A Couple of Nova Scotia’s Historical Sites

(I’m reposting a travel series from a couple of years ago. If you’re like me, you are patiently (or maybe not so patiently) waiting for a safe return to the road. If so, how about traveling along with me on a virtual road trip. To read about our Nova Scotia travels from the beginning, start here.)

In previous posts about our visit to Nova Scotia, I’ve mentioned a couple of sites that deeply moved me, promising to delve into them later. Today, I’m keeping that promise with memories and photos of our visits to Grand Pre, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the Canadian Museum of Immigration.

A little history is called for here. The Canadian encyclopedia entry about the Acadians of Grand Pré begins this way: “Soldiers rounding up terrified civilians, expelling them from their land, burning their homes and crops ‒ it sounds like a 20th century nightmare in one of the world’s trouble spots, but it describes a scene from Canada’s early history, the Deportation of the Acadians.” The story of the expulsion of Acadians from Grand Pré is painfully evocative of our own Trail of Tears history, when the Cherokee were led on a forced march from the east to Oklahoma.

In French, the forced deportation was known as le grand dérangement. Sounds fitting. Since 1604, Acadians had created a thriving, peaceful community in the Bay of Fundy area. During their 150 years here, they developed an impressive dyke system to control the bay’s high tides, a method still in use today; they developed and maintained a rich agriculture; they created a massive and gorgeous landscape

The arduous task of building earthen dykes to hold back the Bay of Fundy’s high tides

A  typical Acadian farmstead

An image of  an Acadian day in the fields

A portion of the 3200-acre landscape of Grand Pre’

Meanwhile, the British and French were engaged in a long tug of war over Nova Scotia. The Acadians had sworn neutrality in any conflict between the two countries, but that wasn’t enough for the British governor. In 1755, he hatched a plan to surround their churches, threatening entire families with bayonets, while breaching the dykes and burning homes and crops. The first 3,000 deportees were sent to Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Georgia while 7,000 more were shipped to other British colonies, France, and the Caribbean during the next seven years.

Try putting your family in this scene:  panicked flight, trying to stay together, leaving everything–everything–behind forever.

People found themselves left, like Longfellow’s Evangeline, to wander fruitlessly in search of the families they’d been separated from. That, too, sounds all too familiar in today’s troubled times. (Only later did Acadians find their way to Louisiana because of their familiarity with the language. Thus did the Cajun culture become established.)

Detail of the statue of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s heroine, Evangeline. It graces the entrance to the memorial church built in the early 20th century which serves as a museum today. It was a church at this approximate location where British soldiers set up headquarters, rounded up the village’s men and boys, and told them their land, livestock, and almost everything they owned were to be forfeited to the Crown, and that their families were to be deported.

By 1764, the British government allowed small groups of Acadians to return, but they didn’t return to their former lands—nothing was left for them there. Instead, those who returned settled on the mainland and in Cape Breton. It was, indeed, as the Acadian Shores restaurant patron we overheard had said, a shameful moment in Nova Scotia’s history.

But Nova Scotia can at least be proud of how it owns up to inglorious historical moments. I was impressed by this trait both here and at the Canadian Museum of Immigration, located in Halifax.

Even before you pay your admission fee to the immigration museum, the Wheel of Conscience almost smacks you in the face with its raw power. A circular steel structure about six feet in diameter, the wheel includes names of the approximately one thousand Jews who were aboard the MS St. Louis in May 1939, the eve of World War II. They were fleeing Nazi Germany, seeking and being refused entry into Canada and other countries, including the United States. With nowhere to go, the ship was forced to return to Germany where a quarter of its passengers ultimately died in concentration camps. 

 The kinetic sculpture also features four rotating, interlocking gears, each one larger than the one before and each emblazoned in red with a single word—from smallest to largest: hatred, racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism. As visitors study the sculpture, they can’t help but see their own reflected faces looking back at them.

Inside, the exhibits are equally powerful. The museum is located in the very place, Halifax’s Pier 21, where more than a million immigrants came into Canada between 1928 and 1971. It’s logical that the museum would tell what that experience was like.

But the museum is more than that. It also tells the story of 400 years of immigration to Canada, and it takes an even broader approach, looking at refugee life as a whole, documenting through both visual and oral exhibits the horrors that force people to leave their home countries.

What horrific conditions would cause you to make this kind of journey? For how long? To what unknown future?

Imagine living in a tent this size with your entire family and all your very limited possessions, buckets for washing yourselves, your food, your dishes, and more. Imagine living here for up to eighteen years–or more? What would have brought you here?

Some of these painful exhibits come with a warning: “Not suitable for some visitors.” I tend to shy away from such stories, but I think we should force ourselves to face them so we can remember—cannot forget—the realities that send people fleeing all they know in hopes of finding a better life, a safer place, for their families. I did not photograph them.

Among other displays we visited were life-size replicas of a ship’s cabin, a life raft meant for eight that carried as many as thirty refugees, a child’s trunk, a family’s crate carrying everything they could cram in.

You can read notes handwritten on cardboard luggage tags from previous museum visitors who had immigrated, and you can watch videos of immigrants telling their personal stories. As moving as these exhibits are, what touched me most was finding myself in the company of a number of immigration ‘veterans,’ individuals who had landed at the immigration center in Halifax—at this very site when they were mere children. Other visitors were children of immigrants who had come through the port of Halifax. It was truly humbling to hear their stories, to be in their presence.

We didn’t want our visit to Nova Scotia to be touristy; we didn’t intend to spend much time inside museums. Our trip was meant to be about getting a feel for day-to-day life in the province and getting to know real-life Bluenosers while soaking in the phenomenal natural beauty of this place. But I’m really glad we took time out to visit these two sites. They, too, tell a story about the real Nova Scotia. And the rest of the world, in the past and, unfortunately, the present. They remind us about ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ as well as hope and the possibility of redemption.

This moving piece of public art, “The Emigrant,” near the Immigration Museum, pays tribute to those who have said goodbye to their families, hopefully temporarily, in search of a better life for all of them.

(Check back next time for more of our Nova Scotia travels.)

Along Nova Scotia’s South Shore

(I’m reposting a travel series from a couple of years ago. If you’re like me, you are patiently (or maybe not so patiently) waiting for a safe return to the road. If so, how about traveling along with me on a virtual road trip. To read about our Nova Scotia travels from the beginning, start here.)

It’s not every day the Gnome and I plan an overnight stop just an hour from the previous night’s lodging, but that’s just what we did on much of our Nova Scotia journey. It’s a good thing we did, because a one-hour drive anywhere else easily turns into an eight-hour adventure of the senses in this maritime province, especially when you decide to take the slowest, most scenic route, traveling out to this cove and that one, and stopping at every photographic opportunity you see. That’s approximately one per minute along the South Shore of Nova Scotia!

We had already made a sunrise visit to tiny, picturesque Peggy’s Cove on one of our Halifax days. Peggy’s Cove was one of our most delicious memories from our first visit forty-nine years ago, even though we were shrouded in fog. We could barely wait to see it again. It did not disappoint.

Our destination today was Lunenburg, stopping at the villages of Chester and Mahone Bay along the way. Chester’s waterfront is nothing less than stunning.  (Click on images for a larger view.)

The village sports a small park with a couple of stirring war memorials. One features a Nova Scotia Highlander atop a monument honoring the 54 area soldiers killed during World War I. The other is a thank you from Norway. During World War II, more than 1,000 Norwegian merchant ships were at sea when Nazi Germany invaded the country. The ships sailed to the nearest allied ports. Thus, Chester’s Hackmatrack Inn became a convalescent center for the sick and injured Norwegian seamen who headed for safe harbor in Nova Scotia.

We wanted to stop in Mahone Bay to see its photogenic ‘Three Churches.’ Though we never found the best spot to photograph them, we still enjoyed their beauty—along with three or four tour busloads of other folks. DSCF3596

Quite by accident, we happened upon other visual entertainment, as well. The village was preparing for its annual Scarecrow Festival, which was set to begin in five days. Everybody gets in on the act from families to churches to dentists. (Look closely—can you see the braces on the dentist’s patient, bottom right. These characters were, of course, in front of a dentist’s office.)

We discovered a small nearby beach for a picnic lunch where a couple of folks from the area recreation department had set up shop encouraging residents to visit this little-known treasure. (Nova Scotia has few sand beaches, but this is one of them—sort of.) 

They invited us to fill a jar with sand and shells as a memento of our trip. And here is where we found, as we did over and over, the very best thing about the province—its people. They asked where we were from, commiserated over Hurricane Florence (which was on every Nova Scotian’s mind), found out where we were headed, and filled our heads full of not-to-be-missed places to visit on our journey. It was great fun meeting them.

Next on our agenda was Blue Rocks, Lunenburg’s ‘answer to Peggy’s Cove,’ even tinier and just as much off the beaten path. 

Downtown Blue Rocks

And, finally, just around suppertime, we made it to Lunenburg, whose Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site as the best surviving example of a planned British colonial settlement in North America. In spite of its tourist appeal, this fishing village has managed to retain its authenticity since its founding more than 250 years ago. Quite a feat.

Lunenburg streetscape

Old Town Lunenburg’s buildings are not reproductions. These are the real deal.

Detail, detail, detail!

A 1870s shipbuilder’s home

Nova Scotians sometimes refer to themselves as Bluenosers and here’s their proud reason why, I’m told: the Bluenose schooner, launched in 1921, raced undefeated in international competitions for 17 years. The Bluenose II, a faithful replica, was born and lives in Lunenburg just like her predecessor.

Complete with passengers

Just as we expected, our ‘one-hour’ trip turned into a long and busy day, and we were definitely ready for an early bedtime before the next day’s activities. Stop by next week to see what we discovered next.

DAVID RAE SMITH, OPERATIC BARITONE

I had barely put the final touches on my last book Blackberries and Biscuits, the story of my mother’s life and times, last fall when a writer friend asked me what was next. I told her I needed to take a break from writing for a while.

Well, that plan lasted for about a minute. I plunged right into developing a book from previously written anecdotes of a number of my ancestors. Seemed like a pretty easy topic since I’d already done most of the work. But before I got my writing feet wet with that book, I got distracted by one particular story, that of my dad’s first cousin, David Rae Smith. Rae, as he was known in the family, had no descendants to tell his story. Nor did any of his immediate family have any descendants. I found myself a mission–and a new passion.

I’ve been hard at work researching Rae’s story ever since. I’m sad to say it’s still a long way from completion, having been interrupted by all sorts of personal, family, and world issues (can you say COVID-19?) But I’m still hard at work on it.

I think maybe it’s time to share what may become the book’s opening scene. Perhaps sharing will give me a little extra incentive to keep at it.

David Rae Smith, baritone, New York City Opera

Look, Julius, I don’t care if he’s under contract with the Shreveport Civic Opera.. I want David Rae Smith!”

All right, all right, Bev. I’ll make it happen.”

Of course, I don’t know if this was the exact conversation between New York City Opera Impresario Julius Rudel and his resident star mezzo soprano Beverly Sills, but it may well have gone something like that. As the March 29, 1978 issue of The Times of Shreveport, Louisiana, reported, “Smith was released from his contract at the request of Beverly Sills who wants Smith to join her in the cast of a New York City Opera production of The Merry Widow,” a show which would take place four days later.

Whether Rae needed that validation of of his talents or not, it must have felt good to the baritone to know how much the best-known diva of the era valued him. He had performed opposite Sills in San Diego the previous year, a production that was broadcast nationwide on PBS stations in late November and recorded for Angel Records. Sills must have appreciated the dynamic.

Newspapers all over the country publicized the 1977 event, usually beginning with words similar to those in New Mexico’s Deming Headlight: “Public television will present a new English-language production of Franz Lehar’s zesty operetta, The Merry Widow starring Beverly Sills Monday, November 28 on PBS as it was presented earlier this fall at the San Diego Civic Theater.

“Appearing with Miss Sills in this all-new San Diego Opera Company production will be Alan Titus, Nolan Van Way, Glenys Fowles, Ryan Allen and David Rae Smith.”

The company’s musical recording of Widow highlights was the 1978 (February 23) Grammy award winner for Best Opera Recording. (Other 1978 Grammy recipients included Luciano Pavarotti, Steve Martin, Donna Summer, Chick Corea, Al Jarreau, the BeeGees (“Saturday Night Fever”), Orson Welles, the Muppets, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, George Benson, Ann Murray, Barry Manilow, Billy Joel and Earth, Wind and Fire.)

How did the son of an Asheville, North Carolina, letter carrier and a homemaker make his way to the Grammys and the opera and Broadway stages?

In truth, the multi-talented Rae had many career choices, and his path was the result of a multitude of happenstances—in addition, of course, to his great natural abilities.

Based on his early accomplishments, Rae could have been successful at almost any career: politics, acting, the law, concert pianist, vocalist, radio personality, scholar. It must have seemed as if the world was his pearl-studded oyster.

* * *

Rae as Professor Harold Hill in Brevard Music Center production of The Music Man, 1971, with co-stars. Photo courtesy of Brevard Music Center, Overture  magazine, 1972. Used with permission.

A Life Well Lived

My mom died a couple of weeks ago—about 5:20 pm, July 7, to be exact. I don’t write this to ask for sympathy. Yes, I’m sad, but I’m also filled with gladness. And, yes, I just feel a need to share. It’s part of saying goodbye, so thank you for sharing with me.

My mom, Pansy (Pam) Dillard Coates, in her late 80s. Who wouldn’t fall in love with a smile like that?

Mother was three months and a couple of days shy of her ninety-seventh birthday. She lived not just a long life, but a full one, full of joy and wonder. But in the last year or so, it was clear her body was letting go. She had been losing weight, had little appetite, had more trouble getting around with her walker, didn’t have much to talk about. Still, the end came fairly unexpectedly.

And that, in my mind, is a good thing. She was an avid reader. She started early and never stopped. It was one of her very favorite activities. Her room was filled with books. In the last few years, she said to me numerous times that she was so glad she loved to read, was still able to read, couldn’t imagine life without reading, and that she felt sorry for all the people around her who didn’t seem to care that much about reading.

Mother couldn’t keep up with the number and names of her great-grandchildren—after all, some of them she had rarely seen—but she knew us children, and still recognized the sound of our phone voices, even before we announced ourselves.

Mother lived in a small assisted living facility for the last seven years. I wish that could have been different, but it wasn’t. Yet the folks who work there gave her a new lease on life. When she first arrived, her health, both physical and mental, were in rapid decline. Regular and healthy nourishment, keeping to a medication schedule (and the correct one), and socialization got her back on track within days. It was a miraculously quick transformation.

Because of the pandemic, I had not been able to visit Mother in person for the last five months. From the first days of the shutdown, I feared I would never get the chance to see her again. That has been the case with so many people these last few months, and my heart weeps for them.

But when Mother called out for help, she was rushed to the hospital, and the hospital allowed visitors—just one per day. My brother spent the first day with her and I got to be there the second day. Of course, our first words to each other were, “I love you,” as we grasped hands and looked into each other’s eyes. Those were close to the last coherent words she said. A few hours later she started receiving morphine and she was moved to a hospice facility the following day, where visitation was a little more relaxed. I got to spend the night in her room. My brother and I, our spouses, and a couple of friends all had a chance to touch her, to tell her what we needed to say whether she heard or not, to hold her in the light, and to say goodbye. Yes, it was sad. But it was beautiful, too.

For all these things, I am grateful. I’m grateful for much, much more, too—Mother’s love of nature, her happy outlook on life, her smile, her laugh, her guiding light, all the skills she taught me. I’m grateful that we had a happy, healthy family life where she and Dad showed us children how to adult, how to parent, how to maintain healthy relationships with our own spouses. I’m grateful she was an adventurer, always willing to try something new. I’m grateful she always supported us in our endeavors, both when we were children and as adults. I’m grateful that once we grew up and began living on our own, Mother continued to support us but that she knew better than to ever once criticize or interfere in our lives. I’m grateful for her warmth and her love.

The best l can do to honor her is to model the life she lived, and I will thank her every day of my life for giving me that.

The Story I Need to Tell

What story do I need to tell right now? The same story I needed to tell yesterday, last month, last year.

It’s the story of family. The stories that compel me most are of family members who have no one else to tell their story. I want to memorialize their lives.

A few generations’ worth of my forebears

I remember the day (about thirty years ago) I was driving to another county for a meeting. As usual, I tuned into NPR. A man was talking. It was the middle of something—I couldn’t tell what. But I was transfixed as he talked about sitting on the porch under the feet of his aunts and grandmother as they rocked and snapped beans and told and retold stories handed down to them, stories that ultimately led him to hard-to-find discoveries of his personal history.

The man was still talking when I reached my destination, so I didn’t get to find out who he was or exactly what he was talking about. But I was haunted by the bits of his story I heard. His voice stayed in my head. Only years later did I discover, when I heard a snippet of the story again, that I had been listening to a recorded talk given by Alex Haley about his genealogical discoveries that led to the writing of Roots.

My husband surprised me with this album–the haunting story I’d heard on the radio years before.

I will never write a story with the power of Roots. That is not the point. The point is that if a story isn’t preserved, it disappears. I believe our personal histories matter, and even a few random anecdotes about our ancestors can help us better understand who we are. They can give us a sense of self, of belonging, of profound truths.

If I know a story or can ferret one out, it feels like both an obligation and an honor to be the conduit between my past and future. If I can keep a story alive, I can keep the memory of cherished people alive, as well.

When I’m conscious of what my forebears lived through, how they lived through it, how they survived, I see life differently. When I study the history of their times, I feel them holding me up, and I want to do the same in my turn.

The story I need to tell right now is the one of my cousin (once removed) who sang with the New York City Opera for thirty years and left no descendants. And the story of his brother, a P-47 pilot in World War II. He was on a bombing mission to clear the way for Patton’s assault on Germany when he was killed just six weeks before the war in Europe ended. He left no one to tell his story, either.

              

Brothers Rae and Ed Smith, my cousins once removed

Sanctuary and Salvation

Again, my writing has taken me where I did not want to go. I fear we are all too bombarded by this theme, and I promise to leave it soon.

* * * * *

Home is my sanctuary. It’s where I feel safe, protected, loved. It’s where I am inspired—reborn. But seasonal depression traipses after me like a needy two-year-old, and demands constant vigilance. I know only one ‘cure’—to get Out, listen to bird trills, see the trees wave in the wind, smell the grasses and, when spring finally teases me, the flowers.

If Home is my sanctuary, Out is my salvation. But these days, Out is nearly my undoing. The intensity of it drains me. Out, I am a one-woman SWAT team, always on alert for snipers.

On a walking trail, I’m constantly checking all directions at once, zig-zagging to avoid fellow walkers who seem oblivious to the need for physical distance. Veering far off the path when I spy a jogger gaining on me or a gaggle of young roommates filling the pavement and headed my way. The responsibility for communal safety seems to be mine alone.

woman in face mask shopping in supermarket

Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

In a grocery store, I turn into a one-way aisle only to see someone coming toward me. I stop dead, then wheel my cart around and drive it over two more aisles, down then back up the one between, finally returning to my starting point—only to find someone else illegally coming at me.

When I near the end of an aisle, I pause, then slowly ease my cart into the intersection, anxious that someone may be about to ambush me. I am reminded of the way my nervous Mother used to creep around a blind curve on our mountain road at two miles an hour, madly honking the horn all the way.

Sometimes, another shopper turns in my direction when another is not far behind me. Trapped, I twist and flatten myself against shelves of canned goods like a squirrel plastered to the ground to avoid the predatory hawk. I dare not breathe until the danger has passed and the air might, just might, be slightly clearer than it was a few moments ago.

It is exhausting. I return home—to calm and solace, not knowing when the grayness will again swoop down and envelop me. But knowing it will. And, inevitably, the answer is Out.

I am intoxicated by the thought of Out—just the idea of taking trash to the dump excites me, even though Out is fraught with danger and the perception of danger. While governments ease restrictions, the modified protocols are for others. We elders—‘the vulnerables’—are still expected to stay home. When we do hazard to venture out, we will be at greater risk than ever.

He is okay with that. He says we are warriors. Ready for battle, ready to die for ‘the greater good’ as he thrusts us into the fray. Yes,” he acknowledges, people will die.

People like me.

That’s what warriors do. But how can I be a warrior? Warriors have weapons. I don’t.

She* sees today’s world differently. She encourages us to be meditative and connected—our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. Reaching out to each other, not with hands, but with hearts—because our lives are in one another’s hands in ways they have never before been. Our physical distance demands our connectedness to be stronger than ever.

I can live with her take, considering this respite from normal as a sacred time in a sacred place, a time to step away from the chaos of the world and into personal commitment, a time to, as she says, “Reach out all the tendrils of compassion that move, invisibly, where we cannot touch.”

I might even be able to stay sane at home.

_ . _ . _ . _

*     She is poet Lynn Ungar. You can read the entirety of her touching poem here.

 

It’s Still Dark

Note: I have avoided writing about this subject like the plague that it is. But events have drawn me to it in spite of myself. Before reading, you should know that this was written a month ago. It was out of date by the time I finished it. But I have chosen not to change the numbers, so the piece can be an archival record.

water rainy rain raindrops

Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com

It’s still dark. The room feels stuffy. I leave my bed, open the window, and the sound of rain fills the room. It echoes the sound I hear in my brain.

It sounds as if I’m deep in the woods trying to tune into a low-signal radio station. Static of the worst kind. Angry, crackling dissonance. A constant hissing as terrifying as if all the voices in the world are speaking in my head simultaneously.

This is not the cadence of a gentle rain tickling our metal roof, a meditative thrum to sleep by. This is the sound of nightmares. Of madness. A discordant jumble of sound I cannot make sense of. The sound of nonsense numbers.

Numbers too big to contemplate clamor for attention I do not possess.

Ten is a number I can understand—the size of a family Thanksgiving gathering. Thirty—my grade- school classes. A hundred? Maybe my granddaughter’s high school soccer games.

But twenty thousand. What does that number mean? The population of my town. Have I ever seen all those people together in one place? If I drove to town one day and all 20,000 lay dead in the streets, could my brain take it in?

And yet, the numbers in my head are exponentially bigger than that. And they are real. They are human lives. The raindrops are their voices. I have no space to breathe.

Overnight, the number of deaths in the United States from a single virus passed the 50,000 mark. Overnight. By tomorrow, we will have exceeded a million documented cases. Before I can blink, cases worldwide will rise to 3 million with 200,000 deaths.  How am I supposed to understand those numbers?

I read a New York Magazine piece the other day. The reporter wrote that what we call “under control” is Americans dying in multiples of September 11 every week.” That kind of death toll is being normalized.

My stomach flips, but my mind is disengaged, my heart numbed. Too many numbers, too many voices—too little meaning. A tale of sound and fury, signifying nothing,

But . . .  tonight I am told someone very dear to me has the thing whose name I dare not speak.

Simultaneously I learn that 40-somethings with barely any symptoms are dying of virus-induced strokes. My son’s age. My daughter’s age.

Now, I feel it.

The cold sweat of bone-chilling fear.

This Wild and Precious Life

My Wednesday Writing Group is now meeting via email since we are sheltering in place. Our fearless leader’s recent prompt forced me into some deep soul searching. I didn’t know where this piece was going when I picked up my pen, but it turned into something meaningful for me, so meaningful that I’m opening myself up to you now.

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

Naturalized daffodils in the woods

I remember when our children were young and complained about not having enough time to do the things that really mattered. My go-to response was to remind them that however they spent their time was a demonstration of what truly mattered the most to them (which was often watching TV). Sometimes the response was tears, sometimes an eye roll or two, but it never seemed to change behavior. Maybe that’s because I was better at preaching than practicing. I was chiding myself every bit as much as I was chiding them.

I live in constant awe and envy of many women whose orbit I circle: women who travel to far off places to do good, putting themselves in who-knows-how-much of harm’s way, risking their health and safety. They give their time, their creativity, and their financial resources to help others. They think of others before themselves.

Like theirs, my heart aches for the plight of so many in this world, but that is often as much as I allow. I’m filled with compassion more than passion. I am not moved to activism. A lifetime ago it was different, but I burned my candle down to a nub. I got burned and burned out, and the flame has never reignited.

Still, I find myself looking around me and wondering how I can help, how I can make a difference. I looked close to home—it’s not an easy place to find an answer. I’m surrounded by an enclave of family—theirs, not mine. Much of what they do, all four generations of them, they do together: farming, canning, eating, errands, playing. They are self-contained; they take care of each other. They do not seem to need others, even in times of need.

“Where am I needed? What can I do?”

That was the question I asked myself when one of the older generation among these neighbors received a devastating cancer diagnosis. They certainly didn’t need me to bring food or offer trips to the doctor. I had just recently retired from my far more than  full-time job when it came to me—the one thing I now had that family members did not.

Time. I could visit. While their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren are off at work and school, I could give my time.

I had my answer.

At this stage in my own life, it seems the things I have to offer are the small things. A smile, a word of encouragement, a thank you or a compliment. They are indeed small things, but as I look around, they are things the world seems much in need of right now. These things I can do, and I have learned to be on the alert. Not always, not enough, but so much more than when I was so overworked and overwhelmed that I seemed only to live inside myself.

These days I actively watch for opportunities to smile, to make a small gesture. “Is there something I can get for you from that top shelf?” to the older gentleman in his electric shopping cart. “May I help with that?” to the woman struggling to get her arm into the coat sleeve.

I step out of my comfort zone to say something pleasant to a person who seems vulnerable. It’s an indirect way of saying, “You’re not alone. Here is a safe place.” Sometimes I just watch. How is this clerk from Pakistan being treated by her customers? How are those Latino customers being treated by that cashier? I’m ready to step in, though I have no idea how.

I’ve also learned that things I think and say and write can occasionally make a difference. It’s the main reason I continue to write—in hopes that I will sometimes find some combination of words that will touch someone.

In these ever more uncertain times, I believe it is more important than it ever has been—in my lifetime, at least—to look for the small ways I can help improve someone else’s day. Maybe it’s an extra large tip when my server is having a tough time. Maybe it’s a conversation with the overworked cashier at the big box store. Maybe it’s popping a check in the mail to make up for the appointments I’ll miss with my hairdresser for the current stage of the coronavirus shutdown—with a little something extra added in. Maybe it’s looking for a sliver of silver lining someone’s clouds.

What do I plan to do with my one wild and precious life? I plan to plant a little ray of sunshine wherever I can. Carrie Newcomer sings, “Between here now and forever is so precious little time.” With my precious little time I will seek out tiny acts of kindness to perform, following Mother Teresa’s counsel to do small things with great love.

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

–Mary Oliver from New and Selected Poems, 1992

 

 

Random Thoughts in the Midst of a Pandemic

Foggy Sunday, March 15, 2020

I took a walk in the cool fog today.

I like walking the fog. Fog is quiet, coming in “on little cat feet,” as Sandburg wrote. A stroll in fog is conducive to introspection and reflection.

On this day, fog seems to mean more. Walking in the fog, I can only see what is immediately around me. It seems an apt metaphor in these days of self-isolation. But in a good way. The safest place I can be is here, alone. My being here, alone, is the safest thing I can do for the people I love and care about, too.

I can look at the fog and my isolation as annoyances, as gray and depressing, as confining. Or I can look for the opportunities it provides. Time to read, write, catch up on chores. (Closet-cleaning, anyone? That’s what a cousin is doing today.)

Me? I’m about to introduce myself to a new friend over the phone. What better time than this? We found each other on social media when we realized we were each the daughter of our own mother’s best friend. We’re going to gossip about our mothers. Imagine them as teenagers. Invent stories about them. And keep each other company. We’ll laugh. We may even shed some tears.

We will connect. Even in the fog.

-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-

Tuesday Evening

I’ve had another thought. (Yes, sometimes that’s about how often they come to me.) It’s still foggy outdoors, and I’ve learned something. Fog looks better when I’m in its midst (or should I say mist?) than when I’m indoors looking out at it. I’m sure there’s a metaphor there worth exploring, but that’s not the thought playing in my mind just now.

What I’ve been thinking is that we just might see some real good coming from this coronavirus disaster. Now, I’m not equating potential benefits with actual devastating losses. But I remember once hearing something along the lines of, “There’s almost nothing, no matter how good for one person, that doesn’t have some bad in it for somebody else, and almost nothing, no matter how bad for someone, that doesn’t have some good in it for someone else.” It was an interesting observation and as I conjured up one situation after another, I could see how it works.

Again, I would never attempt to suggest equivalency, but the notion that most good contains bad and most bad contains some degree of good seems to hold true to some degree or other, no matter what scenario I throw at it. So I wonder . . . in this time of social distancing and self-isolation, what changes are we likely to see when we come out on the other side because some unexpected, even tangential, benefit has occurred.

Even in this highly technological and rapidly changing age, we often cling to archaic systems and structures. The coronavirus is changing all that. It’s been truly astonishing—and refreshing—to see how creative and generous individuals, businesses, and organizations have been in the face of this unknown. As stressful and challenging as these times are, people have risen to the occasion and proven their ability to adapt quickly and ingeniously.

I suspect we’re going to see some permanent restructuring after the urgent need for temporary solutions has run its course. Some of it may not be so hot. But . . . who is going to realize that some of the drastic and immediate responses to our current situation actually offer new, improved ways of doing things? How will our work change? How will schools change? How will you and I change?

I don’t know what and I certainly don’t know how, but I have this deep, deep feeling that we’re going to see some new ways of thinking and doing that will bode well for society as a whole.

That thought does me good. And I’m going to hold on to it.

Finding Moments of Joy

Last spring, I heard a writer friend mention the happiness journal—365 days of happiness. I was taken with the concept, but it didn’t quite fit for me. I landed on something similar, but in some ways dramatically different when I began recording one single event each day that I could claim as a personal Moment of Joy (MoJ). I mentioned my Moment of Joy journal here.

I wasn’t looking for things that simply gave me satisfaction or created an exhale of relief. Instead, I wanted to make note of those unexpected moments that take my breath away, that make me want to say to anyone who can hear, “Hey, look at that!” I vowed to exempt personal relationships and everyday happinesses when I recorded a Moment of Joy. Writing that I was happy to wake up next to the GNOME, for instance, could become a cop out and a crutch. Too easy. I’m always happy to wake up next to him. I wanted to become more aware of the little things that are too easy to miss.

I admit I’ve ended a few days scratching my head as I prepared to document an MoJ. Some days are like that. But I’m happy to report that for the most part, I have trouble narrowing down my MoJ experiences to just one or two to record. I’ve been surprised how easy it is to find them. The Gnome’s gotten in on the act, too. We see a rainbow and he says, “That could be your moment of joy today.”

A few months ago, I thought I’d stop keeping an MoJ list. I was practically stumbling over all the moments of joy around me (not a bad thing); maybe I didn’t need a list. But as fall slowly morphed into winter, I changed my mind. I’ve written before about the emotional challenge that the often overcast, always-short-day season can be for me. Of all times to be on intentional alert for moments of joy, this is it.

I’m glad I kept at it. Being attuned to joyful moments after day upon day of gray fog is so good for the soul. As I write this, I glance up every few moments to watch snowflakes lazily drift through the air. Yesterday, all it took was a look outside to notice the heart-stoppingly beautiful scenery with snow on the ground and hoar frost adding its own touch of brilliance to the mountaintops and the tips of branches. The male cardinal wears an especially bright coat of scarlet on days like that.

Last week, we spotted the brightest, biggest, most distinctly colored rainbow I think I’ve ever seen. And when we looked more closely, we could spot an ever-so-faint second rainbow above it. What a WOW moment!

When the world is as naked as it is in winter, I look for subtleties: the patterns and hues of lichen on trees, the grain of tree bark. Winter is the time for noticing the delicate shades of dried grasses in fields and meadows, ranging from sand to bronze to deep burgundy.

My Moments of Joy have ranged from getting an unexpected phone call to listening to wind gusts, from spotting a dandelion puff in winter to discovering a tidbit of information to make an otherwise mundane essay sing, from a stranger’s kindness to seeing five deer standing just outside the window or catching the scent of winter-blooming narcissus.

Being on the lookout for each day’s Moment of Joy quickly became a habit, an almost unconscious one. And that’s the way it should be—being so in the moment and so intuitively aware of the world around me that I never have to be reminded of the many things to be thankful for, of the beauty and potential for joy that surrounds me. Besides, the very best Moments of Joy are those that come unbidden, catching me off guard, sweeping off my feet.

“Hey, look at that!”