Saturday, November 27, 2010

Goodbye for now...

I took this picture of our friend with his little granddaughter four years ago and used it in a blog post in December 2006. He was diagnosed with cancer a couple of weeks later. His suffering ended early this morning and a family is left to mourn his passing. He was a good husband, father, son, brother and friend, a generous and gentle man who loved God and served others. We cannot understand the "whys" but are reminded that life is precious and our time on earth is fleeting. Live each day without regret, with gratitude, forgiveness and love.

Life is eternal, and love is immortal, and death is only a horizon;
and a horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Under a Blue Moon

The full moon was yesterday, but tonight was the first time in several days that it broke through the cloudy skies for a few minutes. This is the third full moon of four this autumn. Most seasons have three full moons but when there is an extra one, it is called a blue moon. The next one will not occur until August 21, 2013. So the related saying "once in a blue moon" refers to an equally unusual or rare event. 

I enjoy a happy life with blessings of health, family, good employment and the freedom to come and go as I please. But this year has brought an extraordinary degree of sorrow and suffering to people we know and love. I visited a dear friend at the hospital tonight who is clearly losing a battle with cancer. I cannot describe here the suffering and multiple losses their family has endured in the past year. I feel almost guilty writing about the frivolities of my life while they approach the Christmas season with heavy hearts. I told my friend recently how grateful I was to be able to spend a beautiful day outdoors while birding. They remarked that we should appreciate nature and the little pleasures which come with each day, for a time will come when we cannot do that.

I saw this diagram on Southfielddrive's blog this week and thought it belonged with the musings of Solomon in the book of Ecclesiates. 

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”
says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless.” 

"Once in a blue moon" we come to a place of unanswered questions, unanswered prayers, into circumstances which seem meaningless and unfair. Everyone eventually goes through times of loss and suffering. Solomon puts into words the thoughts and feelings people experience in the hard seasons of life. But he acknowledges that our finite understanding is limited and the value of our life's work is determined in eternity.

What does the worker gain from his toil?  I have seen the burden God has laid on men.  He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.  I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil—this is the gift of God.   (Ecclesiastes 3)

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Goodbye Autumn

It is still a month or more until the winter solstice and the official change of seasons. But fall has faded away and winter is upon us. The trees on our property shed the last of their leaves this week and the raking is done. One of our daughters always phones me at work when the first snow flakes start falling. (for some reason it tends to happen during work days) Today I got the call..."Mom, it's snowing!!!" I know the west and midwest of the continent have had significant snow accumulations already and our turn will come soon.

We have a Mountain Ash tree in the backyard which had a bumper crop of berries this year. I came home from work one afternoon to find dozens of robins and starlings on the ground and in the tree. They stripped every piece of fruit in a short period of time. Robins are one of the earliest birds to arrive in the spring and there are still a few of them in local wood lots this week. A few may stay in protected areas through the winter.

Starlings look quite smart in their winter coats but unfortunately they show up with too many of their friends. I took the picture below in September when they were starting to gather in large flocks, officially known as murmurations. Fortunately this murmuration was not in our yard or I would have felt like I was in a scene of Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds.

There are some winter birds I would like to see in the next few months. Evening Grosbeaks are reportedly visiting feeders within three hours of our home and they would be life birds for me. I have seen a female Pine Grosbeak, but not a male of that species. Perhaps winter finches will be irruptive this year. In the meantime, the feeders are up and our usual visitors will entertain us until the seasons change again.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Celebrate the Season

Twig tree
Christmas will be all over six weeks from now.  Retailers are aware of the fact and the push for seasonal sales is well under way. Christmas has gradually become my least favourite holiday of the year. The hype and obligation, commercialism and expense smother out whatever the "true" meaning of the season is supposed to be.

Spray painting pressed oak leaves
Yule celebrations, which coincide with the darkest days of winter in the northern hemisphere, are meshed with the religious observance of Jesus Christ's birth. (even though he was likely born sometime in the spring). The same thing happens at Easter when the celebration of Jesus' resurrection is combined with Ostara, another ancient tradition. I know people who celebrate "Happy Spring", separating it from Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday which they observe with more solemnity. But I don't know any Christians who celebrate "Happy Winter" or Yule, separating it from their observance of Advent. 

Teasels and Milkweed Pods

This year I have determined to make this holiday more meaningful. I want to enjoy our changing seasons and live out the message of the angels who said to the shepherds, "Glory to God in the highest and on earth, peace, goodwill toward men."

There are plenty of opportunities in our area to support charities and local business by buying gifts at bazaars, markets and small shops. We support the Mennonite Central Committee and Plan in giving money to buy specific items, from goats to school books, for people in third world countries.

Christmas cookies for sale at our local market
In the past week, the Becka and I collected twigs, leaves, pine cones, milk weed pods and maple keys to make natural decorations for the house. My husband bought gold spray paint and we were able to use it outdoors this weekend in the mild weather.  Stephanie, our daughter in Mexico, showed me how to make paper decorations which turned out beautifully in various colours and textures of India paper. So we started our celebration of the coming winter with a vase filled with pine cones and a string of battery-powered LED lights. The dogwood, willow and oak twigs, teasels and milkweed pods are decorated with leaves, cinnamon sticks and paper ornaments. Mom brought me a box of red glassware which belonged to her aunt. It adds to the festive look and is meaningful to me because of the family connection.

What makes this season special for you? What are your favourite traditions?

Close up of the ornaments

Thursday, November 11, 2010

John McCrae and Remembrance Day

Veterans' Section of Woodland Cemetery, London Ontario

I have met many war veterans over the years while working in health care, some of them disabled from injuries received while in military service for our country. I have met many civilians who lived in Europe during the wars, some of them scarred emotionally for life because of their tragic experiences. I listen to their stories and am thankful for the freedom from war that I have enjoyed during my lifetime.

Lieutenant Colonel John Alexander McCrae was born in Guelph Ontario in 1872. He is famous for his poem, "In Flanders Fields" which he wrote in May 1915 after the death of his friend who was killed during the Second Battle of Ypres. He was born in a small limestone cottage on the banks of the Speed River. Originally built in 1855, an addition was added a couple of years later and today the home has been restored as a monument in John McCrae's honour. I have lived 20 minutes away from McCrae house for almost forty years, but visited it for the first time this week.

Monument at McCrae House, Guelph Ontario

I am sure that all Canadian school children, including myself, have recited McCrae's poem. But I did not know much about the author. After walking through the house and viewing the interpretive displays about his life and times, I felt a strong connection to this poet, doctor and soldier.

He was a top scholar who, at the age of 16, was awarded a scholarship to the University of Toronto where he studied medicine. (Twenty years later my grandmother and grandfather studied medicine at the same university.) He served in combat in South Africa during the Boer War in 1900-1901 and then returned to Canada to a distinguished medical career. In 1914, he once again offered his services to the military and served as a Brigade Surgeon. He died in January 1918 of pneumonia complicated by meningitis while working in a Canadian General Hospital in France. He never saw the armistice nor the impact his poem had on future Remembrance Day observances around the world.

In Flanders Fields by John McCrae
(click image to enlarge)

 The exhibits at the small museum in the McCrae homestead reveal the life of a son, a brother, a student, a doctor, a soldier. He served his country like many others of his generation and future generations, not looking for honour, but worthy this day of respectful remembrance.

We Remember... 

McCrae House, Guelph Ontario

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Welcome Back

We are enjoying one of the most beautiful early November weeks in my memory with clear, sunny skies and warm temperatures for the season. I spent as much time as possible out of doors on the weekend. Darkness falls very quickly after my work day is over now that we are back on standard time. It is easy to forget the first snowflakes we saw falling early on November 5th. But winter is just around the corner and this late Indian Summer will not last long. The birds know that is true. American Tree Sparrows and Juncos have arrived in large numbers in the past couple of weeks.

Northern Shovelers, eclipse plumage
Our local wetlands have the usual Canada Geese and Mallard Ducks but if you look closely, winter residents are making an appearance. I forgot my binoculars on this afternoon and it took me while to see the group of Northern Shovelers in the middle of the swamp. They were diving in the shallow water and feeding with their large, sieve-like bills. There was lots of flapping and splashing as a dominant duck displayed in front of the others.

At another storm water pond, a pair of female Ring-necked Ducks were much quieter as they swam with the regular ducks and geese. Plumage variations can confuse me when eclipse males, females and juveniles are around.
Female Ring-necked Ducks
It will not be long until Bufflehead, Golden-eye and Merganser ducks will be on local rivers and lakes. Bald Eagles will settle in along open stretches of the Grand River from November until March and the northern shores of Lake Ontario will be home to even more winter water birds.

These birds have come south from their nesting regions to enjoy our "milder winters". Many of my friends who are known as Canadian "Snowbirds" prefer even milder winters in Florida or Arizona.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Fallen Leaves- A Robert Service Poem

Fallen Leaves
Why should I be the first to fall
Of all the leaves on this old tree?
Though sadly soon I know that all
Will lose their hold and follow me.
While my birth-brothers bravely blow,
Why should I be first to go?

Why should I be the last to cling
Of all the leaves on this bleak bough?
I've fluttered since the fire of Spring
And I am worn and withered now.
I would escape the Winter gale
And sleep soft-silvered by a snail.

When swoop the legions of the snow
To pitch their tents in roaring weather
We fallen leaves will lie below
And rot rejoicingly together;
And from our rich and dark decay
Will laugh our brothers of the May.
Robert Service
Robert Service (1874-1958) came to Canada from Britain as a young man. He worked as a bank clerk in the Yukon and wrote many poems and stories about the Canadian North. We read his famous poem, "The Cremation of Sam McGee" in public school. These pictures were taken in the past week.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

A Matter of Perspective

There are always three sides to every story: your side, the other side, and the truth.  

Sign in Tommy Thompson Park, Toronto ON

We are self-centred by nature and even the most unselfish person of our acquaintance is likely to take offence if their point of view is ridiculed. Grandma always told me that people who never disagreed lacked intelligence. But it is possible to hold to your own opinions and convictions and also see the perspective of someone else. The person with the ability to see the big picture through eyes other than their own is very wise indeed.

I bought a new camera last month (justified by selling my older one to my dad). I was sitting in my car on a street in downtown Toronto last week waiting for my daughter. The sky was dull and gray and the neighbourhood was less than inspiring. I set the camera to the "fish-eye effect" and took a picture of graffiti on the shop next to the car. The change in perspective made the picture much more interesting.  Across the road, a young man from a company called Graffiti 911 was using a high pressure water hose to clean the wall of a pharmacy. The store owners were unhappy with the spray painted words, but another person was earning a living because it was there to remove. The "fish-eyed effect" pictures show two different ways of looking at graffiti.

It appears that the world is becoming more polarized as people with opposing views refuse to make any effort to bridge differences in order to dialogue with people who have a different perspective. It saddens and frustrates me to see what is happening in American politics at this time. I wonder if there is any hope that our neighbours to the south can bring the open bickering and hateful name-calling under control and promote respectful discussion and collaboration. The same problems exist in workplaces, churches and families when personal viewpoints blind us to the position of others.

The most interesting pictures are taken when a camera captures an image which is different than our usual visual perspective. I can look down and focus on the fact all the leaves have fallen from the trees or I can look up and see the blue sky and sunshine which could not penetrate the leaf cover all summer. The upward view is the more inspiring November angle in my opinion. Looking at the big picture from various vantage points opens the mind to creative possibilities and solutions which benefit us all.

"But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; 
then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.
Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness."  
James 3:17-18