The Common and Ordinary

Ordinary, everyday encounters are easy to dismiss. We take them for granted, or consider them too insignificant to matter.

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(European Starling Juvenile and Breeding Adult)

European Starlings are the peskiest of birds, noisy and gregarious. They’re also referred to as Common Starlings, Sturnus Vulgaris, and have been around for a very long time.

Wikipedia says,

“The common starling was first described by Linnaeus in his Systema Naturae in 1758 under its current binomial name. Sturnus and vulgaris are derived from the Latin for “starling” and “common” respectively. The Old English staer, later stare, and the Latin sturnus are both derived from an unknown Indo-European root dating back to the second millennium BC. “Starling” was first recorded in the 11th century, when it referred to the juvenile of the species, but by the 16th century it had already largely supplanted “stare” to refer to birds of all ages. The older name is referenced in William Butler Yeats’ poem “The Stare’s Nest by My Window”. The International Ornithological Congress’ preferred English vernacular name is common starling.”

We see them everywhere around the Lower Mainland — great flocks of them sometimes — but strangely, they rarely appear on our property. This morning, however, a half-dozen caught my attention as they swooped in and settled on the back lawn (probably looking for the Crane Fly larva which are munching down on the roots of algae-ridden grass in a couple areas).

I glanced at them, then away. It took a minute before I looked back with the realization that in nineteen years here, I’ve never noticed them before or taken a picture for my bird photo album.

That’s now remedied, but also has me thinking about what else I take for granted, especially when I’m writing.

My critique group members regularly remind me that I neglect to include the ordinary little details of a setting or of my characters and their activities. In my first drafts I habitually skip over what I already know about them, forgetting that readers aren’t privy to what’s left behind in my head!

The common, ordinary details are what enrich a story’s visibility in the reader’s mind. While description can be overdone, of course, a certain amount is essential. I think I need to learn the tipping point between purple prose and none!

How important is description to you in what you read…and in what you write?

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P.S. Have you ever seen a ‘Murmuration’ of starlings?
Check out this brief but fascinating video.

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Inukshuk: You’re On the Right Path (Reprise)

I hope you won’t mind a reprise from my 2010 archives.

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They crop up in unexpected places – stacks of rough stones called inuksuit. They are Inuit symbols representing ancestors who learned to survive on the land.  In a harsh and unknown landscape sighting a familiar inukshuk (the singular of inuksuit) means,  “You are on the right path.” An inukshuk with arms pointing in a specific direction may indicate a safe navigation channel or mountain passage. Without arms it would likely mark the location of a food cache.

This one was on the northeastern shore of Howe Sound, and I wondered at its significance. Situated on the driftwood-strewn beach below well-kept gardens skirting the condominiums of Furry Creek, it apparently pointed in the direction of Woodfibre, a dismantled pulp mill community at the head of the Sound.  Fascinated, I took several photos on the way past, and more on the way back. Later in the day I realized my attraction was not so much to the figure but to its message. Like the inukshuk itself, what I took away was symbolic: You’re on the right path.

So is there anything to be learned from all this? For me it’s a reminder that with an appreciative heart and inquisitive attitude I can find encouragement for the journey all around me. God is good. :)

Have you had any epiphanies lately about the significance of unexpected encounters?

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Blessed is the man who finds wisdom,
the man who gains understanding,
for she is more profitable than silver
and yields better returns than gold.
She is more precious than rubies;
nothing you desire can compare with her.
[Proverbs 3:13-15]

Late Night Thoughts: Sights and Sounds

If you’re anything like me, too often you go through a day seeing the obvious but missing the gems. Sometimes we focus on what’s right in front of us, and see nothing else.

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Other times, if we look beyond the obvious, we discover glimpses that beg to be investigated.

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Little glimmers,
hidden bits of truth and beauty,
sometimes visible,
sometimes only heard.

Beyond the bank of trees that border our back garden is a marsh. At one time it was a pond, officially named on municipal maps. In recent years there has been less water, but a stream still flows through and contributes habitat for geese, ducks, and assorted other wildlife.

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Where earth shimmers
In garish greens,
Liquid and leafy
Reflections of a secret life
Lived marsh deep.

Where night blackens
Sights but not sounds
And coyotes and tree frogs
Compete
In discordant harmony.

(To hear our late night marsh activity you’ll need your sound on.)

In both your life and your writing, I challenge you to look beyond the obvious, look into the depths, and discover meaningful capsules in the world that comprises your everyday.

What one thing have you discovered today that you consider worthy of recording and remembering?

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Now faith is the substance of things hoped for,
the evidence of things not seen.

[Hebrews 11:1]

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It isn’t a Lily and this isn’t a Valley, but…

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In a shady spot above our creek, not far from the base of a rotting old stump, a fragrant patch of Lily-of-the-Valley is spreading into the moss and ferns.

When we first moved here, I discovered a few struggling plants smothered under the ivy that had been planted as a ground cover. Taking pity on it, I dug up chunks and moved them to the other end of the yard, under the trees in a bare spot where nothing else would grow.

Lily of the Valley

It’s taken several years, but the nodding little white bells have finally formed a  tidy patch that covers the parched clay. I may have unleashed a monster, however, as, now that it’s established, it seems to be spreading a little faster every year.

Since it’s not a Lily, and our property is nothing like a valley, I was curious enough about its name to do some research. I’ve discovered the demure little flower, often considered as a symbol of humility in religious paintings, and sometimes added to wedding bouquets, is not as innocent as one might think.

“All parts of the plant are highly poisonous, including the red berries which may be attractive to children. If ingested—even in small amounts—the plant can cause abdominal pain, vomiting, and a reduced heart rate. Roughly 38 different cardiac glycosides (cardenolides) have been found in the plant.” *

All in all, I’d say it’s totally misnamed!

“The flower is also known as Our Lady’s Tears or Mary’s Tears from Christian legends that say it sprang from the weeping of the Virgin Mary during the crucifixion of Jesus. Other etiologies have its coming into being from Eve’s tears after she was driven with Adam from the Garden of Eden.” *

I’ve never heard of either ‘legend’, but I suppose with a  l o n g  stretch of imagination the tiny white drooping blossoms could resemble tears.

Now that I know more about the plant, it’s tempting to dig it all out again, but I don’t think anything else will grow quite as well in that spot. Fortunately it isn’t a location where either pets or children wander unsupervised, so I’m not too worried about their poisonous aspect, and they are rather attractive in a delicate sort of way.

Naming plants must be a challenging exercise. I wouldn’t like having to dream up so many distinctive names. Coming up with titles for my articles and novels is hard enough for me. Google “choosing titles for stories” and we get over 12,000,000 results. Some articles are helpful — here are two (here and here) that I found interesting — but in the end we still have to do the work to find our own perfect title. At least we don’t have to worry about our choices being poisonous. Then again, some of us write poison pen fiction, don’t we? Oops!

How do you decide what your title(s) will be?

* Wikipedia

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Just another spring morning…

A bit of blue sky, a glimpse of sunshine…yesterday was the perfect day to paint or play, depending on your priorities. For my hubby, it was his morning to begin applying the white paint I had taken several weeks to choose. Our kitchen mini-reno is almost complete. With all the construction done, it’s now paint and fabric time.

He was carefully applying Benjamin Moore’s ‘Vanilla Milkshake’ to the breakfast nook wall when he discovered two adult bears on the lawn below the window. Both were black bears, Ursus americanus, although one was decidedly brown. (Black bears come in various shades of black, cinnamon, brown, even white. If you’re curious, there’s lots more info here.)

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For these guys, it was time to romp through the garden, tromping on shrubs, overturning that pink pot of sedum, and breaking a branch or two. Then they settled in to graze on grass, just as a different visiting bear had done exactly one year ago to the day. (I shared that morning in photos here.)

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We noted the yellow tag in the black bear’s ear, a sign that he had been relocated by conservation officers. It was likely this was the same bear who visited our back deck on a couple of earlier nighttime bird feeder raids. That one wore a yellow ear tag, too.

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On closer inspection of my photos, it looked like there were actually two tags, each with different numbers. Not a good sign for this bear, who apparently is establishing his reputation as a troublemaker.

DSC05032 - Version 2We’ve duly reported the encounter to the conservation office, but living rurally means we expect to see wildlife here occasionally. Last night it was coyotes, a pair behind the house yipping and howling in competition with the chorus of tree frogs.

I’ll take wildlife any day rather than the smog and congestion of city living. Over the four-or-so decades of my hubby’s studies and pastoral service, we’ve lived in both big and small centres — Vancouver (BC), Toronto (ON), Coleville (SK), Creston (BC), Calgary (AB), Port Alberni (BC), Langley (BC), and Maple Ridge (BC) — almost always having our homes on typical residential streets.

In retrospect, we wish we’d discovered country living a lot sooner. It isn’t a lifestyle that suits everyone but the peacefulness and treed setting is a blissful sanctuary for us.

I realize my love of a quiet rural setting has rubbed off on my fictional characters who are all situated somewhere other than in a major city. They all own dogs, too. I guess it’s true that we write a bit of ourselves into our stories, but why not? In our world-building, we’re in control of every aspect of our characters’ lives, so why wouldn’t we let them live or work in places reminiscent of our personal experiences and preference?

Would you label yourself a city-dweller or a country-lover at heart? Where do you situate your characters? (Tell me I’m not the only one who imposes my choices on them! Come to think of it, I’ve even had a character encounter a bear on his property.) 

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Living the stories (and a winner!)

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“I can’t see the forest for the trees.”  I suppose in this case you’d say you can barely see the lake for all the trees. Until last summer, when the men had to cut down a few of them, the view from our summer cabin was only the portion you see to the right of this photo.

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{Click photo to enlarge)

It’s nice to be able to glimpse a little more of our lake now. We could remove more trees, of course (and the leaning birch may soon remove itself, although it’s been like that for at least a decade), but we aren’t anxious to leave the cabin too exposed.

BlowdownAtCabinOne year when my parents were still alive, they reported that a small tornado had gone through, uprooting many trees in its path. My mom took this photo from across the creek, showing one leaning on our [then] new cabin. Through the years other trees have fallen on and/or near it, but it has managed to remain unscathed. On each visit, as we climb the hill from our hand-hewn bridge, I hold my breath a bit, wondering what we’ll find — wondering what changes the wilderness has brought to it during our absence, if there will be any damage, or if the cabin is even still standing. Touch wood (and there’s a lot of it we could touch), it has survived the passing seasons.

Our cabin is primitive, but it’s a beloved family getaway. I tell people it’s like camping, but with a roof. The building’s gone through several transitions over the years, but it’s still small and rustic, without any city conveniences, and we still need a 4 x 4 to get there.

So, what’s the appeal? Yes, we think the view is pretty spectacular, but there are lots of wilderness lakes in British Columbia. This particular one, however, is the focal point for four generations of family memories (and a fifth generation is poised to begin making more). There’s something about ‘frontiering’ experiences — hauling water by the bucket from the creek, spending evenings playing card games in the weak glow of kerosene and propane lamps, trekking to the outhouse, and cutting the daily requirement of firewood — that adds a meaningful chapter to our family’s story.

I thought of this yesterday, when DD Shari Green shared her reaction to the death of Johnathan Crombie of Anne of Green Gables fame. In her post, “Gilbert Blythe and the power of stories“, she said,

“Judging by my social media feeds … Gilbert Blythe–and by extension, Jonathan Crombie–is absolutely adored by a great many people. And this has me thinking… How is it that fictional characters can come to be so significant in our lives? Why are their fictional sorrows and joys felt in our own hearts? How do their fictional dramas become entwined with our own real-life ones, causing girls to long for red hair and an expansive vocabulary and a boy just like Gil?”

Stories such as Lucy Maude Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables (1908) and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie (1935), have caused us to fall in love with characters who have endured through generations of readers. The account of their lives fills us with nostalgia. The power of stories is quite remarkable, but it’s most effective when it draws on emotions and relatable memories.

I’ve never given it much thought, but that rough little cabin is the setting for a portion of our family’s life story. Some of it is on paper, but most is held in our collective memory. Whether written down or not, each passing year and every new generation adds another chapter.

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Do you have places or events that play a significant role in your family’s story?

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As promised in Friday’s post, to help celebrate my 1,000th post, I’m giving away a $20 gift certificate for either Amazon or Starbuck’s. The name drawn at midnight was … ta-da …

**  JENN HUBBARD  **

Congratulations, Jenn, and thanks for helping me celebrate. I’ll be in touch by e-mail to find out which certificate you’d prefer.

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