Thursday, February 16, 2012


Up before dawn to have a chat with an editor in New York, where it was the end of the working day. It was great to touch base about the Burma book galleys and timings etc. just before I get on a plane to fly to Rangoon (this afternoon).

It’s early here, the sun just creaking up in the hazy sky, and casting its glow over the white galley pages I have out on the floor. A spider, a daddy long-legs of some kind, came strolling across the gilded whiteness, and he cast a fabulous elongated moving-spider shadow as he strolled, like some sci-fi creature. It reminded me of that wonderful taken-from-a balloon shot of camels in the desert. You see the dark images of camels on sand dunes, and then you realise that those are the camels’ shadows; the camels are tiny pale imges, casting long shadows at dawn.

I’ve been thinking about details and repetition, about how repetition is what we are often called upon to engage in. Yesterday morning I stopped by Wat Chedi Luang, the ancient wat with its huge damaged chedi that towers like a grizzled valiant warrior. Together with the tall tall old trees that stand sentinal in the wat grounds, the chedi is an essential element in the skyline of Chiang Mai’s old city. I had a small sketch book with me and a charcoal pencil. That’s all you need to settle into mindless-mindful concentration when there’s something you want to focus on. I tried a couple and then the sketch I ended with, and felt most satisfied with, was of the grand chedi itself. As often happens when I am trying to draw the details of Buddhist structures, I got caught up in and kind of enslaved by the repetitive elements: the ripples in the line of brick, the small symmettrical openings, the horizontals of the steep staircase up.

It begins by being tedious, the repetition, because each one is identical, so there’s a need to repeat fairly exactly. But after a few, a rhythm takes over, and the repetition becomes relaxing.

Similarly, during the massage I had recently (Thai massage, fully clothed and wonderfully vigorous), the woman working on me repeated and repeated her gestures; whether it was the pressures up and down each side of my spine in a deliberately spaced sequence, or the succession of pinch- squeezes along the lines of mucles on my legs, a lot of the massage consisted of repetition.

I tend to think of that kind of thing as mindless and tedious, as in, “so many repetitions to get through before it’s done!” But what about the repetition that I enjoy? There’s kneading bread; detailed elements in many drawings; making coffee in the morning in Toronto, to name just a few.

Perhaps it’s all in the attitude I bring to it, but it’s also about settling into a task, accepting its demands, and engaging fully, rather than being impatient to have it over with. Ah, acceptance, that’s such a difficult thing to put into practice, often. And so rewarding when it happens.

Now, as I finish writing this, the day has rolled around to mid-afternoon. I’m at the Chiang Mai airport waiting for the flight to Rangoon. It’s just a short hop, less than an hour, but such a huge transition, a change of worlds, though these days, with life in central Burma relaxing into ease and more freedom of expression, the transition doesn’t feel quite so marked.

And this time I’m going knowing that the Burma cookbook, now called simply BURMA: the cookbook, is far along in design and soon to head into second galleys. How thrilling. Also of course, it has its scary side. Like all cookbook authors I dread errors, but in this case it’s not just typos in the recipes that are a concern, but almost more, a feeling that I owe it to the cooks of Burma to get it right, to do an impeccable job of transmitting their wisdom and rich culinary culture.

On this visit I plan to check a few more things by asking friends, and also by eating and eating. I have ten days in Burma before me, a wonderful prospect!


Mosaica said...

I love this! I've been filled with a quiet jubilation on and off since I moved back to my flat, and it seems to stem from the simple and repetitive tasks of housekeeping & cooking: sitting at my kitchen sink (which I couldn't do for the last 10 years or so) and peeling potatoes, trimming greens, washing the same old dishes.

I feel as if the unremarkable habits of daily life can create a sweetly sleepy buzz, a space where my consciousness can swell and bloom.

jhea said...

Oh dear. I'm afraid you are too poetic for me. Getting satisfaction from performing routine tasks is one thing but getting all swelling and blooming is verging on the indiscreet.