Monday, May 21, 2018

A Road Trip to Remember


This is my friend Shelagh, who lives in Cobourg, Ontario, the last place I lived before I moved to Nova Scotia. She has several paintings like the one behind us in her house, and I insist we have our picture taken in front of one of them every time I visit because I really doubt -- despite my obvious hints -- that she is leaving one to me in her will.

When I stay with her, Shelagh and I are the lake sisters. We walk to the lake early in the morning, before church. We pass by the sandy beach and the marina and head to the undeveloped shore, just down the block from where I used to live in Cobourg. We sit on the round, smooth, cold stones on the shore and talk while searching for heart-shapes. I look at Lake Ontario and I feel -- home. I grew up on this lake; my family had cottages on lakes. I'm a lake girl.

I don't look for the tide. I don't long for the tide. 

But then we put on our matching T-shirts and we make plans for Shelagh to come east, to see the Halifax Library on Spring Garden Road (she is a librarian) and the Maude Lewis exhibit at the art gallery, and meet my chickens, and as I think about where I live, I am excited to call the East Coast home. I want to share my life with my friend (who has only read about it in my book).

I come home -
- wondering the entire 16-hour drive, "Is it possible to have two homes? To feel at home, and to miss a place, in two very different places, at the same time?" -
- and after a few days, I find a line from a Maya Angelou poem:
Like a tree planted by the river, I shall not be moved. 

It's from her poem, "Our Grandmothers", and it's out of context here, but still, the one line, without knowing the poem, without knowing the title, speaks to me. I live along a tidal river now, I'm married to a man who loves this river, who can navigate its channel without needing red and green markers, and I know I am rooted to this place as long as he is here, my new roots tangling with his long-established ones.

I can hold two opposing thoughts in my body, in my being, in my space at the same time. I can bear the conflicting heart tugs, and the loneliness of the road trip knowing who waits for me on my arrival.
I can be home where I am reminded of my father and where conversations with lifelong friends simply start up again as if never interrupted by distance and time.
I can be home where my heart and mind rest, where my creative life flourishes, where the stars are clear and plentiful. One home speaks to me in memory, the other in the present.
So it's not really about the lake, or the river -- it must be the water. Along with purity and fertility, water is the symbol for motion, and renewal and transformation. We are all drawn to water, to quench a thirst, to cleanse, to wash away, to rejuvenate, to change.

And then there are those paintings. Birch trees are my favourite. They, too, remind me of my father. Of home. Of being planted, and replanted, of moving and not moving, of thriving and most of all, of loving and being loved. 
East Coast style.


Friday, May 18, 2018

Come From Away


You know it's been too long since you spent a night in your best friend's house when you haven't even met her eight-year-old dog!
When my mother decided to be in Georgia with her grandchildren for seven weeks, I decided to take advantage of having the car to myself and head to Ontario (someone - I don't remember who - asked if my mother knew I was taking the car!). So I phoned my best friend, Sarah, and asked, "How would you like to celebrate my birthday with me?
Hence the decorations in her house when I arrived at the end of her work day. She'd even made giant tissue paper daisies for the dining room! The upside of having a crafty BFF.

We realized this is my first visit to her home since the fall of 2009, when my mother was selling her home in Cobourg and I off-loaded some mugs and ornaments with my best friend. Since then, her family has lived in northern Ontario for three years and returned to Orillia just in time for the start of school in 2016. This is only their second spring in their new home.And she's still using the mugs I gave her nearly ten years ago, although they all have chips in them. Perhaps it's time to off-load a few more mugs (Dwayne would appreciate that; Sarah's husband, not so much. What is it with men and mugs???).

Do you notice the plants underneath the birthday banner? These are Sarah's seedlings; obviously this is a house with no cats. She gifted me one of her seedlings, a watermelon plant, and she's requested weekly photos showing its growth in Nova Scotia. Wally the watermelon seedling is currently hanging out in my office; he won't meet our cold northern Nova Scotia soil until the end of the month. It's a great pressure, having his life in my hands.
My best friend is quite the gardener (along with her husband) and she toured me around her new backyard, showing me where the vegetable garden was going and the fruit trees they are planting. Apple and cherry already in the ground, pear waiting to be planted. She's so clever.
Here's the funny thing: while I was in Ontario, the three cherry trees she'd bought us as a 10th wedding anniversary present last summer arrived at our doorstep! I hope I've brought back home with me some of her green thumb magic. 

(By the way, Sarah served taco soup and strawberry shortcake for my birthday supper, which makes it okay for me to serve lasagna and rhubarb pie next Saturday night when my writing workshop co-host, Marjorie, and her husband, come for supper.)


Thursday, May 10, 2018

Something's Gotta Give


I cleaned out the chicken coop the other day.
And you're wondering why that's worthy of an opening sentence. You're thinking, Whoopee?

You're thinking right. Whoopee! I cleaned out the chicken coop! I don't remember the last time I did that but it's at least two years ago, maybe even three.
That's a long time to go without doing something you enjoy. And yes, I do enjoy cleaning out the chicken coop; it's part of what I love about my life in the country life.
But I'm not feeling as countrified as I once was. I'm feeling lopsided these days, too heavy on the Sara the Writer, and not enough of Sara the Country Girl.

"You're busy writing, I'll take care of it," he would say when I was writing Field Notes and writing weekly sermons for church, and as time went on, I did less and less, while he did more and more. He'd let the chickens out in the morning then collect the eggs and close them up. He'd feed the cats and dogs supper, then he took over breakfast. He planted trees by himself, he raked out my gardens in the spring.
Which was great for Sara the Writer but Sara the Country Girl became lost in the process.
 Even last year's "Summer of the Horse" was as much a part of Sara the Writer's work as it was part of Sara the Country Girl's life. Once the winter rolled around, and I started writing a novel, and without a horse of my own to care for, I stopped going to the barn, I stopped shovelling shit, I stopped riding.
Sara the Writer was too busy.

Realizing this meant having a serious conversation recently with my husband while sitting on a pile of freshly hewed posts. All winter, he'd been planning a major project and had just started collecting materials for it, but I'd been thinking hard for a couple of days and had screwed up the courage to question this project.
"Should we really be building a barn and getting animals?" I asked him.
He looked at me. "I've been wondering the same thing."

His doubts came from his chronic pain and worrying about being able to finish the job. My doubts -- oh, how I hated to doubt this -- came from knowing that Sara the Writer wasn't going to get any less busy. Getting animals was something we wanted to do together, and it was a commitment that needed both of us, but in all honesty, my husband could no longer count on Sara the Country Girl.
I mean, he'd done all the planning, he was doing all the work of getting the boards and beams and trusses, he was vetoing every animal I said I wanted (what on earth does the man have against llamas??). It was going to be his barn, and both of us knew that wasn't what we wanted. Just like building a chicken coop and getting chickens, this needed to be done together. I wouldn't want to miss out on anything, and I couldn't expect my husband to shoulder the entire load of my dream of having animals. Did I have time for the learning curve that would be keeping farm animals?

I can't believe I'm saying this but we scrapped the idea. No barn, no goats, no pig, no miniature horse. We both felt equal parts relief and disappointment.
Ten years ago, eight, even five years ago, we could have done the barn and the animals -- but too much has changed. Building a barn and filling it with critters who need far more daily care than chickens is a full-time commitment and although our hearts want it, our brains know it's no longer feasible. If we're going to wing it, we're better off with birds. We've decided to add some guinea hens and some ducks to our flock of feathered friends.
And I really do believe that if I can't have a llama, I should be able to get a peacock.



Sunday, May 06, 2018

Rural Life Sunday

Twin kids born at Mark and Theresa Wood's farm, March 2017.

This is an edited version of the message I gave at church this morning:


When I looked on the church calendar and saw that May 6th is “Rural Life Sunday”, I thought -- a celebration of rural life is exactly what we need as we head into this year’s growing season.

There really is no way to put the brakes on rural decline but inevitability doesn’t make it right, and it doesn’t mean our society won’t suffer. The danger in losing the vibrancy of our rural communities is that our country, like our faith, is built on the hard work and commitment of rural people.

Everyone is wracking their brains on how to keep rural communities – and rural churches – not only existing but thriving. There are pockets of revitalization in communities that are close to the city but those places that can’t offer an easy commute are left to flounder as large employers shut down, and there are fewer opportunities to keep young people in rural areas.

At 83 years of age, American poet, novelist and environmental activist, Wendell Berry, is a seventh-generation Kentucky farmer who, through his prolific writings, has brought global attention to the plight of fragile rural economies and the importance of sustainable agriculture.

In an article published in Modern Farmer last October [2017], Berry laments the “dispersed lives of dispersed individuals, commuting and consuming, scattering in every direction every morning, returning at night only to their screens and carryout meals.”

Some might call him a curmudgeon but others recognize his “clear-eyed view of the ways in which modern society is wrecking the Earth under the guise of progress.”

I agree with Berry, that in our rush to modernize and be progressive, to centralize and regionalize, to think globally and attempt travel to Mars (!) – we are losing two inter-connected ways of life and wrecking not only the Earth but also our souls.

I didn’t grow up on a farm, and I didn’t have grandparents who lived on a farm. I knew country living because that’s where my grandparents and my great aunts and uncles lived, but the only time I experienced farm life was during my family’s two-week vacations on Pugwash Point in Nova Scotia.
And even though I’ve lived here for over ten years, I didn’t see a baby animal being born until just last year.

My experience with "the country" came through cottages but it’s really not the same thing. It’s playing at country – it’s not living it.

I really do feel, deep down, that I missed out on a lot by not growing up on a farm. And I think our world – and our young people – and our future as a humankind – are losing A LOT as we lose our farms and rural ways.

Now, this message will try to weave together rural life and church life – rural communities and communities of faith. It will be broad strokes and generalizations, and probably something that calls for deeper conversation, but for now, this is just to get you thinking about rural life.

Jon Katz, an author who lives in rural New York State, wrote this about farms on his blog in April 2015: “Real farms have always been beautiful to me, manifestations of family, values, individuality and the hardest imaginable work.”

So first, I want to outline what I think young people are missing by not being raised on farms:
- doing chores and having responsibilities
- witnessing both birth and death
- knowing where food comes and what, and who, is involved in producing food
- learning to take care of what you have, to repurpose items and to solve problems with what's on hand
- helping neighbours – relying on each other, especially in times of crisis
- being resilient and self-sufficient

Like I said, broad strokes, but for me, looking back over a variety of life experiences and being married to a farm boy who misses farming, I believe I’d be better off if I’d been raised with all of those things – including the hard work that goes into a rural life.

Now I’d like to outline what I think people, of all ages, are missing by not being part of a community of faith:
- showing devotion and commitment to something and someone other than yourself
- taking care of each other
- accepting death as a part of life
- welcoming the stranger and embracing diversity
- developing interpersonal relationships with people of different ages, backgrounds, perspectives, experiences
- being resilient and self-sufficient

In making these lists, I was struck by how much our rural communities, and our communities of faith, have in common. They really are interconnected, as suggested in this quote from 14th century philosopher and theologian, Meister Eckhart, that uses farming imagery to speak of why we need time set aside for prayer and worship: “What we plant in the soil of contemplation, we shall reap in the harvest of action.”
[This is an idea that needs further exploration.]

At the same time, let’s recognize that both rural areas and communities of faith also have their faults:
- not extending hospitality to new people, being wary of new ideas
- being judgemental, reacting out of fear rather than faith
- being resistant to change – the old “This is the way we’ve always done it” mindset
Most significantly, I think we have failed to be good stewards of the land, and of creation. I think there is a lot of talk, in barns and in sanctuaries, about taking care of the earth, but in reality, economics and convenience win every time.

While I think bureaucracy and over-regulation, as well as the growing expectations that the government should fix everything and pay for everything, have contributed to the decline of our rural areas AND our rural churches, our resistance to change and the inability to evolve in our ideas and understanding also play a huge role.

We get stuck in old ways that no longer work or make sense in the modern world, and we lose people; they leave their rural area, they stop coming to church. They go where there are more opportunities for employment, for interaction, for meaningful experiences.

Now, I’m a city girl with the best of them but do you know why I wish fervently we could not merely stop, but actually reverse, the decline of our rural communities, and our communities of faith?
Because I chose to move here.
Because I expect(ed) to spend the rest of my life here.

What drew me here, almost on a spiritual level, are the very things that make country living and rural life so important the people, the space, the wildlife, the ability to grow and raise our own food, plus that whole idea of being known in a community (for better and for worse!).
I appreciate the idea that if my mail doesn’t get picked up, if my porch light doesn’t go off in the morning, if I don’t show up for my dental appointment, someone is going to notice, and wonder why and actually act on that concern (I've come to appreciate that nosiness has its upside!).

Losing our rural communities is like everyone using Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat: We will forget how to talk with our neighbours, we will forget what it’s like to take care of and support people in real life, we will forget that the land and the sea and the sky existed long before skyscrapers and big box stores and articulated buses.

American journalist Susan Orleans once wrote, “Living in a rural setting exposes you to so many marvelous things: the natural world and the particular texture of small town living, and the exhilarating experience of open space.”
Amen!

In our reading from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus said, “With what can we compare the Kingdom of God? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown, it grows up and becomes the greatest of shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

And that is exactly why we need our rural communities, and our communities of faith – for we are those mustard seeds, and without us, where will the birds build their nests?

May these words be wisdom for our living. Amen.




Saturday, May 05, 2018

Field Notes & Felting = Fun


No felting experience required! Trust me, if this is easy for me to do, it's easy for anyone!
I'm going to do a short reading from Field Notes then Rita is going to guide us through the process of flat felting a chicken, and we'll have refreshments (my famous heart-shaped oat cakes, of course!).
The registration fee is all to cover the materials and instruction time.
Details and sign up are found at www.lunenburgmakery.ca



Friday, May 04, 2018

Personal Flotation Dog


Okay, I know there's record-breaking flooding in New Brunswick but I'm pretty sure here along the River Philip, there's no risk of the water level rising high enough to float the dog.

So...the country boy has decided his dog needs to go out in the boat with him. The world's most neurotic dog -- and he thinks she'll be chill riding in his fishing boat. The boy loves his Boxer, but has secret fantasies about a Retriever. The good new is Abby is used to water and knows how to swim.

In an attempt to make this go the way he wants, this is the project: 
Stage one: get the dog used to wearing a life jacket.
Stage two: get the dog into the boat -- on dry land.
Stage three: keep the dog in the boat when it's on a lake. 

If this works, it will be pretty cool. If it doesn't work, she'll be one wet dog -- and more neurotic than ever. 


Tuesday, May 01, 2018

May Is Bee Month


Holy tulips, where did April go? Maybe it seemed like it went by fast because the weather was so...neutral. You know, no longer winter (in spite of the snow squalls) but not quite spring. It looked more like November out there in the field!
It's not been till the last few days that the green has sprouted here in northern Nova Scotia.  Regardless, it's the first day of May and the maple trees are covered in red buds out, the daffodils are almost in bloom, and the lilacs have tiny hints of green on them.
I think we can all agree, spring has arrived -- that season of discouraging mud and encouraging sprouts!

My Field Notes column in the spring issue of At Home On the North Shore celebrates all things bees and dandelions because this month we celebrate World Bee Day on May 20 then the following weekend, it's the tenth anniversary of the Wallace Dandelion Festival. Bees are very important to humans and the ecosystem in which we live, and dandelions are very important to bees, so I was happy to dedicate an entire column to these small but mighty aspects of our earth.

Here's the link to the column: http://athomeonthenorthshore.ca/field-notes-spring-2018/

Want to plant a bee friendly garden?
1) Choose a variety of flowering plants, particularly single flower tops like daisies and marigolds. These singe flower tops provide more nectar and easier access to pollen than double-headed flowers like impatiens.
2) Leave some weeds, especially in early spring when there aren't a lot of flowers in bloom. Dandelions and clover are both pretty and bee-friendly. Really, they're not weeds; they're wild flowers.
3) Plan your flower mix to cover the entire season. Plant for May through October so that bees have a constant source of food, particularly in areas where there aren't a lot of wildflowers.
4) Use only natural pesticides and fertilizers. Bees are just as suspectible to poison as the bugs you're trying to eradicate.