Thursday, December 19, 2013

Finding Christmas

Christmas has always been a magical time of year. I remember the excitement fluttering through my body as a young child, desperate for that last few days to pass so it would finally be Christmas morning. I remember the gatherings with family, the endless parade of things to nibble and snack on even when you had no room left. I remember the reluctant trudging through the snow with family in the dark on Christmas Eve to sing on doorsteps only to be happy we did it because of the smiles it brought and the way Christmas was that much closer when we came home. I remember plates of treats dropped secretly on neighbours’ porches before running like made into the darkness before we were caught in the act. I remember wrapping presents in a secluded location so little eyes wouldn’t see the surprise in store. I remember barely being able to stay awake Christmas Eve until everyone was finally asleep and stockings could be filled. I remember waking up at the crack of dawn to get a turkey into the oven so we’d be able to have the big dinner later that day and eating chocolates for breakfast with a mandarin orange(healthy?) chaser.  I remember laughing about nothing and simply celebrating being part of a family. I never thought it would be any different.
This year, thousands of miles away from all our family, Trevor and I are struggling to capture that magic. So many things are different. This year will likely not be our best effort at recapturing the traditions of the past. Less than a week before the big day, we have yet to get our cards sent. There is one wrapped gift under the tree. Today it reached 40 degrees Celsius (which is 104 Fahrenheit). That is decidedly unfestive. Neither of us really feels like shopping, baking Christmas treats, playing board games…any of it. After searching for an inexpensive turkey, we finally found one last weekend and we are determined to bake it next week no matter what. I will make some pies; we’ll prepare all the usual feast trimmings and share it with some friends. But it’s not the same. We are realizing there are some key elements missing in our celebration model.
#1 FAMILY – this is the big one. Christmas is meant for sharing. Without family, particularly children, it’s hard to get excited. We get hooked on their imagined excitement over the gifts we have carefully selected to show our love. We plan our activities around their enjoyment (and interests/attention span). This year it will phone calls and possibly skype, and some rather late packages once the rest of the parts required finally arrive.
#2 SNOW – Never thought I’d miss winter. But I’m realizing a lot of our Yuletide abandon is a product of the cabin fever we have just remembered is starting. We want to show the world that even though it’s bitterly cold, our car doesn’t want to start, and the sun is suddenly allergic to our planet, we will not go without a fight. We will push back the darkness with lights and decorations, parties and presents. We will celebrate the knowledge that life is so much more than winter and the sun will come again. Over here, the sun is in abundance right now. We’d almost like a brief reprieve. Cooking a turkey in my house/brick oven seems ludicrous. On a day like today I’d like Christmas dinner to be ice-cream, followed by floating in an unheated pool.
#3 FOOD – This is also weather related, sadly. One of the staples of Christmas is all the baking. As we ease into summer that really isn’t a powerful urge. Without the caloric demands of winter, overindulgence seems like a recipe for indigestion and discomfort. It would be messy and sticky. But we’re going to keep our fingers crossed and make an attempt next week anyway. I’m starting to think a spatch-cocked turkey cooked on the BBQ would be genius. Perhaps next year. Of course, that would mean finding a BBQ by next year, but we’ll see what the New Year brings.
#4 MUSIC – For the first time in decades we are without a Christmas concert to attend. No recitals. No choir performances. I find myself craving the outlet. I used to get tired of the Christmas carols in Canada, the incessant repetition of Christmas music in the stores, on the radio, even at church. Not this time. We’ve got a serious Christmas music deficit happening and I find myself craving each chance to sing a carol. I almost bought myself a ukulele the other day because I wanted to learn to play it and be able to sing some carols to lighten the mood. There is something affirming in making music that celebrates the Saviour and the love of Christmas. I’m missing the outlet desperately.

Perhaps I need to clarify a few things before this becomes a pathetic sombre plea for rescue. It’s really not. We’re doing pretty well. We don’t have the resources to go mad with the d├ęcor this year on a student budget. But I did find a cheap little tree and it’s adorable. I did my best and it really helped bring some Christmas cheer into the house. And I did find a beautiful nativity that makes me smile each time I see it. And I remembered the tiny nativity I squirrelled away in a tin for the journey over here after having completely forgotten it. It was the best surprise ever. And we’re finding ways to gradually choose which traditions we can manage over here and which ones need to go into storage for a while. Adjustment is always hard. The things we will miss most are not easily remedied. We cannot hug our loved ones. We cannot stay up late with them watching Christmas specials. We cannot gather Christmas day and work on crafts at the table, laughing over our efforts. But we can remember. And be thankful we have been so blessed to have such wonderful memories and loved ones. And we can do better next year.  Because that’s the magic of Christmas. We get to do it over and over again, getting closer to perfect each year. And simple is always a good starting point.


Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Grudge Not That Ye Be Not Grudged

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about relationships and how we are warping their nature in our society. Through the advent of social media and reality TV we are shifting our attitudes and communication focus. Somehow we are allowing ourselves to become desensitized to the power of our words and the damage they can inflict. Reality TV showcases alliances adopted and then discarded for power/influence/standing with no perceived emotional repercussion. The audience is captivated by this vicarious freedom from social morality and can’t help but watch the trainwreck. Social media gives us the power of instant reaction. It allows us to parade our opinions and even our need for validation to a mass audience. Then it invites that audience to pass their own judgement and agree or disagree on the basis of a single statement. It can be like putting a loaded gun in the hands of a child without explaining what will happen if they pull the trigger in a room full of people they love. This is the world we are creating.  

We have always had misunderstandings in this world. They can be as insignificant as a poorly phrased compliment or comment or as serious as a global conflict. They are everywhere. But I worry sometimes that we are creating an absence of accountability in our media choices that we’re going to have to pay for someday. If we are not careful, we will become a society plagued with grudges, vendettas and poison. I want to talk about the little ones we’re all familiar with.

Sometimes they seem to be a simple case of miscommunication – a “he said/she said” kind of situation usually involving the misinterpretation of something that ends up wounding one party while the other can’t understand what happened. Often a quick apology would resolve the situation (whether or not justified) and it would be old history, but too often it takes on an ugly life of its own, becoming a grudge.

We’ve all been there. We’ve been hurt and felt like it came out of nowhere from one of the people we hold dear. We’re blindsided by this sudden attack and like all good mammals, we pull the survival card and become defensive, angry and aggressive. We usually feel justified in our emotions, convinced that we have been treated unfairly. We often lash out, trying to redistribute the pain to where we think it rightfully belongs. And we are behaving naturally in our reaction, but we cross the line when it enters “judgement territory.” 

In a court of law there is something called “burden of proof.” The burden of proof is often associated with the Latin maxim semper necessitas probandi incumbit ei qui agit, the best translation of which seems to be: "the necessity of proof always lies with the person who lays charges."[1] That means when we choose to lay a charge of cruelty at someone’s feet, we are obligated to first prove the validity of that charge. If we want to attribute a perceived attack on our character to someone, we have to make that claim stick. Instead we allow our feelings to become the proof and rush straight into passing judgement. The flip side of burden of proof is benefit of assumption. This is often completely ignored. It means that until proof exists, the other party is innocent and cannot be judged guilty. That almost never happens when a grudge is in force. In our social media age, a reaction is instantaneous and splashed before myriad eyes in a split second. We cannot take it back. Our spears are launched before we even realize we’ve thrown them. We don’t even begin to bother with proof or real justification because we’re just flinging feelings, right?

There are some very important things to remember. We have a right to our feelings. But they are feelings, based on our background, perception, emotional health, environmental stress, personal morality. They are only truth for us. They are a marker of our emotional state. They are not proof. They are a message to our brain that there is information that needs to be processed and put into its rightful context. They are a valuable personal diagnosis tool for our benefit. Properly used and analyzed they can help us have healthier relationships and perceptions. They can teach us empathy and compassion. But used as a weapon, they create confusion, mistrust, and more emotional and physical stress. One of my favourite plays is a comedy that speaks some poignant truths.

“She speaks poniards, and every word stabs. If her breath were as terrible as her terminations, there were no living near her; she would infect to the North Star.”[2]

Words are weapons. They can cut deep. So why do we do it?

"A grudge is an anger that won't quit," says Robert Enright, PhD, professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. "When someone wounds you, it's natural to get angry. Like a turtle pulling into its shell, you harden your heart to protect yourself from further injury," says Frederic Luskin, PhD, director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project and author of Forgive for Good (HarperSanFrancisco, 2002). "For grudge-holders, grievances are like planes on an air-traffic controller's screen, circling endlessly and taking up precious air space." We hold grudges, Luskin explains, because we lack the self-confidence as well as the communication and resolution skills for dealing with a hurtful situation in the first place.[3]

Perhaps we are misled by this counterfeit confidence of “righteous anger.” That initial burst of power and indignation can be pretty heady. And if that feels so good, imagine if we could get others to back up our opinion. And off we go to blog/post/tweet our injustices. But we have little control over the damage it can create or the following downswing in our mood once the carnage is apparent. Families are fractured, marriages are wounded, children are emotionally scarred, and trust is often obliterated. People stop talking and retreat to their respective corners because they don’t want to be hurt again. And love is lost.

"If your parents nursed grievances, or consistently treated you badly, you may be hyper-vigilant to affronts as an adult," says Luskin.[4]

It’s unfortunate that what we experienced as a child can reappear in the way we deal with others as an adult, especially when it was deeply hurtful and left us never wanting to feel that way again. Our programming often runs very deep, and unless we teach ourselves a different way to resolve our conflicts and become less prone to grudges, we will continue to hurt ourselves and others.  There are some things we can do:
      Acknowledge your hurt. Put a label on it. Admitting we are angry/betrayed/sad means we know what we’re dealing with.
      Control your natural stress reaction. Question what we’re feeling. Ask ourselves what’s going on. Why are we reacting this way? Are there external factors affecting our perception. It could be as simple as sleep deprivation or low blood sugar. Find our context.
      Communicate with the other party. This is the hard part. We actually need to talk with the other person and establish what is actually happening. Perhaps they’re having a bad day too. Perhaps they didn’t mean their actions to be perceived in the way our brain is reacting. This is where we must establish “burden of proof.” To continue without it is unfair to everyone. Notice that this part happens after we calm down and identify how and why we’re reacting. Then we give the other party “benefit of assumption” and let them help create a better version of the real situation with us. We cannot off load this responsibility to anyone else. It is our relationship to make or break. Involving others creates only more misinterpretation and confusion, adding new viewpoints and flawed contexts.
      Find out what relationship rules you are using. It can be surprising to discover what some of our internal rules actually are. Sometimes they were established as a reaction to a slight when we were children and no longer apply. We can give ourselves permission to rewrite them and eliminate any that create stress and unhappiness in our lives. If we really can’t play board games with our siblings without fighting, we give ourselves permission to let go of that until we have learned how to overcome the triggers that make us cranky (yep, that’s me). We want to win relationships not games. Relationships are not games. This step is ongoing and can happen at any time. It is not dependent on a conflict. It is about becoming emotionally healthy and breaking the cycle.
      I try to remind myself two things whenever I feel hurt by someone. 
      No one is perfect. I am definitely not perfect. I say stupid things. I don’t always pay attention or self-edit properly. Because of that I shouldn’t expect someone else to meet a standard of behaviour I am not able to meet.
      I am not omniscient. I don’t know what is happening in someone else’s life and have no understanding of their personal context. Until I do I am not allowed to judge their actions. Even then I cannot judge. My brain is not their brain, and judgement is not my right. And that means I have to talk to them. 

      It’s not easy. I screw it up often enough that I need constant reminders to think before I act. Hopefully by the time I am old and not completely deaf I will have figured out how not to judge/grudge others. It’s a lot of work, but it is definitely worth it. We all want to feel safe and trusted in this world. But we have to be the first to try. In this social media heavy, entertainment plastered world we need to be doubly careful. The immediacy of our reactions and perceptions can seem to be rewarded and become addicting. If someone “likes” our attitude we can believe we are right. We can find ourselves holding that smoking gun with injured friends and family at our feet without even realizing we pulled the trigger. I really don’t want to be that person. Learning the skill set that prevents these accidents and focuses on forgiveness is so much safer.

      A servant of the Lord, President James E. Faust put this alternative much more clearly than I can:
Dr. Sidney Simon, a recognized authority on values realization, has provided an excellent definition of forgiveness as it applies to human relationships:

“Forgiveness is freeing up and putting to better use the energy once consumed by holding grudges, harboring resentments, and nursing unhealed wounds. It is rediscovering the strengths we always had and relocating our limitless capacity to understand and accept other people and ourselves.”[5]

We all want to belong. We want to be part of this enormous human family and feel accepted and wanted. But we have to be the first one to accept, welcome, trust and think before we act. That’s just how it works. We need to remind ourselves to ask a few important questions before we react to any situation, real or media-staged.
            Is what I am about to say really the truth or just a snap reaction to my feelings?
            Who will this hurt?
            Does this help to make me the person I want to be?

No one knows what you’re actually seeing and feeling in your head. When we give them a sliver of our reaction to it and expect a truthful response we are being unfair. We are paving the way for another grudge to burst into life. We have to stop that. Our loved ones deserve nothing less.

[1] Transnational principle of law:
[2]“ Much Ado About Nothing,” William Shakespeare, Act 2, Scene 1
[3] Winning the Grudge Match,” Marjorie Rosen, Ladies Home Journal, 2013
[4]Winning the Grudge Match,” Marjorie Rosen, Ladies Home Journal, 2013

[5] With Suzanne Simon, Forgiveness: How to Make Peace with Your Past and Get On with Your Life (1990), 19.

Monday, September 23, 2013


With seminary class on break and Trevor in Canada for a few weeks, I find myself with large blocks of time to fill. I’d been thinking of going to the National Art Gallery downtown for a while, but decided today was the day. It always amazes me what an afternoon with art does to me, and today was no exception. I learn something new every time.
This trip made me think a lot about portraits and how they really were yesterday’s photographs. There are a large number of portraits in the collection over several hundred years. What really got to me were the awkward ones, the ones where the subject has a slightly pained expression as if they’d really rather not have someone capturing them on canvas for all to see. I know that feeling. It’s one of the reasons I like being behind the camera rather than in front of it. Because when I don’t have to see someone else’s version of me I can pretend to be okay with the way I look for the most part. But somehow another’s perception and capture of a moment can be so unfriendly and shatter my self-worth ruthlessly. It doesn’t happen all the time, but I couldn’t help feel sympathy for those people who’ve been immortalized in paint on huge canvases for all to see. I imagine they might be a little horrified to find their image had survived for centuries as awkward as the day it was first completed. And strangely, no one bothers to wonder if it’s a really true likeness. We’re just amazed at the brushwork and the skill of the artist – the way the skin almost breathes with life under the ancient varnish and the eyes reach right into your soul. Doesn’t seem fair somehow.

That got me thinking about photoshop and how artists back then must have been tempted sometimes for the health of their career to tweak a few elements of their client’s appearance. Which artists were confident enough in their ability that they refused to lie with paint? Which of the paintings I saw today really look like their subjects and which ones were afforded a measure of generosity instead? We can’t ever really know. Perhaps if the same artist painted the same subject repeatedly over several years it would be possible to get a better idea, but most of the time the artists were hired for a one off so the subject or a family member of the subject could display their wealth in being able to commission a masterpiece. Status polaroids, really, but probably far less painless and instant. These paintings often took months to complete. The subject often had to stand or sit motionless for hours at a time until the artist had enough work done to complete the finishing elements without them. No wonder some of the people looked uncomfortable or unhappy.
I even saw a few selfies. And there’s a remarkable humility to most of the painted selfies. That was interesting. A little different from the selfies of today. But then if you had to stand in the same position looking into a mirror for hours while painting what you saw, it could become a little surreal. The instant nature of today’s selfie seems to have corrupted that a little. People are less self-conscious than perhaps they should be. We have turned ourselves into mobile photobooths with our cellphones.

Good art is just magical. For me it’s proof of our divinity. That ability to create beauty and provoke thoughtful reflection is miraculous. (Of course there are also those weird art exhibits that just seem like a mess waiting for an excuse to be admired by somehow who thinks they’re enlightened, but that’s not worth getting started on.) I can’t help but be transported by the pieces that are a testament to intellect, visual genius, and plain hard work at a chosen craft. I want to see to see the artist’s soul and thought in front of me. I find it amazing that artists could create something more beautiful than any photograph with daubs of paint on a canvas or wood panel. It’s incredible that 1500 years ago people were creating pottery that looks like it was made yesterday. And it’s absolutely thrilling to see iconic, bright brilliant images produced in the last 50 years that are completely unique and oh so smart. I believe good art is like catnip for me. I could wallow in it for hours. It’s a good thing there are security guards all over the place or I might be tempted to run my fingertips over the brushstrokes and textures. I just really like art.

Art reminds me that human beings are amazing and have the capacity to be some much more than that. I think that’s why it’s so addictive for me. And I believe that craftsmanship is art as well. I have been transported by a beautiful building, a striking mosaic, a graceful piece of furniture just as often as I have been by art or music. I think that’s the test for me. If it speaks to my soul and creates a sympathetic response, I know its art. For me anyway. There was a very large piece on the ground level as you enter that was quite remarkable. A large circular pool painted sky blue sat in a raised platform. Assorted sizes of white china bowls floated on the surface, stirred by the recirculation of the pool filter and gently clinking against each other from time to time. Because of the varied sizes, the chiming was random and soft in varied pitch. It was beautiful because it made me feel like more than just a person. It reminded me that I am a being, an intelligence, a work of creation myself. It made me want to pause and think and be grateful I get to be here on this planet with so many other creations. That's the purpose of art. To remind us who we are. 

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

How did this happen?

So, today we took our youngest child to the airport and put her on a plane to take her across the world back to Canada. We are now empty nesters. Shock and horror.

Two days short of 25 years ago, I began my journey into family-hood. It seemed so overwhelming then and now I find it difficult to imagine any normalcy without an entourage. It seems even more traumatic because of the distance involved. Because we are in Australia while all our family remain in North America, we have limited windows of time overlap, and can't just hop in the car to visit or have them over for Sunday dinner. I knew it would be hard, but I thought in keeping the last child near us it wouldn't be quite so bad. But now she's chosen to return to Canada for school, and it's just the two of us. In 25+ years of marriage, we only spent the first year as a couple. The rest of that time we've been "we." It will be interesting to see how we adjust to being "us" again. Thankfully we still like each other and have managed to maintain some common interests so we should survive the transition.

I suspect part of the apprehension is related to no longer being primarily responsible for the day to day nurture of another person. For 25 years someone else has needed me to make sure meals happen, the house doesn't disintegrate, clothes get washed/purchased/mended, homework gets completed, sporting events get attended, doctor/dentist/optometrist appointments are made and kept. Suddenly that's all changing, and I know it has to, but I don't know if I really like it. But every parent faces that reality at some point, so I will have to do it too.

It's probably all about the innate dread of change. We like things stable and predictable. My predictability just shifted drastically. I will have to look for purpose outside my home, and I didn't have a purpose of any substance until I created one in a home with a family. I've tried to avoid being the type of mother that "lives for her children," because I felt that was too much pressure to put on another person. I'm not a smotherer. So I've tried to give myself a life in the edges around the business of parenting, and it worked pretty well. Now I find myself confronted with enormous borders to fill around that shrunken parenting role. I have no idea exactly what will fill it all in. It's a little frightening, because I know it will fill in automatically if I don't actively choose what's going to take up the space. Fortunately I have some idea what my priorities should be in the choosing, but it's still a bit much to take in.

It must be odd for our children too. Each of them has had to deal with leaving home behind. I want to think we prepared them a little, but I know a parent never adequately prepares their child for independence. It's just a necessary part of the process in having to find your own solutions to previously invisible issues. It simply has to be that way. Billions of humans have been doing exactly that since the world began. And usually not too many people die or become horribly maimed in the process.

I think I'm just scared of being a grown-up. I could kind of put it off a little longer while being a MOM. I didn't have to be an independent entity. I could just be MOM for a while. I didn't have to decide what to do about my shelved education, job prospects, artistic endeavours. Now I have to face my new reality and actually decide what comes next. And I realize I'm a coward. The adopted self-assurance of parenting really was just bravado. I'm still the me I was before it all began. Can't run away from it anymore.

So, who knows what I'll do. Something. Lots of choices out there. I'll keep you posted.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Going Down With the Ship

I’m starting to believe my life is really just a series of projects, some successful, some not so amazing. Not sure why that is. Perhaps I’m a challenge junkie. Probably. But it’s always surprising at how easily a particular challenge gets away from us and becomes a frightful mess. It happens in my kitchen on a regular basis. I like cooking. I like the magic of chemistry paired with technique and sometimes sheer luck. When it works it’s incredibly satisfying and a source of joy. But when it goes horribly wrong it becomes a nightmare of epic proportions until I take a breath, walk away and find some desperately needed perspective.

Moving to Australia has presented an entire universe of fresh challenges for me. Cooking methods, measurements and ingredients vary widely. The things I have become accustomed to using in the past often don’t exist here or are called something completely different. And that means mistakes and having to find approximate substitutions that may or may not work. But I’ve been feeling a little more confident in this kitchen of late. I’ve got bread working properly now, and have been steadily adding more items to the repertoire, so I assumed (foolishly) that I could certainly prepare an old trusted standby for dinner guests last week. To celebrate Canada Day belatedly with some fellow Canadians I decided it would be fun to recreate a typical Canada Day family bbq menu – beef on a bun, potato salad, coleslaw, baked beans. Easy. HA! Instead it became a comedy of errors. I went shopping for an inexpensive roast to use for the beef. Good old outside round, right? Nope. After hunting through the meat department I found something that looked right. A silverside roast. Looked like the same cut. But then out of the corner of my eye I spotted a bargain. A corned silverside roast. Looked about the same. Just pre-marinated and about 1/3 cheaper. So I fired off a text to Trevor to get some input. Nada. So I thought I would just have to trust myself this time and save $5. I already had potatoes for the salad, and once I found a coleslaw mix I thought it would be plain sailing. Nope.

I took the roast out of the packaging the night before to put on the spice rub I normally use. It was strangely sticky, but I figured that was probably normal. I would just tone down the amount of salt and sugar in my normal dry rub. (yes, I really am this dopey. At no point did I look at the sodium levels on the packaging. Just read the ingredients and figured it would be fine.) The roast went back into a glass bowl in the fridge to absorb the flavours overnight. The next day I pulled it out and it looked fine, so it went into a roaster and then into the oven to sear and then slow roast. I started the potatoes in the meantime and did my usual method – bring them to boil and cook about 15 minutes then directly into cold water to keep them from going mushy. Then pull off the skins and cube them once cool. Except they weren’t quite cooked enough. So back into a glass bowl and into the microwave to finish them off. No problem. Of course I didn’t figure this out until later in the day and then salad usually needs a good 3-4 hours to sit in the fridge to taste right. Back in the microwave. Twice. Then I let them sit covered on the counter in the hopes they would finish their cooking and be good to go while I rushed off to the store to get something I had completely forgotten. The roast smelled pretty good by this point and I figured everything was on schedule. Tossed the potatoes into the other ingredients when I got back and assumed it would be fine. Beans were good to go. Just enough time for a quick tidy of the house.

About an hour and a half before our guests were to arrive I took the roast out to slice it in preparation to make the bbq sauce. At this point I tasted the abundant juices in the pan to discover this particular cut of meat had been brined to seaworthiness. Absolute panic. This was a big chunk of meat. So we decided to put the now sliced roast through a series of rinses in water to pull the salt from the beef, and set about creating a new sauce from scratch that might counteract the disaster. Another trip to the store. I also checked the potato salad at this point beginning to fear this was just going to be one of those meals of titanic tendency that every cook fears and yet knows is inevitable sometimes. Crunchy potatoes. Not all of them. Just enough to make it obvious that it wasn’t quite right. The meat was luckily tasting palatable at this point so into the jiffy sauce and the real juices went into a jar and out with the trash.

Now, I’m already somewhat flustered by the looming disaster. I should have suspected the potential. The night before my husband noted that the rolls I had made to accompany the meal were somewhat small. So I had purchased a few large rolls at the store to make up for the inadequacy. My culinary confidence is pretty fragile at this point in time. I have invited people into my home to feed them and the food has failed me. So I’m going to be starting the evening in apology mode. And I remember just how many times in the past this has happened to me. A nightmare of a zucchini quiche, fallen bread, a cake that refuses to cook in the middle, dry cookies, leaden muffins, crumbly pastry, glutinous rice in the slow cooker, the list could go on forever. When I screw up in the kitchen, I do it with great efficiency, and usually in quantity. So what is the real problem here? How do I keep doing this, because it doesn’t always happen. Most of the time I’m pretty good, but when it’s bad, it’s beyond awful. I have a theory.

Mistake #1 – misunderstanding/overlooking key elements of the recipe/ingredients: this is what happened this time with the roast. Somewhere in my brain a tiny voice of warning said, “Corned? What does that mean? Is it meant to be like a corned beef? Maybe that’s not a good idea.” In my rush to get everything done I completely disregarded the voice and replied,”Naw. It’ll be fine. It’s just a roast. And it’s so much cheaper. I’m sure it will be okay.”
Mistake #2 – Rushing the preparation: the potatoes. I should have made absolutely sure they were cooked enough at first instead of assuming that it would work like it always has in the past. Five more minutes would have been enough before I took them off the stove. It would have saved me so much rescue effort.
Mistake #3 – Going down with the ship. I do this all the time. Not just with cooking. I have a tendency to designate a seeming failure as part of my due punishment. I have a hard time walking away from the wreckage and starting over. I often think that I can somehow save it and still smile. And because sometimes it works, I usually try even when CPR is fruitless and I really should just call it. But that would be wasteful, and irresponsible, so I keep pounding away at it.

It really wasn’t that bad. Not my best effort, truthfully, but the beef actually tasted pretty good for having been rinsed to death, and the crunchy potatoes were okay. And each time I go through this kind of thing I learn a little bit about my weaknesses. I don’t like to admit defeat, I don’t always approach the kitchen with caution, and I tend to do these things when someone is coming over or it’s an important occasion. I’m a self-destructive cook. Better just admit it. But I probably won’t quit, because when I succeed it’s worth every failure. And next time will be so much better. Really.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Apples and Oranges

Three months this week, and it continues to be an adventure. Someone asked me what I was finding different and what was the exactly the same and when I considered that I realized there were all kinds of things to share.

Just like in Canada, Australians love their sports. Australian rules football, footy, is the big thing in Melbourne, and nearly everyone has a particular team they cheer for. It’s a very long season stretching from March to September through the colder months with each team in the league playing the other teams twice before finals begin. That usually means quite a few games each week, your team of choice playing at least once nearly each week of the season. Explaining footy could take more than one blog, so we’re not even going to go there. Rugby is big too, with two different leagues. Rugby ala Raymond style is “union,” while there’s a touch tackle, safer version here classified as “league.” That’s the one most school children play. Union gets saved for the tougher crowd, which has been quite a kudo for Sina. And basketball is extremely big here. So for Raymondites, not terribly uncomfortable athletically.

There’s a great deal of support for families over here. Children are generally seen as incredibly important and worth the sacrifice. Society has tried to make time for families and children, and parents are generally pretty active in taking advantage of that. Maternity leave actually extends to both parents which is rather remarkable, and refreshing.

Cellphones are everywhere. I honestly don’t know how they keep them all charged up when mine makes it through a day just barely and I hardly use it. Perhaps that’s just my phone, but regardless, everyone has one and they’re usually using them, although conversations don’t happen as often as you’d suspect. Most of the time people are texting, checking mail, playing games. They seem to wait until there’s a more private location to carry on their conversations. I like that. Australians seem to be trying to maintain some boundaries with electronics. Perhaps they will gradually succumb like the rest of the world, but I hope not.

Church is blessedly familiar. There are some minor differences but generally those are attributed to culture and not religion. However, our ward are big on singing the hymns, which I love. Nothing turns Sacrament Meeting into a real worship service like an entire congregation singing like they mean it. They seem to have grasped the concept that the song of the heart really can be a prayer.

Polite behavior still begets polite behavior here. If you make an effort to be courteous it comes right back to you in kind. Not sure exactly who to thank for that retained social morality in a modern society, but I like it a lot. I wish I could bottle it and spray the rest of the world with it on a regular basis. That’s not to say we haven’t encountered a little rudeness, but hardly any, so it was a surprise when it happened.

The list of things to adjust to is pretty big, so we’re going point form on these:

I’m gradually remembering that I need to look left when I cross the street because that’s what will hit me first.
If I face into the sun, it will rise on my right and set on my left. Yeah, I know, that’s just weird.
A wind from the north will be warm while a southerly breeze is usually chilly and sent from the south pole.
Everything at the grocery store is sold by the kilo. No pounds in sight. So I have to divide all the prices by 2.2 to figure out if it’s a bargain. I’m gradually adapting to the price scheme and should be able to stop that soon.
I haven’t seen a product of Chile/Mexico/USA sticker in months.
There is no French on the packaging unless it’s an import and also has Spanish, German, Arabic, etc.
The furniture trend here seems to be contemporary modern. Clean lines, leather. Squared off. I’ve been craving the sight of an overstuffed, fabric upholstered, rolled sofa arm for a while now. And a room full of arts and crafts furniture might make me drool.
Recipes are formulated by weight in grams and no Fahrenheit cooking temperatures to be found. This necessitated the purchase of a small digital scale and we’re back on track.
Actual blankets are hard to find. The trend seems to be quilts and quilt covers. And a multitude of throws. And throws are definitely not real blankets.
The depths of “winter” are waiting just around the corner in possibly July.

As for surprises, they are everywhere and continue to happen on a regular basis.

For a few weeks I couldn’t understand why children at church were always walking around after meetings eating bread and rolls. And having bun fights in the parking lot. Turns out a church member works at a local bakery and brings bags of day old baked goods for distributing at the back of the building. So this week we scored a couple of wholewheat loaves to take home. Free bread is free bread, right?
Everyone thanks the bus driver/tram driver when they get off at their stop. A small thing but it never fails to put a smile on my face.
There is an acceptance and enabling of aged travellers here. A couple of weeks ago we watched an extremely elderly Chinese gentleman haul his walker onto the tram (with assistance) and then ride to the market where the whole process was repeated. He had to be in his late 80’s and could barely walk. But he had his shopping bags and obviously an adventure planned and he was going to get there no matter what and everyone seemed to want to make sure he got to. This wasn’t a new experience. Elderly people seem determined to keep moving as long as possible over here. Makes me suck up a little arthritis pain pronto.
I am still on a quest to figure out bread baking over here. I really hope that once I get my hands on some really good bread flour it will all become clear. For now, we’ll accept small increments of progress in texture. But I’m getting pretty homesick for my Bosch. Of course, when there’s an artisanal bakery around every corner, it’s easy to see why more people aren’t upset. But I’m going to get it right. I really am.
Buying and storing food in bulk quantities is uncommon. Now that we have a better idea of our energy costs on a monthly basis, we think we can budget for a small deep freeze and address that issue. Our little freezer in the fridge gets overstuffed sometimes as we try to adjust our thinking on shopping strategy. Of course the climate probably contributes to the feasibility of food storage too. But we’re starting to build up our canned goods slowly, and as soon as I can get my hands on a canning pot, I will probably tackle some salsa because it’s just not the same. And zucchini relish. And pickles.
Morning shows over here are odd. They seem to be slightly North American in format but then instead of regular commercials they’re interspersed with infomercials for vacuum cleaners, blenders, exercise equipment, insurance plans, cookware. It’s like a hybrid Today Show meets Shopping Network. And the hosts seem to just babble. They say some pretty odd things off the top of their heads so it’s obviously not really scripted. They can be a little addictive in their oddity because you have no idea what they’re going to come up with.
Footy is addictive. And defies explanation. It’s become a family tradition to watch the matches on the weekend and we have gradually become Essendon supporters. We haven’t taken the leap and joined the actual football club, but we’ve got our eyes on tickets for some upcoming matches because we suspect that it would be incredible to watch in the arena instead of on the couch at home. Fist pumping and cheering at home usually feels a little awkward somehow. If everyone else was doing the same, we might not feel so odd. And that’s a completely new experience for us. We are not real sports fans. But this is different somehow. All I can say is that seeing is believing.

I still find it remarkable that in a city of over 4 million people it’s possible to walk home at night and feel safe. There are dodgy neighborhoods to be sure, but ours isn’t one of them. We can get onto a train with several hundred other people and travel for thirty minutes and walk through crowds of thousands of people without really feeling threatened. There is crime, of course, but it feels rare. I hope it stays that way.

Enough, I‘d say. I’m sure there will be more to come. But it’s a good place to call home right now. Our last home becomes someone else's home on Friday. A new adventure awaits.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

No Worries

It’s been another month, and I’ve been wondering exactly what to say. This place is slowly changing all of us in a lot of subtle ways.

I don’t know where it began for Australians, but somewhere in their past someone started to distance themselves from adversity simply by saying, “No worries.” It’s a part of everyday speech here. It’s a rare thing not to hear it at least half a dozen times a day in idle conversation. People go slower because they seem to have realized the problems aren’t going anywhere so they don’t need to rush. For an anxious Canadian, that’s a strange feeling. And I find myself liking it even though it flies in the face of being a responsible, productive person. Not that anyone here is shirking their duties. Far from it. They’re just not burdened and defeated by their adversity.

“No worries” means a lot of things over here. It’s much more than the Disneyfied “hakuna matata.” It’s more of a refusal to let inconvenience be an irritation. It means someone’s request isn’t as big an issue as they fear. It means someone doesn’t have a problem helping someone else out in a jam. It means there’s no need to apologize. That’s the one that gets me every time, because Canadians are a nation of apologizers. We apologize before the other party even indicates there’s a problem just in case. And an Australian’s instant “no worries,” cancels out the apology. It’s like having a nervous tic sucked away on a repeated basis until the brain perceives the behaviour has no real benefit and adapts away from it. And that’s exactly what seems to be happening. My brain is gradually shifting away from that habit of launching any request with a disclaimer to smooth the waters. Because it’s not going to get the same reaction it has in the past. I’ll just get a standard, “no worries,” and my brain is still trying to compute what that means in this new dynamic. I can already see it in my kitchen experiments with gas and slightly different ingredients. When I try a familiar recipe that doesn’t quite work as it should, I don’t beat myself up as much anymore. I give a mental shrug and take note that it didn’t work. If I can see why, I change it. If I can’t, I take it out of the recipe roster as a possibility. No guilt. Because really, it’s too late to change anything anyway. And I really find it amazing that I’ve spent more 45+ years of my life not understanding this little truth. It’s actually sort of blowing my mind.

Australians generally seem like a pretty secure bunch. Also a distinctly un-Canadian quality. That “no worries” attitude extends to identity quite naturally. People dress the way they feel comfortable. They generally don’t seem to be quite so worried about keeping up with anyone else’s idea of fashion or sensibility. There is stoicism in their approach to life. They make their choices and then deal with what occurs. No punishment or wallowing in guilt. Just pick up the pieces, learn something and move on. Can’t help but like that and want to master it myself, because I’ve been liable to indulge in occasional bouts of self-loathing and recrimination in the past. It’s not a shirking of accountability but rather a healthier perspective on how to make mistakes mean something other than a guilt trip that changes nothing. At the end of these three years down under, I’m hoping I’ll have absorbed enough of the “no worries,” mindset to no longer abuse myself when I screw up. I think it could be a valuable skill to acquire. 

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Learning Curve

It's been a month since Sina and I touched down in Melbourne. And in retrospect, adventure seems an understatement when I start itemizing everything I've experienced.

There were the obvious things like weather at first. And walking everywhere. But there was a lot more than that. I learned that I had underpacked woefully. I learned that things that seemed as if they should be straightforward could take weeks to resolve - like finding a rental property in our budget and in a decent neighbourhood.

I learned that I had never fully appreciated having a vehicle in the past when we became totally dependent on transit to travel the city and outfit a home. This was particularly educational as Sina and I traveled across the city to buy shelving which we then had to tote home on a bus, a train, and another bus as well as any other shopping we'd acquired. Later Trevor and I carried a television home on the train and bus to bystander's incredulous grins. We actually contemplated doing the same with a microwave but decided it could wait. It's all a little surreal to realize that some people have been doing this all their lives.

I had forgotten how important warmth, a real bed and a hot shower are in helping a person feel a sense of wellness. It took 6 days to get the gas hooked up so we could shower. Likewise that long to be able to cook a meal on our gas stove. We ran out of time on moving day to get enough bedding to stay warm and had to wait until Monday and a bus ride to a nearby shopping center to purchase quilts. Parts were out of stock for our bed frame and we had to wait several days before we could stop sleeping on the floor. Sina is still sleeping on the floor on cushions from the couches until we can make arrangements to have a bed delivered for her. Hopefully that will be soon. I doubt I will ever look at my bed the same way again.

Today as I vacuumed the house for the first time since we moved in with the vacuum cleaner I carried home on the bus, I had an idiotic grin on my face at the sheer delight of a clean floor and being able to suck up the spiders. This experience is reminding me every day just how transient our well being is. It takes so little to push us out of our comfortable zone of entitlement. I am feeling suitably chastised, believe me. My first desperate cold shower (after having attempted a bath in water heated repeatedly via electric kettle) nearly made me throw my back out when the first shot of icy water hit my back. So the first warm shower was absolutely delicious. 

I'm learning to take delight in small things like spotting Aussie tv celebs at the market, finding a solution to warming Scentsy bars without a plug in warmer, navigating a completely unknown neighbourhood successfully with a trusty map, experiencing my first buffet of "light refreshments" according to new Polynesian friends, and listening to a pair of special needs adults on the train having a chat while one of them is talking into a voice recognition device simultaneously and enjoying himself. I still can't help grinning when walking outside in a t-shirt and shorts in March, listening to the birds and smelling the flowers that are still blooming. Each time I hear someone say,"no worries," with complete and total sincerity, I am grateful I get to experience all of this. 

Am I homesick? Not really. Am I out of my depth? Most definitely. But I'm still having the time of my life stumbling through my continued adaptation to this new world. Every day brings a new list of things I need to tackle. And I'm doing it. It's not always pretty. There have been some tears but more laughter than anything. I couldn't do it alone, though. We were fortunate to find an amazing ward and to have chosen the best companions possible for our move. Pretty awesome all round.  

This week Trevor will travel to Townsville leaving Sina and I to battle on solo for a few days. We're going to tackle some baking challenges and christen the oven and bakeware with gusto. Should be most entertaining. And that's what this is all about - figuring out how to be who we are in a completely new frame of reference. 

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Life in a Suitcase

People always talk about how much they like traveling. How exciting it is seeing new places and experiencing new things. I think it's a little suspicious that you never hear them raving about how thrilling it is to live out of a suitcase continually in limbo and uprooting every few days to go somewhere different. Perhaps it's because that part of travel is rather dreadful.

I have discovered that I don't really like traveling. I like seeing new things. I like trying new experiences. But at the end of the day I want to return to the stability of my own things, my own base and the familiar. So this past week and a half of waiting for a home base to come into being has been particularly painful. I have to repack my suitcase every couple of days just so I can still find things inside it that I need. Because those tiny things you know you packed have a habit of migrating around underneath the piles within each suitcase.

We're in a serviced apartment right now which means we have a perfunctory kitchen with the basic essentials. Most of our meals are taken care of in the communal kitchen downstairs, but we still have to take care of things on weekends for the most part. I consider myself relatively adaptive, but there are some glaring inadequacies with the current facilities in our room. No salt and pepper. No serving bowls. Glasses that are too small for a long cool drink. No dishrack for drying the washing up. Little things that you could overlook for a short stay, but the longer it lasts, the more I find myself lusting for a full kitchen.

The rental process is a little different here. In order to apply to rent any property you have to physically inspect it first. Then you have to fill out a 3 page application specific to the agency handling that property along with all the corroborating documents that prove you're not an axe-murderer with money laundering connections. The agency then screens the application (one for each adult planning to live at the property) and hopefully deems you worthy to be passed onto the owner for their final say. Because all our documentation stems from Canada, it's taking a little longer than we'd like. We've been told three weeks is about average for finding and securing a place. Add to that the fact that we'll have to get EVERYTHING to start a home but we can't begin the process until we actually have said address, and you can see the difficulty. I'm sure I'll adjust, but it's demoralizing to realize I'm much more uptight than the average Aussie. And I thought I'd done so well in mitigating my OCD. Apparently not.

On the plus side, we're having an extended summer. So in less than a month I've gone from a parka and snow boots trudging through snow drifts to sandals and shorts every day hiding out in air-conditioning for the afternoons. Today is supposed to reach 36 or 37 degrees again.

In spite of all the challenges, we're doing all right. I have been able to cobble some fairly palatable meals together with the mini kitchen. But the need to really cook is simmering under my skin with a fair bit of urgency. Probably because of all the incredible produce I encounter at the market on our regular visits. It will happen. In the meantime I have to keep reminding myself to focus on the pluses and let go of the niggly bits. My new challenge. But I really, really don't like life in a suitcase.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Bon Voyage

Departure day. People are continually asking me this past few months if I'm excited and while I usually answer yes, there's a very large unspoken BUT.

I have spent the last 43 years in this place learning how to be me. Now I've packed whatever I can travel with and will fly thousands of miles across the world to start over. If that's not cause for a measure of apprehension, I don't know what is.

I have clamped down on my emotions more and more lately just to be able to communicate without bursting into tears over the enormity of it all. And I ask myself how my parents did this 43 years ago when they left England for a new life in Canada. Probably because they were young and had each other and two small children in tow. They were going towards a new life and opportunities. Am I doing that? I have a couple of decades more than they did at the time. And my family is virtually grown now. Not quite the same, and yet it probably is.

I think the hardest part is the inadequacy of words to express what I'm feeling about the people that have walked through my life and painted it a brighter place. So many people have done so much for me in the past years and I can't even tell them properly or I'll start crying and never stop. And a head full of snot + air travel is simply not negotiable right now. The truth is that I have run out of time for my goodbyes and will have to figure out how to tell all these amazing individuals how much I love and appreciate what they have done to my existence. You know who you are. You are each beautiful and unique, and I will miss you more than I want to allow myself to feel.

My brave face is slipping a little. There have been so many tears in the past two months as I try to pack up our lives in this country until I know what happens 3 years from now. I honestly don't really know. All I know is that I'm doing this with the idea that I need to. I'm taking that leap into the open space and hoping that there will be new friends and family to catch me. I know the tears aren't done. There will be hard days and good days. I will sometimes wish I could go back to the way things used to be. But you can't go back.

I have learned so many new things just preparing to make this journey. I have learned that I need to let myself love more. I need to trust more. I need to smile and remember just how far I have traveled already. I need to remember that things are just things and my real treasures are the people I have walked with for a time. I look forward to walking with every single one of them again.

Time to stop. Time to push my shoulders back, take a deep breath and step forward onto the next path. I refuse to glance over my shoulder as I do so. That would be unfair to all of us. It would discredit the phenomenal support and encouragement I have been given so freely.

Here I go...