About Me

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Born in the US, raised on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, lived in Italy, the US, and Canada. Lover of language, travel, colour, and the natural world.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The right to exist

Photo credit: AFP. From: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-12300285
When I was a child, my favourite film was The Gods Must be Crazy. It was about the Kalahari Bushmen in southern Africa's Kalahari Desert. The story was about how the Bushmen had been living in tune with the natural world around them, in communities that were happy and healthy, for thousands of years until one day a careless pilot dropped a Coke bottle out of the window of his plane as he was flying overhead. The bottle is found by one of the Bushmen, who takes it back to the village, thinking it is a gift from the Gods. Never having seen anything like it, the tribe is overjoyed at first at how much they can do with something so hard. They have never seen anything so hard in their lives. They use it to smash tubers to eat, and use the bottle opening to make patterns on their leather. Over time, however, the Bushmen start quarreling, because there is only one bottle, and everyone needs and wants it at once. The situation leads to disunity, and climaxes in two children fighting over it, one hitting the other one over the head with it. The Bushmen decide that the situation is out of hand, and decide to send one of their men off to return the bottle to God. He sets off on a journey to find God, or the edge of the earth, and to give the bottle back. The rest of the film is about his journey, and his first interactions with white people. I found the film to be funny, and extremely illuminating.

I have not heard anything about the Kalahari Bushmen since then, and I have never been to southern Africa. But yesterday as I was driving home, a program came on the radio about the Basarwa Bushmen, who now live on the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in Botswana, the second largest game park in the world. Apparently, in the early 90's, a huge diamond reserve was found under the Kalahari Desert. The government of Botswana started trying to systematically force the Basarwa Bushmen off of their ancestral land, settling them in replacement camps that, with their chain link fences and row after row of identical houses, remind me eerily of the displaced people camps used to accommodate the thousands of Jews that were homeless after World War II. Apparently, two of the tactics used by the government of Botswana to force these peaceful people off their land were sealing off their well holes, and preventing them from hunting in the park -- effectively forcing them to either leave or die of starvation and dehydration. You can listen to the full program here.

The situation is deplorable. I had no idea it was going on, and was disgusted to be hearing another story about how greed for more wealth is leading a government to treat people so inhumanely. Fortunately, there was a good side to the story, in the form of Gordon Bennet, a British barrister who has been representing the Bushmen for the past few years. Mr. Bennet, in his radio interview, comes across as an interesting mix of upper British class and open-minded global concern for his fellow human beings. I was impressed by the fact that in today's world, we have an upper class British barrister defending the rights of some of the most materially poor people in the world. Whether or not the Bushmen survive this battle (and I sincerely hope that they do), the reality that people living nowhere near the Kalahari, and not directly affected by their plight, are standing up and taking action to defend them -- not, because it in any way benefits them, but because there is a rising recognition on a global scale that when one person's human rights are being denied, all of our human rights are being denied. Not until everyone has the freedom to live, eat and drink without persecution can any of us really enjoy living, eating and drinking freely.

The story explains that, in an exciting turn of events after a long, drawn out trial, Mr. Bennet and the Bushmen finally won the right for the tribe to return to their ancestral land, and to hunt and re-sink wells within the park. Many have already returned. Unfortunately, despite the ruling, the government is still repeatedly sending people to physically attack the Basarwa hunters when they find them out hunting for food for their community. Their fight to live happily and peacefully on their land is ongoing.

There is no happy ending to this story, but the ongoing support, year after year, from Mr. Bennet and others, is a clear indication to me of positive change in the world. That the Bushmen know that people all around the world are standing up and defending their right to live on their ancestral land is a tremendous step in the right direction for humanity, it seems to me. True, there are no easy answers, and of course the government of Botswana may well go on persecuting the Bushmen, but the relationships between the Bushmen and the people who are standing up for them is moving. It shows the recognition, at the deepest level, of shared humanity between people who are completely different from each other. It shows courage. It shows compassion and selflessness. And it shows the immense power of unity in the face of injustice. The fight may not be over, but there is something reassuring about knowing that the Bushmen are standing shoulder to shoulder with so many people all over the world as they continue fighting for their right to exist.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Drink your chai. Break your cup.

A worker takes a chai break in India (Photo Credit: Judy Swallow. Photo found here)       

Indians have been making biodegradable chai cups for generations, I learned this afternoon, as I was listening to the radio. The show I was listening to (which you can listen to here) was about the custom in Kolkata, India, of drinking chai out of tiny, unglazed, terracotta cups. The BBC's Judy Swallow told the fascinating story of how, after a customer finished his or her chai, they would simply smash the cup on the ground. Because the shards were unglazed, the cup would simply dissolve over time in the rain and sun, and from the friction of peoples feet walking over it. Drinking chai this way was apparently a custom followed all over India. On India's trains, people would sip tea out of the tiny cups, tossing them out the windows once they were empty, leaving behind trails of red shards that snaked along India's railway tracks, all over the country. A gritty layer of dry clay would settle to the bottom of the cup of chai, giving every cup a subtle earthy flavour.

With the introduction of plastic, today it is almost impossible to find chai sellers serving their chai in the terracotta cups anymore. In fact, Judy Swallow explained on her show that the only place that still serves chai in the traditional cups is Kolkata. Interestingly, although the cups are no longer made of clay, the pattern of dropping them on the ground after enjoying a cup of chai has persisted all over India, which means that plastic cups litter the ground everywhere, replacing the parallel red ribbons along railway tracks with trails of plastic.

The story made me think about how important having an understanding of cultural practices is to solving our global environmental problems. As westerners, we are quick to judge large quantities of non-biodegradable garbage dumped in the street. We are inclined to make assumptions about how people must feel about their environment, based on what we see, without digging deeper to really understand the cultural traditions behind what we are seeing. The story also made me think about how much more green Kolkatan chai cups are, when compared to what most coffee and tea houses in North America serve their drinks in, and how much we have to learn from them about using green packaging.

It made me slightly sad to think that the tradition of drinking out of these traditional terracotta cups is dying out, and that Indians have, for the most part, already adopted the far less sustainable method of drinking tea out of plastic cups. I have had many conversations with people from non-western countries over the years, and have naively expressed my hope that they learn from, and avoid the mistakes that western countries have made that have negatively impacted our natural environment. The response I usually get is "it is easy for you to tell us not to pursue avenues of development that are economically profitable...you have already profited from these so called mistakes"; and "it is only fair that we also be allowed to pursue practices that will increase our economic prosperity. We have the right to be economically successful too." They are right. What right do I have to tell them not to make the same mistakes? What right do I have to point out that in the long term, continuing to make chai cups out of clay will probably be far more profitable than serving their chai in the same cups that can be found anywhere and everywhere else in the world? What right do I have to tell them that using clay cups is so much better for the environment?

I wonder how countries can best learn from each others' mistakes and successes, without anyone feeling patronized. How to best support the unique regional cultural practices that make our world so amazingly diverse, and so much more economically and environmentally sustainable. The world is a fascinating place, and part of what makes it so beautiful is the diversity of cultural practices that persist around the world. I hope that the people of Kolkata continue making their own cups. I hope to travel to India some day, and when I do, I plan on making a trip to Kolkata for a cup of chai. I can hear the cup shattering on the dusty road, even now. 

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Online evolution

I have been thinking a lot lately about how we connect with each other online. Especially since so much of my time these days is spent in front of my computer, writing. I am missing the face to face connection with friends, and wonder how I can find more balance between having to spend insane amounts of time in front of the computer to get my writing career launched, and finding ways to use my writing to connect with new and old friends in person.

I have always felt that technology should be a tool that enables us to connect with each other, not a distraction from being present in our lives. Today, while reading an excellent article on Everett Bogue's blog, I was introduced to Jonathan Harris -- a photographer, story-teller, traveler, and code writer. Jonathan has been working on bridging the gap between computer geekdom and creative artist for many years. He is interested in finding ways that technology, instead of lulling us into a passive, glazed-over consumer state, separated from the rest of the world, can become a vehicle for positive social change. How technology can be used to nurture presence. How it can become a tool to facilitate self-reflection, instead of self-promotion.

Jonathan has worked on a number of projects intended to help web users experience art and technology in new ways. In October, 2010, he gave a talk that outlines his thoughts about where our technological society is headed, and some ways that we can take steps to more consciously shape what the future will look like. It is well worth a listen. Intrigued by some of his ideas, I googled some of his projects. What I love about his work is that he is putting a human face back into our internet interactions, reminding us that technology has given us the ability (and the opportunity) to connect with real people all over the world, and engage in creative and inspiring dialogues with them. His work highlights the fact that while the flurry of interaction happening over the internet is amazing, we need to remember that ultimately, there are human beings on the other end of the interactions. Living, breathing, human beings. People with feelings and emotions. People with souls. People just like us.

In order for technology to be working with us in positive ways, to be strengthening our relationships and connections, we need to be conscious that there is a face and a heart at the other end of every interaction we have through the web. The internet sometimes presents the illusion that we are in some way detached from what we do. That we need not be as responsible for our words and actions because at the end of the day we can hit a switch and turn the relationships and interactions we have just had off. In reality though, the interactions we have over the internet are just like interactions we have face to face. We may hit a switch, but the people on the other end are still feeling, thinking, and reflecting on what was shared.

Some of Jonathan's projects that I am especially impressed by are his We Feel Fine web site, which explores the emotions and thoughts that people scattered across the globe are having at any given moment in time, and displays them visually in a variety of different ways. Another cool project that he worked on is Sputnik Observatory, which explores contemporary culture through video interviews with leading thinkers of our time in the arts, sciences, and technology. I also enjoyed an installation piece he worked on about the world of online dating commissioned by and installed at the New York's MoMA on valentines day, 2008, called I Want You To Want Me. His Universe project creates new constellations for the night's sky using current news headlines, and building a modern mythology to go along with them. He has many more interesting projects that he has worked on. You can check them out here.

I know that Jonathan is just one of many people out there finding new ways to be mindful about how we use the technological tools that are at our disposal. It is always inspiring for me to cross paths with other people who are finding their own unique way of interacting with, and shaping the tool of the internet, so that it nurtures the values that make humanity, and human relationships, so diverse and beautiful. All these ideas reverberate against each other, and create an energy that cannot help but transform the characteristics of the technological era in which we live.

Artist resurfacing

Painting by Ariana Salvo, 2004
 I am sitting here in the kitchen after midnight painting. I am trying to make some progress with this collective journal that will be spending the next year in the excellent company of some truly sensational ladies around the globe. After a day spent attempting to consolidate student loans, I decided it was time for some fun creative play. So I went in my bedroom and cracked out all my art materials.

Art has been a part of my life since before I was crawling. I have been painting and drawing since I was born because my mother is an artist and art therapist, so she has been putting sheets of paper, and anything else that I could possibly paint or draw on (including her own mother, who I went to work on and turned into quite a masterpiece) in front of me since day one.  My life has always been steeped in colour.

Painting my obliging grandmother's face as a child (with other artistic creations on walls in background)
In high school art was one of my favourite classes. Wanting desperately to not be an artist in a family of so many artists we did not know what to do with them all, I applied to college to do pre-med. I wanted to be a doctor. Medicine sounded practical, reliable and lucrative -- all things that I felt were lacking in my family. Looking back on it now, I have no idea what I was thinking, really. I was awful at math, and although I loved learning about living things, I spent most of my biology classes writing poetry about the bird that was building a nest in the tree outside, instead of focusing on learning the diagrams and processes that were in the text book in front of me. I might have excelled in a more progressive biology class, but in a traditional system, I really had no hope of ever succeeding. I made it through one year of science and math before realizing that the only class I actually enjoyed was my ceramics class. I loved being in the art studio so much that I would go in early in the morning, and stay until late at night building hand-coiled pots and cups, sketching, and glazing my pots.

A still life I did in the ceramics studio while in my freshman year of university, 1995.



Ariana Salvo, 1995. Pomegranate sculpted out of clay and hand painted.
At the end of that rather disastrous year (academically speaking), I applied to art school, and got in. But for some reason, I ended up not going. Instead I moved back home to Cyprus for a while, and took a dance class and a graphic design class. Then I moved to Italy, planning on studying Italian language, connecting with my roots, and then applying to art school in Italy. I did the language part, but then I discovered Prescott College, and ended up focusing on environmental studies. Fortunately I had the sense to couple that with poetry, because although my plan was to apply to law school and study environmental law (I did apply for and get into law school, but...you guessed it...I never went), my forte was, and still is, in the arts.

It has been a long time since I have painted or drawn. My mother's walls are covered in paintings and drawings that I did years ago, but for some reason I have always turned away from putting all of my eggs into my creative basket. Maybe it is just my stubbornness. Maybe I do not want to have to compete with an exceptional visual artist mother and a father who is an incredible musician. I am not sure. Or maybe somewhere in me I am afraid of failing. Of not being good enough.

So many people who have made art with me or taught me art over the years always shake their head when I admit I have not been doing much lately. My high school art teacher, who is still a close friend, always tells me it is "such a waste," in his British accent, which truly does make it sound tragic in a way that an American accent never could. :-) 

So opening up boxes of oil and chalk pastels, water colours, oils, acrylics, sticks of charcoal, fine ink drawing pens, coloured pencils, and all the other amazing art materials I have managed to stash in my cupboard, is a bit of a trip to the past. When I open my two boxes of chalk pastels, the smell makes nostalgia rise quickly to the surface. The last time I did anything serious with them was in 1998. I love drawing with chalk pastels.

I have had a super night drawing and painting at the kitchen table. I used my chalk pastels. I used my water colours. I used my black ink drawing pens. My January contribution to the journal is quickly becoming saturated with bright colours and textures. With poetry and prayers. With quotes and reflections. I am having a really, really good time.

All the artwork tonight is also making me realize how much I miss all of this. Miss having hands and arms stained with paint and ink. Miss looking in the bathroom mirror to find that I have had purple chalk pastel smudged across my cheek all night, which my parents kindly did not mention. Miss the glass of greenish-blue water on the table, and washing my paintbrushes out in the sink. I am thinking that it may be time to finally give it up, and allow my visual art to become an integral part of my life once and for all. 

Do you have parts of yourself that you have turned away from, again and again, without really asking yourself why you keep turning away? Maybe it is time to unpack the suitcases bulging with whatever it is that you keep stored away...bring that part back to life. Shed a little daylight on it. A friend of mine recently told me that I must, surely, after all these years of writing, have enough poems to compile them in a book. He is right. I do. The same goes for my visual art. I read in the book The Invitation, that we need to stop asking ourselves why we so rarely are the person that we want to be, and start asking ourselves why we so rarely want to be the person that we really are. I feel like my experience tonight has been another re-surfacing of who I am. I do not want this part to be submerged again.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The art of a hand-written letter


I am a bit of a hopeless romantic. My friends tease me about this constantly, and I make no attempt to deny it. I like receiving beautiful flowers. I appreciate it when men open doors, give up their chairs for women or elderly people, and help me with my coat. I like to lie in bed in the morning quietly watching the light filter in through the curtains and listening to the first sounds of the day outside. I am interested in the story behind the flavours that I taste and inhale when I drink my tea. I like fires in fireplaces, lying on my back in fields at night looking for shootings stars, walking on the beach at night and contemplating the moon, people who play musical instruments, and poetry (reading and writing it). I like picnics. I prefer candle light to electric light. I am a total sucker for impromptu adventures with friends, and I loved the six hour version of Pride and Prejudice. I also am a great lover of writing and receiving hand-written letters.

I have very few friends who still write me hand-written letters, but the friends who do write me by hand have a sacred place in my heart. Their stories and experiences become a tactile part of my reality. One of my closest friends, Rafael, is one such person. Rafael was raised on an organic farm in northern Arizona. She is a terrific writer, farmer, adventurer, naturalist, biologist...the list is endless. I met Rafael in a field class in Costa Rica that I took while attending Prescott College. I had not connected with her at all until one day when my class found ourselves on a remove dirt road in the middle of nowhere, headed back to San Jose, and our van got a flat. Everyone piled out, and stood by the side of the road, eyes wide, uncertain of how to proceed. I distinctly remember standing there and thinking to myself: I wish I had asked someone to teach me how to change a tire. But then again, I figured that with the number of men in the group, surely someone had the skills to sort us out. Suddenly, out of the stillness all around me, Rafael separated from the group, got down on all fours, lay down on her back, slid gracefully under the van, re-emerged with the spare tire, got the flat tire off, put the spare on, and re-attached the flat tire to the van. It all happened so fast and so efficiently that I was stunned. Who was this woman, I wondered? And how do I become more like her?

In the remaining 3 weeks of the class I made a point of getting to know more about this remarkable woman, and we have been fast friends ever since. I learned that she did her B.A. in biology; that she knows how to ride and shoe horses; that she got up at dawn to milk cows and move pipe before heading off to class; that she is an excellent builder and cook. I learned that she is an amazing writer, who got her M.F.A. in creative non-fiction from the University of Arizona, in Tucson. I watched her move to California and work in the grape vineyards, get her EMT certification, spend a summer working on a fishing vessel in Alaska, spend close to a year herding cattle in the Australian outback, move to Chile to train wild stallions, and then begin her PhD in geography. She is currently in the Mexican desert camping out under the stars with no running water or roof over her head researching the plants that surrounded desert oases. Her courage astounds and inspires me to no end.

I share all of this to capture the immense wealth of experience that Rafael has to write about. Despite being one of the most capable women I know, Rafael is humble and down to earth. She is also an incredible letter writer. She and I have maintained an on-going hand-written correspondence across the world since I met her in the winter of 2000. I have received letters from Arizona, from Alaska, from Australia, from Africa, from Chile and Argentina, and from Mexico. I have received these letters in Arizona, California, Italy, Cyprus, and Prince Edward Island. There is something about the tactile experience of ripping open the beige envelope and sliding the folded pages out -- pages covered with stories in patterned ink script. I will never forget the time I received on of Rafael's letters on Prince Edward Island in the middle of winter. It was a freezing day, the ground covered in snow. I settled down on my couch in the sunshine, and opened the envelope, hastily sliding the pages out. As I did so, a cascade of colour sprinkled all over me, catching the sunlight like a wild mid-winter rain shower. Rafael had collected desert flowers, dried them, and then pressed them between the pages of her letter. I cannot begin to describe how beautiful it was to sit and read her letter in the sunshine, looking out at the snow, covered in wild flower petals from the desert. I was right there in the desert with her, inhaling the scents of the desert, and taking in the blossoms that were erupting out of the desert floor.

I just received another letter from Rafael last week. She wrote it from Mexico, where she sees skies full of stars, the moon rising above a volcano, white egrets, reflections of date palms in old dams, 300 year old olive groves, and miles and miles of abandoned gardens that used to surround oases...many varieties of fruit trees, and grand fiestas at each oasis attended by farmers who ride for days to congregate and celebrate in the middle of the desert. Reading her letter, I am no longer sitting here in urban northern California, but enjoying fresh juicy mangoes with her in overgrown desert gardens.

When I finish reading Rafael's letters, I always sit for a while absorbing and basking in her imagery. I feel like she has taken me on a journey. One that has become part of my own journey. I have kept all of her letters over the years. They are in a bundle in the drawers with my own journals, and old letters that I wrote but never sent. 

There is something magical about writing and reading a hand-written letter. It evokes another time. A time when we took more time to savour each others words and stories. When it was the intimacy and depth of the communication rather than the immediacy of transmission that was valued. I find that nowadays I send far more emails, and far fewer hand-written letters. I try to infuse my emails with the same care as my letters, but for some reason it simply does not feel the same. There is more of me in my hand-written letters. I write them less frequently, but perhaps for this precise reason, I say far more in them than I ever do in an email. And likewise, I savour the hand-written correspondence that I receive in a completely different way than I do an email.

I have a list of people I have been meaning to write back to. Rafael is one of them. I am thinking that finding the time more regularly to sit down with some blank paper and write hand-written letters might be a good new year's resolution. I know how much joy the hand-written letters that I receive bring me.

To get myself started, I think I will send a hand-written letter to each of the first five people that make a comment on this post. Spread my romantic spirit around a little. What do you say?

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Unsent letter fodder

A couple of years ago I was getting to know a man who was just not right for me. He was, however, a terrific person and a truly breathtaking writer. And he had an excellent sense of humour, which was a good thing, because the first "getting to know you poem" I wrote to him was not exactly what most men would want to be receiving from the woman they had just started getting to know. And yes, in case you wonder after reading this poem, I did actually give it to him. And, amazingly, he was enough of a good sport to tell me that in his opinion, it was very well written. Yes, I do realize that he was being incredibly kind. He may well have a very different opinion of it today, but I doubt it -- one thing I always appreciated about him was his ability to judge my writing honestly, as something that was entirely separate from me. So here it is. A "getting to know you" poem: 

Unsent Letter Fodder

If I could write a book of love letters it would be the ones I never sent
There are always more of those, stuffed proudly in pockets, suitcases, wallets,
dogeared, too over-read for envelopes or stamps.

I am wondering if you too will be nothing more than January unsent letter fodder
If your double eye winks, tactile words, and all those octaves of atheistic silence
will fold neatly into the back of an ink-stained oak drawer.

Here’s what I’m thinking: If we recognize the sheer impossibility of this ending well
we can avoid all those wasted hours of wanting each other to be some one we are not.
Efficiency is what its about: getting straight to the heron without snubbing the crane.

Or maybe its about sparing the world all that inevitably bad poetry
where I actually miss the smell of stale cigarette smoke in my hair
or your long, transitional silences wading further and further out into the afternoon.

I do not see you folding well.
Maybe I’ll float this down a spring creek, first dawn, as a light snow is falling.
An early morning journey without having to rise
horizon between half-light and your dreams cracking a yawn.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Epic round the world journal makes first public appearance

In a previous blog entry I talked about a creative project that I am doing over the next year with eleven of my friends around the world. I was going to get a journal, divide it into 12 months, and send it to 11 other women around the world to fill with creativity and inspiration. The topic was going to be "what inspires you in your life/work?" and "what are you passionate about?" I thought it would be easy to find a journal for this project, but I have spent most of January (my month!) searching high and low for a journal with enough pages that each of us will have plenty of space for creative expression. I came across many beautiful journals on my search, but unfortunately they were either too small or far too expensive.

I finally met a book maker at Art Ellis, a local art store, about a week ago. Her name was Sharon Tanovitz, and she said exactly what I needed to hear: that she could make me the book I needed, and that it would be ready in a week. Big. Sigh. Of. Relief. I discussed measurements and number of pages with her, picked paper that would be good for writing and drawing on, but light enough that the book would not weigh a tonne, and left it with her. I got a call on Wednesday that the book was ready, and rushed downtown to the art store to pick it up. She is not elaborate or ornate, but she is beautiful, and I am convinced that she is going to be perfect for the journey around the world that she is about to embark upon.

The plan is that we are going to digitize her pages at the end of the year, share her with you as a single cohesive piece, and then auction her beautiful self off to raise money for an organization that empowers young women (we have yet to decide which organization this will be, so if you have suggestions, please do be in touch!)

I will not be sharing the contents with you now....believe me, I am pretty sure you will be glad you waited to see her as a cohesive, single piece of artistic inspiration. But I did want to share some photos I took of the blank book after I picked her up from the art store, her pages still all white and just waiting to be filled! So here she is. Yes, the book is a she. Thus far nameless (perhaps she will gain a name over the course of the year ahead), but a she nevertheless! I present to you our collective journal:






I am going to be spending a good portion of my weekend immersed in the pages of this baby because I have to put her in the mail and send her off to my dear friend Rachel in Boulder, Colorado, some time next week. I can hardly wait to see how her journey unfolds!

Things I didn't know I loved

I have written blog entries about a number of creative people that I know, but I was realizing today that I have (thus far) not written any entries sharing poems that I love. So I am going to share a few of these over the next few days, because I am in the mood for reading poetry. Let me know what you think, and also what some of your favourite poems are, and why.

I came across this poem by Nazim Hikmet years ago, and it has always stayed with me. I love the way he notices the world around him with such awe and intimate appreciation for the simple elements of life. Growing up on an island, it was not until I started traveling through Europe and the US that I became acquainted with the seemingly endless hours for writing and reflection that being a passenger on a train ride affords one. Living where I do in northern California, I am often woken by the foreign sound of cargo trains rumbling across the valley late at night, and into the early hours of the morning, their long, mournful cry reverberating against my window panes. The sound makes me think of Nazim Hikmet, sliding through the 1962 landscape, somewhere between Prague and Berlin, and I often find myself reciting lines from this poem into the darkness. I had memorized the whole poem in my early 20s for a poetry class...I do not remember all of it now, but sections come rushing back to me when the train's horn echoes through the California landscape.


Things I Didn't Know I Loved
by Nazim Hikmet (Translated by Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk)
 
It's 1962 March 28th
I'm sitting by the window on the Prague-Berlin train
night is falling
I never knew I liked
night descending like a tired bird on a smoky wet plain
I don't like
comparing nightfall to a tired bird

I didn't know I loved the earth
can someone who hasn't worked the earth love it
I've never worked the earth
it must be my only Platonic love

and here I've loved rivers all this time
whether motionless like this they curl skirting the hills
European hills crowned with chateaus
or whether stretched out flat as far as the eye can see
I know you can't wash in the same river even once
I know the river will bring new lights you'll never see
I know we live slightly longer than a horse but not nearly as long as a crow
I know this has troubled people before
                         and will trouble those after me
I know all this has been said a thousand times before
                         and will be said after me

I didn't know I loved the sky
cloudy or clear
the blue vault Andrei studied on his back at Borodino
in prison I translated both volumes of War and Peace  into Turkish
I hear voices
not from the blue vault but from the yard
the guards are beating someone again
I didn't know I loved trees
bare beeches near Moscow in Peredelkino
they come upon me in winter noble and modest
beeches are Russian the way poplars are Turkish
"the poplars of Izmir
losing their leaves. . .
they call me The Knife. . .
                         lover like a young tree. . .
I blow stately mansions sky-high"
in the Ilgaz woods in 1920 I tied an embroidered linen handkerchief
                                        to a pine bough for luck

I never knew I loved roads
even the asphalt kind
Vera's behind the wheel we're driving from Moscow to the Crimea
                                                          Koktebele
                               formerly "Goktepé ili" in Turkish
the two of us inside a closed box
the world flows past on both sides distant and mute
I was never so close to anyone in my life
bandits stopped me on the red road between Bolu and Geredé
                                        when I was eighteen
apart from my life I didn't have anything in the wagon they could take
and at eighteen our lives are what we value least
I've written this somewhere before
wading through a dark muddy street I'm going to the shadow play
Ramazan night
a paper lantern leading the way
maybe nothing like this ever happened
maybe I read it somewhere an eight-year-old boy
                                       going to the shadow play
Ramazan night in Istanbul holding his grandfather's hand
   his grandfather has on a fez and is wearing the fur coat
      with a sable collar over his robe
   and there's a lantern in the servant's hand
   and I can't contain myself for joy
flowers come to mind for some reason
poppies cactuses jonquils
in the jonquil garden in Kadikoy Istanbul I kissed Marika
fresh almonds on her breath
I was seventeen
my heart on a swing touched the sky
I didn't know I loved flowers
friends sent me three red carnations in prison

I just remembered the stars
I love them too
whether I'm floored watching them from below
or whether I'm flying at their side

I have some questions for the cosmonauts
were the stars much bigger
did they look like huge jewels on black velvet
                             or apricots on orange
did you feel proud to get closer to the stars
I saw color photos of the cosmos in Ogonek  magazine now don't
   be upset comrades but nonfigurative shall we say or abstract
   well some of them looked just like such paintings which is to
   say they were terribly figurative and concrete
my heart was in my mouth looking at them
they are our endless desire to grasp things
seeing them I could even think of death and not feel at all sad
I never knew I loved the cosmos

snow flashes in front of my eyes
both heavy wet steady snow and the dry whirling kind
I didn't know I liked snow

I never knew I loved the sun
even when setting cherry-red as now
in Istanbul too it sometimes sets in postcard colors
but you aren't about to paint it that way
I didn't know I loved the sea
                             except the Sea of Azov
or how much

I didn't know I loved clouds
whether I'm under or up above them
whether they look like giants or shaggy white beasts

moonlight the falsest the most languid the most petit-bourgeois
strikes me
I like it

I didn't know I liked rain
whether it falls like a fine net or splatters against the glass my
   heart leaves me tangled up in a net or trapped inside a drop
   and takes off for uncharted countries I didn't know I loved
   rain but why did I suddenly discover all these passions sitting
   by the window on the Prague-Berlin train
is it because I lit my sixth cigarette
one alone could kill me
is it because I'm half dead from thinking about someone back in Moscow
her hair straw-blond eyelashes blue

the train plunges on through the pitch-black night
I never knew I liked the night pitch-black
sparks fly from the engine
I didn't know I loved sparks
I didn't know I loved so many things and I had to wait until sixty
   to find it out sitting by the window on the Prague-Berlin train
   watching the world disappear as if on a journey of no return

                                                     19 April 1962
                                                     Moscow

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The beauty of diversity. The diversity of beauty.

A diverse and beautiful little garden at the bottom of the Baha'i terraces on Mount Carmel, Haifa, Israel
 This evening we had a devotional gathering at our home. We do this twice a month, and so far it has been a women's devotional gathering. We have a different theme every month, and we choose readings from the Baha'i writings and elsewhere that communicate our theme. We share readings and some prayers, and then we open the circle to discussion of the readings, and also ask if anyone brought anything to share that is inspired by the theme. Sometimes people share art. Sometimes music. Sometimes poetry or a story. Tonight our theme was beauty, and the readings were spectacularly beautiful. I will share two of my favourites here:

"Then will aggression crumble away, and all that maketh for disunity be destroyed, and the structure of oneness be raised--that the Blessed Tree may cast its shade over east and west, and the Tabernacle of the singleness of man be set up on the high summits, and flags that betoken love and fellowship flutter from their staffs around the world until the sea of truth lift high its waves, and earth bring forth the roses and sweet herbs of blessings without end, and become from pole to pole the Abha Paradise." -'Abdu'l-Baha

Here is the second reading that I loved:

"O Thou Compassionate God! Bestow upon me a heart, which like unto a glass, may be illumined with the light of Thy love, and confer upon me thoughts which may change this world into a rose-garden through the spiritual bounty. Thou art the Compassionate, the Merciful! Thou art the Great beneficent God!" -'Abdu'l-Baha

You are going to have to use your excellent powers of imagination to visualize the beautiful borders that surrounded these quotes. The women who prepared the readings for tonight's devotional took great care that the presentation of the readings, as well as the words themselves, was beautiful. Each quote was printed on a separate card, and each one had a unique, decorative border. We also had music throughout the program, and live piano at the end.

Another thing that made our "women's devotional" gathering beautiful tonight was the presence of two men! What started off as a mis-communication, led to a man who lives in our neighbourhood turning up at our thus far women's gathering! We used his presence as an excuse to get my father out of his music studio and into the gathering with us. Initially I could tell that a few of us were not sure how this was going to turn out, and whether we would prefer the atmosphere that having a gathering of women created, but as soon as we started, it became quite clear that this was going to be a wonderful evening, and that the presence of two men was going to make it far more beautiful than if it had just been us ladies!

After reading our quotes, we started talking about the ways in which beauty is manifested in the world. I talked about farming and gardening, and the beauty in diversity found in a garden. Cesar, the fellow who joined us this evening, talked about diversity in humanity, and how beautiful the idea of being able to come together despite all of our differences, and work towards common goals together was to him. Jess, a young woman who just started community college, talked about the beauty she sees in nature, and how it is the beauty that is untamed, unaltered, and often kind of unexpected and imperfect that attracts her. Pat, another friend, shared the idea that virtues like love and compassion and joy are like magnets, attracting people towards them, and how beautiful people are when they are practicing virtues in their lives. My dad mentioned how virtues are like an international language that work in every culture. He gave the example of patience, and said that patience is patience in North America, Japan, India, South Africa...spiritual virtues are like a common currency because they speak to us at the level of the soul, which we all share in common.

At the end of the night my dad was coerced into playing an original composition that he had written on the piano, which, of course, was a truly sublime way to end the devotional portion of the evening! He told us, when he finished playing, that he had been at a Baha'i house of worship in Germany many years ago, and fog had been settling all around the building he was in, and how beautiful it was to watch how it covered and then uncovered the landscape, trees and people outside. Just as he was having that thought, he noticed that there was a piano sitting in front of him, and so he sat down at it and composed the song that he played for us tonight. The story made us all smile, because it left very little doubt about the fact that this song was intended to be written. Cesar was especially moved, and mentioned how well the melody captured the magical sensation of fog moving in over the landscape. I have heard my father play this song many times, but I had never heard the accompanying story about how it was composed.

Our lively discussion continued after the closing music, into the social time. We enjoyed cake, cookies and quiche from the Freeport Bakery, and some lovely Darjeeling and apricot black teas that my mom bought today at Tea Cozy. It was a superb evening.

I am sitting here now thinking how invigorating it is to come together and share spiritually inspiring readings, reflections and discussion. How refreshing it is to engage with a group of people at such a deep level, and how centering a gathering around such depth of connection creates such an inspiring spirit of community and joy. I have been having a really tough week, and feeling very isolated and disconnected from community, but our devotional tonight gave me the gift of community and friendship. I am feeling grateful for this beautiful evening, and looking forward to our next devotional gathering, which will be on the theme of hope. I suggested hope because, having been in Canada for the past six years, I always found February to be the toughest month, because it felt like winter was never going to end. Here the idea of mid-winter depression makes me smile, because the weather is so mild, but the Californians in the group nodded knowingly at the idea that we were in the heart of winter, and how far off spring seemed, so even though it feels like winter has not started to me, the theme seemed to resonate for them also. I guess our experience is all relative to what we are used to.

Another thing I am thinking about is how happy I am that we had the men join us this evening. It added so much unexpected beauty to the evening. I loved how flexible and open the women were to having our group change shape for the night, and I am kinda hoping the gentlemen join us again next time!

What do you associate beauty with? What in your life is an expression of beauty? How do you nurture beauty in your surroundings and relationships?

Monday, January 17, 2011

The ethics of cheap food

A volunteer from Japan learning more about organic food production on PEI, Canada
"Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality." -Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
"A human being is a part of the whole, called by us, "Universe," a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest -- a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty."  -Albert Einstein
Working in the organic food industry, people are constantly telling me why they do not eat organically grown food. They say "it is too expensive" to eat organically, or "I bought organic fruit/vegetables once, but they were rotting within a week," or "organic food is a luxury for the wealthy..."

I have heard a lot of arguments about why people are not eating organically. This blog entry is for those who are open to hearing the other side of the story.

I grew up on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. When I moved there, as a six year old, agriculture was still a major source of income for Cypriots. Cypriots are, from most perspectives, wealthy people. They may not all have huge savings accounts and be living in mansions, but most families own agricultural land. Unlike much of North America, agricultural land in Cyprus has traditionally been divided into relatively small parcels. The most common crops are grapes, olives, carob, citrus fruit, nuts, and bananas. When I was growing up, many of my friends would spend part of their weekends in the family village taking care of their vineyards, orchards, or plantations. Many of the family plots are located near the village that the family originally came from, and have been passed down from parents to children for generations. Cyprus was a rather poor country in its not too distant past, and having land meant being able to support and sustain one's family.

As a child, I occasionally accompanied my friends and their parents to their family villages on the weekend to help them with their fieldwork. I experienced how much hard physical work goes into producing and harvesting a healthy, plentiful crop, and watched people I love farm using very little other than their hands, hoes and shovels, and a donkey to carry their harvest back to their truck. I also watched them engage in activities like spraying their crops. In Cyprus, both then and, in many cases still now, this meant standing beneath a tree or a trellis, gathering handfulls of white powder from a burlap bag labeled with a skull and crossbones, and hurling this powder at the tree or vine. Some of my friends' parents had hand-held pumps filled with the mixture, and would aim a sprayer at the plant and then pump white clouds of chemicals out into the air. There were, at the time, no masks involved in this process. No gloves. Sometimes they would wear their own glasses to shield their eyes, but often they would not. I would stand and watch as they disappeared in a thick cloud of dust. At the end of the day, they would get back in the truck covered from head to toe in white powder. White hair. White faces. I remember even as a child wondering whether this was healthy.

When my mother and I would go to the supermarket to buy fruit, everything was always covered in a fine layer of this toxic smelling "white dust" as I used to call it. I wondered why everything had to be so thickly covered in it, and asked my friends' parents a number of times, hoping to understand better why our food looked so sick. I was told, over and over, that if we did not apply fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides to our crops, they would be attacked by insects or crowded out by weeds. I even asked whether it was necessary to use so much of it. I was told that because we live on a poor island, we are given the poorest quality chemicals that nobody else wants, so we have to apply more than it says to apply for it to be effective. These were the actual words that my friends' parents used. I do not know who told them this, but they believed it, and at seven, eight, nine years old, I was not going to try to argue with them. Still, it bothered me that we had to peel all of our fruit and vegetables growing up, and it bothered me that our cucumbers smelled so intensely of chemicals that even after peeling them and soaking them, I often had to pick them out of my salad because I just could not bring myself to eat them.

In 2000, I spent time in Costa Rica, and visited multinational banana and pineapple plantations to learn more about where some of the food I was eating was being grown. I saw workers out in fields harvesting while airplanes were spraying the very same fields from above. I saw bags being placed around bananas so that they grew in the particular shape that had been deemed most pleasing to North American and European consumers (these were different, just in case you are wondering. Europeans and North Americans prefer bananas that are completely different dimensions). I saw bananas that had even the slightest mark on their skins being removed to be sold on the local market, bunches of bananas being doused in a preservatives to keep them from ripening too fast, and bananas being shipped in huge refrigerated ships headed north. I saw enormous areas of rain forest being clear cut in order to establish miles and miles of a single crop. People moving into previously unsettled land to work at these plantations earning salaries so low that it made me cringe. I spoke to field workers who told me, again and again, about the number of children being born with severe birth defects, which they thought were the result of all of the chemicals that they were having to work around every day. And I learned that the wealth of the soil in rain forests is contained in the roots of the trees, which means that after clear-cutting the forest, the crops use up all of the initially released nutrients, and within a few years the soil is exhausted, productivity drops, and eventually companies pull out and go elsewhere, where the process begins again, leaving people jobless, and having to either clear cut more forest to subsist, or move and follow the company to its new location. All of this so that I could eat a banana that cost me not even a dollar, or a pineapple that came with the marketing line "Golden on the outside. Golden on the inside. Tastes like pina colada."

In my twenties, I finally took an organic farming class in university, and experienced a different way of farming. The soil was not seen as a vessel into which treated seeds and synthetic chemicals were placed, but a living organism that, if treated with care, worked with farmers to help crops grow healthy and strong, year after year. I learned that by growing smaller amounts of a diversity of crops, the impact of diseases or infestations could be minimized, because a disease that impacted potatoes might not influence strawberries, and an insect that loved squash would often have no influence of broccoli. In other words, diseases and insect damage was minimized, and if one crop was completely wiped out, there were other crops that the farmer could still sell and make an income off of. Diversity meant greater security. The other thing that I found amazing was that by growing different crops in different plots, they could be rotated from year to year, and a crop that generated a particular soil nutrient could be grown in a plot that, the year before, had been used to grow a crop that had a heavy demand for that same nutrient. This meant that land could remain productive year after year. These were, of course, practices that had been in place for thousands of years, having been used by Native Peoples in North America and elsewhere long before people re-introduced it as "organic farming." Having been raised to think that insects were detrimental to farming, I was surprised to learn that some insects, like ladybugs, actually protect plants from aphids, and that worms aerate and enrich the soil, creating a healthier crop. I was also interested to learn that there were other ways to keep unwanted insects off of a crop, such as planting a row of another plant that could potentially attract the insects that might otherwise have attacked the main crop. I also noticed that there were more birds flying around organic fields, more wildlife passing through them, and that the farmers using organic methods seemed to be in good health, and often living a quality of life was is comparable with their non-farming neighbours.

Springwillow Farms, where most of the food I have eaten over the last 6 years was grown
Over the last twenty-five years, I have watched more and more Cypriots move into the urban centres, travel abroad to get their education, and take jobs working for banks, government offices, and schools. Most of my friends consider farming a poor man's profession, and few of them still accompany their parents to the villages to maintain the family land. With changes in agricultural policy, fruit and vegetables are now being imported from Europe. We actually have so many bananas coming from Latin America into Cyprus at such a cheap price that my friends' parents are either leaving their crop on the trees or burying the fruit because they cannot compete. In 2006 I spent time interviewing a number of these farmers, and they told me that their children (my friends) were urging them to sell the land to developers, but that they could not bear to lose their orchards/vineyards/plantations. A few of them told me that they still go water their trees and vines even though they are not harvesting the fruit. That they are paying out money that they are not earning back to pay for the water. When I asked them why, they told me that it made them sad to watch their trees die. I was moved. The idea that one generation ago, people were so connected to their land that they are still willing to give hard earned income away that they will not get back just to make sure that land stays green is amazing to me given the state of agriculture in Cyprus today. Don't get me wrong. I understand why my friends want to sell their family land. I wouldn't do it, because like their parents, I love the natural world far too much to part with it for extra income, but given the urban nature of life today, I can see how my friends do not see it being of any value any longer.

When I was home in 2006, another thing I asked these farmers was whether they had experienced any health problems from handling and inhaling all those chemicals they have been around all their lives. Their response was "the company we bought them from told us that they were safe. Wouldn't they have told us if they were harmful?" Apparently they had not had any noticeable adverse reactions. Yet. A few of the other farmers I interviewed had experienced health problems which they attributed to a lifetime of exposure to pesticides and herbicides. One of the farmers had lost his father to chemically induced cancer. Another had cancer when I interviewed him. I realized, as a result of having these conversations, the level of trust that these people, who I love deeply, and have known most of my life, have in the fertilizer and pesticide companies. I also realized, after spending my whole life around these amazing people, that many of them could barely read or write, and could therefore not understand the instructions on the labels all those years.

Today there are thousands of vineyards and orchards that are sitting abandoned in Cyprus. The older members of families have either passed away, or are simply not able to maintain them, and there is not enough profit in it anymore for the younger generations to take time away from their busy careers and families in the cities and drive to the villages to farm. Who knows -- maybe they wouldn't be interested even if there were a reasonable livelihood to be made. We may never know, because competing with international corporations is not something that many young adults are going to take on in today's economic climate. The numbers of those farming today is getting smaller and smaller, and the amount of land that these people is farming is getting larger and larger -- Cyprus is walking in the footsteps of so many other countries who are investing in chemical intensive, large scale agriculture. It may be developing slower, but it is happening. Parallel to this, more and more is imported from large farms in the EU and Latin America at less than half the price. So we are paying less for our food. We are also losing those beautifully maintained terraced grape vineyards, and along with them the birds that nest in grape-vineyards and the diversity in the types of grapes that we grow, and the ultimately, the hard-earned knowledge of how to grow grapes that has been passed down from generation to generation. Just thinking about grapes, I can think of a handful of traditional desserts made using their juice, and then there are all the wines and vinegars, the festivals and the stories and even the potential income from tourists who enjoy the agricultural landscapes, the fruit, the festivities centered around that fruit. So we are paying less for our food. Is that really all that important in the long term scheme of things? What do we value about our islands and communities? What makes Cyprus a place that is different and unique? What do we love about our island? What kind of a relationship do we have with the natural environment when we rarely find time to interact with it? 

Over the last six years I have been living and working on another island where agriculture is part of the daily life. A part of the culture and history and identity. PEI used to be a patchwork of small family farms. Over time, intensive, industrial agriculture has taken over, farms have gotten bigger and bigger to compete, and today when you drive down country roads it is rare to not see at least one for sale sign outside a farm gate -- on many roads there are many such signs. Many of the farmers I have spoken to on PEI have had at least one person in their family get cancer, and many people feel strongly that this was the direct result of all the synthetic chemicals used to try to pump up production and continue competing with the giant farms that dominate the market. PEI also has a vibrant fishing community, but in the last ten to fifteen years fish kills have become more and more frequent. Heavy rains wash chemicals into waterways and out into the ocean. Fish wash up on the shore dead. People get cancer. Communities suffer. Most farms go under despite all attempts to increase productivity. Communities suffer more. We buy cheap food from the Superstore. Our farmers drive trucks that bring us cheap food grown on giant farms in other provinces. Our farmers go to the food bank to get food because they cannot feed their families.

Stephen Cousins and his son harvesting organic strawberries on Shepherd's Farm, PEI

You may be wondering when I am going to get to the point. Here it is. Yes. Organic food is slightly more expensive than conventional crops. But how much are you spending on health care? Our medical bills get higher and higher every year, parallel with our air getting more and more polluted and more and more chemicals turning up in our water. There is a reason why an organic potato starts sprouting if you wait too long to eat it and a conventional potato can sit there endlessly without sprouting -- the organic potato is still alive. If you cut it up, you could re-plant it, and it still has the capacity to grow new potatoes. Your conventional potato has lost the ability to do that. Yes, it is cheaper. It is also doused in chemicals that are harming our families, our soil, our water, and our wildlife. And I am not even talking about flavour here. Have you tasted the vegetables and fruit that we are getting for such a great price at the grocery store lately? Neither have I. There is, I find, very little to taste.

I don't know. You tell me. Is it not worth a little extra to know that our food is not undermining our own happiness and health? It is not worth a little extra to know that the farming methods that were used to grow our food did not result in women giving birth to children with birth defects? I know that times are tough right now, but I do not see them getting any easier by our continuing to exhaust our soils, cut down our forests, kill off our wildlife and make our families sick by ingesting synthetic chemicals.

The last time I was home in Cyprus, a few organic farmers were sprouting up here and there. They are not thriving, but they are succeeding, and their markets are growing. Standing at an organic winery in the hills outside Limassol with the owner, I looked out over a valley of abandoned vineyards. The owner of the winery told me that they wanted to increase production, but were having trouble finding enough grapes. Not enough grapes? On a Mediterranean island? I was saddened, but not surprised. Still, I do find it heartening to meet farmers that are trying a different approach. One that is economically viable and good for the environment and human health. It is a complex story, but one worth reflecting on. Every choice we make when we enter a grocery store has an impact somewhere in the world. On islands these choices have immediate, visible results because we only have so much land. The choices we make with our purchasing power are ethical choices. They will fuel land zoning policy and development practices. In Cyprus, when I buy local produce, I know I am supporting the preservation, on however small a scale, of local agriculture. It is part of what I value most about my home. In PEI, when I buy potatoes from the farmer's market, I know I am helping to keep a family farm in business. Community is part of what I value about PEI. Sure I eat a banana every now and then, but I do try to find organic bananas before I go out and buy Chiquita. And when I do eat a Chiquita, I try to be conscious of what my choice to do so is supporting.

I had an interview this morning with an organic chocolate company, Green & Black's. Their motto is: "created without compromise." They believe that when you treat the earth well, the earth gives back something of quality and value. Their farmers are in Belize and the Dominican Republic. They are assured a minimum price on their cocoa so that they have a certain degree of economic security. They are also given a premium because their beans are organic. The premium is used by local cooperatives to invest in infrastructure, education and community development. Their chocolate is divine.There are many other companies out there doing innovative things that result in delicious, healthy products that do not compromise our health, the health of our children or our environment.

What kinds of choices do you make when it comes to your food? Have you thought about how your purchasing power influences your environment, health, and community, or the environment, health and community of someone who lives on the other side of the world?

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Why no two cups of tea will ever be the same

Photo credit: Leila Aghdassi, 2009
Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves - slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future.  ~Thich Nat Hahn

Each cup of tea represents an imaginary voyage.  ~Catherine Douzel

You have probably been wondering where I have been. Two words: Drinking. Tea.

I have started writing some articles about tea for a friend who owns a tea company back on PEI. I have been a big tea drinker my whole life. Growing up in Cyprus, there is a tradition of sitting around the kitchen table catching up with friends while sipping endless cups of hot tea (or coffee, but I am not a coffee fan). As a child, we used to pick fresh mint in the mountains, brew it up, and sweeten it with honey. It was the perfect pick-me-up on a grey day!
 
Bread and water can so easily be toast and tea.  ~Author Unknown
 

Living on PEI, tea became a much larger part of my life. Winters on PEI were very long, and very cold. Especially for a Mediterranean girl like myself. I soon discovered that Prince Edward Islanders have discovered that the best way to get through tough winters is to come together regularly to enjoy each others company -- usually over a hot cup of tea. On PEI this was usually Red Rose tea, which has a robust flavour and a deep reddish hue when held up to the light. The company's mantra is: "Here's one more reason to stay indoors this winter!" The tea definitely does not keep Canadians indoors, however it was a great way to warm up before heading back out into the cold. Over the six years that I lived on the island, I spent many an afternoon or evening sitting around a table with groups of women of all ages, listening to, and telling stories, laughing, and sipping hot sweet tea. Tea brought people together and lifted spirits.

Enjoying tea with some of my favourite tea-drinking companions on PEI
 Working on a farm, it was also an opportunity to bustle into the farmhouse at Springwillow Farms and warm my hands up after harvesting vegetables in the fall. One of my best memories of working on the farm was the time I spent in the farmhouse kitchen sipping tea with Joyce Loo (the owner of the farm), and listening to her tell stories about life on the farm. It is something I miss now that I am in California, and I often find myself thinking of her when I sit at my kitchen table sipping tea.

Joyce Loo and I in her farmhouse kitchen at Springwillow Farms
Another tradition that I built for myself while living on PEI was going to the farmer's market every Saturday morning to buy my food directly from local farmers. Charlottetown has a great farmer's market, if you ever find yourself in Charlottetown and are looking for something fun to do. It is open year-round on Saturdays, and during the summer months it is open on Wednesdays also. It has lots of organic fruits and vegetables, superb baked goods, fresh meat and fish, locally made arts and crafts, a coffee bar, a tea bar, and a number of food stalls selling everything from traditional Canadian dishes to Indian, Lebanese and African food. After I had all of my groceries, I would get myself a cup of tea from Lady Baker's Tea Trolley, and migrate into the adjoining community room -- a room filled with picnic-style tables that all sorts of people would share, everyone hunkered down next to everyone else. That room was a great way to meet people as well as a place to catch up with old friends. I would take my tea with me, and settle down at a random table. Sometimes I would take my journal and write. Sometimes I would take a novel. But often the book or journal would stay in my bag because I would sit down next to someone who would strike up a conversation, and would forget I even brought something else to do. I loved sitting in this room sipping my tea. I loved the bustle and laughter and the sound of people selling their products. In the summer months the market expands outside, and there is often live music. It is a great place for community gathering and connecting.

Over the six years that I visited the farmer's market pretty much every Saturday, I developed a great love for quite a number of Katherine's teas, and so when I left to move to California, I bought quite a bit of it to bring along with me. I still have a considerable amount left, and I enjoy sipping it while I write, because is tastes divine, and because it connects me back to PEI the minute I inhale the aroma from my cup. Right now I am writing about my favourite tea, which is called Lady's Slipper blend. Fingers crossed, she will love my description of it, and will add it to her web site. Keep checking here.

If man has no tea in him, he is incapable of understanding truth and beauty.  ~Japanese 
Proverb

Lately I have been spending a lot of time with a new friend who is Iranian. You may already know this, but Iranians are tea connoisseurs. From childhood they are steeped in the tradition of tea drinking. They drink mainly black tea, but they have a particular kind of black tea for first thing in the morning, another for the mid-afternoon, and yet another for the evening. And so whenever I visit the home of an Iranian, I always know I can expect an excellent glass of Persian tea. Notice I say glass and not cup or mug. One lesson that the Iranians have taught me is that tea should be drunk in a glass (and yes, I realize that the photographer of the first picture in this entry is Iranian, and yes, I realize that her tea is in a fine china cup, but she was drinking that cup of tea in a fine British hotel, so I am thinking we can let her off the hook just this once!). The reason for drinking tea out of a glass instead of a mug becomes immediately obvious the first time you drink tea (without milk) in a glass: you can appreciate the beautiful amber colour of the liquor. If you are sitting in a room bathed in sunlight, it is even more spectacular, in an "I need to write a poem about the colour of this tea" kind of way. I usually drink my tea with milk and honey, but over the past month, as I write about tea, and try to detect the subtle notes of various distant flowers and spices, I have also started drinking more of my tea clear to enjoy the warm rosy amber or coppery hues as I sip it. It does add a new dimension to drinking tea that I had never considered before. Give it a try and let me know what you think!

There is a great deal of poetry and fine sentiment in a chest of tea.  ~Ralph Waldo Emerson, Letters and Social Aims 

Tea intrigues me because when I drink it I feel as though I am experiencing another, very distant and often rather foreign (to me) part of the world for a brief period of time. I am fascinated by the idea that no two cups of tea are ever exactly the same, because the weather, the harvest time and method, and the processing and tea crafting techniques are always fluctuating and changing. The idea that the flavour, aroma, and yes, even the colour of my cup of tea is a reflection of the monsoon rains in India or the drought in China blows me away. These tiny furled leaves are unfolding themselves in my cup and telling me a story of the shift of seasons in the tea plantations in India; the story of the women in China or Sri Lanka whose hands picked the tea; the story of the new mechanized harvesting being used to increase profits; the story of the wildflowers that grew near the tea plantation in Sri Lanka, and whose perfume wafted over the tea while it was growing. Every little element of place is subtly infused into the tea leaves that are in my cup here on my kitchen table in California.

I have a passion for stories. The story of people, of plants, of the food on my plate. I love learning more about what went into something before it reached me. How place influences who we are. How climate and culture influence the flavour and aroma of our food. How knowing the story behind something or someone changes my experience of that thing or person.

So when I vanish for a few days, it is usually because I am tracing the path of some new story -- exploring its contours and textures, and how change has influenced its current state. I do return from my journey though, and when I do, I usually have something to share with you as well!

Do you have any interesting stories about tea, or any favourite teas that you think I should try? I would love to hear from you if you do. I am looking for some new teas to try and write about. Especially ones grown on islands. Any suggestions?