Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Witch in the Mirror

I just spoke to a friend of mine who lives on one of the Gulf Islands on the west coast with her husband and two young daughters. Her husband had gone on a silent 10 day retreat which had inspired many-a-comment from people to the point that one of the little girls had to ask: ‘What is the big deal? Why is it so hard to be silent for a long time?’ The parents explained that spending time being quiet meant that a person was forced to look at their self: the good, the bad and the ugly. When left alone with their thoughts too long, many are not comfortable facing what they find.

The little girl promptly explained what she heard back to her parents like this: ‘You mean, if I was a witch and I looked at myself in a mirror, at first I would be scared of what I saw and then I would realize it’s just a mirror.” Right then. That’s exactly right. The job is to sit long enough through the discomfort until you can see past the scary and into the core of who you are. You seek out the part of you that is untouched by perceptions, including your own.

I belong to a study group of parents led by my Pastor. This week we touched on the idea of noise and silence and how we so readily surround ourselves with the din of the world and find it so difficult to be in silence or to listen. My Pastor had just returned from a silent retreat as well that seemed to refresh and renew her. I was brought back to the few times in my life where I had to sit with the monster inside of myself in that kind of forced silence (forced because there is no way I could do this without external pressure to do so). I recall the one person in my group (and I think it may have actually have been my mother) who kept talking through the entire allotted time we were to be silent. For this person, it was literally impossible to not fill the space with chatter. The void was too vast, too unknown and potentially too dark.

When I was in grade school, I was always the one who giggled through the moment of silence on Remembrance Day ceremonies. I would giggle at funeral services. I giggled with great vigour the first time my Buddhist roomie tried to teach me how to meditate in university. I even have to admit to recently stifling a giggle through quiet prayer during church service. Here I will remind you that I am 40 and not 4.

The giggle isn’t because I find anything funny. It is because the silence makes me fraught with nerves. I might better enjoy being tied up and tickled than sitting silently in a room with other beings. At least the giggling would be far more appropriate.

I don’t have a single problem with spending a day alone or not seeing people for long stretches of time. I quite prefer this actually. One of the trials of being a parent is the complete lack of privacy and I am constantly yearning for alone time. Yet, in the company of other adults, silence is just torture for me.

So we become afraid of what we will see when we are left alone with ourselves. Yet the reflection is only ever a product of our imagination (as explained by the 4 year old so well). If only we could convince ourselves that there is nothing to be afraid of on the other side.

In the middle of writing this post tonight, I had to take my flashlight through the woods and across the pitch black pasture of our neighbour’s fields to bring our cows back home. Last spring they discovered that the lawn around the abandoned house grows lusher than anywhere on our own land and they continually take down the fence to return to this spot throughout the winter waiting for the green grass to grow. The walk through the forest in the shadows reminded me of scenes from the scariest movie I’ve ever seen, The Blair Witch Project. The deciduous trees poked and prodded me as I followed the well-worn path through the snow. Suddenly, I could hear 3000 pounds of cattle coming towards me (in 3 separate bodies) from a distance, breaking branches just as the Blair Witch had. It might have been frightening but I know these girls. They know me. We don’t surprise each other anymore. Even when one of them bumped me into a tree with her head out of affection (or a desire for the bucket of grain I used to lure them home), I was not afraid.

Perhaps silence is just the ticket for recognizing what’s left standing true when the storm of the day blows us away. It is the vehicle that takes you past the distortion that is the witch, past the darkness, and back home again. Perhaps there’s even something worth laughing for real in it all. And though the grass may or may not be greener on the other side, the journey home is always well worth the effort.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Whip

I can’t say I know where it began. Or even if it has stopped entirely. But most of my life I have been driven like a horse responding to an imaginary whip. The difference between a healthy goal and The Whip is the difference between running towards something and the feeling of running away. I was the youngest of 3 children and recall exerting superhuman amounts of energy to keep up with my older brothers who were 2 and 6 plus years my senior. I was barely 10 years old when I began to get heart palpitations from chasing my brothers around. There was so much anxiety! So much stress in that little duckling waddle as I gave it my all to keep up to those guys. I don’t blame them. It just seems that chasing them was where the race without a finish line began.

Since then I have spent a lifetime chasing the impossible. Trying to do more than one person should in one day. Trying to meet deadlines, teach myself new things, accomplish goals that are larger than life. I don’t really manage much, to be honest, but boy do I manage to beat myself silly for all that I haven’t gotten up to yet. I’m proud to be someone who does not mull over what is impossible. I am, however, exhausted from believing I should be able to do it all.

Wasn’t that the feminist statement of the 1970s (60s? 80s? 90s?) - that a woman can have it all? She can have her cake and eat it too (or in my case, have time to grow and raise my cake ingredients and make it too)? She can have a fulfilling home life and kick butt in her career? We’ve apparently got more women graduating from medical school than men for the first time ever – yay, right? We fought hard for this. The world will be a better place for finding this kind of balance between genders. Yet I can’t help but wonder whether these women who ‘have it all’ share the same kind of feeling I have when I am pushing myself too hard.

Eventually I could drive myself endlessly with or without older brothers. I would push myself anywhere, anyhow whether it was to try to do more at once, do it faster, do it longer - only ever competing against my own incompetence. I became a pretty physically fit little kid but there came a day in my early thirties when my emotional being stood up and simply yelled ‘STOP!!!!!’

From that point forward I vowed to put down The Whip. I promised myself that I could do anything at all, but as soon as I felt The Whip come out, the game was over. There were many days when I was out jogging that I would feel that familiar drive and I would stop, literally stop, and walk very, very slowly home. If I was playing my guitar and writing some lyrics down, as soon as the pressure to produce grew into something negative, I would put down the instrument and close the book. I was going to make that whip disappear if it took me the rest of my life. I did not want to be driven by the imaginary pain behind me. I wanted to walk towards something bright and good instead.

Enter marriage, farming and motherhood. And throw in a bit of a career just for good measure. Probably for the first time in my life I really did have to keep the train moving in order to avoid a wreck of some kind. Taking a lovely break from dishes or laundry or shopping brings only one reward: backed up dishes and laundry and no toothpaste or toilet paper.

There seemed to be only one solution left towards sanity and that was for me to take on less. Yet I imagined that taking a break from work would only ever lead to being broke and drowning in debt. The solution became clear when what I really needed a break from was spending money on mindless things. Now we make more intentional choices with our money and manage on my husband’s salary just fine. And I am no longer exhausted before I have even started my day from making breakfast and dinner, doing barn chores, finishing a load of laundry, unloading the dishwasher, and getting me and my children out the door ALL before 7:30am. Now I spend the day doing those things and sometimes have my kids with me while I’m doing it. It turns out that’s a whole day’s work. Go figure.

So I may no longer ‘have it all’. I may have surrendered to only part of the picture in order to preserve the wholeness of our life as a family. Juggling more than one person should was far too reminiscent of the days in my youth when I did not know how to slow down and had not yet learned the concept of ‘enough’.

I still see a glimpse of The Whip from time to time, especially when I’m being driven by external factors like a mountain of vegetables needing to be canned or a fence needing to be fixed. I hear the trademark sound of my heart beating in my chest, I chomp down on the bit, dig in and then…stop. Though The Whip desperately wants control of my life again, I can see it coming from a mile away, and I don’t give it the chance.

The work gets done either way, yet now it happens more and more without the drama attached to it. I may not be saving lives in an operating room (nor have I ever, to be clear) but most days I do think I am saving my own. This little duckling even finds the time some days to enjoy the sunshine and take a little swim in the pond if she feels like it.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Quest for Jesus

I am a pretty open-minded girl. I tend to dabble in all things alternative and mainstream and not adhere to any strict set of rules on any front. I’m not very good with dogma and I don’t like pre-conceived ideas about anything. I never follow recipes and I only read instructions as a total last resort. So when it came to religion, I have to say that my open-mindedness failed me. For most of my life, for some reason that I never understood, I completely closed down when I heard ‘Jesus’ come out of someone’s mouth. But there was one day about 10 years ago that I let ‘God’ become a regular part of my vocabulary. And since then, I find myself being able to talk about Jesus in a meaningful way without having fear attached to that.

I imagine Jesus was probably a pretty charismatic guy in his human form, worldly wise and sure of his convictions. It also sounds like he knew more than humans could possibly know. I bet I would have admired him greatly if I had met him on the street.

For some reason, my parents chose not to expose us to any religious or church-related activities as children. I believe that my father’s mother was interested in God, but I would often listen to my mother’s father go on about how there could not possibly be a God after what he had so closely witnessed from his native land in the Netherlands in the early 1940s. My grandfather was a stubborn man (wooden shoes and a wooden head) and he was intense. I believed everything this man said because he always said it like it was the Gospel.

As a young adult I recall asking questions about religions but I mostly remember feeling like that was a part of life that I just did not belong to. For some reason, other people knew how these things worked and I didn't. I probably pretended that I was above all that nonsense, when truthfully I would have committed bloody murder to believe in something as strongly as some of my more religiously inclined friends did. I should not joke about such things, as bloody murder is unfortunately a reality for many in the world who fight for what they believe in.

Decades passed and I let on to certain people that I would appreciate an opportunity to join them at church one Sunday, but the Sundays would come and they would go and this was never realized. I suppose I made myself too busy on Sundays. They were filled with brunches and sports and matinees and all kinds of other heathen activities that just didn’t allow for such a commitment.

After a pretty great sadness that enveloped me one year, I did pursue some Buddhist practices in an attempt to calm my traveling mind and seek peace in the world as it was. This kind of practice healed me in ways that no food, movies or physical activity ever could. It brought me to a safe place inside of myself where I could rest - something I had never been able to do. My body was not a home to me. My mind was a lot more like a prison than a haven. And I kept myself so very busy most every minute of every day in order that whatever had been chasing me all those years would never catch up.

My journey towards Jesus began as a haphazard conversation with a very religious fellow from Texas who introduced me to C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. He and I were both a little low at the time and I think our mutual friends were hoping we could ‘talk each other down’. It came as a surprise to me that reading C.S. Lewis brought me from one side of the line to the other. I did not necessarily take to the Jesus parts, but the way in which this writer found a home in God was so comforting to me, it was so familiar and seemed the only true path. Further, I recall a moment when I got off the phone with the Texan where I truly felt God in my body for the first time. It had the impact of a car crash as an overflowing love and light surged through me. I clutched my chest as it felt like my heart was going to burst open. And that night I think mine did. God had found me. Or I had let God in. I was hooked.

It is now almost 10 years after those events. Though I could not relate to the name that the Texan would call his Saviour, there was no denying the love that shot through me, welling up and washing over me like a cap popping from a champagne bottle. I was a changed woman after meeting that Texan. All I know from that experience is that the strangest people are sent to us at the strangest times to deliver us messages. To this day I still don’t know what happened there.

Now I live in a small community that seems to generally value going to church regularly. I am married to a man that went to church growing up but didn’t necessarily see it in his future. I have two small children who will soon be asking me questions that I’m not sure I will be able to answer. I cannot provide a framework for birth and death without drawing on some ideas put forward by religions. And further to this, I don’t want my children feeling the way that I did. It was a distinct possibility to me as a child that I was not good enough to have a God. Only richer, smarter, better people were allowed to enjoy the fruits of a regular practise and commitment. Maybe I was not worthy of a God who could love me and protect me and guide me through my life?

Now we go to an Anglican church. I look around me in my new community and see women my age with young children that take the foundation for granted that was offered to them at a young age. Though it's probably a good thing to ask questions about how we were raised, I believe that not being given a scaffold to build a spiritual framework left me, frankly, a little lost. I don’t know if I’m looking for a Shepherd now, but I certainly believe that I could use a road map, especially when it comes to guiding my children.

But then again I suppose that is what faith is all about. It isn’t up to me to decide how it’s all going to work.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Losing Things

I hate losing things. I create such a ruckus when I can’t find my keys, or a piece off of a toy or my other mitten or whatever. I pretty much can’t focus on anything else until the lost is found. I notice there is a parting of the seas by my husband and children when I am in the throes of looking for something. My daughter has even caught on how important it is to find lost things because she’ll often come to me holding something she has found with a gleam in her eye and excitement in her voice as though she has discovered the cure for cancer. But really all that has happened is that she found Barbie’s other red shoe. The world doesn’t really shift over that does it?

So today I watched a DVD called ‘Inner Weigh’ about dieting and weight loss. I’m circling the idea of losing a few pounds, you see. I’ve been doing this most of my life with no great success. This time, however, in April I’ll be headed up Algonquin Peak with some friends in the Adirondack mountains and I would like to carry a few less pounds up with me if possible. “Inner Weigh’ is a compilation of weight loss coaches and spiritual advisors talking about how one has to love and accept oneself first before the body and spirit will cooperate and find a healthy weight. It is a very intuitive little package of information that I enjoyed very much and found refreshing against the long lists of deprivation and discipline that most weight loss programs focus on. It basically disproves all of the ideas that we have in our heads about losing weight as a way to become happy. Being thinner does not bring happiness, people have attested to this time and time again. Instead, acceptance and love lead us into a happier state of being which in turn inspires us to take better care of our bodies. Go figure.

Jesus went to those in need, those that are sick, unwashed, unfed and loved them. We could all probably use a little of that in our lives. Learning how to put our love in the dark corners so that we can make positive changes in the world. We need to look at the parts of ourselves that we feel could not be loved and accept exactly those parts. That’s what being the light of the world is about, no?

The bit in the DVD that blew me away the farthest was the discussion of human nature and how it relates to losing weight. For example, we always want what we can’t have. That is, we will eventually binge on the very things we restrict. Anyone who has ever eaten every last cookie in the cookie jar after a day of going without knows what I am talking about.

Our human nature also wants us to find what we have lost. I so related to this, I did. I was ready to stand up and applaud the television from my perch on the couch like those crazy hockey fans you see watching their favourite team score. Yay! I’ve found someone else who knows how frustrating it is to lose things. And I swear I didn’t see it coming. I didn’t expect what they were going to say next. Like a slap in the face that I was nowhere near ready for they just went ahead and said it: we always try to find the things that we lose...including lost pounds. Perhaps this is why such a very high percentage of people gain back the weight that they lost (and often some bonus pounds for good luck). We go looking for the pounds that we lost like someone running late looks for their car keys.

I suppose it is true that nature abhors a vacuum.

I do believe that if you remove something important from your life, you inevitably leave a space behind where it once was. A depression of sorts remains. Then you have a small window where you get to choose what you fill that space with. If you do not set an intention there, perhaps the default is to fill it with what went missing in the first place. You put the weight back on. You let your abusive boyfriend back into your life. You decide to ignore your passion and go back to your job.

So apparently by this theory, I’ve been guarding my extra weight like a crocodile in a mote. In my life, I don’t often lose track of things knowing how upset it makes me. I have systems that allow me to keep tabs on things I don’t want to lose. I make good use of Velcro and clips and ties so that I can attach things to me (or my children) easily. I just never imagined such a system would be in place for my extra body fat. That it might be possible that I hang on to it intentionally (or worse, go and find it when it gets lost).

So I suppose the challenge is to discover something better to take its place. Maybe let in a little more love. How often have I asked for love and then pushed it away? Maybe gratitude. Acceptance. Generousity. A lot less attachment and more letting go. A lot less hoarding and more sharing and giving.

Isn’t it ironic? In those early years you essentially lose yourself to do your job as a new mother. Yet, the scales tell you that you’ve gained quite a bit of yourself to make it happen. So while losing our centre, struggling to find free time to exercise and a mindful moment to make a proper meal for ourselves, we gain pounds we don’t want. But after a few weeks, months or years, something finally rears its head up in you again. A part of you remembers what it is like to feel sexy, to be a real person worth paying attention to, and musters up just enough self worth to try to shed those extra pounds. But this becomes yet another way of quite literally ‘losing part of your self’. And you unconsciously fight again to get it back.

There is something about loving the whole living thing that seems to be important here. You can't just like the pieces you want to like. Jesus looked at broken people all of the time, seeing only a whole needing love. I see examples every day of others giving care and kindness to those who need it. Loving and showing compassion for that which appears unlovable.

Geneen Roth touches on this in her book ‘Women, Food and God’. She equates compulsive eating with emotional and spiritual deprivation and the need to find acceptance for the whole person that you are before you can find a lasting healthy state for your body. There is no question that we live in a time where pursuing spiritual guidance is becoming a fringe lifestyle and no longer the norm in families and communities. We also live at a time in the western world where the number of obese people is rising alarmingly every day. Though we seem to take in and take on more than ever before, we clearly are not nourishing ourselves with the right kind of stuff.

Here comes the tricky part. Once I see the whole, I have to find a way to let part of myself be lost and not panic. And trust that I have the strength to fill the void with something safe and good. Or at least allow myself to be guided by something bigger than me (including perhaps literally, my larger self!) as I replace unhealthy habits with more joyful, fulfilling ones.

Perhaps Barbie’s red shoe will return from underneath the couch as a sparkling glass slipper? And that might just be something that does shift the world, if only just a little. If nothing else, my loss will help me on my climb to what I consider to be a view of heaven. Will it be because of a lower number on a scale? Nope. I think it will be because I saw something in me worthy of attention - and that's a view worth climbing for.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Me and Bonnie

Cake Mix Be Gone

One of the problems with being recipe-impaired is that baking in particular can be highly dependent on exact measurements. Due to one too many mishaps and the pressure of getting a birthday cake for a huge party of people to be edible, I have come to rely on cake mixes for this purpose. I know, I know, this is not great for a woman attempting to separate herself from all things packaged and processed.

Every week or month I have chosen something from my fridge or cupboard that I buy that I would like to replace with a home made version. I’ve been doing this for years since the abundance of farm fare has been literally at my fingertips. Usually it is a staple, like ketchup or bread, granola or jam, sausages or yogurt. I stop buying it (or bring it into my home to give myself a break) and learn to make it myself. It isn’t for cost reasons, and not always even for health reasons alone, and it certainly isn’t to save time or because I have extra time on my hands. I have always done this no matter what is going on around me. My main reason is because we have almost every ingredient a little heart could desire and it seems nuts to buy things (with long lists of unknown ingredients) when I could learn to add it to my own processing habits. Because in time I discovered that these things are exactly that, just a habit. They are not earth shattering, life-changing shifts. The activity just quietly becomes woven into my every day and before I realize it, I don’t know anything else.

Today I made mayonnaise for the first time. We have plenty of eggs right now as the weather warms, and the light of day increases, we are getting more than our family needs. So the glass jar with the blue lid that is used regularly enough to have its own real estate in my fridge door has now become the latest casualty of my ‘cleaning’ exercise. The recipe for mayo? 1 egg, 1/6 cups cider vinegar and 1 cup oil with a dash of salt. And one blender. Like whipping cream, you know when mayonnaise is done because the sound suddenly changes while you are blending it. It goes from a thick liquid to a creamy solid instantly.

How long does it last, you ask? Well, word on the street (and don’t take my word for it) is somewhere between 6-8 days on average. Some say 1-2 weeks and others say eat the raw egg business immediately and don’t chance storage past a day. Fair enough, you gotta do what you’re comfortable with. Because you kind of have to use a whole egg, you end up with an amount that is larger than we need at any one time (unless it’s fish dipping night, and then we go wild with the homemade fish sauce).

This is where the story gets good. Use the extra in a cake or muffin recipe in place of eggs or other liquid. A very good baker once told me that every baking recipe should have something sweet, something salty and something sour. We never forget our salt and sugar in baking but how often do we think to put vinegar or lemon in our cakes? Lately I’ve been using the acidic whey runoff from cheese or yogurt for baking. A friend reminded me of the trick to use mayonnaise to moisten cakes, and I liked the idea, but I couldn’t help but think that using mayo when you have a fridge full of farm fresh eggs could be blasphemous. This is where the hunt for the homemade mayo recipe came in. Voila!

Today is Valentine’s Day. We had chocolate cupcakes for our treat and fish for dinner. That was a good chunk of the mayo right there. Rob’s mother gave me a very simple chocolate cake recipe made with sour milk (there’s that sour thing again) that I just loved. It has a very small handful of ingredients. This is my kind of recipe. Instead of sour milk and eggs, I used mayo (with the vinegar), fewer eggs and regular milk.

Alas, I have now decided that the cake mix will also disappear from my cupboards. And little blue-lidded jar, you may as well take a hike as well. If I don’t think I’ll get through the homemade mayo, there is always a cake recipe waiting in the wings for desert!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Natural Cycle of Things

Today I’m making beef stock from the beef leg bones. It means I’ll just boil up a huge pot of bones in water with some salt and cider vinegar for a whole day and then strain out the chunky bits and freeze the stock in ice cube containers and jars. I will use these handy grab thingies for soups, shepherd’s pie, stews, meat pie etc. It can make gravy or be used to add flavour and nutrients to whatever you use it in. Beef stock is rich in gelatin and glucosamine (helps with arthritis or joint pain) as well as calcium, phosphorus and magnesium. The broth apparently can also aid digestion and support the immune system.

As is often the case for food that is made from basic ingredients, the nutrients are not only more abundant but more readily absorbed by the body. We often try to trick our body by eating over-processed or simulated foods with added nutrients but I really don’t believe the body is that stupid. It seems to differentiate between the real deal and the artificial source. The great thing about homemade stock is that you can be sure there is no MSG or other hidden nasty ingredients in there. Not to mention the money you can save in comparison to the high-priced ‘organic’ options out there.

The funny thing is that you can get bones for free from a butcher or a farmer and boiling up the bones (with a few carrot, potato and onion peels for flavour) takes nothing more than time (12 hours at a minimum) and a big pot. The dogs also appreciated the fat as I scooped it off little by little from the top.

I have also done my last milking of our cow this morning for this round. After I filled my jars with fresh milk from the pail, I turned to her as I always do and gave her a nice scratch on the head and told her how thankful I was. This time she turned to me and butted me on the hip as hard as she could, nearly lifting me into the air. That’s my Bonnie – always getting the last word. We’re not quite sure if she is pregnant again. If she is, she is due in the fall and we will be back in milk. There is also a small possibility that our other Jersey (who we seem to have around as company because she hasn’t been able to get pregnant) may be ready to calf in the spring. But we’re not counting on it.

Until then, I have stockpiled 100L in my overstuffed freezer to use for yogurt, cheese-making and baking. Between the beef coming home and the milk, every last inch of my 3 freezers are full.

So ends the beef and dairy chapters on our farm for the short term. Our seed orders have been placed and in a week or two we will be planting the first onion and leek seeds inside under grow lights.

As with all things on a farm, the cycles go around, the seasons change, the animals give birth, calves are raised on milk for up to a year and some leave and come back in packages for our freezer. Cows fill their udders, feed their young, then feed us, then dry up again.

Around and around it goes and where it ends, nobody knows.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Spirituality in Food and Stuff

Real back-to-the-land people and Voluntary Simplicity folks learn to live without material things. They shy away from consumerism and move (often) towards the natural world for their resources. I realized the other day that I’m a phony in this regard. My resourcefulness, my great detective sleuthing gives me the ability to find big consumer things for prices that an organic farmer can afford. I bought an iPod recently from a used classified advertisement online for $50. It works great – it is more than I will need for years to come and the teenager I bought it from needed money towards one that was so very much more hip and up to date. It was a win-win situation. But it turns out that having an iPod is a bit of a thing. I thought everyone had one. Turns out, not everyone does.

I also happen to have a Blackberry. My husband needs one for his work on the road and they were having a buy one, get one free sale. So I got one free. I use it as a cell phone and have refused to have internet service connected to it. I am far too much of an addictive junkie to get involved with that racket.

I recently took a trip to Disney World with my daughter. Could it get any more consumer-centred than that place? My mother has a time-share condo in Kissimmee, 5 miles from Disney World and she bought my daughter and I cheap flights as a baptism/40th birthday/Christmas present. We brought homemade sandwiches to the theme parks with us and I scouted those souvenir stores like a hawk. Not to buy anything, but to know what to look for in the second hand stores when I got home. One by one, week after week, I found everything I had my eye on for a handful of dollars in total. So for the 3 days we visited the parks, we did it cheaply, but that doesn’t mean there was no cost to our psyches, the environment (airplanes are nasty on air quality), our desire for More, Bigger, Faster, Better…

All I am trying to say here is that despite my attempt to do things on this farm the way they did 100 years ago, I am not someone that goes without modern luxuries.

I am also planning a trip down to New York to do some hiking in a couple of months and realized I needed a new fancy, breathable, windbreaker, rainproof coat as the one I have has no hood anymore. The last time I did a windy, cold hike up a mountain I was hankering for an enclosed hood so I decided to replace my $200 jacket. I found a second hand version today for $15, with a hood. It’s the same colour, same material and style as my old one.

I have traveled to very poor countries and seen the value of ‘western’ things. A pen, a deck of cards, a cheap watch, a pair of plastic flip-flops, even a plastic bag – all are treasures that brought on a little happy dance when I gave them away. It is unfathomable for us wasteful westerners to know the worth of things when we are so readily asked to dispose of everything we use. The trouble is that knowing that all things can be useful again in some way has made me a serious hoarder. I save all things for a rainy day and have shelves and shelves of thing-a-ma-jiggies that I might be able to use for something one day. Believe me, on a farm there is a high need to be resourceful and things do get put to good use regularly around here. But I admit that I could use a purge.

I once stayed at my Buddhist friend’s house out west for a few months. Each morning she would come out of her room (after her 1 hour meditation) and put a pot on the stove and boil up some coffee. Her counters were bare, there was perhaps one toaster on display, and in my ignorance I assumed that buying them a drip coffee maker was a generous thing to do to fill up their counter space (this was before I discovered espresso machines). My dear friend tried to explain to me that they did not want many things. Having an empty counter was intentional. I did not understand but I accepted what she said and did not buy her a coffee maker.

When I moved out, I was afraid that they would not take cash to compensate for my stay so I bought them a music machine. A ghetto-blaster it was called in my day. I don’t know what you call it now. Probably an iPod. Anyway, this thing had a radio and a tape deck and maybe a CD player. I checked with her partner first before adding this ‘thing’ to their bare collection and he seemed to agree it would be welcomed. I recently touched base with this friend, who is now teaching at a university about how Buddhist philosophy can be used in the medical profession. She noted that she still has that ghetto-blaster that I bought her. It may have been a splurge but 15 years later she is still making good use of it.

I don’t know if I could ever manage to purge the things from my life. I know it would do me some good to let go of my material things. But instead I seem to cling to them as my safety net. I have also been a collector of things since childhood. I can’t help myself. There is deep satisfaction with lining up a row of things that are all alike but different. I don’t know much about Autism, but I often imagine I have a bit of that in me. The strong urge to gather things, organize and make sense of them. Perhaps we all have this in us.

I also feel this way about food. Food and I are lifelong companions. We agreed some time ago that we would never part. And yet spiritual masters often speak of fasting as a way to get closer to a higher power. Lately I have been exploring the sensation of hunger a little bit. It freaks me right out. It makes me want to head for the cupboards and line up the entire contents in alphabetical order just to be sure I am not going to starve. But instead I kind of sit with it, like an observer and try to note how safe the world can still be, even when I am a little bit hungry.

So, the rule of thumb is that you’ll get closer to God if you go without. I am going to cheat on this one because I think I found a loophole. If I get a good price and it brings true and lasting happiness into my life (ie. music), can I keep it God? Or better yet, surrounded by the abundance that we have on this farm, do we have to go without when it would mean wasting all that the land is offering?

My latest venture is to find a way to join the abundance I am compelled to have around me with true need (such as feeding hungry people and clothing people who do not have any rain coat, let alone one without a hood). There must be some use for my quirky resourcefulness here, yes?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

10 Things My Mama Does Right

I was always told that true appreciation for my mother would surface only when I had my own kids. Despite this, I was a lingering, stubborn sort with ideas of my own which resulted in thinking that I was right, not my mother, for the majority of my early parenting years.

Then my daughter turned 4.

In no particular order, my daughter has hit me, pushed me, screamed at me, called me ‘stupid’, told me she doesn’t want to be my friend, bit me, hid from me, ignored me, run away from me in public etc. etc. etc.. I wish I knew what you are thinking. I must have done something to provoke it? Or perhaps I haven’t used all the right disciplinary actions to prevent these things from happening? Or does any of this sound familiar to you?

Yesterday I went on the treadmill while my children played in the room with me. I turned up my iPod and put both earplugs in as an experiment. I had told my kids that if they needed something they would have to wave their arms as I wouldn’t hear them with my headphones on. My daughter turned to me at one point and her mouth started moving. I could see that she was getting very upset when she realized I wasn’t responding. Every bone in my body wanted to pause my music and ask what she needed. But I pointed to my ears and waved my hands in the air to tell her I couldn’t hear her. She got increasingly upset. I resisted the urge to stop.

The truth is that I could still hear her and she was telling me one of those really long stories that have a lot of ‘ums’ and ‘uhs’ in them as she thinks of what to say as she goes along. It was something about her socks, where she had put them, what colour they were etc. etc. I held strong and averted my eyes, only watching out of the corners to see if she would wave at me. She did not. She was getting furious. How dare I not listen to her?

There was something sickly satisfying about showing her how it felt to have the person you are talking to not respond. In the reverse situation, I have tried tapping Jasmine on the shoulder, saying ‘hello???’, raising my voice, changing the wording of the question, repeating myself over and over including repetition of the sentence: ‘I am only going to say this once!’ or telling her to at least tell me that she is not listening to me (she does respond well to this actually!).

There is no question that my mother had to endure every single bit of this kind of thing from me when I was, um, younger. I wonder if there is some kind of pleasure for her watching me receive the same lack of respect that I had shown for her? She must! I know I would!

I recently took a trip with just my mother and my daughter. We were going to be living together, traveling together, entertaining each other for a whole week and my mother and I were used to having our own space. As a kind of a built in mechanism to buffer this fact I decided to instigate a mother-appreciation exercise. I would simply say, ‘you know Mom, I think you might be right’, at least 10 times on the trip. Maybe the karma from doing this would have my daughter suddenly appreciating her own mother (ha!).

I told my mother that my daughter was at that age where she doesn’t listen to me. ‘That age?’ my mother laughed. I don’t think I meant that she would only have this behaviour for one year. But what I never really got my head around was that she might well do this far into, well, the rest of my life. I’m 40 and I have to admit that I don’t give my mother full credit for what she does or drop everything and try her suggestions. What is it about mothers and daughters? Moms give up everything for you and you don't trust their judgment? What a strange combination - what is up with that? That complicated story has got to be for another day. Today I want to expand on the mother-appreciation exercise.

If I have an objective look, my mother is a wise cookie. She knows a lot about things I know nothing about and she could still teach me quite a bit if I’d let her. We live very different lives – but when I boil it all down, some of the things I value most she has taught me. Here are ten of them:

1. She hates wasting money, or food and makes good use of everything. She hates wasting anything actually and I think this is a product of being raised in Europe in the forties during the war.
2. She loves and appreciates good food and has primarily cooked from basic ingredients all of her life, not relying on processed or prepared versions.
3. She hates artificial light and adores the sunshine. She loves fresh air and has her windows open year round (even on -20C days, but this may have more to do with hormones than a need for air).
4. She is strong and has the endurance of a marathon runner. Growing up, she always went faster, wanted to go farther, and had more energy than I. Her mother was the same, even in her nineties.
5. She was an incredibly loyal daughter to her mother who passed just shy of turning 96. I think my grandmother lived so long because she never spent a day wondering if she would be cared for, visited, picked up and toured around, brought what she needed, taken to her hair appointments, dentist appointments, bank appointments. My mother was an only child and became the central figure in my grandmother’s life since my grandfather had died 15 years previous.
6. She has no idea how to say ‘I can’t’. This can be infuriating when she tells you she will be on time, which calculates out to her needing to travel at the speed of light from where she is to do so. Yet, I recall a scene when I was a little girl where an appliance broke. She simply pulled the thing out from the wall, got out a screwdriver and laid out the parts on the floor and began tinkering until it was fixed. Nothing is impossible with the right amount of stubbornness.
7. She is environmentally conscious, especially when it saves her money. A few months ago she convinced me to hang my clothes up to dry on a line instead of using the clothes dryer. I do this consistently now, and to my surprise am quite enjoying it despite its painfully slow pace.
8. She loves animals and is very kind to them. They love her too.
9. She is an amazing ‘Nana’ to our children. The grandchildren love her. She plays with them as though she is also a child. The enjoyment on her face when she is with them overflows from her face.
10. She knows how to do nice things for herself. This is a trait most women could use a huge dose of.

I think it can be difficult to see our parents as ‘real’ people. My mother still lives out there in the ether to me – she is Air – and nobody thanks Air. Yet nobody can live without Air. I don’t think I’ll ever truly understand all that she did for us as a single mother when we were growing up. In many ways, she can do no wrong in my eyes. In many ways, she can do no right. But the very core of my being and everything I do is based on those ten things up there and I wouldn’t change a thing. You know Mom, I think you might be right.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Art is the Business of Temporarily Hijacking Someone’s Soul

Last spring in Manhatten, for the first time in my life, I saw a painting that made me cry. All of these years that I have looked at different pieces of visual art, I have never truly been transported by something that I saw on a canvas. Particular songs do this for me repeatedly without fail. Movies and even the odd television commercial will get me bawling (as they so masterfully are intended to do) but never before has a piece of visual art drawn me to this emotional state.

I asked about the artist who was not there at the time. She was from Venezuela and lives in Baltimore now. I wish I could remember her name. Her paintings were huge, colourful, with a lot of texture and layers, shiny sparkles and fabrics inlaid. Hers are coincidentally paintings about music; pianos, cellos, guitars, all of the instruments that frequently take me to another dimension. In the brief moment that I took this painting in, my whole body felt enveloped by something familiar, warm and comforting. It was as though the painting had opened me up, turned me inside out and basked my body in light and love and wonder.

It sounds crazy I know. But I felt like this painter had a window into my soul and painted the sound of me, the colour of me, the smell of me, onto canvas. I once thought art was about witnessing what was inside an artist. Instead I think this artist gave me the opportunity to feel witnessed.

I learned that a painting, just like a song, can surround your vulnerable parts, your wildest expressions, your deepest wishes and house them in a safe and sturdy medium. And then frame it all with belonging, acceptance, validation, and forgiveness. I know I have stuffed this post with more flighty business than you’ve probably ever seen before, but I really can’t get this right without using these words.

Reading can also make us feel a part of something bigger. Writing can give us permission by finding words for something we know deep down but can’t quite find a way to express. There is great relief in reading words that make perfect sense. There is freedom in finding our true nature outside of ourselves.

But I can also say that it is slightly unnerving to be seen so darn clearly. Not because it isn’t pleasant. It just seems too much of a coincidence that someone else can see the world the same way I do. And what is more, why do successful artists touch such a vast number of people in the same way? Doesn’t this give us proof positive that we are all part of something collective and huge? Is art really just God’s work done by human hands? The middle-man between ourselves and a larger source?

So thank you to the artist who painted this picture that grazed the sidewalk of Manhatten’s Upper West Side Flea market! There are no words to express how grateful I am for the work that you do. I did not purchase this painting as it was priced in the thousands. But home with me, I took a feeling that I am far less alone in this vast universe. There is no way that someone from so far away could have come so close to describing my inner world if there wasn't something bigger at work, and we didn’t know each other already.

In the moment that this painting hijacked my soul temporarily and returned it to me brighter and more full than before, I felt the need to look over my shoulder as though I was being watched. But this is what I mean by feeling seen. And feeling blessed for having experienced it.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Haphazard Cooking Art

A few folks have asked for recipes of things that I mention in my blogs. I know that every Pioneer-y woman out there is all over posting recipes on their sites. Me, not so much. I have a really hard time reading recipes. I’ve never been one to learn through the written word. I seem to be so error prone when attempting to pay attention to instructions that I’ve had to learn the wing-it way just to save face. It’s a fault really, one I get a lot of flack for and am the endless butt of jokes but I y’am what I y’am. I learned to cook very young as well, so I think I approach cooking as a child would.

Living on a farm o’ plenty, it also behooves a girl to cook from what is available. It took me a while to figure this out. There were baked beans in the summer and green salads in the winter before I realized that there were seasons for every dish. I’ve tried cooking from seasonal cookbooks that lay out what is in season and what dishes could be constructed from those things. Very smart but still no bites from my inspiration centre (no pun intended).

Though I won’t be able to post a list of recipes, I will share a list of rules I use to support a habit of home-cooking regularly, without too much extra work. If the kitchen is your palette, food is your paint, then a meal becomes your art. I swear that over half the meals I make end up entirely different than what I originally intended. Tonight’s homemade pizza ended up as fajitas, for example, halfway through the show. And so it goes.

Now I don’t actually suggest you follow any of these rules. But you may take them as an apology when you ask me how I do something and I can’t quite explain it properly.

Here are my Rules for Cooking:

1. Use up what needs to be used first. Do you have sour cream with tomorrow’s date on it? Did you thaw a steak a couple of days ago and it has to be eaten now? Did your neighbour drop off some corn that is at its peak today?

2. Follow a recipe for ideas, but never really make it past the first half before you go off and do something entirely different that may be loosely based on one ingredient at least.

3. Stock up on everything and anything that you might need so that you have all ingredients available at all times. That means coconut, canned pineapple, celery, olives, icing sugar, sour cream etc… Have a freezer for leftovers and extra ingredients.

4. Do as much preparation in advance as possible so that when it is time to assemble the meal, it is a true joy to reach for everything like they do on those cooking shows and just throw it all together while singing ‘tra la la’. I don’t know about you, but I am at my grumpiest and least patient at 5pm. It helps to give your 5 o’clock self a hand earlier in the day or week if you can.

5. Make more than you need, always, because you never know when an army might show up. When the army doesn’t show, then freeze the grated cheese, the sautéed onions, the roasted peppers, extra meatballs or cubes of chicken so you have them handy for the next time you decide to build a meal around one of these things.

6. Practise winging it by looking at pictures of dishes and imagining what might be in them. When you are in a restaurant, go over in your head how you would prepare such a thing from the order that you add things to the temperature you would set the oven at. Ask lots of questions about how other people do things.

7. Here is the most important one for me: use what you have. Don’t reach for dishes that don’t include what is in your fridge or what you can get from your neighbour or local farmers market or on sale or in season at the grocery store. Build around what is ripe in the fields. Don’t soak dry beans in July when the fresh green beans are dropping off the vines.

8. Use the internet or ask anyone who knows to find out how to do things the good old fashioned way. You might be daunted by rendering lard, smoking meat, dehydrating fruit, making yogurt but you know, truth is, if it was done a hundred years ago, it’s likely a pretty simple and basic thing. We just get ourselves all confused by imagining complicated ways of doing things.

9. Exchange all processed foods with the real deal. Where someone may regale you with the latest and greatest Cream of Mushroom Soup surprise, know that you can add flour to a jar of milk, shake it up, pop it in the microwave for a minute and have the same kind of white sauce, thickener stuff without all the salt and scary list of ingredients. Where tomato paste or ketchup is called for, put a cup of stewed tomatoes from the freezer into the blender with a handful of ground dehydrated grape tomatoes to thicken it. Make bread crumbs in your food processor with stale bread cubes and freeze them for the next time you need them.

10. Make good use of the blender or a second coffee grinder. Add ground pumpkin seeds to pancakes, grind your own cinnamon sticks and nutmeg pods (there is no comparison!), put spinach in a blender with eggs before you scramble them a la Dr. Seuss or add bananas to crepe batter. You get the idear.

Now I promise not to be shy and that I will share any recipes of interest, or at least what I think it is I did to get the result I got but I can’t promise anything. I tend to do things differently every time and my memory ain’t so good anymore.

In the same way a painter does not start out with instructions on which colours to choose and where to put them on the canvas, it doesn’t always have to be the way for you to begin a meal with a plan ahead. Try it sometime and see. Let your hands start chopping and sautéeing and see what you come up with. Set up your kitchen so that it is conducive to this kind of folly. Have your ingredients handy and give yourself time and space to create.

For me, the kitchen is the best place in the world to do art. Because no matter what you do, you gotta eat, and nobody questions the importance of making a meal. Don’t be discouraged if you try this and things don’t work out. You’ve got another meal right around the corner where you get to try again.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Bringing Home the Beef

Today my bull calf made it back to us. No, he didn’t run away. All 360 pounds of him was taken away in a trailer 2 weeks ago and now he has returned home in neat little packages all stacked in 6 boxes plus numerous bags of dog bones.

I wanted to have a firsthand experience of seeing how beef was cut so I asked if I could watch as they worked on my Fred the 2nd. The butcher was kind enough to agree and said that it was common for people to want to give their cutting instructions in person. I expected to spend the time paying homage to the animal I once knew and cared for, saying silent prayers of gratitude and feeling sad and all of that. Instead I spent the time with my mouth watering over the various cuts of meat and what I planned to do with them. I imagined the soup bones boiling to make beef stock in glass jars. I had visions of meatballs, spaghetti sauce, moussaka, shepherd’s pie, t-bone steaks on a hot summer day, stir fries, stews, roast beef sandwiches, meat pies and hamburgers. It seems I have gone from civilized urban vegetarian hippie chick to a wild woman who drools over the sight of raw meat still attached to its carcass. That’s quite a distance, I think.

I was also in awe of the friendly butcher who did the cutting as though he could do it with his eyes closed while chatting comfortably about his job. His very sharp knife worked steadily, carving gracefully along the lines and curves of the bones while he talked. He told me which cuts were more tender and why, which ones dry out quickly, which muscles are used more often on the animal, how others like their meat cut, and most especially how to cook the cuts.

Even farther up my alley was the history of the butcher profession in our area. In my lifetime, large grocery stores have gone from having a house butcher to hiring ‘meat cutters’ (and along with the devaluing of a butcher’s job, the pay went downhill too, or at least stayed the same for decades). These far less skilled meat cutters don't know how to begin cutting a whole animal as their job is to take already hacked up pieces of meat and make them presentable in a cooler. The real animal is apparently brought to a place 500km away (Toronto), butchered into manageable pieces and then shipped (frozen?) to a distributor warehouse where it is then trucked again (with additives to keep it from going brown?) to your friendly neighbourhood Super Big Store. That’s a whole lot of middlemen and seemingly unnecessary extra time on a shelf before it hits your fridge.

I learned that meat should always be thawed in the fridge. I learned that when you send small bits of boneless steak through a machine with many pokey things, it can basically turn out the texture of ground beef that you don’t need to chew (kids meal anyone?). I learned that the animal is hung on a hook in a fridge for up to 2 weeks to tenderize the meat (at least this is customary in our culture, one Muslim family is apparently hugely adamant that the meat is cut up right away). Some folks want it all cut into steaks, some want it all cubed and they marinate it when they get home (never freezing), some want it all ground and some don’t know what they want so they get the standard (this was me up until this year). This time I stood there, in this room that bore the faint but unmistakable stench of blood, mesmerized by the possibilities. I learned that the butcher did not go to school but learned his art from his father.

Every new cut on the bandsaw uncovered a mystery for me as it displayed a new arrangement of flesh, fat and bone time and time again. The whole animal was cut expertly and wrapped into packets of my choosing (some steaks, some roasts, some ground, some tenderized). I vowed to make the best use of the meat that I knew how. And when I didn’t know how, I was going to find out.

When I arrived home, I spilled one of the brightly coloured red rounds of ground beef into a bowl and began to mix onions, eggs and oatmeal in with my hands to make hamburger patties. Not long ago, the act of touching raw meat with my bare hands made me gag or cringe or run to a hot, soapy hand washing sink. Somehow I have moved to another place where kneading the meat together with the other ingredients was a sort of a prayer. There was no better place for my hands to be. This was a celebration of sorts. I couldn’t think of a better way to honour an animal that had given its life for our food.

As I have been forced to rearrange my 3 freezers for the homecoming party of Fred the 2nd, I have been able to take stock of the abundance that we have reaped this year. There is a small amount of pork from last fall waiting to be finished, over 60 litres of frozen milk waiting to be turned into yogurt or used in waffles or soups, 8 whole chickens left from the summer and now well over 200 pounds of beef. There are jars of chicken stock, rendered lard from the pig fat, strawberry freezer jam, whole raspberries and blueberries, squash, over 100 litres of tomato sauce, some ketchup, some soups and some green beans, peas, kale and broccoli. In the fridge there is fresh yogurt, milk, 3 dozen eggs, homemade bread, relish, pickles, cheese, granola, maple syrup we have tapped from our trees and sourdough starter that began before Rob and I were born.

I am in a state of sheer gratitude right now. Albeit gratitude with a side of disbelief. The person I was 10 years ago would never have imagined this life or that these skills could be acquired steadily over time with patience and persistence. This was the girl that once lived off of prepared packaged foods and canned pastas and soups. How did I get to this place? How did I get so lucky?

I’m not bringing home a paycheck anymore. But above is the list of what I do bring to the table. And along with the health it brings and the satisfaction it gives, I am now learning to assign value to this notable contribution.

For today, I am going to focus especially on Fred the 2nd and say a prayer that we can bring back butchers to our home towns.