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The Owl

This magnificent Great Horned Owl is spending the winter in New York’s Central Park. The photo is a “first” for me, a co-operative effort, made through the kind help of a professional nature photographer. Credit for the photo also goes to whatever abiding goodness animates this earth.

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It was Christmas Eve, a day that celebrates journeys large and small, guiding stars, the birth of the new. On that day, we took an everyday stroll through ordinary time into a quiet revelation of the numinous.

We’d come to the Ramble, the section of the park where the owl was roosting, but the area was huge, and we couldn’t spot the bird. Then a man with a camera came walking down the path, and we asked him if he knew where the owl was.

“I know where he was the other day,” he said.

Offering to show us, he trekked back the way he came, and we followed him along a hidden path so serpentine that I imagined him walking us back in time — to the moment, as well as to the place where he’d last seen the owl. The path sloped downward toward a clump of trees where another man sat with his camera and telephoto lens mounted on a tripod.

“He’s looking at the owl,” said our guide, who spoke with a Russian accent. He was soon joined by a clutch of Russian-speaking birdwatchers who’d spotted a hawk hunting for snacks at a cluster of bird feeders dangling from the bare trees and crowded with titmice. There were other out-of-towners there, including a number of Americans and a woman from Britain, an avid birder who’d just seen her first Christmas-red cardinal. And then there were the two of us from Toronto — one, a native New Yorker, both observing the scene with wonderment. We stood inside a quiet microcosm of the great world, humming around and above us in the big city beyond this hidden glen.

The photographer was an unhurried man, quiet and patient, sitting a metre away from me in a lounge chair, a remote switch in his hand, his 600mm telephoto trained on the enormous owl high up in the trees. I was astounded to realize that he was someone I knew by reputation, a professional videographer and a denizen of Central Park, whose photo blog I’ve admired for years. (I mentioned him in this blog a year ago).

Feeling wowed to be working alongside him, I got busy photographing the owl. I didn’t have my big telephoto and my 300mm lens wasn’t quite up to the task, but I kept at it while the sleepy-looking raptor opened and shut its huge golden eyes, scratched and preened and turned its back to us. I felt a bit frustrated, but then I watched the photographer who seemed in no hurry, who did his work by waiting in stillness for the majestic bird to reveal itself. I realized then that for every one of the man’s extraordinary online photos, he may have taken dozens less so. He was unpreturbed, prepared to wait, attentive. It seemed as if the beauty of his work arose out of the empty space created by patience and silence.

How apt, I thought , that the run-up to Christmas should be a season known as Advent, the period of waiting.

A man approached the photographer, asking if he could attach his camera to the lens and take some photos. He could, and did.

So now you know how I got my picture.

My photo was also taken with that 600mm telephoto lens. More than that, it was taken through the serendipity of chance encounters and the kindness of a generous man. It felt as if it were taken in a vision. “Now the eyes of my eyes are opened,” wrote e. e. cummings. So was the eye that beheld the owl.

Many eyes. Birders, clustered together in silence, their binos lifted skyward — they embody contemplation and reverence in the presence of mystery and wonder. Observe the grandeur of the Great Horned Owl, and you will know for sure that abiding in the heart of this broken world is a clear and luminous goodness.

Radiant moments of wonder and blessing do happen in our brief lives.

All we can do is embrace them and be thankful.

 

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Necessary Souls: Charlie Hebdo

 

Bruce MacKinnon, Halifax Chronicle-Herald

Bruce MacKinnon, Halifax Chronicle-Herald

 

 

As a writer, I have to speak about the assassinations in Paris. Here are the fragmentary thoughts that kept me awake last night:

Another name for the will to absolute power — in the name of God or not — is fascism.

Another name for murder without guilt is psychopathy.

No religious excuses. If you have to “defend” your ideas with guns, you have no ideas to defend.

Islamist radicals are not listening to mainstream Muslims who condemn these terrorist acts. They are listening to their own online voices. Each side claims that the other’s view is false religion. Both sides call themselves Muslims. If so, than a part of Islam has given itself over to unspeakable violence.

How do we put a stop to this reality without inflicting bigotry on peaceful Muslims?

This cruel attack on freedom of expression knocks the breath right out of me. As a native New Yorker who carries 9/11 in her bones, I stand up and say “je m’appelle Charlie.”

I mourn the death of such necessary souls: satirists, jesters, clowns. In their memory, let’s raise hell — or at least support those who mock idiots.

That’s all I have to say.

 

 

 

 

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Singing Through Our Long Night

choirs1For a week or two, I’ve been wanting to write about singing.

Nothing could seem more strange, right? I mean, what’s to sing about? Here in Canada, we’ve just experienced a terrifying attack on our Parliament Buildings and the murder of two soldiers in three days. The culprits were freelance terrorists, converts to an extreme form of Islam.

As of this moment, a few billion pixels have already been spilled on this incident and I have little I can add. Only to say that since the summer, I’ve been following the spread of a cruel psychopathy that has swept so much of the Middle East under the guise of profound religious devotion. Profoundly depressing, is more like it. An ache, a crushing rock-weight on the spirit.

Then there’s Ebola, Africa’s tragedy (along with our exaggerated panic in the West). Surely this is bad news at its most heart-rending.

Given the state of the world, I wasn’t in the mood for singing when we drove down to New York City for the long October weekend. However, I brought along a stack of favourite CDs — operatic arias, Middle Eastern folksongs, popular music of the French Renaissance, and my treasured Paul Robeson at Carnegie Hall (1958). In a previous blog, I mentioned that41WB3G9S2RL I’ve been a fan of the late basso profundo for decades. His singing embodied dignity and a capacity to rise above violence and injustice. Alive and passionate, his music continues to free the heart of its burdens. It also catches a bad mood off-guard. And so I sang along.

 There is a balm in Gilead
 to make the wounded whole

Sometimes you don’t know you’re wounded until you sing the words.

As I sang along to the old spiritual, my burden of depression about the world lifted, a weight so familiar that I’d no longer noticed how heavy it was. Perhaps the power of great music lies in the fact that an artist has borne the burden first, has understood and expressed it, has given it back to us — no longer as a burden but as a gift.

1027.09.c.choral1.la.Music, I think, is the most direct of all the arts. It strikes the heart before the head can intervene, before we slam shut the iron door of cynicism. On that long drive, the music let me sense how I felt, let me embrace the comfort of a singing voice that knew its way through the darkness.

I’m no stranger to singing. As kids, my sibs and I used to sing in the car, on road trips. Loud. Good grief, we’d harmonize. Those were some of our happiest moments as a family. My parents encouraged this commotion and I think they must have loved it. Many years later, singing in the car sustained my spouse and I on a dark night some weeks after 9/11, driving to my native city and listening to the same music as we made our way toward the ruins. Paul Robeson once again sang us through those long shadows.

 It’s not far, just goes by
through an open door —
work all done, carried by,
going to fear no more.

We sang so that we could be brave, so that we’d not feel alone in the darkness that had, for a moment, overcome the world.

And here we were, years later, once again singing through our long night.

Now I know that singing won’t erase the evils in this world. It just happens that I’m a product of the Sixties, with its rich lode of protest songs and anthems, and I know that singing with others brings joy and reassurance. More than that, it’s about imagination. Long ago, singing together freed us to believe that we’d overcome, that we’d help put an end to a terrible war. Perhaps it helped, in some immeasurable way, to do these things. I would like to believe that.

It shouldn’t surprise us that radical fundamentalists (such as the Taliban) do not permit singing.

When we sing, we set hope free.

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Heads-up, dear readers: on October 29th, I’ll be a guest blogger at The Brockton Reading Series blog (http://brocktonwritersseries.wordpress.com) prior to my reading (from my novella Midsummer) on November 5th. Joining me that evening will be IF the Poet, Sheniz Janmohamed and Zoe Whittall. If you’re in Toronto, please join us at Full of Beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (7pm, PWYC)

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Requiem for a Squirrel

imagesMy first encounter with mortality came at the age of eight or so, when on a Saturday morning, some of the neighbourhood kids knocked on the back door to tell us that they’d found a dead squirrel. This was a big deal, maybe because some of us were Catholic, concerned with where this little soul would end up; maybe because we were too young to drive, and so hadn’t yet become hardened to the sight of flattened critters on the road.

We suspended normal play, as we set about giving Squirrel a decent burial. A site was picked, along the side of one friend’s house in this dense, wooded suburb. Someone found a little shovel, and another friend scurried off, returning with a two strips of wood nailed together in the shape of a cross. The grave was dug, the squirrel interred and laid to rest in a forested place, the cross driven into the ground. I don’t recall if any prayers were said. We left it at that, a tiny blessing on a hapless creature.

images-1I thought of this incident yesterday. A half-block from my house, I walked around a corner to see a car zip down the street, crushing the hind legs of a sleek black squirrel. The poor thing inched its way to the grass along the side of the road and lay there. I ran back home, and enlisted my spouse as we rounded up a box and a towel to fetch the victim, then called the Animal Rescue people, wondering if the squirrel — showing no other signs of injury — was unconscious or dead. We suspected internal bleeding and so did the kindly folks on the animal hot-line. There were no signs of life.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis afternoon, we buried the squirrel in a quiet corner of the garden, surrounded by autumn flowers and a protective cedar hedge. We found some holy water, blessed the grave and said a prayer.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

 

Those of you who come from war-torn countries — or have otherwise suffered the loss of loved ones — may wonder if this is Hallmark-Card sensibility gone bonkers.

 

Yet as a writer, I spend a lot of time alone, and I love and appreciate wildlife companionship. On winter days, I watch the squirrels taking shelter from the wind, scurrying up to my windowsill, their lush tails hugging their bodies. The cardinals and woodpeckers, the tiny chickadees and finches that come to the feeder bring colour and awe to my life. I’m overwhelmed by these slight creatures, their gift of flight, their songs that wake me on an early spring morning. I am thankful for the great gift of their brief and tender lives.

Squirrel's resting place

Squirrel’s resting place

So if a wild creature perishes in our presence — and if circumstances permit — I believe they are worthy of whatever ritual speaks to the passing of their spirits and the hope of life’s renewal. In a more whimsical mood, I imagine the Great Parliament of the Vertebrates marking the squirrel’s passing with a moment of silence; then woods where he may safely play in a world outside of time.

 

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The Gift

On September 11th of this year, I went walking with my husband in Col. Sam Smith Park, one of west-end Toronto’s hidden lakeside gems, thick with goldenrod and purple asters, some of its lush green trees already tinged rose-red. It’s become a ritual with us, to take a life-giving walk in the park on this date, to view the Toronto skyline’s CN Tower from across the water, to hike the irregular terrain, to enjoy the dog-walkers, the ducks, the boats and the clank of rigging in the harbour.

We noticed some Monarch butterflies fluttering about, and I remarked that I’d seen so few of them over the past few years, victims of strange weather and chill winters further south. One of the many birdwatchers in the park told us that further along, there was a treeful of the frail, endangered creatures. I hardly believed it, but we kept on walking, until we came upon this extraordinary sight — an entire tree fluttering with dozens of the delicate, orange-and-black winged insects, as if the tree’d had a mind to reveal to us some wondrous dimension of its inner life, one kept hidden on ordinary days, in ordinary time. IMG_4038

A stop on the Monarchs’ migratory path, for sure. Yet it felt like a gift, as if I were in the presence of a profound mystery, as if for only a moment, the veil of time had parted, to give us a glimpse of the numinous. I received it as a blessing on earth and sky, so injured on this date years ago.

IMG_4007It was an overcast day, and I hadn’t brought my camera, but I returned two days later in bright sunshine and took the pictures you see here. Butterflies were everywhere, dozens of them enjoying their tree and the fields of goldenrod. On this occasion, a number of other people had gathered with their cameras. Yet all around the tree was the silence of wonder. It felt — reverent. It felt like what church should feel like, and almost never does.

It felt beyond words, and yet there were words: elation and yearning, and a strange, unfathomable homesickness — for what? — that I often experience as I enjoy the natural world. As I stood in awe of the butterflies, I just couldn’t grasp the exquisite beauty before me, and I realised that I never would. It was poignant, even sad, as if one were reading a wonderful novel that ended in a language impossible to decipher. Now I suppose that this is our human paradox and sorrow, creatures of a tainted world who cannot see the end of their own story or grasp the greater tale of creation that enfolds us. In the end, I think that where understanding fails, there is nothing to do but receive the gift and love it.

All this beauty given to us at the very end of summer in a terrifying world.

I wish the Monarch butterflies a safe journey.

 

 

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Dig Deep: We’re All Farmers

I’ve been meaning to pick up where I left off a few blogs back, reflecting on the art of digging deep — namely, in my second non-fiction book, Down To Earth: The Crisis in Canadian Farming, published by Anansi (1985). City-slickers, please don’t click off! No barnyard babble, and no, I’m not flogging a book — it’s out of date and out of print anyway (although the first printing sold out). More good news: the clarity I gained from writing that book made telling the truth a goal to live for. It helped to make me a writer.

So it’s a roundabout route to where we’re going, around the bend past Canadian Thanksgiving, a harvest feast of gorgeous fall colours and bushel baskets piled high with farm produce.  Our blog-on-wheels is pulling right up to the door of farmer Frank Meyers. 1337885755540_ORIGINALAt age 85, he’s just lost a seven-year fight against the expropriation of 90 hectares (220 acres) of prime farmland. Located north of Trenton’s Air Force Base, Mr. Meyers’ dairy and mixed farming operation sits on land granted by the king to his ancestors in the 17th century.

Still farming, Mr. Meyers has never lived anywhere else.

Seven years ago, the Canadian government declared its need for the land (a dozen farms in all) to build a new headquarters for Joint Task Force 2, the Canadian military’s elite Special Forces squad. The local Member of Parliament supports this expansion, citing jobs, economic spinoffs, etc. etc.The other farmers sold their land. Mr. Meyers did not.

The federal government claimed the land as essential to national security. As a farmer, Mr. Meyers also has reason to make that claim. “Buy land,” said the comic Will Rogers long ago. “They aren’t making it anymore.”

Macleans magazine reports that there’s been a belated groundswell of protest, an online petition to save Mr. Meyer’s farm that’s garnered almost two thousand signatures. Mr. Meyers is very touched, but the family doubts it will make any difference. The truth is, we should have noticed his plight a lot sooner.

fermeThe farm in the picture isn’t Mr. Meyers’. But it could be, typical as it is of southern Ontario’s dwindling rural landscape. Like that spread of land,  here’s what looks the same since I wrote Down To Earth: Despite our concerns for the environment, food isn’t news when it’s relatively cheap and there’s plenty to be had. I discovered this when I worked as an agriculture commentator at CBC’s Radio Noon show in Toronto. We did serious journalism, and our show placed a consistent First in Toronto’s noon-hour radio ratings, but the news was far from good. Over the years, I’d met many people being forced off the land because it was no longer profitable to farm. I heard stories of farmers who took their own lives because they couldn’t face handing over to the bank the lands their parents and grandparents had entrusted to them.

In this tragedy, you sense that beyond barnyard talk, agriculture is far more profound and complex than it appears. First of all, it’s a business, sometimes known as primary industry.  Now your ethical wheels should screech to a halt when you check out what this means: food, a human necessity, only acquires value once it’s shipped, sold, packaged, processed, etc.  Hello?

Farmers are independent businesspeople who fit into our economic system more or less the same way as producers of coal or iron ore. That’s not an easy fit.  The farmer who runs a business and produces “raw materials” is also a steward of the land. Now farmers aren’t romantic people, and they don’t wallow in nostalgia as we urbanites sometimes do. Yet a large part of what they value is an intangible legacy embodied in the land which their parents have passed on to them. Over time, they’ve seen their stability and rootedness as a social anchor and a great social benefit; too often, when a family farm vanishes, out goes a family’s sense of permanence and worth.

Many of us value what the Meyers family has given to their country. Yet our tardiness in speaking up is shameful.

Maybe talk is cheap, but I still think (as I did when I wrote Down To Earth) that sustainable agriculture “lies at the heart of the broader movement for planetary survival. As such, it invites us to take part not just because we all eat, but because in some sense, we are all farmers who feel our responsibility for the care and protection of the earth.”

That’s how the book ended. Years later, I have nothing more to add.

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HEADS UP: The Thoughtful Blogger is on the move! In a few weeks’ time, we’ll be settling into a more spacious location on my brand-new, soon-to-be-launched website. I’ll be away next week, but I’ll tell you more when I return. Followers, you’ll have to re-subscribe to keep receiving the blog in your email. Info to come!

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Alice Munro: When The Gift Is Enough

 Nobel Laureate Alice Munro wasn’t to be the subject of my blog today, but her win is too wonderful to pass up. Her excellent writing has touched many hearts and has astounded me with its sense of both the wonder and the strangeness at the human predicament. I’m not going to try to summarize her work; others have done a fine job of that already. I’ll only say that a Munro story is a special treat, even when the characters drive me bats with their lack of good judgment. For years I’ve been following her work in The New Yorker, saving her stories until I finish reading the rest of the magazine. This replicates the five year-old’s cake-eating technique — they cake-y part first, the sweet lump of icing last.

OK, so that’s not what you’d call high-end literary criticism, but today’s a party day, a sweet-icing treat for writing in Canada and everywhere.

Here’s what I’d like to add: I admire Alice Munro not only for her literary achievement but for her genuine humility — her gracious acceptance of what life gives and takes; how well she walks the path between false modesty and self-aggrandizement. She attends to her calling as a writer, wins awards, expresses gratitude, goes back to writing. She doesn’t tweet and she’s not in our face on Facebook. Maybe it’s timing; just the good fortune of having established a solid reputation long before the days of social media and enforced do-it-yourself publicity.

Yet I suspect it’s more than that. No one’s excempt from the lure of consumer culture; even long-time literary icon Margaret Atwood turned up in The New Yorker this week — not in writing but in a Rolex watch ad. Simplicity of spirit? Get over it. The notion that the writing is more important than the writer’s celebrity edge, that a book is the writer’s gift to us, that its creation is something of a mystery sounds so passé. We’re told that the reader wants more, needs to “know” and “interact” with the writer, who’s already given everything they have in order to produce a beautiful novel or short story collection. The mystery has to be unpacked, deconstructed, played with, disposed of. The gift is no longer enough.

Now we’re all feeding the beast one way or another; we promote our books through social media by making ourselves as visible as possible, struggling to find the middle path between the merely pushy and the obnoxious. In fairness, this connectivity is often informative and a lot of fun. But it doesn’t bring the joy of silence, the ineffable moment of discovery that draws you to whatever wondrous light brightens the page and lets the words come. You can’t buy that.

Yet hope’s always with us. Let’s raise a glass to Nobel Laureate Alice Munro, a modest and reticent writer who declares her brilliance by her writing alone. May her refreshing example give us pause.

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