Creativity: surprising lives of the wise and wonderful

Daily Rituals

For many creative people, the only useful impetus to work comes from within. They must become skilled in the use of their own minds, and in structuring their time.

A few years ago, in my quest to establish useful working habits as a writer, I came across the blog Daily Routines by Mason Currey. It documents the sometimes mundane, sometimes bizarre lifestyles of artists and thinkers. Recently I discovered Mason has turned the blog into an engaging book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, which I’ve duly and voraciously read.

I began learning about creative habits in Carol Lloyd’s admirable book, Creating a Life Worth Living. She discusses “ecstatic task,” a brief morning ritual designed to ground a creative person in their essential activity, along with many other valuable psychological and organizational tools. I first read it long ago and have revisited it many times over the years. To Lloyd, an artist’s career takes shape partly from inspiration but mostly as a series of deliberate choices.

Creative rituals

Daily Rituals: How Artists Work illustrates how humanity’s most productive minds thrive on routine, but usually these habits are unexpected. Only a very few work long, long hours on their primary output. Even noted workaholics like Stephen King devote only a few hours. He starts his work day around 8:00 or 8:30 every single day of the year, and writes until he reaches his quota of 2,000 words, sometimes by 11:30 but more often by 1:30. In many cases like his, the rest of an artist’s time is taken up with other jobs to pay the bills, going for walks, fulfilling annoying or obsessive tasks, or (in King’s case) simple leisure: napping, walking and reading. Many successful artistic people do their best work only three or four hours a day.

Eccentricities are widespread, of course. Beethoven often spent mornings in front of the washstand, bellowing, humming, striding up and down, and repeatedly pouring pitchers of water over his hands so much he often flooded the floor and became an unpopular tenant.

In the 1920s, Carl Jung built a tower where he lived in spartan conditions more suited to the 16th Century, lit only by oil, hauling and boiling water from the lake. It reminds me of our cottage, with no electricity except for a generator to pump lake water for washing, only propane for lights and cooking, no access to internet. I love the simplicity and seclusion.

First snow at Fletcher Lake


What’s stunning but not unexpected is how many great minds depend on drugs for productivity. Frequently coffee, often amphetamines furnish energy and concentration, or barbiturates for sleep. Alcoholism appears widespread, though seldom contributing to creativity. Ernest Hemingway, a noted alcoholic, would rise and begin working at first light regardless of how late he had sat up drinking; he always looked great and seemed immune to hangovers, his son noted.

This interests me, because I too use substances – in moderation – to bolster creativity.

Early last year, at the age of 50, I was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It came as a surprise because I was a good student in grade school – not so surprising considering numerous minor car accidents I had as a young man, difficulty processing stress and trauma, and trouble sticking with traditional jobs. It’s clear to me now that the endless hours I spent alone as a boy in my room writing involved over-focus associated with ADHD. However problematic it may be for me socially, writing remains my choice vocation, a skill in which I can achieve excellence.

In my early 30s trauma, severe depression and anti-depressant medication disrupted my sense of comfort in solitude, and my ability to daydream. This devastated my creative output. I couldn’t maintain focus, in fact for many years I couldn’t write fiction at all. But I needed to. I kept trying.


When I began working as a freelance journalist again in 2012, it brought back an important, lost piece of the creative puzzle. Deadlines motivated me. The process of developing a story idea, pitching it to an editor, working out the details, interviewing and researching, writing and turning in the assignment on time all provided a process that felt natural and achievable. It would take about three weeks from start to finish, the length of time I could comfortably maintain concentration before moving onto something new.

After the ADHD diagnosis I began using a small dose of Concerta most work days. It’s not an amphetamine, but another kind of nervous system stimulant. It facilitates close concentration for more hours of the day, more days of the week, helps shift focus from one task to another without loss of energy, and makes it easier to set aside problems that cause anxiety and distract me from work. Over time it has increased my confidence in being able to accept more tasks, responsibility and activities. As we all know, confidence matters a lot.

I’ve even felt some progress in the relentless effort to write fiction. It felt like I had writer’s block for a decade, reworking the same characters and plot lines, unable to move forward. But recently a positive shift began: a few grams of satisfaction that the groundwork is beginning to make sense, that I can move beyond chapter three and four. It’s a hopeful time.

Perhaps lack of concentration is normal. But distraction can defeat people who depend on an organized mind to achieve their ambitions. It’s an interesting question, whether medication might help or hinder their efforts.


For my entire adult life I’ve been wary of the abuse of alcohol. Caution is a good thing. I’ve survived some traumatic periods when the only thing I wanted was to escape the pain, but knew alcohol would only make it worse. I’ve never used it to medicate depression, and never more than an occasional drink to medicate anxiety or insomnia at the end of a day.

But there remains a connection between creativity and alcohol. When I write fiction, a glass of red wine can provide a classic release from inhibition. Ideas, dialogue and plot lines move in unexpected directions. The story takes on a life of its own. That’s the essential, spicy broth in which many writers love to stew.

My doctor, therapist and psychiatric specialist all look askance if I mention using any alcohol in combination with an anti-depressant and a nervous system stimulant. Alcohol is, after all, a depressant.

However, I subscribe to the motto, “Moderation in all things.” I only have four or five drinks a week, and never when revising or working on a paid assignment. At those times I need good judgment and attention to detail.

Time to rethink

In hindsight, many of the rituals I’ve prescribed for myself  have served as a way of getting through the hard times when inspiration is scarce and productivity low. Most creative work is simply work. It doesn’t come easily, but with discipline we can keep at it and achieve satisfaction. My journalism is proof of this.

But when ideas start flowing more freely, as recently, my routines begin unraveling. I find I must work on fiction whenever I have time and feel inspired, not only in the late afternoon time slot assigned to it. I rush through (or skip) my morning ritual because I’m eager to start work. I often forget to eat lunch. Lately I’ve been reading into the early morning hours and sleeping late. I exercise, garden or bake when the whim comes over me. All these threads of chaos seem vaguely and superficially unhealthy.

In good company

Many artists in the book live nothing like this. Some are habitually driven, others slaves to extravagance.

But in a few like Umberto Eco, who claims to write erratically during interstices of time throughout the day, I find reflections of myself. René Descartes slept late, awoke to daydream, and “believed that idleness was essential to good mental work.” For years Charles Darwin led a quiet, leisurely, secluded life in the country, content in his family’s company, writing about other things, while keeping the controversial theory of evolution secret.

The book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work suggests I’m in good company. It’s light, amusing reading for anyone, but an affirmation for anyone seeking traction in the creative impulse. We can all find something to relate to in this range of obsessions and uniqueness.

It also persuades me to trust my own eccentricities. I might stop struggling to become an early riser or enforce a predictable structure on my days. Many, many artistic people, perhaps writers in particular, are insane. They have to be.

Severe thunderstorm passes over Waterloo

Storm front moving through Waterloo

This afternoon my partner and I drove through one of the most frightening weather events I’ve experienced.

We had spent two hours working at a coffee shop in downtown Waterloo when I noticed the sky darkening outside. I looked at the forecast and there was a severe thunderstorm warning. So we decided to head for our car, which was parked several blocks way, before the rain and hail hit.

By the time we reached the car, we realized that, to get home, we would have to drive underneath one of the most dramatic shelf clouds I’ve ever seen. Bands of cloud in different shades of grey stretched overhead. I wished I had a camera with me then.

We started driving north on Albert Street, which runs from downtown Waterloo to our neighbourhood. We passed a few pedestrians who seemed blissfully unaware of the ominous sky.

At University Avenue, we had to stop behind two other cars for a red light. While we were waiting, the squall line passed overhead.

Construction on some high-rise apartment buildings has been underway there for several months. Dust whirled suddenly upward from the intersection. A group of young people trying to cross became half-enveloped in it. They began running in a panic. A giant crane almost directly overhead began turning on its tower. A man on the sidewalk to our left ran into a burst of wind carrying litter and debris. He stopped, watched the scene ahead uncertainly, turned and began walking away.

All the while, hardly any wind buffeted our car. It felt like being in a fishbowl with danger all around. I wanted to get out of the car and run for cover, but there was nowhere to go. I wanted the chaos to move, but it didn’t. The wind kept blowing everywhere except away. It seemed to get stuck in place between the tall buildings on the north side of University Avenue.

Finally, the light changed and the cars ahead of us proceeded through the intersection. I don’t remember where they went. The wind remained intense and chaotic. When we reached the corner, Albert Street ahead was dark, churning with dust. I didn’t want to go that way. I made a left turn, away from the direction the storm was moving, then turned right onto the next side street.

At first this appeared to be a mistake. It put us directly under the crane, which continued to sway. Further up the block, the strong winds continued, but I started to feel we had passed the worst. We entered a residential neighbourhood. Several people were out in the street, pulling aside large tree branches that must have come down only moments earlier. At the next corner, we jogged back to Albert Street and proceeded with a sense of relief.

Back home a few minutes later, my partner noted the sky to the east, which had just passed over, was bottle green. I took my camera to the playing field behind our house and took some photos of the back end of the storm.

Not until I was back in my office looking at the photos, did the thundershower start with loonie-sized hail.

Reading about the cloud formation we saw, I glean that such shelf clouds may form at the leading edge or squall line of a thunderstorm. In this part of the storm the wind may be too disorganized to form a tornado and yet strong enough to cause damage. But with the right conditions, tornadoes can form along squall lines.

People who see shelf clouds often believe they’ve seen a wall cloud. Wall clouds normally form behind the leading edge of the storm where rainfall may be accompanied by strong, cold downdrafts. Violent tornadoes are often associated with rotating wall clouds.

Over the years I’ve seen funnel clouds twice. One was accompanied by such torrential rain that I could only pull to the side of the highway along with transport trucks and other cars, and hope the tornado didn’t come our way. I don’t know whether the thing we saw today was a wannabe tornado, but it was one of the scariest weather I’ve come through.

More severe weather is forecast through tonight.


Cosmonaut Volkov a superb heirloom tomato

Cosmonaut Vokov and Tiny Tim tomatoes

The first Cosmonaut Volkov tomato ripened in time for us to take to the cottage on Thursday, and we came home Saturday to a proper beefsteak onslaught. This is a superb heritage tomato for short summers.

The cherry tomatoes alongside are Tiny Tim. They’re a hybrid, firm, less juicy and less tasty, but I won’t snub an abundance of salad tomatoes starting July 1, no, not in Ontario.

I planted Cosmonaut Volkov May 9 in the square foot garden. That’s a full week earlier than our official last frost date here in Waterloo. It was the middle of a warm spell, so I hoped we were safe from frost. It turned out we had cold weather ahead, with two or three more frost nights almost to the end of May.

I moved some pots indoors on cold nights, including Tiny Tim, but trusted the warm south foundation of our house to protect the beefsteak tomatoes. It was a lucky gamble.

The first Cosmonaut Volkov ripened on July 30, 82 days after transplant. That’s 10 days longer than advertized, but considering all the cold weather it survived unscathed, I’m not complaining. The Lemon Boy tomato planted 11 days later, replacing a patch of early spinach, also calls for 72 days and doesn’t show any sign of ripening yet.

This spring I was a little discouraged at the prospect of growing tomatoes in such a small garden. I usually like to try five or six different varieties, and we simply hadn’t enough room. Forlornly surveying the selection of plants available from a local grower at Guelph Farmers’ Market, I asked the owner which was her favourite variety of beefsteak, and she recommended Cosmonaut Volkov.

Good call! These big, smooth, attractive red fruits are the best beefsteaks I’ve grown in a long time. Taste-wise they’re sweet and full of complex flavour. They might not match Brandywines or other heritage types for colourful grotesqueness, but the indeterminate vine appears to be a heavy producer, with a few clusters of large tomatoes still coming along.

The variety, originating in Ukraine, is ideal for short summers in northern climates. It was named after Vladislav Volkov, who perished in 1971 returning from his second space mission.

As a child I hated tomatoes – until one summer I grew them myself, and found that fresh off the vine they were much more delectable. To this day, I’ve become slightly less discriminating, and yet seldom eat tomatoes unless I grew them myself. My partner is even fussier: tomatoes in general inspire a gag reflex, but he does enjoy the ones from our garden. Cosmonaut Volkov makes him crave a BLT, so we must pick up some good local bacon and lettuce from St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market on Tuesday.

This is probably one of the most productive tomato vines I’ve ever grown. It’s early August and there’s still no sign of disease. It has undoubtedly benefited from growing against our hot south foundation, and I’ve been careful to irrigate it regularly through the recent hot weather. It seems likely I’ll be able to harvest several big fruit from it every week for the rest of the summer.

For a pair of ambivalent tomato-eaters like us, the harvest will be plenty. Any extras I’ll freeze whole for dropping into a soup pot come winter. With our limited space, I can’t see much use in trying to grow enough paste tomatoes to make our own sauce. However, it shouldn’t be difficult to harvest enough beefsteaks and cherries for our limited needs from three well-chosen, well-groomed plants.

Now I’m eating one of these lovelies for lunch: one tomato alone without any seasoning but a little ground sea salt. It’s delicious and satisfying. For a square in our future gardens, I’ll be hard-pressed to find a suitable variety to rival Cosmonaut Volkov.

[Edit: Apparently I grew this same variety in our garden last summer, but it was a forgettable experience. So much depends on soil, weather and other growing conditions. Certainly, I’ll have to give Black Sea Man a try here in our new location if we’re still here next spring. But it might not be worth giving a square of our limited space up to a later variety like Brandywine.]

Garden tour: spectacle of colour and texture

Click the arrow to the left or right to navigate through a gallery of 24 images.

Guelph Horticultural Society held its annual garden show on the weekend. Here are some highlights of what we saw there.

A stroll through St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market

Click arrows to the left or right of each image to proceed through the gallery.

Since St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market has become part of our weekly grocery run, I seldom have time to take photographs. We usually go on Thursday mornings to avoid the weekend crush. But this Saturday was our anniversary, so my partner and I went simply to buy some treats and enjoy the colourful bustle. Peruse the gallery of 12 images.

Even last Thursday was a bit crazy. One of the vendors pointed out the market is open Tuesdays throughout the summer. We might try it out.

Buffy Sainte-Marie sings family and power

Buffy Sainte-Marie never falls behind. Her new album Power In The Blood, released when she’s 74, appears to coincide with the conclusion of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In this June 2015 interview with Wendy Mesley on CBC’s The National she discusses residential schools, Idle No More and other concerns of First Nations peoples.

At her concerts she hangs a red dress to represent missing and murdered indigenous women. Here she says, “We have to find a new way to raise our sons….to demilitarize the male heart.” It’s a theme carried since her 1964 hit protest song, “Universal Soldier.”

I didn’t know who Buffy Sainte-Marie was until I was 26 when, reporting for The Hanover Post, I saw her perform live at a powwow at Saugeen First Nation. It was 1990. I’d led a life sheltered from activism and information about Canada’s aboriginal peoples, but that began to change thanks to her music.

She expresses hope that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission might make a difference by documenting abuse and the experiences of victims.

“It’s a big task to make things better in any family, including the Canadian family,” she observes.

She talks about how being blacklisted in the U.S. prevented people from hearing her message, but it never held her back. She has never reached the U.S. music charts again since the 1970s.

Coincidence And Likely Stories came out in 1992. It was her first album in 16 years, the first I bought, and probably the most political. It made the charts in Canada and the U.K. for the first time. It’s my favourite to date. Running For The Drum (2008) experimented with electronic dance rhythms.

But Power In The Blood returns soundly to a folk-rock style. The title track rages against cultural and environmental exploitation. “We Are Circling” is a sacred protest march for Mother Earth, family and unity. “Ke Sakihitin Awasis (I Love You Baby)” sounds like a poignant reworking of one of her most popular hits, “He’s An Indian Cowboy In The Rodeo,” while “Orion” harkens back to one her most beautiful songs, the tender, heart-wrenching, “Goodnight” (here’s Erasure’s admirable cover).

Overall, the album draws on her many strengths, including the ability to develop a complex canvas of emotions: outrage, affection, courage, loneliness, pride, belonging, sense of place. It’s all there.


My porch sanctuary garden

Front porch: the view from where I stand

I’ve made the front step my contemplation seat. Especially late in the evening when most people have gone to bed, I like to sit in my sanctuary garden under the dim glow of streetlights and absorb the quietness of the street.

Or on rainy days I can watch the kitchen garden grow from the shelter of the stoop. The scarlet runner beans have raced all the way to the roof. On still, warm days their flowers emit a subtle fragrance.

Kitchen garden

This sanctuary doesn’t provide much privacy, but that’s part of its charm. When I garden first thing every morning, strangers stop to chat. They’re usually older folks who have time for idle conversation. This morning a woman told me she will give me some beans when they ripen — beans she brought from Yugoslavia. She recommends cooking them in milk and water, then adding sour cream.

The people who stop have only peaceful things to say.

I pass through the front door a few times every day. Portals have a particular psychological power. If you ever notice arriving in a room not knowing why you came, blame the doorway. Openings mark the boundary between one landscape and another, triggering our minds to change ideas and purposes.

I use this to my advantage. When I step out the back door on the side of the parking lot, I usually have a plan, places to go and things to do. But when I step out the front door I enter the garden, leaving cares and agendas behind.

The bounty my hands have raised absorbs me. It’s early summer. The peas, lettuce and spinach are past. The raised bed is beginning to produce more kale, chard and the first carrots.

Carrot 1

These are the first carrots I’ve grown since I was a teenager. They’re remarkably tender, like cold butter. They have a perfume, my partner says.

Carrot dissection

Unlike our neighbours’ gardens along this sun-parched south wall, the dense foliage of the vegetables keeps the soil cool and moist. The micro-climate attracts pollinating insects and soil organisms. A slender tabby cat likes to slink under the shade of tomato and beans vines.

I pass through the front door several times a day to tend the plants, harvest vegetables, snip some herbs to flavour the pot, or simply do nothing. Each time I’m transported to a place that reduces life to essential nourishment.

A little effort and affection can turn a sterile, empty space fertile. This is true spirituality. Sanctuary gardens inspire us to be still and contemplate a tiny corner of the complex universe. This abstract focus calms the nerves, heals pain and connects us to the Earth, from which all life comes.


Macro photography: a closer look around the cottage

Here are some of the most exciting images (click a photo to view larger images in a carousel) so far showing off what kind of nature photography the new macro lens can do. I shot all of them within a few steps of the cottage door.

My partner and I returned from another short stay at the lake, our third trip to look after spring maintenance including staining the deck and dock and laying additional flagstones around the wood stove for insurance purposes. The water lines sprung several new leaks so I’ve decided to replace the ones under the cottage, a project that will have to wait until July when bug season eases off. As well, this past weekend I ran my annual route for the international Breeding Bird Survey.

The mosquitoes have been fierce this spring. There are so many that even when we wear mesh jackets, enough insects manage to bite through the neck fold that insanity quickly sets in. We had enough of them while spreading stain, and consequently spent little additional time outdoors. I took my camera on both previous trips but didn’t use it because I didn’t feel like rambling in the woods.

But Saturday was a glorious day so we tried walking along the road. I managed to get some shots of a spider in a flowerpot and a clump of orange hawkweed blooming on the shoulder. The road crosses a swampy area. There the mosquitoes soon became unbearable and we had to turn back.

But when I pulled the images up on my laptop, a warm feeling came over me. I bought the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 USM macro lens in March using pocket money I’d saved for almost a year. It’s a mid-price lens, the best I could afford.

It lacks image stabilization so a tripod is essential for clear close-up shots. I have a good Manfrotto tripod with enough weight to reduce the risk of tipping my expensive camera equipment. The legs fold outward to allow shooting from ground level.

The reason I wanted a good macro lens was to explore the world of small, another layer of the environment revealing things we encounter every day but can’t see with the unaided eye. I’d love to explore Canada’s far north or a coral sea, but until I have the opportunity, unseen complex environments lie close at hand – or at foot, as the case may be.

Saturday provided glowing light conditions. Using the tripod I was able to get close as possible and control depth of field to highlight fine details like the hawkweed stamens. Other cameras and lenses have done macro magic for me, but never like this. An old dream is becoming a reality.

The first two images inspired me to brave the mosquitoes another day.

The exquisite little common woodsorrel (honestly, is there anything common about the perfection of this wildflower?) grows in clumps on our property. I’ve tried to photograph Oxalis montana over the years, but never satisfactorily until now. It’s an important herb of climax forest, common in the understory of trees like our red maples, yellow birches and balsam firs. Often cohabiting with wildflowers such as goldthread, woodsorrel provides forage for deer and chipmunks.

I’m also a fan of clubmosses like Lycopodium dendroideum shown here. It’s one of at least three species that grow on or near our cottage property, spreading across shady, leafy ground. Botanists speculate that clubmosses resembles the first vascular plants that colonized the land. To me it seems similar to Norfolk Island pine, but that comes from an ancient family of conifers, not closely related. This species’ common name is ground-pine, and dendroideum is Latin, meaning tree-like.

It’s a thrill using macro photography to see these familiar neighbours closer than ever.

St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market rises like a phoenix

The new barn at St. Jacobs Farmers Market

St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market has not only recovered from disaster, but seems stronger than ever. Less than two years ago fire leveled the main barn, but the place hardly skipped a heartbeat. The flea market and outdoor produce vendors remained open, while a permanent tent was shortly installed to house food, largely butchers and cheese sellers. Last week the new barn opened, pictured above.

At the time of the fire it was identified as the largest year-round farmers’ market in Canada, surpassing even the likes of St. Lawrence Market in Toronto. It combines with artisans in the village itself and local Mennonite culture to make St. Jacobs a significant Ontario tourism destination.

St. Jacobs lies on the outskirts of Waterloo, a city of approximately 135,000 twinned with its larger sister, adjoining Kitchener. My partner and I moved to Waterloo in March. The farmers’ market lies a seven-minute drive from our door and has become an essential stop our our weekly grocery round. We’ve started going Thursday mornings, when the place hums like a hive but not as madly as Saturdays.

The new barn, though shaped differently, evokes the same style as the old building. The main floor has three wide aisles offering not only meat and cheese but also local honey, specialty teas, bakeries and more. The upstairs gallery opens onto spacious stalls for craftspeople and boutique goods.

St. Jacobs Farmers' Market inside new food building

The flea market and outdoor vendors are so numerous and varied, you can find almost anything. It’s a good place to shop for antiques, cheap clothes and plastic junk, but there’s a lot of good-quality craftsmanship to be found.

The produce mostly strings along one of the outdoor avenues, shrinking to almost nothing during the coldest winter weather. But shoppers beware: many of these vendors resell goods, largely imported. There’s no way of knowing the quality or provenance. I’ve bought bags of good-looking sweet peppers only to find they’re bad on the insides. The “Ontario strawberries” we brought home last week, surprisingly early for our season, were beautiful but bland and started rotting two days later. I’m learning that for quality local produce I must get to know the vendors and whom to avoid.

Any Ontario potatoes or mushrooms we’ve ever bought there have been worthwhile. So many local Mennonites offer tables covered with jugs of maple syrup, you’d have to be an idiot to try selling an imitation.

On the extreme west side of the seasonal vendors, closest to Weber Street, there’s a short row with a distinctly local quality. This week it offered local asparagus (still slender), leaf lettuce, kale, rhubarb, the first field strawberries of the season and mushrooms grown outdoors. These people act and dress like proud farmers instead of street vendors trying to up-sell cheap goods. Watch for them.

One of our favourite stops is Little B’s Gluten Free Bakery. They’ve newly relocated to outside the front wall of the main food building, offering all kinds of baked sweets from spring to fall. Our favourites are the fruit tarts and butter tarts. You can find other gluten-free items around the market, but Little B’s are the best.

Of course it’s hard to resist The Fritter Co. After the fire destroyed all their equipment, they reopened a few months later in one of the flea market barns. The main food barn appears to have some food court stalls still under construction, so maybe the fritters will be moving there; I don’t know.

Take a sliced apple disc, dip it in batter, deep-fry it and this is what you get. Scale it up with ice cream, or not.

The Fritter Co.

Of course these are not gluten free. I hadn’t touched one in years, but when I started the gluten challenge in April I made a bee-line for The Fritter Co. It was my first stop.

Since I don’t seem to be experiencing any symptoms after eight wheat-filled weeks, who knows? That’s another whole story. Maybe I won’t be following a gluten-free diet any longer, but the jury is out until I go for a biopsy in July. I’ve found gluten-free food can be nutritious and delicious, so the outcome is unlikely to drastically change my eating habits. For treats I can still go both ways.

Another thing: if you want to buy a traditional quilt, St. Jacobs is the place to shop. I know of three locations, but there are probably more. Quilted Heirlooms occupies a log cabin at the south end of the market, on Farmers Market Road. The store also sells quilting supplies. Esther Weber Quilts is one of the artisan shops in the upper level of the main barn. But the largest selection can be found at Grey Fort Quilts in St. Jacobs village. These are hand-stitched by local Mennonite women.

Happily, St. Jacobs is busy as ever, with temptations lying around every corner.

Balancing simplicity with responsibility

Scarlet runner beans

It isn’t professional achievements or income that make us happy; this is an old idea eloquently reiterated in Caitlin Kelly’s recent blog post, A small, happy life. She refers to a moral recorded elsewhere: “We do not all have to shine.” I agree: it’s not worth spending our lives in constant pursuit of higher achievement. But if happiness is the true glint in the ore, how do we refine it?

Caitlin points to the level of anxiety imposed on us as we strive for status, financial security and, in the case of women, the perfect body. This last pressure also applies to gay men, I’ve found, though I’ve stopped letting it bother me.

In recovering from a history of depression and anxiety, I’ve found it hard to strike a balance between happiness and success. A year or so into my sixth decade I’m still struggling to succeed enough as a writer to make a sustainable income at the thing I do best. Yet without question I’ve only come so far by lowering my expectations and dismissing the burdens other people would place on me. Still, you get nothing from doing nothing. Achievement matters, and it’s only getting harder to carve out a niche.

For a long time I was absorbed in learning to care for myself. But we aren’t islands, none of us. Recently I’ve begun thinking more about giving back to the community that has supported my healing and development. For instance, I recently joined Toastmasters with the aim of becoming a more effective communicator for both my own sake and so that my research, experience and storytelling might benefit more people. I want to become a more ready participant.

Happiness and simplicity must be balanced with responsibility.

Recent psychological research from Stanford University found a distinction between happiness and meaningfulness in people’s lives. Happiness comes from getting what we want and need. But personal satisfaction has nothing to do with meaning. Happiness is rooted in the present while meaningfulness engages with past, present and future. People with meaningful lives have deeper relationships, experience more stress and are more concerned with expressing identity.

This seems to bring us back to the point: “We do not all need to shine.” Maybe not everyone needs a meaningful life. But I wonder.

Obviously, if we always place happiness above responsibility to others, someone will feel the cost. But it’s no more healthy to put others ahead of our own needs and well-being all the time.

I agree with Caitlin that it’s better to derive happiness from simple living than a constant striving to prove ourselves. But I admire the intelligence of scarlet runner beans, their tendrils reaching for the simple achievement of light, photosynthesis and procreation. The best part of my day is often the simple morning ritual of spending time in the garden, doing some yoga and making a pot of tea. I care for my body and mind. It takes some initiative.

But in reality, happiness is not enough. After breakfast I go to my desk. I’ve had to learn how to motivate myself by reshaping stress into a useful tool. As a freelance journalist I build bridges with clients and savour the responsibility of doing a good job. Interacting with others in a useful way, I pursue meaning.

This is responsibility. I’m still working it all out. It’s an essential ingredient.