The Measure of My Powers – A Memoir by Jackie Kai Ellis

I deeply believe in dedicating time to the things we love; it’s the name of this blog and the life philosophy I credit with giving me a second chance at a happy life. There is no “getting over it,” “you are too old for this,” and specially, “you are a mom, so you should not be doing x or y…” Motherhood, on the contrary, was one of the catalyst of my decision to not only never abandon the things I was passionate about—music, movies, reading, writing—but to pass these passions along to my son as the most beautiful gifts of being alive.

The Measure of My Powers: A Memoir of Misery, Food and Paris by Jackie Kai Ellis is a book about the terrible danger of repressing one’s true self and abandoning the things that sustain your deepest self. It is also about how beauty, the opening of our body and senses to it, can be healing. There is no question that in Kai Ellis’ case it was life saving.

It’s hard to imagine, when seeing Kai Ellis on TV, her elegant voice contrasting with her vibrant dress and striking style, that she was once as dark and grey as the rainiest Vancouver sky. But that’s where Kai Ellis found herself a few years into her marriage, slowly dying as the relationship turned increasingly restrictive and oppressive. The dying here is not metaphorical: severely depressed, and summoning a clarity that she would later use for its exact opposite purpose, Kai Ellis thought often of death and the many ways she could inflict it upon herself as cleanly and practically as possible.

Woven in between the stories of her illness—vivid, dark scenes of depression that proved, personally, difficult to read—are the stories of her re-awakening to her love of food, which she had first discovered as a child. For practical reasons—cooking was an equally shared task between the couple—Kai Ellis found a loophole inside the budget restrictions imposed by her husband and started to channel all her warmth, creativity, passion and artistic energy into elaborate dishes and pastries.

Kai Ellis’ artistic gifts, however, ran deep even before she found her voice in the kitchen. Having attended art school in Toronto, Kai Ellis had already become a well-established graphic designer, owning her own design firm with her husband, when she decided to attend pastry school in Paris.

She also later created a beautifully travel blog, something I only discovered after reading the book. All her knowledge and training in these diverse arts is evident in every inch of the book: from the stunning book cover (which reminded me of a sixteenth century Baroque painting until I saw it was photographed by Kai Ellis herself), the exquisite design of the chapters, and more importantly, her precise, elegant writing. Her descriptions of food, the preparation, the personal meaning attached to an ingredient, the sensuality of taste, were particularly enjoyable for me. In an early chapter, her description of eating a chocolate chip cookie with a black cup of coffee evoked immediate memories of my own experience enjoying a similar treat as child.

Above all, Kai Ellis demonstrates through her story that it’s one thing being talented, and another completely different to be dedicated and hard-working. Her chapters on perfecting the recipe for baking an authentic Parisian croissant, and later for opening her Vancouver, BC bakery Beaucoup, are fascinating in showing the level of drive, hard work, and obsession that it takes to achieve excellence and to raise above the ordinary. I was deeply inspired.

In the end, Kai Ellis’ story is about the search for beauty, which can be both hard and complex (achieving the perfect authentic croissant) or as simple as taking the time to really smell the flowers. The point is to be open to the infinite possibilities the world offer us every day: the flavours, the smells, the textures, the light, the challenges, the pleasure, the love. It is about purposely and deliberately embracing the feeling of being alive.

If you are in Vancouver, you can visit Beaucoup. Jackie Kai Ellis will be signing copies of her book right at the bakery tomorrow, Friday, May 11, at 10:00 am.

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