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Today I aimed my camera at a bucolic view of the early-morning sun. Fiery reds and golds lit the east, providing a stunning backdrop to the bare and foreboding branches of a misplanted scrub tree. Clouds masked the perfect picture with enough contrast to enhance its power.
Hope. This is the view out the bedroom window of my newly built home in an Ontario village.
Living here has been a tough slog. I was told it would be. The locals keep to themselves, everyone said, and as a Torontonian you won’t be welcome. I wasn’t.
But as I write this, a small door has opened, a glimmer that offers the potential of brightness like that morning sky. But a little background is in order first.
I taught for 35 years in the Toronto Board of Education. My teaching was centred in the wealthier area of the city, and to counter that I extended my work days by assisting a wonderful friend and colleague in the creation of the Children’s Book Bank.
In the heart of the inner city, there now flourishes a stunning book store, a charity with a retail-like appearance, that offers children and their families a free current book every single day. It was extremely hard work. I have muscles from lifting boxes that would make a halfback weep.
While teaching, I also operated a travel agency, did accounts for my daughter’s travel agency, ran a photography business and co-owned a T-shirt business. I like to be busy.
Upon retirement, I threw a dart at a map, approximated the target, and landed in a tiny town on the Niagara Escarpment between Owen Sound and Barrie.
I bought a lot and while finishing up at the Book Bank I also built a house. Though I used a professional builder, I was the main contractor.
As soon I’d moved in, winter hurled its frigid force at my little community. Roads closed, winds howled, schools shut their doors, and mail and newspapers ceased to get through. Mother Nature roared.
Propane prices all but doubled, and the insidious cold of the winter of my discontent (plagiarized, obviously) redoubled its effort. I shovelled. I wrestled imposing snowbanks, forcing them to retreat enough to let my car out each day. And I chopped wood, hauled it in and constantly fed the maw of a large, much-needed fireplace.
Loneliness was a constant; depression inevitable.
I don’t watch television; I am a reader. But sadly I couldn’t concentrate on a book. So I dusted construction debris out of missed corners and rearranged furniture. There were days when I could not get out of bed. I tried cross-country skiing, but had lost the dexterity of youth. I tried snow-shoeing, but with no one to talk to and a wind chill of -35 I’d wander the back fields, then succumb quickly to the numbing cold.
I awaited the arrival of the proverbial “welcome wagon” casserole, but one did not appear.
Potential visitors from the city were kept away by those closed roads. My daughter did attempt to get through the drifts and blowing snow, but was hit in a whiteout by a driver blinded by the roaring swirl.
Depression exacerbated my declining health, and I pined for the bustle of the book bank. Some days I’d force myself to go to the general store for mail, then return later in the day for an item completely redundant to my needs.
When friends and family failed to arrive, my weekends yawned ahead of me. I watched memorized movies and made countless batches of soup. (There are currently 10 hearty and fragrant chowders, bisques and potages in my freezer.)
Then, amid the solitude, I got a brain wave one day. I set out for the local elementary school to see if they could use a volunteer.
It turned out the school didn’t have a librarian, and I persuaded them to let me fill that role. The reading program needed another tutor, and a food and milk program was scrambling to find people to slice and dice enough fruit and vegetables on a daily basis. These are extremely valuable programs, and I was thrilled to be immediately immersed in their intensity.
I can’t help thinking about the huge budget for libraries and learning centres that cities enjoy relative to rural communities. There’s an appalling discrepancy, one worthy of discussion, though I can’t get a politician to respond to my inquiries. But I digress.
Recently, I was asked to help judge a local speech-writing contest. A beekeeper, a world-renowned chef and another former teacher will be the co-adjudicators. More people to meet, and with that comes the blessing of increased socializing.
So, I’m back! I have a purpose. I am approaching publishers to find books for the school library, and working diligently to turn a dismal lack of local resources right side up. I have a reason to get up in the morning and my depression is ebbing.
My school is closed again today because of the weather, and I am a shut-in once more. But I have the hope now of that beautiful morning sky, and the fulfilment of knowing there are people and purpose right around the corner.
I shall await spring with positive patience, and skip out the door to get back to my wood-chopping.
Jane Crist lives in Feversham, Ont.
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