Not That it Matters


Over my first cup of coffee this morning, I said “I’m going to write a blog post today.” And so I am. I’ve had any number of fantastic ideas to build on lately, but of course they’ve evaporated.

It’s been a month (exactly) since I posted photos from that mavellous Mexican garden. Two weeks since we packed up our Mexican home. I’m still in the process of settling back into this one, and having to come to terms with the fact that my compressed nerves/disc problem is not going to be resolved quickly. I am simply going to have to try to enjoy a life of limited mobility for awhile yet. It’s getting old—as the young would say.

Which means, of course, there’s no reason not to get a lot of writing done.


In fact, I have another writing project on the go, and I’ve been sharing bits of it now and then with fellow writers. I don’t know exactly what form it will take. “A collection of short memoir and essays triggered by childhood memories.” I thought of that last night before I fell asleep. It works for now.

Here’s a segment from a one of those essays, “Not That It Matters”.

“Look at Rose. Can you imagine wearing a plaid blouse with that striped skirt? Not that it matters.”

That was my mom, and it mattered.

Mom studied to be a secretary and married her high school English teacher at eighteen. He was an “older man” of thirty-one. She was a mother at twenty. He was a college professor at thirty-three. She was Eliza Doolittle to his Henry Higgins.

The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain.

It matters.

The embryonic cells that were to be my mother were already madly multiplying by the time my sixteen-year-old grandma married my not-much-older grandpa at the point of the proverbial shotgun. It was 1924 in the small, eastern Pennsylvania town of Bangor. The teen parents settled in with her mother, who ruled the roost with an iron, Methodist hand and cared for one, then two baby girls. The second was born less than a year after the first, prematurely; “small enough to fit in a mason jar” my grandma said, forever etching the image of a home-canned infant in the family’s collective consciousness.

Her dad worked in the rail yards and on a wrecking crew. Her mom moved from one textile mill to another, sewing the sleeves on blouses or the ears on toy bunnies. Neither ever went to high school. Her mom stumbled over the words in Disney Golden Books. The only reading material in their home was a Bible—and much later, the TV Guide.

Not that it matters.

Until…your husband is a university professor and you’re thrust into the world of PhDs and their 1950s wives—who are the grown daughters of foreign diplomats, or bankers, or school principals. Graduates of Home Economics programs or liberal arts majors from Radcliffe. Who don’t know what a wrecking crew is and never stop to wonder how the sleeves became attached to their blouses.

Until…the conversation begins over cocktails, and you’re not sure what you’re supposed to do with the olive on a toothpick, and the liquid between you and the olive is caustic. Then, the woman on your left says, “Where did you go to school?”

And you know it shouldn’t matter. Really. It shouldn’t.

So you blush, and look down. At least your clothes are so glad that your clothes are just right. And you say “Well, actually, I was just a secretary.”

Everybody nods and takes a sip of caustic liquid from their funnel-shaped glass. You try to see what they’re doing with the olive so you can do the same thing. And hopefully, get to eat it.

“No ordinary secretary,” says Dad with a twinkle, whenever the subject arises. “Smart as a whip.” Which he is, of course, too kind to say in the presence of an ordinary secretary. “She could have done anything, but she married me.”

You smile at him sweetly in those moments, but you know you couldn’t have. You’d have been a secretary. An ordinary one. You stir your drink with the olive.

The woman in the red dress has a teenaged daughter who made the cheerleading team, and the one with the navy-blue high heels thinks her two-year-old son is coming down with chicken pox. You wonder if they’re really all smarter than you, because you can talk about your kids, too.

Then the older woman—the one with the henna-red hair—carefully extracts the toothpick from the glass and plops the olive into her mouth, chewing slowly as though the morsel were a fine chocolate.

The library board is looking for volunteers, she says.

Is she looking at you? You look at your olive. Is it ready to be harvested? Is your toothpick far enough above the liquid to allow for a drip-free capture? You take another sip to be sure, careful not to wince.

You glance up and see a latecomer enter the room: a stout woman with cropped grey hair, wearing an orange blouse that is coming un-tucked from her too-tight lavender skirt. She speaks in a voice that is too loud.

You look down again at your smart grey suit with the black blouse and the pearls. Real pearls that were your grandmother’s.

Not that it matters, you say to yourself, carefully extracting the olive from the glass, sliding it off the toothpick with your front teeth, and chewing it like a fine chocolate.

Of course, it might not have been like that. You were a smart cookie, as Dad used to say before such language was considered demeaning. You probably figured out the olive on your own. And you never pretended to like gin. So I am taking liberties with your younger self in my attempt to understand you, long past the time when I could ask.





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Notes from a garden

It hasn’t been a winter for blog posts, somehow. Not for lack of things to think about and write about, certainly not for lack of time, but rather for lack of energy and focus. Our stay in Mexico has been dominated this year by the search for an explanation and relief for my ongoing hip and leg pain which began long before we left home in December and continued to worsen during our first months here. After a couple of false starts, the explanation finally came a month or so ago with an MRI showing a badly herniated disc. The relief? I’m still working on that. The resolution won’t really come before I get home.

And so I have spent an inordinate amount of time this winter sitting. Sitting at my desk, but writing less than usual. Sitting in the comfy chair beside my desk, but reading less than usual. Somehow allowing the months here to pass without engaging in much, and learning to get around the city by car instead of on foot.

Today I am sitting in the sunshine (yes, I do know what’s going on at home), on the patio of a beautiful home on the hillside outside Guanajuato. We have come for the first time to the home of a friend who’s asked Jack to help her learn to use photoshop. I’m here to lounge in the sunshine and enjoy the views and gardens. I think there’s a meal in the offing as well.

I’m always in awe of such garden creations…thinking of my annual angst over where to put this year’s twelve tulip bulbs or how close together to plant the new shrubs beside the house. I just don’t have the spatial skill to imagine such a creation, and without a doubt I lack the commitment to bring it to fruition. So I’ll just enjoy the work of others. The thing about this particular garden that amazes me most is that it’s just a six-year old project–building of course on much existing vegetation.

There’s a soft breeze—cliche, I know, but it’s true—blunting the heat of the sun. I’m looking from one hilltop to another, with the city in between. Lately, my mind has been shifting homeward, but at this moment I could stay on this patio forever.

I won’t of course. In ten days, I’ll be winging my way home, glad to see kids and grandkids, looking forward to spring in northern Ontario, whenever it arrives. Perhaps it’s waiting for us to get home!

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A Rosy Glow

A few days ago, I glanced up at the kitchen window here in our Mexican home, and I felt a sudden sense of rosy optimism. This is so unlike me that I looked again. Yup. Rosy.

“Jack. Look at the light.”

“It must be the sun.”

“But the sun has never been there before.”

Shrug. Who knows? The world is stranger and stranger…

But again–in the upstairs bedroom window. The same odd glow.

The windows looking out into the callejon, the very narrow alley that is our “street”–are textured glass, a nod to privacy in this densely inhabited neighbourhood. I slid the pane aside and gasped. There, on the house opposite, almost close enough to reach out and touch, was the source of that aura.

The underlying structure of all the houses here is a rough brick. For many families, that’s as far as it goes. Covering the brick with a smooth finish is costly and adds nothing structural. Until a few days ago, many houses in this barrio—including the one reflecting in our window—had a surface like this:

But it seems the city has a beautification program that involves free paint for the front facades of anyone who is willing to do the painting themselves. We’ve been noticing a general sprucing-up in this area of the city. Now it’s moved even closer to home.



The crews come in with ropes, pulleys, sprayers and brushes, and the work is done in no time flat, swinging among the overhead wires! The view from our upstairs window:

The view from street level:

I have a hunch the free paint is limited to colours on sale at the local Comex–but I don’t really know.




It’s a colourful city, up close and from a distance!

































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Little Details…A photo show

Facebook reminds me that one year ago we were at home in Echo Bay, Ontario, experiencing late winter in the north for the first time in many years. We’d left our Mexican home in a frenzy, having just learned that Jack had a large, malignant tumor on one kidney.

The memory of the long two months, watching winter turn to spring and waiting for a surgery date, has faded a bit. But at that point, we didn’t know when—or even if—we’d be back here in our second home. Which makes last week’s successful event all the more satisfying.

It was last January when Foro Cultural, a small gallery here in Guanajuato, agreed to mount an exhibit of Jack’s photography—a coming-out of sorts for him. He’s been taking photos for as long as I’ve known him, and he’s shown some along with his pottery in local, northern Ontario craft sales. But this would be something altogether different: a one-man show, something of a dream-come-true. He’d selected the photos, printed them, had a local carpenter make wooden frames.

The show was scheduled for early March. We flew home in mid February. Mounting photos was far from Jack’s mind.

Last Thursday, the exhibit opened. Exactly one year late.

It was a grand success. Jack had decided to donate any proceeds to a local organization that provides scholarships for bright students who could otherwise not afford post-secondary education. Members of that group turned out in spades, along with quite a few others who’d seen announcement. To Jack’s delight, many bought photos.

Here’s a quick partial tour of little things around Guanajuato that we don’t notice: Detalles no Percibidos. The photos will be on display at least until the end of March.


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Musical City

This year’s been off to a slow start for me–since I’ve been laying a bit low (and feeling sorry for myself) in with a bum hip. But spending last evening in el centro, first eating a scrumptious meal at Valadez and then wandering across the street for Strauss, Dvorak, and Mahler…I felt it was finally beginning. Not because I’m such a discerning consumer of music. I’m not. But because these weekly orchestral events are such a regular part of our lives here.

But they’re hardly unique. This place is awash in musical events. If we’d wanted to, we could have gone to smaller concerts, on Thursday, Wednesday, Tuesday, and the preceding Sunday. Those are just the ones I know about,, and odds are all were quite good. There’s one this afternoon–flute, oboe, and piano–a fund-raiser for earthquake victims. And tomorrow, a local soprano who’s made a name for herself in Europe will be singing Handel with a string and flute ensemble from the orchestra. We may go to that one. It’s at a wonderful ex-Hacienda where the short Sunday concerts are followed by mingling, wine, and nibbles in the lush garden.

Something showed up in my in-box a couple of days ago informing me of several weeks of tributes to Leonard Bernstein on successive Tuesday nights in one of the small theatre venues in town. There’s no way you could do it all. Honestly, no way I’d want to.

But I didn’t want to miss last night’s season opening at the Teatro Juarez. That’s it, sparkling in the night. Built around the turn of the last century, it’s an architectural marvel. Apparently a lot of people didn’t want to miss it–it was a sell-out, as orchestra performances here often are.


Of course, music isn’t limited to concerts! Outside, between the restaurant and the theatre, wandering minstrels competed with wandering mariachis while we waited for the doors to open. The former, pictured below, were gathering their followers before beginning their tour of the city’s callejones. (I took a video–but wordpress won’t let me post it.)

It’s not limited to public spaces, Much of the time, if I’m so inclined, I can open my windows and listen to whatever is wafting–sometimes blaring–from the neighbours’ houses. I’m rarely so inclined.


Most weeks, the symphony plays in the city’s secondary theatre which—I’m told—has better acoustics. Even if that’s the case, as a fairly uncritical consumer of music, I’d go for the ambience of Juarez every time. (But I’d remember to take a pillow! Muchas gracias to our friend who left early last evening and offered me her seat-softener for the second half!)

The first of 4 balconies






Look up…way up!





All four balconies visible here.

There’s no concert next week–the orchestra is on tour. The week after it will be back in the Teatro Principal–where I guess the acoustics are better and I know the seats are softer, but there’s no real incentive to snap photos of the ceiling!


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Time…and Time Again

From Guanajuato, where we’re settled for the winter.

For quite a few years I’ve been receiving a “a-word-a-day” in my inbox—an unusual English word with a definition and etymology, some examples of its usage, etc. Sometimes I pay attention, but lately I’ve been deleting it without even looking. For some reason, a few days ago, I paused and clicked.

Senectitude: noun: Old age. From Latin senectus (old age), from senex (old). Ultimately from the Indo-European root sen- (old), which is also the ancestor of senior, sir, sire, senate, senile, Spanish señor, and surly (which is an alteration of sirly, as in sir-ly). Earliest documented use: 1796.

A friend of mine here in Guanajuato who’s been having some health problems told me that 2017 was, for her, the year to learn how to be old. As I look around at my friends, I guess that’s something we’re all working on. I hope we’re getting it right.

I’m happy to report that Jack is back to his old (read that how you will) self—energetic, enthusiastic, following doctor’s orders to “enjoy his good health while he has it.” He’s happily walking up and down the streets and callejones of Guanajuato.


Because I’m a hobbling mess. I fear I have unwisely ignored my own senecitude, assuming that the persistent pain in my hip and leg that began sometime in late September would pass. Such things always do. Did. Not this time. It came and went, but it’s back with a vengeance. So, I’m not my usual Guanajuato self. Hardly walking at all. Learning to use Uber. I’m seeing a doctor here — a “traumatologist” (candidate for a-word-a-day?). I’m now taking anti-inflammatory medication and trying to avoid going up and down stairs, as instructed. Laughable, as those of you who’ve been here know. I’m also walking with a walking stick–hoping that its resemblance to a ski pole makes it appear that I’m suffering from some sort of athletic injury.

In my repose, I’ve been reading the science fiction novel Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, the January selection for a book club here in Guanajuato. About every third chapter I am reminded that I don’t understand time. I know it’s passing too fast of course. But you know that thing about time slowing down as you approach the speed of light? I just don’t get it. My son, Galen, who majored in physics, tried to explain it to me once. Something about two trains passing, going in opposite directions, looking at people through the windows. I think he was trying to make it simple, but it wasn’t simple enough for me and he gave up.

In Sparrow, I’m being challenged to understand how a generation can pass on Earth while inter-galactic travelers age only a few years. I don’t think I have to grasp the physics of it to grasp the novel’s gist, but I pause often to acknowledge my puzzlement.

I find myself remembering a podcast I listened to several times a decade ago, a 2008 TEDTalk by Richard Dawkins called The Strangeness of Science. In this 20-minute talk, Dawkins claims that humans have evolved to live in a middle sphere and therefore struggle to understand both the molecular and the cosmic. Understanding those domains contributes nothing to our survival as a species, he says. Indeed, acting on the understanding that solid objects are mostly empty space would only result in a lot of bruised bodies and sprained backs. That’s somewhat reassuring.

Of course, some humans have overcome that struggle, which is why I accept as fact that time slows down as we approach the speed of light. But I don’t understand it. Light. Time. Unrelated concepts in my stuck-here-on-earth brain.

I’d like to believe that if I tried hard enough I would get it. Maybe there’s still time. Maybe next time I see him Galen would like to try again…






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Grandpa Smith’s Cookie Cutters

I’m sure you recognize these cookie cutters: a faux-festive leaf, a doomed turkey, a stunted evergreen. At one time there was a Santa whose pack protruded from his back, giving him a distinctly hunch-back profile. I don’t know what became of him.


Not to detract from their utility; they and an assortment of stars and bells and snowflakes did yeoman’s service, Christmas after Christmas, until I inherited the cookie cutters crafted by my Grandpa Smith for his wife, Grammy Smith, a century or more ago.  There must have been a dozen or so in all. Four have come to me: the tree, the Santa, the bird, and the outline of a wreath.



I never knew Grandpa Smith. He died years before I was born. But I felt I knew him from the stories my dad told and wrote about his “pop”, a small-town grocer in eastern Pennsylvania in the early years of the the twentieth century. One of my most cherished possessions is a little book my dad wrote, called My Pop the Grocer, a collection of his memories of childhood during the years leading up to the Great Depression. In it, we learn that, in addition to being an astute businessman who fought the good fight against the reviled Chain Stores, Grandpa was an inventor and a putterer. If the cookie cutters are any indication, his imagination and joy of creating outstripped his grasp of function. Re-mastering the cookie cutters has become a December tradition.

For the past few years the cutters have been in the care of my daughter, Erica, so I’m a bit out of practice. But this year I have them back, and yesterday morning I spent an hour making Grammy Smith’s sugar cookies and Grammy Smith’s molasses cookies, using Grandpa Smith’s cutters. Oh yes–and I rolled them out on the slate rolling surface that was my mom’s. Even when I’m alone in the kitchen, Christmas baking is a family affair.


The trick in using these cookie cutters is to make a dough soft enough to roll thin but strong enough to keep the delicate figures intact. (Hence, Grammy Smith’s recipes; all those years ago she must have struggled to get it right.) Separating the cookies from the dough, after they’re cut, is an exercise in precision. It’s easier to peel the dough away from the cookie than to lift the cookie out–which is almost sure to separate Santa’s tassel from his hat, if not his entire head from his shoulders. By carefully extracting the dough that gets stuck in the cutter, he can often be stuck back together. The tree hangs together pretty well at the dough stage, but is likely to break at the trunk after it’s baked and if it’s baked too crisp, the lower branches break off. The bird’s tail and beak are always at risk. The wreath is no problem.




But they are a joy to behold, especially the jolly old elf. Whenever I use them, I think about the grandfather I never knew. They remind me that, despite our insane preoccupation with the accumulation and subsequent dispersal of “stuff”, the stuff that ties us to our roots is worth hanging on to…and passing on.





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Riding the Roller Coaster

On one of our first dates, in the risky sixties, Jack and I went to an amusement park. The only thing I remember clearly is the roller coaster. Jack feigned nonchalance and I pretended to be keen, and so we both ended up scared to death in an attempt to impress each other. Just at the point where the car plunged full-tilt into the abyss, the park folks had seen fit to post a sign saying “Please Remain Seated.” Really? We both laughed hysterically, grateful for a face-saving outlet for our mutual terror.

These last months have been a roller coaster of another kind, and we’re well past pretending or saving face. Nonchalance has been in short supply. Plenty of fear. Not a lot of laughter.

Many of you who read this blog know that a few months ago Jack suffered what doctors believed to be a metastasis of the cancer that we all hoped had been eradicated by the removal of a kidney in April. A CAT scan in August revealed nodules in his lungs, too small to biopsy at the time but clearly suspicious. That suspicion has defined the past three months. We knew, of course, that the cancer might spread. We hadn’t thought it would be so soon. Even Jack’s renowned optimism gave way to resignation and depression. A scan in November would be followed by a biopsy and a plan for treatment. Maybe, with luck, we’d be able to go to Mexico for a few weeks, but he’d be on the cancer treadmill. I was trying to prepare myself for whatever might be required of me—including trying to overcome my congenital pessimism because we all know the health advantages of having a spouse with a positive attitude.

Last week, Jack got surprisingly good news. The “almost certainly malignant” nodules have not multiplied or grown perceptibly since August. While they may still be malignant, they’re growing so slowly that no one is terribly concerned about them at this point.

So instead of contemplating a winter of cancer treatments, we are making plans for our annual migration to Guanajuato soon after Christmas.

We’re also observing with interest our surprisingly subdued reaction to this welcome news. Just when the roller coaster should be swooping us upward, we are both feeling a bit flat. We were psyched up for bad news—adrenalin flowing, fight or flight. And suddenly…no immediate need to either fight or flee. It’s almost a let-down, odd though that seems. It’s interesting to think about the unconscious strategies we use to protect ourselves from emotional pain, and the unexpected consequences they may have.

Of course, there’s no fooling ourselves. We’re climbing up from an abyss without really knowing where the roller coaster will take us next, or how long the ride will be, or who will be the first to hit bottom. But it all seems a little farther away than it did just a few days ago.

So now, it’s time to leave the amusement park, get organized for our move south, and stoke up my usual angst about living with a foot in each of two countries—straddling the raging behemoth in between.




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A Sterling Review

A couple of weeks ago I got an email from an acquaintance in Mexico telling me how much he was enjoying reading Shifting Currents. He bought the book from me last winter, but must have left it languishing on his shelf until recently. Of course, I always puff up a bit when I get such messages. And Sterling is an accomplished writer himself, which makes his praise doubly welcome.

As I always do, I asked him—as modestly as possible—if he would be comfortable and willing to post a review on Amazon. You know—one of those two or three sentence come-ons that encourage browsers to buy your book. (I’m not sure how many browsers Shifting Currents gets, but I’m on a bit of a promotional binge and eager for whatever attention I can generate.)

He said he would, and I believed him—but I’ve learned not to count my chickens since folks often agree but don’t follow through. So I was pleased to receive another note a week later suggesting that he was still working on it. Working on it? The man is a fine and prolific writer. How long should it take to write a few sentences?

Yesterday, he posted the review, and I understood. I was also blown away. Thank you Sterling, for taking the time to write this and for sharing it widely in your own networks as well as on Amazon. My only concern is that, when people encounter me face-to-face, they will be searching in vain for the qualities you ascribe to me in this wonderful review/essay.

Sterling’s blog can be found at  There you’ll find reviews of his novels and his comments and observations about living and writing in Mexico.

When my mother called me in from the woods, she told me I was going to repeat the eighth grade and this time with Latin, American history and a real English teacher. And so, off I went to a lonely boarding school outside Boston with bee’s waxed floors and gas lanterns on the wall. And then, not long after, Lincoln Steffen’s autobiography came into my hands. I remember exactly where I was sitting all those years ago, and I remember the feeling of being transported to a world that was not centered around myself.

In the sixties I was a graduate student at Berkeley in Germanic Languages and Literature and read Theodora Kroeber’s Ishi, the Last of His Tribe and her biography Ishi in Two Worlds. The books had such a powerful influence on me that I would still like to have my ashes strewn on top of a certain cliff that looks down over Deer Creek Canyon northeast of Chico, California, where I found my better spiritual ancestors. Where Ishi lived and where the rest of his people were wiped out by white people for sport or bounties.

Reading Paula Dunning’s memoir, Shifting Currents, has now provided me with a third epiphany, this one explaining what I was doing for thirty-five years on a small, non-producing farm one and a half hours north of San Francisco, on a ridge that divided the dairy country to the south from the apples, plums, and grapes to the north. Her chronicle gives shape to what remains only a vague understanding of my own “farming” years, where I raised two children by myself and taught full-time at a nearby university. It was more that we kept animals, as well as ourselves: cats, dogs, pigeons, chickens, a few milking goats, a few Black Angus beef cows, two pigs, two sheep, a donkey, a pony—now and then a horse. Most of which got loose, or broke through old fences. Or, in the case of sheep, were attacked by big dogs from miles away.

Dunning and her husband Jack emigrated from the United States to Canada in the 70s and, in a moment of divine insanity like my own, bought a large farm in Ontario and, like me—but on a much larger scale, “went back to the land.”

For me, Dunning’s prose raises a reoccurring question, and that is, what is she doing to evoke this sense in the reader of being in the presence of something larger than ourselves. The closest I can come to an answer is that she anchors even the smallest, every day images and rhythms of farming in an epic sea. Not in the wine-dark sea of Homer, plowed by Greek ships, but rather in the loamy one that the Dunnings’ tractors pass over, following the curve of the earth, plowing Canadian fields into chestnut-browns, that sprout and become Alfalfa and Timothy in emerald greens—that form waves when the wind blows across them. In late summer, those fields morph into rows of drying hay and under them, calms of yellowish gray stubble left standing after the cutting. Followed by the rhythm of baling, hefting the bales onto the hay wagons, stacking them, and then raising them into dark, sweet smelling lofts. All of it, an ocean of activity bounded by the dark hill at the end of the property that serves as one navigation pole, the bend in the river as the other.

Dunning describes what many of us who have lived with animals have sensed, and that is being near to an Otherness that we do not really fathom. An intelligence, a spirituality, that lives behind the rectangular pupil of a Nubian goat, in the sweet breath of a cow, in the exuberant playfulness of pigs. Beings that depend on us and yet whose souls, for want of a better word, remain unreachable and beyond our control.

From cave paintings we know about the spiritual connection that used to exist between humans and animals—as opposed to, say, the tight-wrapped packages in the meat department. It helps to think of Dunning’s writing as similar to ancient cave painting. Her images hint at what we still sense. It may be what Rilke meant about the poet’s task being naming the unnamable. Or what Goethe described as symbol, where, through an image, an idea remains active but also unapproachable, and, though expressed in all languages, including art, cannot be put into words.

There are no saber-tooth tigers in this book, but there are dangers. Machinery that can eat children. Six hundred pound, water-filled tractor tires that can trample us all. Chimney fires that can blow through chinks in the brick and consume the whole house and the family that lives inside it. Damp hay, baled too soon, can smolder and ignite. A river close by to drown in. And the constant possibility of being rendered dead or maimed by hoof, horn or machinery, all of which can cut, hurl or drag.

In the 60s and 70s, there were other costs in “returning to the land.” Most “normal” people didn’t heat with wood, try to grow their own food or raise children “at the North Pole,” as Dunning’s mother believed she was doing. As my own mother believed about my child rearing. “In the 70s,” Dunning writes, “we felt we should be able to do everything, from scratch.” Which diluted our development in certain areas. And so there was always an undercurrent of self-doubt, the nagging question, “Did I make the wrong choice?” And so we suffered gently numbing embarrassment when tennis-playing urbanites visited with their clean shoes and spotless sweaters. With their expectations of unexposed drainage ditches in the yard, or of available hot water for showers and of functioning toilets—both of which seemed to stop working at just the wrong moment—in a comedy of irony and mortification.

Dunning chronicles the social tensions. The farmer neighbor, conservative in her views of school sex education, let alone birth control, was completely practical on how to use three fingers to get a calf to begin sucking and therefore to survive. A young “liberated” leader led Dunning’s women’s group—subdued and cautious people—through the early feminist guidebook “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” with its explicit drawings of women’s bodies and how they function. In a delightful scene, Dunning describes how a session devolved to snorting and laughter—and friendship.

Or the pitfalls possible when Dunning’s “normal” parents visit and a symbolic patricide occurs, a shift in familial power. Dunning yells at her father when, in his innocence, he gets in the way of mischievous, escaped cows and blocks their passage through a critical gate open to where they’re supposed to be going. Then, still full of remorse, she tries to honor her father by asking him to carve the Thanksgiving Turkey—the relationship now changed forever.

Living with animals in the 70s included taking their lives, intentionally or not intentionally. Farming presupposes the role of life-taker. An assumption sometimes only challenged by a child, as when Dunning’s young daughter—a one-person Greek chorus—wails, “Why does everything have to die?”

When a cow is to be slaughtered, Dunning, pregnant, feels she should help, but dreads participating. She is relieved when her neighbor Morley appears to take her place and comments, “Has Jack been reading that damn book again?” Some how-to-slaughter-a-large-animal guidebook that we back-to-the-landers might have bought back then in a counter-culture bookstore. Morley continues, “And you shouldn’t be anywhere near. It could upset you and harm your baby. This is not something to mess with.”

But Dunning has always messed with it. With the Otherness. Always walking a line close to something larger than herself. Something she is aware of and paints with her imagery. Pointing at things that most of us—deep down— know something about.

Dunning confesses to a lingering self-doubt on the Ontario farm. Her husband also taught at a university; while she at times worried, she may have been “just a farm wife.” But when you read her writing, you see she was no such thing. She was becoming a psychagogue in the sense of someone who—in this case, with words—can lead us right up to the edge of other worlds. Someone who offers us a path to understanding the Land and the Creatures on it that we live with—human and non-human. Aside from also being one of the finest and strongest writers I have ever read.

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Heat Wave

The summer that wasn’t seems to be morphing into the fall that isn’t. It’s the end of September and the temperature outside is pushing 30 degrees Celsius at 10 am. The hill shows barely a hint of colour. Yesterday we came home from a week at our Lake Superior cottage, driving through the Superior highlands that should be awash in reds and oranges. Not yet. The week was horribly hot, even on the water, which was glassy-still—barely a breeze except for one day when the air just couldn’t contain any more moisture and thunder storms rolled in for a few hours. Then, back to the heat, which is breaking records all over Ontario.

Colours just beginning

This follows a summer of dreary skies, cool temperatures, and too much rain. There were days on end in July and August when I couldn’t walk on my vegetable garden without sinking in the mud. The bean plants turned yellow—drowned, I suspect. My own tomatoes and peppers have done reasonably well; I don’t know why. Most people gave up on them weeks ago. Not enough sunlight to ripen fruits that were rotting on the vine. Now the plants appear to be dying of old age. I guess that’s what they’ll do if there’s not a frost to hasten them along.

Tomato plants waiting for a frost. Dying of the heat?

Of course, the grass loves all this. The late-summer respite, when the grass slows down, never came. The lawn is still growing like mad, cashing in on the combination of summer’s moisture and September’s heat, revealing varieties of weeds and grasses I’ve never seen before. I know I waxed eloquent a few posts back about the pleasure of mowing the lawn. That was June. This is almost October. Enough, already.

But wait. Am I grumbling about a wet summer and a late September heat wave while much of the world is reeling from hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes?

I pour myself a glass of ice water while reading that folks in Puerto Rico will be without power or water for weeks, perhaps months. I lower the blinds on my south-facing windows while families in Mexico (the country second only to Canada in my heart) and the Caribbean have lost their homes, even their children, to a series of natural disasters I can barely fathom. I search in vain for signs of fall in my own wooded hill while forest fires devour parts of western Canada and the US. And of course we hear only faint rumblings of the suffering from extreme weather events in Asia, so focused are we on our own hemisphere.

How easy it is to wallow in our own private and passing discomfort when genuine disasters are erupting out of sight. Mea culpa. On so many levels.

Tomorrow is supposed to be cooler.




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