The Humanity of Fear

Spring-like weather has finally hit our fair province and it has everyone feeling a little giddy.  The entire month of April has been fraught with rain, drizzle, and fog. A bit of sunshine rips through the heavens and everyone is out raking lawns and arranging the patio furniture. I participated in said frivolity against my better judgement. May 24th has not arrived which usually brings an extreme dip in the temperature and a mini version of Snowmaggedon.  I’m happy with the sunshine and the above freezing temps, but still anticipate donning my parka and wading through waist deep ice crystals by the time June rolls around.  We remain ever hopeful of Winter’s demise, but we know better. Our shovels stand at the ready in porches, and our snow blowers continue to remain on active duty until, well, always.

The lockdowns and restrictions continue as the plague rages on, ravaging through communities and ICUs with a vengeance rivaled only by that of an Australian wildfire. We are shielded here, to some degree, from the overwhelming contagion that has infiltrated Ontario and other more western provinces, but we continue to remain cautious. We listen to Health authorities. We understand the COVID fatigue. It’s getting harder and harder to remain isolated from the ones we love and remain six feet from embracing our friends and families, but for their sakes we take a step back.

I felt the first impact from COVID on a simple trip to the grocery store, last year. It turned out it was more complicated than I had expected. Line-ups, directional arrows, do I bring my own bags?  No browsing, get what you need and get out.  I remember walking into the store, and everyone was wearing a mask. It wasn’t Halloween and it wasn’t funny. The fear of talking to each other was palpable. No one dared approach someone or invade their personal space lest you risk the onslaught of public scorn and the attack of a deadly disease. I hated it. I sat in my car and cried. This wasn’t the community in which I had lived for sixteen years. This wasn’t how we existed. We were a chatty, friendly, hospitable bunch. We helped each other with the carts that stubbornly stuck together. We said a friendly ‘hello’ and shook hands without fear of catching something. We reached out to pat someone on the back or give someone we haven’t seen in a while a hearty hug. Remember those?  Hugs?  This disease has taken lives, but it has also taken our humanity. That’s the worst part. People are too afraid to reach out and care. Too afraid to be kind. It may cost someone his life to shake your hand. Facial expressions are hard to read behind a mask. Is she smiling? Is she frowning? I can’t tell. The emotional connection between strangers is lost in the hazy fear of catching a deadly disease. And it’s heartbreakingly necessary.

Normal, whatever that may look like in the future, will return slowly. We will again be able to be with family and reunite with more friends, but we will always remain wary. That little voice warning us to stand a little farther apart, to keep our hands to ourselves, to wash and sanitize at every turn will be forever yelling at us. Years ago, the biggest threat to kids going to school was head lice. “Don’t share hats,” the teachers and parents had warned. “Don’t share your combs or hairbrushes. Keep your hands to yourselves. Stay apart from each other. Don’t share locker space.” It’s now a common practice to stay apart, not so much for the sake of head lice but for survival.

Moving forward, our grace under pressure may crack, but let’s not lose it altogether. We continue to save lives by staying apart. We continue to care for each other by being distant, no matter how off-putting that may appear. The compassion is now in the words we speak and in the actions we fulfill. We can recover our sense of humanity and community by reaching the common goal of a COVID-less society. Get vaccinated. Wear your mask. Keep your distance. Wash your hands. Stay alive. Those are your choices and your responsibilities. Let’s get this done.

Take care and stay safe,

KJ xo

The Waiting Game

As I continue to take a deep dive into writing the sequel to False Hope, I find I get lost in the idea of writing a perfect story. There is no such thing, of course, but the expectation to write a better or equally enthralling tale hangs steadily over my head. I bat at it to get it away, but it returns ready to study over my shoulder and comment on the already hashed out plot or dialogue. “Why is she saying that?” or, “Who is THAT?!” 

It’s a never-ending battle between the imaginary hangers-on who trod on my words and try valiantly to fool me up, and my characters’ wills to be authentic and allow their voices to be heard over all the objections. It’s a little crazy over in here.

I plod on; however, some days are better than others. On the days I feel the weight of eyes following my fingers over the keyboard, I tend to meander over to an online puzzle to divert the attention. Sometimes it works, but often it ends up in time wasted doing puzzles instead of figuring out dialogue. My characters end up hanging around in unfinished scenes. It’s like they’re suspended in mid-air and mid-sentence unsure as to where to go next or how to get out of there until I write them out.  They’re standing around waiting for the writer to get them moving on or something big to happen.  “Oh, boy here we go again she’s gone over to the puzzles and left us here stranded in the woods with crickets and ne’er-do-wells about. Could be a long night,” they say, and tap their watches and stomp their feet.

That’s how I imagine them, anyway. I try to finish an entire chapter so no one is left waiting for me to decide if they live or die, move on, or move out, or just plain eat the sandwich they bought a few paragraphs ago.  Characters live in my head an on my screen. I can’t just leave them hanging, that wouldn’t be fair.

The perfect story is far from perfect or complete. Yet. I’m battling COVID fatigue, procrastination, and online puzzles to get a few chapters out. In the meantime, I will do my best to get these people to bend to my will and to say what they need despite the expectation of perfection hanging around.  He’ll have to wait it out and stop nagging if any real writing is to get done. 

Maybe he’ll go on and do a puzzle….

Stay safe and stay tuned,

KJ

On The Edge of An Ocean

The black and white photo of my parents sits proudly next to my wedding picture on my mantle. They were younger, huddled together with arms secured around each other in a joyful embrace. That’s how I like to remember them. Laughing. Together.

Both have since gone. My dad succumbed to cancer that ravaged his fifty-six-year-old body until there was nothing left. Memories were taken at the end. I heard him ask my mother as we stood at his bedside about the red-headed girl who was crying.  “Who is that?” he had asked. My mother looked at me, confused. She turned to his questioning face. “That’s Karla. You know her,” she said quietly patting his hand and willing him to recognize his only daughter.

My Dad was from Nova Scotia. “I’m a Bluenoser,” he would say. We would crinkle our noses and laugh, “Your nose doesn’t look blue!” I had no perception of Nova Scotia. A scant picture of a foreign landscape and of a Nana I didn’t know were my only introductions to an East Coast so vastly different than my Southwestern Ontario upbringing.  I possessed no concept of life outside my little townhouse in Chatham. He would tell us tidbits of his life in Digby. My dad was an only child. His stories of eating seaweed and sardines made us cringe and laugh. When he was in his teens, my grandfather urged him to work on the fishing boats. Hard work to which my Dad gave an honest effort, but it wasn’t for him. He had other plans. A three-year stint in the Air Force and then off to Ontario to find work. By 1954, he and my Mother had married, and they had started a family.

I’m fifty-four and I have lived in Newfoundland and Labrador for twenty-five years. I married a Botwood boy out of college. We met in Toronto, married, and started a family. As fate would have it, we were destined to an island, again, very foreign to me. It took a few years and a few kids later, but I adjusted. I understand the Bluenose reference. My ears have become acclimated to the various dialects and nuances of Newfoundland vernacular. I have even said a few, “Go on, b’ys,” myself. I appreciate the ease of becoming part of a community that is innately communal. Generations of families living close and welcoming ‘mainlanders’ into their fold. An expedition to stomp around the homestead of my late father is never far from my mind. A bucket-list item that heads the top, it should have happened years ago, but with babies comes responsibilities. The leisure of visiting a place of my roots was put off for something more immediate like a school trip or dance lessons. Now, the notion of a no-travel ban has raised its steel toe boot to my bucket- list and I lament not having made the trip. I had the luck to visit the Maude Lewis exhibition in Halifax last year before the ugly virus drove us inside. I felt at home sitting outside her house, thinking my Dad may have driven by her little painted dwelling on his way out of town. Maybe my grandfather knew her. The mere idea of a connection makes me feel at home. I’m part Bluenoser, part Newfoundlander and part Chathamite. Fractions of places that feed my identity as a whole woman at ease living on the edge of an ocean.

The Backyard Kids

I wrote the following story last year. I thought with all of the CoVid-19 chaos, a story would be a great escape. It’s not long. Enjoy and take care, xxoo

Growing up in the seventies, our only responsibility was to be occupied outside until dinner without ample blood loss or missing a limb.  An old apple tree situated on a backyard lot gave us cool shade from the searing pavement of our parking lot playground and enough activity to ensure we met that responsibility.  There were no monkey bars or climbing walls unless we trekked down to Steele Avenue Park.  Even then we had to have an older sibling or an adult accompany us to make our way.  No older sibling would be caught dead dragging his kid sister down an open street where actual people could see him.   We lived in a complex of townhouses that had been developed on an old apple orchard.  Some of the trees were saved, but the majority were destroyed to make room for the townhouses.  One backyard still had one of the old trees and it served as a gathering place for the kids in the neighborhood. It creaked and swayed in the wind, the tenuous branches daring us to climb and sit upon them, our bare legs scraping against the dry bark.   Summer days were spent climbing, making forts and playing around the trunk until dusk set in.  The tree was expansive with wide enveloping arms that stretched to the sky, inviting us to linger.  The crab apples became ammunition as the screams of innocent kids who wandered by the tree unaware of its silent occupants, echoed throughout the adjoining backyards.  These cries of pain elicited concerned adults to venture out onto their back steps to protest the unprovoked assaults.

An older kid nailed a two by floor across the middle branches of the tree making a perfect lookout spot.  If a kid got to the tree early enough he could sit on the plank with another kid and keep watch over the backyards, ammunition at the ready.  Kids who were good at climbing would clamber up around the crow’s nest to the top of the tree calling names and daring others to climb higher.  The tree was abandoned in the darkening night save for a few brave souls who remained hidden in her shadowy leaves determined to claim a spot on the plank.   I always had a sense of comfort sitting up in that tree, secreted away from the noise of the other kids’ roughhousing, the revving of car engines and slamming of screen doors.  My eyes closed I would raise my face into the cool leaves allowing the tree to wrap me in her false sense of security.  My feet would dangle precariously from the plank, the cold smooth wood underneath me, my hands clenched onto the encroaching branches.   I was directed not to ‘let go’ by my brother.   He was the only reason I was sitting up on the plank in the first place.  His fate was clenched in my fist as tight as those branches had I fallen.  I’m sure the phrase “Watch out for your sister and don’t let her climb that tree,” was said on more than one occasion.  Much to my delight my brother would pay no heed and would only allow me to get to the plank if he was there.  Otherwise, I was on my own.  I dared not climb without him, and usually, he would knock a kid or two out of the way just so I could get a chance to sit up there.  It was a glorious accomplishment and I relished every second.  I would sit and view the world, a queen on her pedestal overlooking her court.  The jostling and screams of wrestling boys and girls playing tag as several kids tried to climb the chain-link fence without getting their shorts stuck on the links that jutted out on the top.  It was an active and chaotic yard. 

 No one tried to kick anyone out of the crow’s nest or push anyone off.  If a kid got to the spot first, he owned it.  Plain and simple.  I wasn’t a very good climber.  My brother would make sure no one tried to knock me down or take my post, but he would climb up and ask me to move claiming it was his ‘turn’ on the plank.  I was obligated to climb down and gaze upwards at the kids higher than the plank seat as the crab apples tumbled to my feet; the damp earth trampled and worn from our sneakers’ incessant pounding.  The chain-link fence that surrounded the back yard sequestered the tree as if attempting to cage it from the adjacent parking lot of the businesses that it bunkered.   There was a hole in the fence just across the tree that provided a short cut to the variety store parking lot where it was twenty-five cents for a bottle of pop if it was drunk inside the store, and thirty cents if it was ported outside its doors.  I spent many days hovering around the pop machine inside the store trying to drink as fast as humanly possible to catch up to the other kids who were already down the path back to the tree.  Just like the crab apples, it didn’t make for very good stomachs afterward.  For most of that summer, we managed to skirt trouble and broken limbs with only sporadic blood loss.  Until one fateful day when we didn’t.  

That hot day in July started like any other.  The sun blistered the pavement sending kids for multiple requests to parents for change for popsicles and ice cream treats from the Dickie Dee truck.  We could hear his bell jingle from around the last housing development and the ensuing pandemonium resulted in chaotic line organizations for a chance to buy the first treat.   We gathered under the shade of the apple tree, our popsicles dripping down our bare legs making them sticky orange masses.  Blades of grass and dirt would stick to us making it look as if we rolled in glue and fresh grass cuttings, sending our mothers running for wet washcloths and exclamations of “What a mess!”  After the mass cleanup, we again pandered for the crow’s nest resulting in shrieks of dismay and more wrestling for branches still waiting for eager occupants.  Some kids trotted off to the nearby Thames River to throw rocks under the cool bridge or to watch the Americans moor their boats for the weekend.  The rest of us sat under the tree, relishing the shade and quiet rustle of the leaves.  A few boys sauntered by the tree, my brother among them giggling in hushed excitement at their new toy.

 A pellet gun had been presented.  I spotted the black handle and the fervor the boys expressed as they encased it in their small hands.  They took turns holding it, impressed with its power they perceived it held.  They ogled over its smooth finish and weighty trigger.  They practiced holding it in two hands and then in one hand, pointing it at the fence and then at the trunk of the tree.  They searched the branches for a wayward squirrel or latent wren that they could shoot.    Appalled that an innocent squirrel or bird could be maimed, the girls retreated to the parking lot to skip and dance among sprays of the water hose on a front lawn, leaving the boys to their prey.   Lunch turned into the late afternoon and once again we made our way back to the tree.  The boys were still hunched around the trunk.  I could see the black gun barrel protruding from my brother’s shaky hand.  He aimed intently at a bird perched on a high branch as it sang to the sky.  In horror, a young girl screamed out scaring the bird and obliterating my brother’s concentration.   A blast fragmented the quiet summer day.  The pellet had missed its intended target.  The little girl who had protested the impending slaughter of a bird slumped into a heap a few feet in front of me.  Blood seeped from her chest as her face contorted into a scowl.  I screamed in horror.  I stared into my brother’s ashen face, his eyes staring at the girl lying limp at my feet.  He dropped the gun and ran.  The other boys were quick to scream and run, one scurrying to the girl, one clamoring to a neighbor’s door pounding in panic.  I stood frozen in my spot, crying and sobbing in terror.  With the chaotic movements of parents and kids running and screaming, there was no time to think nor any time to move.  The ground reverberated with desperate feet.  Questions and demands were hurled through the humid air as the mother of the girl lifted her daughter’s sweat-soaked head checking for consciousness, blood soaking her hands.  I stared up at the apple tree.  Its quiet branches seemed less inviting, the leaves remained still in the weight of the afternoon heat.  It absorbed the chaos, the cries, and the blood.  The bird had flown away.  The tree stood steadfast and waited in stoic silence as the child was picked up and hoisted to a car to be transported to the hospital.  We were all ordered home at once, parents questioning kids, reprimanding the carelessness and providing as much comfort to other parents as possible.

We stayed inside for the rest of the day.  Few words were spoken as dinner was placed on the table, the heavy absence of my brother felt throughout the house.  Despite my mother’s searches he was nowhere to be found.  The police car was still outside even after my father had returned from work, a panic phone call urging him home at once.  He remained outside with the officer as dusk descended and games of hide and seek were long forbidden.  He stormed through the house snatching my brother’s grade five picture from the photo album.  It was the one with his half-smile and a straight bowl cut.  He shoved it into the police officer’s hand.  My mother paced in the hallway as we waited for news of him and the girl he shot, the evening growing darker with every step my mother took.   My eyelids grew heavy with sleep but I was determined to wait out the night and to see my brother home.  “He’s small,” I heard my father plead to the police officer.   Weeks passed, the summer retreated into fall and the neighborhood fell in step with the march of time.  The girl’s family moved, too distraught by her death to remain.  My parents’ guilt became too much and I watched my father pack a suitcase and leave without a “goodbye.”  My mother’s morning ritual of retching away her worry yet another sound I was forced to tune out.   My brother had flown away like the bird who escaped the intended pellet.  I still wait for his return.  

The following summer, we went back to the apple tree.  The crow’s nest remained and we continued to dare each other to climb up to reach it.  With my brother no longer there to knock kids out of the way for my ascent to the perch, I conceded to sitting beneath its expansive branches.  The leaves were in full bloom and the crab apples tumbled around me as I closed my eyes and listened to the echoes of the backyard kids.  They climbed higher up the tree, the limbs creaking beneath their weight and the leaves rustling with movement.   A tear slid down my face as I opened my eyes and clutched a crab apple from the ground.  A robin flew and perched on the chain-link fence in front of me, its head darting side to side.  It stayed despite the commotion and I clutched the crab apple tighter, ready to throw.  I raised my hand to strike and the robin gazed into my face as if daring me to follow through.  For a moment, I stared back.  The apple sailed from my grasp launching the robin skyward, its wings whipping the humid air.  I watched it as it flew high above the apple tree and out into the summer sky.     

The Visitor. A Remembrance Day Story

Every year on this day, I post this story as a reminder of the sacrifice of so many for our freedoms.  I wrote this a few years ago hoping to pay homage to those brave men and women who continue to fight for us every day. 

Lest we forget. 

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The Visitor

I watched as the plane landed with a thunderous roar, the engines coming to an abrupt halt as if the pilot had simply turned the switch to the ‘off’ position.  I stood with my back hard against the biting wind, wondering if I should prepare a salute or simply stand at attention.  I waited for some direction from my superior officer, but none came.  I believe the shock of the arrival and the excitement of having such a prolific visitor come adrift upon our rocky shores had sent us all into a wave of silent awe.

It was November 1942.  The world was engulfed in the biggest conflict known to man, the classic battle between good and evil personified by the leaders of European nations struggling to define the world on their own terms, ignoring the plight and suffering of those they plundered into despair.  Leaders who were so enmeshed in their own agendas they took no notice of the people being tortured and beaten or of children being left to die on the streets with explosions and gunfire rattling their souls, shattering lives and dreams without a second thought.   Our little part of the world seemed so distant and removed from such gross atrocities against humanity, save the work our army was doing to assist our allies.  Our shores were vulnerable and England knew the possibility of oncoming attacks, sending reinforcements to protect our rocky cliffs by setting up battlements to keep constant watch over our ocean.  I say ‘our ocean’ as if we, the country of Newfoundland, could even suggest possessing such a thing.  This living, breathing entity entrusted to us by God to forever protect and nurture, and in return permission to fish her open blue waters.  She bestowed food in abundance to feed our families, nourish a growing country and sustain our people through long harsh winters, all the while, the stars beckoning fishermen to take to their boats and sail beneath their watchful gazes, enrapturing them in the ocean’s song of freedom and peace. The salty water blowing upon our land giving weight to the wet laundry strung out to dry on the tenuous lines, the gale force winds blowing it skyward.  Salt we could taste upon our lips, and feel the sting in our eyes after waiting and watching for our husbands, fathers, brothers and uncles to return home from months at sea.  Our lives hung in limbo, much like the laundry blowing haphazardly across the blue horizon. We were left to protect our waters, land and people with nothing more than a few strong men and the good sense God had granted us to outlast the evil dictators who were waging war against England.  We watched as our men and women departed for lands far out reaching our own, with the ever present knowledge that they may never return.  We applauded their bravery, mocked the suggestions of indignant retreats and prayed for their eventual safe return to Newfoundland’s humble embrace.

The wind blew out like a blast from God as I blindly stood, tears streaming down my face with my hands frozen by my side.  The Botwood air base was abuzz with excitement, people milling about in the cold waiting for the slightest chance of catching a glimpse of his surly expression, most likely with a lit cigar firmly planted between his teeth as ashes trailed his every step.  This was the man who held the fate of England in his hands although promising years of struggle and grief, he never wavered in his belief that we could withstand the loss of lives brought upon us by Hitler’s egocentric views that embraced the inane and contemptible.

The entire world watched as England waged war against the tyranny of this dictator. The population poured passionate and all-encompassing faith into a beloved and respected Prime Minister, believing he could lead the world to victory over the malevolent force spreading across Europe.   I was excited by the prospect of meeting the leader of almighty England, but nervous he may look upon me as subservient.  His stellar military career had ignited my own aspirations of service, however I knew that I was not his equal.  His brilliance was far beyond my capacities and I was quickly daunted by the challenges of such a life during this tumultuous time. It was as if people knew this was an era of change and historic will; nations rose together in allegiance to restore peace, hope and the conviction that all people should live without having to witness death and destruction in their backyards. It was a time where the future seemed uncertain, the constant news of battles and resulting casualties the topic of every radio broadcast, but when he took to the airwaves, we rose in unison to hope the end of such senseless slaughter would soon be upon us.  I recalled hearing the warnings from the Prime Minister years before this terrible outbreak regarding Hitler’s rampant greed for superiority and his assembling of armies in the name of ‘white supremacy’.  Although he was politely ignored, Churchill could see Europe’s demise propelling forward and he was prepared to rally a nation to stand tall and fight.  His inspiring words sprang intense patriotism that only war time mentality could comprehend, and years later as he took his seat as Prime Minister, he became England’s savior as well as our guide into the dark abyss of war.

I watched in wonder as the man of whom I had been inspired emerged from the plane, the propellers slowing as the engines died.  He stood, his long trench billowing about his ankles and lit his cigar surreptitiously beside the plane’s engines.  I smiled as I watched, seeing the horrified looks from my superiors at Churchill’s disregard for such trivialities as an impending explosion from a lighter in proximity to the plane’s fuselage.  They hurriedly escorted him away from the danger zone and into a path leading directly to where I was standing.  The smile must have still been securely glued upon my face as he approached and smiled back at me.  His hat had almost succumbed to a violent gust of wind and he forcefully replaced it upon his head.  He looked me up and down as if inspecting my presence in such a desolate and isolated place and said loudly, “Hello, Sergeant!  So, how do you like it up here in Newfoundland?”  I was momentarily stunned staring into his bright blue eyes and the energy and warmth behind them tempted a reply from my gaping frozen lips. “Fine, sir” I sputtered, “I like it fine.”

KJ