Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Like a lion

I can’t remember for sure but I think March came in like a lion this year. If it did, then, according to the lore, it should go out like a lamb. Well here in Ferguson’s Cove, Nova Scotia it certainly isn’t doing that! This morning my corner windows are covered with a pattern of ice pellets, and the fierce northeast wind is blowing snow horizontally across my view, more like the roar of a lion than the gentle gambol of a mild lamb.

When we lived in Hants County, more than twenty years ago now, we experienced our share of spring snowstorms. We would always hope that the village school would be closed (even me, the dedicated principal!) and the snow cold and dry enough so we could head out through the old wood roads and trails for what might be the last ski of that season. There people had names for these storms. If we had one after the smelts had been running up the streams, it was called, naturally enough, the smelt storm. A little later, using the same logic, we might have the gaspereau storm, interrupting those who liked to use their long-handled nets to dip them from the deep spot in the Mill Brook right by Frieze and Roy’s store. There could also be a robin storm, surprising those brave early birds and burying their worms for a while. And, every now and again, we might have one of those late spring systems known as a shad storm, around the time these large fish were running with the tides up the Shubenacadie River, though we preferred to mark shad season (mid-May) with the bright white blooming of the serviceberry trees, which we called shad, rather than white snow (poor man’s fertilizer, they said it was) on our lawns and gardens.

Here the storm seems now to be settling a little, and the ice is slowly starting to slide down my windows, but the forecast indicates we will have to wait until tomorrow for more truly lamblike conditions (and that, after all, could just be an April Fool’s Day prediction, given how weather works here!). This morning early, when it was still snowing and blowing hard, the juncos and song sparrows were having a hard time poking around under the feeder looking for some buried seed treasures, but when I went out to clear off the car I heard a bird song I had never heard before. It was the territorial call of our little cardinal friend, who was perched in one of the pines, bright red against the brown bark and green needles, singing away to let us know that come snow and sleet and freezing rain and hail he was here to stay.

So the storms come and they go, and we have no choice but to weather them. While we do, the bird songs, the swelling of buds on the red maples, and the snowdrops by the brook at Sheila and Stephen’s house all tell us to hang on, because something is coming, something we might dare to call spring.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Hugh Marsh, a fan letter

There is a sound you may notice if you listen to Loreena McKennitt, Michael Occhipinti, Bruce Cockburn, or Mercan Dede -- all Canadians, by the way, or in Mercan’s case, partly Canadian at least. You may notice the same kind of sound when you pay attention to the music in the background of any number of films, a sound that can be eerily fantastic, softly meditative, or soaringly emotive, the sound of Hugh Marsh, the great (also Canadian) improvisational jazz violinist. What always strikes me about Hugh’s music, wherever I hear it or think about hearing it, is its rightness. His music always feels absolutely right (in somewhat the same way Emmylou’s voice always does) in its sensitivity to sound and situation, but it does more than that; its magic is the way it consistently extends the range and the depth of what is possible in the piece you are listening to.

We first saw Hugh Marsh perform back in the 90's at the Rebecca Cohn in Halifax. We didn't go to the concert to hear Hugh; in fact, we hadn’t even heard of him and had driven with our kids (who were becoming young adults by then) from Truro to see a Loreena McKennitt concert, around the time of The Mask and the Mirror. It was a nice hall for a concert, not too big, good sound, a friendly spot, and Loreena looked wonderfully medieval with her long blond hair, her slender fingers plucking the harp, and her ethereal voice exploring those richly textured songs with tall (electronic) candles flaring all around the stage. It was a fine show that really captured the great sound of her songs, but one thing that truly stood out for all of us was the catlike presence of the violinist in the band. It was impossible as you watched him play not to pick out from all the threads of the music his distinctive sound and the way it danced with and around all the other sounds of each piece. That was Hugh.

Lorraine and I saw him again a few years later when we happened upon a noonday concert down at the waterfront during the Atlantic Jazz Festival. Here was a tight little jazz band, led by Michael Occhipinti and his guitar, playing pieces from Creation Dream, Occhipinti’s melodic exploration of Bruce Cockburn’s songs, and our hearts lifted again at the sight and sound of Hugh and his athletic violin. For the rest of the Festival we were like stalkers, tracking down every performance and workshop to get more of the band and more of Hugh’s musical intelligence and emotion. We bought the cd and listened to it often, and I can still remember later that summer, while I was sitting at sunset in our rented Trans Am down a little road in Halfmoon Bay, watching the silhouette of a heron standing on a huge log boom and waiting for darkness to fall enough for Lorraine to finish the photograph she was making, the soft lament of Hugh’s violin in the ending of "Homme Brûlant" and the wonder of the music he was making.

Finally, after we moved to Istanbul, we listened to various works by Mercan Dede, the young Sufi composer and player, and heard in the textures of all the voices and sounds Mercan collaborates with, the unmistakable violin of our Hugh. We went to several Mercan Dede concerts, including one featuring songs from Su at Yeni Melek (The New Angel) where Hugh was in the audience but not on the stage, but never managed to catch his appearances with Mercan. However, his sound is there, it is available, it can be heard, so check it out. Here is a nice little vignette with Steve Bell. You too can become a Hugh Marsh follower!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Wondrous things

One of the wonderful things we can do is to pay attention to how small children develop and grow, to watch them exercise their minds and bodies and push at the limits of what is possible for them. People describe the brains of young children as "plastic", and I don't really like the word because of all the meanings it carries in our time, but if you think of it as "plasticity", the ability to flex and stretch, or, to go back to the Greek root, to be moulded or formed, it makes sense as a descriptor of a body and mind that is growing and developing. The wonderful thing, I think, is being allowed to notice that plasticity in babies and young children, because one of their serious driving impulses is to spend their waking hours flexing and stretching and changing what was impossible to what is both possible and miraculous.

One of my sons talked to me yesterday about watching his eight month old daughter in a hands and knees crawling position, ready to go, or almost ready, but stuck in place, rocking back and forth. It is clear that some time soon she will make a move with one of her hands that will allow her to shift forward, maybe because she is trying to reach something, and perhaps a knee will then slide ahead, and, after some experimentation on her part, crawling will happen, and she won’t look back. In fact, she’ll just crawl over to the couch or chair so that she can pull herself up to a standing position and explore the next step. Seeing this process in action is to watch the wonder of growth and development happening.

Of course there is no real news here, because anyone who is around small children and pays attention knows this already. But what prompted me to write this post was the sheet of white paper that I saw after my other son and daughter-in-law took their girls home on Sunday. Our older granddaughter, A., who turned four last month, had told Lorraine, whom she knows as Nan, that she wanted to make a word with R's in it. Lorraine explained to her that her name had two R's and printed it for her, with a capital L and the rest small letters. A. looked at it and told her Nan she was going to print it in "upper case". Lorraine told her that was fine, and A. engaged with the task. Unfortunately her first R looked too much like an A (she’s been printing her own name for a while) so she started again, was happier with the result, and finished it, twice. When I saw the paper on the side table, Lorraine told me what A. had done, including her first attempt at the middle of the page, and I thought how wonderful. Not only did she convert the lower case letters to upper on her own, she persisted in extending the range of what she could do by practicing making R’s that didn’t look too much like A’s. It is always a great delight for me to notice how unstoppable children are in their learning.

It may not be a huge thing really, but it is one of the reasons I love to spend time around small children. It affords me the opportunity to have those privileged insights into how they are growing and developing and taking charge of their world by making sense of it. So I'm a very lucky guy to have our granddaughters to hang out with, as well as our pair of three year old friends in Istanbul, and to watch with wonder as they stretch and grow into their own unique and idiosyncratic manifestations of humanness.

Sunday, March 22, 2009


The wind was funnelling out of the north yesterday morning, the first full day of the new season, and it was cold enough, minus 6 or 7, to bring a significant chill. It blew all through the day, keeping the harbour a deep blue, marked with whitecaps. I don't mind wind per se -- it can bring a clean freshness as it blows through our days and it does dry the clothes on the line -- but there is something to be said for stillness.

When we lived in Maitland, in a tall house on a small knoll at the mouth of the Shubenacadie River (now home to a rafting company), the wind could buffet us from pretty well every direction, and much of the time it did. During a storm in our first winter when I walked around the corner of the house with a pot of boiling water (it was a frozen pipe at the wellhead problem), the bitter norwester scooped the contents of the pot in one fierce gust and glazed the front of my coat with instant ice. I resolved the issue by taking a kettle instead, but the presence of wind was an almost constant factor in our lives there, consistently making you tire more quickly as it roared past your ears when you were working outside. So we built fences to protect the gardens and found places to be that were in the lee. And we learned to value stillness, the quiet evenings when voices could be heard from way down the beach or across the salt marsh and the air lay still around us. There was always a relief and a gentle peace in it.

This morning the air is still. White plumes of steam curl straight up from the refinery stacks over by Eastern Passage. One gull flies across my view, then a crow, no gliding on the wind today, but a steady flapping to pull them through this air. The harbour is a pale calm mirror reflecting the morning sky, a dark patch breaking the surface from a small shoal of fish moving. Outside the kitchen window the trees are still, not a twig or needle even shivers in this morning air, and the only movement is the quick flick of the tiny woodpecker at the suet cage.

The sun will move up in the sky. Shifts in temperature will get the air moving through the day, a light souwester will likely darken the water as it gusts across the harbour, and clouds will come. Until then the morning is a still place to start this day. It may not stay that way -- it never does because the weather always moves here -- but right now it is a peace to cherish.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Lest we forget

The top story on Al Jazeera this morning was titled, “Gaza deaths dog Israeli Military”. It is a sad, but not surprising, commentary on the Gaza action which lay so heavily on our minds and hearts from Boxing Day on until finally it more or less stopped. It is easy to forget. Signs of spring appear, you play with your grandchildren, you go to artists’ talks, you cook dinners for family and friends, you spend time choosing which of all the possible things you’ll write your next blog post about, and you forget, if you are not careful to remember, that terrible things happened to innocent people in Gaza. This story is an important reminder.

The verb in the story’s headline is an appropriate one, suggesting as it does some kind of pursuit, not the annoying persistence of a puppy tugging at a pant leg, but the relentless running of a pack of dogs after something, in this case, some truths about what happened. It reminded me immediately of Waltz with Bashir (see the trailer here), which we saw Monday night, a profoundly moving exploration of what can happen when young men carry guns for their country and meditation on what using that gun does to the one who holds it as well as to those unfortunate enough to be on the other end of the barrel. It is a film to be seen in its entirety, and not just for the powerful opening sequence of dogs running through streets to stop outside the window of a veteran of the Israeli incursion into Lebanon in 1982.

It is hard to know who will provide the dogged persistence needed to uncover the wrongs that were inflicted on civilians in Gaza earlier this year. I for one am grateful to newspapers like Haaretz and news sources like Al Jazeera for reminding me not only of what happened in Gaza but what continues to happen, and to Ari Folman for a film that explores difficult things with thoughtful compassion for everyone damaged by the making of war. It is too easy to forget.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Learning Arabic

You may wonder why Lorraine and I are starting to learn Arabic. After all, if you read my post of March 7, you will have deduced that in five years in Istanbul I didn’t learn an awful lot of Turkish, and Turkish, since Ataturk’s time, is written in Roman rather than Arabic characters, which should have made it that much easier to pick up. I did take lessons from very good teachers there, but I didn’t do my homework and didn’t practice as I needed to, and thus didn’t make it over the hump to where I could get beyond the essentials in the language. The agglutinative nature of Turkish makes it a difficult language to learn, but still we both had the opportunity over five years to learn it well…and didn’t!

Why Arabic then? Our good friend Rick tried to learn it and quit, even though he is multilingual, speaks Turkish fluently, and understands its rules and structures better than many Turks at our former school; in fact it was not at all unusual for Turkish teachers to come to Rick with questions about grammar and appropriate structures in their own language. So Rick, the master of many languages, started to learn Arabic and gave it up. He told me that he stopped because he “found the pronunciation absolutely daunting, mostly because of those horrendous pharyngeal sounds”.

So, even given the steep odds of pronunciation, difficulty of reading, Rick’s example, and our lack of success with Turkish, we are going to try to learn some Arabic. Lorraine and I have been practicing making those difficult sounds ourselves using online lessons. She is way ahead of me in that process, though we are both still in Lesson 1, and I can often hear her repeating her exotic (but not horrendous) “pharyngeal sounds” to the screen of the computer in the other room. I do practice writing and saying my letters, but I am still far behind.

You might ask why we bother, especially since English has developed into the lingua franca of many tourist spots and guides, and our Bedouin friends in Syria mostly speak enough English for us to communicate what we want, or at least need, to. A clue for our interest lies in one of my journals where Farag, our guide from Qasr Farafra in the Western Desert of Egypt, signed his name a few years ago. It was at my request, as I was jotting notes on the day we spent with him in the White Desert and Farag was boiling some tea in the small black pot he brought along. I asked because I have always loved the look of Arabic script and wanted to watch his careful hand move the pencil from right to left, forming those lovely letters. That signature is a marker for us, and a possible destination.

We would both dearly love to be able to look at the Arabic on highway signs and shops and menus with at least a little more understanding of what it says, and we work on phrases to be able to communicate, if only at a rudimentary level, with the people we know (and those we have yet to meet) in Syria, Oman, Jordan, and when the opportunity occurs, the beautiful country of Lebanon.

So I will do my homework and will let you know how it goes! Until then,أتمنى لك نهارا سعيدا

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Exotic birds

I have always believed that exotic birds live farther south than Nova Scotia and that if you are looking for amazing displays of brightly coloured plumage you need to search somewhere else. In fact, when I went very far south a few years ago, all the way to a high school student writers' workshop outside of Melbourne, I was both amazed and delighted by the birds I saw routinely at John Marsden's property. Heading down to the main house for breakfast I would stop by a small bushy tree to watch brilliant red and blue Crimson Rosellas busily feeding on seeds or berries, and then check out the Sulphur-crested Cockatoos way up in the tops of the gum trees. The Kookaburra that sat on the edge of the veranda roof was less brilliantly colourful but still pretty striking and the Magpies over in the next field flashed their bright blacks and white backs. They were wonderfully exotic.

Exotic is defined as not indigenous, or alternatively, strikingly different, and in those senses exotic birds do (in fact, must) live somewhere else, and I won't see them here except as accidentals or captives. However, my Oxford also offers the phrase "attractively unusual", and it is both the strikingly different and attractively unusual that I want to focus on here. It's birds I'm talking about, local birds, not even necessarily unusual or different, but strikingly attractive when you take the time to look. And for those who have followed my posts to this blog, you will perhaps have gathered that I do have the time and I do look, and one thing I have time for is looking at the birds that wander through our property and, on occasion, feed at our feeders.

Today the American Crows are noisy and they are active. I haven't seen them yet with twigs or grass in their beaks (always a harbinger of spring), but they love the peak of Irene's roof and fly to and from there with breathtaking agility. The blackness of their bright eyes and of their plumage is always a wonder, and their black selves outlined against the sky are a glory.

The Blue Jays that visit the suet cage and the seed feeder are also corvids, but I usually see them only when they come to eat. One thing I do love is the soft grey and white of their undersides and the way it contrasts with the various shades of blue on their wings and backs, highlighted in places with bits of black and white. This jay, to someone from a very different clime, must in fact seem truly exotic, and it is; I think it’s just that for me, a person who lives in a northern clime, exotic always suggests tropical, some place warmer and lusher than here perhaps.

So my exotic jays visit the feeder, as does the single Cardinal, who comes from down towards the shore, making his way from tree to tree until he flies over to the feeder in centre of our magnolia bush. As my brother Chris, a birder, put it, cardinals are skulkers, and this one certainly is careful in his approach. His bright red plumage as he eats the seeds and grains reminds me of the Cardinal (a human one) in The Mission, resplendent in his red robe, or Wolsey in The Tudors, though my cardinal moves faster and has no religion or dogma that I can see.

Finally, there’s the Downy Woodpecker with her exotic black and white checks and stripes and her agility on the suet cage, and the happiest of birds, the Black-capped Chickadees, like their Eurasian cousins, the Great Tits (Note to North Americans: contrary to popular notion, these are birds!), that visited our feeder in Istanbul. Our chickadees flit back and forth to pick up seeds to take away and eat and then come back for one more and one more in their black caps and bibs, white cheeks, and that wonderful and subtle buff along their sides.

My friend Andrew used to classify the unidentifiable little species that flew among alders and along ditches we passed as "nondescript small brown birds", and we do have our share of them, but what can be more exotic and magnificent than the gorgeous iridescent mottling of the Ring-necked Pheasant’s breast, his scarlet wattle, white collar, and bright green and purplish head feathers as he walks carefully under our pine trees pecking at seeds on the ground and moving on majestically? Marvel, as I did, at the Superb Fairywrens in Australia, but come north, I say, to see some of our exotic birds! If we are lucky, we can find them in our own backyards.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Yesterday was March 11

Yesterday was March 11, and here it was not raining, not until late evening at least, but ten years ago on this day it was. March 11, 1999 was a big day in our lives, and not because of the rain. It was the day that we took our second son in the early morning to the Emergency Department of the New Halifax Infirmary because he was in severe psychic distress and we didn’t know how else we could help him. You can read his account of the events and subsequent importance of that day in his life in the post he put up yesterday, and you may be able to guess from reading it the profound impact that day had on all of our lives. Yesterday, the 10th anniversary, was also a big day, a day to celebrate many things, not the least of which is the life of our son, lived and living with mental illness.

I sent that link to my friend R. who is a practising psychiatrist in the US. When we were together in Vancouver back in the late 60’s, she was in medical school, heading for her M.D. and not yet decided on psychiatry, and I was a graduate student in English, not yet knowing where my life was going to go. She read the post and wrote to me about it and about the job she had recently started at a Veterans’ Clinic there. When she mentioned that the ages of her patients ranged from 23 to 87, I had to recognize that no longer does the word "veteran" mean someone older than me, in the US or here. She described them as “all more or less mortally wounded (mentally, that is, and often physically too)” and wrote that one of them had told her the day before, “We don’t get out alive.” I read it as a comment not on life but on the ravages of making war; they are hard words to hear, profoundly saddening in this battering and battered world, and I take some small comfort from knowing that there are caring people like R. doing the work that she does.

She also commented on the fact that we appear to have “a much better system of treatment” here in Canada, simply because we were able ten years ago to have our son admitted for care to the Abbie Lane Hospital, and said that he was “lucky having insurance to help out”. My first thought was that he didn’t actually have insurance, because he didn’t (the jobs he was carrying then didn’t provide those benefits), but then I remembered that theirs is a different country because unlike here not everyone has health coverage. I never think of it as insurance, though I do remember it was called that when it was first introduced; rather it is the medical coverage that we pay for in our taxes and never have to think about because it is always there, and has been for close to fifty years now.

When we took JE to Emergency that day, March 11, 1999, we had run out of things we could do to help him, and we didn’t know what was going to happen there, but we did know that he would be cared for. Without question. Ten years later, his recovery and the medical system that helped bring it about and that continues to be there whenever he might need it are, like R’s work with wounded veterans, events to celebrate, especially in a world and time that is in serious need of such things.

Monday, March 9, 2009


We are coming to the end of our first Canadian winter in a while, after spending the last five in Istanbul, and I have been noticing some local harbingers of a change in the season (the Istanbul list, like its winters, is different from this one). Here are some of the current (obviously Canadian, I think!) harbingers I've observed:

The blue road: I have always loved this phenomenon which occurs as the sun gets higher in the sky and begins to melt the dirty grey banks of snow and ice along the highway. If the slope is right the meltwater will cover the road, and on a bright day in late winter it can shine like a glorious blue trail to somewhere.

A bird: Song sparrow sings its territory from the top of a small tree.

Solar gain: You don’t revive, or start, the woodstove in the morning because warm sunlight is flooding in through the tall windows.

Walking the plank: We have some softening spots between the house and the car, because we haven’t finished our new walkway, and have to place a long 2x12 to walk across where the lawn is getting mushy.

Sunset: It’s later now, less need, though not less desire, for candles at supper.

Sunrise: The place where the sun first emerges has shifted from its farthest point south, between the two tall spruce trees in front of Deborah’s house up on the hill, which it reached on the solstice in December. Over the next few days you could see it start to work its gradual passage northward. Since then it has moved down the wooded slope and out onto the harbour horizon until it made it back over Thrumcap Shoal to the long low profile of McNab’s Island, so that it now catches the edge of my side of the bed as it shines in through the deck door.

A feeling: You feel like raking, cutting, pruning, clearing, tidying. You want to be able to dig where the garden used to be.

A surprise on Saturday night: The tiny solar-powered Christmas lights in the crabapple tree were bravely shining when we went out at 8. The small plastic collector had been buried in the snowbank from Dave’s plow since January and frozen in so hard you couldn’t even dig it out, but the snow receded enough and the sun got higher enough to surprise us.

Down by Andrew and Lisa’s: The tops of the birch trees show a definite colour, a reddish fuzz, against the blue of the harbour.

Driving with the window open: Only on occasion.

Wearing indoor shoes outside: Likewise.

Dripping: All along the dripline the constant sound of water from yesterday’s snow coming off the edge of the roof.

International Women’s Day

The snow is falling in straight lines this morning, straight down. The sky is the softest of greys. The house next door, Irene's, which faces my window, is also a soft grey. Perhaps it is that wonderful shade known as gull grey, what you see if you can catch a glimpse in the fog of the back of a herring gull in flight. Appropriately, it has white trim, like the underside of the same gull illuminated against a blue sky.

The world outside is turning into a black and white photograph, subtle and elegant as a platinum print, while every pigment that is not on the grey scale gradually fades away. This is not a big shift for the paper birches and the dark shafts and branches of the shad and mountain ash. It is easy enough also for Irene’s house and for the soft grey sky. And it is easy for the falling flakes. Even the clustered long needles of the pines are getting loaded down with heavy white coats so that their thin lines of green are barely showing underneath, until it is only the scaly reddish trunks of the pines that stand firm in their statements of colour this snowy morning.

It seems like ideal snowman snow, good for packing, as long as the temperature holds and it doesn’t shift to rain. In my understanding, even on International Women’s Day, it is snowman snow, even if it is snowwomen we build when our granddaughters come by later. The problem for me is that terms like snowperson or snowpeople just don’t roll out as easily as snowman. I wish the word were gender neutral, because I do like its sound, just as I wish I could still say foot or mile, like the Americans can, smooth Anglo-Saxon root words that carry such a resonant monosyllabic feel and history, instead of metre and kilometer – these things just don’t scan, no matter how correct they are to use.

Perhaps an answer for this dilemma could be snowfolk, since it has the sound I need (even if a person might mishear it as slowpoke), so that what we have accumulating out there this morning, still pristine in our dooryard, is snowfolk snow. It lies there smooth and white on this quiet day waiting for the capable small hands of Anna and Ella to help us shape it into whatever folk they decide to make, girls or women, boys or men, in celebration of the day, which is their day, as it is all of ours.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Hillary in Ankara

I looked at the news tonight and saw that Hillary was visiting Turkey. Not only that, I learned that the President (that’s what she called him, but we all know she means Obama) was going to visit there in the next month. Later on Newsnet we saw her tell the young Turkish interviewer that he would visit in the next month or so. Maybe not April but still soon and a significant move in the large picture of the new administration in the US.

It reminded me of a visit Bush made when we were living in Istanbul. I remember up at Taksim Square and along Istiklal Caddesi the posters that consisted of a head shot (not one that George W. or his handlers might have chosen, I’d guess) with the words “Bush gelme” plastered across it. My Turkish has never been great, but I did understand the imperative form with negative suffix of the verb gelmek, which means to come (when the guy is helping you park your car there, he shouts “Gel, gel!” as you are backing in); the Turkish protesters had neatly pre-empted the old “Yanqui go home” by telling Mr. Bush to not even bother coming.

He didn't heed their admonition and most Istanbulers, if they could, simply got out of town when Bush came – it was a NATO heads of state meeting, I think – and you certainly can’t blame them for it, because so much of the city had to be shut down for security. Some people suggested that they (the Americans, that is) were going to bring one of their huge carriers into the Bosphorus and moor it just off Cirağan Palace, and we tried, from our vantage point just along the shore at Ortakŏy, to imagine how that floating arsenal town would look there. However, that plan, if it was ever a plan, didn’t float (you might say) and Bush came in by helicopter from Ankara. At any rate, in advance of his visit – and, of course, the visits of all the other NATO heads – all of the Bosphorus ferries were tied up for the duration and essential streets all over the city (two hundred or more, we heard) were closed, so you can imagine the vibrancy of a city like Istanbul being stifled and shut down for a visit no one seemed to want. We also got out of town, but we wished, like so many others, that Bush could have read that simple message and stayed home so we could have done the same!

I will be interested, next time we go to Istanbul, to see how the new President is viewed there. I don’t know whether there was the same sense of jubilation that we felt here on election night, but I can guess that there was a large sigh of relief in Turkey, just as there was all the way around the world, and I would wonder if the Turks, who are, like the Bedouin and the people of Newfoundland, the most welcoming people I know, might be putting up posters, even knowing what kind of security shutdown their lives would face, with one of those now iconic portraits of Barack and the message “Obama hoşgeldiniz”.

As is always the case, we will see. Until then, don't forget to celebrate International Women's Day on Sunday for the hope that women consistently bring to our world, in spite of the odds.

FOOTNOTE: At a fundraiser tonight for LiveArt a young man who admires Elton John sang these words: How wonderful life is while you're in the world. It made me want to pay tribute here to one of the many people for whom this is true in my world; you can get an idea here.

Friday, March 6, 2009

A pond I could skate away on

I closed my last post with words I borrowed -- and if you followed the link, with a performance -- from the consistently wonderful Joni M. I put them there not because “I made my baby cry” (as she said she did), but because those words “I wish I had a river/I could skate away on” and their music have always resonated with me in winter. What resonates is of course Joni’s own voice, the clear and yearning ache of it, her words, and the thought of her coming of age in Saskatoon and the bitterness of the winters there that would freeze rivers and coulees for endless miles of flying on your skates into whatever kind of ecstasy or oblivion you were seeking.

We did go skating yesterday with our new skates on the Frog Pond, tightening them up with our chilled fingers on the wooden step and heading out, tentatively at first. If you want to know the physics of how skating actually works, check here; if you want to know the physiology, tie a pair on yourself, tightly, and step onto the ice. My father called me Jellylegs when I was a kid, and I've never been a great skater (if you want to see one, look here), but I've always enjoyed the stride and the glide as you begin to fly.

The ice was good, certainly solid enough, but not perfect. In places you could see grey tracks from where someone had walked across the pond after the last snow, some parts were still rough, but at least the bubbles under the new ice were frozen hard, no moving water there, no crackling sounds. Long lines of open cracks ran all across the pond surface, joining each other in great zigs and zags, and sometimes the ice groaned or boomed under us, but we still were able to build our speed up until we were flying with the wind at our backs across stretches of a (mostly) clear smooth pond we could skate away on.

Skating back across the pond felt a bit like sailing, as if you needed to tack your way up, because straight into the wind was like trying to skate up a hill. There was plenty of room for tacking manoeuvres, however, since we had the whole pond to ourselves, and we etched our sharp tracks with those new blades all over, except for the southerly edges of the pond where the sun on the shore had warmed it up enough to show small strips of dark water. There was neither ecstasy nor oblivion in it, but there was bright sun and blue winter sky, and the lovely bulges of ice around and over the backs of the large rocks that broke the pond's surface, the pines with their red needles littering the shore, and the sensation of stretching and moving and flying on a broad reach across the pond.

Tonight there is wet snow and later rain. Tomorrow they say it will be plus ten. It is March in Nova Scotia and it will get cold again. The skates will stay in the car and we will see what happens. Until then I will hold in my mind the image of Toby, our son, on his first skate earlier this year, flying off across Papermill Lake, turning, and flying back toward us, his joy so wide and unencumbered it shone.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

No skating but...

It wasn’t cold enough the night after the storm to solidly freeze the rain that collected on the Frog Pond (there were surface crackings and the movement of air bubbles just under the new ice), but it did leave small crystals of frost on the ends of the large rounds of red pine stacked out by our wellhead. So there was no skating for us that day, but maybe there’d be a chance to split some wood.

The pine rounds were beautiful, freshly cut from when Trevor felled the tree last week, each end showing a striking pattern of vigorous growth rings, twenty-three in all, pale yellow outlined in rusty brown. This tree had grown to over 10 metres in its short life and the grain was straight. When I set up one of the rounds as a splitting block, I was surprised to find the grass there so bright, unlike the dun expanses most lawns showed this time of year, but then the ice that the rain washed away had been there a very long time and perhaps kept it fresh and green. The sun was unimpeded in the blue March sky, the wind was light, and the crystals around the edges of the rounds suggested there was frost in them and thus a possible ease of splitting.

Hitting a large round with the splitting maul is for me always fraught with some uncertainty. I am as certain as I can be in my footing and clearance for the fullness of the swing, since I want the impact of the maul’s blade to land if possible right where a small crack has opened across the central grains. The uncertainty is about what exactly will happen when the maul does land.

The worst is the slightly sodden dull thud that gives no promise of any progress. I pull the blade out and try again. I also dread the bounce back of the maul head like a sprung thing from the round, or even worse the misplaced hit that bounces off to the side and sends it tumbling from the block still intact. I am conscious in each swing of the shape I’m in (or not in!), the age of my limbs, and the stresses of each impact as the maul lands, the impact on me, that is, as well as on the round I am attacking, or perhaps addressing, in the hope of opening up, in cooperation with the round itself, new edges and surfaces for the flames of the woodstove to adhere to next winter and grow on.

The best of course is a first hit that has the two halves of the round falling away miraculously in an elegant split onto the ground. More usual is a series of hits that work on opening of the necessary fault line, and the question with each swing is whether this will be the right one. When that right one comes, it is a surprise and a joy. The worst of course is that stubborn and scarred warhorse that I end up putting aside in temporary (I hope!) defeat for another try on another day.

The frost was solid enough yesterday, if not for skating on the Frog Pond, for splitting all the rounds from this tree, even the stubborn and stringy ones where several limbs had branched out and the grain was twisted and difficult, and I ended up with a nice row of chunked wood stacked against another pine, a stretched out feeling in my upper body, and the hope that none of the impacts would have me regretting the activity tomorrow.

And I held the thought that maybe the still cold air in the night would be enough to solidify the ice on the Frog Pond or somewhere for today, and give us, not a river, but at least a large pond we could skate away on.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Yesterday was a storm day

Yesterday was a storm day, or it was supposed to be a storm day, with weather people telling us all about ice pellets, freezing rain warnings, and heavy rainfall warnings, the kind of storm we often see here on the Atlantic Coast, where the line between the colder part of the system and the warmer part passes right over us and where it's really hard to predict which way the weather will go. If you add to that the possibility of the system stalling over us, you have reason to take heed, fill the bathtub and pots and jugs in case we lose our power and know where the candles and matches and headlamps and battery radio are. Which of course we did. And we got up really early because L. was teaching an 8:30 class and we wanted to check for cancellations. It turned out that pretty well every school in the mainland was closed all day, but the universities stayed open, I think because university students and teachers are tough -- as my friend Duygu who studies at Wellesley told me, they seem to take their school motto, "women who will", more seriously than they need to, as they also stayed open, along with brave Harvard and MIT, through their very snowy version of the same storm.

It wasn't clear early in the day what the storm was going to do, but the precipitation (freezing drizzle was how the weather office described it) seemed to have stopped when I went out. I did have to break my non-idling rule and let the car run for ten minutes before I could even start to clear the windows of their thick encrustation of ice (that really is the word for what we had, which was like a 1 cm thick scab on the windshield, though it still sounds to me more like some variety of lobster) so that L. could head in to the school. Being male and protective, I wanted to drive her, but she persuaded me it was better that I stay at home, so I got to just watch the weather reports, feed the woodstove, post a blog, and watch the storm.

When I think of a storm, I think of turbulence, sturm und drang, as well as whatever forms of precipitation it offers, but this one was remarkably quiet. Perhaps it was because of the "stall" factor they had talked about. There seemed to be little wind, and freezing drizzle is one of the gentlest of processes, just an imperceptible accumulation or accrual or, even better, accretion, of clear ice on cold surfaces, like cars and flagstones and pine needles and bare twigs. For us it was a tender storm, the trees outside my window standing still, collecting their clear casings of ice, and gradually bending forward with the weight. Even when the freezing rain started in earnest, it just seemed to fall straight, and the branches drooped more but barely swayed, even though large waves were crashing around the lighthouse at Mauger's Beach across the harbour.

I didn't see any branches break, the air gradually warmed, and our power lines stayed intact. At one point I heard a crash on the other side of the house, but when I went to look I couldn't see anything at all. A bit later I caught a glimpse of something white dropping fast, but again there was no sign of where it came from or went. My dream of course was that a goshawk or peregrine had dived or a snowy owl swooped, but then I noticed the icicles dripping and a thin sheet of ice sliding down off our fascia. Things were thawing and letting go, as happens in this pattern of a storm. All we needed once that started was the heavy rain to start and wash the accumulation of granular ice pellets away before the storm moved off to Newfoundland.

Later today, perhaps, when the arctic cold sweeps in from Quebec the way it does after a storm, we might get a solid enough freeze for some skating or something. In this uncertain climate you have to grab whatever opportunity you can. We will keep our skates in the car and hope.

Monday, March 2, 2009

They say it's your birthday

They say it's your birthday, and today it is -- mine, that is, as well as Levi's in St. Catharine's and Lou Reed's, who should be living in New York, I'd guess, though he may have moved on to a nicer meteorological climate at this time in his life. Must be Dr. Seuss's too from the look of Google this morning. Levi might have turned three today, though I'm not sure since I don't really know him -- it's just that his parents are friends of my son and daughter-in-law, and they went to his party yesterday because it was Sunday and a good day for a party -- and Lou is 65 today, a year ahead of me, and I hope he is fine. I wonder if he and Laurie Anderson are still friends (you decide: look here). I have to admit that when I first heard about the two of them, I felt some small pangs (that's the word we use, isn't it?), some small pangs of jealousy. That's because I had for years carried a secret crush on her, inspired by her voice and the quick mind behind her lyrics and (of course) a photo of her, albeit about 30 years younger, on one of her album covers.

I took two cartons of albums to a used record store on Friday. I had already sold our turntable on Kijiji because we hadn't used it in more than a decade, and now it was time to get rid of the albums. Laurie A. was in there, as well as several of the albums I bought right after I moved to Vancouver in 1966 and joined the Columbia Record Club, lured by their offer of 12 record albums for one cent. Those were the days when you didn't worry about commitments to buy four records a year or whatever it was that Columbia wanted you to agree to, and there were enough records on their list, which featured as I remember tiny coloured pictures of each album cover, to make me take the time to join. I should be clear that when I say you didn't worry, I didn't necessarily mean you, my invisible reader, but rather the collective "you" of the person I was becoming and of the people I knew and spent time with back in that place and time. It was a very attractive offer from Columbia, and not just because of the price (which was right, of course!); those little pictures on the brochure were something special! So I checked off the little boxes on the list, based on the names of albums or artists I wanted to own as well as on the miniature jewels of the album covers.

When I went through the box on Friday I still had a very scuffed Blonde on Blonde double album I had got from that order, as well as a newer cleaner copy, Bringing it All Back Home, Otis Redding Sings Blue (this one had the amazing cut of I've Been Lovin You Too Long with its incredible brass crescendos -- I think that's the right word for those rising waves of sound -- that carry his lovely lamenting voice almost to the edge of what is possible to express), December's Children, and the Best of the Supremes and of the Temptations. There may have been more, but that's half of my twelve from Columbia more than 42 years ago. I don't know what I thought I'd get for them, and the guy at the store said he'd try to look at them on the weekend if things got quieter. They must have because he phoned me Saturday morning to say that he couldn't use any of them, some were badly worn or warped on the edges they'd stood on and some of the covers were mouldy and I needed to get them out of there, so I'll probably pick them up today and say another good-bye to my old and improperly stored vinyl. They may be no good for anything, at least in his store, but they were for me nice touchstones of some times and places. I still love the memory of those little pictures in the brochure, and I've pretty much gotten over those pangs from the Laurie and Lou thing by now.

They say it's your birthday, said the Beatles, and they had a separate song for this particular one. Who would have thought that I would still have it in my head when I actually was 64? Well I am and I do, it feels pretty good to be here, and it's nowhere near as old as I used to think it was.