Saturday, December 26, 2009

Boxing Day in Ferguson’s Cove

Today is Boxing Day, also known as St. Stephen’s Day, and also known as December 26, the day after Christmas Day. For many people in Canada it is a big shopping day with great Boxing Day bargains, but here in Nova Scotia it is a holiday. I learned this when I went to the Superstore this morning to pick up a short list of things and found both it and the Sobey’s closed and had to rely on the food aisles in Shopper’s, which was both open and busy, to get some of the things we needed. I wasn’t unhappy that the big stores were closed today because it really enforced the notion that it is a quiet day, a relief from the excitement and celebration of Christmas Day, a day to reflect on our blessings (which are many).

Here the day is pearly grey, the air still and mild, a degree or two above freezing, a good day for us to hang out at home, make mulligatawny soup for lunch, and take Dewi, who is here for a sleepover, for a walk through our quiet neighbourhood and around the Ferguson’s Cove Road loop with my brother and his daughter before she heads back to Ontario.

No lining up for electronics sale items at the big box stores, no rushing around to see how much is off at any store, no need to do anything much. That’s a good Boxing Day.

In fact, there’s even some time to take a picture in our living room (E. is deep into a good book) and write a short post before I go to do some reading myself.

Season’s greetings. Celebrate life and the people you hold dear.

Monday, December 21, 2009

'Tis the season

Today is the Solstice. Olé, I say, or to be truer to my Anglo-Saxon forebears on this northern day, hooray!

There’s always an irony in the solstice, I think. Today the days begin to get longer as the earth’s axis tilts back toward our personal star, that sun of ours. From here we’ll be able to watch the sunrise move from its southeast point in front of Deborah’s house back down the hill to the harbour and follow it through the equinox, when it will rise over by the lighthouse, until the other solstice on June 21, when it’s straight across the harbour from us and ready to start back southward again. The irony lies in the fact that the lengthening of day’s light that starts tomorrow, and the sun’s greater height in the noonday sky, signals the beginning and not the end of winter.

They knew all about this back in Hants County when they said:

As the days get longer
the cold gets stronger.

And it does, count on it!

I’m thinking of something by my old friend WCW called The Descent of Winter. Looking for it I came across “January Morning: Suite”, with this in it, addressed to his grandmother, I’m guessing, the same one whose last words you really should go here to read:


All this----
was for you, old woman.
I wanted to write a poem
that you would understand.
For what good is it to me
if you can’t understand it?
But you got to try hard----
Well, you know how
the young girls run giggling
on Park Avenue after dark
when they ought to be home in bed?
that’s the way it is with me somehow.

That’s the way it is with me too sometimes. I start off writing about the solstice and end up reminiscing about Williams and those years in Vancouver in the late 60’s when I first discovered his words. And then I remember a solstice celebration from back then when we were all self-declared pagans and where I wanted to roast a goose but couldn’t get a fresh one and spent a couple of greasy hours trying to thaw its frigid and elongated carcass in the bathtub for our feast that night.

So it is the solstice, the longest night of the year, and the day (sol + stit) when the sun stands still at its lowest point in the noon sky. But it is also the turning point toward the light, something all of us pagans (paganus: villagers) in this northern world can celebrate with our wassail (ves heill: be in good health!), both the occasion and consumption of it and the libation consumed.

So, like A. suggested this morning, let’s toast the day, let’s wassail!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Yup, it's winter now

It’s here, never mind what the date says. It’s exactly a week before Christmas and three more days till the solstice, but winter has arrived this time. It’s here.

We knew it yesterday when we woke up and saw the season’s first wisps of sea smoke sweeping out over the harbour. And we knew it the day before when the temperature began to drop through the afternoon and the damp leaves I was raking up began to stiffen and freeze. It was a blast of cold air, straight out of the northwest, with a drop overnight of about 15 degrees that brought a wind chill yesterday of minus 23, not Edmonton by any means, but plenty cold for here, cold enough in fact to make sea smoke and cold enough to say, yes, it’s winter.

This morning we have sea smoke again. The temperature is minus 13 and the wind chill 10 degrees colder, and the old frostbite in my fingertips is still aching from being outside long enough to load the blue bags of recyclables into the cold car, brush the snow off, tie the green cart on behind, and take them all up to the road. There was a bunch of cuttings from the hydrangea to tie up, but my fingertips decided I should wait for an easier day and get rid of them next time around.

Around sunset yesterday Lorraine plugged in our outside winter lights – the darkness does surround us pretty early these days – and took a few images.

When I went out on the deck much later to unplug them it had snowed a little and the sound it made under my boots was wonderful. It made me think of a couple of lines from my Grade 3 reader that have always stuck with me:

I love snow when it squeaks like leather
Or two wooden spoons that you rub together.

The leather simile makes perfect sense when you hear that kind of snow under your boots; as to the wooden spoons, I’m not so sure, but for Grade 3 students it at least gave us a rhyme to remember.

This poetic phenomenon seems to happen only with the snow that drifts down on these very cold dry days or nights, which doesn’t happen often here with our somewhat temperate maritime climate, but when it does it’s always a treat. And this morning that same snow with its squeaky crystalline structure swept easily (not enough yet for the shovel) from the walkway.

So today it really is winter and we will look for happy ways to adjust to it, like getting a Christmas tree, lighting some candles in the evening, and inviting friends to celebrate the coming of the season.

Monday, December 14, 2009

My Maple Leaf Card

It’s official, I picked it up today, my Maple Leaf card, so I am now a certified Permanent Resident of Canada, also known as a PR. Hooray for that, I say, though you might wonder if you saw the image on my card why they decided they wanted to make me permanent since I look neither very happy (the passport photo guy wouldn’t let me smile) nor open to making significant positive contributions to my new homeland. But there we are, so for all of you Canadians out there, I am now one of you! Or, to be more accurate, I almost am.

The next step of course is to get my Canadian citizenship, so I can vote and carry a passport like yours and feel I truly belong here (just like my mother and six brothers and wife and three children and three grandchildren and sundry friends and acquaintances and neighbours). But then getting my citizenship is another story, much longer than this one, and it will just have to wait for another post.

The front of my new card, besides the very stern image of FIELD ROGER MICHAEL, has a tiny Canadian flag in the upper left corner, a stylized Canada goose in the lower right (just above the cute Canada printed with an even tinier flag over the final a), and a silver maple leaf just below centre with built in holograms of other maple leaves and the Canadian coat of arms. It’s a sturdy card, and I will carry it in my wallet as a symbol of my sturdy (and stern) patriotism.

The back of the card tells even more, in very small type, about FIELD ROGER MICHAEL:

Height/Taille 179 cm
COB/PDN BMU (translation: Country of Birth/Pays de Naissance BERMUDA)
PR Since/RP Depuis 15 04 1947
Category/Categoire XXX/XXX

The second last line above tells it all: it says I’ve been a PR since April 15, 1947, which is a very long time. The problem has been that I haven’t had a card to say so since I mislaid my original Landed Immigrant card a few years ago and have carried around a well worn notarized copy of it and my Bermudian birth certificate (also mislaid), which looks like a page from a late Victorian ledger. So now I have my new card to prove that I am truly and officially a Permanent Resident of Canada, at least for the next five years, at which time I may have to renew it if the citizenship thing doesn't work out.

I am puzzled, though, about that last line, my Category/Categoire. Does XXX (the English version) indicate that I’ve been a PR for far too long? After all, it is coming up to 63 years since I was granted status as an immigrant here and maybe my time and Canada’s patience is running out. And what does XXX (the French version) signify? I should have asked J., my CIC officer and greeter today, because she would have been bilingual, but I was so happy to have the card that I didn’t even look on the back. So I think I’ll have to take my Category on faith, unless I can find some other PR’s like me and check out the backs of their cards.

So if you see me walking a little differently over the next few days or even weeks, with a little more bounce in my step, it’s because I am now a PR, I live here, and I’ll happily show you the card to prove it.

All we need now is for our government to do something to make all of us Canadians proud -- just don’t hold your breath right now waiting for that to happen!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Whence cometh our hope?

Last night at dinner with friends and acquaintances the conversation was pretty much continuous, wide ranging, and consistently both engaged and engaging. This morning Lorraine commented about the fact that no one there had mentioned Obama’s acceptance speech in Oslo. It hadn’t occurred to me, perhaps because I was either engaged or engaging, but when she mentioned the fact it did also strike me as odd. It wasn’t that we didn’t talk about politics at all, as there was some discussion of Ron Graham’s article on Michael Ignatieff, but the implicit ironies of Obama’s speech never came up. And when I checked just now on Al Jazeera for some commentary, the America’s Blog piece, Obama’s Big Sellout written by Teymoor Nabili, turned out to be about Wall Street and financial bailouts rather than a reflection on the saddening aspects of that Peace Prize speech.

So there it is. He made his speech, or, to be more accurate, he delivered his lecture. A very thoughtful and capable young student we know in Istanbul posted a Facebook comment: War is Peace. And Lorraine and I talked not about Orwell, but about the end of hope. It was not a statement of despair, and not in fact the end of all hope, but the end of hoping for some change for the better to come from the USA. The fact that the person, that smart and engaging young guy who had once seemed so eloquent and charismatic and inspirational, became President, the President, and then became so entangled in the convolutions of American style legislative bartering, that he had to deliver a speech to appease his opponents at home rather than talk to the world about hope and possibility, was profoundly saddening. It was less an opportunity missed than it was a hard slap of cold reality in a difficult world. And a statement of something that has been lost.

It was not really such a bad lecture/speech. You can find the full text here, and it's definitely worth a read if you missed it on Thursday. It was thoughtful and deliberative and carefully constructed, as I suppose it needed to be in this political world, but the fact that it was more about justifications for the use of power, military power, economic power, American power, than about meaningful reflections on the use of that power and exploration of peaceful alternatives was deeply disappointing. You can’t see it in the text but you can in the look of the crowd who were listening, the deep impassivity on their faces, a suggestion that we were not the only ones saddened by it.

Lorraine talked about a time long ago when we did look to the US for ideas and ideals, where there was some hope, perhaps naïve, but it was a hope for something good that might come from there. It’s not a place to look for hope right now and probably never will be again. And so the question, with its resonances of the King James Version of Christianity, is this: Whence cometh our hope?

It’s a good question, no matter the version or language, and there are some good answers walking around out there, though none are easy. I’m not going to get into them here, because that’s another story, or bunch of stories, but I do just wish that on Thursday Barack Obama could have found a way to be at least a part of one of those answers.

Moving Rocks II

It is a fresh winter day with a gusty norwester, wind chill of minus ten, blue harbour, white-capped waves, and darker squalls moving across the water. B’s small boat is plowing its way in to the Cove, probably with fresh lobster aboard, and the Hapag Lloyd container ship, Dresden Express, is just sailing in, bright spray splashing off its bow bulb, with the pilot boat just behind, likely glazed with ice the way waves are flying over its bow. It’s a sunny cold December day of blue skies and white puffs of travelling cloud with occasional flurries of snow rushing through.

Yesterday provided me with the bit of mild weather I needed to complete a few of those leftover tasks that winter will prevent. The dirt pile next to the walkway has been leveled, with the extra soil wheeled to some low-lying spots that needed filling, and all of the squills and grape hyacinths are now planted. Our granddaughter A. helped me move dirt and get rid of the rocks with a small scoop and plastic bucket, until she discovered the physical joy of tree climbing in our small but strong magnolia. We also checked out the possible site of a small treehouse I have been thinking about building in among the pines; she had some good ideas!

But the walkway is really the story here because I can now call it finished, at least until spring when we develop a herb garden next to it, do some encouragement of lawn at its upper edges, and figure out what to do about the two large red pine stumps on one side of it.

The process of building it, like my progress at moving the firewood into the shed, was slow. In fact, when I look at my post of June 30 about moving rocks, I can see that I had already started to dig out the path for the walkway and get some of the rocks organized for it. Besides figuring out and excavating where the walkway would go, I had to move the huge rock that was to become the first step from the driveway to the walk. I did that with sheets of plywood, pipe rollers, and Stephen’s big pry bar, but needed the assistance of our friends L. and E., who had come early one Wednesday for a walk before dinner, to help me maneuver the rollers and push it up the slope to its position at the near end of the driveway.
There was plenty of digging and leveling, cutting roots back, wheeling gravel, prying out two huge rocks that turned out to be in the way and much bigger than I anticipated, and stopping often to measure and align. It was good to work on it, but the fun part really started with building the wood borders out of treated 4x4’s fastened into the ground with pieces of rebar and figuring out the proportions and angles that would work. Once the borders were built I could start on the bed of crusher dust and begin the work of laying rocks, a process that took a lot of placing and re-placing, shifting and leveling, and calculating as I moved toward the driveway whether I had enough rocks to finish the job and how they would all line up.

Now it is done, and the dirt piles are leveled.
My mother has navigated it with her walker and pronounced it good, and various people have told us that they liked the look of it, so now I just have to wait for a decent snowfall and see how easy it is for shoveling.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Onset of Winter

“before the onset of winter” is a line I wrote about 45 years ago. I can’t recall the rest of the poem, but I have a copy of it somewhere and will likely either find or remember it in the next while. Until then I have just that line and the feeling the line conveys to me, that there is something that sets in every year, some presence or condition or fact, a thing we know as winter. And suddenly this year it seems to be upon us.

November was a great month, mostly bright, mostly mild, and mostly ideal for getting things done outside. But now it’s over. There are no more bright rainbows and no more looking at the previous day’s high and low temperatures on Environment Canada, comparing them with that day’s normals, and smiling that small smug smile that says, Hey, it’s November and we’re not doing badly at all. Now it’s December, and those outside chores, like leveling out more of the dirt pile from the walkway, finishing some last bits of painting, and getting a few more bulbs into the ground, may not get done before the onset of winter, because the onset has begun.

Yesterday I dumped out the wheelbarrow that still held the accumulation from Saturday night’s storm and got a large slosh of water and a pan of ice a couple of centimetres thick that broke neatly on the hard ground. I did plant some squills and grape hyacinth in the black dirt under the pine needles, because it was still soft there, and moved quite a few loads of soil to fill some low spots once I’d broken the frozen crust on the pile, but my look at the forecast showed only one day this week with a high about zero (Thursday morning it’s supposed to be raining and nine degrees) so there were limits to what I could achieve. I knew that the season was changing and my time was limited.

This morning as I walked up the lane to the bus I saw a thin skim of ice on the pond and some small icicles in the brook runoff. It wasn’t really cold, maybe minus six, and I thought of how pleasant winter could be, especially if it was as gentle as this and I had my down jacket on. Almost everyone who got on the bus was bundled up, most wore tuques or hats, and the bus heater seemed to be on full blast. It was an onset of winter morning.

When we drove out around Bedford this afternoon, I realized that Saturday night had brought them a lot more snow than we got down by the harbour. Although we had a few skiffs of white here and there, the clearest sign of winter for us was the crystalline texture of some of the soil I had used for the garden space next to the walk and the fact that the large flowerpots were frozen solid, but out along the highway the spruce trees were still loaded with snow three days after the storm and at Bayers Lake there were huge piles at the edges of all the parking lots.

It is still a couple of weeks until the solstice and the official onset, but something has changed in the season. That something is upon us, and its name, I think, is winter.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Sun after rain

Today started cold but soon became tropical, with southerly winds and piles of driving rain. In the late afternoon the wind shifted toward the west and some of the sky cleared. There was a bit of low sun, sun after rain, and it was beautiful. A huge rainbow arched over the harbour, and small fragments of high clouds turned a little pink, while the lower rags and tags of grey cloud from the storm went racing across the sky.

There is something to love about sun after rain. It always seems more golden. And the blue of the sky always looks so washed and fresh that it feels brand new.

I remember my long first winter in Vancouver and the day after day after day of rain, something I had never experienced before. But what still sticks with me is those instances toward sunset when the dome of cloud we lived under would lift in the west just enough to reveal a bit of clear sky and the beneficent rays of sun that shone sideways across the city illuminating everything. It was a wonder.

As today was a wonder. I was driving through a washed world. The low gold of the sun shone on my left side, there was the bright freshness of blue sky with scraps of cloud in front, and a brilliant rainbow was arching on my right.

No photo, just my eyes, and the brief glory of some sun after rain lighting our world. What else do you need?

Sunday, November 29, 2009

I recant

OK, so Friday’s post was not entirely justified. The ninth month of the old Roman calendar, November, isn’t necessarily any darker than the tenth month, nor than the first one of the new year, named after Janus the god with two faces. I knew it when I wrote it, and knew it even more clearly today.

The forecast this morning was to continue cloudy with occasional showers becoming more frequent in the afternoon. Now it’s Saturday night, a dark November night, but the day, however short, had its share of surprises.

The first was a small strip of blue sky to the northwest and then some brightness from the southeast as the cloud began to thin there. The lighthouse was illuminated over at Mauger’s Beach, you could hear the surf crashing all the way across the harbour, and the long shoal out at Thrumcap was all white water.

Soon the sun was shining and the world came alive the way it does when sun shines right after the rain. The stones in the new walkway glowed in the low golden light.

The split wood from last spring was still piled against the pine tree over by the wellhead.
And the burning bush was now bare except for its crop of tiny bright berries.
Later, when we were driving out to look after the girls, the sun came out again in the middle of a heavy shower, a gorgeous double rainbow arched over the city, and every car produced huge plumes of bright spray along the highway. It was, in fact, quite a beautifully lit November day.

Tonight is dark, but then most nights are. We drove with the girls looking for early Christmas lights, and there were a few. There is a moon that’s been trying to shine through tonight, and Anna showed us a star.

It is November, and it’s a dark enough month, but, like they say, it could be worse.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Dark November

It’s almost the end of November, it’s Friday night, and it’s dark. November has always been to my mind the dark month. It doesn’t make a lot of sense really, since the days continue to get shorter right up until the solstice in December, but it has always seemed darker, so there it is, November, the dark month (even if this year’s November has been mostly bright and mild here).

Years ago, decades actually, I had a very capable Grade 10 student who had the idea that November should be designated as the suicide month; in fact, one of her suggestions, if I remember correctly, was that the small dark town we lived in then should have suicide facilities open in November for interested candidates, just to make it easier for everyone. She didn’t stick with her dark obsession, but the notion of dark November is a powerful one and I can’t ever step into the month without thinking of her.

Robert Creeley put the darkness there, right in the middle of this poem:

I Know a Man

As I sd to my
friend, because I am
always talking, -- John, I

sd, which was not his
name, the darkness sur-
rounds us, what

can we do against
it, or else, shall we &
why not, buy a goddamn big car,

drive, he sd, for
christ's sake, look
out where yr going.

An old friend once suggested what we can “do against/it”. He told us, It’s November, finally you can see! And he was right -- the overpowering green of the leaves is gone, the sun is lower in the sky, there’s no snow to reflect what light there is, and you can see what is there. Yesterday at the Frog Pond we walked around and over still grey boulders, the bright rust of pine needles strewn everywhere, and the even more brilliant green of the damp moss that covered all of the shaded surfaces. When we came out by the pond the water shone silvery grey around reflections of pines and the dark shapes of mallard ducks near the shore. It was November and you could see.

But now it’s dark, (in the US it's Black Friday, which has somehow become more important than the giving of American thanks) and that darkness starts to fall long before the invisible sun drops away. It is the dark days, days of low cloud, drizzle, rain, fog, black tree branches against grey skies. It’s late November. And the days will keep on getting shorter before the earth starts to tilt back towards a brighter time.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Feeder birds - the size advantage

Today I was standing at the kitchen sink soaking my fingernail, the one that got blackened when I was laying flagstones in the new walkway, and looking out the window. The seed feeder and suet cage are in the small red pine outside the window, strategically placed so that anyone can watch from the kitchen window. They had both been empty for a while, and it wasn’t until a couple of days ago that I got round to pouring the seeds in and putting a suet cake in the cage feeder. While I was working outside, moving soil and bits of sod to fill in next to the walkway and helping Lorraine prune the magnolia, it struck me that birds didn’t seem to be coming to the feeder; that is, the seed level was not dropping the way it did a few weeks ago when a small flock of about two dozen blue jays regularly and noisily visited, along with a red squirrel who hung onto the feeder and the seed bell I had hung, and helped themselves until everything was gone.

So while I soaked my fingernail, I watched the feeders. Within a minute or so, three chickadees showed up and took turns hanging on the suet cage and pecking at the cake or picking seeds carefully from the tray of the feeder and flying off to eat them. They were delicately beautiful, the way chickadees always are, and I was happy just to watch them, since I had to soak my fingernail anyway and their activity was consistently engaging.

Within another minute or so, I saw a flick of movement behind the trunk of the pine. Almost immediately a small woodpecker worked its way around the trunk, looked at the suet cage, and flew over to it. The move was aggressive and it was a bigger bird, so the chickadees quickly flew off to different branches and left the woodpecker to address the suet. I admired its agility, the white stripes on its black wing feathers, and the shape of the white patch on its back. It made me wonder whether this was a downy or a hairy woodpecker, since they are exactly alike except for size and beak shape, and I hadn't seen either kind for a while.

I didn’t have long to wonder about it because a pair of my much larger blue jay buddies showed up in their cocky blue and grey splendour. Their moves were as aggressive as the woodpecker’s had been, and it was gone in an instant, so they proceeded to chase each other away until one decided there were enough scraps on the ground that it wasn’t worth fighting for a spot on the cage. So I watched these two beautiful birds working the territory, but again it didn’t last long.

Another woodpecker, much bigger than the first one (which was, then, clearly a downy), landed on the pine trunk and flew right over to the suet cage. I realized that this one, a hairy woodpecker, was almost exactly the same body size as the jay that was on the other side of the feeder. Here, for the first time, there was no size differential, and surprisingly – for me at least – the two birds shared the little suet cage. Of course I didn’t have the camera close by to catch the two together, but I did catch each of them clinging to the cage.

And that’s really all. There were no bigger birds to chase either of them away from the feeder, and my fingernail had likely soaked long enough, so I dumped the water and took one last look out the window. The blue jays and the hairy woodpecker were gone, but a pretty little chickadee was there pecking carefully at the suet cake.

Saturday, November 14, 2009


It’s November and we are back in Ferguson’s Cove after six days in Ontario visiting the beloved members of our family who live there. Being back means that we can return to the tasks of the house and walkway as well as to doing things with friends here and enjoying (again) what we can see and hear from our house on the edge of Halifax Harbour.

Today the November weather continued mild (once we got past the wet little blizzard just over a week ago) and we decided to work outside. Besides the walkway which is still not finished there was some painting to do as a result of the roof work and deck construction outside our bedroom. So we got stepladders and drop cloth and caulking gun and scraper and set to the task at hand. The wind blew out of the southeast and you could hear the surf breaking on Mauger’s Beach across the harbour. There were lasers sailing through the stiff chop, escorted by a zodiac from the Squadron, and a large tanker that sailed in.

The tanker had an orange hull, pale green superstructure, and the words PENNEY UGLAND painted on its side. It’s a reasonably pretty ship for a tanker, partly because of those striking colours, but also because its lines are attractive. I knew I had seen this ship before and was struck by an image from last spring in Istanbul. We were with our good friends, K&A, and their wonderful boys, walking along the edge of the sahil yolu (seaside road) below Rumeli Hisar, the fort that Sultan Mehmed (the Conqueror) built in 1452. It was a beautiful Sunday morning in May and we were heading for one of the great kahvalti (breakfast/brunch) places along there. On our right as we walked was an empty tanker churning its way up towards the Black Sea, large white bow wave and white spray from the propeller screw, with a Coast Guard tug apparently escorting it on its journey through the Bosphorus.

For me this was a magnificent sight. The tanker, which in my mind’s eye must have said PENNEY UGLAND on its side, towered above us as it headed under the Second Bridge, and I stopped to watch, wishing one of us had a camera. I have been a ship watcher for as long as I can remember (or about 60 years), and I have always been fascinated by the way ships move through the water – if there are ships moving, I need no other entertainment. So I watched this ship and its tug escort and recorded the image only in my mind.

Today while we were painting, the PENNEY UGLAND tanker, with its orange hull and pale green superstructure, made its way into the harbour. I stopped what I was doing to watch it. A little later I got back to work, and much later I got to the computer to check on the ship. I was taken by the thought of this being the same ship and of the contiguity of salt water and waterways that connect every port and allow ships I saw in Istanbul to travel in and out of this harbour. It did turn out, however, that this was the Mattea, jointly owned by Penney from Newfoundland and Ugland from Norway, registered in St. John’s, and built to bring crude oil ashore from the Hibernia field, so it wasn’t this ship I stood watching in the Bosphorus, but probably one of the many tankers registered in Piraeus that take crude from Black Sea ports to European refineries. It is no matter really, it was another ship for me to watch, and a strong enough image to put me back six months ago, walking with some of the best people I know towards a great Turkish kahvalti place with a view of the great city and its magic waterway, the Bosphorus.

It’s November, the dark month (more on this in another post), but today was bright and mild and I watched a ship that reminded me of another time and place. And we still got the painting done!

It wasn't a bad day at all.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Look and the Feel of Autumn

It is near the end of October. The wind has been blowing and the trees are being stripped of their leaves, but tonight the air is still, cold but still.

Out by our driveway there’s not much to be found of all those brilliant red leaves that adorned the maples earlier or the delicate red-orange of the sumacs, and the yellow leaves have now flown from the paper birches. In sheltered spots, like under the pines, there are patches of yellow and orange on maple saplings, the kiwi vine is just starting its shift from bright green to equally bright yellow, the bush behind the hydrangea has turned the most beautiful coppery red, and our burning bush is still burning, though the upper branches are now showing their tiny orange berries rather than the bright red leaves in the photo.

Before supper we walked around the Frog Pond. There were yellow pine needles on all the trails and yellowing leaves on the sawtooth and trembling aspens. We still saw a few red maples, and on the way to the house the oaks on either side of Purcell’s Cove Road glowed golden. When we drove over Mount Uniacke last Friday on our way to the Valley, there was not a leaf on a tree at that height of land, but it was a wonder to see the soft yellow-green of the needles on all the tamaracks. It is autumn here and the leaves are slipping away.

I am writing this for a young friend who lives in Istanbul and yearns for the colours of a North American autumn. We think of her often as we look at the various shades of the changing leaf colours and the light they cast over everything. An old friend used to say when she was looking and looking that she was collecting and saving images against her old age and her blindness. I also keep looking and looking even though I'm not really thinking of age or blindness, but I can’t look hard enough to allow that dear friend way over in Istanbul to see what I see. Since I don’t have much in the way of photos, I have to try to convey it through the images of these words.

The woodstove is on right now, the night is dark, and the bright autumn moon is moving toward full (check it out here – it's October 28). When you venture out, you can feel the dry coolness that our friend loves, air that makes you want to put on a good pair of socks and a jacket over your sweater. It is late October and we are near the end of our autumn colours, so if you are anywhere that has the look and feel of a North American autumn, think of our young friend who would love to be here in autumn, and get out and enjoy it, for her as well as for your own self.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Cat in the Hat

On Sunday we saw a friend of ours in his new hat for the first time. It was a brown fedora, a great hat, and it changed how he looked and how we saw him.

This is a friend who likes on occasion to acquire new and good quality things, and the hat was both new and high end. You could tell as soon as you saw him that it was a good hat, and though it was a change in his look, it really suited him.

I held it and admired the weight and feel of it. I looked inside and saw that it was made in Italy by a company called Borsalino, which, it turns out, is one of the world’s finest hat makers. Of course it would be, I realized.

I tried it on, and remarkably it fit my large Anglo-Saxon head exactly. Our friend said that it was a 60, which is the metric equivalent to a seven and a half in our traditional hat size system. It felt good on my head, even though I am not much of a hat person, except for necessities like my tuques in winter and my faded Merganser for summer sun.

Our friend said that wearing the hat made him feel a lot like his father, whom he said he was coming to resemble more and more (this is a feeling I also know!).

I told him that we had noticed a couple of years ago in Paris the number of very distinguished looking gentlemen wearing classy fedoras. Then I noticed it in some high end areas of Istanbul. It was a fedora trend, and our friend was at the cutting edge of fashion.

When I told him this, he insisted the Borsalino fedora was the farthest thing for him from a fashion statement; it was, he said, a movement toward his very unfashionable father, whose fedora was likely made in the USA. And he described a recent moment when he was walking at night, saw the shape of his shadow on the sidewalk, and realized that he had become his father.

I remembered my own father, with his strong nose and chin and a pale grey fedora with a long curved brim. He looked sharp in it, I thought, but it was not a look I ever desired. I still don’t, but I did like the feel of our friend’s fine Italian fedora. I especially liked the trimness of the brim, and our friend said that he did too; in fact, he said that maybe he really wanted to look more like a 50’s jazz musician than like his father, whose fedora would have sported (so to speak) a more conservative and broader brim.

And he did! I told him he was actually a hep cat. He smiled his large and affable smile.

He was, in truth, the cat in the hat.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

First frost, first fire

It is almost three weeks since my last post and some things have changed in the interval. We were fortunate to have a good stretch of calm dry weather while we painted the house and then while I moved the firewood into the shed, but this morning the north wind is persistent and the temperature at the airport is 0.1 degrees. That's colder than I like in October, but that's the way it is; storms have been swirling through here driving rain against our windows and filling the wheelbarrow, and it seems as though the wind has been funneling from the north or northeast for more than a week. There has been a change in the season.

When we lived in Istanbul, Lorraine talked about the seasonal changes that happened there and the fact that there seemed to be one day in the fall where the temperature just dropped by ten degrees and stayed there, and a day in the spring where it jumped up by ten degrees and stayed. I didn’t think that it could be as simple and abrupt as that – and perhaps it wasn’t entirely – but it really did seem to happen. It suddenly got colder or warmer and stayed that way; the season just changed. Seems like it’s the same here this year.

I'm happy that the wood is in the shed and the house is painted, because the seasonal change has happened. Not only have we had our first fire, with that faint smell of burning dust and the clicking sounds in the stovepipe as the stove heats up, but it has been going most days and nights since we started. The wood this year is good, it lights easily and there is little of the bubbling and hissing you get with damp or unseasoned wood, and we are back into the woodstove ritual, bringing wood up from the shed, making sure there is kindling, building the fire, watching the burn, and adjusting the damper – all this so that we can enjoy that radiant warmth through this changed season as we move toward winter.

The other part of this picture (though there is no image to illustrate it) is the first hard frost of the season. It happened earlier this week, and it wasn’t without warning. This was not the “Risk of frost in low lying areas” notification but a simple “Frost warning continued” from Environment Canada, and they were right. I looked out in the morning and saw that the windshield of our Subaru was completely white. When I checked the leaves of the bean plants that I had covered in plastic the night before, they were a darker green, a sign I needn't have bothered, while the hostas were suddenly yellower and a little more wilted.

Frost had struck, the first of the season, and once that has happened there aren't many more surprises. More frosts will follow, and we will continue our seasonal descent, whether we like it or not.

So, it's time. Feed the stove. Get the gloves out. The season has changed and winter is coming. You might as well get ready and you might as well like it.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Two Sundays

Two Sundays spent with family. If you click on an image, you can make it really big; just click the back arrow to return to the blog post.

The first Sunday was a picnic at Peggy’s Cove. It was a quiet spot, away from the other visitors.

We threw snails and pebbles into the water.

We found a sand worm. T. said it made him think of Dune.

I caught a crab. It pinched my forefinger but I hung on to it.

We went up by the lighthouse, but it was locked.

We climbed on the rocks. Some people practiced jumping.

The second Sunday (yesterday) was a birthday celebration at our house.
T. is now 37 and he got his first backhoe, something he has always wanted.

S. watched the mayhem from a safe distance.

Woofer had a ride on the backhoe.

The girls decorated the cake.

It was beautiful.

They helped T. blow out the candles.

The cake was delicious. Two good Sundays.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Time of the Magic Light

After supper tonight Lorraine and I went for a walk. It hadn’t started to get dark yet, although the sun had set, as we walked up the hill towards York Redoubt. I noticed a couple of places next to the road where the maple leaves had started to turn red, and then I saw a small mountain ash, also known as a rowan tree, loaded with clusters of bright orange berries. In that moment the berries were glowing almost as if they were illuminated from within. I said, Look at that, and Lorraine replied, Yup, it’s the magic light time. I looked at the sky and at the light that shone from it, even without the sun showing, and then at my hands, which also seemed to be glowing with inner light and colour. It really was the magic light time, the time that Lorraine is always looking for when she wants to make a photograph, the time when everything glows.

We live in a northern clime where the time of magic light is stretched out a little by the angle of the sun as it sets, so that we have a longer twilight time than places farther south. Some people call this time the gloaming, a northern word, Germanic in origin, that is connected with that glow I was talking about. So tonight we were walking up the hill in the gloaming, and the mountain ash berries caught my eye in the gloaming. There were no photographs tonight, just the brightness of some autumn berries, but the magic light was there, and the world glowed.

In Palmyra, our oasis home in Syria, the twilight is shorter, just as the glow before sunrise is shorter, than here in Nova Scotia. But that doesn’t mean there is no magic light there. In fact, out in the desert the stillness that happens as night is falling has a magic of both light and feel. The wind usually falls away, and there is a silence out there. It is quiet and restful, and that world also glows.

A few kilometres from the town, the sun sets behind a distant ridge of hills, and the magic light time is extended a little more than if it just dropped behind a flat desert horizon. It was the perfect time for making photographs, Ghassan and Mohamed’s figures glowing as they walked away from the camera, and the silence falling all around us. Right after we finished photographing there walked a camel, followed by another, and another, until there was a long parade of camels, including a few spindly-legged babies, on the edge of a low rise with the sky glowing behind them. The world seemed to be holding its breath, with just the silent steps of the camels walking past us, silhouetted against that evening sky. The magic was not just the light, but the wonder of those camels walking through our world. (If you click on the image above, you should be able to see it bigger.)

Where are they going? Lorraine asked Ghassan.

To their home, he said.

And we saw their home, a depression of soft sand near some tents we later came to know as Atala’s, before we drove back to town in Ghassan’s truck, to wait for the next magic light time and for Lorraine’s next photograph.

Saturday, September 19, 2009


Today has been a day when I have been made aware of blessings in my life. It started most significantly this morning when I attended a mental health conference here in Halifax. My intention in going was to hear Dr. Stan Kutcher speak about mental health and illness in young people. I went because I met Dr. Kutcher just over ten years ago when he has the lead doctor on our son’s medical treatment team at 6 Lane, a closed ward at the Abbie Lane Memorial Hospital, a hospital for treatment of mental illnesses. I remembered Stan’s attention and intelligence, his way of talking about mental disorders and our son’s condition, and his acceptance of Lorraine’s and my presence in Jon Eben’s hospital life and on/in the ward far beyond the boundaries of visiting hours. He was not the only person who was instrumental in Jon Eben’s recovery, but his role was key to the process, and we have always considered ourselves blessed that our postal code led to Stan Kutcher becoming Jon Eben’s doctor.

Stan’s talk was great, just like the other talks I heard him give many years ago. He has a way of making sense of the mysteries and helping us who listen find our way through the incredible turmoils and complexities of mental health and mental illnesses by his clear, informed, and down-to-earth approach. So I was blessed today by hearing his talk and by his reminders of what we can, and need to, do in order to try to make the environment we live in a better place for dealing with mental disorders and helping people who suffer from them; and I was blessed by the memory of our son’s illness, his recovery, and his present state as a loving and caring husband and father.

I have puzzled over the words “bless” and “blessed” and “blessing”. I want to avoid religious connotations, because I don’t especially care for the idea of some person or deity bestowing, like a kindly parent, some benefit or beneficence. To me the blessing is implicit in the thing or act itself and what matters most – in fact, the only thing that matters – is the consciousness or awareness of it. The fact that it comes to us in English from the French verb blesser, to wound, is significant. We are blessed through wounding, though I might take this to mean a wounding of our consciousness, a breaking through to a simple awareness of the blessings we have.

At supper tonight I told Lorraine, as I have said various times before, that I thought we were very lucky. She agreed. It was an evening, the first that needed a candle this season, to reflect on blessings, our blessings. I had a list in my head, today’s list. Some things on my list were probably – no, definitely – on Lorraine’s as well. Here is a partial list:

• our three grown children, and their loving partners, each of whom is a person I am proud to be connected to, each of whom brings his/her caring presence and attention to this sometimes difficult world;
• a handful of blackberries, so ripe they fall into your cupped palm, so sweet you can’t describe it;
• our three granddaughters, aged four, two, and one, each of whom is a privilege and a wonder to know, to hang out with, and to observe;
• a northern sky with clouds moving toward dusk, the light of it;
• two friends and former colleagues, who have been trying without success to have a baby, now in their fifth month of healthy pregnancy;
• steamed ruby chard with a little butter, honey, and balsamic and fresh bread;
• Ferguson's Cove, a small community of people who celebrated our neighbourhood today through a group picnic in our park with food and drink, games, conversation, and sidewalk chalk;
• a stretch of clear dry weather to get the wood in to the shed;
• the quiet of our house tonight, the lights of the city across the harbour;
• time to write this.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Learning and growing

One of our real treats (among many!) since we returned from Istanbul last July has been to spend a lot of time with our granddaughters, including E., who is now two and a bit. When she was a tiny baby a special privilege was being able to hold her and feed her with a bottle, and it is still a treat to have her climb up into your lap with a book to read. However, the biggest treat of all has been watching E. grow and develop over the fourteen months we have been back in Nova Scotia.

Something I have always done with small children, probably going back even to when my youngest brothers were still in diapers, is to play certain nursery rhyme games. These include “This little piggy”, carefully pulling a little on each toe as you say the rhyme, until you get to the tiny weeny baby piggy that goes “wee wee wee all the way home”. E. always kicks off her crocs when she comes into our house, and at some point in every visit she will put her foot in front of me and say “piggies”. I always do it, and she always waits for the little piggy of that foot to run home before she puts her other foot there and says “that one”. So then I do that one.

Usually after piggies have been done, she will put her hand out, palm up, and say “round round”, so I then do “Round and round the garden”, always ending with the underarm tickle. E. maintains a serious composure throughout, and then puts out her other hand and says “that one”, so it gets done too.

These are routine small child activities, like the “horsie ride”, which I have my own version of, ending always with the brave cowgirl from Calgary galloping and galloping until she tips backwards on “all fall down”. There is nothing remarkable really about doing these things with kids, except, of course, for the fun of it. What is truly remarkable, however, and also fun for me is to see how these activities change as E. changes.

“Piggies” has stayed pretty much the same, only tonight I had to do piggies on the little doll that E. has adopted as her own every time she comes to our house. So she watched very seriously while I picked each tiny plastic toe and enunciated the rhyme all the way through. And, of course, she said “that one” and got me to do the second foot. With “Round and round the garden”, the variation now is to have E. do it herself with her little forefinger in my large palm, including the walk up my arm to the “tickle you under there”, as well as having me do “baby round round” in the doll’s tiny plastic hand (and then, of course, the other one).

When E. has wanted a “horsie ride”, she will come up to me and say “Aaaa worsey ride”, and when I say OK (which I always do), she will sit very seriously on my knees for the whole routine. However, tonight, now that she is two and very grown up, she asked me to give baby a “worsey ride” instead, which I did. Then it was her stuffed friend Lambie’s turn, then her older sister A. brought Woofer for a ride, then Biffy Bean, and finally E. asked me to give the baby’s tiny plastic bottle a ride, but I drew the line there. Later, at the supper table, E. had the doll baby on her knees holding its little hands for a “horsie ride”, and sure enough she was going through the motions and saying “nim nim nim”, "jiggy jog, jiggy jog”, and “galpa galpa galpa all fall down”.

Learning and growing is what they do, E. included, and watching them do it, starting to take over control of their own lives and activities, is our particular joy every time we see them. Certainly worth coming back for!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Vanishing Point

Lorraine talked tonight of a friend from art school who had, when he was very young, looked for long periods of time at the edges of objects. He was trying to understand something about presence and non-presence, where the thing was and where it wasn’t. Like the china cabinet in the dining room or the television set, where each of them started and stopped. He didn’t keep doing it, but for a period of his life it was a compelling activity for him, and Lorraine was reminded of it by the presence and absence of the figure in her Body/Field: Temporal Inscriptions photographic series. We are here, our feet connect us with this ground, we move there, and are grounded again through our feet. Or we are here for a time and then we are not here, and we cannot imagine the absence of our presence in a place or time.

There are roses from the opening of her exhibition, Vanishing Point, of which Body/Field: Temporal Inscriptions makes up about one third; one bunch, all pink, is on the media centre and another, two deep red and one orange, on the dining room table. Their petals open out into the air, curled back slightly, whorled, unfurled. Each petal has an edge, a delicately veined edge that defines the flower’s place and presence in the room. It is that edge, or the thought of it, that takes me back to William Carlos Williams and his wonderful poem VII from Spring and All titled “The Rose”. Here are a couple of parts:

It is at the edge of the
petal that love waits


The fragility of the flower
penetrates space

You can read the whole poem here if you care to. (Do it, you won’t regret it.)

There is something I want to write about Lorraine’s work, but I can’t quite do it yet. The Williams poem is a start. If you want to know more, you can get some idea of some of her work here, but to really begin to appreciate and understand it, you need to go to Saint Mary’s University Art Gallery to see her new exhibition. The title is Vanishing Point, and there is in each image just that, a vanishing point, but what consistently engages and holds me, even takes my breath away, is not the “vanishing” but the engaged and engaging presence of every image. See it for yourself, now that the opening is over and the crowds have gone. You won’t regret it.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Painted House

Yesterday the painting of the outside of our house was completed, or pretty much completed. All that is left is picking up the ladders and paint buckets, cleaning a few spots off the deck and the windows, painting the posts and support beams under the deck, and tidying up the places where the grey and the green meet. Those same shades of grey and green can still be found on the backs of my fingers, my forearms, and the old shirt that I just threw in the garbage, thankful that the job is over, but the house is done.

I had considerable help in getting it done from Josh, a young university student from Australia, and his friend Claire, also a student and someone we have known for almost twenty years. It was a pleasant enough task, because of an unusually fine stretch of painting weather (interrupted only on a couple of weekends by tropical storms Bill and Danny) and because of our shared satisfaction in how well the house was shaping up.

Lorraine and I painted our house twelve years ago during the summer of 1997, just as we had painted other people’s houses in our first summers in Nova Scotia almost forty years ago. Actually “painted” is not quite the right word since we used an opaque stain called Sadolin Pinotex, a Scandinavian finish that has lasted very well, even though the southeast side of the house gets more than its share of severe weather. This year we have stained the house again, using new colours of Pinotex, and we hope that it will last at least as long as the previous coat. It certainly has a good chance of doing so because of the care with which we prepared the surface – Josh spent many hours on the ladder with a sander in his hands – and our careful determination to apply at least two sturdy coats of stain everywhere.

There is a satisfaction that comes from house painting, things like getting the staging and ladders into the most advantageous and stable position, getting the right amount of stain on the brush to make an even coat or line, working your way across or down a stretch of wall or trim, moving your operation as the sun moves around the house so that you aren’t painting too warm a surface, watching the constant activity in the harbour reflected in the window, and, of course, closing in on the final bits to have the job complete.

Now it is done and the house looks great. The staging can go back to Steeplejacks, the ladders hung up, and the brushes and buckets put away until touchup time. Now it’s time to move on with the work around our house, like wood to put in the shed, a walkway to be finished, mowing the lawn at least once more, and stopping on occasion to admire our house with its new coat of grey and green.