Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Body, Mind, Spirit ...

Winnipeg feeds all three for me:

Bistrot by Basil: Basil's used to be my favourite restaurant when I came to Winnipeg more frequently. Then in 2009 I arrived to barricaded doors and the intelligence that the place had sustained a severe flood. In 2010 I checked back again: still closed. 

Last Wednesday night I arrived at the airport late, exhausted, hungry. The plane from Calgary had been delayed, as was the one from Edmonton. On my way to my hotel I swerved left and found myself in front of Basil's - and it was open!

As I approached the restaurant there was a guy sleeping it off on the side walk and one of the doors was nailed up. There was an arrow pointing to the other door, however, and so I pushed it open and went inside.

The thing about Basil's is the secret garden patio that you reach after you walk through the bistro. A person eating alone can be anonymous out there, and unselfconscious. I asked if there was seating available; and voilĂ ! there was a tiny table tucked away in a corner, under a lamp that would permit me to read should I care to linger long enough. Lingering seems to be encouraged at Basil's, should you be so inclined ...

The food was wonderful: roasted eggplant and vegetable spread, accompanied by warm, tender little pita wedges, followed by lamb chops, braised on the outside and faintly pink on the inside. 

I savoured every morsel of lamb and succulent roast vegetables, my tiredness slipping off my shoulders a little bit more with each bite. As I settled more deeply into my chair I could hear snippets of conversations around me. I reached into my bag and drew out the book my Dad had given me, Naomi Zacharias's The Scent of Water, and read until I thought I had better track down my hotel for the night before my heart overflowed. I reluctantly said goodbye to my third-favourite spot in Winnipeg, delighted that it is up and running again and that I will be welcomed back as often as I want to visit ... 

McNally Robinson: All book stores are not created equal. On Thursday I had an hour and a half free, so I slipped over to this book store just down the road from where I was working. I walked into a muted hum of people looking for books, giftware, dessert, a helping hand, a friendly greeting. I was looking for a book whose author I couldn't remember except for her first name; I didn't even know any of the words in the title of the book; I did know that the author was from Winnipeg, however. And the wonderful man at the information desk, after asking a couple of questions, deduced that I was looking for author and performer Charlene Diehl, and he led me directly to her book Out of Grief, Singing. He also recommended another author he thought I might enjoy, elaborating intelligently on her virtues and shortcomings. 

I needed lunch so I slipped into Prairie Ink, the cafe and patisserie attached to each McNally Robinson. I ordered Earl Grey tea and a lemon tart, and I slid my book out of my handbag again. No one disturbed me or rushed me; as a matter of fact, many people were reading, either alone or in companionable groups huddled at various tables. I was quickly absorbed once again with Naomi's fascinating story, her compassion, her unvarnished truth. This time I finished the book, but not without a couple of silent tears of recognition escaping the corners of my eyes at certain moments, or without a few chuckles of heartfelt appreciation at others. I felt that Naomi somehow knew me. And after reading this book, I know that my Dad does!

One of the gifts of a few blissful moments in McNally Robinson is that everyone in there gets it: they are all readers too and they understand the joy of discovering a book that draws you in and holds you in its thrall. One senior lady actually patted my shoulder as she walked by me. 

It still saddens me to think Calgary couldn't sustain the branch that opened so optimistically some years ago on the Stephen Avenue Mall. I spent many, many absorbing hours there and was crushed when they closed. Fellow book lovers, please support independent book sellers and encourage them by purchasing from them when you can, even if it may cost a little bit more at the time. If all the independent book stores close, it may cost you a lot more than just the couple of dollars you would save by shopping at one of the national book seller's many locations.  And - who knows? - you might discover someone who loves the same kinds of reads you do ...

Dinner at Muriel'sI was anticipating with great pleasure my dinner that evening: my friend Muriel had invited me over to her home. Muriel was one of the librarians at the local law school until she retired a couple of months back. She and I have grown to know and care for each other over the years and her whimsical, enchanted home is my favourite spot in Winnipeg.

She greeted me with a warm hug and a lime cordiale and we sat in her parlour and caught up with the happenings of the past year. After a while she led me to the dining table, which she had laid with her finest china, silverware and crystal. She had even made place names - and all just because she knew I would love and appreciate an elegant table! She struck a match and as she was holding it to the candle I was thinking - by no means for the first time! - what a gift this woman's presence in my life is. We can talk about work, play, God, feminism, kindness of strangers, kindness of friends. We can comment tongue in cheek about particularly amusing instances in the world of academia; and we can commiserate about particularly sobering instances in the real world. 
It was Muriel who, a few years back, told me about Rosie the Riveter and "We Can Do it!" We were standing outside a restaurant on Broadway at about 11 o'clock on a February evening. It was Winnipeg, of course, so it was beyond frigidly cold. We had been talking at dinner about an unexpected zag in the zig of my life and I had been feeling pretty low. Just after we said goodnight, Muriel suddenly spun around, flung her arms around me and proclaimed in a booming voice quite unlike her normal tone, "WE CAN DO IT!"

"Do what?" I asked, a little dazed.

"You know! Rosie!"


"Rosie the Riveter, of course! She could do it and so can you! So can all of us!"

I had to confess I had never heard of Rosie, which ignorance she kindly excused on account of my growing up on the other side of the world. As we shivered on the sidewalk she told me the story of the symbolic woman and concluded with words to this effect: "You also are a strong woman, Karyn. You have come through a lot and you will come through this too. You can do it!"

And with that she swirled off into the crystal night. But a couple of years later I received through Canada Post a book bag, picked up at the Smithsonian, with - you guessed it - Rosie the Riveter and her rallying cry imprinted on it. Muriel hadn't forgotten and had sent me a reminder that she was thinking of me and rooting for me.

Muriel's just like that.

As she put the finishing touches on dinner I walked into her back yard and breathed deeply the serenity and the grace that are imbued in this place.

My friend has had her share of battles and hardships over the years; but her faith, her personal resolve, her acute understanding of justice, and her wicked sense of humour have held her in good stead and have brought her to where she is now. She seeks to bring out the best in people and strives to build them up. She is a dreamer and an eminently practical woman at the same time. She thrives in an atmosphere of beauty and she is unafraid of the work it takes to achieve balance and harmony in her daily life. She had invited me over to her home for dinner, she said, because there had been several occasions in the past when we had eaten working dinners together at one restaurant or another. I would use my food allowance for the day to treat her. Now that she was retired, she said she wanted to be given the opportunity to return the gesture.
As we sat down to a fresh, flavourful feast, she raised her crystal goblet, filled with lemon-infused water, and said, "I propose a toast. In the past we raised our glass of thanks to Carswell's Lord [Baron Thomson of Fleet]; this evening, we give thanks to the real Lord!"

And here's a toast to you, my beautiful friend. Thank you for demonstrating courage and calm, determination and decorum, grit and graciousness.

Thank you for taking the time to explain the ropes of an academic law library to a timid newbie.

Thank you for your laughter and light, spilling into the corners of my life for almost a decade now, touching my soul, showing me how we can do it!

And, most of all, thank you for believing I can.

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