Tuesday, 29 November 2011

In which a small vocabulary makes for broad categories

On many a time throughout any given week, my son can be found in front of our picture window commenting on the traffic flowing by. Or rather, that's what I assume all his excited pointing is about; the only words he provides for the occasion are "puppy! puppy! puppy!" We are not anywhere near a dog park, nor are canines the most frequent pedestrians along our sidewalk. 'Puppy', however, does not just refer to juvenile dogs. As far as my toddler's concerned, the term also applies to birds, cats, and perhaps people. People may just be a synonym of 'animal-puppy' - it's hard to tell - but, as the vehicles zipping by all contain some number of persons, it's the explanation that makes the most sense, unless he's really just focused on the magpies occupying our pine.

This sort of macro-level thinking is hardly reserved for outside observations. All children his size or smaller are babies, all other children just happen to be named after his sister. Men are either Grandpa or Daddy, not always with flattering accuracy in terms of relative age; I cringe in the anticipation of the day some poor woman at the supermarket gets labelled with "Grandma". Everything soft that's made with flour fits under the umbrella of 'bread', with the exception of pasta, which goes under 'rice' along with grapes and raisins. Crackers and cookies, naturally, each get a category of their own. Most fruit is referred to only as 'nana', though, as mandarins now vie with bananas as the all-time fruit of choice, this may be subject to change. 

In a way, I'm not surprised; for a boy of very few words, he sure likes to talk, and such groupings facilitate his copious communications. What's curious, however, is how this type of categorization applies to the non-lingual aspects of his development. I can see it in the way he organizes his world.

While detailed sorting is still beyond him, for example, he understands quite well that containers are meant to hold things. What 'things' appears to rely solely on what's on hand. To him, it makes perfect sense to put towels in the oven drawer, toys in the recycling bin, or crackers in the (thankfully empty) washing machine. Comparably, observations both in the kitchen and at the table had led him to understand that food needs seasoning. Thus, he asks for salt and pepper on everything, and trembles with excitement at the sight of the shakers. So far, I have always refused to grind pepper over his breakfast cereal, but I am sorely tempted to let him see what it tastes like. He may very like it; after all, this is the son of the man who still salivates in remembrance of a certain cinnamon honey peppercorn biscotti (and yes, he's aware that he's weird).

It's a stage that's surely fading. New words expand his vocabulary daily, adding nuance and detail to his structured little world. Maybe someday I'll put those burgeoning organizational skills to work in my office; for now, we'll keep that door closed, lest my files find their way to the fridge.

Friday, 25 November 2011

A seasonal haiku



a wintry woodland
leaves stripped by lifeblood's retreat
sleeps in sepia



Wednesday, 23 November 2011

A light in the darkness

It is just after three in the afternoon. My laptop sits askew on my desktop, angled away from the precious shaft of sunlight beaming in my western office window. My chiropractor probably won't be happy with my choice, but I'd rather suffer this evening's stiff neck than sit aright with closed curtains, squandering this dwindling source of natural vitamin D lest I let in the glare. The winter solstice is fast approaching, and with it, my seasonal nemesis: twilight at 4 pm.

As I've mentioned before, I'm no stranger to daytime darkness. Being an Saskatchewan ex-pat, however, I am fairly new to the jarring leap of daylight savings stealing a whole hour of evening light in one foul crank of the clock. For the first twenty years of my life, I simply slipped into the Central Time Zone; standing still while others jumped to join us. Daylight still dwindled, but at a smooth and steady pace. Daylight savings remained a theoretical concept, and, in my humble opinion, a faulty one at that. My seven years of practical experience has only strengthened that notion.

The extra hour of morning light has mostly been lost on this chronically late riser, so most of my Albertan experience of daylight "savings" has left me feeling robbed. Yes, I slept an extra hour, but I probably have anyways. Now that I am up early on a regular basis, I have begun to appreciate the quickening dawn, but not nearly as much as I loathe the ever-lengthening evenings. Pre-dawn darkness holds a considerable amount of hope. Bidding farewell to the sun before supper is just downright depressing. Unfortunately, short of starting a petition, or stubbornly refusing to set back my clocks, there isn't much I can do about the current state affairs. So as the view outside my window deepens to indigo, I close my curtains against the gloaming, crank up the Christmas music, and light every candle I can get my hands on.

And there is the hidden pleasure of late November: an ever-extending opportunity for candlelight. Candles in the early bright can be lovely too, but there's some magical about a flickering flame that fights the blackness of night. Thus I greet the early nightfall, rude as I find its entry. Dusk descends, and votives create little havens of amber scattered atop my piano, along my shelves, about my kitchen counter; tealights illumine icons, calling the observer to participate in the mystery they depict. My table is laden with tapers, at present mostly unlit, but as the fast approaches the feast so grows the glow from our advent wreath. For now, a single candle holds faith of beginning an arc that each week will come closer to completing a circle of flame to honour of the Light of the World.

It is in battling these gloomy hours that I see the wisdom in celebrating the Nativity of our Lord in the dead of winter. For it is those in darkness who most need a great light. And candles will forever grace my Christmas list, wherever I reside.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Dreaming of a slow Christmas

A few weeks back, my daughter and I came across a troup of tree-trimmers working their autumnal trade on the stately elms that line our street. I took it as an opportunity to explain, as best I could, how the tree's lifeblood retreats to the trunk in the autumn, making this a safe time to prune some branches without doing undo damage to the tree. As a new convert to the joy of fall foliage, I hoped she might get the connection. Or at least enjoy hearing Mommy talk.

Listening to myself, I was struck by the wisdom of the trees. How they abandon their frills for the sake of the heart, choosing preservation over beauty during these cold months of want. I followed that concept of slowing down for winter survival to the animal kingdom: those who do not vacate or hibernate at least take a leisurely pace in the coldest extent of the year - the conservation of calories is crucial to all. It's quite the juxtaposition from the hustle and bustle into which we humans throw ourselves in preparation of the holidays; as nature slows to a hush, stores are open extended hours, advertisers do their utmost to crank our anxieties into high gear, and a whirl of parties and shopping and concerts takes hold. It is any wonder we're all ready collapse by the time we've rung in the New Year?

I wasn't left long to muse about the prospect of taking this season at a slower pace. Once my church commitments were added to those of my choir, I was left looking at the busiest early December I've encountered since I was student. And while (I hope) I've gained some insight into time management since then, I also have small children to throw in the mix. And small children don't do well with concepts like "Mommy's busy", let alone "Mommy's getting really stressed out". I may have to reintroduce my daughter to the concept of television. In the very least, I can focus on the boost of being a hero just by opening a can kidney beans (what is it with my kids and beans?).

The thing is, there isn't one appointment on my calendar that I wish I could erase; it's a pleasure to hear all the music we've been hammering out these past few weeks finally come together, and while working with the Symphony means potentially learning a large amount of music very quickly, it ends in a bird's eye view of the orchestra from the choir loft - can't get better seats than that! As for my church commitments, this year's a unique case: a chance to meet our Metropolitan, celebrations for our 35th parish anniversary, and the honour of witnessing the ordination of two very worthy, and very dear, friends. I wouldn't miss it for the world. But if I could get a hold of a time-turner, I'd rejig things so that not everything was happening all.at.once. I wonder if Hermione ever used hers to catch a nap? I bet Rowling would have loved to.

There are a few things I'm doing to try to keep from flying off the handle. For the first time in my - somewhat - short holiday shopping history, I'm starting in on Christmas gifts now. It's been surprisingly rewarding to keep my eyes peeled for things I think my family might like while I shop around for everyday items like eggs and milk. I feel more involved in the process than if I'd rushed out on the twentieth of December on the intent of doing all my Christmas shopping in the course of an afternoon, detailed lists in hand. I've nixed the Christmas cards (if I see you, I'll give you a seasonal greeting and a hug), and family photos, though neither of those activities have become exactly traditional for my small crew. I intend to cut back on the amount of baking that I usually put on my roster - or at least leave the bulk of it until January. I have been coming around to the sorry conclusion that the number of sweets we like to have around at Christmas far exceeds our ability to eat them. It's a real shame to dump a tin's worth of once treasured treats due to mid-January staleness. If I find myself coping through kitchen therapy, however, I may have to indulge in some random acts of baking. There's a comfort in knowing that even if my schedule is skewed, I can still make shortbread. Mmmmm, shortbread.

The one get-ahead item that hasn't happened, unfortunately, is storing up a back-log of blog posts, ready for slow-release publishing until the insanity subsides. In all honesty, I've been suffering from a bought of performance anxiety; while all your lovely compliments have left me randomly grinning for days (thank you all, really - it means a lot), they have the unfortunate side-effect of reminding me that people actually read my blog. And not just faceless people out there on the internet, but people I know, people whose opinions I value (which, paradoxically, is what makes the compliments so meaningful), people with whom I interact on a regular basis. It's hardly a newsflash, but it's enough to make this girl a little gun-shy. As my unused supply of pre-blog ideas dwindles, doubts creep in. It's silly, I know - it isn't like anyone paying to read this, and yet I write myself into corners, or decide that naptime would be better used to make muffins (in my defense, they're really good muffins). The less said about time dithered away on facebook, the better.

So if space gets quiet here for the next few weeks, that's what's going on: a lack of confidence meeting a lack of time. Even as real life continues to run off-kilter, it looks like my blog may get a chance to hibernate, or at least a chance to slow down.  But who knows, 'fessing up might be enough to open the floodgates, turning a stress-point into stress-relief once again.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Ode to the stillness of snow

I knew the snow fell before I saw it. I recognized the quiet in my upstairs bedroom - a remembrance of being under a roof muffled by that seasonal blanket. And I sigh, still snug in my bed. It's mid-November, and there's finally snow. All is right with the world.

It's a presentiment borne of prairie life, this expectation of snow. A sense evolved from a world where Halloween costumes are altered to accommodate snowsuits, where snow days are only called in the movies (the closest I've ever come is being banned from the playground at 40 below), and the term "White Christmas" seems rather redundant. Much as I've loved these weeks of unseasonable weather, this gift of warm sunshine, my enjoyment has been underlined with the feeling of existing on borrowed time. The leaves have fallen. There ought to be snow. And now there is.

Snow.

Snow that illuminates, a bright blessing in ever dimming days and lengthening darkness. Snow that insulates, muting the roar of traffic, stilling motorcycles and lawn-mowers alike, turning houses into silent, cozy cocoons. Snow that cleanses, clearing the air, covering dead vegetation in a blanket of white, like a baptismal pall on a Catholic casket, to await the resurrection of spring.

Snow.

Snow and I will not always be on such good terms. I must confess I enjoy the overture of any season over any of its other movements, and winter is tryingly long. Come March, winter and I will have words about overstaying one's welcome. Words that will, naturally, be ignored, for the only power I hold over the weather is how I perceive it. It's a power I will most likely forget as I face the challenges of windchill and winter driving, of looking for ways to do less because everything simply takes more time. But here in my office, cup of steaming tea in hand and this morning's walks in sparkling snow still fresh in my memory, I'm ready for winter. Let it snow.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Northern exposure

Between approximately ten & eleven o'clock in the morning, and again in the late afternoon, I have recently been fasting from my favourite chair. It's a forced fast, brought on by shafts of blinding sunlight that simply weren't there when said seat was so positioned last April. The direct morning light that had me closing my east-facing windows all summer has vanished, but my south-facing dining room basks in something similar come noon. Sunbeams illuminate the tile back-splash next to my north-facing stove while I prepare supper, and washing dishes in front of the kitchen's west window is no longer a problem in the evening (drat).

It's hardly a new phenomenon, this tightening arc of the sun. I'm sure it has happened before every winter solstice these past six years, and for eons prior to any human observation. Given the slight difference in latitude between Edmonton and my native Saskatoon, I've very likely been exposed to something similar my entire life. What's somewhat unique (if such a concept exists) is the combination of factors it took to make me take notice; my first year in a house whose windows mirror the points of the compass, an unusual number of sunny days throughout late October and early November, and, of course, the novelty of my now-regular early morning walks have opened my eyes. Despite my storybook assumptions, the sun is not journeying from due east to due west at this time of year in this part of the world; southeast to southwest would be more accurate. High noon is no longer particularly "high". And it took getting pushed out of my comfort zone for me to be present to it.

Don't get me started on what's technically happening - my one attempt at explaining how the relationship between the tilt of the earth and its elliptical orbit around the sun results in seasons left me downright confuzzled. It probably doesn't help that the closest I've come to the earth sciences since elementary school was first-year Biology. I do much better with the fairy tales. My daughter seemed to take it all in stride, however, which makes me wonder how much of the "knowledge" I spout off just flies over her head unnoticed. But her teachers can worry about that in a couple years.

For now, I think I'll just focus on lengthening shadows, reminisce about those amber mornings that snowfall has turned icy blue, and look forward to witnessing the daylight wax to summer even as it continues to wane.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Blissed out

It's nearly three o'clock in the afternoon. Naps have just started. My office curtain is hiding a spectacular sun fighting for one last ray before what looks like rain. Raking the leaves appears to be falling off the roster once again. And I'm pausing between sentences (okay, halfway through sentences) to enjoy yet another bite of Eleazar's latest decadent creation. My baker's wife says he came up with it in his sleep - the man should write a book: "I Dream of Pastries". Mmmmm.

Sorry. My brain just got inundated with blueberry filling. Sooo good. If you live in Edmonton, go to Bliss Baked Goods and ask for a Beehive. Both the blueberry and the peach are to die for. Actually, the cherry probably just as good. I'll let you know once I've tried one ;)

It's been awhile since we've made the trek across the two neighbourhoods to my favourite land of sweets and other yeasty goodness. Actually, I don't think I've managed it since it inspired this blog. I'd blame karma, but I'm pretty sure it was preschool. Squeezing in a forty minute baking adventure between picking up the girly and lunch time has seemed rather daunting. Add appointments booking up our one "free" morning, house guests, Thanksgiving, Halloween, several Jewish holidays (calling for the closure of said kosher bakery), and a mother-in-law who's only too happy to pick something up for us from her favourite baker and you've got a Bliss-less October. Or, at least, the goods without the benefit of the walk.

And I've missed the walk. So, with preschool off for the long weekend, and a forecast claiming unseasonably warm weather, I pegged this morning for a Bliss walk.

It wasn't as easy as I'd hoped. A certain short and snuffly someone decided to practice his chiropractic skills at random intervals from five to eight this morning. In actuality, he was using my ribcage as a pillow, but the results were about the same. At least with the chiropractor theory this sore and grumpy Mommy can dream of being sent to Paris on her professional son's salary to gorge on pastries and get lost in the Louvre. And hopefully his sister's fashion conundrum, which turned the simple act of dressing for this morning's weather into an hour long process, is a sign that a design career awaits her that will fund her father's future Porche (that was one was probably my fault - one has got to be careful about using phrases like "such a warm day" around four-year-olds. She was thinking a sundress and nylons would suffice).

The silver lining in all this sleep-deprived fumbling was that by the time we actually got out the door, the sun had broke through the clouds and the very grey morning had turned to a warm yellow noon. This time, the front gardens we passed by were tucked in for the winter, and, while most of the trees had lost the brilliant leaves that had me longing for a walk all through October, both my daughter and I were enchanted by a lawn covered in silvery-green. It was amusing to see frost-bitten jack-o-lanterns next door to early-bird Christmas decor. And all the curbs were blessedly blockade-free.

I'm still not sure where I'll find the time/energy today to run out for milk, bananas, and other unbaked necessities, but I'm glad I didn't exchange our walk for a drive down to the grocery store. There's something about fresh air and exercise that makes even the simplest food taste fabulous. Like pastrami on fresh-baked marble rye. And the chances of getting to play dessert-guru guinea pig at Safeway is pretty much next to none.

Speaking of which, my pastry's gone. Think my husband will mind if I eat his share?

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Happy house

There's a little house for sale about a block and a half away from my own. At least, I think it's still for sale - the sign came down, but without the requisite "SOLD" sticker, and the telltale realtor key box is still attached to the railing. These are the kind of details that would be lost to me had we not just been on the market ourselves, and if I didn't wistfully walk by it four times a day.

If it has sold, I hope the new owner has a cat or two - it would mesh so well with the gingerbread lattice guarding the crawlspace underneath the front deck. I hope they put lacy curtains in the windows and keep the brick red shutters that flank the front door. If they're not too elderly (I did have this house in mind for retirement), I hope they put a stone facade over the tapered stucco chimney, rescue the backyard gazebo, and build a window seat in the bay window. If they are too elderly, I hope they're brave/deaf enough to sit on the deck watching the traffic in carved wooden rockers, preferably whitewashed to match the ornate wooden railing. Above all, I hope they keep it painted the same delicate yellow that has always made me smile.

It takes me back nearly a decade to another daily walk, not to my daughter's preschool, but to my university classes. Back then, the thirty-plus pounds I carried on my back consisted of binders, books, and bagged lunches instead of a bundled baby, and the trek took me past a wending row of stately houses - the kind whose age and elegance implies tenants with tenure - instead of the slightly derelict collection of war-time treasures that grace my present route.

It took me forty-five minutes to trudge from my parents' home to the edge of campus (those of you familiar with the route can feel free to deride my slow pace), versus twelve minutes by bicycle or, inexplicably, half an hour by bus, but by the time the frigid temperature of ambient air sent my bike into storage for the season (this was around the beginning of November - yes, I'm a total wimp), I had fallen in love with the architectural scenery and chose to try the slower stroll instead of the bustle of mass motor transit. I soon came to appreciate the solitude. I outlined essays, said prayers, composed emails to far-away friends, or simply let my mind wander wherever it willed. It was a gift to think without interruption, even if it added ninety minutes to my day.

Around the halfway point of my trek of yesteryear was a dwelling of a similar yellow to the one I now covet; much larger than my current darling but constructed in such a manner to imply a cottage rather than a sprawling estate. Its entrance faced the corner diagonally, rather than choosing which intersecting street to face, and the front walk wound its way down to the curb through English-garden-inspired shrubbery. To one side lay what I suspect was a sunroom with large French windows lined with trim of bright white, and an archway attached to the other beckoned one to the backyard.

I called it my happy house. I wouldn't want to have owned it (I would have needed six children to justify the space - not to mention becoming independently wealthy), but just seeing it made my day, even when I passed it ten times a week. So now, as my walking thoughts are accompanied by soft strings of singing - anything from nursery rhymes to folk songs to Christmas carols - compliments of the curly head doll who's holding my hand, my new happy house echoes the old, smaller, simpler, but just as sweet.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Taking it easy

A couple of days ago, around 4pm, I found myself in front of a bowl of lentil soup, watching tendrils of steam dance lazily in a shaft of autumnal sunlight. They were rising - not from my very late lunch - but from an enormous stainless steel bowl heaped with chunks of freshly roasted pumpkin. Bemused, I followed the light across the dining room table, taking in the curved orange slabs cooling on a baking sheet and the stacks of paler slices awaiting their turn in the oven, and wondered how I came to be in the middle of an indeterminately large task on what was supposed to be a slow day.

The strange thing was, it still felt like a slow day. My convalescing husband had called in sick before we decided not to take our son to the doctor. Though not quite up for tackling computer development, he had recovered enough energy and brain power to meander through the supermarket in search of storage solutions for our anticipated mounds of pumpkin puree. The kids were both sick, but needed only rest and fluids, and were feeling just crummy enough to take them without a fight. Once I'd called in my preschooler's absence, the whole day stretched ahead of me, without the usual scaffolding of school, meals, naps, and bedtime defining what else I could accomplish. So as the feverish toddler snoozed the day away, his nauseous sister was content to recline on the couch with a ready supply of gingerale and jello, leaving Mommy free to tackle the two-day-old jack-o-lanterns.

Processing pumpkins isn't the kind of task I would have thought up on my own (I usually just open a can), but our house guests had picked up these gigantic gourds for a song, transformed them into beautiful lanterns for their kids, and preserved them uncharred through Halloween night by using battery operated candles. They intended to cook them down and had offered to split the spoils. Given that my freezer space is plentiful (thanks to my in-laws' garage) and my fridge space is not, I figured I could pick up the process they'd begun the night before and, between the four of us, the job could be done before nightfall...or at least before midnight.

I don't know if it was due to ignorance, or the novelty of focusing on a single task, but the amount of time and effort involved in turning squash into mush didn't faze me at all. I didn't even blink when my husband came home with chickens to roast for supper, seeing as the oven was going to be on all day anyhow. Once I finished with the adventure of carving it up, thankfully with all my digits - and my table top - intact, the easy rhythm of roasting all that pumpkin was actually relaxing. Not a lot of thought involved, just pan in, pan out, with the occasional poke of a fork.

I get far more stressed about our mountains of laundry, or trying to squeeze in a trip to the grocery store between naptime and supper prep. Perhaps I've become so accustomed to budgeting for the frequent random interference of small children that doing anything without them seems simple by comparison. Perhaps I was unconsciously banking on someone taking over, even if I didn't know when. Or, perhaps, I just tend to make mountains out of molehills. Action without excessive thought might be good for me once in a while.

In the meantime, I would really appreciate some pumpkin recipes. My current repertoire consist solely of pumpkin pie.