Absent and Present

On July 1st I started a leave of absence from my volunteer work as a docent at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.  It’s been a full month since I walked into the Museum, checked out who is taking tickets today, looked around to see if any of my particular friends are guiding, or researching, walked in with the particular little satisfaction that comes with wearing an ID badge.  Have I missed it?  Have I missed that feeling of being part of what no one can deny is a “status” institution?  Not yet.  The only moment I had a pang was,the other night when I guessed wrong about an item on Antiques Road Show.  I am a bit weak in Chinese ceramics and porcelain and am inclined to arrange my tours in Cultures of the World so that I don’t have to plumb the depth of my ignorance on those items.  

I have great admiration for my fellow guides who study like mad and have all the facts at their finger tips and their tongue tips too.  Montreal is a city where French and English are heard and spoken everywhere. The guides are trained and guide in one or other of the languages although there is a movement to encourage bilingual guides to offer tours in either language.  I think this is a wonderful thing and I hope one day to be one of that group.  I note among my French speaking colleagues a wonderful scholarship and a devotion to study, to the acquiring of knowledge.  I put this down to the old Quebec education system.  I was taught French grammar by nuns of the Congregatin of Notre Dame and most of it stuck.  I remember an absolute devotion to correctness, to exactitude, to perfection.  I think this approach carries over to all fields. Of course many of my French colleagues are much younger than me and so were exposed to a different educational system.  Also, many of the English speaking guides are founts of knowledge and very erudite. 

Of course, I study like mad for the temporary exhibitions.  The one on Venice a few years ago was terrifying.  We had to learn the paintings and painters, of course but there was so much about history, politics, religion and music ( think Vivaldi) that my head was in a whirl by the time I gulped hard and started my first tour. How much of it sticks in my head?  Certainly some of it and frankly I rather like the feeling of having my head in a whirl over new ideas.  It’s a bit like the moment before you enter the examination room when you know you’ve prepared pretty well but you hope there won’t be a horrid surprise question.  

But it’s not an exam, is it?  I know I’ll never be quite as aware of all the facts as I should be but I think the real secret to a good museum tour is to connect with the visitors and make sure they have an enjoyable time.  Helping people to look and to see is important too.  Things these days are very fast and fluid so that it’s a novel experience  to stand in front of a work of art and look at it, see details in it, talk about it, understand it.  

I’ve been in the country for almost all the month of July, looking at other things.  How many different kinds of grass there are!  How many different shades of green.  I’m in Group of Seven country and it’s a good thing for a guide to get in a canoe or to swim in a Muskoka lake.  I’m dong my writing and that’s very important.  Every kind of creation can be art.  Making a meal or a garden or writing a report can be artful and graceful.  So, it’s good to step away sometimes to see and to understand more clearly.

The photo?  Just before I left I was given this certificate for having guided over 500 tours.

PS I got published in the August edition of “The Lake”.  It’s an on line magazine out of the U.K. Check it out.  One of the advantages of having a last name that starts with “C” is that I got to head the contributions.  Certainly I am in good company as other poets are well known and awarded!

September insects



It was a dismal summer and in the country we lamented the absence of butterflies and bees, nodding our heads gravely and tutting over the decline of insect species.  Now it is September and unseasonably sunny and warm in Montreal.  Two days ago during a visit to a Home Depot garden center, the cone flowers, delphinium and sedum were a cheerful sight.  What was even more startling than the bright colours were the swarms of butterflies and bees enjoying the sunshine and pollen. I went so far as to encourage our cashier to go out to the plant section and enjoy the sight.  “Like the botanical garden when the butterflies come to visit,” she remarked and really it was.  I am not sure but I think this species is Painted Lady or Admiral.  If anyone is sure let me know.  I particularly liked the lace effect of the wings when they were closed.

Another welcome visitor this morning was the grasshopper sunning himself on my step.  I like the geometry of the bar shadows.  Can you see him in a strip of sunshine?  I wanted to recite the Lafontaine verse, The Grasshopper and the Ant.

My neighbor who has urban bee hives reports a bit of trouble with her attempt to replace a queen bee with a young queen.  It seems the procedure is to install a new queen after three years so that a good supply of eggs is kept constant.  Quite a contrast to our monarchy.  It seems that it can be perilous to be queen bee, however.  The other bees killed the new queen and would only accept one the hive chose by itself.  A rough sort of democracy.  My grandson’s laconic remark on the regicide, “With reason!.  Why would you trust a stranger.”  I have a feeling that was translated directly from the French.  It retains a certain Robespierre tone.  Anyway, all this bother about the queen means that the bees are late making honey and that my dear friend will not break the record of 70 kgs. of clear and delicious honey and all from one little city hive.

Much to observe and be thankful for during these wonderful hot and sunny September days.


Our potatoes


Potatoes have sustained nations.  Now, the ones I planted myself sustain me.  In the late spring Joe tilled the ground and returned with his arms frozen into the pose of a Hells Angels biker.  It is hard to till ground in Mid-Ontario.  I hesitate to call it Northern Ontario because of the respect I have for those who live in Timmins or Sudbury.  Parry Sound area is North enough to make planting a vegetable garden an exercise in optimism.  Well, we did.  We planted potatoes, many varieties, tomatoes, peppers, squash, cucumbers, garlic and onions.  We planted some carrots too.

The summer was dismal.  It rained all the time and  a tornado descended on us once a week. One of them uprooted a twin-trunked poplar at the edge of the trail.  Poplars are not very strong trees but still, it is disconcerting to see a wall of sod appear where the tree is upturned.  All this time we fretted over our vegetable garden.  We never once had to irrigate so that tells you something about the sunshine level all summer.

The garlic simply disappeared.  We never found a trace of it.  The peppers sulked and finally sent out a few measly specimens  in August.  The tomatoes grew large but most had to be picked green and ripened indoors. A squash, a cucumber here and there, two carrots, helped keep our spirits up.

The acid test would be the potatoes.  Here they are – so different from those awful monsters covered in foil and baked in the oven.  Aren’t they nice?  We ordered heirloom species during the cold days of March and now for the first time ever I get to eat fingerlings, blue and red potatoes and to serve them with a superior smirk to my guests.

We did learn a few lessons.  First, we needed to till the earth more.  Potatoes like more aeriated soil.  Second, we should have planted them further apart so they had room to grow bigger.  Third, we should forget all about the other stuff and only plant potatoes.  Joe does not agree with that but my peasant side comes out.  I know I can buy tomatoes, onions and cucumbers for pennies at harvest time.  However, nothing can duplicate the joy of munching those potatoes that my poor Irish ancestors depended on to survive – or to perish.  I feel like calling down the centuries, “See, I can  make potatoes grow too!  You would consider the blue ones funny looking.  But those are the South American ones, the original ones.  I plant them to say thank you to the mountain people who grew them in the wet climate and who ate them to stay alive.”

My guests had lamb shoulder too, falling off the bone in a sauce of onions and garlic and the potatoes in a garlic and oregano and lemon juice sauce.  No Irishman or South American could have asked for more.  The guests dragged the serving plate this way and that mopping up the juice and did not leave one potato.  I looked at my hands as I washed the dish late at night and thought of the cool earth into which I had pressed the potato segments, each with an eye to grow the green plant.  I liked what my hands had done. (Joe eventually was able to open his fists and lower his hands but next year he swears we’ll ask the neighboring farmer to till that patch.)


After the Eclipse



Was it any more miraculous than the phases of the moon, than the shortening days of fall, than a sudden snowstorm?  It was in some ways.  Poor Galileo’s ghost hovered, slowly nodding his head and whispering, “I told you so.” As the hot late summer afternoon turned to twilight, excited kids ran down my overgrown lane with home-made viewers.  Something in them answered, “Too bad you had to die before we were enlightened – or unenlightened, sir.” They all know what you were talking about now.  It’s part of their You-Tube, Ted Talks education. Funny how when they grow up and become lawmakers they’ll forget, or find it less important than the gross national product.

How surprising it was to find in the couple of days before the eclipse so many people who didn’t have the faintest idea that it was imminent.  As I scoured the shops for safety glasses for my grandchildren, shop assistants wrinkled their brows and offered me “clips?”.  One bright spark admitted that it might have been a “good idea” to have a few pairs on hand.  I finally found some in a toy shop and was grateful to the intrepid lady in front of me who insisted that the young lady at the cash open the package to be sure they bore an ISO number. Maybe I was overanxious (a fault of grandmothers). After all, even the President of the United States took a sneak peek without his glasses.  He is, however, a specialist in various types of blindness.

How is it possible to be blind to our place in the universe? Given our finite number of days, surely a wonder, a sign like this that the mechanism really is in orderly

motion should be cause for a sort of reverence.  We get blasé about the change of seasons, about the silver lantern in the sky at night, about birth, even about death.  The eclipse makes us see that something grave and mighty is at work.



A Cord of Wood





Yesterday they delivered the wood and we stacked it in the woodshed. Yesterday was Sunday but today is turning out to be the day of rest.  Some may be wondering what a cord of wood is and how it got that name.  I wondered too.  Turns out the cord was the string wound around the stack of split wood to measure it.  It cannot be sold by weight because different woods weigh different amounts and whether the wood is green and wet or dry also makes a difference. The mass should be 128 cubic feet.  The classic dimensions of a cord of wood is 4 x 4x 8 feet. However, it turns out that wood dealers have a whole vague other set of dimensions and names for the loads of wood they offer.  You can buy a “bush cord” a “face cord” or an “apartment cord” and this is one area where no one is going to offer too much of a guarantee.  Problem is that stacking the wood calls for a certain skill.  You want some air between the logs since they have to dry out and yet stacking too loosely leads to instability and inaccurate measurement.  Trust and an understanding of what the buyer and seller mean by a “cord” is important.  Suffice it to say that $330 Canadian dollars for fuel supply for the winter delivered to the door of the woodshed seemed about right.  Yesterday we stacked split wood to a height of 7 feet across a width of 8 feet with a depth of 3 feet (two rows of logs one behind the other.  That’s a lot of wood for two oldies to haul and stack.

You need work gloves and decent shoes.  The loose wood pile is a bit unstable so having an errant log tumble onto sandaled toes would be a disaster.  A short wheelbarrow ride brought the loads inside the woodshed ready to be stacked.  There was something satisfying about seeing the wall of logs climb up.  The hardest part was getting the back wall up high enough.  Each log weighs about ten pounds so the higher you have to stack them the more exhausting it is.  We sweat, we took breaks, we drank lemonade, we persevered even though at some points I thought the pile of wood would never diminish.  There is another wall of logs in the shed from last year.  It is already dry and ready to burn.  In a region where snow is deep and  winters are long and cold, you want to be sure you have your supply of wood in early in the season.

I love the woodshed.  The floor is a beautiful smooth stretch of rock – pure Canadian shield like the rock the house sits on.  The walls and a lot of the roof is made of reinforced plexiglass so there is a lot of light in there.  I proposed to my oldest grandson that he sleep in there when the family came to visit recently.  At that time it held only sweet-smelling dry wood. A little rill that feeds the creek runs down beside the shed.  He still opted for the tent out back. The idea might grow on him though.

The pictures show part of the load delivered and ready to be put in the shed and where the two walls meet – dry wood on the right, green wood just stacked on the left

Absent and Present



It has been one month since I took a year’s  leave of absence from giving tours as a volunteer guide at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.  Do I miss it?  Do I miss walking into the Museum and feeling in a way that it is “mine”?  Do I miss looking for my friends guiding or researching or browsing the book store?  Do I miss checking out who is checking coats or looking at tickets?  Do I miss the nice feeling of waltzing around anywhere I like because I wear a tag?  Not yet.

I have spent almost all the month of July in Muskoka country.  It’s not a bad place for a guide who loves Canadian art to be.  Gliding in a canoe or swimming in a Group of Seven country lake can’t hurt, right?  It is a totally different world from the city environment of the metro or searching for a parking spot.  I have only read for pleasure here and happily concentrated on my own writing.

Some things remain the same though.  I think that besides a love of study, a good guide should have keen observation skills.  Here I learned how many kinds of grass there are.  I learned to look and see how many shades of green there are.  I learned how many minor treasures are to be found in a dump.  After all, one of the lectures we enjoyed in preparation for the Faberge exhibition opened our eyes to the opinion that the missing Imperial Faberge eggs are in North America. Our distinguished speaker encouraged us all to scour garage sales and recycling centers.  Although I haven’t yet found a Faberge piece, you would be amazed at what people throw away.  Yesterday, I came home with two beautifully embroidered tablecloths.  A quick spin in the washing machine and the table is set for the seven (yes, 7 ) visitors we are expecting here in Eden tomorrow.  I can hardly wait to show them the frogs.

The picture?  A certificate I was given just before I left town.  Seems I conducted over 500 tours…..but who’s counting.  I know I’ll be back because I can’t resist the thrill of studying for a new exhibit or for some obscure item in the permanent collection.  In fact, the only pang I have had about my absence was a stab of regret when I missed a reference on the Antiques Roadshow.  Chinese porcelain has been a bit of a mystery to me so far.  I wonder if there’s anything in the library here……..

PS.  Today I was published in an on-line magazine “The Lake” out of the UK in the August edition.  Lucky me that my name starts with “C” which means I get to be read first.  The other poets are certainly more widely published than I am and their awards are pretty inspiring.  Check it out on line.