reflections after the storm

 
 

Well. My first Maritime snow storm has come and gone, and I’m thankful for both the coming and the going. I have new respect for those who have long lived in this environment, capably, confidently and with such casual attitudes because, for me, it was an eye-opener to say the least. The ferocity of wind (100+kph) in combination with endless snow is quite a trip. In the past I’ve watched lesser but still exciting storms from the comfort of my house surrounded by other houses in a town or city with amenities nearby and thought about those who, for various reasons, have no such comforts. I still wonder how they survive. But I have renewed respect for them because having the power go out at a rural farmhouse in the middle of blinding wind and snow in the middle of nowhere, where roads can easily be impassable for days wakes you up pretty quickly to what’s really important. What I love is the way people here take it in stride, they’ve adapted and there’s power in that. In the days before the storm, when its approach was mentioned on the weather report, it was mostly referred to as a bit of rough weather ahead. “It’ll be a mess,” one reporter said, “and in 24 hours it’ll be over“, and of course he was right. There is no hysteria, no hand-wringing, the radio plays local tunes not storm watch reports and people know how to prepare. Meals are made ahead to freeze, bathtubs filled with water, storm chips purchased in bulk. Everyone knows where the flashlights, candles and extra blankets are. There is much more of course to the ‘knowing and doing’ and I’m learning. And I’m grateful for that because when it’s over and the world is one stunningly magnificent winter wonderland of pristine snow and all you hear about is the beauty, you realize that’s truer than true. And you are SO grateful for everything you took for granted just 24 hours before. That in itself is worth so much.

Coincidentally, during all this, I was reading Nomadland, by Jessica Bruder, the book made into the film with Frances McDormand. (Both are brilliant in my opinion.) Bruder lived in a van and travelled with the ‘nomads’ for two or three years in order to get the story of this hidden-in-plain-sight segment of society, essentially, and for the most part but not limited to, retired people who have lost all other options and are forced to live full-time, year-round, in their cars, vans, or trailers, moving across the U.S. with the good weather and various ‘nomad’ gatherings where they connect with friends and share valuable info on van-dwelling). Many of these people come to love the simplicity of the lifestyle and become new and better versions of themselves through adversity and finding independence and a sense of power on the other side. Not that it’s considered ideal by anyone, but neither are so many other situations people might find themselves in. This, they rationalize, is simply one choice.

The past few days have found me thinking ever more compassionately about the state of so many lives, Indigenous in remote communities as well as neighbours in towns and cities everywhere, who are trying to survive, literally, every day.

All of which to introduce my next repeat post, written over a decade ago after one of our annual trips to a piece of wilderness in the B.C. hills, where we liked to play at roughing it in the bush. It was definitely fun. And definitely nothing like the real thing.

[Updated January 18th to say… ‘come and go??’… hahaha!] [Apparently Maritime storms don’t ‘come and go’, they just take a wee breather.] [I’m learning.]

The following was originally published September, 2011.

Oh sure, I like a nice hotel, an inn, a B&B, a place with a real toilet and room to shower, but hot water and comfort aside (and I speak for both Thoreau and myself here), there’s really nothing so restorative as a week in the wilderness, under the Milky Way, reading and writing among jittering aspens, searching for the elusive left-handed windshifter and fixing meals to songs about trucks and beer and especiallylittle lady bugs on little yellow blanketswhich, regrettably, I can now sing along with…on the only radio station that comes in clearly: Country Something Something FM;  nothing so affirming as knowing one can survive on a small amount of fresh, local food, cooked on an open fire made with tinder and twigs and logs collected, sawed by hand (splinters removed with a sewing kit needle); the stars at night, a glass of red, a cup of tea, a handful of stones in an empty Unicorn kidney beans can to shake occasionally (due to bear warnings, not to mention the sight early one a.m. of a big black furry paw pulling at branches on the serviceberry bush outside the door—two metres from the door—of our rented trailer).

Which is exactly why I don’t do tents.

The deer were there too. This year a family of five: mommy deer—not thrilled about our big camper thing but tolerant—who tossed a few as long as you remember who was here first looks our way; twin babies, but for a torn right ear on one, who really really wanted to come closer but I worried mommy deer might have something to say about that so gave my ever-present Unicorn can a little shake (was considering wearing it on a string around my neck); papa stag, who merely followed or led or did whatever he was told to do and seemed mostly concerned with the size of his new antlers, stopping to let us have a good look at them from various angles; there was also another mid-sized adult tagging along, rather unwillingly I thought, which I took to be a visiting aunt. Numbers are significantly down, due, I suspect, to proximity of big black furry paws—only the very brave and the slightly witless linger (and deer aunts who are there under duress, possibly to attend a niece or nephew’s birthday party; all aunts know the best time to visit with nieces and nephews is NOT at birthday parties).

Then there was the bread.

Loaves of it made by a guy with a donkey that turns the grist mill that grinds the flour that is then mixed with fresh mountain spring water, sea salt. Sourdough. Toasted on the fire, buttered, with a slab of jalapeno cheese, slices of fat red onion or made into a pan-fried salami/turkey/romaine sandwich or as accompaniment to red kidney bean soup in chicken broth with chopped coriander, carrots and garlic. We had bread with eggs, bread with fruit, bread salad with yellow tomatoes and garlic bread and green salad with croutons; we had bread with bread and bread with jam and juice and by the end of the week, all that was left of the entire food supply was one tiny crust of donkey milled bread (somehow we’d managed to ration down to the last slice of shallot), which crust I packed and ate on the flight home.

As for the Milky Way—it’s usually directly and conveniently above our campsite but this time the nights were either too cloudy, too bright with the moon, or too windy dark and bear scary. So, like the serendipitous way of the world, today, on returning to emails, we find this amazing time lapse video waiting for us, sent by someone who knew nothing of our starry starry quest.

looks bad, tastes good.
I think this is roasted veg: carrots, peppers, garlic. Might be potatoes. Notice the temperature control lid/no lid technique… which we’re not sure made a blind bit of difference but we felt like coureur des bois for having thought of it.

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our extended family

the loaf we brought home
thinking of getting a couple of these for our campsite, makes the feet look so pretty

 

 

 

heart beats and a contrail

When it comes to geese and contrails little has changed in the decade since this was originally posted. Me, I’ve moved to a place where there are more of one and fewer of the other but the other day at sunrise I saw, for the first time ever, a bright red contrail above the apple trees, which I at first took for a sliver of cloud in the morning light then saw the speck of plane, the line behind it growing like someone drawing on a giant canvas and I was sorry I didn’t have my camera but I never have my camera when I go outside early in the morning to greet the trees and I thought of running inside to get it and then a whisper of sanity from somewhere suggested I just stay put, just enjoy the moment, the sweet gift of it and the whisper (in the usual way of whispers) was wise because of course moments don’t wait for people running into houses, much less last forever, and it was all so much lovelier to watch the thing fade naturally than to try and capture it with a net.

All of which reminded me of the following, originally posted January 12, 2012, a completely different kind of moment except for the parts that always feel the same.

Ten thousand geese fly over my house at dusk, honking madly as I set out for a walk. And the moon (and is it Venus?) hangs over a fat white contrail in the not yet completely dark sky.

I consider the heart beats, the energy above me; do they notice things like juxtapositon of moon and man made cloud?

Christmas lights are on and cars pass, faces in my direction, possibly wondering why I’m standing in the street, writing on a scrap of paper in the now almost dark.

Because of the geese, I want to say.
And Venus, if that’s what it is.
Because of the moon and… everything.

I want to say look up!
I want to point.

But the contrail has been blown away and the last of the vees has passed by. The sky has turned black leaving only the sound of the wind and tires on the road. Just the moon and maybe Venus to see— and anyone can see them anytime. No need to point.

I put away my pen and carry on walking.

 
 
 

xmas stockings

For the next wee while I’m re-posting some of my favourite pieces with a short blurb explaining why I chose them. This one, from December 21st, 2012, has come to mind every year since. Or, more accurately, the woman has. I’m not a fan of many things that happen in stores at this time of year, but she was/is a testament to the power of the season.

So I’m in the men’s sock department at Winners and this elderly woman keeps bumping into me and leaning across whatever I’m looking at until I say: sorry, am I in your way?  And she says “What do you think about these?” She holds up a three-pack. “I like the argyle,” she says, “but why do they have to put in the others?”  The others are big bold stripes and she’s not sure her neighbour who takes out the garbage for her will wear them. She gets him a little something every year. “It’s so hard to know what kind of socks someone will like,” she says.

She’s the picture of Santa’s wife. White hair, wire-rimmed glasses. Rosy cheeks. A beige anorak. Navy slacks.

She shows me a single pair she’s also considering, black with a tiny red line at the top, asks what I think and I tell her they’re classic, that no one would have a problem with them. She agrees, but keeps looking. I continue looking too. I say the bold patterns make the most sense, easier to match them up. She laughs, says yes, but easier still is to buy all the same kind, which is what she did for her husband. Dozens of the same plain black, she says. Never a problem making pairs. She tells me she’d wait until he was down to one or two then fill the washer, every one of them turned inside out.

“That way they don’t get fuzzy from other things, or all pilly.”

It all seems a bit too much work, I say, all that turning inside out and back again and she says pooh, it’s no trouble, you just pile them on the chesterfield and sit down and go at it for a few minutes.

I tell her I’m not actually very fond of socks, the sheer number of them and the way they take it upon themselves to disappear one day, turn up weeks later or not at all. But mostly I really hate sorting them.

Something changes in her face, she goes quiet. Her eyes are blue. She looks at me through her Mrs. Claus glasses and I have an idea of what’s coming.

“I’d give anything to sort my husband’s socks again,” she says, then turns her head.

She tries to smile, shrugs, ruffles through the display as she tells me he died three months ago, that the family’s coming together and she can’t let herself get sad because they’re coming from Nova Scotia and Kingston and there’s the grandchildren to think of. She stops, looks up again. “But…” she says, and her sweet blue eyes are suddenly red-rimmed and we’re standing there in the socks and her lips are trembling—and I put my hand on her arm and I say, “But it’ll be hard.”

And she nods. Composes herself and we each say this and that and eventually laugh a little and then goodbye and the whole time I want to hug her but we’re in the socks at Winners and I have the feeling she’d rather not make a big thing of this, that she’s doing the best she can.

When I leave her she’s still debating about the argyle/stripes combo or the single classic black.

I buy a couple of three-packs.

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Count my blessings.

 
 
 

this is not a review: ‘wanda’, by barbara lambert

 

Up until a few years ago we’d head out to the Okanagan for a week of camping each Fall, visiting wineries and friends, marvelling at the orchards that only a few generations ago and pre-irrigation, were desert. That in itself was fascinating to me and I began to see the possibility of it in the sage covered hills that I have since been told are also home to rattlesnakes. I didn’t know about the snakes when I sat blithely on those hills gathering sage or reading or simply breathing in the beauty of them for hours.

We no longer make our annual treks, so I’m now a virtual and vicarious Okanagan traveller whenever I get the chance through the photos and postings of friends. It’s not quite the same but there are fewer snakes to worry about and I can still smell the sage covered hills, partly because I have a pot of that very sage in my house and partly because I think once you’ve sat blithely in the midst of it you never forget the scent.

All that from occasional visits. Imagine growing up there.

I believe the landscape of our childhood becomes part of our DNA, and by landscape I mean whatever scape we grew up with, cityscape, countryscape, suburbanscape. It might not be somewhere we want to live anymore but there’s a good chance we understand the place we come from. And what we understand best is the THEN of it. We are connected to the history of ourselves through place.

Barbara Lambert grew up and lived her entire life in the Okanagan Valley, which is where Wanda is set and which may be why it feels like a sliver of personal history, or at least written from a place of deep knowing. The novella is her most recent, and last, work of fiction. Lambert died this year on October 1st, at the age of 86. The story touches on a subject rarely mentioned, much less reported on, that of racism against German Canadians.

I had the pleasure of knowing Barbara and I know she loved her childhood home set among the orchards she writes about. And like Eva, the central character of the book, Barbara’s parents were artists, and German immigrants.

Was there a Wanda? Maybe. Doesn’t matter. This is fiction. In fiction everything and nothing is possible and everything and nothing is real.

The story told is entirely from six year old Eva’s perspective, the story of a family of German immigrants, who have long lived simply and quietly as orchardists in the bucolic Okanagan Valley. They are valued members of the community, who have made Canada their chosen home. The war, however, raises suspicions about people of German descent. Good neighbours are no longer trusted. In one scene, Eva’s parents pull up to a gas station. They have extra ration coupons because they are farmers (and therefore allowed more fuel). The young attendant reluctantly serves them…

He says his Dad told him to keep an eye out because there is a new law coming in that Germans won’t be allowed to travel more than five miles from home. When the boy has finally filled up the tank… he leans in the back window… gives Eva a nasty wink. “We’re keeping a good watch on you aliens,” he says. “Don’t think you can get up to any mischief, little girl. Don’t let your dog run loose either. He’ll get sent off to an internment camp too, when they come to get your father.”

Eva senses the changes around her but doesn’t always understand the implications. Then she befriends Wanda, only slightly older but much wiser-than-her-years and with a very different background. They become ‘blood sisters’ and experience new aspects of their simple lives in this extraordinary period of history, until the ultimate lesson, that of betrayal, and the question becomes: which is worse… to be the betrayed, or the betrayer?

An important story, quietly told in 140 pages.

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grateful

 

For so much.

For landing here among berries and forest and sea.

For each morning’s walk and talk with trees and the discovery of edible fungi, for the galette I’m about to make with freshly picked apples, for moss and clover.

For the smell of salt air.

For the kindness of new friends and gifts of manure, jam, books, music, laughter, excellent advice, garlic, and conversation.

For family farms and wool mills where you can bring your own fleece to have cleaned and spun and where you can buy a skein of wool in any colour you choose and send it to a friend who will magic it into a toque, just for you.

For friends and family who stay in touch no matter how far away you roam.

For the luxury of warmth as the nights get colder.

For a sky full of stars.

For a good harvest of mint and the winter teas it will make.

For bees on the sunflower and how the bright red geranium, which has the same name as my newest nephew, has come inside to warm its toes on a sunny windowsill and how when I send my nephew pictures of it I receive pictures of a cherub’s toes in return.

For an excellent vacuum cleaner. This is not small potatoes.

For potatoes. And a garden in which to grow them.

For having become really good at cutting hair.

For not caring if a haircut looks a bit funky.

For the endless love in a cat’s eyes and how they become teachers, and sometimes angels.

For screaming less loudly at the sight of a snake (aka Kevin).

For the smell of supper cooking as I write this and Tea for the Tillerman playing, reminding me of the centuries that have come and gone, all of them leading to here.

For afternoon light and a porch that is made for watching it.

For the frog in the tomato bed, the ladybug in the shower, for the person I saw swimming in the ocean and mistook for a seal until they emerged and I realized they are not a seal but a selkie and who has since become an almost friend. Who would not want a selkie as a friend?

So much.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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here and there

There, at this time of year, I’d be in my kayak just as often as possible, throwing Lulabelle onto the roof of my twenty-three year old Camry (best car in the world) and heading to a small local marsh connected at one end to Lake Ontario but me and Lulabelle staying in the pond where it’s pristine and quiet, just us and the banks of earth-fragrant reeds, egrets, a blue heron colony, thousands of blackbirds rising in clouds at dawn and disappearing-who-knows-where, the magnificent swan ballet, a family of deer watching us from shore, an eagle named Eddie.

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But I am here now, and not there, and Lulabelle is in our new garage still waiting to be dipped into something briny. I’ve been too busy getting from there to here, too busy unpacking and putting in a garden, harvesting berries from the dozens of bushes (blueberries, haskaps, blackberries) that are also here, discovering beaches and tides, where to dig clams, pick oysters off rocks, which seaweeds are tastiest. Busy getting to know the landscape and marvelling at maritime skies, finding the farmers who grow veggies the old-fashioned way, raise meat and eggs ethically, who bake bread and pies and croissants, who make cheese and soap, a mill that will spin your wool for you, a young family of fisherwomen and men where we buy fresh haddock and smoked salmon and the corner mom and pop grocery that sells off-the-boat mussels every Friday.

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There, at this time of year I would take my breakfast, a banana, yoghurt, tea, and park in the lily pads with a book.

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Here I walk barefoot on sand, naming every bend on the shoreline: First Point, Second Point, Toad Point, What’s the Point, Around the Bend, Sandy Point, and Bring a Chair Cove.

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There, at this time of year, the marsh closes to paddling to allow the birds peace as they prepare for migration.

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Here there are apples to harvest and juice, rows of berry bushes to clean up.

But unlike there, here our paddling destination remains open until freeze-up and while I am both excited and nervous to paddle tidal waters for the first time, Lulabelle is calm and ready and as eager here as she ever was there.

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this is not a review: ‘her name was margaret’, by denise davy

 

I’ve pretty much spent every waking hour of the past twenty-four reading this book that, essentially, tells how a homeless woman ended up dying on the streets of Hamilton, Ontario, a story that might strike one as being not especially new. After all, there are only so many ways a homeless person dies. Usually from some form of violence, neglect, or addiction.

This is what I thought, that there was no new story to tell on the subject, so why read?

And yet once started I could not stop reading.

Why? Partly because of how Denise Davy tells the story. Oh my god, where do I begin to even say how well written this is. Throughout, I marvelled at how she, the author, was so very adept at restraint, keeping her emotion out of things and letting the story be entirely Margaret’s.

Margaret Louise Jacobson is the Margaret of Her Name Was Margaret: Life and Death on the Streets. Born to ultra-Christian, missionary parents, she spends the first fourteen or so years of her life being devoted to the church as her (rather unpleasant, austere) parents spread god’s word throughout every aspect of her childhood and the Caribbean. The book doesn’t go into the unnecessary details of their work, only suggesting the effect of all that fundamentalism on Margaret.

Then the voices start. And her family returns to Canada. The reader’s hope at this point is that they’ve come back in order to get help for Margaret, that they will stand by her in what is obviously the early signs of mental illness. But they deliver her instead into the arms of the Canadian mental health system while they return to god’s work and the system lets her down miserably.

That’s the story in a nutshell, but that’s not the story. That’s what we like to think the story is, or a version of it, for every ragged bit of humanity we see sleeping on sidewalk grates. Ah, well, we tell ourselves as we gingerly step around them or cross the street, some tragic tale, some sad past, another person slips between the cracks of a well-meaning system, probably their own fault in some way we can’t quite be bothered to name. If we’re in the mood to make ourselves feel noble, we drop change into a cup.

The other reason I couldn’t stop reading was because of how my mind and my eyes were being opened to a subject I thought I understood.

What Davy has done in this book is not only bring one person to life through making a small, personal connection with her, but also effectively taking us by the hand and walking us through a day, a month, a decade or five, of that life. And she’s done so without lectures or blame or righteousness but simply by saying look at this, and see that over there, and here’s a bit of info you may or may not care to know…

Davy, a well known journalist, received permission from a family member to access Margaret’s extensive medical files and with that (800+ pages), and access also to family letters, photographs and conversations with various people who knew her, she pieced together a life that with every page becomes more real.

Also more unreal insofar as the mind-boggling insanity of ‘the system’.

It is a story both shocking and endearing.

Davy honours one woman especially in this book, but in doing so she honours the homeless collectively and best of all, she offers suggestions for how we, as individuals, communities, and as a society, can honour our most disenfranchised fellow citizens by writing letters and demanding meaningful supports be put into place.

It’s not possible to read this and see homelessness the same way again. Not possible to carry on consoling ourselves with thoughts of how the homeless choose this lifestyle (the majority do not) or that there is simply nothing to be done with people who snarl and lash out, refusing to help themselves or allow others to help.

Because there’s a reason for that.

And there’s a solution.

On top of everything else, homelessness is expensive. The use of emergency and health care services, police, fire, prison, etc., (services used more frequently by the homeless due to lifestyle, mental health issues, and no other options) amounts to approximately $100,000 per year per (chronically) homeless individual. If anyone wants to talk money, it’s actually much cheaper to create supportive housing than support homelessness.

Along with the problems, Davy cites some uplifting examples of countries and cities that have adopted programs (like supportive housing) that work and where homelessness numbers (and costs) have dropped considerably.

Her Name Was Margaret is a compelling, unputdownable and strangely optimistic book for many reasons, not the least being that Davy shows us there IS a way out, a way both humane and economically viable. For that reason alone it’s must reading. Schools and universities included. We need to understand systems in order to fix them, not just sympathize with those caught in the middle.

I don’t know what I was expecting when I opened the book. To learn about one person, that would have been enough. I assumed there would be sadness, but I couldn’t have guessed that it would also contain such hope and be a source of enormous inspiration to DO something toward change.

I will be writing letters asking for change.

Thanks to Denise Davy for the extraordinary heart that has gone into the research and writing of the book. And to Wolsak & Wynn for publishing it.

summer postcards: treasures

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When I was a kid my dad’s answer to questions he didn’t know the answer to was either: get the atlas, or call the library.

The atlas was The Reader’s Digest Great World Atlas, which we’d open on the kitchen table, the two of us elbow to elbow, turning pages not only of maps and places but a double page spread of gemstones, the solar system, constellations, migratory routes of birds, the spread of mammals across continents, the evolution of man across those same continents; it had charts called What the World is Eating, Religions of the World, Patterns of Climate, Life in the Sea, The Vertical Distribution of Clouds, showed the distance between cities and countries, how hot, how cold, how wet, here or there, pages and pages of answers to every question anyone could possibly come up with. We easily spent hours forgetting what my original question was.

That said, it wasn’t infallible. For instance, neither my dad nor the atlas knew if I really had to make THIRTY copies of the chain letter I’d been sent. Could I not just make two or three, I asked. He didn’t know. The atlas didn’t know. Call the library! he said. And I did. And they (am I imagining a stunned pause at their end) answered. Yes, they said, they were pretty sure I could make just a few copies and not be struck down with a plague of locusts. I still feel a certain relief and gratitude for that (official library) advice, not to mention a sense of lifelong preparedness against a threat of locusts.

I still rely on them.

And I still have the atlas, which still conjures up a special kind of wonder.

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summer postcards: fine dining

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Semi-distant view from an umbrella’d table on the cool lawn outside a harbourside resto in an old house whose spicy fish wraps with extra jalapeno sauce I’m quickly becoming addicted to and where our server is Charlotte two days running, whose mother works in a lighthouse and where on another occasion and with another server we are told of Arthur the resto’s friendly ghost and the woman who lived her whole long life alone in only a few rooms of the enormous house across the street.

The blueberry bread pudding is also quite heavenly.