A Few More Thorns on My Roses

After spending a lovely Christmas in Vancouver with some good friends, playing an old childhood game of pickup sticks on Christmas Eve after Wigilia dinner…then flying off to the South of France for an exotic New Year’s and writing retreat in Nice with a fellow writer and traveller from my Waterloo University days…and finally wrapping up the chilly and damp January in Mexico’s brilliantly warm Barra de Navidad near Manzanillo on a group writing retreat with fellow writers and new friends from the Canadian West Coast –

Pickup Sticks 2013 Christmas Eve / Barra de Navidad, Mexico & Nice, France 2014 Writing Retreats

Pickup Sticks 2013 Christmas Eve / Barra de Navidad, Mexico & Nice, France 2014 Writing Retreats

– back in Vancouver, awaiting me, was a most memorable Valentine’s date: one with my plastic surgeon and his visiting fellow from the Netherlands at the UBC hospital day-surgery ward. It was time for the little lump on the inner edge of my left breast – which we had been monitoring with ultrasounds and physical palpations for some months – to come out and get a more thorough examination under the microscope. While we were at it, I suggested that we also reveal the true nature of a more recent addition: a little neighbouring lump just above it. Two weeks later, at the start of my 41st birthday month (which this year turned into seven weeks of birthday!) the verdict was in: both lumps indeed contained an overabundance of my misguided cells, necessitating another round of medical-speak, calling it a “local cancer recurrence”.

A Few More Thorns on My Roses 2014

A Few More Thorns on My Roses 2014

Although the possibility of this outcome was not a complete surprise, the confirmation that a couple more thorns have sprouted on my roses does sink my spirits a notch. This time, the news causes a few tears to shed while skimming through the sneak preview of the results report as I mount my bicycle and head over to my surgeon so that we can discuss this finding in more detail. Feeling mainly disappointed, in that moment I feel once again betrayed by my body: I can’t trust it to move how I want it to or to remain still when I don’t intend to move, because of what they call dystonia; and I can’t trust it to keep my immune system in balance with my malignant cells when I make changes in my life to prevent this from recurring. Those are my initial thoughts of anger and fear; ones which quickly give way, though, to curiosity about what my body is trying to tell me this time. What have I not heard the first time? What more am I ready to hear now? I am more willing to listen this time! I know now that my past experiences are my clues to my future ones.

While my first thoughts had me flying off to France (le pays d’amour) for an extended stay – in order to do something now that I think I would like to do sometime but that realistically I don’t think I would do without having death nipping at my butt – I have since reconsidered for the time-being my plans for finding contentment there, and am staying put in Canada on the West Coast, where I plan to undertake a few treatments and to take the time to nurture myself, while working on finishing my book. A recent visit with good friends in nearby Victoria re-confirmed my current decision. Upon returning, I reflected on having good friends in all sorts of places and on the quote that I saw on my bike ride through a pretty cemetery in Victoria: “Smile, you live in paradise” – and I smiled, and looked about me, and thought to myself: yes, this is a beautiful part of the world.

Cycling and Writing in Paradise in Victoria

Cycling and Writing in Paradise in Victoria

This time last year, I was busily and excitedly starting out on my 3-month Book Writing Tour 2013, landing on June 11 in Paris to begin the European leg of my tour. This year, on that same date (June 11, 2014), I am heading into my next surgery at Mount Saint Joseph Hospital to remove another assembly of overzealous cancer cells. Shortly after, towards the end of June, I will celebrate my 3-year anniversary of working for the Federal Government at Natural Resources Canada, before my latest Term comes to an end. As I wrap up my work there – heartened by exemplary commendation letters and feedback of appreciation – I investigate my financial options, plan my conventional and complementary treatments, and prepare to make space in my brain and in my days to figure out how to transition my life to something that won’t keep trying to express through recurring cancer diagnoses – allowing wherever my book writing may lead to, to reveal itself.

Maggie's Bistro for Work Colleagues at Natural Resources Canada

Maggie’s Bistro for Work Colleagues at Natural Resources Canada

Now that I have broken “the news” to my parents, I share the details of my current circumstance more widely: to invite some renewed concerted good thoughts, well-wishes, and goodwill towards me; to lighten the burden of this knowledge on those already in-the-know (including myself); and to offer my insights on life’s silver linings.

Smiling Gargoyle's Wisdom on Happiness

Smiling Gargoyle’s Wisdom on Happiness

I would be delighted to receive some favourite affirmations to help me embrace my life, misguided cancer cells and all, so that they don’t feel the need to fight me. Some financial and culinary support is always helpful in these circumstances. Always appreciated is the knowledge that the writing I share makes a difference to the lives of others. And any source and sense of humour will be accepted with due consideration, because, as has been said before by someone unknown: “Don’t take life too seriously; no one gets out alive.”

And so, to my list of longer-standing affirmations:

  • Trust Your Own Wings - Believe in Yourself

    Trust Your Own Wings – Believe in Yourself

    “Happiness is NOT having what you want;
    it IS wanting what you have.”
    (Unknown)

  • “Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie.” (Shakespeare)

I now add a few more:

  • “A bird sitting on a tree is never afraid of the branch breaking, because her trust is not in the branch, but in her own wings.” (Unknown)
  • “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” (Shakespeare)
  • “No judgement; no problem.” (Maggie)

Wishing you well / Pozdrawiam / Je vous souhaite bien !
Maggie / Malgosia
– living life alive – Maggie’s Way

P.S. I reserve the right to change my mind, any time, about any thing 🙂

Seventh Week of Birthday and Writing Interrupted

The Writer Nourished by Gourmet Birthday Package

The Writer Nourished by Gourmet Birthday Package

My six weeks of birthday celebrations turns into seven, stretching into April, with the arrival of a personalised gourmet package of souvenirs from my good friend in Hamburg, Germany—some serving as reminders of our travels together—including, among others: Dutch Advocaat (egg liqueur, or ‘ajerkoniak’ as I know it from Poland), which we sipped from the lids of Nivea creme containers in our budget Amsterdam hotel; Ginger Beer, which we looked for in Southeast Asia to sooth an upset stomach; and truffled cheese for the Orange Cardamom Soup recipe that my Hamburgerin friend sends me, and which I finally can try.

Flower-Adorned Bicycle Basket Bearing Mini-Roses

Flower-Adorned Bicycle Basket Bearing Mini-Roses

I extend my birthday celebrations also to my bicycle, treating my new basket to a new bouquet of imitation flowers that my Hamburgerin friend sends me as a replacement for the original ones she sent several years ago. Preparing for my Thorny Roses adventures, I take my basket shopping and stock up on a few pots of miniature roses to give out as gifts of appreciation.

Another friend contributes to my seventh week of birthday celebrations by treating me with a gift card for breakfast smoothies at the Musette Bicycle Caffè, where I sometimes spend my mornings writing down my stories. I promptly go there later in the week, inspired by this idea to do some writing, only to discover that they no longer serve smoothies at this location. I opt for a cranberry turkey sandwich and a vegetarian chili, instead, which I savour while contemplating a particular point in my story that I endeavour to capture in words.

The Writer's Workspace at Musette Bicycle Caffe

The Writer’s Workspace at Musette Bicycle Caffe

Yet another friend brings in the end of my seven weeks of birthday celebrations by treating me to glass of Pinot Noir at The Wicklow Pub, while we recount our various serendipitous chance encounters that appear to guide us along our paths, if we choose to take notice of them.

The Writer Finds Inspiration over Lunch Picnic Cycling through Pretty Cemetery

The Writer Finds Inspiration over Lunch Picnic Cycling through Pretty Cemetery

In early May, I set off for a mini-writing retreat in nearby Victoria, where a work colleague (and friend) invites me to stay in her charming garden suite, and where my Developmental Editor—who has just returned from living abroad—lends me her fancy pregnancy bike to get around on in my own, somewhat compromised, condition. I am working on two projects during my Victorian sojourn: one is a longish chapter in my book; the other is a soliloquy of sorts, which I may share when it is completed. My creative juices are further inspired by delicious breakfast fruit, cheerful potted gerbera, and tasty picnic lunch that I stop to enjoy while cycling through the pretty Ross Bay Cemetery from the Moss Street Market.

Mini-Writing Retreat in Victoria

Mini-Writing Retreat in Victoria

Although my writing is interrupted as life—and potentially new book content—get in the way, I manage to squeeze in a book writing and publishing class and several Artist Dates over the months of April and May.

The recent The Tyee Master Class on “Build[ing] Your Winning Publishing Plan” gives me an opportunity (and, essentially, a deadline) to work out another summary of my book concept, as we are asked to come ready to explain and workshop our intended projects in order to hone our book pitch. I present version 5.4 by now, which I draft with the editorial assistance from my Developmental Editor and my new Strategic Researcher. I am grateful for my Strategic Researcher’s suggestion to use my Spokeman voice amplifier (a glorified term for a personal microphone and speaker) when presenting my “story pitch” to the 20 or so participants in my soft but even voice without causing an urge to strain it for volume.

The Writer's Workspace at Publishing Workshop

The Writer’s Workspace at Publishing Workshop

Still not fully trusting my improved voice, I use the belt-and-suspenders approach—throwing in a few safety pins, just in case, too—to my preparations for reciting the 200-word synopsis that takes me about 3.5 minutes to say.

I write out my book concept summary, in large font, underlining the key words to make it easier for me to read (or to hand to someone to read for me, if my voice proves particularly uncooperative); I ensure my Spokeman batteries are fully charged and check the optimal distance between it and the microphone to avoid the screechy feedback; and I pre-record my reading of my book pitch on my iTouch Voice Memos App, testing the external speaker add-on for sufficient volume on my voice and for battery functionality, in case I need to lean on this strategy. I pack all this electronic kit into my bicycle pannier and basket—along with my notebook computer, camera (for the requisite photo for my post), sliced apple and few dark chocolate squares—and am rewarded for all my efforts—technological and literary—by an appreciative applause from my fellow classmates following my successful performance.

Although I am not yet comfortable sharing the details of my written story, I use this opportunity to gently stretch my comfort zone—and with an open mind, I receive small-group and individual feedback to the details I choose to share in the relative safety of these strangers, bound by writers’ inherent agreement of confidentiality. Two feedback themes emerge for me from the day: 1) it is possible that my story may be too big for one book; and 2) my story personifies for others the ideas of transformation and getting on with life. Next, I need to hone my book pitch into 1-2 sentences—mercifully, they are allowed to be long(ish) sentences!

While not actually writing down much of my story in these recent months, I continue to shape the intent of what I want to express with parts of my story—and the few Artist Dates that I take myself on, support me in my feat.

In particular, the Edward Burtynsky exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery, entitled “A Terrible Beauty”, leaves me further grateful for living where I do; for having the opportunities that I do; and for having the challenges that I do. I would not want to exchange those with anyone appearing in the photographs and in the documentary “Watermark” that are a part of the exhibit.

All the while, my heart continues to long for a little bit more of the French heaven.

Special Dish for the Week: Zucchini, Chickpea and Mushroom Tagine

I prepare this dish for a very resourceful and generous friend — who is assisting me with some strategic research for financing my book writing endeavour — in order to say ‘thank-you’ and to share with her a taste of one of my almost-weekly Special Dishes for the Week:

Zucchini, Chickpea and Mushroom Tagine

Zucchini, Chickpea and Mushroom Tagine

Zucchini, Chickpea and Mushroom Tagine

It has been a little while since I made this dish in Paris, during my Book Writing Tour 2013, although it is one of my favourites, Going with the recent mushroom theme, for their beneficial Vitamin D content and their immune system support role, I add a couple of varieties.

The main ingredients of this dish include:

  • chickpeas
  • tomatoes
  • zucchinis
  • portobello and shiitake mushrooms

To spice it up, I use most of the suggested herbs and spices, but add or exchange a few:

  • onion
  • garlic
  • ginger
  • ground cumin
  • paprika
  • turmeric & black pepper
  • red Thai chili pepper
  • honey
  • cilantro
Zucchini, Chickpea and Mushroom Tagine Dish

Zucchini, Chickpea and Mushroom Tagine Dish

And I use a dash of olive oil for sautéeing of the onions at the start.

The secret to this dish being even more flavourful — although it hardly needs it — is the Jasmine brown rice prepared with cinnamon and raisins.

My friend finds the dish highly enjoyable, and in turn improves it by sharing her bottle of Thornhaven Pinot Meunier red wine, carefully acquired during a wine tasting tour in the Okanagan.

Meal ideas & recipes from Maria Elia’s “The Modern Vegetarian” book from a good friend.

Special Dish for the Week: Mushroom Stroganoff with Quinoa

This Special Dish for the Week starts a new theme for the next few weeks — mushrooms! — which are the only ‘vegetable’ that contains Vitamin D, naturally (all other natural food sources are from animals, or foods are fortified with Vitamin D), not to mention that they are great supporters of the immune system:

Mushroom Stroganoff with Quinoa

Mushroom Stroganoff with Quinoa

Mushroom Stroganoff with Quinoa

I make this dish with a good friend – who is an amazingly fast vegetable chopper, too! We follow the recipe somewhat closely, varying a few ingredients and adding a few extra nutritious touches. While I try to keep up chopping the various mushrooms, my friend slices through the onion, whips up some vegetable broth, puts on the quinoa, and gets busy with mixing the ingredients that comprise of:

  • 1 1/2 lb assorted mushrooms (we use shiitake, oyster, portobello, and brown crimini)
  • 3 shallots, thinly sliced (we use a sweet onion)
  • 2 1/2 cups vegetable broth
  • 1 tbls Dijon mustard
  • 1 tbls paprika
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric
  • 1/2 tsp ground black pepper
  • sea salt to taste
Mushroom Stroganoff with Quinoa Dish

Mushroom Stroganoff with Quinoa Dish

As I continue my mushroom chopping, leaving the oyster mushrooms for last, as these cook the fastest, my friend prepares the cashew cream in her handy blender. The cashew cream is surprisingly simple, and oh, so tasty! It only contains:

  • 2/3 cup raw cashews (we use roasted ones and skip the soaking)
  • 2 tsp red wine vinegar
  • Pinch sea salt

As an add-on, I prepare a mushed avocado topping that uses finely chopped cilantro roots, turmeric and black pepper, and freshly squeezed lime juice. A dollop of the avocado and chopped fresh cilantro serve as garnish to this delicious dish! We enjoy this hearty dish with my friend’s daughter, and a couple of glasses of Paul Mas white wine from France.

Meal ideas & recipes from Whole Foods Market (their app is fantastic, with the On Hand feature, which gives you recipe ideas when you type in up to 3 ingredients that you have on hand).

Special Dish for the Week: Orange Cardamom Soup

As part of my (in the end) seven weeks of birthday celebrations, my dear friend from Hamburg (who previously brought me the taste of Fig and Green Peppercorn Soup) sent me—among other world-wide gastronomic specialties—some truffled cheese for the new recipe that she shared, which I make as the Special Dish for the Week:

Orange Cardamom Soup

Orange Cardamom Soup Special Ingredients

Orange Cardamom Soup Special Ingredients

The preparations of this soup begin with chopping some green spring onions (the original recipe calls only for the spring onion whites, but what the heck: why not the whole length?!). While these begin to sautée in some olive oil, I get busy dicing 3 carrots and a parsnip (again, the original recipe calls for some celery, but as I do not tolerate this admittedly very healthy veggie, I use a parsnip instead). I add these chopped veggies to the sautéeing onions for a few minutes. Then begins the reduction of 1 litre of orange juice—that’s right, orange juice! (I use the pulp kind, though the recipe calls for the no pulp variety. I figure the pulp one is healthier, and adds more fibre to the soup.) I submerge several cardamom pods inside a metal loose tea infuser ball (for easier removal of the inedible pod shells). The reduction of the orange juice takes a while!

When the fructose in the orange juice has caramelizes, I add 1 litre of vegetable broth (the original recipe calls for beef broth), and 1/2 litre of coconut milk (again, the original recipe calls for 1/2 litre of 30% fat cream and 1/2 litre of 3.5% fat milk, but the non-dairy coconut milk is also more flavourful, so I use it instead). I question my cardamom pods (maybe they are not fresh; maybe the recipe meant that the seeds from the pod were to be added, and not the whole pod intact) as there is barely any hint of cardamom at the stage where the recipe calls for the removal of the pods. So, I remove them, but then peel away the shell and return the seeds to the soup—and in a taste test, I think the flavour is improved with the addition of these cardamom seeds. Next, I purée the soup ingredients into a smooth liquid consistency.

Orange Cardamom Soup

Orange Cardamom Soup

The soup is ready to serve, so I prepare the soup bowl by arranging several slices of truffled cheese and several slices of filleted orange. I pour the hot soup over these special ingredients. I decorate the dish with some drops of coconut milk, few sprinkles of powdered cardamom seeds, black pepper, and a spring of cilantro. (The original recipe calls for milk froth and an Italian crosini partially wrapped in a slice of jamón serrano—none of which I have, and I also don’t miss).

This soup is definitely enhanced with the truffled cheese! Wow, it adds such a neat and unique flavour. The soup is a little labourious to make (with the lengthy orange juice reduction), but the truffled cheese makes it a worthwhile taste sensation! For dessert, I indulge in a small spoonful of truffled honey—also a gift from another European-based friend. Thank you dear friends for your exotic culinary treats—by mail!