Climb On

In the last couple years, I’ve (re)discovered my love of rock climbing. As a child, I always enjoyed the climbing walls at summer camp, and I spent a fantastic afternoon at a climbing gym during a visit to a friend many years later. I should have put all of this together and taken the opportunity to go to the climbing gym down the road in my town, but I did not. And then finally, just two years ago, I went to a climbing gym here in Singapore after encouragement from a few friends who climbed regularly.

It literally rocked my world. Climbing has put my mind and body in places I didn’t know I could go. And now that those feelings have been part of my world, I never want to lose them. There is focus on the breath, shutting down of the chatter in the mind, and direction of physical forces to balance the body. There is deliberate movement, tiny adjustment, and sometimes a jump that will either end in a hold or a fall. There’s fear to contend with, certainly, and there’s trust in my partner to catch the fall. Ego crops up more than I’d like and I’m learning to know when to trust the body and when to admit that I am out of my league, when to just reach for the next move and when to take time to rest.

This has been a strange summer holiday but one benefit of it is that I have been able to spend a lot of time climbing after ten weeks off during the circuit breaker. I have felt my body move and stretch and reach and I have grown strong again. The blisters on my hands have hardened into callouses. The strength in my fingers continues to surprise me – there are times when I’m strong and times when I’m not. My legs are bruised. There are scrapes on my elbows. The skin on the fronts of my toes is rough. I have worn through one pair of shoes and started to break in new ones.

Being in Singapore for the summer has also meant that we have been able to get out to the Dairy Farm quarry during the week when relatively few people are out. It rained a lot during the month of June but that has tapered off in the last couple weeks and it has been dry enough to get outside.

This is not what people think of when they think of Singapore. And this is not what you’ll find if you never step away from the MRT stations. But this is here. And it is beautiful.

Climbing outdoors feels very different from climbing indoors. Real rocks are part of the world and they have been weathered by time and the elements rather than bolted on a wall in neat patterns. Routes that would be relatively straightforward if colour-coded inside require thinking and problem-solving outside.

There’s a real humility to looking up and then recognising that the only way forward is to look for the next foothold, the next handhold, however tiny they are. The way forward is to understand how the rock is shaped and formed and how to respond to it. The rock has been there for all of time. I am just a visitor.

The experience of climbing – the smell of dirt, the feel of rock, the sound of leaves in the wind, the tiny toe holds that make all the difference, the exhilaration of being so much a part of the world – this is a way of being that I have come to know. And it is beautiful.

Dancing in the Kitchen

This year, for the first time ever, I am not spending the summer with my family. In the past, much of this summertime has seen me with my mum playing together in the kitchen, but, unfortunately this cannot be. So for the moment, I’ve been sharing meals with friends and reflecting on times past.

I’ve written many times that if love is a verb, love requires action. This means behaving in ways that give love. We can show love in many ways, such as holding those who need holding, listening to those who are speaking, helping when help is needed, and giving of our time. Another way to show love, I deeply believe, is through cooking. A few years ago, my mum sewed me an apron embroidered with the words, “Love people. Cook them tasty food.” I think that sums it up.

In terms of cooking, there are two ways to show love: preparing food for others and preparing food with others.

In preparing food for others, the acts of chopping, slicing, dicing, washing, peeling, and whisking (to highlight just the tip of the iceberg) are not accidental – all are intentional. These acts require us to consider others and are the visible evidence of a desire to nourish, which is an act of care. Care in this context is a way to love.

Cooking for others may not involve the seeking of reciprocity. We prepare food that we think others will enjoy, and not with the purpose of raising ourselves in their eyes. So, when we sometimes cook for others in order to impress them, that is not an act of love. Preparing a meal for those in need, however, whether due to the demands that a joyous arrival of a newborn baby or the sorrow of a loss may bring, is something we do for those we care about – for those we love.

In such circumstances, when I cook for others out of love, my favorite meal to prepare is a hearty soup. (Admittedly, this is challenging in the tropics and I have modified my approach.) Soup is a meal that warms from the inside out and is filling, healthy, and tasty. It is simple to enjoy with no more than pepper and bread, and unpretentious with ingredients that are easy to find. There is love stirred into the soup pot.

In addition to showing love in the preparation of food for others, there is also cooking with others. When done with love, this can be analogous to an indoor version of running through the sprinkler on a hot day. It can be glorious or it can be a complete disaster (think thunderstorms and mud flung into eyes) but either way, if it is done with love, it ends in smiles and laughter.

Cooking with others is joyful and spirited. It is the creative interplay of working together, a fluid dynamic that involves trust and tolerance of another person. As my mum has said, “We dance the kitchen dance really well.” And yet, sometimes we get in each other’s way. This is when we take a step back and respect each other’s space, and this requires a significant degree of humility on our part, a willingness to simply let the other person be. We welcome their playfulness, their mistakes, and their laughter – because we do the same.

The kitchen dance, as I know it, is what I think walking hand in hand through the world might look like. It is beautiful and intricate in parts, yet it also requires the discipline to take on the responsibility that it brings. It is not simply preparing food but also caring for all parts of the journey; the sharpening and honing of knives, the clearing of counters, the washing of dishes, and the scrubbing of pots and pans, and finally, the clearing of the table. Together. Us. Rejoicing, frolicking.

A word of warning, however. It is important to recognise that there is a difference between two people working in a kitchen and combining food, and two people dancing in the kitchen and creating food. There is a synthesis of senses in the latter that may not exist in the former. There is a give-and-take between us as texture, taste, scent, and sight of the elements are explored. What I do now will influence the choices you make later. We bounce off and augment each other while incorporating individual creativity. Your taste and my taste guide the next element, the next move. We share as we explore, and in doing so laugh and love.

Playing in this way has led me to compose food that one would never find in recipe books. And in doing so I have found that not all of them merit repeating. But that isn’t what is important. What is meaningful, is that I have played with others in the kitchen and shared in the love that this brings. I will continue to cultivate and cherish those times and urge you and your loved ones to do the same.

Jean Talon Market – Montreal, Quebec

Back When We Had Souls

I’m not sure if souls exist. I used to know for sure, I know I did, but now I don’t think I believe in souls anymore. As we all do, I’ve drifted from the pretty imagery of childhood stories into a world in which souls do not make rational sense.

And yet.

And yet.

I met a person who, if souls do exist, I would have to say has a soul. The word came into my head one day, suddenly and unbidden, but I knew it was right. I looked at this person across the room and sensed a soul. I knew this in the way that we know it’s going to rain when the sky grows dark and the wind changes. It was immediate and obvious and it frightened me. 

As adults, we live by routines and patterns, by socially accepted and endorsed ways of interacting with one another. We go to work, to meetings, out for drinks, out for meals. We entertain ourselves and each other. We pass the time. We have ‘responsibilities’.

But once upon a time, before all of that, we were children. We laughed and played and made up stories. We turned sticks into airplanes and we flew. We put on wigs and became witches. The sandbox became quicksand and the neighbor’s dog was a predatory dinosaur. In our fantasies, our younger siblings were the pets and our parents came from a different planet. We threw balls of fire and some of us got burned, but still we kept throwing. We claimed the swings as our boundaries and let our friends claim the tree line as theirs. Jumping from the roof with an umbrella was faith that, just like Mary Poppins, we could fly.

As children, we believed in magic. We believed that what we wished for could be, and we dared to make it so. In the eyes of a child, the child that I was, souls were possible because everything was possible.

It is in adulthood that we forget about magic. Instead we have practical, everyday worries. We laugh less often and we forget how to play. We’re too important and busy for that. We’re too concerned with the things we have learned that ‘matter’. We make sure to meet all our basic needs, to pursue and court relationships that allow us to belong to different groups, and to elevate our status to the levels that we believe we are entitled to.

We know that we have to get promoted before we can afford the mortgage on the house, and we have to do it soon because there are already three wedding invitations and one birth announcement on the fridge. Everyone else is ‘moving forward’, so what are we waiting for?

And so, magic is left behind. We forget the spells and potions, we forget the carefully delineated safe zones of tag, and we forget the glee of tearing barefoot across the grass yelling as loudly as we can. We increasingly channel our time to the pursuit of ‘personal progress’ and leave behind that was once so pure and central to who we were. We stop playing, and we stop being.

It is here, I think, that we lose the idea of souls.

As adults, we stop pretending and stop believing in things we cannot see. Looking beyond our adult boundaries into the joyfully cultivated worlds of children is a chore. And so souls, which are intangible, cease to exist.

Such a transformation, one which takes the imagination and supplants it with the material goals brought to us by ‘logic’ and ‘reason’, robs us not only of the existence of souls but of all those other beliefs that children are made of. Words which carried hopes and dreams are now said out of habit, if at all.

And so the progression through life’s journey continues and the price is the loss of the soul that made us who we were.

But such is the way of tacit acceptance of change. We do not recognise that this is what we are doing. We don’t notice the gradual shifts and how these lead us away from one world and into another.  

Once, we were pirates searching for buried treasure that we knew we would never find. The joy then was in the adventure of solving the clues. 

But as time passed, we imperceptibly became preoccupied with the treasure; the joy of adventure got lost and our souls vanished.

But what if?  

What if souls do not disappear, but are simply masked by the habits we develop, by the actions we mimic, by the words we pull together to intellectualise our actions? What if we suspend who we have become, if only for a little while, and simply look? And what if another was to do the same?

I looked across that room and without warning, without reason, I remembered. 

Once upon a time I was a child and I believed in magic. Back when we played pretend. Back when we trusted in our newest inventions. Back when finding all the pieces to build the perfect snowman was as much fun as playing in the snow.

Once upon a time I was a child and I knew we each had a soul. 

And it frightened me that I had forgotten.

Milford Sound, New Zealand – January 2019

Photos, travels, musings, and ideas on education by someone trying to make the world a better and more peaceful place