Saturday, 7 January 2017

Coffee Italian style

Coffee machine in a gas station on the way to Marco Polo airport
Although I'm not normally a coffee drinker, I've been longing for the caffe macchiato I had in Italy. I recently read an article about why we should start drinking coffee like Italians do. Instead of filling 16 or 20 ounce paper cups, carting them out to our cars or bus stops or shopping malls or desks and sucking on them mindlessly for half an hour, the article suggests North Americans try drinking coffee Italian-style: from a small white ceramic cup, standing up at a counter and downed in a few quick sips. While at first glance, it might seem like the ritual of this quick hit of coffee is a bit like swallowing a couple of aspirin, I've come to believe that it actually results in much more of a break than the North American style Starbucks march (or the Canadian Tim Hortons drive-through routine.)

When I was drinking coffee in Italy, I stood at a usually crowded counter with my tiny, perfectly brewed caffe macchiato (which I learned means "stained coffee," which is why in Italy I was told to make sure I said caffe first, not just "macchiato") and I drank coffee. I didn't check my email or negotiate traffic, walk down the street or teach a class, or anything else, really, except maybe to exchange a few words with the person I was standing with. Drinking the creamy, smooth, laced with slight bitterness coffee gave me this precious inward moment. Then I moved on. The day went on. But during my brief time in Italy, I looked forward to having that moment each afternoon.

When we were leaving Italy, our hosts stopped at a gas station on the way to the airport to get a coffee. Used to gas station coffee in North America, a watery brown and tasteless liquid warmed in a plastic carafe and dispensed into a styrofoam cup, then stirred with a plastic stick, I was surprised to see the gleaming espresso machine behind the counter, kept running by beleaguered baristas in uniforms who shoved the little ceramic cups across the counter to people in a hurry, like in gas stations everywhere. They did have disposal cups in this gas station. Because we were on the way to the airport, I took my caffe macchiato to go.

I realized my mistake immediately. First of all, I was embarrassed by how pointless and wasteful it was to take a paper cup to drink a coffee that would be gone in about three sips. But also, the moment I'd had standing and savouring my little coffee was missing.

Somehow the waste of the paper cup and the waste of the experience are linked in my mind. Why are we North Americans so good at taking a good thing and "improving" it to the point of ruining it? Why do we take a three or four ounce cup and turn it into twenty? And why do we always seem to lead the way in wastefulness? In Italy, I never saw the overflowing garbage bins outside of cafes that are such a common daily sight in communities across Canada and the US. An event like the Festivaletteratura that I was part of in Mantua didn't result, as it would in Canada, in streams of barely used, discarded paper and plastic food containers trailing down the sidewalks.

You might think that borrowing this Italian idea of coffee drinking, and at the same time eliminating mountains of waste, would be a no-brainer. Sadly, instead, there's a new ban on bans in Michigan, prohibiting local governments from banning or regulating the use of plastic containers.

Thursday, 22 December 2016


Skagit River Trail, Manning Park, BC
Yesterday, I drove up the Green Lake Road to go cross-country skiing. I was also looking for cedar boughs, which smell like nothing else, and which have a special meaning for my husband, David, and me. When we lived in the Fraser Valley, we were surrounded by a lush forest of cedars. Their fronds look like feathers, and when it rained, we'd step outside and be enshrouded with their rich, tangy fragrance. We also took part in sweat lodge ceremonies where cedar was used. So the scent alone is healing to me.

The cedar I see growing in a damp area near the creek here is probably Western redcedar, which grows in the interior. As I drove along Green Lake Road, I noticed spruce and fir and the beautiful orangey-barked Ponderosa pine that scents the woods in this part of the Okanagan.

What's so important about naming these trees? When Shelter came out, a few people commented on Maggie's obsession with naming plants. I obviously share that obsession. I want to be able to tell the difference between a spruce and a fir.

Okanagan pines

Just like I learn the names of people, I learn the names of trees so that they're familiar to me. I recognize their faces: the deep-fissured bark of the Douglas fir and the stringy bark of the cedar.

I like the word understory. I know it means the layers of growth in a forest, but I like the idea of it being a story in the sense of a narrative. If I know the names of the trees and other plants, I understand something about the story of the forest I'm in. The ability to read a little of that story seems important to me.

In the pine forests around here I can find oregon grape, wild roses, saskatoon berries, kinnikinnick, and yellow balsam root in the spring. In the coastal cedar forests, I'll find huckleberries, salmonberries, ferns, devil's club.  I can eat the berries and avoid the devil's club, though if I knew devil's club better, I'd appreciate its many uses, too.


Saturday, 29 October 2016

West Coast trail: one step in front of the other

When I wake up in the middle of night and can't get back to sleep, I lie listening to the owls calling from the tall pines down the street from our house. I read that the call of the great-horned owl has been "translated" in our language to "Are you still up? Me too." That middle of the night, nameless anxiety that I feel is both echoed and soothed by their voices, resonating into the darkness.

I think it's not uncommon for regrets to come thundering in on us in the dead of the night, when no one is there to distract from the memories. This is partly the subject of the novel I'm working on, called The Burned House. My regrets, I believe, are relatively minor in the scheme of things, but they loom large at the witching hour of 4 a.m. Lately I have distracted myself with a kind of meditation that I discovered out on the West Coast trail, on the westernmost edge of Canada, where the Pacific Ocean crashes into shore on the wrecks of ships long abandoned to the sand and wind.

I carried a thirty pound pack, nearly a third of my weight but as light as I could make it without going hungry or cold. I had practiced hiking with this pack, but only loaded to twenty pounds, and I worried, when we stepped onto the trail, and within fifty feet encountered two sets of ladders with moss-covered rungs leading pretty much vertically up a rock face. I worried about whether I'd be able to make it, or if I'd have to suffer the ignominy of being rescued by helicopter and air-lifted off the trail. Or worse, of course.

We had been warned, frequently, by websites, handbooks, park guides, and bus drivers, that mishaps on the trail were frequent, up 300% this year for some reason. I was hiking with my husband and my sister and we were all fit hikers, but we had mostly done canoe camping. We were not used to carrying so much weight on our backs.

The West Coast trail is incredibly beautiful. traversing old growth forests with huge ferns, firs, cedars, and waterfalls. Just breathing the air feels healing. Sunlight streamed through the trees, and landed on our faces and for a time, the other world, the one where we have jobs and buy dish soap and get our oil changed, was gone. It was one careful step in front of the other. Then we were hungry and shrugged off our packs and ate the things we'd carefully packed -- almonds and licorice and rice cakes. Then coffee. Can anything be as healing as drinking a cup of hot coffee sitting on smooth grey driftwood three feet in diameter at the edge of the Pacific Ocean with forests older than human memory at our backs?

At night when I can't sleep, I come back to that place, the certainty of its constant change, the thunder of surf on sand, the rich odour of soil and trees, decay and renewal. I feel the weight of the pack, but nothing else, as I put one foot in front of the other, covering the miles.

Saturday, 28 May 2016

Look up

I'm not a person with a grudge against technology, but I've been thinking how social media, in my case, specifically Facebook, has caused my experiences to have this odd third person feeling. I already tended that way, since I'm a writer and I'm constantly processing and shaping my experiences into stories. Now the phenomenon is even worse. I stand outside myself, sometimes at my most private moments, watching. I'm present, but I'm also conscious of the moment as precious and worthy of sharing.

Okanagan hills

The other day I was in the scrub pines on a dry hillside up a backroad near here. I was looking for some pine poles to build a gate (to keep the deer out of my garden). I had my head down, scouting the ground. I'd pick up a length of pine and test its strength by cracking it over a rock. Some beautiful twisted lengths flew to pieces, rotten already. So I kept looking. They had to be longer than 6 feet and preferably with a lovely bend or twist. The relentless sun and wind on that east side of the valley makes curved sculptures of the pine boughs. I was absorbed in that, eyes on the ground, watching my feet, stepping over little piles of scoured clean deer bones (I think) and I turned to see where I'd left the poles I'd found so far.

It was almost by accident that I looked up and the view slammed into my field of vision. An incredible sweeping 180 degree panorama of mountain after mountain after mountain in shades from deep navy to sky blue to white where the snow was caught, and then the sky as many shades of blue above that. It took my breath away. It made me smile. I had that moment all to myself -- awe, gratitude. I took a few steps back at my task, then I stopped and fished my phone out of my pocket.

Already I was processing it. The moment had passed. I couldn't quite find the same view in my phone camera frame as what I'd seen when I first looked up. Even now as I'm writing this I'm tempted to Google what I'm grappling with. I'm trying to think of the search terms I'd use to see if someone else has already thought this out, and better than I could. Then I think, wait, I'm allowed to have this insight and think it is original. I'm allowed to ponder it slowly and deeply myself, exploring my own messy questions and revelations instead of boarding that wearying Google train lurching from idea to idea to idea until I've lost the curiosity that made me wonder in the first place.

To leave the phone behind is the obvious solution. But that would mean a consciousness about the potential for these random moments of beauty that seems contradictory, un-zen. I was just out to find some sticks. I told David I'd be back in half an hour. I brought my phone along partly for safety. I did mention the picked-clean bones?

I'm learning to meditate. I'm an absolute beginner and there is so much I can't get my head around. But I think I have an inkling about what it means to be present, attentive to what is. The problem is in the hyper-consciousness of experience, processing it, a word I associate with processed meats -- same de-naturing. Once I begin to process it, break it down, add to it, I'm no longer just there, experiencing the richness and complexity. I'm assessing and judging. And this is a loss.

"One seeks and seeks but cannot find. One then gives up and the answer comes by itself." Alan Watts.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

The road past Libau Part I

This summer, while researching details of the setting for Sing a Worried Song, my novel-still-yes-still-in-progress, I went to rural Manitoba looking for a farm where I'd spent many peaceful weekends in the 1970s. My family owned the farm, bought it for next to nothing: 80 acres, (half a quarter section) of sandy land riddled with rocks over most of it, except the part that was swamp. The thing is, over the years we'd heard that the house, barn and outbuildings had been razed. On several occasions, on the way to somewhere else, I'd looked for it, but never been able to locate it.

Us, in the early 1970s.
This year I took a few days to visit my sister Mary at her cottage, which is about an hour's drive past where the farm was located. We were determined to find the site of the old farm. She had looked for it too, now and then over the years. It's strange to lose a place, especially one you've loved.

My mother used to drive us out there and drop us off to spend the weekend, or sometimes a whole week, while she went back to the city to work (Winnipeg is about an hour away). It was the early 70s. I remember walking barefoot the five miles to town, the fine sand of the road as soft as baby powder between our toes. When we reached the highway, we had to put our runners back on so we wouldn't burn our feet on the tarmac. What did we buy at the store? Popsicles, red licorice twists, comic books. We didn't need anything; we only walked to say we'd done it, walked ten miles in a day. At night, we heard coyotes calling, and sometimes saw their eyes blinking like fireflies from the long grass around the farmyard. The depth of the darkness, the loneliness, and the riot of stars overhead on clear nights, was liberating.  I've sought that place or something like it ever since, and sometimes found it and the exhilaration that comes with being unjudged, unmeasured, and minuscule in the scheme of things.

Monday, 28 September 2015

Forest bathing

In Japan, they have a term for the restorative time spent in nature: forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku. There is even a field of Japanese science called Forest Medicine, which studies how time spent in the woods benefits our immune systems.

The word "bathing" is apt for the sense of being immersed in what feels like a different medium, being washed clean.

There is a lake in southern British Columbia where I camp a few times every summer, often with my sister. We joke that the lake waters are healing. Maybe they are. After a few days camping among the trees, and swimming and canoeing every day, I feel stronger, clear-headed, and most of all, worry-free. What had I been worrying about at home? I literally can't remember.

But maybe it isn't just the lake. Being surrounded by the forest washes away the niggling worries of daily life. The region is thick with pines and firs, cedars and poplars and an undergrowth of wild roses, saskatoons, Oregon grape and wild strawberries. Mint grows on the lake edges.

When I'm swimming, I can see the trees that have fallen stretching deep below the surface. They'll be there a long time after I'm gone.


Saturday, 14 March 2015

Perhaps I was wrong

As I tackle yet another revision of Sing a Worried Song, I'm comforted by John Steinbeck's letter to his editor in 1952, written as he finished East of Eden. His "armful of damp garbage" is one of my all-time favourite books.
John Steinbeck

New York

Dear Pat:

I have decided for this, my book, East of Eden, to write dedication, prologue, argument, apology, epilogue and perhaps epitaph all in one.

The dedication is to you with all the admiration and affection that have been distilled from our singularly blessed association of many years. This book is inscribed to you because you have been part of its birth and growth.

As you know, a prologue is written last but placed first to explain the book's shortcomings and to ask the reader to be kind. But a prologue is also a note of farewell from the writer to his book. For years the writer and his book have been together—friends or bitter enemies but very close as only love and fighting can accomplish.

Then suddenly the book is done. It is a kind of death. This is the requiem.

Miguel Cervantes invented the modem novel and with his Don Quixote set a mark high and bright. In his prologue, he said best what writers feel—the gladness and the terror.

"Idling reader," Cervantes wrote, "you may believe me when I tell you that I should have liked this book, which is the child of my brain, to be the fairest, the sprightliest and the cleverest that could be imagined, but I have not been able to contravene the law of nature which would have it that like begets like—"

And so it is with me, Pat. Although some times I have felt that I held fire in my hands and spread a page with shining—I have never lost the weight of clumsiness, of ignorance, of aching inability.

A book is like a man—clever and dull, brave and cowardly, beautiful and ugly. For every flowering thought there will be a page like a wet and mangy mongrel, and for every looping flight a tap on the wing and a reminder that wax cannot hold the feathers firm too near the sun.

Well—then the book is done. It has no virtue any more. The writer wants to cry out—"Bring it back! Let me rewrite it or better—Let me burn it. Don't let it out in the unfriendly cold in that condition."

As you know better than most, Pat, the book does not go from writer to reader. It goes first to the lions—editors, publishers, critics, copy readers, sales department. It is kicked and slashed and gouged. And its bloodied father stands attorney.
The book is out of balance. The reader expects one thing and you give him something else. You have written two books and stuck them together. The reader will not understand.
No, sir. It goes together. I have written about one family and used stories about another family as—well, as counterpoint, as rest, as contrast in pace and color.
The reader won't understand. What you call counterpoint only slows the book.
It has to be slowed—else how would you know when it goes fast?
You have stopped the book and gone into discussions of God knows what.
Yes, I have. I don't know why. Just wanted to. Perhaps I was wrong.
The book's too long. Costs are up. We'll have to charge five dollars for it. People won't pay $5. They won't buy it.
My last book was short. You said then that people won't buy a short book.
The chronology is full of holes. The grammar has no relation to English. On page so-and-so you have a man look in the World Almanac for steamship rates. They aren't there. I checked. You've got Chinese New Year wrong. The characters aren't consistent. You describe Liza Hamilton one way and then have her act a different way.
You make Cathy too black. The reader won't believe her. You make Sam Hamilton too white. The reader won't believe him. No Irishman ever talked like that.
My grandfather did.
Who'll believe it?
No children ever talked like that.
(Losing temper as a refuge from despair)
God damn it. This is my book. I'll make the children talk any way I want. My book is about good and evil. Maybe the theme got into the execution. Do you want to publish it or not?
Let's see if we can't fix it up. It won't be much work. You want it to be good, don't you? For instance the ending. The reader won't understand it.
Do you?
Yes, but the reader won't.
My god, how you do dangle a participle. Turn to page so-and-so.

There you are, Pat. You came in with a box of glory and there you stand with an armful of damp garbage. And from this meeting a new character has emerged. He is called the Reader.
He is so stupid you can't trust him with an idea.
He is so clever he will catch you in the least error.
He will not buy short books.
He will not buy long books.
He is part moron, part genius and part ogre.
There is some doubt as to whether he can read.

Well, by God, Pat, he's just like me, no stranger at all. He'll take from my book what he can bring to it. The dull witted will get dullness and the brilliant may find things in my book I didn't know were there.

And just as he is like me, I hope my book is enough like him so that he may find in it interest and recognition and some beauty as one finds in a friend.

Cervantes ends his prologue with a lovely line. I want to use it, Pat, and then I will be done. He says to the reader:

"May God give you health—and may He be not unmindful of me, as well."

John Steinbeck