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.

 
 
 

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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mss typed accurately and intelligently, obvious slips being eliminated

Ah, those were the days. When ads had private addresses and manuscripts were typed intelligently by people like Miss W.L. Pope of Handsworth who could spot an obvious slip when they met one.

I found this delightfulness in the sepia tinged pages of The Writers’ and Artists’ Year Book 1935, a hard cover, novel-sized book published by A&C Black Limited, Soho Square London, which also includes ads for writing schools, journalism programs, private tuition “ENGLISH FOR AUTHORS AND JOURNALISTS” by Mr. Hubert Wolff, a request for British songs and lyrics (please send to the British Song Society; “write now for a free prospectus”), ads for Literary Agents anxious to read, among other things, the highly sought after “travel and adventure stories from authors who live abroad”.

The actual point of the book is writing markets. And to that end there exists an A-Z listing between the thick block of front and back page advertisements.

And wherein you will find magazines looking for submissions… magazines such as The Aryan Path, founded 1930, India, (“mysticism, philosophy, comparative religions and brotherhood”),

Boys’ Friend Library, founded in 1895 and requesting 64,000 word ‘short’ stories (adventure and mystery),

and The Boys’ Magazine, founded 1887, “stories suitable for boys of better class”, hobbies, handicrafts, stamps, engineering, etc., no fiction and nothing exceeding 600 words” [are we meant to understand that boys of better class have a limited power of attention?],

The Boys’ Own Paper, founded 1879, (“fiction, articles on games, travel, adventure, and construction and other subjects of interest to boys about 12-16 years old. Both stories and articles are acceptable but must be bright and full of incident.”),

Cement and Cement Manufacture, founded 1928, (“articles in any language on the manufacture and testing of Portland cement”),

Dairymaid, The Midland Counties, founded 1928, (“brightly written, informative articles of 1,000 to 1,500 words of interest to homes in large towns in the Midlands, also articles interesting to housewives, including plain needlework, art needlework, knitting and cookery”),

Draper and Drapery Times, (“constructive articles describing better ways and oncoming productions immediately helpful to either the textile manufacturer, wholesale or retail trader”),

Home Companion, founded 1897, (“strong, dramatic serial stories appealing to artisan working girls and women, a love element, quick movement and exciting, homely people, original but human in plot and simply told, 4,000 words”),

Mabs Fashions, (“articles of interest to women”),

Mabs Weekly, (“sister magazine to Mabs Fashions, containing serial stories, dress ideas and renovations, fancy work for the home, beauty and cookery”),

Nuneaton Chronicle, (“uses short informative articles on out of the way Warwickshire archaeology. Payment is not high; the Editor is very courteous to contributors”),

Peg’s Paper, founded 1919, (“weekly fiction paper for girls, short stories 2,000 to 3,500 words, or long stories to 10,000 words, serial stories, a strong love and dramatic interest necessary”),

Post Annual, founded 1921, (“annual popular illustrated magazine dealing with Post Office questions, designed to extend public understanding of postal service, lightly written articles 2,500 to 3,000 words on Post Office matters, stories having a Post Office flavour, humorous drawings dealing with different aspects of the Post Office”),

~

The edition contains markets in Australia, Canada, India, South Africa, New Zealand, the U.S., as well as notices of literary contests, advice and warnings to composers, info on copyright, libel, agents, pen names, pseudonyms, submission of photographs, censorship, literary prizes, markets for writer/illustrators, for writers of greeting cards, various schools of film and playwriting, and numerous ads similar to the above for intelligent typing and ‘duplicating’ services (“ten pence per thousand words”) by Dorothy Allen, Miss Stuart, Nancy McFarlane, Miss E.M. Shaw, Mrs. Haggard, et al.

Interesting to see what’s changed and what hasn’t, much. Sport, engineering and adventure being encouraged for boys and domestic arts and romance being doled out for girls. Some progress in that area but maybe not enough since 1935.

I’m also sad that stories in many magazines and papers have long gone out of fashion, and that there seem to be fewer (paying) markets for writers (of cement and drapery especially) and saddest of all… the loss of post office intrigue and humour. Surely that is one rich vein waiting to be tapped.

 

curbside everything (almost)

I am so in love with curbside living.

I get pineapple, bananas, avocado, clementines and various other exotics from Valles (including Covered Bridge chips from New Brunswick; the best); organic apples, potatoes and parsnips, sardines, juice, laundry detergent, dish soap, chick peas, goat yoghurt and a million other wonderful things (and mostly all Canadian brands) from Today’s Natural Solutions; Georgian Bay trout from Healthy Meats; locally grown (and preserved) peaches, homemade sauerkraut, butter tarts, apple cider (non alcohol’d), local greenhouse mesclun and cucumbers (we are SO lucky!!), onions, eggs, cheese, squash (I said butter tarts, right?) from Hy Hope Farm; excellent apple cider (alcohol’d) and homemade mustard from Slabtown Cider; more (Ontario and/or Quebec) cheese from Country Cheese; local frozen veg, pastry dough and potato scones from McMillan Orchards; books from Blue Heron Books and the Whitby Library; joy from my backyard labyrinth and the lake; pizza from Corrados; The Best eggplant parm and The Best parmesan cheese from Antonio’s

I don’t necessarily do curbside with all of the above but most have that option and every one of them is small and delightful to shop in, careful about protocols, and the staff (in every case) is brilliant. And they are LOCAL.

This isn’t anything new to us, being long-time pooh-poohers of big stores. (Honestly, I can hardly think of one thing I need to go into a giant grocery store for that I can’t get from one of the above-named places, and that includes extraordinary olives.) And other than tropical fruit (and only in winter) we don’t buy out of season, but these days I have an even greater interest in spending my dollars in ONLY small, local, independently owned shops and curbside is just the cherry on top. Like having a personal shopper.

Cannot imagine the hardship so many small businesses have faced this past year. Here’s hoping there’s a groundswell of support that continues down the road.

So grateful to each of my go-to’s for sustenance and nourishment.

Including the lake.

And my labyrinth.

Nourishment comes in many forms.

yellow cup

Yesterday a cousin sends pictures of alpine snow heavy on branches, mountains, rooftops, and me here in the rain feeling snow envy, sending a message back to her… “A slice of heaven!” I write and forget my laundry on the line and then this morning I open the blinds and see snow heavy on branches and rooftops and the morning light is just starting and I put the kettle on and go out to the porch, my laundry frozen and me here in coat and boots and a bright yellow cup, lemon balm tea as the sun rises through a slice of heaven.

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a december story, involving a hamster (and, of course, miracles and snow)

It’s the 1980’s.

I’m working in Edmonton in a small office downtown. There are only three of us, one of whom is almost always on the road. Which leaves me and Wendy.

It’s the middle of December.

At lunchtime I take a walk. I notice it’s starting to snow.

I duck into a five and dime, possibly a Woolworths or similar, the kind of store where the shoes are next to the tablecloths which are next to the vacuum cleaners which are next to the gift boxes of Black Magic chocolates.

I find myself in the pet aisle where there is a sign announcing Free Hamsters. All you have to do is buy a cage with an exercise wheel, a water bottle, a supply of cedar chip bedding material, food, and a food dish, and they throw in the hamster for free. Seems too good to be true, but IT IS TRUE. And so, some minutes later, I’m back outside carrying a hamster in a cardboard box in one hand and a giant bag of all its worldly possessions in the other.

The snow has picked up.

Wendy is only slightly amused when I explain my good luck at stumbling upon a hamster sale, and not at all impressed. Turns out she doesn’t like hamsters. Wendy is a country girl who puts such things under the heading of ‘varmints’.

Sometime later that afternoon Wendy says How are you going to get it home? She means on the bus. Because the bag of supplies and the cage and the cardboard box is a lot for a crowded bus. Plus she says, it’s snowing like crazy.

Moving the hamster from box to cage would make things a lot more manageable. Problem is… I don’t like the idea of touching the hamster and neither does Wendy.

Miracle Number 1: Fred Goodchild, a restaurateur from a few doors along, who has come in to see about his account. He says the snow’s so bad things are shutting down, which explains why no one else has been in that afternoon to see about their account.

On a whim I ask Fred Goodchild if he will move my hamster, some of the cedar bedding, and all of the accoutrements into the cage.

Which is how my hamster comes to be christened Fred.

By the time we leave work the snow is a full-on blizzard. The streets are more or less empty of traffic, the buses are running very slow if at all. If it were just me I’d stand outside and wait in line but in my new role as a hamster mother I realize there are responsibilities I hadn’t counted on. In other words, I’m not at all sure how long or at what temperature a hamster actually freezes.

It feels wise to get a cab instead.

[I should mention that I’d recently applied for and received my first ever credit card, the timing of which is miracle #2, which is no small detail as the story unfolds]

There’s zero chance of hailing a cab on the street so I walk to the nearest hotel, where the doorman tells me the wait is a minimum two hours.

And that is how Fred and I come to spend the better part of our first evening together in the bar of The Four Seasons Hotel, me drinking fine brandy and tea and eventually ordering a cheese plate and salad, bits of which I lovingly shove through the wires of his cage on the seat next to mine.

I have no memory of anyone commenting on Fred’s presence or complaining about the squeaking of his exercise wheel. No one asks us to leave (miracle #3). Nor do I recall even thinking it odd to be dining with a hamster in the swankiest joint in town.

A cab finally comes. I pay with my shiny new credit card. It’s a long slow ride but we make it home safely (which feels like miracle #4). I set Fred’s cage on a table in my living room in front of a painting I think will give him a sense of the outdoors and where we can watch reruns of M.A.S.H. and Mary Tyler Moore together.

And we do.

And I think what in the world is better than to be home safe and warm, me with a belly full of brandy and cheese, a hamster and his squeaking wheel, the air scented with cedar shavings.

Such was the magic of a stormy night in Edmonton in December.

[I’d like to add that I was young and not yet given to thinking about the sadness of hamsters being imprisoned, though I do like to think I liberated him from life in the pet aisle. It’s something. And his cage was eventually upgraded and I learned to touch him and hold him and even though all this was before the invention of googling how to make a hamster ultra comfortable I do believe he had a contented life inasmuch as a hamster living an unnatural life can be content. That, and we’ll always have The Four Seasons…]

how to find a prairie in southern ontario during a pandemic

 

Begin with endlessly sorting your bookshelves. Keep, donate, keep, donate….

At the back of the shelves, find a book on road trips that looks boring and decide you don’t want to keep it but then notice a newspaper clipping tucked inside — an ‘Out Walking’ column from the local paper, by Margaret Carney, a (Whitby) resident, writer, and naturalist.

Notice the date: September 10, 2000.

Read the clipping.

Get excited about sentences like this:

“One of the biggest thrills of my whole summer was visiting a precious remnant of original tallgrass prairie — the site of a historic cemetery — and then, high on a bluff overlooking the Otonobee River, a magnificent restoration of acres of prairie wildflowers in bloom. Both are just east of Durham Region, on the Rice Lake Plains — a pleasant jaunt for anyone out for a drive.”

Consider whether you have enough cheese in the fridge to make a picnic.

(If yes, pick a sunny day, pack a cooler. Include peaches. The peaches are wonderful this year.)

Head out on the road.

Bring the newspaper clipping.

As you drive ask the person in the passenger seat to read out the part again where Carney says the cemetery, because it’s on land that has never been plowed, contains one of the rarest surviving plant communities in Canada.

Also the directions. Could they please read out the directions again.

Because you’re having trouble finding the place.

Though you do find some nice views and happy surprises en route and for a moment you think you’ve found the cemetery. But no…

Just as you’re about to give up, just as you begin driving away, heed the seemingly pointless impulse to turn the car around and drive back a few kilometres along the same road for the third time.

When you see a man on a small tractor (who was not there just a few minutes ago) drive onto his property in a cheerful manner, and apologize for interrupting. Ask about the cemetery and be a little surprised that he knows exactly where it is. Smile when he says have a good time. Grimace when he says watch out for snakes. Snakes??  Oh, sure, he says, there’s snakes out here. Bear too, and mean yellow-eyed Fishers (which you will google later.)

Drive back along the road for the fourth time.

And then marvel at how exactly where he said it would be, there it is, the Red Cloud Cemetery, once part of a community called Red Cloud.

Walk through this small slice of undisturbed grassland with reverence for the people who lived here, for those who’ve come and gone, and wonder about their stories (first burial in the early 1800’s, the last in 1940).  Reverence too for this slice of rich history and remnant of original landscape that looks so ordinary it makes you dearly want someone to explain what’s what.

Above all, feel reverence for the quiet energy that fills this space.

Decide it’s the perfect place for a picnic.

Open up your lawn chairs and haul out your cheese sandwiches. Notice the size and diversity of the trees and wonder how many eyes have looked at them from exactly this angle against a sky exactly this shade of blue. Do not think about snakes. Although because of possible bears, keep the picnic site close to the car.

From there follow Carney’s instructions an hour or so west, to the Rainbow Tallgrass Prairie Restoration Site near Rice Lake, which she describes as twenty acres of private farmland that a family is restoring to its original tallgrass prairie roots.

Once again be unable to find the place.

Once again notice a man on a tractor. A larger tractor this time, driving along the gravel road. He will tell you the prairie is long gone, the property sold to new owners who plowed it over in order to farm the land. He will wonder how it is you came to be looking for it. Tell him about the twenty year old newspaper clipping. Watch the confusion on his face, followed by an expression that might translate to something like: city people.

He will give you directions, tell you it’s over that hill, turn right at the next lane. He will tell you the sign is still there but nothing else and you decide to go look for it anyway, for the sign and for where the prairie used to be and once again, it’s all exactly where the man on the tractor said it would be.

Or would be if it still existed.

Decide to head home now that you are filled with knowing what you already knew, that some parts of nature are preserved and others are not. Be happy that if a tallgrass prairie restoration project had to be razed, it was for someone to make a living. Remind yourself that this isn’t anything new and just embrace the fact that tall grass prairies once covered this part of the province, wherever the soil is sandy. Imagine it.

Be grateful there are still small, independent farmers.

Sigh deeply. For the beauty and the sadness and the joy and the reality of the ever changing change of things. For the miracle of men on tractors appearing just when you need them. For not seeing snakes. Or bears. For the luxury of sandwiches made with local cheese and peaches grown on Ontario trees. For the privilege of being able to spend a day breathing in such peace.

Point the car in the direction of home.

Turn on the radio.

Be grateful for the person in the passenger seat.

And when the mood strikes, stop and stretch your legs, climb up to lookouts and see where you’ve been

and if there are no cars in the parking lot of a bakery, don your mask and enter, leaving with one perfect butter tart,

and when, like a mirage, a field of grapes appears where probably a tall grass prairie once stood, and a sign for libations… take a long deep breath for irony’s sake, slip on your mask, and find the patio.

And if there are only two other people there and they are waaaay at the other end — and down wind to boot — pull down your mask and enjoy the view.

More tallgrass prairie love here.

 

 

 

 

miss rumphius

 

Remember her? The story by Barbara Cooney about a woman who sprinkles lupine seeds as she goes about her days – her contribution to making the world a more beautiful place.

The story is based on a real person, Hilda Hamlin, who immigrated to the U.S. from England in the early 1900’sSome lovely info on her (and lupines) here.

The idea of sharing joy.

How is it possible not to relate?

Every time I blow the fluff off a dandelion I think of grateful bees. And the stones that have been painted with messages and left everywhere during the pandemic or the domino effect of a kind word to a cranky cashier or leaving money in a parking meter as a happy surprise for someone you’ll never see

– all variations of lupines.

**

I’ve been (again) paring down my bookshelves. This is a regular thing but I’m being more ruthless than usual and finding treasures to both read (why haven’t I read this??? I keep asking) and to part with. Some are donates, some are for a library I manage in a women’s shelter, others shout out the name of someone I know and demand to be taken or sent to them. This last part feels slightly lupiney if lupine work is meant to be something that feels good in the process of spreading smidgens of happy surprise.

I’m also going through old photos and finding things I no longer want to keep but that might mean something to someone else. The picture a friend sent decades ago of herself and strangers (to me) at an outback pub in Australia where a handwritten sign on the porch informs that a bush band will be playing that night. The band isn’t named. People sit outside at picnic tables and a young tanned girl, long blonde pony tail and red shorts, is running bare-chested, while another, older girl, twelve maybe, stands primly, shyly, in a below the knee length calico dress and ankle socks next to a man in a cork hat. Both look warm and not recently bathed. The pub is made of roughly hewn wood, thrown together in the middle of what looks like scrub land, a mirage you’re thrilled to come by for a cool one, and maybe a snake sighting while you sip. I’ve sent that photo back to my friend and can’t wait to hear the stories attached to it. Maybe I’ve heard them before… but it’s been a while.

To a nephew, now grown with his own family, I’ve sent a series of pictures I took when he was ten or so and skipping stones at the beach, complete with a final shot of him, both arms up in the hooray! position. His son plays baseball, thought maybe he’d like to show him where he gets his throwing chops from.

And the blank postcards I’m finding in albums. Sunsets and trolley cars, adobe houses. No point in keeping them, so they too are being sprinkled like lupines, with messages scrawled on the backs that sometimes relate to the images on the front and sometimes don’t.

And so on.

It’s brilliantly fun this finding and sending, apropos of nothing, attached to notes that open conversations that would never have been had otherwise.

**

So… Dear Miss Rumphius:  thank you.