Saturday, September 25, 2010


The big fat harvest moon this week was like a benign visitor reminding us of the passage of time, the autumn gathering-in. But the weather gave a contrary message, with warm summery winds and just the odd sprinkle of rain.

It was so enticing out last night that around 9.30 I felt I just had to get out into the night air and moonlight. It was hot and humid. In just a tank top and light pants I was comfortable and exhilatatedly happy on my bicycle whizzing along dark streets in the soft night air, bathed in that air, blessed-feeling. The moon-shadows were sharp against the pale glow of moonlight. I stopped in at Black Hoof for a treat - this time a drink they call Figgy Caipirinha, a spectacular combo made of Cacchaca muddled with a little fig and lots of lime - had pleasant chats with people at the bar, and savoured the drink, then came out an hour later to find the moon mostly hidden behind wildly moving stripes of cloud, a sharp wind, aggressive and chilly, and all balminess vanished. Brrr!! I wound a long cotton scarf round and round my neck, slid on a cardigan, and then pedalled home lickety-split. Autumn has arrived!

Speaking of the passage of time: Earlier in the week I had an evening with three women whom I have seen occasionally one on one in the last fifteen years, but never all of us together at the same time (we now don't all live in the same city). Before, long ago when I was practising law, we used to meet very couple of weeks to talk frankly and as honestly as we could about our lives and concerns. You could call it group therapy, but really it was a form of clear-eyed support. We had not started as bosom buddies; it was a more formal almost contractual arrangement, this meeting. I came to treasure it in many way. It was so valuable for me, and I am sure for each of us. It gave me a chance I think to acknowledge events of the past and integrate them with confidence into what I was doing and feeling.

The kind of intimacy that we developed, the trust we had so that we could admit painful doubts and get advice about difficulties we were having or anticipated having, is a rare thing. We are mostly fairly alone with some of our doubts and fears. We may have a spouse/partner to whom we can talk about our deepest concerns, but often we hesitate to air them with the person we are seeing every day. Somehow talking about them in a separate place means we aren't crowded by them, and we don't have to fear the other person raising them or reminding us of our weaknesses when we don't want to be reminded!!

I guess some people get advice and some version of counselling from their priest or imam or rabbi or... And many people see a therapist regularly, which can be such a valuable interaction.

But the specialness of building relationship with non-professionals, I guess you could say of a DIY approach to the problems of life and living, is a wonderful thing. I feel lucky to have been included in this process long ago. And I hope others are finding friends that they can trust and lean on when things get tough or scary or puzzling.

It seems to me that aloneness, feeling that you are alone with your worries, is a tiring and scary thing. But finding friends who are straight-shooters, honest and generous, is a matter of luck as well as of work and time. Intimacy and trust need to be built brick by brick, so not only do you need to find the right person or people, but then you have to put in the time.

As life gets fragmented into email messages and texting and cel phone accessibilty, maybe that kind of sustained commitment becomes more difficult? I don't know.

And on matters food: Dawn made a huge batch of damson jam this week and had some for sale at the Brickworks market today. Yum, my favorite (well, tied with tart Seville orange marmalade); that's why there's a recipe for both in HomeBaking. How can there be bread recipes without the instructions for the jams of my childhood? I found beautiful potatoes at the market, apples, pears, the end of the tomatoes... and the cold wind came howling through the crowds of shoppers, but warmed by hot chocolate and other treats, no-one seemed in the least fussed.

I got hit by the wind riding back, too. It caught the pack on my back and made me fight my way along in several gusty exposed stretches. Home is such an oasis after a buffeted struggling time out on a bicycle. I am so grateful to have a door to walk through and a space to live and cook in peacefully.

Next up on the food front are some Burmese pork dishes, and several soups from Burma. They're all good warming choices as the weather gets colder...

Friday, September 17, 2010


The green green Ontario countryside is unrolling outside the window as this train I'm on speeds toward Toronto in the golden late-afternoon light. The half-full moon is up and there are wispy trails of cloud gauzily draped across the blue sky, catching the late light.

I've been on the island of Grand Manan this week, a completely transporting trip to another world, it felt like. The drive across small roads in Quebec's Eastern Townships, huge swoops of hills, was great, and a reliving of drives I took as a kid with my parents, though now those roads are paved, not dirt. Northern Maine is as pine tree-lined and dark as ever, with beautiful salt-box houses and outbuildings, sparely elegant. But it was Grand Manan, with its steep sandstone cliffs on the west coast, and curving small harbours on the other side that was the new pleasure.

My friend Lianne and her husband have a small house just near Castalia Marsh, on the north end of the island, with a view due east across the water, Nova Scotia out of sight across the blue of the Bay of Fundy. The tides weren't as huge as usual this week, because the moon is not full, though they were still remarkable compared to the tides in most places. The weather was changeable, so skies were dramatic.

On the food front, we went each day to the terrifically good (we have nothing near this quality in Toronto) artisanal bakery, North Head Bakery, not far from Lianne's house. The St John's River breads, multigrain, au levain, with a wonderful crust, were stunning, and so was the Old French Raisin bread (even though I don't usually love raisins in bread). The bakery alone is worth the trek to Grand Manan, seriously. (It's open from May until Canadian Thanksgiving, in October, five days a week.)

We had other luck too: there were fresh scallops at the Kwik-Way one evening, so we bought a pound of them and cooked them lightly and quickly in a little oil with some fresh local garlic. We ate them over fresh rice, with tender salad greens and yellow cherry tomatoes from a wonderful local garden in Whale's Cove. Instead of salt, I sprinkled my rice and tomatoes with dulse flakes - a great condiment from Grand Manan. Lianne and I are hoping to do a three day immersethrough session at this time next year on Grand Manan, probably the week after Labour Day. Now I've seen for myself how much food and culture there will be to explore with people. ANd then there's the whale-watching too....

We stopped in at a dulse-selling place and learned a little about how dulsing works, and about the other seaweeds/algaes that are gathered in Grand Manan. Talk turned to the perils of fishing: a few days ago a scallop boat with four aboard went down in the Bay of Fundy. There's no explanation for it, but the boat has gone. The men at the dulse shop talked about another boat that went down suddenly recently: something important (I don't remember what, the rudder? or?) broke or popped, making a large hole, but in that case the men were luckier, there was a lifeboat and they realised in time to get it launched and save themselves. I had thought that weather was the big risk, but really, it was a reminder that nothing can be taken for granted when you depend on the sea.

My small bag of clothes from the trip is impregnated with sea-aroma, the taste of the wild deeps, for I've brought bags of dulse back with me to Toronto. That haunting iodine-iron-salt-and more scent brings with it the reminder of our fragility in the face of mother nature's power. And it also reminds me of our ongoing debt to those who fish and grow and gather food for us.

Sunday, September 12, 2010


What a packed week! All over the city the children have made it to school and now this coming week the young adults start back to university, with hopes and fears and edginess and optimisim.

And to keep them company in all those contradictory feelings, the weather has alternated between chilly and damp, and sunny and intensely warm. So we dress in layers and adapt minute to minute, (a good description of what life demands generally, don't you think? ). This is the season when some are still wearing flip-flops and others are already in tall leather boots. The cityscape is a treat these days, is I guess what I am saying.

This weekend I went up to Grey County to stay with friends. The smell in the air when I arrived was pure autumn, that sweet smell of drying starting-to-decay leaves. It seemed strange, since the trees are still green green. But the chickadees are already fully into their winter chickadee-dee-dee song, and in some places a few leaves are starting to turn colours, so it's time to admit that this wonderful summer is really and truly winding down. We had a sauna, in the evening after supper, as the rain dripped down in cold drops. It was especially wonderful to get heated through, snug in the scent of hot cedar, and then sit outside in the chill and damp, billowing steam, impervious to the cold, sauna-invincible for the moment!

I'm off to Ottawa on the train, rushing through the countryside under a huge cloudscape of a sky, white billows riding in the blue in all directions. Tomorrow I'll make the long drive to Grand Manan with my friend Lianne, who has a house there. I've never been to this storied island in the Bay of Fundy, a ninelty minute ride from southern New Brunswick. It'll be a bit of a marathon, but fun too, to cut through Quebec and across northern Maine, all in one day. I haven't travelled that route since driving to Maine with the kids in a little Honda Civic seventeen or eighteen years ago. I'm due back late Friday (it really is a quick trip!).

Right now the passengers in this train car with me are mostly sleeping, deep breathing on all sides, secure. I was talking the other day with Lillian about my grandparents, who ranched in northern British Columbia and didn't have a car until 1959 or 1960. They travelled everywhere in a cart or a buggy or sleigh, or else on horseback. By choice, they had no phone. So distances were entirely different from how they seem to us these days. The train then represented travel to them, the way they could get from where they were to Vancouver or to Eastern Canada, a rare treat. I find myself trying to imagine the state of mind that that situation produced in them. Perhaps, in the same way that radio is more exciting than television, because we visualise situations rather than passively receiving them on the screen, living in relative isolation meant that books and visitors became more vivid, more precious, richer in many ways. What do you think?

I know that when I am rushing (actually, or in my head in anticipation) from the email world to the telephone to chatting with a friend who has dropped by to writing a blogpos, something is lost, a deliberateness perhaps, and a rounding out of my thinking. And when I listen to the radio in the morning, which I enjoy, it does indeed scramble me a bit, sending me off on thoughts of this and that, so that I need my run to get me back into thinking in an extended way about a piece of writing or another creative idea.

Has this blogpost gone from the idea of the start of the school year to musings on relative technologies and how they affect our state of mind? It seems so. I'm not writing as a Luddite here: I would not want to live as my grandparents chose to. I love the comings and goings with friends on the internet and the phone and in real life. I thrive in the social vibrancy of the city. But I do wonder at the difference s between my rippled mind and the calmer stiller pool that the mind of a contemplative or a person living less socially must be.

In the course of last week, because it was chilly and there was a Rosh Hashonah meal out and another celebration, this one a birthday supper, I ended up making five skillet cakes in the space of seven days. Hilarious when I look back on it. And they each vanished, down various happy gullets. One had a thick coating of wild blueberries on it, others had cooked chopped purple plums, one had the end of the peaches... and all of them were tender because they were made with mostly pastry/cake flour, usually whole wheat, and only a little all-purpose.

Another cooking note: I cut some corn kernals off the cob the other day to add to a simmered combination of chopped end-of- season vegetables, all local, including okra and dandelion greens, a little tomato, tomatillos, zucchini, patty-pan squash, and garlic. The combo, slow simmered in olive oil (the non-local ingredient I love) was just delicious, the sweet of the corn balancing out the bitter of the dandelion, etc.

That led me a couple of days later to cut kernals off and add them to a hot wok as part of a quick little vegetable stir-fry. What a mistake! I mean, the result was delicious, but I have to warn you NOT to stir-fry corn kernals at high heat, at least not tender moist ones. They exploded with a lethal pop and spatter in the hot oil, one by one by one, like little grenades. I moved the corn up the sides of the wok so I could fry my morning egg in the centre, as and I broke the egg into the pan, ZAP!! a double hit of exploding corn kernal sent hot oil spitting up onto my wrist. I am fine, not noticeably burned. But it felt very violent! So my final word on this is, please be cautious with corn kernals and hot oil!

Monday, September 6, 2010


It happened overnight, the end of summer. Suddenly we were being blown and chilled tempestuously, by winds that gusted and shifted, sending clouds racing and people hurryng to find their wool sweaters and their windbreakers. That was last Friday night, after a week of hot heavy days. I had a restless sleep, and so did many others, I gather. I've been leaving my door open all summer, the door from my top-floor bedroom out onto a small balcony. It's given me a sleeping-outside feeling, free and airy, on the hot nights we've had since June. But sometime in the middle of the night what felt like howling gales through the door drove me up out of my bed to close it, with a sigh of regret and relief, both: regret of course at the end of the soft warmth of summer, and relief once the chilly winds were shut out by the firmly closed door.

Saturday morning's early bicycle ride to the Brickworks Market was windy and blowy, and at the market people who had looked out and seen sun, but not read the paper or looked at the weather forecast online, were shivering in T-shirts - brrrr! - as they bought their bread and meat and end-of-summer tomatoes and plums, and tried to warm themselves with hot coffee. I was in three layers topped by a scarf wrapped round and round my neck, and still I was barely warm enough. But the balancing pleasure to all that cold was realising that it was time to start baking, so in went a skillet cake, this one topped with chopped peaches, chopped but not peeled. (That cake has already vanished, and a second, made last night, is well on its way too.)

Saturday evening after supper and cake with mint tea, with the winds calmed back down, I went for a walk with friends through the University of Toronto campus. It was beautiful, but empty of people, a stage-set just before the curtain rises.

And sure enough, on Sunday morning before eight, as I ran through campus, there were the first signs of renewed life. A woman walking toward me near one of the residences carrying an armload of clothing smiled at me in the sunshine as she said, with delight, "What a beautiful first day at university! She's so lucky!" She told me they'd driven in early from the Niagara peninsula to move her daughter into residence, then she carried on down the path, followed by her daughter and others, each of them loaded with "stuff". As I ran on under the intensely blue clear sky I could hear the leaves rustling, that sound that starts in early autumn as the leaves dry out in the cold. How does it happen overnight? I thought, that suddenly the leaves are getting ready to fall rather than working on photosynthesis and making life?

Once more the reminders pour in, that change is a constant, with the scales weighted on both sides, life and death, endings and beginnings of all kinds. At this time of year, as summer warmth and life is dying, a different kind of life is starting afresh for so many...

it is the start of a new year this week, not just Rosh Hoshana in the Jewish calendar, but the new year for all of us who live with or near schools or universities or live with people who are engaged with education. There's that feeling of hope and sense of optimism and promise in the air, in the voices of the students, on the faces of parents and teachers and students alike. Our four-year-old friend E is headed into junior kindergarten, wriggling with anticipation. Our friend N is starting her first year at university, delighted to be done with high school. And so it goes, in thousands of households.

For me it's a thrill every year, it's each time a fresh pleasure, to watch the new year begin.

Meanwhile in the garden my tomato plants are yielding less and less (some of them because of blight as well as shorter chillier days), though the mint and basil is still vigorous, and I tell myself each day that I must plant some salad greens (should have done it several weeks ago in fact). I found the seed packages today, mixed salad greens and leaf lettuce, and they'll go in tomorrow. With any luck there will be time before the snow falls in any serious way to pick some tender lettuce. I hope so!