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 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.