Monday, December 16, 2013


The bright sun on this Monday morning makes a lovely start to the week. And the world outside is extra-brilliant because of all the fresh snow still coating all surfaces. The deep cold temperatures we’ve had felt all the more brutal because the ground was bare, but now with the snow winter feels less harsh somehow.

As a friend said to me on Sunday morning, under grey skies, with the snow making soft edges everywhere, “We love this. Not in April we don’t, but in December and January, we love it.”

Yes and I am happy to be here for the whole of December for once, able to head out on my cross-country skis yesterday in the fresh snow. No, I didn’t drive out of the city, I walked to the end of my street then skied around in the university grounds and the neighbouring park, beautiful with huge old trees.

We can’t have it all, no matter how much we fantasize about the possibility. I can’t be in Chiang Mai or Burma, seeing friends and enjoying sunshine, bare arms, and fresh local greens, and also be here in the slanting northern light and crisp air of snowy Toronto. Luckily I don’t generally yearn for where I am not. I mean, homesickness or wishing to be warm when cold, or cool when overheated, are not afflictions I suffer from. When I’m traveling I’m not fighting myself, usually, however lonely or uncomfortable a particular situation or trip might be. And that makes it all much easier.

The whole of life is a trip, from one point of view. And then the questions becomes, how comfortable or engaged are we in the place we find ourselves? Do we yearn for something else? It’s an interesting way to conceptualise our daily and yearly choices, don’t you think? After all, a certain itchiness and awareness of the wider horizon is necessary if we are to understand the choices we have in life, and the possibilities for being creative, or doing useful work, or whatever, that are out there. We need to know about them in order to make decisions, in order to push ourselves outside our comfort zone too. Yet at the same time we surely live better if we make ourselves comfortable and accepting of our current situation, whatever it is. That way we can make the best of it rather than pining and moaning about what we don’t have.

There’s a tension here between ambition and harmonious daily living…a tension that we navigate at each stage of life.

For as we move through life, sometimes on auto-pilot (as when we are surviving and trying to do our best raising young children), sometimes more consciously making choices and striving outward (as young people and then perhaps again once the kids are launched), we’re charting our own geographies, map-making, annotating the map of time and place with our personal experiences and hopes.

Cartography was one of my favourite subjects when I was an undergraduate majoring in Geography. It’s technical, and was a required course that many students disliked. I loved the questions of psychology and perception that underlay cartographic decisions. How to make this border stand out and that one be less important? What makes a map or any mapping of information clear, and what makes it a struggle to decipher?

Those questions have become more generally relevant as we have moved into this digital and e-universe. We can see charts and graphs and other information-mapping posted by newspapers, magazines, and bloggers. For example the Economist, a useful mag whose politics I don’t usually agree with, posts great charts and graphs, comparing countries, usually, but on the basis of infant mortality, or literacy, or diversity or whatever. I find that charting and graphic comparison informative and enticing, a helpful underpinning to words and commentary, and often a corrective too.

This post started with snow and ideas about having to be in one place at a time. Yes, and at the same time we can be many places at once in our imaginations and thoughts. Those charts help us picture and compare places far away from us, and from each other. They allow us to attend to other places and situations in the world intellectually or emotionally, while staying physically in one place.

In my case for now that means wearing warm pants over long-johns, with two layers of sweater plus a scarf on top, to stay warm as I work in my office. And let’s not forget the extra socks!

As I’ve worked here and done household chores too, in my mind’s eye I have travelled many places already this morning, from the refugee camps and ruined threatened cities of Syria, where temperatures are at a record low and people lack basic bread, as well as security and heating (see this recent report by Lyse Doucet: ); to tropical Rangoon where my friend Ma Thanegi’s newly issued Burma cookbook has just won a World Gourmand award; to Sikkim, where a new Twitter follower @Cafe_Fiction lives and works; to Burundi where the always interesting blogger DianaBuja now lives: .

I’ve also gone the other way this morning, travelling internally into memory and imagination, after reading a piece from Lapham’s quarterly about the art of dying, centred around one story but raising issues that affect us all: .
The statistic cited there, that seven out of ten Americans would prefer to die at home but in fact that instead that same proportion die in hospital with tubes and sterility, should make us think hard about how we approach end-of-life issues, not just for ourselves but for others. My father and mother died young, (at 48 and 56 respectively) but they at least had the privilege of dying in their own bed, with a loved one right there and no medical intervention causing extra suffering. How do we manage this for ourselves? How do we respond to the needs of others?

There’s life too, as well as death and cold, in this month of December. Yes, the sun will return and the days get longer. And whether pagan or Christian or Hindu or Moslem or Jewish or unbelieving, we all rejoice at the return of the light and the promise of new life.

Meantime we eat. European tradition in this season includes rich festive fare, reminders of summer in winter. That’s at least how I think of candied peel and dried fruits like currants and raisins and apricots. I made peel a few days ago (a mix of lemon, grapefruit, and orange of several kinds) and then used some of it in the four large loaves of stollen that I took out of the oven late last night. (I followed my recipe in HomeBaking, except that I used mostly Red Fife, together with some white spelt flour, rather than all purpose; much better flavour and liveliness I think.)

It looks like a lot of food, but once I start thinking about the people I’d like to give some to, I realise I need to make another batch. Soon.

There’s another mental map: the people I want to make treats for….

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