Saturday, 30 November 2013

A little adaptation

So I tried my mom's recipe for making caramels...sweetened condensed milk, butter, sugar...can't go wrong with those, surely. But the heat was on too high, and even though I stirred like mad, bits of brown "stuff" floated to the top. Not burnt, exactly, and still tasted fine, but it was not great-looking. So I disguised the brown bits by adding chopped pecans and shredded coconut. They cut into fine caramels, sweet cubes of goodness...but they started to melt at room temperature. Once again I improvised, smashing a lump of caramel between two chocolate wafers (the kind you get at the bulk store for melting down into molds). And voila! An instant "turtle" sandwich. I made jillions of them, wrapped them in plastic, and put them in the freezer. And oh my word, they're yummy!

I've been adapting and improvising in a few other ways lately, too. I have difficulty walking Brio, my puppy, as much as he would like. He really is a calmer, happier dog if I can give him the proper amount of exercise. So I've been teaching him to play off the leash, and now we can go to the park and I can throw a ball or fling a Frisbee and let him do all the running. And running. And running. While I just stand there and throw things. It's much easier on my body and he's deliriously happy. He'd play for hours if he could.

I've also discovered a solution to my gardening withdrawal I go through every winter. No, I don't have to build a greenhouse or move to Belize. I found a great book about miniature gardening by Janit Calro, which teaches you how to create worlds in a pot. I can design whole landscapes and scenes (which of course creates plots and stories in my writer's brain at the same time) on my kitchen counter. I get the scent of damp earth, the mud under my fingernails, the smell of snipped greenery, and my spirits instantly lift. I think this will turn out to be a major hobby.

Life may not always work out the way you want or expect, but little joys can be found all around you, whether in a terra cotta pot or between two circles of chocolate.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Winter's Coming

At about this time every year, I feel myself start to slip into depression. I know another winter is ahead of me -- cold, dark, bitter, suffocating -- and it's all I can do to drag myself out of bed every morning. The thought of having to struggle into six layers of claustrophobia-inducing clothing and slog down to the bus stop in the dark at 5:30 every morning, and then having to peel off five of those layers once I get into the overheated bus...and then having to put them on again before we reach the subway an hour later...and taking them off again once I get to my office...It all just makes me want to bawl -- not a gentle weep, mind you, but a raging howl of protest. I see the leaves falling, the frost forming on the crunchy grass, and I know what I am in for.

I try to combat it with positive thoughts and vigorous exercise and vitamins B and D and grow lights hanging over my dining table. And, occasionally, poetry.


snow is falling,
mounding on bush, tree, fence.
My world becomes a padded cell
in white.

clouds drift lower
awakening the grass,
hidden flowers astonish, gentle

crimson and gold,
autumn's bright fierce glory
in one brief soundless explosion
like blood --

It dies,
turning to brown,
sodden, cheerless, whispering
of winter's soulless chill and white's

To My Mothers

Not for me these pizza-cutter methods,
zipping together a quilt top in a weekend.
Rather, savour it as a sacred thing,
ancient ritual repeated,
communion with my mothers.
More than mere fabric --
life's mosaic
binding piece to piece,
generation to generation.
I carry on their primitive rhythm,
needle and chair rocking together,
and hear the gentle lesson --
Use every scrap offered, discarding nothing.
Weave in contentment, sorrow too.
Stitch with joy, bind in pain,
blending together,
indiscernible in the end.
We can't always see the overall plan,
the beauty in each piece,
but we are diligent with details,
persevere in faith,
until the whole becomes clear,
the pieces suddenly coherent.
Ah! we say. Now I understand the pattern.
A little flawed, not quite straight,
the corners not quite aligned,
but mine, and many-layered.
The meaning is in the process, not the completion.
When you are sewing
the quilt wraps itself around you warmly --
a hug from your grandmothers.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

My Own Happiness Project

So I read The Happiness Project and decided to set some of my own goals each month. I have discovered that a) there's too much to work on to be able to cover everything, and b) it really is possible to form a good habit in 30 days. I've also discovered that whatever I happen to be focusing on, the universe supplies me plenty of opportunities to work on it.

For example, this month I wanted to focus on service. As part of that, I set the goal of being more aware of those around me and open to opportunities to serve. This isn't always easy for me, as I tend to be introverted and - let's be honest - hardly notice there are other people in the room, especially if I'm wrapped up in a book or engrossed in a project. But behold, the minute I looked around, the world, the workplace, the subway - all turned out to be full of chances to serve others. Some were consciously sought out, such as volunteering with the Second Harvest Hunger Squad (picking up extra food from restaurants and taking it to a shelter). But other things have been happening spontaneously, and I find myself leaping to help before I even consciously think of it. Just this morning I managed to do the dishes so my husband wouldn't have to, made my son a nice breakfast, gave a token to someone on the subway who needed one, and helped a blind man to a seat and conversed with him - all of this before 6:30 a.m., and without thinking twice about any of it. So good things do happen when you open yourself up and look around you. Opportunity is everywhere. Big changes can come about by small means. You just have to chip away at them consistently. I'm hoping that by the end of this month, being aware of others' needs will be a bigger part of my habitual way of living.

Some people have said that serving others is demeaning or somehow lowers yourself, but I see it as just the opposite. Serving someone is recognizing their need, and then recognizing the ability or strength within yourself that can meet that need. If done properly and with compassion for the other person's true needs (and not just what you want to give), it builds up both people.

Look around you today and see who you can help. Even if it's just a smile for the lonely-looking teenager on the bus or helping an elderly woman carry a suitcase up the subway stairs, or even thinking a prayer every time you think of the Philippines - it's all good, and it all contributes to the happiness in the universe. And if you can think bigger, do greater things, do more, then do it.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Fall Fusion Bagpipe Workshops

I just got back from Brantford, where I spent a day attending four workshops on various aspects of piping. I took two classes from Michael Grey, one on the history of piping in Ontario and how it is descended from the Cameron School (which ties back to Patrick Og MacCrimmon), and one on canntaireachd and piobaireachd, which was fun and surprisingly practical. Then I attended a class with Ellen Mole, who taught us some execution techniques which especially helped with my tachums. And then I had a class learning competitive reels with Bob Worrall. In between, we were served a fantastic lunch (and I make here a full confession: I broke down and ate a pulled pork sandwich in spite of myself, the first in two years. I'm a semi-vegetarian, but I just couldn't ignore that yummy smell.) The evening wrapped up with a brief concert by Willie McCallum. All of this amazingness was sponsored by the Paris Port Dover Pipe Band.

Now for people who don't play the bagpipes, the above names may not mean anything to you. These are some of the top players, not just in Canada but in the world. I can't believe my luck, to live in a place where such opportunities are available. It's a bit mindboggling. Between classes we stood around a refreshment table, chatting, and I couldn't help telling Michael Grey and Bob Worrall, "I can't believe I'm standing here eating doughnuts with the gods of piping!" This is the sort of stuff you tell your great-grandchildren.

After this long day, the teenage boys in our group were giddy and bouncy, pumped with adrenalin. You sure don't see that after they spend eight hours at school. You could just see the enthusiasm, the twitching of the fingers, the realization that they had a rightful place in the group - they weren't just tagging along with the adults; perhaps there was the beginning of an understanding that they were the key to carrying this whole enterprise and history forward.

I came away wanting to learn canntaireachd in more depth, wanting to sit at these people's feet and soak up every bit of what they know, wanting to play more. You can't help but feel that if you were exposed to that kind of instruction more often, you would really grow by leaps and bounds. You couldn't help but soar.

There is something fundamental and - what's the word I want? Inherent? Visceral? - about a big group of people sitting around playing traditional folk music together. There is a sudden bond with these unknown people, a feeling of identity, of ancientness and timelessness, of sharing a common heritage. But there's also a strange feeling of "If the world ends in a zombie apocalypse and we're reduced to sitting around a fire eating locusts and lichen, we will still be able to produce our own music." Maybe that quality - being drawn to beauty, to creativity - is the core of being human. We are the keepers of the culture, the ones who will pass the traditions down to the next generation - not just the piping, but the history and the values and the quirkiness and the sheer determination of our predecessors. From what I could see today, the next generation is receptive, talented, and more than capable of carrying it on. The future is in good hands.

Friday, 1 November 2013

My book is out!

Desperate Measures is now available in stores. You can find it at Seagull Books, Deseret Books, on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and maybe Walmart in the western U.S. However, some websites seem to have it listed under their music category for some weird reason. While I did throw some bagpipes into the story, I promise it's a mystery novel, not music. (Though there is an audio book!) If anyone feels inspired to set it to song, though, feel free! :)

I guess, after all, it is a mystery...

A little consideration goes a long way

I was recently in the Dulles Airport and came across something I'd never seen before - a relief station for service animals. The door was slightly ajar, so I peeked in. There was a room with fake grass and a fake fire hydrant, complete with white picket fence. And I was astounded to realize I've never once wondered what people with guide dogs or other service animals do about -- er -- that end of things. The animals get stuck for long hours in airports too, same as their people, and I thought it was so sensitive and compassionate for both people and animals for the airport to provide this service. Do all airports have this and I've just never seen it before?

In the Salt Lake City Airport they have a playground with jungle gym in the middle of the terminal, for entertaining small children during waits. I thought this was brilliant too, taking the needs of both parents and children into account. I myself have been reduced to entertaining children for hours with Kleenex puppets and paper cup towers, so I know how appreciative parents of young kids must be for a real-life playground.

Little thoughtful things like this go a long way, letting other people know we've thought about their needs and cared enough to do something about them. A small gesture, a little accommodation, can change a person's whole experience.