Reading may seem like a solitary pleasure, but we do not believe it is so. As we read, we intimately interact with writers, the worlds they create, and our own inner selves as well as the real world that surrounds us. Some of us are also blessed enough to have friends to share the experience with.

While discussing the idyllic village of Three Pines and the captivating characters author Louise Penny created in the Inspector Gamache books, we were aware of the sensory pleasure to be had in the meals described. Olivier’s Bistro, Gabri’s baking, and dinners at the Morrow’s can easily make us salivate while reading the books… Louise Penny's books, are a wonderful entrée into a sensual world, where each book is a season, capturing its mood and flavours, and contributing to the layers of meaning about the characters, who are marvellously revealed over the series.

At one point, a daydream of going through the series with a notebook in hand, writing down all these meals and later cooking them, took shape. This is our "notebook". We hope you enjoy this literary-culinary-sensory-philosophical journey.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Cinnamon Sugar Cookies and Being Faithful in the Small Things

by Amy

Audrey Villeneuve was everywhere. In the aroma of cinnamon and nutmeg for the Christmas cookies she must have baked, and the photos on the fridge, showing a grinning family camping, at a birthday party, at Disney World.Crayon drawings were framed. Drawings only a parent knew were works of art.This had been a happy home until a few days ago, when Audrey Villeneuve had left for work, and hadn't returned.

Oh. My.

I've said before that the written word "haunts" me. I quickly perused the list of meals this morning and tried to find something that would fit what I had in my pantry (which is still a work in progress since when you're starting from scratch it's easy to forget to buy the basics that you kind of take for granted). I saw Cinnamon and Nutmeg Cookies and I thought, Perfect!

It was perfect because, like Audrey, I'm caught in this whirlwind of trying to keep up with day-to-day tasks (such as cooking for a family, laundry, child pickup and drop off, homework, etc), while still in the midst of huge tasks (things you usually do a little at a time like tackling all the windows, dusting ages old dust off of furniture, cleaning gunk from behind a stove that has probably never been cleaned in years and years, all the paperwork involved in moving to another country and applying to a graduate degree... you get the picture).

At the end of the day, the whole process of moving has been a process of finding a "new normal", as my new friend has been telling me repeatedly.

One thing that isn't new is the fact that we all have "roles"  we play in any group or family dynamics. I'm a caretaker. I think I always have been.

As I was baking cookies (and, since I was in the kitchen and there never seems to be enough food for my husband and growing child, I ended up making other things, too), I was thinking.

I was thinking about how taking care of other people is a choice we make. A noble choice. Much of it is invisible. Most of it is taken for granted after awhile. That doesn't make it less important. Or less appreciated.

As I was doing all these things - the "invisible"  things - I was reminding myself of how important those "invisible"  tasks are. I was silently saying thanks for all the invisible things that are done for me by others in my life. I was praying I would not forget to be thankful.

I have talked of my desire to be kind. Or kinder.

I have another aspiration. It is to make a difference. Nothing grand. When I read George Elliot's Middlemarch, I found the perfect description of what I aspire to:

But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs. (MIDDLEMARCH - George Elliot)

I finished baking the cookies (and other things) and enjoyed them with a perfect mug of tea while doing another round of "invisible"  tasks. Once I was done, I sought the scene that related to the cookies I was to blog about. What could be more perfect than this one? It was an illustration of what
I'd been thinking about all morning.

Audrey Villeneuve was everywhere. 

And yet, it wasn't because of the big things. She was everywhere and she would be remembered most not for the monumental task she had set for herself (and managed to complete from beyond the grave). Her continued presence - and her loss - was felt most by those who were blessed by her little everyday kindnesses and dedication.

I think there is wisdom in the concept of being faithful in the little things. It's easy to cut corners. I do it every day. When I challenge myself to give my best in the little things, it builds character. I think. At least I hope so. It makes me aware of how it is possible to be better. To exceed my own expectations. And, slowly, what seemed challenging becomes the norm. As you gain experience in anything - even character - you also gain competence. And, with competence, comes confidence.

Competence is the ability to know how to handle situations effectively. It is not a vague feeling or hunch that "I can do this". Competence is acquired through actual experience. Children can't become competent without first developing a set of skills that allows them to trust their judgments, make responsible choices, and face difficult situations. (BUILDING RESILIENCE IN CHILDREN AND TEENS - Kenneth G Ginsbert)

It works for kids. It's the same for kids of any age. You start with little things and you gain experience and competence.

Being faithful in the little things is about becoming competent in effort. It means defining "your best" as the norm. It doesn't mean you're awesome at everything - or even anything. It does mean you'll improve at everything you do. Even if only you can tell the difference.

Yesterday my eight-year-old went to his first Martial Arts class. He loved it. He thinks he's on his way to become a superhero. I loved it, too. The teacher was incredible. He'd teach them a skill. They'd all do it together, then he'd walk from child to child and watch each one repeat the task and give them individual pointers. At one point he called them in and told them to take a knee. He then proceeded to say something like this:

You guys are doing a good job. I'm glad you keep training even when I'm not looking. That's what good training is all about. Keep going. And keep doing your best. Even when no one is looking. It doesn't matter if no one sees. What matters is that you know you're doing your best.
Gotta love a teacher like that, right?

And he's right. Not just for martial arts.

Neil Gaiman was once asked, by a self-entitled "horrible person" how to become a better person. His answer HERE is priceless. Fake it. Or, in other words, do what a better person would do. Maybe, when we "force" ourselves to to what we wish we naturally did, slowly we'll grow into that better person we'd like to be. Hopefully.

We will fail, I'm sure. Or at least I will fail.

That's what grace is for. That's why forgiveness and kindness to ourselves and our own shortcomings is such a balm.

Being faithful in the little things is good practice. It builds up competence and stamina for big things that may come. Audrey never would have realized something was wrong if she weren't competent at her job - in the little, "invisible", frequently repetitive work she did every day.

Audrey Villeneuve had almost certainly realized something was wrong, as she'd entered the reports. After years and years of working on repair files, she knew the difference between work genuinely done, or badly done. Or not done at all.
Finding the error was only the first step. She went the extra mile. The woman who cared enough to bake her family cookies was the same woman who cared enough to do something about what she'd found.

It was possible she'd even turned a blind eye, like so many of her colleagues. Until finally she couldn't anymore. Then what would Audrey Villeneuve have done? She was organized, disciplined. she'd have gathered proof before saying anything. And, in doing that, she'd have found things she shouldn't have. Worse things than willful neglect, than corruption, than desperately needed repairs not done. She'd have found suggestions of a plan to hurry the collapse. 

Audrey Villeneuve was faithful. She was true to herself against incredible odds. The same woman who sewed her own party dress (what an unbelievable accomplishment) was the woman who painstakingly, slowly, meticulously sewed together an airtight case.

"I can tell you that your wife died trying to stop something horrible from happening. I want you and your girls to know that."

Little things can become big things. Little habits can add up. Being faithful can become a habit. Being a loyal friend, a good caretaker, a homemaker, a parent, a employee, a creator, an artists... There are a series of little things that add up. Gamache is a good example of someone who is faithful in the small things, yes, but also on a larger scale. This scene ends with an act of loyalty against the odds. Beauvoir hasn't exactly been a good friend to him lately, but...

He paused before he spoke again. "Can you find Jean-Guy, Isabelle? Make sure he's all right today?"

Sugar cookies are among the easiest things in the world to make. They're hard to get wrong. It's also hard to just eat one of them. They aren't incredibly exotic. They aren't even all that memorable sometimes. And, like so many other little things, they can be taken for granted.

But life is made up of the little things. Right? Oh! Flashback moment! I just heard John Denver in my mind (my dad loved listening to him on road trips when I was a kid), "It's the little things that make a house a home..."

As I seek my new normal, I seek to also remain true to who I am while enjoying the adventure inherent in discovering these little things that will turn this new house into our home. The smell of spicy cookies did wonders in that regard.

I used a basic Sugar Cookie recipe. Since I tend to always change things a little bit, I made half a batch with sugar and cinnamon coating and the other half I coated with cocoa powder and sugar instead. And I added a pinch of pumpkin spice. I think. I'm not sure. I seem to add pumpkin spice mix to so many things that sometimes I confuse myself. They were perfect with tea. Perfect. The house also smells amazing now.

Also, it received universal accolades. That is a rare, rare, rare thing in my family. Although we are a small three person family, we have such different palates that it's hard to really please all three of us at the same time. These cookies, like so many universal little things, guaranteed a unanimous vote.


Blend together 1 cup of brown sugar, 1/2 cup of white sugar (although I ended up using all brown sugar because I like it less sweet and chewier) and 1 cup of softened butter. Add two eggs and 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract and mix until fluffy. Add to that 2 1/2 cups of flour, 3/4 teaspoons of baking soda, and 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Mix. Roll into approximately 1 inch balls, then roll the balls in the cinnamon (3 tablespoons of sugar + 1 tablespoon of cinnamon) or cocoa (1 tablespoon of cocoa + 2 tablespoons of sugar) mixture. Place balls on baking sheet and press down. Bake at 300 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes. Try not to eat them all while they're still hot.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Cafe au Lait and Greatness

by Amy

"Greatness? You'd consider Augustin Renaud that? I was under the impression you and the other members of the Camplain Society considered him a kook."
" Aren't most great people? In fact, I think most of them are both brilliant and demented and almost certainly unfit for polite society. Unlike us."

I think Émile is a great character. Don't you?

I love how he words things. I think it's fascinating (from a writing craft point of view) how a writer manages to give each character their own speech patterns and style. Their own voice. It's hard to find our own voice, let alone that of a myriad of characters. Fascinating.

I think Émile is right. To an extent.

A friend once told me about Isaiah Berlin's essay: The Hedgehog and the Fox.

The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing..

 Émile concurs with this theory. In his opinion, as in that of my friend, part of greatness is being dedicated to a subject or area to the point where you become an expert. That takes time and focus and is laudable, in its way.

The fox, on the other hand, may be competent at quite a few things, but isn't as singularly focused at anything. Therefore, its competence is "spread out" and has less depth.

I went on to read the essay and discovered that this theory is just the tip of the iceberg. It's really an essay on literature and Tolstoy, but the hedgehog versus fox dilema is food for thought. Are you born a hedgehog? Is it a personality trait? Are Aspies prone to hedgehogness? Can a fox train itself to become a hedgehog? Is hedghogginess worth it? What about the things the hedgehogs give up? These were questions we discussed and theorized about time and again.

I appreciate "hedgehog-like-personalitites". They are fascinating. The kind of single-mindedness that makes some people able to accomplish great feats is mind blowing. Some things wouldn't be possible if taken on by multitaskers or people with short attention spans. Some things require a tenacity and perseverance that are beyond most people's ability.

Gamache stirred his coffee and watched his mentor.
He considered him a great man, one of the few he'd met. Great not in his singularity of purpose, but in his multiplicity.

Ah... isn't Gamache wise?

While I appreciate those who do great things and are capable of great dedication to their cause of choice, I must agree with Gamache. There is greatness to be found in multiplicity. There is greatness to be found in flexibility, adaptability, and integrity.

Émile was a great man because he was a good man, no matter what was happening around him. Gamache had seen cases explode around his Chief, he'd seen accusations thrown, he'd seen internecine politics that would stagger Machiavelli. He'd seen his Chief bury his own beloved wife, five years earlier.
Strong enough to grieve.
And when, a few weeks ago, Gamache had marched in the achingly slow cortege behind the flag-draped coffins he had with each halting step remembered his agents and with each step remembered his first Chief. His superior then, his superior now and always.

I've spent this week feeling incompetent. Moving and adjusting means you aren't great at anything.

"I'm sorry. I was wrong. I need help. I don't know."

Every day. Every single day. Many times.

I've been sorry. I've been tired, short tempered, and less kind than I would like to be.

I've been wrong - about so many things - all the time!

I need help. More help than I'm comfortable with. We all like being independent.

And there is so so much I don't know. There are even things I don't know that I don't know.

It's a humbling experience.

I have no desire to be an Augustin Renaud. None. I am not hedgehog material. My interests are too varied and scattered for that. And right now, I'm not even showing fox-like competence. If I am to aspire to greatness in multiplicity, then, it must be in showing integrity, kindness, dedication, and goodness in whatever I endeavor to do. Easier said than done.

I have at least managed to drink the perfect mug of cafe-au-lait.

Whoever Anonymous (comment in last post) is, thank you. Your words were prophetic. I'm still not settled in. There are still suitcases and boxes and too many things to do (aside from the normal to do list) to feel like we're home. But last night? I sat down with my nice mug of tea. New mug. Plain white no chips mug. A mug I still have no history with. But I sat, drank my tea, wrote the next day's "to do list", and felt a little bit more at home.

I beg everyone's forgiveness because I have barely managed to buy enough supplies to make even the most basic of meals. I have not had easy access to the internet or my books, so I posted (once again) about a staple drink. I promise I will soon go back to writing about actual recipes!

Thank you all for reading!

Friday, August 12, 2016

Tea, Ruth, and Kindness

by Amy

This may just be my most personal post yet. And I don't have my books with me so I can't get actual quotes.

Remember the whole butterfly and caterpillar theme? And change? And "in-between" phases? Well, I'm going into cocoon mode now and am in an "in-between" phase.

My family is in the midst (literally) of a continental move. The last post was posted from one place. Today I'm writing from a hotel room, with a new computer I haven't yet quite gotten the hang of (I keep inadvertently deleting things and selecting things and losing all my work), drinking tea from a bag in a paper cup (Libby might revoke my friendship rights - I hope not).

I had been planning to write about tea and Ruth. Or begin to write about Ruth. There is so much to say I don't think this post will even begin to cover it. There will be a part 2. I'm sure. So I suppose this particular tea is probably the perfect one to post. It's very Ruth-like, isn't it? Paper cup and tea bag?

There's a scene, in NATURE OF THE BEAST where Ruth is drinking tea, looking at (or is it reading?) the play and remembering. Memory tortures her and she has spent an embittered life full of remorse.

I'm not even half her age. But there's something about a big move and lots of goodbyes that gives you a unique opportunity for reassessment and self-evaluation (especially if you're already prone to it - I am). I spent most of the past months planning who I want to become (because we can always ask ourselves who we want to be when we "grow up") and reassessing who I was - and am.

Kindness has been the recurring word in my mind.

It's almost eerie how the written word "haunts"  me in a sense. Whatever I am thinking about, mulling over, or needing seems to pop up in literature or in whatever written media I happen to come across.

I was thinking about what I was leaving behind, I was wondering how I would be remembered and hoped my legacy included kindness.

That said, I wish I had been kinder. In a conversation with a friend about an incident between us that happened 20 years ago, I mentioned I still regretted not having been kinder. She laughed (she didn't remember the incident) and told me I couldn't expect my younger self to be at the same place I was now and that she was sure I wouldn't have done the same in the same circumstance if it had been nowadays. She was gracious. She was also right. I hope.

Then I was reading Auggie & Me (R.J.Palacio) with my son and we ran across the character Charlotte. I knew her. I was her. I am her. Even though she's an 11 year old. She is learning what it is to be kind. At one point, she acknowledges and realizes that she may be nice, but that kindness trumps niceness. My son summarizes it as, "it's good to be nice, but between niceness and kindness? Kindness wins". I love that at one point, when she tells her principal about a friend who should be acknowledged for her kind behavior, the principal (who is as gracious as my friend was) tells her that she, too, is to be congratulated because "being nice is the first step to being kind". His words were a balm to my soul.

That same week (see how the written word seems to "haunt" me?) I read George Saunders's Advice to Graduates. It was like he had written how I felt. Except he was much more eloquent than I could have been.

I began receiving thank you notes and messages and cards and phone calls from patients in my practice. After 10 years, I was closing up shop and moving away and they were feeling orphaned. I was gifted with their appreciation and so happy because what they thanked me for and what they said they would remember was my kindness. So as I was assessing myself and finding myself wanting (I set high standards for myself in some regards), I was soothed by feedback from those who had been on the receiving end and were assuring me that (while I may not have reached my goals) I am on the right track.

And, finally, in packing up the things that matter (like old journals and school papers and books), I found an old journal I had written when I was 9. Just a little older than my son is now. The entire journal was dedicated to kindness. I was trying to be kinder and writing down things I had done to make people feel better about themselves, or to help someone in need, or to make someone feel appreciated and welcome, or...

I confess that I was shocked. I didn't remember that. I also hadn't realized how little I'd changed in almost 30 years.

When I reread the scene with Ruth, I was moved to tears. She sat down and wept.

That must have been so painful.

Is there anything worse than being condemned by our own conscious?

I feel for Ruth. But I am thankful that while I may find myself wanting and while there is more than one (many, many more) incident where I, too, feel like I have betrayed a friend or a trust, have taken a wrong turn, or have hurt someone... I have not been paralyzed by remorse.

As I looked back on my life and evaluated those instances where I could have done better, some I could console myself with the fact that I had asked for forgiveness and, when possible, made amends. Some, like George Saunders's story, where about growing up and learning to do better. And, in those instances, I reminded myself that I am still learning and to be tolerant of my own shortcomings.

I feel for Ruth.

But I am thankful that while I have shed a few tears in all these goodbyes and adjustments, they have mostly been happy tears.

I apologize for posting an unedited post, but the cocoon awaits and transition has a "to do" list a mile long.

My main goal? I hope my metamorphosis makes me kinder.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Potato Soup & Civil War

by Amy

Beauvoir took a hunk of warm baguette and smoothed whipped butter onto it, and watched it melt. Then he cut a slab of blue and Brie from the cheese board making the rounds. As Brother Raymond continued his liturgy of the faults in the monastery, Beauvoir took a spoonful of soup, with carrots, peas, parsnips and potatoes bumping together in the fragrant broth.”

The food in THE BEAUTIFUL MYSTERY is mouth-watering. Just reading that paragraph makes me wish I could spend a week in the monastery and partake of their meals, learn from their silence and slow down. Or pick blueberries. And eat them. With chocolate. Sigh. Any of you feel the same?

 “Are you one of the abbot’s men, or the prior’s men?”

The doctor’s gaze, friendly before, now sharpened, examining Beauvoir. Then he smiled again.
“I’m neutral, Inspector. Like the Red Cross. I just tend to the wounded.”
“Are there many? Wounded, I mean?”
The smile left Frère Charles’s face. “Enough. A rift like that in a previously happy monastery hurts everyone.”
“Including yourself?”
“Oui,” the doctor admitted. “But I really don’t take sides. It wouldn’t be appropriate.”
“Was it appropriate for anyone?”
“It wasn’t anyone’s first choice,” said the doctor, an edge of impatience in his friendly voice. “We didn’t wake up one morning and pick teams. Like a game of Red Rover. This was excruciating and slow. Like being eviscerated. Gutted. A civil war is never civil.”
Then the monk’s gaze left Beauvoir and looked first at Francoeur, beside the abbot, then across the table to Gamache.
“As perhaps you know.”
A denial was on Beauvoir’s lips, but he stopped it. The monk knew. They all knew.”

I must confess that I oscillate between writing an entire flood of words and feeling like there is nothing to be added to this scene.

A civil war is never civil.

I’ve spent a few minutes staring at the screen watching the blinking courser. I keep wondering how much to share and how this is a potentially dangerous topic to explore.

I am reminded of Lincoln’s famous “a house divided cannot stand” quote. It is true of nations. It is true of homes.

This soup was, unwittingly, the cause of friction in my own home. My son has issues with food texture and soup is his least favorite of all foods. We have a deal that he has to at least taste things. 

This particular meal was one where the enforcing of the rule led to an unpleasant meal since we weren’t all in agreement as to the particulars of the “tasting rule”. The whole process led to the need for diplomacy in order to find a truce and strategies for future soup meals. He has since had to eat (taste, really… he never has to eat more than a spoonful or two) many, many soups and the most tolerable one, to him, is the apple parsnip one I’ve already posted about.

Civil war is never civil.

There doesn’t always have to be war in times of contention, though. A willingness to listen, to negotiate, and to try to understand another person (or nation or group or…) and their point of view may salvage a situation and avoid a war. We didn’t reach civil war in my own home. Thank goodness. Diplomacy and tolerance won out. I must confess, though, that navigating family negotiations and mediating interactions made that first soup meal savorless. I had the leftovers the next day with a lighter heart and a much better sensory experience.

Differences in opinion are positive. Arguments aren’t always easy to deal with, but I believe the end result can be positive when all parties at least attempt to be civil. It is the respect for civility and the recognition of the other’s humanity that avoids “war”.

Sometimes, however, war is unavoidable. Or, if it is avoidable, we are not in the position of power to avoid it. Gamache could only avoid “war” by conforming to corruption, for instance. And sometimes it is as the doctor explained to Beauvoir:

“It wasn’t anyone’s first choice,” said the doctor, an edge of impatience in his friendly voice. “We didn’t wake up one morning and pick teams. Like a game of Red Rover. This was excruciating and slow. Like being eviscerated. Gutted.”

A few weeks ago, when browsing through my shelves to find a book to show a friend, I started leafing through my copy of LETTERS OF NOTE (Shaun Usher). I was telling the friend about the book and was reminded of the letter Gandhi wrote to Hitler, a little before the Second World War broke out. For the sake of humanity. It is a powerful letter. Link: FOR THE SAKE OF HUMANITY

May we all choose our battles with careful consideration.
May diplomacy win, if possible.
May we be conscientious and fair in the battles we choose to engage in.
May we avoid unnecessary or hurtful fractions.
May we not forget the price of war – civil or otherwise – and seek other methods, when possible, in order to avoid the devastation.
And, whenever it is impossible to avoid a war, may be not forget that “the other side” (even when its leader is Francoeur) is human, too.

I think the sad thing about humanity is that we seem to frequently repeat our mistakes. So my last prayer is that we learn from our mistakes and from those of the ones that came before us. Not only in the big sweeping historical occurrences, but also in the small, seemingly insignificant experiences of daily life.

I did make soup. It was a vegetable soup. There were little pieces of vegetables bumping together… But I’m not a huge fan of thin broth, so I pureed about two thirds of the soup in order to make it a thicker broth.

I’m sure you’ll all forgive me if it doesn’t look quite like the soup I pictured when I read the scene. It was loosely based on this recipe: Perfect Potato Soup