Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Spirit of Christmas

Every Christmas season my preparations begin with a reading of Charles Dickens 'A Christmas Carol'. There is something about Dickens which makes me yearn to curl up by a fire. I want the scent of game pies and thick meaty stews, mulled wine and tangerine oranges. I want to sip egg nog and break off bits of rich, buttery fruit cake with my fingers and pop them into my mouth as I read.

A Christmas Carol is a moral lesson in miracles. It teems and seethes with life. Sadness, fear, danger, loneliness, sacrifice, perhaps none of these are impossible to cope with, but bleak hopelessness, and the cynicism that comes with believing in nothing, are soul destroying.

Dickens hated sham and humbug. False feelings and false friends are endlessly exposed in myriad ways in his work. It's difficult sometimes, with all the rampant consumerism raging around us, to push the trivial aside, and connect with something deeper. The truth of my own intrinsic vitality and vulnerability cry out for hope, for communion, for miracles. 'A Christmas Carol' enfolds me in a mystery and compassion which stretches far beyond my own heart.

Christmas, of all celebrations, is a time for real feelings, real friends, real food, and real memories. It is a time to celebrate the birth of Christ, a time for charity and compassion, a time of giving and receiving, a time of love. Scrooge discovered it through the agency of a benevolent spirit. For me, its joy and good will are heralded by the company of a good book.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Emily and Me

Through an aisle of waving grasses and woodland wildflowers, I approach the high bench where I plan to sit quietly for an hour or so, gathering scattered pieces of myself. Resting at the crest of a hill I sit overlooking Mt. Peter and Mt. Paul, twin mountains guarding the Thompson River which floats like a curled blue ribbon on the earth.

 I carry with me only a pen, a journal, a bottle of water, and the buzz in my head. I sit with my back against the bench and my face to the east, where the yellowing grasses are hazy in the afternoon sun. I draw in a deep breath. Not for the first time, I think of how fortunate I am to live only a short five minute hike from this stunning vista.

Although I can’t let go of language entirely, I do manage to sit for a long spell in a wakeful hush. I keep my eyes open because I wish to see the stillness, not escape from it. The panorama I see is hardly wilderness, and yet every blade of grass, every bird and twig courses with a wild energy. The same energy pours through me. Although my body grows calm from sitting still, I rock slightly with the slow pulse of my heart. My breath and the clouds ride the same wind.

I think of the way humpback whales breach the sea with a snort from their blowholes and a wave of their flukes, and I remember how the water erased all signs of their passage moments after they dove again. Is that how it is for us? Do we slip crying breath into this world only to disappear, all traces lost when our time is done?

Physically gone, yes. But what about the soul? The heart? The essence of the beloved. Memories float in and out of consciousness; now gentle, now raging, now yearning. Images of an old wooden boat which has slipped away from its moorings and come to rest against a green and purple shore ... of a water lily climbing serenely toward the surface of a pond ... of a fallen leaf turning round and round on the river ... of a rippling wave dancing its way into existence and spreading out in slow circles until it kisses the shore.

There is no absolute stillness in death. Even the dead yield their substance in the stories of who they were, in the love bestowed, in the bone-memories of those they touch.

My thoughts drift to my recent visit to Ross Bay Cemetery in Victoria where I knelt in the grass next to Emily Carr's grave. A much loved Canadian artist and one of my favourites, my visit was a pilgrimage of sorts. The impact of her work is still plain to see today as her gravesite is scattered with sketch pencils and paintbrushes left by adoring lovers of both her paintings and her prose. Nearby rises a stone marked with these words of Emily's, written almost a century ago:

“Dear Mother Earth, I have always specifically belonged to you. I have loved from babyhood to roll upon you, to lie with my face pressed right down onto you in my sorrows. I love the look of you and the smell of you and the feel of you. When I die, I should like to be in you, uncoffined, unshrouded, the petals of flowers against my flesh and you covering me up.”
Me too, Emily. Me too.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Magpie: Greening


The empty spaces
Wear a green
Mist as thin as a
Hummingbird’s wings.
I stoop in verdant garb
Shaped for bones
Far more elegant
Than mine,
Placing pieces
Of greening shapes
Still, poetry doesn’t
Make substance
Of devotion
Without a flaw
In the dance.

(Please go here for more Magpie Tales.)

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Wonders from the Sea

When we stepped aboard our ship, the overwhelming feeling was one of expectation and delight. Minutes before we had given our grandsons the news that shortly we were to sail on a Disney cruise. Two totally different reactions: D, ten years old, responded with his entire body. He jumped, pumped the air with his fist, exclamations and queries spilling from his heart to his lips. "Really?! You're not joking?! Right now?! On that ship out there ... the Disney one?! Really? Right now!" He hugged us, perpetual motion, joy on every line of his body.

M, who is seven years and three months old, stood still, quiet, solemn, his eyes huge with disbelief. He needed time to assimilate the news as his brother tried to explain, as did we, in merry words that took several minutes to penetrate his shock. After some silent minutes, he pointed towards the ship, "Are Chip and Dale on there?", he asked. The reactions were a mirror of their personalities; the gregarious, outgoing boy, the quiet, thoughtful boy.

My first impression was of dazzling blues and whites. Everything shone in the sun, reflecting a great surge of humanity, an aura of universality, an ingathering of energy, action and happiness.

                            (The Launch - Sail Away Party.)

Thus began a ceaseless exploration of our ship.The Disney Wonder is a marvel of steel and glass, of polished wood and shining marble, of beautiful art work and vivid patinas.

                            (One of the glowing marble hallways, along Deck 5.)

                                             (A view of the Grand Lobby.)

The boys explore their bunks in our stateroom:

During the day, the upper bunk folded discreetly against the wall while the lower converted into a comfortable couch.

Our seven days cruise was a whirlwind of multiple activities, of fabulous food, of rainy shore excursions, of spectacular views, of wonderful stage shows and family dances, of late night walks on the deck, of joyous meetings with fabled Disney characters, of ocean dreaming from endless portholes.

    (The magnificent glacier at Tracy Arm, Alaska, as seen from the upper deck of our ship.)

These tales will unfold individually with time, but for now, it is enough to say that we engaged in adventures of the body and spirit with people from many countries, who as varied as they were, all shared one thing in common, the love of family.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Cruising to Alaska!

For the next eight days, Gem and I, and our ten and seven year old grandsons, will be aboard this ship:
We will be cruising to Alaska for an adventure packed week exploring several ports of call, going on a whale watching expedition, panning for gold and hiking one of the most beautiful natural areas in the world. There will be glacier watching and star gazing. We shall cavort with Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. There will be swimming aboard ship:
There will be dining and dancing, and part of the time there will be multiple supervised, fun activities for the boys while Nana and Papa relax.
You could say that the first of our holiday tales occurred yesterday when a ten year old boy constructed a big jump from discarded planks of wood, bricks and old tires, over which he successfully navigated his mountain bike about a dozen times. However, the last jump resulted in a three hour visit to the ER yesterday afternoon, where said boy had bits of gravel and rubber picked out of his leg. He has a full skin thickness abrasion about four inches square on his right calf which is covered with an antibiotic dressing and wrapped in gauze. This morning we purchased a waterproof sleeve to wear over it. The boy is limping, but none-the-worse for wear. In fact, he has been heard bragging about his little exploit, although he certainly wasn't immediately afterwards!
So, tomorrow we sail ...a surprise for the boys who don't have a clue. They think we are going to spend a couple days in Vancouver. We don't plan on telling them until just before we board ship.
When I return there will be stories to be told and pictures to share. Meanwhile, wishing all ye whose words dwell in Blogdom, a lovely, life-giving week!

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Canada Day Celebration!

                              (The beach front at the cottage.)

Monday, July 1st, we celebrate Canada Day here. Shortly, my husband Gem and I, along with my mother and stepfather, will be heading to Sorrento, B.C. to a friend's cottage on Shuswap Lake for the long weekend. It's about an hour's drive from Kamloops, where we live. Temperatures are expected to soar, reaching 36 degrees by Monday!

I have spent the last few days cooking and baking in preparation; a big smoked, glazed ham, German potato salad, red cabbage and apple casserole, broccoli salad, Greek salad, lemon biscuits for the strawberry shortcake which will be dessert on Canada Day, a rub for the ribs, Morning glory muffins and Banana/blueberry muffins, two kinds of homemade salad dressings. The picnic cooler stand in readiness by the door. Lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers and sundry other vegetables await in aerated bags. We plan to stop at a fruit stand on the way for peaches and strawberries.  Gem came home from work yesterday with a big bag of fresh B.C. cherries.  Beer and wine were purchased last evening.

                                               (Red cabbage and apple casserole.)

Living here in Canada, I am thankful for so much ....

Thankful for the ebb and flow of the cultural diversity and spiritual traditions which cover Canada like a blessed wave from the ocean to the mountains, to the rainforests, to the tiny prairie towns, to the arctic, to the urban cappuccinos being sipped in dozens of cities.

For the First Nations peoples dancing and singing to the plangent sound of the drums.

For the elegant women wearing jewelled saris.

For the Asian men and women gracefully engaged in Tai Chi by the river’s edge.

Thankful for the voices I hear in English and French and Cantonese and Hindu and Dutch and Ukrainian and Italian and German and Afrikaans and Spanish and  Greek and Norwegian, and for the friends who speak those languages, embrace their ethnic culture, and are also proud of being Canadian.  

Thankful that I understand that grief comes to human hearts of all colours and creeds and ways of being.

Thankful for the connections that let me know the kindred in human beings who are different from me.

I am thankful for the fact that in Canada, we’re a cultural mosaic rather than a melting pot.

(My grandsons celebrating!)

If you are Canadian, Happy Canada Day! I hope you are celebrating with those you love.  To my American friends, Happy Independence Day on July 4th. May you have a joyous holiday.  

May we all be thankful, in every country, for the sense of belonging given in the ritual of celebration.


Sunday, June 9, 2013

Discovering Dutch Food

Instead of staying in a hotel, for our first week in the Netherlands we rented an apartment in a 17th century row house along the Bloemgracht (Flower canal) in the Jordaan district in Amsterdam.

The house boasted twenty foot ceilings, beautiful chandeliers and wood sconces, wide windows overlooking the canal, a modern kitchen, and wood floors worn beautifully smooth and uneven with the years. The street breathed romance, like old songs and old books.

The front of our apartment had a window seat which overlooked the canal. In the evenings we liked to sit there and people-watch, an activity we really enjoyed. Another activity we embraced with much enthusiasm (too much, perhaps!), was our quest to sample and discover Dutch food.

Vincent van Gogh may have been on to something with his portrayal of his kinsfolk as Potato Eaters in his famous painting, as there is an abundance of hearty potato-based dishes in the Dutch diet. There is still often this utilitarian approach to eating: two slices of brown bread, a slice of cheese and a glass of buttermilk is a standard lunch. This is frequently eaten on the go, without much ritual or reverence. However, humble, honest food can be a good thing. The beauty and simplicity of the root vegetable mash and the thick pea soup, the sublime cheeses and smoked sausage, the to-die-for apple cakes ... well, all I can say is 'lekker' ... delicous!

We also discovered a universe beyond potatoes and it was, indeed, good.

As we had a very nice, fully equipped kitchen in our apartment, we cooked most of our breakfasts and dinners there, eating them at the diningroom table overlooking the small courtyard terrace.

We shopped for fresh vegetables and fruit at outdoor market stalls, of which there were many. Each day we bought the most excellent strawberries and raspberries, blackberries, fresh figs, tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. For meat, milk and eggs we usually went to the Albert Hejn, a local supermarket which was a five minute walk from our apartment.

              One of the numerous market stalls just steps away from our apartment.

Here I am choosing bread at a fabulous bakery nearby.

                                             De Kasskamer

De Kasskamer, a cheese shop in the Jordaan, also near us, was amazing. It's name simply means 'cheese room', and a room full of cheese it most certainly is ... piled from floor to ceiling. For cheese lovers, like Gem, A and me, it was kaas heaven.

For our first meal out in Holland, which happened to be lunch, we walked to a Dutch Pannecoek Huis (Pancake House.) Our granddaughter, A, had poffertjes which are puffed mini-pancakes. They were smothered with whipped cream and chocolate sauce! Dutch pancakes are traditionally served with poedersuiker (powdered sugar) and stroop (a sugar-syrup similar to light treacle), and with the addition of freshly squeezed lemon,  this was my choice, and they were delicious!

A's Poffertjes, which delighted both her eyes and stomach.

Gem's strawberry pancakes, to which he added whipped cream.

Traditional Dutch croquettes have long been a favourite in Gem's family. He grew up eating them and his father's handwritten recipe is one of Gem's prized possessions. Croquettes are comprised of either chopped beef or chicken stirred into a thick seasoned sauce and then allowed to cool. The mixture is molded into shape, dipped into beaten egg and rolled in bread crumbs, and then deep fried until golden brown. Gem makes them for St. Nicholas Day every year, mailing a frozen batch to each of our children in time for a special December 6th treat. Now our grandchildren love them, too, often asking when it will be time for Papa's croquettes.

Dutch Croquettes. which we usually ate served with chips and salad.

Our darling A began a love affair with the croquette. These she asked for every day ... in restaurants, at street carts and even out of the wall! (A term Gem started using as a little boy when his father would take him for a treat to the automat, which is a wall of self-serve ovens containing hot snacks.)

Papa picks a croquette from 'the wall' ... something he hadn't done since he was a child! I loved seeing the boyish excitement which shone in his eyes.

We made a deal with A that we would visit McDonald's once while we were in Holland, and once only. Here she discovers MacDonalds, Dutch style ... the McKroket! ... and pronounces it yummy!

        The McKroquet!

Gem discovers McDonalds, Dutch style...
the McBeer! ... and pronounces it yummy!

A loved the Dutch hot chocolate. Here she enjoys it in a special cup at an outdoor cafe near the Rembrandt museum. As always it is served with whipped cream, and this time also with a chocolate filled waffle stick. Her Nana and Papa share a slice of our favourite appel coek (apple cake), also with whipped cream. I think Dutch people must bleed whipped cream!

French Fries called Frites were a popular street food. We ate them out of paper cones, perfectly golden and crisp on the outside, soft on the inside. In the Netherlands they are traditionally served with mayonnaise, not something I particularly enjoyed, although both husband and granddaughter did. These they shared one afternoon as we wandered the myriad stalls of the Albert Cuyp markt.

As we were on-the-go, lunch was the one meal we had out every day. Often we bought fresh bread or buns and paired them with the most gorgeous array of cheeses I have ever seen or tasted. We also sampled wonderful street food; Frikandels which are a sort of hot dog smothered in curry ketchup and raw onions, croissants filled with melting cheese and mushrooms. Another wonderful lunch was a cheese plate with spiced apple dipping sauce and black currant rye bread.

An array of fresh breads and buns boasting an assortment of savoury fillings.

A inspects her ham filled bun because she is worried that it may contain a few surprizes ... like hot Dutch mustard or raw onion. (Of course it's Papa's teasing that caused the apprehension in the first place!) There were no nasties, and she ate every bite. Her palate grew more adventurous as the days passed.

A strawberry sandwich, anyone?

Or how about some pickled herring?

Although pickled herring is supposed to be eaten as the poster shown below demonstrates, only Gem was brave enough to try it!

Gem and I also really liked the traditional Uitsmijer, an openface sandwich consisting of a layer of bread, spec (ham) and Edam cheese with sunny-side fried eggs on the top. This dish can be found in almost every Deli or Lunch place in the Netherlands. The granddaughter was not so taken with it. She did, however, enjoy the Dutch version of a grilled cheese sandwich.

An Uitsmijer sandwich.

On our last evening in The Netherlands, we went out for a spectacular dinner with Gem's three cousins and their spouses in Zanvoort, a quaint seaside town about a thirty minute train ride from Haarlem, where we had spent our second week. At the restaurant, which faced the North Sea and was surrounded by acres of sandy dunes and beach, over three laughter-filled hours, we feasted on a dizzying array of delicious courses; oyster gratin, tiny spinach tarts, dates wrapped in bacon, smoked salmon on toast, suddervlees (stewed beef), red cabbage baked with apples, garlic mashed potatoes, and a magnificent speculaas (spiced ginger cookie) ice-cream that I still dream about. All was washed down with Jopen beer and Gem's favourite Tilburg's Dutch Brown Ale.

The sunset view from the restaurant in Zanvoort.

As you can discern, we certainly didn't go hungry during our holiday ... and I haven't even written about the chocolate or the stroopwaffels ... yet!

Friday, May 31, 2013

The Remains of May

I believe that our ancient and innermost will desires metamorphoses, kaleidoscopic transformations of ever-shifting beauty. Such, I found today.

As a child in England, the end of May in our village was celebrated with a yearly ritual; an old-fashioned fete which involved simple delights such as old-fashioned games, picnic fare, music and a May Pole Dance. The high point of the event was always the May Pole Dance.

I remember it as a shining moment of ease and freedom as children danced, and then slowly, tentatively, the adults joined them. The ribbon bedecked pole became a symbol of shared communal joy.

There is always a continued need for rites of renewal, ceremonies of innocence and awareness, for celebrations of the spirit. I think we owe it to our children and grandchildren to create a space around them that recognises this truth.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Poor Little Lamb

Fifty-one years ago today, I was a bridesmaid at my uncle's wedding. I was five years old, and thrilled, nervous and somewhat baffled (what exactly was a wedding?).

The wedding took place at the imposing Roman Catholic Westminster Cathedral in London (not to be confused with Westminster Abbey). The first time I saw this commanding 1895 Neo-Byzantine structure, I was awed by its magnificence. Inside, the holy scent and hush filled my bones with what can only be described as reverence. I felt a communion with a mystery I didn’t understand, but nevertheless absorbed as a benediction of something sacred. No one had to tell me to be quiet as we practised for the ceremony. The desire to be so, breathed itself to me, without communication.

I was to walk down the aisle side-by-side with the bride’s young niece, Amelia, who was seven years old, and thus, in my eyes, a world of knowledge, older. We were to be attended from behind by my cousin, Christopher, a few months older than me, and at the time, my best friend. Both he and the groom were to wear traditional Scotch kilts and accessories, as a salute to our Scottish ancestry and last name.   

The afternoon of the wedding found the three of us sitting importantly in a row of velvet chairs in the lobby of a London hotel, waiting for the big, black car which was to take us to the cathedral. Dressed in a long cream silk dress with a gold sash, be-ribboned satin shoes, a wreath of yellow and white roses in my hair, a small gold silk drawstring bag looped around my wrist, I felt like a princess. My nervous excitement built.

Earlier there had been tears when Amelia realized that her brand new white silk panties with lace trim, bought especially for the occasion, had been inadvertently left at home. That crisis dealt with, a small new one occurred when Christopher was scolded for playing with his sporran, and then smacked for fiddling with the tartan kilt flashes designed to keep the socks up, which he claimed were itchy.  Now a storm threatened. I literally felt unable to move, paralytic with fear. Tears flowed down my cheeks. Threats and bribes in equal measure, nothing could cajole me.

Then, suddenly a gorgeous vision in white appeared on her knees before me; the bride, my soon-to-be, Auntie Prue. “Poor little lamb”, she said. She kissed my tear-soaked face between her hands, and then wiped them away with her very own hanky. I can still remember clearly the perfume scent rising from that fine white linen, the lace of her veil brushing against my dress, the softness of her hands and voice. The gentleness of that "poor little lamb", a term I had never heard before, stuck me and I was infinitely comforted. The awful feeling clutching my insides started to abate. Clinging to her hand, I allowed myself to be escorted outside.

Nothing more untoward happened and the wedding and reception proceeded in all its traditional pomp and circumstance. I mostly remember it as a whirl of gold and white; the church bathed in candlelight, whispery white silk, golden strains of music, starched white snowy tablecloths, fragments of crisp white royal icing melting in my mouth.

Half a century later, grace and kindness still defines my Auntie Prue.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Smoothing the Way

Theme Thursday - Smooth

I can't think about the word smooth, without reflecting on the action of smoothing; soothing, gentling, quieting. For me, there is one person who epitomizes that action in my life, and that is my mother.

Nearly eighty, my mother has a dainty, special way of doing things. She sprinkles lavender on the sheets as she makes the beds, smoothing them over and over until not a wrinkle mars the pristine snowy whiteness. She always sets the table with her own gracious knack for beauty whether it be for a splendid Christmas dinner or a simple snack. She takes scissors and a basket and goes outside to gather flowers; snipping each gently in a glorious mix of domestic and wild. She squeezes lemon oil onto an a piece of old cloth and rubs down the furniture until it gleams. She pegs as much of her laundry as she can to the clothesline. She is small, dwarfed by the mountains and the summer sky, her hands lovely and meditative as she expertly applies each garment to the line. Her fingers move fluidly, like music.

Even her most ordinary actions reflect the smooth, fastidious beauty of her soul; the whiteness of her linen, the garland of parsley with which she wreathes the pink slices of ham, her perfectly scripted lists of tasks to be completed, the single rose placed at each person’s place-setting, her hands tenderly cleaning the collection of crystal snowflakes hanging from the mantelpiece. She exudes a living prayer; a purity and sweetness about her things, her person, her life. She is one of those who can hear the singing of the seas in a shell.

The above photograph, which I have always loved, was taken on her 19th birthday. Her gown was a rich, smooth olive green satin. She exudes loveliness from every pore of her body. Her creamy, flawless skin had the texture of silk. My mother still carries herself with the same regal elegance, and her skin is just as luminous. Her eyes, still beautiful, are more sentient now. They contain the joy of her almost eighty years of living, but her pain and grief also. She has at times dwelled in Gethsemane, a place of passion, where the agony of love and death come together.

All my life, her soft hands have smoothed my journey. They have tended my bumps and bruises, soothed the tears from my face, stroked my hair, cooked and baked my favourite foods, written notes of love and encouragement, sewed me dresses, turned the pages of the many stories and poems she read to me, tenderly rocked my babies and grandbabies.  My mother has reassured me when I have been anxious and fearful, cried with me during times of sadness, laughed with me during times of joy. She has loved me during my worst moments, and during my finest. Without her smoothing presence, the pathway would have been unbearable at times. Through the medium of her human love, it is she who first taught me the power of God's love.

I know that each moment I have left with her is infinitely precious. My fear of losing her rises up and chokes me. I ache with unbearable sorrow at just the thought of it. It is my fervent desire, hope and prayer to caress, ease and smooth the last years of her life's sojourn, just as she has always smoothed the way for me.