Notes on Generosity, Writing and Change

I’m wearing gloves and wielding a knife. Jalapeños litter my cutting board and papery garlic skins float along the counter. My mom is dumping a bowl of green peppers into the food processor when the phone company technician opens our back door and sniffs.

“Mmm, smells good,” he says with an accent. Indian, maybe? He nods appreciatively and  heads down the basement stairs, pulling wires behind him.

“It’s a lot of garlic and onions,” I say. “We’re making salsa.”

Each trip he makes to his truck in the alley he inspects my yard with interest. When he comes back in he asks me about the raspberries, plums, grapes and other plants. Then, just before he leaves I hand him a plastic grocery bag, throwing it into the air to puff it out. “Here. Do you eat tomatoes? Hot peppers? Take all you want!”

I turn around and get back to work. For the next 15 minutes I’m in a dark corner of my basement, sorting through canning jars and looking for lids. At the same time he is stuffing the bag I gave him, harvesting every ripe and juicy tomato on the property. His shopping bag bulges to overflowing with produce. When I come upstairs with my load of jars he is gone.

“Well he certainly took your word for it. He grabbed as much as he wanted,” my mom comments while looking out the kitchen window at the garden.

The heirloom Brandywine tomatoes I was waiting for, heavy on the vine but not quite ready, are gone. As are the romas–the ones destined for another batch of sauce and the beefsteaks. “Mmm,” I respond at first, not too bothered. But then I start thinking of all the hours of labour, of starting seeds from scratch in my window, gingerly handling the transplants, mulching with last season’s leaves, of watering and tending. That’s when I get a little ornery. I had, after all, expected him to say “Oh thank you so much” and take a dozen or so back to his wife in Saskatoon. I had not expected him to ravage every last plant.

I’ve been reading Braiding Sweetgrass  by Robin Wall Kimmerer and loved her essay on generosity and gift economy. It gave me such warm fuzzy feelings in my armchair. I had murmured in agreement and savoured every word. Obviously, the philosophy of lavish generosity is easier for me to swallow than the practise.

The earth on the other hand, especially at this time of year, seems to stick to the “no holds barred” motto. We spin out honey, stuff moose sausage, make wine, dry garlic, catch fish and yet we still can’t keep up to her. Gifts spill over and around us.


plums, melons and grapes are now in season on our lot


PREFACE- Six days. Three boats. Four adults. Six kids. Five portages. Three bears. Zero attacks.

On the way to meet my sister and her family for our adventure I say to the kids, “So there will be more portaging on this trip than we’ve ever done before but we’ll just enjoy the hiking. Maybe stop for snacks, you know, or sketch wildflowers…”

Stan shifts in his seat and reaches his hand to adjust the rear-view mirror. “Well, we don’t want it to be too easy do we? We still want it to be character-building.”

EPILOGUE – I lay in bed for 2 days after the trip. I thought I had maybe caught a bug–my whole body ached and my fingers felt arthritic. Turns out I was just recuperating from all the character-building portages.


before the launch


Tara and I paddled with 4 kids. Our canoe was dubbed the “voyageur school bus” or the “party canoe”.  The men and two other kids traveled with the gear.



totally posed at the beginning of an arduous portage

In a few years those delicate bodies pictured above will be strapping young men and women able to shoulder most of our weight. What a day that will be! They owe us a canoe trip or two.


Day 6



Back to school. Back to routine. Back to sticking around our home. Summer is fast, furious and fleeting like the heat. “You can sleep in winter; we don’t have time for that in summer,” I tell the kids when they tire of our pack-go-unpack-repack routine. With all of this going it has been hard to squeeze in writing. I still want to find words for speaking at camp, kitchen parties and growing food but am not sure when it will happen. I have started an essay about canoe tripping and listening. I will submit it somewhere eventually, because that’s writers do.

That’s when a writer is successful–when she is submitting, not when her article is accepted, not when she’s long-listed for the CBC non-fiction prize (which I wasn’t, Kirsten) and not when an agent hunts her down. She is successful when she cracks open her laptop. When she punches out a jumbled paragraph, when she lands on a metaphor in the shower. A writer is successful when she’s writing.

Can you tell I’m getting ready for Wonderscape? And can you guess what the theme of the retreat is?


Coming up in 10 days…

Success, Failure and YourCreative Journey(1)

Can’t wait to gather with strangers and friends from around the country. Every year it’s been magical. Hopeful this year will be the same. (There’s been a cancellation; check out this page for your last minute chance!)


Change is a constant around here. Changing shoe sizes. Changing instruments (cello and trombone have been added to the mix). Changing heights. Changing accents. (Vivian has been experimenting with articulation, specifically her hard Rs. I try to remain non-chalant every time I hear it, but it’s about as sharp and conspicious as a machete.)

One thing that never seems to change is the big girls’ devotion to the little girl. I smile when I remember the well-meaning visitor who came to visit two days after Vivi was born. She watched Susanna and Belén flutter around the baby, sighed and commented knowingly, “This won’t last long. Give them two weeks and the novelty will wear off.”

Well, it’s been four years and here they are, fighting at the table, each older sister desperate to show Vivi how to draw an uppercase E at the same time. This is a kind of bickering for which I am entirely grateful.



I’ve written so much. Thanks for reading.





All winter long we slide across our backyard ice-rink

then trek through the snow, past the naked raspberry canes,

to dispose of our garbage.

Orange peels,

mouldy spaghetti sauce,

used coffee grounds,

rotten potatoes,

and eggshells

create a frozen palette in our compost bin.

When the geese return

and the snow shrinks to reveal the muddy,

beaten grass,

it’s time.



Shalain calls to tell me her 44-year old friend is gone.

They carried her body,

piled with flowers her children laid on her,

out of her home where she died.



The pitch fork stabs through the kitchen slime and

and pulls out a tangle of last year’s tomatoe vines.

I dump in dry leaves, then stop to moisten each layer.

A season’s worth of waste begins to heat.


Five days after I mix the beastly pile

I check for signs of life,

plunging my hand into the rank darkness.

The deeper

I go

the warmer

it gets

until it is

not only warm

but hot

and I squeal at the same old miracle.

From the broken, discarded, trampled and rotten

springs potential.

Billions of microbes pulse with new life.



Sandy’s funeral was last week.

She was too young, too vibrant to go.

Death came anyway.

She smiles in her memorial photograph

with her arms raised triumphantly.

I wonder if any embalmer has arranged

a body in the casket like that.



Six weeks after tackling the pile

I wheelbarrow the fresh compost to its new home.

I would carry it teaspoon by teaspoon if I had to.

When I transfer it to the garden box

not a single crumble slips off my spade.


Everything discarded has become precious.

Bacteria sings the chorus of resurrection.

Easter hums through creation.

Death is not the end.

It never is.

Not even in a pile of garbage.

*Photo credit:

Happening Here

Susanna pounds out the Russian Sailor Dance on our upright piano. She plays it about five times faster, and eight times louder, than necessary. Our living area echoes with minor chords until no one hears what anyone else is saying even though we are all shouting. I marvel at the sheer quantity of sound produced by this piece of wood and metal, well over 100 years old. Once I sit down to play the teacher duet part with the bass notes, neither of us want to stop. We play it over and over, faster and faster, louder and louder, laughing and thrilled with ourselves. A half-hour later we will forget our excitement and camaraderie. A half-hour later the moment will have evaporated into anger. She will cry. I will lose my temper. She will refuse to change her attitude. I will yell. But for now we are dancing together with the ivory keys.


Stan is bee crazy right now. He’s ordering all the supplies and bees he needs to try bee-keeping again this spring. (The wild hive he captured a few years back didn’t make it through their first winter). He spends hours researching, contacting bee-keepers and chuckling about all the honey we’ll be harvesting. His buddy Kevin is in on it with him, and they scheme and text each other like two teenagers.


I wonder if the famous lines of Mary Oliver’s poem The Summer Day are often taken out of context. The way I read it, she’s not asking people what their career plans are, what they want to stroke off their bucket list, or how they will use their influence, fame or money to leave their mark on this world. In fact, the poem is not really about doing anything but, rather, just being. It makes me happy to look at the words on our chalkboard even if nobody else who reads them has ever seen the rest of the poem.


Registration is now open for Wonderscape on the Prairie and I feel like I’ve just jumped off the high diving board. I’ve spent hours planning, researching venues, contacting artists and musicians, writing emails, putting details together on the website and now my role changes. As people sign up it becomes more of an experience created by the community of participants and less of the-project-that-lives-inside-my-head. Come to Last Mountain Lake, SK and be a part of it. I’d love to meet you!


Susanna carefully draws the mini-greenhouse and adds the label watermelon to 3 squares on our map. She and I have each made a few concessions; she gets to plant flowers and watermelon again (she insists the fruit were huge and sweet last year, I remember them as a puny waste of garden space), and I get to plant more than my share of basil and tomatoes. After all the seeds are covered and set in the sun we stare at the earthy possibility of tomatoe sauce, fresh bouquets, and dessert. A few days later I hear a shopper complaining about the price of cucumbers. “Why are they $2.50 here? They’re only a dollar at Walmart right now! ” he informs the Superstore employee. Has this man ever saved seed from a rotting cucumber? Has he ever covered this seed with a blanket of dirt and waited for it to burst forth with life? Or set his transplants out, an hour a day, to harden them to the reality of the outdoors? How many hours has he weeded and watered, then weeded some more? And what about the harvesting and cleaning? Has he stopped to think about all this while he holds a long, perfectly shaped cucumber, in the middle of March, that only costs two dollars and fifty cents?

A couple days after seeding, the first sprouts appear. We try to guess whose plants came up first; I’m rooting for the basil, Susanna hopes it’s one of hers. We consult the map and identify them as morning glories! Susanna is thrilled and so am I. They’re not edible, but they’re still a green miracle.


“Who wants to go for a walk?” Rebecca asks.

“I do!” Belén answers emphatically. She’s been busy lately with play practise, guitar lessons, piano lessons and youth group and is relieved to have an evening off with nothing to do but walk to nowhere. By the time they are ready to leave the house their group has swelled from two to eight walkers, ages 2 to 39. None of us want to stay inside when it is almost 7 o’clock and still light outside. Once we get out of town I shout, “Who wants to run?”

Free starts counting, “One, two, three…” and we are off. Clomping, skipping, and shuffling in snow boots, galoshes, heeled boots, and runners. We risk breaking through paper-thin ice and slide on frozen puddles, we cartwheel on a mat of dead grass, and we look at the clouds. We are like children waiting for their parents to wake up on Christmas morning. Wake up world! Wake up dead grass! The light is coming back! It’s time to wake up!


Susanna’s Ukrainian Easter eggs. More to come…

To Be Normal; Part One

Do you ever wish you were a normal person? I do, all the time, and I tell myself I’m not alone. Everybody else wants to be normal too, right? This morning, for example, I was panting over my pitchfork and my 7-month-old belly, wondering why I can’t garden like a normal person. You know, the till-the-soil-with-a-machine, make-tidy-rows, plant-your-garden-in-a-day, weed-with-a-hoe, kind of normal. Every year I fully intend to do this, to be a normal gardener, but then I get down on hands and knees and start ripping out quack grass. Following the stringy, white roots snaking through the soil I shudder to think how a tiller would extend the weedy web even further (chopped up roots can colonize freshly cultivated soil with vigor). Then, the quack grass leads me to a bed of lettuce I planted last fall. It’s coming up nicely and getting a head start on all the slugs so I certainly can’t till it under either…

What happens next is my version of If You Give A Mouse A Cookie, titled, If You Give Me a Pair of Gardening Gloves. The lettuce surrounds some oregano, which needs to be trimmed of old growth. I take the carbon-rich trimmings to my compost pile and, on the way, stop to look for the garlic cloves I planted last September. The pungent greens, ready to burst through the dirt, are next to a saskatoon berry bush that needs watering. While soaking the shrub I notice a pile of dead leaves to be raked away from nearby chamomile seedlings speckling the soil. As I take the rake back to the garage I know I’m starting to slip. The normal garden is eluding me faster than quack grass spreads. Still, I rack my brain to figure out how I could skirt around the calendula and cilantro I scattered in October, the perennial herbs anchoring almost every bed, the 100+ garlic plants, and the self-seeding flowers that will attract pollinators, to make something orderly. Something I could plot out on graph paper. But it’s impossible.

Just when I’m dreading my wild and weedy gardening future, I notice the feathery green top of a parsnip coming back to life. Then another, and another. I’d forgotten I’d left them in the soil to sweeten up over the winter! Soon I’m harvesting a bucket full of roots, ones existing only because I’d let them grow where they’d blown in. Parsnip takes two years to produce seed. If you don’t harvest the root the first season it will grow into a tall plant and produce a magnificent amount of seeds that will wind up all over your garden. Upon discovering my self-seeded treasure I soften a bit. I may not be normal but I’m not a failure; I’ve got parsnips to prove it.


After digging out the parsnips I realize I can’t let my heavy clay soil sit for long; I’ve done this before and working with it afterward is like trying to massage concrete. Fortunately I have some snap pea seeds on hand and I plant a little patch to fill the vacancy created by tonight’s supper. I suppose I won’t be tilling through this either…


Our red willow Christmas tree also functions as a pea trellis. I put straw over the planted peas so they stay moist.


Peas…and an earth worm!


scrubbed parsnips ready for roasting (and soup the day after)

Roasted Parsnips to Boost Morale

  • Chop up parsnips and toss with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and salt (I use my rosemary salt).
  • Place on a baking sheet and roast until golden brown and soft. If you’re in a hurry it should only take about a half hour at 415 F. If you have time, roast them slower with less heat.
  • Serve with a dollop of plain yogurt and fresh green onions. If you harvest the parsnips in spring (like I did today) the green onions will be the only other thing in the garden ready to eat, which makes for a fortunate pairing.


PS. There are many areas of my life where I’d like to be more normal. I was going to address another in this post, but I’ve got to get to school. Check back later.

*This post shared at RealFoodWednesday


Chia Seed Berry Jam


If you’re looking for a sugar-free fruit spread made with chia seed, check out these links.  If you’re looking for something considerably more “jammy” (sweeter and less health-conscious) keep on reading. My version is still simple and healthy; I use three ingredients and way less sugar than my favourite freezer jam recipe. Also, did I mention it will take you longer to read this post and do an internet search on chia than make the jam?

For those of you like me, who are now wondering why anyone would mess with something as good as regular ol’ jam, consider the following:

  1. It’s less work. This one is worth a lot in my books–I thought regular freezer jam was easy but chia freezer jam tops anything else I’ve tried.
  2. It’s packed with nutrients. The chia seeds, used to thicken the jam, are loaded with calcium, dietary fibre and fatty acids. Also, this is a raw jam so all the goodness in the berries doesn’t get processed to death.

I blended everything in my food processer but you could use something as simple as a potato masher.

Raspberry Chia Jam

1 cup berries

1 tbsp chia seed (I used whole seed but milled might work even better)

2 or 3 tbsp sugar (I started at one tbsp. but added more when I was finished. There is nothing exact about this method–you can add a touch of lemon juice if it needs more kick.)

Blend ingredients and pour into jars. Let mixture sit for about 6 hours before freezing or refrigerating.

*Most chia jam recipes call for honey/maple syrup instead of sugar. I didn’t want a “healthy” tasting product so I stayed with refined sugar.

**The chia seeds are tasteless but have a bit of a texture. Raspberry jam already tastes seedy so I didn’t notice it too much. I tried the same recipe with strawberry jam to pinpoint the effect–the chia seeds aren’t crunchy, or as noticeable as raspberry seeds, but you’ might still detect them.


Fresh raspberry jam with chia seed.


Summers are an easy way to mark time, aren’t they? You probably remember the summer you learned how to drive, the summer you left home, or the summer of your first romance… Once you become a parent, summertime serves as a measuring stick for your children’s growth; one year they’re waking throughout the night to nurse, the next, they’re pooping out sand, then you’re kicking them out of bed at 11am, and soon after, you’re summers are spent attending graduations and weddings.


Belén’s tree; her name is “Whisper”.

Life with kids can seem so slow it’s hard to imagine being anywhere else than the stage you’re in, but looking at your family with “summer vision” is like putting your life on speed–it’s scary and thrilling at the same time. Yesterday, for example, I realized I can drive a full hour, with both daughters in the back seat, and hear nothing but their page-turning. In just a couple years, I’ve gone from telling them “mommy’s mouth needs a break”, to long stretches of silence while I tease out conversation.


Belén dressing one of Whisper’s wounds with an ointment of grass clippings.

Fortunately, all of these changes make my life easier and I’m happy to embrace them; we’re more mobile, I have helpers who actually help, and my daughters are becoming good companions. Of course we all know life leaps onward, and that change is inevitable and healthy.  All the same, knowing how much these summers count and that each one is different from the last, is enough to quicken the pace of my momma heart.


still playing with stuffies…



As the previous photo shows, we’re all getting along a little better than when I posted this. Although we’re not always quite this jovial, it’s amazing what a little bribery incentive can do to make things easier–just don’t hire me on the police force.


The weeds in my garden also quicken my pace. They’re exploding, but so is everything else. When I consider dusting off my hoe after seeing the giant thistles, it takes me 3 seconds to get distracted by picking beans, or pinching off basil or calendula, that I forget I even own a hoe.


parsnips, baby’s breath, roma tomatoes, corn flower,and nasturtiums


sunflowers, tomatoes, green beans, sage, and jalapeno peppers



calendula (edible and medicinal) and purple teepee beans


Does anyone else throw their beans into the freezer without blanching? I did it last year and they turned out just as crisp, if not better than the other beans I froze. This year, I’m freezing all my beans with much less fuss.

You won’t see my measly strawberries, timid blueberries, or stunted potato plants on the pictures above. They are a few of my garden failures. Oh, and let’s not forget about my woody, tasteless carrots that just barely germinated… but they wouldn’t make very pretty pictures, now, would they?

What’s exploding, or failing in your gardens these days?

Enjoy the rest of your week,


PS. I’d love to hear about your chia jam experiences…