poetry in the Poconos

Photo: Millesgarden, Stockholm, Fall 2005

Last week I spent four days at a retreat center in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. By. My. Self. Away from this dude for the first time in almost twenty months, if you count cooking time. The retreat, focused on strength-based leadership, was the last of four intense training and fellowship gatherings over the past two years as part of the Environmental Leadership Program. This whole experienc was rejuvenating on every level. Each morning as a wide arc of sunshine swept across the snowy bosoms of the surrounding hills with a Fantasia-like flourish, we contemplated radical notions such as that we never again introduce someone by their job title.
Imagine just for a moment how monumental that would be: "
Mary Ann, this is Omar and he believes that the way to break the cycle of poverty and disempowerment among youth in the Bronx is by creating a legacy of worker-owned green businesses. Omar, where Mary Ann is from, they're blowing up the mountains in her backyard and she's doing something about it."
Compare that to: "
Mary Ann, this is Omar. He runs a building material recycling business. Omar, Mary Ann works for a group trying to stop mountaintop removal coal mining." By making a meaningful introduction, by telling each what really moves the other, there is an instant connection, a common passion to protect their homes and communities (yes, they're actual friends of mine and yep, they're every bit as amazing as they sound). And here's the really amazing thing. In that first introduction, there's no mention of what they actually do.

This simple idea blew my mind. I had my mind blown a lot those four days. It felt like a mental window-cleaning. The everyday grime was squeegee'd away and the world just looked a little brighter and sparklier afterward. It didn't hurt that the retreat center was in an achingly beautiful setting, steeped in the quest of many before us committed to peace, reconciliation and justice. I felt humbled by it all. And as the final buffing of my fresh new perspective, I took home some new books of poetry by Mary Oliver and Wendell Berry and a gorgeously-illustrated childrens' book called An African American Alphabet. I don't know what drew me to poetry other than it's about the right length for the amount of time I get to read these days.


The Fountain of Youth Is Full of Oysters

So much going on here in the last month that between the friend and family visits, snowfalls begging to be played in, power surges knocking out our router, teeth emerging (milo), teeth cracking (me) and pumpkin scones calling softly for me to drop all other endeavours to make yet another batch, I just haven't quite sat down to this blog to share for a while. Which was exactly the reason I started this project in the first place, to remind myself to slow down once in a while.

But the end of the day has descended quietly now. Outside, temperatures have dropped drastically, silencing the night sounds that normally drift through the balcony door. Inside, the only noises are muffled - you have to listen carefully - pages turning in a book and occasionally, a small body shifting positions in his bed. It invites contemplation. And so I push aside for a few moments the chores, work deadlines and assorted logistical gremlins grumbling at my doorstep to just enjoy.

Especially enjoyable was playing a little hooky with my friend Mrill who came to visit us from our other home, Madison, WI. It was a long, luxuriant few days of walking, talking, thinking and eating. Did I mention the eating? From duck sausage and roasted butternut squash, to homemade cappuccinos, to homemade toffees to afternoon wine and chocolate tastings (you know, as a reward for all that walking).

A morning of running straight uphill and a day spent talking about science and culture culminated in a feast of the kind Montreal is made for. Mrill and I dusted off the chic urban wear and had a ladies' night out at Le Club Chasse et Peche a red-hot popular restaurant in Old Montreal (thank you, Jake!). The kind of restaurant that refers to their pastry chef as a poetic pastry diva, and deservedly so. Sipping the perfect Manhattan, I basked in the feeling of just being a girl out for a night on the town. For a fleeting moment there was no beautiful baby to distract me, I could focus fully on the sensual fandango happening in my mouth: fresh oysters and the salty crunch of trout roe heightened by sharp sweetness of champagne mousse bubbling on my tongue! The photo below can't do this appetizer justice. It was as beautiful to behold as it was to consume. I found myself wondering whether I had discovered the fountain of youth in the bottom of a shot glass...

photo credit goes mostly to Mrill, with some help from Jake and I...



Need a laugh?

Because somebody apparently has a few to spare...


Travel bug

Spontaneous picnic, somewhere off the interstate in New Hampshire, about five miles after Milo woke up and started to yelp to be let out of his seat.

We've been hit by a little wanderlust lately and have taken some wonderful road trips to upstate New York and, more recently, Boston and Cambridge. Which also means we've been logging in some serious hours in the car with a squirmy nine-month-old. I've always loved road trips though admittedly these last couple have had a different rhythm. We've had to give ourselves plenty of time to get where we're going. This has had all kinds of great unexpected benefits like impromptu picnics and tickle sessions. And the boy travelled like a champ. He actually slept away most of the five-hour trip to and from Boston.
My favorite part of the road trip? Getting to see the famous glass flowers up close at the Harvard Natural History Museum. This collection is composed of over 2500 hand-made models of actual flowers and plants made entirely from glass by Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, a father-son glassmaking team from Germany. The detail is astounding - a cactus had thousands of tiny glass hairs mimicking its thorns!
Apparently, the Blaschkas weren't kept busy enough building the Harvard models, because they created a series of marine invertebrates as well. What's really amazing to contemplate is that, although these specimens date back to the late 1800s to mid 1900s, no one has since been able to replicate the Blaschkas craftsmanship.


A few tasty morsels

It's been grey and blustery outside lately so I've been wandering through faraway places on my computer on a sensory journey, even if only for a few moments. Here's where I've been:

David Byrne has a blog! And a fabulously random monthly playlist! For instance, this month features songs that include the names of places he just drove through on a recent road trip across southern US. That's pretty terrific. From reading his online journal, I found out that he's a big bicycle activist in NYC. Now I really think he's a god.

A couple of years ago, I visited Sweden and fell for the natural landscapes and the simple beauty that seems to define Swedish aesthetic. Camilla Engman is an illustrator and artist whose work I recenetly discovered (and am crazy about) because, somehow, she captures that aesthetic I was so drawn to - clean, simple lines, recurring nature themes, yet the work is a little moody and ominous, too.

And no internet journey ever gets very far before I veer into a food blog. Orangette is my current favourite. Like all good talent, she makes writing about food seem deceptively simple. A wonderful storyteller, she reminds me of the great MFK Fischer. And her pictures ellicit Pavlovian drooling all over my keyboard.

Finally, a provocative article I read from yesterday's Boston Globe. Did you ever think that pushing children to read too early can be detrimental to their learning? Many scientists think so. Regardless, this is a great case for letting children have unstructured playtime. Fascinating stuff for a new mum.


caught in autumn daydreaming

The fall is a funny, daydreamy time of the year for me. There's that rush of productivity that I still associate with the start of the school year fueled by crisp mornings and shorter days (though my school days are long behind me). There is nature's flamboyant finale before she curls into herself for a long winter repose. No matter that it happens every year, the turning of leaves into brilliant flame leaves me awestruck, as if I've never seen it before. I stop in my tracks several times a day and if I spot a particularly spectacular tree, I'm drawn back to it day after day, loathe to miss even a second of the show.
And yet, while my heart beats a little quicker for the beauty all around, it also makes me a little sad. Really, this whole lovely display is like nature's swan song as she exists stage left. Fin. There's personal sadness this time of the year too. Bad things seem to happen in the fall. So now a small knot of anxiety takes root just as those crisp mornings begin and doesn't really disappear until the first winter snow, as if to say, "OK, we're safe for another year." All this has the effect of making me feel simultaneously more alive and closer to death. Either way, the fall is always the time I feel grateful to be alive.

(P.S. Happy Birthday Debbie!)


Letter to a son - 9 months

Dear Milo,

You are nine months old now and you are everywhere. The world has opened up to you as if someone has raised the blinds and let the sun stream in. It's all worth a look: dust bunny, shiny trash can, the grain on the wood rocking chair, the coffee. Especially the coffee. I totally understand. Every morning, when we sit down with that first cup of coffee, we sometimes have to give you your own mug so you don't harass us with insistent and desparate whining. Good thing you haven't noticed there's nothing in your mug yet. How long before you pick up on this scam?

When I pick you up from your crib in the morning, you strain to catch a look at everything, to check out what has changed since 7 pm last night. You're wriggly and curious, as if worried that something exciting might escape notice if you stop casing the joint for a second. It's a deep pleasure to hold onto something so full of life, curiosity, excitement and love. Because in your explorations, you always include your father and me. You beam us a smile, touch our faces, poke our ribs with your toes during the morning snuggle, tug on hair, try to eat our noses.

And you are everywhere in our lives too. The other night, after you went to sleep, your dad and I comtemplated your empty high chair and missed you. We looked at that chair and it rang with the echo of your ferocious eating, dolphin squeals and the quiet gagging noise you make when we try to feed you beets. We contemplated the thought that this tiny person will all too quickly grow up, have hard times, grow old and die someday. The mere thought overwhelmed us, tears springing up, hearts bursting with a depth of emotion that has marked us forever. It was clear to me at that moment: I will never again lead a life unencumbered. You are everywhere.




The package was the first piece of mail I'd received in my new canadian home. I brought it upstairs and put it on the counter. I'd wait until I had a quiet moment to open it because I knew it would be delightful. It was from my friend Keri Smith, an intensely talented artist, intellectual and, really, a just beautiful person (her blog has been my little dose of inspiration for over two years now). It was one of those mornings where I couldn't seem to finish any single task I started: the laundry was half-folded, I'd boiled water for tea and never made the tea, I had a half-formed email response on my computer screen for two hours, invitations I was making for an event that were in bits and pieces on the desk. Needless to say, I felt scattered. So I finally made my cup of tea, plopped Milo on the kitchen floor next to me with a symphony of spatulas and mixing bowls and opened up our package from Keri. And, amid a small sea of book treasures, out popped this jolly little fellow:

Cute, eh? His name is Stanley Greenbottom and he speaks a little French. Milo thought this gift was just delicious, especially the cardboard sign that came attached around his neck.

But what most struck me was that he matched perfectly with the baptism invitations I was making. I was so drawn to those two colours (teal blue and paprika) because they seem so cheery and on a day when I was feeling scattered and a little down on myself for not getting anything done, Stanley showed up in our lives just radiating cheeriness and comfort.

I couldn't help myself. After Milo went to bed, I borrowed Stanley and put him on the shelf next to a completed (finally!) invitation to keep me company for the night as I moved through some of my to-do list. Sometimes, it takes these little serendipitous moments to shake the tree a little and get you moving. Thanks Stanley!


Apple picking

"On that perfect day, when everything was ripening, and not only the grape was turning brown, the sun cast a glance on my life: I looked back, I looked forward, and never had I seen so many good things at once" - Friederich Nietzche


Reality hits you in the face

Major life changes just about kill me.

There was the move to Davis, CA in 1999 that resulted in one almost severed pinky finger and one car crash. My partner in that highway mambo on Interstate 5 just looked at the remains of his car and said, “Well, it’s a good thing I have 4 other cars back home.” I roller-skated to work for a month.

Our move to Madison, WI in 2001 faired little better. There, I bit it when my bike slid on the wet railroad tracks criss-crossing a busy intersection. The next day, I fell down our stairs with a glass of water in hand.

So it was with a fair amount of trepidation that I stepped into our new apartment in Montreal last Saturday. I’ve tried to be conscious of how my anxiety about change can manifest itself in strange and physical ways. I thought I had already dealt with it before I even left Madison, via a series of very odd and unreasonably painful random bodily inflammations including a boil on my nose that gave me a three-day headache.

I though I was on top of it this time. I thought I was home-free.

Then reality hit me in the face.

With the corner of the kitchen cabinet, to be more precise. And, yes, it hurt just as much as it looks like it did. Yet, when the flurry and the panic subsided, relief washed over me. I could stop worrying about whether something terrible would happen. It just had. A friend recently shared a quote by Wendell Berry: "that little nagging of dread is your first bonding with the unknown wilderness you are about to enter into." I guess I have been bonding with the unknown for a while but it took almost braining myself to finally start making peace with this new phase in our life.


What's in a name.

J: "Isn't calling it the winged samara kind of like calling it the Department of Redundancy Department?"

Me: "It implies a samara in motion, not just any old samara, lying around, doing nothing useful with itself, slowly decaying and wrecking the lawn."

J: "Um, whatever."

The samara is the winged seed of the maple leaf and as an expatriate Canadian, living in the U.S. and currently on sabbatical in Canada, the blog title reflects the cyclical nature of our family's existence. plus it sounds poetic and we can all use a little more poetry in our daily lives, no?

The title touches on a lot of things I hope to write about: travels, nature, our little seed, Milo, and our nine month journey leaving the place I now call home, Madison Wisconsin, for the place I was born and raised, Montreal.

When I was in university at McGill, I took a wonderful botany class and learned how to make botanical specimens. We'd collect the plants, dry them in a press and carefully mount and label them on archival paper for posterity. While an online journal is a much more dynamic, live endeavour, I see it as a similar exercise in slowing down, in really seeing what is going on around me and reflecting on it. With work, baby, travel, I find myself racing through the days. Sometimes I can't remember what I did the day before. How sad.

So goes my brief introduction of this site. I hope you enjoy the fruits of this labour. I know I am going to enjoy writing it!