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Saturday, April 23, 2011

Easter Bonfires

Back in 1975, we found ourselves in Greece in April and as we approached Easter, travel schedules, excursions, and visitor attractions were all shutting down. Our disappointment disappeared when we were told that if we wished to truly experience the celebration of a Greek Orthodox Easter - the most significant observance of the Orthodox faith -we should find our way to the island of Crete.

We took a ferry and on Good Friday morning in Crete’s main city, Heraklion, we were awakened by the reverberating sound of the loud bell from a church just next door to us. That church bell continued to slowly toll the whole day and it added drama to the solemn reenactment of the tragic crucifixion of Christ. There were street processions of life-sized effigies from the churches - and the black clad mourners with candles who followed them.

On Saturday, again following a suggestion, we drove east to Agios Nikolas, which turned out to be a small fishing town clinging to the steep coastline. After dinner and a snooze - as instructed - we headed up the hill in the dark to a small village at the top. We found it to be alive with people flocking through the narrow gate to the walled space where the church stood. Feeling like the tourist voyeurs that we were, we slipped past those being blessed by the priest as they entered and followed the crowd to the huge pile of wood in the back courtyard.

On the stroke of midnight, in celebration of Christ's resurrection the roar of cannons being fired below in Agios fairly shook the ground. Then we saw the priest caming out of the church with a candle lit from the alter. With it, he first lit the bonfire and, while candles were passed out, he started lighting them, and they in turn lit others and soon the whole courtyard was filled with the warmth and radiance of the flames.

What happened next was very meaningful. One after another, everyone was blessed again as they left to walk down the road to their homes. There they lit fires in their own hearths with the blessed candle flame. During the forty days of lent when the faithful ate no meat, the hearth had been dark and cold. To celebrate on Easter, they ate lamb, roasted on a spit in their newly rekindled fires.

Since pagan times, symbolism has always played a big part in celebrating the coming of spring after the vernal equinox. Rabbits are a part Easter because they are a symbol of fertility and eggs, the source from which new life springs.

Religious or not – for those of us in northern climes, the coming of spring is a time to rejoice and to revel in anticipation of the wonderful renewal that comes with it as our part of the earth tips toward the sun and, for the whole season, we are blessed with it’s glorious light and warmth. Rie

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Head Start

For as long as I can remember, I have believed intuitively that the first 5 or 6 years of a child’s life are tremendously important and have a lasting impact on the kind of adults they will become. I was not alone in these feeling but it is only in recent years that there has been verification from the hard sciences. Early on there had been studies by social scientists to show that there is a large difference in achievements at school between children from middle class families and those who are disadvantaged because of the emotional and deprivational stresses of living in poverty.

As far back as 1964 when Lyndon Johnson declared his war on poverty, there was enough evidence make him declare:

'Five and six year olds are inheritors of poverty’s curse and not its creators. Unless we act, these children will pass it on to the next generation like a birthmark.'

It was Johnson who initiated the ‘Head Start’ program. Children who attended 'Head Start' come from backgrounds that had the worst outcomes and the program soon confirmed that early childhood intervention was remarkably successful.

We are now living through a great era of advancement of medicine. Biochemists are now learning about organisms at the molecular level. They have found that your characteristics as a person, your looks, emotions, temperament and outlook are a result of the expression of specific pieces of your DNA that we call genes – right? Well no - it’s not as simple as that.

It turns out that the environment in which we find ourselves, especially when we are very young, has a very important influence on the way our genes behave - and that they can actually be very affected chemically by the emotional atmosphere we are experiencing at the time. The science that is concentrating on this area is called epigenetics.

Epigenetics explain why identical twins are often quite different in many ways. It also gives us an understanding of why those who have been abused, neglected or stressed by an unhealthy environment as small children, usually end up with poor academic records, and/or become addicted to drugs, get into trouble with the law or commit suicide. Statistics from the ‘Head Start’ program show that for every $1 spent on it, $9 is saved in the prevention of these outcomes.

When young children are given love, and are valued and encouraged, they gain the confidence, trust and courage to open their minds to new things and overcome their original anxieties, fears and attitudes. It has been shown that right up to the age of eight, the mind is so flexible and responsive that the effects of early abuse or neglect can be largely reversed. And these positive resutls tend to rub off on their siblings and friends.

The early years do last a lifetime! Rie

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Bread & Wine

A loaf of bread, a jug of wine and thou beside me, singing in the wilderness’ – The Rubiat

Our summer house is built on farm land that had lots of old apple trees that we have never pruned or picked. Occasionally, when we have a warm enough fall, the fallen apples ferment, and their delicious scent attracts creatures like rabbits, groundhogs and deer. They all have a jolly time getting tipsy as they gobble up this potent gift of nature and later of course, spread the apple seeds in their scat. This was Mother Nature’s whole purpose in the exercise. She also provided the single celled fungi called yeast that get the fermentation going. The yeast cells are so small they are suspended in the air like dust landing on whatever is in the vicinity. In the case of the ripe apples, they were ready, willing and able to consume the sweet juices and in the process produced alcohol and carbon dioxide gas [CO2].

In very ancient times in the various cradles of civilizations, early humans must have found that they too enjoyed the taste and alcoholic effects of fermenting fruit. It turns out that grapes were a fruit of choice, not just for taste but because the air born yeast stuck to their skins ready to start fermentation process as soon as the ripe fruit burst open. As humans are wont to do, they soon were thwarting nature’s original intentions by crushing the fruit and producing wine from the fermented juice. It’s interesting that many vintners still use the strains of yeast that are naturally provided.

So, as yeast cells in the air provide the wine, so too they play a most important role in providing leavened bread. Our hunter, gatherer ancestors collected seeds to eat and store for lean times and, as early as 9000 BC there is evidence that wild grain seeds were being ground to produce flour. It was easy to mix flour with water and pour it on a hot rock to cook. This unleavened bread soon became a staple in their diet and one can imagine that on occasion a slurry of flour in water must have been left standing for a few day and it began to bubble. That’s because a different strain of yeast that was able to break down the starch in the flour to make sugar and was happily feeding while producing alcohol and CO2 gas. The bubbles got caught in the flour-water slurry making it rise and soon enough some one had learned how to produced loaves of light textured

bread something like we know it today but tasting sour. During the gold rush in the Yukon, the prospectors relied on natural yeasts to produce their sourdough bread. In fact it was 1880 before bread yeast was introduced and sold commercially!

Have you ever noticed that if you smell bread baking when you enter a house, a strong sense of well-being comes over you? That’s because the alcohol - produced by the yeast -. is being vaporized in the hot oven and you’re breathing it in.

Thanks to Nature’s gifts – life is good …and getting better? Rie

Sunday, April 3, 2011


Aging ain’t for sissies - Betty Davis

We are all unique - first of all because of the genes we’ve inherited and then in the way we treat our living bodies, the only vehicle we will inhabit as we go through life. So it’s not easy to give opinions that predict what aging will be like for everyone who’s fortunate enough to get quite old.

You can get some clues from observing successful old people and recognizing traits they have in common. The big thing is that no matter what their physical condition, most of them seem to be engaged and haven't lost all their zest for life.

In this post I thought I’d write about what my experience has been as I have aged physically. I had two strikes against me from the start – most of my ancestors died young because of heart problems and I inherited that bad gene. Also, I smoked for 30 years before anyone knew how bad it was for the ‘cardiovascular’ system. As was predictable, I did start to have heart problems [angina] in my 50’s but kept them more or less under control by being active, taking medication and watching my diet.

When I was 72 my life was saved by having bypass surgery. To my delight, the operation gave me a new lease on life and, until I was 82, I had almost no reduction in energies or well-being. Since then vigour has begun to wane but, except for the pain of poor circulation in both legs, I experienced no other aches or pains until I hit 85. Now at 86, on a bad day I can feel like the gal in the cartoon. I think it is because I've had to greatly reduce my activities and that has contributed to the onset of general aches and pains. I will begin visits to a swimming pool this week.

As you age you get to internalize and accept the idea of your inevitable demise but it would be very helpful to have an idea of how many heartbeats you have left. If you still have goals, it's also helpful to priorize. It dawned on me this week that I should Google ‘Life Expectancy Test’. Sure enough there are a number of lifespan tests and if you click on the three bits of coloured text you can visit any one or all three and take the tests. I took them all, averaged my results and I may have about 5 more years, if I take care of myself and all goes well.

The thing I liked about the tests is that I learned about the things that all the tests deemed important for long life and, best of all, find I have a control over quite a few of them. If you are younger, even better - check out your lifespan over time

Here’s to long life and living it to the full until the end. Rie