Friday, January 20, 2017

A Walk in the Woods, Duck Pond Edition

The day after I landed at Dwayne's home in rural Nova Scotia nearly ten years ago, he packed up the four-wheeler (with his city girl and a thermos of tea and a blanket, plus stuff for starting a fire) and took me to the Ducks Unlimited duck pond way back in the woods. A few years later, we snowshoed back there on Valentine's day. It seemed like such a long way back yet twice this week, Abby and I have walked to the duck pond as if it were no further than our walk to Carrington Road and back.
I'm wondering why we don't do this walk more often but then I remember: deep snow, and bugs.

The writing isn't going well; I'm not hitting my stride (yet) in part because I'm working on publicity for a literary event I've planned in February. When I am fumbling for words, I head to the woods, so Tuesday afternoon, I told the dog to put her coat on, we were going for a walk.
"Let's go say hello to the beavers," I said, "that will clear my head." That's our usual walk, to the beaver brook and back home through the plantation.
But when we reached the brook, the dog kept trotting up the old road since I wasn't writing, I kept walking. The ground was nearly bare and frozen, and where there was snow, it was hard-packed thanks to rain and freeze; I simply swished carefully over the icy patches. We just kept walking, deeper and deeper into the woods. There seemed no reason to turn back.
"We might as well go all the way to the duck pond," I said when we paused at the top of the small hill by the middle clearcut. I hadn't packed any snacks but I figured we'd be okay; this dog isn't as concerned about snacks as my original country dog, Stella, was.
This is the perfect winter for walking through the woods. No bugs, no bears, no deep snow.

We aren't the only one wandering around the woods. We found raccoon tracks frozen in the snowy ice. It's mating season for raccoons; the tracks zig-zagged from tree to tree as the local male searched for and visited a variety of females denned up in the trees. I thought about this as I walked, how male raccoons are promiscuous, how the females have their cozy space invaded by a male following his biological urges. This is how the species ensures its survival.
I thought how, with humans, it's okay for the male to be promiscuous but not the female. Our thousands-of-years-old biological urges in conflict with our intellect and social awareness.
But I didn't want to think these kinds of thoughts deep in the woods. I wanted to breathe, to see and hear, with my brain on pause.
There were deer tracks a-plenty, lots of heart-shaped tracks like I write about in my book but my favourite are the partridge footprints wandering around, from one side of the trail to the other; years ago, I tracked a partridge through the woods like I was following one of the kids in a Family Circus cartoon -- all over the place, no start and no finish. My path may be straight but I wander like a partridge.
I am not alone when I go into the woods, that is true.

It took us 90 minutes to walk to the duck pond and back again, making better time on the way home since I wasn't stopping to take photos.
The next afternoon, another cold and sunny and perfect winter afternoon, we headed out again, no camera, just me and the dog and the wind through the trees and the traces of wild friends we never see.
"You need to take your phone with you when you go back that far," my husband said when I returned home. He knew I didn't have it because it burped with texts while I was gone. "You may run into a coyote."
We saw coyote tracks, but I never feel afraid in the woods. The dog stays on the trail, comes when she's called, didn't even chase the squirrel that ran in front of her. We respect the woods, we respect the fact we are visitors, just passing through, saying hello to the wind and the trees and the residents who never cross our path.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Mystery of the Dollhouse

As published in the Citizen-Record newspaper on Wednesday, January 18, 2017, by Sara Jewell

Russell Trueman reveals the dollhouse that sits in the upstairs dormer window of his home.

I couldn’t believe it as I counted down the civic numbers on Route 6 past Shinimicas and into Truemanville. Of all the houses I could be visiting, it was the one that has intrigued me for almost 15 years. Every trip to Amherst along Route 6 means a glance at the huge farm house with the dollhouse in the upstairs dormer window.

The mystery was solved shortly after I knocked on Russell Trueman’s back door.
“It’s a model of the house,” the 89-year-old father of six explained after he led me upstairs to where the dollhouse sits on the window seat. He removed the roof, which is all one piece, and revealed the full furnished downstairs rooms inside. “I made it ten feet to the inch.”
I don’t know what I expected but like anything that is beyond our imaginings, getting up close to this dollhouse left me astonished and delighted.
I located the door where I came in, and traced my steps through the dollhouse to the stairs. The house is huge; there are so many rooms. There was a piano in the dollhouse “but it’s long gone,” Russell said then picked up a piece. “Here’s the old television.”
The dining room chairs were delicate, and the china cabinet had a glass door. There was the washer and dryer just inside the door through which I’d entered, and the kitchen cupboards were replicas of the ones he still used.
As he put the roof back on, Russell pointed out the chimneys. “The flues are made from individual wooden bricks that I glued together.”
No one has ever truly played with the dollhouse; his children were grown when he made it, and his grandchildren have rearranged the furniture on occasion.
“It’s no good for anything, it’s just something to look at,” he said. “I just made it because I wanted to make it. It’s so large, people don’t have room for it.”

Russell has been making furniture, in miniature and in full size, most of his adult life. He has made annual Christmas ornaments for his daughter and son-in-law who live next door, and dressers for the bedrooms in his home.
“I have a wood shop connected to the house and I can go right down steps to it,” he told me. “That was the only thing around here I called mine; everything else I called ‘ours’. When someone said I was in my room, they knew exactly where I was at.”
But it is a space Russell hasn’t ventured into in more than seven years.
“My wife, Hilda, passed away in 2009, after my daughter and I took care of her at home for a year. I didn’t do any work in the shop then and I haven’t been down since. I lost all interest after she was gone, and now my eyesight for near-work is no good.”

My visit with Russell lasted over an hour and after 15 years of wondering about the dollhouse in the window, I discovered it was simply one of many stories the dollhouse house had to tell, all of them finely detailed, heartbreakingly true, and crafted out of love.

This photo was taken in late afternoon but you can see the dollhouse dormer in the real dormer.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

From Inside My Closet

In the glorious, and cautionary tale,way of the internet, I read this week an online article published in April 2015 by Harper's Bazaar. The article was written by a New York art director, Matilda Kahl, about her decision to create a "work uniform"; basically, she wears the same clothes -- white silk blouse, black necklace, black slacks -- to work every day.
The article went viral, probably because the concept is so smart yet so shocking. For women, it's also rather appealing.
It's both fascinatin, and depressing that this idea of uniform remains a hot-button issue for women who work in non-uniform jobs (such as nursing). Whether they are teachers, artists, movie stars, princesses, or stay-at-home moms, most women feel the weight of expectation to wear a new outfit every day or for every public appearance. Kahl feels that the more "artistic" a person's work, the heavier the expectation for creativity in her dress.

In the article, Kahl writes, "To state the obvious, a work uniform is not an original idea. There's a group of people that have embraced this way of dressing for years—they call it a suit. For men, it's a very common approach, even mandatory in most professions. Nevertheless, I received a lot of mixed reactions for usurping this idea for myself. Immediately, people started asking for a motive behind my new look: "Why do you do this? Is it a bet?" When I get those questions I can't help but retort, "Have you ever set up a bill for online auto-pay? Did it feel good to have one less thing to deal with every month?"..."

This gone-viral article has made Matilda's decision to adopt a work uniform so renowned that her Instagram description says, "Wearing the same thing to work, every day." It's now her identity.

I admire her courage and self-determination yet I fear I will remain a slave to new clothes. But this is oh, so tempting.
After reading this article, I thought of the shopping I feel compelled to do in order to wear a different outfit to every book event. I do this so that the photos of each event are different. Is this the result of social media, where we put every single thing we do every single day? Social media lets us track everyone's activities; it wouldn't be difficult to check out my three accounts and discover -- OMG!!! SARA JEWELL IS WEARING THE SAME OUTFIT TO HER READINGS!!

I wish I had the guts and the confidence and the thick skin to have an "author uniform". I wish I didn't like clothes so much, even though I often look at the closet in despair for not seeing the "right" outfit I'm looking for.
The outfit I wore to the book launch in Pugwash in November, the top of which is pictured in the photo, would be perfect for every event. It would be the perfect author uniform for fall and winter; I could have a different one for spring a summer. I would no longer have to worry about what to wear, I would no longer have to waste a day shopping for something new to go with an existing pair of pants or for an entirely new outfit, I would no longer spend hundreds of dollars on clothes that I'm often only wearing once.

Erg. Writing that all down makes me feel kind of sick. And stupid. A bit sheep-ish.
Ah, but I don't have the nerve. I'm totally programmed, not proud of it, but what you can't see in the photo is the pair of red boots and black pencil skirt I bought yesterday. As tempting as an author uniform is, those boots were waaaay more tempting.
And in some ways, I do have a work uniform: Like so many writers, I wear black yoga pants and a hoodie to work every day.

Here's the link to Matilda Kahl's article:

Monday, January 09, 2017

Marching Forward With A Great Big NO

I've now extricated myself from two "seemed like a good idea at the time" courses that proved over the past four months to be distracting and disappointing. As much as I hate quitting, I hate being unhappy even more. After writing the second email this morning without feeling any regret, or guilt, I'm glad to free to be 100 percent FOCUSed on writing.

If the door doesn't open, it's not your door. I'm tired of scuffing up my Blundstones kicking a door that won't budge.

After several years of saying Yes to everything, I've reached that point where I must start saying No to most things. I think this is a natural progression of this process of figuring one's shit out; now that I have a book published and it's been enthusiastically received by readers, I'm fairly confident I can keep going at this whole book thing.

These opening weeks of 2017 see me trawling through five years' worth of notebooks and journals slapping sticky notes on ideas for a new collection of essays, and this morning, as I sat on the couch in the morning sunshine, drinking coffee and flipping pages, I found this quote by Stephen R. Covey in one of the notebooks:
"You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage -- pleasantly, smilingly, nonapologetically -- to say 'No' to other things. And the way you do that is by having a bigger 'Yes' burning inside."

I'm a big believer in signs; one of the essays in my new collection will be on this very subject because it is huge for me. It's my version of "answered prayer": I know I have an email to write and as I'm gearing up to do that, I find a quote that confirms what my gut is telling me to do.

It's like chickens. They lay eggs. That's what they do and they do it well. You can hang a kid's xylophone toy on the coop wall and they will peck at it, make some sounds, it'll be cute and the video will get a couple of thousand views on YouTube, but that's not what chickens do best. They lay eggs.

That what it means to be true to yourself: Be fearless and be chicken.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Snow Day

Sunday. Snow Day. Grey morning light. White snow swirling.
I snuggled up against the other human in the bed.
The dog thrust herself under the covers and flopped down against my legs. 
It was a lie-in, the house cold, no one wanting to leave the island of fleece and wool.
The phone would ring soon, telling me church was cancelled. 
There was no need to rush, no need to put feet onto cold floor.
"You are my sunshine," I said to my husband and kissed his forehead.
That seemed inappropriate for the day so I added,
"You are my snowstorm."
But that didn't quite cover it so I went on.
"You are my thunder and lightning.
"You are my blue skies and white clouds.
"You are my snowflakes and rain drops.
"Oh, and you are the one who stokes my fire
and brews my coffee."
He grunted and rolled away.
"Alright, I'm getting up."

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

One Word to Change the World

As published in the Citizen-Record newspaper on Wednesday, January 4, 2016, by Sara Jewell.

There’s been a trend the last few years of choosing a word for the year instead of making resolutions. Apparently, it’s easier to be guided by a word than it is to keep a list of resolutions. There are books and websites devoted to this idea of changing your life with just one word, and people choose words like empathy and joy, progress and smile.
You can see how this would grab hold. A year governed by the word “smile”, or “yes”, or “no”, could certainly have an impact. I’m not sure if choosing one word instead of setting goals is another example of our modern approach to life – passive-aggression made to look like simplicity or a dumbing down in order to exert as little effort as possible – but this year, the idea of a word for the year has taken hold of me.
Because for me, for my household, that word is CHANGE.

After nearly ten years of living in rural Nova Scotia, after nearly ten years of ignoring the voice inside my head that whispers “Buy less, make more”, 2017 is the year of making a few changes.
By writing about this and putting it out there in the public domain, I’m ensuring these changes will happen. There is no better accountability than someone asking me if I’m using my green bin yet.

For that is the first change: We are gardeners so our organic waste goes into composters to get turned into black, crumbly soil. Yet I’m conscious of the stuff that goes into our garbage bag that shouldn’t, and I’m tired of feeling guilty about turning a blind eye to our haphazard waste disposal habits. It’s not ignorance but laziness, and a dislike of nagging, that has kept me from making this change.  

This is also the year when we go from three vehicles to two. I’m the only one in our three-person household who works, and that’s just on Sunday mornings, so there’s no point in having the oldest vehicle sitting idle. Surely three adults can manage to coordinate their schedules and vehicle needs by marking appointments on the calendar in the kitchen.

The final and most significant change for 2017 is what I call “local and less”. When I met my husband ten years ago, I was thisclose to being a vegetarian, so I feel dogged by a lack of commitment to pushing back against factory farming and the mind-boggling amount of food we waste in First World countries. My household is now committed to knowing where our meat comes from because we want to purchase humanely raised and butchered meat and support our Cumberland County farmers.
When I looked at my breakfast plate on Christmas Day, I realized every inch of it was locally-sourced: homemade bread, homemade jam made from Oxford strawberries, bacon and sausage from Wallace Bay, and eggs from our very own chickens.        

So it’s not that hard to do. It takes a little effort – another word for the year – to make choices and take actions that are fair and right and sensible.
I, for one, resolve to be the change I want to see in the world.