Category: Spirit

Catching happiness

lettuce flowers
lettuce flowers (yes, really, that’s what they are)

I was in Waterloo Park yesterday evening, finishing off a hard run. When running, I find that I disappear a bit, and my focus changes. In some ways, the tiniest details sharpen, in other ways, much sensory information blurs. But I often catch some small moment in passing, and it seems to flare more brightly than it could if I were walking or standing still.

Yesterday evening, as I ran up a big hill, trying to push the pace and push myself, I saw a family gathered below, sitting in four lawn chairs in the middle of a wide open grassy space. I wondered what they were doing, sitting all in a row, looking up the hill. And then I saw a mother and daughter walking down the hill. My trajectory would take me directly in between the two small groups of people.

Then the people in the lawn chairs saw the mother and daughter too. Someone called something out, which I didn’t catch. The daughter, who looked to be a younger teenager, waved and cried, “Happy birthday!” and I saw that another younger teenaged girl was running up the hill from the row of lawn chairs. The other girl started running downhill, and the two friends met giddily in the middle of the field, and hugged and jumped around with obvious delight to be together on what was clearly a special day — a birthday — for one of them.

I ran past the mother, and we exchanged broad smiles. I kept running and didn’t look back.

The whole scene occupied no more than ten to twenty seconds.

What struck me, instantly, was the joy it had given me to be witness to such a happy moment. How often do we see other people in their moments of unguarded, totally free happiness? Usually we see people when they are occupied with something else, distracted, on their way somewhere, busy, or idle; moments of spontaneous joy, well, they’re rare.

I’m going to keep looking for them.

A miscellany for your reading pleasure: balloon animals, soccer tips, anecdotes, and beyond

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balloon-dog, by AppleApple*

*Yes, she made her own balloon-dog. She looked up instructions on the internet. When she explained the twisting technique to me, my brain malfunctioned. That is because, when it comes to engineering of any practical sort, I am the opposite of gifted. She’s thinking she could sell balloon animals this summer at street parties; we weren’t convinced the yard sale approach would work for such a specific product. 

:::

Here’s what I’ve learned at soccer, so far. This is purely skills-related. Skip over this section if you’re not remotely interested in playing the game of soccer.

First game: I learned to touch the ball.

Second game: I learned that I was fast. And that this is handy, if you like touching the ball.

Third game: I learned that a pass into the net is as good as a hard shot; likely better. Perhaps not coincidentally, I also learned how to kick the ball without injuring myself.

Fourth game: I learned to run with the ball by kicking it in front of me rather than trying to dribble it at my foot. I also learned how to do a throw-in. Unfortunately, I learned the hard way–during game play, by doing it wrong the first time.

Fifth game: I learned that when heading for the net, I need to turn in toward the middle a lot sooner. Unfortunately, in this lesson I’ve only gotten as far as realizing that I must be doing something wrong. I get the ball, start running up the wing, and then (mostly) lose it because I come up against a defender. Kevin tells me I shouldn’t really be coming up against a defender, but should be making my decision earlier either to turn or to pass.

Maybe in the sixth game I will learn to keep my head up?

:::

While speaking of learning things, here’s an anecdote to make you feel better about yourself.

Yesterday I was at the bank to make a simple deposit, and found myself waiting for ten minutes in a line-up of one (me), while one teller served one client, and several other teller-types walked briskly around in the background avoiding catching my eye, as if to say, I’m much too busy to open up another window here. Is a ten minute wait long enough to start getting truly impatient? Because I was truly getting impatient. In fact, steam was coming out of my ears.

When finally I handed over my cheques for deposit, a transaction that look less than a minute to complete, the teller thanked me for my patience. It felt farcical, like I was part of a reverse psychology experiment. I almost replied, “It would be much more accurate to thank me for my impatience because it’s clear I’ve got none of that other stuff, and you know it as well as I do!”

Oh my goodness, I am not a patient person. It’s the main reason I swear so much while driving. All that time wasted, endless inefficiencies, and being at the mercy of systems not of my own creation.

My goal is to find something good in every situation, to waste nothing, by which I mean to find in any situation something redeeming: educational or funny or comforting or amusingly distracting or morally relevant; but I sure enough wasted those ten minutes at the bank, seething with irritation. What do you think I should have done to salvage the situation?

:::

One more miscellaneous item, relevant today-only, and only if you live in the greater Toronto area. If you pick up today’s Toronto Star, you’ll find a special section on Canada Day, with a bunch of stories and a few photos by me! I’m especially pleased about the photos, though this job has spurred me to make a few minor (and thankfully inexpensive) improvements to my current photo-processing and -storing capacity. I would like to add Photographer to my toolkit of marketable skills, and this is an excellent start.

I see myself as a workmanlike photographer rather than an artistically-skilled one. But I think that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and that there’s a place for it.

It fits in with my philosophy that there’s a place for all kinds of writing, too; I aspire to be able to work across the genres. I think anyone who writes serious literary fiction should damn well be able to write light-hearted party-planning pieces, and snappy headlines, and generally entertaining well-constructed articles on most any topic imaginable, assuming there’s time to do proper research. These take technical skill, as much as anything else. I also believe that writing across the genres will make me a better literary writer. (My only caution would be: don’t get stuck in a rut, and don’t write the same thing over and over; write widely, if possible.)

And that concludes my On Being a Writer 101 lecture for today.

How to bake really good bread

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A friend just emailed for my bread recipe. Her daughter comes over after school, sometimes, to play with AppleApple, and they always make themselves peanut butter and jam sandwiches with big slices of my homemade bread. And the child always asks, “Is this your homemade bread, Carrie?” I gather she’s a fan.
Anyway, I wrote out the recipe for her mom. And then I thought, hey, why not post it here. I do have a “Bread Baking Tutorial” over in the recipe section, but below you’ll find the messy real-life version I make almost every weekend. It’s extremely flexible, with room for all kinds of extra ingredients, and the only time it ever flopped was when I used 100% whole wheat bread flour (we were all out of white; the resulting loaves resembled building material). So don’t do that.
Carrie’s Every Day Bread
I don’t follow a recipe, so there are no precise measurements. I make this bread so often that it’s second nature. But I’ll try to write it out for you. This makes four loaves.
4-5 tsp yeast (use the higher amount if you’re using a lot of whole wheat flour)
temper with 1/2 cup warmish water (ie. let sit for about 5 minutes)
Add 2 tbsp salt, 4 tbsp honey or maple syrup, 4 tbsp oil, 4 cups warmish water
Also add (and here is where it gets imprecise!) any or all of the following: ground or whole flax seeds, sesame seeds, ground pumpkin seeds, ground sunflower seeds (I usually add all four, in about a 1/4 cup amount each); 1/2 cup wheat germ; 1 cup of oats (optional); 1/2 cup ground lentils or ground quinoa or ground millet (optional, though I always add at least one of those ingredients for extra protein); (you can also add leftover cooked breakfast cereal)
Stir (as often as you’d like, at any point in the above process).
Add 6 cups of flour, stir. I use a mixture of whole wheat and white bread flour, probably about 1/4 ww to 3/4 white. Then start adding by 1 cup measurements. Eventually you’re going to add about 12 cups of flour total, more or less, but honestly, this is entirely by feel. When it gets too thick to stir, start kneading the flour in. Knead until you’ve got the right consistency and it feels ready (you’ll know what I mean!).
Oil and let rise for an hour or two. Punch down and cut into four sections, shape into loaves, and let rise again in greased loaf pans. Heat oven to 450, bake for ten minutes, then turn down to 350 without opening oven and bake for another thirty. Cool on rack. Done!
Also note: I have a coffee grinder that I only use to grind seeds/grains. It’s very handy, very inexpensive. I think it grinds about a 1/4 cup at a time, but it might be slightly more — that’s how I measure the seeds/grains that I add in — whatever fits in the grinder.

On being a competitive person: the ugly truth

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For a long time, I’ve thought of myself as someone who doesn’t like participating in team sports. But it had been so many years since I’d even attempted a team sport that I couldn’t remember why. And I love watching my children play team sports, and have observed the wonderful potential for camaraderie and intensive learning. So … this spring, when the opportunity arose to join a women’s soccer team, I signed up without hesitation.

At first, I thought the difficulty was going to be the fact that I hadn’t played organized soccer since the age of ten. But I’ve been watching a lot of excellent soccer over the past few years, and I’m physically fit, and a quick learner — and our team welcomes beginners. So that hasn’t been an issue. 
What I realized after last night’s game is that there is another difficulty, one I’d forgotten, and it’s the reason I don’t like team sports.
Actually, I do like team sports. I love playing on a team. The problem is that I’m not always a fabulous team player. The problem, in other words, is me. Team sports don’t like me. 
For years, I suppressed my competitive nature, and only began embracing it again when I took up running and signed up for races. Wow, this is actually fun, thought I; and wondered why on earth I’d suppressed such an essential part of myself. In fact, I embraced my competitive nature so thoroughly that I forgot what I’d disliked about it in the first place — and let’s just say there was good reason for that suppression.
Here’s why: Because competition brings out an adrenalin-fuelled intensity in my personality that can be extremely unpleasant. Nope, it’s worse than that. It can be ugly.
In individual competition, there’s no problem: the only one I’m being hard on is myself, and for reasons probably best discussed with a therapist, being hard on myself brings out my best effort. But on a team, competitive intensity, handled badly, just sucks. Basically, I’m transferring expectations about my own level of intensity to everyone around me. What I seem to demand of myself, and therefore of teammates, is maximum effort — forget being there for fun, apparently I just want to win. Honestly, if this team sports thing is going to work out, I need to figure out how to dial this aspect of my personality down, and fast. Also, I need to shut up. There’s nothing wrong with having high expectations for myself; but in a team setting, positive feedback is the only feedback worth giving.
(And I need to get off the field without complaint when I’m subbed out! Good grief. It was one little moment in Sunday’s game, but honestly, in that moment I behaved like an ass.) 
You know, on the surface, it was a good game on Sunday evening — we won for the first time this season, and I scored the only goal of the game, and it was a very nice goal, put together with the help of excellent teamwork. But I came home feeling yucky. Realizing that I’d let my competitive nature take over; realizing that I wanted too badly to win and was willing to fight inappropriately toward that end.
So I guess my question is: Can I change? Can I, ahem, mature? Can I become a good teammate?
In some ways, I hate how the learning never seems to end. In other ways, I’m glad for it. Life has a way of shaving off my hubris, and keeping me humble. Ugh. It’s no fun being kept humble, even if it’s good medicine.
But I’m hopeful. It’s not all bad news. I really like being coached and getting feedback and criticism on my play — probably shaped by years of appreciating the writer/editor relationship, which is based on necessary criticism and mutual trust. And I really want to keep playing on a team, and improving — everything. Skills, fitness, but especially attitude. Especially that. I’ll report back.

Say it simple, say it best

jimmy'slunch
thanks to my mom for taking this photo of my kids walking to a diner for breakfast

This morning, our littlest piano player was becoming frustrated with her practicing. Slam, slam, slam the fingers on the keys, wrong note, BANG, wrong note, BANG, wrong note, BANG. “This song is too hard!” This was preceded by a ridiculous argument with her sister over the “funnies” in the paper (which no one finds funny, yet everyone insists on reading; which I find funny). And it was followed by a ridiculous argument with said sister over a sunhat — she wanted to wear her sister’s hat, which was apparently much superior to her own. “I only have one hat and she has two!” was the cry of misery.

Suddenly I realized — she was tired. It had been a late night, her first soccer practice of the season, bedtime pushed back by an hour, and she’d woken early.

Ah. It all made perfect sense.

I’m feeling a little bit the same way myself, frankly. Need more sleep.

Life is bigger

ivy1
A poem for this day


I am swept along
I am a still point in a river that will not quit its rushing
I am immersed in the world
I am blessed
I am not to understand everything and not to take anything
I am given to grace and place
I am sure as a branch and broken as a branch
I am breath and brilliance and calm
While I am, I am
With love with fierceness with the selfness of ongoing until
Gone
Burn in the water flame in the soil flicker in the darkness of a house at midnight
Steady on.

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