Tuesday, July 28, 2009


How did it get to be July 28?  Suddenly the month is almost gone, when so recently it was waiting for us, full of promise, long and juicy to contemplate.

Looking back, July seems more sodden than juicy, loaded with huge downpours and cool temperatures, green lush gardens and green unripening (unripenable???) tomatoes.  It's also been full of friends of all kinds, and with new encounters and new growth...

Last week I had eight visitors staying in the house.  There was Melissa of course, who has been here since May, visiting from Thailand to get her English fluency better and to have a good long first-time-in-North-America kind of trip.  She's nineteen, so it's all new and interesting.  She's now in New York and not due back for another week or ten days.  And then there was a large lovely contingent from Spain: our old friend Rick and his partner Astrid and their six-year-old son Mario, and then a family of four who are friends of theirs.  The mornings began with "hola!" and ended with "hasta manana!" and in between there was lots of action and conversation, embraces and laughter. 

Last Thursday we had other people over (if you're going to feed 10 you might as well feed 20, right?) for a loosely conceived supper.  I grilled some beef and then sliced it for grilled beef salad.  There was a potluck aspect, so there were several huge gren salads, lemon pudding, a ricotta tart topped with sour cherries, some stir-fried green beans and asparagus, etc etc.  We also made "pakoras":  we whisked up a batter of besan (chickpea flour) and deep-fried some zucchini blossoms (halved lengthwise, since they were huge!) and also some fresh garlic bulbs, cut lengthwise.  I added some ground roasted coriander seed to the batter (proportions are about 1 cup besan and scant 1/2 cup lukewarm water whisked in, plus 1/2 teaspoon salt and some generous amount of coriander seed, 1 to 2 teaspoons).  The peanut oil heated in the wok and then we slid in three or four battered items at a time, using a slotted spoon to turn them, then lift them out (pausing to let oil drain off).  They were crispy and delish, the garlic a real taste hit, the flowers softer and milder.  The cooking goes very quickly, and then they all get eaten just as fast!

Then on Sunday night, with the same crew from Spain, up in Grey County at Lillian and Jon's, we deep-fried pakoras again, this time on the wood stove (the wok fits into a hole on the stove so beautifully).  Ian did the frying.  We used day liles from Lillian's garden, freshly picked by her.  Some were in full bloom, some were buds, and some were the softened drooping day-after faded blooms.  They were all delish, and beautiful too.  We made a potato salad using newly dug spuds boiled, peeled, then dressed with stir-fried (in olive oil) sliced shiitakes (grown by Jon and Lillian on maple logs in the forest) and loads of chopped fresh herbs, as well as local cider vinegar.  What's not to like?  

And somehow the taste of place, in all the food, was intensely life-giving, perhaps most of all in the salad of greens that practically leapt off the plate and into the mouth, greens from Lillian's miraculously generous garden.

The hummingbirds darted around us as we ate outside on the deck surrounded by airy deciduous forest.

I had a huge appetite, because before supper I'd had a sauna with Ian and Misha in their newly built sauna house.  I had a lot of saunas in my twenties with the Puhks in the Gatineau by a lake, but that was long ago.  It was wonderful to be back again, breathing in the familiar hot wood-scented air.  I felt my bones take in the heat and melt, somehow, and my skin prickle.   Slippery with sweat, after being in, then out to cool, and then back into the heat for more, we leapt into the car for the two minute quick drive down the road to the river.  (The car windows steamed up with our heat!)  The current flows swiftly there, carries you along in its cool flow, so we played and floated, waded back upstream and floated down again.  Bliss.

But that Sunday began with another kind of miraculous encounter, not with mother nature, but with the wisdom and lovely energy of a remarkable man named Menahem Pressler.  He is famed as a pianist and as the founder of the Beaux Arts Trio, but also as an extraordinary teacher.  And that was my luck, to be able to sit in on a Master Class he gave here in Toronto at the Faculty of Music.  To hear this charming and focussed man in his mid-eighties talk about music, and guide the young pianists that morning with such clarity and insight, was an enormous privilege.  I felt there should be a tape-recorder on all the time, just to catch his comments.  

And I felt, as perhaps one does with all great teachers, that what he said about music and attitudes toward music, was also true of life.  He talked about the need for the performer to renew his or her relationship to a piece of music each time, to make it fresh and clean, a lived experience for the musician and the listener both.  "Music should sanctify us, elevate us, inspire us" he said.  His intelligence and energy, his warmth, his generosity toward the young performers, and his insistence that there be attentiveness and respect, joy and engagement, were a tonic, a lesson, an inspiration.

Saturday, July 18, 2009


I feel I've been far away, but in fact I've just made a four day car trip to Ottawa, my home-town, with Dom and Tashi.  The drive is less than five hours, but was transporting.

It's mid-July, my birthday time, and I love to mark it somehow, so that later I can think, ah, yes, THAT year I was doing such-and-such... (So as I said to Dom, twenty-two years ago, I was pregnant with you and walking up the pass that is part of the circumambulation of Mount Kailas, in western Tibet, and here you are tall and grown and hopefully undamaged by those early in utero exertions!)  

This year we slept in a friend's cabin on a hill above the Gatineau River, on a chilly night (but we had sleeping bags and quilts and were comfy).  On my birthday morning I could get up early and walk down through the trees to the gleaming wide river, slip off my sweater and sarong, and step into the water.  I was bare, but warm with the remnants of sleep.  The river was warmer than the cold morning air, so it was soft and welcoming, slippery smooth on my skin.

I love swimming in the Gatineau.  It flows south into the Ottawa River at Ottawa, and its water carries some suspended clay in it, making it almost silky to the touch.  Any place that we spend our childhood has magical connections for us I think, and for me the Gatineau sure has those.  There's a before-thought kind of familiarity and welcome to all of it: the feel of the water as I first sink into it, the subtle cool scent of the air over the water, the slight ooze of the river bottom as I push off to start swimming out toward the far shore.  

I don't actually swim across the river, and have rarely done so.  It's very wide.  When I was a kid we would occasionally swim across, but only if accompanied by an adult in a rowboat, for safety, and always it seemed so far and such a marathon.  I think I'm in better shape, and also am a more confident (though not a more elegant!) swimmer, so the crossing looks less daunting to me now.  But I don't do it.  Instead I swim out then luxuriate and float and paddle and swim a little more and let myself just BE there.  Heaven.

Once back out, that birthday morning a few days ago, I wrapped myself in a towel, slipped the sweater on top, and walked over on the path to my cousin's dock.  Under it the water makes a lapping sound as little wavelets reach the rocks and shore.  I lay there in the sun, getting slowly warmed and feeling connected to and almost inside all the times I've been in that place, listening to that water.

But of course the water I heard before, all those other times, is somewhere else on the planet or in the air now, and the dock I lay on as a child has been replaced by a fresh dock with fresh planks.  As always there's that lesson about life, which can seem the same, and feels the same but not the same, feels continuous but also renewed and altered over time.

So as the river flows by, we step into it at the same spot, but into different water, and we too are different, not the same person who stepped in yesterday, or ten years ago, or fifty (fifty!!) years ago.  But inside I feel like the same person; I'm still me, aren't I?  

These are birthday thoughts, or thoughts for the new year, when we ponder life and time and change...

And so it felt entirely right that on that trip to Ottawa, apart from the pleasure of swimming, and of seeing old friends, and of having travelling time with Dom and Tashi, I also had a visit with my aunt.  She is eighty-seven now, lives in a present that is ephemeral to her, and with the past just a vague impression, so conversations are tangential and like those inside a dream state.  She now looks very like her father, my grandfather, as he did in his late eighties, especially the way her mouth shapes words as she speaks.  It's a precious glimpse of the past.  I found myself in tears almost, touched by that family connection, and, once again, by the intertwining in life of continuity and change.

Friday, July 10, 2009


There's a jumble of ideas in my head...clamouring or just nudging to be explored here.  They include: Tibetan nomads and wild places, skillet cake recipe, Uighurs, watercolours...  So let's see how it all emerges.

I went to see my friend Lillian in Grey County on Wednesday.  She was doing a painting course with Allen Smutylo, a very fine artist whose work I'd glimpsed in a recent book of his at Lillian's house.  We met at Inglis Falls, outside Owen Sound, where the group was working that morning.  What a lovely spot, a place that must have been sacred to the aboriginal people who lived in and moved through the forests of the area for centuries until the arrival of European settlers in the mid-nineteenth century. 

Lillian and I headed to Owen Sound for a bite of lunch and then to the Tom Tomson gallery to see a large show of Allen Smutylo's art.  He is a figurative painter who works in watercolour and in oils, but does a lot of mixed media, combining in one frame say a watercolour portrait, another black and white or shadowed image that is related, and then maybe some pattern or texture, all of it to put the portrait in context.

And what are his subjects?  Well that was the astonishment: I was completely transported to the world of Tibetan nomads and Tibet, for the art arises from his many stays with nomads in Ladakh, in remote parts of that remote region that lies north of the Himalaya and west of Tibet.  (Sounds rather like north of the moon and west of Venus or something.)  We see a small girl herding goats, or a huge caravan of yaks and people moving across a vast landscape, or the intimacy of a hand pouring out butter tea... and faces weathered by life lived in a harsh environment.  Now I have the book, borrowed from Lillian, but I will have to buy a copy for myself, for it's a keeper.  It's called Wild Places, Wild Hearts and was published in 2007.  His writing is strong and graceful and wonderfully unpretentious and appreciative.

What is the pull of those regions where life is elemental?  I can't say, but it is a real pull. I felt a pang of longing as I looked at the pictures, some of them of very familiar scenes: the child herding, the nomad tent....  Maybe it's simply the softness of our comfy lives that makes us sometimes seek a sharp kick in the pants.  Maybe something in us hearkens back to our ancestors and needs to feel the harsh edge of life lived on the edge?  That's not a very attractive picture....   hmmm  

Another thought is that we are humbled by the self-sufficiency of people like the Inuit or the nomads, who manage to survive in tough environments.  It's good to be humbled, to be reminded that we don't know much at all and we aren't really in control.  That would then make it like the person who goes sailing solo around the Horn, or across the ocean, who wants to feel the elemental force of nature and the sea, with no mediating safety net of any kind.

And from the Tibetans of Ladakh to the Uighurs living in China:  Just as, last spring, the Tibetans of Tibet rioted in frustration at the heavy hand of Beijing, this year it is the Uighurs who are rebelling.  But as with the Tibetans, it seems that it suits Buijing to have images of Uighurs beating up Han people in Urumqi.  The Han majority living in the cities of China must feel sickened at the sight, and so most citizens of China will welcome the government's heavy repression of Uighur dissent.  (The idea that Beijing will ever move an inch toward allowing Uighur autonomy is a fantasy.)  Having "barbarians" like the Tibetans or the Uighurs attacking Han people is useful to Beijing right now.  It means that people will ignore for awhile the economic pains of the current recession and come together behind the government as it cracks down on dissent.  The majority really rules.
And on an entirely different, and much more frivolous, topic:  Today Robyn Eckhardt's very nice article about the immersethrough tour we did in Chiang Mai in February of this year came out in the Wall Street Journal.  You can find it, for one week only, at WSJ.com - A Moveable Feast

To jump to yet another topic, also at the more frivolous end of the spectrum, I asked awhile back if anyone wanted me to post a recipe for the skillet cake I'd referred to.  I got a "yes, please", and so here it is, written out the English way, in sentences.  

I should say first of all that this evening Tashi made the cake, pretty much on his own, with just the odd reminder from me.  It's always delish, and yet every time a little different.

We started by me suggesting that Tashi put everything out ready and that he turn the oven on to 425 fahrenheit.  We already had some cooked rhubarb, so we just set some aside in a bowl and stirred in some sugar (it was unsweetened).  You can lightly cook some sliced apple in butter, or just have about 2 cups of berries, blueberries are great, on hand, or you can leave the cake plain.

Then into one bowl go a scant 2 cups flour, half of it whole wheat pastry flour, half all-purpose.  (You can use all all-purpose if it's easier).  Add to it about half teaspoon salt, a half teaspoon baking soda and one teaspoon baking powder, as well as generous cinnamon, some ground cloves and some powdered ginger if you like it (we do).   

Into the other bowl goes a generous quarter pound of softened butter and a cup of sugar (I like the turbinado or the organic sucanet these days; use whatever you like).  Tashi is good now at creaming them together and once that is done, the rest is easy.  You add a cup of plain yogurt (whole milk is of course best) and three extra-large or four large eggs, lightly beaten first.  We tend to add a dash of vanilla; suit yourself.  

Before combining the wet and the dry, we heat a ten-inch cast-iron skillet and add a generous tablespoon of butter.  When it melts, we turn and tilt so that the pan gets well buttered, then remove from the heat.

Now pour the wets into the dries and stir gently (we have a wire whisk stirrer thing that works well) to wet completely.  Pour the mixture into the skillet and use a rubber scraper to get every last bit of the mixture out of the bowl.  

Now here comes a choice:  You can add the rhubarb or apples or berries right away, onto the batter, and then put the cake in the oven.  OR you can put it in and wait for twenty-five minutes or so before you add the fruit.  If it's added earlier it sinks in and becomes part of the cake; later-added fruit is more of a topping.  We make the decision freshly each time!  Sprinkle on some sugar after the fruit goes on, just as you put the cake into (or back into) the oven.

Lower the heat to 400 once the cake is in, and then after twenty-five or thirty minutes, lower the temperature to 385.  The cake will be done in 50 minutes, or maybe a little more if there's a lot of fruit on top.  The sides will have pulled away from the pan.  Serve from the pan or else wait ten minutes and then place a large plate on the pan and flip it over so the cake drops out.  (You can flip it onto another plate if you prefer it fruit side up.)

Now, see, even written briefly and with very little chat, that takes up a lot of space.  Apologies to anyone who is not very recipe-interested!

Monday, July 6, 2009


Here's another anniversary day:  this time I'm thinking about July 6 as the Dalai Lama's birthday, at least his official birthday, I guess.  Who would have been keeping careful note of the date of a child's birth in faraway Takster (not far from the town of Xining in China's presentday province of Qinghai) seventy-four years ago?  At the time the Great Thirteenth Dalai Lama was ruling in Lhasa, some forty days' journey away...  

Now His Holiness is based in Dharamsala, in northern India, given refuge and status there by the Indian government, then (in 1959, when he fled from Tibet to India) led by Prime Minister Nehru.  The Dalai Lama has come to stand for wisdom and compassion to many, but is still named a trouble-maker and worse by the Chinese authorities.  I can say, after spending a good hour with him a few days after his birthday in 1978, that he is a vibrant good-humoured highly focussed and very disciplined man.  

What a privilege that was, to talk with him (I was so nervous of course, when I first presented him with a kata, but then he laughed and put me and the two others I was with at ease, and the rest went smoothly and timelessly).  My mother had died the previous November, and somehow that time with His Holiness and the other Tibetans in exile, together with a long trek that I did into Ladakh over the Baralacha La, were an unbelievable restorative.  They were a reminder that it's up to us to make our way, up to us to find meaning in life.

The date of his birthday is a good time for those of us who live in relatively secure freedom to contemplate the places, and the people who live in them, where oppression and unfreedom are the rule.  People lose a sense of their own ability to take risks, they learn to play it safe.

Those of us who are free, with health and life before us, can take occasions like His Holiness's birthday to remind outselves to take our freedom and use it in an engaged way.

We truly have little to complain of, especially if we compare ourselves to Tibetans or Somalis or Sudanese or people of any one of many other nationalities who are in exile from their place of birth, or alternatively living in fear in their homeland and trying to survive with dignity from day to day...  

Friday, July 3, 2009


I just want to follow up on the previous entry:  Those three young guys from Grey County did in fact turn up hungry (even though, they admitted, they had eaten a full supper before catching their bus) and managed to eat most of the chicken and the potatoes.  They made a dent in the skillet cake, but there was still plenty left in the morning.  

Does anybody want me to set out the skillet-cake recipe here?  I find it the easiest way to feed people a treat that is satisfying, and also fool-proof.

The other follow-up:  The municipal strike is continuing, so we are still watching the levels of compost in the green bin out front.  It is now just half-full.  (It still gives off no stench, except when I open it to quickly slide in some more garbage.)  So that means we could in theory last another three weeks.  We'd rather not have to, of course.  We know people who are taking their trash to the special dump sites set up in various parks.  But I'd rather try to last it out and not go near any picketed place.  Labour action needs to bite, on both sides.  There needs to be pressure on the parties to settle, and that doesn't happen if everyone can be accommodated another way.

And I haven't seen more rats, though I am really keeping an eye out for them, especially in the early morning when I head out for a short run through the university.

I'm off to eat fresh rice topped with stir-fried garden greens and a fried egg.  It continues to be the best morning meal, eaten mid- to late-morning.  Who needs variety when there is something so simply good to eat each day?