Learning compassion

Nova Scotia was my summer vacation destination this year, and Peggy’s Cove was my first stop.

This small fishing village sits on a rugged coastline; its lighthouse is set upon huge boulders. Although the ocean was calm that day, I could imagine how treacherous a nor’easter or winter storm would be. “These are people who know how fragile life is,” I thought as I pondered rain, wind and waves lashing their homes.

peggys cove

Peggy’s Cove lighthouse

From Peggy’s Cove, we stopped at the nearby memorial for Swissair flight 111 which crashed into the ocean on September 2, 1998, killing all 229 passengers and crew. I remember this plane crash and how the people from Peggy’s Cove got into their fishing boats and searched for survivors. They were the first responders, and their empathy for those who had lost loved ones was apparent in the news coverage I watched. The memorial sits on a rather desolate piece of the rocky coastline, a somber site.


Swissair flight 111 memorial

This memorial was the first stop on a “tragedy tour” that peppered my days in Nova Scotia.

The next stop was Fairview Lawn Cemetery in Halifax where more than one hundred bodies recovered from the Titanic are buried. Some of the dead are named, but other tombstones bear only the numbers assigned to bodies as they were pulled from the ocean. Almost a hundred years before the crash of the Swissair flight, fishermen from Peggy’s Cove responded to this earlier crisis in the waters off their coast.

titanic 2

Five years after the Titanic sunk, the people in Halifax faced with a more personal tragedy—two ships collided in the Halifax harbor. One was filled with munitions on its way to the war in Europe. The resulting explosion killed more than 1500 people and injured 9000. More than 13,000 homes and businesses bordering the harbor were destroyed.

Another fishing villages we visited was Lunenburg, where we came upon a memorial to locals lost at sea. Some families have lost many members, and I again thought of how a people living so close to the northern sea know the fragility of life.


Lunenburg Memorial

But Nova Scotia is more than its tragedies. Parts of the coastline are lined with beautiful beaches that are bordered by fields of wildflowers or dense forests. Inland, Nova Scotia is rolling hills dotted with farms and sheep and forests. We hiked through salt marshes, city parks and sandy beaches. The waterfront in Halifax is lined with restaurants and outdoor cafes, and a busker festival that weekend brought throngs of people out to enjoy the summer nights.

salt marh

Salt Marsh trail

There are also music festivals and gift shops filled with locally-made items—pewter, hand-knitting, crafty home goods and jewelry. I sensed a certain pride and independence, perhaps a resilience shaped by suffering.

The juxtaposition of the natural beauty, the spirit of the people and the many memorials touched me deeply. The people of Nova Scotia seem to have become compassionate through vulnerability and hopeful through sorrow—valuable life lessons. I hope to visit again.


2 thoughts on “Learning compassion

  1. annemarielom

    Madeline, your descriptions of contrasts and transformations are easy to imagine and to identify with. Thank you, once again.

  2. Madeline Bialecki Post author

    Thanks Anne Marie. I was meant to come to Wisconsin in June but did not make it. After my visit to NS and writing this piece, I have been thinking about the “spirit” of each place–and how to tap into those spirits.


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