Where I spray-paint my thoughts…


100 Years Ago

One hundred years ago today, the guns fell silent.

war memorial photo

Newfoundland War Memorial. Photo credit: Tom Clift

They fell silent, that is, on the battlefields of the First World War. A last few men died on the morning of November 11, in response to orders that the men at the top had already decided were meaningless. Then, at the pre-arranged time of 11:00 a.m., everyone stopped shooting. It was so simple, after all: just stop shooting.

Of course, the guns started up again soon enough. In other places, and then, twenty-one years later, in the same places. They have rarely fallen silent, ever since we invented guns. Before that, we had quieter ways to kill each other, but we’ve never stopped.

Every Remembrance Day, we pause in our different ways to remember all the dead and wounded in all our wars. We remember on the day that commemorates the end of the once-called “Great” War, November 11, 1918. And after all the bloody conflicts of this century, that First World War still captures our imagination.

It wasn’t the deadliest war of the century. But falling as it did between the invention of the machine gun and the widespread use of airplanes for bombing, it was perhaps the first war with death on such a horrific scale, and the last where that scale was still possible for the human mind to grasp. It was a conflict that illustrated in vivid colours the bravery and suffering of ordinary fighting men, and the vanity and stupidity of those who ruled them. It was a war that need never have been fought: a petty power struggle that cost millions of lives.

Due at least in part to the bungled peace process that followed that November 11 armistice, the “war to end all wars” was followed by its inevitable successor two decades later. This time, Germany was led by a villian of such comic-book awfulness that few questioned the necessity of war, either at the time or in retrospect. The horrors of Nazi Germany, especially the horrors of the Holocaust, were so intolerable that we could forgive or overlook the horrors committed by our “good guys” in the attempt to stop them.

And once again, millions died — brave soldiers, and probably some cowardly soldiers too, and lots and lots of civilians who had never made the choice to go to war, but found war exploding all around them or dropping on their heads.

The power struggles among the victors of that war led to the world I was born into: the world of Cold War, where humans, for the first time, developed weapons theoretically capable of destroying all life on the planet. For forty-five years, while smaller conflicts flared and died and killed around that planet, the great powers played a long game of chicken over who would dare use these deadly weapons.

In the end, they tired of that game. As a species, we seem to have decided it’s less work to destroy the planet by greed and consumption and laziness than by dropping bombs. And largely, we have outsourced the business of killing in large numbers to terrorists and “rogue states.”

We didn’t get rid of the bombs, of course. We kept them around, just in case.

For all the Great Literature it produced, my favourite World War One novel will always be the first one I read, L.M. Montgomery’s Rilla of Ingleside. At the end of that novel, nineteen-year-old Rilla records in her journal the words of her recently-returned soldier brother:

“‘We’re in a new world,’ Jem says, ‘and we’ve got to make it a better one than the old. That isn’t done yet, though some folks think it ought to be. The job isn’t finished — it isn’t really begun. The old world is destroyed and we must build up the new one. It will be the task of years. I’ve seen enough of war to realize that we’ve got to make a world where wars can’t happen.'”

The fictional Jem Blythe speaks these hopeful words in 1919; Montgomery published them in 1921.

In 1921, Adolf Hitler was named leader of the Nazi Party in the Germany.

It’s hard to know what to celebrate, 100 years after the end of the war that began all the other wars. In that century we have made so much progress as a species. Diseases have been eradicated. Advances in communication and transportation have made possible things that were only dreams before. Huge groups of people who were considered barely human in 1918 now enjoy the same rights under the law as wealthy white men did in 1918. People are better educated. Workers have more rights. Poverty and infant mortality are declining almost everywhere.

And yet. The climate is changing and we can’t be bothered to figure out how to stop it. And in the face of a more and more globalized world, where we all have to deal with each other, an unimaginable number of people in “free” countries (sometimes whole governments) have responded by turning inward: condemning the Other, boosting an imagined racial superiority, building metaphorical and literal walls. In World History, I teach “nationalism” as a deadly underlying cause of World War One. After a century of mostly moving away from me-first nationalism, more and more countries and leaders — including the president of the United States — are now proudly declaring themselves “nationalists.” “Our people first, and screw the planet and all those other, lesser people on it.”

I was raised to believe two stories about the history of the world.  One was taught to me in church, the other by the surrounding humanist culture. Both were, in their way, hopeful.

The church taught me that the world would get worse and worse and then God would dramatically intervene to save us. The culture taught me that the world would get better and better and we would solve all our problems and save ourselves.

Looking back 100 years to the day the guns went (briefly) silent, wondering about those soldiers who died to help build a world they could not imagine, I can find hard evidence to support both beliefs — which means neither feels completely true. The world is getting much, much worse, and much, much better at the same time, and while we have not seen evidence that God is going to dramatically intervene, we also, to be frank, haven’t shown much sign of saving ourselves either.

There are plenty of people who believe neither story: who simply accept despair and defeat. Who look back at 1918, and all the war since, and say that it will never get better. That we can rely on neither divine help nor human goodness to break the endless cycle of violence and hate.

100 years after the horror of the trenches…
70 years after Kristallnacht…
29 years after the Berlin Wall fell…
A day or a week after whatever the last horrific headline was …

…it’s hard to be hopeful. Hard to know, sometimes, what my hope is based on.

But I still hope. I don’t always know why, or in what. But the hope I hold to is the only way I know of not breaking faith with those who sleep: in Flanders Fields, and in cold graves at the bottom of the ocean, and in Auschwitz, and in Hiroshima, and at Ground Zero, and in Afghanistan, and in every place humans have slaughtered other humans for the past 100 years.

I try to keep faith.



This Nest Feels a Little … Empty

On Labour Day weekend we dropped our daughter, Emma, off at college in another province. Our eldest, Chris, lives here in town but shares a house with a bunch of friends, so while we still see him lots he hasn’t lived at home in nearly two years.

So we drove back home to a house that, only a few years ago, seemed almost too full. Now it mostly has just Jason and myself, and Gal, our dog.

You might remember that our old dog, Max, who grew up alongside our kids, passed away about a year ago. The decision to get another dog never seemed as smart as the day we drove back home from Nova Scotia and went into the house to find Gal there waiting for us.

All the cliches are true, as it turns out. How it seems like only a breath of time since they were both small, how the hours and days that passed so slowly at the time seem in retrospect to have flown by. How your heart permanently walks around outside your body, only now that heart is split in two and lives in two different places. 

Mostly, being an empty-nester is what I expected. I knew I would miss having the kids in the house: their presence, their conversation, their sense of humour. I especially miss the Emma of last year when she was a high-school senior, basically grown up and not needing a lot in the way of parenting, just hanging out with me and her dad like another adult in the house.

The things I don’t miss, the things I actually like about this stage of life, are also pretty much what I expected. I’ve never been the kind of mom whose whole identity was tied up in being a mom and “needed to be needed.” If anything, I’m a basically selfish person who loved my actual kids a lot but often found it hard to spend two decades with my life organized around the needs of other people. When the kids were younger I often had that “But when do I get time for meeeeee?” whine in my head. Now I have that time and yes, I do enjoy being able to plan and do things without having to take as many different people’s needs into account. I enjoy the time Jason and I get to spend together as a couple of adults.

One aspect of empty-nesting that I was completely prepared for, based on watching my own parents (especially my mom) was that even when the day-to-day care and feeding is done, the involvement and the worry never is. I hope I don’t take this to the level my mom did — when I was forty she was still perfectly capable of looking at me going out of the house and saying, “Is that all you’ve got on? It’s cold out, put on a hat!” But with an eighteen-year-old college student across the water and a twenty-year-old aspiring musician across town, I never feel entirely free from worry. I think about them and worry about their struggles approximately 120% of the time … and do what I can to help, but that’s very little compared to the days when I could put bandaids on their skinned knees and make it all better.

I think back to how I relied on “What To Expect When You’re Expecting” before my kids were born, and its sequels “What To Expect in the First Year” and “What to Expect in the Toddler Years.” I remember feeling bereft when Chris hit age 3 and I realized the What To Expect books had run out. Who would tell me what to expect? And why is there no “What To Expect When Your Kids Leave Home” book? Even though the first month has been pretty much how I thought it would be, I can’t shake the feeling this is uncharted territory and I’ll need a guide sometimes.

Oh well, maybe I’ll write that book. You know, in all that spare time I have now.


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Tourist of the Past

I’ve been in England for almost three weeks. I’m heading home tomorrow. Jason was with me for the first 10 days, while we were tourists in London, and since then I’ve been on my own in Bristol, exploring the city where the first seven chapters of my work-in-progress A Roll of the Bones is set.

Problem is, the book is set there in 1610, and I could only visit in 2018.

I would, of course, love actual time travel if it came with a guaranteed return ticket (no way am I getting permanently stuck in a world without flush toilets, hot showers, or chocolate bars). But until that technology exits, the struggle for the writer of historical fiction remains: you can never really visit the places your stories are set, because those places exist only in the past.

If it’s the recent past (as with several of my Newfoundland historical novels) you can at least talk to people who lived at that time, look at old photographs, listen to stories. But going farther back — say, to the early 17th century, as I’m doing with A Roll of the Bones — there’s no-one left alive who remembers it, and no photographs. Some descriptions in very, very old texts. A few maps. But no way to get back there.

So all the while I’ve been researching this book, especially while in England, I’ve been poking at the edges of the past. That might mean spending time in recreated 16th and 17th century kitchens, whether that’s the kitchen of a palace …

 … or of a labourer’s cottage:

It’s also meant watching modern stonemasons at work on repairs to a cathedral, using tools very similar to those that would have been used 400 years ago:
And it’s meant standing on the deck of a replica ship, imagining how it would have felt with the sails unfurled, pulling away from Bristol’s docks down the Avon river to the sea and then across the ocean to an unimaginable new world:

Fortunately, there are many places dotted around England (and Wales, where I visited the wonderful National Museum at St. Fagan’s) where you can explore little bits and pieces of the past. And Bristol itself, while very much a twenty-first century, still retains some of the cobbled streets, old buildings, and other bits and pieces that allow you to step through a gate into — not the past, exactly, but a place where you can briefly imagine you’re there.

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Matthew 2:14-18, Alternate Text (A Lost & Disputed Fragment)

So [Joseph] got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt. But behold, at the border they were met by Roman soldiers, who challenged them, saying, “Why are you coming into Egypt? Are you not from Judea?”

“We are fleeing to save the life of our child,” said Joseph, “for He was born in Bethlehem, and Herod decreed that all the boys in Bethlehem and vicinity under two years old are to be killed, so we were greatly afraid, and an angel of the Lord told us to flee to a land of safety.”

“This is indeed a land of safety,” said the soldier, “but only for us Romans, and to some extent for our Egyptian subjects. Herod has reason to fear you Judeans, for your land is a hotbed of rebels and terrorists. Our governor, Gaius Tyrannus, has decreed that he will not allow Egypt to be infested with illegal Judeans. You must return to your own country.”

“You would have us return to a land where our son’s life is in danger? The king seeks to have Him killed!”

“King Herod upholds the Pax Romana, as does governor Gaius Tyrannus,” declared the soldier. “If you persist in crossing into Egyptian territory, you will both be imprisoned.”

Then Mary cried aloud, and said, “Have mercy on us! I am the handmaiden of the Lord, and He has given us this child to bring down the rulers from their thrones, and cast down the mighty!”

And Joseph tried to quiet her, and was sore afraid, for he knew that rulers did not like that kind of talk.

“Now I know you are rebels!” said the soldier, “For the crime of illegally entering the Roman province of Egypt, you and your husband will be thrown in prison.”

“I cannot take my child to prison!” cried Mary.

“Of course not,” said the soldier. “Your child will be taken into our custody, and when your sentence is complete, He will be returned to you. If we can find Him, and if He is able to tell us His parents’ names.”

“He is but a babe!” cried Mary, as the soldier took Jesus from her arms. “He is still nursing at the breast! Please, have mercy!!”

But the soldier hardened his heart, though he had babes of his own at home and it tore his soul to hear the cries of the infant Jesus. He remembered the degree of Gaius Tyrannus, and the mighty power of Caesar Augustus far away in Rome. And he took the child away to a detention facility that was almost definitely not a cage, while the other soldiers led Mary and Joseph away.

And the cries of the infant Jesus mingled with the cries of Mary His mother in the Egyptian night, so that it might be fulfilled as the prophet had spoken:.

“A voice is heard in Ramah,
    weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
    and refusing to be comforted,
    because they are no more.” 

(Artwork: Flight into Egypt, Gentile da Fabriano, 1370-1427)

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Three Things That Made Me Cry

I don’t know what got me thinking about this the other day, but I was remembering all the times I watched the movie Cars when my kids were little, and how they found it reliably hilarious that I would always cry at the musical montage above. Of course Songs (and other triggers, but mostly songs) That Made Mom Cry were a constant source of amusement for my kids; I’m an easy cryer and all kinds of things set me off.

But in the case of this song and video clip from Cars, there’s a very specific cry-trigger: the idea of small towns that were once busy and bustling but got abandoned along the way in the rush to modern life. And when I think of that, then it reminds me of other, similar things that have brought a tear to my eye. One of them, in fact, may have been where this whole train of thought started.

I was recently reading a book (Jamie Fitzpatrick’s excellent The End of Music) about the heyday of the Gander International Airport. Gander is better known to most people nowadays because of the stranded 9/11 passengers and their hosts, memorialized in the Broadway musical Come From Away. But long before that, Gander was a hub of international air travel, back when transatlantic flights had to stop to refuel.

A couple of summers ago I had occasion to fly out of Gander airport, catching a flight to Halifax during a very foggy July when it seemed like nearly ever flight out of here was grounded due to fog. When I got to Gander and went through security, the single security officer there said, “You’m goin’ to Halifax or Goose?”

On top of the frazzled, stressed day I was having — driving all the way from St. John’s to Gander and still not being sure my flight would get into Halifax on time — her question nearly brought me to tears. There were only two flights going out of Gander that afternoon — my flight to Halifax, and another to Goose Bay. This, for a place that was once the airline hub of the Western world. Definitely a “Main Street isn’t Main Street anymore” moment.

That reminded me of yet another moment … several years ago, when on a Sunday morning some friends and I decided to go take in the morning service at a little Salvation Army corps around the bay. Like most small-town churches of almost any denomination, it was sparsely attended and mostly by older people. In announcements before the service, one of the officers was bringing the congregation up to date on what had happened to a large donation they had received for buying band instruments. Because the church had no band members left, they had donated some to another corps in a larger centre that had more young people and a functioning band; they used the rest to buy a “Promoted to Glory” flag. That’s the flag they drape over coffins at a Salvation Army funeral. Money that had been donated for a thriving band of mostly-young Salvationists was being used instead for a flag to drape over coffins, because that’s who was left in town — the elderly and the dying.

I don’t know why the decline of small towns pulls at my heart so much. I’m an urban person. I live in the largest urban area (which is still smallish, about 150,000 people) in my province. If I moved to Ontario I’d want to live in downtown Toronto. I like cities. I’d go stir-crazy in a small town. 

Yet the thought of small towns dying, of the people who lived there moving away and these vibrant little places being left behind and emptied of life and energy, for some reason, always makes me cry.

I don’t want to live in a small town. I guess I just want them to be there.


Six Possible Things Before Friday: A Thank-You Note to Feminism

Another day, another argument with a conservative friend on social media. The recurring themes of 2017 — outrage and polarization — continue into 2018, and hopefully most of us have learned to pick our battles so we don’t self-immolate on a pyre of righteous indignation. Because you certainly could; there’s more than enough out there to be indignant about.

But there’s one battle I will always fight, and that’s anytime a woman says “I’m not a feminist; I don’t want to be considered a feminist; I don’t respect the feminist movement.” Mind you, if women say that in a private conversation, in their own homes, that’s fine. But if they say it anywhere in a public space, if their words are uttered aloud in public or published in paper or online, then yeah, I’m gonna tangle with them. Because they are standing on a platform that generations of feminists fought for them to have, and using that very platform to deride the movement that made it possible for them to be there.

I’ll try to get a couple of caveats out of the way as quickly as possible: Yes, you can live your life however you want. If you want to reject feminism and live the life of a typical woman in an earlier century — focused on home life, submissive to your husband or father, choosing not to pursue higher education or work outside the home — you certainly have every right to make that choice. Your actions are consistent with your beliefs.

For that matter, if you are a feminist and you want to make home and family your main focus, that’s cool too. I chose to quit work for seven years to stay home with my kids when they were small; I believe feminism is about creating a world where every woman can make the choices that are best for her (and her family if she has one). My issue is specifically with women who enjoy the advantages of feminism while distancing themselves from the movement, or outright repudiating it.

Also, I don’t have to agree with every statement every feminist on the planet has ever made in order to call myself a feminist. Feminists can and do disagree with each other. As with any “ism,” there are real and important debates within feminism. But the fact that I might disagree with other feminists about how to achieve the goal of equality for every woman (which is what feminism is; don’t let anyone tell you otherwise) does not mean I am not a feminist, anymore than my intense disagreement with Franklin Graham or Jerry Falwell Jr makes me not a Christian.

Feminism is about equality, plain and simple. If you say “I don’t believe in feminism; I believe men and women should be equal,” you’re talking gibberish. To continue the analogy from my last paragraph, it’s like saying, “I don’t believe in Christianity; I just believe that Jesus is the Son of God and Savior of the World.” Oooo…kayyyy, you can make up your own names for things if you want, but you’ve just described the exact thing you claim not to believe in.

So, why am I so proud to be a feminist, and why will I always go to battle with any woman who enjoys equal rights but claims not to be a feminist? Because I’m grateful for feminism. I’m grateful for the things it allows me to do. Here are just a few of them — things I’ve been able to do this week, Jan. 28 – Feb. 3, 2018, here in St. John’s, Newfoundland, because of feminism:

1. I went to work. At my job (teaching at an adult-education centre), I’m one of the better paid instructors. Why? Because I have two master’s degrees (one in Education and one in my teachable area, English), and over 20 years of experience. At various times in the past:

Without feminists, I wouldn’t have gotten my university degrees, or been allowed to continue in my job, or been paid based on my experience and qualifications rather than my gender. I’m grateful for trailblazers like Grace Annie Lockhart, who in 1875 because the first woman in the British Empire to earn a bachelor’s degree (and to Mount Allison University in New Brunswick for giving it to her). I’m grateful to everyone who ever fought for pay equity legislation and anti-discrimination laws that make it illegal to pay a woman less than a man for doing the same job.

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What? No Christmas Post This Year!

In past years I have gotten pretty creative, even philosophical, about Christmas. This year … well now. No post for the entire month of December. You know what I did in December? I released a new book, and our family adopted a new dog. If you follow this blog you know our beloved old dog Max passed away at the end of October, and I had a dog-shaped void in my heart. Just before Christmas, Gal came along, a one-year-old husky-mix shelter dog from Labrador, and she has done a wonderful job filling that void.

With all that going on — well, we did have Christmas, in that we had presents and a tree and Christmas dinner, but a lot of things, like Christmas cards and letters, fell by the wayside. New book and new dog just a couple of weeks before Christmas kept us pretty busy, but those were both good things, and honestly, the planet keeps on spinning even if I don’t write a clever, creative Christmas blog post or send out a Christmas letter.

So, life rolls in into 2018 for our family. Jason and I are now the parents of two young adults, practically. Emma will graduate from high school in 2018 and, according to her current plan, move to Nova Scotia for university. Chris is still here in town, but living with friends, hoping for his big break in the music industry. We are loving them the best we can but recognizing that most of our work here is done. 

2018 will be the next step in this gradual shift towards being a couple with grown-up kids instead of a family of four living at home. Seems appropriate that we have a new dog (and some new hobbies like snowshoeing, which Gal, Labrador snowdog that she is, enjoys doing with us!) as we move into new phases of our lives. 

Whatever phase of your life you’re in now … may 2018 bring you blessings.

I’ll be back with more blog posts in the new year now that things have settled down a little!