Return to Nova Scotia

Forty-nine years later, the Gnome and I have fuzzy but memorable impressions of our first visit to Canada. They go something like this—Ottawa: old-fashioned officialdom; Toronto: sleekly professional with more traffic lanes than we’d ever seen; Montreal: sophisticated, Euro-cosmopolitan; Quebec City: old-world charm; rural Quebec: rolling green farmland; New Brunswick: waves of amber; Prince Edward Island (PEI): verdant romanticism.

And then there was Nova Scotia, a place I’d seen in my dreams, a place where the mountains meet the sea, a place of blues and greens, a place that inspires the imagination, a place of calm and peacefulness.  I’d always imagined living someplace where I could open my front door to the ocean and my back one to the mountains. I assumed it was a mythical place, attainable only through my fanciful visions.

Yet, here it was, right before my awestruck eyes. But our trip was at its end. We only had a fraction of two days to soak in this magic. Still, Nova Scotia managed to grab a little piece of our hearts.

So, how come it took almost fifty years for us to return to this bewitching land? We’d managed to revisit some of the other provinces and explore them further, making a five-hour, 186-mile train trip to (what we thought was far north) Moosonee, Ontario, on the Polar Bear Express. (Rail is the only way to reach Moosonee by land.) And we camped on Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula, home of Forillon National Park and the Chic-Choc Mountains, a continuation of the Appalachian chain.

Maybe we stayed away so long out of an unconscious fear that reality couldn’t possibly measure up to our happy memories. Or maybe we instinctively knew the longer we yearned, the more phenomenal it would all be when our dreams finally turned to reality.

And so it was that in mid-September we made our way back for a long-planned and even longer-imagined visit to the place that had held on to our hearts for so long. A twenty-six-day road trip, eighteen of those in Canada’s second smallest and second most densely populated province (coming in after PEI in both cases).

Eighteen days, especially compared to the barely two of our previous visit, should be enough time to get to know a place so small that it’s a mere 360 miles from tip to tip, so small that nowhere in the province is more than 42 miles from the ocean, right? Hardly. That was clear after only a couple of days.

We weren’t so much interested in visiting museums and traditional tourist sites, though we did take in a few. Instead, this time around we wanted to get to know the real Nova Scotia—her people, places, and culture. We didn’t want to just see the place; we wanted to feel it. We thought we could accomplish that by visiting community after community. But each locale has its own unique story and demands more than a quick pass through. Before we knew it, we were busy planning our next trip, one that keeps us in fewer places, but for a longer period of time in each.

Was it all we’d imagined? Oh, yes! In the next few weeks, I’ll be writing about some of the special places we saw, people we met, and things we learned. In the meantime, to tantalize you, here are just a few of the 3500+ pictures we took along our journey.

Long-awaited welcome

So many colorful houses everywhere–you’re as likely to see red, purple, or orange as you are white.

Early morning in Peggy’s Cove

Beautiful Cape Breton

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We even got to see the beginning of Cape Breton’s fall colors.

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Looking out from a sea cave at Ovens Natural Park

 

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So many striking homes. So much detail.

Annapolis Valley

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Example of an 18th century  Acadian home

Oh, Canada!

The Landscape of Grand Pre, a UNESCO World Heritage Site

 

And here are a couple of Nova Scotia factoids: The distance from Nova Scotia’s southernmost tip to its northernmost is 360 miles, almost two hundred miles less than the distance across my home state of North Carolina. In land area, it is closest to, though smaller than, West Virginia, which is ranked 41st among our 50 states.

To join me on my journeys stay tuned for more stories and pictures.

Despised Scent

Have you ever tried to describe a smell? Either a favorite one or one you detest? It’s hard. How do you describe a scent without mentioning the scent itself. That’s what you’d have to do to describe it to someone unfamiliar with it.

Because it’s such a hard thing to write about, writing instructors often require their students to do just that. Our Wednesday writing workshop leader has done it a couple of times. Most recently, I observed that the majority of us chose to write about a distasteful smell rather than one a favorite one, I guess because the power of a detestable smell evokes more powerful thoughts.

It’s what prompted me to write about a loathed aroma. At first, I tried to write about something sweet and beloved, but as I attempted to think of descriptors, I came up blank. Calling up bad smells, however, was visceral. I chose to write about—you guessed it—skunks.

* * * * *

I rather like the musky evidence of skunk—from a distance. It leaves a hint of citrusy lemon aroma in the air. A little fresher skunk scent is more that of burnt coffee—the same smell that makes me wrinkle my nose when I get to close to a coffee shop in the late afternoon. Even that doesn’t bother me too much.

But fresh skunk spray up close and personal—say on my deck—is another matter. My eyes are attacked by a burning sensation that makes them water uncontrollably. My nostrils close up from the stench. I can neither see nor breathe. I choke.

It is the smell of diesel fuel, cigarette smoke, burning meat, and cat urine all rolled into one, as if all those smells are simultaneously stuffed up my nose and down my throat.

Bottle it and that scent would make as powerful and effective a weapon of war as it is a protection from skunk dangers in the wild.

 

“Everything I Need”

Have I mentioned I have the most amazing mom? Really, I do. This woman, 95 today, has never ceased being my mentor and teacher. And I’ll bet she doesn’t even realize it. She’s no longer trying to mold me; that work is done. Yet, her daily, living example does influence me.

I recently came across a March 19, 2018, New York Times article by Jane E. Brody: “Finding Meaning and Happiness in Old Age.” She references several experts in the field of geriatrics with observations such as these:

  • Even when physical decline and losses restrict one’s options, there remains the capacity to appreciate and approach each day with a sense of purpose. It’s all about how you frame what you have.

  • Positive aging is “a state of mind that is positive, optimistic, courageous, and able to adapt and cope in flexible ways with life’s changes.”

  • older people, knowing they face a limited time in front of them, focus their energies on things that give them pleasure in the moment,” not on a future that may never be.

That sounds a lot like Mom, now classified as among ‘the oldest of the old.’

Five years ago, my mother lived in a six-room house filled with antiques and family heirlooms. She and my dad had already downsized once or twice. Today, widowed after sixty years of marriage, she lives in one room in an assisted living facility. She no longer drives. She shares her small room with all her possessions—a chest, a rocking chair, a couple of bedside tables and lamps, a small bookcase overflowing with books and word puzzles, a television set, and a few pictures and pieces of needlework adorning the walls. Aside from her clothing and a bed furnished by the facility, that’s about it. Talk about downsizing!

Having suffered a broken hip, a fractured pelvis, severe osteoarthritis, and several fractured vertebrae that shortened her height by at least five inches, she moves slowly, painfully, and infrequently—with an aluminum walker as her constant companion.

Some people would look at her circumstances and be overcome with sadness. Not Mom. Sometimes when we’re on the phone, she’ll randomly say something like, “Not many ninety-four-year-olds are as lucky as I am,” citing her long and happy marriage, her children, the mountain view from her room, the resident cats that come for daily visits.

On my most recent visit, I asked if there was anything I could pick up for her. She took a cursory glance around, looked me straight in the eyes with a tranquil smile, and said, “You know, I have everything I need.”

I’d say she’s mastered the art of finding meaning and happiness in old age. Now, if only I can be as good a pupil as she is a teacher.    

Mom through the years

 

One Life

What if someone were to curate a museum exhibit of your life? What objects would you want included? What would they say about who you are and what matters to you? How would the accompanying plaque interpret the exhibit?

Here are some vignettes I picture as part of my “One Life” exhibit:

A seed picture, a macramé wall hanging, and a handwoven basket depicting a childhood of craft-learning at my grandmother’s feet which morphed into my would-be-hippie-street-fair-vendor period and morphed again into a more nuanced appreciation of handiwork and an unending need to work with my hands;

A shelf filled with books by the likes of Annie Dillard, Mark Twain, Mary Oliver, Robert Fulghum and more, some of which prompted me to read more while others influenced who I became and still others led me to become a writer myself;

A table holding a pencil, eraser, and notebook symbolizing my love of writing, an urge  that visited me randomly and infrequently until recently, when it became a near obsession;

A collection of LPs and CDs: classical—Mozart, Chopin, Mussorgsky, Beethoven (there was a time when I fantasized about becoming a concert pianist. That time was sandwiched between my Debbie Reynolds period and delusions of being a race car driver); folk—philosophical storysingers the likes of the Kingston Trio, Christine Lavin, John McCutcheon, and Carrie Newcomer who prick our consciences and prod us to action with thought-provoking messages, sometimes with some quirky humor thrown in; the Gaelic melodies of Enya and kin which, through their sheer ethereal beauty, transport my mind to the shores of my heritage;

A hammer, a saw, and a scattering of nails on a 2 x 4 piece of lumber portraying our once-in-a-lifetime homebuilding adventure;

A grouping of family heirlooms—perhaps a chair, a plate, a crocheted doily: items that tell the story of my attachment to family and family history;

A tent, a canoe, and a campfire all in the midst of a small square of outdoor space, testaments to my love of camping, water, and nature;

A collection of photo albums—more proof of my strong sense of family as well as my love of photography, nature, and wildlife;

A corner filled with bumper stickers, protest posters, sit-in images, and a couple of rabble-rousing speeches representing my passion for human rights, all sorts, and my years as an activist and leader in social change movements;

A few fruit- and vegetable-filled canning jars next to some colorful seed packets resting atop a small mound of well-composted garden soil—evidence of my gardening and food preservation heritage and interest.

All of this would, of course, be displayed against a backdrop of the Blue Ridge mountains while the sounds of bird songs and a waterfall are piped into the exhibit space.

Looked at as a whole, such an exhibit speaks to me of eclecticism (or perhaps the inability to settle on any one thing). I like to think it also speaks of an enthusiasm for life, a certain joie de vivre. But I see what isn’t there, too—in some cases, things I wish I’d had a chance to experience or was passionate about, but in truth am not; in others, things that once mattered and have been cast aside. I see the absence of objects that are critically important to other people but don’t matter a whit to me.

(Conspicuously absent is anything about my family—other than the references to the photo album and family heirloom exhibits. Make no mistake: they are, every single one of them, central to my life. But with this kind of exercise, it’s all too tempting to focus on other people and to turn the whole thing into a cliché, so I resist the urge.)

Chances are, there are also things that have simply skipped my mind in the moment. If I were to write this piece next week or next year, an entirely different collection of objects might appear.

I wonder what my exhibit would say to the casual observer? What about yours?