Thursday, June 25, 2020

Summer Reading: True Stories

I'm fortunate to call Cape Breton-based author Marjorie Simmins my writing mentor AND my friend, and I'm delighted to share her latest book. 
MEMOIR: CONVERSATIONS and CRAFT is an excellent resource for those who want to write a story from their life and are curious about how to get started, and for those who love reading those life stories and are curious about how they are created. 

Marjorie's conversations are with Canadian authors Lawrence Hill, Linden MacIntyre, Edmund Metatawabin, Donna Morrissey, Claire Mowat, Diane Schoemperlen, and Plum Johnson. 
Following each conversation, Marjorie walks through the craft, or process, discussed in that particular conversation. So there is in-depth information about why an author wrote, as well as practical writing advice and guidance. 

My copy of this book is dog-eared, and many of the pages contain hand-written notes. I read this book before I started editing my memoir, The Funeral Director's Daughter, again, and made this note at the start of Marjorie's conversation with Plum Johnson, who said, 
"There is an age range when one is in a home. I think especially around eight, nine, ten years old, it's such an influential time in one's life...Whatever home you're in at that age seems to take on this incredible significance."
I asterixed the first sentence and underlined everything because that was the age I lived in the first funeral home my father owned, and those years and that place remain vivid and clear in my memory. 

What also resonated with me was something Linden MacIntyre said: "I finally did the memoir and since I've published the memoir, I've published four novels. So something got cleaned out, something got cleared away." 
I'm wondering if perhaps that will be my experience, too. 

I share these personal examples to show there's something for everyone in this book. You might be amazed at what gems of ideas you find in this book, and what you might learn from hearing the diverse experiences of these writers. 

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Prayer Flags for the Gazebo

A friend of mine lost her husband recently. It was a sudden and unexpected death, happening within a few weeks of a surprise cancer diagnosis 
Their last week together was spent in hospital; thankfully, oh so thankfully, restrictions on visitors for people in palliative care had just been eased in this province so my friend was with her husband for his final week on earth. 

A few days later, she returned home, not with him as she'd expected when she'd left ten days earlier to pick him up after a biopsy. The next day, her first full day at home without him, with the full weight of the loss settling upon that quiet home, with grief unpacking and settling into every space, she noticed her husband's prayer flags in the garden had fallen onto the ground. 

Traditional Tibetan prayer flags are those multi-coloured flags we see most often in photos of the camps at Mount Everest (at least, that's what I think of first). Mount Everest is the climbing mecca in the Himalayan Mountains between Tibet and Nepal, so prayer flags have become part of the scenery. 

When my friend saw her husband's flags on the ground, she went outside and re-hung them. In an email, she called that "the best bit of work of the day". I'll not soon forget the phrase or the action. So much so, as soon as I read it, I went online and searched for a Canadian site selling Tibetan prayer flags. 
They arrived by mail yesterday. Handmade in Nepal, with a donation from the sale being made to a local school. 

Although prayer flags are a delightful idea, I've never bought and hung Tibetan prayer flags; I considered it inappropriate since I have no connection to Tibet or Buddhism; sadly, they aren't part of my faith tradition. But my friend's work of the day gave me a connection, gave me a personal need to buy some flags and hang them from my gazebo so every time I see them, I think of my friend, I remember her husband. It's about honouring a life, and a friendship. 

The packaging that the prayer flags came in has a description printed on it. It reads in part, "Prayer flags are used to promote peace, compassion, strength, and wisdom." That certainly describes my friend's husband and the way he lived and worked. Also, the description explains that prayers flags are auspicious because they contain images of dieties, mantra and prayer that are believed to bring happiness, peace, prosperity, good fortune, health and victory over obstacles. 

Even though these flags were an impulse buy, with no benefit to my friend or her husband's memory, I felt compelled to have them. I couldn't go to her, and the celebration of her husband's life was held online, so hanging these flags gives me a tangible way of honouring a beloved life that was so important to my friend (and to many others) while creating a healing, caring energy that my friend will receive when I think of her. 

The packaging also says, "Just as life moves on and is replaced by new life, Tibetan Buddhist renew their hopes for the world by continually hoisting new flags alongside old ones." 

There are prayer flags hanging on both sides of the gazebo and I see the prayer flags hanging between the birch trees when I'm sitting in my reading chair. 


Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Summer Reading: Local Stories

My life wasn't really impacted hard by the shutdown caused by the pandemic. The only real loss I experienced was having to cancel a literary event I'd planned to host this July. 

I wanted to get the authors of these three books, which are set along my stretch of the Northumberland Shore, together for an evening. Not local authors but local stories -- stories with a local setting we all recognize, stories set right here in Pugwash, Rockley (across the river!), and Tidnish. I'm really sorry to be missing that evening. 

But I can still recommend the books for summer reading, and encourage you to support authors who aren't getting their events and promotions this year. 

LARKIN ON THE SHORE by Jean Mills (Red Deer Press) - Young Adult - "Larkin Day is a mess up 16-year-old. She just escaped a nasty year in high school to spend a summer of refuge in seaside Nova Scotia. But when an arsonist attempts to destroy the one thing she holds dear..."

FOUND DROWNED, by Laurie Glenn Norris (Nimbus) -  Adult -"Mary Harney is a dreamy teenager in Cumberland County whose ambitions are stifled by her tyrannical grandmother and alcoholic father. When Mary's mother becomes ill, an already fragile domestic situation quickly begins to unravel until the September evening when the girl goes missing..."

A BEGINNER'S GUIDE TO GOOD-BYE by Melanie Mosher (Nimbus) - Middle Grade - "Every summer, Laney's family visits their cottage on Tidnish Beach. But this year, the baking heat and bright read sand provide cold comfort. This year, Laney's little sister, Jenny, is gone. Ten-year-old Laney must learn to acknowledge her grief in order to overcome it. When a situation arises and Laney needs to help her new friend, she finally understands that even though she will miss Jenny forever, she can find happiness again."

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Seeds of My Failure

This is my epic fail as a country girl. 
The whole not being able to shoot a gun? No problem. Don't really want to kill anything anyway.
The whole not being able to hop on the tractor and do the work? No problem -- yet. It's just hard to do the work when Dwayne is wanting to do the work. I watched him yesterday afternoon puttering around the yard on the tractor, pulling out stumps and moving dirt and he just looked so darn content.
And honestly - I'm not that keen on plowing snow if I don't have to.  

But this -- the failure to sprout -- this hurts. 

Tomato seeds on the left. I planted those May 3rd.I spritzed them daily for six weeks. Twenty-four seeds and not a single sprout. 
After a month, I bought four large, healthy tomato plants and they are growing happily out in the garden. There will be salsa after all. 

Two weeks later, while there was hope for the seeds because it was too soon to assume failure, I planted daisy seeds. I COULDN'T EVEN GET MY FAVOURITE FLOWER TO SPROUT.

So, more research on seeding is needed. Everyone else seems to get it done. Some people even complain about how quickly their tomatoes grow. 
Do people "harrumph" anymore? Because I feel a necessary "harrumph" coming on. 

Honestly, am I not the slowest person? Thirteen years and I'm just trying -- and failing -- at seedlings now. 

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Don't Mess With My Rhubarb Pie!

When you bake with fresh, homegrown eggs,
the orange yolks make for a very yellow custard.

The pastry recipe I like to use for pies comes from The Harrow Fair Cookbook, "Prize-winning Recipes Inspired by Canada's Favourite Country Fair" (edited by Moira Sanders and Lori Elstone, published by Whitecap Books in 2010). 

This being the season of rhubarb -- lots and lots of rhubarb -- I discovered the only rhubarb pie recipe in the cookbook is Rhubarb Custard Pie. Normally, I'm a purist in all things food related, and so my rhubarb pie contains only rhubarb. But looking at 4 cups of chopped rhubarb (with nine cups already frozen in the freezer), and seeing that the recipe calls for 4 cups of rhubarb, I decided to give it a try.  

It makes a big, sweet pie so likely best for sharing. 
The recipe for the pastry follows the recipe for the pie. 


1-1/2 cups granulated sugar
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg (which I don't have so I sprinkled ground nutmeg) (*you can really taste the nutmeg in this so adjust according to how much you like nutmeg)
1/4 tsp fine sea salt
3 large eggs, beaten
4 cups sliced fresh rhubarb (is there a difference between sliced and chopped??)
2 Tbsp unsalted butter 

Preheat over to 375 degrees F.
Combine the sugar, flour, nutmeg, and salt in a large bowl. 
Add the eggs and mix well. Stir in the rhubarb and mix well.
Roll out one disc of Favourite Pie Crust (see recipe below) and fit into a 9-inch deep-dish pie plate, trimming the pastry to 1/2 inch. 
Dot the filling with butter. Apply a lattice crust (the cookbook provides instructions for this but I still screwed it up - lattice is harder than it looks). 
Whisk together the egg and milk. Brush the lattice with the egg wash, then sprinkle with sugar. 
Bake for 30 minutes. Reduce the heat to 325 degrees F. Bake for an additional 45 minutes or until the custard is set and the crust is golden brown. A toothpick inserted into the centre of the pie will be slightly sticky when removed, but the custard should look set. 
Cool to room temperature before serving. 

EGG WASH for crust: 

1 large egg
2 Tbsp milk
1 Tbsp granulated sugar 

The filling and the bottom crust. 


2-1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp fine sea salt
1/2 cup lard, cubed
1/2 cup cold unsalted butter, cubed
1 large egg
2 tsp white vinegar
Ice cold water

Sift together the flour and salt in a large bowl. Incorporate the lard and butter using a pastry cutter or a food processor. The crumbs should be the size of peas.
Beat the egg and vinegar together in a liquid measuring cup. Add enough ice cold water to equal 1/2 cup of liquid. 
Pour the liquid over the dough. Knead, or pulse in the food processor, until the dough comes together in a ball. A little extra water may be required to incorporate all the flour (I find this to be so).
Divide the dough into halves. Shape each half into a flat disc and wrap it in plastic wrap. Chill the dough for at least 1 hour prior to rolling. 

A very deep golden brown in my too-hot oven. 
But look at that wonky lattice! Good enough to eat. 

This cookbook -- The Harrow Fair Cookbook -- includes the recipes for 7 pies that took First Place at the fair (including Rhubarb Custard Pie and my all-time favourite, Raisin Pie), and I think this might be the summer and fall I make the other six pies as well. 

Happy pie baking! Happy pie eating! 

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Rest and Renew

While doing research for this Sunday's message topic (for the letter X), I found this from Maya Angelou. It complements yesterday's post and a lot of my own experiences: 

"Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for. Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not with draw from us. We need hours of aimless wandering or spates of time sitting on park benches, observing the mysterious world of ants and the canopy of treetops.

"If we step away for a time, we are not, as many may think and some will accuse, being irresponsible, but rather we are preparing ourselves to more ably perform our duties and discharge our obligations.

"When I return home, I am always surprised to find some questions I sought to evade had been answered and some entanglements I'd hoped to flee had become unraveled in my absence. 

"A day away acts as a spring tonic. It can dispel rancor, transform indecision, and renew the spirit."

~ Maya Angelou, from her 1993 collection of essays,
Wouldn't Take Nothing For My Journey Now 

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Losing My Mind In Manual Labour

This was a day of work. Non-writing work. For the first hour this morning, knowing I wasn't going to my office, knowing every plan for the day involved things other than writing, I was a bit twitchy. Because writing is what I do, it's what I want to do. There's always something to write (ahem - as I'm doing now at the end of a non-writing day). 
But in my quest for better balance, I decided physical labour was called for. A day of work.

And as you know, I love cleaning out the chicken coop. It's not such a chore in the warm weather, when there are fewer layers of poop and shavings to dig up. As I shovelled and swept, I thought about when I was taking riding lessons in 2016, and how about a week after the election of you-know-who in the United States, I needed to get out of the house. So I went to the barn and cleaned my lesson horse. I did his hooves and curried his coat then brushed him out all over, and combed his mane and tail. The barn was empty and quiet, the radio wasn't on, and I didn't say much more to the horse than, "Good boy". 
I needed the silence and the work. The distraction from the world that silence and work provides. 

I needed the sense of accomplishment -- the sight of accomplishment -- that comes with physical work, with cleaning or building or planting or mowing. Something gets DONE and it looks good so it feels good. 

That's what I remembered today as I worked away in the chicken coop, cleaning out the main coop and the "nursery" where Phyllis and Little Cheepers are living. How I needed to "escape" and find quiet, to "escape" and rest my mind. 
As in November 2016, there is so much -- sound -- shouting -- discussing -- telling -- so many words -- so much information -- so many ideas -- coming at us these days. 
Read this, say that, don't say that, do this, don't do that. A mind cannot absorb it all in two weeks. A mind cannot process and realize and alter its patterns with all that -- noise -- all those -- voices. 
We need to step away from the TV and the timelines, from flipping channels and scrolling feeds, from listening and watching and talking...
...and find silence and manual labour.

Change only comes after contemplation. And contemplation is only possible when the body is engaged and the mind drops into neutral. 

We must learn to sit with what we're being told, with what we're being asked to believe and accept and act upon. Without silence and manual labour, we can't begin to do that other work. 

We must learn to sit  and be still.
To not think -- and let our subconscious do its work of revealing and releasing and showing us the way. 
We must take a moment to sit and watch a hen and her chick. To listen to the work she does of teaching, to hear the different sounds she makes that indicate a different kind of knowledge. To learn from her how to scratch for food, how to watch for danger, how to sit in the sun and let your feathers get warm, how to snuggle in under a wing and rest. 

The chick is starting to show her Barred Rock feathers. 

Thursday, June 04, 2020

The Words and Work of This White Person

I've been thinking about this photo this week, as the words of Black people, the pain of Black people, the fear and rage of Black people really hit me. 

Honestly, I've been complacent. I live in rural Nova Scotia, in an area that is not diverse, and I keep to myself, so it's only occasionally when I'm forced to call out someone for using the phrase, "Those people". Because I keep to myself, both in real life and online, I'm not confronted with racism. But it's there. Of course it is. 
I didn't grow up in a diverse area, either, and in the seventies and eighties in southern Ontario (but outside Toronto, where I was born), anything about race came from the television: Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers' Neighbourhood, M*A*S*H. My life and my world, right up to this moment writing this, is white. All white. Nothing but white. 

Here's my confession, and I've never admitted this out loud or in writing until now, only alluded to it in a church message: When I was 19 and 24, on two separate occasions, I made a racist remark. I complained that the local dance bar played "too much Black music" and I mocked a co-worker for sounding "too Italian" on the radio. 
Fortunately, both times, a person of the race and ethnicity I commented on was standing behind me. 
I say fortunately because their presence caught me out, made me feel ashamed. That shame made me think about what I did. 
That's all it took. I was so ashamed -- and remain ashamed to this day -- that I am still thinking about what I did. It changed me profoundly and made me conscious of how I speak, how I use my words, what attitudes and beliefs I have and why. It makes me conscious of the lens through which I view the world. It infiltrated my entire system - not just race and ethnicity but also sexual orientation and identity.   
This is why calling someone out on their racist comments works. It won't work on everyone, some people are just hardcore racists and their beliefs run too deep to excoriate, but it will work on enough people. And you know what I've learned in the last 25 years? 
Acceptance and compassion feel so much better. Being accepting of everyone no matter who they are, who they love, what they look like makes life so much better, so much sweeter, so much easier. For one thing, you're embarrassing yourself by putting your foot in your mouth. You're not living with the fact you made someone else feel like crap. 
Acceptance AND inclusion. Compassion AND justice. 

Of course it was Martin Luther King Jr. who said, “Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it. Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens life; love illuminates it.”

I've been thinking about this photo of my sister and my brother-in-law, of my husband and me on a visit to Georgia in September 2010 (three more kids came later!). My sister sent it to me for Christmas that year (it's a terrible photo of me but I still cherish it for everyone else looking so happy. Natan was a big boy to hold onto!) and it hung on the wall next to the phone in our pre-renovation kitchen. 

One afternoon, a six-year-old boy was visiting us and he pointed to the photo and said, "What's the name of the boy you're holding?"
He didn't ask, "What's the name of the black boy?" but used a description that had nothing to do with skin colour. 
The idea that children are born "colour blind", that they are not born racist, but instead are educated to become racist, has been widely debunked. Researchers say children as young as two can show racial bias. 
That moment in my kitchen was the first time I'd witnessed that from a child. My assumption is his mother influenced the way he viewed that photo. 
His question made me try my very best from then on to describe someone in a way other than by race or ethnicity. It's not always possible, but it certainly is a worthwhile endeavour. 
But I wonder at the idea of being "colour blind". I wonder at not using race or ethnicity as an identifier because for most of us, that's such a part of our identity. Being Italian, being Black, being Greek, being Indigenous, being white, being Asian, being Sikh. 
I suppose the problem is -- white people. We are racist. We've always used those identifiers to mock and ridicule, discriminate and exclude, hate and bully. Rather than celebrating our diversity, we've always, ALWAYS, throughout human history, for thousands and thousands of years, glorified white, and oppressed Black, Indigenous and all other People of Colour. 

Even those of us who weren't raised by overtly racist people and who have tried to be mindful of thoughts and speech still have these "micro-aggressions" we're not even aware of, but the BIPOC hearing it certain recognizes.  

I've been thinking about this photo because I'm holding my nephew, who is now 14 years old, and who is Black. Who is terrified. Who is not allowed to leave their property in Atlanta without one of his white parents with him. 
Because I have a nephew who is Black, and a sister who is fiercely protective of him, and aware of the issues of racism, I haven't done any work. I haven't read books about racism by Black people -- or even by white people who study racism. I've been complacent. I can say I have a stake in anti-racism, in dismantling white supremacy, in making the world a safer place for my nephew and all Black people, but I haven't done a lick of work to making that change come around. 

The books have been ordered. 
The videos are being watched. 
And I'm committed to keeping this awareness, and doing this work, not just this summer, when everyone is talking about it, but for the next 25 years. 

Because Black Lives Matter.