Cooking

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Cooking

My Welsh grandmother, not my Irish one, taught me how to cook. At the time, I was the only grandchild. Whenever she cooked and I was in the house, she would take me into the kitchen, stand me on a stool by the gas stove, and encourage me to stir as the mixtures swirled and bubbled in pan or pot. I also helped her shell the peas, slice the carrots, whatever. When the preparation was ready, she would set aside a small portion that was mine. This might be a cake in the oven, a pair of biscuits shaped awkwardly by my own hand, or a small side pot of soup. “There’s nobody else,” she would whisper to me. “The old ways will die if I don’t teach you.” She was the one who taught me the exact moment when Welsh Cakes were ready to be molded, and there’s only one way to learn: place your hands in the mix. The right texture, as they say in the cookbooks, is ‘fine grain sand’ but you have to experience it to be certain what those words really mean.

I was a latch-key kid, as they now call them. Both my parents worked all day, leaving the house at 7:30 in the morning and not returning until 4 or 5 at night. Being able to cook meant that I never starved and I remember cooking soups, Cawl Mamgu among others, at a very early age. When I started traveling to France and Spain, I often ended up in various kitchens where I listened to the women as they prepared the food. Language and cooking went hand in hand and I learned how to roast coffee beans in a cast-iron frying pan, how to vary my range of soups, how to prepare casseroles, how to scramble eggs the continental way.

When I studied in Santander, Spain, my landlady left me, every night, one onion, one potato, and one egg. This was for the Spanish omelette that I ate most evenings. She cooked the first one for me, supervised me as I cooked the second one, and then abandoned me to my own devices. I often heard her snoring as I lit the gas, warmed the pan, and started to prepare my tortilla española. I still make Spanish omelettes, and they are delicious, but here in Canada they are never quite the same as they were in Spain. The ingredients look the same, olive oil, egg, salt and pepper, potatoes and onions … but the eggs are not Spanish free-range eggs from country hens and the oil, the potatoes, the onions, the salt … everything looks the same, but tastes vastly different.

Two days ago I bought a pound of fresh hake, merluza in Spanish. I cooked it in butter, half poached, half-sautéed. We ate half that night. Next day, I struggled with my thoughts: should I make fish cakes from the rest of the fish, or should I make a fish soup / sopa de pescado? Fish soup won. I put some truffle flavored olive oil into the frying pan, sliced small a tomato fresh from the garden, added a finely chopped onion, spiced it with sea salt, and added a small pinch of pimentón picante / hot Spanish paprika from La Vega in Spain. I let this simmer for a few minutes, then added some sherry. Into this mixture I put the rest of the hake together with the butter sauce that remained from the night before. The dish looked inviting, was very colorful, but appeared to be small and insufficient for the hungry eyes that followed the process. I added four large shrimp, sliced into four pieces each, a large scallop, thinly sliced, and sufficient water to thin the gathered liquids. Then I chopped up some sugar peas and added them as well. My sopa de pescado had undergone a sea change and become a sopa de mariscos / a sea food soup. The colors amazed: reds, yellows, oranges, and touches of green. On the spur of the moment, I named it New Brunswick Autumn Foliage. I tested it regularly as it simmered and it was ready when the sea food was done. Delicious.

I don’t know when my grandmother was born, or where, other than somewhere in Wales. I celebrate her birthday every time I cook something special, and my last two meals were very special. I don’t know where you are, Nana. You left us a long time ago. But wherever you are, thank you so much for the gifts you gave me. And Nana, I love you. You have traveled with me from Wales to Canada, and I celebrate you and your birthday every time I cook.

Ruins

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Ruins

There are many types of ruins, ruined castles, ruined churches, ruined monasteries, old stone circles fallen into ruins, barns alongside the highway, backs broken, roofs caved in, old people beg, still clean and proud, outside the supermarket, proud, yes, but still more or less ruined. And then there are unkempt gardens that fall into ruin when summer crawls to the burnt out embers of  its heat.

When I came back from my week’s creative retreat in KIRA, our garden lay in ruins. The hollyhock still stood, but it was on its last legs, drying up. It didn’t imitate the dead sticks of the yucca plant, four flowers this year, nor the dried up foliage of summer flowers. Nevertheless, wind and rain have now brought him close to his end, poor thing. I want to remember him in all his glory. I want to see beyond this bent, withered stick of a plant that slowly bows its head to look down at its roots. My hollyhock, please, in all his glory!

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All our glories! I too am in decay and falling into ruin. I dug out an old photo of myself. Bristol University, 1964, running for the First Cross-Country VIII on the Bristol – Weston road relay. Hugh Arnold was just handing off to me and I was setting out on my 5 mile leg of the race. Young, fit, no grey hairs, no wrinkles, no limp, no stoop: it was a five mile leg that I would complete in about 25 minutes. Alas, slow is me: it takes me that long now to walk 400 metres. And I need rests and a stick to help me on my way.

Standing amidst he ruins of my life, yes. But I stand proud, my head held as high as I can hold it. I can honestly say I have done my best. And what more can anyone do? Athletics, rugby, coaching, research, publishing, teaching, facilitating workshops and retreats, travelling, editing, creative writing … it has been a crazy life, packed with fun and adventure and no, I do not regret a moment of it.

Come to think of it, unlike many people, I have actually lived many lives. My first took place in Britain and Europe. Then in September, 1966, I was reborn as a Canadian. Each subsequent Fall, at the beginning of September, as each new academic year began and the year’s cycle turned round to freshness and intellectual renewal, I was born again. Teaching, coaching, working with young people: what wonderful things to do. Now, I look at the ruined garden and remember the joys of summer. They will return. My hollyhock will also be back. He has sown his seeds throughout the flowerbeds and sooner or later he will return. I too have sown seeds: the seeds of joy, knowledge, learning, creativity. I too will live on in the many virtual children whose minds I have inhabited and helped to shape.  Winter is drawing near. The cold and the dark encroach: but, like my garden, I will be back.

Green

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Green
KIRA Day 3

Where has the time gone? Don’t answer that question. The Retreat has settled into a structure of its own and outside time no longer has any meaning. The internal time of the retreat runs smoothly as clockwork, a wooden, self-oiling clockwork, of the most delicate kind.

08:00 – 09:00 Breakfast. We gather in the kitchen and the conversations begin over breakfast. We talk about the previous night’s readings, the plans we have for the day, or whether we want to workshop of just retire to our studios and write.

09:00 – 10:30 Workshop time. Each morning we have a topic and we illustrate it and discuss it fully. Each workshop also comes with ideas and prompts for writing. At the end of  each workshop, we plan the rest of the day. We hold regular Blue Pencil Cafés in which facilitators and participants discuss submitted work. We suggested about 20 minutes for the BPCs, but my first one last over an hour and we managed to get through half a poem. Jeremy’s first one lasted an hour and a half (prose) and he covered more ground than me. My second one was marvelous: we spent an hour or more on one paragraph, three lines.

What happens in the BPCs is unbelievable. It’s not just the revision of the poem or the piece of prose, but a wide-ranging discussion on theories, ideas, prompts, the nature of writing, directions a piece may take, the nature of creativity, where inspiration comes from, how it may be channeled, how writing occurs, where it can lead … incredibly exhausting at times, yet energy fills us and we are always ready to write, re-write, revise, and talk again.

14:00 – 16:00 Art School. On Tuesday, Geoff Slater sat us down with paper and paint and we experimented with color, the creation of color, the basics of primary colors, how to make secondary colors, how to create the color wheel. Geoff enthralled us: never will the color wheel ever look the same again. Never will I use a color again without thinking in depth about it’s composition and meaning. Green no longer means Green: it means so much more. I read Lorca’s Romance Sonámbulo, this morning, and it took on all sorts of different and very new meanings. Verde, que te quiero verde. Green, for I love you green … green wind … green branches … green flesh … green hair … 

I sat opposite Geoff this morning. Behind him, green bushes, green trees, green leaves, green grass, green foliage … Yesterday, I paid little attention to all that green-ness. Today it fascinated me and I was able to distinguish between the amount of yellow, the amount of blue, the lightening factor, the darkening factor, the tinges of red and brown and oh to be able to capture it all, all that green-ness, all that certainty, blurred into a sea of green.

16:00 -17:30 BPC time. We pair up facilitator / participant and share our work. Each day a different piece, a different conversation, an advancement of yesterday’s talks, another step or two forward. Sometimes we take tiny steps. Other times we make gigantic leaps. Time and space lose meaning. We have been gifted with something different and we are truly blessed.

18:00 – 19:30 Dinner. This is a sumptuous meal provided by the Garden Café, our very own award-winning Kingsbrae Garden Café. The group is open. The man who provides us with desserts, he makes them in our kitchen, specially for us, joins us as we sit at the table and we add culinary art to the poetry, prose, and painting that we are always discussing.

19:30 – 21:30 Readings. We read what we have written during the day and facilitators and participants share together. I try to choose work of mine that reflects the day’s themes. Linking theory (morning) to practice (evenings) is also a fascinating procedure. We finish the evening by planning the next day’s work. The key to the retreat is flexibility. We respond to each others’ needs. Colors are important? We concentrate on colors and read about them in our evening sessions. Today we talked symbols. Tonight I will offer a reading in which symbols play an enormous role.

Alas: my free time is over. Now I must descend and return to the joys of BPCs, discussion, dinner, and the evening’s read. Farewell for now: I will be back as soon as I can.

 

Holly-Hock

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Holly Hock Hangs on …

I keep calling my Holly-Hock ‘he’, but I am beginning to think that if Holly Hobby was a lady, then this tough old plant is a lady too. A limpet lady. She has gone through three quite hard frosts now, one early, and two back to back, earlier this week, followed by two days of heavy rain. The rest of the garden is withering or withered. Clusters of dry blackened stems surround this old lady, but she still stands tall and proud. Not only that, but she casts more and more flowers out to greet us.

We have kept lots of seeds and will sow them soon, some are in the ground already, in the hopes that she and her offspring may flourish. For this lady is a symbol of hope. Hope in the face of frosts, cold winds, heavy rains. Hope in the seeds that she produces and scatters. Hope in the generation and the regeneration of a beauty and a strength that, if lost, may never be found again. Hope in old age that our children will survive and lighten our countenances with their love.

So go, you Holly-Hock seeds. Bury deep, send out roots, sleep for a while if you need to, and when the spring sun peeps over the horizon after a hard, long winter, be ready to bloom again. We, your faithful followers, will be waiting for you, with hope in our hearts.

Seeds

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Seeds

As creative artists, we seek to leave seeds and plant seeds. Just one idea, seeding elsewhere authenticates us as artists and creators. Some seeds fall on stony ground, we know that. Others do not take immediately, but lie dormant for some time. Some, a few, a very few, a happy band of siblings. drop, root, and grow into the flowers we always wanted to create.

We must always have confidence in our seedlings. We must believe that they will survive, somehow, somewhere, in spite of the random nature of the universe. Write with that belief. Create with that belief. Be strong. believe. Even when others doubt you and, what is worse, you doubt yourself. Never doubt yourself.

My Hollyhock doesn’t doubt. It came from nowhere and gifted itself upon us. Now it has gifted us with pod after pod of wonderful seeds. Some will be lost. The squirrels, chipmunks, and mourning doves, not to mention the passerines, will get others. But some will survive, take root, and flourish, just like this one did.

Believe, my friends, believe. And never stop creating.

 

 

 

Light

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How these flowers change with the changing light. This is full daylight, with the sun to the south shining directly on the house.

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This is the evening light, with a low sun shining from the west straight along the footpath. I am always amazed by what Monet saw in his paintings of light as it fell at different times of the day on various objects. The cathedral face at Rouen is a prime example. Here, in my garden with the hollyhock, I see how its colours change, how texture alters, how different features become more salient at different times of day.

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Sometimes it is hard to believe it is the same flower. We were so surprised when we first saw it, that we nearly pulled it up, thinking it was a weed. Luckily, we didn’t, and it rewarded us with a summer long, now into fall, series of blossoms, not to mention a myriad seeds for next season. We have become quite good friends, this hollyhock and I and we talk together regularly. Sometimes the other plants get jealous, and you can see they have faded slightly, bewildered by  his glory.

Hollyhocks

Hollyhocks

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We have never managed to grow a hollyhock before this summer, yet this one appeared from nowhere and quickly grew to more than eight feet tall. We didn’t plant it and we don’t know where it came from. Some little bird, maybe, on a migration journey from one garden to another. Who knows? What I do know is that these flowers are magnificent. This one has endured the summer’s heat, the occasional thunder storm, strong winds, and heavy rain. We had early frost in September, but it seemed to give the hollyhock strength and it blossomed on and on.

Right now, pine siskins and the occasional American goldfinch settle on our hollyhock and peck at the precious seed pods. Precious, because we have gathered some of the seeds, given others to a good friend, and offered some to the passerines who all too soon will be flying south. Those seeds we have kept we will plant. Hopefully, next year, we will have several of these beautiful plants growing in the garden.

The plant, incidentally, is more than ten feet in length. The vertical height is eight feet. Here, in this photo, it bends to touch its toes, hence the downward slant that it has taken.