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Issue #15: Sitting and listening
Comfort for the Apocalypse, May 2020
Sunday phone call
A good friend of mine who lives in a large eastern city was very ill with the virus in early April. While sick he sent me desperate sounding text messages about his loneliness, the fact some of his colleagues were in hospital, and the stress of not knowing whether he would end up there as well. After two weeks of illness we had a brief phone call, and although he was well enough to go for a fifteen-minute walk that day, he was still sleeping most of the time. Not long after that, he wrote to tell me that his wedding planned for the end of September was being postponed until travel is safe again. “No worries,” I texted, “Westjet already cancelled our plane tickets without offering us alternate flight dates because there are none.”
This past weekend we spoke again, and he’s much better now, though he complained that the twenty-mile bike ride he had just been on had “kicked his ass”. “To be expected,” I said. It was our first real catch-up since the before-times of February.
During our call he told me, “If I knew that this was going to go on longer than say, six months, I would make some pretty drastic life changes right now.” Like what? I wanted to know. “I’d sell this place and get out of here, for one,” he started, and then laid out a somewhat feasible plan for doing so. He’s been thinking about the ways his family could make it work to come out west since long before the virus, but his desire to detach from big cities and transit commutes is that much greater now. Though there are complicating factors–it’s never that easy to just pack up your life and take it somewhere else–he is a person with resources, so nothing is entirely out of reach.
Whether he determines his way out of his good-paying job and mortgage in the suburbs now or at some future date, is a conversation we’ve had on more than one occasion in our twenty-year friendship. What caught my attention this time was this sentiment honestly exposed, that if only he knew the future, he would do something radically different with his present. If he could see the trajectory of the virus and the political reaction or non-reaction to it, he would feel more able to move on to a different life.
Of course that’s a trap, one that humans are caught in all the time. It might even be the universal trap. The one that leaves us stranded in a flood zone because we don’t believe we can get to safety in time anyway, or refusing to leave our cabin on the side of a volcano until it’s too late to escape the eruption. We stay in industrial towns prone to forest fires and environmental devastation because that’s where the work is. We live in cities where high rents and mortgages drive even affluent wage-earners into a kind of daily poverty because we don’t know where else to go. Where we are can be the most dangerous place there is - New York city surrounded by hundreds of thousands of infected people - and yet we tell ourselves that we might lose our legs from under us if we misstep into an unmapped future. It’s not exactly fear that keeps us tethered to a world that doesn’t work, but uncertainty about making the wrong choice against an ever-shifting backdrop.
I have lived a great deal of my life caught in the same internal dialogue my friend expressed on the phone to me. This perpetual conversation might even be the reason we’ve remained friends for so long given the distance apart we live and the fact the shared tech projects of our anarchist days no longer exist. I wish I could tell you that when it came time to make my decision to get out, when the city we lived in was no longer one we recognized and a great number of our neighbours were renovicted in the same year, my husband and I just up and left without another thought. But that wasn’t so. We owned real estate we could sell, we plotted how we could do our jobs remotely, we shored ourselves up by paying off debt so we could change our plans and move again if necessary. When we flung ourselves in the direction of an island neither of us had spent much time on, we told ourselves that on some level we were still in control of what came next.
If anything has been a reminder that we can't predict even the next day or week of our lives, it's these last couple of months of living on news reports and questions. Even if we don't know exactly what trajectory the virus will send us on in the next year, what is clear is that a concerning US election, the potential for civil unrest, and our unwillingness to tackle climate change mitigation head-on are setting us up for a pretty rocky ride that we have little say over.
At the beginning of the quarantine one of my Zen teachers advised me to practice with "don't know mind" which allows me to unhook just a little bit from what comes next. When I find myself scared or frustrated trying to envision the future or make plans for even later this summer, I simply allow myself to not know what is going to happen, and return to whatever I am working on at the moment. This doesn't mean I don't prepare our household for future contingencies by putting up food or planting a garden, but I find the exercise of orienting to the present brings some relief. It allows me to stop being someone who "knows things" and invites the question of what is within my capacity to change in my present or ask whether anything needs altering after all.
In that spirit, I don't know what my friend should do but I am pretty sure it's not contingent on knowing anything more than he already does about the next six months, year, or decade. We know the world is unstable and has always been, and that there is so much we can't possibly consider. But right now we have choices to make. Do we pack up a box, pick up a pen, cook ourselves a nourishing breakfast, go out in the garden and pull some weeds? I can not know what's coming but still find find a way forward, which is how we've been doing this living thing for our whole existence no matter how clouded the future before us is.
May recipe: Sourdough-Rye Bread, the lazy way
It often comes as a surprise to people who know me that baking is not my thing. After all I sew clothing, cook and can food, garden, weave, and knit. It seems like baking should fit right in there, doesn't it? But I've never felt the knack for it, baking being both messy and exact, neither of which work for me. I often look to cut corners which frequently leads to near-failures in the kitchen, something particularly true when it comes to leavened breads.
So when I tell you that I've found the easiest, laziest, most fool-proof sourdough recipe ever–it's for real. Once you get past the hurdle of creating your starter (if you're on Gabriola, come and get some from me), this comes together with the aid of a stand-mixer, your ingredients, and some patience. Adapted from a recipe at anoregoncottage.com.
2 cups of unbleached, all-purpose flour (plus a bit more)
1 cup of dark rye flour
1 ¼ cups lukewarm water
3/4 cup active 100% hydration sourdough starter
1 tablespoon honey or maple syrup
1 ½ teaspoons salt
Mix everything together in your stand mixer until just combined, then let sit for 15 minutes.
Using the dough hook, knead for 5 minutes.Add more flour if necessary to bring the dough together.
Transfer to a bowl with a light coating of oil. Cover with beeswax wrap (or plastic wrap) and let rise for three or four hours on the counter. Turn and fold the dough a couple of times during this phase, adding a bit more flour if you want to firm up the dough at all.
Sprinkle some flour on your working surface and turn the dough out for shaping. Shape your dough and place seam side down in a cloth-lined bowl or batard. Make sure your cloth is coated in a non-glutinous flour - like rice flour - so your dough doesn't stick.
Cover with beeswax wrap or plastic and put in the fridge for at least 8 hours and up to 18 hours.
Remove the loaf from the fridge at least one hour before you want to bake and let it come up to room temperature.
When you are ready to bake, preheat the oven to 500 degrees. If you are baking with a cast iron dutch oven or a clay romertopf (my go-to for oblong loaves), put the baking vessel in the oven to preheat.
While the oven heats up, place a square of parchment on your working surface and gently tip your load out of the batard or bowl. Slash the top of your loaf with a razor blade or serrated knife.
When the oven and baking vessel are heated take the vessel out and, using the parchment paper as a sling, lower the bread loaf into the pot or pan. Put the heated lid back on the baking vessel and put the whole thing back in the oven.
Turn down heat to 450 and bake for 20 minutes with the lid on. Remove the lid and bake another 20 minutes. When the timer goes off, turn the oven heat off entirely and leave the bread in the oven another 20 minutes with the door open a crack.
Remove from oven to a cooling rack and do not cut for at least one hour.
In the workshop
I don't often sew for other people. Almost never really, and that's partly because I like to fit as a I sew when I make my own garments and I'm not sure how to adapt to sewing for others. Half the time I'm sewing in my underwear so it's easy to try garments on as I'm making them (scandal!)
But recently, one of my local farmer friends asked if I could copy a much-worn and loved garment that she's had for twenty years. Not only is it really hard to say no to one of the people who feeds your household, but I also happened to have several yards of denim appropriate for the job in my stash. So far I've just traced the outline and made a rough pattern, but it's the very next thing to go on my sewing machine in June.
I've found myself doing a lot more local trades and favours in the last couple of months. I've been closer to home, for sure, but it's also about deepening my connections to the place where I live. In January I set my word for 2020 as rooted and expressed my intention for the year as, "my feet planted firmly where I stand, my hands reaching up and out, deepening my connections and fed by the natural world." Obviously I had no idea how important these close-to-home relationships to land and people would become in the months to follow.
Spiritual practice has become a constant that I reach for in the last few months. That includes daily meditation as well as zen reading and meeting my teachers and sangha in online meditation retreats. Additionally, I've signed up for an online offering by the New York Center for Contemplative Care that starts June 1st and I hope will help deepen my daily practice through a commitment to sit a 90-day practice period.
The expanded silence has provided a great opportunity to read in a way I haven't had time for in years. Novels, essays, memoir and magazines have all made the reading list in the last few months. Turns out, i'm not the only one, and Emergence magazine (one of the best offerings in the digital sphere) has organized a monthly book club via Zoom with some truly inspired written works. Even if you don't feel the need to sign up for a weekly meeting, this page is worth checking out for the highlighted books and author's talks.
Local farmers and makers have sustained me as my world has shrunk to the size of the island I live on. One of the things that arrived at my door in April (delivered by hand even) was a beautiful new magazine put together by some local folks that highlights the beauty and ethos of Gulf Islands living. Folklife mag is available for subscription or single-issue orders, is slated to come out twice a year, and is really beautifully photographed with inspiring writing and people throughout.
Writing for an audience requires a kind of faith in the world that I have had to search for recently, but when I ask myself the question of whether it matters, I keep getting the same answer and so the only thing to do is show up for it. Thank-you for showing up here when you open the mailing for a read. Thank-you for showing up at my blog and "liking" my instagram posts.
And thanks for sharing this mailing with anyone you think would like it. I am still running a subscriber contest and will do a draw for a handwoven tea towel and a copy of Paul Kingsnorth's book Savage Gods when I reach 250 subscribers. See you next month!