Tuesday, December 24, 2013


The solstice has come and we’re now headed back into the light. It was hard to take in that realisty during the storm of freezing rain on Saturday night and Sunday. But by today, when the sun came out and we saw blue sky I felt a YES! things are already brighter.

Tomorrow is Christmas; it’s already come in many parts of the world. I’ve been baking today (after shopping for oysters etc for tomorrow) and the house is filled with warm smells of spices and baking loaves and cookies. But nearby there’s no baking going on, nor any cooking at all. I was reminded forcefully of that todqy by a guy who makes the pates and other charcuterie at Sanagan’s, my local butcher. I asked if he was cooking, or being cooked for, for Christmas. “There’s no cooking” he said. “We have no power.” He lives in the eastern suburbs of Toronto, the area hardest hit by the ice storm and its aftermath: downed trees, downed power lines and telephone lines, pumping stations and microwave towers out of commission, and so on.

Many are staying with friends, taken in for a meal or a bath or to sleep. But others may be without friends or without the means to call for help. And so the have and have-not divide is being expressed in new and painful ways here in the “first world” that is Toronto.

It’s sobering.

Meantime in South Sudan there is murder and desolating violence going on… And in the central African Republic, and along Burma’s border areas… How and why do we carry on in personal happiness and satisfaction when others are suffering?

I think it’s about survival. Most of us cannot live with a daily acknowledgement of the suffering of others. We wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning; it would drive us literally crazy.

But others, rare others, manage to take action. They include the extraordinary brave and imaginative wmen of Pussy Riot, as well as countless un-famous incividuals who toil in the trenches to make things better where they are.

I’ve just read a remarkable novel, a difficult book in its story and truths, and also an astonishing one. It’s by Anthony Marra and is set in Chechnya. I avoid scary movies and violent movies, but somehow I couldn’t put the book down. It spoke truth to me. The title is A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. And in it people struggle to be present to others, to help when help is painful to give and to receive, and when all effort seems hopeless.

A must-read.

I try to read a book of intensity and range at Christmas, fiction or non-fiction. And to have time alone. My first experience of a Christmas like that was in my mid-twenties. I had been included in another family’s Christmas, warm and welcoming, the previous year. It was right after my mother had died. I was grateful, but the whole experience was somehow alienating, as if I was trying to pretend that I was really warmed by the warmth of others.

And so the following year I had a Christmas Day on my own, a walk and a long good read (Paul Goodman’s book Growing Up Absurd). I needed to be face to face with my aloneness.

And now? Well now I wrap my family of friends around me for part of the holidays and for a good part of the year. But I treasure the time I have alone, often lonely, while travelling or just being wherever I am. And in those moments I try to look the despair of the world in the eye. It seems so important to acknowledge it and give it respect. And to think about how, in whatever way large or small, we can each try to make things better for others.

So that’s my wish for this solstice season, that we consider the pain in the world, that we give it our attention for a while, and then try to commit to some action to help with it, whatever we can manage.

Monday, December 16, 2013


The bright sun on this Monday morning makes a lovely start to the week. And the world outside is extra-brilliant because of all the fresh snow still coating all surfaces. The deep cold temperatures we’ve had felt all the more brutal because the ground was bare, but now with the snow winter feels less harsh somehow.

As a friend said to me on Sunday morning, under grey skies, with the snow making soft edges everywhere, “We love this. Not in April we don’t, but in December and January, we love it.”

Yes and I am happy to be here for the whole of December for once, able to head out on my cross-country skis yesterday in the fresh snow. No, I didn’t drive out of the city, I walked to the end of my street then skied around in the university grounds and the neighbouring park, beautiful with huge old trees.

We can’t have it all, no matter how much we fantasize about the possibility. I can’t be in Chiang Mai or Burma, seeing friends and enjoying sunshine, bare arms, and fresh local greens, and also be here in the slanting northern light and crisp air of snowy Toronto. Luckily I don’t generally yearn for where I am not. I mean, homesickness or wishing to be warm when cold, or cool when overheated, are not afflictions I suffer from. When I’m traveling I’m not fighting myself, usually, however lonely or uncomfortable a particular situation or trip might be. And that makes it all much easier.

The whole of life is a trip, from one point of view. And then the questions becomes, how comfortable or engaged are we in the place we find ourselves? Do we yearn for something else? It’s an interesting way to conceptualise our daily and yearly choices, don’t you think? After all, a certain itchiness and awareness of the wider horizon is necessary if we are to understand the choices we have in life, and the possibilities for being creative, or doing useful work, or whatever, that are out there. We need to know about them in order to make decisions, in order to push ourselves outside our comfort zone too. Yet at the same time we surely live better if we make ourselves comfortable and accepting of our current situation, whatever it is. That way we can make the best of it rather than pining and moaning about what we don’t have.

There’s a tension here between ambition and harmonious daily living…a tension that we navigate at each stage of life.

For as we move through life, sometimes on auto-pilot (as when we are surviving and trying to do our best raising young children), sometimes more consciously making choices and striving outward (as young people and then perhaps again once the kids are launched), we’re charting our own geographies, map-making, annotating the map of time and place with our personal experiences and hopes.

Cartography was one of my favourite subjects when I was an undergraduate majoring in Geography. It’s technical, and was a required course that many students disliked. I loved the questions of psychology and perception that underlay cartographic decisions. How to make this border stand out and that one be less important? What makes a map or any mapping of information clear, and what makes it a struggle to decipher?

Those questions have become more generally relevant as we have moved into this digital and e-universe. We can see charts and graphs and other information-mapping posted by newspapers, magazines, and bloggers. For example the Economist, a useful mag whose politics I don’t usually agree with, posts great charts and graphs, comparing countries, usually, but on the basis of infant mortality, or literacy, or diversity or whatever. I find that charting and graphic comparison informative and enticing, a helpful underpinning to words and commentary, and often a corrective too.

This post started with snow and ideas about having to be in one place at a time. Yes, and at the same time we can be many places at once in our imaginations and thoughts. Those charts help us picture and compare places far away from us, and from each other. They allow us to attend to other places and situations in the world intellectually or emotionally, while staying physically in one place.

In my case for now that means wearing warm pants over long-johns, with two layers of sweater plus a scarf on top, to stay warm as I work in my office. And let’s not forget the extra socks!

As I’ve worked here and done household chores too, in my mind’s eye I have travelled many places already this morning, from the refugee camps and ruined threatened cities of Syria, where temperatures are at a record low and people lack basic bread, as well as security and heating (see this recent report by Lyse Doucet: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-25397140 ); to tropical Rangoon where my friend Ma Thanegi’s newly issued Burma cookbook has just won a World Gourmand award; to Sikkim, where a new Twitter follower @Cafe_Fiction lives and works; to Burundi where the always interesting blogger DianaBuja now lives: http://dianabuja.wordpress.com/2013/12/16/antibiotics-bed-rest-and-friends-standard-for-recovery-in-central-africa/ .

I’ve also gone the other way this morning, travelling internally into memory and imagination, after reading a piece from Lapham’s quarterly about the art of dying, centred around one story but raising issues that affect us all: http://www.laphamsquarterly.org/roundtable/roundtable/the-art-of-dying.php .
The statistic cited there, that seven out of ten Americans would prefer to die at home but in fact that instead that same proportion die in hospital with tubes and sterility, should make us think hard about how we approach end-of-life issues, not just for ourselves but for others. My father and mother died young, (at 48 and 56 respectively) but they at least had the privilege of dying in their own bed, with a loved one right there and no medical intervention causing extra suffering. How do we manage this for ourselves? How do we respond to the needs of others?

There’s life too, as well as death and cold, in this month of December. Yes, the sun will return and the days get longer. And whether pagan or Christian or Hindu or Moslem or Jewish or unbelieving, we all rejoice at the return of the light and the promise of new life.

Meantime we eat. European tradition in this season includes rich festive fare, reminders of summer in winter. That’s at least how I think of candied peel and dried fruits like currants and raisins and apricots. I made peel a few days ago (a mix of lemon, grapefruit, and orange of several kinds) and then used some of it in the four large loaves of stollen that I took out of the oven late last night. (I followed my recipe in HomeBaking, except that I used mostly Red Fife, together with some white spelt flour, rather than all purpose; much better flavour and liveliness I think.)

It looks like a lot of food, but once I start thinking about the people I’d like to give some to, I realise I need to make another batch. Soon.

There’s another mental map: the people I want to make treats for….

Monday, December 9, 2013


First snow-sticking-on=the=ground=and-slushy-roads day in downtown Toronto. The provident already have their boots out and the rest have wet looking feet. I am still looking for the snow shovel; it must be in the garage.

I love fresh snow in the city, for even with grey skies and the weight of that ugly word “slush”, the snowed surfaces brighten the day, giving us spare wintry lightness. I can love it because I’m not trying to drive in traffic made worse by the slush or to navigate the slippery sidewalks with a cane or walker or while pushing a child in a stroller.

Snow now is a reminder of time. Yikes! Every year December seems to collapse, lose days, until suddenly it’s the weekend before Christmas. Part of it is that we all raise our expectations at this time of year. We make more of an effort to see people and socialise, we may be doing those extra shopping errands for presents, or packing for a Christmas holiday departure. Whatever the extra “it” is, the month accelerates past.

In the last five or six years I’ve been away in November and the first half of December, so I’ve missed these early weeks and landed as the holidays were about to start. Now that work travels are taking me elsewhere my travel away pattern has shifted. I like that. The change helps me see with fresh eyes, and appreciate the details I might have ignored when I was last around at this time of year.

In this past five weeks since I got home from Iran I've been able to really dig into my Persian World project. I've come to realise, as I've been digesting my Iran and Georgia trips, doing recipe work, engaging with photos, stories, and historical research, that I love being home working and reflecting. And with short days and chilly weather, being indoors is feeling good, and productive. It’s a privilege to be able to settle in, to NOT have to think about airplanes and packing, etc. for awhile.

Is this age, I caught myself wondering yesterday, this pleasure I am taking in being home and working steadily?

Perhaps. But I think it’s also a change in working style. And that in turn comes from increased confidence. Rather than rushing from thing to thing, afraid I’ll be late or miss out on something, I am now more prepared to work steadily and to not worry about the possibility of not getting this or that done in a day. I guess I am being more methodical and generally more deliberate. Part of the explanation for the change is that after doing the Burma book sola, rather than with a partner, I know that I can trust myself to carry a big project through on my own. And I enjoy the whole process more, for I am in control of what is done or not done. It’s all up to me.

I used to think that carrying one large project, a thesis say (which was how I first imagined what a large project would be, when I was in my teens and early twenties), would be impossible for me, too sustained and onerous a burden. Then once I started making books in a partnership, I discovered that like almost every other task, the work of researching writing, etc. gets broken down into pieces and gradually as the pieces get worked on, the whole takes shape. Once the first book, Flatbreads & Flavors: A Baker’s Atlas, was finished, and the manuscript sent in, starting on another book seemed like an obvious and wonderfully desirable thing.

But in those early years there were the kids to factor in, and the organising of travel and other work, and the complications of partnership. It all seems like a whirling blur as I look back.

In comparison, this process of deciding what work I will do on a particular day is very easy and uncomplicated. I can recipe test, or write up work already tested, or take on the writing of a story, or read some history, or edit photos… All of those possibilities are inviting. That’s the thing. And none of them scares me, though they do all require me to have energy and to take them on with creative imagination, rather than passively.

I think that’s the essential difference between a chore and work that you love. A chore is something that just needs to be done, and can be done with a dull mind and heavy or exhausted spirit, whereas work that I like and that I look forward to requires good energy and engagement. If I’m sleepy or otherwise exhausted I won’t get any good work done. And in such a state I’m better off doing some chore like cleaning or tidying my office or looking for that shovel.

I can imagine you wondering, 'and what about writing this blogpost?' For me writing, all writing, including these explorations of ideas on the virtual page, requires a fresh head and good energy. And of course I also need to have an idea in my head that I want to explore. I woke up this morning knowing that I wanted to write this. And now here it is, miraculously.

Once I’ve posted this, and done some other book-writing work, I’ll hit a low ebb, energy-wise. And then it will be time to get that sidewalk shovelled!