The Literary Salon – The Listening Path – by Julia Cameron

When was the last time you had a really good sit-down soul-satisfying conversation with somebody? Notwithstanding the pandemic, it’s surely a given in today’s society that we have become a nation of non-listeners. We have a tendency to interrupt with our own opinion, or maybe we’re not really listening at all but thinking about what our reply will be. I blame this general lack of attention on the instantaneous nature of the internet. We have become so accustomed to conducting everything at high speed, that we’ve lost the fine art of conversation….in person….not by text or tweet. It takes time to have a conversation, and two people who are willing to truly listen to each other’s words. Someone may say they are fine, but you can tell from the tone of their voice or facial expressions that they’re not, and so you ask questions, and then listen carefully. Listening better was one my goals this year, so it was with great anticipation that I ordered Julia Cameron’s latest release, The Listening Path – The Creative Art of Attention.

Publisher’s Blurb from Goodreads:

The newest book from beloved author Julia Cameron, The Listening Path is a transformational journey to deeper, more profound listening and creativity. Over six weeks, readers will be given the tools to become better listeners—to their environment, the people around them, and themselves. The reward for learning to truly listen is immense. As we learn to listen, our attention is heightened and we gain healing, insight, clarity. But above all, listening creates connections and ignites a creativity that will resonate through every aspect of our lives.

Julia Cameron is the author of the explosively successful book The Artist’s Way, which has transformed the creative lives of millions of readers since it was first published. Incorporating tools from The Artist’s Way, The Listening Path offers a new method of creative and personal transformation.

Each week, readers will be challenged to expand their ability to listen in a new way, beginning by listening to their environment and culminating in learning to listen to silence. These weekly practices open up a new world of connection and fulfillment. In a culture of bustle and constant sound, The Listening Path is a deeply necessary reminder of the power of truly hearing. 

Why I Liked It: I didn’t. I don’t even know how it got published. Normally I wouldn’t review a bad book, because I would have quit, but I finished this one out of respect for the author, the creativity expert and author of 40 books most of them truly inspiring, including her first, The Artist’s Way.

I read The Artist’s Way back when it was first published in 1992, and enjoyed it, although I’d have to say I found the Morning Pages a bit OCD. I even tried them once during a week’s vacation, but who has a spare hour in the morning to write out three long hand pages of stream of consciousness stuff. (This was in the days before computers, but she still requires they be hand written, and never in the evening!) Unless you were seeking clarity or trying to solve a problem, and even then wouldn’t you get sick of whining about it day after day, I just couldn’t see the point. For many people those early morning hours are often the most productive of the day, and for some, the only time they get any writing done at all. The Artist’s Dates and Meditative Walks were fun and helpful suggestions though. It was a twelve week program for discovering your creative self, which grew out of a writer’s workshop she taught, although the art can be any genre – writing, painting, music, etc. A best-seller at the time, the book has never been out of print and a few years ago they re-issued a 25th anniversary edition, but it can be found at book discount places, as can many of her other popular books on creativity. I own several of them.

But back to The Listening Path:

The Publisher’s blurb sounded good, but this book was a disappointing read on so many levels.  It’s a slim 180 page volume, with a long 40 page introduction, which is basically a recap of The Artist’s Way, and six chapters, Listening to the Environment, Others, Our Higher Self, Beyond the Veil, Silence and Our Heroes, with the chapters getting progressively shorter, so that towards the end they were only 4 or 5 pages. The pages themselves had a weird format of very narrow columns (4 inches), designed to make the book appear longer.

The Beyond the Veil chapter (where she connects with the world beyond and her spirit friend Jane tells her not to second-guess herself, the book is going well), reminded me of a seance.  (Jane, if you’re listening, it was bad advice).  The listening to others chapter, which should have been the gist of the book, consisted of interviews with her artist friends and acquaintances, who may be perfectly nice people but are not experts in the field and had nothing interesting to offer other than their personal opinions. (I could just as well interview my friends about listening but then medical people like jargon and brevity. I inadvertently offended a newly minted colleague once when I said cut to the chase.)

There were lots of walks with her dog Lily (a cute but yappy little Westie terrier) in the Santa Fe area where she lives, constant weather reports on storms and hail, feeding the dog salmon, and something called gravlax to stop her from barking and annoying the neighbors.  “Lily! Salmon! Treat!” was repeated so many times, (pages 44, 45, 47, 56, 97 and whenever there was a thunderstorm), it got to be annoying.  She has a bad connection on her landline, (several pages on that including dialogue), feels “bludgeoned” by a friend’s critical dietary advice, (ditto….sister you don’t know what a bad day is), worries about whether she can afford a house (yes her accountant says she can, and a maid too)….basically it was a whole lot of repetitive personal trivia, zero research and nothing much at all to do with the topic of listening. Unless you’re writing a personal blog, sharing anecdotes for a purpose, and/or lead an interesting life, this kind of stream of consciousness stuff might better be left to Morning Pages, not published in a hardcover format.

Her one and only novel, Mozart’s Ghost was like that too – I swear the main character lived in the laundry room, but after 43 rejections (page 19) what would you expect? Not that you can’t branch out and try something new, but sometimes an author can be good at one genre, but not others.  (I loved Frances Mayes series of Under The Tuscan Sun travel books, but her attempt at a chick-lit novel was painful).   If you like an author, you expect only good things from them, and are doubly disappointed when they don’t deliver.     

The Listening Path was written pre-pandemic, and while many people have been lonely during this past year, with no company and their only social outlet walking the dog, if you read between the lines this book spoke volumes about how solitary a writer’s life can be.  She needs to ditch the desert, move back to New York and re-read her own books for inspiration.

I didn’t sense too much joy in the creation- more of a pounding out the pages to meet a deadline. There was a lot of self-doubt which I don’t remember from her earlier works.   Was her stuff out of date (yes, Morning Pages)? There was much angst about teaching a course in London she has taught for decades – how can someone with 40 books be so lacking in self-confidence and so insecure.  I perked up at the mention of London though, it sounded much more interesting than walking in Santa Fe.

I even wondered if she was well, maybe even depressed? I read her 2006 memoir, Floor Sample, many years ago, and what struck me was what an unhappy life she had lead, because the memoir was such a direct contrast to her positive encouraging books.  She was married at one time to director Martin Scorsese (a man she declares she still loves – page 114), has a daughter and a grandchild and is a decades long recovered alcoholic.  I suspect AA inspired her writer’s workshops, hence the 12 week programs.   

Normally if I’m struggling with a book, I’ll hop on Goodreads and if enough people share my opinion, then I quit. (Too many DNF’s mean it’s not me, it’s you dear author, keeping in mind of course that some of those glowing reviewers may be receiving free copies).  But I soldiered on….it was readable, but barely, in a train wreck sort of way.

All in all, it was a timely topic which just didn’t translate, and I was left with a sense of disappointment, but you’ll be relieved to know there was a happy ending, as Lily got one of those anti-bark “citronella spray” dog collars. I didn’t even know such a thing existed, but apparently dogs hate the smell of citronella. Yes, that was how the book ended, with a short section entitled, “The Neighbors Rejoice.” I may pass that tip along to my neighbors.

This brings up the question – what does a publisher do when a best-selling author turns in a sub-standard manuscript? A good editor will hand it back to be fixed, or they may just publish it, take the money and run. It might be better to abandon it though and save the author’s reputation. Julia Cameron is 73 now, aren’t writers allowed to retire? (Another recent example of this is Jodi Picout’s latest, The Book of Two Ways, a four hundred page disaster which defies description, although I’ll try in a future blog). Same with the author – it’s hard to be objective especially when you’ve put so much work into something, and it’s also hard to admit when something just isn’t working. Books are subjective, but if the general consensus/feedback isn’t good, then you know there’s a problem.

If you want to read a good book by Julia Cameron, I would highly recommend this one.

Publishers Blurb:
 
Julia Cameron has inspired millions with her bestseller on creativity, The Artist’s Way. In It’s Never Too Late To Begin Again, she turns her eye to a segment of the population that, ironically, while they have more time to be creative, are often reluctant or intimidated by the creative process. Cameron shows readers that retirement can, in fact, be the most rich, fulfilling, and creative time of their lives.

When someone retires, the newfound freedom can be quite exciting, but also daunting. The life that someone had has changed, and the life to come is yet to be defined. In this book, Cameron shows readers how cultivating their creative selves can help them navigate this new terrain. She tells the inspiring stories of retirees who discovered new artistic pursuits and passions that more than filled their days—they nurtured their souls.  
A twelve-week course aimed at defining—and creating—the life you want to have as you redefine—and re-create—yourself, this book includes simple tools that will guide and inspire you to make the most of this time in your life:

–  Memoir writing offers an opportunity to reflect on—and honor—past experience. This book guides you through the daunting task of writing an entire memoir, breaking it down into manageable pieces. 
–  Morning Pages—private, stream-of-consciousness writing done daily—allow you to express wishes, fears, delights, resentments, and joys, which in turn, provide focus and clarity for the day at hand.
–  Artist Dates encourage fun and spontaneity.
–  Solo Walks quell anxiety and clear the mind.

This fun, gentle, step-by-step process will help you explore your creative dreams, wishes, and desires—and help you quickly find that it’s never too late to begin again. 

This book is geared more for middle-aged folks like me facing their second acts…..those reluctant souls who maybe always wanted to do something creative but lacked the courage to try. I read it back in 2016 and it was a big factor in starting my blog, although it was a whole year before I actually wrote anything on it, and another three months before I made it public. (My creative soul was a bit rusty). This book was an inspiring read, which truly delivered.

PS. Two out of three isn’t bad, and goes to show that even the best of writers have their duds. Do you think it is better to abandon a book which just isn’t working and move on to something else, or stick with it and carry on?

PS. I’ll be exploring more on the dichotomy between a writer’s books and their life, in a future blog about L.M. Montgomery, of the Anne of Green Gables series.

#Spring Fling – Wordless Wednesday

Let your photo(s) tell your story.

Spring Fling – March 2021 – by Joni’s mom
First sign of spring – which my neighbor weed whacked away!
Crocus in front of the library…
The early bloomers of the 50 bulbs I planted….looking rather downcast….
Blue skies smiling at me…..nothing but blue skies do I see!
The tulips stems seem short this year….
Hyacinths which have fallen over – we haven’t had enough rain….
Daffodils in front of the library…..you can tell they have a gardener.
It’s nice to hear the chorus of tree frogs when I walk….
Spring peeper hanging in there during the pandemic! Happy Spring!

The Winter of Our Discontent – The Corona Diaries – Part Four

For this latest quarterly installment of The Corona Diaries, I’ve borrowed the title from a 1961 novel by the American writer John Steinbeck, best known for his masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath.  The Winter of Our Discontent, centers around a protagonist, Ethan Hawley, who labors as a grocery clerk in a store once owned by his rich and illustrious Long Island ancestors.  A man of honesty and integrity he sells his soul in a series of successful but unethical get-rich schemes, hoping to satisfy his restless wife and teen-aged children who want more material goods than he can provide.   He becomes suicidal, but is saved at the end by a talisman his daughter slips into his pocket.

No idea why this was on my basement bookshelf, but Donald Sutherland looked young in 1983.

I read this book in high school, because our strict but otherwise excellent English teacher required a monthly book report on one of the classics.  I’m not sure why I chose this one.  Perhaps the title appealed to me, as Canadian winters tend to be long.   Certainly, as a 15-year-old I found it hard to relate to, as nobody in my world was suicidal, (young people weren’t back in the 70’s), but in truth all I remember about it was there was something about a grocery store and the scene of his despair was near the ocean, which I wanted to view some day. 

Steinbeck in turn borrowed the title from the opening speech of the Shakespearean play, Richard the Third, from which the English teacher thankfully spared us.   

“Now is the winter of our discontent, made glorious summer by this sun of York;  and all the clouds that lour’d upon our house. In the deep bosom of the ocean buried. Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths…..”

A catchy opening phrase, but the subsequent lengthy passage deals with politics, war and who gets to be king, and while I’m sure it was profound, I disliked Shakespeare too.   

None of this has anything to do with COVID, although I suppose you could spin a connection that Ethan Hawley was an essential front-line worker, there’s still a lot of political divisiveness raging, and mental health issues are becoming epidemic the longer the pandemic drags on….but basically I just liked the title.

For many people it has been a winter of discontent, but I’m an introvert so I’m still doing okay…keeping busy….reading lots…..walking every day except for one brutally cold week in February when I could not force myself to leave the warmth and comfort of the house.  (Skin freezes in twenty minutes in sub-zero temperatures.)   Cocooning in the winter is nice, but I’m wondering if I’ll remember how to interact with other people in person.

But I have to admit I’d be a lot happier if I could get a COVID vaccine.  The vaccine roll-out here has been slow, as not having any vaccine manufacturing facilities left in Canada, we are at the mercy of the EU supply chains.   

Turtle by Joni’s mom

It’s a case, of slow and steady does NOT win the race…..against the variants. 

While I’m grateful that my mother, in the over 90 group, was able to get her first shot in early March, with her second booked for five weeks later in April, unless it’s cancelled, I’m not happy that the government recently decided to stretch the dosing interval to FOUR MONTHS, for everyone else in an effort to get more people vaccinated, including for the 80 plus group. While they were able to give the nursing home residents and workers, and health care staff two doses initially as recommended, everyone else has to wait until July for the second dose.  While I understand the rationale behind this, it’s a big gamble, especially with new studies showing that immunity in the older population is substandard to begin with and may not last as long.  Every day now, so much new information is emerging, it’s hard to keep up with it all.

Sea turtle (by Joni’s mom) drowning in a sea of COVID information which changes with the tides…

As for the vaccination clinic itself, well…..that’s a rant best left to Facebook, if I was the kind of person who posted on Facebook.   Where else but in Canada would you have to wait until the ice came out of a hockey rink before you organized a mass immunization clinic.  The general inefficiency of the previous set-up has now been replaced by a new model involving pods of 15 (maximum of 60 in the now ice-free arena) where you register and sit in your pod and the immunizer person comes to you, aiming for a goal of one patient per minute. A great idea, and I’d give the local health unit credit, but they stole the (hockey hub) model from the Gray-Bruce Health Unit.

Unfortunately I was disqualified from getting the vaccine as an essential caregiver, as I do not share the same residence as my mother, even though I am there almost every day as she is 95 now, BUT if she was in a nursing home and I visited her once in awhile, then I would have qualified? (Ministry of Health rules) But at least I will not worry so much now that she will have some level of protection. Otherwise I am waiting patiently for my age group to come up…..they are decreasing by fives.

On to more pleasant things, like food.  There has been entirely too much dessert eating going on here lately…

I had to use up the rest of the spy apples before they spoiled…

So many English trifle parfaits were consumed that we ran out of peach and strawberry preserves.  I felt like the pioneer woman who ran out of provisions before the end of winter.   

Next year make three batches of freezer jam…

I’m still doing the every 2-3 week grocery run, as we have basically been in various stages of lockdown since Christmas.   We had two weeks in the orange zone in late February, so I was able to get a haircut, but locked down into gray again shortly afterwards.  Lots of cases and variants rising – we’re just starting the third wave.

When will the third wave melt?

I fear that by the time I get the vaccine, (and then which one, which is a whole other topic), it won’t work as the strains will have mutated so much we’ll have to start over again.   The Spanish flu took four years to die off, (1918-1922) with the first two being the worst due to WW1 troops spreading it between countries. Sorry to be so depressing….

Where are you my old friend mRNA?

I still have my old biochemistry book in the basement somewhere, but I’m grateful I no longer have to study it. I remember it as a killer course involving stuff like memorizing the Krebs cycle. I’m happy I can now keep my brain active by doing jigsaw puzzles.    

Lots of color and nothing over 500 pieces please….

Someone gave my mother one of her paintings as a puzzle (a great gift idea – simply upload a photo and order online at piczzle.com) and I helped her out a bit and found it fun. The store shelves were empty of puzzles after Christmas, but I managed to snag one on sale at the bookstore.  It’s the kind of mindless activity which is meditative and addictive at the same time….you sit down to do a few pieces and soon an hour has passed.

Speaking of paintings, her art exhibit comes down mid-April.  It’s been up for five months, but the museum has been closed for 3 ½ of those, so very few people had the opportunity to see it, which is a shame as it was such a nice display.  Another museum called last week and asked if we wanted to do a show this year as they will be re-opening soon, but I think I’d rather wait until next spring. I really can’t see going to all the work of setting up another show, until we climb out of this mess.  

Winter’s Swansong

Winter is over and spring, my favorite season, is here. I don’t want to miss it this year, so the blogging schedule may be a bit erratic.  This past month has been pleasant walking weather, with the grass greening and flowers popping up all over.  The robins are back, bringing with them the promise of warmer days ahead…..after Thursdays snowstorm!   

They are playing this song every time a COVID patient is discharged from the hospital.

The Eagle Has Landed

     The eagle has landed – on the ice floes in the river, and I have joined the paparazzi lining the banks in search of a picture. He perches on the ice hunting for fish in the water and lives with his brethren in the nearby trees. People have reported sightings of his massive wingspan while driving along the river road.

For all I know, this could just be a myth, for I’ve never seen a bald eagle, although I hear they like to hang out in the waterfront park this time of year and catch fish.  

They’ve even been known to hitch a ride downriver with the swift-moving current, like surfer dudes trying to catch the big one.       

Surf’s Up!

This quiet park has been frequented this past month by photographers along the shore, tripods and fancy zoom lens in hand, watching and waiting, all eager to get that first photo for the Facebook page.  Apparently, it’s been a good year for eagle sightings, for everyone but me.  

I’ve walked in this park quite a few times the past six weeks and nada…..although the fellow walkers I meet and greet will tell me, “there were nine here yesterday.  Yes – nine!”  A real eagle convention.  My neighbor saw one swooping down right in front of her windshield.  One man told me there were two circling high in the sky, but not to my eyes.  All I saw were seagulls.

Maybe they know which days I walk, and decide to stay home and take a nice long nap in the old nest.

Eagle nests can reach a great size, but usually only have two eggs.  The large nests must support their weight and height, as they can be big creatures, averaging 12 lbs for the female, and 9 lbs for the male, and standing up to three feet tall, with wingspans up to seven feet. They hardly flap their wings, but glide about on the air currents. Both the male and female take turns sitting on the eggs, although the female does the majority of the incubating. They can use the same nest for years, and the eggs hatch mid-April to May. I saw a news video recently of baby eagles in a nest – two cute little balls of white fluff. The young eagles are brown until they are about 5 years, and then develop the distinctive white heads and tails. They are birds of prey, predominately fish eaters, but also small birds and mammals, and not too fussy about the type of carcass – roadkill will do just fine. They are notorious for their sudden dives and grasp their prey with their talons, using the sharp hind toe one to kill. Average life span is about 20 years although they can live longer.

Photo credit to St. Clair County Community newspaper MI

Apparently, there is a nest somewhere, in the trees along the river, whose bare branches would surely make such a sight visible, but again not to me.  The nests tend to be mid-tree in order to support their weight. It must be farther back along the creek which empties into the river.   This is a popular spot for overwintering birds, as an industrial plant discharges warm water into the creek, thus providing a sauna-like atmosphere much appreciated in the freezing cold.  There are plenty of seagulls, more Canadian geese than anyone would ever want to see, and those pairs of mute swan lovers I’ve featured on Wordless Wednesday.   

Eagles are majestic creatures, a symbol of freedom.  My American readers surely know more about them than I do, as the eagle is their national bird, (I really liked that eagle on Lady Gaga’s sweater at the inauguration), whereas we in Canada have the more industrious and ugly-as-hell-rodent – the beaver.   

There’s been very little ice in the river this year.   After a brutal snowy February, we’ve had a relatively mild March, so the ice and snow have all melted now and the photographers have dispersed. The eagles must either be nesting or have gone south for spring break, leaving me with no good reason to visit a park now littered with green geese goop.  There’s always next year….

    700 words seems kind of short for a blog, so I’ll add some art, poetry, and music.    

My mothers art – Bald Eagle – 2014 – on canvas paper
recent version – Bald Eagle – March 2021 – based on a newspaper clipping

I remember studying this Alfred Lord Tennyson poem in grade school:

The Eagle:

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

Music: Fly Like An Eagle – Steve Miller Band – 1976

(Eagle stats from Wikipedia and St. Clair County Community Newspaper – MI)

#Irish Souvenirs – Wordless Wednesday

Let your photo(s) tell your story.

Tweed afghan – from my trip to Ireland many years ago.
Another afghan I couldn’t pass up – from a shop on Grafton Street.
Thank you Mary Fitzgerald! You are a true artisan.
The colors reminded me of heather.
What tourist could resist a traditional Aran sweater….
…or two! It was so cold that September they were both well used.
Such excellent workmanship.
Thank you Una O’Neill for keeping me warm during my trip! And thanks to the sheep for donating the wool!
Traditional tweed caps and one summer one for golfing….my dad used to wear the gray one.
My friend who went to med school in Ireland, has brought me back many lovely souvenirs as Christmas gifts over the years.
including this Claddagh circle – the Irish symbol of love and friendship – and a blue Aran sweater,

a Waterford crystal vase, which weighs a ton, but which will hold spring daffodils soon,
and some Irish coffee glasses for toasting Happy St. Patricks Day! The music box plays When Irish Eyes Are Smiling, which they are looking back at all these mementos of my Irish heritage.

Dutch Oven Bread

There’s nothing like warm freshly-baked bread with a bowl of soup, especially this time of year when the March winds start to howl. No-knead Dutch oven bread is this year’s sourdough. I missed the sourdough craze last spring as the grocery stores were out of yeast and flour. (Can you believe we’re now approaching the one year anniversary of this pandemic?) I’ve never worked with yeast before as the only kind of bread I’ve made, the Irish Soda Bread from last year’s St. Patrick’s Day blog, relied on a chemical reaction between buttermilk and baking soda, but the recipes seemed easy enough, and as I already own a heavy cast iron Dutch oven, I thought I’d give it a try.

I did have some hesitation though, as I remembered those early bread machines which were so popular as Christmas presents a few decades ago. My mother had one, and while the kitchen smelled wonderful while it was baking, the bread itself was yeasty tasting. There were prepackaged bread mixes you could buy for them at the grocery store, and the loaves were small odd shaped things with minimal crust, but the bread maker was donated to the thrift shop years ago, so my recollection is hazy at best.

My mother never made bread. We were Wonder Bread kids growing up, but every Wednesday when she got groceries in town, she would go to the International Bakery and buy a big loaf of Italian bread. I would arrive home on the school bus famished, and cut a thick slab of it, which lavishly spread with butter, would tide me over until suppertime. It was a big square loaf with a nice crust, and the inside was so soft and doughy it would melt in your mouth. I’ve never tasted anything like it since, but the bakery went out of business decades ago. Although I have found a place which sells an excellent pumpernickel bread.

Pumpernickel bread.

Dutch oven bread is no-knead bread, baked in an extremely hot cast iron pot with the lid on, thus mimicking the traditional bread ovens that bakeries use to make artisan loaves. The steam generated by the Dutch oven produces a loaf with a nice crusty outside and a soft full-of-air-holes texture inside.

For something with only three simple ingredients there’s certainly a plethora of recipes out there. After wasting a considerable amount of time on the internet – Facebook (2 videos), googling (5 cooking websites) and youtube (2 videos), plus one video from a retirement home newsletter of someone’s dad baking bread – I was dazed and couldn’t remember which recipe was which. Anything requiring two risings or rising for 8 hours or more I eliminated – I’m not a morning person and didn’t want to be baking bread at midnight.

The amounts of ingredients varied too. The flour ranged from 3 cups to 5 and a half, (I have a smaller size Dutch oven), the yeast from half a teaspoon to two teaspoons or a whole packet, and then there was the type of yeast, traditional active dry yeast or instant, the salt from one and a half teaspoons of sea salt to one teaspoon of regular salt. Then there were all the extra ingredients and flavorings, sugar, olive oil, rosemary, dusting with cornmeal etc. It was mind-boggling. Finally I just sort of improvised, using a combination of the dad’s video plus an on-line recipe which allowed for instant yeast which is what I had bought.

The Ingredients:

Instant Quick-Rise yeast can be added to dry ingredients and only requires one rise.

The Recipe:

3 cups of flour (I used all purpose white flour, the Robin Hood brand as that’s what I had, and that’s what the dad used in his video, but bread flour is okay too).

1/2 teaspoon of yeast (the dad’s video said 1/2 tsp of any kind, but I used the instant quick-rise brand. It was not too yeasty so the next time I would increase it to 3/4 teaspoon or even a full teaspoon)

1 teaspoon of regular salt (I didn’t have any sea salt)

1 1/2 cups of warm water (105 -110 degrees for regular yeast – not hot boiling water as it can destroy the yeast. The quick rising yeast I used said on the package to use water a bit warmer 120-130. Here’s where things got tricky – I just let it run from the tap and guessed, as I don’t have a food thermometer, just a meat one)

The Directions: Making the Dough:

Place the flour, salt and yeast in a bowl large enough for the dough to double in size. Then pour the warm water on top or make a well,. Use a spatula, wooden spoon or your hands to mix together. (I used my hands in disposable pandemic gloves!) The dough should be somewhat wet and sticky, but add a bit more flour if it’s too sticky to handle. I had to add a bit more water as mine was too dry.

Icky-Sticky – and maybe a new use for those pandemic gloves?

Leave the bowl on the counter and let it rest with a towel or plastic wrap over it for 8-24 hours. If you’re short on time, you can bake as soon as 2 hours. The longer it sits, the better. You can also refrigerate it for up to 7 days. (online recipe directions)

I used both plastic wrap and a towel over it.

I had intended to only leave it for 2 hours, but got side-tracked with cleaning a years worth of papers off the desk in the den which is a general repository for junk….so it was actually 3 hours before I checked. It had risen nicely, although I’m not sure it had quite doubled in size, and there were bubbles on the top but not many. (Perhaps a bit more yeast next time?)

Bubble trouble?

Preheat the oven to 450 F starting about half an hour before the rising is complete. (As I got distracted with the paper sorting and forgot to preheat the oven, supper was left over stew with day old biscuits instead of fresh bread!) Place your 4-6 quart Dutch oven WITH THE LID ON IT, into the oven for at least 30 minutes to get hot. You want to add your Dutch oven BEFORE preheating so it preheats with the oven, to prevent it from cracking. And always remember the oven mitts – as the oven will be hot, hot hot!

Shaping the Dough:

The dough on a piece of floured parchment paper

Flour a piece of parchment paper and generously flour your hands. Turn the dough onto the paper. It will be sticky. Do not punch down, knead or roll it out. Gently and quickly work the dough into a French boule (round ball). Lightly dust the top with flour and then use a bread knife to add 1 – 4 shallow lines across the top. Scoring the bread with a cross lets the fairies out and stops them from cursing your bread. (Just seeing how many of you recall the fairy tale from last year’s Irish Soda Bread!) Actually, scoring helps it to expand while heating, and makes it look very artisan-like. My French boule kind of flopped over while I was waiting for the oven to heat, so next time I would work it into shape on a floured board and then transfer it to the parchment paper. I found it hard to work with it on the parchment paper as the paper moved around too much.

Bake:

Not sure why my oven coil is glowing purple?

Picking up the corners of the parchment paper, carefully place it in inside the Dutch oven. Careful it will be hot – oven mitts! Cover with the lid and set the timer for 35 minutes, still at the 450 F.

As I had cut too large a piece of parchment, some of it was outside the lid, so after awhile I started to smell the paper singeing. Plus the whole kitchen smelled of yeast, which I discovered has quite a chemical smell. What I did not smell was the lovely scent of bread baking, because the lid was on!

Looking good after 35 minutes.

After 35 minutes remove the lid and bake an additional 10-15 minutes or until golden brown. When you remove it and knock on the bottom of the bread it should sound hollow.

Total cooking time 45 minutes – 35 with lid on, 10 with lid off.

I set the timer for ten minutes with the lid off, but I should have checked it after five, as it was a bit too brown looking, but oh my, the crust was divine, crackly and crunchy and delicious! The inside was not too yeasty tasting, which had been my fear, but soft and doughy. There weren’t many air holes, so more yeast or rising time next time.

Artisan bread!

Allow to cool on a cooling rack and then slice and serve. Store in a paper bag so it doesn’t soften. I did, but the next day it was too hard, so I think a Zip-lock bag would have been better, or a bit less cooking time next time.

Supper was long over, but someone stole a chunk and had it with some old cheddar and pretended they bought it at a French boulangerie.

So ends my first foray into bread baking. Overall I was satisfied with the end result, but would tweak the recipe to add more yeast and more rising time, buy a food thermometer as I suspect my water wasn’t warm enough, and perhaps experiment with half whole wheat flour, next time. I would also prep the ingredients in the morning, (I started at 2 pm), and time it better, or maybe even leave it in the fridge overnight, although my fridge is very cold. I did find it was best eaten the same day, warm with butter. I hope this post inspires someone else to give it a try. (Sorry, Dave of Life in a Word, you’ll have to wait until after Easter!)

When I was working I took a sandwich for lunch almost every day, but I don’t buy much bread anymore. Bread has gotten expensive. It costs me $3.50 the other day to buy a loaf of the ordinary white my mother likes, occasionally it’s on sale for $2. My whole grain brand is seldom below $3. An artisan load can easily run $4 or $5. The baking dad in the video said he was able to make 25 loaves of bread from the big 25 lb bag of flour he buys, making it $1 a loaf, something to consider if you’re on a budget or have a large family.

I worked with a new immigrant from one of the Eastern European Bloc countries, and one day in the staff room, she let me sample her homemade bread. It was a dark almost pumpernickel color with a nice texture, just bursting with flavor. She made all her own bread every week for her family, as back home bread was so expensive, that no one could afford to buy it at a store. A box of cereal cost $20, due to runaway inflation, so people cooked from scratch. I asked her for the recipe, which she scribbled on a piece of paper – three simple ingredients…infinite variations. (She also added a few teaspoons of butter and sugar and did two rises). If I can bake bread, anyone can….but I don’t think I’ll be opening a boulangerie anytime soon. I suspect the art of baking the perfect loaf of bread might require a bit more practice. If there’s potato soup for St. Patrick’s Day, I’m willing to give it another try.

(1900 words about bread?)

#The Water in Winter – Wordless Wednesday

Let your photos(s) tell your story.

Seagulls hanging out on the river…
Two swans a swimming on Valentine’s Day…
The beach in winter…
is closed….but it’s nice to see the blue sky.
Wish these were sand dunes but they’re frozen waves covered with snow….
Which you’re not supposed to climb on…..
And lastly, it wouldn’t be a Canadian winter without hockey on the pond!

#Snowpeople – Wordless Wednesday

Let your photo(s) tell your story.

Even a big burly snowman needs to wear a mask….
Every snowwoman needs some bling – but if your nose falls off…..
….then improvise! (I wonder if their mother knew they left the bag of celery outside?)
I’m melting……The End.

The Literary Salon: Lean Out – A Meditation on the Madness of Modern Life

One potential benefit of the pandemic is that many people are finding their lives are less busy and less stressed.  Without the daily commute to work and the rush of getting the kids to their various after-school activities, there is suddenly more time to make supper, relax, or binge-watch your favorite TV shows.   For some this new work-life balance might become a permanent way of life, although I’ve heard some complaints that working remotely means even longer hours as there is no longer any distinction between office and home.

If the key to happiness is the perfect work-life balance, then what happens when that balance is way out of whack and how do we realign it? This month’s Literary Salon pick, Lean Out – A Meditation on the Madness of Modern Life by Tara Henley, addresses that issue.

Here’s the Publishers Blurb from Goodreads:

“In 2016, journalist Tara Henley was at the top of her game working in Canadian media. She had traveled the world, from Soweto to Bangkok and Borneo to Brooklyn, interviewing authors and community leaders, politicians and Hollywood celebrities. But when she started getting chest pains at her desk in the newsroom, none of that seemed to matter.

The health crisis–not cardiac, it turned out, but anxiety–forced her to step off the media treadmill and examine her life and the stressful twenty-first century world around her. Henley was not alone; North America was facing an epidemic of lifestyle-related health problems. And yet, the culture was continually celebrating the elite few who thrived in the always-on work world, those who perpetually leaned in. Henley realized that if we wanted innovative solutions to the wave of burnout and stress-related illness, it was time to talk to those who had leaned out.

Part memoir, part travelogue, and part investigation, Lean Out tracks Henley’s journey from the heart of the connected city to the fringe communities that surround it. From early retirement enthusiasts in urban British Columbia to moneyless men in rural Ireland, Henley uncovers a parallel track in which everyday citizens are quietly dropping out of the mainstream and reclaiming their lives from overwork. Underlying these disparate movements is a rejection of consumerism, a growing appetite for social contribution, and a quest for meaningful connection in this era of extreme isolation and loneliness.

As she connects the dots between anxiety and overwork, Henley confronts the biggest issues of our time.” 

Discussion: (or why I liked it)

When I first started working in the early 1980’s, 9-5 actually meant 9-5, with lunch and coffee breaks too.  At my first job the majority of the work was done in the morning and afternoons were devoted to staff meetings etc. We would often have cake at these meetings, (it was always somebody’s birthday) and after a small pre-closing rush, be out the door at 5pm.   (Does it say something about me that what I remember most about my first job is the cake? It was chocolate with the most divine icing, from a bakery in town and someone would run down on their lunch hour and pick it up.)  Nobody stayed late, although someone was on (paid) call for the rare emergency.

When I ended my career forty years later, long hours and unpaid overtime were the norm and the expectation. We were so chronically understaffed that many nights I would arrive home still in overdrive and not be able to decompress for hours.  There were no meal breaks, except a scarfed down sandwich when your blood sugar got too low to function, lots of cold coffee, and few washroom breaks. (The dilemma in health care is if you don’t get the work done, it’s the patient who suffers.)

The sad thing about the workplace, is that my experience has become the new normal, no matter what your job.  If you’re caught up in the work/eat/sleep cycle, doing more with less, and with impossible quotas or targets to meet, you may feel you’re lucky enough to have a job, especially in these perilous economic times, and not be in a position to complain.   

While I enjoyed my work and was never bored, it was the working conditions which were the problem, and eventually I was just too burnt-out to continue. After a bout of stress-related chest pain, I opted for early retirement. Although retirement was an adjustment, living on less, I’m a happier person now and more relaxed.  My former colleagues tell me I look better, younger – I get more sleep.

 So I could really relate to Tara Henley’s story – right down to the chest pain.   (Tara did eventually go back to work in media as she is the CBC producer who contacted me about the radio interview for my mother’s art exhibit. I discovered this book when I googled her name).   Several years ago at the age of 40, she started having chest pains at her desk and decided to take a time-out to seek a better life-work balance, a journey she researched and documented in her book, Lean Out.

She wrote the book partially in response to the book Lean In, by Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook. I did not read Lean In when it was published a few years ago as I was no longer working and not interested in any book about how to achieve success in the workplace, but I recall hearing lots of backlash about it – mainly that the author, a white woman of privilege, had a tendency to unfairly blame women for not achieving more success in the workplace. Women were advised to lean in…..as opposed to opt-out of their careers.  Easy to say if you can afford child-care and domestic help as you climb the corporate ladder – the majority of working women I know are just plain exhausted.

I suppose it depends on what stage in your career you are at, but even if you absolutely love your job, it can become like a blood-sucking vampire, draining the life out of you if you don’t take sufficient time away from it. Time away renews your soul and gives you a fresh perspective. I grew up in the baby-boomer age of dedicated employees with work ethic, but companies today can’t expect loyal employees if they treat them poorly or don’t value them at all. How many young people today have full time jobs with benefits and guaranteed pensions?

Being older also gives you a different perspective on work. No one ever said on their deathbed that they wished they has worked more – in fact, most people say the exact opposite. They wish they had worked less and lived more. Mostly I’m mad at myself for putting up with such bad working conditions.

Lean Out was released in the spring of 2020, just before the pandemic hit, but in a premonition of what was to come, it has much to say about our current situation.   In many ways COVID has forced people to reassess their work-life balances.  Can we live on less?  Cook at home more?  Will we ever go back to the old ways – working in office buildings and rushing here and there.  Do we want to?  

I really wish I had read this book when I was still working, as I could relate to so much of the material, (except for the hip-hop – I’m way too old for that. Tara got her start in journalism by writing music reviews). It’s so profound and full of common-sense wisdom, and so well written.  Here’s an excerpt from page 152.

“What gave me joy, it turned out, was pretty simple.  Waking up every day without an alarm.  Reading all the books on my nightstand.  Eating when I was hungry, resting when I was tired, staying at home when I was under the weather.  Moving my body every day.  Being outside.  Cooking for people I cared about. 

The key to contentment, I realized, was time.  And the more time I had, the less money I needed.  I didn’t need treats to boost my spirits during a rough week, because my week was never particularly rough.  I didn’t need lavish vacations, as Your Money or Your Life put it, my daily life was not something I needed to vacate.  When my true needs were met, I did not need to compensate with stuff.”

There are chapters on unplugging from the internet, seeking solace in nature, loneliness and finding your tribe (40% of young people living in big cities are single dwellers who often don’t have a social support network and can’t afford the rent let alone save for the future), the meaning of home, and living on less – well documented with research, interviews and personal anecdotes.

This book is not a simplistic how to manual, but a beautifully written blueprint for a realistic way to live a happier and saner life.   I wish I had “leaned out” sooner.