Friday, May 25, 2012

Primary School Pentecost


The following piece appeared as a guest post on Communicating Across Boundaries, a lovely blog about faith, life and culture.


Every Tuesday I spend time in a classroom with kids from all over the world... Together, we read, write and tell stories; and this year, we are experimenting with journaling. On a recent Tuesday, we delved into a story about a ‘half’ birthday. Afterwards, a girl and I wondered. I wonder how the family crossed the busy road? I wonder why the birthday boy fell asleep? I wonder where their dog is running through the trees? I wonder why they celebrated a half birthday? I wonder why his sister took her dinosaur back? I wonder what we celebrate, and how?

To read more, click here.

Oscar's Half Birthday

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Response: The 100-Mile Diet

The 100-mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating

Very belatedly for one who is interested in local food, I have finally picked up The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating by Alisa Smith and JB McKinnon (published in the US under the title, Plenty). I admit I avoided it for a long time. I had already read a book on similar themes, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: Our Year of Seasonal Eating by Barbara Kingsolver; the thought of a whole book about what a couple ate for a year seemed too boring for words; and anyway, I know the theory of why we should eat locally and didn't see the need to be told all over again. Of course, my assumptions were completely wrong; this is a fine book. Richer than a food diary and more engaging than a polemic – and much funnier than Kingsolver – here is an intimate portrait of a Vancouver couple. The story is structured around the year they ate only food grown within 100 miles of their home, but it is much more than a story about dinner.

The book certainly has aspects of a food log, telling where and how they found local produce. They write nicely of the satisfaction of a successful run to the farmer's market, or finding an unexpected farm gate. They learn the intricacies of honey and squash; gorge on blueberries; pick strawberries; meet local fishermen; and learn how to cook, preserve and eat all sorts of new things.

It is also a fascinating history of a local area, charting the shifts in agriculture over the last few centuries. From an abundant food region for the Salish and other coastal tribes, to a self-sufficient colony feeding itself and exporting crops, to an area which imports most of its food while shipping out monocrops, the use of the land has changed dramatically. In that time, the stocks of wild foods, particularly fish, have also plummeted, so that an area which was once unimaginably abundant with seafood now enforces fishing controls to try and preserve what is left. Most sad are the devastating effects industrial accidents have had on the area; during their year of eating locally, half a million river fish were killed by a caustic soda spill. In the face of such devastation, however, the authors refuse to despair; instead, they choose to live responsibly and orient themselves towards hope.

These stories of shopping, eating and growing are interesting. Even more engaging, however, is Alisa's story. Alisa and James wrote alternate chapters, interweaving their views into one story. James's chapters are more finessed, but Alisa's are more personal; and I found her writing moving. She has suffered from cyclical depression since childhood, and although she doesn't dwell on the depression, it certainly has an impact on their year. She writes of what is, to me, a very familiar way of life, that is, living with one eye always on the alternatives, obsessing about real estate, other places, other houses, other lives, and that which might have been. The key to the book, and what is for me the key to local eating, is found in the pages where Alisa argues that eating locally has helped ground her into her particular existence, her particular time and place, in a way that is deeply and psychically healing; so much so that once the year was up, she (and they) decided to maintain, in large part, the diet.

I resonate very deeply with this part of the story, recognising myself in her description of living with one eye always fixed on the alternatives. I don't really know why I feel this way. It may be the curse of colonialism: I am the descendant of colonists; I live two thousand miles from the city of my grandparents; I have no long family history which links me to this place. It may be the curse of third culture kids: I lived in a couple different countries as a child, and all and none of them feel like home. It may just be a pervasive sense of saudade.

Whatever it is, I find this rootlessness and its corresponding restlessness corrosive. It's exhausting; I long for somewhere to relax and belong. I look at other cities, other houses, other lives, with the illusion that somewhere I may find my rest; but deep down I know that the answer does not lie elsewhere. Wherever I live, I will soon feel the same way.

Instead, what matters is that I work towards making whichever place I am in home. This takes learning: learning the seasons, learning the weather patterns, learning the annual changes of particular trees and the visits of particular birds. It's noticing small things: our May visitor, the thrush, which turns up for a week or two every year; the almond, which always blossoms in July.

And a crucial aspect of this project of rooting myself to this place is to learn the food – the people who grow it, the places it is grown, the seasons when it is ripe. Food is so primal, and so intimately linked to the land and our bodies, that it has the potential to locate us firmly in the present.

My family is by no means fully committed to local eating. By the time we factor in our family's multiple food allergies, intolerances and ethical choices, we'd just about starve eating solely local foods; and anyway, I'm not cooking potatoes for breakfast. However, over the last few years, as I have made an effort to source and feed my family with as much local food as reasonably manageable, I have found myself feeling correspondingly more grounded. The delight I take in knowing that in Koo Wee Rup, asparagus is growing its way towards spring; that fresh potatoes from Gembrook have skins so thin they are translucent; that Brunswick honey is at the base of my lip gloss is profound, more than just pleasure: it's the deep slow rooting of my life to the here and now.

The authors of The 100-Mile Diet, with their insights into place and belonging, clearly articulate what I have been fumbling towards on the other side of the world. They do this in between simple recipes for often overlooked foods; hilarious stories of separating grain from mouse poop with a credit card; and rollcalls of species and varieties that are now but a memory: the fish, the wheat, the potatoes, the apples that once stocked the region around Vancouver.

It is an engaging book, clear and well written, gentle and self-mocking even as it is inspiring. We might not all be freelance writers with the time to cook every meal, even breakfast, for a year; but in telling their story, the authors encourage us to think about how we might reconnect with our own locality and give us reasons beyond ethics. In short, in their view and mine, eating local food feeds more than the stomach: it is deeply grounding nourishment for the soul.

'We felt like pioneers setting foot on a strange place called home.' (James, on eating an indigenous camas bulb for the first time).

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: Our Year of Seasonal Eating

Friday, May 11, 2012

Cake stalls and fighter jets


Another Mother’s Day, another kinder cake stall. I am a mother, and I protest.

The modern celebration of Mother’s Day arose out of a call to radical peacemaking. Women were reeling after the carnage of the American Civil War; Mother’s Day was proposed by women as a pacifist initiative to end the culture of war. The original proclamation for Mother’s Day rejected all forms of violence, and instead called for an international congress of women to negotiate global conflict through peaceful means.

Now Mother’s Day has been co-opted by our consume-or-die culture. Instead of street marches, letters to the government and sit ins at the local army barracks, it has become a day of bad restaurant lunches, tacky presents nobody needs, and kinder cake stalls at the local shopping centre. While I can roll my eyes at the lunches and the fluffy slippers, the cake stalls drive me to distraction.

Why, in the name of all that is holy, do we pay billions for the military while every public school and kindergarten is holding a bake sale this weekend to raise money for essential items? Floating around in the eighties was a lovely tea towel sold, I am sure, at school fundraisers. It read something along the lines of ‘it will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need, and the air force has to hold a cake stall to buy a new fighter jet.’ Hear, hear.

I do not understand how we can fail to invest in our young while military spending goes through the roof. Surely the easiest route to safety and security is to ensure a proper education and reasonable opportunity for all: not just for wealthy children, not even just for our children, but for all children everywhere across the globe. Security is not attained through the development of deadlier weapons systems deployed to threaten and kill other people’s sons and daughters; nor is it attained by brutalizing our own sons and daughters as they are trained in the arts of war. Instead, it is only possible when everyone has enough: enough food, enough healthcare, enough education, enough work.

I protest the cake stall and everything it represents, and yet my daughter’s kindergarten needs plants in the garden and crafts in the cupboard. So I roll up my sleeves and bake peanut butter cookies and wrap them up in cellophane; but as I do so, in a small rebellion of sorts, I say a prayer for peace.

You can read Julia Ward Howe’s original Mother’s Day Proclamation here; contribute to an international development fund here; and the tea towel is, rather thrillingly, available here, and just as I remember it!


Tuesday, May 8, 2012

New Neighbours


My husband and I have always wanted to live in the sort of street where kids run back and forth between the neighbours' houses; and we absolutely don't. There are two families on our block, and neither reply when we greet them in the street. Strange, but true.

So we gave up on our actual neighbours with kids; there are only so many rebuffs one can endure. Instead, we tried to get friends to move in next door; then we looked at moving closer to friends; but we never found a place or arrangement that feels right. And so we have lived these last eight years isolated from any neighbours with children.

Meanwhile, my husband's family is what some psychologists refer to as 'totally disparate'. That is, they don't communicate about anything at any time, and we can go months without seeing or hearing from anyone; text messages disappear into a black hole. To give you an idea, although we live in the same city, we haven't seen one of my husband's brothers in five years. There is no animosity or hostility, just a complete lack of interest. For that matter, we found out accidentally that my husband's aunt was dead and buried; no one had thought to let us know in time for the funeral.

My husband's father has been known to forget the very existence of grandchildren; needless to say, there are no birthday cards from him. He rarely communicates, he's abrupt when my husband calls. Again, there is no hostility, just a lack of interest. His partner is the same.

Yet one day this summer, my father-in-law telephoned. He told me that his partner has a son who lives round the corner with his wife and child; and on such and such a day we were to report there for lunch. While I was still trying to make sense of it, he hung up.

It is the first social engagement he has invited us to in the decade and a half that I have known him – and so, of course, I didn't want to go. Neither did my husband. If the couple were anything like my father-in-law and his partner, we didn't have the energy for them. But being dutiful oldest children, we swallowed our protests and grudgingly walked around the corner, assuring each other that we'd eat lunch then slip away as soon as was polite.

Of course we met the most delightfully intelligent couple, with a similar outlook to ours. We share life experiences; we are all passionately interested in early childhood; the men barrack for the same football team; and we are all exasperated by the olds. I asked my host how on earth the parents had organised this lunch and she looked at me as if I were barmy. 'They couldn't organise their way out of a paper bag,' she said, 'I made them invite you.'

We rolled our eyes, then went on talking for another hour or two, leaving only when the kids grew ratty. Their daughter gets along with our girls like a house on fire; they live two doors up from good friends of theirs, who also have daughters, who my girls have now also become friendly with...

And so suddenly we have neighbours with kids; not just neighbours, but a de facto step cousin if you like, with a second on the way! When we see their daughter in the street, she is gleefully swallowed up by our herd of girls. Meanwhile, our girls let themselves out our back gate, run or cycle a dozen houses up the lane, and are at their house. They have spent hours in their new cousin's kitchen, playing with her toys and eating cheese toasties.

Gifts often come from the most unexpected places; and from disinterested older adults who can't remember the existence of all their grandchildren, who fail to respond even to fortieth birthday invitations, who are impossibly infuriatingly vague, has come a longed-for and wholly unexpected gift: a new sense of family, and good neighbours.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Worship, Work and Play


This piece appeared in The Sunday Age Faith column on the weekend.


Does everyone feel short of time? I do. If I clean the house then I'm not working in the garden; if I'm working in the garden, I'm not writing a word; if I'm writing, there are meals to cook; if I'm cooking, there is laundry to fold; if I'm folding, my kids need attention; and when's the last time I exercised? There are too many people to keep up with and chores to be done; too many school drop offs and pickups and kinder runs; too great a need for volunteers and hard workers that I cannot fill. When I let it, the sense of being pressed for time can feel overwhelming.

But what is time for? How should we use it?

In the Christian tradition, the answer is threefold. First, we are called to worship, sometimes in groups, sometimes alone. But worship doesn't happen in a vacuum; it is braided with two other aspects of life.

One is to work in whichever ways have been laid before us. Work may be paid, it may be voluntary; it may form a major part of our Christian identity or it may be our attitude that defines it as a faithful act: whatever it is, however we do it, most Christians know about work. Sadly, we often focus on it to the exclusion of the third strand, which is to play.

We don't hear much about this third strand; and when we do, it is often referred to as the deeply sober 'Sabbath rest'. In essence, however, it is an invitation to play, pure and simple. It's to engage in the restorative 'let's pretend' of a child or the challenge of a more formal game; it's the creative dance of a lively conversation. It's to have an afternoon nap and wake up still dreamy. It's to engage bodies, hearts and minds in the thrill of good sex and to lie around languidly afterwards. For in these moments, whether playing hide-and-seek with a child or chess with adult friends; whether drawing for pleasure or yarning with old mates or engaging in that most intimate of acts with someone we love, that we are so often called back to ourselves.

Gone are the puffed up pretences of the important person; gone is the illusion that we are indispensable. Gone too is the illusion that we are worthless. Instead, in loving relationships and contagious laughter, in creative acts and deep intimacy and the world of the child, we have the possibility of experiencing humility, vulnerability, openness and joy.

With this restoration, all the things we can or should do fade into insignificance, for we are no longer defined by our efforts. Instead, we may know ourselves and be known once again for who we really are, the cherished children of God.

(And if you've forgotten how to play, the following book is an excellent place to start! We use it several times a week, and much more during school holidays.)

Parlour Games for Modern Families
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