Sunday, December 13, 2009

Melt-away Shortbread

My mother's famous Melt-Away Shortbread Recipe - this is the smell and taste of Christmas for me.

1 pound butter
1 cup fruit sugar (Redpath makes a melt-away sugar that is even better, but they are evil so it's up to your conscience. I use it only once a year, so I try to assuage my guilt)
3 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup rice flour

Warning: this is a bit of a persnickity recipe, so following the instructions in order is important to the outcome. You'll need an electric mixer for the beating part to get the best results. You may want to wash under your nails before starting in case you get more hands-on with the batter.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit (165 degrees Celsius)

Mix flours together and set aside.

Measure out sugar.

Beat butter until light and fluffy

Very gradually add sugar, beating all the while

Stir flours into the batter by hand. If you're adventurous, a little bit of true hand mixing (but not quite kneading) might help get the last of the flour absorbed.

Form into semi-flattened balls and bake on parchment paper over a baking pan, on the middle rack, for 17-20 minutes, only until lightly tanned on the bottom (cookies should stay cream coloured). The more round the balls are before flattening, the more perfectly circular your cookies.

Remove from pan immediately to cooling racks.

This will make 3 to 5 dozen round cookies, depending on size (I just got 4 1/2 dozen medium sized). They are rich so you can make them smaller. I usually dip some finished cookies in melted chocolate and cover with sprinkles, but I leave some cookies "naked" because there's pure pleasure to be enjoyed without the chocolate.

You can also roll out the batter and cut into shapes, but they are more prone to breaking than sugar cookies.

Don't double this recipe! I don't know about halfing it, I've never tried.

Good luck!

Garlic & White Bean Soup

A hearty winter favourite with enough garlic to scare away the viruses!

Garlic & White Bean Soup

30 cloves garlic (peeled, whole)
1 yellow hot pepper (seeded, quartered) - optional if you like spice
4.5 cups chicken broth
3 cans white navy beans (rinsed and drained. 4 for thicker soup, or add a can of white Kidney beans for variety)
4 tbsp goat cheese (if you find herbed goat cheese, skip the Herbs de Provence!)
1 tsp Herbs de Provence (if your goat cheese isn't herbed)
5 tbsp fresh lemon juice (approx. 1.5 lemons)
1.5 tsp cooking sherry
1 tsp dried thyme
salt and pepper to taste

Place broth, garlic and yellow pepper in microwave safe bowl. Microwave on high until steamy (10 min or so). Add cheese, lemon juice, sherry, herbs. Mix until cheese melted.

In batches if necessary, place broth in blender with beans and puree until desired consistency.

Move to large pot. Add salt and pepper to taste while stirring. Flavours blend best when simmered at least an hour after blending. Serve hot or refrigerate for later.


Monday, November 23, 2009

Re-entry of a spark friend

(you're entering a pivotal scene in an ongoing plot, so don't be alarmed if you're slightly disoriented...)

And as I walk into the room, my eyes are drawn to a familiar figure, his head turned in conversation. A beat before I really recognize him, my heart surges open with unexpected pleasure. It’s been at least nine years since I last saw Ian. We had a spark friendship, short and intense, having met at a Hallowe’en party and connected in a way that felt more open and familiar than I’d ever experienced with a man. I could accept his attraction because he was gay. Even though I sensed a sexual element somewhere in there, I knew instinctively that our mutual lure was more primal than sex. As though our essences recognized each other as kin.

Through the following months, we were constantly drawn together, talking on the phone every day, meeting up for coffee or lunch at least once a week, often more. We always greeted each other with a smile of special recognition and a hug. We shared our childhood experiences of difference, our deepest shames, our dearest wishes, our uncertainties, while cuddled under a blanket sipping tea. We discussed and debated music, science, politics, spirituality, and a host of inanities. Within a few weeks we had developed the habit of holding hands, leaning on each other and touching naturally with genuine affection. People started whispering and wondering, but we hardly noticed inside the bubble of connectedness we shared. We laughed a lot, we cried sometimes.

Then he met Ristic. Ian was no pansy-boy, but he was slight and fine-boned, hovering on the masculine side of androgyny, with a quick wit and discriminating sensibilities. Ristic was a baseball-playing, jovial boys-boy, laughing while he pushed the limits of propriety to see what it took to offend the current room. He was overtly sexual in his comments and conduct, and though 110% masculine, more openly gay than even sexuality-secure hetero men preferred. He was gorgeous, tall and muscular, with ripped abs accentuated by tight t-shirts, and he exuded an edgy, challenging kind of charisma that made other men fall in line around the top dog.

This was the man who grasped Ian’s heart with a tight fist and squeezed until I hardly knew my friend. Ristic, who only knocked Ian around if he’d had too much to drink. Ristic, who publicly denigrated Ian’s femininity but tolerated no masculine challenge. Ristic, who time and again created situations that forced Ian to choose him over me, clearly marking his possession. Ristic, who held on to Ian for dear life when he discovered that he had HIV. But by the time that happened, I was already in the distance, no longer able to reach the part of Ian that was me.

Now, seeing him, I long for our connection, long for him in a way I thought I’d forgotten to feel. He looks up, drawn by my stare; instantly, my essence leaps with joy at the bright recognition in his eyes. And the next second, plummets as those eyes cloud over with caution, his face settling into the barely amused, polite demeanor of his social mask.

Fear, Responsibility and Change

I recently read Nadeem Aslam The Wasted Vigil. It’s terrifying and fascinating and I don’t know what to do with this information about the nature of terrorist thinking, religious thinking. I start to understand why the right wing pro-war people, the Generals and politicians, sound so crazy – they’re more scared than the rest of us and can’t understand why we aren’t. I begin to understand the appeal of deciding to be just fine with the ideals by which we live existing in a protected bubble, and in the zone of “protection” anything is permissible to keep the centre safe.

And why not? I love my life. Am I really willing to live in an equal world where my average goes down so that more people’s averages can go up? Am I willing to accept more filth, more careful use of resources, more manual labour, less privacy, less convenience, less safety, less individual power? Other people in the world live daily lives filled with fear and powerlessness, concern about having enough food, water or protection to stay alive, let alone comfortable. The slightest inconvenience, delay or difficulty can try my patience – I’m spoiled, whiny and undisciplined next to people who learn to live and grow in those environments.

Which means my “hierarchy of needs” are being met at a pretty high level. Ideally, everyone would have a standard of living high enough that they could become aware of inconvenience, because achieving that level of comfort is a milestone past which people can settle in and look around themselves, start thinking and wondering and looking for creative outlets. Below it, many people are too desperate and busy to spend time analyzing or expanding their understanding beyond opinions handed to them, especially within environments where such activity is not valued or is actively discouraged.

But I’m not convinced that there are enough resources on this planet to allow for that standard of living for the entire earth’s population. In fact, the current system in which some part of the earth’s population has much while most of the population has very little, looks to me like a bell curve with the height of the bell at too low a comfort level, and a very steep drop at the edges. It’s possible this is part of “the natural pattern,” allowing some portion of the human race to focus beyond survival. Even in the poorest places, there are people who have more and people who have less, and those power structures often go right down into family units.

Ideally, the lucky people able to focus beyond survival will turn their minds to finding ways to move the bell curve forward on the comfort scale, so eventually the height of the bell is at a level where people can focus beyond basic survival. I’d like to see the entire human race move toward that. The world’s poor play a role, as do the world’s rich.

It’s like that old, old concept of Divine Right. What if our privileged lives are serving a purpose towards the greater good of future generations of a larger portion of the human race? If our society fed back to the people it uses and exploits to achieve its standard, raising their standards bit by bit in ways that made sense to them at a basic survival level, would that just breed more resentment, or would they see the greater good?

It doesn’t really matter because North American society is not focused on raising the world level of comfort over generations, it’s focused on raising it’s own level of comfort in decades. There’s a chance that the resentment much of the world feels wouldn’t be affected one way or the other by our society’s actual behaviour, given envy and limited available information. But when the behaviour is overtly exploitative, dismissive and violent in nature, there is much to fear.

We need to get the mean comfort level up to above survival – those who have the luxury of looking beyond survival have the responsibility to try to get others there, too. That doesn't mean we’ll all be equal, mind you – the “haves” continue to increase their own standard of living as the bell curve shifts to the right.

I follow the arguments that the current system must be destroyed because it is cruel. But I don’t think that will solve anything. If there is to be a general positive trajectory toward a world of abundance for all, it can only occur as a deliberate, steady improvement over time - a concerted effort among a majority of "haves." When there are too many desperate people and revolution takes place, it shifts the “haves” and “have nots” around, but doesn’t change the basic issues with society. There is loss and suffering, but no progress towards greater good. It’s the new saddle on the old donkey.

The current system can be turned toward an increased awareness of, and willingness to invest in, raising the mean comfort level. Those of us who understand that it’s our duty to do this need to work hard at helping other people see that it’s in all of our best interest to be devoting a larger part of the world’s resources to the general good of the human race.

We can do it, we should do it, and we must do it faster, or the whole system will come crashing down and none of us will be comfortable any more. At the same time, protecting the current system is like taking drugs for symptoms while they research a cure. But, we’d better make sure the means we employ to protect the system aren’t causing other side effects, or killing us in other ways, and I don’t think anyone knows how to do that.

I want to protect my life as it is because I love my life – I wish everyone could love their lives like I do, and I think it would be a lot easier to get along if everyone did. I also think the current system has hope of producing a strong, cohesive, concerted effort at raising the world’s comfort level, even though it will take generations beyond my own efforts. If the current economic system is destroyed by anger and ignorance, hatred and selfishness, it could be several generations before another group of “haves” gets to the development point where the “human” cause is taken up again. And so much knowledge will have been lost in the meantime, ground to re-cover, learning to re-learn. It’s true that most of western society is not focused on the human race. Yet, maybe only this decadent a society can produce a sufficient number of aware, committed “haves” to really make change.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Oh, elusive fulfillment

I recently achieved exactly what I set out to do, and yet, here comes dissatisfaction. I can hear its footsteps around the corner.

I've always associated my identity with being a professional. Even my spare time was spent working on interesting theories or programs in my field. When I left the workforce for my first maternity leave at 34, it was the first time in my life that I didn't constantly feel the anxious little twangs and spasms that my body uses to remind me to stay on high alert. I was just here, with my son, accountable to no one else. It wasn't long before I mistook being relaxed for being bored (I still have a hard time telling them apart).

When my body relaxed a bit, my brain started feeling really uncomfortable. I felt disconnected from my profession, and I couldn't shake the nagging sense that I was slipping, stagnating, wasting precious career time. Even as I felt the value of the time with my son, the moments of pure joy and discovery were still fewer than the moments of monotony and drudgery. I found myself joking that I was a pretty expensive babysitter. I couldn't settle into it, and I started doing contract work when Blaise was 5 months old.

I decided to make a clean break and took a new job well before the end of my maternity leave, only to discover that I was pregnant within a week of starting. I'd hardly gotten back in, and I was off again, but this time with two. Caring for a baby that couldn't hold it's own head while herding a newly-walking toddler with no sense of danger was not the same experience as my first maternity leave. We stayed home a lot. I really started to notice that the moments of joy and discovery were outweighed by the drudgery, monotony and general difficulty of parenting two extremely young, and very intense, children. I decided that I just wasn't cut out for being a stay-at-home parent, so I started back to work when Sabine was 8 months old, 3 days a week.

My second return to work was a flop. My energy had never been so low, and the role itself was not emerging as having interesting projects. Eight months in, I flip-flopped my opinion, deciding that I simply wasn't engaged enough in the work to justify not being with the kids. I was optimistic - they were a bit older, both walking and talking - surely it would be more interesting to be home with them. I left my job. It was more interesting and slightly less exhausting, but I was not happy. I was restless, impatient, and felt prickly with resentment a lot of the time.

So now I was not feeling interested in the profession that had previously encompassed my identity, and not happy home with the kids, where my energy and life force felt constantly sucked dry. So I wondered if maybe I just hadn't found my calling - maybe I needed to serve the world to feel fulfilled. I decided to take some contract work 2 days a week when we fell short of money, but not to accept a job until I was able to feel like my work would make a difference in the world.

Within 6 months I'd achieved my goal - a role with a local non-profit focused on systemic-level poverty elimination initiatives, engaging the community using all the same skills I'd built in my previous career. I even negotiated a perfect week - 3.5 days for the family, 3.5 days for work. I have time with the kids, but it's not my whole life. I have work that adds value and keeps me at least moderately stimulated. The kids themselves are now really fun and interesting, despite the roller-coaster ride of emotions that comprise the days. Life is better. Overall, I'm happy.

But I feel it again - that same irritated dissatisfaction that starts chipping away at my energy and enthusiasm. This time, I think it's because of the story I feel compelled to create, the frustration when I lose clarity of ideas because I don't have time to capture them, and an almost physical pull to give more time to that project. But I've misdiagnosed before, and I'm cautious.

I have a strong suspicion that there is something else going on here. I'm restless and dissatisfied, despite my gratitude for the many moments of love and joy that belong to me on every single day. Is it the pull to write? Is it fear and disappointment of watching possibilities and potentials wither and close their pathways as I approach middle age with two small children in tow? Is it unresolved parent issues?

As my husband likes to say when diagnosing problems, "it's never one thing."

Maybe fulfillment isn't something to get so worked up about. If I find a way to calm the anxious seeking for life purpose, stop comparing (for real!), and enjoy riding the waves of my life, I'll be happier. Sometimes I achieve it. But there is always this nagging tug towards "purpose," "fulfillment," and, as I type those words, a third comes unbidden: "respect." Hmm.

I wish I had time for this level of self development!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Here, together

S. watches Papa and B. leave for dance class, and I see the click of realization: she has Mommy to herself. Not one to miss an opportunity, she states her position from the start. “I stay at the house,” she says, softly but clearly. I reply brightly, “Yes, we can stay here for a few more minutes, and then we’re going to music with Sasha!” Her eyes meet mine but she doesn’t return my hopeful smile. “No. I stay at the house.” A beat passes, then “Here, mommy, here with you” just in case I didn’t understand.

I'm not too phased – as I do when at my best, I started this conversation a good 10 minutes before we actually have to get ready to leave. We chat about her toys, cuddle on the sofa to read a book, and then I say, “Thank you for the play time! Now we’ll get ready to go to music!” Before I even finish the sentence, she's squirming away from my side, her back to me and face deliberately turned away. She crawls lazily along the floor to a chair across the room, climbs up, and sits firmly to face me. I say, clinging still to optimism, “Let’s go, Sabine, we’ll get your shoes with the flowers, and you can have a snack in the car!” She watches me in silence.

Now we are in the critical 3 minutes – the difference between running in the door just as class starts, or bustling in disruptively late and missing the “hello” song, which tends to set a sullen tone. Here comes my adrenaline; I hear myself sigh heavily, and it reminds me to breathe.

I move to the floor at her feet. “So, you don’t want to go to music?” emerges from my mouth, disappointment dripping from my feigned surprise. Her eyes widen in silent regard, as if to say “duh.” (Hey, that’s my look!) “No music?” I ask again. She shakes her head so hard her upper torso comes along for the ride.

And then something breaks through my adrenaline focus, a stutter in the undercurrent of “must do next” that is my perpetual background process. I feel a sensation like opening just under my ribcage and it takes me a second to realize it’s relief.

“Okay,” I say with a more genuine smile than I’ve shown all morning. “Let’s stay here, together.” Her eyes light on mine and she leaps from the chair into my arms.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Never an abuser

My son is three-and-a-half. My daughter is two-and-a-quarter. I'm working hard to develop my patience, compassion and supportive coaching capacities, and they are my immersion program.

The other day, I noticed that they behave to me in ways not unlike a dog that's sometimes kicked by the owner it adores. I sense occasional resentment, quickly overcome by joy in the present happy mood, but with subtle anxious watching. If my mood changes unexpectedly, like if play gets too rough and I'm hurt, their response is a wail of heartbreak-mingled fear, becoming anguished cries and heaving sobs. They aren’t just crying to get on my nerves or be difficult, much as those things may result. They are heartbroken. For them, this moment of anger calls into subconscious question every belief they have in their own lovability. Every time I lose it and turn into Monster Mom, even if it only lasts 10 seconds, it breeds doubt while also instilling traits. I am the paragon of human behaviour for them. I show them what to do with these feelings, and they log it, learn it, and it becomes them. Over time it’s the family dynamic.

So if I know all that, why do I ever lose it? Why do I end up yelling out or whining at them when they do what can only be expected? Maybe because I feel impatient and bored with the same lessons over and over. By the 80th time we play out essentially the same scenario in a week, I want them to be on my agenda. I’m expecting them to learn my steps and needs, and they appear to be steadfastly focused on anything but. It's tedious, and the tediousness grates against my agenda, causing anxiety to cohabit with existing frustration. That's my side of it. What's theirs?

It’s important for them that I am happy. And, it’s imperative for them that they fulfill their immediate perceived need. They are programmed to learn; it’s a physical, psychological and emotional compulsion to do what the brain has settled on, try it in a very specific way, and try it themselves. This focus is no more aware of the “five minute warning” or the importance of getting to music on time than is my growling stomach when I’m hungry. He’s not wilfully ignoring me, he’s focusing on something he finds more fascinating than my agenda. That’s the word for it – they are fascinated with what’s in their now, to the exclusion of much else.

While my irritation is rising, he’s also becoming irritated by the mosquito-like distraction from his current sole purpose in life. He’s intent on his brain’s immediate food, whether or not I see it that way, and he isn’t in the headspace to listen to alternatives. He is working to stay focused on whatever it is, and I’m getting in the way. His first instinct is to swat at me, either in a whiny or angry tone, or sometimes with hands or feet. When I try to understand what he’s feeling, I remember the way my brain and body focus on going back to sleep when I can’t bring myself to get out of bed, despite escalating reasons to do so. Everything is irritating in that moment.

Breaking away from compulsion gets easier over time – the compulsion fades, and our ability to break improves. But still, if I’m in the middle of writing something and one of them is nagging, Mommy, Mooooommmmyyy, MOMMY!, I’m quite likely to turn on them and fiercely say “I’m BUSY, please WAIT,” scaring the hell out of them. So what do I expect from someone who has 1/10th of my experience, very little perspective, no real buy-in into the agenda, and a compulsion likely stronger than anything I’ve experienced in a long time? I expect more than I expect of myself, that’s what. Where is my compassion? How do I call it up every moment of every day so that I’m never an abuser, not even a tiny bit, not even hardly ever. Just never.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

A three year old dilemma

Caught in a temper tantrum, this endless loop of wailing angst about some trivial detail that must be absolutely the way he wants it, now. Too distraught with purest frustration and terrifying anger to bring himself to ask nicely. He shakes with the effort of it, and bellows out against being broken in this unacceptable way. Reviving the flame when he starts to tire, re-investing himself in achieving the detail, fanning the total hysterical devotion. He shakes his head heavily from side to side, his hands are a blur of up and down motion, his face a mask of incredulous misery. Even when he allows himself to be touched or cuddled, he continues sobbing and reviving. At any sign that he’s relenting, I try to touch the point of reason in him, gently, carefully, with cooing sympathy, giving him permission to begin to let it go. But he won’t take it. He recognizes my attempt and insists on his right to be sad. How can I deny that? But what is the reasonable period? Where is the line between learning to console yourself and learning to wallow in the power of the current emotional state despite its destructive effect on your goal?

And after a time, I start to think, No More. I’ve done all that can be reasonably expected, and now it’s your responsibility to find a way out of this. Enough time and energy has been spent, on both our parts, for this particular emotional overload. Now you need to overcome it – that’s your job. You have the capacity, and it’s time. Especially if there’s a reason I want to move forward with the schedule or we’re already pressed for time. So now I find it hard to see through the blur of whether I’ve really provided a reasonable amount of time and support for the level of emotional distress he’s in, regardless of whether the cause seems trivial, or am I simply letting my impatience and agenda colour my thinking?

And after many of these episodes in a relatively short period, I think, Really? Again? I sigh, internally, externally, and my offerings of cooing sympathy peter out more quickly in both length and quantity. My expectations of how easily and efficiently he should be able to overcome his emotional overload become more about my perception that the cause is trivial than about what he needs in the reality of his current perception. My comments are shorter, more clipped, irritation seeping then spilling in. My adrenaline is flowing; I’m starting to feel frustrated and even angry. And as it’s happening, I feel I should be better but just can’t bring myself to it. Like him.

So how many hands to I have? Because on another hand, I ask myself how he will learn not to make mountains out of molehills if I indulge his every tantrum with added loving attention. Will being unwaveringly patient and loving in the face of this monstrous tantrum just encourage him to act unreasonably whenever he wants to take over the agenda? Will I send the message that it’s okay to let yourself lose control of your emotional state just because it’s hard to work through it? Will I unwittingly teach him that it’s someone else’s responsibility to calm you down instead of your own responsibility to come to terms with what you’re experiencing?

How do I teach him loving limits without limiting his ability to feel through his emotions?

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Depression as an element of Happiness

I'm exploring the idea that the unpleasant and sometimes debilitating feelings of depression are an opportunity for experience and practice. On the one hand, I need to learn how to exercise control that can reduce their interference with what's important. On the other hand, I need to provide myself with some "safe place" and time to explore and experience sadness, futility, worry, confusion, resentment, anger, fear and all the other emotions clamoring for my attention. My theory is that if I just shove those feelings aside in my focus on the unattainable goal of consistent happiness, I am shutting out a richness of experience that can strengthen me.

Maybe the feeling in my chest that comes with the perfect storm of emotion I associate with depression is like the aching of childbirth, as though the feelings are helping to open my spirit to empathy and understanding. Maybe fighting and avoiding depression keeps me emotionally and spiritually underdeveloped, stunted.

When they come along, I've wasted time seeking the cause of depressive emotions, or trying to immediately neutralize or eliminate them. When they come unbidden at inopportune times, I bribe them with food so they'll go away for the time being. I work hard to hold them at bay with deliberate positivity so that I can be a good parent, a good employee, a good partner, a good friend in the moment. I think this is important practice and will continue to use positive thinking to keep those feelings from taking dominance in my daily life. But still, eventually, they always come back for more, filling my head and sucking my patience, threatening my ability to keep all the balls in the air.

Recently, I had an opportunity to put down my burden of responsibilities for a few days, and my body demanded I pay attention by getting sick. With the kids safely away and vacation freeing me from work, I thought I would feel happy. I was frustrated and angry to find myself in unexplainable depression. When I stopped fighting it and felt it, I recognized my own sense of grief for my life before parenting, futility in the face of the world's complex issues, guilt about my children's first experience of separation from me, loneliness and longing for more true connection, and a host of other elements. It's like dissecting the flavours in a meal. Not a very pleasant meal, but still.

As I greeted each emotion, I danced with it, grieved with it, hugged it close - I fully FELT it without calling it "bad," without demanding its immediate retreat, and most of all, releasing permission to feel it. I realized I feel guilty for even having these emotions. Feeling sadness implies failure or dissatisfaction with my life, and the truth is, I have a perfect life. So what right do I have to feel these things, and if I do, does that mean I'm not happy?

I came to a place where I realized it doesn't have to be either/or. I can be both happy, and sometimes depressed. I anticipate one key for me is learning what to do with the difficult emotions when they are inconvenient or I can't take the time to experience them, without resorting to food or drugs. That will be a lifetime of learning, I think, and maybe I need to wean off the crutches while strengthening through emotional "physio."

Another key may be to accept the emotions I've called "depression" as integral to myself and my growth. I want to pay attention so these feelings can help me strengthen my empathy and through it, my compassion. I want to experience these feelings as a foil that amplifies my gratitude and appreciation, while keeping me honest about whether I'm taking care of my own needs in this life.

My hope is that living and even loving my "depression" as part of me will help me settle deeper into my self and my strength. It's an experiment!

Maybe we've got depression all wrong

I've been playing with the idea that "depression" isn't what I think. My impression of depression has been that it's the opposite of happiness, a plague to be avoided, something only the weak succumb to, and when not overcome in a timely manner, must be treated with drugs.

What if the feelings we sum up as "depression" actually represent elements of happiness? What if, in fact, experiencing depression offers opportunities to learn more about gratitude and empathy while strengthening our brain's synopses around adapting through practice? What if our goal wasn't to eliminate depression, but to find ways to incorporate it more effectively into our lives?

More thinking on this...