Eight Days East: The Last of the Island

I would have been just as happy to stay planted at the Johnson Shore Inn for the rest of our stay. I’m learning that I would rather stay in one place and live the experience than cram in a pile of excursions and have just a taste of things. Things turned out very well, and I thoroughly enjoyed our foray into Cape Breton and our stay in Halifax. But there is something to be said about settling in one spot for a while.

Three days in PEI, and the weather on the island changed from one moment to the next. Fair skies, and then, a torrent of rain, then back to sun again. As we enjoyed Island fare in the dining area, we looked out the windows across the green towards the cliffs, and saw everything from hummingbirds to bald eagles. People came and went during our stay. Meeting new people is always the highlight of a trip for me; there is always something to learn in those meaningful, encapsulated chats.

I loved the fact that there were no televisions in the inn. It’s a special kind of quiet when the media is gently refused access. (I admit that my husband and I did enjoy a few episodes of “Derek” on the iPad just before bed. But “Derek” was a worthwhile exception to refraining from television-watching).

PEI is much bigger than I had envisioned. My imagination had painted a picture of a flat, red-sanded area that you could bike around in the course of a day. That was completely wrong. It might be possible to drive around the perimeter of the island in a car over a day (it would be a long day), but there is a lot of land on that island. Most of it is farmland–potato plants blooming in their neat hills, the occasional crop of corn, a few horses and cows grazing in pastures. There are great stretches of forests as well, most of them coniferous, and everywhere, the green landscape is dotted with pretty little white churches. Water views abound–be it the shoreline or inland lakes and harbours. It is just the most peaceful and pastoral place anyone could imagine.

I have always been a bit squeamish about eating lobster. The idea of eating something that has been boiled to death never really excited my taste buds. Silly, when you think about how often I eat things that have been shot between the eyes… At any rate, I planned to make the eating of a whole lobster one of my goals while on this trip. We were driving around a little town (I think it was Souris) one day when we beheld a lobster shack. It was lunch time. The lobster was selected and thrust into the pot, and twenty minutes later, it was time to eat. There are intricate guidelines for the cracking and eating of a lobster. I had studied the poster on the wall carefully. First, the claws. The meat inside was quite delicious, especially when dipped in a bit of melted butter. Similarly, the tail too was good. But then, I beheld what was left of the creature on my plate…black beady eyes, a mushy, squishy central body cavity. Ugh, I was done. Considering how expensive lobster is by the pound, and how inedible a lot of it is, I think I will count that as my one and only experience with eating whole lobster. At the very least, I will stick to the tails.

Before leaving PEI on that last day, we spent the morning in Charlottetown. It was misty and wet, and parking was a big challenge. But we had a lovely lunch under an umbrella in the street, and went to see the building where Confederation was born in 1864. Kind of cool to consider that our beginnings as a nation saw their first light in this little town on a tiny island.

And then, it was good-bye to the pines and the red dirt and the shimmering waters. We headed for the ferry.

Eight Days East: Green Gables

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Of course, we had to go.

How could we visit PEI without wandering through Anne’s house in Cavendish?

It may seem silly to some, this old homestead all gussied up with period furnishings and implements to look like a house in a book, to wander through the rooms that were “occupied” by fictional characters. I think it’s rather lovely. To see the power of good story-telling a century later is very encouraging to me, as a writer. When characters are born from imagination and attain lives as real as yours or mine, that is an incredible gift.

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The house belonged to L.M. Montgomery’s aunt and uncle. She was raised by her grandparents at a farm further down the road. Apparently, this house was in the back of her mind as she wrote “Anne of Green Gables.” One certainly does get the feeling, when going through the rooms, that Anne and Marilla and Matthew might have just been there in the kitchen, having their breakfasts, or receiving visitors in the front room.

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The outside grounds were equally as appealing, if not moreso. A kilometre of trails through the woods and “Lover’s Lane” where L.M. used to walk and connect with nature and reflect. There were several signs inscribed with quotations from her journals, proclaiming her adoration of nature, which found its way into her books and made PEI beloved to so many.

Of course, no visit to Green Gables would be complete without a nice refreshment. Raspberry Cordial, anyone? Although, admittedly, I would have enjoyed just a sip of Marilla’s currant wine. Only a sip, mind!

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Eight Days East: Arriving on Prince Edward Island

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Our journey to points on Canada’s east coast began at The Johnson Shore Inn in Prince Edward Island. Like so many tourists before me, I have had a longing to experience the island since my little-girl infatuation with Anne of Green Gables. My husband’s aunt recently bought an inn on PEI with her partner, and the four of us (me, my husband, his brother and his brother’s wife) planned to support their new business venture by staying there on the first leg of our journey.

After landing at the Halifax airport and picking up the Jeep Cherokee rental, it took us more than five hours to get over the Confederation Bridge and then over to the other side of the island, where the inn sits, overlooking the Gulf of the St. Lawrence. We enjoyed the beautiful sunset as we travelled over the bridge, and once on PEI, were awed by the tranquil, rural landscape…red dirt roads, endless potato fields in bloom, lakes and bays and channels. By the time we approached the inn, it was pitch black and finding the lane was a terrible challenge. Finally, we did get the jeep pointed towards the inn, and we bumped and jerked our way up the kilometre-long road to find Mell coming out to meet us, and Dave all set to pour us a glass of wine or pass us over a cold bottle of beer. It was so dark; we couldn’t see an inch in front of our faces. I looked forward to the sun coming up and affording me my first view of the cliffs and ocean below.

Our room was charming and comfortable, and as clean as a whistle. A ceramic pitcher and jug stood on the dresser, and there were lots of fluffy pillows and a pretty quilt spread over the bed. The window promised a view of the sea beyond the grassy acreage below. The next morning when I woke up, I hurried to the window to check out the view, and it was glorious. Red cliffs and ocean whitecaps beyond the green, spreading lawn, and an enormous sky above. Mell had a delicious breakfast ready for us downstairs in the common living/dining area, and once finished, the four of us donned our shoes and went down to the shore. We had some how gotten the opinion (wrongly) that we could walk along the water’s edge. Once we had scrambled down the side of the cliff, it quickly became apparent that we were misinformed. My husband, ever the adventurer, enjoyed leaping from rock to rock or climbing over them. However, I was not as enthused, imagining how a broken arm or a fall on my face onto the rocks was going to impact the rest of our trip. The rocks were enormous, stained the same red as the dirt of the cliffs. Beautiful and rugged to behold, but daunting to travel over. We made our painstaking way over them for about an hour, then decided to climb back up to the top of the cliffs and make our way overhead. Once back at the top, it was disappointing to see how little ground we had gained for such an expense of energy. Nevertheless, we continued on, in our quest for the beach of the “Singing Sands.”

My brother and his wife had encouraged us to find the singing sands, and we were game for the challenge. My niece had enjoyed running across them on their trip a few years previously, hearing the strange whining squeak under her feet. Something about silicon content in the sand… Apparently, these sands were near the inn. Alas, my sister-in-law and I were not to find them. As my husband and his brother foraged ahead, the two of us ladies, worn out and needing a washroom, turned and headed back to the inn. Although it wasn’t “THE” singing sands beach, the two men did find a beach that sang quite competently. They recorded it on a phone as evidence. And enjoyed lording it over the ladies’ heads that they had experienced this sand concert while we had not.

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Writing Woes

The sun was out this afternoon, but I spent hours in the writing room, working on edits for my porter book. I sequestered myself well into the night. The manuscript is 450 pages long. Every time I go through it, I am seeing things that ought to be expanded or added…I wish my brain would start subtracting instead of adding. Never in my experience of writing have I had so many profound doubts about a novel. I started it in 2003. It has been eleven years of sporadic agonizing and deliberating, questioning over and over again whether to continue or not. I dove in hard last summer in Banff and made an end of it, but it needs edits. I made some sketchy notes on a few basic things today. I need to stick to those and put this thing to bed. I’m really confused about this story. I need some readers. I have been so lost inside this thing; I don’t know which direction is up any more. I truly have no idea what this book has become, if the story flows, if the character develops, if I have said even one thing of merit. Talk about a mishmash—Down Syndrome, tragic love, Pullman Manuals, tornados, slavery, trains, stillbirth, racism, premature death, spousal abuse, murder and Star Trek. When I see this all listed, I have to wonder just how ludicrous this book might be. I don’t think I will ever be satisfied with it, even if I spent another eleven years on it. And I have other manuscripts that need my attention—stories that aren’t so overwhelming and onerous. I just need to give Gideon the final touches he deserves, and then let him go. Where to release him, I do not know. Do I dare to send him off to the slush pile, or should he just join all of my other dusty characters, dozing in bottom drawers or jump drives? Perhaps he would be happy, floating in the nether regions of the iCloud?
Why do I do this? These hundreds and thousands of words; I just keep writing and writing, and for what reason? The investment of time and effort and postage—I can’t even begin to estimate what I have spent. Reason tells me I should stop. I get a couple of bites, some positive feedback once in a while, and then a GOOD LUCK finding a place for it. I walked around Chapters today, looked at the walls and shelves and islands filled with freshly published books, and I was truly flummoxed, wondering how they’d all done it? I am not J.K. Rowling or J.R.R. Tolkien or John Steinbeck or one of the Bronte sisters. I know this. And yet, I can write. Annick Press has affirmed this, as well as Second Story Press. If it truly is a matter of sending the right manuscript to the right house at the right time, then my batting average is abysmally bad. I could not possibly be more discouraged about writing than I am right now, and yet, at the same time, I know that I will never stop. I can’t stop. I suppose this is what makes me a writer, even without an audience. If I weren’t a writer, I would be able to quit doing this. This knowledge is no consolation whatsover.

The Moonflower Vine…and Other!

This morning, I was pondering “The Moonflower Vine” and feeling sad for the hundredth time that it was Jetta Carleton’s one and only novel. The story of the Soames family has become ingrained in my very soul, and its characters seem as alive to me as members of my own family.
When I was thirteen, it was a part of my Saturday routine to get on the bus and go uptown to the library, and to look around in some of the stores uptown. There was a used book store called “The Book Bin” and it was here when I first laid eyes on a tattered, yellowing paged copy of “The Moonflower Vine.” I remember closeting myself in my bedroom for hours, just inhaling it. It sucked me in from the very beginning. It was like I became a quiet, unnoticed presence in the story, watching as Jessica and Mathy lay in their cots under the trees in the summer dark of a Missouri night, sneaking off after their parents were asleep to meet Tom in the orchard, or following after as they went running off into the woods in their white nightgowns to watch the fireflies dance in the clearing. I was there in the boxcar behind Jessica when Tom looked up at her with a pleading look and died. I saw the block of ice, meant for the ice-cream, “weeping sadly into the dust” as Miss Hagar drove away in her cart. I listened to Leonie’s anguished chords as she squeezed the daylights out of that accordian in the evenings, trying to drown out her guilty love for Ed Inwood. I heard Callie singing hymns at the top of her lungs as the crowd threw hot lumps of toffee at Johnny Faust at the taffy pull. If Matthew had looked, he would have noticed me watching from the corner of his office as he secretly (so he thought) lusted after the pretty girls at his school. I watched Mathy and Clabber Dumpson sitting together in the little wagon as they delivered groceries and stuffed their faces with the cookies that were offered at every door. I sat nearby and watched the laughing peddler cook his eggs and bacon while Callie sat on the tractor seat in the sun. And when Mathy and Ed went down in Ed’s plane, I fell, stricken, out of the story, and stared at the book that had fallen away from my hands as though it were something that had just leapt up and smacked me in the face. Reading the book again this week, I realized that I still haven’t recovered from that heartbreak.
“The Moonflower Vine” was the first book I’d read (and even at that time, I’d read a significant amount) that opened my eyes to the power of a good story. It is the book that simultaneously made me realize that, a) I wanted to be a writer and, b) that I would never in my life come close to telling a story so beautifully. The book made me ecstatic and miserable at the same time.
I am not a person that re-reads very often. Collecting books is a rather pointless endeavour for me as, once read, they just sit inside the book case until I pass them on to someone. I buy books on my Kobo, but only because I don’t want to search or wait for them to show up at the library. I love the “right now” of my Kobo, and it is my one indulgence. I don’t think twice about downloading a book onto my device if I want to read it. I buy as many books as I want, and read them. Once.
“The Moonflower Vine,” however, has become a book that I’ve read so often; I’ve lost count of how many times. The used copy I bought at The Book Bin literally disintegrated before I sadly put the remnants into a ziplock bag, unable to bring myself to throw it out. As the years of my life have passed, its voice has had something new to whisper every time I read it, some new wisdom or kindness or grief to reveal.
In 2008, I found a site online where people had commented on the novel’s impact on their lives. I was delighted and surprised to find that there were others out there who had been so enthralled with the novel, and I wrote:
So there are others like me….
I never read a book over again, but this one was an exception. I literally read it and re-read it until the covers fell off and the pages fell out. It was already tattered when I found it as a 13-year-old girl in a used book store. I’ve searched book stores and libraries for years for other books by Jetta Carleton, to no avail (obviously, since there aren’t any). A writer of novels myself, I can attribute this life-long dream to write and share stories to this one book. I am so glad there is a following for it. It deserves that. And wouldn’t it make a lovely movie…chick flick for sure, but there’s a plane crash in it, so maybe men would watch! (Speaking of plane crashes, I will never forget the moment in the book where it says simply, “Mathy was killed.” It was as though I had just found out about the death of my own sister. I was in mourning! Devastating.) And the scene with the fireflies is etched in my memory for all time.
The author Jane Smiley revived the almost obscure novel’s popularity by accolades in her 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel and it had a reprint. Jane wrote the forward for it, and referred to (OMG!) a second novel that Carleton had written before her death in 1999. However, the manuscript had been destroyed in a tornado…I was in despair over it. I went online and started clicking around, and discovered, to my ecstacy, that a friend of Carleton had kept a copy of the manuscript, and this second novel, after a bit of editing (the book hadn’t been polished at the time of Carleton’s stroke) had recently been published. I could hardly contain myself as I searched for Clair de Lune on my Kobo, and finding it was, to me, the equivalent of discovering a gold nugget at the bottom of my pan. It’s not as special as “The Moonflower Vine,” but Jetta Carleton’s voice is there, loud and clear, and it is more than I ever dreamed I would get to hear again.

When You Plant a Jelly Bean

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We planted a jelly bean at school. The kids checked on it constantly today. Several of them said that they thought it was starting to grow.

It all started when we planted flower seeds yesterday. The kids scooped dirt into empty juice cartons, poked holes with their fingers, dropped the seeds in…sunflowers, 4 o’clocks, nasturtiums, and stocks. Then, one boy, more than likely still in the throes of some Easter magic fantasy, suggested that if we planted jelly beans, we could grow some lollipops. We got some more dirt and buried a pink jelly bean in it.

So this is the stuff of which “Inquiry” is made. The kids offer an idea and off we go on a quest for the Answer.

Only four of the twenty-six kids in our class believe the jelly bean won’t grow. The rest of them are earnestly hopeful that there will be a lollipop harvest the likes of which the world has never seen.

Well, this is a conundrum. On one hand, this is pure science, complete with hypothesis, materials, procedure, and conclusion. We put the jelly bean pot in sunlight, watered it. Now, we watch and wait for the lollipop plant that will never materialize. The flowers beside the jelly bean pot will likely sprout, but how will that ever compensate for the absence of a lollipop tree?

It’s not surprising that the kids expect a lollipop tree. For generations, we’ve been filling children’s heads with visions of a Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Elf on the Shelf—an odd little creature that sits watching from strategic locations in the few weeks before Christmas, whisking off to the North Pole at night with reports about good and bad behaviour and then, returning to a different spot the next morning to resume his spy mission. We expect children to buy into these fantasies. We want them to enjoy this brief time of limitless imagination and joy. It’s fun.

It’s confusing.

A small part of me wants to honour the amazing imagination of small children by buying twenty-six suckers and sticking them into the pot. The kids would come in from recess one morning, and their eyes would widen, their mouths would drop open, and it would be magic. Their time to believe in magic is so brief, after all.

A larger side of me wants them to accept the reality of the empty pot. Only real seeds can grow. That’s not disappointing—it’s amazing! A tiny seed has inside itself miraculous potential. An entire apple tree is crammed within a miniscule brown seed. That is the magic, and it actually exists. There are miracles everywhere in this world, if we are open to noticing them. That is the conclusion that I want my kids to discover.

I think that, after the results are in, I’ll find a branch and put it in a pot. We’ll pretend that it’s a magic tree, and the kids can make paper leaves for it, decorate it with bows and flowers. I’ll buy 26 lollipops and we’ll hang them on the branch, and we’ll “pretend” it’s a lollipop tree. Kids are quite capable of understanding the difference between “real” and “pretend.” Understanding that difference does nothing to diminish the fun of pretending.

At any rate, the kids aren’t the only ones who are learning through this experience. I’m so blessed to have 26 teachers.

A Day Without a Voice

I have a real case of laryngitis. I have no voice whatsoever. Being in this state is not ideal for a teacher. I booked a sick day.
No one picked up my job. I went online and checked several times this morning, and there was no supply teacher on his or her way to my classroom. Today is Friday and it was a beautiful day. I guess no one wanted to answer their phone.
I had no voice beyond a whisper, but I wasn’t puking or burning with fever, so I got dressed. I couldn’t bring myself to leave Heather (the ECE in our classroom) to get through a day with 26 small children all by herself. I knew she would’ve faced the challenge without complaint, but I didn’t want her to be in that position. I drove to school, thinking that a day without a voice in a kindergarten classroom was going to be quite the adventure.
When I got to school, I stopped in at the office to pick up the attendance folder, and was told that there were four jobs at my school that hadn’t been picked up. The two learning support teachers (who sometimes cover in these situations) were away, and there would have been no extra bodies to put in my classroom. The union is tracking these situations where there are supply teacher shortages. Another teacher called on my behalf since I couldn’t speak, and they reminded me through her that it wasn’t my problem—it was administration’s problem, and I shouldn’t have made it easier on them. I’m proud to be a representative of ETFO, but in this particular case, although they were right in theory, I had to be a human being first.
Obviously, I couldn’t do any teaching today. Heather did all the talking. Being voiceless for a day brought me many new experiences and lessons. It actually was an amazing day.
Being unable to speak makes a person far more disposed to listening. I realized that I have been talking too much. And since there are so many kids in the class, my “talking” has often taken the form of “calling” across the room:
ME, standing at the sandbox with a group: “B. How do you think it makes J feel when you break the farm she was making?”
ME, glancing up and seeing T and A making shooting noises at the Lego table, across the room: “T and A! No guns at school!”
ME, moving to the paint centre. “Sure, H. You can paint. S, you’d like to paint, too? OK, put on a paint shirt.”
ME, calling across the room. “K! It’s C’s turn to use the iPad!”
Having a voice makes it easy to call out commands and boss everyone around! However, when your voice has been silenced, close communication becomes necessary, and it can only be done with one individual at a time. Group commands are no longer possible when you are mute and connecting with others becomes far more intimate.
Me, bending to whisper in A’s ear: “That’s a really cool hopscotch game you made out of the magnet blocks.”
A, smiling into my eyes, whispering back. “I know. Mrs. Austin, why are you secret-ing?”
That’s another thing. When you whisper to people, they tend to whisper back. The noise level was noticeably reduced in my classroom today.
And I realized that my kids are able to read body language. A finger crooked, and they came over to me. Two of my thumbs up in the air meant “YAY!” and they smiled proudly. A round of applause during a game of Number Concentration, and they all grinned. I received several waves from the top of the climber at recess today. And having to be so close to the kids when I whispered into their ears often ended with some arms around me. I found myself hugging them more, touching the tops of their heads to say “Hi.” And smiling more, too.
And I was so touched by their compassion. “I hope your voice feels better soon, Mrs. Austin.”
“Maybe tomorrow, you will talk again, Mrs. Austin.”
“You should go see the doctor and get some medicine for your voice, Mrs. Austin.”
In the staff room, I sat with another teacher for a few minutes, and as usual, he had me laughing in short order. Of course, it was the “silent movie” version of laughing. After we’d talked for a few minutes, he said, “Everybody here probably thinks I’m talking to myself!”
A group of high school students came to perform for the students today, and my class went to the gym to listen. There was a whole lot of singing going on, and on any given day, I would be the obnoxious person, singing along. When there is singing, I can’t refrain from joining in. I make a real attempt to sing softly, knowing it’s inappropriate, yet I’m unable to squelch my urges. I once attended a Sing-Along Messiah that wasn’t actually a Sing-Along Messiah. Today, however, I was unable to sing a note. I was forced to listen, to be the audience. What a pleasurable experience…
It will be nice to get my voice back, but today I learned to listen more, get closer, connect to one person at a time, and that quiet can be contagious.

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