Monthly Archives: July 2014

Farewell to Nova Scotia

Farewell to Nova Scotia

We all agree that the visit was too short, but we remember a different visit that was too long, so we’re content to leave this time before anyone gets worn out.

All six of us flew in via Halifax and drove up to stay at the family homestead with my parents ten kilometers from town, outside the range of street lights and freeway sounds. In sight of  the pink mud of Cobequid Bay, fields of alfalfa and Holsteins on the pasture. A steady wind comes in all the way from from the Bay of Fundy every morning, blowing warm and moist all day, loosing the scent of clover in the field and butterfly bush on the edge of my mother’s garden. We take a walk up the former railroad track, now a recreational trail also used by landowners to get to woodlots and back fields, and the honey producer to his beehives. The path narrows and fir and aspen lean in; the air is calm and we are swarmed by mosquitoes, no-see-ums, and a few horse flies and deer flies. Not to panic, as my daughters and I don’t swell and itch for days like the males of the family for some reason–me least of all. Next day there’s not even a sign of all the epidermal injections and extractions I’ve endured. My husband is hit worst of all–attracts more flies, swells, itches, and occasionally gets infected and needs treatment, though usually lavender essential oil usually does the trick.

Along the main road, the wind keeps off most of the flies, and keeping ourselves at a jog confuses our enticing scent. It’s a wide, red, graded gravel road, built up over the years, never paved because local farmers have lobbied against it, the gravel being easier on their tractor tires as they tear up and down between fields and barns. Easy on the knees and feet, too. The Shore Road connects to the provincial route and runs along the bay and through the rolling, green hills, back to connect folks farming along the tidal Stewiake River, then back around past the Plum Hole where I used to fish.

The hedgerows alongside the road are alive with birdsong–song sparrows perched on power lines, starlings swarming in the poplars, red winged blackbirds by the pond. Vetch, three kinds of clover, knapweed, fireweed, goldenrod, coltsfoot, and Queen Anne’s lace bob and weave with the long grass in the ditches along the road. Each lace flower hosts oblong orange beetles–at least one, and many a mating pair or two. Ants and flies are also there sipping nectar, and on one, a white flower spider grasps an ant by the head. We stop to see if it will let go to seize any of the flies that alight periodically, but it only tenses slightly when touched by one.

From the road the house is almost entirely hidden by foliage. It sits on a rise and is screened from the road by an ancient apple tree, one of the oldest in the region, probably.  Smaller apple trees and plums stand around. A sagging grape arbor fronts the vegetable garden, which includes a row of currant bushes along the driveway. A stand of sun chokes and various flowers and herbs thrive on the gray water from the kitchen sink. The lawn consists of dozens of types of grasses, low growing native weeds and violets. The red and white currant bushes are loaded, and we pick quarts for the freezer. Apples from the Transparent tree have already gone into a pie, Transparents being the queen of pie apple, even better than Gravensteins. My father shows me which weeds he’s been eating–lamb’s quarters, wild amaranth, dandelion. We take a bunch of amaranth up to the house for supper.

I know every sound, smell and trick of that house, more or less–each door has its own voice, certain stairs creek, the wind moans through the heating vents under the floor when the doors are left open. Creak of linoleum, certain doors that stick, old grooves scratched on the doorway to the kitchen by the dog we used to have. I feel the familiar stickiness of surfaces in summer humidity–floors, tables, the stair handrail. The too dim greenish yellow glow of the retrofitted fluorescent bulbs my father uses to limit energy waste. The scrape of a chair, the weight of the salvaged artillery shell set down against an inside door to hold it open. I can recognize the sound of each set of feet on the stairs, walking across another room, on the deck. I hear my own coming down the stairs. There are gaps between the treads and risers, and my feet sound like my mother’s. In the kitchen she makes little noises as she works on supper–no words, just tuneless but expressive little noises as if stuff keeps rising up in her consciousness–images, memories, feelings evoked by the presence of family not seen in years and an intensification of homemaking work to serve them. Some noises to fill some gap in her ability to express something in words right then, or marks of self-restraint. Though I know she can be a dragon when in pursuit of justice, or condemnation of hypocrisy, pretension, instead she comes across as nervous and eager to please. Her shoes scuff quickly along the kitchen floor as she assembles salad and bread plates, gets out the margarine and tests the potatoes to see if they are cooked all the way.



“Dissent is democratic,” but what does that have to do with school?

This quote was posted above an inner door in the main office of a school I subbed in last year. It struck me like a breath of fresh air, but also like a sparrow in a big box hardware store, beautiful and free in essence but trapped and doomed unless it could escape to the open air.

What could it mean? Sounded cool–so democratic, you know. I liked it–thought someone might have the best interests of students at heart there, even of teachers too, if he or she thought democracy was important and not just cooperation and conformity. Who posted it there? I wondered.

But dissent is not, in itself, democratic. What’s democratic is everyone having a say,  based on, I would like to think, the higher human faculties of adequate knowledge, reason, forethought, and good will, as above mere interest, passion, instinct, tradition, and social conditioning. Thjat’s all off the top of my own head, however–not a very democratic definition. But I never went in much for those–words have to have a good deal of gravity for there to be any continuity of sense to them, in my opinion.

And what about democracy in school, anyway? What role did it play in your schooling,? Did your teacher consent to let your math class work on the lawn outside when the weather got warm in the spring? Decide on test dates, content, classroom rules? Okay, so maybe not in the younger grades, but I guess we all at least got to vote on class president and so on then, and as we got older, there was more participation, right? Or, wait a second, was it…it was…less participation. Required courses, minimum GPA, mandated tests, approved texts, sign-in, sign-out, tight schedule, thirty-six weeks, no choice of teachers, classmates, venue. Even a snow day, an intervention of God himself, has to be made up at the end of the year. Not that the teachers were monopolizing the authority, either. So much of it is taken out of their hands, let alone the part that they can hand back to students in trust, as they grow into maturity.

What about the biggie, that decision most people never even think about, the decision of whether to go to school at all? It being legal in the U.S. to build an education outside the system, with more or less freedom and oversight, depending on the state.

But what about that sign on the wall? What did it mean? Was it for teachers, meaning that they should disagree with administrative decrees, district agendas, testing protocol? Should they say no to another staff meeting, no to the accepted way of teaching certain controversial subjects, no to grades? Was it for students? Should they refuse to do certain tasks they found a waste of time, choose their own books apart from the list, their own way of learning? Not follow the seating plan?

Or was it really an underhanded way of saying democracy does not work here? Because, after all, democracy often means dissent, and we can’t have that here.

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Posted by on July 16, 2014 in Education


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Harrowing adventures for your summer entertainment

Don’t know if I can write in this state of mind, but as usual a visit to a fellow writer’s page makes me want to try. No caffeine in my system, as I try to cut back. A scare last night providing the needed impetus, and the miraculous absence of a withdrawal headache providing an unexpected grace.

Yesterday after supper I downed the last little bit of espresso with some soy milk, having already had two strong ones earlier in the day–or was it three? Finished painting a bedroom and a few chores, then went off to bed, expecting to sleep until it was time for a morning swim. Instead I was awakened from deep sleep by the distinct feeling of a small something crawling under my back. Instincts brought me up, trying to roll off the spot to I could brush off the bug. My muscles all loose and my blood pressure low, I crashed over the side of the bed instead, bringing my wrist down hard on the edge of a metal trash can. First thought as I rose onto hands and knees was to get ice on it for the swelling, along with a feeling of wonder that I’d been so out of it to fall out of bed.

My mind was clear enough for what I needed to do, and I remembered that I’d just stowed a wrappable ice pack in the freezer, found it and held it to the back side of my wrist. My feet somehow took me back to bed, but I was becoming more aware of the pain, and curiosity made me take a look–a purple bruise was already forming. My mind, usually calm and collected in cases of blood or trauma, went all soft and my blood pressure started to sink. I knew I had to lie down and get my feet up or else, having had a few similar experiences. I tried to shove some pillows under my feet but they kept getting caught in the bed sheet. My heart was trying to pump as usual but there wasn’t enough volume, and I could feel a sort of sucked-in feeling on some of its contractions, which I’d felt before when my heart would throw in an early followup beat with not enough blood to push along. I’d gone to the doctorabout it and been reassured that it was not usually a problem. But now my heart was doing a lot of that. My thought was, here it is the middle of the night and no one knows, and I don’t know whether I’ll pull out of this awake. My husband was still in the city staying midweek to save a commute. So I picked up bedside phone and after a few fumbles with the unlock code (mental note, put more numbers on emergency dialer), I dialed my son, asleep across the hall, who is a calm person with first aid training. He answered on the second try and came over; I mumbled what was going on, and got me a drink of water and a throw up bucket, and waited with me, resting on the wood floor. I wondered if he’d fall asleep, and then what? Would he check on me in ten minutes and find me unconscious and know what to do? Mental note: go over emergency procedures with the kids. But I slowly pulled away from the edge opf unconsciousness, was able to move and talk normally, and sent him back to bed.

On a trans-continental flight ten years ago a similar thing happened–I almost slipped into unconsciousness due to fatigue, dehydration from breastfeeding, sleeping in a sitting position, and my naturally low blood pressure. Maybe the low after a cup of coffee too. I woke up feeling not right and called the flight attendant, said I needed to get my head down, and she took my one year old son to the back where another of the flight crew kept him happy with Cheerios. I could feel that draining, nauseating feeling and the ragged edges to a black border closing in on my sight. They helped me lie in the aisle and found a medical person, who monitored my pulse and blood pressure as I heard voices and drifted helplessly on the borders of unconsciousness. Someone fed me water with a straw. I slowly returned to full awareness and when I was ready, was helped back into my seat. The person next to me was not the nurturing or talkative type–she looked tense and uncomfortable, as if what I had was catching. I ate, drank, and did stretches to keep the blood flowing for the rest of the flight.

The coolest fainting episode, since I’m sharing this with you in the spirit of late night harrowing tales around the campfire, was after I got stung by a jellyfish. I was up to my waist in the Mediterranean Sea cooling off with my son, my friend Tina, and her three kids. Someone was pointing at the water near us and saying something when I felt a flash of pain across my upper left leg. “Meduse” had been the word, surely Hebrew for jellyfish. There it was, floating away, not even sticking around to to eat me. No big deal, I thought, looking at my leg, where the skin was beginning to redden. Stinging pain which would soon fade, right? But it got worse. The stung area extended eight inches down my leg and five inches across, and angry red tentacle-shaped welts were appearing. I let the wavelets wash over it, but that made it sting even more. I started to have trouble putting weight on the leg, and decided to go sit on my towel on the beach. Still no relief in any position, and the pain was getting worse. I limped up to have the lifeguard spray it with vinegar solution kept on hand for the purpose, but it was no good. Should have gone in the first few minutes, someone said. It was time to go home and see what could be done.

By the time we’d gathered the kids and got everyone to the parking lot, I was anxious, faint, and nauseous, and lay down beside the van while Tina bucked the kids in. She gave me water and hard candy, stayed calm and helped me climb in and get positioned with my feet on the dash. She chatted with me on the half hour drive to keep me alert and out of shock. We arrived home and she and my husband, much concerned, helped me in and put me to bed with an ice pack for my leg, water to drink, and pain medication. The faintness and nausea eased and I slept, a large mixing bowl inverted over the sting to keep anything from touching it. By 8 pm I was able to get up and wolf down a big dinner, and we admired my red, swollen leg, glad the wort was over. I took photos of the sting over the next several weeks as it went through the stages of healing. The jellyfish was Rhopilema nomadica Galil. Did you know that the stinging cells of the Cnidaria phylum have the fastest cellular mechanism in the world?

The day after yesterday’s fainting spell, I slept in instead of swimming. Low energy all day, easily tired by the usual chores. Caffeine withdrawal, or body recovery from the state I was in, I don’t know. But I’m content enough for now to putter around and do simple tasks, having been reminded how tenuous this hold on the conscious life, on life itself, can be.


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Posted by on July 8, 2014 in Places & Experiences


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Why I write, with an introduction involving soil

A lightness came as I shook soil out of those sods, thumping them against my spading fork as night fell. Cool of the evening balanced by the heat of work, air still, I wiggled my glove into the pile, grasped a body of dry sod, knocked loose soil down, watched it rain down. Tossed the remaining fibrous roots on the new pile beside the sprawling berry canes, layered in with warm gray-green grass clippings. The mound of soil cone-shaped like an ant hill erupting between concrete slabs. Not an efficient industrial process, hands directly massaging the soil, repetitive small movements, mixing and planting as if in a slow cooker under coals on the beach. When the pile is complete, I’ll moisten it, cover with a tarp and let it cook down to a rich mixture that will heal the place where the earth moving equipment gouged the back of the garden last year, shattering the orderly structure of the soil and bringing concrete-like subsoil to the surface. Now rocky and almost  impenetrable, it will be transformed into something soft and earthwormy, ready for seeding.

Today my husband and I cleared away some of the chaos if the patio–the pile of old door frames split into kindling, chunks of this years’ cherry tree and last years’ birch and gum tree, toy swords of wood, PVC pipe, and duct tape, plant flats, tools, and ongoing wood finishing projects. My daughter swept the surface clean and helped put up the big rust red canopy bought on  sale last fall. Now we have a refuge from summer heat raining from the open sky and bouncing up from the concrete. The neighbors’ cedars, willows and grapevines are framed into view from what feels like a special room now inviting us to sit and visit, read, take a break. Turned a corner for me in my desire to make this place more of a home, a welcoming place not always under construction and in transition. Now to complete the sanding and finishing of the outdoor furniture, maybe add some mini lights to the canopy rafters, and what might come to pass here, sun or rain. Let your little light shine.

My husband and I reopened a dialogue the other day about my writing habit, in which I tried to explain why it was not a “hobby.” I might have time for it now, he said, but would I be able to fit it in when I went back to teach, when my duties would have to be more tightly scheduled and excesses culled? For once I stayed calm about it instead of turning inward, stayed realistic instead of taking offense, accepting the fact that we do have a hard time understanding one another, we humans, despite the things we share in common, how intimate we may be in some ways, we are always in a sense on the outside looking in, so no sense taking it personally. Since he’d asked a fair question, he deserved a fair answer. I answered over several days, will still be answering, since it’s not easy to explain, and I have to check my thinking for selfishness, defensiveness, snobbery, impracticality, elitism, and so on.

I said I write to understand and process–can’t do without it when I have important questions or am troubled. I said I write to create, it’s human nature, image of the Creator, and everyone has to discover their channels for that. I said I write to unwind, to relax, for enjoyment, and that’s important for everyone. I said I write to grow–have to keep challenging myself, accepting challenges from others, getting better if I can, asking questions, finding out what other people think and have experienced. I said I write to be useful–maybe I can help someone else, clarify, get at something others can’t see, connect in a meaningful way. By the way,thanks for reading this, for caring. I write because you are there.




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Posted by on July 6, 2014 in Places & Experiences, Writing


We treasure all these moments

A song for you: