1000 Islands – More than a salad dressing!

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To be accurate, 1000 Islands should be called Almost 2000 Islands.  To qualify as an island, a piece of land merely needs to have at least one living tree and must be above water 365 days a year.  Even Tom Thumb Island, with barely a few square feet showing above water and one lonely tree, makes the Legal Island cut in the breathtakingly beautiful seaway that meanders hundreds of miles between Canada and the United States.

Thanks to a certain pushiness in publishing my Bucket List, a gracious friend who shares my taste for places like Laos, Fogo Island, and the St. Lawrence Seaway, has invited me to whittle my list down by accompanying her when she explores a few sites off the beaten track.  I haven’t always taken advantage of her generous invitations but this year, after reading a half-dozen obituaries for friends and relatives younger than I, I thought “Why the Hell not?”  She’s always great company and my mirror provides proof positive I’m not getting any younger (or smarter, thinner, or healthier).  My skin is not getting smoother, my lone breast is not noticeably perkier, and I see no evidence that I am more sweet-tempered than I was when I was fifty.

You get the picture.

So I said “Yes” to my friend’s offer of a riverboat cruise through the Thousand (plus) Islands so fast, I suspect her head is still spinning.

Just to give you a little perspective in case you did not study “Geography for Dummies” as carefully as I did, the length of the St. Lawrence River, the estuary and the Gulf is about 2000 miles.  It’s one of the world’s largest water systems, beginning at the outflow of Lake Ontario, continuing past Quebec City and drains in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.  That’s a lot of water and part of it flows over the worn tops of ancient mountains called the Frontenac Axis.  These 1,864 worn-down granite mountain tops are now called 1000 Islands and begin to appear near Kingston, Ontario, and disappear before you see any  Ontario or Quebec Big City skylines.

Many of the islands are just slightly larger than Tom Thumb Island but some are substantial enough to house small towns and recreational parks.  Once a playground for One Percenters, a few of the islands boast castles and spectacular mansions.  Others, privately owned, have one or two modest cottages and quite a few have hunting and fishing camps.  And many are empty save for flocks of ducks, loons, turkey vultures, and various species of animals, fish, berries, bees, and wild plants.

Exploring these exquisite islands on a small riverboat has many advantages over large cruise ships, kayaks, canoes and private yachts.  They also have a few disadvantages but at least from my cozy 85 square foot room in the quiet stern of the St. Lawrence Cruise Liner, the down side was dwarfed by the up side.

First of all, the menu was designed for the palate of a Maritimer.  Prime Rib, Duck a l’Orange, Grilled Salmon, Roast Turkey with ALL the trimmings, Sea Bass, Roast Beef, and Lasagne made up a dream menu for a Nova Scotian/Californian who has eaten a little too much rappie pie, fennel and kale salad, and poutine.  I felt sorry for the real Californians on board because California Cuisine never had a chance in the galley of the St. Lawrence Empress.  No parsley garnish, no gluten free muffins, no beet and walnut salads.

A sorbet palate cleanser was served one night between our massive Caesar Salad and side of beef with a loaded baked potato but that was a rare concession to Wolfgang Puck.  Well aware I was in for a month-long starvation diet following the cruise, I still loved each sauce, dessert, and every ounce of Thousand Island Dressing.  I was, after all, born in Brighton, Nova Scotia, where no one ever met a New York steak or pound of butter they didn’t like.

My California host said she felt like she was in a Food Prison and spent hours each day scouring the riverboat for fresh fruit (there was plenty), rye toast, hard boiled eggs and yogurt.  She gained no weight during the cruise while I, predictably, gained five pounds.(May I say with just a little defiance that I enjoyed every calorie I consumed?)

I think this may be yet another advantage of old age.  With both calories and cruises, I am inclined to say “Why the Hell not?” and mean it.

The scenery was, of course, the stuff of daydreams and memories.

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Every little cove was prettier than the one before it.  Each castle and cottage and hunting shack was just right.  No stately pine tree was out of place, every white sand beach was inviting, and the granite cliffs gave the granite cliffs outside my own Victoria Beach cottage a run for their money.

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Even the historic sites, reproductions of lost villages and sunset reenactments of the War of 1812 battle were restrained and tasteful.  One might even say typically Canadian (which may account for the actual outcome of the War of 1812).

The downside of being on a small ship with fewer than fifty other people is only a downside if you’re something of a loner.  If you are normally warm and friendly with a preference for real, live people over characters in books, you’ll be in hog heaven on a small riverboat.   Eating with the same people three times a day means that in short order, you will have almost fifty new life stories to add to your own collection of stories about your grandchildren, pets, and ex husbands.  You will know all about and, in fact, have seen the video of the three-year-old that plays Mozart beautifully, a prodigy who, by the age of four, had adapted a half-dozen legendary pieces of classical music for jazz presentations by Wynton Marsalis, God help him.  The toddler, a phenom while in utero, has already brought audiences to tears and to their feet and is destined to be triumphant on Little Big Shots.  (God should also help Steve Harvey who may yet long for the days when he was homeless and living in his car.)

Another grandchild, a high school valedictorian on the fast track for major med school research grants, has a teenage sister who has won international competitions for writing, producing, and starring in Sixty Minutes simulations.  Robin Roberts, Norah O’Donnell, Chris Cuomo and Anderson Cooper should all watch their backs because there’s a  sixteen-year-old out there who already makes them look like dog meat.

If there were eight million stories in the Naked City, there are damn near almost as many on the riverboats trolling the St. Lawrence.  All told and retold by lovely people, heroic and accomplished if self-descriptions can be believed.  Fortunately, any group of forty or fifty probably has talkers AND listeners, the latter of whom may be on drugs.  Or should be on drugs.  They certainly looked almost comatose as they viewed recent photo albums of their fellow travelers’ grandchildren, pets, and X-rays of hip operations.

Still, the riverboaters had so many redeeming qualities, I found myself exchanging recipes and asking follow-up questions about their recent surgical procedures.  The grandmother with the wretched grandchild who made royalty weep when he played Mozart’s early concertos, sewed quilts and made scrapbooks for each of her grandchildren, even presumably the  twelve year old who only played Little League and made straight A’s.  The grandparents of the next Diane Sawyer and Dr. Salk had adopted both children when their mother died and their father deteriorated into an alcoholic haze.  Grandpa had been a record-breaking race car driver and through his own creativity and cutting edge designs, had amassed a small fortune.  He is now married to the love of his life, a kind and lively former skier / career girl who took to adoptive grandmotherhood like Keith Richards took to cocaine.

The stalwart New Brunswick couple who volunteered for the Library Board in St. John’s and enjoyed their garden and each other clearly fell into the Listener role at our dinner table.  They truly had no choice and listened with patience and grace until, about once every twenty-four hours, they felt a need to jump in during a rare pause in the conversation.  During those brief and rare occasions, they talked knowledgeably about the environment, Canadian politics, and their gardens.

There are worse things than the company of the salt of the earth.

That said, if I ever talk to hapless strangers for more than sixty seconds about my grandchildren, my cat, current or ex husbands, friends and strangers have my permission to bitch slap me  until I come to my senses.

In gratitude for that, I will offer the recipe for authentic 1000 Islands Dressing:

1 cup Mayo, 3 tablespoons of chili sauce, 1 teaspoon of chopped chives, 1 teaspoon of chopped green pepper, 1 teaspoon of chopped dill pickle.  Salt and pepper to taste, mix everything in a bowl and chill.

OR…mix catsup and mayonnaise in equal parts.  It’s not authentic but it pretty much tastes the same.

But please don’t share the official recipe.  It’s supposed to be a Thousand Islands secret. Or at least that’s what I read on the post card I bought at a Gananoque gift shop.

(If you can’t trust the fine people of Gananoque, who CAN you trust?)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The St. Lawrence River, Home-Cooked Meals, and Self Indulgence

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I am so eager to head out for a short holiday on the St. Lawrence River with my California friend, I enlisted my long-suffering husband to get me to the airport at dawn this morning, one day earlier than Air Canada expected me to fly to Toronto.  I’m not sure it’s the prospect of a long, leisurely visit with one of “les girls”, the presence of a St. Lawrence riverboat trip on my rapidly shrinking Bucket List or a respite from the tedium of housework that is responsible for the excitement about this adventure.

I recently finished writing a biography of Gladys York Christensen, an artist who lived and worked between 1905 – 1999.  In the biography, which, in truth, is really a compilation of her own letters separated by a few acerbic comments, I wrote a chapter about her husband.  Dr. Jens Christensen, once a physician to Popes and princes, found himself exiled during WWII to Scranton, Pennsylvania. Forced to restart his career as a lowly intern, he found himself providing OB – GYN services to welfare moms worn out by caring for very large families.  One woman, already a single parent of ten children, when questioned about trying to limit the size of her family, said, “Listen, the only way I can get a ten-day vacation and have someone wait on me, is to check in here to deliver another baby.”

The logic is a little skewed but for someone without financial resources and a sense of responsibility that dictated she care for her family as best she could,  a trip to the maternity ward at an inner city hospital might have some appeal.

As my travel history proves, I am a long way from viewing child birth, surgery, or physical therapy as a means to score a holiday, but I do get what she was saying.

Even after a short winter in a drop dead beautiful place spent cooking meals, doing laundry, making beds, vacuuming, and taking care of daily chores too tiresome and trivial to mention, I must say a trip drifting along the shores of the St. Lawrence River would not have to boast breathtaking scenery to merit heartfelt appreciation.

For days on end I will not peel a single potato, pick socks off the floor, scrub a pot, a toilet, or cat prints off a window.  Lectures on the rich history of the St. Lawrence region, home-cooked meals, excursions to living history sites, visits to shrines and forts, and to places implying we will be smack dab in the middle of more than 1000 tiny islands are all just a bonus.  The real bonus on the Bucket List, however, is to have someone else make my bed, albeit in a room the size of my bathroom in Victoria Beach.

And yes, I know, I know, I know how unbelievably lucky I am to wake up each morning in a place where fishing boats drift by my deck almost hourly, where the sunsets are so glorious they look manufactured by Hollywood, and where, for the most part, people are delightfully, surprisingly calm and collected.  I know all this in my bones and am grateful beyond words for both people and place.  Still, I can and do manage to belly ache about having a hand-thrown ceramic pot to pee in.  Or in which to plant peonies.

But hey, give me a bloody break.  I’m pushing 80 and even though I never had to seek out a maternity ward and give birth to an eleventh baby in exchange for ten days of bed rest, I have paid a certain amount of dues as a single Mom, an NGO worker in Southeast Asia, and as an advocate for refugees and women in places (like banks, for starters) where my message was unwelcome.  AND I’ve worked with a shit load of gangbangers, religious zealots, boxers (not the canine variety), politicians, and artists.   This alone should buy me a little tolerance when I start to whine, don’t you think?

Perhaps it’s in our nature to want more, or less, or something different.  I tell young people all the time to remember that as far as most of the world is concerned, they’re part of the 1%. I have become that tiresome crone that tells bored teens how lucky they are.  They have access to too much food, parents that love them wildly if not wisely, good health, and whether they take them, opportunities for education, recreation, even vacations which are an impossible dream in so many sad and poverty-stricken countries.

And yet, through images seared in my brain and soul, I know there are few lottery winners in Yemen, Darfur, or most urban areas in Brazil or India, I can still find myself irritated by the wealth of good food I have to cook each day in a kitchen that has electricity and running water.  How then is it logical (or even fair) to expect a Western teenager to feel the gratitude adults feel the children they indulge should feel?   If, knowing what I know and having seen what I’ve seen, I can still, without blinking, complain despite my good fortune, how likely are children or even adult neighbors preoccupied with taxes and divisive politics to step outside themselves and embrace compassion, gratitude, and balance?

Being logical, being good-hearted, being appreciative of what we have should not require a lot of work.  Especially for those of us that are sixty and older.  But apparently it does require work and non-ending vigilance.

I will ponder this as I drift, together with 29 other travelers, along a river that flows for almost 800 miles, a river that has  always been a natural boundary between good friends in the United States and Canada and has been a major shipping route for goods and services even before Samuel de Champlain explored it in 1613.

These days when talks of national boundaries are more about walls than waterways, it’s hard to say how long the personal and professional friendships between the North American countries will endure. I suspect the personal friendships will remain strong, but the professional ones will emerge, in a year or two, torn and tattered.  Even now, the bonds are being tested.

Maybe international good will is something else we take for granted and that should require non-ending vigilance.

Something else to ponder as we drift up and down and around the 1870 islands boasting opulent homes (owned by wealthy Americans and Canadians) and where Nature shows off another glorious Northern panorama.

 

Not a Bad Place to Visit (and I still don’t mind living there)

 

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It’s officially Tourist Season in Nova Scotia and Lillian, my tiny Chinese Texan buddy who, after five visits for months at a time, can no longer be called a tourist, arrives this week.  So does Tall Lindsay, who is making her first visit to Victoria Beach.  Sue, now a resident of Bear River for about five months a year, will return to her house on a hillside, cozily tucked away in the wonderful Bear River arts community separating Digby and Annapolis.

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Summer would be spectacular in Nova Scotia if no one stopped by to enjoy the Maritime air, seafood and dazzling sunsets but when good and great friends return from their winters in Florida, Arizona and California, all’s right with my world.  If  I could persuade more friends and closest relatives to relocate north of the border, I would think I had died and gone to Heaven.  I not only do not mind living here.  I love living here.  It’s wonderful to be happy about ending up right where you started.

I’ve arranged flowers to welcome the first of the Summer Friends, hung a small Wayne Boucher painting  to remind my favorite arts mavens from New York and Southern California that art blossoms wherever creative people gather, and have a few lobster dinners just waiting to be served.

 

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Even the Spirit Houses are getting dolled up to welcome their guests and the Market Place and seaside gathering places are alive with the sound of fiddle music and gossip stored up over long, silent winter months.

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All in all, Annapolis and Bear River and all the little seaside towns around Nova Scotia are not bad places to visit and if you can make do without heavy traffic, crime waves,  and 24-hour news bulletins about trade wars and North Korean tyrants with puzzling haircuts, Nova Scotia is not a bad place to live!

Philip Glass and the Glenna Distillery

 

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Philip Glass will be the big draw at the Scotia Festival in Halifax June 3 – 7.  Wow!  Who would have thought Nova Scotia would or even could produce an audience for one of the Big Four of Minimalist Music?  Or for that matter, that the Kronos Quartet would choose Halifax to premiere Quartettsatz, a piece written for them by Glass.  Apparently Kronos knew the idiosyncratic composer had “discovered” Nova Scotia in the late 70s, about the time sculptor Richard Serra and abstract painter John Beardman also realized they could buy land AND a house on Cape Breton Island for $12k – $20k.

There was a day, not that long ago, when I would have stammered and twitched just by walking into a Starbucks and finding Glass or Serra waiting in line for an iced latte.

Now I discover he’s just another Nova Scotia groupie.

Serra and Glass were not the first artists or celebrities to stumble on the affordable, breathtaking coves and farmlands of Cape Breton Island.  Alexander Graham Bell and Guglielmo Marconi both left their mark on the island (and it on them) and long before they arrived, the ancestors of the Mi’kmaq called Unama’kik home.  But the former cab driver / plumber and founding director of a New York theatre company called Mabou Mines is an even more unlikely Mabou landowner than those esteemed inventors and innovators.  The composer of Einstein on the Beach might be more predictably found at avant garde gatherings of cutting edge operas and concertos in New York or Paris.

On the other hand, Cape Breton Island where Glass lives when he’s in Nova Scotia has assets New York might well envy. Besides the fresh seafood, the Mi’kmaq history, the incredible Celtic music and the sweeping ocean views, Ceap Breatainn has Canada’s only distillery of single malt whiskey.   Small wonder Cape Breton is recommended as the #1 Island to visit in North America.

So Halifax might have hit the big time, at least in terms of minimalist music (which in truth, normally attracts even fewer fans than jazz and Gregorian chants), but it can be argued that Philip Glass, Kiki Smith, and old Guglielmo hit the big time when Cape Breton Island embraced them.  

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At least that’s the way I feel when I wake up in the morning and look out my   window at small fishing boats chugging through Fundy waters past my Victoria Beach cliff. More  birds chase their boats than attacked Tippi Hedren in her Hitchcock nightmare and the cacophony of bird calls sounds like, well, a certain Philip Glass composition.  There are worse ways to greet the day.

A province with world class scenery, affordable real estate, and the capacity to appreciate great fiddle music AND Philip Glass compositions has a lot more to offer than mouth-watering lobster and fine single malt whiskey.

Dust off those passports, music lovers and come north immediately.   On July 1 Chrystia Freeland and Justin Trudeau will say “Sorry” and slap a 25% tariff on sheet music, soups and broths, soft wood and whiskey.

It’s about damn time!

“First Reformed”

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Today’s blue Fundy, photographed by John McCrossan.

 

 

“First Reformed” is not for the weak of heart or will.  A Paul Schrader film starring Ethan Hawke and Amanda Seyfried, “First Reformed” is a fitting late-career film for a filmmaker who already has “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull” in his back pocket.  Ethan Hawke may be at the top of his game in “First Reformed”.  He plays a bereaved minister  mourning his son, a role that’s about as far as you can get from  folk artist Maude Lewis’ unfeeling and crude husband, Everett Lewis, portrayed by Hawke in “Maudie”, another sobering film.

There’s a scene in the film where a young man, despondent about the fate of the Earth, rants and raves about climate change.  He is not wrong but appears unhinged and obsessive, the kind of person one meets these days at every cocktail party or church coffee or in our own living rooms.  Ethan Hawke’s minister knows he cannot communicate with the man with reason and that courage will only get you so far.  What’s really needed is what has always been needed. Love and divine grace, perhaps as manifested in art and humour or even a well-cooked meal, will take him farther than reason and courage.

The film was recommended to me by Amy Larkin, a woman warrior from New York who wrote “Environmental Debt” a few years back.  An old Greenpeace veteran with a clear and uncompromising vision of the world, Amy is saved from obsession by her ability to laugh.  And to cry.  Like artists that don’t go soft as they age, she is an activist that just seems to get tougher as she gets older.  A writer describing director Paul Schrader said he was the kind of person who was intensely himself with nothing to gain or to lose by lying.

That pretty much describes Amy.  She is uncompromising and clear but she still remembers how to dance, knows how to listen to music with both ears and has a belly laugh that is memorable.  Not a bad person to have in a fight to save the earth.  Or in a poker game.  If we could hook her up with the Pope, we might be able to hold back those rising tides.

But courage manifests itself in a lot of different ways.  We have a minister in our tiny town of Annapolis Royal who puts it all on the line each time she passes a pulpit.  I’ve never been quite sure whether my husband and I joined a Christian church when we came to Annapolis or if we joined an outpost of the Sierra Club.  Had I known the Sierra Club option was available, I’d probably have joined the church five years earlier. In any event, she has recently spoken (preach is too strong, too heavy-handed a word to describe our pastor’s eclectic sermons) about Death Valley and the Valley of Bones, about Christians as caretakers of the Earth, about bringing refugees from war zones to the safety of Nova Scotia, and about the growth of conservative Christian churches as liberal, educated heirs of John Wesley and John Knox, of Dorothy Day and Edgerton Ryerson decline in numbers. According to our activist minister, the religious landscape is changing and kinder, gentler Christians may end up practicing their faith in hospitals and town halls, in discussion groups and movements.   Even, perhaps, in pub gatherings.

Our minister is a different kind of woman warrior.  Less brash and forceful than our New York activist but still an inspiring and undeniable force of Nature and of the Spirit.  Happily, there is always room at the table for both Wonder Woman and for wondrous women like Elizabeth.

Today a small gallery in Annapolis will open an exhibition called “Footprints”.  Inspired by Chief Senaca’s quote* “Take nothing but memories. Leave nothing but Footprints.”, the three participating artists represent the intersection between science and the arts wherein concerns about climate change can be communicated to a broader audience than either scientists or artists can reach on solo journeys.  At a time when artists could be forgiven or at least tolerated for indulging in denial, they are choosing to face the truth.

Scientists faced the truth about the environment decades ago, of course, but artists have been late to come to the party.  Which does not negate the exuberant activism of Rage Against the Machine, U2, Cold Play, and Alanis Morisette.  Writers like Emerson and Thoreau have inspired generations of environmental activists but Bill McKibben, Rachel Carson, Wendell Berry and Wallace Stegner have also done their bit.  And visual and performing artists like Bread and Puppet, photographer Edward Burtynoky, and Andy Goldworthy made a difference.  Chris Jordan’s Plastic Bottles  (a 2007 installation with a million plastic bottles) and the 2005 work of Red Earth’s Environmental Art Group (made up of artists, geologists, farmers, historians, architects, and others) were both prescient and spectacular.  Still, it’s  heartfelt exhibitions featuring the work of artists whose homes and parks and fishing holes will be endangered by environmental deterioration that often have the most profound impact.  Their work is not an academic exercise or a performance piece created for shock value but more like love letters to a world we’ve ignored too long.

Local sculptor brad hall wrote in his Footprints artist statement

this planet owes us nothing. it never did.

we owe love and respect to mother earth.

it’s our home.

Technology, innovation, conservation, courage and reason all have a place in the puzzle of where the next Footprints lead but in the final analysis, it probably all comes down to love and respect.  For our home planet, certainly, but more important, for each other.

If you can, rent “First Reformed” or if it’s at an art theatre near you, take a friend and go watch a few committed artists like Hawke and Schrader strut their stuff.

If you’re one of the 500 people living in Annapolis Royal, stop by ARTsPLACE, the Little Gallery That Could, and see what happens when courage and beauty, art and science collide.

 We do still have it in us to be marvelous.

 

 

 

*The origin of the “Footprints” quote is muddy. It’s often attributed to Chief Senaca but it’s also attributed to Chief Seattle.   Whichever Chief coined the phrase, “Take nothing but memories, leave nothing but footprints” is a fine piece of work.

“Every Woman’s Middle Name is GUILT”

“Every Woman’s Middle Name is GUILT.”

Madeleine Albright

Say what you will about Marie Jana Korbelova, the first woman to serve as America’s Secretary of State, she knew what she was talking about.  President Clinton may have had flawed judgement in choosing his playmates but the man knew a thing or two about picking women warriors and diplomats.

Still, even at Madeleine Albright’s level of accomplishment, according to her, she suffers from guilt not uncommon among Jewish women.  Or Catholic women, abused women, oldest daughters, beauty contestants, and a score of other categories in a score of other countries and cultures.

I was raised to be a good Catholic girl and for the most part, was.  Yet before every confession made as a randy ten-year-old, I suffered the anguish of the damned each time I had to own up to “impure thoughts”.  As I recall, those thoughts centered largely around knowledge about the purpose of Kotex pads, information I’d gained in whispered conversations with my more sophisticated eleven-year-old girl friends.  Those shameful confessions regularly earned me a dozen heartfelt “Hail Mary’s” and an equal number of assorted prayers that documented the extent of my contrition.

By adulthood, many women have the habit of guilt down to a gnat’s ass and apologize for their sins more often than Canadians apologize for their climate.  I hesitate to speculate on the number of “Sorry’s” Canadian women say in a day but that’s a different issue.  As a former  community organizer / arts activist, I still, after almost eight decades, feel obliged to save some small corner of the world.  Whether or not the corner wants saving, I suffer frequent bouts of guilt for sitting on my okole and staring out to sea while the world goes to hell in a handbasket.

But (belatedly) I am realizing that just because you can organize a march or movement or conference, doesn’t mean you should.  It may even be an indication of a certain kind of  sickness to want to, particularly when you wake up in the morning and see a small fishing boat bobbing in the Bay, sunlight bouncing off a nearby waterfall and flowers popping out wherever you look .

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And if there are a half-dozen good books falling off your night stand and blogs to be written, both as self-indulgent as an attempt to cleanse your soul of sin, you really should not be tempted to talk people into rallying around a flag or a cause.  Guilt might be better directed towards the unread books.

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In many ways, blogs and journals and confessional poetry are just a different way to purge a troubled soul beyond the shadows of a confessional.  Certainly blogs are  written for the pleasure of the writer rather than the reader. If something miraculously provides pleasure to both readers and writers, it’s a bonus.  And a surprise.

In scanning the couple of hundred blogs I’ve written in the past four years, I’ve noticed that most readers avoid those that focus on poetry, sports, politics, and books.  Timmy Duncan, Coach Pop, Serena Williams, John Wooden and Arnold Palmer can’t attract enough readers to make up a touch football game in my postage stamp backyard.  Which is a pity because I LOVE Timmy Duncan, Coach Pop, Coach Wooden, and their friends and colleagues who put everything on the line each day they go (went) to work.

Curiously, readers do love blogs about serious illness, death, Celtic music and Manitoba Wolverines.  Not sure what that says about the readers from the Ukraine, Sweden or Ladakh but I assume interest about cancer and car accidents is prompted by care and compassion.  Celtic music?  Who knows?

My most popular blog was written about Hmong refugees living in Fresno, California.  I didn’t realize I had 600 friends that were curious about the Hmong people OR Fresno.  Actually, I don’t think I do have 600 friends but my dozen Hmong pals must have forwarded the blog to their entire tribe scattered between Laos and Minnesota.  I was not surprised when the blog about the brilliant and eccentric Dr. Titus Levi was read by his several hundred friends in California and Asia.

In addition to tales about Wharf Rat Rallies, the legendary Edgard Pisani, Santa Claus, and MRSA, silliness has always attracted readers.  A blog I wrote about a promotional brochure for the old Beijing Hotel gave the Hmong people in Fresno a run for their money.  I think that blog probably had at least four or five hundred readers based solely on the malapropisms in the brochure’s introductory paragraph.

It read

Our representative will make you wait at the airport. The bus to the hotel runs along the lake shore. Soon you will feel pleasure in passing water. You will know that you are getting near the hotel, because you will go round the bend. The manager will await you in the entrance hall. He always tries to have intercourse with all new guests.” 

Being a responsible Canadian woman, I should offer apologies to Chinese people everywhere and remind them almost every Westerner would be helpless if asked to write a Mandarin-language promotional brochure for an American hotel.  As one whose Mandarin skills are cause for despair and laughter, I am filled with admiration for people that even try to be understood in a foreign language.  As I recall, I once translated “out of sight, out of mind” as “invisible idiot”.

Sadly, I have to add that much of that introductory paragraph was true, at least in 1990.  I don’t think the manager tried to have intercourse with all new guests but the rest of the rhetoric was spot on. Visitors DID go “round the bend” and representatives did make their guests at the airport wait before allowing them the great pleasure of “passing water”.

In any event, writing blogs is much more satisfying though perhaps not as cleansing as a turn in the confessional.  On the downside, only one listener had to suffer while  listening to and absolving a ten-year-old from the sin of obsessing about Kotex. With blogs, on any day when North Americans suffer from Trump and Trudeau media overload, hundreds of blog followers  can suffer.  That can inspire a lot of guilt.

Perhaps I could spare myself a bit of shame if I wrote more about about curling and hockey or added a little more poetry to my blog output.   A sonnet no one reads may have value as an act of mercy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cumberbatch, Hamlet and a Fisherman’s Funeral

 

DSCN1644This afternoon my husband went to see the inspired Benedict Cumberbatch’s stage to screen performance of “Hamlet” at our local King’s Theatre.

I attended a funeral for someone I met on the day he was born, sixty-nine years ago.

Both Marc and I felt our afternoons were well-spent.

While Cumberbatch’s “Hamlet” is in a weight class by itself, I was reminded (again) that stepping back into the past can also be enriching in ways that are epic.

I was ten years old when Michael Joseph d’Ambrose was born.  His parents were teenagers at the time of his birth and would go on add five more children to the three they already had.  I was a foster child and in 1949, had been living with Mike’s grandparents for most of my life.   Times were different in 1949 and parenting was then both more casual and more serious in the small, poor villages dotting the shores of St. Mary’s Bay. Ten-year-olds were frequently called on to babysit when older, teenage “adults” needed reliable help to take care of their babies when they had to be away from home.

It sounds a bit Dickensian as I talk about it now but I have no sense of exploitation or neglect during the time I lived with the kind and caring Le Blanc family in Brighton, Nova Scotia.

Sixty-nine years covers a lot of territory but I don’t think my memory betrays me when I tell others that as a toddler, Mike was a little scamp.   Judging from the turn out at his funeral service today, I think maybe he was a cheerful scamp throughout his life.  His wife of 47 years told a story about a request he made several years prior to their own wedding.  Apparently he had asked her to wash his truck so it would be as pristine as a ten year old vehicle could be and enable him to pursue other young women in the style to which they’d become accustomed. Although she declined the opportunity to wash his old truck, there were no subsequent hard feelings and a few years later, they began a partnership that lasted almost five decades.

But if not a scamp, Mike’s invitation to wash his pick up proved he  was at least cheeky to the extreme.

Today’s funeral celebration was held at the Royal Canadian Legion in Digby, a fishing town of almost 3000 residents.  The many family members and more than a hundred other guests sat in plastic folding chairs and ate sandwiches, dipped raw vegetables in tasty sauces, drank coffee and tea and traded Mike d’Ambrose Stories sotto voce, tales they could not bring themselves to tell in front of the Minister presiding at the service.

Cousins and in- laws, nephews and nieces, siblings and aunts and uncles came from as far away as Halifax and Toronto and wept when “Huntin’, Fishin’ and Lovin’ Everyday” reminded everyone Mike was his happiest with a gun or a fishing rod in his hand.  Although there was one story about his rabbit hunting adventures when pepper rather than guns or wire was used to bring home the ingredients for rabbit stew.  I guess it was a way of pre-seasoning that day’s supper.

No one seemed offended when it was suggested Mike was happier in the forest or fishing on nearby  lakes and rivers than he was in a smoke-filled room when his children were born or when he celebrated his anniversaries at a “sit down” restaurant.  To know Mike was to accept Mike.  As he was, rather than as numerous people might have wanted him to be.  A Woodsman, a Hunter, a Storyteller, and a plant foreman who worked ten to fourteen hard hours each day for fifty years, Mike was, in truth, a man of many parts.

Obviously not one of those parts was politically correct.

Still, few of the mourners at today’s service appeared to find any of his politically incorrect parts objectionable.  Nor was there a frown on even one face when the camouflage-covered urn holding his ashes was marched away from the Legion’s makeshift chapel.

In deference to more conventional and religious church goers, “How Great Thou Art” was also played during the service and Psalm 23, as it often is, was accompanied by another shower of tears.

Some of those tears were mine.

Today I was able to ignore the genius of Benedict Cumberbatch without a backward glance because, to put it simply, Michael Joseph d’Ambrose and his sweet, loving, and inclusive clan are just too hard to ignore.  Although to my sorrow, I did give it a shot.

Decades went by between visits to Nova Scotia from more exciting places in the US, Mexico and Asia.   Opportunities to spend time with the d’Ambroses, Le Blancs, Boudreaus, Melansons, Krausnicks, and other people that informally adopted and protected me for fifteen years were lost or traded for more seductive, entertaining, or glamorous “opportunities”.   For far too long, I paid inadequate attention to what I was missing.   Eventually, of course, we all age and grow marginally wiser as we sit at the bedside of sick and failing loved ones, and certainly at funerals, we gain greater clarity about the real value of the people who shaped and nurtured us.   If we have any sense at all, we stop assuming time will never run out and that the people we love most are immortal.  There may, indeed, be “a time to every purpose under the heaven” but it’s a mistake to assume that we control Time and can manipulate it to our convenience.

fire

Artists like Benedict Cumberbatch and writers like Shakespeare that wear well over centuries have the capacity to enrich lives.  Rituals developed to (sometimes belatedly) honor the dead and comfort survivors facing down death also provide insight into what binds us together.  Those rituals allow us to understand the “stuff” that makes us who we are.

And who we are not.