Staying Off the Treadmill, A 2nd Anniversary

Early morning paddleIt has been two years since Tim and I started off on our “Gap Year for Grown Ups”, two years since I began this blog. At the time, I thought I was taking a year’s leave of absence from my job. An unstructured year of travel was bracketed, I thought, by structure. I had a job, I’d be away for a year, I would go back to the job. As far as life changing adventures go it felt relatively safe.

But travel changes a person and time waits for no man – to use two well-worn clichés. The organization that I was absent from altered so much in my year away that my job became unrecognizable. Life on the road brought me into a different understanding of myself and who, perhaps, I wanted to be. I could not go back to where I’d been before. I began looking for a different treadmill.

Some of the lessons that I have learned in the year since we’ve been home have been harsh. Job hunting when you are a woman of a certain age is painful and soul sucking. “A lifetime of experience” became a negative phrase. The matter of an income weighed heavily as did the lack of independence and personal status. As I frantically tried to step back onto a treadmill, any treadmill, every foray made me question what on earth I was doing.

Set against my anxiety has been my continued freedom. Remaining off the treadmill has given me a chance to be more accessible to family, friends and community. I’ve had time to do a couple of meaningful volunteer projects. I’ve been back in my calligraphy studio, remembering how much I love the shape of letters. I was able to travel to Mexico to visit my mother. I had time to go on a pilgrimage to California with my father’s ashes. I’ve made sure to begin each day with a calm walk down country roads.

Most excitingly, I’ve written a book that will be published this fall — September 17: A Novel. I hadn’t expected that to happen but that’s the great thing about being in freefall – you just don’t know what you’ll find.

“…Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself before she found herself falling down what seemed to be a very deep well.

 Either the well was very deep, or she fell very slowly, for she had plenty of time as she went down to look about her, and to wonder what was going to happen next. First she tried to look down and make out what she was coming to, but it was too dark to see anything; then she looked at the sides of the well, and noticed that they were filled with cupboards and bookshelves; here and there she saw maps and pictures hung upon pegs…” (Alice in Wonderland)

While I was looking around me, I discovered a story that needed to be written. Like Alice, it came from a picture that I saw on a wall, a picture of a group of 5 little boys, grinning from ear to ear, wearing oversized sailor’s uniforms and waving from the deck of a ship. They had just been rescued after spending 8 days on a lifeboat in the Atlantic. The picture led me to the story, and into writing a novel.

September 17: A Novel is based on true events. It follows a group of children who are being evacuated from England to Canada during the Second World War on The SS City of Benares. Told from the perspective of the children, it is a story about their dreams of a life across the ocean, a life free from bombs, free from fires and death, free from food rationing. When their ship is torpedoed in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, it becomes a story of adventure, survival, loss and incredible bravery. September 17 is published by Red Deer Press. A portion of the proceeds from the book will be donated to Save the Children, and I am looking forward to working to help them raise funds for their worthy efforts on behalf of children. I’ll be having book launches in Toronto and Ottawa this October and I hope you’ll join me if you are around.

The boys from Lifeboat 12
The boys from Lifeboat 12

Travelling was very much an Alice in Wonderland adventure for me. But since I have been home, those boys have helped my temperament to become  more like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz than Alice.

“What have you learned, Dorothy?”

 “I think that it wasn’t enough just to want to see Uncle Henry and Auntie Em, and it’s that if I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again l won’t look any further than my own backyard. Because if it isn’t there l never really lost it to begin with.” (The Wizard of Oz, MGM 1937)

Looking in my own backyard
Looking in my own backyard

I’ve spent this year paying attention to my own backyard, literally and figuratively. I’ve also been connecting with friends in the theatre community, with the result that I’ve got funding to work at Theatre Direct in Toronto this fall. I’ll be involved with two of their new projects – theatre for the very young (toddlers) and theatre for children with autism spectrum disorder. The latter will pick up on the work that I previously did in Ottawa, and I’m thrilled to be working with Jacqueline Russell from Chicago Children’s Theatre again. It is an exciting and rewarding area for me to be focusing on.

I’ve also begun my own business, The Ottawa Children’s Theatre, dedicated to developing and producing theatre for children and youth.

Ottawa Children's Theatre
Ottawa Children’s Theatre

I’m working with Jan Irwin and Easy Avenue Productions to develop a new theatre piece based on Brian Doyle’s book Up to Low. The Ottawa Children’s Theatre is also going to offer acting classes for kids aged 5 – 15. I’ve got a stellar line up of teachers for the fall, and, I’ve partnered with the Acting Company to operate out of the newly renovated Avalon Theatre in Ottawa’s Glebe. It’s an exciting new venture.

So it would seem that I have accepted that I am not getting back on the treadmill any time soon. To be fair, I’ve lived most of my life as a freelance artist. Working for someone else, for a steady pay cheque with benefits, turns out to have been an aberration. While there are things about that job that I miss terribly, I know I am on the right path. So I am celebrating the 2nd anniversary of this blog fully off the treadmill.

Country Mouse/ City Mouse

Truth be told, I am very conflicted about my country mouse/ city mouse existence. I love big cities. I was so happy to be living in London last year, and since we’ve been back, I have been missing the energy of city life. There are days when I rage at being isolated in the country. I long to walk down a street, hear different languages, peer into windows, people watch.

But I am also deeply committed to living in the woods. We moved to the rural wilds of eastern Ontario 25 years ago to give our children a childhood filled with trees to climb, stars to count and newts to save. Every day I revel in the beauty of what I learn outside my door.

We were in Toronto this past week, visiting our son Xan for his birthday, when the big blizzard hit. There was no driving home so we spent a fabulous day visiting friends and trudging through the snowy streets. Going to St. Lawrence Market was a party in itself – there was a communal pride in being intrepid Canadians. We sipped spicy Korean soup and shared weather stories with others who had braved the storm for the sake of community and good food.

The next day was clear and bright and we drove away from the city, leaving the already brown, snow-clogged city streets. Snow in the city is annoying, but in the country it is transformative. It stays white and clean and makes everything look new and fresh. The snow reflects the sun, making everything brighter. In the country when there is a huge snowfall followed by a day of sunshine, we unfurl from our grumpy grey winter hibernation and soak up the extra strong rays. Winter on these days is the best time of year imaginable. I can’t imagine anywhere better.

Our house is on 78 acres of scrubby land, adjoining hundreds of sparsely populated acres of the same. On a snow-filled winter day, I can walk out the front door, strap on my cross-country skis and go to investigate the woods.

Amanda heading out for a ski
Heading out to ski

Lewis and I decided to explore together – he on snow shoes, me on skis. We’ve got a trail through the property that we keep open, but breaking through the snow is hard work. These are not groomed ski trails. I let Lewis go first.

We are not the only ones in the woods, of course. Observing animal tracks is one of the real bonuses of the woods in winter. In the woods you can follow stories. There are a lot of deer this year. We could see where they’d circled the juniper bushes for the deliciously fermented berries.

Deer trails and juniper bushes
Deer trails and juniper bushes

We found hollows where the deer had curled up in south facing exposures – resting places where they could get sun but still be protected from the wind.

A cozy deer bed
A cozy deer bed. The light is deceptive. That’s a hollow in the snow, not a mound. You can see tracks leading in and out.

It takes about a half an hour for us to get to the back end of our land, longer when we are breaking trail. Our property ends at an old rail bed that is now part of the Trans Canada Trail. Initiated in 1994, the TCT is the world’s longest muti-use network of recreational trails. 73% of the trail is now complete, comprising 16,800 kilometers of trail stretching across the country. It is scheduled for completion in 2017, in time for the 150th anniversary of Confederation. Apparently, 80% of Canadians are within 30 minutes of the trail – which seems to me an impossible statistic. Does that mean 80% of Canadians could come walking, riding, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, jogging, biking, or skiing past my “back door”? Perhaps I am not as isolated as I thought.

We have an old barn at the back of our property, right by the trail.

The old barn
The old barn

The barn is at least 100 years old, probably more like 150, as it was one of the first built by the previous owners of the land. They had a sawmill and a barn building business. It is a beautiful building, with huge ash beams of a size that is unknown now. I’ve used the occasional piece of barn board for artwork (“Fragments of the Leaves of Grass”). But it’s at the back of the property and not really useful to us as a barn. I’m ashamed to say we’ve let it fall into disrepair. With this last snowfall the roof finally caved in. It is now a statistic – one of Ontario’s beautiful ruins of agricultural days gone by. Too late to repair it, I can only hope the wood will find new life as reclaimed furniture or art.

But there is an animal trail coming out of the barn. Something canine, that is clearly living in there and has made a well-worn path. It is solitary, not grouped like the clustered deer tracks. While coyotes are common, the singularity and size of the path makes me wonder if it is a wolf. A lone wolf. Perhaps. I’m glad the barn can give it shelter.

Lewis and I find a fallen branch to dust off and sit on. I’ve brought us a little treat for our excursion – tiny glasses of port and a piece of Mexican chocolate. We leave drops and crumbs for hungry deer to find.

There is a beaver pond on our land, and we set off across it, well off the trail now.

setting off across the beaver pond
setting off across the beaver pond

The snow allows us to explore places that we can’t get to other times of year. We begin the trip back home. The afternoon sun streams through the cedar grove. The silence is deep and full.

It really doesn’t get much better.

The light through the cedar grove
The light through the cedar grove

A Grand Birthday Tour

I have a hard time with my birthday. It is in January, probably the worst month of the year. I am never sure how I should respond to everyone’s well wishes. I am usually pretty grumpy.

This year, I resolved to take things in hand and order up a perfect day. I made a request for a special meal to be shared with just a small few. I decided that the best birthday treat would be to spend a day reading by the fire and watching dinner being made.

Our son Lewis is living with us right now. He has worked as a cook in a number of restaurants. He loves to work with food, and spending a day cooking is his idea of heaven. So I asked him to make me a special birthday meal, with Tim as sommelier and assistant. I didn’t ask about what we were going to have. I just waited for it to unfold.

I stretched out in my oversized rocking chair by a cheery fire, reading Wuthering Heights – something to transport me out of 2013. As I read, Lewis prepped and I watched out of the corner of my eye as ingredients transmogrified.

A dinner requires good food and good company to make it work. I decided on a small guest list: My mother Laurie Lewis, a writer, who has a vested interest in my birthday and was just about to leave for Mexico; our friend Jack Hurd, a musician, who had just returned from hiking the Camino and was heading off for a month in Tuscany; and our friend Jan Irwin, a writer and director, who spent last March with us in Devon and is in the midst of contemplating her next trip. And of course Tim, my favourite writer, gourmand and travelling companion, who has shared the past 38 birthdays with me.

Our kitchen is in the centre of the house, and the cook is at centre stage.

Lewis prepping centre stage
Lewis prepping centre stage

The guests assembled and, after preliminary drinks by the fire, Lewis called us to the table.

#1

A tower of rounds of brown Kumato tomato and mozzarella, with finely sliced basil. Drizzled with blood orange olive oil and chocolate balsamic vinegar.

“A taste of summer,” said Lewis. And it was. The blood orange olive oil and chocolate balsamic elevated it to one of those very special summer days. It told us that this was not going to be an ordinary birthday dinner.

#2

Sushi rice with grated carrot, topped with a slice of avocado, red pepper and spears of tempura aubergine. With dollops of Wasabi, Thai sweet chili garlic sauce, and Cucumber relish with lime, Uma plum vinegar and red jalapeno.

2nd Course. A riot of colour and taste. Sushi rice, carrot, avocado, red pepper, aubergine spears
2nd Course. A riot of colour and taste. Sushi rice, carrot, avocado, red pepper, aubergine spears

Presented on a bright blue and gold Japanese plate, the colours bounced energetically. There is a distinct lack of colour in our part of the world in January. The course gave us colour therapy and food therapy. The surprise hit was the cucumber relish, which was salty and tangy, with a zip of hot.

#3

Baby Portobello stuffed with chevrè, cream cheese and roasted garlic. On a bed of arugula with reduced balsamic.

Lewis explained that if you cook chevrè, you need to add cream cheese to it to keep it smooth. Otherwise it goes grainy. This was like a creamy pillow, the sweet roast garlic keeping you alert for more surprises.

#4

Homemade fettuccini with Oregon smoked salmon, with thin slices of Parma cheese and black truffle

4th Course, pasta, salmon, truffle, parma cheese
4th Course, pasta, salmon, truffle, parma cheese

There is really nothing like homemade pasta. I had seen Lewis pressing dough through the pasta machine earlier in the day. He hung it out on a horizontally inverted broomstick to dry. I couldn’t wait to see what he was going to do with it. Turns out it was a kind of collaborative offering. Tim had been given a huge piece of smoked salmon from Oregon. Our son Xan had given us a few truffles for Christmas – I’ve never had thinly shaved truffle. Its musty nuttiness perfectly paired with the soft smoke of the salmon. Topped with thinly shaved Parma cheese, and served in pasta bowls from Positano, it was amazing.

#5

Seared filet of sirloin with Tamarillo on a bed of chicory with thinly sliced radish, drizzled with honey and horseradish vinaigrette.

I am a big fan of steak salad. This took it to a whole new level, playing the sweetness of the Tamarillo (like Passion fruit) with the bitter of the chicory and radish. The sweet honey danced with the horseradish, all supporting the succulence of the steak.

#6

Roast pork tenderloin with grapefruit glaze on a bed of sweet potato puree with curry and chipotle. Served with spears of asparagus wrapped in prosciutto.

6th Course. Sweet potato mash, pork loin roast, asparagus spears with procuitto
6th Course. Sweet potato mash, pork loin roast, asparagus spears with procuitto

It’s amazing what a bit of smoky chipotle can do to a sweet potato mash. It lifts the tuber’s richness to a whole new place. The roast pork was incredibly tender and the combined tastes were buttery and dark. The asparagus counterbalanced with its bright colour, crisp snap, and salty zing of the prosciutto.

#7

Scone with honey glaze served with dollops of pear comfit, peach comfit and Devon cream.

“I don’t bake,” said Lewis, as he put a warm scone in front of each of us. What he meant was that he doesn’t bake cake. The soft, honey-sweet scone was “dessert” – plain and simple after a meal of complexity. The perfect dessert course. The tiny dollop of Devon cream a reminder of the rich green fields of the emerald Isle.

#8

Cheese plate. Featuring herbed Cheveè, St. Agur, Aged Gouda, Double Cream Rondoux, Shropshire Blue

Admittedly, this was probably overkill. But birthdays are about excess. I had asked for a cheese course which, when matched with port, is the best way to end a special meal.

The meal didn’t really end there, though. The food ended, but we sat for many more hours, talking, sharing secrets, hopes and dreams. With my mother and Jack just about to head off to other climes, we talked of travel past, and journeys to come.

Last year, our extraordinary year of travel, was one of the best of my life, and it’s been hard to come down. But with this birthday extravaganza, I realize that while I am not literally on the road any more, I can still go on a journey with travelling companions and cook Lewis as tour guide.

Happy fellow travellers Laurie Lewis, Jack Hurd, Amanda, Jan Irwin, Tim Wynne-Jones
Happy fellow travellers Laurie Lewis, Jack Hurd, Amanda, Jan Irwin, Tim Wynne-Jones

Keeping Christmas

I have often wondered if we moved to the country because of Christmas.

The first winter that we lived in Brooke Valley, we went out into the woods with our three small children and cut down a very scraggly, Charlie Brown-ish tree. The snow came down in lazy, fat flakes as we brought our treasure into the house. We hung soggy mittens by the fire and cupped our hands around steaming mugs of hot chocolate. We were living in the middle of a Christmas card.

Since then, we’ve had as many green Christmases as white, some treacherous with ice, some grey and sodden. Our Christmas trees have always been naturally wild and wispy (“Your tree has great negative space,” said our most optimistic friend). Over the years, Lewis grew to be our primary tree finder and cutter. He took to enhancing nature by drilling holes in the trunk and inserting extra branches to fill out the shape. But whatever the shortcomings of the tree, the house has been filled with Christmas spirit – the smell of good food, the warmth of a fire, and days of laughter.

Last year was our first non-Canadian Christmas. We discovered new foods and new traditions in La Spezia, Italy. Sitting on a sun-drenched patio, drinking Prosecco while munching on delicious Italian cheeses and breads made up for the lack of snow, tree and fireplace. Funny, we didn’t miss any of the usual trappings.

But back home in Canada for Christmas this year, Tim & I dug out ornaments and fell into familiar patterns. Everything seemed all the more special for having been tucked away for 2 years. I carefully unwrapped the special, gold-rimmed Christmas glasses, purchased by my parents in New York over 50 years ago. Tim unrolled the felt advent calendar to find a few additional mouse holes along the edge. (The story of our mouse-chewed advent calendar is one he wrote as “The Mouse in the Manger”, many years ago. Sentiment keeps me from repairing the felt.)

Mouse eaten Advent Calendar
Mouse eaten Advent Calendar

Lewis set off to find a tree. We have 76 acres, and there are a lot to chose from, but finding something that works, a tree that is full and thick, is always a challenge. Determined to bring in something impressive, he felled a 35-foot spruce using only a dull cross cut saw. He cut off the top 10 feet and hefted it home the day before our first big snowfall.

Lewis and this year's tree
Lewis and this year’s tree

When the plate-sized flakes began to fall, we were surprisingly excited.

Nighttime snowfall in Brooke Valley
Nighttime snowfall in Brooke Valley

The first snow of the year was heavy and wet – perfect packing snow. Perfect snow lady material.

Amanda, Maddy & the Snow Lady
Amanda, Maddy & the Snow Lady

Over the next few days, the temperature dropped. As it did, the snow quality changed. There were smaller, lighter flakes, not good for packing at all. But we were assured of a white Christmas.

A White Christmas
A White Christmas

The unpredictability of the weather at this time of year can easily destroy festive plans, but luck was with us. Timing was perfect as family and friends arrived in various stages. But the snow accumulation grew and grew until eventually it was impassable. The day after Boxing Day, we abandoned all thoughts of driving and hunkered down to await the eventual arrival of snowplows.

Snowed in
Snowed in

There is a blissful and deep quiet that comes with a large snowfall.

And so we have once again celebrated the season in a Christmas card world. We’ve walked the snowy roads under moonlight and sighted Jupiter, shining brightly. We’ve filled the house with lights and familiar ornaments, and flamed the plum pudding. We’ve watched deer and ravens enjoying bits of composted leftovers. We’ve reveled in memories of Christmases gone by, and toasted absent friends. And we’ve boosted and fortified ourselves to be able to face the long cold winter ahead. As Dickens instructs, we’ll “keep Christmas in our hearts throughout the year”.

A Christmas Carol
A Christmas Carol