Friday, February 28, 2014


I’m sitting in my Toronto-bound plane in HongKong airport, waiting for everyone else to get seated, as the sun comes out from the mist and cloud and the afternoon shadows sharpen and lengthen.

In the last few days of packing and anticipating departure from Chiang Mai, I’ve found myself in a familiar state: a little edgy, sharp-tongued, unsettled. You’d think that after all these years I would take departures for granted, but somehow that has not happened. I’ve written here before about how I hope I never lose my sense of wonder about travel, whether in a plane or otherwise. Part of that wonder is also what gives me edge and edginess: a departure is a loss, a severing from place and people. It’s something I can never get used to. On the other hand departure is also marks the start of new possibilities and the opening of new horizons. That’s why travel has such appeal to many people, including me.

But there’s a disconnect between the romantic notion of “travel to faraway lands” and the focus and attention to detail that are necessary to actually get where you’re going. When it comes right down to the actual days leading up to departure, the practical details of packing enough underwear and warm or cool or whatever clothing, and basic checklist questions such as do I have my passport and other essentials? have I locked the house? watered the plants? etc, then there’s not much romance. 

I think it’s in part that need to focus on practical details that makes me edgy.

But I think that it’s mostly because I have an old-fashioned feeling about travel. No matter that flights halfway around the world can happen with speed and ease. For me they are still huge and momentous departures. Perhaps I’m channeling the feelings of fear and anticipation that humans have felt for centuries as they embarked on perilous sailing-ship voyages, often never to return home, or made the fraught transition from hard-scrabble village and farm life in rural China or India or Africa to the terrors and possibilities of the cities….

Thus the idea of departure becomes one more moment in life where we can be either “glass half full” or “glass half empty” people. I am mostly a glass half full person, with a (sometimes irritating-to-others) inclination to see the positive. When the time for departure actually comes, though I may have been edgy ahead of time about the loss involved in saying farewell or the anxiety about what might come, I lose that little feeling of dread and can usually feel unequivocally pleased about the new horizons that lie in the journey and the destination. I’m not bragging about this. I think it’s just a matter of luck that I love the unknown and the unexpected, rather than fearing them.

Now safely landed in the wintry chill of Toronto in late February, I look back on the thoughts I had in the plane and on my edginess before leaving, and they feel like the clothing I wore in the flight: familiar, now needing a wash and an airing, but destined to be worn again when the time comes to make another departure.

These habits of thought, which we may well be able to modify when we’re young, eventually become part of us, at least so it seems. I don’t expect ever to get matter-of-fact about departures or long flights or parting from loved ones.

And if travel is, as the truism goes, a metaphor for life, then it is one way of accustoming ourselves to the truth that all life is change. We can count on nothing remaining constant except the fact that everything changes and that we are all mortal and headed sooner or later to the biggest change of all. Every departure is a small death, just as falling asleep can be, a letting go, a loosening of the ties to the known and an embarking on unknown seas...

Wednesday, February 19, 2014


I’m still in a bit of a fog, book-lagged not jet-lagged, after finishing In the Eye of the Sun, an extraordinary novel by Ahdaf Soueif. (It was published in 1992, then reissued in paperback in 2000, following the success of her subsequent very engaging book The Map of Love.) What swept me up? Well the story, for one, but even more, the way she tells it, the intimacy of detail about the feelings and thoughts of Alsya, the heroine and main narrator. She’s Egyptian, young, educated, ambitious. Through her we enter a world of young men and women who are trying to find their way personally, sexually, and professionally in the 1970’s and early 1980’s. So it’s a coming-of-age story at one level, set in a world both familiar (the mind of an educated young woman in the late 20th century) and unfamiliar (who is Egyptian). The backdrop is the history and politics of Egypt between 1948 and 1980 and the cultural expectations Alsya and her friends are born into.

All this sounds heavy perhaps. But it’s not. The book takes us so deftly into the hesitations and anxieties of Alsya that we feel and we live her sense of uncertainty, her anguish, and her confidence.

I’ve come reeling out the other end of the book still carrying the sights and scents of her world in my head, and hearing the echoes of the voices of her friends and family. And now I want to find other writing by Ahdaf Soueif. (I loved The Map of Love but this first book, perhaps because it is an intensely lived roman-a-clef, is even more memorable.)

If you have any curiosity about modern Egypt, or about women, do read it.

I find myself remembering how I felt at age 20 when I read Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners. It’s a novel by a woman and about a woman. It hit me hard. I felt that it spoke to me. And that was because in the early 1970’s I had come across very little modern fiction written by women. The lovely familiarity of a woman’s point of view was unknown to me, almost. Then I discovered Doris Lessing’s Golden Notebook, and her wonderful Summer Before the Dark, as well as work by other novelists who are women, and plunged in. I have the same sense of fresh discovery with this book.

Another discovery for me are two other books, both by women, both transporting and unexpected. The first is The House in Clewe Street by Mary Lavin. She’s a well-known (but not by me until now) Irish novelist who writes intuitively and beautifully abut characters living in the narrow constraints of middle-class village life in early 20th century Ireland. The edition I read was published in the oh-so-rewarding Virago series. It took me into a world I hadn’t known about much, except to the extent that it reminds me of the tight attitudes of several of my Scottish great-aunts. Now to find more by Mary Lavin.

And the second (also a Virago edition) is by Olivia Manning. I know only her best-known books, two trios of novels: the Balkan Trilogy and the Levant Trilogy, all engaging and memorable must-reads. (In the trilogy novels we see events through the eyes of a young Englishwoman who, at the start of the Balkan trilogy, is living in Bucharest and by the end of the Levant trilogy and the end of the war is in Egypt.)

But this Olivia Manning book predates the trilogies. It’s called The Doves of Venus and is set in England, mostly London, in the late nineteen-thirties. It’s a kind of coming-of-age slice of two years in the life of a young woman named Ellie, who is admirably determined to make her way on her own in London. She’s na├»ve, optimistic, and very open. We come to know an appealing (and sometimes appalling) cast of characters and their lives in prewar England, and we watch Ellie navigate the complexities of growing up. What makes the book so strong? There’s the writing, clear and natural-seeming, but without a redundant word or superficial phrase. And then there’s the almost cinematographic sense of being taken into another world. Terrific.

I feel as if I’ve just come away from weeks of feasting. I’m sated, a little dazed, still reflecting on the aromas, flavours, textures, and colours of all that I’ve experienced in reading these three novels. And I am hesitant to start another book for the moment. I think I need more digesting time, so that the echoes and insights in the books have more time to ripple onward in my head, consciously and subconsciously.

I also find myself wondering at the magic that black marks on the page can create in my mind’s eye. How can I be sitting still in a room somewhere, anywhere, and yet have all these extraordinary worlds, images, insights, brought to life for me? (This is really a question for philosophers as well as for readers.) 

Apart from being in a post-reading daze, I am also feeling grateful. For I can’t think of anything more wonderful than discovering a good book and having the time and capacity to read…

Saturday, February 15, 2014


As always after the immersethrough sessions are done I have a head that’s pretty empty (tiredness) yet also full (of remembered conversations and images from 16 intense days). I loved the participants and both sessions: the six intense food days in Chiang Mai and near Fang; and the food-focussed travel in Burma (Rangoon, Bagan, and settled explorations in the Inle Lake area.)

New energy returned with full moon day yesterday. Full moon days here are always a reminder of time and belief and also of just how intensely felt and deeply important the lunar cycle is to humankind. 

The days around full moon are the time when we can see at night without electricity. That light-at-night marvel surely was an enormous gift to our ancestors. We lose track of it in our overlit electricity-rich lives. But if you find yourself sleeping out where there is no electricity, as a friend of mine did the other night at a Karen refugee camp on the border, you can retrieve the sense of wonder and be in touch with an earlier era of human history.

Speaking of nature's wonders and human history, I have just read a review of New Yorker staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert’s latest book, The Sixth Extinction. Here’s a link to the review:  From it I gather that she takes us through recent natural history and set out clear explanations of human impact on the planet and the choices that we have before us.

It’s difficult to get hold of these issues I find. We wring our hands about catastrophic natural events, but do not change our daily patterns. Instead we take airplanes, buy cars, in general consume resources and generate waste products (from carbon gasses to garbage). Why isn’t there more concerted action to change? Why don’t I change? Why don’t you? I think it’s because the problem seems so big that we feel powerless as individuals. We don’t trust that others will join us and we feel any effort any individual makes is useless. Are we waiting for some environmental messiah to lead us? We already have plenty of them…

How far along this road will we go before there’s leadership that gets all of us into a more long-term thinking mode? Right now it seems as if corporations and governments and we individuals too, are taking care of only short-term interests and short-term results. But environmental risks require long-term thinking. And so here we are.

But back to the full moon. As she looked down on Chiang Mai she’d have seen a few special sights:

It was Makha Bucha day, a special day in the buddhist calendar. It marks the time, nine months after Buddha’s enlightenment, when he gave teachings to an assembly of followers. At the Pa-O temple across the road from my apartment there was chanting in the morning, longer and more intense than usual, and then in the evening more chanting. I went over to have a look and there was the traditional Makha Bucha day procession, led by monks. The chedi and other buildings were lit with low candles in a row outside. The non-monks, about forty or so people, each carried incense, flowers, and a lit candle. They followed the handful of monks and walked around and around (three times) the chedi, chanting in Pali. The monks gestured to me to come join them and called out an invitation. But somehow I felt better as an outsider than as a participant so I smiled and wai’d my thanks, then stayed an onlooker.

I wonder why I didn’t want to join them.

Later on, in the dark, after getting a bite to eat at a cavernous traditional-style Thai eatery on Chang Moi Road, I saw fire lanterns drifting upward from somewhere nearby. It turned out, and this was the other sight for the full moon’s amusement, that someone had had the idea of making fire lanterns out of red paper and shaped like giant hearts (two bumps on top) for Valentines Day. The Valentines Day concert at Thapae Gate, all love songs, amplified and sentimental, was the sound track to masses of young people sending up heart-shaped fire lanterns.  

I’ll try to insert a photo here (taken with my telephone).

It always seems fraught to me, this combo of paper lanterns and live fire, but somehow it mostly happens without accidents. You unfold the paper, light the gas in the small metal container that is suspended at the bottom of the hollow paper lantern, hold the paper upright, the flame at the bottom, until hot air inflates and fills the lantern, then release it. Up, up it floats, swaying a little perhaps, until it gets caught by a breeze and drifts farther up and away, joining its cousins to make moving shifting constellations in the night sky. “Sanook” (fun) rules here in Thailand.

A similarly unanxious attitude about safety, this time related to food, means that there is great street food and small shophouse resto food here at all hours. The tight-assed approach of North American cities like Toronto, where practically the only streetfood permitted, for safety reasons says the health department, is hotdogs (what’s safe about cow anuses? asked a friend), yields awfulness. Here people keep clean shops and street businesses, and are creative and inventive in what they offer. Many of them have been in business for decades and take good care to maintain their reputation.

But the very word “streetfood” seem to strike fear into the hearts of some people. It’s part of the whole mistrust of the “other” I think. We fear what we don’t know. That’s perhaps reasonable and part of survival of the species. But then we have options: we can stay that way, fearful and tight, which is sterile, or we can try to learn about and experience the unknown and become comfortable with other people’s ways of doing things and of seeing the world.

The choice seems very clear to me! And to many others. But…

Saturday, February 1, 2014


It’s been a long time since I posted here. In between I’ve had a lovely intense week in Chiang Mai and up in the hills near Fang, with a crew of six fun and congenial people doing cultural immersion through food. Now I’m in Rangoon. The crows are cawing outside and dawn is lighting things up  in a pearly way.

Last night as my flight was coming in to land in Rangoon, there was a thick dark edge of night at the horizon, and above it a limpid pale blue remnant of the day washed with streaks of tender pink. The new moon lay on her back in a pale curve, already fuller that the new-year sliver of two nights ago. It was a minute or two only, that glimpse, and then darkness fell as we landed.

Reality on the ground was a reminder of how much change there’s been in Burma in the last five years. Traffic here gets thicker and more predictably impossible each time I come. Travel times across the city have doubled and tripled. The heavy traffic is a consequence of the government having lifted taxes on cars so they are affordable to many more people. And that in turn is a sign of the improvement in quality of life for many in central Burma since late 2011, as well as a cause of new and greater stress for taxi drivers and other less affluent people: those who must commute in the ancient crowded busses here.

I’ve been thinking about time, its elasticity and its relentless march too, in my/our daily lives.

Cooking sessions with Fern’s mother Khun Mae, who is a brilliant home cook from a village near Fang in northern Thailand, are always a reminder that traditional methods of food preparation do not allow for shortcuts. It takes the time it takes to reduce the ingredients for a curry paste to the necessary even texture using a mortar and pestle, or to chop meat to an even fine texture for laap or meatballs, using a knife in each hand rat-tat-tat-tat-tat. When I was in rural Senegal long ago I had an immersing lesson in just how long it takes to clean rice of its husks in a mortar, or to reduce millet to fine flour in a mortar. There are no shortcuts there. And any attempt to skimp on care results in wastefulness: the food is not good or it is inedible or indigestible. And the cook’s job is to make best use of the food resources she has.

This is why Rachel Laudan, food historian and analytical thinker about food, is so forceful in reminding us that modern equipment and food processing is a blessing, for it has relieved many (mostly women) of the burden of hours of daily labour. (See her terrific recent book Cuisine and Empire.) Her great example, presented at an IACP food history mini-conference in Mississippi some years ago, was the hours that women in Mexico had to spend every day kneeling and grinding with a metate in order to produce enough masa for the household. Now there are simple machines that do that work. And the women thus have some hours available to do other things, like earning money outside the home for example. That in turn enables them to pay for schooling for their children. And so on…

So how much time do we have freed up, in our machine-assisted world? And how do we use it?

That’s the other cluster of questions my thoughts on “time” have been circling round. I’m not happy with what I see myself doing sometimes. The clear spaces of open time that I need in order to daydream, have fresh thoughts, and write are often eroded by my lingering on this laptop of mine, trailing after this story or that, or rechecking the Twitter feed or my email or (less compulsively) my Facebook pages.

It happened again last night, as I was headed for bed, tired from a week of intense immersethrough work. Instead of getting deep into my book (a pleasure I’d had on the plane), I messed around on the computer reading articles I found linked on Twitter, and I also got caught up in the very seductive form of Scrabble called Playing with Words that is now on my Samsung phone. Time slid by and soon it was well after one in the morning.

It was fun, don’t get me wrong. Two of my concurrent Scrabble games were with my kid Dom, who beat me and then started two more matches with me. He’s on the other side of the world in Toronto and it was a fun way of being in touch. Time sped by without my noticing, ran away downhill, leaving me high and dry and overtire. And a part of me felt pretty stupid for having fallen down the rabbit hole once again.

But playing word games, reading interesting articles, and catching up with news elsewhere are all fun and absorbing pleasures, and let’s agree that pleasure is a wonderful part of life. How lucky to have the time for it! Why do I spoil it by whining and regretting after the fact? How silly.

I guess it’s my mother’s voice from long ago echoing in me, critical of my “wasting time”.  She died in her mid-fifties, far too young, so perhaps somewhere in her bones was a deep knowledge that life is short and time is precious. But in fact I’m sure she got the reflex from her judgmental father, and passed it on.

It’s an attitude that casts a sort of calvinistic pall over wanton time-frivolity.

And so I conclude that there’s a balance to look for here on this "spending time," attitudes to time, impatience-with-long-tasks front. I think it comes down to this: I need to try to be present to the moment and in the moment.

On the one hand that means putting in the necessary time, without rushing or trying to shortcut it, to do whatever job I am doing (hideous vacuuming for example, or taxes) properly and thoroughly, however tedious. Of course it’s a good idea to think ahead and see if there are ways of simplifying or shortening or lightening the task. But once embarked on it, I need to just settle in to doing it well and completely.

And on the other hand, when it’s time for fun, it’s time for fun. And to second-guess and spoil that pleasure by after-regret is to waste it. Right?

That leaves me with a motto/note-to-self something like this: Whatever you take on, whatever you spend time on, do it well and whole-heartedly, and without regret.

Easier said than done, as always!