Blog: At Windhover Place | Maxine Hancock

Good News from The Word Guild’s Writing Awards

When Bethany Murphy, Associate Editor of _Crux,_  entered two of my articles from 2011 in The Word Guild’s Canadian Christian Writing Awards, I was honoured. When both of the articles, Aging as a Stage of the Heroic Pilgrimage of Faith” (Spring 2011), and “Remembering Margaret Avison / Margaret Avison Remembering” (Summer 2011) were short-listed in the Long Feature Article division, I was glad. And when I learned recently that my piece on Margaret Avison had won, I was thrilled–partly because it acknowledged that I had honoured Margaret Avison and a treasured friendshp well; partly because _Crux_ (published by Regent College as “a journal of Christian thought and opinion,”) deserves to be better known and more widely read–Julie Lane Gay, Editor, and  Bethany Murphy, Associate Editor, together with Rosi Petkova, Designer, carrying on the legacy of Dal Schindell in producing a journal of excellence; and partly…well…just because it doesn’t matter how long you write, you always feel fragile when you send your work out to the world, and receiving this kind of award is a great encouragement.

My joy was deepened further by the success of some young people I know and care about: Lance Odegard won the Poetry division for his poem, “Ark,” also published in _Crux_, and Kurt Armstrong won for best Review Article–both of these are Regent alumni, and survivors of my “Creative Non-Fiction Writing” course at Regent College.  That gave me the teacher’s glow of pleasure when her students excel.  With yet another kind of pleasure, I was pleased to see Sally Ito gain an Award of Merit for her stunning book-length collection of poems, _Alert to Glory_ (Turnstone Press), and Drew Dyck, whose parents are dear friends of ours from days when all our kids were littluns, win in the Profile/Human Interest Article category. It’s so good to see the new generation of Canadian writers who are Christian emerging to take their places of leadership and recognition.

This, then, is to say a big “thank you” to The Word Guild for running this awards programme & to publishers who take the time and trouble to enter our work.  Pressing on…

No Ordinary Days

I am increasingly aware of the potential and loveliness of the “everyday,” of sun falling at a particular slant across a hardwood floor, of the quiet singing of fabrics and design throughout a dear domestic space. And that is before I even really consider the world outside my doors and windows–here, deep in Nova Scotia summer, a particularly rich and inviting world of a dozen shades of green (although this morning still hidden by morning fog–we often awaken in thin cloud that only gradually lifts to reveal the Annapolis Valley below). Of course, it helps hugely that my husband, Cam, is so finely attuned to nature and to the rhythms of the agrarian seasons, & is constantly making me aware. It is he who hears the low growl of combines now moving out into the ripe and heavy winter wheat crops, or a distant neighbour’s snarling chain saw harvesting wood for winter fires…or…

As, the other day, the growing hum of a thousand wings. “Want to see a swarm of bees?” he called to me through an open window. Of course I did.

Outside, at first all I could see were small gold and black bullets ricocheting against the patch of blue between the highest branches of a maple and an ash tree. But gradually I could hear the wing-sound. I had to sit down on the slope of the lawn to look up without feeling dizzy. Slowly, the individual bees merged into a golden cloud and moved into position as an elongated dark ball under a high spruce bough in the woods that borders our property. “Shekinah,” I whispered to Cam, scarcely able to take in the beauty and order of it all. “I have seen the glory.”

Totally improbably, and again only because Cam heard and saw it first, two days later we saw the same swarm dissolve back into individual bees and lift away in a golden cloud, following their queen to some new home. I didn’t like to think that I had seen the Shekinah glory depart, as I had earlier seen it descend, of course.

What I did was look up the poem “I thank You God for most this amazing / day…” in my Complete Poems of E. E. Cummings

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Going Gluten-Free

Following a lead that our son Mitch recently got from a nutritionist who linked allergies and general throat-and-nose inflamation with gluten, we are trying a gluten-reduced, if not quite gluten-free diet. Oh my…picture me studying old recipes to see if I can adapt them to a rice-blend flour, and reading Betty Hagman’s, The Gluten-Free Gourmet, as though I were studying for an exam. (Having never been a gourmet of any kind, I am dubious about being a Gluten-Free one!) The test will be–can I bake gluten-free things my grandkids will actually be able to eat, or will I have to cook two separate batches of cookies, two separate meals?

So far, I have this from nearly-seven Spencer–”I like your chocolate chip cookies, Gram, but they make me thirsty.” Me, too.

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The Special Rewards of Teaching

What good days these are. I am reading the recently-published books of several of my former students. Right now, I am doing a “slow reading” of Sharon Jebb Smith, _Writing God and the Self_ (Distiguished Dissertations in Christian Theology, Pickwick Publications [imprint of Wipf & Stock], 2011). Sharon was one of my first Teaching Assistants at Regent College, and she went on to complete her Ph.D. at St. Andrew’s, Scotland. For any of you who have found C. S. Lewis’ _Till We Have Faces_ intriguing but mystifying, this book will be one to turn to, then return to. It has also piqued my interest in finally settling down to Samuel Beckett’s fiction–maybe for some long winter evenings here at Windhover Place.

As a side-bar to this reading of this very significant sholarly work: Sharon and I both taught at Regent College Spring School this May, and were able to time our visits to Vancouver to overlap for a couple of days so we could catch up with each other’s lives. One of the pleasures of our time together was going, together with our mutual friend and writerly colleague, Julie Lane Gay, to an adaptation by Vancouver’s Pacific Theatre of C. S. Lewis’ _The Great Divorce._ This, and Sharon’s book, have whetted my appetite to re-read both _Till We Have Faces_ and _The Great Divorce_. More fall and winter reading to add to the pile beside my chair.

Earlier this year, I received a copy of Kurt Armstrong, _Why Love will Always be a Poor Investment: marriage and Consumer Culrure (Wipf & Stock, 2011). This a group of very strong essays which began in Kurt’s Integrative Project in Arts and Theology at Regent College. Kurt was in my Creative Non-Fiction Writing class at Regent College, and has gone on to make a life in wordsmithing.

Yet ahead, I have Russell Hillier’s _Milton’s Messiah_ (Oxford UP, 2011). I have just glimpsed that on the Oxford website, but look forward to seeing what Russell has found. Russell Hillier went on from Regent College to complete his Ph.D. at Cambridge; he now is a tenure-track professor at Providence College, Rhode Island.

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THE JOY OF SLOW READING

I am a speed reader.  Actually, a speeded-up reader.  A course in “speeded reading” during my first year of university, offered only to a chosen few  who were already fast readers, taught us to reduce eye-fixations, to race through pages of print using an “S” motion of our eyes, to ignore redundancies and strip material quickly to its bones.  Reading fast was a boon during my busy younger years.  Despite the many responsibilities of four kids growing up, and all the busy, active life of church and community and farm constantly impinging on me,  I was able to keep reading, working my way through whole periods of English literature.  And speeded reading vastly increased the range and reach of the material I was able to master during my pell-mell paced mid-life graduate studies. 

But, to tell you the truth, I am tired of it. 

I am tired of glancing over an article, and then proceeding through it like a ricocheting golf ball.  I am tired of racing through novels so fast that I feel disappointed when they are done.  As one of the benefits of retirement, I am beginning to enjoy intetionally slowed-down reading.  Of reading the way I did before I trained my eyes to race over print–the way I read all of Dickens’ novels in my teens, for example, when the characters had time to come to life in my imagination, and the plots engaged me over time until their wonderful and long-delayed ”tying up.” 

I still speed read, of course–there’s plenty of material that deserves only a cursory glance.  But with a few select books, I am purposely reading much more slowly.

I spent nearly three months reading Eugene Peterson’s Practice Resurrection last summer, a few paragraphs at a time.  I was hungry for this sound teaching.  The time I spent in this book was used by the Spirit to transform my approach to going to church–after a lifetime of faithful and dutiful habit, I now go expecting to meet the Risen Christ in Word, Sacrament, and the gathered people of God.

 I spread a reading of George Eliot’s Romolo over several weeks of evening reading, because I wanted to savour her style, engage deeply with her characters, really understand the ideas that drove the story.  I lived the novel, in the old way of novel-reading, and will choose others to treat to the same careful, spread-over-time reading.  

Margaret Visser’s , The Gift of Thanks,” an exhaustive studyof “the roots and rituals of gratitude” deserved the paragraph-by paragraph reading I gave it over several months this fall.  Her careful peeling back of customs and history to explore the difference between grace and obligation as the mainspring for giving afforded a new way of thinking about how the “inexpressible gift” of God to us in the Incarnation of Christ is “gospel”:  very good news, and very new news in the history of humanity.  Interesting to me was the way in which Margaret Visser’s scholarly work validated to me my own exploration in Love Knows No Difference:  Learning to Give and Receive (Harvest House, 1983; Reprint, Regent College Publishing, 1999, ISBN 1-57383-139-5).  In my home on our Alberta farm, surrounded by the kindnesses of community, I wrote a much smaller work  from a much humbler place–but I was moved to write by attending to the same things that Margaret Visser attends to here: the ways in which God’s grace centres and transforms both giving and receiving.

And what am I reading slowly right now?  Julie Canlis’ Calvin’s Ladder.  In “Of Studies,” Francis Bacon said, ”Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”  Julie’s is among those special books that deserve to be read “wholly, and with diligence and attention.”             

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Through Snow…to Snow

Last night’s wind has left my office windows decorated with little circlets of semi-transparent snow.  I look out through them to a snowy landscape, where sky’s edge and land’s edge blend and blur, the only distinct shapes being the steadfast oaks and maples that stand guard along the valley rim.  The wind is swirling around the house, sculpting wave-shaped drifts.  It’s -16 Celsius, and with the wind off the Bay of Fundy, that, my friends, is cold.

The first few winters we spent in Nova Scotia (this is our fourth), we had successive winter storms, dumping large amounts of snow, followed by sudden thaws and melts.  This year, it’s more a matter of ”snow on snow, snow on snow,” as Christina Rosetti’s plaintive carol, “In the Bleak Mid-Winter” puts it.  So the big excitement is trying out our new snow-shoes–not the old style that looked like truncated tennis rackets, but the new high-tech ones with cleats like dragon’s teeth underneath.  Cam’s been out on his, but I’m saving the pleasure.  Perhaps for a slightly warmer day.

Speaking of snow:   this winter, on snowy evenings by our woodstove with its dancing fire, I have read a couple of novels by Ignazio Silone:  Bread and Wine  (1936; rev. 1955; tr. from the Italian by Harvey Fergusson II, 1962.  New York:  Signet Class, New American Library, 1963), and The Seed Beneath the Snow (tr. from the Italian by Frances Frenaye.  New York and London:  Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1942).  I still have to find Fontamara  to finish reading this trilogy, but I was deeply struck by Silone’s critique of all political ideologies as paths to salvation.  In Bread and Wine, his main character, Pietro Spina, has abandoned his Catholic faith and embraced Marxism, only to find that this political philosophy, appealing as it is in theory,  fails to transform hearts and leads to nihilism.

In The Seed Beneath the Snow, the same character begins a cautious rapprochement with the faith, partly through the example of the self-giving of his grandmother,  and partly through his recognition of the humanity of a deaf-mute, tellingly called “L’Infante.”  The animus against the church in this novel is focused through Fascism, with a central symbol being the attempt of the local Facist leader to convince a village workman to add the fasces to the cross.  “I want to start my work at the point of greatest resistance,” the innovator on behalf of the State says.  His dialogue partner says simply, “I should like to warn you…that the Cross is something dangerous, a two-edged weapon.  You’d better leave it to the priests, who know how to use it”  (p. 141).  The Seed Beneath the Snow, Silone seems to be saying in this quite wonderfully rich novel, is the faith in Christ implanted in his Pietro’s heart through baptism and early childhood instruction, and nurtured through those few who love him when he is a hunted man.  The hope for Italy under the heel of Fascism lies in the seed of faith in the hearts of  discounted and disheartened believers.  Reading these books now, after the failures of Fascism and Marxism to deliver the utopian dreams they promised, urgently commends a truly Cross-shaped discipleship, like that shown by a few in the novel, as being, still, ”the seed beneath the snow.”   

I found these novels on one of my serendiptous visits to “The Odd Book,” a rather magical second-hand bookstore in Wolfville (www.theoddbook.ca).  What I love about a second-hand bookstore (and this one is especially good, drawing on the libraries of the well-read and well-educated community that surrounds Acadia University and Acadia  Divinity College) is that I go in with one idea of what I might want to read, and most often come out with something entirely different.  Here I have met writers I have heard about but not had time to read before: P. D. James, and now Ignazio Silone; even more exciting to a book-lover like me, I have found writers I had completely missed:  British mid-2oth century writers like Barbara Pym and Storm Jamieson, who join with Elizabeth Goudge and Muriel Spark now in forming a cohort of articulate, thoughtful British women writers I want to explore more thoroughly.  

When I know exactly the book I want & which I can’t find at “The Oddbook”, I go to www.abebooks.com for that site’s amazingly powerful, quick connection to many hundreds of independent booksellers.  I have yet to search for a title I cannot find there.  But when I want to browse, to have the fun of stumbling on someone new to me…it’s an hour in “The Odd Book” that I crave.   

 More another time…I need to get those snow-shoes on.  Or, perhaps, grab a book and put another stick of wood on the fire.

Maxine

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Cheering for Gaspereau Press

From where I sit here in my office, looking south and west, I can almost see Gasperau Press.  I can, at least, see the town here in the Annapolis Valley where it is located, and in my mind’s eye can see the modest blue cube of a building, with the typographic lower-case “g” sign that marks its quiet presence in Kentville.

Suddenly, this small, craft-proud press is in the national newspapers, with recent articles in the Globe and Mail pouting about how long people will have to wait to have their Giller-award winning novel in hand. But oh! when they have it, they will have not only a prize-winning novel, but a book that is lovely to hold, beautifully typeset on fine paper, with all the elements from cover design to page size tailored to that particular book. And maybe, once they have held such a book, they will realize that truly discriminating readers (as surely Giller-award winners think themselves to be), they should also be lovers of books-as-things.

This moment marks a particularly critical intersection in the history of the book. If Gaspereau Press holds firm, as I hope they will, we can reconsider what is involved in our love for books. When we want a quick read or an instant gratification purchase, we can download the words, stripped of physical context, into our e-readers. When we want to hold a book that pleases our eyes and our hands and adds sensory pleasure to the intellectual and imaginative pleasures of reading, we can support such presses as Gaspereau Press.

Press on, Gary and Andrew!  The world has need of you now.

Maxine

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A Restless Fall Wind…

It’s October 1, and a restless fall wind is stripping dry leaves off the trees and throwing them by handfuls up into the air.  The ravens are ridge-gliding up and over the ever intensifying colour that is lighting the woods in the valley below us.

I wanted to tell you about a guest we had a week or so ago–one of my dearest friends from our years on the Alberta farm. Elsie Jones is 92 now, & she braved a solo flight here from Calgary to visit with us as well as with her granddaughter-in-law and great-granddaughter who live in Halifax.  (Her grandson is a doctor with the troops in Afghanistan.) 

Elsie’s is one of the  three women’s stories I have been trying to finish as a book for far too long–she is as much a life-force as a friend, with an amazing vitality still animating her days.  Despite being frailer than the last time I saw her, and feeling the effects of a long flight and three-hour time change, she  still found the energy (& the ingredients–a small miracle in my kitchen!) to make cinnamon rolls one day, cookies another, and brown buns still another.  She brought along hand-made gifts:  a hand-painted box for me to add to my collection of hand-painted items she has given me over the years–a footstool, a wooden spoon, a “Velkommen” sign I keep just inside my door–all done with the blue-black background and blue and deep rose scrolling typical of the Norwegian style she has learned to do in more recent years.  For her great-granddaughter, she brought a hand-knitted sweater in Nordic colours of yellow with dark blue buttons.  All “so Elsie,” so true to the energetic kindliness of a woman whose friendship was a source of great strength through all my years as a prairie farmer’s wife.

These days, one of my major thinking project is to grasp a more broadly human vision of the meaning of ageing than our culture, addicted as it is to youth and beauty, understands.  The collaborative papers my friend Arlette Zinck (of The King’s University, Edmonton) and I gave at the International John Bunyan Society Conference in UK this summer a part of this much larger inquiry. 

My friend Elsie is unusually blessed in intellect and the genes that determine good ageing; but she is blessed, too, by having developed a strong social network made up of friends, neighbours, and close family; by having a set of life-attitudes that, having served her throughout her life, now serve her exceptionally well in old age–frugality and generosity, energetic engagement, a continual thirst for knowledge and experience.  She is  an unusually strong model of old age lived well.  So, as she has done ever since I arrived in Dewberry, Alberta in 1962 as a very young high school teacher and new bride, Elsie continues to challenge me and light a path for me. 

And, by the way, her brown bread is just as good as it was when, that first time, she came to our teacherage door and offered Cam and me a loaf of her homemade bread: bread that was so good I made sure that every time Cam took a slice, I took one too, so that we shared the loaf evenly, down to the final crust.

Maxine

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Here goes!

Well: I’m actually doing it. Blogging.

I’ll try to use this space to tell you what’s going on at Windhover Place; what we’re doing and thinking about here; what I’m reading… .

But today, let me just tell you about this particular day, September 9, 2010. The morning came on us wrapped in fog today. The valley, 850 feet or so below us, with its tiny perfect toy-world look of white houses, miniature cars and tractors, and fields of varying greens or freshly turned rose-red soil  is only slowly resolving into view–like a Polaroid picture with colour and detail, at first faint and pallid, and then, moment by moment, emerging more clearly.  I had remembered fall days here in Nova Scotia as mostly crystalline, but we are having high humidity again in the wake of the first hurricane to make landfall this season. (Early last Saturday morning, Hurricane Earl suddenly veered right instead of roaring up the Bay of Fundy as had been predicted. Had it stayed on course, the eye of the storm would have passed about 7 km from Windhover Place, & from our experience of Post-tropical storm Noel in 2007, that is a too close for comfort. We were battened down and braced–since the terrible experience of Hurricane Juan, Nova Scotians do not take hurricanes or tropical storms lightly–but while there were power outages and some trees down, the damage was much less than it might have been, and the Annapolis Valley apple crop, right now heavy and ripe, was not whipped and battered.  So after several antsi days last week, a kind of quiet calm that matches the greyed and cooled-down day reigns.)

The large birds of prey are back or travelling through now. We see a lot of hawks (Northern Harriers, mostly, but an occasional kestrel or “windhover”) and eagles. I haven’t seen a hummingbird for the past three or four days, and the warblers seem to have passed through, so now we’re seeing the birds that will winter here with us: finches and chicadees and nuthatches, all such welcome feeders.

My best birthday present this year? A poem written by my 10-year old granddaughter, Clio. With her family, Clio spends most of a month here with us each summer since we have been in Nova Scotia. She captures the joy of this place:

Windhover Place

Birds Swooping
Laundry Flying
Clouds Floating
Eagles Soaring
Butterflies Fluttering
Ravens Airborne
Happiness Gliding…
Because
Windhover Place is where I
like to be!

Wishing you joy in your day, as well–
Maxine

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