Monday, October 2, 2017

Autumn Convinces Me

I play this game where I imagine packing up and moving my family somewhere completely different, to start fresh, better our lives in one way or another. You play it too, I'm sure. Sometimes it's Vancouver Island, where we become a surfer family vibing fireside with guitars, sometimes it's a Nova Scotia homestead where we live off our own produce and raised meats. It's usually a coastal locale, where our lives are tied to tides and briny air, but sometimes my imagination is taken hold by international adventures, too. This game takes on a fervent urgency in the late months of spring when I feel I live in the most wet, cold, dreary climate conceivable. 

A bouquet garni to season to ketchup as it simmers
Summer is my hands-down clear favourite, where I soak up everything my city and backyard have to offer, venturing on day trips to beaches and trails, or road trip to the coast for ocean adventures. My decision to pack up and move is back-benched in light of this renewed vigour, courtesy of the sun. Autumn is a special time, though, and I don't think I could ever live anywhere without an autumn. I hear geese honking before I see their V-shaped flock fly overhead and am, for a moment, tempted to flee to southern climates alongside them, knowing the long, cold winter will arrive and stay. But the bounty of harvest time (my own and the farmers), the return to routine after a cacophony of summer melee, the foliage colour changes and waning daylight hours lend themselves to an air of change that, to me, is important.

We harvested about 40 pounds of tomatoes this year, and counting
I am in the kitchen a lot more, feeling pulled to harvest the tomatoes before they are unusable, bringing in the herbs to preserve for colder days. I am cooking things for later: this week, this month or the long winter ahead, stirring and chopping with the kitchen windows open as long as possible. It isn't often I find myself with free time between new work projects, fall house cleaning/putting away, making our own daily meals and being with the girls, but when I do, I am at the counter. There are sweet potatoes to puree and make into biscuits, soups to simmer, cool and freeze for later, zucchini bread and muffins to bake for school lunches. I don't have to do any of this, of course, but I feel pulled to. These are priorities I re-set each autumn, and in deliberately choosing what to do with my time, I feel better about the direction my life is taking, regardless of what locale my family and I are living.

Oh, hello little buddy
Autumn hikes, trail runs and park visits leave us ready to come home with cheeks rosier from crisp air, wanting to sip something hot, eat something warm from the oven. We go out, we cool down, we come inside, we eat nourishing, warm foods, and we go to bed happy. We have pared down the number of activities we do as a family this year, opting to keep things simple, routine, leaving more room for visits with friends, fall cooking and eating. These things feel like they matter more, at least in this season of life. I crave those comforts more than I crave working more contracts for more money, more than training the girls in various skills at extracurricular lessons and classes, more than binge-watching a show, taking on more responsibilities, or making plans to move away.

Day hike in Gatineau
Comparison, they say, is the thief of joy. As much fun as it is to escape into a fantasy where we live somewhere different (better?), this is where we live, where our people are, where we live out the seasons and take from them what they have to offer us. We have long, cold winters. We have hot, vibrant summers. And oh, we have the most beautiful autumns, surrounded by beautiful native maple, oak and birch trees. Autumn wins me back, convinces me everything's going to be alright. As long as we have a warm home to return to, nourishing food to eat now and later, and good people around us, we'll be alright.

May we know them, may we be them, may we raise them
Song for Autumn
By Mary Oliver

In the deep fall
don't you imagine the leaves think how
comfortable it will be to touch
the earth instead of the
nothingness of air and the endless
freshets of wind? And don't you think
the trees themselves, specially those with mossy,
warm caves, begin to think

of the birds that will come-- six, a dozen-- to sleep
inside their bodies? And don't you hear
the goldenrod whispering goodbye,
the everlasting being crowned with the first
tuffets of snow? The pond
vanishes, and the white field over which
the fox runs so quickly brings out
its blue shadow. And the wind pumps its
bellows. And at evening especially,
the piled firewood shifts a little,
longing to be on its way.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017


There are things I instinctively try to stop my girls from doing before even realizing what I'm saying. I tell Summer to stop arguing when she clarifies that I gave her two braids, not two ponytails. Why shouldn't she correct me, annoying and unrelenting as it is? I tell Abby to stop dawdling already and come down for breakfast, without asking what she's doing. One way is faster than the other. I tell Hailey not to play with the pile of burrs she collected in the woods, but why not let her learn for herself and help her remove them after? When Robin starts in on the crying again after some perceived injustice from her sisters, why do I tell her to stop it? Stop feeling hurt? Or stop showing it?

Bike wash

As anyone engaged in any sort of relationship with me can attest, I believe word choices matter. I can argue semantics till the cows come home (and sometimes do, right Rich?). I hold myself and everyone around me to a high standard in choosing words that best reflect what they are trying to say. I don't like "always" or "never" statements unless those terms are accurate. When I am not distracted, busy or otherwise engaged, I do a pretty decent job of choosing words correctly when talking to my girls. I make sure to give them a wide variety of descriptors, hoping they will pick them up and add them to their own vocabulary arsenals.

New puppy! Not ours.

When I am flippantly dismissing a cry, or diffusing an argument, or bellowing up a stairwell to a daughter who appears to be ignoring me, I am not really thinking about my word choices or the message I am sending. Sometimes I am engaged with something I can't drop, and little girl feelings have to wait. C'est la vie. There may come a day, I am warned by the mamas who have come before me, that these girls may not be so forthcoming to me with their words. Without a doubt, there will be difficult situations in which they may not even know the words to express their troubling feelings. They will struggle with this and if I can help them, I will.

What I don't want is for a tape to play in their inner dialogue that sounds a lot like my flippant remarks, discounting what they think. If I could have used a more accurate word, let them call me on it. If the reason she didn't hear me call was because she was distracted with a book, let me find that by climbing the stairs and being before hollering out accusations. If I forbid Hailey from experiencing something for herself, how will she develop the confidence that comes with learning first-hand? If Robin is crying because she is tired of explaining her unwillingness to part with the princess crown, then leave it to me to articulate the patience she requires.

They may not always care what I have to say, but for now, they do. They crave my approval, guidance, adjudication and sympathy. They may not all grow up to be writers like me, but if I can install in them the benefits of an expansive vocabulary, carefully chosen words for each feeling and situation, then I am willing to overlook their teenage slammed doors.

Pantry staples in glass jars make me happy.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Folding In

In most yoga classes, there is a traditional flow sequence that visitors to a new class recognize. The postures, the standing to seated to savasana pattern, the breathing techniques are designed to be familiar after repeated practises. In my many years of practicing, I have learned the ways yoga poses can function as cheap little therapy sessions. Sometimes powerful, difficult poses held long centre me when I am feeling all over the place inside my head. Twists help wring out negative detritus, as well as aid digestion. Standing poses that connect my feet to the floor ground me after being away from home. This week, what I really needed are some good forward folds.

When seated or standing, a forward fold is exactly that: You bend, usually at the hip crease, bringing your chest and head forward. As you can imagine, your eyes usually end up looking at your knees or legs, in close proximity, depending on your flexibility. I usually tire of staring at my kneecaps up close, so I take those poses with my eyes closed. If they are held for a good long while, tightly wound cords begin to unravel. My fast-moving mind starts to slow and still itself. In that stillness, inevitably, dormant feelings are coaxed out of hiding, invited forward by the silence.

There aren't many times in a day when I am still. Probably just when I am deep asleep or staring at a TV show. I don't give myself many chances to shake out all the noise, the constantly-running monologue. So when I do, when there is quiet, there is a permission for those more reserved, hesitant parts of myself to come into the light, to make themselves seen and heard. Quietly, gently, but felt. That's where the magic of a good, long-held forward fold comes in. Introspection, quiet and a slow opening, both metaphoric and literal (forward folds make for great hip and calf stretches). This week, feeling like I had not paid proper attention to how I was feeling for the better part of summer, I took advantage of a quiet evening to check in and listen.

I rolled out my mat, and began, easing into things, lubricating my joints, and stretching out any kinks I noticed. I found my way into a few forward bends, standing and then sitting. I stayed there, and breathed, and listened to the silence. There weren't words, or coherent thought patterns, but there were feelings. I began to feel my eyes well up. Like butter, my ligaments warmed and melted into the mat beneath me. I exhaled with deep sighs. I made my way out of them slowly, transitioning from one pose to the next deliberately slow.

I finished up, brushed my teeth, and set myself up in bed to write. I put pen to page, without stopping, curious to see what words would come out after that bottle was uncorked. I read back my work and gained some clarity, some insight into what was really weighing on me.

I will always be thankful to yoga, for being a practice I can access anywhere, anytime. I am thankful I have learned how to address my pains and aches (both body and heart) without leaving my living room, while giving my body attention and strength work.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

But the Years are Short

At this point in parenting, I have experienced more days that felt long than years that felt short. There have been some doozies. For the last eight and a half years (half-years count when referring to children), I have parented little people through a whole gamut of experiences. At one point, I had four children under the age of five. At that same point, we had moved cross-country, did not have a house, and started our oldest in kindergarten. I remember tearing up a bit as I sent Abby into the schoolyard on her first day. I was nervous about how she would fare, and squeamish about sending her into someone else's care after doing most of the work myself.

Things did not fast-forward over the next four years until today, but also, they did. I remember walking Abby to school with a newborn strapped to my chest, sweating as I pushed a double-stroller full of one-year-old twins with one hand and holding Abby's fat little fist with the other. Today, I held a tissue in my pocket as those four girls, all wearing backpacks that appear comically large, walked ahead of me. There were some days I couldn't wait to put them to bed. As I walked to school this morning, I could hardly process the day had finally come for me to walk to school with four girls and come home empty-handed.

Hailey harvesting the garlic
At the chain link fence that divides adult world from kid mania, I kissed my girls goodbye, told them I loved them, and reminded them I would be waiting at the end of the school day for their return at that very spot. Abby ran in to drop off her bag, Hailey and Robin took Summer by the arms and ushered her into the kindergarten cubbies to hang her jacket and bag. And there she went, I thought. My littlest girl, baby Summer, has turned four and now she is going to school. I waited for her to come back out to the play, so I could wave one last time, searching her face for any subtle cues she was upset; the kind of cues only her mama could recognize. Summer darted off to the play structure, and I stood crying, and that was that.

Charlotte's Web has led to much arachnidian enthusiasm
It feels strange to be here at home, right now, writing this. I have a sense of having done something wrong, like playing hooky. It is hard to process that this is our new permanent state: me at home, the girls at school. Rich and I went for a trail run, got sandwiches at our favourite spots, and relaxed in celebration of having made it to this date circled on a calendar. I have work to do, both domestic and professional, in the weeks and months ahead. I have plans laid to carry me forward, one step in front of the other, until I'm the next version of myself in this strange new phase of parenting.

I am so thankful to have been able to stay home with the girls all this time. Not everyone has that choice. I can remember discussing it with Rich before we were engaged, all those years ago when we were so young ourselves, still our parents' babies living at home. It feels so long ago, but I can also blink and be transported back to those conversations. Feeling confident that while there was a lot I did not know, I knew I wanted children and to stay home with them when they were young. I am still quite fresh, emerging from the trenches of staying home with a gaggle of young children, whose demands were unceasing and grew increasingly complex. I wavered on the edge of doubt so many times. Long, long days were lived. And here we are, a few short years later. 

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Not Ready for Summer Break to be Done

My writing in this space usually slows down in the summer, but this year takes the cake. Don't feel special, though, lots of things fell by the wayside! The calendar in my kitchen that the girls use to track special days and appointments still says it is July. The novels we undertook reading with the promise of a late-night swim upon completion are only half done, and it is too cold at night to swim in the pool anymore. There is only a week left of summer and over a dozen Summer 2017 bucket list items we didn't complete. 

Throughout the summer, Abby had soccer three or four times a week, the other girls played Fridays. I worked part-time, but instead of two shifts a week, it was three or four to cover other people's holidays. We took our own holidays, and hosted family visiting from away. We did an extra little trip to Niagara Falls, and a cottage weekend with family in Quebec. These dictated the shape of our summer plans a little more than in years past, and the difference has left me feeling a little unprepared to say goodbye to summer break, like there is still so much I want to do. 

I wrote back in the spring that Rich was back to work after a long, difficult few months battling the symptoms of a particularly bad concussion, writing that the worst was behind us. The universe disagreed, as it is entitled to do, and threw us a few setbacks. He was hurt at work again and has not been back to work since May. He suffers deeply. It is really hard to watch, and I can't fix it. It has now been over a year, and there are many hard days. He is here with us, supported by a great medical team, and thankfully our support network has been largely understanding when we bow out of certain social engagements or other fun-sounding plans.

The girls and I went on adventures to give Rich quiet time at home, when possible. 
I will not remember this summer for the fun popsicles we made, or the trips to the Secret Pond, or making rhubarb custard pie. I hope the kids will. Thankfully, I have these pictures from my stepmother, and a few I remembered to take myself. We hang them in our kitchen where the girls see them and recall adventures at the beach, eating ice cream, and learning to dive to the bottom of the pool. I will remember this as the summer that never got very hot, that required a lot of soul-searching, that took me by the shoulders and shook me hard, begging me to notice the beauty in small every day things so that those brief moments could sustain through the fog of uncertainty.

 There is always a take-away and this is mine: I am better when I can find stillness. Not all the time, but in the chaos, the crying, the kid whining, the sister fighting, the long days, the missed opportunities, the exhaustion. I am better when I can find or make some stillness and soak in it. I can leapfrog between these found moments, these lily pads offering refuge from the craziness. They are enough, and I can coast on their powerful elixir until the next quiet, still moment. When it is 10:30 at night and I haven't yet sat down, or noticed an inhale and exhale, when I haven't looked anyone in the eye as I spoke distractedly, when I have sped through appointments and work shifts and soccer practises and meal preparation and not noticed a single beautiful thing, I am not my best. My people, and I, deserve better.

I resolve to keep trying to do better. I think often of the words Anne of Green Gables said, and take great comfort in them: "Isn't it nice to think that tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet?"

Sipping milk from otherwise forbidden sugary cereal is a treat at the grandparents' cottage.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Beautiful Place by the Sea

I've taken a vacation from a few things this summer, including much of an online presence, you'll note here in this space. It has been good to let go. To discard so much of the unnecessary detritus and wind my way back to a place where I can hear myself think. It started in Maine, our beautiful seaside place.

We stay in the same seaside cottages every year, the same ones my Dad went to as a young boy

Like sea turtles, they instinctually felt the pull to the water

Wave riding instruction

This is what it felt like to be free of everything.  It was glorious and I try my best to recall that feeling every day since. 

Heat wave

I am so glad these girls get to know the ocean

Mom hat, a quiet moment, and a good lathering of SPF 60

Watching my beautiful stepsister with my girls was heartwarming

There is no resisting the siren call of waves crashing

Littlest lady and I being called by the place were the sea meets the sky

I spent approximately 14 hours a day applying sunscreen and finding hats

Tide's out

The moment I cross the footbridge and see the beach is the purest expression of joy, that homecoming 

Summer does it her way

Exploring tidal pools after learning about them in a rare moment of vacation education

My person

Saying goodbye to the sea on our last night, at sunset

It may be cold, but it is the most beautiful ocean I have ever known
Photos courtesy of our talented family photographer/my stepmother, Louise

Thursday, July 6, 2017

The Long Run

Saturday or Sunday morning, depending on weekend plans, I wake up early. Not before the birds, but before the babies in my nest. I quietly tiptoe in socked feet to the kitchen, scarf down a granola bar, fill my water bottles, cue my iPod, and leave the house, quiet as I can. It's my time. I have set a route, measured it online, and have a rough idea of how long it will take me. These runs aren't races. They will take as long as they take. My steps are small and my pace is leisurely. Everything bounces and the swish-swish sound my sneakers make on the sidewalk or trail is that start of a steady percussion that holds true for as long as I set out to run.

I take a moment at the beginning to tune into my legs and feet. I pay attention to the feeling of their wakening; I know the first couple of kilometres will be sluggish. My legs feel like lead, heavy under the effort of lifting and propelling me forward. I know this will pass. I pump my legs and my heart pumps blood and together we work through the stiffness that set in during last night's rest. I create and fall into a rhythm. I turn my attention to my podcast and get lost in a world of stories.

After the first few kilometres, my legs know what to do. They keep pumping. My brain protests now and again; it is wired to caution me against overexerting myself lest I need to rapidly escape some unforeseen threat. Something like, "Dude, you should really cut this short or slow down. What if you are exhausted all day? This feels hard. Do we need to do this? Now?" The beauty of the long run starts to reveal itself the moment I begin to un-hear these creeping doubts. Underneath the noise of logic and responsibility is a smaller voice that chimes, "You can do this, you got this, it's gonna feel so good."

I wave to other runners as we cross paths, offering a smile. The smile reminds me to tap into the joy. Running, when done as a reprieve from an otherwise busy and demanding life, is joyful to me. I feel great joy in being unencumbered, left alone, free to finally tune into myself in ways I otherwise do not. All week long, I am someone's mother, wife, friend, daughter, employee or neighbour. I gladly fill my days with tasks that bring together the cords of my multi-layered existence. I go to bed exhausted, in a way that proves I have done much with the hours given to me by Father Time. But on my long runs, Time is not my master. I am slave only to myself, and I am learning to be a patient, gentle commander.

I see the trees as they morph through their stages of growth and decay, depending on the season. I see wildlife and humbly pass through their lands, thanking them for their beautiful presence. I check in with my body systems for signs that I need to make adjustments: Am I thirsty? Do my feet hurt? Are my shoulders back and open? Am I breathing steady? Is my gait strong and supportive? This simple act of checking in and listening intently for non-verbal answers is often the only time I dedicate to such pure self-care. It's a gift to myself I don't take for granted.

I come home bone tired, sweaty, and desperate to take off my shoes. I let myself in the front door,  into the cacophony of daughters who have since awoken, eaten and reached peak levels of weekend morning excitement. I exchange hugs and morning greetings, passing the threshold from sacred alone time to mama in high demand. I excuse myself for a shower and stretch, ready to live outside of my head and body.

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