Nevermind the neighbors

A new neighbor, who had just moved in a few blocks over, once asked about the stunning white wall of flowers that filled the wall along our street in May. She wondered if she should attempt this plant in her new stonewall. She was choosing her flora carefully. She wondered what the plant was called and how to care for it.

white flowersI shrugged. I had no answers for her. I’m not at all responsible for the flowers that grow in the wall. I go about my life, doing the things I have to do and suddenly, there they are! They simply grow, as they have done for nearly a hundred years. Sometimes I feel like a newcomer when I look at the wall of flowers – we’ve only been here ten years. I am an observer of their beauty. They travel the length of the street in magnificence at this time of year. But they’re not fragile. They look after themselves.

Of course I don’t think they’re native or natural or any such thing, but their beauty is their own. They are at once robust and delicate and they pay no attention to whoever moves in or landscapes or passes by with an evaluative glance. The wall is theirs. I imagine they’ve been here longer than any of us left on the street.

“But what about after they blossom?” the woman wondered, her nose wrinkling. “Are they still lovely or do they turn up all plain and grey, you know, are they untidy and drab the rest of the year?”

It had never occurred to me until she asked. I suppose they are a bit plain the rest of the year, I thought. I wasn’t sure they were untidy, I’d never really thought about it until she asked. I suddenly felt quite protective of the plant.

Who was I to ask about its suitability for year round viewing pleasure? So this year I watched them.

All winter they clung to the rocks, through storms and winds and snow. They gathered garden creatures safely in their roots in the cold and in the spring they held up their tiny faces up to hummingbirds and bees. Surely that counted for something.  She was quite right, the leaves were plain and grey most of the year, but they were sturdy. And yes, they were a bit of a mess at times. More than once since she’d mentioned it, I caught myself evaluating them for their year round aesthetic appeal.

In my basement, when I am working on a longer writing project and I’m on the sixteenth revision of something I once believed could be beautiful, I can sometimes find myself in despair. The pages can be desperately plain and grey. They are untidy and drab and I can hardly remember sometimes what on earth I had in my mind. What was I thinking? Will these pages ever be what I imagined them to be? Can these dry bones live? I stand at the window and shout, Come, four winds and blow across these pages that they might live!

The thing is, they do. The four winds come; I rely on them. Sometimes it seems I have nothing at all to do with it – the pages, given patience and time, blossom into a carpet of white that rolls out all the way down the street.

How lucky I am, I think on those days.

But the other days, the drab, grey days are all part of it. They make the flowers possible. It would literally kill the plant to be in bloom all the time. As a writer, I am learning not to fear the drab, grey days. I am learning to love the whole cycle: the grey leaves and the untidy bits. I am learning to let the pages be. The blossoms will come.

Never mind what the neighbors think, I know what’s coming.

Where Dolphins Breathe

It’s not dark yet but the moon is already waiting and so we sit together watching the water. Transient ocean creatures pass by on their way somewhere. I hear them first, their watery puffs spurting; lungs spitting back the edge-water so they can breathe in the air of the night. I can’t tell if they’re porpoises or dolphins in this light, they approach so slowly at first I’m not sure what I’m seeing. They are almost snail like, passing by me on the rocks in a pod so slowly they seem to be one creature – at rest.   Their backs round out of the water as they move and the last of the day’s light glints off their dorsal fins.

dolphins at nightI think they must be sleeping.

Dolphins don’t ever really sleep, of course. They are conscious breathers; they must work to breathe. Without stopping. Sometimes they’re still, near the surface as they sleep; but sometimes they just swim slowly, breathing, sleeping, resting as best they can. They live in a world in which they cannot breathe.

I understand this. I sometimes feel myself unable to breathe on the busiest, noisiest, craziest days. I wonder what it would be like to live in a cabin in the woods for a while, Walden-style, or perhaps at Tinker Creek. This is not my real life of course. In September this year, both of our children will be in university; we’ll have plenty of bills to pay. There will be no room for Walden.

I very much like my work, I’m good at my job. But I am “the boss” of a small non-profit with 18 staff people and that does not come with a special pass to Tinker Creek at lunch. The thing is, my job has made me a better writer. I have such a small amount of spare time, I am conscious of waste. I use every moment. But I have to watch myself. The temptation is to stay deep, to swim hard, to keep driving toward my goals. There is so much I want to do.

Sometimes I forget to breathe. It’s not the water that will drown me, it’s forgetting to breathe.

I confess. I cannot breathe in the world in which I live during the day. And yet this is where I live. I go down deep and swim hard. I am quick and agile in this sea; I am built for this underwater world.

Yes, I’m good at it, but I cannot breathe here. No, I must remember to surface, or I’ll drown.

Breathing in one world, allows me to inhabit the other. Perhaps that makes me a restless sleeper, but maybe some of us have no choice.

Maybe it’s our calling to live in one world but to find the air we need to live, in the other.

When the day is finished, I come to breathe here at the water.  I listen for the sound of dolphins sleeping as they pass by.

It is night.

One small leaf

If you could imagine how still the afternoon was, the ocean without the slightest ripple, every bird song audible and echoing, not the slightest whisper in the trees. Even the leaves slept in this sudden, unexpected warmth. Surely this was a mistake; a hot August day misplaced here in May, but no one in their right mind would point that out. Why draw attention to it? It was the kind of day that all one really ought to do is rest on a log by the water and feel the sun.

leaf in the windBut what had I expected? The day had been just as still from my window at home, too.

Sometimes, I go to the beach to watch the wind, to feel it slip across my skin after its tumble with the waves. As if the hairs on my arms might capture its strength as it passes, I hold my arms out to the wind and wait.

In the forest, the wind is visible in a way that it’s not if you’re standing on a city street. It’s the same wind, I know, but you can’t see it in the same way. In the forest, the wind arrives sometimes unannounced, perhaps slipping by in disguise. Was that the wind? In the forest nobody answers.

But sometimes the wind comes with force, its own procession leading the way; a hundred drummers march in line and every tree takes notice. Their branches reach and bend, waving and bowing as if God was passing through.

“Who touched my robe?” the wind asks. I don’t think it matters much to the wind, but the question must be asked. In the forest nobody answers.

I rely on the wind, but I’ve got no choice about it. I don’t have the magic in my pen that some writers do, the pages flying out of their notebooks behind them like tiny pterodactyls, fully formed and flapping at birth. No, I must wait for the wind. This is how inspiration arrives for me. I reach up and pluck it from the air.

“Who touched my robe?” the wind asks. And this is how I begin.

In the forest, I listen for the wind. You can’t of course, hear the wind itself, but even in a breeze you hear the leaves shivering. It’s the kind of mysterious shiver that travels up your spine. The leaves begin to whisper as the wind takes its place. I don’t eavesdrop. They can whisper all they want, I’m only there for the wind.

Some days I long for a storm. I long to see the ocean sweep across the beach in enormous waves, the firs dizzy in the sky with motion, dead branches snapping off here and there, crashing to the ground. Prepare the way! Make the paths straight! Bring on the wind, I shout!

But on a summer afternoon that has somehow been dropped, still and silent, into early May, the forest will sleep. It’s true the birds were delighted; they don’t need the wind like I do.

Was I disappointed? Not really. Who could be disappointed on such a day?

But then something caught my eye. On the far side of the parking lot was a fluttering, an anxious kind of flapping about, no more than ten inches from the ground. It was so frantic, I wondered if a hummingbird had been caught in a shrub.

As I got closer, I could see it was not a hummingbird at all. It was a single green leaf, dangling from a spindly weed-of-a-thing, growing at the base of an enormous tree. It was flapping, back and forth, as if it was motorized. How could this be?

I glanced up at the branches around me. Not a thing moved. Nothing. The leaf continued it’s flutter, which seemed to me like a small child waving, opening and closing her fingers in exaggerated movements, knowing for the first time that it meant something to do this with her hand.

I couldn’t help myself. I waved back.

There, I thought. There is the wind, present even when you can’t see it.

I watched the leaf, thinking. If you are positioned, I could see, and ready for the wind, it will find you, even if you’re just one leaf.

And perhaps, the voice of one small leaf caught up in a breeze, has more to say about the wind than a whole forest in a storm.


A Chord in the Dark

Sometimes, when the dishes are finished and the night has finally spilled across the sky, when I’m sure everyone else is already asleep, I go to church.

Not to a service or anything, just to church – the thing is, I have a key that no one ever asked me to return, and the church is just across the lane.

a chord in the darkWhen our children were small I used to teach Sunday School, help organize potlucks and so on, but not so much anymore. We have a long and uneasy history, the Church and I. But we are cordial to one another now, and always polite. Do I keep my distance with good intentions? I think so. I have a kind of covenantal relationship with the Church, which I honor still.


But at night, when I’m sure not a soul will be there, I sneak out the back door and go.

It’s an Anglican Church, decades old, so always the little red light is glowing in the dark, dangling from the ceiling in a little lantern, the symbolic everlasting presence of God.

I like that image. I pretend it’s a real candle even if it’s not.

I don’t turn the lights on, for fear of attracting attention. I’m not sure why, honestly, what would they do if they found me out?  I guess they could take away my key and that would be a shame. So I am careful.

Usually I go to the old piano. I am not a pianist by any stretch of the imagination but I love the sound of chords played on a real piano in the dark. I love the deep, throaty, perfect sound of just the right notes together, creating music that your ears know is meant to be exactly that way, for one reason or another.

When you get the chord wrong, you know it. But when you get it right, you can feel your insides ease, settling in like a lion lying down beside the lamb, each sound belonging to the other.

In the dark church, when it’s late and I am fumbling through the pews, hand over hand, slipping along the edges until I reach the piano bench to sit for a moment, often I squint trying to see the keys. To figure out exactly where to put my fingers without a light is troublesome, and the awkward sound of the wrong keys pressed in together is excruciating.

But when I stop myself and just forget that it’s dark, I close my eyes and resist searching. With your eyes closed you give in to the darkness, it matters so much less. I ease my way in, letting my fingers fall to the smooth surface. When I hear it sound wrong, I lift my fingers and simply wait.

They will find their way, they know where to go. Just like that, like magic, my hands slide and the keys respond, and somehow when I stop squinting and begin to feel my way across the smoothness, my fingers find their way with no light at all. It’s amazing how well my fingers see in the dark.

Today, a lovely woman asked me about writing stories to change the choices people make. She wondered about stories that bring about compassion and goodness, stories with intention. How on earth might one write such a story, if it’s a difficult story to tell, if people honestly don’t want to hear it?

I thought for a while about this, because I am a great believer in the power of stories to change the world, to speak deeply into people’s lives.

It’s what I live to do.

But what if the way forward isn’t clear? What if the story we have burning inside us is a story that some may not want to hear? Then what?

I knew the first part right away. I’d been here before.

I know now, the only way in is to first find a way to let go of angry feelings. They will not serve you or the story, I’m afraid. I don’t mean the work should not be fuelled by passion, but the storyteller’s motives must be filled with goodness, not anger.

You won’t get anywhere without this first step.  It may take awhile, but you must find the way through. You have to manage yourself first.

As writers, we are responsible for the stories we are given. Sometimes we tell stories that belong to us, and sometimes we must tell stories for others, but we are responsible, nonetheless. To bring a story into the world is important work. You mustn’t risk trying to do this with an axe to grind in your hand.

Secondly, you must seek to understand. You must understand yourself and your reactions, and you must understand the people you hope to reach. You must understand their experience, their hurt, and their questions; you need to travel in their blood stream, know what frightens them about this story. You must slip on their shoes and walk for miles and miles until you get it, until you finally understand.

Thirdly, you must be seeking what’s true. You must need to know. What you see today might not be complete. There may be more truth for you to take on than you knew existed. There may be pieces missing in the story that are neither yours, nor your reader’s, but are part of a  truth that you must accept if you are to tell this story, if you are to release it to the world with integrity.

This, I believe, is the call of the writer, the chord we seek with our fingers in the dark: to let go of anger, to understand, to seek the truth. You will need to close your eyes and forget that it’s dark. Stop squinting. Feel the keys beneath your fingertips responding in the dark, bowing and easing, releasing the sound they make together.  When you hear it, you will know. These three will sing together in a way that will make the lion lie down beside the lamb to listen to the story you’ve been given to tell.



How wide are your wings?

I used to rail against the word “balance” when I was too young to know better. It seemed to imply a tremendous amount of mediocrity; a flaccid, passionless existence; a bowl of luke-warm porridge, food for the faint of heart. I was a twenty-year old student then, and all-nighters could be compensated for with the luxury of an endless daytime nap. My daughter is a twenty-year old student now, and I wish her as many all-nighters as she can handle – such is the freedom of being young. You don’t get that luxury back again, easily. Cheers to the reckless unbalanced life of the young. What you learn from these years will serve you well in the years ahead.

wingspan But I don’t regret getting older – I love the wisdom that comes with aging, the sense of purpose and accomplishment, the confidence about what truly defines me. And the deep understanding of the blessed gift of balance.

But it is a gift, I have come to believe.

And I’m still no good at it.

When I am diligent I go to yoga.

Sometimes regularly and often…but sometimes not at all.

Sometimes I feel healthy and strong, with an organized life wrapped up like a tidy package with neat corners and carefully pressed bits of tape on the edges. Nicely done, I think. I’ve got this!

And sometimes I don’t. I write obsessively, stay awake late into the night, dream images that pull my eyelids open while I sleep, wander the house fuelled by cups of coffee and whatever vice I can get my hands on, writing until it seems I can go on no more, the edges of the package torn open and the tape stuck in all the wrong places.

Yoga is good for me. I know this.

And I like yoga. But the ‘balance poses’ in yoga throw me, though less than they used to. I used to pray everyone’s eyes were closed when the ‘tree pose’ was coming – I would teeter my way through it, wish for a wall to lean on and hope no was watching.

“I’m just not a great balancer,” I would console myself.

But the truth was, the core muscles I needed were in sad shape. Balance is all about inner, core strength I’ve learned. I’m getting better at it; I’m stronger than I once was.

But I also don’t think it’s quite that simple. Life is not exactly like my yoga classes.

I am a writer and, I think like most creative people, my inner self is shaped differently than others.

What if, as someone who is creative, we are shaped with long wide wings that reach a hundred feet in either direction? What if those wings are the very things we need to take flight, as we do when we write, or paint, or sing or dance?

And what if they don’t fold neatly against our bodies but stick awkwardly out – all the time! – so we roam the planet with a great pair of wings that will let us soar into the sky, but pretty much stick out ridiculously in ordinary life? What if we’re the kind of people who find ourselves constantly bumping into walls and highway overpasses and other people’s drinks at cocktail parties with these ungainly extensions from the shoulders that we pretend aren’t there?

Then what?

And what if our balance point – the fulcrum beneath us – is delicate and thin? What if it’s not a sturdy block a wood as wide as a tree, but what if the point that touches the earth is as thin as a single layer of fresh water pearl, or a snow crystal turned sideways? What then?

How hard is it to balance the wingspan of an airliner on the delicate edge of a snowflake? What on earth do we do then?

Those of us blessed with wonderful creative spirits, with wings as wide as the world, just might have trouble balancing. And just when we seem to have it, when the swaying to and fro, back and forth, up and down has seemed to stop, and there we are on that tiny point, at last stabilized for that one brief moment – thank God, here is our balance – something happens.

A few grains of sand fall across one wing, or a breeze whips past unexpectedly, and it all comes undone.

What then, shall we do?

Here’s what I think:

  1. Understand that the blessing of your wingspan is also your gift to the world. So be it. Balance will be your challenge. Accept this and carry on.
  2. Develop your core strength. This will save you. Be grounded as best you can but know that the strength inside of you will help to hold you in place. Work at this strength.
  3. Remember that you are created in the image of the Great Creator. You are not flawed. Your wings are a gift.

Be at peace. You are needed here.



Don’t lose your needles

After a long weekend of enjoying the company of good friends, things had begun to fall apart.

Our washing machine broke down and there were piles of laundry in-waiting; the fridge was overflowing with Easter dinner leftovers that needed more attention than I had to give them (What on earth do you do with ten pounds of leftover ham?); the seventeen chicks in the basement had begun to outgrow their little pen (Yes, seventeen! What on earth was I thinking? See my previous post); my son’s second copy of Hamlet had apparently disintegrated into thin air again creating a new family emergency; the dog’s knee popped out, which meant he had to dont lose your needlesbe carried up and down the stairs; and there was somehow a mysterious black grease stain on the white carpet for which no one would claim responsibility.

It was also the morning of the start of my work-week, time to step back into the rush of it all.


I forced myself to think of the tree.


We lived in Australia for eight years when our children were little. When you marry someone from ‘overseas’ you spend the rest of your life straddling the planet trying to figure out where home is. But before you imagine an endless paradise, you need to know that we lived inland – eg. no ocean, no long white sandy beach, lots of dust, scorching heat and gum trees.

During our last hot summer there, I was aching for trees that looked like home. So partly out of ignorance and partly out of an unquenchable longing, I bought a dwarf Alberta Spruce and planted it in the garden near the living room window. The temperatures were soaring (it was a ridiculous time to plant a tree) and in spite of my best attempts at drenching the poor thing in water, it couldn’t take the heat.

I arrived home from work one afternoon and the little bush was bare! Its needles scattered on the ground as if it had spontaneously ejected them from the branches. If I couldn’t have saved it, I wish I’d been there to see it. I imagined that poor little tree gathering up inside herself, mustering every last trembling flicker of energy and letting loose.

“Who on earth, put me here?!” I imagined her howling. “That’s it! I’ve had it!” And poof.

There would be no saving that tree, not a single needle remained.  A tree needs her needles to go on.

On days when I feel a bit like that tree, I try hard to remember her.

(1) Conserve your energy. You will need it.

(2) Don’t lose your needles, you will need them, too.

(3) As tempting as it is to let loose, just breath. This too shall pass.

As I write this post my husband is creating something ham-filled for dinner, my son has miraculously recovered Hamlet, the dog’s knee is much better, the grease stain is gone and the washing machine is now working. The chickens are still a challenge, but I can handle that.

I’ve got my needles in tact.



What if we allowed her this grace?

For our Mother, the Earth on Earth Day

What if we allowed her this grace?

What if we simply took her hand, bowed our heads to her four and a half billion years, took her hand in ours and walked beside her?

woman with pipeWe could not carry her, she wouldn’t stand for that, no.

She would walk on, with crumbling bones, as far as she could travel.

She is proud.

The lines now carved into her face and her hands are billions of miles of traffic, trucks and city, spitting fuel and dust in their wake.

They have become her own now, marking her.

Still she walks.

Once she was a girl with a laugh like the sound of water.

Her feet ran fast after dreams and pups and the setting sun.

girl with pup









When she was young and the load was lighter, her back was strong.  She wrapped us in her self, bearing the weight of us all on her back. She would go the distance. She would not fail us.

strong mother



But what if, today, we stopped asking whether or not her trembling, the fevered heat that overcomes her sometimes, the shudder between her vertebrae was ‘natural’, was not all just part of her cycle?

Surely there’s more in her, she’s a tough old bird, we insist.

Walk on, we call out from the wrap on her back, there’s more in you yet, we know it.

Walk on.


grandmother with young girlWhat if, instead, we looked her in the eye and blessed her?

What if we got down from her back, took her hand in ours and we walked the road together?




It’s time, yes, it’s time!

In my last post I told the story of abandonment, of giving up: the story of the danger of walking away from what we dream to be possible, too soon.

Our brooding motherly hen, up and walked out on her eggs and – it seemed- all hope was lost.  It was my son, Jonathan, who held on to hope.  He carried in his heart the flickering candle in the night that somewhere, in the places not seen, deep inside the eggs, life still waited, and the risk of hoping against the odds was worth it. At Easter we celebrate the trembling, bravery of hoping – against all odds.

chicksYou should know that as of today, seventeen (yes, seventeen!) of those abandoned eggs have burst open with life. And while I have no idea what we will do with a peeping pen of seventeen baby chicks in our basement for five weeks, I am filled with joy at this miracle.

Here’s what I’ve learned:  When the hatching begins, the chicks come at once, within a few days of each other.  I wondered how this was possible.

By my understanding, the chicks would arrive a day or two apart, across a month or so, since they were eggs laid, one at a time, across several weeks.  Wouldn’t they all mature and be ready for hatching in the same way, one at a time across the weeks?  I was wrong.

What I learned was that fertilized eggs remain fertile, primed for life, until the conditions are right, until the temperature and movements of the hen (or the incubator) let the eggs know the conditions are right. The embryos begin to grow together, regardless of when they were laid by the hen. They remain primed for weeks, poised for life until its time for them to give birth to themselves.

The peeping that comes from inside an egg is a signal, a call to action for the clutch of eggs. When the first brave chick begins – chirping, squirming, chipping away at the shell to break free, the little chick calls to its brothers and sisters, soft and dark and still in their shells.

It’s time, they call out to one another, it’s time!

The chicks respond to the voices of their kin, and they too, begin the journey of being born.

This week, on April 17, the world lost the wonderful Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez, a Columbian born literary hero and storyteller.

He wrote: “He allowed himself to be swayed by his conviction that human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but that life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.”

As I watched each chick struggling to make it’s way into the world, giving birth to itself, taking up the grueling journey of being born, of making its way into the world, I understood something of what Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez wrote in a new way:

Perhaps, without hope, we too remain poised for life, fertile and ready, but never truly born. As writers and artists and people with dreams, not only must we continue to hope, we must, ourselves, take responsibility for our hatching.

There’s no other way. It is an active process for a chick so fragile, to chip its way out. One would hardly expect it to be possible. But it is.

I also think there is magic in the way we call out from our shells, in the way we listen for the voices of others being born, right beside us – those with us on the journey. It’s not the sound of the hen that matters so much, it’s the hungry, persistent, perhaps frightened, peeping of those who are being born, too. This is how we know it’s possible, that we are not alone in giving birth to ourselves, that others, too, are emerging from their shells and there is life to be lived.

So this is my call out to others being born, too. It’s time, yes, it’s time!

I look forward to sharing the journey with you.

Happy Easter!


Stay On Your Eggs

“She’s stopped sitting on the eggs.” My son’s face is fallen. Jonathan has been waiting for weeks now, monitoring them throughout the day, by webcam at night and when he’s at school. We know they’re due any moment to hatch.

hen on eggsHe came in last night from the little house he’s built for the three of them – a rooster and two hens – to announce the broody hen had moved the eggs, but not all of them. She’d abandoned 6 and shuffled the others to a new nesting spot.  By this afternoon she’d left them all, walked out of that nest into the sunlight, the eggs left alone in the hay.

My son is a backyard garden farmer. We don’t live on a farm; we just have patient neighbors. He’s the kind of kid who’s always loved backyard projects and growing things in the garden, but as he’s gotten older his ideas have gotten more elaborate.

I had no idea how difficult it was to actually get a chick to hatch from an egg. It’s a heck of a lot more than (a) take one chicken, (b) add a rooster and voila (c) a collection of baby chicks arrive.

No, the survival of the embryo depends almost exclusively on the hen’s behavior. When the eggs are nearing maturity, the hen plucks the feathers from her breast so she can expose the eggs to the warmth of her bare skin. Because she cannot leave the eggs, she stops eating and grows dangerously thin and light. Jonathan brings seeds, high in protein, to her side to encourage her to eat. She does sometimes.

The hen must turn the eggs a little each day as the embryo develops, but near maturity she knows not to move them. The air pocket in the egg must be positioned just right to allow the chick to breath; otherwise it will drown.

But what if she gives up? If she cannot follow through, if she leaves the eggs, they will die. It doesn’t matter how strong or perfectly formed the chicks are inside, their lifeline is her persistence.

As a writer, I am sometimes tempted to walk away from a project that seems too hard, not only to write but to launch into the world.  The same applies in other areas of my life. When I am at the end of myself, hungry and bone thin, cold with all the feathers plucked from my breast, can I stay with it? Can I keep going?

This is Jonathan’s first attempt at hatching chickens. He reads constantly about it.

“They say that if a broody hen gets off her eggs after putting this much time in, she will probably always get off too soon. She won’t stay with it next time either. It’s the way it works.”

Disappointment floods his face.

I was meant to hear that.

If I get off these eggs too soon, if I give up now because I’m cold and hungry, then what? What does this mean for us all, for anyone who has ever had to stay on her eggs long after it seemed sensible or realistic?

She’s climbs back on to her eggs now, but in truth, it’s probably too late. We’ve taken a few inside now, into an incubator. But nothing is as effective as the breast of the hen. Jonathan is choosing to keep hoping.

And I am feeling encouraged.

Three things I’ve learned:

1. Find your best champion, your best supporter, someone who will bring you seeds, who will stroke your feathers, who will watch over you day and night to make sure you’re taken care of.

2. Don’t give up when you can’t see any progress – there is life underneath you. Inside that shell miracles are happening!

3. Stay on your eggs. No matter what, stay on your eggs.

Saffron – A Reflection on Families

In our family cooking together or doing the dishes are often longer and livelier events than dinner itself, if we’re all home. We generally cooperate to get the task done but we enjoy being together in the kitchen, partly sharing the work but also getting caught up singing old songs we all know, dancing around the kitchen, laughing and telling stories.gordon kitchen

An economist might call this inefficient. But there is something enchanting that gathers in the air as we’re working, something soft and light filled, swirling cloudlike and invisible, filled with stories. You can’t put a value on this cloud. It exists because we are together, because we have a history of being together in this way. There’s room in that cloud for squabbles and arguments, for confessions and tears and teasing. There’s room in that cloud for friends to come and go, for in-laws and out-laws.  This cloud, the way of being together, is priceless.


Just recently, I’ve come to see this cloud as saffron-colored. Here’s why:

I wrote about Buddhist monks in my last post and their saffron colored robes. Like many religious communities, part of what defines their life together is shared service, working as a community. Historically, monks’ robes were made of salvaged scraps of material once discarded then stitched together, which seemed appropriate for a monk, abandonment of wealth and all that.

But I was a little shocked to learn that the garment was dyed using saffron – the world’s most expensive spice.  Saffron sells for $250 – $300 an ounce.  A kilogram in the UK would set you back nearly $18,000.spanish saffron treads super macro shot

The ‘occasional-puritan’ in me ruffled her feathers a little. I found myself with raised eyebrows, standing right next to Judas Iscariot scoffing at the cost of the wasted perfume.  So I began to pay attention to this extravagant little additive, used for both its subtle flavoring in cooking and it’s rich color.


crocusIn case – like me – you didn’t know, saffron is actually the ‘stigma’ of a purple crocus flower. 96% of the world’s saffron is produced in Iran, though India, Greece, Spain and Italy also produce the spice. The crocus is an autumn blooming variety, so not your regular spring version, but it looks much the same.  There are usually three long, spindly, red stigmas inside the soft purple folds of each petal. The bloom happens over about 10 days in October/November – you’ve got to harvest the flowers in this window or the flavor deteriorates significantly.

It takes over 5,000 flowers to make an ounce of saffron.  Five thousand! Every flower is hand picked in the field. The flowers are gently placed in baskets, which are delivered to long tables surrounded by busy families who gently pluck the red filaments from the soft purple petals and set them to dry. It takes one person about 40 hours of picking to collect enough flowers to make a kilogram of saffron – about two soccer fields of plants in bloom. But that kilogram can earn up to $18,000 at market.

What I noticed in the images of the saffron harvest around the world, were the teams of Slide2 Slide1people needed to manage the harvest in that short ten-day window. In every image there are knots of women gathered in fields bent over baskets, busy picking and talking, laughing together.  There are families with children, aunties, uncles and grandmothers around tables plucking out the red filaments for drying, chattering and gossiping, working side by side. This is not solo work – this is the work of a community, the work of a family.

When things are expensive, this usually means they’re scarce. Precious metals, for example, are precious because they’re rare. But purple crocus blooms with striking red filaments are not rare in this way, not like gold or diamonds. They grow freely in some parts of the world.  What makes saffron costly is the labor-intensive work; what makes saffron expensive and extravagant is the value of another human being’s time.

That the world still values the time of another human being in this unshakeable way is incredible. Humanity has been harvesting saffron for some 3500 years and its value is still found in people.

I’ve never been to work the saffron fields, but I’d bet that something enchanting gathers as families work together, something soft and light filled, swirling cloudlike and invisible, filled with stories. And I bet there’s room in that cloud for squabbles and arguments, for confessions and tears and teasing. There’s room in that cloud for friends to come and go, for in-laws and out-laws.  I’d bet this cloud, the way of being together, is priceless. I’d bet the real extravagance of saffron is the sharing of a family working together.

Yes, of course saffron is the most expensive spice in world. How could it not be? It is born of the story of a people, the fingerprints of a family on every strand. How could there be anything more appropriate in which to dye the garment of a monk, but a saffron bath, a rich celebration of the extravagance of human beings – together.Monk_squatting