Friday, March 7, 2008


I joined a book club a few years ago and have had the privilege of discussing some pretty wonderful books with some equally wonderful women. One thing I’d noticed was that, even though we’d read the same books, we each seemed to get something different from them. It was like the issues we were personally dealing with, or had dealt with, were mirrored in how we understood the book.

The last novel we read was Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, and I was half-hearted picking it up since the person I borrowed it from didn’t get through it. When I first started reading, I was angry. I really disliked it but had to keep reading because of the book club. After a hundred pages, I started skipping ahead fifty pages, then another twenty, then another fifty, and still I wasn’t impressed. Then I went to the last twenty pages and read something so shocking I figured maybe I’d give it another try. Flipping back, I realized I was so used to fast-paced plots from the movies, I was expecting the same thing from this book.

But the beauty of Bel Canto wasn’t in the plot; it was in the characters. Not a lot occurred, but so much happened. It was about a hostage taking incident in South America, and one of the hostages was a brilliantly gifted opera singer. When this woman sang, time stopped. To be in her presence as she performed was to be uplifted by the gods. In the months they were together, lives were transformed: love flowed, latent talents in both the rebels and captives blossomed, and magnificence in all forms were noticed and appreciated. Before reading this, I had never really understood the transcendent power of absolute beauty and the yearning (perhaps unconscious) we have to be in its midst. Patchett truly inspired me.

The book I’m reading for our next gathering is The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, and I am so in awe of this novel too. Again, I was reluctant going in, this time thinking it was so old and outdated. But the more I read the more relevant and ominous it felt. With the gap now widening between rich and poor, and droughts more prevalent, I’m finding this book rather eerie. I’m only half way through, and what touches me profoundly is the character of these people. The times had changed and they lost their home and way of life, but still they didn’t forget what truly made a person rich: kinship. Food and shelter, no matter how meagre it was, was shared. These folks may have been dirty, but no matter what, they cared deeply for each other.

Steinbeck talked about how fear weakened people and made it easy for others to divide and conquer them. He also talked about how dangerous it was for those powers-that-be when ““I”” became ““we,”” and how with “a little multiplication” of the ““we”” most anything was possible.
Perhaps I’m understanding this from these books right now because I’m coming to recognize that no matter how much I learn, how open my mind is, without an open heart, a heart capable of nurturing and perpetuating beauty of all kinds, I will continue only to yearn for that which I seek. The clarity, the truth, the grace I have touched but cannot hold on to, happens when the wisdom in my head flows to both my heart and my hands. When I becomes we, it won’t matter what worldly limitations I may experience, for the power of my group will buoy me.

I suppose both of these novels are sort of retellings of the biblical Job story: even when everything is taken away, there’s always some form of beauty around to uplift and remind us of our true nature.

When we replaces I, our culture will have finally taken the leap to maturity. This is what the great leaders have been trying to tell us. This is what the great writers, and artists of all kinds, have been trying to show us: beauty and power from unity are at the ends of our fingertips waiting to be grasped.

The women in my book club understand this, and I am so privileged to be a part of their group.


Earlier this week I was out for a walk and came across two sets of wolf tracks. I pursued the ones that were headed in my direction, and when they veered off trail, jumped up a rock-cut and then returned, I was puzzled so went to have a look. Once up top, I saw snow-covered fox tracks and quickly understood the diversion. I guess the wolf was just as curious as I was. From there, it meandered further down the hill, over to a frozen swamp, circled back up, and trundled on. Even though these tracks were pretty fresh, I knew I’d never catch up with it. Still, I hoped to catch a glimpse of the beautiful, elusive creature so sat down and put myself in neutral.

I had come out on the walk thinking about discipline and wanting to cultivate more of it in my life since I’d already broken my New Year’s resolution. Mother Nature it seemed, being a kind and gracious teacher, was obliging me here with a lesson. Dear friend, perhaps you aren’t being successful with your attempts at discipline because you don’t truly understand it. Here, have another look. It’s not what you think it is. Really, it’s not. Relax and have another look. Peering around through the trees, I began thinking about the wolf and its behaviour. As I settled down, what had occurred to me was that even though the wolf had been on the hunt, like all disciplined warriors, it remained calm, followed its instincts and quietly persevered. In case I missed the point there, when I got home, I came across a quote I had written in my journal: Adopt the ways of Nature. Her method is one of patience. Hmm.

I had previously come to realize I needed tutoring in this subject a few months ago when I got a treadmill and tried to acquire instant health. I thought I was being reasonable, actually, by starting with a ten minute walk followed by a twenty minute run, but it didn’t take long for my body to start revolting. Achilles tendonitis and plantar fasciitis soon had me hobbling, but because I was determined, I kept at it. Discipline, I had thought, was about choosing a new way and then forcing yourself to stick to it.

Fortunately before I could do any real damage, I had to go in to the city for a few days. While there, I stopped in at a runner’s store and sought advice about shoes and orthopaedic inserts thinking poor alignment was the cause of my problem. After hearing this, the guy just snickered and, wanting to confirm his suspicions, asked how long and how often I had been running. After my reply, he just shook his head and kindly began his lecture.

Apparently the best way to begin a running program that best suits the body is to start by alternatively walking one minute and then running one minute. Soon you graduate to walk one: run two, and then walk one: run three, etcetera. Eventually you’re where you want to be and your body is comfortable with the stress. At first this was a real nuisance because I had to keep pushing the buttons back and forth, adjusting for the different speeds. But then I came to appreciate the method and saw that it was sustainable and would allow me to thrive. Discipline, I had learned from observing the wolf tracks, wasn’t just about perseverance, it was also about patience and awareness.

Something shifted within and one of the things I became aware of was that discipline, like the changing of the seasons, had a certain, undeniable rhythm to it. Here we are in the winter: a time of darkness and hibernation. As we head into spring, and as daylight gradually increases, things will slowly start warming up and moving about. Before long, there will be a quick acceleration in the growth rate and life will abound and multiply. In summer, the high level of energy will become the norm and life will flourish. And in the fall, it will all gradually begin to slow down and then stop again. This too was the way of discipline: difficult at first to get going, becoming increasingly easier with practice, stabilizing and then becoming difficult again. As I tossed a log on the fire, I gasped because I had realized it had built up in this pattern too: kindling, branches, and then logs. Wow, this was the way all things evolved – including gaining patience: have patience gaining patience.

I shall apply this new understanding with compassion, and perhaps in the spring I will be able to rename this column: Running Along the White Trail.


“Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas unless…”
If my husband had to finish that sentence it would be: Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas unless we had a Christmas tree. So on December 9th, off we snow-shoed into the bush to find a beauty. It was another grey day and the crust on the snow made the trekking slow, but we had a song in our hearts and on our lips and were excited about our prospects.

Alan led me in one direction where he thought there was a stand, then I led him in another where I was hopeful of finding something perfect, but in the end all we could see were scraggly Charlie Brown trees. He’d rather have nothing at all than one of those, so we looped back home.
The next morning, he just wasn’t happy so asked if I would mind going to town with him to buy one. This normally sounds like such a small request, and in fact, normally he could have gone on his own. We, on the other hand, living 2 km past where the road ends, weren’t used to normal, and with achilles tendonitis in my right foot, a return trip to town was an effort for me. But with the chance to bring joy to my beloved, I strapped the snowshoes and a smile back on and hiked out the roller coaster trail to the car with him.

After first taking care of some errands and stopping for a slice, we went shopping for the tree. Most were perfect for what we normally looked for, but with the kids not visiting and the early snowfall, this year wasn’t normal either. After moving some of the big boys around, we found the ideal spruce in the very back against the wall. Not only was this tree symmetrical and sized to fit in our vehicle it was also possible to carry.

Back to the trail, on with the snowshoes, and off we went back home. Alan dragged the tree the first 500 metres over the frozen lake, and then the fun began. As an analyzer, I love to figure things out, so with Alan hanging on to the heavier trunk, I tried putting a rope around the top, but that was just too awkward. Then I had an image of two hunters walking, and between them was a dead animal hanging from a pole. So, I went off trail as soon as I found a long, sturdy, dead branch and convinced Alan we should try it. He was sceptical at first but then conceded it did help. Forty-five minutes later, and after taking a ceremonial picture of our prize, we had the tree standing up outside and relaxing into shape.

As darkness descended, Alan brought it in and started putting the lights on: a sacred, age-old tradition of his. Then with eggnog in hand, I finished it off with tinsel, candy canes and red bows.
I must admit, the whole atmosphere of our house had been transformed by the glorious presence of that glittering tree. Even though there were no gifts underneath, it had a majesty about it akin to all things nurtured and cherished. It was truly uplifting.

As I stood there admiring our creation, I felt refreshed! It was like something inside of me had been aroused from hibernation, and I realized what I loved about a Christmas tree was how sensuous it was. There was the prickliness of its needles, the clean spruce fragrance, the lights sparkling on the tinsel, the peppermint candy canes ripe for the picking, the feelings of belonging and continuity, and the remembered sounds of music and laughter.

Perhaps this was why Christmastime was so exhilarating for many; like the tree, our senses were lit up and life took on a whole new, vibrant dimension. It’s almost as if by exciting and uniting all the senses, the feelings of kindness and charity were activated. What a blissful way to live…all year long.

Which reminds me, if you were to ask me to finish that first sentence, it would be: Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas unless I wished that the joy of the season carried through and became the normal way of being all year long.
May all our dreams come true.

Happy Holidays everyone!


Three years ago my step-son and his life-long buddies started a tradition at our place the first weekend of November: boys’ weekend. I started a tradition that weekend too: go somewhere else. This year I drove to the city and had a chance to catch up with some friends, see a play, and most importantly enrich my family bonds.

On Sunday morning, I met my mother, aunt, and five cousins at my sister’s house and after a time of catching up, we got to the business at hand: linking these three generations to those that came before us through the process of making cinnamon buns.

When my grandmother taught me how to make the buns twenty years ago, I was the sixth generation in the family to learn – well technically, the fifth because my mother and her cousins were never taught. Today I was going to connect the links and extend the chain by teaching not only my mother and aunt, but also by teaching my aunt’s two grand-daughters – the seventh generation.

The word religion is from the Latin, re ligio, meaning linking back: linking back through our ancestors, to the animals, to the earth, to the solar system, to the universe, and all the way back to the big bang and the Creator of life itself. And so in repeating this recipe in the manner it had always been prepared, we were about to perform an act of linking: a religious act.

Feeling this reverence, I circled the women and girls around the table and led a ceremony using candles, ritual and prayer. We then began by each putting a cup of flour into the pot, thus linking us all with our creation and with all creation involved in making this flour, and these baked goods, possible: the sun, the rain, the earth, the wheat, the farmers, the grain millers, the truck drivers, the grocers and everyone and everything else involved in helping this happen.

Salt, sugar, oil, butter, and sour cream were added and then Melanie, the youngest, cracked the eggs open, one by one, first into a bowl to make sure they were okay. My grandmother told me this was done because if an egg was bad, the other ingredients would be spoiled and the process would have to start all over again. Nanny Ray grew up with very little, so waste was to be avoided at all costs. Kari, a recent bride, then began mixing it all together – “one way,” my grandmother had said and I now found myself repeating, “stir only one way.” I hadn’t figured that one out until I disobeyed and ended up with flour flying everywhere.
The yeast was added, the dough kneaded, then the big mixing pot was put on the stove beside a small pot of simmering water. I then covered both with one of my grandmother’s tea towels, just as I was taught, and then passed on to the others that this was done to help the dough rise quicker.

I shortened the first rising so those who had to leave early could help cut the dough into buns. When this was completed, we put the pans back on the stove by the simmering water and went for a long lunch.

The best part of the process, the part the older ones remembered and were often allowed to help with, was adding the cinnamon. When the buns came out of the oven, they were broken apart and cinnamon sugar was sprinkled over the steamy dough. After a few minutes back in the oven for browning, and a moment to thank and remember Nanny Ray and Baba (my grandmother’s mother), we linked seven generations by nourishing our bodies and souls with those heavenly treats.
I don’t know if the others will carry on in the traditional way. We joked about the significance of the number seven and how it seemed to suggest something evolutionary. Mechanical kneading machines and other time-saving devices were mentioned but somehow they just didn’t seem right to me. I guess I’m a bit reluctant to let go of some of the old ways; I seem to be rooted in what’s natural - and that changes slowly. Simplicity, patience, and conservation are what worked for those who came before me, and now as I keep expanding in my knowledge and understanding, I try to ward off chaos by staying rooted in those ideals.

From the feedback I received, the day was a success. Linking back and linking together, the girls – and from what I hear, the boys too - had a most enriching experience.