Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Two Poems for You

Truth be told, I'm not much of a poetry girl. It's a shameful admission but there you go. And yet, here are two poems for your delicious enjoyment. The first is one I have been mulling over, one that I think will inform the novel I'm brooding over (and not yet writing, thanks to an excess of paid work). The second appeared today on a friend's Facebook page. Both will Make You Think. I'd be interested in what you think, which you prefer, how you respond.


When you start on your journey to Ithaca,
then pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.
Do not fear the Lestrygonians
and the Cyclopes and the angry Poseidon.
You will never meet such as these on your path,
if your thoughts remain lofty, if a fine
emotion touches your body and your spirit.
You will never meet the Lestrygonians,
the Cyclopes and the fierce Poseidon,
if you do not carry them within your soul,
if your soul does not raise them up before you.

Then pray that the road is long.
That the summer mornings are many,
that you will enter ports seen for the first time
with such pleasure, with such joy!
Stop at Phoenician markets,
and purchase fine merchandise,
mother-of-pearl and corals, amber and ebony,
and pleasurable perfumes of all kinds,
buy as many pleasurable perfumes as you can;
visit hosts of Egyptian cities,
to learn and learn from those who have knowledge.

Always keep Ithaca fixed in your mind.
To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better to let it last for long years;
and even to anchor at the isle when you are old,
rich with all that you have gained on the way,
not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.

Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.
Without her you would never have taken the road.
But she has nothing more to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not defrauded you.
With the great wisdom you have gained, with so much experience,
you must surely have understood by then what Ithacas mean.

-K. P. Kavafis (C. P. Cavafy), translation by Rae Dalven

All Heaven is Blazing

All heaven is blazing yet
With the meridian sun:
Make haste, unshadowing sun, make haste to set;
... O lifeless life, have done.
I choose what once I chose;
What once I willed, I will:
Only the heart its own bereavement knows;
O clamorous heart, lie still.

That which I chose, I choose;
That which I willed, I will;
That which I once refused, I still refuse:
O hope deferred, be still.
That which I chose and choose
And will is Jesus' will:
He hath not lost his life who seems to lose:
O hope deferred, hope still.

- Christina Rossetti

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Dash and Pinch

And this has nothing to do with the boys from high school, I assure you.

It occurred to me recently that I've had a sea change in how I cook. I always prided myself on being able to eyeball measurements -- I'd doublecheck with the important ones and my estimates were almost always correct -- but this year as I've had to start making substitutions to recipes, I've started to see recipes as mere suggestion, starting points. This is especially because I'm largely substituting maple syrup for sugar. The sweetness is not exactly the same and obviously one is a liquid and the other is a solid. There's probably a deep metaphor in this shift, but I can't put my finger on it.


I'm curious to know what things you think most people find easy that you find hard. And vice versa. I've been thinking about this lately, and even more specifically about the things I find hard to fit into my schedule that other people seem to find easy, or at least non-negotiable. For instance, while I walk the dog for probably a couple of hours each day, setting aside time for Pilates or other roll-out-the-mat exercise just falls by the wayside and before I know it, another week has passed without exercise. On the other hand, I hear people struggling to find time to finish a novel, and I find time to read a novel at least once or twice a week.


It's been just over six months since we became dog owners and there's one thing I'm still struggling with - and that is my intuition around how people respond to dogs. Just today, for instance, a dour-looking older woman with a cane limped out of the bank in front of me. I quickly reined my dog in, afraid he would try to greet the woman with his characteristic exuberance. Instead, she turned and called him and nuzzled him and loved him for a good five minutes. Another tottery elderly woman approached us and marveled at him, telling us twice how lucky we were to have him. I wouldn't have assumed this for the world. By contrast, one evening I was at the park with the pup when a man with a small dog came along. His dog was off-leash and was tiny. I called to him, asking if he minded me letting my puppy off leash. He was happy for me to -- until my puppy ran over to his and started running circles around him, at which point the man freaked out. I muttered choice words under my breath as I locked the dog back on leash.

Maybe it's because children start out mostly immobile and even restricted in arms or strollers, and dogs are more actively social than babies, but I could sense the people who liked kids and those who didn't. With dogs, there seems to be no rhyme or reason. There also seem to be even more pet-rearing philosophies than there are schools of thought for raising kids. I'm comfortable for the most part in how we're raising our puppy, but my intuition on how the pup should interact with other people is just completely off. It's weird and unsettling.


This week, my daughter,her friend and I delivered the bags of toys, books and clothes to the refugee family. I'm struggling to find words to express the experience. Both girls rated the experience a 10/10 and want to take the little girls skating sometime. I was deeply relieved that our experience was relaxed, friendly, and laughter-filled. Part of what gives me pause for thought is that this family has extremely well-educated parents who had professional jobs, a maid and nanny before they left their former home. Now they live on the charity of others and do all they can to give their family a fresh start. What I saw -- and I hope they could see that I saw -- was that they were me (sans the maid and nanny -- alas). Shift our government situation to intolerable and unsafe, and all I know of a comfortable life could be gone. I hope if I were in a similar situation, someone would help me -- no strings attached, no benevolent hierarchy to our essential worth. I think that's both what I deeply enjoy about being with refugees and also what calls me to action: while refugees are often lumped in with other people who need forms of social assistance, their realities are often significantly different, surprisingly similar to our own. The best moment of all this week was when the littlest girl, who is 2, pulled out of the bag a baby doll who is black and who has little stubby pigtails. The mother started to laugh. "It looks like us!" she said. And then to her daughter, "It looks exactly like you!" Our bigger girls had spent their time shopping and this was perhaps their proudest purchase. When you see yourself in someone or something else, I think it gives you a little sense of belonging, a sense of home.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Top 10

When my friend Rebecca and I were in high school, we regularly amused ourselves in boring classes by writing our Top 10 lists of Boys We Liked. It was fun to see who emerged as frontrunners, who sank into oblivion, which unattainables were under consideration. It was less fun when our history teacher confiscated a note from under one foot as it was sliding toward another.

Be assured I'm not going (Aaron Eckhart, Viggo Mortenson, Dave Fish) to write another such (George Clooney) top ten list. Instead, in honour of last night's fabulous supper, I'd like to try to itemize my top 10 most memorable meals of all time.

In chronological order:

1. I met a guy at a youth conference when I was in grade 10. He lived forty-five minutes away, but long distance by telephone. We "dated" -- largely by letter and brief telephone call -- for a year. On our anniversary, he sent me a dozen long-stemmed red roses and borrowed his brother's car to take me out to dinner. We went to a steak house near the Toronto airport where we ate steak and where he tricked me into trying the first espresso coffee of my life. And then he never ever called me again. I think it was that, rather than the espresso, that made the bitterness so unforgettable.

2. In the fall of my grade 13 year, my grandparents decided to take a spontaneous trip to Mexico City to surprise their son, my uncle, who was there on business. They invited me along. I bought leather and silver, looked at fine art, gilded cathedrals, damage from a recent earthquake and more. I drank Mexican beer and ate beans, beans and more beans. We were there for a week. I think it was the last day when I spotted a Kentucky Fried Chicken. After a solid week of beans, something that would have seemed cheap and tawdry at home had a glow to it. I didn't care if that glow was saturated fat. I was having me a drumstick.

3. Dave and I spent a month in Australia a year after we were married. We arrived in Melbourne by plane and took a bus into the city. We were waiting to transfer to the area where we thought we might look for a hotel, when someone asked us where we were going. We mentioned the neighbourhood. "Oh," she said. "That's where the pros, addicts and killahs live." I could handle ladies of the evening and drugs, but killers were another matter. We took her advice and a different bus and ended up at a sedate neighbourhood bedsitting room. One night, we went out to a restaurant with massive plate glass windows that served us what was the finest meal I could remember. The only part I remember now was the dessert, which was a chocolate terrine, surrounded by local tropical fruits.

4. Before we left Melbourne on Sunday morning, we decided to visit a church that had been recommended to us by friends in Toronto who had lived there. Again we climbed aboard a bus and rode for more than an hour before we wandered around a remote residential neighbourhood, heavy suitcases in hand, hoping we were close. We found the church, attended a good service and afterwards, when we were greeted, mentioned the names of our friends. These names were gold, magic words, incantations. We were whisked off to a country home, a ranch, where we were two of probably twenty or thirty guests who sat at one long burnished wood table, gleaming in the sunshine, fed lavishly on Australian beef, raised on the back forty. After the meal, we were packed up and driven to the airport, satisfied in so many ways.

5. The night we arrived in Italy, three years ago, I cried from distance from my babies and from jetlag that felt as if gravity had increased fourfold. Our heads drooped as we waited in our room in the convent we stayed at, on our iron twin beds, for the magic dinner hour of eight o'clock. Then we descended marble staircases into a wood-lined dining room, where we were served by nuns who spoke not a word of English. Our meal began with salad and homemade pasta tossed in the lightest of tomato sauces and glasses of sharp fresh red wine, made by the monks at the nearby monastery. Just when we thought we were full, we were urged to Mangia, Mangia, before the next course arrived: platters of lightly breaded and fried white fish -- enough for our entire far-flung family -- a bowl of buttered boiled yellow potatoes and another with green beans tossed with cheese. And then came dessert: a heavy delectable pound cake. And then a plate with hunks of cheese, including Reggiano, larger than my fist, and a bowl of mixed fruits, including blood orange. And then the nuns rolled us upstairs into our beds where we slept the sleep of good children before waking to open the shutters and look down at the olive groves and violets, Florence in the mid-distance, and the purple mountains beyond.

6. We knew Florence would be the main part of our Italian trip, but we wanted another destination too, for a couple of days. We decided to go to Parma for the cheese and Modena for the balsamico. Our first day was terrifying: we took the cluttered coastal route so I could see the Mediterranean (I got one glimpse) and then drove along gasp-inducing precipices through the Italian Alps on the wrong side of the road, with no map and unhelpful road signs. We found our bed and breakfast by luck, and then set out to meet Dave's friend in Modena, passing North African prostitutes every 100 metres along the side of the bucolic country road. It felt dark. The next day was light in every sense. It was a light spring day and we had no plans and so we drove from ruined castle to farmer's market to cheese shop, on brilliant green hillsides. We went to a spa built nearly a century ago after a farmer digging broke open a sulphuric blast of hot mineral water. We soaked and even fell asleep among Italians of every shape and size. And then we asked our innkeeper for the best place to eat -- a place locals would go. He suggested a place and called them to secure us a table. The owner was shy of us -- tourists never came to this 1960s style two-storey house, with the main floor now converted to a small restaurant. He circled the room but avoided us. His daughter served us and his wife cooked. We guessed -- wrongly -- at the menu and ended up with rare steak served over beds of arugula, and delicious pumpkin ravioli tossed in sage butter. At the end of the meal, we had to settle up with Papa at the bar, and he ventured a short conversation. Learning we were from Canada, he told us he had once been to Niagara Falls.

7. I didn't eat this one, but a few years ago I went alone to Washington to a Catholic arts conference, where speakers fought and every meal was Mexican food (I still have an aversion to wraps), and I met the weirdest people who lied and drank margaritas in the pale May sun, wearing large crosses around their necks and brushing off homeless people. At the last session of the conference, New Zealand performance artists used different materials to talk about redemption. Among them, and best of all, they draped an altar in this white stone cathedral with a white linen cloth, broke open fragrant, steaming hot bread and then uncorked a bottle of dark red wine and poured the wine lavishly over the bread. The guy with the largest cross was offended but I wept for the extravagance, the lavishness, the wastefulness of the communion.

8. Two years ago, I hosted a fundraiser/dinner party for 30 people and cooked singlehandedly. By the time the guests arrived, I was utterly done in and ready to collapse into a pile of mush, but I was also deeply satisfied. I have always loved cooking for large groups of people. I cooked for retreats through university and I love the challenge of feeding people really well on a shoestring budget. I haven't repeated my dinner party feat though.

9. A word should be said for every meal served at the end of a serious illness, for every glass of cool water drunk on a stifling hot day. Those meals satisfy like few other.

10. And last night. Oh, last night. Nan is in my writers group and among the many thoughtful pieces she has brought to us were a series of poems about the coming of age of a young Mennonite girl. The poems have now been published into a lovely collection, complete with recipes Nan developed and charming paintings by Mennonite artist Peter Etril Snyder. Last night, a local restaurant (Nick and Nat's Uptown 21) served a meal, based around the book and the seasons. I knew by the time the appetizer was served that this would make the list. The appetizer was simple slices of whole grain bread, served with a small cup of what turned out to be white wine vinegar and grapeseed oil. It sang on my tongue. Although not as much as the salad course. We had chosen to sit at the chef's table, a perch on the side of an open bar, overlooking the narrow galley kitchen. We watched as the frisee lettuce was tossed like wool and scattered carefully onto plates. We watched as the sous-chef sliced apples thinly with a mandoline, and cauliflower too, then tossed these in a maple-mustard vinaigrette. The frisee hid small piles of zesty pickled green beans, topped with the apples and cauliflower and scattered with tiny cubes of extra-old cheddar. My mouth died and went to heaven then. There was to be no talking and much moaning. The main course was a hot sour cream potato salad and sauerkraut, topped with individual smoked and braised pork shanks. Dessert was a pear sauce smeared on a plate with a puff of whipped cream and then a too-thin slice of dutch apple pie and a pile of strawberry-rhubarb custard crisp. Every course came with a paired wine. The coffee, I must report, was not good -- which made me realize I had not simply fallen into a trance, but I was discriminating and still, nearly every bite was a marvel. I told Nan she needed to write another book. And soon.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


I think I've mentioned here before that a stumbling block between my novels and publication is that the fact that they aren't religious enough for that market, but they're too religious for the regular market.

My argument has always been that I think that's where most of us live.

Over the last couple of years, I feel like I've been living there more than usual. There are about seven factors that have contributed to a dulling of my faith (in no particular order, I believe them to be Facebook, busyness in the church, anxiety, unanswered prayers, outward busyness and the beginnings of midlife hormones. And apparently one more that slips my mind right now.)

I think it's kind of rare to admit it though. Recently, at church, we were asked a "have you ever experienced x...?" question -- and one person I was talking with said, "I'm in the middle of such an experience right now and I'm not sure how it's going to end." I really do find that rare. We're supposed to pick a side, I think - faithful or faithless, devout or profane -- and if we secretly start to pray or stop praying, we're supposed to keep that hush-hush.

I've had quick moments of conversion in my life: at camp, as a child, someone explained the Bible to me and it was an ah-ha moment. After years of random Sunday School stories about all sorts of characters, I suddenly understood that at the centre of the Christian message was Jesus and God's love for people. Then, ten years later, I had another experience where scales fell from my eyes, and I broke up with a guy who was really destructive for me, and got back into a healthy place, emotionally and spiritually over the course of a weekend.

But a lot of the time, it's a slow process with two steps forward, one step back, and a few side shuffles thrown in for good measure. At least it is for me, and for my characters.

A former professor of mine wrote a book a few years back, on murder mysteries, in which he offered the idea that the absence of God was an argument for God's existence. It is not, he thought, the settled experiences we have of God that are proof of God or our faith, but our longings and cravings. By this measure, I'm a faithful egg.

The last time I really had a crisis of faith was just after university. I was living in one corner of Toronto and commuting to the opposite corner -- by bus, subway and streetcar. My streetcar took me through some bleak neighbourhoods filled with bleaker, ravaged faces and lives. But, between the prone bodies of the addicts and homeless hopped little sparrows with bright eyes, being sustained even in winter. I thought of the verses about sparrows - Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. (Mt.10:29-31) - and somehow I was able to believe.

This time around, I have been very certain that the struggles I have are with my ability to believe and not with the object of my beliefs. But at the same time, I've wondered how I can make myself find God?

Part of my problem has been an absence of problems. I don't have any philosophical issues with God and faith, really. What I've come to see, though, is that more than anything, my spirit has atrophied. I have always identified with Mary in the pairing of Mary and Martha - the one who wants nothing more than to sit and listen at the feet of Jesus. But my life has demanded Martha-ness of me and you know what? Stop sitting and listening, and you start to become Martha-like.

I think about my dry old gardens and how they sigh with relief when it finally rains. But first, the rain runs off the parched ground, right over top of it, because it's too dry and hardened to allow it in.

Some time ago, I got away and my Bible reading was the book of Jonah. Maybe you know the story beyond the whale part: God tells guy to go and invite the people he hates to redirect; guy says no, runs in opposite direction and is thoroughly redirected himself. I had heard someone say once that if you felt distant from God, you should go back and figure out where you went off track. In my reading of Jonah, I asked myself: what is the Nineveh I'm running from?

Honestly, I was stumped.

Until it hit me over the head: Nineveh is me. I can't say how profound that was for me, to recognize that I can't find God when I run from myself. Julian of Norwich, the medieval mystic, writes,

"For I saw very surely that our substance is in God, and I also saw that God is in our sensuality, for in the same instant and place in which our soul is made sensual, in that same instant and place exists the city of God, ordained from him without beginning. He comes into this city and will never depart from it, for God is never out of the soul, in which he will dwell blessedly without end. (287)


"When we know and see, truly and clearly, what our self is, then we shall truly and clearly see and know our Lord God in the fullness of joy" (258).

Exactly how do we run away from ourselves? Well, I do it when I get like Martha - continuing on in my superhuman tasks until my human strengths give out and my human emotions spill over.

It's funny to think that what God calls us to might not be India or Africa or no-more-fun, but precisely the opposite: to laugh, to rest, to be, to hope, to play, to dance, to sing, to grow.

Funny but true.

Monday, November 21, 2011

A Fine Balance

The other day, we were driving home along the highway when our daughter noticed a toddler jumping around inside another car. We got talking about the silliness of not wearing seatbelts -- they don't hurt or constrict, so why not? Our eldest opined that once, just once, he'd like to climb into the back of a pick-up truck and drive around.

My husband, who knows teenagers well, looked in the rearview mirror at our invincible son and began a conversation about where and when this could and couldn't happen. Camp roads ok. Drunk driver not ok. Farm field ok, especially if en route to pick apples or some destination. Aimless joy riding, not ok.

To every caveat, our son made a reassuring but cleverly noncommittal sound: Mmm. I commented on this: that he had not agreed to anything but clearly had taken in what his dad was saying.

Last night, I brought the topic up again. In the last two weeks, I've heard of two young men dying, both of unexpected natural causes. I've seen photos and read stories posted by family and friends in their grief. In both instances, there are such good tales to tell -- silliness, joy, dressing up, and just so much life.

And that's what I said to my boy last night. I said, if I knew you were going to die at 24, and I had to choose, I would so rather that you lived fully and savoured life, than that you always had your homework done and were a fairly nice kid. I want you to live. On the other hand, I said, if I knew you were going to die of some foolhardy idiocy of your own making (or your friends'), I'd be so mad at you and myself.

It's a balancing act, I said to the teen, between being full-on, as my Aussie cousins say, and being stupid.

And sometimes, death is not on the table, but the balance must still be found. My boy had a vague idea about hanging out with his friends on the PD day, at a girl's house. When I expressed reservation about the idea -- for I was once a teen at a boy's house -- he could not believe his ears. I trust this kid deeply. He has such a good head on his shoulders and a good heart to boot. He's willing to do the unpopular thing and with flair, when needed. But he does still believe he's untouchable.

I told him he could go, but I asked him to watch to see whether I was right -- whether idle hands and all that. In the end, the plans fell apart altogether, and he and I played with the dog in the sandtraps on the golf course instead.

But here we go.

Gullible on the Ceiling

My sons have this line they use on their sister who is, I admit, fairly easy to fool. When one of us says something obviously over-the-top untrue and she says, "Really?" they say, "Hey look, there's gullible on the ceiling."

Yesterday, I saw this photo on the Internet and it reminded me of one of my own many gullible moments.

The year was 1992. We had been married a year and were using my uncle's wedding gift: frequent flyer points for a trip to visit Australia. We were staying at his house in Sydney for a week, before spending time in Melbourne, a week driving up the Gold Coast (snorkeling and scuba diving and avoiding snakes along the way), and a week at a luxurious resort before returning home to the armpit of North America and our little Toronto apartment.

Maybe we were jetlagged. Actually, it's certain we were jetlagged, but I'm not sure I can use that as an excuse because Dave was as tired as I was and he didn't fall for it -- and I did.

We had read our travel books before going and we knew that among Australia's chief exports were Mel Gibson, The Man from Snowy River, vegemite and opals. So, one day, we were wandering around in The Rocks, a gentrified, touristy area that used to be the holding area for convicts when they landed near Sydney's iconic bridge. (OK, fine, the bridge wasn't there at the time of landing.) We knew we weren't going to make it to Uluru or really any of the outback, so when I saw a sign offering us a tour of a Genuine Opal Mine, I jumped at the opportunity and Dave gamely went along.

We went inside a lovely lobby, paid our money and waited for an elevator to take us down into the mine. If I recall correctly, it was during the long and bumpy elevator ride that I started to wonder. When the elevator stopped, the back door opened and we walked out into what was not a genuine opal mine, but a recreation of a mine, a small museum of opal artifacts. We learned about opals and how they were formed and mined and blah blah blah, and as we walked the floor sloped upward and we followed the path. As our experience came to an end, we turned a corner and found ourselves back in the original lobby. Not only was this not a genuine opal mine but the elevator had been a simulator and we had dropped maybe three feet.

Dave laughed and laughed, and I felt like a dork for thinking there might in fact be a storefront mine in the middle of downtown Sydney.

A few days later, a little older and wiser, we spent our first wedding anniversary in the Blue Mountains. The name comes from the air which is tinged blue by low-hanging eucalyptus oil from the trees that cover the mountains. We took a train up into the mountains and then walked from one hilly hippy town to another. We stayed in a Man-from-Snowy-River-like plantation and the wind shook our guesthouse all night long. We ate food on our anniversary in the smokiest, artsiest of restaurants and loved it.

The next day dawned clear and we decided to visit a little town that had two tourist attractions: a gondola that swung out between two mountain peaks, over a valley far far below, and The World's Steepest Railway. I decided to let Dave go alone on the gondola - the people in my family are all tall and we believe that is the origin of our fear of heights - and instead climb aboard the tamer railway car for a picturesque choo-choo ride.

My first clue should have been the padded bars on the roof of the open car, which resembled nothing so much as a roller coaster. I climbed aboard, strapped myself in and soon we were chugging along. Then we were chugging through a tunnel and suddenly we were chugging straight down the mountainside. The angle of descent was probably 87 degrees, but all I could do was grip the padded bar with sweaty hands and claws, praying and squeezing my eyes shut. This was no genuine opal mine -- THIS WAS A GENUINE OPAL MINE.

The engineer slammed on the brakes and I opened my eyes to see that we were parked at a type of metal scaffolding, on which we were invited to disembark to take photos and enjoy the scenery. Halfway up -- or down -- a mountain, depending on how you looked at it. Which I did not.

I had learned a little Australian (Strine) by this time, and I thought to myself: No. Bloody. Way. I did open my eyes to the lovely view, but my hands stayed firmly locked around the bar and my prayers were unceasing.

When my fellow passengers climbed back aboard, we ascended the mountainside in reverse. Dave's gondola ride was long since done and he was waiting for me at the top, camera in hand, ready to capture my bug-eyed stare and my eternal gratitude for being on level ground once more, ready to believe the claim that this was indeed the world's steepest railway.

My point is that sometimes being gullible -- believing every claim -- serves you and sometimes it doesn't. Just look for the padded bars. That's your clue.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Are You Honey or Are You Sweetie?

The other night at my writers' group, I served our usual tea: Creativity Tea is a rooibus tea, with lemon peel, orange peel, red pepper, lemongrass, basil, fennel, ginger, rosemary, cardamom and apple added in. The tea became a staple after one particularly productive (and laughter-filled) night when we decided that the tea had indeed contributed to our creativity.

I take my tea straight. Nothing added. So do a few of the other writers. But some take honey. It's become one of my goofy standing jokes to ask every one of them as I pour, "Are you honey... (pause)... or are you sweetie?"

I didn't intend to write about honey today, but after reading this article, honey it is. To summarize: 1/3 of all honey sold in US grocery stores (and presumably Canada isn't much better) is imported from China. Fully 75% of all honey sold in the US is modified before sale so that the health-giving pollen is removed.

Not my honey.

We fell into honey almost a decade ago when we first visited my sister's cottage on the Gaspe peninsula. Let me say that you go to the Gaspe for the scenery and not the tourist attractions. Let me also say that the weather there separates opinion as surely as pollen is separated from honey: there are glorious days of sunshine and there are dismal epochs of cold, hard fog and biting drizzle. A person with three preschoolers looks for distraction wherever she can find it. In our first rainy year, we visited the glass-walled salmon ladder to watch the fish struggle upstream, and Capitaine Homard to see the lobster-themed kitsch and golf course. We walked to the little corner store. And that was pretty much the extent of it until we found the honey place.

The honey place is called Le Vieux Moulin and it is indeed an old mill, red-painted on a long narrow strip of land that runs perpendicular to the nearby St. Lawrence. You climb rickety wooden stairs to the porch, and open the screen door to the front room which is decorated purely in honey. There is a tasting station with popsicle sticks and honey jars covered with pumps. There are varieties of honey -- early spring, midsummer, buckwheat, and more. There is creamed honey and liquid. You stand with your family and discuss your tastes. You look at the tables with honey soap, honey cough drops, small bee-topped honey jars, honey vinaigrette. You look at the cooler and its mead. (Once you buy the too-sweet wine, made from a recipe as old as the mill, and you know never to do that again, lest you fall into a diabetic coma and your teeth fall out in an instant.) You spend time at the glass-sided beehive at the side of the room, looking intently for the queen, feeling the buzz of the bees under the glass. One time, you pay the fee to go upstairs to see the seventeenth century Quebecois museum of well-preserved local artifacts and furniture. You sign the guest book every single time -- and look for people from your home area (Burlington! Guelph!) as well as your last signature.

But mostly you buy honey. A case of honey at least. Some liquid for the kids and creamed for the older eaters. A couple more for gifts. (One year, you can't go east and your sister buys the honey for you -- and tells the person delivering it that it must be all gifts. No, you think, that will last us until April.)

And why do you do it. You do it to take a literal piece of this place home with you -- its flowers transformed into honey, since you can't take home their scent. You do it to do whatever you can to keep this place going for another three or four hundred years. You do it because it tastes so good.


This year, we had a puppy and my sister had a baby with challenges and so we did not go east by mutual decision. Instead we went south to the Finger Lakes. As I think I've written here, we were not disappointed by the change, as much as I feared we would be. We had a lovely time -- and there was not one speck of fog.

But there had to be honey. I decreed it so. I read ahead of time that there was a beekeeper who brought local honey to the market in Ithaca. But we went on the quieter midweek market and the farmer wasn't there. We were not deterred. We had an address, and it became an adventure.

We had the most basic of tourist maps, and it found us the hamlet where the beekeeper lived. We followed slow-moving farm vehicles along a winding road set among rolling green hills and -- surprising to us -- Mennonite farms. We found the road -- but was it left or right. No word of a lie -- ask my embarrassed children and husband -- we turned around four times on the fairly short road before we called the phone number I had jotted down. We were so close we drove down the road farther -- and watched a barn being raised by committee -- to make it seem that we had come from a reasonable distance before we pulled up.

This honey place was a small shed, almost like the kind rural children use to hide from the wind as they wait for schoolbuses. It was an honour system -- we did not have to hope for the best against rapidfire patois French as we did at Le Vieux Moulin. We never saw anyone as we chose between kinds of honey and kinds of containers. There was linden honey and other tree-versions of honey, as well as buckwheat and clover. We made our picks, changed our minds, and picked again.

The honey tastes different, just as New York tasted different from Quebec.

What is the same is that we have summer in a jar, the best of our holidays preserved, a dash of authentic sweetness to add to my life.

So, here's to the beekeepers and the bees, the neighbours who make our lives sweeter and who preserve a good way of life and good health with their labours. I'd raise a glass of mead to them, if only they would drink it for me. I'll stick to my tea and the sweetness of creativity on a cold fall night.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Mall Rats - Part Two

It appears the plan is working!

Remember my elaborate scheme about making and selling crafts to raise funds to buy toys and clothes for refugee kids? Well, it has actually happened.

For weeks, our piano was stacked with colourful folds of fleece. The idea was that my daughter could tie knots in the blankets any time she watched television. The reality was that I knotted some of the blankets while I watched television, although she did more than a little.

There were four blue, yellow and green star blankets, and four pink, sage and yellow flowered blankets. Actually there were only three of the latter, as I used one for a baby shower.

Last weekend, we delivered the blankets, with notes pinned to them, explaining their story. A friend was hosting what she called a Living Room Market, where crafty people could sell their wares, and a portion of the proceeds went to refugee families. We stopped by twice during the day -- the first time, none had sold. The second time, two had sold. We gathered the blankets in our arms, preparing to leave, and then the vendors swarmed us, buying all the blankets in a matter of seconds. We were jubilant.

While this could have been a lesson in economics (profit = sale price - costs), I had decided to donate the material cost. My friend also waived her portion of the total, so the two girls were left with $120.

A friend who works with refugees had told us about a family, new to Canada, who had fled their home with their now 5 and 2 year old daughters, literally overnight, leaving all their toys, dolls and games behind.

Our girls were armed with a full wallet and eagerness. Yesterday, the other mom accompanied them to the mall, and let them go off on their own with a cell phone, to do their shopping.

Two hours later, they arrived at my house, laden with three shopping bags -- and $4.98 in change. We emptied the contents out on the dining room table. I'll tell you what they bought, but don't tell the little girls who will receive the toys in the next couple of weeks:

- Playdough
- Two colouring books (they had asked for colouring books specifically)
- Two soft soft full-sized teddy bears
- Two small, big-eyed stuffed animals (a dog and a panda. They had considered a reindeer, but decided that their toys needed to have staying power beyond Christmas)
- Two Barbies and a smaller plastic doll
- Ablack-skinned baby doll (We had talked about the fact that it would be a good thing to find dolls that looked like the girls, if at all possible. My daughter commented later that her own skin is significantly darker than the peach colour usually called skin tone, and that no one actually looks like a Barbie.)
- Two colourful pairs of mittens
- A white ruffled sweater for the older girl
- A funky, striped pink dress/tunic for the toddler.

The family had requested a skipping rope and books too, but the girls are donating these out of their own abundant collections.

I have to say that the choices they made seemed absolutely perfect. They talked about the stores they had visited, their instincts to go to the sales rack, the things they had put back because they were too costly.

Now we're at the final step: the part where the big girls meet the little girls. Probably the awkwardness will all be on the adults' side. The girls are eager to meet the little ones they've been dreaming about.

We've all decided that this isn't going to be a Christmas thing, but here's what I suspect: when we watch the little girls have their own toys and craft supplies again, it will feel exactly like Christmas morning, at least for one of us.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Dear Diary

My apologies for not writing all week. As my sister would say, "I don't have two minutes to rub together."

All is well. Back soon.


Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Mighty Pen

This is what it means to operate a new small business: you ask for and receive samples of promotional pens, and you spend earnest time and consultation figuring out which pen really says what you want it to say.

It's a writing business so, of course,the pen has to write smoothly. But that is not all.

The pen that felt best in my hand had a nice hourglass figure to it, but within a short time of using it, the writing on the side of the pen -- the promotional part -- had already started to be scratched off. What is the point of buying hundreds of sixty cent pens if no one can read what they advertise? Another pen was jazzy -- crystal clear, cool grip, jewel colours -- but I've used that type of pen before and it falls apart pretty quickly. Pen Number Three just felt cheap, and while I'm all for economical, I'm not about cheap.

There is no end to the listening in this start-up process, the quiet feeling out what fits and what doesn't. The printer offers me notepads for a great price and I say no. I'm hoping throughout that my intuition, my spidey sense is on.

I don't even ask environmental questions along the way -- although the pens I choose are not manufactured overseas, so I'm hoping that means the standards are decent.

The pen I choose, in the end, has a slim barrel, a medium point, a click pen rather than one with a lid. It doesn't blob ink. The printing appears that it will be almost engraved on the pen. It's the kind of pen you'd like to stick in your purse or by the phone. It's the kind of pen that doesn't slow you down when it's time to write.