October 20, 2014

Autumn Mists and Apples

'Tis the time of year for reflecting on 
the 10 months past, 
their fullness realized
in the turning leaves
 and rising mists from empty fields.
The harvest was good this year.

The view behind our house

I have made so much applesauce 
apple crisp and apple muffins.
A friend shared her bumper crop.
She had more than she could ever use.
Her children are flying the coop
 like mine are.

The grocery bill is shrinking
but my freezer is full.

Is there any thing more perfect than an apple? 

These ones are Macintosh.
They've just been washed.
Now they will be sauced.

For your listening pleasure, a newer take on an old standard,
'Autumn Leaves'

October 14, 2014

Clean and Be Thankful

I cleaned my oven this morning, and the job was done with a parade of cleaning products including vinegar and baking soda, SOS pads, dish soap, Mr. Clean and a lot of elbow grease. I knew it would be much simpler to spray on some Easy-Off, leave it to do its magic and then simply wipe off the grime, but the last time I did so I was sick and swooning from the toxic fumes for days. That stuff is nasty.

I do not enjoy cleaning my oven, to say the least, but this morning while I scrubbed a couple of months' worth of baked-on cooking I got to thinking. (Who are we kidding here? The last time I cleaned my oven Mark Zuckerberg was trying to get into a fraternity.) Music played in the background to keep me company but my thoughts ran free - when I was not singing along to the Mamma Mia soundtrack at the top of my voice, that is, something I am only allowed to do when no one else except my youngest is home. She sings with me of course, being a Musical Theatre kid.

Two of my three living-away children were able to come home for Thanksgiving this past weekend. The third had to work and celebrated the holiday with a dinner cooked by his roommates. The rest of us enjoyed all the comfort and cheer of being together at home. We cooked and baked together, sang (ABBA was strictly forbidden) and were silly together. And while we cooked and baked the oven smoked. In fact, every time I basted the six and a half pound chicken the fire alarm went off.

Anyway, while I was cleaning the oven I was telling myself I had better not complain about the task because, as much as I detest that particular chore, I was lucky. Lucky enough to have an oven in the first place. Lucky enough to have a beautiful, plump, organic chicken carefully raised by some farming friends to cook in said oven. Lucky enough to share that chicken with a loving family, even if one of us had to be absent. Lucky to have enjoyed the delicious leftovers in front of the TV with my youngest after her siblings left to go back to their respective post-secondary institutions and her dad worked late. Lucky to have a gainfully employed husband. Lucky to have children who desire to further their educations and make something of themselves. Lucky to live in a democratic country which, while not without its problems, remains a relatively safe and reasonable place to raise a family and build a future.

I remember when I was a girl and would be out walking with my mother. As we strolled down the hills of Nelson with the timeless view of the lake below and the streets lined with trees in full flame of fall colour against a blue, blue sky my mother would invariably say, "Aren't we lucky to live in such a beautiful place?" I would generally agree. I also remember when I would whine about being hard-done-by or some such teenage complaint she would invariably say, "Just be grateful." Well, with the news the way it is these days, Mom, I can honestly say I am both lucky and grateful to be where I am and with whom, enjoying the benefits of your healthy and wholesome upbringing filled with books and walks, love and talks.

My oven looks a lot better now. I baked some apple muffins after lunch and my youngest is enjoying two as an after school snack. The fire alarm remained silent throughout.

This Billy Joel song cheered me up the other day when I heard it after a particularly bad news day in the media. The video even features a smoking oven.
 We Didn't Start the Fire

October 1, 2014

Walk of Ages

The waning year and I were both feeling our ages
so we took a walk together along the lakeshore

The clouds were heavy with moisture 
 The lake reflected the grey above it

We walked the path toward the hot springs source
in search of the fountain of youth

The trees reminded us with age comes dignity, wisdom and sheltering kindness
 beauty often forgotten in this shiny, hungry, forward leaping world

A pair of cyclists rode past us
none too young themselves, but active

Wildflowers grew among the thorny blackberry
trumpeting out messages of eternal hope and sweetness

A winding waterway, still and placid
fed the lake in a constant, quiet way
lilypads and insects giving life to its surface

Snowberries glowed pearly white in the forest gloom
heavy bunches of perfect orbs bending their fine and supple twigs 
into arcs reaching for rest on the ground

Tipped with autumn red and orange
green leaves waved goodbye in the breeze

A trio of ducks followed the shore 
keeping another woman's retriever and me at bay

The fountain of youth needed a paint job
but her water was promising and sent up clouds of steam into the cool air

Returning, I took the narrower, treelined path. 
Like the trees I leaned toward the water and the light

Rosehips glowed like little round coals in the fire
Tougher and brighter than the roses of summer
they would feed the birds in the cold days to come

The year and I having made our peace with time together
I took myself out for a birthday lunch and went home for a nap

Many thanks to my daughter, Emma, who designed my new blog header. I was ready for something different, and she was eager to use her digital design skills newly aquired at college. 

September 12, 2014

A Writer's Daughter

My dad and me - taken in 1970 by Reg Feuz

Five years ago this month I started my Letters to the World blog. I barely knew what a blog was, except that my dad had started one and it was like a diary available to read for whomever could find it on the internet. I started it as a way to become more disciplined in my writing, and as a way to kick off my forties with something resembling creative productivity. I remember those first few posts. They were relatively brief, generally humourous, or trying to be, and a little bit earnest. As I sent them out into cyberspace with the click of a few keys on the keyboard, my heart fluttered, my stomach lurched, and I could not rest until someone responded to them in some way. The person I most wanted to hear from was my dad.

My dad would never say anything negative about my blog posts, but if he was silent about a particular post I would wonder how I had failed. I could not help it for in writing I believe he was my litmus test. If he wrote a response it was short, to the point, and always encouraging. Even if I received no other reaction from any other person I would be satisfied, and I believe a large part of my blog was written to him.

I remember when I was in college and struggling with an essay. After wrestling with my opening paragraph for a couple of hours at my bedroom desk I would go downstairs in search of some fresh point of view. My dad, usually reading in the living room if he was not doing dishes or writing in his basement den, would look up at me inquisitively as I sat down and exhaled a tell-tale sigh. I would talk about my current struggle, but instead of tackling it head on and in an obvious way, my dad would start to tell me a story, seemingly unrelated to my problem at hand. My dad had a lot of stories to tell, about his childhood living in different provinces across Canada during the Second World War, about his family's experiences on Lasqueti Island after the war, about his work as a surveyor for a BC Hydro project in his early twenties. Sometimes his stories grew tentacles and I would begin to absorb them rather than truly listen to them, but he would always circle back to the beginning and I would marvel at his ability to do so. After the story I would excuse myself and go back to my essay to find that the ideas and the words now flowed easily. I could not at the time figure out how he managed to help me clear my mind and set it going in the right direction, but I think I might know now. Through telling me an unrelated story he was not only giving my brain a break from the task at hand, but also helping me to think like a writer who was passionate about what I had to say on a particular subject, always keeping the different aspects of the essay in play until the end. I cannot say that my essays were all brilliant, but at least I would get through them and be somewhat satisfied with the results - all a student can hope for much of the time.

My dad had been a land surveyor and a school teacher, but as the youngest in the family I only remember him as a writer. He loved teaching but gave it up to write full time when I was five years old. By living with him I learned what it takes and what it means to be a writer. For Dad, technique was important of course but what was behind it mattered more - "The spirit of the thing" he liked to say. The spirit of the thing was what I believe he was hammering home to me through his storytelling when I was in college. High grades did not seem to impress him much. My being satisfied with what I had produced conceptually was much more important to him. I will admit I was puzzled by his approach, for back then I planned to be a career academic and viewed grades as a marker of my progress toward my goal. Perhaps he knew better and was pushing me on to a life beyond the analysis of other people's writing. In any case I am forever grateful to him. He challenged his children to think hard, to reason, and to never in any case, sell out on our gifts and talents. He was sometimes hard to live with, like many creative, passionate people uninterested in compromises, but I loved him immensely. In June of this year I went to visit him and we had a beautiful time together. He was very ill but we were able to talk and laugh a bit in the old way, and at times we were silent together. The morning I left we embraced tearfully and I told him I hoped it would not be too long before I could come and visit him again.

My dad died peacefully on the morning of August 26th, between nursing shifts and before the daily round of visits from my mother and other family members, at the hospital where he spent his last nine days on this earth. The news of his death did not come as a shock because I had been expecting it for some time, but nothing can completely prepare one for the loss of a parent, especially one who played such an important role in one's life and made such an impact. A large number of people, family and friends old and new, gathered last week to celebrate my dad's life. Plenty of laughter, some tears, and plenty of talking and visiting filled the few short days we had together. At times I imagined I could hear my dad's deep voice joining in the conversation with his usual gusto, telling a story from when he was young and healthy and full of vitality. I like to think of him as young again now that he is free from the encumbrance of illness and pain. I will continue to write with him in mind and hope that he is looking down on me as I type this, and as I adjust to my new reality without his strong physical presence in my life.

I will miss my dad's quick emailed responses to my posts, those little live connections with him that I have cherished over the past five years. He never held back from giving me the thumbs up if he thought I deserved it. I know I can carry on writing without his responses because he succeeded in setting me on the right track in my writing. I know when I have 'the spirit of the thing' because I can feel it in my gut.

Thank you, Dad. For everything you gave me, but mostly for your love - the true spirit of the thing.

August 22, 2014

Reading Material

Although I never actually heard my parents say, "You are what you read", I do think they believe that to be true in most cases. My mom read virtually every book we children brought into the house just to be sure of what we were putting into our heads. A book brought home often disappeared during the night and was replaced on the bedside table before we woke up in the morning. Mom would usually tell us what she thought of the book, too, especially if she didn't like it.

When I was in grade seven I made bi-weekly trips to the local library and soon became fascinated with stories about troubled young girls lacking parental support. I distinctly remember one about an overweight girl who ran away from her miserable family, and somehow got trapped on an island where she had to survive by killing and eating raccoons and such. The experience changed her, of course, and she lost a great deal of weight, which seemed to solve all her problems. While against censorship in general, my mom finally appealed to me to stop bringing home such depressing novels. I suppose they were dragging her down.

I spent many hours as a pre-teen brushing my mom's long, dark brown hair while she read to me. We made our way through several Noel Streatfield novels (my favourite), the Little House on the Prairie series and The Von Trappe family stories. When I was bored I merely had to say, "Mom, I need a book to read, and she would lead me to the floor-to-ceiling book shelves which lined the entire length of the front hall : "Here's a good one," or " You'd love the Anne books," or "How about The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe?" Mom took volume after volume off the shelf, and having read each of the books herself gave me a concise librarian's description of it. After dismissing most of the books with "Nah," I finally made my choice. My literary education then continued as I lay on the couch calling out for the meaning of this word or that, as most of the books I read were written before I was born.

Another memory lives in my mind like a short film. One afternoon I was sitting in the living room reading a magazine. My father was in the chair opposite, also reading. I soon became bored and began rifling through the rack beside my chair. Lo and behold I discovered an unfamiliar magazine: an edition of True Confessions. I picked it up and started reading a story about a young woman who goes off with a married man to a cabin in the woods...you can guess the rest. I think my fascination stemmed largely from my surprise that such smut could even get through the doors of our house, and here it was found lying cover to cover with National Geographic World and a Sharon, Lois and Bram songbook. As I soaked up the explicit descriptions of events in the story, as only a ten year old can do, I began to feel a distinct, steady sensation like a laser beam crossing the room. I looked up to meet my dad's over-the-glasses gaze which, having been a teacher and parent for many years, was a look he had perfected. He lowered his eyes slowly down to the title of my chosen literature, and then up again at me. "Don't you have anything better to read?" he asked quietly, but oh, so effectively in his deep, sonorous voice. Without a single noise from my lips, I replaced True Confessions in the rack and took up a copy of National Geographic World. "That's better," he said with the trace of a smile. The next time I went to choose a magazine, True Confessions was gone. I never saw it or its kind in the house again.

After I moved out my parents turned my bedroom into a study/library and transferred all the books into it from the front hall. The study has a lovely view of the back garden where the cherry tree of my childhood bloomed until it rotted and had to be taken down. On a recent visit I had forgotten to bring a book, and asked to borrow one. My mom brought me a thick novel - a one volume edition of Robertson Davies' Salterton Trilogy. I settled down into the pullout couch for the night and began my transport into the wickedly funny world of Kingston, Ontario's intellectual society of the 1950's... Mom let me take the book home to finish.

The photo above, while not an actual photo of one of my childhood bookshelves, greatly resembles it. 

August 15, 2014

Mourning Robin

The growth of children is truly the marker of time passing. Last week I travelled with my four children and their dad to Vancouver Island. The occasion was the 25th wedding anniversary of my husband's employers at the lodge where we lived from December, 1997 to April, 2003. When we moved to the lodge our three older children were four and a half, three years, and thirteen months. Our youngest had not even been thought of yet, although, knowing her, she had probably been planning her entrance for years before it happened.

The last time we went to the lodge was in 2009 when the owner family celebrated the lodge's 50th anniversary of operation. Our children, the older three teenagers and youngest one eight years.

The above is how I started what was to be this week's blog post. After a wonderful family holiday and reunion with friends-of-old, I was high on a cloud of happiness, floating above the earth and its cares. I sat down to write, got a few lines in before I was interrupted. When I returned to the computer I found out that Robin Williams, a comedian, actor, and benefactor admired and loved by me and by millions, if not billions, of people had killed himself. I read the news and sat staring at the screen, shocked and tremendously saddened. As details about his death trickled in over the next few hours I learned of his absolute determination to end his life - he had left nothing to chance. That was on Monday. All week I have grappled with the news and tried hard to understand it.

After my first reaction of sadness and shock I became angry. I thought of all the Iraqi people starving on that mountaintop after being persecuted and driven there by ISIS. I thought of all the people in the world who struggle daily to access the very basic necessities of life. I thought, how does someone with all the gifts and all the priveleges, all the means to do good in the world just throw it all away? I did not blame the man himself, rather, I blamed our society for collectively losing perspective of how lucky we are and how much responsibility we have inherited to try to make the world a better place. That so many people are driven to suicide seemed, in my angry phase of grief, like a giant failure. What terrible lies of the world did people believe if killing themselves seemed the only option?

When I was finished feeling angry, I tried hard to understand the pain and the depths of despair Robin must have had to endure. I remembered a time several years ago when I experienced true depression for the first, and hopefully only, time. I was lucky in that my bout was a short one, only a couple of weeks, but the experience was something I will never forget. During the time in question, I had been trying to force myself to take a job that my instincts were telling me was wrong for me. I am a fairly sensitive person and my body has always had a way of telling me I am on the wrong track. One morning I woke up and despite a cup of coffee, which usually warms, energizes and starts my day off right, I could not seem to cheer up. I could feel myself sinking down into a state I did not recognize. I began to have severely negative thoughts about myself. I began to think if only I had been a better person the world would not be such a mess. I began to assume things about some of the people in my life - I thought they secretly despised me. I felt like a failure and could not shake off my despair for days. My husband and children were baffled by my sad demeanor and gave me what comfort they could. I wrote to my parents who advised and counselled me well, as they had always done, and eventually I began to rise out of my depression. I have never felt such relief as when I could sense that I was back to my normal, relatively cheerful state. When I described my bout with depression to a friend I said perhaps it would serve to give me a better sense of what other people deal with in their own lives, and now, years later, I think it has.

When I think of Robin Williams and the various people and friends I have known who have taken their own lives, I try hard to think of them with great love and compassion. I hope they will find peace at last, although I do believe a journey of some sort awaits their soul on the other side with comfort and joy as the ultimate destination. But, more than that, I try harder to be kinder and more understanding while I am living on this side. I make time to have a cup of tea with my daughter to talk about whatever is on her mind. I write a thank-you note to an aunt who has sent me a card or a thoughtful gift. I visit my friend who suffers from chronic depression, and I give him an extra big hug when it is time for me to leave. I try to judge less, listen more, give people the benefit of the doubt, smile at strangers, say hello to elderly people I meet when I walk downtown to do an errand, thank the checkout person for bagging my groceries. I know these small things cannot conquer someone's depression if they are already suffering from it, but perhaps sometimes I, and others, can just add enough to the positive side of the scale to keep it from tipping over completely to the negative. I have to believe this or the situation seems a bit hopeless for all of us.

The other day I was in Value Village with my family. My younger daughter came up to me, beaming and holding three movies in her hands - a copy of Shrek 2, Disney's Robin Hood, and Disney's Alladin. "Look Mom!" she said.

"Cool!" I said. Then it dawned on me. Alladin starred Robin Williams as the Genie. "Alladin," I said, "especially considering Robin Will..."

She cut me off. "I know!" she said. "Did you know he adlibbed almost all his lines? I've been wanting to see this for ages." The only copy at our local video store had been stolen, and I had given away our copy years ago.

The checkout girl exclaimed loudly when she saw the video of Alladin. Apparently, she had been looking for a copy for ages, too. While I was paying for our stuff, my daughter and son searched and found two more copies of Alladin on the shelf and moved them to where the checkout girl could see them. The checkout girl gave my daughter a high-five.

Perhaps I should follow my daughter's lead and celebrate the genius that was Robin Williams through his many roles in film and television. I remember watching Mork and Mindy when I was a child and hearing my Dad laugh. I did not always get the jokes but I loved to hear my dad laugh. Robin's role in The Fisher King revealed a sympathy for mental illness which we can understand better now. And, he was my favourite Peter Pan. He brought joy to so many people, and boosted our morale, and what he has left behind will continue to do so, but perhaps now we will look with more understanding and appreciation for what it cost him and costs others like him to keep us entertained.

Here is a small glimpse at his genius. God-speed, Mr. Williams.

July 29, 2014

Books for the Armchair Traveller

I have not travelled to many places far from home in my life. I have not been off the North American continent, in fact. Most of my exotic travel has taken place in my imagination through the writings of gifted authors who can bring the very dust alive of a country where I have never set foot. Most of these authors are transplants from North America or England and their stories are relatable, often funny, and full of love for their adopted homeland.

Peter Mayle and his A Year in Provence books was the first transplanted author to really get my attention. He and his wife, Jenny, vacationed in the Provence region in the south of France in the early 1980's. In 1986 they moved to the area and began renovating an old stone farmhouse. Mayle's lighthearted and often comic descriptions of the food and wine, the Provencal characters, the landscape and the lifestyle opened up the world of armchair travelling to me and I happily return to Provence at least once every couple of years.

American Chef, Julia Child wrote a beautiful memoir, My Life in France about the years she and her husband, an American diplomat, spent living in Paris and Marseille. Needing something to do in a strange country, Julia took cooking lessons and discovered she had an aptitude for the art. With her trademark candid style, Julia describes with delight all the sights, sounds and smells of her adventures in France. She absolutely fell for Paris, fell for cooking, and fell for the French people.

An artist friend loaned me a couple of books by Hungarian-Canadian cum Tuscan author Ferenc Mate. The Hills of Tuscany and A Vineyard in Tuscany lept to mind when I was viewing the Facebook photos of a friend who is presently travelling in that part of Italy. Mate, a true Renaissance man, and his wife Candace, a painter, moved to Tuscany from New York (although I am happy to say they met by chance in Vancouver) to make a life there. Mate writes with a great deal of warmth, love, humour and self-deprecation. Between the lines one can sense his innate talent at making lifelong friends and succeeding at anything he turns his hand to. In the second book, he and his wife and their young son Peter, buy a former convent and turn it into a beautifully stunning, award-winning winery in the Montalcino region of Tuscany. Reading his books was like making a new friend, one for whom you feel an immediate appreciation and look forward to visiting again. I have a feeling I will be rereading Mate's sun-drenched memoirs this winter when the coastal weather here is particularly dreary.

I must confess that non-fiction has not always been my thing. I am a fairly dedicated reader of novels and short stories, but if a writer can entice me with true stories, I become a life-long fan. I can do plenty of armchair travelling through novels: Rumer Godden wrote exquisitely of India, Mary Stewart of Greece, Michael Ondaatje of pretty much anywhere, but there is something unmistakably wonderful about a writer who can write truly engaging non-fiction. Gerald Durrell and his My Family and other Animals, about growing up a junior naturalist in Greece, M.Wylie Blanchet and her The Curve of Time in which she takes us along with her family on their adventures by boat in and along the fjords and coastline of Vancouver Island and the Sunshine Coast are two such books. Their stories have an immediacy to them which scoops up the reader and takes them along as a guest on the journey, and I have a true appreciation for that quality in a book. Especially when long-flight travel is not on my real-life agenda any time soon.

Have you any recommendations of similar type books for me? Let me know in the comments, please!? Thank you.