Wednesday, January 8, 2014


Happy New Year to you all, belated, but no less heartfelt.

Once again I've left a long pause between posts. No excuses, really except for this feeling of impotence and paralysis that comes with extremely chilly weather. 

There’s something aggressive about extreme cold with wind, at least as we’ve experienced it here in Toronto off and on in the past ten days. It’s inhibiting, and a little scary. “Do I really have to go out?” “Is it safe to drive?” “Will my pipes freeze?” “Where is my long underwear?”: the questions and concerns range from the large and general to the detailed-small, but all of them seem to weigh on us. The result has been, for me, a feeling of being pinned and not independent. I don’t like it!

I say this even though I have been out each of the cold days. On January 2, for example, when the wind chill was 35 below, I walked about three kilometres (not far on a nice day) to a friend’s place for coffee. I was warm enough, in sensible boots, two pairs of socks, knitted gaiters to cover the gap between my boots and pants (over tights); merino wool T-shirt under long sleeved merino (both Christmas presents) plus a sweater on top of that; a neck scarf and big hat and wool armlets bridging the wrist gap to my heavy ski gloves; and a not quite knee-length fifties-era sheared beaver fur coat given to me long ago by the mother of an ex-boyfriend. Over all that I wound a long heavy silk shawl to cover my face and help warm the air I breathed a little. That’s a long list of clothing items, that take more time to put on than they do to be written down.

The encumbrances of winter, I sigh these days, as I pull on tights, or layer on another sweater.

But I am lucky and so are all the people who have health and warm clothes. As I hurried along to my friend’s place the streets were pretty empty. January 2 is not a big traffic day, and especially not in frigid weather. I even built up a bit of a sweat in all my garments. But the older man walking carefully across Harbord Street with a cane, wearing only thin gloves, to pick something up at the corner store, looked reduced by the cold and very vulnerable.

Others who have suffered - apart from the homeless, who are in a purgatory that the rest of us cannot imagine - are those who have to work outside in the cold: postal workers, garbage workers, and the people who work the ramp at the airport. And also the police, ambulance, and fire department people, as well as the hydro workers, who have all had to work overtime to rescue many from crises largely caused by the weather.

I am grateful to all who do that work. It takes a lot out of us all to live in the cold; it saps our energy and we want to retreat into hibernation…a natural animal response. At the same time we expect life to go on as usual and are upset when streetcars get jammed, or airplanes don’t fly, or mail isn’t delivered.

There’s a disconnect between what we are prepared to do ourselves and what we expect others to do for us. Hmm

On another subject entirely, I want to talk about reading and books. And that’s because the other day I gave a talk to a book club. I’d been invited by a friend last summer. The books were the first two of the trilogy of books by Patrick Leigh-Fermor about his walk from Holland to Istanbul in 1933-34, when he was 18 and 19. (They are A Time of Gifts; and From the Woods to the Water.)

I had read the books when they were first published (in 1977 and 1986) and had been engaged by the writing, and also aggravated by it. When I reread the books in preparation for the talk, I was for awhile even more aggravated. Some of the flourishes of words and images felt show-offy and unnecessary. They made me impatient.

But gradually I came to think about the writing differently. Yes it’s show-offy. But the cascading words and images are on the page to do the work that photos now do for us much of the time. And reading elaborate descriptions and complex ideas takes work. It’s work we’re no longer accustomed to doing. We are inundated with images, and tend to rush from one to the next, and to be impatient with stories that unfurl too slowly for our now-usual hurried pace.

And so I slowed down and started to try to approach the descriptions in the same way that I like to look at paintings in a gallery, slowly and carefully. Aha!

In the end, like many presenters in many contexts, I ended up talking about me myself and I, about my evolving reaction to the books. I hoped thereby to get people thinking about what we do when we read, and about how much we lose when we hurry along.

If you have stayed with me this far, in this blogpost, then you are a patient reader, and I thank you for it. I enjoy putting these words on the virtual page, working through the process of communicating my ideas and thoughts as clearly and cleanly as possible. But if there are no people out there who take pleasure in the effort of working their way through pages of reading, then books are under threat, and so is the richness of language.

I am confident, from the reaction of many who were at the talk, that a lot of us struggle to make the time to read well. We’re assailed and seduced by our computers and social media. We are enriched by them, yes. But this doesn’t come for free; it exacts a price. And that cost seems to be in a loss of free or dreaming or unmeasured time to get lost in a book.

Life seems to have speeded up rather than easing off as the decades have rolled by. As I walked along the icy chilled sidewalk this afternoon on my way back from Kensington Market (Sanagan’s Ideal Coffee, 4-Life: my basics along with Cheese Magic) I found myself wondering why there seem to be so few pauses in the day, the week, the year. I did have some deep-sleeping calm days over the holidays, but they were rare havens in a sea of rushings-around. And they were helped by my cutting off from social media and from the computer altogether for a few days.

And so now the new year is moving me along again. I am headed to New York tomorrow (if the planes are flying) for a James Beard Cookbook Committee meeting  (such great people on the committee, which oversees the judging of all the cookbooks published in any given year, by a huge number of judges scattered across North America). And then in ten days or so it’s time to prepare for this year’s immersethrough session in Chiang Mai, followed by a food-focussed tour in Burma.

Airplane rides, long ones, become a kind of pause-place, a time to read and daydream. I never mind a long flight. It feels like an oasis between lives. And how amazingly lucky I feel, to be able to have these transitions, these moments to pause and reflect, and to get lost in books.

1 comment:

Ana said...

"Oasis between lives" - love the phrase. And I also like the quiet moments of travel, and the thoughts that seem to flow with it. Train journeys especially, and their moving landscapes.