here and there

There, at this time of year, I’d be in my kayak just as often as possible, throwing Lulabelle onto the roof of my twenty-three year old Camry (best car in the world) and heading to a small local marsh connected at one end to Lake Ontario but me and Lulabelle staying in the pond where it’s pristine and quiet, just us and the banks of earth-fragrant reeds, egrets, a blue heron colony, thousands of blackbirds rising in clouds at dawn and disappearing-who-knows-where, the magnificent swan ballet, a family of deer watching us from shore, an eagle named Eddie.

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But I am here now, and not there, and Lulabelle is in our new garage still waiting to be dipped into something briny. I’ve been too busy getting from there to here, too busy unpacking and putting in a garden, harvesting berries from the dozens of bushes (blueberries, haskaps, blackberries) that are also here, discovering beaches and tides, where to dig clams, pick oysters off rocks, which seaweeds are tastiest. Busy getting to know the landscape and marvelling at maritime skies, finding the farmers who grow veggies the old-fashioned way, raise meat and eggs ethically, who bake bread and pies and croissants, who make cheese and soap, a mill that will spin your wool for you, a young family of fisherwomen and men where we buy fresh haddock and smoked salmon and the corner mom and pop grocery that sells off-the-boat mussels every Friday.

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There, at this time of year I would take my breakfast, a banana, yoghurt, tea, and park in the lily pads with a book.

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Here I walk barefoot on sand, naming every bend on the shoreline: First Point, Second Point, Toad Point, What’s the Point, Around the Bend, Sandy Point, and Bring a Chair Cove.

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There, at this time of year, the marsh closes to paddling to allow the birds peace as they prepare for migration.

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Here there are apples to harvest and juice, rows of berry bushes to clean up.

But unlike there, here our paddling destination remains open until freeze-up and while I am both excited and nervous to paddle tidal waters for the first time, Lulabelle is calm and ready and as eager here as she ever was there.

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toasting toast

Can we please talk about toast?

I think we NEED to talk about toast.

More than ever.

It’s come up as a subject at my house and with a friend or two in the last little while and I think that’s no accident, because there are no accidental toast conversations. There’s a reason it’s knocking on the window of my psyche.

Toast is sanity.

And comfort.

Not to mention that a well toasted piece of bread is something you remember for possibly ever.

For example, those people in the country, that farmhouse we visited, me and some friends when I was a teenager. One of my friends knew them, said they wouldn’t mind if we dropped by unannounced. It was late, something like 8:30 or 9 p.m. (even then I had an abbreviated sense of ‘late’). It was a couple, a man and a woman, much older than us, they might have been 40, and whether or not they minded us popping in at the wee hours wasn’t apparent. They welcomed us, put the kettle on, and made toast. I remember that little plate with six or eight or maybe ten slices, buttered, on the table of this almost rundown farmhouse kitchen. I can’t remember how it tasted, what stays with me is simply that they served toast. It seemed such an odd thing– why not cookies or a slice of cake, muffins, crackers and cheese? And yet… it was perfect. It was possibly all they had on hand. And it was something. And they wanted to offer something. And it was perfect.

But that’s not my first memory of toast. The first would be the cinnamon toast my sister taught me to make.

Simple recipe:

SLATHER gobs of butter on toasted bread.

Sprinkle heavily with brown sugar and cinnamon.

Take to big fat overstuffed chair.

Settle in to watch Gilligan’s Island.

In some elementary grade we were asked to write a short essay on How To (do something). Then we each had to stand and read what we’d written. I stood. I began with the title: How To Toast Toast. Before I’d read more than a line or two I noticed kids were laughing. I kept reading, happy the piece wasn’t as dull as I’d thought but when I was done the teacher had a kind of tsk tsk look on her face. How was it possible to toast toast she wanted to know. The implication being I hadn’t thought carefully enough about my subject before I launched into the writing. It actually took me a minute to understand everyone’s problem with it and even then all I could think was how is that more important than these valuable directions???

When my sister moved out to what I thought was a wonderfully derelict furnished apartment that she entirely Lysol sprayed, the kitchen had one of those ancient toasters with ‘wings’ that come down and you lay the bread in, toasting one side of it at a time. It had a thick cord wrapped in frayed black fabric and it felt a little like taking your life in your hands every time you used it but it made the BEST toast ever.

Sometimes, if the stars are aligned just so, you can stumble upon a diner that makes toast almost as good as a winged toaster.

Fast forward decades to the hills above Penticton, B.C. where once upon a time lived a man with a donkey and a mill, who made such exquisite loaves of sourdough that when toasted could make you cry and we stuffed our suitcases with it and have forever called it, and any good toasted sourdough since… donkey bread.

So many other tidbits… the love you can express with a heart-shaped piece of toast, for example. TOAST FINGERS, or soldiers as they’re called in the UK where I first encountered them. And speaking of the UK, the way they do so much ‘on toast’ that toast should have its own food network.

A British friend has only recently informed me that there is something called a toasting fork. People use it for marshmallows and sausages as well. But I wouldn’t. I would dedicate such a noble stick solely to bread because I trust said friend who assures me that done properly there is no better way to toast toast than this.

Yes, that’s right, I said it, Ms. Thingy from whatever grade that was and who will forever be part of my toasted memories.

p.s. This toast post is NOT COMPLETE without a moment for this.

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Yesterday a cousin sends pictures of alpine snow heavy on branches, mountains, rooftops, and me here in the rain feeling snow envy, sending a message back to her… “A slice of heaven!” I write and forget my laundry on the line and then this morning I open the blinds and see snow heavy on branches and rooftops and the morning light is just starting and I put the kettle on and go out to the porch, my laundry frozen and me here in coat and boots and a bright yellow cup, lemon balm tea as the sun rises through a slice of heaven.

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a december story, involving a hamster (and, of course, miracles and snow)

It’s the 1980’s.

I’m working in Edmonton in a small office downtown. There are only three of us, one of whom is almost always on the road. Which leaves me and Wendy.

It’s the middle of December.

At lunchtime I take a walk. I notice it’s starting to snow.

I duck into a five and dime, possibly a Woolworths or similar, the kind of store where the shoes are next to the tablecloths which are next to the vacuum cleaners which are next to the gift boxes of Black Magic chocolates.

I find myself in the pet aisle where there is a sign announcing Free Hamsters. All you have to do is buy a cage with an exercise wheel, a water bottle, a supply of cedar chip bedding material, food, and a food dish, and they throw in the hamster for free. Seems too good to be true, but IT IS TRUE. And so, some minutes later, I’m back outside carrying a hamster in a cardboard box in one hand and a giant bag of all its worldly possessions in the other.

The snow has picked up.

Wendy is only slightly amused when I explain my good luck at stumbling upon a hamster sale, and not at all impressed. Turns out she doesn’t like hamsters. Wendy is a country girl who puts such things under the heading of ‘varmints’.

Sometime later that afternoon Wendy says How are you going to get it home? She means on the bus. Because the bag of supplies and the cage and the cardboard box is a lot for a crowded bus. Plus she says, it’s snowing like crazy.

Moving the hamster from box to cage would make things a lot more manageable. Problem is… I don’t like the idea of touching the hamster and neither does Wendy.

Miracle Number 1: Fred Goodchild, a restaurateur from a few doors along, who has come in to see about his account. He says the snow’s so bad things are shutting down, which explains why no one else has been in that afternoon to see about their account.

On a whim I ask Fred Goodchild if he will move my hamster, some of the cedar bedding, and all of the accoutrements into the cage.

Which is how my hamster comes to be christened Fred.

By the time we leave work the snow is a full-on blizzard. The streets are more or less empty of traffic, the buses are running very slow if at all. If it were just me I’d stand outside and wait in line but in my new role as a hamster mother I realize there are responsibilities I hadn’t counted on. In other words, I’m not at all sure how long or at what temperature a hamster actually freezes.

It feels wise to get a cab instead.

[I should mention that I’d recently applied for and received my first ever credit card, the timing of which is miracle #2, which is no small detail as the story unfolds]

There’s zero chance of hailing a cab on the street so I walk to the nearest hotel, where the doorman tells me the wait is a minimum two hours.

And that is how Fred and I come to spend the better part of our first evening together in the bar of The Four Seasons Hotel, me drinking fine brandy and tea and eventually ordering a cheese plate and salad, bits of which I lovingly shove through the wires of his cage on the seat next to mine.

I have no memory of anyone commenting on Fred’s presence or complaining about the squeaking of his exercise wheel. No one asks us to leave (miracle #3). Nor do I recall even thinking it odd to be dining with a hamster in the swankiest joint in town.

A cab finally comes. I pay with my shiny new credit card. It’s a long slow ride but we make it home safely (which feels like miracle #4). I set Fred’s cage on a table in my living room in front of a painting I think will give him a sense of the outdoors and where we can watch reruns of M.A.S.H. and Mary Tyler Moore together.

And we do.

And I think what in the world is better than to be home safe and warm, me with a belly full of brandy and cheese, a hamster and his squeaking wheel, the air scented with cedar shavings.

Such was the magic of a stormy night in Edmonton in December.

[I’d like to add that I was young and not yet given to thinking about the sadness of hamsters being imprisoned, though I do like to think I liberated him from life in the pet aisle. It’s something. And his cage was eventually upgraded and I learned to touch him and hold him and even though all this was before the invention of googling how to make a hamster ultra comfortable I do believe he had a contented life inasmuch as a hamster living an unnatural life can be content. That, and we’ll always have The Four Seasons…]

apropos of nothing

Well, not entirely accurate. Not entirely nothing.

There was a conversation recently wherein reference was made to the job of waiting tables as low-end work. The implication filled with judgement and pity for the poor saps who have to shlep bowls of soup for money.

I disagree with the idea that waiting tables is a low end job.

Hard work for low pay, yes, but not low end.

If ensuring the comfort and happiness of someone’s breakfast, lunch or dinner is seen as menial work then we really do have our values twisted.

There are real stars out there, servers who bring a sliver of joy to strangers in a true and authentic way. One of them works at a diner in town, has been there for decades, calls everyone hon, or love, in a way that you don’t mind.  She is one of the reasons the place is full of regulars (when places were full) (also the toast is excellent). And you can tell that she’s not putting it on for tips, that the people are a big reason she loves her job. When you ask for peanut butter she brings it over like it’s the most important thing in the world. She’s constantly moving, talking, being asked, answering, carrying, ordering, changing orders, shlepping.

Is it hard work? Sure looks like it.

Is it rewarding? As with everything, depends how you do it.

There are certain establishments, towns, cities, certainly countries other than ours where waiting tables is held in higher regard, a profession not merely a job that, when done well, is a respectable, and well respected, way to make a living for an entire lifetime.

Along the same lines, someone was saying how food delivery people are also looked down upon, barely spoken to, if at all, especially now that so much take-out is pre-paid. Which reminded me of the pizza guy a couple years ago who came to the door and we casually said how ya doing, and without missing a beat, and with tongue perfectly in his cheek, he said… I’m livin’ the dream.

We cracked up.

He smiled, said have a good one.

That’s star quality.