Casa Loma: A place of beauty, history, and Pokemon Go

OK, I admit it. I got sucked into playing Pokemon Go this summer. Actually, it was all very professional: as soon as I heard that churches were somehow involved, I had to try it for myself. I started with an American account, but it wasn’t long before I was Canadian again. I discovered that our church is a gym. Also, it is a game that works best if you leave your house and go to places like Casa Loma.

Pokemon Go wasn’t the reason I ended up there this summer. At a charity auction (my husband and I seem to go to an awful lot of those!) we bought a pass to Toronto attractions that included places like the Toronto Zoo and the CN Tower. The kids enjoyed some of them, but my beloved and I were glad to have a day to poke around the castle we haven’t been to in years. It was much nicer than we remembered, especially the gardens.103If you’ve never been there, Casa Loma is the former home of Sir Henry Pellat, a businessman who began building it in 1911 (it took three years to complete) and lived there until bankruptcy forced him out in 1924. It has grand rooms and secret passageways, a conservatory, billiard room and smoking room. There are stables, a garage and several different gardens, all sitting on four acres of property.086Why we climbed all the way to the top of a turret on a #*%! hot day is beyond me. But at least we were rewarded with a lovely view of the gardens below. (I didn’t even drop my camera when I took the picture.)

Getting to see that garden close up was lovely. It was set up for a corporate event, which made it hard to get close to most of the perennial beds. On the other hand, it looks like a gorgeous place for a tea party!102After we popped in to see the potting shed (which was actually a bright and beautiful building with pretty period details) we met up with one of the gardeners. She was getting ready for that night’s event, too, picking rose petals to be used in the kitchen. How does one get invited to that sort of thing, anyway?106The property is filled with long, sweeping perennial borders and winding wooded paths. There is a lovely blue fountain, too, surrounded by benches to sit and enjoy the sunshine. Everything was immaculate and there wasn’t a weed in sight (I spied a number of gardeners quietly tending the beds. Obviously they are doing a great job).  097It was a beautiful day. We did exactly what one should do on a day set aside for rest: we wandered down beautiful paths, shared a drink on the patio and admired the flowers. Also, I caught my first Gastly, a dark Pokemon with big fangs and a cloud of poisonous gas. A little weird, maybe, but a nice day all the same. Thanks for everything, Casa Loma.100

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I didn’t think it was possible, but camp just got even better

I love camp. It’s where I found spiritual nurture, physical challenge and a love for God’s creation when I was a child. I even met my husband there when we were teeangers. So it only makes sense that my children started attending a Presbyterian Church camp when they were little, just like I did. This summer, the two older ones are on staff at Camp Kintail and the two younger ones get up there every chance they get. And no wonder: Kintail is amazing. Especially the garden!

025The wilderness camp I grew up with had lots of great programs (does catching frogs count as a program?) but never anything like the chance to grow carrots. Since Camp Kintail’s co-directors grew up in farming communities, they know they know the importance of growing food. Now, what started out as just a few rows of vegetables has blossomed into a round herb wheel,  huge swaths of garden beds, a garden shed, a composting system and even a chicken coop. It seems to expand a little (or a lot) every year.

029In my years at camp I served as a canoe tripper, counsellor, and even a cook. But if I had the privilege of being camp staff again (oh, wouldn’t that be nice!) I would want the job held by a young man whose camp name is Escarpment–this year he’s the Camp Garden Director. Since the spring, he has been planning, planting, tending, weeding and harvesting a huge variety of produce including tomatoes, kale, peppers, lettuce, beets, potatoes, onions, beans, and peas. Everything goes to the kitchen where it is prepared and shared as a regular part of the camp menu. One of the directors told me that he was amazed at the beautiful bowls of fresh salad they serve every single day.

021But that’s not the best part. What I love most is that gardening has become a regular part of the program for everyone who goes to camp in spring, summer and fall. School groups, churches on retreats, international visitors and the lucky ones at camp in July and August all get to spend time in the garden. They see first hand how food grows and they learn how to tend it. Then they eat their hard work!

193There is no doubt that camp is fun, but it is not frivolous. Camps like Kintail teach all kinds of people how to live in community, and how important it is to respect the needs and comfort of others. It offers a level of spiritual depth and intimacy that is rare at home or even at church. It lets campers and staff live in close proximity to creation where they encounter the awe-inspiring beauty of stars and sunsets. It shapes them into compassionate, thoughtful people. When they leave camp, they go out to make our world a better place.

027I had never thought of it before, but a camp garden makes perfect sense. It draws a clear line between care for the earth and food on the table. It creates an opportunity to participate in feeding one another. It illustrates all the good that comes from working together. It has a unique set of lessons and experiences to offer in spring, summer and fall.

I know that there are all kinds of great summer camps out there. But Kintail is better: it has a garden!

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Jesus kale and its eight million seeds

Last year I grew two garden boxes of kale: one was Curly Blue Scotch and the other was Red Russian. Everyone I knew, including my friends at the local fresh food bank, received big bouquets of it (whether they wanted it or not). At home, we made it into chips, stir fries and smoothies. We even froze it to eat all winter in soups and sauces. But that was just the beginning.

042In the fall I cleaned out the box of red kale and left the box of green. We ate it well into November, even while the plants grew lean and spindly. It was still growing when the snow arrived in December, but eventually died back and looked sort of brown and forlorn. I felt sorry for it on cold winter afternoons.

In the spring, I glanced out the window and discovered that it had turned green again (the kids and I named it Jesus kale because it once was dead but now was full of life again!). Then, while I was still feeling smug about all the work of seeding and planting I wasn’t going to have to do this year, it bloomed. Four foot high wands of little yellow flowers made the plants pretty much inedible. But I didn’t want to tear them out–they were so pretty in my spring garden. And besides, the bees loved them.

032Then, just when I was enjoying the flowers, they ran to seed–back to the brown and ugly. Still, I let them stay and take up an entire garden box, mostly because I’m cheap. I knew that if I harvested the seeds, I wouldn’t need to fork out $3.95 for packets of kale any time soon.

It took far longer than I expected, but I have finally managed to harvest those Curly Blue Scotch kale seeds. All eight million of them (that’s my best guess, anyway).

kale 2Some of the pods–many of them, actually–had cracked open before I got to them. Dozens of  brown husks had spilled their tiny black seeds on the ground underneath them in the garden box, in the garden boxes next to them, and on the path. As I took the long stems to the compost, I realized that stray seeds were being dropped all the way along, too. I can only begin to imagine how many tiny kale plants are in my future!

kale 1This afternoon, I ran my fingers through a nice big bowl of dry kale seeds and marvelled at their abundance. I noticed the birds pecking at my now empty garden box–I even noticed a purple finch I’ve never seen before–and they were enjoying the seeds, too.

All I did was let my little box of plants do what God intended them to do. That kale lived each season in its turn: growing up,  weathering the hard bits, finding resurrection, and blooming when I least expected it. It leaves behind a legacy, too, with enough seeds to plant generations more. All of this from ordinary kale that lived out its generous mission in the world.

I think there must be a life lesson in there somewhere. At the very least, there is encouragement: Bloom where you’re planted. Give yourself away. Wait for resurrection.

My Jesus kale turned out to be a wise teacher.

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Why labels matter

Signs on public bathrooms seem to be very important to people thesFullSizeRendere days. Some people are quite concerned that those using them also seem to need to be clearly defined and labeled. I don’t really get all the fuss. I’m a mom with four kids–I’m just happy to have a quiet, clean place to pee when I go out.

Sometimes, however, I think that labels are important. Like on plants, for example.

This spring, I was so pleased with myself. I got lettuce and peas into the garden earlier than ever so I could get a head start on the growing season. I got three kinds of tomatoes started in my little basement grow-op. I also started basil, hot peppers (something called ‘fish peppers’ that I got at a seed swap), and green curly kale. I was so smug.

IMG_3279My usual process for starting seeds is to use old pots (cleaned well) and trays. I add the soilless potting mix, seeds and water. Easy peasy. It’s especially easy because I don’t fuss about putting names on all the plants. Just one sign per flat is enough to let me know what I’m growing.

But this year, I made an error. I put two different varieties of tomatoes in the same flat. I didn’t need to label each individual pot, of course. Who needs to be so picky? I thought I would be able to see the difference between a Roma tomato plant and a golden cherry tomato plant once they came up, even after shuffling them around under the grow lights time after time. I was so wrong. Without flowers and fruit, they are basically identical. Damn.

IMG_3319For weeks I have been looking for differences between the two kinds, but they all look the same. So today I just took a deep breath and planted them anyway. The problem is that one variety is determinate (short) and one is indeterminate (tall). I have no clue how to stake them–with a short cage or a tall pole. So I’m just going to let them grow for a while longer and see if it becomes clearer with time. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Now if only we could convince people to be so relaxed about public bathrooms…



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Wonderful waiting in South Baymouth

Here in snowy Ontario we are waiting for spring to arrive (it’s April–hurry up already!) so I thought this would be the perfect time to share with you a wonderful waiting experience I had last summer. Yes, I said wonderful! Have a look at these photos and you will see what I mean.


After my husband and I enjoyed a canoe trip in Quetico Provincial Park, we drove to Manitoulin Island. Since we hadn’t exactly planned in advance, we arrived in South Baymouth just in time to see a ferry leaving the dock. Drat! What else was there to do but wait until the next one?

As we walked up the street to the little grocery store, we noticed a fence and could see there was a large garden behind it. After wandering the grocery aisles looking for snacks, we remarked to the woman at the register that we would love a look at the garden across the road. To our surprise, someone overheard us and said, “Dick and Eunice? I think they’re home. They’d love to give you a tour. Just go and call at the gate!” That’s when our waiting turned wonderful.


We could never have imagined what lay beyond that garden gate. It was a paradise of fruit and vegetables, flowers and butterflies. There was a huge stand of corn along with tomatoes, onions and even a hops vine that had escaped its trellis and was growing up the side of the greenhouse. Native plants grew in abundance alongside annuals like petunias, impatiens and strawflowers. Perennials were everywhere: hosta, globe thistle, iris, lupins, gaillardia, phlox…


Not only did we get a personally guided tour of the flower beds and greenhouse, we got to see the chapel. Yes, on their not-very-big property, they built a sturdy wooden building for prayer and worship. It was tiny! “I planned it that way,” Dick said. “It’s so small that it only fits one person at a time. That means that this is the only church in the world where there will never be an argument!” We laughed in the way that only seasoned church goers would (they are Anglican and active in their local church).


When it was time for us to catch our ferry, we were sorry to leave. Dick and Eunice were the kind of people that are fun to be with because their lives are overflowing with adventure (you can get a sense of that from this 2014 article about them).


They insisted on driving us back to the terminal so that they could show us the entrance of the local trail system they have created. Dick loves to walk, and about ten years ago he decided to clear paths on nearby vacant land for forest walks. Wanting others to enjoy the beauty and exercise, he built bridges and boardwalks and added handrails to make them all child and senior friendly. As if that wasn’t enough, Dick hand carves beautiful walking sticks and makes them available at the entrance and exit of each trail (he hopes you will leave them for the next person when you’re finished).


It’s important to meet people like Dick and Eunice–people who are ahead of you on life’s journey–because  it’s important to have great role models. I know that my empty nest years are still a ways off, but these are the kind of people I would like to be when I grow up: full of laughter, rooted in love, and living lives in which their faith easily infuses everything they do. Also, I would love to have a garden like that some day!

If you find yourself waiting for the ferry  on Manitoulin Island anytime soon, look up Bowerman’s Garden. Call out  for Dick and Eunice at the gate and you might get lucky enough to enjoy a tour yourself. It will make your waiting wonderful!



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Is it good luck to plant seeds while wearing your bathrobe?

I have heard that you can ensure greater garden success by planting during certain phases of the moon (who knows? I can’t say I’ve tried it). This morning, however, when I was out in the early morning sunshine, I wondered what might. Perhaps planting seeds while wearing just the right outfit? Like my white, waffle-knit bathrobe? Maybe.

The truth is, I was just so darned glad to be upright and of sound mind that I didn’t care what I was wearing. It’s been a long winter full of too many bouts of ill health (one of the reasons for so few blog posts) and now that I am finally on the mend after a nasty bit of pneumonia, I am anxious to get the garden party started. Even in my pyjamas.

The great thing about having raised garden beds is that they warm up quickly in the spring. And while I may yet top them up with some compost or manure, all of them are ready to be planted now, in mid-March. So, after a strengthening cup of tea, I got out a few seed packets that advised planting, “as soon as the soil can be worked” and set to it. Go me!

018 I have been anxious about planting a few things early: lettuce, so I can stop buying it at the grocery store; peas, because they need enough time to grow before the hot weather arrives; and spinach, because I am in a race with the dreaded leaf miners who will hatch in May and completely destroy all the leaves. Besides, every gardener spends the winter waiting for spring to arrive. And here it is!

It didn’t take much time to put a few rows of seeds in and cover them with a thin layer of soil. But I was out there long enough to notice the green daffodil shoots poking through the soil and see the first yellow crocus. I heard a cardinal singing to beat the band, as my grandmother would have said. I noticed that some of the parsley has made it through the winter. Even a little pot of chives was showing signs of life (I had meant to plant it in the fall but just never got around to it. Oops.)

021I was probably outside a grand total of twenty minutes but I felt terrific when I came in. I was so glad I had seized the moment instead of stopping to put on pants first. Because then I would have seen the laundry that needed to be folded, noticed the dog’s empty bowl and gone running to answer the phone. I never would have made it outside at all.

It’s sort of like the child who showed up to church on a Sunday morning in a princess costume and a Dora wig. Sure, dressing up would have been nice, but if her mother had stopped to insist that she get changed they might never have made it at all. I was just glad they showed up.

So that’s my thought for this spring: seize the moment! Whatever it is that you are longing to do, just do it: go for a walk, sit on the porch with a glass of wine, put a few seeds in the ground. Grab a few minutes in between all the other things going on in your life to enjoy this fresh, new season. Even in your bathrobe.





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Zucchini for Christmas: Frankenmuth

I know that the seasons are changing but I’m just not quite ready to say goodbye to summer yet. Even while I am enjoying the gorgeous colours of fall, sweet local apples and (still more!) kale from the garden, I am still feeling grateful for my summer that was full of gardens and greenery.    

466I know that most people visit Frankenmuth to shop at Bronner’s (if you haven’t been there, it’s a Christmas shop the size of…well, you have to see it to believe it. It’s HUGE.) I also know that the chicken dinner, Bavarian style, is famous. But the flowers all over town were what blew me away!

411First, we enjoyed a tiny enclave overflowing with purple coneflower, lavender, nasturtium and every manner of garden herb. then we saw the sign: The Herb Society of America: Frankenmuth Mid-Michigan Unit Garden for Herbal Education. I bet there are some great volunteers behind such a lovely space. 416

Then we looked across the street and saw a candy shop. Granted, it is not unusual for me to notice those, but the property! It was so beautiful I stood in the middle of the street (safely, of course)  to snap a picture:

424 The best part, though, was the garden kaleidoscope. I have never seen anything like it. Looking through the lens turned pansies and impatiens into breathtaking patterns of pink, purple and green. The kids loved, too.

427Of course, we did go to Bronner’s and spent hours looking at nativity sets and Advent calendars. What else did we find? Gardens (and garden produce!) are everywhere. 438It was a sweet little side trip this summer. I hope your summer had a few of those, too.

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You’re beautiful and I should know. I’ve seen you naked.

In the last twenty years, I have grown to appreciate beauty in new ways. I have especially come to love not just the natural world with its flowers and gardens but also the human body, with all its curves and abilities. Given my history, this is no small thing.

Kristine canoe 1988I grew up knowing that I was fat. I was teased mercilessly at school. At home, I was taught that being overweight was a sign of moral failing and weak self-discipline. People should be skinny and look exactly like my thin parents and my thin sister. I didn’t. Clearly, that meant something was wrong with me.

I was an active kid, swimming, skating and later taking dance lessons. I was a cheerleader in high school and a canoe tripper at summer camp. When I look back at the photos I can see that while I was never tiny I was hardly overweight, either. And yet I was ashamed of my body every moment of every day.

It took years of hard work in therapy, loving friends, a gentle husband and a maturing faith to begin changing how I feel. But you should know that you were part of my healing, too.

You might not realize it, but I have noticed you in the gym locker room. I promise that I don’t stare at you, but I can’t help but see you when you are getting dressed or going to the steam room.

Some of you have gentle, round curves. Some of you are tall (much taller than me!) and some of you are petite. Among you there are legs that are well-muscled and skin that is soft and dimpled. I can see that some of you have children and some of you had surgery. All of you have creases around your eyes from laughing.

You are beautiful.

072This is the reason I want to thank you. When I look at your body, I can so easily admire God’s handiwork. Looking at you has helped me to realize that I am beautiful, too. Each of us has our own shape and our own colour. We have our own posture and our own way of moving. Our scars tell important stories about who we are and how we’ve lived. Not one of us is the same as another.

I have taught my daughters that it is healthy and helpful to see other women naked, to see the variety of hips and breasts and bellies among us . I want them to know that real women have real bodies. I want them to learn early on what I have struggled for forty years to learn: God made us beautiful. Each of us. All of us.

Thank you for helping me learn such an important and wonderful truth. May we remind each other often and teach it to our daughters and granddaughters, nieces and neighbours. Even if it is only by our silent, beautiful presence in the locker room.


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Quetico: Hard work and a surprising payoff

This summer, I had the blessing of quite literally getting away from it all. We journeyed to northern Ontario, past Thunder Bay and into Quetico Provincial Park, a remote and beautiful wilderness. But first came the hard work of getting ready.

068There are special rules in the park to keep it from becoming polluted and so, after booking our entry into the backcountry (there are a limited number of permits issued each day) we discovered that no disposable containers–cans, bottles, boxes and the like–are allowed. I spent almost a week gathering a collection of Nalgene bottles, tea tins and even travel-sized shampoo containers.

Next there was the long drive: we left at 6 am and drove straight through. With a few stops for gas and bathroom breaks, we arrived just outside of Thunder Bay at 10pm. How strange to be tired from sitting day!

Finally, after fourteen years of dreaming about it and weeks planning packing for it, my husband and I found ourselves on the water again. We were thrilled! It was bliss! Except…

014Wind greeted us that first morning and stayed with us for days. And while I love the feeling of a breeze through my hair, this was hard-core wind that made paddling across open water almost impossible. Waves broke over the bow and left me soaked to the skin. Our muscles ached. Hard work doesn’t begin to describe it. And that was just the first half hour!

We stopped early and aching on that first day. Day two was the same (see me in that picture above? That was the end of one very long, muddy portage!) On day three we tried again but gave up when a cold, stinging rain dampened any hope of progress. The upside was a wonderful, leisurely day of reading, napping and hot chocolate.

040On day 4, now halfway through the trip, with nighttime temperatures a chilly 5 degrees and our progress not nearly what we’d hoped, we turned and headed for home.

We were immediately  rewarded with the arrival of gorgeous sunny weather. The water was calm, which made us relax our pace. We spent a beautiful afternoon with a family of loons who let us sit close by as the parents fed their chicks an enormous lunch. We dug out the fishing rod, too, and discovered that bass were just waiting to be caught (we threw them back, and of course the biggest one got away).

As we sat out on the rocks and watched the sun set at a beautiful campsite on our last night, something slowly began to dawn on me: perhaps the wind was part of a divine plan to slow us down. Because it was only after we gave up on our mileage goals that we turned our attention to our most important objective: quiet, rest, and time together in a beautiful and pristine corner of Canada.

In the end, I am grateful for those howling winds.080

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Summer is for (lavender) adventure

Every trip is an adventure. Some trips, however, are more adventurous than others. Sometimes that was because our family didn’t plan quite enough (oops) or the weather wasn’t what we expected (drat) or because we’d never travelled with so many children before (yikes). That was 2003.

That summer, our youngest was eight months old. We desperately wanted to get away and we had time, just not much money. In all our wisdom, we decided on a maritime road trip: one van, one tent, six people, and all the stuff necessary for travelling with two babies and two children. We actually put the kids in their car seats and packed stuff in around them every day (and yes, we drove somewhere new almost every day. What were we thinking?).

andrew and tucker 03It was chaotic, loud, and far more work than we had expected. It was also filled with beauty and laughter–those moments that create family jokes and lasting memories.

One of those memories was a lavender farm that we stumbled on as we were driving through the Nova Scotia countryside. Out the window we were amazed at gently rolling hills covered with rows of purple blooms. We pulled the car over to the side of the road and discovered a little booth and a lovely woman. She had just started the farm a year or two earlier, she said, and we were welcome to wander around. We did. We sniffed and smelled and stretched our legs, marvelling at such a glorious discovery.


Since then I have visited a lavender farm in Niagara, but now I’ve found one even closer to home. Weir Lavender Farm and Apiary is in Dundas, Ontario and both the farm and the shop are open regularly for tours.


This time, we were on our way to dinner when we made a slight detour. It was Sunday afternoon and there was no reason to rush. Our stop was much quieter this time, of course, with only my husband, me, and an empty back seat. We meandered through the fields and then, since there were no children begging to go to the bathroom or asking when it was time for a snack, we spoke with one of the owners, too. His was the story so many people dream of: he quit his high-powered city career, bought a small farm in the country, and started a whole new life. He assured us he would never go back.


He also said that most of what they know about farming they have learned along the way. They rely on trial and error as they plant, grow, harvest and create new soaps and culinary delights. It may not be the most efficient method of doing anything, but l like that. It appeals to my sense of adventure.

This summer, my sense of adventure is leading me to an exciting and slightly scary destination–stay tuned for that story! In the mean time, may these last weeks of summer be full of beautiful sights and smells. Make sure you take every opportunity for adventure along the way.





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