Friday, August 29, 2014


It’s warm and kind in the sun, but sitting here in the shade, in my small back garden, the cool of autumn is tickling my skin and reminding me that Labour Day is around the corner. I’m not ready for this! Perhaps no-one is, including teachers and kids heading back to school. And here in Toronto, where we’ve had an unusually cool summer after a long harsh record-setting winter, we’re feeling a little robbed of warmth and renewal.

You can’t tell that though from looking at gardens and farmers’ markets. Somehow the tough winter helped many plants and crops thrive, in a kind of “if you weren’t killed by the cold, then you are stronger and more vigorous” kind of scenario. Thus the stone fruits are full of flavour, the arugula and sorrel in my garden are still luxuriant, and the cool weather has kept the lettuce lively too. The bees are humming, working hard, sucking at the chive flowers and the remains of the phlox and lilies, the flowering arugula gone wild, and the odd daisy.

Meantime next door the neighbours’ little kids are playing in water, splashing and squabbling and then laughing again…a last hurrah before the older child heads to kindergarten next Tuesday.

I think of school as a process of socialisation: we learn about the diversity of characters and interactions from spending time with people we did not choose, in a relatively orderly environment, and with distractions, such as learning, to help us stay on track and focussed. If school helps us maintain respect for ourselves and others, and learn to discern and work with the differences between us, then that’s a huge accomplishment. The marks and “benchmarks” are so much less important!

Up the street, speaking of school and turning points in the year, the campus of the University of Toronto has been mown and tidied and repaired and touched up, in preparation for the arrival of students. Awkward first year students and their worldly possessions are being unloaded in front of residences by their parents this weekend; the cooler at-ease-in-the-city upper year students will be around in a week’s time. So now is the last day to get to the University bookstore for supplies before the huge long line-ups start. The next time for easy access will be in four weeks.

And so the world turns in this safe-feeling Toronto of no war and predictable seasonal cycles.

But across the water people are suffering in fragmented and war-torn landscapes. Syria is a catastrophe, and parts of Iraq too, and in Ukraine Putin is flexing the muscles he first used to wrest Abkhazia and North Ossetia from Georgia. The era of the cold war, so static and buttoned down, and full of bluster, with two clear “sides” must feel desirable to some people in retrospect, just as many in the ex-Soviet Union after 1990 spoke fondly of the certainties of life under the Soviet dictatorship. But now we’re in a new era and have to feel our way and figure out how to stay open to the wider world.

It’s too easy to turn our backs on the pain of others. Their pain and suffering make us uncomfortable; perhaps we feel guilty for being so well off in our peaceful place while other suffer. But I do think it’s important to keep thinking about the individual human beings on the ground, anywhere and everywhere in the world. They deserve our attention, our respect, and our help.

Food is a thread that we can use to help understand others, in fact to help visualise ourselves in their place. Even as there are rocket launchers attacking, in Gaza or Syria, there are home cooks figuring out how to feed their families, and bakers heating their ovens to get the day’s bread baked.

And that visualising of the daily food preparation, and family meals of others, in turn helps us remember that we are all on this planet together. It helps us have respect for the people we share the planet with, just as, when we were in primary school, we were all in the classroom together, with our differences and our difficulties, embarked on trying to understand what was going on and to learn.

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