Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Ordinary Days

Millie "helping" me fold laundry
There are large snowflakes falling around my office -- I say "around" because my second-floor work space has three windows so I have lots of light and lots of views of the trees and the sky -- and Debussy is playing on the stereo -- that's the music I write to. It had just started snowing when I sat down and turned on the music, and the smaller flakes were falling in perfect harmony with "Claire du Lune", the CD's opening piece.

These are the ordinary days of winter, when the cold keeps us inside, when the dark holds us at home, when storms prevent us from driving out into the wider world. These are the ordinary days of winter when there isn't much to write about -- unless you want a daily update on how many eggs the chickens laid, or what Mother is making for supper.
I love the winter months. I love snow days. This is the time of year when I feel like a writer, when I feel like I'm actually doing the work of a writer. This is the time of year when I don't leave the house much, and doing laundry is about as exciting as it gets.
I often forget to do it so it's rather an event in my life.
Which is good. I like a life in which doing laundry is normal. I like a life in which doing laundry means forgetting about it in the washing machine because I'm busy writing. I like a life in which doing laundry means I'm home, and everyone is home with me, safe and sound.

Last winter, I wrote a novel. It took three months of writing every day. This winter, I don't have that kind of project, chose not to have that kind of project, and I miss it -- the intensity, the focus, the purpose of each day.

January has been a funny month, not funny ha-ha but funny weird, funny off-balance, funny not funny: It's been a long month of waiting. Only this week have I had any calls to substitute teach, and only this week did I finally hear back about my novel submission, and this week, a dear family friend died after a sudden illness.
Actually, all of that happened yesterday, so today is an "in my pajamas while it snows" day.

So a quick note about the novel: The editor says "Not yet." It's too long and I need to cut at least 20,000 words from it, maybe even 30,000 before she'll reconsider it. I know that sounds daunting (some of you can't imagine even writing 30,000 words in the first place, right?!) but I have parameters now for the novel I wrote as it came to me, without considering its genre or the acceptable word count; I just let it flow. It's going to be hard work but worthwhile and necessary, and what needs to be done. It's the intensity, focus and purpose I'm searching for as the snow falls outside my windows and the notes of Debussy float inside my room.

I'll write about the death of our friend another day.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Feeding The Fox

As daylight broke, just a lighter line behind the trees across the river, the dog got out of bed. I was doing yoga in the living room and even though I knew she had to go out, for some reason, I put her off, sent her to lie on the couch. It was just going to be for a few minutes, while I finished stretching.
One of the cats stood on his hind legs looking out the big picture window.
"Are the little birds here?" I asked him, even though I hadn't seen them flitting through the trees yet; it was still too dark even for those early arrivals.
When I glanced out the window, I saw the fox walking across the front lawn, on this side of the flower gardens. I was about to rap on the window to scare her off when she began to paw at the ground, searching for food. My hand paused then dropped. She raised her head then trotted over to the lilac bush, where I knew there were peanuts and sunflower chips on the ground, having fallen out of one of the bird feeders yesterday (I bring them in at night to discourage damage by our local raccoon).

I sat down at the window as the fox began to eat. Normally, I chase her from the property, because of the dog and the chickens -- and certainly, if I'd let the dog out when she'd first come to me, she would have found this fox in the yard. My worst nightmare is the dog chasing the fox and ending up on the road.
But winter came early this year and it's been cold the past week and there is a storm coming so I let her eat. And she ate her fill. Every so often, she'd raise her head, but she was not as skittish as I'd expect her to be. Winter, and hunger, makes her bold; not careless but determined, and brave.
I don't feed wild animals; it's not wise or sensible for humans to interact with them that way. But the chickens are shut away, and the dog was safe, and the cats don't go outdoors, so this morning, and likely other mornings, I showed compassion and merely watched her. As much a treat for me as the peanuts and seeds were for her as she is beautiful: healthy and strong and wild. There is much to admire in a fox, and I want to keep her safe and alive, and if one breakfast out of a thousand window raps helps, then I've had my moment.

I felt like I was having a Mary Oliver moment, or perhaps just Mary Oliver-esque since I was sitting inside the house: I wasn't squatted down in the snow watching her and hearing the sound of her paws digging at the snow and her nose snuffling for seeds.
When the chickadees finally showed up, they were annoyed; they chittered loudly and the fox raised her face to them then dismissed them and continued eating while the chickadees flitted through the thin branches of the lilac bush.

Later, I wondered if Mary Oliver had a poem about a fox. She has two, and I like this one:
Listen says fox it is music to run
over the hills to lick
dew from the leaves to nose along
the edges of the ponds to smell the fat
ducks in their bright feathers but
far out, safe in their rafts of
sleep. It is like
music to visit the orchard, to find
the vole sucking the sweet of the apple, or the
rabbit with his fast-beating heart. Death itself
is a music. Nobody has ever come close to
writing it down, awake or in a dream. It cannot
be told. It is flesh and bones
changing shape and with good cause, mercy
is a little child beside such an invention. It is
music to wander the black back roads
outside of town no one awake or wondering
if anything miraculous is ever going to
happen, totally dumb to the fact of every
moment's miracle. Don't think I haven't
peeked into windows. I see you in all your seasons
making love, arguing, talking about God
as if he were an idea instead of the grass,
instead of the stars, the rabbit caught
in one good teeth-whacking hit and brought
home to the den. What I am, and I know it, is
responsible, joyful, thankful. I would not
give my life for a thousand of yours.

~ Mary Oliver, from Red Bird: Poems (Beacon Press, 2008) 

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Meanwhile, The World Goes On

A funeral for a mouse - my niece and nephews and Abby in 2012 
The American poet, Mary Oliver, died today.
She was 83. And she lived a remarkable life as a poet.
I'm not going to say I'm devastated or heartbroken by her death; I didn't know her personally. Her poetry, however, meant a great deal to me, as it did to thousands of others, and that is how she lives on. What a legacy she has left us.
I quote her in two separate essays in my Field Notes book. The opening to the essay, "Funeral For a Mouse," pays tribute:

There are very few lines from Mary Oliver's poetry that don't make me gasp. An American poet in her eighties, who is, as I write this sentence [in 2016], living and publishing, Mary Oliver astounds poetry lovers -- and makes people love poetry -- because she writes simply and profoundly about the natural world...
Likely, no matter what situation you are facing -- what loss you are enduring, what hope you are clinging to -- Mary Oliver has a poem, or a line, for you.

At the end of that essay, I end up paraphrasing one of her poems to suit the story, which was indeed a funeral for a mouse.

And in the essay, "A Walk In the Woods", I weave lines from her poems, "How I Go To the Woods" into my story about discovering this new land I'd married into -- my husband's acreage along the River Philip in rural Nova Scotia.

There will be a lot of Mary Oliver in the air tonight -- her spirit and her words -- as people read her poems out loud in tribute of a wonderful and cherished writer whose decades of work had incredible impact.

The trail through the plantation that inspired the essay about walking in the woods

Monday, January 14, 2019

Six Months: A Pond Study

The pond, January 2019
As I skated over the lumpy ice on Sunday afternoon, I looked over at the sitting rocks on the far edge of the pond. Only the tops of them are visible out of the ice and skiffle of light snow. I remembered sitting on those rocks and dabbling my feet in the water  last summer and thought I should "dabble" my feet again.
Not that I could really wiggle my toes inside my skates.

I do enjoy living in a country where there are four seasons. I'm not one for complaining about the cold and the snow, or starting on December 21st to say, "Oh, the days are getting longer," every single day. I can't think of anything that would make winter last longer than seeing it only as a horrible season to be endured, rather than embraced and enjoyed.

There couldn't have been a better afternoon for lacing up the new skates -- oh! so comfortable! -- and swirling around the ice for an hour. I'm sure that shot of Vitamin D from the sun did me a world of good.
Gotta thank my husband for getting my butt off the couch where I was reading. I was using the cold as an excuse not to go outside but he kept saying, "So when do you want to skate? I have to load the wood."
He tended the bonfire whilst I skated (and sent the dog to check on me when I fell) but today, he went to town and bought himself a new pair of skates.
So another first soon to be recorded here: skating with my Nova Scotia country boy.

In 2017, I wrote about skating for the first time in Nova Scotia on our new pond. Here's the Field Notes column.

The pond, August 2018

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Two Cups of Tea

Any cafe with a well-stocked bookcase of used books for sale is the cafe for me.
I've been looking for a new "writing getaway" and although the Sunset Cafe opened last June on the corner of Main and Water in downtown Oxford, I didn't have a chance to check it out until this past week.
What I love about this place, and why I took a photo of the napkin dispenser, is that it is a "social enterprise" business, which means its focus is social rather than economic. The cafe is part of a thrift shop and a laundromat, all at the same location, run by the Sunset Community (an adult residential facility) located in Pugwash. I'm delighted to support this business, and I'm sorry it took me so long.

A table for two by the window, please and thank you.
And two mugs of delicious green tea later, I had the draft of a children's story rewritten. I have three children's books projects to work on this winter so if I spend one afternoon a week at the cafe, I should have no problem getting them ready for submission.

It's been a rocky start to the new year on that front -- the publishing front. With three books on submission, there's always an underlying thrum of anticipation and hope -- all the while dreading rejection. I've not heard back on any of those books, and so it's not like the year has started with rejection; it just hasn't started with acceptance, either!
It's never been an easy industry and now it's just seems...impossible. Yet writing is what I do best, and it's what I've worked hardest to master. But I'm running up against the reality of being a working writer in Canada: you simply can't support yourself writing full-time, particularly if you're publishing books.
In the just the last month, I've learned that three established authors are struggling to get their novels published -- and one of the books is the third in a series. I really liked the first two books; why can't she get the third book published?
So that's been very discouraging. And the only way I know how to deal with fear and anxiety and flat out panic... is to keep working. It doesn't make the fear and anxiety and panic go away but at least I get a couple of hours' break from it.
I'm not crying into my teapot here; it's just the way publishing is. That's why I'm trying several different genres; whatever idea pops into my head, if it's strong enough -- and I know what a "real" idea feels like now -- I will work on it.
In the meantime, I'm doing my other work as a lay worship leader and a substitute teacher -- and taking it one page, one book, one mug of tea at a time.

Sunday, January 06, 2019

Stars & Signs

Late last fall, I read a quote taken from an interview with a food writer -- and I recognized the example he was using because I'd inadvertently given him the example. He'd addressed the issue in the writing workshop he was leading but seeing it in his words, used as a way NOT to write was jarring.
It threw me. It wasn't a big throw, I didn't fall down into a pit of despair, but it was enough to make me wonder if I know how to write.
It doesn't take much to ruin our confidence, does it? I mean, I know I can write. The three article I published in Saltscapes this past year (and not one of them an "I" piece) prove that. But still, one guy in one interview uses an example -- and a legitimate example -- about poor food writing, and I'm sliding down that greasy slope of doubt.

So I've been thinking about this sign a lot since I made Dwayne stop long enough for me to take photos. It's right there at the intersection of Route 321 and the off-ramp from the eastbound TCH (the TransCanada Highway, for those of you reading this from outside Canada).
First of all, I love that someone sprinkled stars out into the world. Secondly, I love that one star fell on the "straight ahead" arrow. Thirdly, I love how the arrow and the stars make it totally easy to ignore the stop sign (in a totally metaphorically way, of course).

Today in my church, it's Epiphany Sunday -- the day when Jesus "revealed" himself to the world through the visit of the magi. Our culture has come to know epiphany as an "a ha" moment, but more accurately, it's a revelation. A revealing of something new, of something awesome, of something that is going to change your life.
And the star is the symbol of Epiphany because that's what the magi followed to find the infant Jesus in Bethlehem.

In my sermon this morning, I talked about guiding stars and following our hearts/guts/instincts, not letting other people -- like other writers -- block out the star we're supposed to be following or worse, try and claim that star for themselves. I wanted to share a little bit of what I said near the end, as I got ready to hand out stars with words printed on them (some call them "star words"; today I called them "guiding stars"):

"The other day, I saw a story posted on Facebook that I’d first seen after it had happened out in Vancouver. It is the story of a drug addict riding the SkyTrain and struggling – being loud, being aggressive, being out of control. But that’s just part of the story – it’s also a story about an older woman, sitting nearest to this man who lives with drug addiction and the effects that addiction has on him, and his life. She reached out to him and took his hand. And she held his hand as he calmed down. And as he began to cry.

She offered to him the love he needed, the love he is entitled to, no matter how he behaved. 

There are so many examples of God-among-us. And we need to watch for them every day, because THIS is the revelation, the manifestation, the epiphany: That Jesus was born for everyone – and not just those bearing gold, frankincense and myrrh, and not just those behaving appropriately.

The magi only found what they were looking for when they followed the right star. And it wasn’t their expensive gifts that helped them find the baby Jesus, that got them entry into an exclusive club – because remember: the lowly, illiterate, uneducated shepherds found him first.

It was the fact they followed a star – without knowing where it would take them, or what kind of journey it would be. They didn’t even really know who the star was going to reveal to them -- but THEY FOLLOWED IT ANYWAY.

They trusted their guiding star. They trusted it was placed there for a reason – they believed it was placed there for them – and they went on a journey to see what the star would reveal.

It didn’t matter what kind of gifts they brought – and weren’t they bringing gifts “fit for a king”? What mattered was that they showed up.

And that’s the whole point: Trust your guiding light – and offer YOUR gifts, whatever those gifts are. Which are gifts particular to YOU, and everyone’s gifts are different.

That woman on the SkyTrain followed her instincts, listened to her heart, saw where the light needed to be shone, and she used her gift – of fearlessness and stillness and compassion – to be a REVELATION to that man in need -- to reveal to him what love is. 

So for 2019 – let’s each receive the gift of a “guiding star” that we can have as an inspiration, an encouragement – and a revelation.

What will your star-guided journey of 2019 reveal to you?

What path does your life keep steering you towards that you keep resisting?
How can your guiding star help you overcome that resistance – and the REASON for your resistance – in order for you, like the magi, to arrive at the one place you need to be in order to grow in your faith, to follow your dream, to use your gift?"

One thing I learned from 2018 (and there were several revelations last year) is that the only thing you can do is follow your own star. Don't let anyone tell you what you can or cannot do. Be true to yourself. 
Life, and your living, is about moving forward, not matter how many stop signs keep popping up in front of you. Even if it's only one day at a time, one step forward at a time, keep moving forward, following your star. 

Saturday, January 05, 2019

Winter Morning

Snow fog over the field
Quiet Saturday morning.
The dog had dove back underneath the covers when bare feet hit the cold floor so only human eyes witnessed another change in the weather.
It's that kind of winter on the east coast: a mix of snow and rain, melt and freeze. Ice beneath the snow. Fog in the morning.
Yesterday's dawning sun dog witnessed but not photographed. The snow arrived soon after .This morning's ominous clouds heralded the rain and ice and snow to come overnight. 

Just looking. Not getting down on hands and knees to smell the morning scents of raccoon and deer, squirrel and crow. The human arms reach up, the human nose inhales, the human chest expands.
Blood flows, breath flows, brain absorbs.

Booted footsteps crunched through the snow. The dog may be looking out the window by now but no one is alone outside. In the trees on the left, a trio of starlings sang their strange songs, sounding more like jungle birds than deep Canadian winter birds. The blue jays, annoyed at the delay to breakfast, hollered from the trees behind the house.
The seeds will find their way into feeders, onto back-deck tables, will be strewn beneath the pine trees, all in due time. But first, human eyes need to see the sun rise, however obscurely, hear the frost beneath the feet, and follow the deer tracks to the edges of field and river, earth and sky.

Snow fog and sky over the river