Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Purpose of Life


The purpose of life is not to be happy. 
It is to be useful, to be honourable, to be compassionate,
to have it make some difference that you lived and lived well."
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson 

For a magazine article I was working on, I asked my mother how her two daughters -- me and my sister -- are alike despite seeming so different (most notably, my sister has seven children through birth and adoption whereas I have none by choice).
Part of my mother's answer included a statement about how we both read a lot of non-fiction books that expose us to new ideas and different perspectives. Then she said, "You are both trying to make the world a better place in your own way."

This observation stayed with me because every day I wonder whether my life makes a difference, if I'm making any situation better, or anyone feel better.
All I do is write.
My time management sucks, my organizational skills have tanked, which makes tackling multiple projects a challenge, but I have one talent I can count on, one thing I know how to do.
I write.
Having written in isolation for so long, as a mere byline for articles, that the enthusiastic response to the Field Notes book is rather overwhelming. Not in a bad way; it's overwhelming because it's the first time I'm getting a sense of how the stories I write affect people.
I am grateful for this reassurance, and appreciate the connection I'm making with readers.
It proves something I've observed casually for many years: the importance of small gestures. Not everything we do has to be grand.

I've just finished reading "The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life that Matters" (Viking) written by Emily Esfahani Smith. It's one of the best books I've ever read. It's the same kind of book I wrote about in my March 15, the kind of book that set me on my path as a writer.
Using personal stories to anchor her ideas, EES examines the five pillars of meaning: Belonging, Purpose, Storytelling, Transcendence, and Growth. It is an immensely readable book and I highly recommend it.
In the chapter about "Belonging", EES shares the experience of hospital cleaners who are ignored by doctors.
"The cleaners spoke often about how doctors and nurses, whom they would see and work with every day, would walk right past them in the hallway without saying hello." (page 68)
The cleaners believe they play an important role at the hospital yet feel they aren't noticed or appreciated. They make a point of saying how meaningful it is when patients express gratitude.
This resonated with me because, for some reason, I am conscious of those who provide a service -- cleaners and wait staff, for example -- whose effort and hard work may be overlooked, particularly in busy locales and cities where people are rushing around and preoccupied.
I try to make eye contact and smile at people who are usually ignored. This is the small gesture I make because it's within my power to do so. What cost eye contact and a smile? And I tend to make it more when I'm in an urban centre, like Moncton or Halifax, than I do when I am in my rural area; not that acknowledgement isn't needed here, it's just that I think we notice each other more. The odds that we know the cleaner or the person serving our coffee are greater.

This reminds me of an interaction my husband and I had several years ago at the train stop near my sister's home in Atlanta, Georgia. Besides the two of us, the only other person on the platform was a guy sweeping the concrete. Sadly, it's significant that he was black because in the American South, racism is still thriving. A local white couple would not have even acknowledge this gentleman, let alone speak to him; they might have even left the platform and waited for the train near the security guard.
I'm not kidding.
My husband, being a Maritimer, started talking to this man about the weather (!) and we had a really good time chatting with this cleaner while waiting for the train.

I share this as a reminder that each of us is likely already doing something nice that matters to someone else, and we may not even realize it. There is great power in a smile. A smile goes a long way to lifting others' spirits. You know how I know this? Members of a congregation sitting in the church pews on Sunday morning don't realize how unfriendly their "resting face" looks. Unless we make a conscious effort to keep a pleasant look on our faces, we tend to look at best neutral, at worst, unhappy. It's rather shocking to speak for ten minutes and not be sure if anyone likes what I'm saying.
What I say, over and over, is that we need to do all things from love.
That begins with smiling at each other. Lift your spirits, lift theirs...and so on down the track that good feeling travels.
There's that idea about compassion: "Be kind. You never know the struggle someone else had to simply get out of bed today.
A small gesture of kindness can make a big difference.




Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Impact of a Library

As published in the Citizen-Record newspaper on Wednesday, March 15, 2017, by Sara Jewell.

Six-year-old Janaya hangs out with me and Youth Services Librarian, Jenn Atkinson. I'm holding a not-to-scale replica of one of the bookplates I purchased as part of Cumberland Public Libraries' 50th birthday fundraiser.



There is a photograph making the rounds on the internet entitled “Impact of a Book”. The photo shows a massive brick wall with bit of a hitch in the middle of it, directly above where a book lies on the ground, interrupting the flow of bricks.
It’s actually an art installation by Jorge Mendez Blake called “Il Castillo/The Castle”, named for the Franz Kafka book at the bottom of the wall of bricks but you can see why writers and librarians love it for illustrating the impact of a single book.
A single book can disrupt the flow. It can alter linear thinking. It can break down barriers.
A single book can open the mind and stimulate the heart.
A single book can launch a career.

When I was a kid in Ontario in the mid-seventies, the town library was less than a block from my home. The children’s library was completely separate from the adult library, and I spent hours there, wandering between tall book shelves, reading titles, and exploring stories.
One afternoon, after stocking up on books to take to the cottage, I hopped into the front seat of our car, and my mother glanced down at the pile of books on my lap.
On top was a non-fiction book titled, How To Cope With An Alcoholic Parent.
“What? Why do you have that book?” my mother squawked. “I’ll never be able to show my face in the children’s library again.”
I didn’t choose that book because I had concerns about my parents but because I was captivated by the personal stories that were inside the book. With no interest in the self-help narrative, I read the first-person accounts of people who were living with an alcoholic parent.
I believe that book, and that well-stocked children’s library, started me, at the age of nine, on my path as a writer who tells personal stories, whether my own or others’.
If one book can have that kind of impact, what would be the impact of losing all books?

Last month, Cumberland Public Libraries (CPL) announced it has reached the point of desperation; costs keep rising but funds from the government have remained the same for almost a decade. The CPL is making deep cuts to services, and could close one of its seven branches. Already, a full-time staff position is being eliminated.
What is a library without services? And what is a community without a library?
The first library existed in 300 BC, and the oldest, still-running library (the National Library of France) is almost 650 years old. Libraries have endured for thousands of years for one reason: they play an essential role in human development by providing knowledge, social interaction, and inspiration.  
The solution is not to start charging for services – libraries must remain free – but for our provincial government to adequately fund a system that has existed since humans first put chisel to tablet.
A quarter of Cumberland County residents have a library card. In honour of CPL’s 50th birthday in 2017, let’s raise that to 50 per cent. By signing up for a free library card, you will show the government that Cumberland County residents appreciate the impact of a book.

For more information, and how to buy your own 50th birthday bookplate: www.cumberlandpubliclibraries.ca 


Correction: A quarter (24%) of those with a library card represents those who have used it in the last three years. I have a card but I haven't used it in ten years. So if you have one but don't use it, USE IT! Let's get the active card number up to 50%. If you don't have a card, get one -- and USE IT, even if it's just once a year. A rise in numbers will show the government that we want to have a library in our communities.
(If you still like to rent DVDs to watch movies, the library may be one of the few places left that carry current movies -- and you can "rent" them for free.)

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BLOG BONUS:

When we were at the library getting a photo for this column, I met six-year-old Janaya, picture above, who was choosing books to take home and have her mother read to her.
Her mother, Jacki, explained that Janaya, now in Grade One, is catching up on her reading levels this year after a difficult start in school last year. And there is Janaya, gregarious and imaginative, already telling stories, already loving reading despite the obstacles.
"We live at the library," Jacki told me.
If you want a face to attach to the reasons why we need libraries, here is Janaya. She's already an oral storyteller; she could be a future writer. Without the library, her talents may never fully develop. Support the library, and support young readers like Janaya. 

Here are (just) five reasons why we needs libraries:

1) Reading books improve your life chances not just through the material but through the social experience of a library. “Story Time” wouldn’t be the same online!
2) Librarians have long been defenders of intellectual freedoms like free speech, copyright, and privacy. They fight for our right to read (and write) whatever we want.
For those who insist digital is the way to go: 3) The printed word seems to imprint knowledge better than using a computer screen. 
4) Libraries are economically efficient. Their model of sharing allows them to serve many people with few resources.
And finally, 5) What a shame to lose the experience, and the catchphrase, of students throughout the world, for thousands of years: “I’m studying at the library.”

Remember: Just as “WebMD” doesn’t replace your doctor, “Google” doesn’t replace your librarian. 




Saturday, March 11, 2017

Date Night


We don't do "date nights" in our house because chronic pain from Dwayne's shoulder injury usually gets the best of him by late afternoon.
But since we're both big fans of breakfast, and I've been meaning to get to this place for ten years, and it is called "Sugar Moon Farm", this is where we went for our date night -- this morning!
And what a gorgeous day. Cold. So cold! But so sunny. Beautiful day for a drive from Port Howe to Earltown. Good thing it was cold, too -- if we'd come on a thawing spring day, my husband would have balked at the thick mud on the dirt road that leads up to the restaurant. Instead, I ended up the hero of the story. Just look at these pancakes!


There are three "Sugar Moon Classics" to choose from: the Original, Pancakes Only, and No Meat Please. I picked the no-meat version because I love eggs.
My husband, of course, went "Over the Moon" and selected the all-meat version.
We weren't tempted by any of the fancy coffees on offer (I'm not a big fan of whipping cream on my beverages) but he said the apple cider was amazing.
While we waited for our meal, we were served biscuits and maple butter. I have to say that I appreciated the small biscuits; enough for a taste but not filling.
Proper thing because I had to eat this huge breakfast! The pancakes were gorgeous. Honestly, I don't know where I put it all but I enjoyed every single morsel -- but had to fight sleepiness all the way home.


Sugar Moon Farms off Highway 311 outside of Earltown (between Truro and Tatamagouche, Nova Scotia) is open Fridays, Saturday and Sundays until the summer, when it's open all week.
Next time, I'm doing the sugar bush tour to work off breakfast!
www.sugarmoon.ca



Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Sign of Spring


I don't get too worked up about winter.
I like snow. I like snowstorms. I like seeing my breath in the cold air. I like wearing snowpants and my big warm coat, my toque and my mitts to go walking through the snowy woods.
I like winter.
Now that we have that established, I'm not unhappy to see the pussy willows. I'm relieved that the cold snap that followed the warm spell that lured them out didn't kill them. The weather has been particularly volatile this winter, easy yet up and down temperature-wise, and we seemed to get winter in one week: three storms all at once in mid-February. I prefer my seasons to be seasonal; to come in cold and stay cold, to come in hot and stay hot. Fifteen degrees in northern Nova Scotia at the end of February confuses me -- and the plants.
It's looking like we'll have an early spring this year. We spring forward on our clocks this weekend (note to self: next week will be a groggy week) and ten days later, the spring solstice arrives. The pussy willows are out; now to keep our eyes peeled for the first robin.



Saturday, March 04, 2017

Know Where Your Food Comes From


Since the wake-up temperature was minus 20 with the windchill this morning, it seemed a great day to bring out the spring tonic: black currant jam.
How lucky am I to have friends who not only collect the currants and make their own jam, but feel compelled to share a jar with me? Mark and Theresa also are our suppliers for honey, and chickens (the plucked and butchered kind) -- as well as those delightful baby goats (who may give us milk).
This is far more than "know where your food comes from" - this has the potential to be a "100 kilometer diet" project.
Thanks, M & T! The jam is delicious. There is a spring in my step already!



Thursday, March 02, 2017

No Joke: Kidding!



I was on the phone with my best friend in Ontario when a call came through.
"I have to go. That was Theresa calling through -- I bet there's a baby goat being born."
Sure enough, the message told me to get there in 15 minutes because Bubbles was about to kid.
Despite taking the curves on the road at a higher speed than they're meant for, I missed the birth by five minutes.
"And you're sure there's no more?" I asked Theresa. "I'm not doubting you, you just thought she was carrying twins."
"Nope, that's it," she said.
As we stood around watching Bubbles lick her little boy -- an Alpine/Toggenburg mix -- I turned to fuss over sweet Violet who was nudging my leg.
"Sara, turn around," Mark said, and I turned in time to see another baby slide out of Bubbles.
It was a girl, and a good-sized one, too, considering how big the boy is.
"You want to name them?" the Wood family offered me. "We're at C for the boy, and F for the girl."
Talk about pressure! Come up with names on the spot. I picked Carter and Frankie.
That brings kidding to an end, and the final total to nine babies, all of whom survived: Three bucks and six does. 
Already, the column I'm going to write about this is forming in my brain... Watch for it April 5. 

Carter!



Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Celebrating Bold Women

As published in the Citizen-Record newspaper on Wednesday, March 1, 2017, by Sara Jewell.



When I was 18 years and browsing through a used bookstore in Ontario, a man walked behind me and touched my bottom. I put it down to accidental touching in the row between low shelves but when he walked by me again, and I felt my bottom grabbed a second time, I knew it was deliberate.
My mother was at the counter paying for her books and I went to stand beside her but I didn’t say anything, not to the man, not to my mother, not the owner of the store.
Don’t cause a scene. Don’t embarrass your mother. It’s your word against his.
I remember thinking these thoughts as I stood there, knowing what he did was wrong, that it was a violation of my space and my body, but I kept silent. At 18, I already understood there was no point in speaking up.
I wish I’d been bold enough to holler at the man, “Stop touching me, you creep.”

I share this story as one reason for why we need International Women’s Day, held every year on March 8. It’s not because women hate men and it’s not because women think we can do a better job than men.
We simply want fairness and respect, and to live and work without fear.
Women in politics receive far more abuse online than their male colleagues, including threats of rape, violence against their family, even death.
A man posted a crude and demeaning comment on the Facebook page of a vocal proponent of women’s rights, only to be called out for celebrating the birth of his daughter in a post a week earlier. “Do you want strangers speaking to your daughter this way?” he was asked.
When a woman speaks out – in a column, in a song, in a speech, through poetry, on social media – she opens herself up to the worst kinds of attacks, often being called the worst names and threatened with rape, even death.

The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day celebration is “Be Bold for Change”.
Like bossy and bitchy, “bold” is a word that takes on negative connotations when associated with women. People (that general, meaningless denomination that holds so much sway) don’t like bold women; they are forward, mouthy, demanding, and persistent.
Until women can speak up without worrying about being ignored, dismissed, or denigrated, we need a day set aside to celebrate the achievements of women in all areas (social, cultural, economic and political) because this awareness, this public standing up to say, “Hey, look at what we’ve done so far,” helps motivate other women to speak up for themselves and for each other.

My friend Jane and I recently saw the movie, “Hidden Figures,” about three black women who worked as mathematicians at NASA. They were bold, even as they had to defer to the white people who employed them. They spoke up, even when it put their jobs at risk. They changed the world by helping put a man on the moon.
Nothing changes if we don’t speak up. We go nowhere without boldness.
Oxford holds its International Women’s Day celebration this Saturday, March 4, while Amherst’s is Friday, March 10. The first step towards boldness is showing up.