My island getaway

Back Beach, Amherst Island

Usually about now, Dave and I and the kids would be heading south to the Carolinas or an island somewhere. Since a true island vacation isn’t in the cards this year, we thought we’d spend Good Friday touring a local island, Amherst Island.

Located just a few kilometres off the shore of downtown Kingston, Amherst Island was settled in 1788, when a prominent Loyalist leader, Sir John Johnston, was granted the entire island in recognition of his service and valour during the American Revolution. A second wave of immigration occurred in the 1840’s, when Irish immigrants settled in the area, with the population peaking at 2,000 Irish settlers.

Like most islands, you feel like you’ve stepped back in time the moment you drive off the ferry. We began our tour driving along the water towards the east end of the island, in search of Back Beach. Amherst Island is home to a large wind farm, and we marveled at the massive windmills in the fields on our way.

Wind turbine

We arrived at our destination and walked the long stretch of isolated pebbled beach. There were only two other people, a mother and her son walking in the afternoon sun. The beach itself was nicely sheltered, but as we walked toward the exposed point the April winds whipped all around us.

Girl on beach
People walking on the beach

After a brisk walk, we continued our tour, looking for wildlife along the way. We saw about 25 deer in total on the island, a fox walking along the beach, and lots of waterfowl.

Fox walking on the beach

The island’s most famous wildlife are its owls. Birders from miles around come to the island, which is on a major migratory path for owls, geese and other birds. We were pretty sure we saw a barred owl, which flew across the road into the fields, but weren’t close enough for a positive ID. (I saw another barred owl on my walk today and it was a beauty!)

On the western end of the island, the Kingston Field Naturalists have a property known as the Owl Woods. It’s not well marked so is tricky to find, but if you explore the property and take the time to look up into the thickly wooded trees, you may see a small sawwhet owl. They also have Purple Martin houses and blue bird houses lined along the road, but it was too early for bluebirds this cold April day.

Another interesting feature of the island is its stone walls. Amherst Island has the greatest concentration of historic Irish dry stone walls in Canada, a throwback to the days when Irish settlers inhabited the island. Up until 2019, the island hosted a Dry Stone Festival, where people come from Canada and the United States to learn the ancient art of building stone walls.

This picture of a typical dry stone wall was taken at one of our 4H family members’ houses. We hosted a barn dance at their place two summers ago for visiting 4H families on an exchange.

We finished the day with a walking tour of Stella, the tiny village at the ferry docks. There was an old blacksmith shop covered in punch tin and barn board, an old fashioned general store and a town hall. Before we knew it, it was time to catch the ferry back to the mainland.

This week’s #HappyAct is to explore an island near you and experience your own island getaway. Happy trekking!

Blacksmith shop
Amherst Island General Store

Walk a labyrinth

Me at the Burlington labyrinth

A few months ago, I headed out for my regular lunchtime walk in a foul mood. Something happened earlier that morning and it was still bugging me. Just a stupid misunderstanding, but you know what it’s like when you replay it over and over in your head. Despite saying to myself, it’s stupid, let it go, I couldn’t.

I walked to Central Park in Burlington and to my left at the entrance of the park, there was a labyrinth. I stopped and read the plaque.

It said the Burlington Central Park Labyrinth was patterned after the labyrinth at the Chartres Cathedral in France that dates back to 1200. It is one of the few permanent labyrinths in Canada that is installed in a public place and is wheelchair accessible.

A labyrinth is a design marvel, an ancient, geometric pattern with a single path that leads into the centre. This labyrinth was a circle, the symbol of healing, unity and wholeness. It is meant to be an oasis for your mind, body and soul, and walking a labyrinth can calm the mind and restore balance.

I thought I might as well give it a whirl.

I started to walk the circular paths, and found myself at first focusing closely on each step, and the lines and patterns beneath me. As I continued to walk, I started focusing more on the journey ahead and my final destination. With each step, my mind began to free. I encountered unexpected twists and turns and just when I thought I knew the path to the centre, the path changed.

I became aware that I could take control at any time, by simply stepping outside the winding circle and give up altogether or walk directly to my final destination, but as I continued to walk, I discovered a strong desire to complete the labyrinth and a strange sense of elation and accomplishment when I did.

I stood in the centre and looked up. The weight on my heart and mind was gone.

This week’s #HappyAct is to walk a labyrinth and clear your mind and soul. Need help finding one? Check out this worldwide labyrinth locator. There are literally hundreds in Canada, many located in churches.

Burlington labyrinth
Burlington labyrinth

Give someone a hand up

Come in we're open sign

Special guest post by Agent00$0ul”, marking the anniversary of COVID-19. It’s estimated more than 200,000 Canadian businesses could shut their doors permanently due to the pandemic. Let’s show them our #locallove.

“Hello, Ivan”.

He peered up at me from behind the register. A barrier of plexiglass separated our two masked faces. The part of his face I could see transformed to a quizzical look, one eyebrow raised.

“It’s been a year, my friend,” I said. I didn’t expect him to remember my order by heart like he did pre-COVID. 

I pulled a $10 bill from my coat pocket and slid it across the counter. “I want you to have this.”

He was surprised, but appreciative. He knew why I was doing it and I knew a few of his customers were doing the same. He put the bank note in his pocket. “Thank you.” 

I placed my order. The restaurant was nearly empty–three or four diners seated at tables separated by stacked chairs on tables wrapped in caution tape. The complimentary copies of The Sun newspaper, usually neatly stacked in a pile in a corner on the condiments table, were nowhere to be seen. Same too for the condiments themselves. It was high noon on a Wednesday. The scene was surreal…. the place should’ve been packed. 

The absence of customers gave me some time to catch up on things with Ivan while my comfort food was being prepared. I explained that the pandemic caused my employer to make the difficult decision to permanently close the office. I would be working from home until retirement. That decision removed the need for me to visit Ivan’s place of work at least once, maybe twice a week on a regular basis. 

Ivan always punched in my order before I made it to the cash, holding off on the drink selection because I was never consistent on that one, fluctuating between Diet Coke (stressed out and guilty I wasn’t watching my weight) and Cherry Coke (stressed out and guilty I wasn’t managing my office work). Either choice was fast food methadone, supplied by Ivan the enabler.

I have the impression that Ivan got to be where he is today because of some unfortunate past events. He’s a smart guy. An ‘it-getter”. Pleasant. Respectful. Sharing. Still, he plays the economic hand he’s been dealt every day without regret or remorse. His reality is a twenty-minute bus ride to reduced hours of work. 

He told me the pandemic has been hard on him financially. Hours have ticked up slightly since the restaurant reopened with limited seating. Prior to that all sales were curbside pickup, drive through, or Uber Eats. He hoped he would be given the vaccine soon since he was over 50 with pre-existing conditions. He was skeptical because he didn’t fall under the definition of “front line worker”. The irony wasn’t lost on me as he shared this information from behind the barrier of plexiglass between us.

As I returned to my car, lunch bag and Cherry Coke in hand, it felt good to have given Ivan a hand up, rather than a hand out. The circumstances were different than most “new normal” days that caused me to see Ivan on a work day.I probably won’t see him again anytime soon… possibly never. I should have given him $20. 

This week’s #HappyAct is to think of the folks in the service sector who have been impacted by this pandemic. Help them out if you can. I handed out $5 Tim Horton’s prepaid cards to the six stylists at my barber shop. $30 equates to 1 1/2 haircuts, I missed two cuts during the lockdown so I’m actually up $10. Consider helping out the service sector workers you have in your circle if you are able. Be the creator of your own happy act. 

A vision for the future of Kingston in a post-COVID world

Abandoned limestone building

A new year is upon us. A time for hope, setting goals and envisioning a new future.

This year, I believe one of our greatest challenges will be to have a vision for the future for our towns, cities and communities in a post-COVID world.

Life will get back to normal as the vaccine rolls out, but things may not look the same. Businesses will have closed, for rent and lease signs may become permanent fixtures in downtown cores, and we may see an exodus from cities as people now have the choice and freedom to work from anywhere. Which leaves us to beg the question, how can we keep our cities vibrant and relevant in a post-COVID world?

I was thinking about this today while walking along the waterfront behind our new hospital, Providence Care in Kingston. On a cold day in January during lockdown, there were runners jogging through the grounds, families toboganning on a popular hill, and people walking their dogs along the trail by the water.

This particular area of Kingston is interesting because there are many old beautiful abandoned limestone buildings on the property near the waterfront. I started imagining what the scene could look like six months from now when COVID was under control and the weather was fine.

This is what I saw: waterfront galleries, stores and craft cooperatives in the limestone buildings along the water.

Outdoor patios and seating like in the Distillery District in Toronto and nice restaurants extending out over the water like the pavilion at Dow’s Lake in Ottawa.

An area where street musicians and performers could play like The Forks in Winnipeg or Jackson Square in New Orleans.

Miles of boardwalk with lookouts and views where you could watch the sailboats go by.

Kingston has an astonishing 280 km of waterfront. It sits on Lake Ontario, is at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River and is bisected by the Cataraqui River which feeds up into the Rideau Canal.

There’s Fort Henry with a magnificent view of the river, lake and city, our historic downtown with market square, City Hall and Confederation Basin where the tour boats depart from, the entire Kingston Penitentiary site, and miles of parks and trails.

We are water rich, but to a large degree our waterfront is still largely dispersed. You have to hop, skip and jump like a stone skipping on the waves to get from one waterfront trail and park to another. We also have huge tracts of land and buildings that are sitting idle, just begging to be developed.

In 2014-2016, the City of Kingston developed a master waterfront plan that identified hundreds of projects over a 30-year period. There has been a lot of terrific work that has already been done to make our city the gem it is, but there is so much more to be done.

For all of Kingston’s parkland, we also do not have a single stand-out, signature garden, maybe not quite on the scale of Butchart Gardens in Victoria or the Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington, but a garden that would attract people to our city and become a place of natural beauty, peace and a place for the community to gather.

This week’s #HappyAct is to envision how our communities will look like post-COVID. Then ask, what can we do to make it happen?

Old limestone building on Kingston's waterfront
Lake Ontario
This abandoned pier is the ideal location for a pavilion style restaurant extending over the water in Kingston
These abandoned buildings would be ideal for retail, craft cooperatives and art galleries

Gaze in childlike wonder at a Christmas window display

Christmas window skaters in the park

I was walking in the village of Tamworth the other night, waiting for Clare’s hockey scrimmage to begin when I stumbled across a beautiful Christmas window display at the real estate office on the town’s main street.

It was a miniature wintry scene of a mountaintop village with many moving figures. There were children tobogganing down a tube run, skaters gliding in circles around a pond, skiiers swishing down a slope, even a child making snow angels. The village had a popcorn shop, and there were little buckets of popcorn moving on a conveyor belt as the popcorn popped with twinkling lights.

I must have stood there for ten minutes looking at the window. Each time I looked, I saw something new: two lumberjacks ice fishing under a full moon, a mountaintop lodge near the ski hill with an apres ski bar, people walking their dogs and beautiful birch and pine trees framing the whole scene. It was truly magical.

I remember as a little girl my Mom taking me out of school to spend a special day together before Christmas. We’d go to downtown Toronto to go shopping and see the Christmas windows on display at Simpsons and Eaton’s department stores. They were always magical and each year had a different theme. The window displays were so popular that they’d plan school trips for schoolchildren to see them and skate at Nathan Phillip’s Square.

In a year when we won’t be able to enjoy the many traditional holiday gatherings and celebrations, this week’s #HappyAct is to enjoy the magic of the season through your favourite Christmas window.

Some other towns where the downtown shops have their windows done up beautifully this year include Perth and Napanee. What’s your favourite Christmas window? Leave a comment.

Christmas window popcorn shoppe
Christmas window hockey player

Pearl’s coronavirus diaries

Let me introduce you to Pearl Killingbeck. Pearl lives in Mississippi Station, a community of just 12 people north of highway 7.

Pearl writes the column for Mississippi in our local newspaper, The Frontenac News. The News is in itself a little gem. It’s privately owned, independently run and features weekly local news, events and columns from reporters from all the different hamlets in our area. It’s also free.

Pearl has been writing the column for Mississippi Station since 2002. She doesn’t own a computer, so she writes every column by hand. Before the pandemic hit, she’d write about local events and happenings, but when events dried up, she came up the idea of writing “Pearl’s coronavirus diaries”.

She shares funny things that happen to her through the week, and little “pearls” of wisdom, jokes and stories to give people a smile or make them laugh. Early on after Day 21 of isolation, Pearl wrote, “New things I’ve learned in 21 days: throwing kisses, air hugs, knuckle bumps, air high fives and stump bumps. I use the phone more than ever. My house is cleaner. I found out my treadmill is for exercising, not for holding clothes or piling stuff on; that Meals on Wheels is like going to a restaurant only a lot cheaper.” Recently, she celebrated her 82nd birthday with her boyfriend, “Johnny Walker” who she calls her happy hour beau.

Here’s a chuckle from Pearl’s column this week:

“A husband and wife, Ron and Alice were sitting at home, when the husband suddenly said, ‘Darling, just so you know, I never want to be kept alive in a vegetative state, having to depend on machines and fluids from a bottle. If that ever happens to me, just pull the plug.’ So the wife got up and pulled the plug out of the TV and threw out all his beers.”

Her stories grew in popularity and soon she started receiving letters from fans across the region.

Pearl’s local celebrity status skyrocketed when a listener emailed the CBC with some of Pearl’s clippings and interviewed her on Ontario morning in October. Here is the CBC episode, Pearl’s segment is about half-way in. The Frontenac News also published links to many of her columns here.

In a time when many people are struggling to find lightness and laughter, Pearl is a shining example of how to live your life: “Always have a sense of humour no matter how bad a situation is, and laugh once a day even if you’re alone when you’re laughing.”

In an era when traditional media outlets are struggling, this week’s #HappyAct is to support your local newspaper and columnists like Pearl and to keep laughing.

Treat yourself to a decadent donut

Special guest blog by Jill Yokoyama

If you are like me, then you’ll remember how a donut used to be such a treat when we were young.

In high school, it was fun to drop by Donut Man on Lakeshore Road in Port Credit for a donut, and how many times have you ever stopped in for a coffee and donut at Tim Hortons? But the quality of Tim Horton donuts has taken a nosedive since they are no longer baked fresh on the premises.  Eating a Tim’s donut became a disappointing experience and I stopped buying them.

Plus when you get to a certain age eating a donut becomes a big deal because it settles around your middle like a …. well, like a donut!

Thank goodness 2020 is not a complete washout due to the rising popularity of gourmet donut shops. I had the pleasure of visiting Sunshine Doughnuts in Burlington, Ontario on one of the bright, sunshiny days we had recently.

It is a delightful walk through the downtown and the décor is colourful and happy, like a frosted confection. Donuts are made fresh each day in all kinds of exciting flavours and designs, with lots of yummy fillings. I tried a classic apple fritter. It was enormous and so delicious, with soft, chewy dough, bits of real apple, and a sugary coating. If not for Covid, I would have been licking my fingers. I don’t know how many calories were in that donut and I don’t care, it was worth every calorie!

Speaking of donuts, Melbourne Australia has just come out of one of the strictest Covid lockdowns in the world after 111 days. On October 26, 2020 they declared their first “double donut day” with 0 new cases and 0 deaths. They are now at their 11th day of double donuts – woo hoo! I am so happy that my friends and relatives in the state of Victoria are able to resume their normal lives after such a long period of severe restrictions.

The choice of donuts as a symbol of their happiness makes perfect sense.

If you love a sweet treat and maybe want to reward yourself some time, indulge in a gourmet donut. Guaranteed to lift your spirits in the sweetest way!

Thanks to Jill Yokoyama for guest blogging this week. To learn more about how donuts became Australia’s symbol of hope in the fight against Covid, check out this story from The Guardian newspaper. What’s your favourite donut shop? Leave a comment!

Watch your thoughts

Lao Tzu quote on thoughts

“Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habit. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny”—Lao Tzu 

For the better part of 2020, many of us have been alone with our thoughts, and understandably, those thoughts have been more dark, troubled and worrisome.

I think this quote in large part explains what is happening in the United States right now. Alone with their thoughts, people have lashed out and acted out. It makes me wonder about America’s destiny. I truly believe they are at a turning point in their history.

Every event of historical significance has begun with a thought or difference in thoughts: the American civil war, Aryan supremacy and the Holocaust, communism.

Our thoughts can be a friend, giving us hope, comfort and fortitude, and urging us to do and act better.

Or they can be our enemy, closing our ears and hearts to differing opinions and causing us to act in shameful ways.

We may feel like the world is out of control right now. But we always have control of our thoughts.

Ode to the stinky bulb

garlic

There’s a big stink in my little town and we’re proud of it. That’s because my neck of the woods is fast becoming known as the garlic capital of eastern Ontario.

Every year, the Verona Lion’s Club hosts a garlic festival on the Saturday of the Labour Day weekend. This year it’s a “farmer’s market” on a much smaller scale due to COVID, but it will still be a reeking good time.

I love garlic. I love it in everything: pasta sauce, salad dressings, roasted vegetables and potatoes. You name it, it’s usually better with garlic. Plus the medicinal benefits of garlic are legendary.

Google the health benefits of garlic, and you get a list as long as your arm: it prevents hypertension, heart disease, some cancers, it helps scars heal faster and fights bacterial and parasitic infections, it’s known for warding off the common cold and the list goes on and on. You can even apply it topically for skin conditions like eczema and athlete’s foot or on a splinter.

One thing I didn’t know was that garlic is also considered a powerful aphrodisiac. It contains allicin, which apparently increases the blood flow to the sexual organs making it the sexy bulb (if you can get past the stinkiness of your partner).

I’m not a doctor, but I remember working as a summer student for the City of Mississauga forestry department. I spent the entire sizzling hot summer sandwiched in our crew cab between two older Ukrainian guys, Peter and John who literally reeked of garlic. They were the strongest, healthiest dudes I ever met.

Garlic is also one of the easiest plants to grow and critters tend to leave it alone—a bonus in the country. You plant it in October, and harvest it in the summer. Once the scapes (the green curly part on the end) starts to curl, you cut them off so all the energy goes into the bulb. I make garlic scape pesto with my scapes which is yummy as a base for pizza or on pasta or burgers. It’s delish.

This week’s #HappyAct is to join me in paying tribute to the stinky bulb. My garlic was puny this year, so I will definitely be stocking up on some new varieties to plant at this year’s garlic festival.

The four most important words you can say

View up the lake

I was standing on my dock today, watching the sun sparkle on the water on yet another glorious summer day, and all I could think was “How lucky am I?”

How lucky am I to be able to wander up my driveway on a jet black night, gaze at the stars and milky way, and watch meteors stream across the sky?

How lucky am I to have a family who loves me and makes me laugh and who I still want to spend time with more than anyone else in the world?

How lucky am I to be healthy and happy in a world where at every turn, there is a constant reminder we should never take our health for granted?

How lucky am I to have never enough, but enough, money for my wants and needs?

How lucky am I to have a spouse and partner who deserves his crown as the President Choice of Husbands?

How lucky am I to have friends and neighbours who look out for each other and know the value of community?

How lucky am I to watch the grin on my first-born’s face as she lands a five-pound bass after it dances across the water?

Some people say, just be lucky you’re alive. But being alive doesn’t make you lucky or happy.

I have had my share of loss, grief, pain, fear, doubt, and uncertainty.

But how lucky am I?

Note: There’s still time to catch the Perseid meteor shower. The Perseids peak every August as the earth passes through the debris of the Comet Swift-Tuttle. They are supposed to be even more spectacular this year. Last night didn’t disappoint. I saw three meteors, one fireball that spanned the entire sky. We found 11 p.m. to midnight to be the best viewing time. Look to the northern part of the sky near the big dipper. For more on star gazing, see my post gaze at the stars.