Friday, October 20, 2017

Taj Macoop

June 2008
From Field Notes, the book: 
I said to this man who happened to live on seventy-two acres, 
"You have lots of room here for chickens."
"I would love to have chickens," he replied.
Actually, that could be the moment I truly fell in love with him. 
You see? Birds of a feather want to have eggs together.
I was destined to marry the man who could make my dream
of a chicken coop in the backyard a reality.

August 2017
 Unfortunately, my pretty little yellow chicken coop was clad in chipboard which began to rot around the edges sinking into the ground and the large flower boxes in front. So my Nova Scotia country boy decided it was time for a face lift.
I was reluctant to lose my yellow chicken coop so he suggested coloured steel. The closest colour to sunny yellow was bile gold and since we see this building from every window on that side of the house, and whenever we come and go from the house, there was no way I was spending the rest of my life looking at that hideous colour (it made chartreuse look good).
"Leave it with me," the country boy said, and while that's not always a good thing -- my sense of aesthetics being further advanced than his -- I trusted him.

October 2017
It may not be yellow but it's board & batten and what's more country, more VINTAGE country than that? Our chicken coop is now a future old farmhouse. It's still pretty, it's just different, and that's okay. If there's one thing I've learned about life, and about life in rural Nova Scotia, change is constant and resistance is a fruitless occupation. Just consider our flock of chickens: It's not the same group of chickens now that we started with nine years ago, yet they are as delightful as the original flock.
The only glitch is that it doesn't look like a coop anymore; I think it's morphed into the chicken cabin. 
My country boy designed the stone step himself with rock from the quarry in Wallace and surprised me by painting the door and windows to match our house. And he made sure to restring the Christmas lights. Collective "Aaaaahhhh...!"

And although I can't reveal details yet, this has inspired his next, most ambitious building project -- but that's top secret classified until next summer...

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Lessons From the Stove: Less Is More

When Apple announced the forthcoming iPhone X, with a price tag of over thirteen hundred dollars (US), I thought of my mother-in-law’s stove. Bought in 1972, the olive-green propane stove has cooked almost 50,000 meals (I did the math) and it’s still in use today.
The stove is 45 years old and still in use.
That certainly deserves recognition, doesn’t it? A certificate or parade or even a speech in the legislature because how many of us can claim to be using an appliance or vehicle that is ten years old, let alone more than forty?
According to my father-in-law, the only problem in the last four decades was a faulty burner so there was never any reason to replace a perfectly good stove with something newer, shinier and likely less durable. My husband and I have been married ten years and we’re already on our second washing machine.
Once a stove reaches this level of survival, it simply can’t be replaced. It is, in all of its olive green glory, truly vintage.

Lori Byrne would love to get her hands on that stove. 
An interior decorator who lives with her husband and two young daughters in Meadowville, Nova Scotia, Lori’s passion for all things vintage finds expression through her ‘Farm Fresh Style’ venture, in which she combines her decorating knowledge with her crafting skills.
“It’s about repurposing and upcycling and creating with what I acquire and what is kicking around,” she told me over the phone.
For Lori, that pile of junk we clean out of our parents’ basement or grandparents’ attic isn’t trash for the landfill; it’s a treasure trove of decorating ideas. She said it’s both challenging and satisfying to take a crappy old headboard and turn it into a “super-cool” sign.
“I like seeing what I can create with an unlikely object.”
Lori was raised on a farm so the value of repurposing rather than throwing out is deeply ingrained in her. Author Jon Katz wrote the following on his blog in 2015 after he’d lived in rural New York State for a number of years: “Real farms are beautiful places, orchestrations of chaos, where junk is utilitarian, nothing is new, nothing is ever thrown away, everything is used. Farmers are obsessive tinkerers, always patching, stitching, welding and praying.”

It’s not just about repurposing old things, however; for Lori, it’s also about valuing what we have. The inspiration behind her annual Homegrown Vintage Market is her appreciation for items whose usefulness stands the test of time.
“Items can have so much nostalgia for people,” she explained. “They’ll pick something up and say, ‘My grandmother had one of these’. Someone else says, ‘All the stuff in my kitchen is vintage! This is what I use every day still.’ Vintage items are still here, they’re still functional. These old items have longevity and they will be around long after we’re gone. There’s some permanence to that, and I love that, as well.”

Permanence. Not a word often used in our fast-paced, globally-connected, constantly-upgrading world yet that olive green stove, with its permanent spot in my in-laws’ kitchen, tells a far better story about life than any iPhone ever will. 

Check out Lori's Farm Fresh Style website here.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Summer of the Horse: Autumn Autonomy

Here's the smile of a new rider finally getting to practice what she's been working on all summer.
You see, it's one thing to have a weekly lesson but those of us who bailed out of piano lessons because we had to practice every day grew up to realize it's all about the practice. If you don't work on those exercises in between the lessons, you don't improve, you don't figure things out on your own, you don't get better, you don't learn to enjoy yourself.
So I was pretty excited when my instructor, Dawn, said those magic words at the end of September: "You can ride on your own as long as there is someone at the barn to supervise."
As Emily, the editor of Field Notes, would say, "Eeps!"
I'm still riding Dakota the lesson horse so I pay twenty bucks to the person who is doing chores at the barn to keep an eye on me but hey, I'm quite willing to buy one less book a week in order to fund my riding practice.

I took it easy for my first autonomous ride. I'd hurt my back the week before so this was a chance to find out if riding was responsible for weakening my iliac crest (thankfully, no) but I also wanted to work on some basics: keeping my head up, steering, and my legs.
Yeah, I know, my legs again. The good news is, we hitched the stirrups up a notch and it's made a world of difference. Amazing what a difference one single hole on a leather strap can make.
It brought about a much needed breakthrough by the end of my last lesson: "My legs are loose! I get how that feels!" I shouted to Dawn across the outdoor ring.
Getting to take practice rides on my own will let me work on the little things that matter, including the intangibles like confidence and non-verbal communication, so I'm grateful for Dawn's trust. The barn and rings aren't busy during the week, and I cherish the peace and quiet of working on my skills without distractions, without instructions.
Once November comes, the writing schedule shifts into high gear so I'm looking forward to these few hours a week when I can step away from the chair and step onto the saddle. Horse riding will be the perfect antidote to story writing.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Writing Workshop for Girls Aged 12-15

A word on the location: This workshop is open to girls from all over Cumberland County (and beyond). Oxford is a central location for Pugwash, Springhill and Amherst, and where I can find the appropriate venue (not having to pay for a day's rental keeps the cost of the workshop low).
Registration closes October 23.

Monday, October 09, 2017

That Takes The Cake

Thanks to everyone who showed up on Saturday at the house. I know it was a busy weekend so it was great to have so many people coming and going on that beautiful autumn afternoon. Dwayne talked me out of letting the chickens roam free because he figured they'd hang out in his cucumber patch. 

I'm not sure how many other authors would have an open house -- at their own house -- to celebrate one year since the publication of their first book, but my book is filled with stories that are so personal, it seemed completely appropriate to have a birthday party.
My book is local so I decided the cake needed to be as well. Megan Bishop, of Bishop Family Farm and BFF's Sweet Spot in Wentworth, created this custom Field Notes cake after a 45 minute consultation. She did a great job of understanding what I wanted, right down to using the same script for the cake that appears on the cover of the book.
Honestly, as the day of the party approached, I started to get nervous because I'd been talking up the special cake for my book's birthday but I need not have worried; the dark chocolate cake and buttercream icing was perfect.
If you want cakes or pies, you can check out Bishop Family Farm on Facebook. I'm thinking I need to do a column about Megan because I suspect she has a "heart and home in rural Nova Scotia" story.

Wow, a whole year since Field Notes was published. I feel just as happy today as I did when I opened that box of books a year ago.
Thanks for being part of this dream come true! 

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Giving Thanks, Living Thanks

As published in the Citizen-Record newspaper on Wednesday, October 4, 2017, by Sara Jewell.

On Monday of this week, I got out of bed at seven o’clock, fed the cats and the dog, let the chickens out of their coop, then stood in the yard as the sun burst through the clouds hanging over the river and breathed in deeply the fresh October air. Then I went inside and poured myself a mug of coffee.
Thankfully, this is not going to be my last good memory. I’m not going to look back on those twenty minutes of Monday morning and recognize those as the last moments of my happiness before my world was changed irrevocably.
Others are not so lucky.

I took my mug of coffee into the living room and turned on the television to check out the news. The headline on CNN screaming at me across the bottom of the screen read, “50+ Dead, 200+ Injured In Concert Shooting in Las Vegas”. After watching for a few minutes, I turned off the TV.
I turned on my phone and opened up Facebook. The first post on my screen announced that a friend’s mother, in the late stage of cancer and the early stage of dementia, had died.
I got up and cooked oatmeal, which I covered in pumpkin seeds, blueberries and milk. I sat down at my dining room table, overlooking a front yard filled with dappled sunlight, and ate my breakfast with tears dripping off my chin. I was doing what I always do, what I enjoy doing, and living my good little life, while yet again, the lives of so many are changed irrevocably.
Sometimes, without having survived anything, I feel survivor’s guilt, so on Monday, when the personal and the universal were twisted up together in a braid of grief and pain, I sat at the table and pushed back the guilt with gratitude.

Thank you for oatmeal and coffee. I am grateful for the nourishment and comfort they provide.
Thank you for sunshine and clouds and wind. I am grateful to live so close to nature.
Thank you for this house. I am grateful to be sheltered and protected.
Thank you for the cats and the dog. I am grateful for their companionship.
My gratitude does nothing to stop the suffering of those in Las Vegas (or Edmonton, or France, or Mayanmar) but expressing gratefulness has to be, somehow, better than feeling guilty.

In A.J. Jacobs’ 2007 book, The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, he wrote on Day 263 about his growing obsession with being thankful for everything: “It’s an odd way to live. But also kind of great and powerful. I’ve never before been so aware of the thousands of little good things, the thousands of things that go right every day.”
As we approach the long weekend, we will say “Happy Thanksgiving” a dozen times between now and Monday. Instead of giving, however, what about living thanks? Perhaps this weekend is a chance to kickstart a year of being obsessively grateful every single day for all the little good things.
Thank you for reading this. I’m grateful for the connection these words create.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Prettying the Place Up

The best part about having a birthday party for Field Notes the book -- besides the cake -- is getting to clean the house inside and out. We've let things slide so this is a great excuse to wipe down those baseboards and pull weeds out of the rock garden. I might even do some painting. You don't realize how much living marks up the walls until you invite a whole whack of people over.
This gorgeous rooster was a gift from my sister's family so he'll be welcoming guests as part of the fabulous display I'm creating in my head. I do that, you know. I get caught up in the less important things like decorating the entrance and will forget to clean the huge windows out front!
Just ten days until the Field Notes First Birthday Party! 2 to 4 pm on Saturday, October 7. Come see our rooster and have a slice of a very special cake.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Field Notes Is Turning One!

Two weeks today

Everyone welcome! 
Email me if you need more specific directions:
fieldnotescumberland @ 

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Barn Thoughts

After I'd finished combing my lesson horse's hair, I made a joke about how much more handsome he is than that other guy with the same coloured hair. All of a sudden, I thought about all the orange jokes, all the name-calling, all the vitriol that is spewed towards that man. So much hate at worst, disdain at best, and most of the time, the attacks are personal.
And I felt with my heart, not just my head, that no matter how much I, or anyone, disagree with his words, his actions, his policies, etc, we simply, collectively, have to stop the name-calling and derogatory comments and the personal putdowns. Even to him. To his supporters. To his detractors. To everyone. No more saying, "He's an asshole." No more saying, "She's just a fat cow." No more sharing a putdown even if it's just to a horse. 

And to make it personal: No more putting yourself down, and no more taking that shit from anyone else. (A friend of mine asked me just today, "Every time I sit down to write, I hear my father's voice in my head asking me why anyone would be interested in what I have to say." I told her, "Your father isn't your target audience." So that's your answer when anyone -- even a parent or a husband puts you down: "You are not my target audience.")
We have careened down a slope so slippery, it's like there's no slope at all; we just plummeted fast into a dark abyss of negativity and verbal free-for-all. What have we accomplished by giving up tact and civility and compassion? We have to find a hand hold and start hauling ourselves out of that abyss. 

Nothing will ever ever ever change if each of us cannot stop with the disrespect, no matter how hard it is, and be kind with our words. It costs nothing to say, "This attitude scares the shit out of me," instead of "He's an asshole who's going to get the world blown up." 
Don't tell me that's true. It doesn't make it right. But if it is true, we need to try and make it better -- we need to try and make him better, and it can only happen if we are stop insulting each other. Because no one listens to insults. No one hears you when the words coming out of your mouth are rude personal attacks.
Let the women make some laws for a bit, 'kay? Because like your mama said, "If you can't say anything nice, say nothing at all," and that should be a law. 
As I brushed my horse's mane, thinking about the joke I made, I thought that if each of us could go ONE DAY without saying something nasty/derogatory/uncomplimentary about anyone, and I mean anyone, not one comment typed online, not one comment flung at the television, not one comment muttered under the breath at the grocery store, we might just bring civility back into our lives. Or at least, wedge our toes back in the door.  Let ONE DAY become another and another. Create a new, universal habit. If everyone -- even the assholes -- could take a day off from saying the worst possible things, we might have a chance to make this world great again.
It's not okay to talk like this and we can't make it the new normal.

[These thoughts were likely brought about by the meditative quality of brushing and combing my horse in the peace and quiet of the barn. They blossomed, however, out of my recent reading of Brene Brown's new book, Braving the Wilderness. She devotes one chapter of the book to our need to maintain civility in all our discussions; I think that's a skill we're not teaching or demonstrating to young people any longer. For these thoughts to bubble up so strongly in me me this morning as I combed Dakota's mane, Brown's book obviously made an impression on me.]

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Flying On Her Own

As published in the Citizen-Record newspaper on Wednesday, September 20, 2017, by Sara Jewell

Tracy Swan looks over her Bucket List with trusted sidekick, Milo.

Imagine waking up one morning and not recognizing the person you’ve become. Imagine realizing the downward spiral that resulted from a life-changing event was more of a downward plunge.
And you loved it so much, you want to do it again and again.

For Tracy Swan of Oxford, the sudden end of her 24-year marriage last spring forced her to rebuild her life, so she took a leave of absence from her job as a Grade Two teacher, and laced up a pair of running shoes.
“I did some running two summers ago and I enjoyed it but I got out of it,” she says. “So last April, I decided to try it again. It was a great way to clear my mind. I put my headphones in and I think of nothing but my breathing.”
Two months later, she not only completed the Oxford Strawberry Festival 5K with her older daughter, Maddy, she placed first in her age group. That inspired her to create a Bucket List of things she wants to accomplish so a month later, when Maddy said didn’t know what she wanted for her 23rd birthday, her mother asked, “Want to jump out of a plane?” 
Tracy loved her skydiving experience so much, she wants to do the required number of tandem jumps in order to one day leap out of a plane by herself.

No one is more surprised by this than Tracy. Prior to last spring, Tracy says she was not a risk-taker, but now describes herself as adventurous and open.
“I don’t know if I ever knew this person,” she says with a laugh, explaining that she was married and expecting her first child when she graduated from teachers’ college in 1993. “I just went from my parents’ home to my married home and I don’t think I ever embraced the person I am right now. When I looked at myself at 46 and wondered what I’d done that really stands out, other than having my kids, I couldn’t name anything.”
Her new motto is simple: Eat the cake. Buy the shoes. Life is short.
So why not jump out of a plane?

“I think too much of myself to sit and wallow in self-pity, I guess,” Tracy says of how she chose to respond to the end of her marriage. “It’s part of my personality to be positive, and it’s part of my job as a Grade Two teacher to be happy. I had my two daughters watching my every move and seeing how I would respond.” 
Maddy and her younger sister, Regan, both live in Halifax and Tracy is grateful they have their own lives of work and school. She spent a lot of time visiting them as, back home in Oxford, she adjusted to living alone, paying the bills and taking care of the house.  
“I want to be able to survive on my own, and now I know I can,” says Tracy, who returned to her classroom earlier this month. “I hope watching what I’ve done will help my daughters become stronger women. I want to show them a woman can be independent and her own person even when in a relationship.”

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Mother's Broken Arm

It's been almost a week since Mother fell up the stairs last Friday and broken her upper left arm.
"I caught my toe on the step then I went splat," is her description.
I was sitting in the living room watching the last five minutes of The Young and Restless (don't judge me; it's my lunch break) when I heard her squawk. When I looked up, I saw her fall forward; she stayed on her hands and knees longer than expected, then straightened clutching her left arm.
She kept saying, "I heard a snap, I heard a snap," but it didn't occur to me that she'd actually broken a bone; it was such a low fall, and we all do it, trip up those two steps to the landing. But she was woozy and out of it and sweating. Dwayne took one look at her, recognized shock, and called 9-1-1.
Thank goodness for the Nova Scotia country boy. 

I get so emotional calling 9-1-1. The first time I ever had to do it was during Mother's chemo treatment. I dialled 9-1 then had to hang up and take a deep breath. The second time was just last spring and I was calling for a member of my church congregation who was having trouble breathing. No instance has ever been serious, I haven't been calling in a life-threatening situation, but that act of asking for help and naming the problem makes me choke up.
I am not the person you want to be with during a crisis.

The paramedics called her "dear" in that typical Maritime way. Everyone says it here, even the man holding the door for you at Tim Horton's.
"You're welcome, dear."
We hated it when the nurses caring for Dad in Ontario called him "dear" but it rings true here.

As soon as Mother returned home from the hospital on Friday night, I went into caregiver mode, a role I haven't been in since 2006. Learning from my experience with taking care of a father with Alzheimer's, I've always vowed to do for Mother what I was unable to do for him, but it's easier, I think, when it's mother-and-daughter, and when the person who is sick or injured has her faculties. And can go to the bathroom on her own.
These hangups we have.
It's why I'm a writer and not a nurse.
"Thank you for not having a protruding bone or any blood," I told my mother as I pulled the bed covers over her. "That was a very good thing."
This time, it's not so much 'thinking for two', as it is with dementia, but just a lot more running around and remembering to check on her to see what she needs.
I gave her Dwayne's search-and-rescue whistle but she won't use it.
"It would give Dwayne a heart attack," she said.
"I'd blow it a hundred times a day," I told her.  
"Yes, but you're an asshole," she answered.

So the wit isn't broken. And Mother is fine. Not much pain, only when she moves a certain way or lies down in bed.
"Don't make me laugh," she says. She laughs through the pain. "Laughter is the best medicine."
Considering how hard I stubbed my toe today while cleaning her room, and how long she laughed about it, she'll be knitted up and back to playing the piano in days rather than weeks.

Friday, September 08, 2017

Time to Party!

If you need more precise directions, please email me:
fieldnotescumberland @ gmail dot com

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Summer of the Horse: The Column

As published in the Citizen-Record newspaper on Wednesday, September 6, 2017, by Sara Jewell

I'm learning to ride Dakota at Galloway Stables with owner/instructor Dawn Helm.

My seven-year-old self who played “horsies” with her friends in a grassy corner of the school yard at her elementary school in Cobourg, Ontario, would be shocked to see me standing in a barn brushing a horse.
I grew up knowing I could never learn to ride because of my mother’s severe allergies. But last year, I met two women who have been riding for longer than I’ve been alive, one of whom wrote a book about her life with horses, and that’s when I decided Mother’s allergies be damned, I’m learning to ride.  
Do I wish I’d started when I was seven years old! There is so much more to riding than sitting in a saddle and walking around. 

“You’re learning the fundamentals of riding,” my instructor, Dawn Helm of Galloway Stables in Linden, told me. “You’re learning basic English. The only difference between English and Western at the fundamentals level is contact on the reigns, and the saddle. Everything else should be close to the same thing.”

It turns out a lesson begins a half hour before I’m even on the back of Dakota, Galloway’s lesson horse. First, I have to fetch him from the outdoor corral, bring him into the barn to clean his hooves, brush him, and tack him up. All while maintaining control over a 1100-pound horse who, I learned quickly, will test me.
“Riding is an expensive sport but there’s no sport that teaches you both compassion and confidence,” Dawn told me while I brushed Dakota before a lesson. “This is not a basketball that you throw in the closet. You have to make this animal listen to you. Girls, especially, that are meek and quiet have be more confident to get the horse to do what they want it to do.”
I definitely would have benefited from this as a young girl.
Growing up in Fort Lawrence, Dawn started riding when she was five years old.
“My sisters had horses and our neighbours had horses and we just terrorized the neighbourhood on our horses,” she laughed.

After earning a degree in animal science and agricultural business in 1984, Dawn spent the next fourteen years working, raising her son and competing with a horse club. Once she’d earned her instructor’s certificate and her son left for university, Dawn decided she wanted her own facility.
Galloway Stables opened in 1999 as a ten-stall barn with an indoor arena and an outdoor ring. Since then, the stable has grown to a nineteen-stall barn with bathroom facilities, two outdoor rings, the indoor arena, and heated water. Five of the horses stabled there are Dawn’s, including 26-year-old Dino, her first competition horse after university.
Now a certified Competition Coach Specialist with Dressage Designation, Dawn teaches riding lessons to all ages.
“I like teaching because you see someone understand something then they feel it and they get all excited,” Dawn said. “When you can help the rider make the horse more comfortable, and they feel the difference, it’s a great feeling to know the horse is now going to have a better riding experience.”

To my seven-year-old self, I’d like to say: this is a much better way to play “horsies”. 

Dawn keeps Dakota on the lunge line as she teaches me to canter.