Put Another Log on the Fire

My newspaper column for this week:

Ten days before Christmas. By the time you read this, the timeline will have shifted. Sounds ominous doesn’t it? Remember when we were kids and ten days was a lifetime, and Christmas seemed to take its jolly time to get here? I read an explanation the other day about why as we get older things seem to move faster—something about events no longer being new to us so we experience them at a faster pace. I am sure that explanation makes sense to someone somewhere, but it did not really resonate with me.

I do find that different things have become more important to me over the years. Things I would have glossed over or not paid any particular attention to when I was younger. As I get older, I may not get wiser, but I do find myself being more reflective and more thankful for the present. Sound like I have taken one too many bites from Oprah’s gingerbread, or delved too deeply into Deepak Chopra’s philosophy, or heaven forbid, taken a page out of Eckhart Tolle’s book, The Power of Now? (I find all of his books to be dense, or maybe I am the one who is dense.)

Over the weekend I was lucky enough to attend two small parties—one with my Writers’ Group, and another with some friends whom I have known since high school. The warmth of being surrounded by good friends (with good food in our bellies topped up with a little wine) was wonderful, but the loveliness of the moments spent with friends was brought to the fore even more vividly by a suggestion I read this morning in my search for a topic for this column. I turned to a book that my husband gave me over a decade ago called “The Little Book of Christmas Joys” and recognized in number 303 a truth that had been borne out by my experience over the weekend.

My little book of joys suggested in number 303 that “When you have friends over and there’s Christmas magic in the air, don’t let the evening end early. Throw another log on the fire.” In both instances, the hosts of the evening “threw another log on the fire”, if not literally, then figuratively. I stayed up long past my bedtime listening to shared stories and taking part in something that needed no screen, either computer or television or phone, to keep me entertained. The art of conversation and conviviality is not lost—and the closeness of friendship shared is one of the most potent elements in the magic of Christmas.

On Saturday I was fortunate to share some tea with a couple of friends at Tim Horton’s. The coffee shop was filled to the brim as it so often is. Our peals of laughter brought us to the attention of other patrons, who I am sure wondered if we had brought a flask to spice up our hot drinks. We had not—we were just enjoying being in each other’s presence. We joked, occasionally elbow jostled, and left on a higher note than the one we had come in on.

Life is full of these moments. My dream for Christmas Day is that I be surrounded by family and friends and that the warmth of the day envelope us all. But I have learned to appreciate the random moments when my family is just sitting around watching a movie, or sharing a meal and laughing together. Or those moments when you realize that the friends that surround you are the most important thing—and that sharing our lives together is what life is all about.

I have used the word “share” many times throughout this column—and though I could have called on my thesaurus to find a few derivatives of the word I did not—as there is no greater word than share. We share our lives and we are richer; we share our food and drink and we are sustained; we share our laughter and we reach that ultimate goal: happiness.

This Christmas season I am counting my blessings. And the blessing that wins out over everything else is the people in my life. They help me keep what little is left of my sanity; they bring joy to my life; they are the magic of Christmas.

Am I getting sloppily sentimental? Perhaps. But is there a better time of year to realize that sloppy sentimentality? I think not. So put another log on the fire, even if you do not have a fireplace.

What is one of your Christmas blessings?

Published in: on December 16, 2014 at 12:47 am  Comments (22)  
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You Are What You Eat

This week’s column is a longer rendition of my last post (with some changes)–so if you read it–skip on to half way through–

I am feeling a bit uneasy and cannibalistic discussing this but did you know that how you eat gingerbread boy tells a lot about you? There are so many ways we can self-analyze ourselves, but I found this one particularly entertaining and seasonally on target. How often do we get to analyze our holiday selves?

Apparently if you eat the head of your gingerbread boy first, says Dr. Alan Hirsch, you are a natural born leader. I always eat the head first. For some reason it just makes sense to me. As for the natural born leader stuff, well, maybe—because I am not a very good follower. Just ask any man with whom I have ever slow danced.

Dr. Hirsch is the neurological director of the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation. One would think he had better things to do than analyze how we eat our gingerbread—but apparently not. Personally I think he may have just made up this seasonal anecdote, but I am a bit sceptical by nature (except of course when it comes to Santa Claus whom I wholeheartedly believe in, but that is another column). If his analysis is true, then I wish that I ate the left arm of my gingerbread boy/girl first because that would mean that I am creative. So I may just start rethinking the way I eat my gingerbread.

I am going to stay away from the right arm altogether. Eating it first according to the good doctor means you are pessimistic. I do not need any more pessimism in my life, so if you see a trail of gingerbread right arms anywhere, you will know I have been there, and rejected the right arms for fear that their pessimism will rub off on me. Eating the legs is a whole different ball game though. If you prefer to start at the extremities, it means you are sensitive. I do not start with the legs, but my husband often says I have “delicate sensibilities” which translated means of course that I am a pain in the neck, so it is somewhat surprising that I do not eat the legs first given my propensities.

The article from which I gleaned these fascinating facts was written by an unknown editor in the December Food Network magazine. It was accompanied by a picture of a gingerbread boy with his mouth likened to the famous “Scream” painting, and there was a bite out of his head. A little unsettling to say the least—maybe I will forego eating any gingerbread boys this season.

Now, I am sure we could extend this type of self-analyzation a bit further. What does it mean if you love Christmas fruitcake? If you listen to all the negative chatter about the luscious cakes you might be tempted to buy into the negativity about them. But not me. I love fruitcake and though I am not sure what that may mean, I think that it can only be good. Perhaps I am a non-conformist. Perhaps I am nostalgic—because my mom always made fruitcake at Christmas. Or, and this could quite possibly the case—I am a bit of a fruitcake myself.

I have many favourite Christmas foods that could be dissected successfully for personality traits. Take turkey stuffing: ostensibly (yes, I used the thesaurus to find this word—having used apparently already a couple of times) you are a risk-taker if you stuff your turkey as (some) experts advise you to cook the stuffing outside the turkey in a casserole to avoid any chance of food poisoning. A culinary note for you: once stuffing is cooked outside the turkey, it is no longer stuffing, but dressing—this is an important distinction among foodies.

My favourite holiday cookie is one that even I dare to make—it is so good that the trouble of actually making it from scratch is worth it. It is the raspberry thumbprint cookie. It too can be analyzed—and I am afraid that the jury would name me as a glutton as I have been known to shove the whole cookie in my mouth at once (I tend to make them on the smaller size so this can be done without danger of choking). Slovenly though my method may be, it is gastronomical nirvana.

I am not sure that how I eat my food really is a window into my soul, but I do know that I enjoy all the Christmas delights the holiday has to offer, and whether that makes me a leader or slovenly is up for debate.

Published in: on December 9, 2014 at 10:29 am  Comments (18)  
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Getting a word in early……………Dear Santa

Never having written a Dear Santa letter in my youth, this week I write to him for the first time in my weekly column:

I am going to do something that I have never heretofore done. I am going to write a letter to Santa. I do not remember ever writing to Santa to ask for something for Christmas, so it is nigh high time. I may have scribbled a note to him left with milk and cookies, but a true Dear Santa letter has never been written, so here goes:

Dear Santa;

Hope all is well at the North Pole and that the elves are being diligent. Tell your wife hello and wish her a Merry Christmas for me. I suspect you are getting ready for the big day even though it is still a month away. I hear you were in my small town last week in the parade, and from all accounts you did yourself proud.

Okay, now that I have dispensed with the preliminaries, let me get down to the nitty gritty of this letter. As you probably know by now, people write to you asking for gifts but in the process couch their requests in niceties as we have been taught that it is impolite to be greedy. Far be it from me to be thought greedy, but at this time of year I have to admit, I like to receive as well as give. I am being honest here and hope you will at least get me some credit for that.

I would like to ask for peace on earth and that everyone be fed and clothed and warm this winter but I know that it is not your responsibility, so I will leave that to a higher source to guide the rest of us to continue the quest that though seems impossible, is not one we should give up on.

Okay, so here is what I want for Christmas. It is a book called “The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.” Quite a mouthful isn’t it? I can understand why you might think that it is a rather pretentious request, and a less than modest one, in that the title includes the words “The Thinking Person”, but I think I should be congratulated for wanting to better myself.

The book is written by Steven Pinker, who until he wrote the book was a high ranking academic (and still is, the fact that he wrote the book did not change his status.) He was born in Montreal, is around my age, and seems to be approaching the whole thing of grammar in a rather tongue-in-cheek way from the review I read in the Sunday Toronto Star. Tongue-in-cheek, yet still serious.

Pinker, unlike legions of us lesser folk, believes that “grammar is a fascinating subject in its own right”. Now I must admit that I like grammar too, though I break many of its tenets on a regular basis. In order to make the subject more appealing to a broader base he says that one should think of “grammar as the original sharing app” which is our “solution (for) getting complicated thoughts from one head into another.”

He rails against what he calls academic “highfalutin’ gobbledygook” wherein academics use “ponderousness as proof of gravitas” when in reality “their writing stinks”. I know firsthand whereof he speaks having turned out numerous essays in my younger days that make me scratch my head when I reread them today. (It humbles me that I do not understand the writings of my youth, but then I comfort myself with the fact that one has to put them in the context of being an answer to a dubious assignment by a crafty professor.)

Santa, I know it makes me sound like a bit of a book nerd to want this book for Christmas when I could ask for shiny baubles, warm sweaters, and perfume (all of which are welcome btw) but I have always found that the voice behind the books I read are comforting, compelling, and sometimes I even learn something (though retaining it is another story).

I am convinced that I want this book merely by reading a deft review by Jim Coyle. In his article he dedicated the last paragraph to a quote by Pinker who stated rather elegantly that “To a literate reader, a crisp sentence, an arresting metaphor, a witty aside, an elegant turn of phrase are among life’s greatest pleasures.”

Santa, just so you do not feel any undue pressure, I am letting my husband read this letter too—so between the two of you maybe you can come up with a plan to have this book, shiny and new, wrapped up and under my Christmas tree, in oh say, a month’s time?

With love and admiration, LouAnn

What would you ask Santa for?

Published in: on November 25, 2014 at 12:05 pm  Comments (20)  
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Rose Coloured Glasses

Sparkling bright silver
The colour of November
Not doomsday dull grey.

It is time to put our optimism on and wear it gladly and gaily.

Published in: on November 22, 2014 at 2:57 pm  Comments (9)  
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TOO SOON!

Thrown into winter
Windy, snowy, freezing cold
Shiver me timbers

Published in: on November 20, 2014 at 8:29 pm  Comments (21)  
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The Place “Just Right”

The Santa Claus Parade and Festival of Lights have started the holiday season in my little town, and this is my weekly newspaper column dedicated in part to that tradition and my own traditions which are, if I do say so myself, a bit quirky:

The strains of holiday cheer fill the air. In my mind’s eye I can see the Christmas parade replete with bands in their regalia, floats full of red cheeked faces, drummers drumming, and the festive evening’s darkness cut by glowing lights. I imagine the jolly old elf punctuating the night air with “ho ho ho”; his lovely wife loyally by his side waving and smiling at the crowd. And I see the children full of hope as the magic of the holiday season begins in our fair town.

I see these things clearly. But this year I participate from the warmth of my home. The thought did cross my mind to leave the toasty confines of my little red chair in the corner of my living room, but it was fleeting. No one wanted to accompany me the half a block walk to the corner of my street to watch the annual parade and I did not want to bundle up and venture out on this cold cold night by myself. I noticed on Facebook the day after the parade that several of my friends tempted the cold and watched the parade, but their conclusion was the same—the parade was wonderful, but it was “freakin’” (a term I am convinced was coined by Regis Philbin) cold.

Nevertheless, I did participate in a way that has become somewhat of a tradition that I have donned since my kids have grown up and are no longer interested in standing out in the cold with me. I left my chair and the glow of the TV and climbed the stairs to my upstairs bathroom. From that vantage point I could see the fireworks that both noisily and colourfully ushered in the “most wonderful time of the year.” I corralled my youngest son to join me, and we gazed out the window together, warm and cozy in that little utilitarian room. He got a little agitated at one point, wanting to get back to whatever he was doing before I asked him to join me, but I prevailed upon him with that most poignant of tools a mother has in her arsenal—guilt—so he stayed until the bitter end. Which was not bitter at all.

From our perch on the bathroom counter we had a view most others could not replicate. There was no straining of necks, no chill up our spines, no jockeying for position in the crowd. We could just enjoy the display and hear the oohs and awes of the crowd a mere few blocks away. I actually oohed and awed a few times just for good measure and ironic pleasure—but to be honest, there were some undeniable wows in the display. It was a fitting way to begin the season. I have quietly been introducing a few decorations into my home décor—a “real” evergreen wreath on the front door, a festive planter on my coffee table, some red and green ribbon waiting patiently to festoon its way through the house.

As I write this there is freshly fallen snow outside, forming crests on our bushes and adding newness to our surroundings. According to the weather men and women we are in for a November week that rivals mid-winter. And that is okay. We have to make the transition and if it is early this year, so be it. I will be taking on decorating with fervour in the next couple of weeks, my motto being “if it takes a day or so to put up and a day or so to take down, I need to enjoy it for a few weeks”. I am someone who is no stranger to hard work (and don’t let anyone tell you that decorating is not hard work) but I like the fruit of my labours to last for a while.

This year, as in others, I will start out determined to simplify Christmas, and get it down to an art. But Christmas is not an art. It is not perfect. I have come to the conclusion that it is a craft; one that is original every year yet has aspects of its forebears. A favourite little ditty that I love and brings to mind all that is simple and good (and unattainable) follows. It is called “Simple Gifts” and is attributed as an American Shaker hymn. On the surface it sums up how I would like life to be in general, and Christmas in particular: “ ‘Tis the gift to be simple, /‘Tis the gift to be free/‘Tis the gift to come down/Where we ought to be/And when we find ourselves/In the place just right, /Twill be in the valley/Of love and delight……………..”

Here is hoping that in this Christmas season, we all land “in the place just right.”

Where is your Christmas “place just right”?

This, That, and the Other

A Little of This, A Bit of That, and The Other: Hickory Nuts is the original title of this, my weekly column. I am getting a little tired of having to thank David for his inspiration once again, but David, once again, thank you.

This

As a self-proclaimed wordsmith, I found a term which I bequeath the “Word of the Year” award. The word is one I have never come across before—but both its spelling and meaning are soothing. Susurrus, pronounced “soo-sur-uhs” is defined as a soft, murmuring sound.

A favourite blogger of mine is a Canadian living the American dream. His blog, Live and Learn is one where I find the most charming quotes and astute observations. It is where I discovered my new favourite word, its definition, and subsequent context. Described as one of the most beautiful words in the English language, it “resembles the rustling symphony of the fallen leaves moving across pavement or the whispers created by the branches of the trees on a windy autumn day.” The vivid picture painted by such a description is one that I would like to be water coloured into.

The definition goes on to say that “uttering susurrus also stimulates the acoustics of nature’s effect” and is “one of those rare words where it’s aesthetic, sound, and feel coincide beautifully.”

That

I was watching Jamie Oliver’s Food Channel program “15 Minute Meals” early this morning, and while I really like the chef, I have a bone or two to pick with him. The secret to his 15 Minutes Meals is all in the preparation. He has all his utensils out, the food processor at the ready, and the water boiling for his pasta or potatoes or whatever culinary delight he is preparing that needs some boiling. This is cheating. Everyone knows that to get a decent boil going for a pan of water takes some time—yet this is not part of his 15 minutes. Nor is the time that it takes to set up the meal—getting everything out and half-prepping it (washed greens, unwrapped cheeses, and unscrewed lids).

I am not particularly fond of spending time in the kitchen on a daily basis. On occasion I like to cook, but the daily grind is just not something I look forward to. So when I am promised a 15 Minute Meal, I want to only spend 15 minutes. Any more than that, and I feel cheated. Seriously, Jamie’s meals would take most of us at least 40 minutes—and that is still not too long to spend on fixing a meal if we are told the reality of the situation. But to advertise something as 15 minutes and it to turn out to be 40 is not a good thing (I asked Martha and she said I could use her tagline).

So, Jamie, while I still love your show—quit trying to pull the wool over my eyes.

The Other: Hickory Nuts

I am pleased as punch. Now, how pleased that really is, is a complete mystery to me—but I am using this phrase to tell you how happy a mystery benefactor has made me. Someone, who will remain unnamed at this point (mainly because I do not know their name), left me a bag of hickory nuts after reading my columns nostaligizing the lovely nuts.Their note read “I enjoy your columns, particularly the one on hickory nuts” or something to that effect (the note has been lost in the plethora of papers that surround my desk—but I did not misplace the little nuggets of goodness).

So, to that person I have two things to say: 1. Who are you? 2. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Your writing looks somewhat familiar, but I could just be fooling myself into thinking that I recognize it. I must tell you that I am enjoying the hickory nuts immensely.

In the old days, I used a hammer on my parent’s brick outdoor fireplace to break into the little fellows, and capture their nutty goodness (some of which I had to forego as we were tasked with getting the meat of the nuts for a cake my mom would make). Instead of getting the hammer out, I found my nutcracker (until this point only used at Christmas) and a little utensil that comes with it to dig the tiny pieces from the crevices of the shell. Now, this is no easy task, but once a morsel is successfully unattached the reward is a gustatory delight. You may think I am overstating it, but the hickory nuts have brought back wonderful childhood memories. They taste of the woods, autumn, and times past. Again, I say thank you.

Published in: on November 12, 2014 at 12:38 pm  Comments (21)  
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Freedom

 

 Hopping on my steed

I would wheel out of the driveway

And up the road

To destinations not unknown:

the creek, the corner store, a friend’s house ~

Warm summer breezes teasing my long hair

Into tangles that no comb could unravel

My arms and legs tanned where shorts and top ended.

I would ride by fields of corn and wheat

And feeling a little silly, talk to cows as they munched in the meadows

Their big brown eyes somehow understanding.

Sometimes I would have to pump and strain with wild delight

Chased by big dogs which had no chance of catching of me

As my fear made me strong, fast, invincible

I long for the days when freedom was as easy

As riding my red bike.

Summer memories……………………..

Published in: on August 6, 2014 at 12:07 pm  Comments (21)  

Destiny

 

My weekly column for your reading pleasure. Some of you will recognize it as a longer version of a blog I did a few days ago:

“I do not understand how a poem can be better than a peppermint plant.” ~ thich nhat hanh

Perspective is that illusive entity that helps us make sense out of the events of our lives, or, at the very least, gives us a proportion by which to measure those things. thich nhat hanh puts life so in perspective for me. Sometimes I do not appreciate the beauty in everyday things and tasks—okay, most of the time, I do not appreciate the beauty in the everyday—but his thoughts in this poem, found in a short chapter in his book “moments of mindfulness” help me to see tasks as more than necessary evils, and value the things in life I take so for granted:

Planting a seed
washing a dish,
and cutting the grass
are as eternal,
as beautiful,
as writing a poem.
I do not understand
how a poem can be better
than a peppermint plant.

I do agree with him wholeheartedly about the “planting a seed” thing, and even the “cutting the grass” thing, but I will need more convincing on the “washing a dish thing”. I have to admit that I do not embrace the beauty of everyday tasks, and need a little “mindfulness” to convince me. I find the term “mindfulness” somewhat annoying in that it has become somewhat of a clichéd watchword, but if you define it as awareness or thoughtful consciousness then it becomes a clearer destination, rather than a muddy journey.

Everyday tasks are an inevitable part of the human condition. Taking a page out of thich nhat hanh’s book and giving those tasks the same weight as the things we deign as more “important” is one way of gaining a new perspective or way of looking at things.
Hanh evaluates the seemingly unimportant as significant, and heightens trivial chores to a loftier plane. So the washing of dishes becomes just as important, just as beautiful in its own way as something considered more creative.

We label things, and put them in columns or charts and graphs—quantifying them, thereby taking away their essence. I have always found labels wanting, never quite a good fit, just as hanh finds it difficult to see why writing a poem is better than a peppermint plant. I guess it all comes down to the fact that you cannot compare apples and oranges—each is distinct and unique in colour and flavour, in shape and size. Even comparing apples to apples is a dangerous thing—there are so many different kinds, shapes, sizes and colours that grouping them as one entity misidentifies their individuality. We do this with people too—we group them together by colour, language, economics, and heritage, without looking below the surface and seeing each person’s singularity. I am not my white skin, my English language, my age, my job, or IQ score. I am a bundle of all these things—a supersized combo (with pickles) if you will.

Zen Master, teacher, advocate of peace, human rights and justice, nhan sums us up accurately in the last tiny chapter in his book by writing:

We are the children of the Earth
and not separate from the soil,
the forests,
the rivers,
and the sky,
we share the same destiny.

And that, dear readers, puts it all in perspective for me. Even when we are relegated to cutting the lawn, doing the dishes, or writing a poem.

Summer Nights

Charmed by a cool breeze
She pulled her sweater tightly
Around her tanned arms.

Published in: on June 25, 2014 at 12:10 pm  Comments (12)  
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