Thursday, January 22, 2009


The sky is a welcome soft blue, the air soft with a tinge of coolness, the sun generously warming: Chiang Mai in January. I feel so fortunate to be here.

Yesterday, as I was in the main big market (the name has vanished from my brain as I write this), I was reminded of how different things are here. Of course there's the climate, and the amazing variety of fresh fruit (dragonfruit, jackfruit, papaya, etc etc) and vegetables (where to begin listing them???) as well as aromatics (galangal, krachai, lemongrass, lime leaves, beautiful small purple shallots and on and on). But the more profound difference is how people conduct themselves in the street.

The market feels like a maze, at least the first times you visit, but is actually organised as a grid of lanes and side alleys, with covered areas in between, where trucks loaded with produce sit in rows parked, waiting for buyers, and rows of small stalls offer food, tools, and more food, of every description.

The alleys and lanes are lined with shops and impromptu sellers of everything from meat or frogs or fish or produce, to sticky rice with sankaya, or grilled pork on a stick. And the narrow space down the centre of the alleys and lanes is packed with people on foot, as well as the occasional motorcycle and even more difficult-to-digest truck. Some people push a trolley that carries a huge basket, into which they load masses of raw food as they work their way through their shopping list; these are people buying for restaurants and street vendors. Others are there to shop for just a household's daily needs. And apart from these buyers, there are also guys carrying huge loads or pushing carts loaded to the max, bringing supplies or produce into the market.

The difficulty is that the crowds, moving in all directions, with their awkward loads, mean that no-one gets anywhere very easily or quickly. There's a lot of stopping and waiting, while a truck extricates itself from a side-lane, or two guys with trolleys headed in opposite directions thread their way past each other.

In North America and in many places in Europe, this would lead to shouting and swearing, frustration and intensity. In the market here in Chiang Mai, people just accommodate: they pause, let the other guy through, step aside, weave in and out in a kind of unorchestrated very mindful and complex ballet, pause to joke with a friend or a stranger in passing. It's a lovely entertaining and enlightening human spectacle.

Out on the roads here, the approach is the same. People pass even when they can see another car coming, not to court a head-on disaster, but because they know they can rely on the other guy to slow a little to let them get by. And the other guy, instead of honking in outrage, does in fact yield.

Foreigners who have business dealings in Thailand can be heard to complain about this lack of sharp edges. It leads people to think that Thais cannot be relied on. But yes, they can. It's just that their priority tends to be to avoid conflict (or collisions) and to try to accommodate differences or inconveniences, rather than fighting them head-on.

And for the foreigner who spends any time here, it is a great lesson in "jai yen" - keeping a cool heart rather than getting heated over short-term frustrations.

The Year of the Rat is coming to an end. It's been a big one for us, with the publishing of Beyond the Great Wall and lots of personal changes and new horizons. I'm hoping for a lighter-hearted less pressured new year, myself. May your next year be as you dream it should be.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


Here it is January 14, a big day on my calendar every year, for it's the date on which, forty years ago, my father died.  I was eighteen and in first year university; he was forty-eight, had been on the beaches in Normandy, in the Canadian forces in Holland at the end of the war, at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar after the war, studying physics, and then a fabulously present and intelligent, engaged father to me and my brother, and I think a loving reliable partner for my mother, though they couldn't have been more different in many ways.  

Nothing prepared me for his death, not could anything have done so.  That first big loss, and after all I was eighteen and not a small child, so I was lucky, took years to absorb, perhaps will never be quite absorbed.  But it also had a huge impact on how I look at the world.  I came to realise that life is short, can be cut off at any time, and that human relationships, our web of friends and family and acquaintances, are what keep us all afloat, remind us that we are part of a larger whole.

Some people look to religion for this connection.  For me religion has always been a version of words, sometimes loaded, yes, with meaning and metaphor and remembrance, but actually just a form of institutionalised control and restriction.  No there is no life after death, I believe.  And no, my father is not looking down on me from some heaven and pitying me or loving me or whatever.  Those can be nice images, consoling perhaps, but also they are creepy.

We have the now, and our relationships and our minds and imaginations and creative energies.  That is the heaven we have on earth.  Let's agree that we are not so separate from the animal kingdom.  The difference is in our awareness of and our ability to conceptualise and verbalise about both the future and the past, while also living in the present.  How rich is that?!  And another difference, I believe, is our capacity for kindness, our ability to will ourselves to behave better toward each other than pure animal instincts would dictate. 

So if life is fragile and to be savored, and thus individual people and relationships are also evanescent, potentially, and need to be appreciated, why am I planning to catch a plane tomorrow leaving friends and extended family and my nearest and dearest Dom and Tashi to go to the other side of the world?

Well life is also about stretching ourselves, keeping commitments while pushing ourselves to extend outward, to keep learning and appreciating what's out there.  And for now, that sends me to southeast Asia, first to Chiang Mai for our immersethrough course, which will be fun and challenging and a very new adventure, and then to Burma for I hope a good explore to the west and north of the country.    

Yes, I'm sure things can and will go wrong or off track.  But that's not always a bad thing.  And the serendipity that I rely on when travelling, which is really another way of saying that I enjoy the unexpected, is something to look forward to.

First there's the flight to HongKong, where I'll have a few hours to go into town and see Rocky, at Phoenix Travel, such a wonderful person and old friend, and hopefully Peter too.  Then it's back onto a plane for the legs to Bangkok and Chiang Mai.  I'm packed, with computer and camera, and books for the flight.  

And yes, part of me is weeping a little, for the loss and change of today long ago, and for the losses and changes to come, even as I look forward....

Thursday, January 8, 2009


Now that Orthodox Christmas is over, and Muharram (which this year started December 28) is done, we're really into January.  The coming full moon is a bright spot, but the chill here in Toronto is a reminder of how long it is until spring.  

Lots to get done before I leave for Thailand on the 15th.  

Had a long conversation with our editor Ann Bramson yesterday about our Burma proposal.  It's a scary world out there in bookland, with the failing economy and everyone running for cover.  Somewhere deep in their souls the book world people fear that customers will stop buying books.  I think it's understandable given the "the sky is falling"  language in the media and the very real meltdown in world markets, but come on people!!!  Eventually, we figure, there will be recovery, and so meantime books and other projects need to get started so that we all have work and something to look forward to too.  

We'll keep you posted on the proposal.  Ann would like us to widen our field of view to include the surrounding area, kind of Burma as the missing link.  We're happy to think about that - after all country borders are such imprecise delineators of cultural boundaries.  And western Yunnan, the Thai border areas, northeastern India, and Bangladesh, are all places we're pleased to explore further.

Meantime none of this economic panic bodes well in the short term for our contract.  But we plan to press on with the Burma project.  It's a great idea and needs to be done, and we are hungry to be out there poking around.

Now to another place:  I can't even talk about Gaza.  It's so sickening, shutting human beings in behind a fence and a wall, then shooting these trapped human beings who have no choice about being there, families who are just trying to live and survive and come through for each other. We are watching war crimes, hideous war crimes.   Nothing excuses them.  Not saying there aren't bad moves and destructive behaviours on the other side, but NOTHING EXCUSES THIS. 

And where is the clear unambiguous leadership from Obama and other leaders condemning this horror?

Thursday, January 1, 2009


Sharp cold, bright sun, fresh snow: a beautiful welcome to 2009 here in Toronto.  I check the news and there's death in Gaza and the Congo, sexual slavery in Cambodia and elsewhere, anxieties world-wide because of the economic crisis, as well as individual stories of suffering and grief.  

But life goes on, we take our distance from the sufferings out there so that we don't go crazy, and then what?  Well I try to be mindful of now, of who is with me or what is around me, and of the larger picture too.  I assume most people do this: travel in and out, from the immediate to the larger world and back.  But appreciating the moment is a vital part of finding a balance.  We can luxuriate in the beauty of the day or of a painting, or kick up our heels at a party, even as we know that the dark and painful is always happening too, in places far and near...

Being present to strangers, for example to the guy begging in the market, or to the old man who collects bottles - skinny and hard-working, hauling his cart behind him down the sidewalk - having conversation with them and seeing each as a person rather than a cog in the landscape, is the place to start, for me.   So the effort for me is to slow down and take notice, real notice.  

This reminds of a couple named Adrienne and Rick, from Nanaimo.  They have been working at the micro level for nine years, always helping children: taking money to an orphanage in Cambodia; and to Karen and Burmese refugee children on the Thai border; and to other people in need in other parts of Cambodia.  They look to see what's needed, flip-flops for kids, or notebooks, or help with building a clinic or a school, and after consultation they give money and time and labour directly to those who need it.  They are the best example I know of people making a difference by giving targeted mindful help and respect to others. 

This is also the time of year when those of us in the colder parts of the northern hemisphere need to assert our confidence that the sun will come back and life will spring anew.  For us a big part of that assertion comes through dancing.  The other night we had our winter dancing party.  The music was DJ'd by two young friends, Emily and Ian, who each did two sets.  There was music solidly from eight until 1.30 in the morning, and it was wonderful.  Lots of young people, as well as forty-somethings and up, all dancing, engaging, caught up in the moment: what better way to affirm life in the often gloomy prognostications of the coldest darkest time of the year?