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.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009


Today is September 1 and it both feels and looks like it. Actually the first day of September, in terms of both look and feel, happened towards the end of last week, a day or so before Tropical Storm Danny came roaring through. It was, as it always is, a reminder of a change of season, often a fairly sharp reminder. The goldenrod and tansy were in full bloom, reminding teachers and students alike that vacation is coming to an end, the hydrangea petals were showing hints of pink at the edges, and the burning bush down in front had already started to redden.

The sharpness of the September reminder, which usually happens around the last week of August, is partly visual. The sky will be a deeper and sharper blue, and the colours of the foliage will be sharper, the edges more finely delineated, but it is also tactile, you can feel it first thing in the morning in the cool draft from the open window. The wind will be out of the northwest and the air will be drier, as if it too has an edge. It will be a beautiful day, and the sun will be warm enough, but there is something in the day to let us all know, if we care to, that the lazy ease of summer is going to soon shift into autumn, with all the wonders that season can bring, on the way to the winter which will surely come.

So today is the first day of September. At Saint Mary’s this afternoon there were large and small trucks, vans, utility trailers, and hatchbacks, all unloading student possessions and furnishings at the entrance to the residence tower. Later on the patio at Henry House I wished I either had a jacket or was sitting in the sun while I enjoyed my beer. The cruise ships were lined up at Pier 20, starting their fall tours of the Maritimes, and one of the Harbour Hoppers was parked in the lot on Maynard Street with a large cover over it. Tonight’s forecast said that the low would be 10, but 4 in low lying areas, with a risk of frost, no less! These were all signs, signs of September, signs of the ending of summer, signs of a shift of tempo, signs of the season.

There is lots ahead of us to look forward to, and summer can’t last forever, but I still want to walk back to Purcell’s Pond for another swim, get out to Martinique Beach to ride some waves, and keep on wearing shorts and sandals. Probably we will do these things, but we will be doing them in the clear knowledge that September is here, any summer days now are a treat to be savoured, and each time may well be the last time we do it this season. After all, it is September!