Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Starlight Fox

Down the long tunnel of mystery
the fox precedes me.

His step is light and sure.
Sometimes he glances back over his shoulder.

His face holds a quizzical expression.
He seems about to laugh a foxy laugh.

Behind me the small room retreats,
The voice of the shaman grows fainter.

I follow the fox down
to the starlit chamber.

The fox leads the way.
We find the right path, follow it.

At length, I emerge with the boon into daylight
just as the fox vanishes.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Christmas is a Series of Fragrances

A large part of the Christmas feeling is a series of wonderful fragrances that lasts through the darkest weeks of winter until after the days begin to lengthen.

The Christmas scent can be detected on that first morning in late November or early December when the air is cold with the promise of snow. Growing up in the North, a certain purplish tinge in the cold sky that was the sure harbinger of a snowfall. Sometimes I fancied I could smell it before it came.

In this land of green Christmases, that first cold day of winter is still magic. I stop to gaze at the sky, check the mountains for a skiff of the white stuff, and think Christmas.

Often the snow at higher elevations turns to rain and fog down at sea level. But when the grey overcast clears in a day or so, the shoulders of Grouse and Seymour are an alluring white.

The next Christmas fragrance is the tree. Early in December, usually on my birthday, which happens to be St. Nicholas Day, we go to our neighbours' farm to choose a tree. Scouting the the lanes of fir and spruce, we inhale the heady fragrance. In the evening, when Tom, the grower, drops off our tree we bring it inside, where it fills the house with the magical fragrance of the season.

Then comes the aroma of the seasonal food. An early batch of gingerbread is the first to deck the house with scent. Once it's in the oven, it's time to grind some dark roasted coffee. When the gingerbread comes out, it's time to sit down, enjoy fragrant coffee and fresh, hot gingerbread.

Early on Christmas eve, I begin to prepare the trifle the old way. The first layer has the lovely smell of raspberries thawed from the summer stock: their delectable scent wafts us as I pour the hot jelly over sponge cake. After the jelly sets, the light scent of sliced banana and the warm custard layer add their own bouquet to the next layer of preparation. We enjoy our Christmas dessert with the added fragrance of fresh cream whipped with Mexican vanilla.

On Christmas morning I prepare the turkey for the oven. The kitchen fills with the smells of onion, cumin, cinnamon and cardamom as I toast the rice and then partly cook it before stuffing the turkey.

The roast turkey gradually builds over several hours, until the whole house is filled with the aroma. An hour before the turkey comes out, we prepare the winter root vegetables, smelling the earthy fragrance of turnip peels and brussels sprouts.

Then my daughter prepares the cranberry sauce. The whole berries pop open and cook, they send out a sharp and delicious aroma. She cooks the sauce first and adds sugar later -- just a little. Cranberry sauce smells and tastes best when it's tart and a still a bit warm.

Perhaps it's those hours of exposure to the smells of the special foods that make this dinner so special. Our mouths are watering by the time we make the final preparations, salivating as we open the jars and release new scents: bread-and-butter pickles and stuffed green olives. Christmas is special: for once we take time to enjoy a whole day of preparations. The evening reward is a leisurely family meal with our loved ones.

Boxing Day is a holiday from cooking, a time to enjoy turkey leftovers or turkey pickle sandwiches, each smelling slightly different from the original feast. In our house, Boxing Day also brings one more Christmas fragrance. After taking the meat off the turkey, I simmer the bones for several hours, preparing a delicious stock. This leaves me free to work on puzzles for most of the day; I always associate the smell of turkey stock with doing jigsaws.

The following day, I strain and prepare the stock and boil it with orzo, then add egg and lemon, and finally, cut-up turkey meat. Once again, we enjoy the aroma, now tangy with lemon. It's my husband's favourite, the best turkey soup I know.

Now we have prepared enough food to last till the New Year. All we'll need to do is add some salads and fruit. It's time to sit down, read the Christmas books, and work on the jigsaw puzzle, indulging now and then in a fragrant mandarin orange or two.

May we long enjoy the leisure and the pleasure of Christmas.

Happy New Year!

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas Star through Cottonwood Branches

For all the years we have lived in this house I have fallen asleep each night and awoken each morning in the presence of the massive wild cottonwood tree that fills the wide round frame of our bedroom window.

We have not curtained this window, preferring instead to leave the garden always visible.
Each morning and night through all seasons I have daily observed my companion tree. When our daughter was tiny, I woke each day gazing at two miracles: the tender roundness of her sleeping cheek and the simultaneous change and sameness of the cottonwood, my window to the wild world beyond the window.

Flanked by high cedar hedges, our garden is an oasis of astonishing quietude in the midst of this large metropolitan area. A creek runs behind it, but like the wild animals that inhabit its banks and the band of wild brush beyond our garden, the water remains mostly invisible.

Only once did we see the flowing creek from our bedroom window. That afternoon we watched in terrified fascination as the muddy rain-swollen waters rushed by. They washed even around the trunk of my wild cottonwood, which grows just below the level of the back lawn. By evening, the rain had stopped and the flood abated.

Over the years, strong winds have also shaken the cottonwood. After one wild autumn storm it dropped one elegantly arched limb, leaving only the broken stub. It took me a long time to adapt my eyes to that gap. But gradually, the space filled in until I almost forgot the former view.

When we first moved here, I never tired of watching the squirrels as they scampered along the branches of this tree. In the early spring its leaves were small and bright yellowish green, and the activity of the frisky little creatures was clearly visible among the sun-jeweled leaves that stood against the brilliant spring sky. Sometimes they would run out to the end of a long limb and leap into the next tree.

Without my glasses, I can no longer see the squirrels or the passing birds distinctly. But this autumn, after the leaves had fallen, I saw two larger creatures clambering in the branches. Grabbing my specs, I was rewarded with a clear view of two masked raccoon faces that seemed to be starting directly at me from their perch in the tree.

Today is Christmas. I woke early and lay very still, gazing out at the cottonwood, still shrouded in dark. Then the miracle happened. A brilliant star sparkled out between the bare branches. Just as suddenly, it disappeared. I moved my head, trying keep it in view, but to little avail.

After much experimentation, I found the best way to see the star was to lie very still until the branches moved, or the cloud moved, and the star showed itself to me. Here was my ancient and gentle lesson patiently repeating itself once again.

As David Whyte says, the soul is not about doing, but about "being: the indiscriminate enjoyment of everything that comes our way."*

And as Franz Kafka says,

You don’t need to leave your room.
Remain sitting at your table and listen.
Don’t even listen, simply wait.
Don’t even wait.
Be quite still and solitary.
The world will freely offer itself to you
to be unmasked, it has no choice.
It will roll in ecstasy at your feet.

*The Heart Aroused, Anchor Doubleday, 1994, 20)

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Guest blog by Silvia Pandini: "Teachers and Mills"

Translated from the Portuguese by Silvia Pandini and Carol Tulpar

The chaff-coated millstones of my childhood were powered by wind, water and circling oxen. These stones created miracles: rice grains were cleaned, corn and wheat were transformed into flour, and the smoked leaves of yerba mate became a delicious tea.

As I moved out from the small farm of my childhood, I discovered larger mills and greater miracles. When Ney Matogrosso sang about how the north wind does not drive the mill, I began to wonder which of our efforts are pointless, which are necessary and productive, and which can bring us varied and unpredictable results. All are generated by the energy of the same wind.

The most evocative mills are those of the imagination, and Cervantes is their most brilliant creator. Like Don Quixote tilting at the windmill giant, we see what we are willing, able and eager to see.

The artist Rembrandt also painted mills of moving and unforgettable beauty that have remained forever engraved on my mind.

In Brazil, we have a special day to celebrate teachers. Yet why should we need a special day to celebrate the daily joys of learning and discovery?

Here’s to those who plough the land, simultaneously teachers, mills, and giants. May they enjoy long and fruitful lives.

Professores, Moinhos e Gigantes

Moinhos podem ser os da minha infância, movidos a água, feitos de pedras, encobertos de pó e restos. Eram máquinas de operar milagres e transformar grãos em farinha, folhas em erva-mate, grãos brutos em grãos descascados.

Em outras plagas aprendi sobre os Moinhos de vento, grandiloqüentes e velozes.
Ney Matogrosso canta lindamente “Os ventos Norte não movem moinhos”, pondo-me a pensar quais esforços merecem ser feitos, quais resultam em fins inesperados e quantas podem ser as variáveis de um mesmo vento.

Rendeu em meu eito a mirabolante imaginação de Cervantes. Os moinhos que Dom Quixote vê são para mim os mais belos, porque inventados.

Conversando com a obra de Cervantes, António Gedeão escreve o poema “Impressão Digital” e parafraseando digo: se quisermos ver gigantes serão gigantes, se quisermos ver moinhos, serão moinhos. Porque a vida também depende de nossa imaginação.

Para completar o repertório de estesias, como esquecer os Moinhos saídos de Rembrandt?
Comemorou-se ontem o dia do Professor no Brasil. Como acredito que certas belezas estão aí para serem celebradas todos os dias quero desejar que todos nós, professores, possamos ensinar nossos alunos e parceiros aprendizes a enxergar moinhos e gigantes.

E longa vida aos que aram nessa seara e são, simultaneamente, professores, moinhos e gigantes.


Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Our Group Disperses Once Again

It's finished. For over three months, this group of people has sat in the same room for several hours a day, four days a week, and often been in touch by e-mail on weekends. After tomorrow, we will not meet again.

The members of our little temporary family range in age from early twenties to early sixties, and we hail from every continent except Australia and Antarctica. For these weeks we have read the same materials, discussed and written about a wide variety of different views about topics that have been astonishingly varied: law, physics, obedience, vaccination, global warming, the purpose of literature.

We have shared and learned from each other, have heard presentations on new and ancient knowledge, on Nobel Prize winners, and on favourite books, fiction and non-fiction, old and new.

For me, this cycle of groups that form and disperse has been repeating for over thirty years. During all that time, it has remained endlessly interesting, surprising, new.

For I am an ESL teacher: my students are educated adults, many with advanced degrees and/or professional experience. Over the course of my career, I have helped to hone the English language skills of students from more than eighty countries. I began my ESL career when our profession was brand new, and teaching my students has been like having a front-row seat from which to watch our planetary culture evolving.

How fortunate I am in my work. What a privilege it is to have the opportunity to share ideas with these ever-changing, ever-evolving groups of people from all over the world. And how much I have learned over the years from these intrepid adventurers who have chosen Canada as a new or second home.

Each term end brings the same feelings: the poignancy of losing this particular group, and at the same time, the pleasure of seeing them move forward toward their goals, the delight at seeing how much more English they have acquired in the time we've spent together.

From this term, there is one particular table that will linger long in my memory. The five students who sat there were from five countries and three continents. All term, they studied together, planned leisure activities together and even regularly cooked for each other.

This seems to me to represent a level of conscious friendship, learning and cooperation I have never seen in an ESL class before, and it inspires me, gives me hope for our planet's future. For if there is one lesson we must learn in the 21st century, it is that we are one.

As long ago my Girl Guides used to say at the end of our meetings, "Go well and safely," all my students from English 098.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Red Roses for the Soldier and the Angel

Image from Vancouver Archives

In front of Waterfront Station stands a large bronze statue of a soldier being carried heavenward. Seen in light and shadow, sunshine and rain, this monument of the early twentieth century never looks the same twice. No matter from what angle I look at it, I never feel as if I have found the definitive view.

Tonight as I hurried past, a glimpse of red caught my eye, and I gazed up at the angel's bronze feathered wing, the uniformed soldier's limp form, his unraveling puttees, all gleaming with rain. Three red roses, still fresh, had been placed in the crook of his arm. It must have been done a few hours ago at most: the leaves were just beginning to wilt.

The statue used to seem remote and anachronistic. The fresh red roses gave it a chilling new dimension. Who put them there? What bereaved soul turned for consolation to this outdated image of comfort, sought out this old monument in a new ritual of remembrance?

I thought about Don, the artist who used to sketch the statue a few summers ago. I stopped one day to admire his work, and we started talking.

"This statue is fascinating," I said.

"The funny thing is," he said, "most people don't even see it."

My answer was mildly disbelieving.

"No," he said. "They really don't notice it. They ask me what I'm sketching, and when I tell them, 'The statue,' they say, 'What statue?'"

"What are you going to do with the sketch?" I asked finally.

He raised his eyes from his work to look at me frankly. "Maybe sell it to you for the price of a good meal?"

I gave him what money I had in my wallet, holding back only enough for a coffee. It would buy him at least a couple of meals, but still, it was little enough. Then while Don put the finishing touches on the drawing, I waited in a nearby coffee shop.

As he wrapped the drawing carefully in newspaper for me, he told me about the monument. "There are two others," he said, "one in Winnipeg and one in Montreal. They were commissioned to commemorate the men of the CPR who died in World War I and then updated after World War II to include the men who died in that war. I do another view," he added. "A close-up. You might like that one too. I'm here most days."

I came by a few days later, and finding him doing the other style of sketch, I bought that one too. The close-up view showed no background. The figures seemed to fly up into empty air. I don't know what became of Don afterwards. I haven't seen him sketching since.

Now the roses have updated the old statue once more. Someone who loved and lost a soldier still hopes he will be carried to heaven by his own personal angel.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Riding the Magic Stairs to 1967

It is said that every seven years our cells are completely replaced. If this is so, my memory cells have passed on the smell of these rubber stair treads to five new generations.

Whoosh -- Totem Park Cafeteria, 1967. Having scarfed down a Salisbury steak with two veg while my roommate ostentatiously gnawed on “rubber cheese,” the only vegetarian option, I am heading upstairs to my room.

Later, walking to the library where I will shelve books, I pass the recently constructed bell tower, which the boys call “Ladner’s last erection,” daring us to be shocked. I climb the granite steps and enter through the ornate main doors. How wonderful to be seventeen and have my whole life before me, as my mother never tires of saying. The fragrance of wooden card catalogue drawers, slightly sour, and the dusty papery smells of the stacks are still exotic, new.

Sorting cutlery in the residence kitchen, I wear my sweatshirt with Amor vincit omnia, love conquers all, embroidered on it crookedly in red wool. A middle-aged kitchen worker who can speak little English can apparently read this bad Latin. He chases me round the lounge, and I beat a rapid retreat down over the rubber-topped stairs.

Visiting friends on other floors, we aspiring hippies negotiate these stairs many times a day, and the new rubber treads sting our bare feet. After somber conversations about the existential alienation of Camus or Sartre, and commiseration over looming essay deadlines, our soles are also in pain.

Down over those same stairs I run out at dusk with my new friend to see the daffodils in Marine Foreshore Park. Finding the grass freshly mown, we lie down and roll in it, then, bubbling over with laughter. Then we race back up to our rooms, dripping grass clippings in the stairwell.

Now, forty years later, climbing the polished granite stairs of the Bennett Library, I catch a whiff of the same rubbery smell in the stairwell. No doubt these identical treads were installed during the same era. As I arrive at my floor and open the glass door, the rows of dusty stacks assail me with memory. This is not just a library. It is a time machine.

A Sign of Consumer Sanity?

When false advertising was illegal, companies could be held accountable in court for outright lies. Deceiving potential buyers to manipulate them into making a purchase was considered wrong, and society was willing to censure the perpetrators.

Now individual consumers are no longer the ones who matter. On Madison Avenue, two advertising firms are fighting each other over their perceived rights to market share.

Last week, the New York Times published an article describing the latest suing wars as firms take one another to court over rival advertising that takes away "their" customers.

"Prove it," they say of one another's claims. Come again? Advertisers asking one another to be truthful?

So they put on their armour and joust away in court, bringing expert witnesses to prove that experiments were done, and a certain shampoo really does repair hair better than its rival.

Sometimes they settle out of court, paying one another large sums of money. For what? I ask myself. To cover their lies, or apologize?

I must confess to a certain satisfaction about the aftermath of these donnybrooks. After two canned soup producers finished attacking each other court, reports the Times, both lost market share. Not just in the short term -- sales have continued to fall.

Is this a glimmering of sanity? Are consumers finally getting tired of the outrageous claims of advertisers? I sincerely hope so.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Spirit is Willing but the Corpus Callosum is Weak

Image from learnoutloud

After the Women’s Liberation movement, we tried to deny that men and women were different. That didn’t work. Take a simple thing like clothes. Men look and feel good in jeans, t-shirts, sweaters, jackets, ties and brogues; women look great in dresses, skirts, pants, suits, jewellery and heels. Sorry, Annie Hall, but you looked just plain silly in that necktie and fedora. I’m ducking now, in case people start throwing things.

Now that my head's down, I'll admit I think men look silly when they wear earrings and highlight their hair. Yes, including David Beckham. Now I really have to duck.

No, the sexes are not the same. Thirty years of attempts to deny the obvious biological differences, and what have we really achieved? Men: hands up if you’d trust your wife to deal with a leaking pipe. What would you do if the driver’s side windshield wiper fell off the car? Call your wife to help? Nope, she can’t fix it. Doesn’t want to. It takes a man’s single-minded focus to analyze this kind of problem and then take decisive action.

But admit it guys, we girls are the ones who keep the cupboards stocked. We also excel at making a quick meal out of whatever is in the fridge, providing friendly reminders of the family’s appointments and finding other people’s mislaid belongings. And while we’re doing that, we can also talk on the phone and keep an eye on the kids. Women: hands up if your man can do laundry and watch TV at the same time. See what I mean?

But then, who would want to have a partner with exactly the same skills, attitudes, and thought patterns? Nothing to learn, no opportunity to grow. The fact is, most men are single-minded focused fixers, while women are usually multi-taskers who carry with them a diffuse fog of attention that can absorb information from several directions at once.

Scientists have finally discovered the reason. It arises from the basic structure of our brains. The two hemispheres are connected by a small bridge called the corpus callosum. Research has shown that in women, that bridge is wider and thicker.

So believe him when he tells you he can’t see the loaf of rye bread you just this minute put in the freezer, or is unable to find his own tie in the closet. Understand that he can’t answer a question, no matter how easy, when he is watching a basketball game.

The good news is that he's willing to do things for you. He just has to focus on them one at a time, so cut him some slack. The spirit really is willing; it’s just the corpus callosum that’s weak. He was born male. So, ladies, instead of showing off your brilliant multi-tasking abilities to your partner, just ask him nicely to do what you want done and can't do yourself. Then remember to thank him afterwards.

Because it's official. Science has now demonstrated what fear of sexism has tried so hard to play down. Men and women are biologically different. But that’s okay. Therein lies the potential for working together to get all the necessary tasks done. And of course, therein lies the electric charge between the sexes. The French have known the joy of surprise and contrast all along. Vive le difference!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Not the Naughties

It’s been brilliant, it’s nearly over and we still haven’t named it. We’re going to have to refer back to this small era very soon. What can we call it? The name should be fitting – a word that acknowledges the great strides of progress we’ve made in this first decade of the new millennium.

Numerical names like the sixties and the nineties have been customary, but for this decade they won’t work. They don’t roll trippingly off the tongue, and they have bad connotations to boot. The oughties, for instance, sounds way too bossy.

The naughties? Too old-fashioned, and too close to the adjective naughty. It’s true that in the last century the twenties roared, and the thirties were dirty. But do we really want future generations to think the whole first decade of the new millennium was naughty?

Besides, there are still an aging few who recall that ought and naught used to be synonyms for nothing. But it’s doubtful whether anyone under seventy remembers that the game of xes and ohs was once called naughts and crosses. Clearly, if we use ought or naught, the original meaning will quickly become obscure, leaving posterity scratching its collective head. Who even plays xes and ohs anymore anyway? It requires those primitive implements, pencil and paper. We’ve gone way beyond those simple tools. Even the smallest child communicates strictly by computer and iphone.

Certainly we cannot dub the decade the zeroes or the zips. Using either of these names would be both misleading and unfair. And without doubt, young people growing up during these years would resent the decade of their coming of age being labeled as a nothing time.

Au contraire.
They will naturally want their coming of age decade to be remembered as the time of great technical and social achievement that it was. And there is much to be proud of. This has been the era when the home telephone, demoted to its reduced title and status as a landline, became so nearly obsolete. The time when it became impossible to talk to a human voice by calling a business number, due to the progressive move to the infinitely superior answering messages, each with its own dizzying range of options. The time when people began to ignore the ringing phone, in a vain attempt to screen out the computer voices that called them at dinner time and tried to sell them everything from carpet cleaning to firemen’s pinup calendars. Wait! Firemen’s pinup calendars? Count me in!

This has been the age, too, of the widespread adoption of the cell phone, a wonderful innovation that made it possible to speak to a live person again, always providing you had the cell number.

Even when cell phones were still so primitive they could not offer text messaging or video games, these new devices made their mark. First they instantly doubled everyone’s phone bill and made it impossible to screen out calls. And they certainly made commuting more exciting. On the train, people no longer suffered the boredom of poring silently over their own books or their own thoughts. The air around them was soon rife with one-sided private conversations to listen in on.

This decade of progress will also be remembered as the time when cell phones morphed into cameras. This was very significant: it meant that we could now take photos so miniscule that nobody could see our wrinkles or gray hairs, if indeed they could see our faces at all.

Of course, it was a revolutionary time for students too. Habituated to the vastly superior computer screen, they soon began to forget the printed page. Indeed, there was now hardly any demand for something so out of date as a printed book. At home, there was the 19” LCD monitor, and nobody went out without a blackberry. (I confess that I used to think blackberries were the wild fruit growing along the edges of the Serpentine Dike. Now I know better.)

Going to class became so much more exciting when students brought their cell phones, loaded with amusing ring tones. Now they could play computer games or send text messages to keep themselves amused while the boring teacher droned on and on.

It’s true there were a few minor inconveniences. For instance, old fashioned people with paper address books had to make room for email addresses. And luddites with no computers, slow computers or no RealPlayer Plus could no longer open their Christmas cards when the primitive paper Christmas cards that used to go through the renamed “snail mail” were practically forgotten.

When a personal computer became indispensable, parental rules were vanquished, once and for all. The same intrepid moms and dads who had had dared to put bedtime above the early years of CSI , Frasier, and even Survivor could no longer keep the TV out of the bedroom. To deny children access to their own computers would mean compromising their education and their future. As the downloading began, older kids rationalized, “But Mom, Dad, by downloading I can watch the whole season of The Office without commercials!”

It was around this time that live conversations became obsolete. In the bank, customers began to answer their cellphones right under the teller’s nose. Shoppers started using their cell phones instead of shopping lists.

“I’m at IGA. Do we need anything?”

“What? Sorry, Gotta go. Canadian Idol is coming on. Call you back.”

The old-fashioned tradition of eating family eating meals together passed into history, as individuals were now free to eat in front of user-friendly machines which never told them to chew their food or eat their vegetables.

Anyway, in just over a month, this brilliant decade will be over. When our new millennium enters its teens, we’ll have to refer back to this decade as something. The Sell Phones decade maybe?