroy it. This is work for white people and people of colour to do, sometimes together, sometimes apart. It’s work for writers, agents, editors, artists, fans, executives, interns, directors and publicists. It’s work for reviewers, educators, and administrators. It means taking courageous, real-world steps, not just changing mission statements or submission guidelines.”

I can’t know what it’s like to be a person of colour, and I certainly wouldn’t write as one, as the now-former editor of Write magazine seems to think it is appropriate to do. But now that I am aware, now that my eyes are opened and my brain engaged, I feel called to use what influence I have and the voice I possess to do the work to destroy everything that keeps everyone from achieving their potential.
I live in rural Nova Scotia, and my interactions with Indigenous people and people of colour are, regrettably, non-existent. Yet I will do the work to seek out those whose stories deserve a platform. One that won’t undermine them.
I have two platforms by which I can bring attention to the issue of the oppression of voices that experience the world differently than I (we) do: as a writer and as a lay worship leader in the United Church. The crowds to which I speak online and in church may not be large but that’s no excuse to say nothing. I can’t deliver a message every week about compassion, justice and mercy yet ignore the marginalized, the oppressed and the ignored.
Onto my white-washed world, I plan to start tossing some colour, courageously and respectfully.

Here's the link to Phillip Dwight Morgan's opinion piece:

If you want the whole story, here's is the Canadian Journalism Project's overview:

Monday, May 15, 2017

It Only Takes A Spark

While I was on the treadmill this morning, a commercial came on the television I watch to pass the time. It was the new Chevrolet commercial about finding the Canadian dream. Every time I watch it, something new catches my eye and today it was the image of the children drumming while the teacher, in the centre of the drum circle, whirled around pointing at each of them, encouraging them to drum faster, louder, harder.
And I thought, "I've lost that spark."

Not the spark but a spark.
The spark that drives my writing is still present, still very sparkly. But the spark for other things, for community involvement and writing workshops, for putting myself out into the world with creativity and passion, seems to be snuffed out.
I'm calling it a spark but it's a passion. It's that feeling of a passion for something that feels like it is missing. 
I'm not sure if this is normal, in a post-first publication time. I'm not sure if it's simply that I have so many writing projects to work on that they are soaking up all my energy and directing all my passion into them. It's a weird feeling, actually, a bit of lonely, a bit of off-kilter. Right now, post-book publication, I don't feel like I have anything to offer.
Which seems to be the opposite of what I should feel like.

Except that -- and I'm working this out as I write -- I really, really want to write the sample essays for the book proposal for a new collection of essays, and I really, really want to write that novel inspired by something that happened to my husband as a young man, and I really, really want to write more stories to go in a "Moon Tide" collection.
There is so much to do. Am I overwhelmed and thus swamping the passion? Sometimes I don't know which project to work on next. 

Except that I must be missing that spark because I felt my response to that commerical, and it was more than the elevated heart rate from being on the treadmill.
I wonder what it means, to believe I've lost my passion. It could be fear; the last couple of workshops I offered in my home area, no one signed up for them and that brings out the self-consciousness and the reluctance to put myself -- my creativity and my passion -- out there again.
That is likely the answer.
The only solution I know about questioning something, about feeling like something is missing, about feeling self-conscious and insecure is to ignore the doubts and focus on what I can work on, to type so fast I fan the writing spark into a dancing orange flame, and hope the answer flows out of my fingers and onto the page where I can see it.


Friday, May 12, 2017



A year ago, I emailed my editor at the UC Observer magazine wondering if this story was something she'd be interested in, and would I be able to write it since it is about my own sister? She felt it was better suited to a parenting magazine.
Then, this past January, she contacted me to say she was interested in it for the May issue and was I still interested in writing it? 
Of course I was.
Here's the part I love: a friend of a friend, photographer Allison Mah, does "A Day In the Life Of..." photography during the winter when there are few weddings happening. She was coming in the same week to spend a day with my sister's family. 
This article also marks my first feature with the UC Observer, for which I've been writing for 23 years, including a 10-year run as a columnist.