Wednesday, March 26, 2014

There Needs To Be A "We" In Community

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, March 19, 2014, by Sara Jewell Mattinson.

There was a double baptism at church a couple of Sundays ago, a baby and a toddler. With them were their two older sisters. It’s remarkable how the presence of four children, their energy and noise and smiles, can alter the sanctuary profoundly.
They make a notable difference in the entire service because they are such a rarity. 
Many rural congregations are suffering from a loss in attendance affecting both the choir loft and the nursery. The older generation is hanging on but there are no younger members sharing the work. 
If we take churches as a specific example of the general decline in rural Nova Scotia, churches are the canary-in-the-coal-mine. Putting religion aside, churches have featured as the centre of communities for hundreds of years. When the spirit of a community disappears, it doesn’t take long for the physical frame to follow. 
For the past year, I have been attending church again but the irony is that I returned to fill a void: a pastoral charge currently does not have a minister so as a lay worship leader, I am helping three rural churches. There are several of us providing worship each Sunday, week after week, month after month, to the dozen or so faithful who insist on showing up. 
Who persist. Who aren’t giving up. Who are clinging to the ways of the past. Aren’t these the very qualities that keep so much of rural Nova Scotia chugging along no matter how many reports over the years have announced it’s time to change or die? 
Yet without the consistency provided by a regular minister, how can any cluster of churches in any denomination continue to survive, let alone thrive? 
Dwindling membership is forcing tough decisions and the need for creative solutions but having a minister won’t translate into larger congregations because, as the communities around these churches know, our rural populations are shrinking. In Cumberland County, the number of people under the age of 50 has dropped 21%. Our rural communities are no longer filled with people in their thirties and forties, many of whom have young children, and that is reflected in the church pews (and in the readership of this paper and in the attendees of the recent International Women’s Day event). Whether we’re talking a community or a church, every death is another step closer to emptiness.
Yet in the past year, I have witnessed an amazing example of what the “those old and out-of-touch people at church” accomplish year after year. The commitment of small congregations to their Christmas mitten trees, their Mission and Service Fund, their lunches and community suppers as well as the Sunday services is the kind of investment every rural area needs from its residents. A dozen people, by sheer force of will and faith, are keeping their churches open while doing the work of two dozen to do so. 
Look around and see this pattern reflected in the greater community. 
If we don’t support the churches or businesses or service groups in our area, they will close down, leaving yet another gaping hole that won’t be filled. For everyone who says, “I’ve lived here all my life, I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else,” there needs to be more than lip-service to that insistence on staying here. Without people being involved in the community, without residents supporting each other – in stores, on the newsstand, in the pews, at the service clubs – not just with words but with action and money, a community crumbles until there is nothing left but foundations. 
And no one around to do the rebuilding. 

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Breathing Down Our Necks

The problem with these really big storms?
The anticipation is worse than the actual storm.
I hope. I really, really hope. This is one time when it would be great to have the hype be utterly, utterly wrong.

CTV Morning Live meteorologist Tina Simpkin tweeted this picture out this morning. We are right in that dark pink zone -- lots and lots of snow.
I shared an article on Facebook this afternoon that claimed this storm is now upgraded from blizzard to "weather bomb" -- lots of weather in a short amount of time.
This afternoon, a friend said amounts could be as much as 60 cm. Just depends on how this big dog tracks. And we won't know until morning. We won't know until we can't see the chicken coop in the backyard.
(I haven't broken the news to the chickens yet. They are so happy getting outside on these sunny days to explore the small patches of grass where the ice has melted. I won't tell them that it might be a couple of days before we see each other again.)
It's the waiting and wondering that's hardest. Once the storm hits, you know exactly what you're dealing with. That's when the praying starts: Please don't let the power go out, please don't let the power go out. Wind gusts up to 110 km? Not too hopeful we'll have heat and hot water on Thursday.
I kinda feel a little excited about this. Even though I have a crap load of work to do and a service to do at a church on Sunday, I'm just a teen tiny wee bit excited about seeing what is going to happen with a storm of this magnitude.
Considering we have two huge picture windows in our house, I hope I don't like to regret this feeling.
Good luck, fellow Maritimers. See you on the other side!

Monday, March 24, 2014

Taste of Summer

Our upright freezer quit working last week and am I ever glad.
I'd forgotten all about the strawberries I'd frozen last July. Our very own strawberries.
There is nothing sweeter than knowing that what you are putting into your breakfast smoothie is a fruit you have picked and is likely the only product in the entire smoothie that is completely pure. No pesticides, no chemicals, no plastic packaging, no preservatives.
Even better is to discover these red gems at the end of a very long winter.
I'd better make sure there are no chickens looking in the window when these are defrosting on the kitchen counter. Chickens love strawberries as much as I do and they've been cooped up for months.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

In Conversation With...Stephen Russell

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, March 12, 2014, by Sara Jewell Mattinson.

When we think of being called to a particular job, we usually think of ministers or nurses or teachers. We don’t usually think of the guy who drives the oil truck.
But Stephen Russell of Wallace knew as a boy, he was meant to be an oil man. 
“I started going in the oil truck when I was 10 or 11, as soon as Mundles got the business,” he says.  
He is the nephew of Donald Mundle, who passed away in 2001; his mother Pearl and Donald’s wife Myrna (who passed away in 2008) were sisters.   
“They just had small trucks back then, single-axles,” he says, “and I can remember going with Uncle Donald to help him turn the steering wheel. That’s why I went. The old trucks didn’t have power steering like they do now. I think it was probably more of the novelty of getting me to help him.”
Those early rides in the oil truck totally influenced Stephen’s future.
“Even at an early age, I’m not saying 10 or 11 but when I got a little older I somehow knew in my mind that I was going to have to do this. I had an interest in it and every time I went with Donald or Roger [Donald’s son], it was ‘This is where so-and-so lives’. It was almost as if some day they knew I’d be doing it.”
Stephen began delivering oil in 1988 at the age of 22. The price of oil is one of the big changes he’s seen since then. 
“I think it was somewhere around $0.27 cents a litre,” Stephen says, “and you’re looking at around $1.26 today. A lot more people burned oil in those years because it was a cheap source of heat. Now for a lot of people it’s a backup source. Sure, there’s a certain percentage who have to burn oil, whether they both work or they’re an older couple, because wood gets to be too much work.”
With oil companies consolidating, the area he covers has grown as has the distances he drives in a day. When Stephen started driving an oil truck, he loaded up at the bulk plants in Pugwash, bulk plants that are no longer there. 
“Back when I started out, you may drive no more than 20 miles that day and get rid of two truck loads. Now I drive about 35 miles before I even get my load; I load out of Scotsburn now, down towards Pictou.”
With that in mind, he says this has been the hardest winter he’s ever experienced in the oil truck.
“There have been so many snowstorms this year. A lot of bad roads. But it got to the point where you couldn’t stay home because it was storming, you had to go because you were so far behind. There was no option so you had to go out and do that delivery. Anybody in the oil business would say the same thing, I think, if they were being honest. This was the first winter I ever remember that they couldn’t get oil from the storage facility in Dartmouth to the bulk plants in time. We were running out at the bulk plants. It’s been interesting.”
To Stephen, interacting with customers is the essence of his work. The job is more than simply dragging a hose to an oil tank and filling up. He says the actual delivering of the oil is the smallest part of the job. 
“What I enjoy most about the oil business is meeting people every day,” he says. “You meet all types of society from the well-to-do to the very poorest who can’t afford more than the bare minimum.”
Over the years, his customers have become like an extended family to him. 
 “You may walk into someone’s house and it could be a situation where her husband has just passed away or the wife just passed away or something happened and they may need you to just sit and listen to them while they talk about it,” he says. “They need to have a good cry or they need someone to make them laugh. You can almost tell when you come through the door what you have to do.”
Although not as many people are at home these days to answer Stephen’s knock, he insists on hand-delivering the bill as often as he can and he admits he’s “of the old school” when it comes to that part of the business.  
“I like to go to the door and hand the customer their slip and say ‘Thank you very much.’ When you’ve just handed someone a bill for six or seven hundred dollars, the least you can do is say thank you.”
He laughs when I ask him where he leaves the bill when no one is home.
“Over the years, you get to know where to stick the bill at people’s houses. Some want it put in the mailbox, some want it stuck in a light switch outside, some people want it stuck in a certain crack in their door or on the front seat of their car. You just remember. You just know. And quite often, you’ll go to the door, you know that if there is no one home, you open the door and lay it on the kitchen table. You still do that and it’s not a problem because you’ve done it for many years. But I still love to go to the door and somebody is home. I do. I love to sit down – you can’t take as much time anymore – but I love to do it for the older generation.”
He feels that it is important particularly in the rural areas where so many seniors are oil customers. 
“When I started out, when you walked through a door, you might get invited to sit down for dinner. You might not have been supposed to stay but you did because that was protocol back then. If someone invites you for dinner, you stay for dinner. When you go to the door, it’s not always about handing them the slip. It’s about ‘Can you go and get my mail from the mailbox?’ or ‘Can you shovel a little bit around my car?’ or ‘The batteries are dead in my flashlight,’ that kind of thing.”
Stephen credits his Uncle Donald for instilling those principles in him at a young age.
“He taught me values that I never forgot, and how to do business. Always go to the door. Always be ready to go to the mailbox, clean off the car, and if someone is elderly and heading to the car, help her out to the car. When you’re driving down the road, wave to people. My uncle certainly influenced me.”

Stephen with his 11 year old son, Alexander, who sometimes travels with him.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Poor Dears

As humans, our instinct is to help, to provide.
We want to dump a load of carrots and apples in the back yard to help but common sense trumps empathy. We would only be helping ourselves suffer less.
It's been a hard winter on the deer. Early snow, deep, and ice. Lots of ice. They just get their trails carved through the snow to and from their deer yard and their feeding grounds (for us, the recent clearcut land next door) and then there is a storm, a thaw, another storm.
Perhaps as we cut down the woods and build houses on the fields and pave every inch in between, we should be helping. We should replace the habitat and food we destroy.
But humans don't have a great track record of our "help" working out. Somehow nature seems to get along better when we don't interfere.
So we just sit at the window and watch and enjoy and be grateful for their presence in our back yard.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Signs of Spring

The last couple of days have been full of warm sunshine...if you were inside a house. Outside, a sharp, cold wind made it very unpleasant.
Stepping out of the warm newspaper office at lunchtime today, the cold air was like a bucket of cold water being splashed on our faces. Wakey, wakey!
But I can't go two days without a walk with my dogs so after supper tonight, dressed in snow pants and full-coverage toque, I set out for a quick trip to the beaver brook and back.
That's where it was: the first sign of spring.
It was the sound that stopped me. The sound of water. 
Under the grey thinning ice, between a white canyon of rotting snow, water was running.
Loveliest sound. 
And all of a sudden, it wasn't so cold. All of a sudden, it was still light at 6:45 pm.
This first sign of spring invigorated me so much, we didn't make it a quick walk to the beaver brook and back. Instead, we took the long way home, across the field and along the plantation.
As we passed under the osprey nest at the edge of our yard, I saw the second sign of spring: The tiniest hint of pussy willows. Amazing! How are they wanting to bud already? 
The fooling power of sunshine. 
Spring is coming. You have my word on it. No matter what weather comes in the next few weeks, no matter if it snows again, spring is on the way. I've seen the signs. 
Stay calm. Keep it together. 
Remember: Hope springs.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

A Day to Inspire

First published in the Oxford Journal newspaper on Wednesday, March 5, 2014, by Sara Jewell Mattinson.

Why do we celebrate International Women’s Day?
Because women can do anything they want – play any sport, work any job, wear any style of clothing, run for any office – but too often, they still have to fight to be taken seriously.  
International Women’s Day (IWD) has been observed since the early 1900’s but its genesis is found fifty years earlier in the plight of garment workers who were mostly women, some as young as teenagers.
On March 8, 1857, women working in clothing and textile factories in New York City staged a protest against inhumane working conditions and low wages. The police aggressively ended the protest. Two years later, these same women formed their first labour union to try and gain some basic workplace rights.
The fight was just beginning.
On March 8, 1908, 15,000 women marched through New York City demanding shorter work hours, better pay, the right to vote and an end to child labour. From this event came the slogan “Bread and Roses”; the bread symbolized economic security while the roses represented a better quality of life. 
Yet as so often is the case, it took a tragedy to truly open the world’s eyes to the dangerous working conditions endured by garment workers. In March, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in Manhattan caught fire. 146 people – 123 of them women ranging in age from 14 to 43 – perished from the fire, from smoke inhalation or from jumping from the 10-storey building. You see, the owners had locked and blocked doorways and staircases, a common practice to prevent unauthorized breaks. The fire led to legislation that improved factory safety standards and helped spur the growth of the garment workers’ union.
The movement wasn’t just happening in the United States, however. Across the industrialized world, women were demanding “bread and roses” and began celebrating Women’s Day on the 28th of February. In 1910, the idea of a worldwide day for women was approved at the second International Conference of Working Women in Copenhagen. In Russia, women took up the cause for workers’ rights in 1913, at the start of World War One. Their four-day “bread and peace” strike in 1917 eventually resulted in the government granting Russian women the right to vote. 
Women’s labour rights are tied to the right to vote. Whoever votes makes the rules. Whoever votes has control – over workers, over wages, over women. While Australia granted women the right to vote in 1902, Canada, Britain, Germany and the US got around to it between 1916 and 1920. Around the world, women gaining the right to vote has happened slowly but surely: South Africa, 1930; France, 1944; Mexico, China and Pakistan, 1947; Lebanon in 1952 and Egypt in 1956; Afghanistan, 1963 and Iraq in 1980. Today, only Saudi Arabia continues to deny women voting rights. 
International Women’s Day is meant to be a celebration. It’s a chance for young women fortunate to have grown up in a time and in a country where women can vote and be astronauts and run for office to remember the roots of IWD, to remember the protests and strikes, and the deaths, that made the vast opportunities of today possible. Tragedies continue to occur to women of all ages in alarming numbers, tragedies that are tied indelibly to gender, but we also need to celebrate progress and achievement. We need to celebrate the trailblazers and the rabble-rousers, the role models and mentors.
Why do we celebrate International Women’s Day? 
Because of Canada’s 2014 Women’s Olympic Hockey team. 
And because some people still think men’s hockey is a better game. 

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Time to Stop and Smell the Chickens

When you are too busy to mourn the loss of your favourite hen, it's a wake-up call about your life and your priorities.
You need more chicken in your life.
An email came in last week -- last week already! -- letting me know, very gently, very compassionately that Patti had died.
"She gone!" my husband wrote.
It wasn't until the past Sunday when the weather was nice and enough snow had melted to entice the chickens outside beyond the steps that I had the chance to express my condolences.
"Oh, Patti is gone, girls," I said as I tossed scratch on the ground without Patti's usual hopping underneath.
Patti was one of the founding members of the second wave of our original flock. Shortly after we opened our newly-built coop (and the fulfillment of a dream of mine to have livestock), the original eight brown laying hens were augmented by four "purebred" hens and new rooster (after a fox made off with our first one within a day of his arrival). I didn't name any of the brown hens because, sorry girls, they all look the same but the new ones were all different.
Patti received her name because she is a patridge-coloured Rock.

Chicken names are as arbitrary as that. (I have an australorp named Gwen because her feathers are jet black and they remind me of an older woman in my hometown who had a helmet of hair the same colour).
We don't actually know how long a hen lives but Patti was a young bird when we got her so she lived to be six years old. She was friendly, inquisitive and companionable around the yard. When she knew we had come into the outer coop and could hear the sound of the feed scoop in the scratch, she would throw herself against the door.
Once we'd opened the door into the actual poultry living space, she would leap up to pick food right off the scoop.
Patti the Pogo Chick.
There is only one remaining chicken from that original flock -- and that's our rooster, Brewster.
Here is some of the crew several years ago when our flock was again down to half a dozen or so. Brewster is one the right -- handsome boy -- and Patti is on the right (and that's Gwen third in).
Yes, every chicken in this picture has a name. Sadly, only Brewster, Gwen and Beulah are with still with us.

Boy, do I miss knowing who is who, being able to give them names.
I miss hanging out with my chickens. It's very peaceful. The gentle sound of their berk-berk-berk as they wander around pecking at the ground, their squawks when one enforces the pecking order, their dirt baths, Brewster's crow.
"Your welcome," I say to him since I'm sure he's saying thank you for whatever treat I've brought out.
We've been mostly lucky in our choice of birds; they're generally docile. They are fun to hang out with. When we first started with the chickens, I'd spend a good part of my day with them, listening to them, watching them, breathing, relaxing, calming down.
Now I'm busy, trying to fit a walk with the dogs in after a long day at work, rushing to and from interviews and meetings and appointments. It shocks me to realize that I'm too busy to be part of the chicken chores and the chicken's routines. I helped a dozen chicks come into the world last July but I hardly know them now and they're laying eggs (green ones). There's a little black one in the flock now that really should be named...
I'm not taking the time to hang out with the chickens and that's a loss.
Like losing Patti but not missing her.
Like losing farms but not noticing the empty fields.
When you are too busy to mourn the passing of a favourite chicken or a long-time farmer, you are in danger of losing touch with the little things that feed our bodies and our spirits.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

In Conversation With...Cindie Smith

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, February 26, 2014 by Sara Jewell Mattinson.

The wind blows around Maggie’s Place Resource Centre for Families on Elmwood Drive in Amherst but inside on a Saturday, it’s warm and quiet. In the kitchen, a kettle boils while Cindie Smith of Truro hands out homemade goodies.
“So you’re responsible for this place, then?” I ask her as we sit down with mugs of tea.
“Oh, goodness, no,” Cindie says. “I’m a cog in the wheel. That was my role.”
And yet, every time she walks in the door of Maggie’s Place in Amherst or in Truro, she is connected to her life-changing experience. 

Cindie Smith, left, with Maggie's Place executive director, Carolyn d'Entremont. On the wall behind them is a photo of Maggie. 
Before she was a cog, her role was mother to two daughters, one of whom was diagnosed with a rare disorder shortly after she was born.
“Maggie was born in 1989,” Cindie explains. “I’d had three miscarriages so this was a risky pregnancy. I had to spend a lot of time being still, which drove me crazy, especially when you have an eight-year-old. Maggie was a couple of weeks late, cute as a button when she arrived. She spent a few days in an incubator, she was having respiratory issues, and a few days later, she was fine and we went home.”
Cindie says her first daughter, Emily, had been a great eater but Maggie wasn’t. Although her mother kept telling her the sisters were not going to be alike, Cindie felt there was more to it. 
“By about six weeks, as I was still struggling to feed her (she refused to breastfeed), she wasn’t looking at me. I knew something was up. I went to our GP and when she looked in Maggie’s eyes and saw cataracts, she sent me to the pediatrician.”
Within twenty minutes, the pediatrician had diagnosed Maggie with Cerebro Oculo Facio Skeletal Dysplasia, such a rare disorder that in 1989 there were only five other children in the world diagnosed with it. 
Cindie was lucky this pediatrician knew what Maggie’s symptoms meant. 
 “He very kindly said, ‘I’m going to take you to the end of what I know about healing and then I’m going to pass you over to someone who knows more.’ There was just a little bit in a diagnostics manual,” she says “We didn’t know what we were dealing with. He and many other health care providers very kindly doled out information as we asked for it instead of pushing stuff on us. There wasn’t a lot to know. The five people in the world who had had COFS at that point, you could line them up and swear they didn’t have the same disorder. It manifested very differently. We had to make it up as we went along.” 
She grew up at the age of 28, Cindie says.
“I think I remember the exact minute. I was feeling like I was drowning because there was so much to do and so many things that needed my attention. Up until that point, I wasn’t a very organized person. I remember that my spine straightened and I thought, ‘I’m going to do this,’ and I got organized, I got determined and I got focused.”
Maggie, who never weighed more than 10 pounds, and whose cognitive growth matched her physical growth (“She remained a baby,” Cindie says), passed away in April 1994 at the age of five.
Her older sister, Emily, was 13. 
After Maggie’s death, Cindie and her then-husband drifted apart. 
“In caring for Maggie and Emily, there was nothing left over. It was interesting; when we would go into IWK, we’d see this neurologist, a very funny Irishman, and he would always ask me, ‘So how are you guys doing?’ And I would always try to bring his focus back to Maggie. He said, ‘A lot of families don’t survive this’ but I was so focused on the task, I didn’t have time to think about that and on I went.”
So shortly after her younger daughter died, Cindie became a single parent and a working mom. She started working for a non-profit organization assisting persons with disabilities to find work. She also attended Dalhousie University part-time to study health services management. Currently, she is the Caregiver  Support Coordinator, Northern and Eastern Mainlaind, for Nova Scotia Caregivers Association.
She’s been married to Michael for 17 years and is now is a grandmother of two.
“When Lily and Sam were born, I had to be there when they were born. I had to be sure there were no cataracts, I had to be sure they would eat well. I had to be sure,” she says. “Even though the gene for Maggie’s disorder comes from both parents. If Emily and Ian both had that gene, that would be like lightning hitting 10,000 times in that very spot. It would be that rare. I knew that but there was the voice! I had to be there, I had to be sure.”
Maggie would have turned 25 this year, the same year that Maggie’s Place celebrates 20 years.   How did one become the legacy of the other?
In 1993, a committee formed in  Truro to create a proposal for funding from the federal government. Cindie was a member of the committee, sitting at meetings with Maggie on her knee. 
“In January 1994, we were given the wonderful news that our proposal had been accepted,” she says. But, “At that point, Maggie was giving some pretty clear indications that her death was imminent. Her system was starting to shut down. She died on April 24. Probably the next week, my dear friend, Nora Jessome, showed up at our house. She had been asked by members of the steering committee if she would come to us and ask us if they could name both centres in Maggie’s memory. We had a good old cry over that.”
(Even though she has been telling her story for 25 years, that part still chokes her up.)
Cindie calls Maggie’s Place a “wonderful, breathing, growing memorial.” She volunteers at Maggie’s Place in Truro doing committee work and fundraising. 
“Maggie was in full command of our house when she was alive and she’s sometimes in command of it now. Every now and then she’ll give me a little snap on the ear and help me realize that, um, I’m not really finished learning from this yet. That’s good,” Cindie says, eyes bright with tears. 
Of joy.

The logo for Maggie’s Place Family Resource Centre is a ladybug. To read why -- it has to do with Emily and Maggie -- please check out this link: