In the Garden

Like HD Thoreau, Bill Weale had faith in a seed. As a preacher, faith was kind of Grandpa’s thing. He also believed in being open to messages and signs. So it was strangely comforting yesterday, 15 years after his death, to be able to hear his crosley-Wealevoice again — singing, “In the Garden,” the same day I gave up on my pumpkin seeds. Suzy and the kids gave me a Crosley turntable for my birthday, so I was able to dig Grandpa’s 45rpm record out of my sock drawer and release his Welsh coal-miner voice from the crackly vinyl grooves.

I often invoke Grandpa’s memory as I travel and speak about One Change. It’s no secret that he was hoping I would follow in his footsteps in the church. Times change, but I’m proud to be a fellow evangelist of sorts for hope and light … even if my trajectory has been more about light bulbs.



It’s October already, in my pumpkin head

“Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.” – Henry David Thoreau

Project Pumpkin Patch has so far failed to germinate.

I’ve always wanted a field of pumpkins. I mean, really, when you think of it, what could be more wonderful? From a little seed grows a crazy prickly vine that bears

big elephant-ear leaves and day-long delicate orange blooms like trumpets. The surrounding ground can be weedy or irregular as long as it’s sunny and well drained. And the vines seem to grow best in a pasture, thriving with fresh droppings and seemingly unimpeded by trampling. In fact, a hoof impact here and there can actually make the plant stronger. So how hard can it be to grow pumpkins?

Maybe my penchant for pumpkins comes from Great Uncle Al.  He had a raggedy patch on the slope behind the old service station in Breadalbane, PEI. I remember the hill being steep, even treacherous, running down to the brook where the old mill used to be. But I was likely five. The memory of this space is dappled with low October sunshine reflected on frost-covered orange awesomeness. I think maybe the excitement stemmed from being able to choose Any Pumpkin I Wanted. Or even Two.

So now that I have a hill, and some kids that are quickly turning to teens, I feel compelled to nurture a patch of our own. Uncle Roger, Great Uncle Al’s nephew, is a surprising source of pumpkin info, and now a co-founder of our Project. I suspect he too spent some time behind the service station.

Apparently, according to Roger, pumpkins need to be fed compost tea, not just watered. They need to be hand pollinated, and that the first blush of blooms on the vine are infertile. These flowers merely attract the scout bees who return for the next flowering to lift and spread the pollen that creates the fruit. Amazing.

But back to the plan:

Bonnie, Sam and James brought a giant pumpkin to Walden last fall as a source of our first seed. After supper, melee smashing ensued in the yard, and a careful collection of the seed booty. (We also raked and composted the collateral damage flesh before the resident local skunk caught a whiff and arrived.) From November to February, these seeds sat on a towel mat in a tray in the sunny south kitchen window of the cabin. Drying, curing, freezing. I collected the seeds last month and gave half of them to Uncle Rog. I brought my half to Ottawa.

Since then, I’ve soaked them, sunned them, turned them. And not a single sprout has come. I’d like to blame the pumpkin, but it’s likely my technique. But, really, who would have thought that growing giant pumpkins from seed would be so difficult? When I looked up pumpkin germination in Google, some sites recommended a careful filing of the edges of each seed before planting. That, surely, must be a joke. The idea that a fastidious filing like well-manicured nails is a step toward random wild vines can’t be right.

It just goes to show that some things require a different kind of nurturing, and that some of the best moments are simply random. I’m still experimenting with these wonders, and embracing the failures too.

Great Uncle Al would no doubt find this amusing. Someone told me he was found dead in his pumpkin patch, of a heart attack. I don’t even want to know if that’s true. It’s an image that has really grown on me.




Life is for the birds

This is for Elizabeth.

Let’s talk about chickadees!

My heart leapt yesterday at the neighbourhood bus stop. We parents gather there every morning with a gaggle of bundled-up elementary school kids, waiting for the big orange tube to come ’round the corner. The past two months have been cold bus-stopwaiting —  red noses and frozen toes all around as Ottawa is held tight in the grip of the longest cold snap in living memory. But yesterday, suddenly, the birds were back. A bright cardinal high on a wire over the cedar hedge, and a party of cheery chickadees hopping and diving amid the branches of a crab apple tree.

I felt a surge of joy! What can I say? It was awesome. And when I gathered the kids around, getting them to lay down their snowball arms for a minute of peace, they noticed too. So today all we can talk about are cute little black-capped chickadees.

Reflecting on this last night at bedtime with Simon (10), it occurred to me that he can learn at a very young age what it has taken me nearly 47 years to figure out. As long as we can feel joy in a little hopping bird and find wonder in how it survives outside — and thrives! — at -25C, we can be confident that everything is gonna be OK. Worrying is pointless! And we’ve got it easy here in Ottawa. Maybe we should be more grateful for our warm beds and full bellies and the fact that we don’t have to eat our own weight in scavenged seeds to stay alive (every day).

Simon slept well last night. So did I. Things are better now. I’m learning to be patient with figuring out what all this means. Meanwhile, drive safely Elizabeth. Keep your eyes open for rouge-gorge.


Gravity Falls

In case you’re still dropping by, there’s stuff going on. I’m just lacking focus. I know it’s time to start writing again when the 2AM nightmares come back.

So here’s what’s going on:
– I have a new book idea, but I can’t tell you what it is yet. It has to be finished by the time I’m 50 and then could help keep me fit and financially stable beyond. Stay tuned. No, it’s not the Canada Day idea. That’s so last year.
– Oh, and I have no idea how to pitch a book idea.
– The music is starting again. Suddenly, Simon and I are able to read music. He wants to learn how to play this.

– I am recently obsessed with urban architecture, what makes people-friendly public spaces work (and not), and zines. I want to get involved in all of this and make these things but I don’t know where to start.
– I’m in an interesting email exchange with four ministers in two provinces. We’ll see how well having nothing to lose works as a partnership strategy.
– Bacon is back. Apparently, the studies in the 60s that led to a decades-long persecution of saturated fats were Wrong. Now I can shamelessly eat the pork chop fat. Juicy.
– Q Tips: Really? So what are they for, if you’re not supposed to put them in your ears?
– A big storm is rolling up the east coast. I wish I could ride it out at Walden. Last year’s two-day storm was a joy. I read, melted snow for water, slept, giggled.

– CBC reports that rhino horns (not to be confused with tusk) from South Africa (where most of the few remaining rhinos live), are worth up to $500k each in Thailand. Why the hell is that?
– If you were going to take some action to make yourself slightly better at something, what would it be? Please let me know.

Oh, for a snow day. A deep blanket of silent white.


I didn’t know her name was Alice

Aunt Margaret at Walden (1997)
Aunt Margaret at Walden (1997)

It’s around this time of year, not sure what day, or even what year, that Aunt Margaret died. It was four years ago? Five?

I was in Vermont when I got the news, indirectly, through Facebook. Cousin Lynn, in Africa, had posted “Coming home for Mom’s funeral.” That’s a terrible way to find out someone you really love has died. And I loved Aunt Margaret a lot. She also drove me nuts. More on that in a bit.

This will sound terrible, but my first thought as the news sank in that day was, “Why can’t it be one of the Mean Aunts!”

I’m thinking about Alice Margaret Hickox (nee Newby) this week, and will write more later. Be prepared to get your hands covered in melted marshmallow.

Stand-up reading

I’m messing around with a standing desk. Woot. Does anyone have tips?

I’m motivated to do this for a few reasons:
1) There’s an epidemic of “sitting disease” — tight hips, expanding bellies, tense shoulders. I’m reminded of this every time I attend a yin class and end up crying four minutes into a deep pigeon pose. It’s true, emotions are caught up in the hips.
2) This year I am trying to unleash my creativity. It’s in there. And something tells me that I’m due for a leap forward — but not until I figure out how to describe this without linear reference. The thing is, the need to move ahead and up is part of a problem that I am overcoming. I don’t have the new language yet that I need to even describe the process to myself.

Which brings me to reading. Figuring out a new relationship with time and space and creativity is a wheel that doesn’t need to be reinvented. Lots of people have thought this through, and the best new source of thought-provoking writing about this is right at your fingertips.

I could spend all day reading Maria Popova’s digest, Brain Pickings. A lot of recent posts tackle boredom, distraction and creativity. The irony is that her summaries of great writers’ thoughts on these subjects and others are so rich in cross-links, you’re likely to get lost and forget where you started and end up with a reading list as long as your arm.

Lately I’m reading Alan Watts, on presence and how a desire for certainty and security in a fast-changing world causes disconnection and anxiety. It’s a text that should be widely read by our leaders in the ISIS terror age.

“…the desire for security and the feeling of insecurity are the same thing. To hold your breath is to lose your breath. A society based on the quest for security is nothing but a breath-retention contest in which everyone is as taut as a drum and as purple as a beet.”

I also found Sam Harris here, and have devoured his thoughtful celebration of spirituality without religion in “Waking Up.” It infuriates me that there is still a debate about this. Seriously, anyone who takes time to stand in the woods can grasp what he is trying to say. Separating ourselves from the constant chatter of our minds without needing simple explanations is spirituality. It’s freedom. Watch a brief intro to this line of thinking by Sam Harris here.

There’s so much more to share from Brain Pickings, but I do a poor job of summary, and I want to get back to reading. Every time I drop by the site or receive her weekly Twitter digest, I feel validated in my searching — and more eager to get back to the woods at Walden to just observe.

>> Update: The German chocolate protein bars were a hit. Use this recipe.

>> More this week on how to stand up straight.


Birdseed bars, bad kitty and Joe Who?

Not all posts can be super-duper* when there’s a daily deadline. So here’s a glimpse into my ordinary day, with some links:

– I’m experimenting with recipes for gluten-free protein bars. The first batch of this recipe emerged from the oven last night but were too hot to cut and sample before my killer 5:30 vinyasa core class at Pure (ouch). Later, when Suzy picked me up to take me to a church meeting, I asked her if the bars were good.

“Umm, no.”

So I’ll try this recipe today.

– My friend Anthrodiva (Susan) is one of the smartest and funniest people I know. She sees the irony and the ridiculous in everything, as the best social anthropologists do. Last week when I told her I’m casting about for creative direction and ideas, she said,

“Dude, you need a vision board.”

So I looked it up. There’s a lot of glittery crap out there, but I have had enough experience with randomness to be open to the possibility that you are more likely to get what you seek if you know what that is and consistently visualize yourself having it or being it. This whole thing conflicts somewhat with the notion of mindfulness and presence in the moment, but I figure that as long as my vision process is not focused on material things, it can help clarify my thinking.

I started cutting and writing and pasting and have ended up with a vision wall. Oprah would hate it. It’s supposed to surprise you when you step back and look. Within the first hour I noticed that my wall includes three axes, an incandescent light bulb and a picture of Joe Clark.

– I’m preoccupied by a new project idea. Feel free to steal it because it needs to get done and I’m getting nowhere. It’s built around the following stat: Every year in North America, up to 240 million songbirds die of this one cause. No, it’s not tall buildings or windfarms or planes or pollution. It’s house cats. If you let your furry pal outside, you’re unleashing a killer. There’s a perfect storm here of a project, including an articulate international spokesperson, a simple solution, perfect corporate and NGO partners, and a really fun social media campaign. But I’m working alone in a third-floor office with my indoor-only cat asleep on the chair behind me. I have good ideas but sometimes I feel clawless at implementation.

The spokesperson has an idea too, but it doesn’t fall into my usual “Simple actions” category of possible solutions.

* Super-Duper. After Elite and Super-Elite — The new flight status category on Air Canada. My prediction. You read it here first.



Buddha Boot Camp: 10 days on my knees opened my eyes

>> “Use the cement of rock bottom and make it musical.”
— Macklemore, ‘Vipassanna

I tend to get caught up in the daily whirl. Balancing fatherhood and a career doesn’t leave much time for contemplation. One Saturday a few months ago, I was tense and rushed, running errands, when something strange caught my attention. Some men on wobbly ladders were adorning an odd little building with bright striped flags and colourful banners. On an impulse, I pulled into the parking lot. A smiling middle-aged man climbed down and greeted me at my car. I had stumbled upon a Sri Lankan Buddhist monastery in the heart of suburban Ottawa. The decorations were to mark the beginning of an annual festival. I was intrigued.

“What do you do here,” I asked.
“We meditate.”
“Do you offer meditation courses?”
“Just come by and meditate.”
“Well, what’s the schedule? What’s the cost?”
“Just drop in and meditate. There is no cost.”

I was given a tour and met the resident monk. The warm welcome and the shock to my preconceptions were jarring. How could there be no schedule, no brochures, no fees and no formal courses – just a haven of peace and repose? I felt the pain in my tense shoulders and decided that this might be worth exploring.

On-line I found a 10-day meditation course called Vipassana, taught in the Eastern Townships of Quebec near the picturesque village of Sutton. The program promised to teach participants how to “see things as they really are.” Again, for free. I registered.

When I arrived, I was relieved to find a converted ski lodge free of religious images or icons. There were no Buddha statues, no incense, and no UFOs in the parking lot. Registration included accepting five “precepts”: I had to refrain from killing, lying, sex, stealing and using intoxicants. Seemed reasonable. They didn’t ask for my watch or phone or for a DNA sample. My mother-in-law had warned me about that.

I was nervous. I’d heard that the course was brutally tough. No talking for ten days, no communicating even by gestures or eye contact. There were 40 participants of all ages, split evenly between the sexes. The woodland setting is beautiful, and the centre is simple and comfortable with shared rooms and a common meditation hall. We ate well – delicious vegetarian food – but there was no meal after noon – just fruit and tea at 5PM.

Each day started with a gong at 4AM. Instruction was provided on audio tape. Between meditation sessions, we were not allowed to scamper freely through the surrounding woods. We had to stick to a marked path in the shape of a large figure 8 in the field. All distractions were denied to us (news, contact with family, reading, writing, snacks), and we faced 10 hours of pain and tedium each day kneeling or sitting on the floor in a chilly, darkened room. From Day 3 we were asked to sit perfectly still for three of the 10 hours of daily meditation. These “sittings of strong determination” were pure torture. I am now an intimate of my sciatic nerve; our relationship is defined by violence and hatred. The guy next to me cracked and left, sobbing.

It’s funny how men in pain, removed from all distraction, start to look alike. It was hooded greasy hair and ruddy beards all around. My heart jumped one afternoon when a plastic cup materialized on the back of the bathroom sink. It had “SAVE ME” written on it. I thought it was a desperate appeal for help, but it was just a home for the sponge.

Yeah, we were miserable. We were there to suffer. The suffering wasn’t a by-product. It was the point. I started to accept this, and quit fighting it. I realized that facing anxiety and pain without any way of escape is the course’s primary teaching tool. After days of struggle, my mind settled. It began to observe my situation objectively. And then the physical torture and mental anguish started to melt away.

By Day 4 my mind was incredibly sharp. We were asked to move our awareness over our bodies, from head to feet, bringing it back to the breath when losing focus. I became aware of the slightest sensations on and in my body: tingling, heat, pressure, and an oddly discomforting sensation that can only be described as ants crawling in my hair. (Try this: Think of your scalp. Can you Feel it?) By this point, my daily routine, my life, had completely left my thoughts. One afternoon during a break I realized that I wasn’t even thinking about not thinking. All the craziness in my mind was quiet for the first time ever.

Then the real battle began. With all the distractions gone from my mind, the soup of neuroses I usually keep a lid on boiled over. Long-forgotten memories of trauma and joy flooded my mind. I began to notice how my body automatically reacts to what I am thinking. One minute a memory of a confrontation with my sister set my back on fire. Evoking the smell of my wife’s hair sent me buzzing on a high of sexual energy.

Kneeling there on the floor, physically tortured by the whims of my mind, I realized that happiness is found in breaking the link between thought and feeling. My misery is all in my head. Suddenly I felt like I was bathed in light. My body surged and vibrated, and the pain vanished. It all seemed so simple.

Then it was over. I returned to Ottawa. My family was a bit wary but welcomed me warmly. A calmness that had eluded me for years descended upon me. There’s time to figure out what it all means. The secret is to just observe.

>> and if you become more mindful, a side benefit may be less desire to
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