Wednesday, 30 June 2010

This little piggy went to market...

Well, almost. That is, I did go to market today, but I’m not technically a piggy. In any case, can I tell you about my spree? It was to Calais Farmers’ Market, in our ‘twin town’ just across the border, which only happens in the summer months and so is a rare and wonderful treat. I actually never made it last year, but have been spurred on in the intervening twelve months by a growing commitment to seasonal, local produce, combined with a modest increase in financial resources. I now feel very aware of what a rare and wonderful treat it is to be able to simply throw wallet and passport into my jaunty red Hessian bag, trip over the bridge (now I really am sounding like a little piggy!) into the good ol’ U.S. of A., and be able to choose from a wonderful range of luscious fresh produce from local growers.

So that is what I did today. I was running a little later than I had hoped and planned, and so noticed once in the land of the free and the brave (having very impatiently waited to show my passport at immigration) that my stomach was tied in knots from wishing I was at the market already, being annoyed I wasn’t, and rushing to arrive as soon as I could. But something about seeing the sign for the Calais Waterfront Walk ahead of me, which I rarely get to stroll along in a leisurely fashion, stopped me short and reminded me what a privilege it was to have the time and freedom to wander to market in the sun beside the St Croix River. Thus gratitude unraveled the knots, leaving me consciously present to the still-dewy grass beneath my sandalled feet, the sparkle of sun on water, and the smell of freshly mown lawns mingled with that unmistakable estuary tang. I reflected on how often I am robbed of similar gift-moments, and of being truly present to them, by clinging to some arbitrary timescale I have decided on for equally inconsequential reasons. So the best produce is there for the taking only by the early birds? So what?! Is it really worth developing a peptic ulcer over? I mean, if it were a matter of true significance – whether we ate that evening or not, for example – I would sure as heck have made certain I was there on time! No, on this journey of learning to savour, I would much rather relish my riverside promenade, stop my stomach acids from overproducing, and be thankful for the goods that remain on my happy arrival.

So that is what I did. My first stop was, of course, my friend Karen’s stall, someone whose ways with plants could just (but not quite!) force me to entertain the possibility of a green-fingered gift. With a fairly glistening bunch of her ruby-red beetroots and the lushest young spinach you’ve ever laid your eyes on stashed in my bag, I moved on to another stall where fresh peas and a frilly head of cabbage caught my fancy. As I asked somewhat hesitantly whether it was alright to pay with Canadian dollars, the jovial gent informed me that he would accept them on par since, given a year, the exchange rate would be reversed and (with a glint in his eye) “You’ll be back to buy from me again then, won’t you?!” I assured him with a smile that I would and moved on to peruse the home-baked goods, finally selecting a delicious looking focaccia and some molasses crinkle cookies. Ah, this will make the little piggy that stayed at home very happy! I left the bustling green laden with the fruit of the fertile Maine earth, and also with plans that almost made me want to run (wee, wee, wee!) all the way home: tomorrow, shelling the sugary peas with Amélie in the garden, followed by a meal involving those we manage not to eat in the process, along with delectable roasted beetroot; and today, a rustled-up picnic featuring focaccia and cookies, along with seasalted butter and ‘Seriously Sharp’ Vermont cheddar, fresh green salad, and sliced tomatoes with basil and balsamic vinegar. We could take the picnic to Todd’s Point nature park, lay out our blanket in the shade of the big old silver birches, within earshot of the waves, and eat overlooking the glistening bay.

So that is what we did.

Friday, 25 June 2010

Go to the ant...

Have you ever noticed that just as the trials and tribulations of one season are behind us, fresh ones belonging to the new season suddenly appear?! Here in Canada this means that, just as winter’s harshness is being forgotten, the pleasant summer air becomes filled with the buzz of stinging insects, and the lush new growth of grass with biting red ants! In our garden anyway…

Well, those blasted ants reminded me today of something that happened to me when I had known my now-husband Jeremy for a few months and we were co-leading a team of young people on a two-month trip to South Africa and Namibia. Next to a vlei, in the heady balm of a summer evening in the Cape, we had finally confessed to each other that we were interested in more than just friendship. But the next morning, instead of feeling excited, I found myself overcome with fear about the future, about the potential for 'making a mistake', and about the pain and struggle I knew marriage would inevitably bring. (The romance of this story just took a nosedive, didn’t it?!) As I sat outside thinking and praying about this, my eye was caught by two tiny ants on the African earth, trying to move something many times their size. I watched them for what seemed like hours as they persevered in their task together, pushing and tugging to get their prize over obstacles and out of the dips into which they often fell. A number of times the wind would blow one of the ants away, but the remaining ant would struggle on alone, still committed to the task, until – when I had begun to think the second ant would never return – it would suddenly reappear and carry on exactly where it left off. At other times, the pair got truly stuck in some crevice far too deep for them, but incredibly they never gave up. A few times they were joined by a third ant, who would help them just until they were unstuck, and then go on its way.

As I watched, this ‘ant’s tale’ became a parable, a lesson, and a promise for me. I received it as a promise that, yes, there would be struggle and hard work, but that this did not mean the task would ever need to be abandoned. I saw it almost as a preview of what Jeremy and I would experience if we chose to spend our lives together: that sometimes it would feel as if one of us was abandoned and struggling on alone; that at others the task would seem impossible; but that we would in fact never be deserted or alone, and so the task was achievable. And I took it, too, both as a promise that the help we needed would always be there at just the right time, and also as a lesson to look for, expect, and ask for that help – from God and from others. Of course, to give a balanced perspective on marriage – and to better reflect what has been my experience – it would have been nice if those ants had frolicked blithely in a grassy meadow for a while; or casually tossed the object they were carrying back and forth to each other like a beach ball; or put it down and used it as a table to chat and eat around with their beloved, tiny ant-children! But ants only do those things when they’re not being watched, so I suppose this was exactly the experience I needed at the time to give me the courage to take the plunge into the unknown. It also became for me a picture that has helped me to re-envision myself, Jeremy, marriage, and the role of others in our lives, in a way that has been extremely valuable over the years. The famous proverb tells us sluggards (there’s that darned sloth again!) to go to the ant and consider her ways – her diligence and foresight, perseverance and discipline – and be wise. Because in every significant relationship or endeavour there are seasons of hard work, and then seasons to enjoy the fruit of our labour; there are winter seasons and there are summer ones. Though, even in the summer seasons, you just can’t avoid those flaming ants!

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Advice and opinions needed please!

I'm still working out how I want to do this, and even if I want to keep it on blogger (Jeremy is trying to persuade me to go over to wordpress - any opinions?!). The thing is that I want to write about 'Life', but I also want to post recipes that I create. It's all part of 'savouring' after all! But I have a feeling that a lot of people who'd enjoy one aspect would not particularly choose the other, so I don't want to 'flood the market' with too much and too varied material, nor confuse the issue.
SO...for now I've created a separate page, called Nourishing Recipes, on which I've just posted a Strawberry Granita (Italian Ice) recipe I tweaked and made this week (YUM!). But this will only work short tern, and I would like some opinions and advice please:
Should I switch blogs now while it's easy to do that?
Should I have two (linked?) blogs to post different sorts of stuff on?
Should I keep it all on one blog but with different pages?
And what about name/s? I'm not sure about the present one. I forgot I create another one ages ago called 'Rachael Felicity Grace', so could use that. What do you think? Or shall I go back to the drawing board for a new name/ names?
(and so on!)
Over to you...
Thank you.

Lessons from a tree in the wind

Meltdowns are quite common in our household: mostly from Amélie – though thankfully less since she turned six, it seems – but also from the adult members of the family from time to time! The biggest meltdowns seem to happen when a cherished plan is foiled for some reason and this, of course, is something we all understand; change and disappointment can be harsh realities to learn to live with in this unpredictable world. Now, as this has been an issue for Amélie for some time, we have numerous ways of trying to deal with it… I think it’s important to acknowledge her disappointment, to empathize, and to simply be with her as she feels it. Distraction can sometimes work well too – if it’s subtle enough for her not to notice what’s being done! Making a new plan (collaboratively if possible) that is actually going to work for all parties, and in the particular set of circumstances, is nearly always a good idea. And then there are the times where a line simply gets drawn and, whatever the consequence, we all just have to suck it up!

But, on Monday, a plan for a ‘royal tea party’, complete with fancy invitations secreted in the mail box, was not going to work at the time or in the way pictured by the fertile young imagination. This led to a lot of noise and tears, to a great deal of wasted time and energy, and to crumpled invitations stuffed into a glass of water! During Amélie’s enforced calming down time inside, I gave myself the same treatment (read ‘treat’) outside, and pondered how I might help Amélie learn this important life lesson, that I am still trying to learn myself. So, later on, she and I sat in the garden and watched a tree sway in the summer day’s gentle breeze. We discussed what might happen if the tree’s slender branches determined to stay where they were and just would not budge, however strong the wind. We remembered how, on Saturday morning, my own inflexibility had led to some ‘splintering’, and we imagined how it might have looked – and worked better – if I had instead allowed the winds of circumstance and of others’ personal choices to ‘move’ me. Then, as we laid out the soggy, marbled invites to sun-dry, we made a few stabs at applying the tree’s lesson to this particular day’s happenings… But by that time Amélie was dancing around the lawn showing me how flexible she was, and declaring that this was the only way she would ever be flexible! So, in the interests of learning the lesson myself – and bowing to the necessities of hungry stomachs and lessons learnt in their own good time – I let it go.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Confessions of a Plant-killer: Part Three (Getting Personal)

If I assert that I am born neither with green fingers nor a black thumb, why might it be that I have chosen to be someone who does not keep plants alive? This is indeed a very troubling question, as I truly don’t wish to be a killer of anything or anyone, and have in fact made many an effort not to be one! I don’t pretend to have the definitive answer to this question – just ponderings that make some sense to me – but I notice something as I rinse the broccoli sprouts morning and evening, and ‘harvest’ some of them to the fridge today; as I take the time every rainless evening, whatever my other pressing plans and commitments, to water the tomato plants thanks to two extra lengths of hose that I finally got around to purchasing last week; and as I keep an eye on the sourdough starter, choosing when to feed it and when to bake with it. What I cannot help but notice is that these actions, which I have found so difficult to maintain in the past, are incredibly small, simple gestures. They take hardly any time, are remarkably uninvolved, and require no labour-intensive procedures. But, for all their simplicity, they demand to be done regularly and with straightforward precision. Perhaps, then, to tend living things, and keep them alive, is to choose a discipline of love supported by routines of care.

This week I came across an interesting discussion of the traditional ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ and the way in which Jesus’ ‘Beatitudes’ confront each of these (it seems that this discussion originally appeared in Back to Virtue by Peter Kreeft). The idea that caught my eye was that Sloth (which I have known since working with the Enneagram to be my habitual trap or ‘sin of choice’!) can be defined as a ‘refusal to exert the will towards the good’. Ouch! That’s me in more area than one! For so many years I have excused my serial plant-killing with the avowal that “I didn’t mean to!”, and it’s true that I didn’t try to murder the poor things! But I think I am finally ready to see that my choice not to water or feed or tend still reflects some level of refusal to exert my will towards good and towards life. In other words, it’s not just what I do that matters and that defines me, it is also what I don’t do. Or, expressed in the positive, the little things I do really are significant – for my plants, but also for my relationships and for myself. It is not enough to ‘not kill’ (…or abandon or disparage) these things and these people; love demands that I cast off my tendency towards ease and consequent neglect, and instead exert my will towards the good, by intentionally choosing habitual actions that nurture and bring life.

As I write this, I have one more new thought. This past year I have been coming to know and experience that the Great Love that fuels the universe is not passively benevolent but rather actively loving. There is no sloth in God. Perhaps, then, as I am changed by this Great Love, I will more closely resemble it myself. And hopefully that will mean, among other things, no more dead plants…

Monday, 21 June 2010

Confessions of a Plant-killer: Part Two

When I think back over the more than fifteen years of trying to learn the skill of plant-tending, I must admit with shame that it has been rare for me to keep a plant alive. And last summer’s first attempt at vegetable growing was far from successful; my protégés did not receive enough water, weeding or de-slugging to thrive, and many produced nothing at all. So I’m ‘down-sizing’ this summer and hopeful that I can learn to be ‘faithful with little’, but just last week I killed a peppermint plant that was waiting (and waiting and waiting…) to be re-potted and given a little loving kindness. I was so sad and disappointed with myself. And it’s not because I loved the mint with all my heart (I didn’t). I think it’s mostly because I have such aspirations of being green-fingered and living ‘close to the earth’, and every time I kill a plant it also feels like another death blow to this treasured image of myself and my future.

Why oh why does this not come naturally to me?! I grew up in Southern England’s ‘New Forest’ region, always surrounded by the whispering of silver birches and the unfurling of tender bracken, by fruit and vegetables picked fresh from the garden and eaten outside as often as possible in the summer months. My Dad grew up on a South African farm and my Mum lived ‘the simple life’ in a cabin in the Rockies of Colorado for ten years, both of them now being enthusiastic and successful gardeners, so it sure seems as if the life I dream of should be in my genes! But almost two decades have definitely taught me one thing: whatever other factors come into play, the life I lead is by and large of my own choosing. This can be a very depressing thought. But not as depressing as the idea that I was born either with green fingers or a black thumb (Urban Dictionary definition: “A wannabe gardener who kills plants.”) and can do nothing about it. I entirely reject this kind of determinism, and so I am left face to face with the stark truth that, somehow and for some reason, I have chosen to be someone who does not keep plants alive. Why?

The next installment of ‘Confessions of a plant-killer’ will get a little more personal, as I reflect on this troubling question.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Confessions of a Plant-killer: Part One

I have been realising that what most inspires me about some of my recent ventures is that I am growing and making things that are actually alive: tomato plants, herbs and flowers that need regular watering; broccoli sprouts that must be rinsed twice a day and eaten within a few days of sprouting; sourdough bread made with a fermented starter that needs to be fed with flour and water to keep it alive. When I tend these living things, and when we eat them as a family, I somehow feel more alive myself, and very happy to be providing life and nourishment to our bodies. But their aliveness is exactly what scares me about these things, too, and what has kept me from them over the years despite numerous urges to grow-my-own, sprout-my-own and bake-my-own. The awful truth about living things is that you can easily kill them, and I say this from bitter experience.

Yes, I admit that my track record with living things over the years has not been strong. When I first left home to go to university – in a flurry of 18-year-old excitement about new independence and having a room that was ‘my own space’ – my mother’s love and hopes went with me in the form of kettle and mugs, and my father’s in houseplants. He would tenderly ask after them all whenever we talked on the phone, and I would rather dutifully report the surprise emergence of new flowers or leaves, while always taking their living presence very much for granted. Little did he know (and even I was too unaware to realise) that they only survived because of the motherly, Devonshire cleaning lady who came in every morning to bustle around my slumbering body, emptying my bin and, yes, watering my plants. A year later, sharing a house with friends and no cleaner, I discovered that plants die if you don’t look after them! As I was only just learning how to feed and water myself, I guess the stretch to plants proved to be just too much.

But over fifteen years have passed since then. Surely, I must have learned this lesson by now? The confessions of a serial plant-killer continue tomorrow...

Friday, 18 June 2010

It takes a village to grow a tomato

I am not, on the whole, a self-starter... but maybe that's not all bad. They say it takes a village to raise a child - agreed. In my case, it also takes a village to plant a garden or start making sourdough bread! Let me tell you how...

Garden: 5 tomato plants given by Helen, 2 by Mat, leftover seeds by Thiessens, beds initially weeded and dug this spring by father-in-law Ian, rotavated by Jeremy with Thiessens' machine fetched with Mat's help, sides redug by me (yay!) and plants finally planted last night after a phone call with Helen gave me the final motivation I needed, supported by tomato cages from Lowers. Woohoo!

Sourdough: examples and samples provided by Grace and Leslie over weeks and months, first recipe and flour provided by Leslie, 'Nourishing Traditions' book for Christmas from Joanna to inform me of the health-giving properties of fermented foods, starter as a gift on Leslie's departure for the summer, and now here I am on my 3rd attempt, this time part rye flour.
Go me... go village!!!

Thursday, 17 June 2010


Now to post yesterday's facebook thread that prompted this sudden decision and the blog title (which I'm not utterly sure about, but am fine with for now). So this was me last night at 8.06pm:

Rachael Dugmore Barham is going downstairs to feed her sourdough starter, rinse the broccoli sprouts, marvel at the green outside the window and dance and sing a little while doing some dishes, walk through dewy grass to get the laundry in, and perhaps have a sit and swing in the hammock while watching the bat flit in the dusky sky. Ahh...

After a response from Gwen that made me smile, about how I made evening chores sound romantic and ethereal, I posted the following:

"Glad they sounded romantic - that was the aim! ;-)
Because so often I do them grudgingly (or not at all!), and recently always with an eye on everything I HAVEN'T achieved.
But tonight some gratitude rose in me - that despite the fact that my procrastination (as well as my relationship-orientation, of course!) means I'm well behind target on so many tasks, today I got to: give Amelie a homemade smoothie that she loved; sit and pray and journal in the hot morning sun; edit two more chapters of a great thesis project; spontaneously share lunch with friends; finally have Amelie's and my teeth checked and cleaned after a two year interval; (ironically) eat loads of free chocolates and chocolate-coated Covered Bridge chips (surprisingly GOOD!) at the Ganong Chocolate Museum open house; eat a delicious, nourishing outside supper with more friends; practise my Bollywood moves to Aradhna in the kitchen ;-); get a call from a friend offering a share in her organic veggies this summer; sit and drink a thimble-full of chocolate raspberry port in the gloaming with Jeremy; help (i.e. watch, plus a little digging!) Jeremy rotavate our garden plots with the Thiessens' mighty mini-machine (thanks, travellers!)... and now a warm shower and to bed!
These little things are really not so little at all, but I lose sight of that too often. Not tonight...

I really enjoyed the responses to this from Heidi and Marjanna, and then came this from Jeremy Wiebe (who, since he posted it publicly on facebook will surely not mind it being 'immortalized' here!):

"I'm skimming an interesting book on the psychology of savoring and your post made me think of it as you do know how to savor. Four kinds of savoring processes with their associated positive feelings are: thanksgiving (gratitude), marveling (awe), basking (pride), luxuriating (physical pleasure).

I think savoring the so-called small (yet precious) things of life leads to a happy and full life.

Source: Savoring by Fred Bryant and Joseph Veroff (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2007), p. 137.

(end quote) (note: this book sounds like a must-read)

So here ends the blog post which began its humble existence as a facebook status that drew the generous and interesting response of friends. And here begins a blog desiring to chart my attempts in everyday life to cultivate a life that 'savours' in the very best sense of the word, and doesn't miss or belittle the small and infinitely valuable gifts that are mine.

To begin at the beginning

For some mysterious reason, I suddenly find myself wanting to start a blog and write in it. Who knows, I may (may!) even learn to take and load photos. Granted, this would leave the realm of the mysterious and enter that of the miraculous, but I do after all believe in both those realms. And a new photo-taking-and-loading skill would no doubt make my faraway family and friends very happy, so the idea is officially simmering...

But why a blog, and why now?
The immediate impetus comes from writing status updates on facebook the last two nights and realizing I was very much enjoying the process of thinking and writing, but really needed more space! I love words and ideas - and who doesn't love talking about themselves and their opinions?! (well, some people don't, but I am not one of them) - but was still mildly surprised by the feeling that I had something I wanted to say beyond "We had pizza for supper" (which we did: wheat crust from Shop 'n' Save; organic pizza sauce with full fat mozzarella and applewood smoked bacon on one half; sundried tomato pesto with sliced vine tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, sea salt and fresh basil on the other). Or perhaps what is a little surprising is not exactly that I have something to say, but that I want to say it in a forum that others might just read. My school report cards from Reception (aka Kindergarten over here in my new home) all the way to Sixth Form (i.e. Senior High) attest to the fact that words have always flowed easily on my tongue, though not always in an appropriate or beneficial fashion! But what has not come easily to me is the assurance that what I have to say is actually worth saying (and - let's be honest - it often hasn't been!). So perhaps that assurance has grown over the years. Or perhaps the love for expressing myself in words is finally too strong to be overwhelmed by my very British reticence and sense of what is proper. Or perhaps, now that the academic term is well behind me, I simply have too much time on my hands? (Not!)

Though the rhyme and reason of the choice and the timing may remain a mystery, I do know that I am happy to be beginning at this beginning, and am looking forward to having a place to ponder things I might not otherwise dwell on, to play with words I might otherwise leave in the chest, and maybe to connect and dialogue with others in a new way.