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A crisp spring

Calgary city view.

A spring afternoon in Calgary, March 21, 2014.

It’s supposed to be spring right now but it’s not. Definitely not. Winter is hugging us tight and is not going to let us go. Usually during chilly February evenings I like to warm up with a bowl full of apple crisp. Right out of the oven. It’s a great way to sweeten dark winter nights and with the snow still flying in March, I think it’s apple crisp time. Despite my terrible cooking and baking skills, it’s one thing I can make.

My mother made supper for the family on week nights when I was growing up in Nova Scotia. The five of us would sit at the table around 6:30 p.m. or 7, after my dad got home from work, to eat our meal. Sometimes we had baked sole, sometimes haddock, sometimes Shepard’s pie and sometimes chicken. We always got dessert.

My favourite treat wasn’t chocolate cake or ice cream or pudding – it was apple crisp. Even when it was piping hot I’d be shoveling into my mouth. Even though it scorched my tongue. Through the burning I’d taste sweet Annapolis Valley fruit, baked into a soft compote. The crisp was also a little bit crunchy – from the topping of oatmeal and butter and brown sugar. Mmmm. Delicious. There’s nothing better when the snow is falling outside and the wind is trying to get in the front door.

Supper table.

My family’s supper, lunch and breakfast table.

The recipe came from my mother’s 4H cookbook from where she grew up – Burris, Ontario. Now it’s been a family recipe for almost 40 years now. My mum taught me to make apple crisp when I was younger. No easy feat as I just don’t like being in the kitchen.

Peeling the apples was fine and my dog, Jasper, would wait for the trimmings. He would gobble them up and want more. I loved the crisp’s topping so much that I told myself when I lived on my own I would make a whole bowl of it and eat it all myself. (I’ve lived on my own for a while but haven’t indulged in a pound or two of topping in one sitting.)

I have prepared the dessert so often that I don’t even need to look at the instructions anymore. It’s often the dish I take to potlucks or serve at dinner parties and it’s surprising no one is sick of it yet. Unless they don’t have the heart to tell me.

It doesn’t matter where I’ve made the apple crisp – from The Gambia, West Africa to Sackville, New Brunswick to Fort Smith, Northwest Territories to Revelstoke, British Columbia, every time the aroma hits me I’m reminded of home, winter nights and my family.

Apple crisp (from memory)

  •  Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degree C).
  • Peel and slice about 6 medium sized apples
  • Place the sliced apples in a 9×13 inch pan.
  • Spread 1 tablespoon of white sugar over the sliced apples

Topping

  • Combine 3 cups of oats, 1 cup brown sugar, 1 tablespoon of flour, pinch of salt, ¾ cup of melt butter and mix.
  • Crumble evenly over the apple mixture.

Bake at 350 degrees F (175 degrees C) for about ½ hour to 45 minutes

Show, don’t tell

Me landing at the Waterville Airport, NS.

Me landing at the Waterville Airport, NS.

I’ve been teaching a memoir writing workshop and for one class we talked about emotional writing and how to convey sentiment without using words like angry or happy. These words tell – not show – how you feel. The best way to express feelings in writing is to actually describe how the emotions make you feel and what they are doing to you or your character.

Next we did a writing exercise where we took an emotion word and wrote about it without using the word. We wrote for 10 minutes, then shared our stories and guessed which emotion we wrote about. Can you guess mine?

High up in my airplane, I can see the landing strip. But I can’t land. Every time I try to make it back to earth, the wind pushes me off the soil. I’ve tried three times to touch down, one, two, three – how am I going to put this airplane back on the ground?

Stupid wind, you’re going to be the death of me.

Don’t underestimate the athlete

2010 Vancouver Paralympic Games.

Russian gold medalist in sit-ski at the 2010 Vancouver Paralympic Games.

The Olympics may be over but the best is yet to come – the Paralympics. The Paralympics are by far the better show of athletic skill and heart. Despite this, these games are not well attended and there are hardly any Paralympic sports broadcast on Canadian TV.

In 2010 I was posted in Whistler, B.C. as a Nordic sport writer for the Olympic News Service and Paralympic News Service. As part of the Vancouver Olympic/Paralympic Winter Games I got the chance to not only write about some of the competitions but take in the atmosphere of the global events held in our country.

During the Olympics, Whistler was filled with people. The medals plaza was stuffed to capacity with spectators every night and the streets of the mountain town were packed with revellers. The stands at cross-country skiing, ski jumping, Nordic combined and biathlon were jammed with fans no matter the weather. That all changed during the Paralympics and I wondered why.

Paralympians work just as hard as Olympians. They’re all athletes training to be number one in their sport. They’re all dealing with outside pressures such as family and finances and work. They’re all attempting to realize a dream – standing on the podium and representing their country. Usually, only Olympians get to feel the glory. We hear about their fight to be the best. We hear their stories of making it to the top. You rarely hear about a Paralympian’s quest for gold. But when you do, you’ll cheer louder than ever like I did.

One of my roles at the Paralympics was to write stories about the athletes. I interviewed them and asked them questions that would be considered rude in other circumstances.

“What is your disability category?”

Andy Soule.

Andy Soule, U.S. Paralympian. Photo: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Andy_Soule,_2010_Paralympics.jpg

In Paralympic cross-country skiing and biathlon, there are standing events, sitting events and visually impaired events. One U.S. sit-ski and biathlon competitor had his legs amputated after being hit by an explosive while serving in Afghanistan. An athlete before he lost his limbs, Andy Soule told me he wanted to stay active after his injuries and when he was introduced to cross-country skiing, he was a natural. Five years after his life-changing event, he was at the 2010 Paralympics, and making history as the first American to win a bronze medal in biathlon in either the Olympic or the Paralympic Games.

Andy’s story was just one incredible story out of many. No doubt Olympians face adversity too but when some superstars had a bad race, they stormed past reporters and wouldn’t talk. Most Paralympians opened up about their experiences and shared their thoughts about the competition, making themselves available to the media – win or lose.

Even though the stands weren’t even half-full at the cross-country and biathlon, Paralympians couldn’t get over the amount of people cheering them on. The athletes said it was fantastic and they hadn’t ever seen crowds like that. I only wish that more people would realize how great the Paralympics are and look past the disabilities.

Never too young

Kid writing.

Kids like writing their memories too. Photo source: http://www.mi9.com/640×480/cute-kid-writing_18063.html

“You don’t have to be famous or old to write a memoir. We all have life stories to share at any age.”

This is what I told Grade 5 students in Calgary last Wednesday.  I was giving a memoir presentation to five Grade 5 classes thanks to the 2014 Writers In Schools Program (WISP). It’s an initiative by the Canadian Authors Association – Alberta Branch that connects authors with young writers in schools across the province. I filled out an application in the fall and was chosen to go to Chris Akkerman School and talk about memoir writing.

Giving memoir writing workshops are no big deal for me – when I’m talking to adults. The adults who attend my classes are there because they want to write their life stories. They have paid for the course and are interested in learning the tools in which to write their personal tales. Kids are another matter.

Since I don’t have children I was a bit nervous about what to share and what to say. It’s been a long time since I was in elementary school and the world has changed a lot. Students these days live in a wired world. They’re plugged into computers, mobile phones and games. They’re constantly in touch with friends through a variety of social media and always looking for the next greatest thing online. They don’t want to a miss a thing. How do I connect to them and have them think about forming a relationship with the past?

Easy – through their memories.

Asking a simple question made the kids’ hands shoot up into the air.

“Who remembers one of their best days ever so far?”

Of course I couldn’t call on every student to describe their fun-filled moments but the ones I did point to had lots to tell me. And the stories weren’t about TV or the latest game. The anecdotes were about when their baby sister was born or when they travelled to a different country, the country where their parents had been born and raised.

All these experiences and memories were bursting to come out. The energy from the kids was positive and they were excited and bouncing around. But when it came to the last writing exercise — write their own memoir — they became so quiet and reflective. Some children took a minute or two to think about what they were going to write before putting pencil to paper.

It’s too bad I didn’t have time to hear all the stories but the ones I did hear were well-written and interesting. There was a happy story about going to Calaway Park on a summer day; there was a sad story about being sick on Halloween and almost missing trick-or-treating; and there was a scary story about a possible ghost sighting.

The students had such diverse experiences and everyone wanted to share their accounts of life from the perspective of a 10 or 11-year-old. I don’t think we need to worry too much about these students losing sight of history. They’re going to be a strong voice in the future with a definite connection to the past.

First snow

Snow-covered tree.

A snow-covered tree branch sticks out over downtown Calgary, November 2013.

When the snow starts flying in fall, it’s the most beautiful. The light outside turns silver. Not that thin autumn sunshine or grey-tinged gloominess. The air surrounding Calgary turns moist for a few hours and chases the dryness away.

Everything becomes quiet. People scurry inside to get away from the snowflakes falling from the sky. Pets aren’t walked. Vehicles are parked and left until the next day.

Street signs and grassy bits collect the snow at the beginning. Then the roads and sidewalks get a coating of the plush frozen carpet. In Calgary not much accumulates with the first dump but in the Maritimes – the beginning of snowfall means a heavy one and is as normal as the sun rising. I remember those storms of my childhood.

A Maritime snowstorm also has snow and wind. Terrible wind. Gusting here and there and everywhere. Leaving the snow in high impassable drifts in the middle of roads and causing white-outs so bad you’d think you were stuck in a cloud.

When inside the haven of home, comfy and cozy by a wood stove, you can hear the wind blasting at the door. Trying to get in. It strikes at the windows too and wants to push them open. And then take its cold hands and grab you by the throat so you can’t breathe.

The snow and wind sometimes fight each other. Which is stronger? The snow, with its hardened, chill-to-the-bone ice flakes, keeps coming steadily. Hoping to outlast the wind. Hoping to exhaust the wind. But the wind, the wind keeps at the snow. Pushing it around. Toying with it. Sending it here and there and everywhere. Hoping to force it to a standstill. Hoping to batter it into submission.

Falling snow.

Snow falls swiftly and heavily in Nova Scotia and it’s (almost) always accompanied by a wind.

The wind and snow don’t realize they’re a force of nature if they work together. Thick tree branches break and fall to earth. Because of the wind? Because of the snow piled on them? Because of their combined strength. Instead of acknowledging this, they continue to wage war against each other.

Eventually, one or the other (or both) decides that’s that. That’s enough. They’re not putting any more energy into the battle. The snow slows. Then stops. The wind lessens its grip on the earth. Then floats away. Who won? In the end, I don’t know.

 

Anchorage House ghost

Anchorage House.

Mount Allison University’s Anchorage House – where Mrs. Bennett still roams the halls.

Anchorage House is a beautiful old mansion sitting like a grand gentleman on the Mount Allison University campus. The old man has a white beard, white hair, wears a black top hat on and is rather stout. He looks distinguished in the daylight, inviting enough to come in for a cup of coffee or a snifter of brandy. But looks can be deceiving and he can be quite the different sort in times of quiet, especially in the fall when the shadows of autumn grow to collect secrets.

I worked in Anchorage House for a few years. My office was on the second floor of the three storey building and it was a beaut. Hardwood floors and panelling, high ceilings and crown mouldings, windows with a view of tall elm trees and student life passing by. It was a cozy place to do business in fall. Usually.

Anchorage House was built in 1892 by a Sackville, N.B. lawyer and then sold to a doctor in 1906. In 1933 the home was bought by retired Mariner Captain Ronald V. Bennett, brother to the 1930s Canadian prime minister Viscount Richard Bedford Bennett. My office was once the bedroom of the captain’s wife.

It would have been a nice spot for a bedroom as it looked out to the landing, where the first floor stairs met the second floor. Mrs. Bennett could see whoever it was climbing up the staircase and probably watched her children nightly, ensuring they went to bed on time.

The story goes though, that her two sons died fighting in the Second World War. Their mother was distraught at the loss, often climbing the stairs to visit their empty rooms. It was said she did this even after her death many years later. I know this is true, I’ve heard her.

Yes, but Anchorage House was an office building, you say. There must have been lots of people coming and going, up and down those staircases. But not as many as you would think. One autumn lunch hour I was alone in the house. All alone. No one downstairs, no one on the second floor (except me) and no one on the third floor. There was no one else there.

My desk faced out the door with a direct view of the landing. Everyone using the stairs had to pass my office. Up and down and down and up. Even when I was busy with my work I could see all the different shapes of people treading on the steps and passing me by. Except one day.

One, two, three footsteps creaked on the carpeted stairs. Up and up and up until he or she got to the second floor.

I looked up from my computer to see if someone needed my help, as I was the only one there. But there was no one there. Oh, OK. My mistake.

Back to work.

Again, one, two, three footsteps creaked on the carpeted stairs. Up and up and up until he or she got to the second floor. I look up. No one there.

That’s weird. Maybe I’m hearing things. Maybe I’m tired. Maybe the old gentleman house is stretching his bones? There must be a reason for this. I walked to the landing and looked down the stairs. Nothing. No one.

Hmmmm. Do I let myself be scared? I don’t have to, as a co-worker rushed in the front door and up the stairs to her office, her office that’s straight across from mine. I didn’t tell her what I’d been noticing. I didn’t want her to think I was a silly goose.

One, two, three footsteps creaked on the carpeted stairs. Up and up and up until he or she got to the second floor. I looked up. And nobody.

This happened a couple more times until my co-worker came into my officer and asked me if I was experiencing what she was experiencing –  hearing footsteps but not seeing anybody.

“Oh yes,” I said. “It’s kind of freaking me out.”

“Me too,” she admitted.

Then one, two, three footsteps creaked on the carpeted stairs. There! We were hearing it together. Tiptoeing out into the landing we looked down the staircase. It was a student, my friend Pete, climbing the stairs. He looked up at us expectantly and we started laughing.

I asked him if he had been here earlier and he said no, it was his first visit.

It wasn’t the grieving mother’s first visit and I doubt that day was her last. After that I made sure when I was working evenings to turn on all the lights although it made leaving torturous. I had a million switches to shut off before I left, each light I turned off brought me closer to the darkness. But good old Anchorage and Mrs. Bennett left me alone.

 

 

Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May

dyke

Dyke along Port Williams, N.S.

“You can’t change the weather,” says one of my aunts, “so why bother complaining about it?”

Yet I really feel like raging about all the thunder and lightning and rain that Calgary’s been treated to this spring and summer. I usually enjoy storms. Being cozy and safe inside while the elements boom, thrash and splash outside. But enough is enough. I want sunshine.

It’s been officially summer for a while and with this season usually comes warmth and freckles and leaving windows wide open. Before I was old enough to get a job, summer for me meant swimming outdoors, camping trips and bug repellent. All great things.

Then, when I was older and had to take more responsibility for myself, summer meant a summer job. From strawberry picking, to instructing swimming, to being a lifeguard, to picking rocks, to making tires, work filled my Nova Scotia summer days with learning about accountability and making a buck. Summer nights, however, (when I wasn’t on a midnight shift at the Michelin plant) were filled with other things. Things that meant being young and free and not having any concerns except who was going to bring snacks to the fire.

Dyke near Port Williams looking towards Wolfville.

Dyke near Port Williams looking towards Wolfville.

My friends and I had bonfires on the dykes near Wolfville. The dykes were built by the Acadian people hundreds of years ago to keep the waters of the Bay of Fundy at bay. The barriers still exist and work today and make a nice place for a sea of flames and a gathering of friends.

We played word games and sang songs. None that the Acadian ghosts would know. At the fires crushes among my male and female friends were lit. Some burned out over a week and some blazed until school started again. None went further than September.

During our summer fires we watched satellites in the sky. Counted the stars and talked about our futures. What would we be doing? Who would we turn out to be? Who would we be with?

After the evening we would go home, smelling of smoke and dreaming of what’s ahead. It was always good stuff. Because when you’re young it’s important to think the sun is going to shine forever. That it’ll always be summer.

When you’re older, 20 years older, you know that rain falls and thunder crackles when you least expect it. But there needs to be some time for summer. For those days when you kick off your work shoes and go barefoot in the grass. Or ignore that last office e-mail because your bike is calling. So when the sun starts to shine over Calgary, do yourself a favour and enjoy a moment or two in it. You’re always young at heart.

Memoir as poem

Mount Begbie.

Mount Begbie in Revelstoke, B.C. on a rainy day.

Memoirs aren’t strictly a written record of events. You can use poetry instead of prose. Both are expressions of creativity but poetry gives the writer, and reader, licence to use words in different ways.

Robert Frost, a renowned U.S. poet, used verse to remember certain moments in his life. His work, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, is one such example.

I am certainly not in any league with Frost but I do like to create rhythmic literary memoirs. One day while living in Revelstoke in 2009, I was waiting for a summer storm to crash into the afternoon. Here is how I captured the moment.

Storm

Mountain rain storm

No thunder

Or lightening

Just the resonance of drops hitting the

Metal

Roof

A natural on unnatural sound

I want something amazing to

Happen

To see electricity reach out from the sky

to strike out from the

Grey

To collide with the green peaks

A fragment of magic in the

Midst of ordinary

There it is

Finally

A crack, a peal, a shard of a noise through noise

Thunder

So deafening it splits the clouds

They break

and I can see a perfect hole of

blue

Burned into the dark sky.

Summer, summertime

Bonfire.

Bonfire in August: Pictou, Nova Scotia, August 5, 2012.

It’s a smile, it’s a kiss, it’s a sip of wine … it’s summertime!
~Kenny Chesney

Memoirs don’t always have to be short stories or masterpieces. They can be a simple list of things you jot down in a notebook or compile on a blog.  Here are my top 10 memories of summer. What are yours?

1. Butterflies in the woods

2. Strawberry shortcake for breakfast

3. Swimming in the lake

4. Thunder storms over the ocean

6. Strong sunshine on the side deck

7. Gardens in bloom

8. Fires on the beach with friends

9. Taking all day to mow the lawn

10. The smell of our family’s canvas tent

Flooding Calgary with a sense of community

Rushing river over bridge.

Bow River on Saturday, June 22, 2013. For a video of the river a day earlier, click here.

Lots of memories were made this past week in Calgary…and many weren’t good ones. The flooding that hit southern Alberta will leave an indelible mark on the land, economy and in our minds. It was heartbreaking to see homes and businesses filled with water and streets gushing like rivers.

The flooding started in Canmore on Thursday, June 20 and Calgarians started to feel the water seeping into the edges of their communities the same afternoon. By evening, the Bow and the Elbow rivers had converged on the city and soaked the usually bone-dry urban centre right to its core. And it was still raining.

On Friday, Aboriginal Day, a friend and I walked down to the Bow River early in the morning to check out the situation. It was high – touching the bottom of a bridge that usually sits several metres above it. Reports said the water still had 30 to 35 per cent more to go before it crested. Mother Nature can be crushingly awesome.

So can people.

While watching the river, we chatted about the water with people – things like if they had been affected and how sad all this was. Conversations were brief but they were still conversations. It’s interesting to note that before the flood, often when I passed by people on the sidewalks or pathways I’d look at them and smile. Sometimes I’d say, “Good morning,” or “Hi.” Out of the many people I’d pass, only one or two ever responded.

Calgarians are busy. They don’t have time for pleasantries. They have a meeting to get to or something more important that voids a “hello” in return to mine. But now, as we stood by the rushing river, a sense of community in the face of all this destruction started people talking to each other.

Calgary Kijiji ads.

Calgary Kijiji ads

During this vast tragedy a few things have stood out: How people are standing up for each other. Kijiji is inundated with offers to house people and pets and offers of clean clothing. On Twitter and Facebook there are questions about how to help. What do the evacuation centres need? Where do Calgarians drop off donations? It’s becoming about community. Hopefully that will be one of the things remembered about this historical week after the water recedes.

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