Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Christmas Past...and Future

(First published in the December 21 issue of The Oxford Journal)

My father loved Rita MacNeil so when I found out the date for her annual televised Christmas special, I made plans to watch it with him. When I arrived just before 8 o’clock, he wasn’t alone; the 21 other residents of the secure unit of the nursing home were sitting with him, in their pajamas, in the main TV room. 
“It seemed like a good idea to have them all here together,” a personal support worker explained. “We can give them their meds and their snacks while they watch the show.”
As I sat on a vinyl love-seat next to my father and looked around, I thought, ‘These are my people now.’ And it was with those people, 22 of them in various stages of Alzheimer’s, with whom I’d spend Christmas 2005. My mother was spending two weeks with her grandchildren, a much-needed respite after months of struggling with the decision to move Dad into the nursing home. 
It was the first time in my life that I had been alone on Christmas Day. Until then, I’d always thought it was horrible and sad to be alone at Christmas but I got up in the morning and took my dog for a walk as usual, ate breakfast then opened a few gifts from my mother. Shortly before noon, I headed up to the nursing home where the staff had set up a special table for my father and me in the lounge at which to eat Christmas dinner; it appeared I was the only family member visiting with  someone in the unit. Dad couldn’t open his three wrapped gifts and he didn’t seem to understand what day it was. After only a couple of weeks in the nursing home, his rapid decline was heartbreakingly obvious. 
After spending the afternoon with him, and the rest of my people, I headed to the home of good friends who had invited me to become part of their family for that evening. They’d even filled a stocking for me. An unforgettable kindness.
I also won’t forget the lesson of that Christmas: Life doesn’t stop for the holidays. Illness, disease, even death, do not take a break because it is Christmas. Surgeries will continue, diagnoses will be made, bad news will be delivered. Families will split up, family members will be missing, family members still will not be speaking. All around us, people are hurting, people are hoping, people are yearning. Christmas, as with life, isn’t always happy or anticipated. 
When you’re cutting up your father’s mass-produced turkey and feeding it to him, the true meaning of Christmas becomes clear. So, too, the reason we can still celebrate it despite worries and sorrow. So if this is the year when your Christmas isn’t going to be merry and bright, may I wish you instead peace of mind, hope in your heart, and the joy of good memories, past and future.

-- by Sara Mattinson

Sunday, December 25, 2011

In Conversation With...Santa Claus

First published in the December 21, 2011 issue of The Oxford Journal by Sara Jewell Mattinson

The directions for Santa’s house are simple enough. 
“When you leave the highway, turn right at the stop sign and drive 8 kilometres till you see the red mailbox.”
Red mailbox. Of course. The lane heads up and there is Santa’s house, a sprawling country home nestled against the woods. There are no reindeer in the yard or an elf welcome party; only Santa himself, wearing his trademark red hat with the white trim, blue jeans and a red windbreaker, hanging another garland on his front porch. I follow him into the house, passing under a sign that reads “We Believe In Santa”, and before you can say naughty or nice, we are seated at the kitchen table, drinking coffee out of red and green mugs. 
My first question to Santa is the obvious one: What changes has he seen in the last ten years?
“Kids’ requests for expensive electronic gear are right off the scale,” he answers. “Every now and then you’ll get a little girl who wants a Barbie doll or little guy who wants a pair of skates or a hockey stick but very seldom do you hit that. I feel sorry for some of the parents. Some of the cheapest stuff the kids ask for is $250. Some small, young family starting out, they’ll have $250 for the whole family for Christmas. And trying to do Christmas dinner, too. The kids have no idea about reality.”
Santa takes a sip of his coffee then rubs a hand across his face before continuing. 
“Sometimes you get the tear-jerkers as well, like a little girl who asks for her mother to come home for Christmas. It’s the same as a child asking for an unmeltable ice cream. I tell her that I’ll do the best I can. I always do the best I can.”
Santa smiles at me and it hits me: This is the real deal. Crinkly white beard? Check. Twinkle in the eyes? Check. Dimples and rosy cheeks? Check. The big stomach (which Santa carries very well, I assure you)? Check. I’m having a conversation with Santa Claus, who has remembered another story he wants to share. 
 “I remember one little guy who had a bad cold,” says Santa, “and I said, ‘You’re not feeling very good,’ and he said no. I asked him if he’d had a candy cane today and he said no. I happened to have one so I said to him, ‘I have to tell you something. Candy canes will cure almost anything. As a matter of fact, one of the reindeer wasn’t feeling well this morning and I knew that because he was walking on the ceiling in the barn. I have to get him down to get him to take his medicine but I’m in luck because his medicine is a candy cane so I hold it up and he grabs onto it and I pull him down. He ate his candy cane and I think he’s feeling better’.” 
Santa chuckles at the memory and rests his arms on his stomach. He confirms that the Santas at the malls are simply helpers because at this time of year, Santa is busy with the parades and office parties and private visits that allow him to really make magic happen. He doesn’t charge a fee for these public appearances but he accepts donations because Santa has a cause: “I find a family or two in need and help them out at Christmas.” Because sometimes Santa needs a little more than a twinkle in his eyes and a magic bag to make Christmas happen for some people. 
Speaking of that bag, Santa reveals the secret as to how he can carry gifts to every child around the world on Christmas Eve. 
“The elves makes one of each toy. When it goes into the bag, it duplicates. So I can reach my hand in over and over and always have enough.” 
And if there isn’t a chimney? He chuckles again. It’s a lovely sound, deeper and more relaxed than his trademark ho-ho-ho.
“I make one,” he says. “I wish the chimney.” Which comes with a hearth and fire, by the way. 
Santa admits he has to be up on every Christmas movie ever made because the kids will ask him about them but his favourite movies are A Christmas Carol and Miracle on 34th  Street because the message of those movies is important and timeless. 
“Just for a little while, let your guard down,” he suggests. “Relax. Christmastime only lasts for a short while. Enjoy. You don’t have to have a million dollars. Just enjoy the season.”
My hour is up and Santa offers me the use of his facilities. Here is the final secret to reveal: Santa has a gorgeous bathroom, and I’ll bet my last candy cane he spends Christmas Day soaking in the whirlpool tub. 
“When you sit down to write your story,” Santa Claus says to me as I pull on my coat, “remember to have a mug of hot chocolate.” 
I thank him again for taking time out of his busy schedule for this conversation and we shake hands. As I walk to my car, I slip my hand into a pocket for my keys and find a business card in my palm. It’s Santa’s card and all it says is I’m watching. Turning to look back at the house, I see Santa at the window, one finger resting aside his nose. 

Photo courtesy of Santa Claus

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Welcome, Winter Solstice!

Depending on where you are in the world, December 21 or 22 marks the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere: the official beginning of winter, and the longest night of the year. Here in Nova Scotia, the switch happens either late tonight at 11:30 pm.
The bright side to the longest night? The days start to get progressively longer, up until the summer solstice in June.
The word “solstice” is Latin for “sun-stand still”.
Ever wondered what the difference is between a "solstice" and an "equinox"? It's related to the Earth's orbit around the sun.
Twice a year, at the spring and fall equinox, the north and south pole are perpendicular, giving us equal amounts of day and night. As the orbit of the Earth continues, the angle of the poles increase or decrease, changing the balance of day or night. Therefore, we get the longest day in late June and the shortest day in late December. 

Don't Be Afraid To Wish Someone A Merry Christmas

First published in the December 14 issue of The Oxford Journal:

Overheard a couple of years ago while in the waiting room at the physiotherapy unit at the hospital in Amherst:
Agnes: “Do you work at the grocery store?”
Wanita smiled and nodded.
Agnes: “I think you did my postage the other day.”
Wanita: “I’m surprised I’m not dreaming about letters chasing me.”
Agnes: “It’s hard to believe it’s only ten days until Christmas.”
Wanita: “I’ll be glad when it’s over. It’s so busy. And there isn’t much cheer.”
Agnes: “Really?”
Wanita: “I find that no one says Merry Christmas anymore.”
That was in 2009. I wonder how Wanita is finding the cheer leading up to Christmas this year.  For those of us still daring to use the phrase, “Merry Christmas”, are we all too worried about money and too rushed by daily obligations to feel merry, let alone wish someone else good cheer? We’ve allowed the pressures of the perfect gifts to usurp the joy and peace that should be the hallmarks of this season. 
Uncertainty, even chaos, in finance and business is just a scaled-up version of what most of us are feeling in our personal households. As power rates go up, gas prices stay high, and the cost of food creeps up, anyone hanging on for the next pay cheque will find the holiday season stretching resources as thin as cellophane, tied up with a generous dose of guilt and anxiety.
In this context, how do we muster up enough cheer to wish Wanita, and each other, a Merry Christmas...and really mean it? You think I’m going to say ‘spend less’ but that’s the obvious answer. Instead, try ‘slow down’. The new hallmarks of the holiday season are waiting, rushing, and fretting. Imagine giving, or receiving, a dose of kindness on a day when you really don’t feel like shopping, let alone saying Merry Christmas. My colleague Jane recently let a man go ahead of her in a line at a store, explaining that at this time of year, there is no point in being in a hurry. 
“It doesn’t take a large gesture to ease the stress in someone else’s day,” Jane told me. 
We all feel pressured to shop and give till it hurts, but we can’t lose sight of the only thing that makes Christmas worthwhile: the point of all those gifts. They are an act of appreciation, and the ultimate gesture of kindness. Just like saying “Merry Christmas” to Wanita and each other...and meaning it.  

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The New Meaning of "Rural Roots"

(First published in the December 7 issue of The Oxford Journal)

My hair stylist is an expert on all things country. She knows that free-range hens lay eggs with dark yellow yolks. She knows that ospreys only eat fish and fly south for the winter. She knows not to go hunting on Sunday.
She knows these things now. Six months ago, Jessica didn’t know nothin’ about living in the country. That’s because she lives in Halifax and works at a downtown salon. She looks and sounds and smells like a city girl (I should know; I once was one). I met her in July and bless her heart, she didn’t laugh at her new client who talked about chickens laying green-shelled eggs and needing to learn to shoot a gun, and working for a community newspaper that publishes weekly.
Although, now that I think about it, she might have checked me for ticks. 
Twenty years ago, I would have been self-conscious about being a hayseed in the city. Back then, I wanted to get out of my small town as quick as possible and make my mark on the world in a bigger place. By the time I ended up living in downtown Vancouver, however, I was starting to fantasize about a house on a country road instead of a fourth-floor condo, about fields and hills instead of mountains, about miles and miles of empty highway instead of rush hour traffic at three in the afternoon. All on the opposite coast. 
When you’re a hayseed at heart, it’s only a matter of time before you end up living  on a rural route  with a coop full of chickens and your very own .22 in the gun cabinet. 
“I didn’t know you couldn’t hunt on  Sundays,” Jessica said at our most recent appointment. 
I laughed. “Why would you know that?”
“That’s true.” 
She snipped for a bit then said, “I can’t wait to go out with my friends and tell them that!”
This is how Jessica earns her tip: she seems genuinely interested in hearing about the unique personalities of each of my chickens. She certainly expressed the proper sympathy when my story about Betty, our pet chicken, ended in tragedy. And when I brought her half a dozen eggs, not only did she not blink when I told her there were only six because half the flock is molting and not laying eggs, she was tickled by the two green-shelled eggs. 
“I can’t believe you don’t have to put these in the fridge,” she said after I’d explained why she didn’t have to worry about them being warm while she worked. 
It’s nice, you know, when you can educate those city people and help at least one get in touch with her inner hayseed. If only to impress her friends. 

by Sara Mattinson

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas

Santa might be bringing me snow pants this Christmas (after four winters here, I'm finally wising up and dressing appropriately) but it doesn't sound like I'll be needing them any time soon.
Environment Canada is saying there is a less than 50% chance we'll have a white Christmas here in the Maritimes. We didn't have one last year either; I remember how mild it was because we were harbouring a stray cat under the sun porch (also known as the Stray Cat Hotel) and I didn't have to worry about food or water freezing (incidentally, just as the snow arrived in early January, she became our pet).
Anyway, according to the meteorologists at Environment Canada, there used to be a 63% chance of at least two centimeters of snow on December 25; now it's a mere 47%. Funny how we seem to think Christmas has to come with snow when most of the world that celebrates Christmas does it without snow; with blazing heat, in fact. Hello, palm trees and margaritas! Do you think anyone has ever suggested that Christmas be cancelled because there is no snow?! Christmas and snow do not go hand-in-hand; it just seems like it should here in Canada because, well, we're cold and northern and so gosh darn close to the North Pole where you-know-who lives. I mean, when Santa's in our backyard, it's like he's our neighbour. Wait - Canada has sovereign control over the Arctic, right? So that makes Santa and the elves Canadian citizens. Santa for Prime Minister!
But I digress.
The whole point of Christmas is the spirit, not the weather. It's "Ho Ho Ho and mistletoe and presents under the tree" as Lucy says in A Charlie Brown Christmas. And c'mon, you know how everyone would complain about the inconvenience for shopping if it snows any day between now and next Saturday night. Nothing sucks the life out of the holiday season like complaining. Christmas without snow is simply a lesson in humility: You can't have everything, and perfection is an illusion. Far better to believe in Santa Claus.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Only Two Saturdays Left For Shopping

That means you need to take this Saturday to visit the Pugwash Farmers' Market's annual Christmas market. It's being held indoors, where it's warm and dry and spacious, at the Pugwash high school. Is there a person on your list who is hard to buy for because he or she has "has everything"? Find something unique at the Pugwash Farmers' Market. There isn't a smart phone out there that can top the loveliness of homemade strawberry jam or a handmade mug.

Speaking of strawberry jam...my best friend lives in Ontario and every so often, I send her a small box that contains a jar of my mother's homemade jam. Sarah finds a reason to send that box back to me because it's the perfect size for sending jars of jam. It usually arrives just after she's finished the jar...

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Why Old Dogs Rock

We're trying to house-train a nine-week-old puppy and "weather bombs" like the one we experienced this morning are not helpful. She seems to be reluctant to poop outside when it is dark and cold and/or wet.
That's northern Nova Scotia in December! And January, and February...sometimes even May.
It's just one of several adjustments being made to having a puppy in the house. We're so used the old dog, who is almost nine and is well-established in her routine and reliable for doing it sight unseen that the continuous excursions to the yard for piddles and poops are a shock to the system.
I'm not so keen on standing around outside in the dark and cold and wet either. Makes it a little harder to be enthusiastic when someone finally poops.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

In Conversation With...Jerry Draheim

(First published in the November 23 issue of The Oxford Journal)

Jerry Draheim puts two glasses of homemade apple juice on the table. The juice tastes almost tart and naturally sweet; in the glass it looks a little murky but its taste is pure. The apples come from the orchard Jerry planted in the 1980’s but that’s getting ahead of the story. 
“My wife and I were working in the States in the late sixties and wanted to find a place in the country,” he says. “We looked around where we lived, in Wisconsin and Minnesota, but didn’t see anything we really liked or could afford. We came to Nova Scotia in 1971 on vacation in August when there are no black flies, no mosquitoes and fruit hanging everywhere. We fell in love with the place.”
With the tourist brochures came a list of farms for sale and Jerry couldn’t believe how cheap land was up here so he and his wife decided to move to Canada.  They arrived as landed immigrants in February 1972, started working in Dartmouth, and looking for land.
“We found a farm for sale around Oxford so we drove up and I guess the old lady liked my wife and me, and it was a winter when it was really open and we could walk around. We decided to buy the farm right then.”
And that is how a city planner from Minneapolis ended up on 70 acres in Roslin with half a mile of frontage on River Philip.
Three weeks later, Jerry was laid off so he traded his car and bought an old pickup and at the beginning of April, moved to the farm in Roslin. There was a foot of snow on the ground.
“It snowed every other day and we got a normal amount of snowfall that year,” Jerry remembers. “It certainly was an adventure.”
Having grown up on a farm, Jerry wanted to return to what he loved. He had plans for ducks and goats and some bees, for gardens but the first thing he did was start bee keeping, even though he’d never had bees before. 
“The bees came in little packages in the mail,” Jerry says. “I remember sitting at the end of my lane waiting for the mail in the pickup truck because there was a huge snowstorm and I remember thinking, Here it is the middle of May and it’s snowing out. Maybe I made a mistake.”
The bees arrived and so did the goats and the gardens. 
“I didn’t like the goats at all but we milked them,” says Jerry. “We got some geese. These things came and went.” 
So, too, did Jerry’s wife; unable to handle the isolation, she returned to the States after a couple of years. For five winters, Jerry supported himself through a federal program that hired people to work on public projects, providing him with enough income to get started with the farm.
“I also had enough bees that I was making money from the honey, and from selling eggs.”
More heartache. Jerry didn’t realize that the equipment he’d bought from a neighbour was infected with a disease until the provincial apiarist explained why the bees weren’t doing well.
“I had to exterminate the bees,” Jerry says. “It was really hard. Seeing them die, I said I’m never doing this again. I’m going to learn to keep bees so they are healthy. I started over right with new equipment.”
A series of fortuitous events allowed Jerry to eventually declare “bee keeper” his formal occupation. In 1976, the price of honey doubled from 25 cents to 50 cents per pound, which Jerry says was significant. He also benefited from government subsidies encouraging expansion of farm operations and by the 1980’s, Jerry had 250 hives. He began renting bees for blueberry pollination then in the 1980’s, our border was closed to bees from the States due to a nasty infection. 
All was not golden, however. Jerry’s second wife died of cancer. They were together for five years. Unlucky in love, Jerry discovered he had a knack with a different kind of female. 
“I had a hive of bees that produced a lot more honey than the others and I found out that it was genetics. The queen was not aggressive and I wanted to know how to get all my queens to be like that one.”
All Jerry had to do was learn how to breed queens from that particular queen so Jerry went to  California to learn from a bee breeding expert.   
“I got all the hands-on training I needed to start my own breeding program. I did artificial insemination and really refined my breeding program which I’ve carried on ever since. Selling bees to other beekeepers became very lucrative for me.”
Love came around again. Jerry first met Carol at a party in 1974 but they were both married to other people; then Carol saw him at a sugar bush party in New Brunswick in 1998. 
“I love it here,” Carol says from the kitchen where she’s cutting onions for pickled beets. Despite his truck breaking down on their first date, they’ve been together for 12 years. 
In 2005, after three decades in the old yellow farmhouse, Jerry built a new lovely, light-filled home that he designed himself. He’s also done all the landscaping around the property, including the planting of 10,000 daffodils and narcissus that come up in the spring.
 An astrologer once told Jerry that he should live on a hill near water, and he does.  After 41 years, four wives, thousands of bees, and one recent battle with cancer, what does he love best about his life on Honey Wind Farm? 
“My freedom,” Jerry says. “Being able to do what I want to do whenever I want to do it. I would hate to work for someone else.”

by Sara Mattinson

Monday, December 05, 2011

More Shopping Local Ideas

In this week's Journal, a full page celebrating "A Country Christmas" in the lovely seaside village of Wallace.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Morning Meditation

Just returned from a long walk with my older dog, an hour up to Carrington Road and back. It's raw out, the sky steel grey, the air damp. Definitely a day to keep the throat wrapped warmly but I can't tell if it feels like December yet; last weekend, as the snow melted away and the sun came out, the day felt like March. I get so few chances to go for a good, long walk with the dog now that I'm grateful for this mild start to winter. 
My colleague, Jane, has a puppy who is five months old and recently, Jane discovered the joys of the morning walk. She's enjoying the quiet time not only on the streets but also with herself. IWhile I'm happy that she has found something that brings her happiness, it pains my heart to hear her talk. For the first time in 15 years, I'm not starting out my days with a morning walk with the dog. It's partly circumstances - a regular job schedule now - but also the downside to living rurally: no street lights or sidewalks, and coyotes in the woods.
There is something very special about that time alone, with only a dog for companionship, early in the morning when traffic is scarce, the air is fresh, and the light is spreading slowly across the sky, low and burnished, gentle on the eyes. It's a lovely way to wake up and I believe by breathing in that atmosphere, we carry it inside ourselves all day.
For now, I must be satisfied with breathing in Jane's words.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Two Ways of Doing Things

(First published in The Oxford Journal, Nov. 16, 2011)

Around here, there are two ways of doing things: the way it’s always been done, and my way.
When the time came to move the five-month old pullets into the main coop, I was told we had to wait until night time when the hens are subdued, dumbed down by the dark. 
Opening up the door to the chick hut, I saw one large white pullet perched on top of the feeder so I grabbed her and snuggled her against my chest. She didn’t make a sound in my arms as I carried her across the lawn. Inside the coop, I held her over a roost until her feet grabbed on. She was now in her new home.
One down, 14 to go.
My husband was inside the hut when I returned. He was grabbing the nearest pullet and shoving it into the cage sitting on the ground outside. Then he grabbed another and shoved it into the cage. It was grab-and-shove until the cage was standing room only. The hens in the cage and inside the hut were protesting loudly. Chickens are such drama queens. 
We picked up each end of the cage and lugged it to the coop where he hauled a bird out of the cage then dumped it onto the floor inside the coop. The six pullets were squawking and flapping, completely disoriented because the coop was much different than the hut and the roosts were four feet off the ground and already occupied.
“Um...” I said. “Um, could we maybe, um, try it my way, please?” 
My way involved multiple trips back and forth but it was much nicer for both me and the hen. I held the flashlight while my husband huddled inside the hut, grabbing a hen and passing it to me while I slipped the flashlight to him. The hen and I cuddled as we strolled through the moonlight then she was placed ever-so-gently and quietly on a space in the roosts. The six that my husband threw into the coop were milling about the floor so one by one, I picked them up and put them on the roost. When I ran out of room, they were given a perch in a nest box. 
At this point, the only hen making any noise was the usual complainer, a high-strung hen.
“Enough,” I said.
“BWACK!” she replied.
In the daylight, we were able to enjoy the sight of our new flock, a lovely mix of browns and white, blacks and striped.  
“Well, that’s done,” I said to my husband. “We won’t be ordering so many chicks next year.”
“Oh, I’ll probably do the same thing,” he answered. And I hope he means doing it my way. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Big Sky Country, At Night

A new puppy means becoming reacquainted with the night sky.
It's a crappy time of the year to bring home an 8-week-old pup -- cold, wet, dark by suppertime -- but standing outside last night, both of us wearing our fleece coats, and looking up into a black sky spackled with diamonds, I remembered why it's so amazing to live in the country: No light pollution.
I love how my eyes can barely contain that vast space above me. So much space. So many stars. The night sky, full of stars and planets and that wonderful if strangely named Milky Way, is the kind of beauty, the kind of mystery, the kind of infinite possibility, that we should all reconnect with every so often. And when you're house training a new puppy, it's good to have the memory of that beautiful night sky on every other night that it is windy, and raining or snowing.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Less Than A Month!

Less than a month till you know what day! That means it's time to start making lists, and making the most of every outing. You can count on The Oxford Journal to help with that, especially if you're committed to shopping locally.
For great gifts that support our local merchants and artists, make sure you check out this week's Journal for all the details on craft fairs, concerts, and Christmas in the Village.
Too bad the snow has melted...it was beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

In Conversation With...Vernon Mitchell

First published in the November 9 edition of The Oxford Journal.

Dear Madam:
I am directed to inform you that according to advice received from overseas, the above-mentioned member of the Canadian Army is en route to Canada aboard a hospital ship.
When his mother received this letter, Lance Corporal Vernon Mitchell of Cumberland County was recovering from wounds he received when his company came under artillery fire in Germany in March of 1945. He was 21 years old and had been in the army two-and-a-half years. 
“I was living in Clairmont [Springhill] when the war broke out and right off I had a burning desire to be a soldier,” Mr. Mitchell says about his 16-year- old self in 1939. Since he was too young to join the army, he joined the reserve army until he turned 18, then off he went to the recruiting office in Truro. He was still too young. 
“I was very disappointed but as I started walking out the door, the recruiting officer called me back and said, ‘Vern, if you would like to be 19 from now on...’ and that was it, I was in the army.”
He had four months of basic and advanced training then boarded a ship to England (via Scotland) where, after two weeks, the reserves were called upon to build up the regiments. 
 “I, of course, wanted to be in the North Nova but I didn’t make it,” he says. “I got close; seven of us went to the North Shore New Brunswick regiment. The North Shore was part of the 8th Brigade, part of the 3rd Division. The 3rd Division was training for the Normandy landings.” 
Private Vernon Mitchell is one of the Canadian soldiers who landed on Juno Beach in June 1944. 
“We saw the coast of France coming up. I was feeling excitement, apprehension. We went down cargo nets into the assault boats. It was very rough. Many of the people in my boat were sick. We were fortunate because we were the first to land; there was nobody ahead of us, nobody on the beach but the welcoming committee of the enemy.”
As he begins talking about his first day in action in France, about landing at St. Alban-sur-Mer and about their objective to capture the town of Tailleville, his voice gets quieter. 
“It brings back memories, talking about it,” he says and clears his throat.
“Our main objective was the city of Caen. It took us about a month to get in there, all the Canadian army,” he remembers. “I was wounded in the elbow [in July] and went back to England for a month then returned to Belgium in time for the action in the Breskens Pocket.”
The Germans had fortified the city  of Breskens but the allies needed to take it back because it was on the Scheldt Estuary and provided access to the port of Antwerp for bringing in supplies by boat.  
It is telling that Mr. Mitchell can speak the name of every occupied place his company marched into throughout the winter.  The names, in French and in German, roll easily off his tongue. 
“We travelled up the coast to capture all those fortified cities like Boulogne, Calais, Le Have.” He pauses, again, then says, “I guess if you’re doing a good job, they keep you at it, don’t they?”
It was after crossing the Rhine River and capturing the city of Millingen (in Holland)that his regiment came under fire. Mr. Mitchell, now a Lance Corporal, was leading a section of men.
“I stepped up the road and said ‘Let’s go’ [to the ditch] and that’s the last thing I remember. When I came to, a piece of shrapnel had gone through my leg and there was another one in my chest. That was the end of the war for me.”
This reminds him of the night before when a group of them had tried to figure out how many of them had survived from June. “Out of 1,000, give or take, that had landed on D-Day, we could only count 46,” he says.
He gets out a thick book of over 600 pages that is a history of the North Shore New Brunswick regiment and he opens it to Appendix B which is a list of the fatal casualties of World War II. There are four-and-a-half pages of the names of men who perished from that one single regiment. There is a hand-written number at the end of the list: 639. 
He is asked, What was it like?
“For the front line troops, it was pure hell,” he says. “It was day after day. It was...I don’t know. We were in slit trenches [what the Americans call fox holes] and there was two men to a trench. The food wasn’t good. It was the middle of July before we got a piece of bread. I was down to 126 pounds when I went back to the hospital [with his elbow injury]. I had been 148.” There are long pauses now as he thinks back. “It was...Bah.” Pause. “There’s...” Pause. “I think there’s 5,000 buried in Normandy.”
After the war, Mr. Mitchell returned to Oxford, married (“She settled me down,” he says), worked at a variety of jobs, raised three children, and helped build the Oxford Legion which opened in 1956. In 1994, he returned to Normandy for the 50th anniversary of D-Day to walk on Juno Beach and visit those 5,000 comrades. He now lives with his second wife in Amherst and will celebrate his 87th birthday on Sunday. There is a strong sense that his nine months of action and these memories are a distressing but vital part of him. 
“I’ve read that in the Second World War, there were 50,000 young Canadians killed in the army, air force, navy and merchant marines,” he says. “That’s a lot men. A lot of young people who had to have been perfectly healthy and fairly intelligent.”
He is asked, How does that make you feel?
“I look at those medals and I was proud to do it,” he says. “I was proud of my regiment and I was proud to be part of it.” He points to the book. “But look at the survivors.”

By Sara Mattinson

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Forecasting Winter's Arrival

Today, and every Tuesday, is what we around the Journal office affectionately refer to as "Paper Day". Ten a.m. deadline for ads and copy then we become busy, industrious beavers - typical hard-working Canadians - until the paper gets sent to the printers on PEI by 2 pm.
It's with great amusement that I fill in the forecast on the front page: 25 cm of snow for Wednesday! Snowfall warning in effect for Cumberland County!
Thankfully, I only work until noon tomorrow so if the brunt of the storm holds off, I get to enjoy the season's first proper snowstorm from inside my house. A good soup-making day (that sounds like something our esteemed columnist, Marilyn Williams, would say!) and likely a chance to try out a new oatmeal cookie recipe. There is something about rain or snow that makes me want to bake. Survival instinct, perhaps?!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Paying Attention

The buzz for the past few years has been all about living in the moment: being aware of what is happening now, right now, and not allowing the past or the future intrude. It's not something that seems to come naturally to most of us, and like other things that are good for us, requires intention and practice.
The seasons and animals and children, that's where the real joy of being in the moment happens. Some, like dogs and chickens, are simply the example of how it's done; others provide a distraction. If something is bothering me, I can head outside for a walk and while a problem may still turn over and over in my mind, the smell of mud and leaves, the sound of a pileated woodpecker searching a tree for a snack, the sight of a deer in the field provide enough distraction to remind me to let go. I've been known to sit in the chicken pen, just watching the hens peck around and listening to their funny noises, in order to let go of tension.
There is no stress today or a worry that is keeping me preoccupied, however. I'm thinking about being present in every moment as I share with my colleagues the oatmeal cookies I made last night. Bless this crew, they'll eat anything, even these poor specimens. See, making oatmeal cookies as a healthy snack at work was on the weekend agenda but so was cleaning out the chicken coop and putting away the last of the dry groceries my mother left behind before she headed off to Georgia for the winter and organizing the boxes of Christmas decorations. So the  baking didn't happen until after supper and I did it during commercials breaks while we watched a movie on TV. I think this accounts for the fact that there appears to be too much sugar in my cookies - it's practically carmelized - and not enough oats. In trying to keep up with the plot of the movie, I may have forgotten that second cup of rolled oats. Not paying attention.
Cooking and baking are activities I find relaxing and productive but they certainly are another lesson in the importance of being present in the moment. Not an inedible lesson this time but they aren't raving about my cookies like they did about my mother's. Then again, I did say I wanted healthy...and she always makes hers with lots of chocolate.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Last Days In The Garden

As I knelt at the edge of one of the flower gardens in our front yard, I noticed a green sprout. This streak of mild weather has a daffodil reaching for blue skies. It’s disconcerting to see a harbinger of spring just as I’m trading T-shirts for turtlenecks in the dresser drawers. 
Next year’s bulbs are planted now. Red and pink coloured tulips by the driveway for my mother-in-law to see when she drives by; yellow daffodils and white crocuses in the new bed out front to give my husband something lovely to look at while he smokes on the front deck; and daffodils and crocuses in corners of other gardens just because. I may just have planted them but I already am anticipating the beauty and the hope that will sprout in me when those tiny green shoots appear next spring just as we’re getting tired of cold winds and winter boots. One eager daffodil aside, those will arrive regardless of the warm weather now.
I’ve only been a gardener for four years and what amazes me the most is not how physical the work is but how this physicality focuses my mind so intently that I cease to think. My world narrows to the trowel in my hand, the smell of overturned dirt, the placement of the bulb in the deep hole, the pressing down of my hands upon the soil. No matter what bothers me inside the house, it does not follow me into the garden. Who knew worry and anxiety are allergic to dirt? 
In her book, The Spirituality of Gardening (Northstone, 2005), author Donna Sinclair writes about gardening as a spiritual practice: “It is kin to what some do in church, synagogue, mosque, temple, or around a sacred fire: singing, kneeling, chanting. It is holy ritual, the repeated effort to draw closer to the Creator whose joy and beauty suffuses the earth.” 
While the neighbours aren’t going to hear me singing and chanting,  I do sense the sacred in the dirt, the divine in the endless flowering of the plants, the glory of birds and buds, even worms and spiders. Then there is the not-knowing if this hard work will pay off but having faith it will. When I kneel in the garden holding the large, white daffodil bulb on the palm of my hand, I am engaged in a prayer that asks simply to be granted the honour of its presence. When it is ready. 
And I pray I’m doing it right. My gardening efforts require faith in the plant to overcome the limitations of the planter. While I wait for the magic to appear in May, I’ll spend the winter poring over a  gardener’s holy book: the Veseys catalogue. 

Friday, November 11, 2011

Happy Ending

Living in the country has been an experience in rescuing strays. Before our recent renovation, there was a sun porch off one end of the house with a space underneath that we came to refer to as "Stray Cat Hotel" since in 12 months, we rescued THREE cats who were trying to live there. The first two males we found homes for and the third one, a female, we kept. She's delightful.
When we ripped off the porch and put on the addition, however, we thought our days as rescuers were over. Until this past Tuesday night, when my husband cracked open the sliding door to the front deck and said, "Put the dog in the bedroom and come outside."
I stepped outside to find a young, thin, and desperately friendly dog with a porcupine quill in her top lip. Her hip bones and ribs were visible, she limped on her front left paw, and she smelled terrible. I fed her a small portion of soft dog food but we were unable to remove the quill; she didn't snap or make a noise when we tried, but she struggled too much for me to hold on to. I made a bed in a box for her in the garage and I would imagine with a bit of food in her stomach, she slept properly for the first time in months. For breakfast, I gave her a scrambled egg and some cooked oatmeal.

It was obvious this dog had been someone's pet. She was friendly with us and wanting to be touched, and she hopped into my mother's car without hesitation. Since I had to go to work, Mum took the dog to the vet where she was written down as "Homeless". We planned to take responsibility for her, and had someone interested in taking her, but she found a home with the woman the vet called to clean her up.
Jane Jorgenson, who runs Paws At Wallace Bay Grooming and Boarding, wasn't just prepared to wash the dog and remove all the ticks attached to her; she wanted to keep her. Jane told me her dog had died a few months ago so they were looking for a new dog.
"She's such a sweetie," Jane said. Yeah, I know. I wanted to keep her myself.
How great is that for a stray dog who was almost starved to death to find herself going from no home at all to three homes? So we're four-for-four in the animal rescuing business but it's hard on the heart, you know, not being able to save everyone.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

In Conversation With...Sylvia McNutt

First published in the October 26 issue of The Oxford Journal.

The province of Nova Scotia celebrates Foster  Family Appreciation Week each October. It takes a special couple to be foster parents and despite the horror stories about ‘bad’ foster parents,  most are like Sylvia McNutt and her husband, James, going quietly and happily about their business of helping children.  
When her two kids were teenagers, Sylvia saw a poster seeking foster parents. 
“We wanted more kids,” she explains. “We liked having kids around, we had a big house. We talked to our kids and they were gung-ho.” 
To be approved, Sylvia and James had to gather police and abuse checks then take a certain number of courses before their first foster child, who was a boy of 12.  
 “Then we got some little ones, school-age, and that’s our niche,” says Sylvia. “That’s who we enjoy the most.”
More than a decade later, it takes Sylvia a moment to answer the obvious question: How many children have you fostered?
“Let me see,” she says, then proceeds to whisper names to herself as she counts off on her fingers. She can name every one of the 20 children who have lived in her house for six months or more in the past ten years. 
The shortest stay in Sylvia’s foster home is six months, while the average time in her care is two and a half years. 
“These kids are not in foster care by choice,” she explains. “It’s the last place they want to be. They’re uprooted from their family. Everything familiar to them is gone. They’ve lost their family, they’re in a different community. The workers are very good and they’re very nice and they try to make it not so upsetting but it’s got to be. I couldn’t go, as a child, from my bed to a strange family and expect to go to sleep that night. It’s traumatizing. But there’s no other way to do it. There’s no other way to make the transition because when they apprehend a child, that’s it.”
Middle-of-the-night calls are not common but they do happen.  
According to Sylvia, building trust is essential.
“The biggest challenge when you get a child is to get them settled. They don’t know you. You’ve got to get them comfortable in bed. I have Spencer, my magic bear. When a child comes, and they come with nothing usually, they sleep with Spencer. After a while, they decide they don’t need Spencer anymore so he goes back in the cupboard to wait for the next child to arrive. Spencer has slept with a lot of kids.”
Spencer is Sylvia’s own creation because she recognized that a young child wants to cuddle something because they’re scared. 
“But kids are resilient,” she says. “So you see them mellow, you see behaviours diminish. Something they did from the first, they stop doing. That’s from having the same routine. When you have a bunch of kids in your house, you have to have a routine.” 
It takes about a month for a new child to settle in and it’s not just Sylvia who has to adjust to a new dynamic. 
 “The kids deserve a lot of credit because they put up with a lot of crap from each other,” she explains. “A little bit of time has to be taken away from them to go to the other one. You know, instead of being two, there’s three now.”
The most foster kids in the house at one time was four and Sylvia says they were all good.  
“There is a bond that comes between them,” she says. “They develop bonds like siblings do.”
Sylvia and James have adopted three of their foster children, the most recent just this fall. After living with Sylvia and James for nearly four years, the two young sisters gain, officially and forever, four older siblings who are in their late twenties. 
Sylvia says that “Every child who comes to your house, you learn something from,” so what are the top three lessons she’s learned from the past decade as a foster mother?
“You learn to pick your battles,” is the first lesson. “If it’s not life-threatening, if no one’s getting hurt, we can deal with it.”
Secondly, she is amazed by the kindness the children show to each other. 
“Kids in care are always considerate. If a child comes in and there’s already one there who is older, they’ll say, ‘This is how we do it.’ They teach each other the skills that are used in our home and they all take care of each other. As much as they argue, they protect.”
The third lesson is: Have a best friend who is a foster parent, too. 
“She’s been amazing,” Sylvia says of her friend. “When a child went home, she was always there on the phone or coming in the door with coffee.”
That’s the only part of fostering that breaks Sylvia’s heart: When they go back home. 
“You’re sad and you’re happy. But how do you love someone for six months then suddenly they’re out of your life? It’s hard for everyone. Everyone gets attached.”
Of all the joys and all the fun, there is one very special moment that makes being a foster parent so rewarding. 
“When they hug you, that makes you happy,” Sylvia says. “That’s when you know you’ve broken through, when they say, ‘Can I have a hug?’ ”

Written by Sara Mattinson

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Dear Sir, I Borrowed Your Dog

"You won't need that," my boss said as I grabbed the plastic bag I'd brought my walking shoes to work in. He didn't think I'd need to use a poop bag while walking his dog...or did he mean, I didn't need to bother cleaning up after the dog?
I did need the bag and after ten years of city living, I'm too well-trained about picking up after my dog - or the boss's dog - to even consider leaving poop behind on the edge of someone's lawn, even if it's hidden by leaves. So I guess you can tell the city people: they're the ones swinging a plastic bag tied in a knot in one hand while walking.
Six months after I started this job, I'm comfortable enough now with my responsibilities to not have to work through lunch so I've started walking around Oxford on my lunch. It's the best thing I've done in years. It's smart to get out of my chair and stretch my legs and back. We're experiencing a remarkable month of sunshine so I'm stocking up on Vitamin D for the winter and getting to see Oxford from the sidewalk instead of the car. I'm not familiar with this town at all so what better way to learn the lay of the land than by going on walkabout two days a week?
The second best thing I've ever done? Ask Bailey if he wants to go for a walk.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Talk To A Veteran

Make sure you pick up The Oxford Journal this week. I think I've written one of the most significant pieces of my writing career and in this context, I'm sorry it didn't happen sooner.
After writing up my conversation for the November 9 issue, I realized the paper would come out two days before Remembrance Day. As difficult as it is for me to "deal with" war, I knew I had to have a conversation with a veteran. I had to talk to someone who really did have to "deal with" it. I'm so very glad I did. My sincere thanks to Vernon Mitchell who revisited those horrible days of "pure hell" in 1944 and 1945 with a stranger. His experience is worth reading and remembering.
And this is what I realized: Everyone must talk to a veteran at least once in their life. Do it soon because there aren't many veterans of World War II left. You won't be regret it. Nor will you forget it.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

A Warm Wind Bloweth No Frost

The south wind made for a very balmy day today. It's hard to ignore the evidence of climate change when we could be in for a second year without a killing frost.
During my interview for next week's "In Conversation With..." feature, my subject commented on how our growing season has expanded. Jerry Draheim says spring comes earlier and fall arrives later than it did when he arrived here in Cumberland County from Minnesota in 1972.
Catch my entire interview with Jerry, bee keeper and hopeless romantic, in the November 9th issue of The Oxford Journal.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

From the October 26 issue of The Oxford Journal

Gentlemen, if you’re going to ask the woman in your life the question, “Do you really think you need...?” don’t be surprised at the response. There’s only one reasonable answer to give you, and that’s The Look. 
Familiar, centuries-old, perhaps even genetically implanted, this  facial expression is a mixture of disbelief and disdain. It is usually followed by The
Word: “Yes.”
Shoes. Scarves. Hats. Magazines. Nail polish. Cookbooks. Cats. It doesn’t matter what the collection is, if it’s in a woman’s house, it’s important. If it means something to her, it’s unquestionable.  
My husband and I recently renovated our home and we are slowly putting the house back together now that the renovations are completed. The new kitchen is different than the old so finding places to put glasses and mugs and baking dishes is as much of a challenge as finding them once they are put away. Since cooking was a priority once we’d moved back in, all the boxes containing pots and utensils and graters and measuring spoons were unpacked first; the only boxes left to unpack are two boxes of  mugs. My mugs.
“Do you really think you need so many mugs?” my husband asked after I announced that my least-favourite mugs would have to go on the top shelf because I couldn’t reach it without a stepping stool.
I froze, mug in hand, and stared at him. This from the man who uses the same two mugs. This time, however, instead of giving him The Look and The Word, I tried a new tactic: The Explanation.
“Well, each of these mugs serves a specific purpose,” I began. “Some are for morning coffee, others are for afternoon tea. Within those categories, they are further subdivided into mugs for perked coffee or instant coffee, mugs for black tea, mugs for green tea. Of course, if it’s chai tea in the morning, it’s a certain mug, the one that matches my yoga mat since that’s what I’m doing when I drink that tea, BUT if it’s chai tea in the afternoon, I use  that tall brown mug there...”
By now, my husband’s eyes had glazed over and he had this strange half-smile on his face.
“You’re doing a great job, honey,” he murmured before stumbling off, shaking his head as though there was some strange buzzing sound inside it. 
I looked down at the mug in my hand. It was dark blue, picked up at a pottery shop in the Island a few summers ago, during a trip with my parents, before my father was too sick to go. It was a shame my husband walked away so soon. Every one of my two dozen mugs has a story and I would have gladly shared each one with him, over a pot of blueberry tea...which goes in the dark blue mug. 

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Time Change

  James Wright, an American poet (1927-1980), wrote these opening lines to his poem called “Beginnings”:
The moon drops one or two feathers into the field. 
The dark wheat listens. 
Be still. 
There they are, the moon’s young, trying 
Their wings.
That sounds like an autumn poem. The moon above leaf-less trees, glowing over bare gardens and fields prickly with dead stalks. Are the feathers leaves or snowflakes? But the title is Beginnings and this the month of endings. Summer is over, winter has not yet begun. Thanksgiving and Halloween are behind us while Christmas is a month away. 
November is a month full of an energy that is unique to it alone. This is an energy that produces heat in houses and thicker coats on cattle. November announces the true change of season, the transition from light to dark, by arriving with great gusts of wind that send leaves and lawn chairs tumbling across empty yards. 
Wood burns in furnaces and the smell of wood smoke wafts through the early morning air. Leaves burn in fire pits, and maybe one last bonfire on the last sunny day that lingers in the night. 
That’s the smell of November. 
Defy it with a single pink rose snipped from the smallest rosebush and placed in a vase on the dining room table. A remembrance of summer, a memory of long humid days, of evening waterings, of flowers thick on the stems, of cold white wine on the back deck.
Yet November persists, sweeps those thoughts away with its broom of bluster. The woods behind the house are stripped of their leaves, bare poplars splayed against the evergreens. The canoe, optimistically left outside for one last run, is drained of water and sodden leaves, and braced against the garage for November’s tumultuous reign.
November can be defied by the great Manitoba maple in front of the house: sunlight illuminates the red veins of its still-green leaves, whipped by the wind but refusing to let go. A final show of resistance.
Like a red canoe lying open to the sky.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

More Bad Weather On The Way

That's the song that's playing right now on Steve Martin's bluegrass CD, "Rare Bird Alert" (Apparently, the actor has been playing banjo since he was a kid; if you like bluegrass, definitely pick up that CD). It's appropriate for this post since we've cancelled our trip to Halifax. Rainfall warnings and wind warnings! 50 mm and 100 km gusts! I'm not wimpy but I'm also not stupid.
Despite the fact my mother and I were heading into the city to attend a reading and book signing by our favourite author, Scotland's Ian Rankin, this is no weather to be out on the 104. I don't mind driving in rain but out on the highway with the transports kicking up blinding spray for metres and high winds rocking our vehicle left and right...not my idea of a relaxing Sunday, even if the weather makes me feel like I'm in the Shetland Islands.
Ach, I cannae believe I'm missing a chance to hear that Edinburgh accent!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Good Morning For Some

The promised snowfall didn't happen, at least not in my neck of the northern woods, and the sun is shining and the air is crisp. A perfect fall day as we head into the last weekend of October.
Okay, maybe not perfect: Hunting season opens today so for the deer, it's a month of horror. I'm not a hunter and I have an aversion to killing anything that isn't a fly or an earwig. I can't imagine killing something as elegant as a buck or cutting up the body into pieces but I don't have a problem with killing an animal for food or to protect livestock (as beautiful as foxes are and as lovely as it is to watch them hunt in a field, protecting our chickens comes before a fox's life). Still, I don't like hunting season, don't like a lovely, lush summer coming to a deadly end right before the hardships of winter.
It likely doesn't help that I grew up watching Disney movies. Singing mice, dogs who are friends with foxes, an entire animal kingdom that talks, really. What's worse, my mother used to throw out one particular quote from one particular movie. I grew up hearing, "Mother, Mother, where are you? Your mother is dead, Bambi." I was 23 years old before I actually watched Bambi and my roommate came home to find me sobbing on the couch.
Egads. Who warped me more, Walt Disney or my own mother?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

In Conversation With...John Eaton

(First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, October 12)

The wind is raging around the Great Room in Thinkers’ Lodge. As waves pound the point of land where the building sits at the mouth of the  Pugwash harbour, the room’s  massive, floor to ceiling window taunts the weather to do its worst. Yet not even a draught is felt in this nearly-two hundred year old house. The man sitting in an armchair by the window is responsible for the warmth and loveliness of not only this room but the whole house. 
“A lot of people assume I’ve been coming to Thinkers’ Lodge all of my life or that this was the summer home for my family,” John Eaton says. “I’d never been here before 2005.”
John’s grandfather is Cyrus Eaton, the man who would make Pugwash world famous for peace. Depsite being born (in 1883) and raised in Pugwash Junction, Cyrus built his family’s summer home in Deep Cove on Mahone  Bay, so when John thinks of Nova Scotia, that place comes to mind, not Pugwash. 
It was wanting to follow in the footsteps of an uncle who was a minister that Cyrus Eaton ended up in Cleveland in 1905 where he found his true calling in business and built an empire  out of utilities, steel, and railroads. When fire ravaged the village of Pugwash in the late 1920’s, Cyrus returned to clean up the waterfront, build the seawall, and buy the Pineo estate (which in 1955, became Thinkers’ Lodge). Through an act of the legislature, the non-profit organization, Pugwash Park Commission, was created in 1929; the bylaws require that two of the three commissioners should be members of the Eaton family. 
In 2005, John received a call to join the Pugwash Park Commission. 
“I said, That sounds interesting, so they sent me a package of information. I felt I owed it to myself to educate myself about this. At that time, I had lived in California for more than 25 years.”
John was born and raised in the United States, where the shadow of his commanding, energetic and intelligent grandfather threw a longer, darker shadow. 
“As I became a little more aware as I got older, one of the things that was inescapable was that in the United States, my grandfather was very controversial,” John says. “He was an advocate of talking to the people you disagree with. He felt we should be talking to the leaders of the Soviet Union, to the leaders of Eastern Europe, and China, and then after 1959, to the leaders of Cuba. It was rather easy to paint Cyrus Eaton as some kind of Communist sympathizer, if not worse. You couldn’t avoid that, living in Ohio. You couldn’t avoid being teased by your classmates, you couldn’t avoid seeing a billboard that said, ‘Cyrus Eaton, go back to Russia where you belong’. It was something you grew up with.”
So where was John in 1957 when his grandfather hosted the first Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs at Thinkers’ Lodge in Pugwash,  Nova Scotia? 
“In 1957, I would have been 9 years old. While my grandfather  would have been here, I was probably down in Deep Cove, completely oblivious to what was going on. We didn’t have radio or television down there and I certainly wasn’t reading the newspapers. I was busy being a kid, fishing off the end of the dock and playing capture the flag.”
So that phone call in 2005 came as a bit of a surprise because, he says, “I knew Thinkers’ Lodge still existed but I didn’t know how it was run.” 
John agreed to join the Commission because he “felt the tug of family, the tug of history. I owed it to myself to contribute. Then I got up here and I was a little bit shocked at the physical shape of the lodge. Never having been here, I didn’t know what to expect. But I should have known better. You can tell from the weather right now that this is a building that has to deal with the elements.”
What surprised John most was meeting locals who told him they’d never been inside the lodge; it was assumed to be “off-limits”. John knew that had to change as they moved forward. For the past three years, the Commission has worked on the restoration of Thinkers’ Lodge, aiming to have it completed for the official opening of the lodge as  a Parks Canada National Historic Site. 
John is quick to point out that Thinkers’ Lodge isn’t going to be off-limits to the public. 
“The challenge is to tell the story without overwhelming the place. The intention is not to turn it into a museum; the intention is to be continually in use for workshops and seminars and conferences. The hope is not only to build on the legacy of Thinkers’ Lodge but to help the economy of the north shore and the village of Pugwash,” he says. 
Like all commissioners, John is a volunteer. He calls the past three years, during which the entire Thinkers’ Lodge has been fixed up, overhauled and upgraded, a labour of love. 
“This place is going to be here for years to come. The legacy will be here. That [restoration] was the first step and now the goal is: Do you think we can hold an event that will be as famous as the one in 1957? Probably not but it’s important to remember  that if they ever get rid of nuclear weapons and they need to find some place where that movement started, in terms of physical places in the world, this is it.
“We want Thinkers’ Lodge to be an inspiration to people who perhaps don’t realize ‘big things can happen in small places’,” John says. 
As the conversation winds down, the wind is still beating futilely against the window, kept out by the solid walls, a new furnace, and the inspirational power of peace. 

by Sara Mattinson

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Fuzzy Predictions About Winter

The fuzzy caterpillars, and the meteorologist's grandmother, are predicting a mild winter.
Before you get excited about "nice" winter weather, a few words of reality from my husband who has worked for the Department of Transportation's maintenance division for 32 years: A mild winter can be a messy winter.
We'll get winter whether the fuzzy caterpillars predict mild or harsh. This is Nova Scotia, Canada's ocean playground. In our beloved maritime province, pecipitation happens. According to my husband, who likely has seen everything in 32 winters, all a "mild winter" means is that it won't be very cold. No minus-32 degrees on the night of the big dance in January, no solid ice in the rivers for fishing and snowmobiling. If you're not into ice fishing or snowmobiling (or snowshoeing or cross-country skiing), sure, those milder temperatures are nice but like I said, around here, precipitation happens so what doesn't fall as snow...falls as rain. I'm about to use the f-word: Freezing rain.
Remember the massive ice storm of 1997?
Where were you for the ice storm of 2009?
Already, my husband is hinting that my Christmas gift this year won't be a snowblower...but an electric start generator.

Monday, October 24, 2011

A Second Growing Season?

My younger sister and her family live in Georgia, in the country about an hour south of Atlanta. They have two growing seasons there; the first one begins in March and the second one in July or August. Imagine! Twice the opportunities to grow tomatoes and peas and zucchini and pumpkins (is that why American Thanksgiving falls in late November?).
We may be catching up here in northern Nova Scotia. When we can let the chickens out of their fenced pen to roam around our one-acre yard, it means it's time to clear the annuals out of the flower gardens. Yet many of my annuals - sunflowers and zinnias excepted - were still in bloom. They seemed worn out, likely tired of coping with the temperature extremes of warm days and cold nights, or perhaps they are simply weary of treading water after all the rain we've had, but they are still in bloom. In fact, my osteopernum were not merely in bloom - they were reblooming. The plants looked so strong and healthy, you would have would have sworn it was July. I didn't have the heart to rip them out of the ground.
Here's the thing: although I believe in global warming and know it's humans paving the ground and spewing poisons into the water and atmosphere that has caused it, it's tempting to enjoy the prospect of a second growing season. Think of all the hard work that goes into creating and maintaining flower gardens (as well as vegetable gardens but those are my husband's domain); if those gardens could last two months later, that's more time to take pleasure in the sights. If that's the case, however, I'm going to have to plant more late-season bloomers like asters, helenium, and sedum.
And perhaps if we can offer a second growing season -- and no cockroaches -- I'll be able to convince my sister and her husband and their four kids that northern Nova Scotia is as good a place to live as southern Georgia.

Friday, October 21, 2011

From the October 19 issue of The Oxford Journal

Our phone stopped working late on a Saturday afternoon. We reported it the next day by using my in-laws’ phone and were told “there was a pattern” in our neighbourhood and we weren’t the only report of phones not working. This made my in-laws’ phone an oasis of dial tone in the middle of a wasteland of ringers gone silent.
By the time we went to bed on Sunday night at ten o’clock, the phones still were not working. I try not to be cynical, try not to see anti-rural intentions in everything but I wonder: If this had happened in the city or a large town, if a hundred households had been affected and not merely ten, would we have gone more than 24 hours without phone service?
Last winter, we awakened in the middle of the night to discover a fire in our flu. As we leaped out of bed and pulled on clothes, my husband said to me, “Call 9-1-1.” I automatically reached for the phone. For most of us over the age of 30, when we are inside a house, the automatic reaction is to reach for the home phone. When you call 9-1-1 from a house, your name and location is registered; no matter how to react in  crisis (I tend to freeze), you know that by using that phone, someone knows where to send the help you need.
In a real fire, if I had picked up the phone to find it dead, would I have had the presence of mind to think ‘cell phone’, to locate my husband’s in the dark while trying to gather together the dog and cat and my mother who was sleeping upstairs? If my brain shuts down and I can’t operate on habit, I’m in trouble. 
This phone habit is more than just a link to friends and family, the vet and take-out pizza; it’s a life-line. On that peaceful Sunday without the phone ringing, what if my mother had fallen down the stairs? What if I had? What if my husband had fallen off the garage roof again - and this time, I’d noticed? Although our voicemail would pick up messages, not hearing a dial tone when I picked up the receiver out of  habit to make a call had me pondering the bigger, scarier picture. 
Going more than 24 hours without a working phone because we have the good fortune/bad sense to live in the country is a greater disconnect than we deserve. Perhaps the isolation experienced by rural dwellers, who may not receive decent cell phone coverage, should classify phone service as an essential service. 
Take it from me: the only thing better than hearing a dial tone when you jam that receiver against your ear is hearing a voice tell you that fire trucks are on the way, now get out of the house.