Food has been an obsession with me lately, since I started a “get healthy / lose excess ‘baggage’ program” at Christmas.  The obsession is all good; I’ve dropped roughly 20 pounds and I’m happier with my body, and feeling generally really good, inside and out.  It’s amazing what a healthy diet can do for one’s mind, body and soul.  And when you think about people who live in poverty, it’s bad enough their bellies are empty.  But what the lack of food and nutrition must do to them mentally and spiritually must compound the problem in ways the lucky among us couldn’t possibly imagine.

This obsession has extended to money spent on magazines about food, and a few new cookbooks, which I often take with me to read on the commute to work.  A number of new recipes have been tried, with general success, particularly for my new slow cooker, another purchase in support of the culinary fixation.  I’ve always loved one pot meals, and a big pot of something will keep me in lunches for a week. 

And salads.  The world of salad is much improved over the last 15 or 20 years – with the array of fresh, washed greens in recyclable containers that take all the former nuisance out of making this beautiful and oh so healthy staple.  Mine are usually based in spinach, or lately arugula, with fruit, and cheese or chicken or nuts or toasted sunflower seeds and olive oil with a nice vinegar.  One could stock a cupboard with the variations on the oils and vinegars found in grocery stores these days.

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Last Sunday I went out to my sister’s in Mississauga for my favourite meal ever, and fortunately a semi-regular one at her house (and my cousin Mia’s), steak barbeque.  After picking me up at the GO train station Cathy and I have a good catching up while we go to her favourite (and quite lovely) grocery store and pick up dinner stuff.   Chicken is a great price, so I get a package of breasts for Stan to cook up for me on the grill and take home. 

More catching up at her place over glasses of Guinness.  Later Mom comes, and we solve all the world’s problems while looking over the woods behind the house, willing spring to come and talking wistfully of sitting on the back deck in warm sunshine over similar barbeques.  Old man winter is taking his sweet time leaving us; it’s a bright sunny day, but there’s still a bite in the air. 

The steaks, lusty and fragrant, are laying gently together in their juice as Stan sets them down on the table.  The meat is accompanied by green beans, potatoes (also done on the grill in foil) and the salad of which I am currently eating obsessively: arugula, walnuts, asiago cheese and pear tossed in a simple oil and champagne vinegar with salt and pepper.  And wine.

There is, quite simply, nothing I’d rather do than have dinner with good company.  Never am I more at one with the world than when I am sitting at a table sharing food with people I care about.  Last Sunday, it was only the carnivores of the family at the table, but it doesn’t matter who, or how many or what is on the menu (although that steak meal is tops in the pleasure category). 

I feel sorry for people who have unhappy relationships with food, who don’t (or can’t) enjoy the act of sharing in it.  The meal is an essential part of living, but for those of us who are fortunate enough to have it; it is also one of the most wonderful pleasures.  I certainly am one of the lucky ones.

bad karma blues

24 March 2009

Recently Rick Mercer did his weekly “rant” on the subject of negative attack ads used by politicians, and implored the leaders of the parties to rise above the practice in the next election (which, sigh, we all know will be sooner rather than later).  He points out that most of us profess to hate these kinds of ads, but politicians use them anyway because they say they work.  I’m not sure why we let them get away with it.  Wouldn’t you learn so much more about a politician/party if they tell you what is good about them and what they can do, as opposed to saying what is bad about the other guy?  

The rant was timely for me.  I’ve been thinking a lot about the plethora of bad feeling, mud slinging, anger, name calling and general bad karma stemming mostly from the political world.  It’s got so bad that it has started to permeate my thoughts on a daily basis.  It’s like I’m thinking defensively, having internal arguments with people who would oppose my views. 

I’ve said it before, but shouldn’t those who seek to govern us, more than any other people in our citizenry, be striving to bring us together rather than divide us?   I live in a country where our “leaders” have waged war against liberals, conservatives, greens, francophones, anglophones, teachers, activists, nurses, single mothers, artists and unions.  Who’s next? 

I believe this underscores the importance of Mercer’s rant.  We are in danger of becoming a country of citizens that hate each other.

It’s got so that I’ve decided I have to do something about it on a personal level, because I refuse to be ruled by negativity.  What exactly that something is, I don’t know; but at the risk of sounding saccharine and “Oprah-esque,” I do know that it starts from personal action.  I thought I might boycott politics and news altogether, but the problem is, I genuinely care about what goes on outside my own little world.  I’m a current events junkie, and that’s not going to change (probably thanks to my Grade 5 teacher, Mrs.  Chavis – but she’s a whole other blog post).  And anyway, if a politician, representing you and me, acts like a dumb ass, or threatens the fibre of our wonderful country, then he or she needs to be called out. 

It’s time to be more mindful of my focus, and centre the weight of my attention on my own little world.  I haven’t volunteered since leaving my last job.  And the Buddhists know what they’re talking about – when you serve others, when you work to make others happy, you achieve happiness. 

Years ago my sister and I resolved to generate the positive, and I do make a conscious effort to do that every day, even if it’s just look strangers in the eye and smile at them, rather than treating them like they’re invisible.  Yes it’s time to readjust my view, less on the large, more on the small; less on the far more on the near. 

Unfortunately, it might all have to start with some letters to those purveyors of negativity, the politicians, stating that my vote will be withheld from anyone or any party that resorts to attack style campaigning.  And following through.  But then turning off the news and going outside to see what’s going on in my neighbourhood.

I’m not sure what I’m missing.

My government has said today they see the sense in bailing out a certain private broadcaster, but for weeks they’ve basically told our (yours and mine) public broadcaster to “deal with it.”  Even though the public broadcaster made it clear they didn’t want a bail out, just an advance on pending funding.  Let’s not even go there about how the public broadcaster functions on way less money, and way fewer resources, and produces high quality, competitive product anyway.  Not to mention some of that product (news, docs, sports) is exceedingly higher in quality than that produced by the more moneyed, privately owned organizations. 

And other public ones. 

Anywhere.

Someone please tell me why it is acceptable, remotely right, even the slightest bit moral for a government to throw money at a private broadcaster over a public one?  Why can’t WE advance some previously allotted money to the cultural entity WE OWN?  Why should OUR money go to prop up a broadcaster that mostly exhibits foreign (American) product?  Would we Canadians really rather spend our spare change taxes on Friends reruns and screw all the regular Canadians people, who are working to produce Canadian stories and material for Canadians?

It would seem to me that the Canadian government, is saying, on Canadians’ behalf, to Canadians who will lose their jobs making Canadian information available to Canadians, in favour of other broadcasters who make American content [more] available to Canadians, “deal with it.”

As an old boss of mine used to say, “it’s a wonder your head doesn’t fall off for shakin’ it.”

When I visited Finland several years ago, a good part of our journey entailed touring and learning about Orthodox churches.  Many of them were adorned heavily with gilt finished paintings and the icons that are so central to their faith.  So different than the spare surrounds of the Presbyterian church I grew up in. 

As we were there over Easter time, we learned that one of the traditions in the Finnish Orthodox church is that the local population is welcomed into the church’s spire to ring the bells in celebration during Easter week.  As one could imagine, children love this tradition, and at Valamo Monastery and retreat where we happened to be staying on Easter Sunday, the retreat’s busiest weekend, the bells were ringing all day long. 

One of the churches I liked best is in a town called Ilomantsi.  This one, made of clapboard is much less ornate and busy than some of the others we had toured.  We were to meet Annelli, the wife of a local priest there, who eventually insisted that she take us back to their home for dinner.  We entered the church to find her conducting a solitary service in the singing chants that characterise the Orthodox service.  (Afterwards we learned that she is also ordained.)  We sat and listened, and l was quite taken with the dome that rose above us.  Instead of being painted with golden saints and angels, it housed windows, which opened up to the sky in a circle as if to welcome in God.  To me, this church combines the traditional orthodox with the Finnish perspective, in which nature is intrinsic to their sensibility.  After her service was over, Annelli showed us around the church and took us up to climb the spire where we rang the bells for Easter.

Church of Saint Prophet Elijah, Ilomantsi

The most beautiful church I have ever seen in my life is also in Finland, but nothing like any of the formal Orthodox places of worship we had seen on our trip.  This (non-denominational) church was built by the hands of celebrated artisan and sculptor Eva Ryynänen.  Eva’s church is integrated into the forested landscape around her homestead, and is a testament to all of nature’s gifts.

The structure’s A-frame has glass covering much of the front and back walls.  Logs make up the rest, as well as many of the building’s other features.  Hollowed out logs make rounded and more comfortable pews, and sliced logs sunk into concrete make a striking natural mosaic floor.  Carvings of flowers and animals adorn the inside walls, and a giant, upturned tree root is the altar. 

The guide tells us that many people make pilgrimages to this church, whether to elope or celebrate Christmas.  Sitting in there, I can see why.  And even though I’ve never been particularly religious, this place, to me, is the most divine celebration of the earth’s gifts I had ever seen, and I would have been happy to sit there and be thankful for hours.

I don’t remember if Eva’s church has a bell.  But the hand-hewn logs welcome your touch, and every corner of the church has something for the eyes to behold, and the smells and sounds of nature enhance your awareness of all things magical.

Pictures of Eva’s church.

First item to be checked off my new and improved BBC reading list is Brideshead Revisited, plucked from my own bookshelf.  I bought it years ago after studying, and enjoying, Evelyn Waugh in a literature class.  And I really enjoyed that miniseries based on the story back in the 80s with Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews.  Apparently there is a new (2008) movie version, but I’ve not seen it.  So far so good; as before, I’m charmed by his language and humour.

Anyway, I get to a passage wherein Charles is walking out on a Sunday morning heading to a cafe for breakfast:

I walked down the empty Broad to breakfast, as I often did on Sundays, at a tea-shop opposite Balliol.  The air was full of bells from the surrounding spires and the sun, casting long shadows across the open spaces, dispelled the fears of the night. 

The passage reminded me of a radio documentary local CBC talk guy Kevin Sylvester did recently about church bells, and how they are starting to become a thing of the past here in North America.  Church bells have never been as fixed in our culture as they have been in Europe, mainly because such things as cathedrals – and as such their place within a community – are relatively rare.  And in today’s world, even the smaller churches, with their reduced populations and increased money problems, don’t end up repairing those bells that become damaged or deemed unsafe to use.   

One part of Sylvester’s story that really astounded me was that here in Toronto, in the area where there are several large and historic churches with beautiful bells, the churches are not ringing them on Sunday mornings because of threats from the neighbourhood people that they would sue the church for disturbing the peace.

On reading Waugh’s passage, I was filled with grief, for yet another tearing away at beauty for beauty’s sake because it’s not seen to fit in with modern day needs.  I understand that beauty is something us immigrant North Americans might never have really valued as a people – those early settlers had to first conquer the landscape and just survive.  And then it was all about the worship of modernity and all things new; all things came to reflect that focus, including our values.

I was filled with grief because the sound of churches all sounding bells together was once experienced as a weekly ethereal escape from the drudgery of weekday life, and is now, in Toronto at least, considered a disturbance of the peace.

I was filled with grief for us at losing, bit by bit, the value of beauty as an important and defining endeavour.  I worry what this is doing to our psyches.  And what have we replaced it with?  Money?

There is a meme going around Facebook at the moment which contains a reading list of 100 books, as devised by the BBC.  The list contains many classics, some “new classics” and some best sellers and you go down the list and tick off which ones you’ve read.  Apparently they reckoned that most people will have only read six.  Those avid readers and/or English majors among us jumped at the prospect of showing off our “well-read-ness,” and having done so I was less than pleased to find that I’m not nearly as well read as I think I am.  In fact I wasn’t even going to publish my meagre list of 26.

Okay, there are many, many books out there, and the BBC list couldn’t have hoped to be comprehensive on a global level.  I had my own complaint that the wonderful world of Canadian literature, of which I’ve always had a strong interest, was not adequately represented by Margaret Atwood and Lucy Maud Montgomery – not that I don’t exceedingly admire them both.  And recent years have seen me reading lots of non-fiction and biography, genres I love just as well as fiction.  And there has been lots of terrific contemporary “Brit-lit” and “Chick-lit” to keep one knee deep in fun reading for years.

So anyway, I swallowed my pretentious pride and published the list.  And I printed it for the purpose of keeping in my bag and accompanying me to the library.  In fact, a good number of those books are already sitting among my own collection.  So my spring/summer reading will see me revisiting the world of literary fiction and beefing up my BBC list.  And it’s not entirely for the sake of my meme-fed ego.  I’m seeking inspiration through immersing myself in an art form I hadn’t immersed myself in for some time.  

I’m sure I’ll get hung up on authors here and there; I tend to get obsessive when I find one I love and read everything s/he has written.  But I’m thinking that’s not such a bad thing.  A few of the books on the BBC list I have absolutely no intention of reading, such as Heart of Darkness and Gone With the Wind.  Several of them are lifelong favourites – books that have had big impact on me.  So, statistics would suggest that among the 74 books I haven’t read, at least several more of those big impact stories will emerge.  That’s reason enough, wouldn’t you think?

BBC Book List

Yesterday morning I’m in downtown Hamilton, enroute to my class at Mohawk College.  Walking by a tall condo building, I note that the flower beds that surround the building are filled with big plastic sunflowers.  From across the street, the splash of colour doesn’t look so bad, but on this cold February day it has the same effect as Christmas lights hanging on a porch in July.  As I’m standing there looking at all those big plastic flowers, a fella walking by them stops, sticks his nose in the middle of one and appears to have a big sniff.  I wonder if he is, like many of us, delirious with desire for spring and automaton-like he performs an act that transports him out his winter coat and hat and boots and the subzero freeze and into sandals and sunglasses and gardening gear and a glass of iced tea with a gentle warm breeze wafting flower scents all around.