Saturday, March 29, 2014


Here we are at the last weekend in March, with the equinox behind us, and yet it’s still chilly. At least I am now bicycling again. I took it out this morning to ride to Wychwood Market in a cold wind. It’s been four months since my old red Diamond Back bicycle, the one I rode from Kashgar over the Khujerab pass and down the Hunza Valley to Gilgit in 1986, has been out on the road. It could do with a cleaning and a tune-up (scheduled for next week), and this morning the back tire needed air, but everything else is fine. Not bad for a bicycle that’s getting on for thirty years old.

I’m very attached to my bicycle. It’s got scraped-off paint here and there, from being hauled on trucks and busses etc while it traveled with me in Tibet and Xinjiang and Pakistan and Nepal, and also from being locked to bits of railing around town in the years since. So it’s not a thing of beauty. And it’s also very old-style of course: no suspension (no-one was doing that in the early mountain bike era), and the gears are not synchro-mesh. I think braking systems have also improved in the intervening years, so the brakes too are very retro, and probably less effective than they could be.

When I dropped by last week on foot to Urbane Cyclist, not far from where I live, to make an appointment for a post-winter tune-up, the person in the repair shop, hearing that my bike was old, suggested that rather than getting a major tune-up, which can run to $200 plus, I might want to consider buying a new bike. I didn’t have my bike with me; she said I should come by with it and get a sense from them about whether it was worth maintaining.

Of course I was a little shocked. Abandon my bicycle? Just because it’s old and a little out-moded?

It’s true that in Chiang Mai I have a more modern bike, white and black, a Giant brand (made in China) which I bought in the fall of 2012. It’s got suspension and synchro-mesh gearing, it’s comfortable, and a pleasure to ride. When I first ride it after arriving in Chiang Mai, each time I am struck by how sleek and easy it is, how user-friendly compared to my old red Diamond Back. I feel guilty, sort of disloyal, for even thinking this way.

The suggestion that I move to a newer model here in Toronto is a reasonable one, on its face. But I don’t intend to do it. Why leave behind all that history when the bicycle is perfectly functional? I don’t care that it could be more comfortable or easy or whatever. I’m not interesting in optimising my “stuff”. I live in a house that is draughty and imperfect, a house that I keep repaired more or less, but that I don’t abandon for newer more “practical” lodging. It’s the same with clothing: I hang onto certain coats and jackets and other garments that I’ve had for ages. They get worn now and then, but even when they just hang in the closet the sight of them reminds me of places and people and stories, and enriches me.

It’s the same way with friends. I don’t like to lose people, to let them slide away, though it does happen. I like to keep the fabric of things knitted together if possible. The bicycle is part of that effort, a conscious preserving and keeping alive of a now long-past time in my life. And by using the bike and keeping it integrated into my current patterns of travel and connection, I keep a long thread going, a thread that began ages ago.

The interesting thing for me is to see how threads of place and people and idea come and go in importance. For example, when I get on my bike, or just see it sitting in the front hall waiting to be taken for an airing, I flash on central Asia, stacks of flatbreads, dry air, the scent of smoke, and more. It’s a long time since I was last in Xinjiang, but these days, as I immerse in my Persian World project, central Asia is again on my mind a lot. The bicycle gives me a little Proustian kick back to central Asia, so that my time there doesn't feel as remote. That perhaps explains why, when I was in the rolling grasslands near Mashad last October, the landscape was immediately familiar, and so was the feeling of exhilaration at being back in a central Asian environment. 

The memories and ties from the past, be they an old piece of clothing, a longstanding friendship, a scarred bicycle, are precious connections, cross-ties to the warp and weft of our lives. It seems to me that as we race around, in physical ways, or just mentally and imaginatively through the miracle of internet access, we are in extra need of grounding. I want to not lose track of who I am, and that means staying in touch with a sense of who and where I have been as I traveled to this point.

And so when I take my bike in to Urbane Cycle, I don't imagine I'll be looking longingly at shiny new bicycles. The new and perfect is highly over-rated, don’t you think? I'm sure that I don’t want a newborn bike, with no history, no associations, no resonance. I want to go on riding the  memory-laden red bicycle I’ve lived with for so long, with all its imperfections.

Thursday, March 20, 2014


Here it is at last, the day we reach the spring equinox. Unlike time zones, this is one marker that the whole world transits at the same moment in some kind of “let’s all hold hands and…” way. Here in Toronto that moment will be just before one o’clock this afternoon.

We notice it’s spring, in Europe and North America, and we rejoice at the return of the light and the promise of fine weather. But we don’t have a big festival. I’m sure the Celts had druidic festivals, and other northern peoples must have too. After all, the timing of Christian Easter is reminder of our need for new life and the greening that spring brings.

In other parts of the world this is the start of the new year, a time for celebration. The festival Nou-Roz, also known in the west as Persian New Year, is a reminder of the deep inheritance that Zoroastrianism left in the Persian World, the region centred on present-day Iran but that includes neighbouring countries and peoples too. The religion arose around the same time as Buddhism, over 2500 years ago (an interesting sychronicity). It was the first monotheistic religion that we know of, pre-dating Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The sun and the natural world’s rhythms are embedded in the religion’s view of the battle between light and dark, good and evil. Thus the return of the sun, marking the end of cold winter, and the return of the light, is cause for celebration.

The peoples who are still marked by Zoroastrian practices and beliefs, even if most of them are now Christian or Muslim, are those from the region that extends from Iran and Azerbaijan into Iraqi Kurdistan, east to Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, and to Shia communities in Pakistan and India. (There are still Zoroastrians in Iran and area, and of course the Parsi community, that left Persia and settled in India long ago, follows the teachings of Zoroaster.) No-Roz festivities last abut two weeks. There is feasting, there are green herbs and vegetables and sprouted lentils and wheat as a symbol of new growth (and green is a privileged colour in Zoroastrian rites), picnics on the grass, and more.

This new year talk as I work on my Persian World book gets me examining some basics, a kind of mental spring cleaning you might say: What am I doing each day? How am I doing it? Could I do better? The answer to the last question is always “yes”. But that leads to the next question: “how?”.

I’ve come to think that one of the best things about this life of freelance work – the fact that I have a flexible schedule – is also one of the most onerous. It means that I have to take responsibility for deciding which jobs get done first, which tasks in the day, the week, the year, are most urgent or important. If there’s a mess-up, it’s my fault. And sometimes I spend too much effort hesitating about what to do next.

I am inclined to just move forward into the array of to-do’s, moving from one to the next (post another blogpiece here, return that call or reply to those emails, do more background reading for my book project, sort through photos to send some out, write that magazine article, test those recipes, tidy the office, do taxes…you get the idea).

But now we read that decision-making takes up more energy than most of us realise. Even decision-making about small things. Long ago I had a friend who decided to avoid decision-making about what to wear: all his socks were one colour, his shirts were white, and his pants were jeans. It took the pressure off and simplified his day. It turns out to have been a smart move, taking away one layer of decision-making, however superficial.

I’ve always enjoyed the feeling that I’m improvising things: the shape of my day, what I will wear, the shape of a trip… I don’t like to feel heavily planned. But that also means that I’ve been in flight from the predictable, the known-ahead, the set list of fixed tasks or obligations. It’ s a rather reactive way to live: rather than taking charge and deciding ahead what I will do in a day, I react to events, to feelings and impulses in myself, and bumble my way along. It can work very well sometimes, and is just fine most days. But with new research about the mental drain that decision-making causes, even the most superficial decision-making, I think it’s time I smartened up.

Wouldn’t it be better to have a list and just work through it? I do think so. And slowly I am learning to make a list the night before, as guidance for the next day or several days. (The evening is a good time, because it gives some distance; there’s no pressure to get started right away, just a relatively calm contemplation of the coming day or week). I find if I do that I waste less time (and mental energy, even more importantly) thinking about what to do next or worrying about what else I should get done on a given morning.

This may all be completely obvious to everyone else, but it’s taken me a long time to realise it. Some of us are slow!

CEO’s or high-level politicians usually have a long tightly scheduled list of activities and obligations each day. They don’t waste time figuring out what comes next; someone else, perhaps in consultation with them, and well ahead, has already done the work.

If I treat myself as a CEO, and each evening give myself the benefit of setting out the shape of the next day’s tasks and projects, then surely I too can have more energy for real and important decision-making, and for creative work too. It doesn’t have to be scheduled, let alone tightly scheduled, but an ordered list, with some idea of where the start-point is, is in the end very restful.

The other thing to schedule, of course, is enforced breaks from noodling around online. I’ve written about this before. And I am doing increasingly well at retreating from temptation, giving myself chunks of work time without online distraction. Margaret Atwood posted on Twitter the other day that she was retreating to her “burrow” I think was the word, to get work done. Clever woman! It is so important to have an image, if not an actual space, that conveys that sense of retreat from the distracting wonderful world. And that’s the word I like for the sense of withdrawal: “retreat”.

Once I’ve posted this, I’ll retreat to my work oasis…

Saturday, March 8, 2014


I have always hated vacuuming, ever since I was a kid, when it would fall to me occasionally to haul the Electrolux (a sausage shaped model from before the second war that my mother had inherited from her mother-in-law) around the living room. “But what is the point?” I remember saying fiercely to my mother once, when she’d discovered the less than wonderful job I’d done of vacuuming the carpet. “It just has to be done all over again in a week. So why bother?”

Why indeed. But we need to keep dirt and pests at bay, it’s a fact of living in houses, apartments, caves, any kind of fixed dwelling. And so we sweep and dust and mop and wash, and some of us vacuum.

Rather than growing out of my old attitudes, I have continued to dread the thought of having to vacuum. My mother’s hand-me-down Electrolux seems a miracle of efficient sensible engineering compared to the vacuums I have come across subsequently, which were either heavy and awkward, or lightweight, breakable ones which failed to suck up anything.

And so for some years now I have not vacuumed at all. I have limped along, with a not very clean house, relying on mopping, sweeping, and dusting. No, I don’t have anyone come in to clean; I take a stab at it intermittently and encourage my housemates (my grown kids) to tackle cleaning chores occasionally too.

But recently there’s been a revolution: a dear friend and I have bought a vacuum, to share, and it’s a miracle of good design and ease. I thought I’d never seee the day, but I have to admit that, while I don’t love vacuuming, I now take it on without dread, and with a certain satisfaction at the vanishing of the dust and dirt.

It makes me wonder about how many other things could be made easier or more enjoyable, with an improvement of design. I’ve already discovered the delights of a well-designed stove (two years ago, another revelation), but this vacuum thing is even more astonishing to me. I’m now casting my eyes and mind around to think about what other tools and daily tasks need reconfiguring. There’s wiring - cords and plugs etc - which is always a hassle, getting tangled and needing more sockets than many rooms provide. And then there’s lighting: the new fluorescents work fine, but the design of the individual lights, table and floor lamps in particular, is still aggravating, either inadequate or glaring or ugly, or a combination of all those.

Do I sound like a grump? I don’t mean to, in fact this list is coming out of my delighted realisation that with effort and imagination, small things can be improved in a way that makes a big difference.

All these domestic complaints and musings of mine are nothing of course, I mean they are “first world problems”, compared to the difficulties that face women who live in refugee camps in Syria or in Central African Republic or on the borders of Burma or many other places. They need to haul water, haul firewood, try to find a way to wash clothing, feed their children, and also keep a sense of dignity and order. They sweep and wash and cook and worry. A machine to do the work is the furthest thing from their minds.

So why do these mundane chores oppress those of us who live in comfort rather than out on the street or in a fragile temporary camp somewhere? What right have we to complain?

The fact is that most humans have in their minds an expectation of what the day will bring and what they are “owed” in a day. It’s the gap between those expectations and the reality that sets us up to grumble and feel hard-done-by. We don’t live with an absolute scale in our daily lives, at least most of us don’t. We don’t remember to think about the people who live in impossibly difficult and dangerous situations. Most of us are attached in our imaginations merely to our own expectations; they give us confidence and a kind of road map of who and where we are.

To let ourselves imagine a totally other possible life, one full of hardship and risk, is too frightening, too demanding, for most of us.

And so on March 8, the day that the international world has decided to set aside as International Women’s Day, let’s take a chunk of time to consider the lives of other women and to give them the respect that their valiantness and their persistence deserve. Where we’re born and what catastrophes we find ourselves in are both mostly out of our control. So the fact that you who are reading this are mostly NOT at immediate risk of attack or starvation or other extreme forms of violence (though I agree that any of us may, and many do, encounter anti-woman violence in words and deeds at any time, in any situation) is in many ways a matter of luck.

I don’t think I deserve my luck. If I thought I did it would mean that women born into pain and suffering deserve that, and I cannot accept that anyone deserves that birthright.

And so let’s be grateful for what we have, and spend some reflection time considering the lives of others and giving them help where we can, and respect always.