musings from Canadian author Cheryl Cooke Harrington ... home of The Write Spot

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

easy wind and downy flake...

Toronto hasn't seen much snow this winter – yet. But the monster blizzard that battered the east coast this past weekend has me reminiscing about past winters and life in simpler times.

Not that there was ever anything "simple" about enduring massive snowfalls, ice storms, and power outages. But I can't help wondering if our always-connected, always turned on twenty-first century life means we have a harder time coping when the inevitable happens. And then I wonder . . . what if the grid goes down and stays down? Zombie apocalypse, anyone?

Back in my hippy-back-to-the-land days of the 1970s and 80s, my husband and I and our three young sons lived in a rented farm house with several acres of land and a ramshackle barn. We moved to our farm on a snowy day at the end of December in 1975. I'll never forget arriving there with our overloaded camper van, and several carloads of city-folk friends to find the long gravel driveway completely drifted in. Hubby made a run at it with the van and, by some miracle, managed to stay on the track. After a few more runs, he'd cleared enough of a path for the rest of the convoy to follow. Our friends unloaded their vehicles in record fast time and beat a hasty retreat to the city, no doubt convinced we'd lost our minds. There were times, during that first challenging winter, when I wondered if they might be right.

A cranky old octopus of an oil furnace lurked in the cellar where it struggled to deliver heat to the first floor. Upstairs bedrooms were always cold but we piled on extra blankets and told ourselves the bracingly fresh air that gusted through our ancient sash windows made for healthy sleeping. (In fact, it probably saved our lives. I'm sure that furnace was pumping out clouds of carbon monoxide along with its meagre heat.)

We installed a massive cast-iron stove before our second winter on the farm, partly for the ambiance of a wood fire but mostly because we weren't sure the old furnace would see us through another season. We were right about that. For the next sixteen years, we relied on a Fisher stove like this one to keep us warm – hard work, sometimes, but worth it.

In late summer, a truck would deliver seven bush cords of wood, dumping it unceremoniously at the end of the driveway. We (and by "we" I mean mostly hubby) became skilled at splitting logs into manageable chunks, obsessive about hunting down kindling – fallen cedar branches from the neighbour's woodlot were best – and expert at stacking the split cords in neat, shoulder-high rows to dry. Our sons still grumble about the brutal Two Load Rule: each boy had to carry two big armloads of firewood into the house before settling down to their after school snacks. The rule applied equally to me and their Dad, of course, but the child labour angle makes for better stories, all of them starting, "Why, when I was a boy . . ." The care and feeding of that wood stove became the stuff of family legends.

First person up on a winter's morning (again, almost always hubby) would hustle down to poke the embers and get a fire going to warm things up for the rest of us. The kids would huddle around the stove while they waited for breakfast. Unfortunately, eldest son had a habit of presenting his backside to the stove. There were a few times he got a bit too close. We teased him that we didn't need marks on the wall to tell us how much he'd grown in a year, we could just check the red stripes on his behind.

One particularly cold morning, with the boys off to school and the main floor feeling toasty warm, I decided to treat myself to a hot, relaxing bath. We always kept the plug in the bathroom drain because the tap had an intermittent drip and the drain had a habit of freezing. Sure enough, that morning there was a shallow puddle trapped in the tub. When I reached for the plug to release the water, my fingers skated across a solid sheet of ice. I changed my mind about the bath.

The following summer, with our landlord's blessing, we knocked that old tub room off the back of the house and built a new, well-insulated bathroom and a lovely big sun room in its place. Not only was that sun room the best reading spot I've ever had, it was perfect for starting seedlings in the spring and made a glorious heat trap on sunny winter days.

It's possible I'm seeing those long ago winters through the rose coloured glasses of fond memory, but I'm positive snow was deeper – and fell more often – in those early days on the farm. Corn stubble in the surrounding fields disappeared under a blanket of white in November and wasn't seen again until April. We could step out the back door, strap on our cross country skis, and take off for a trek through the woods. The kids loved the adventure of it, learning how to start a fire in the snow and savouring a picnic lunch in the wild.

These days, we're all city dwellers, but a recently acquired plot of land has us dreaming and scheming. Far from the city lights and off the grid, the property has fertile fields, a scrap of forest, and a tiny cold water lake. We're in no rush to give full time back-to-the-landing another try; we like our internet and city comforts a bit too much. But I have to admit, there's also comfort in knowing we've done it before and, if we need to, we know how to do it again. Hopefully without zombies.

Wondering where you've heard that before? The title of this post is a quote from Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost:

"The only other sound’s the sweep

of easy wind and downy flake."

stillpoint is the blog of Canadian author Cheryl Cooke Harrington


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Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Write Spot: Rebecca K. O'Connor

The Write Spot is back with an exciting line-up of guests for 2016. This bi-weekly author series spotlights the many and varied places where writers write. Be sure to sign up (in the sidebar) to receive stillpoint direct to your inbox each week because you won't want to miss any of these terrific authors.

My guest this week is author and professional animal trainer, Rebecca K. O'Connor.

Rebecca is the author of the acclaimed memoir, Lift, which won Best Book in the 2010 Outdoor Writers Association of California craft awards. She has published essays in South Dakota Review, Iron Horse Literary Review, Los Angeles Times Magazine, West, and divide. Her novel, Falcon’s Return was a Holt Medallion Finalist for best first novel and she has published numerous reference books on the natural world. She has an MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California, Riverside.

As a professional animal trainer, Rebecca has worked with a variety of exotic animals in zoos and private facilities around the United States and abroad. She has been a falconer for fifteen years and is a nationally known parrot behaviorist. Her book A Parrot for Life: Raising and Training the Perfect Parrot Companion was published in 2007 by TFH and is required reading for those adopting parrots at several rescue facilities. She is a nationally sought after lecturer at parrot clubs and parrot festivals.

In all of Rebecca's work she strives to illuminate or foil the human condition through the animals that surround us. Whether it's giving a science-based lecture, writing a serious how-to book, or crafting deeply personal prose, the foundation of everything in her life is a love for animals. She hopes that her life's work will help people understand the animals (including other humans) that surround them and relish their relationships.

Welcome, Rebecca. Please tell us about your Write Spot.

I actually have two places where I write. The first is on my front porch where I like to do my morning pages, journal, doodle, and brainstorm. I love watching the pair of red-tailed hawks that live in my neighborhood while I daydream. Then when things get serious, I have an office in my home. My office doubles as an animal overflow room so if I’m raising a hawk, fostering a parrot, or have any other strays, they come join me in my office as a temporary muse. And of course, there are dog beds so that my Brittannys can stay close to the action.

Brainstorming on the porch with
young Elsa, a Cooper's hawk.

Elsa as muse (above) and Booth the Brittany
spaniel (below) hanging out in the office.

Rebecca shared a sad update about lovely Elsa, the Cooper's hawk in her weekly letter series: "I lost Elsa, my Cooper’s hawk on Wednesday. She was killed after eight months of a hard won relationship. I know that falconry is cruel, because nature is cruel. If you choose to be a falconer, you choose to eschew the laws of civilized life." (Read the rest.

You have my deepest sympathy, Rebecca. I'm sure readers will agree, Elsa was a magnificent bird.

Other than your computer, laptop, or notebook, what's the one thing you couldn't be without in your Write Spot?

I can’t imagine writing without an animal at my side, whether that’s a dog warming my feet, a parrot commentating in the background, or a hawk hanging out waiting for me to take a break from writing and go hunting with it.

What are you working on now?

Right now I’m working on a novel that is a scifi/murder mystery/memoir. Oh, and there’s falconry in it. I’m also writing a weekly letter series, Birds, Words, and Inspiration that I hope will be a jumping off place for a nonfiction book about self-love and art.

Reading your letters over Sunday breakfast has become a weekly ritual for me, Rebecca. They're always thoughtful and inspiring. Where can readers find out more about you, your letter series, and your books?

Readers can visit me online at Click on the 'blog' button there to subscribe to my weekly letter series, Birds, Words, and Inspiration. I'm also active on social media:

Twitter:     @rebeccakoconnor
Pinterest:   rebeccakoconnor
Instagram: rebeccakoconnor

Thanks for sharing a bit of your writing life with us, Rebecca.

Rebecca K. O'Connor's memoir, Lift, and her other published books are available from your favorite bookseller.

Captivated by a chance meeting with a falconer's peregrine as a child, the indelible memory leads the author to flying a peregrine falcon of her own and discovering that the journey is not as much about training the falcon as what it is the falcon has to teach her. Exploring themes of predator and prey, finding tribe, forgiveness and femininity, Lift asks universal questions through the unique perspective of a woman chasing her heart in the wake of a wayward falcon.

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About The Write Spot:
I've always been fascinated by what goes on behind the scenes. Whether it's backstage photos from my favourite play, a peek into the kitchen where a chef is working her culinary magic, or simply a glimpse through an uncurtained window into a stranger's private world, there's an undeniable thrill of discovery, a sense of secrets shared. It's no surprise, then, that I'm immensely curious about where other writers do their work. I've blogged about it before in this post about my own 'write spot' and so enjoyed the comments, I was inspired to launch a regular feature here at stillpoint. Watch for The Write Spot every other Wednesday and join me as I discover the many and varied places where writers write.

stillpoint is the blog of Canadian author Cheryl Cooke Harrington

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Wednesday, January 13, 2016

a collectable word…

My name is Cheryl and I'm a collector.

For all who know me as a writer and reader, it will come as no surprise that I collect books. This makes me a bibliophile. I also consider myself a logophile, or collector of words, some of my favourites being collective nouns. Who can resist a murder of crows, a plump of ducks, a murmur of nuns, or a ponder of philosophers?

Granted, most collections are more tangible.

In my youth, I amassed an impressive set of china horses. Oh, how I loved those horses. I probably should have known better than to leave them at the mercy of my mother when I left home. The hapless herd was rounded up and sold at a church bazaar before a fresh layer of dust had time to settle in my abandoned room. The horror! 

Thanks to Pinterest, I can once again run amok with horses, accumulating dozens of gorgeous specimens with no shelf space required. This is important, because I've moved on to new collections that now share my home, namely, blue glass poison bottles and badgers. Yes, badgers.

Why is it that a person who collects beer bottles has a fancy moniker like labeorphilist, while a collector of cobalt blue poison bottles is simply known as a 'cobalt blue poison bottle collector'? There should be a word! 

Toothpick collectors have a word: entredentolignumologists. Even collectors of cheese labels have a word: tyrosemiophilists.

And what of badger collectors?  An unusual obsession, perhaps, but surely I'm not the only badger collector out there. And, darn it, we are worthy of a word!

My personal badger collection includes several plush toys – even a coveted Steiff. This might, if we're very, very liberal with the definition, allow badger collecting to exist as a subset of genus arctophilia (teddy bear collecting). But my passion isn't limited to fabric toys. I have many painted and printed badgers, carved stone badgers, ceramic, glass, and even pewter badgers – art, mugs, plates, pins, earrings – not teddy bears by any stretch of the imagination. It would appear I'm going to have to create my own word.

Just a few of many gems from my badger collection: a snugly plush 'Jellycat' badger, a Wedgwood "I Spy" plate, two carved Zuni badger fetishes, and a sleeping badger painted rock.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, the term arctophilia or arctophilist is taken from the Greek words 'arcto' (bear) and 'philos' (loving). Makes perfect sense as a teddy bear collector's handle. Looking to my list of collective nouns, I believe I've found the ideal starting point for my new word. A group of badgers is called a 'cete', from the Middle English word for a badger's den (sett) with roots in the Latin 'cetus' or coming together. Combine 'cete' (group of badgers) with 'philos' (loving), and a badger collector becomes a cetephile or cetephilist. I like it! Cetephilist. A truly collectable word.

According to The Psychology of Collecting by Mark B. McKinley, "Everybody collects something." Sigmund Freud blamed our human propensity to collect on latent potty training issues. (Um... ew.) I choose to believe our human urge to collect comes from a combination of nostalgia and "ooh, pretty!" What do you think? Are you a collector?

My name is Cheryl and I'm a cetephilist.

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stillpoint is the blog of Canadian author Cheryl Cooke Harrington

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Wednesday, January 06, 2016

photos of 2015

Since retiring from The Day Job in May of 2015, I've tried to make a habit of carrying my camera wherever I go. As you might imagine, this has resulted in an ever-expanding photo library and plenty of story inspiration. Over the holidays, I took some time to look through all those images of people, places and beautiful things, and chose a few favourites to share. (Click to enlarge.)

Apple blossoms at Colonel Samuel Smith Park on Lake Ontario in Toronto. I love the way the focus "pops" on this one. And the colours of spring!

This male Mallard duck, kept a close eye on me as he paddled. I realized later that his mate was sleeping nearby, perfectly camouflaged by beach pebbles. I can't help but smile when I see those little orange feet and the reflected sparkle of sun-warmed water on his breast.  

Old man turtle found a sunny spot to lounge by the pond in the conservatory at Centennial Park in Toronto. Just look at that smug expression. Turtles play an important part in Rock Solid, so I'm a real sucker for a guy in a handsome shell.

This gorgeous blue heron was fishing in the Grand River in Cambridge, Ontario while I lunched with a friend at a riverside restaurant. He did eventually catch a little fish and gobble it down. Not far away, this fisher woman kept him company. She didn't seem to be having much luck, though. 

No filters on this photo - that's exactly how the river looked. Fast water and lots of reflection. I love the effect!

Lake Ontario at the Village of Wellington in Prince Edward County. A storm blew through the night before and remnant winds and waves made walking a bit wild. My favourite beach weather!

Purple mystery flowers. That's not botanical, it really is a mystery. If anyone can identify this lovely plant, please let me know in the comments. Not native to my part of the world, this was taken in the tropical house at Toronto's Centennial Park Conservatory. UPDATE, January 8, 2016: Thanks to blog visitor Bec and Facebook commenter Ian who identified this lovely plant as Duranta Sapphire Showers.

I snapped several photos of this handsome Ring-billed Gull at Long Branch Park in Toronto. I like the movement in this shot and call it "on patrol". He seems to be marching to his own drummer.

No collection of favourites would be complete without a portrait of himself, Sam the Cat. Here, he's intently focussed on something only he can see. Fierce concentration. (Spooky.)

Lake Ontario on a sunny winter day. I marvel at how swans, ducks and other water fowl seem so unruffled by cold. This photo captured a drop of water just as it fell from the swan's beak. Elegant profile.

Back to Centennial Park Conservatory for this last image from 2015. The Christmas flower show featured spectacular displays of poinsettias but my eye was drawn to this glorious candy cane amaryllis.

My photo goals for 2016 are (1) to seek the unusual and (2) to cultivate patience. The patience part will, I hope, result in a few more successful bird photos. Thus far, I've been mostly foiled by their tendency to watch me point and focus, then flit away (laughing) just as I click the shutter. Maybe I'll have more luck if I pick my spot and settle in quietly to wait and watch. Well... worth a try.

Wishing you a 2016 full of beautiful things.

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stillpoint is the blog of Canadian author Cheryl Cooke Harrington


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