domestic pursuits

What May be Mended

During the lull between the years, when the nights were at their longest, I took stock of things and decided that, this year, I will focus on what may be mended.

In the world at large there is a storm: it is now all around us. The famous lines from Yeats have ever more relevance, only, this, time, it is impossible to say whether it is the best or worst who lack all conviction, are filled with passionate intensity, or are both at once. These are now the most visible symptoms of a great social ill threatening—determined, it seems increasingly clear—to destroy everything in its wake.

Margaret Atwood, whose essays appearing at In the Writing Burrow are among the most informed and cogent cultural analysis I have read in years, has issued a timely warning of what await us, unless we “call the bluff” that our societies are broken and can only be fixed by revolutions, terrorism, invasions or dictators. Atwood’s most immediate focus is on the upcoming US election, but her analysis applies anywhere democracy, due process and the peaceful transition of power are under threat.

In her commentary, Atwood points out that it is the aim of extremists on both the ultra-left and radical right to sow division, sabotage social accords, spread misinformation, undermine public institutions and elections and create chaos in what she calls “the temperate zone”—in political language this is often referred to as the centre or middle, but includes centre-left social democrats as well as small-c conservatives—in order to create opportunities to seize power.

In pursuit of these aims, extremists harness the dissatisfaction of ideological fellow-travelers, the genuinely aggrieved, and those who cynically anticipate, following the hoped-for revolution, uprising or seizure of power, to be appointed to positions of authority themselves. Their rhetoric becomes increasingly radical and ever more authoritarian. Anyone who questions the ideological imperative is an enemy. The divisions deepen. Rakoth Maugrim—the Unraveler, the Destroyer, the self-appointed bearer of Vengeance—steps in and seizes the world in his teeth.

Unless ordinary citizens refuse it.

I refuse it. And so can you.

It is not even all that difficult to do. One good way to begin is by muting the ideologues who—most often via social media but also, increasingly, in progressive as well as conservative faith communities, political organizations and, depressingly, educational environments—spread the poison of the movements they have attached themselves to. Watch for their absolutism, and for their calls for obedience to cult-like kinds of fundamentalism. And mute them; banish their invented or exaggerated claims, their one-sided narratives, the propaganda they reshare, their exhortations to burn everything down. Halt their takeovers of your communities, and their silencing of anything that sounds even remotely like dissent. Do this even to the ideologues on your own ‘side.’ Do it even to yourself, because chances are good you too have contributed to the ideological dumbing down of our society.

When you do this it’s actually amazing how quickly the airwaves quiet. All at once there is room to breathe, time for perspective, an opportunity to weigh your own thoughts alongside the experiences and perspectives of others, and a chance to notice all the other people who, likely a lot like you, both build and benefit from the social institutions extremists want to use you to destroy.

It’s okay to be critical. Our society is imperfect. There is much that may be improved. But anyone who says it must all be burned down and remade in their name or in the name of their ideology is not interested in improvement.

During the lull between the years, sickened by the news and nauseated at the rhetorical spewage on social media and in one of the communities I belong to, I set aside my laptop. Instead I brought down my sewing box, set it up beside the old wooden table in our kitchen, and, in peaceful silence on a dark winter night, the kitchen warm, the dinner dishes washed and drying behind me, set to work mending what could be mended.

Mending is about much more than sewing up seams, and it would be foolish to pretend that mending a beloved winter coat I’ve had for 25 years has much to do with repairing the world.

But I am a person who believes that the things we do as individuals have resonance far beyond ourselves, and that it is not only big acts but small ones that make the world. Small acts are actually practice for larger ones, in the sense that the way we do small things usually parallels the way we do larger things.

Not all things may be mended. Some things are too broken to fix. But a great deal may be repaired, and much that may be mended exists in the spaces between us—in our personal relationships, in the civility we owe to our communities, and in our duty of care to the natural environment. And if we are able to be mindful of these nearby things, we might also appreciate the virtues of stable democracies and their social contracts, and the separation of church and state, and the close connections between innovation and prosperity, and the benefits of charity, and civil liberties, and so on.

Yes but!, I can sense you saying. Yes but!—late capitalism is evil, communists are everywhere, carbon taxes are destroying the economy, the planet is burning, a drag queen is reading stories at the library, a stranger misgendered me, the deep state is watching us, big pharma vaccinated my dog, pop singer psy-ops, settler colonialism, the lamestream media, chatbots, 15-minute cities, megachurches, stolen elections, Superbowl shootings, the unborn, the undead.


In an excellent recent essay on the excess of noise—literal and figurative—in contemporary culture, and on the urgent need for quiet, cultural commentator Michael Harris observed that

[S]ilence leaves room for the development of a rich interior life, for daydreaming and the formation of an identity independent of the hive mind. Our personalities mature in the empty spaces that allow them to self-reflect; we discover what we really think or really feel when inputs hush and we can sit a while with what we’ve already received. In this way, amid doses of quiet and stillness, the self coheres.

If the loudest mantra of the moment is “burn it all down,” then the mantra of those of us interested in mending should be “turn it all down,” and “tone it all down.”

Turn down the ideologues, especially on the social media platforms whose algorithms promote extremism via ‘engagement’ and ‘reach.’ Tone down your own propensity to be persuaded by one-sided rhetoric and oversimplified narratives. Stop making everything about politics (and maybe consider: When did choosing what to read, watch, attend and value become principally a performative expression of political identity? And what has doing so cost us in terms of perspective?).

Put down your phone. Go for a walk. Pet a cat. Talk to a dog. Smile at a baby. Pick up some litter. Say hello to a stranger on the street. Get up early. Look at the sunrise (no: really look at it). Stay up late, and listen (even for just a few moments) to the wind roaring in the trees, or to the silence, or to cars on the highway, or to those tiny rustles in the grass. Grow something (in a pot, on your balcony, in your yard, or in a nearby park). Pick a dandelion. Thank a bee. Go to a bookstore or a library. Read a poem. Remember, even if only for a few moments, how fortunate you are—how fortunate we all are—to have been born in this corner of the expanding universe.

Mend something.

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A Return to my Salad Days

When I first moved away from my parents’ home in the 1990s, I spent a summer buying basic household items at eastern Ontario yard sales. Dinnerware, mixing bowls, a giant sunflower print … and cookbooks. Nearly all these things are long gone—the giant sunflower print, having hung in various narrow apartment kitchens and then in our basement stairwell, finally went out to curbside a few months ago after a quarter century of service—but I still have two of the first cookbooks I ever bought: Anne Lindsay’s Smart Cooking (1986) and her follow-up, Lighthearted Everyday Cooking (1991).

In the eighties and nineties, Anne Lindsay was a Canadian household name. A longtime home economist and food writer for numerous Canadian publications who was named to the Order of Canada in 2003, she partnered first with the Canadian Cancer Society and, later, the Heart and Stroke Foundation to produce cookbooks featuring healthy recipes geared to reducing diet-related disease risks. In keeping with the understandings of the era, the recipes were lower in fat than many contemporary recipes—although, as Lindsay herself has noted, they were not usually low fat. Lindsay’s balanced approach to fats was a prescient choice, given subsequent medical research finding that a balanced intake of carbohydrates, proteins and unsaturated fats is the cornerstone of a healthy diet.

My interest in Anne Lindsay’s cookbooks was not so much dietary (although in those days I was, like most young women of my generation, usually trying to lose weight) as being about developing a basic recipe repertoire.  I did, of course, like that the recipes were healthy, but even more than that, I appreciated that they were simple and unadorned. They used ingredients that even I, on a grad student budget, and living in an area with limited grocery options, could find and afford.

Two of the early recipes I learned from Anne Lindsay remain standards in my household: chick-pea salad with red onion and tomato (from Smart Cooking), and red bean salad with feta and peppers (from Lighthearted Everyday Cooking). After all these years I no longer need to consult the cookbooks to make these salads, but for some reason I almost always haul the books out and prop them open on the counter. I have adulterated both recipes over the years (I add avocado and often fusilli to the chick-pea salad, and always make the red bean salad with red cabbage and dried hot peppers) but they remain essentially as Anne Lindsay intended them: straightforward, healthy, and delicious.

Earlier this week while out running errands, I stopped in at a thrift store  to look at (among other things) the cookbooks. Among dozens of discarded paleo, vegan and celebrity cookbooks (one can always trace the downward trajectory of dietary fads and celebrity chefs’ careers by the appearance of their related cookbooks in thrift stores) was a ‘new’ Anne Lindsay cookbook: Lighthearted at Home (2010). I pulled it out and assessed the book, wondering whether it was worth adding to my already burgeoning cookbook library.

Unlike a lot of the cookbooks I see (and buy) these days, Lighthearted at Home is not filled with glossy food-porn pictures. The recipes are plain and unadorned. But as I flipped through the book (at 486 pages it’s a hefty compendium), a feeling of something like solid familiarity filled me. “I could make this for dinner tonight!” I said about one recipe after another. “I already have all these ingredients in the fridge!” So with real regret I put Crissy Teigen’s Cravings back on the shelf and brought Anne Lindsay home instead.

I must pause here to note that I love fancy food-porn cookbooks. I love their glossy pictures. I love the long preambles to the recipes. I love the stories about how the recipes came to be, especially when they involve travel to the south of France or anecdotes about the author’s Kurdish grandmother. I love hearing about the glittering dinner parties where these dishes have held centre stage. I love to imagine the glittering dinner parties at which I will serve all these delectable dishes.

The problem is that between Covid lockdowns and three years of 24/7 caregiving to someone with dementia, there haven’t been a lot of dinner parties in my life lately. The days when we catered our own wedding reception, and hosted midsummer garden parties for years thereafter—those days are long past.

It’s tempting, now that the pandemic is over, and with our elder in long term care, and especially after having redone our dining room, to send out invites, plan table settings—and haul out the most lavish recipes I can find.

But I’m busy, and tired, and sometimes think I’ve forgotten how to cook food. Real food, not the delicious but hours-long effort of making, say, the Barefoot Contessa‘s roasted eggplant parmesan (worth every minute, by the way). Real food, not hot dogs and Caesar salad, which were the only foods we could get my mother-in-law to eat in the last months before she went into long term care. Real food I could make for dinner any night, without a great deal of fuss—real food I could even make tonight. Anne Lindsay’s cookbooks fit the bill perfectly.

Tonight, for example, I am going to make pasta with sweet peppers, cheese and basil from Lighthearted at Home. It’s a simple, straightforward, healthy recipe that doesn’t take long to prepare, of the sort one could make any weeknight while casting about for something to cook. It reminds me of the recipes and ingredients included in meal delivery kits (which may well crib their offerings from cookbooks like this one). It’s almost a stretch to call it a recipe: just pasta, some vegetables, some cheese, olives, and some herbs. Lindsay recommends serving this dish with broccoli or green beans; I think it would also be great with chicken on the side. I think this dish would also be excellent as next-day leftovers chilled in the fridge, by which point it would be more like a salad (I have a thing for salads, in case this is not already obvious, and am happy to call almost any chilled leftover a salad if it has any vegetable matter in it at all).

No, it’s not exciting. But this dish, this cookbook, and Lindsay’s entire oeuvre, is ideal for when you are either starting out and don’t know what to eat, or have been making dinners for so many years you’ve run out of ideas, or have glutted yourself on so much food porn you’ve forgotten how to cook the basics.

Update: Here’s tonight’s dinner! I wilted in some fresh spinach greens, because I love spinach and throw a few handfuls of it into just about everything. I also stirred some dried hot pepper flakes (from Apache peppers grown in our garden) in with the onions while they sautéed. I should have saved a cup of pasta water to stir in for extra creaminess. And maybe poured in a glug of red wine vinegar, just to take Lindsay’s recipe, already half Greek with the feta and Kalamata olives, the rest of the way (and, if so, I would substitute oregano for the basil).

This is the great thing about this kind of recipe: you can add or substitute ingredients to suit your preferences (Lindsay encourages this very thing) but always have, at base, a solid recipe you can count on to get something good to the table any night of the week.

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