novice (again)

Beginner’s Mind. That’s what they say you should strive for in yoga, right? No matter how many times you’ve done a sun salutation, each downward dog should be undertaken as if you’re new to it, ready to learn what it has to teach you, ready to be surprised.

larder I believe it’s a good way to live, and I’ve tried in recent years to be a novice in as many ways as I have energy for. Voice lessons, for instance. Joining a choir. Learning to knit. Making jam. And most of all, learning to write fiction.

 

 

But the Beginner’s Mind philosophy isn’t about taking up new hobbies or changing careers. In fact, it has nothing to do with novelty. It’s deeper than that, more difficult. Where it matters most is in the things you do most often, the activities you’re old hat at, the jobs with the highest risk of drudgery for you.

Cultivating the novice attitude means that when my kids get home from school, I might look for what’s new on their faces and in their words. I might  try to notice.  When I deliver a lecture for the second time in the same week–for maybe the sixth or eighth time since I prepped the course–I might go in wondering what I can learn from my students.

David Bowie's favorite books, flying At AGO David Bowie exhibit, Toronto
David Bowie’s favorite books, flying
At AGO David Bowie exhibit, Toronto

I’m not saying I’ve mastered novicehood or anything. But then, mastery’s not the objective, now, is it?

back-to-school voodoo

Many moms I know are teachers of some sort or another, which means Back to School for their kids is Back to School for them, too. My first class of the term invariably falls at 9:00am of my boys’ first day. My own new-classroom nerves are exacerbated by my guilt about not personally holding Son #2’s hand as he searches for his Grade One teacher amid the playground chaos. Not watching Son #1 scrupulously ignore me as soon as he spots his friends.

But here’s an intriguing phenomenon: all these Back-to-School moms, including me, will bake. We will bake something special to tuck into our kids’ lunches. Brownies. Chocolate-chip cookies. Date squares. Never mind that our introductory lectures aren’t prepared and we can’t find the keys to our classrooms. Never mind that it’s ninety degrees in the shade. We will bake anyways.
I discovered this strange practice by accident: my neighbor (a teacher-librarian with a kid starting JK) commented that it smelled good on my porch (brownies) and that hers smelled the same (cookies). Weird, isn’t it, she said, for baking smells to be wafting outdoors into the humid, late-summer air?

So I started asking around. One colleague got up early to make banana muffins. Another called her mother-in-law on the weekend in tears, and the heroic woman arrived with home-made, plastic-wrapped popcorn balls and a ride to school for the kids.

Where did we get the weird notion that baked goods are mandatory for the first lunchbox of the year? I mean, I know that many of my most extreme domestic behaviors are guilt-induced, and that for many of us, such behaviors were modeled by our own mothers, who performed them out of habit or necessity or—who knows?—a deep love of the kitchen. Maybe we feel watched, or judged, by our kids’ lunchroom supervisors, and we want to make a good impression right off? Because if it’s a good impression with the kids themselves that we’re after, I know for a fact that dinosaur-shaped fruit gems in foil packets would have been a more impressive “kids-I-love-you” telegram than the brownies I sweated over.

Here’s my hypothesis: baking for Back to School is talismanic. It’s a ritualistic gesture by which we assert our motherly skill and goodwill against the looming evils of one-size-fits-all schooling, peer pressure and corporate advertising. If we do it just this once, we tell ourselves, the world will be warned: watch how you treat them, because these children are Loved.

There’s guilt in my brownies, yes, and maybe a touch of fear. But I propose that there’s fierceness and power in them, too.

So eat, my handsome lads, and be blessed. Because after this it’ll be Snackeroos until Christmas.

setting the bar

A therapist once told me that I’ve internalized my mother’s role when hosting guests. This has led to what he called “overperforming domesticity”: managing the shit out of meals, conversations, and activities—even the “spontaneous” ones like strolling around the corner after dinner to see the neighbor’s crazy Christmas lights—and then imploding with resentment at how busy I am while everyone else gets to sit around sipping nog.

So last weekend, when I took the Greyhound to visit my parents, I found myself watching my mom’s every move. A scenario:

Only a 5pm reservation is available at the little café she’s discovered, so we sit down with a quick glass of white before heading out. As I’m telling Dad about the grant I’ve applied for, Mom slips out, and I hear frying sounds from the kitchen. Within six and a half minutes the smell of cooking wafts over, but Mom calls, “No, no, it’s nothing; I’ll be right there!” She enters the living room holding a tray on which is arrayed three small bowls and silver spoons. “Just a little amuse-bouche,” she says. “Now we won’t have to order apps.”

It’s lobster bisque. Saffrony crème, huge chunks of sweet meat, crispy green onions, flaked almonds. A gentle linger of cilantro.

I look up through the fog of sensory pleasure and scrutinize my Mom’s face for signs of stress or anxiety.

“Geez Louise, this is delicious!” says my Dad, and she winks at him.

Surely there are control issues in there somewhere, though. Jealousy at the way father and daughter have been relating in her absence? Food-as-love overkill?

I try, but it’s not there, I swear. In all the years I’ve been watching my mom, she’s taken pleasure in cooking special foods for the people she cares about. She’s become so practiced and passionate that the aura of a spellweaver attaches to her offerings. I mean, c’mon, lobster bisque? Really? Just like that?

And what does a daughter take away from all this? Well, I mean, it’s clear who has set the bar for my own hosting calisthenics. But I certainly can’t blame her for it. My taste buds would never let me.

bolletje soep

It was a family joke. On the rare Sunday my dad could be dragged to his mother’s house for dinner, we’d be stuffed full of braised beef and mashed potatoes, and when we assured Oma that we couldn’t eat another bite, she’d leap up and say, “Bolletje soep!” This meant a bowl of meatball soup with greens and vermicelli would be placed in front of each of us. The gustatory logic was unclear and may or may not have originated in Holland—none of my other immigrant friends have heard of soup as a second-to-last course.

But the soup itself is emblematic comfort food for this cohort. My mother-in-law, for example, would cook a colossal pot every Saturday and serve it for after-church dinner on Sunday. Then it would be tabled as a daily first course until mid-week, when it finally ran out. This cleverly frugal routine for filling the bellies of five growing children and minimizing weekend cooking also formed the basis for what must be some very good memories: every visit now involves groveling for a take-home Tupperware container of the stuff.

When I asked her for instructions recently, she came back from the basement freezer with two Ziplocs, labeled “soep groentjes”—soup greens—and the smaller-than-storebought key ingredient, the “bolletjes” themselves. Then she handed me a Knorr soup-mix envelope, whose Dutch ingredient label I could not decipher, and advised me to add extra noodles. I knew the greens came from her garden, but they were so minced-up and frosty I couldn’t tell which vegetables they originated from. And the meatballs, of course, already contained that top-secret blend of seasonings her son loves so much.

I made the soup with my borrowed ingredients, and it went over nearly as well as the original, I thought. But I found myself wondering why the dish’s biggest fan–its rightful heir, as it were–wasn’t cooking the dish himself. It would indeed be wonderful to come downstairs on a wintry Saturday afternoon to a steaming bowl of bolletje soep, maybe some warm, crusty rolls slathered in butter—wonderful especially, it dawned on me, to be the one called down for dinner. Aha! Could it be that playing the role of fed rather than feeder is integral to the walk down memory lane?

And anyhow there’s a more practical problem: I can’t very well keep poaching Mom’s harvest and hand-rolled hamburger to fill the bellies of my own growing children. Without the recipe, I am like the indigent nation receiving aid not training: doomed to long-term dependence.

Leave well enough alone, Sarah (a familiar refrain in Sarah’s head). Probably I have enough on my plate without aiming to translate a first-generation, postwar staple into a second-generation nostalgia experience. Probably there is nothing all that special in the soup itself to begin with. Probably the exchange of repurposed yogurt tubs and the “Thanks, Mom” hug at the door is a value-added ritual I’d be wrong to supplant.

More proof that the proof is not so much in the pudding as in the people who spoon it out to you when you’re young. . .

raisin meditation

raisin meditation

During the second session of my Meditation for Health course, we passed around a bottle of hand sanitizer and a stack of napkins. From under her chair the leader pulled a plastic bag full of kiddie-sized raisin boxes. Over the course of the next thirty minutes, she talked us through a mindfulness practice centered on the eating of a single raisin.

Here’s what I was thinking, when I was meant to be merely observing the information filtering in from my senses: I am not entirely certain whether being mindful about raisins is actually such a good idea. I mean, they’re shriveled. They’re gummier the longer they sit in your mouth. They often feature a bit of grit inside—an abortive grape seed, I assume—that’s much worse on the tongue if you’ve been actively contemplating, before biting down, whether you’ll encounter it. And they make you thirsty rather than refreshing you—I think you could actually die of thirst, eating raisins for a long enough period of time.

When I came back from visiting the water fountain and firing off a quick tweet complaining about the exercise, we’d moved on to observing the raisin box, turning it side to side between our fingertips and gazing at the Sun-Maid maiden (Why is she carrying a basket of green grapes? Raisins are made from red grapes. Wait: are raisins made from red grapes, or do they all turn brown when they dry out? Have they subtly updated this brand-girl over the years the way they keep making over Aunt Jemima: slimming her breasts, tweezing her eyebrows into a flatter arch, changing 1950s orange lipstick to a post-millennial pink?).

Our assignment for the week was to eat one meal mindfully. By the end of class I’d heard enough evidence about lowered cholesterol and blissful sleep that I was committed to trusting the process, but over the next six days I reverted wholly to holding the Thai takeout carton under my chin while scanning emails and scarfing the kids’ leftover scrambled eggs at the kitchen counter. I did think about mindful eating, but not at the same times I was actually eating.

Mindfulness is unnatural. It may be true that babies have no problem with it—you often wonder what a four-month-old is staring at, and why his fingers are so endlessly amusing to him—but I think mindfulness goes against one of our key evolutionary traits. Homo sapiens’ extreme adaptability has allowed the species to dominate to the point of planetary obliteration, and we have adapted to the stresses of high-tension urban lifestyles by tuning out most everything out.

Say you were barreling down the street on your lunch hour to meet an ex-colleague for sushi, and you suddenly decided to be mindful. First, you’d stop walking, because you’re dead tired and your new boots have already rubbed your right ankle raw and it hurts like a mothersucker. You’d stand there amid the earsplitting sirens and the drone of construction and the sad bleating of the homeless guy, and you’d stare at the dried-up gum and Styrofoam cups, the newspaper boxes speckled with bird shit and vomit, the unremitting backdrop of concrete and steel, and here is what would happen: you would puddle to the sidewalk like an egg suddenly deprived of its shell.

I understand that mindfulness needn’t become a way of life. The idea is to practice it in small increments, therapeutically, as a counter-balance to all the heedless rushing. And I’m told that the anxiety and irritation sometimes accompanying meditation is the mind’s defense against being unseated, however temporarily, from Command Central.

“Just think of it as playing with your food,” was the advice in the raisin lesson. And so, on the way home that day, I lined up all the rest of the raisins on the window ledge of the subway car. They reminded me of ants–insects that, I recalled, are also members of highly evolved, industrious communities and probably aren’t mindful whatsoever. At the dog park the next day I pulled the little red box out of my pocket and blew into it, the unthinking gesture and the resulting whine-whistle taking me right back to the playgrounds of my childhood. Not meditation per se, but a moment of fond reverie, at least.

cherries!

In ten years I’ve never witnessed a harvest like this. Usually we have aphids, who clump the leaves together with sticky webs and fall down your shirt when you visit the composter in that corner of the yard. Usually the cherries ripen reluctantly and are prohibitively sour until the evening we decide, “tomorrow they’ll be ripe”–and the next morning we wake up to see the tree shaking with squirrels, beating us to it.

This year there’s enough to go around. Every limb is weighted down with glistening clusters of gorgeous red fruit. Most of them are way too high for us to reach, soaring above the telephone wires and exploding upon impact when they fall in the back lane. The color is deepest where the trembling sprays hang over the neighbor’s garage roof, whose easy access has prompted the kids to name it the “Cherry Gold-mind.”

To my mind, the cherry is the perfect fruit. It’s mouth-sized, for one thing: you’re not tempted to scoop a handful at once, like with blueberries; nor do you face the peach-related peril of skin wedged in your teeth and juice dripping down your chin. The cherry offers a pleasing, weighty smoothness rolling on the tongue. Biting down meets first with a pert resistance, then is rewarded with a dam-burst of intense, winey nectar. And what’s left is a stone–not a grenade of jaw-wrenching bitterness like apple or pomegranate seeds, but a lovely inert sphere to fire into the hedge (or, if you’re Son #1, onto the hood of the neighbor’s minivan).

l feel responsible towards this bounty, regretful of having none of the equipment or skills for proper stewardship. Isn’t a “cherry picker” a kind of forklift? Didn’t people in olden days used to pick, pack, process and put up for winter? I watch the cherries get larger and darker and I feel increasingly anxious. I break up the kids’ cherry fights as wasteful, but I can’t fit any more fruit in the freezer.

The birds are frantic, too–or possibly drunk, if they’ve been tapping the overripe ones on the ground. A robin will pierce the skin with its beak and then shake its head frenetically to carve out a chunk of flesh. What’s amazing is how many times it can do this to a single cherry before the weakened stem finally lets go. The yard is littered with eviscerated fruit.

Lots of urbanites have fruit trees in their yards. We glean mulberries, raspberries, blackberries, pears and chestnuts from our lane alone. In fact, a few groups in Toronto have organized to ensure that all this stuff doesn’t go to waste, like Not Far From the Tree, who claims to have picked 8135 lbs of residential fruit in 2009. Their approach to urban gardening is brilliantly simple: match up the trees of too-busy-to-bother property owners with crews of eager volunteers. Maybe I’ll register my tree and see if someone shows up with some of those telescopic wooden ladders or pincers on poles.

Meanwhile, I have borrowed my neighbor’s canner and am learning how to make preserves. My first batch of Cherry-Hazelnut Conserve didn’t gel, so I’m calling it “Cherry Haze Syrup” and suggesting people serve it over waffles. Cherry-Currant Chutney infused my whole house with the sensuous aroma of cinnamon sticks, cardamom and orange rind. And did you know that Pickled Cherries–the stems are left on–make a fantastic accompaniment for roast game?

As in olden-days harvest season, everything else stops to get this work done. The porch is not painting itself while we hold ladders for each other in the backyard. Fortunately, Son #1 seems to enjoy using the cherry pitter, an exciting-looking spring-loaded contraption that nonetheless pits only one cherry at a time. Today another neighbor ordered six cups of cherries for making pies, and Son #2 dutifully filled his backpack for delivery.

This is thrilling. This is the healthiest, cheapest fun we’ve had since our trip to the sugar bush in March. This must be how vegetable gardeners feel all season long.

no corn for me, thanks

At a rented cottage with friends last weekend, I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. In a stunningly surreal setting—the glittering, frozen lake crisscrossed with snowmobile trails and dotted with ice-fishing huts—I learned exactly how stunningly surreal our food industries have become.

In a nutshell, it all comes down to corn. The superabundant monocrop floating on a sea of fossil-fuel fertilizers. North American agribusiness has done everything in its power to use up the corn—not just to include its by-products in every processed food we eat, but to force it up through parts of the food chain nature never intended it to occupy. Feedlot cows eat not grass but corn; they cramp up, bloat, and die of heartburn and liver abscess—but hopefully not before they’re slaughtered. Salmon, naturally carnivorous, are now GM’ed to survive on corn. And homo sapiens is the most cooperative of all: it turns out that high-fructose corn syrup short-circuits our appetite control and induces us to Supersize everything.

I slumped at the rustic pine table poring over the ingredient labels of the items Son #1 had been allowed to add to the grocery cart for special: maltodextrin in the Beefaroni, lecithin in the Nutella, xanthan gum in the jelly beans. All of it comes from corn. In the hot-tub I explained to everyone how even free-range chickens are given only two weeks out of the cage, and—surprise—they’re corn-fed.

Then there was our new-mom friend, Maya. She already knew all this. She’d brought a Hubbard squash the size of my head, bunches and bunches of leeks; she served a delicious whole-wheat linguine with cilantro-walnut pesto. The baby ate rice puffs and lentil mush.

After the depressing parts of The Omnivore’s Dilemma –to eat an organic peach in January is to eat thirty liters of crude oil, or whatever—comes the exploration of alternatives, and even some real joy. The joy of a meal shot, cleaned, cured and cooked by one’s own hand. The joy of a farm on which the manure feeds the plants and the plants feed the animals, and both feed the soil, forever and ever. The joy of knowing what you’re eating and still feeling good about eating it.

And in our cottage? For me there was joy busting out all over. The joy of sitting down to a meal I didn’t prepare (scrambled eggs are scrumptious with sautéed leeks!). The joy of talking with people whose ideals exceed mine but whose feet are planted on exactly the same ground. And the joy of reading a book whose gorgeous prose style is as inspiring as its ideas.

Of course, my delight in the Omnivore may have something to do with the other book I was reading that weekend—Tom Hodgkinson’s The Idle Parent, which heads off the potential migraine of responsible decision-making in a troubled world by trumpeting, “Kids love a tipsy mom!”

home food

Try to find a metaphor for the way your house smells on the rare occasion when you bake muffins or make a stew from scratch—let’s call those elusive items Home Food. It smells like a 1940s farmhouse, you might say. Nope. The dominant note there would have been the vinegar, used twice a day to wipe down the counters, and wet canvas—possibly with a tinge of manure—wafting in from the mudroom. How about a medieval feast hall? Smoke, roast boar, and body odor. Cafeteria? Soup kitchen? I don’t think so.

We lack not only the time but the imagination to make Home Food a daily reality. Those of us who work from home know the dangers of planning to pop a chicken in the oven around 3pm. Between the browning, basting, and rotating; the washing and chopping of the leeks you were going to add halfway through; and the disconnecting of the smoke alarm when the crisping skin spits too much grease onto the element, your whole afternoon is shot. And the crock pot? Chowder does not respond well to languishing on low for 2 extra hours just because you had a late meeting and Son #1 has basketball practice.

My neighbor Alexa runs a Waldorf-inspired daycare out of her house, and Waldorf mandates Home Food. Her musician husband gets up at 7am to bake bread and make the soup for lunch. At the playground Alexa unknots a bandanna to reveal a moist, fragrant banana-date loaf, which she breaks into pieces for the tots. Her five-year-old daughter knows how to shell the organic peas and knead the dough. It’s all vegan, and it’s all local—heck, the toddlers picked the mulberries for the crumble on their walk in the back laneway.

The most surreal part is watching how my own children get caught up in the Home Food magic at Alexa’s house. I’ve watched Son #1 (he of the Pop-Tart petition, he of the mysterious Cheez Stringz wrappers coming home in a lunch I did not pack) perch on the vintage wooden stool at her counter and devour handfuls of oven-roasted chick peas. Son #2 (he of the invective against “mushy things,” he of the grapes-but-never-raisins caprice) greedily forks up another zucchini pickle from the mason jar.

Is this what Home Food takes, then? Everyone staying home? Hanging around harvesting, cooking, and eating together?

Once, after a playdate, I was so jealous that I phoned my mom for the recipe for Boiled Raisin Cake. I didn’t even know that was its name; it took me ten minutes to describe the after-school snack I vaguely remembered from my primary-school years. An hour later, though, the main floor of my house filled with the heady nutmeg-and-cinnamon perfume that used to embrace me along with my mother’s hug at the door. I’d nabbed it: Home Food! And for the record, Son #2 ate three fat pieces of the cake, smacking his lips delightedly over the syrupy raisins (HAH!) and the butter melting onto the plate.

I realized then that it’s memory, mainly, this Home Food elixir we yearn for. Pure nostalgia. But I was proud to have found a quick-fix version of it in this vintage recipe. Even if the rest of the time Alexa’s house smells like home and mine smells like Kentucky Fried.

picky

He has just turned ten. He walks into the dining room like a Baptist busting up a poker game. He’s miles past simple disapproval; it’s like he’s afraid of being sullied through proximity. He’s got this special voice he uses, somewhere between holding-the-nose disgust and lump-in-the-throat disappointment: “What is this supposed to be? Oh my gosh, what’s this beige stuff in here?” And the tears! For a kid who grimaced his way dry-eyed through thirteen stitches to the knee last summer, this is quite a performance: “It’s just that you never give us anything good, even for special.”

I always imagined it was something he’d grow out of. Toddlers, they say (and by “they” I mean the 47 parenting books on my bookshelf), are attempting to determine the boundaries of their world and the extent of their own power within it. Since the only three actions over which they have any real control are eating, sleeping, and toileting, all three can become arenas of bitter combat unless parents know when to back off.

I was hip to that wisdom. I provided several nutritionally-sound options each meal and bit my tongue when he demanded rice crackers three times a day for nine days in a row. Then I heard he ate lasagna one day at daycare, so I photocopied the whole Healthy Tots menu and attempted to reproduce it. Then I set up a sticker-reward system for Trying Some of Everything. Then I had him tested for allergies. Then I made him sit there till his plate was clean. Then I tried to plan the meals with him, took him grocery shopping, and put him on a stool to chop carrots while I cooked.

There’s a complex choreography to fussy eating. His favorite dinnertime pose is on his haunches in the chair, knees splayed to either side, rocking contemplatively over the placemat like a vulture. This position makes it easy to tip his chair backwards onto two legs and hover in midair. It also gives him the option either to lever food mouthward with two fingers or “accidentally” to let it slip to the floor, where, helpfully, it will be dispatched by the dog. Cheeks puffed out, eyes watering, eyebrows raised in a rictus of martyrdom: he’s mastered the acrobatics of chewing without allowing the food to make contact with any of the mouth’s interior surfaces.

Picky eating is, of course, a self-fulfilling prophecy. His quiche is undeniably disgusting once he’s finished with it. There it sits, stone cold, flayed from its crust, all the carmelized onions picked out and plopped on the napkin in a flaccid pile.

Meanwhile, I’ve gulped mine down without tasting it, and it’s ulcerating around at the sound of my own, ongoing, litany: “Cutlery in each hand, please! Pull your chair in! A shirt is not a serviette! I don’t want to see your hands anywhere near your food again, got it? No, no– DO use your hands to drink your milk–.”

But it’s too late, he’s pincered the glass between fork and knife, and his little brother has attempted to imitate. I lunge for the paper towels, but never mind–the dog has beaten me to the spill, dutifully licking the underside of the dining table.

From the comfort of my midday solitude, I’ll admit there’s a boys-will-be-boys aspect to all this. And I’m not one of those mothers who equates cooking with love and feels personally rejected when a recipe doesn’t fly. But still, it’s a rotten feeling to have planned and prepared a meal and then to watch it get insulted, mocked, tortured, and tossed out. I think most restaurateurs in the world would agree with me on that.