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.