Monday, December 23, 2013

A Voice from Christmas Past

   Fresh fallen snow protested beneath the crush of my gumboots breaking trail down the unploughed lane. Dry, sharp squeaks, not unlike the cries of cheap chalk cruelly scrapped against too clean a blackboard.
   Skuur-eek, skuur-eek.
   The boots ignored the sounds. They moved on, ribbed rubber bottoms and laced high leather tops creating a meandering wake in the ankle deep snow. To each side of the trail, drifted snow leaned tiredly against the backsides of the bungalows, dropped there to rest by an impatient Christmas Eve blizzard just passed through.
   Faint strains of music joined the squeaking as I approached our back fence. I stopped to hear the music more clearly, now identifiable as singing voices escaping through an open window. I shuffled forward and listened to the notes float out crisply and clearly, then mingle with smoke rising from the chimneys. Notes and smoke rose together into an icy midnight sky illuminated by frost crystals set shimmering by thousands of stars, and the frosty moon the Chippewas called Manidoo Geezis, the little spirit moon of early winter.
   I held my breath to hear better and determined that the music was the Christmas carol O Holy Night, and that the notes came from the window in my grandmother's room. It was open to the cold because most people smoked cigarettes back then, and at gatherings cracked a window to clear the air. They sang the first verse, and when they reached the sixth line, the other voices ceased and one voice carried on alone:
   "Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices! O Niiii . . .iiight Diii…vine! . . . ." That's the part where the notes rise higher and higher until the singer reaches an awesome note.
   The solo voice belonged to my grandmother, Louise LaFrance, and I knew she hit that high note while sitting on the edge of the bed that was her prison. She was crippled with limb-twisting rheumatoid arthritis and suffered searing pain and the humiliation of being bedridden, a humiliation that included needing a bedpan to relieve herself and having her son-in-law lift her into the bathtub.
   The others stopped singing to listen to her. Each time she hit the high notes at the words 'O Night Divine', a shiver danced on my spine.
   When she finished singing O Holy Night, the other voices started up again, this time with Silent Night and other favourite carols. I went into the house and found Christmas Eve celebrants - my mom, dad and some neighbours - crowded into the 10-foot by 10-foot bedroom that was my grandmother's world. They sang long into the night, mostly in French because the neighbours were the Gauthiers who seldom spoke English to my grandmother and mother.
   The crippling arthritis had attacked my grandmother not long after my birth sixteen years before. It advanced quickly, twisting her fingers like pretzels, then deforming her ankles and knees. You could see the pain in her eyes and from my bedroom I could hear her moaning in restless sleep, sometimes calling out for relief. She took up smoking to ease the pain. Late into the night I would hear her stir, then listen for the scrape of a wooden match against the side of a box of Redbird matches. Then the acrid odour of sulphur drifted into my room, followed by the sweetness of smoke from a Sweet Caporal. Sometimes I would get up and go to her door and see the red tip of the cigarette glow brightly as she inhaled and I would go in and we would talk in the smoky darkness. Mostly the talk was about growing up and sorting through the conflicts between a teenager and his parents.
   After the singing ended that night, my mother served tortiere, which I slathered with mustard. Then we gathered at the tree and opened our gifts.
   I have long forgotten what I got that Christmas, and it doesn't matter. My real gift came many years later, and was an understanding of how that frail and twisted body came to produce such powerful and sweet notes. My gift was the realization that those high notes were not solely the products of the lungs. They were driven by something stronger than flesh - an unbreakable spirit. They came from strength far beyond anything that a mere body can produce. They came from the will to overcome.
   Adapted from Waking Nanabijou: Uncovering a Secret Past, By Jim Poling Sr., Dundurn Press 2007 Check it out at

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Time of the Little Spirit Moon

   It is a cottage morning ritual. I come downstairs and push the button on the coffee maker. Then I reach up into the cupboard and pull out my favourite clear glass coffee mug. Something is different. My sleep fogged mind ponders what is different as I run the hot water faucet to get
the chill out of the cup. Coffee is supposed to be hot so there is no use putting it into a cold cup, unless you are my wife, who puts an ice cube in her coffee.
   My mind clears and the realization dawns. Cold cup from the cupboard. That means despite walls that are fifteen-plus centimeters thick and stuffed with heavy insulation, cold air is seeping into the building.
   Cold cups and the recent arrival of the Little Spirit Moon tell me that winter is here. Little bits of autumn warmth clinging to life have been chased away. The trees outside the kitchen window are stark naked, cold grey in colour and devoid of any warmth. There is snow but the rocks
are still showing, however they are cold to the touch, even in the late morning sun.
   I shudder unexpectedly and remember that everything changes with the arrival of December's Little Spirit Moon. There is no turning back. Life must be adjusted to cold that will deepen with each passing week until mid-March, and to snow that cannot disappear completely until the
warmth of spring returns. . . .
   Once you develop some methods to push back at the cold and snow, winter cottage living is spectacularly restful. In the mornings you can sip coffee and watch the blue jays, chickadees, and nuthatches at the feeders, and below them, the daily troupe of wild turkeys. At night you can sit reading, or lie in bed, listening to the lake ice expanding and cracking, the thunderous booms radiating up the hill through the bedrock and into the cottage foundations. At other times you hear the roar and screeching of ice packs loosening and sliding off the roof.
   Canada’s roots are deep into the bedrock. Winter in cottage country is a reminder of what this country is and what its people had to do to develop into a modern society. It is a reminder that although Canada has become an urban society, there are still tens of thousands of its citizens
who live on the fringes in harsh conditions. They haul wood and they haul water, and they don’t have high-speed Internet, Wi-Fi or cell phones.
   It’s easy to forget that when you sit in a winter cottage supported by modern technologies and conveniences. It’s even easier when you sit in taxpayer-supplied surroundings at Toronto’s Queen’s Park. None of us ever should lose track of how people live in the forested fringes. Nor should we forget the importance of independence and individualism in building this country. In cottage country and beyond, no one needs government to tell them how to tack a piece of inner tube over a shed padlock to keep out the freezing wet snow in winter.
(Excerpted from Bears in the Bird Feeders 2013)

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Crazy for Electronics

 As if we all didn’t have enough to worry about. Now there’s the threat of Rasberry Crazy Ants moving north. Their home is faraway Brazil and Argentina but they have spread north, invading southeast Texas, Mississippi and Georgia.
   So who is afraid of some itsy bitsy ants? Your electronics. Crazy Ants devour them. They ate Mike Foshee’s 50-inch television.
Nylanderia-pubens: Crazy Ant
   Mike is a Texan who noticed his TV flickering. He opened its back and found the inside components alive with thousands of Crazy Ants. When his air conditioner stopped working he dragged out his vacuum and started cleaning. When he finished he had sucked up five gallons of ants.
   Mike’s stories and a lot of other interesting stuff about the ants is found in writer Jon Mooallem’s excellent offbeat piece in this week’s New York Times Magazine
   Crazy ants don’t actually consume electronics. But they will stream into car stereos, laptop computers, circuit boxes and all kinds of electrical devices and short circuit them. People who study such things believe that when a Crazy Ant is electrocuted it releases a chemical that prompts hordes of fellow ants to come swarming, looking for the attacker who killed their fellow ant.
   These little fellows have huge colonies, much larger than other ants, because each colony has multiple queens.
   Incidentally, the name Rasberry Crazy Ant has nothing to do with raspberries. It comes from Tom Rasberry, a tobacco-chewing exterminator who first discovered them in Texas. And, they got the "crazy" monicker because they run about erratically like someone on crack cocaine.
   So, if you are reading this on a smartphone or handheld tablet, be suspicious, and careful. Very, very scary.