Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Just sit there and look pretty...


Debi  at Emma Tree challenged her blogger friends to come up with their interpretation of ‘Just sit there and look pretty’… are my first thoughts:  Little girls, hair ribbons, clean frilly dresses, white anklets and black patent leather shoes. 

The perfect little girl..she is feminine, docile, quiet and polite. Demure. Shhhh…children should be seen and not heard….

But, wait. I never wanted to be demure. Demure doesn’t look like fun. I wanted to climb trees, pick up caterpillars, play in the mud. Make people laugh.

“Pretty is as pretty does,” I remember my grandmother saying, reminding me that behaviour speaks louder than appearance.

In remembrance of Nana (who, as a young mum, climbed an apple tree to rescue a bear cub), I’d rather have fun.

Second thoughts:  Let's just sit there and look pretty…pretty damn satisfied. 

 There, that’s better…me and my new book, hot off the press. Now grinny face is better than demure any day of the week.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Back Story - Part II

When I first asked Mary Majka if I could write her story, I thought I’d be telling the fascinating tale of a strong and dynamic woman filled with a noble sense of purpose and a plan. And, quite truthfully, I also hoped to find a wise mentor; a mentor who might, perhaps, influence or direct my own path. 

A Polish immigrant, Mary arrived in Canada with many other Displaced Persons following World War II. She was anxious to leave behind her painful memories of loss and sorrow and embark on a new beginning. She and her husband, Mike, settled first in Ontario, then moved to rural New Brunswick in 1961. Nature had always offered solace to her, and so was something she cherished. Within a few short years, she had found her footing and was becoming known as an environmental pioneer and advocate. In addition to her television show, she taught outdoor education, founded naturalist groups, started the first nature centre for children in a national park, created interpretive programs, gave presentations, led nature tours and field trips. 

Since then, she has also been a tourism ambassador and a protector of our past, undertaking various heritage restoration projects that did much to instill a sense of community pride, while providing employment and enjoyment for many.  She’s been written about in newspapers, magazines and books; appeared in several documentaries. She’s known as an eloquent speaker, a writer, a hostess extraordinaire.
Old Bank Museum, Riverside-Albert (relocated and restored)

And she provided sanctuary for all manner of wildlife, welcoming the injured and helpless into her home and into her life.  But lesser known is her heart for people.  She’s provided guidance, refuge, encouragement and support to many young people…many who have gone on to great achievements of their own.  This, perhaps, is her greatest, most lingering legacy.

Mary and an orphaned baby squirrel

“Mary lifted people up to her level. She not only inspired people to reach their potential, but she enabled them to pass it on to others. She gave a gift that keeps on giving.”
Brian Dalzell (one of the young people she inspired)
During the months and years as I collected interviews and research, I discovered a woman who really came into her own power in the middle of her life. This resonated with me in a profound way. I also discovered a woman of surprising motivations, contrasts and contradictions - a woman shaped by the experiences of her life.The resulting story was even more complicated and complex than I imagined. There was so much more to her than what I knew or expected. And none of it was purposefully planned. It just happened.

Mary is what she is and she bends to none. She accepts her strengths and her weaknesses without apology, understanding that they are opposite sides of the same coin. But it’s the flaws and tragedies that give our lives tension, richness, colour.  They lead us to unknown places.  They create friction; with friction, comes energy.  

Mary Majka

“What is it that makes me the way I am?” she asked herself as a teenager. She finally decided it just happens. “When you pick a bouquet of flowers, they are all uniform, but there will be one a little taller, or a different colour, or some small difference. Perhaps this is who I am.”

As I immersed myself in her story, it became increasingly clear to me that we have to learn to accept our shadows, our weaknesses, as the necessary backside of our light. When we allow our own authentic nature to shine and purposely allow space in our life for the things that are dear in our hearts, this is when we truly discover our own power and raison d'ĂȘtre.

Sanctuary is her story. But I’m beginning to think it can also be mine. Or yours. And what if the real power of our stories is not in what each of us might achieve as individuals, but in the many collective ways we inspire each other to shine? Doesn't that make more sense?

Friday, September 10, 2010

Goodbye Forties

Less than an hour left...I'm spending it with my Forties.

We're reliving the great moments, along with the tearful goodbyes, the full-to-bursting moments, the gaping bottomless holes.  Grief. Laughter. Deep sighs. Groping blindly. The vistas and landscapes imprinted in my heart, the growings and shrinkings, striving and letting go, the serenity and jittering upheavals. I don't even know how to write about it all, the scenes fly through my mind like flickering silent film, but through it all, I know I've been moving forward, somehow stepping into nothing, but finding solid ground, pushing through dense fog and finding sunlight, swimming upward, straining, lungs bursting, thinking I can't go any further, but suddenly breaking free and gulping the wind in the leaves, sometimes tossing back and forth, clinging to branches, scared and helpless in the storm, yet still finding the strength to hang on, to look forward, to trust. Always to trust.

Oh, what a tumultuous, tremendous decade you have been, Forty. I can honestly say,you have been the best of my life and yet, I know (somehow) that there are fireworks to come. That I am just beginning to wade into the depths that will define my life. So many thoughts and threads that are weaving into something...I know not what...yet. But I trust in my worth, my value, my destiny. Goodbye Forties. Hello Fifty. We're gonna rock and I. We're just getting warmed up.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Back Story - Part I

With the launch of my book fast approaching, people have been asking me how it all started...what prompted me to undertake this lengthy project. As a writer, I'm always interested in the back story and as I began thinking through the history behind this book, I realized it had its true beginnings back in 1960s New Brunswick...back when milk arrived in bottles on the front step, televisions had rabbit ears and no one had yet heard of the environmental movement.

You see, the first time I met Mary Majka, I was a reedy and awkward seven year old, lying flat on my belly on front of the television, palms bracing my chin, skinny legs bent at the band aids and wobbling somewhere behind my head.  

Mary on a field trip with students (photo David Christie)
As the hostess of a locally produced weekly television show called, “Have you Seen?”, Mary  introduced me and a whole generation of children around the Maritime Provinces to the back stories of the natural world.  She showed that people and nature should live companionably, that magic really exists, and that the world speaks softly, should we choose to listen. 

I began bringing home stray dogs and cats, injured birds.  Not that Mary created compassion in me - I think that was always there - but, through her program, she did show me that compassion expected action.  She showed me that it was not wrong to give aid to the injured or to pick up bird feathers or to let a caterpillar crawl, inch by fuzzy inch, up my arm. She taught me that I had a responsibility to the creatures with whom I shared this earth.

White-marked Tussock Moth (I believe)
My mother told me Mary lived in nearby Albert County, which is where my roots lie (and where I now live). Although her facial features would be considered more earthy than glamourous, I thought of her as a movie star. And for awhile, I believed if a movie star could come from Albert County, anything was possible for me.

Mary remained in the forefront of the evolving environmental movement, most often in the news for her fervent and vocal defense of habitat or heritage or the wild creatures that share our world.  The press loved her…her Polishness, her passion, her panache.

Mary at our 1988 wedding
Twenty years later, I met Mary Majka again, this time in person. Her presence still commanded attention.  While she had aged, the strength of character in the prominent, hooked nose, slate blue eyes, ready smile and suntanned face remained unchanged.  When I mentioned having seen her on TV as a child, she raised her brows. “Ah!” she said with a dismissive wave of her hand, “That was so long ago!”  But she smiled, obviously pleased. 

Shortly thereafter, I returned to my roots in Albert County and for a time, my husband and I lived on Caledonia Mountain, a largely unsettled mountain near the Bay of Fundy coast. As I explored the forests and marshes surrounding the mountain, the enjoyment of the natural world that had been shuffled to the background during my teens and twenties reemerged. It wouldn't be until much later that I discovered that Caledonia had also been the location of Mary’s first home after moving to New Brunswick.

In the years that followed, our relationship deepened as we shared occasional afternoons in the home she restored at Mary’s Point, nearby. It was a pleasure to visit. Her home always had a menagerie of recovering creatures in residence...a purple gallinule, a pair of mourning doves, the occasional owls, squirrels, a albino raven.  Gradually, she offered the stories of her varied projects in wildlife rehabilitation, habitat protection and heritage preservation in tantalizing bits and pieces and I began to appreciate all that she had accomplished.

Mary had sparked a yearning in me, although I didn’t recognize it as such at the time. As I approached my 40s, I began tackling those feelings of discontent and initiated the changes in my life that led me into the writing career I now enjoy. I was finally giving voice to the real me, my inborn nature was rising to the surface. Little did I know that I was about to immerse myself in a life that was - at its essence - a vibrant example of that very thing.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Songs of Seals

What’s next for you?  My friend had asked an innocent question, but her words echoed through my mind during the past month. What was next? The sun was setting on this phase in my life, a new day fast approaching.

I had claimed the month of August for me. It was my interlude month, a break between the effort that went into the production of my book and the next phase of promoting it. 

August was my gift to myself, a reward for accomplishing what I had set out to do. It was also a pause, a chance to dream and play and to give myself over to spontaneity. I did not make plans, but took opportunities that came my way.

And by clearing that space, opportunities had room to surface…almost daily. My heart had been secretly missing water...and my month turned out to be rich with beach walks and swims, escapes to a secluded lake, birdwatching, a week at the seashore, re-connections with friends, a spontaneous day tour along the Fundy coast with a friend who operates a tour company. I must admit, I've had a whale of a grand time...

Anna-Marie, of Roads to Sea Guided Tours, in action at the Hopewell Rocks.
Then this week, a friend mentioned she was taking her boys on an overnight camp-out by the sea and asked if I might like to join them. A deserted beach, backed by dunes, warmed by an uncharacteristic heat wave…why would I refuse?
We pitched our tents in the twilight and gathered firewood before dark. We spied a colony of grey seals bobbing in the swells a dozen yards offshore, their heads turned in our direction, watching…were they curious? I admit feeling thrilled that these large creatures of the sea deemed us worthy of their attention.

Then, as daylight disappeared, and we gathered around the campfire to tell stories, we heard them singing, their soulful voices haunting, yet beautiful…floating across the surface of the sea. We talked about what they might be saying to each other in their seal words.

The lonely notes of their song echoed of eternity, of mystery and of community. I marvelled to myself that this creature could be so ungainly and raucous when on land, but sing so clearly and carry such grace and poise when in its water element.

As I lay alone in my tent that night, waiting for the moon rise and listening to the waves and soothing, ethereal quality of their voices, I thought about my own sense of eternity, the mystery of tomorrow and my community of family and friends.

I thought of how they have gently supported me - how their encouraging words have been music to my soul - as I have come into my own element…the place - and the age - where I feel most poised and graceful.

What is next for me?  I really don’t know yet, but I'm not worried. I know I am on the brink of a new day, one bringing a marvelous opportunity that will be perfectly suited for me and my abilities. I just have to create the time and space for it to emerge.

For now, I wait. Quietly. Openly. Anticipating. Grateful.