Tuesday, December 6, 2016

smile

I have this silly game I play when I go to Costco. It started when I reluctantly bought a membership because the cost savings were significant enough for our family of people who like to eat food. (More and more food, ever increasing). I resisted because Costco just felt so ... industrial, devoid of joy, stark, and where the grumpiest of people converge on Saturdays to bump carts and growl at each other. I invented a game where I try to smile at everyone in there: The people giving out samples, the people who drive their cart right into me because they weren't looking, the people who growl at me because, I don't know, they are angry at life?


The Costco angry shopper syndrome spreads this time of year. I do most of my holiday shopping online to both avoid the stores full of bustle and to ensure I make my purchases thoughtfully. My budget means I can't buy everything I see in a store that would be so awesome or funny to open or that makes us remember that time we did something funny. Do you pick up on grumpy shopper vibes, too? In line, definitely at the post office, in busy grocery stores, on evenings or weekends at any store in December. I avoid when I can, because the syndrome can be contagious.  

Horse-drawn sleigh ride, anyone?

I read a great piece this week reminding us to be a little more quiet and reflective in December. The origins of the season (and some of the most beautiful Christmas songs) were rooted in a stillness, a peace cultivated by closing out all the noise and focusing on that warm feeling in my chest I like to think of as my light. It resonated with me. I feel myself clawing, searching desperately for answers every December when I feel stress and overwhelming thoughts of being a mother at Christmastime. It all starts to add up. It happens every year. I look to God, I look to role models, I look for guidance and try to stave off the encroaching grumpiness of holiday shopper/consumer/parenting roles. 


What I need is to be still. In the quiet, remember what it's about, for me. My girls smiling faces and the magic of Santa Claus. The spirit of giving and involving their naturally generous hearts in the process. In being in the kitchen, any kitchen, preparing food with friends and family. In the light of a candle on a dark night and the space to think. To let myself cry when I'm driving down the highway to be on time for gymnastics class because O Holy Night is playing and I just can't help but feel its beauty. To enjoy outdoor activities because the rosy cheeks and fresh air are always worth the effort.


Everything we need to settle into December is right here. It is behind the curtain of wants and shopping and holiday grumpiness. It is peace. Not always quiet (who lives with five people and finds enough quiet?), but joyful. Then can I remember to pause and reflect. Stop and check in with myself. Find that still, small voice telling me what I need to remember. That offering a smile that has come from a place of deep breaths, peace and recognition is always needed, in a time of many wants and wishes. 



"It was only a sunny smile, and it cost little in the giving, 
but like morning light, it scattered the night,  
and made the day worth living." 
-F. Scott Fitzgerald

Consider this my to-do list

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Seeing Her

Sunday afternoon was all set up: The fire was burning in the fireplace, the Christmas colouring books and bin of crayons laid out on the little table, the sound of the Merry Christmas button being pressed repeatedly on the one musical decoration we own. Summer was happily occupied with the pile of Christmas books I had laid out on the coffee table. Hailey and Robin heeded my pleas to stop pushing the Christmas song button, so they migrated to the colouring. I set myself up to begin assembling the shepherd's pie for dinner when I felt a little hand rest on my back. 


"Mama, can I help make the dinner?" asked Abby. Now, I shamefully admit that my initial reaction was to resist this request. Having her help meant my time efficient meal preparation method would be threatened. I wanted to get the dish in the oven and move on to one of the many things a mother of four has to do on a Sunday afternoon. Then I thought about what she was really asking. She was asking did I see her? Did I hear her say, so many times, that she wanted to be an artist slash chef when she grew up? Did I believe in her ability to do it? Did I want to spend time with her? The answer was easy.


We tied each other's aprons and I laid out the ingredients for mashed potatoes. Abby got to work mashing the Yukon gold potatoes I had boiled. She grated some Parmesan and stirred it in with sour cream, cream cheese, salt, pepper and milk. She set that bowl aside, and we took out the cast iron skillet to cook up the meat. She heated the oil and dumped in the beef chuck, breaking it up with a wooden spoon. I poured in the chopped onions, Merlot, and Worcestershire sauce. She inhaled deeply as the ingredients heated in the pan. 

"Girls, do you smell this?" she asked. "It smells soooo good." She browned the meat and thickened the sauce with cornstarch and cold water. She asked what made the bubbles as the mixture simmered. We stirred in our seasonings (a family secret, I won't tell!), and then I held the heavy pan over the casserole dish so she could scrape it all into the bottom. She layered the meat under peas and corn, then spread her mashed potatoes over top. She thought we should add a little butter over top. I, being the sous-chef, was in no position to disagree.


We hosted her grandparents for dinner that night and as we all sat around the table digging in after grace, everyone began to thank and compliment me on the delicious dinner.

"Oh no," I said. "Abby made all of this. Start to finish." All seven of us looked over at her. Abby's high apple cheekbones squished up into her eyes, her smile was so big. They showered her with praise and she humbly thanked them, making sure to ask her sisters dramatically, "Did you know I put wine in this? You're eating wine!"Giggles and gasps. 



When I tucked her into bed that night, I asked what her favourite part of the day had been. She had gone bowling with a good friend from school, watched a Christmas movie in her jammies that morning, and practiced her piano for her proud grandparents. You can imagine how my heart did swell when she wrapped her little arm around my neck and whispered in my ear, "making dinner with you, mama."

Friday, November 18, 2016

Choices

Raising kids, and being a human, I am recognizing that each of us needs just a few things in order to be okay. We need shelter, food and safety in order to be free to grow. We thrive on predictability, and the comfort in knowing that one's safety, food and shelter needs will be met for the foreseeable future gives us a lot of space to fill with individuality. In social relationships, kids and spouses and friends and family members crave a similar sense of predictable safety and comfort. 

I have been married to Rich now for nine years, and we have been a couple for nearly 16. This relationship has been totally our choice. Our choice to start it, our choice to commit to it, our choice to sustain it and our choice to stay in it. This makes it different than any of my relationships with my kids, or my family, or even my friends. This relationship happens day in, day out, through stomach flus, deaths, bill not getting paid, moves, births, mistakes, celebrations and every other aspect of a long life, because we choose it.


Rich's decision to keep loving me and my decision to keep loving him aren't always easy choices. We know what is at stake, we know the value of our vows, and we know that at any given moment a house of cards can come crashing down. It has happened before, it will happen again, and our relationship will keep being tested. We will keep being forced to ask ourselves and each other if we want to keep doing this. 

I say this all as though things are fragile between us and I confidently endorse our bond as strong, deeply-rooted, loving and equal. We are good, in love, we respect each other, we support each other and we have no plans to put an end to this goodness. Acknowledging how easily things can change, however, I am grateful that in spite of all the odds, we are together. 

For our anniversary this year, Rich affirmed for me through a very touching gesture that I am seen. He sees me and hears me. This is one of those key, foundational elements that we all need. Every one of us wants to know we are important. 

He gifted me a collection of books: a journal, for me to scribble notes. A collection of Nobel Prize-winning short stories, so I can model my work after the best out there. Two books of poems carefully selected for me. These things together were meant to tell me I am a writer. He believes in me. I am important to him, he sees my value, my true self, and he supports it. What greater gift from a husband to a wife exists, I ask?

Pardon my brag, but this, this is the gesture of a good man. Amidst a busy life parenting our four girls, recovering from an injury, staying afloat and figuring it out as we go, we celebrate our choice to be together. I am so grateful for him. 

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Filling White Spaces

There is a tendency as the week progresses, for activities to fill up our weekend. I use a paper planner, and by Thursday the weekend squares are usually filled with dinner plans, gymnastics classes, birthday parties, get-togethers and housecleaning. This visual filling of the little white boxes serves as an alarm system for me. Warning: your days are jam-packed. The philosophy of the weekend, a time of rest and rejuvenation, becomes obscured by FOMO (that's fear of missing out). Busy weekends plus busy weekdays equal tired out family members whose needs become expressed in tantrums and crankiness.


This weekend was shaping up to be busy. I quickly saw our mornings and afternoons claimed by plans. These plans all looked lovely, fun and enjoyable. I am glad we made them. In the balancing act of motherhood, I knew we also needed unstructured time, connecting time and rest time. I said no to a couple of things, because my mama heart knew the girls and I needed time together. The best way to show my girls I love them is to give them my time. In that time, I am available to them, body and spirit.


With so much time apart during the school week, we needed to be together without distractions or errands. This isn't always obvious. I notice Robin following me as I dress and brush my teeth in the morning, because she just wants to be near me before she spends a day at school. I hear Abby ask me to stay longer after tucking her in, so she can have me to herself. I sense the tension levels rise when they are left to "play together nicely" as I clean and fix things around the house. This is when I am called to remember that to these girls, I am their mama. I am their sun. I am the director of the show, at least a little while longer, until they have plans of their own.



We had a nice hot bath after dinner Saturday, got into our jammies, watched a movie, and cuddled before I tucked them all in to bed. Sunday afternoon, instead of going for my usual long run and shopping for groceries, we visited a friend's new home and gorgeous country property for some exploring. The unbridled freedom to adventure together in uncharted territory was rejuvenating. The historically unpredictable November forecast treated us to a sweater-weather afternoon under sunny skies. We had free reign of a creek running through our friend's forested property. We hiked upstream to a waterfall hidden away from any other human visitors. We climbed apple trees and ate fruits that clung to branches through weeks of frost; a sweet reward. 


The side effect to so much time spent active in cool, autumn air is tired bodies. Our eyes will close and we will fall asleep as soon as our heads hit the pillow. What a gift, this kind of sleep. We will wake Monday morning rested and restored, in all manners. Our bodies will be stronger and our stores replenished. Our hearts will be full of loving cuddles, shared memories and the feeling that we are all important enough to each other to make time. They will know, I hope, that they are important, they are worthy, and they are capable. 




Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Sit and Listen

In confusing, overwhelming times, a need arises to speak. Talk it out, chew on it until it is regurgitated as something that finally makes more sense. I feel this compulsion, too. To share, to dialogue, to think on the outside of my mind. I have fostered a growing suspicion that I could benefit more from sitting and listening. It is, after all, hard to learn something when I am busy teaching people what I think by talking at them/to them/with them.


This week, a lot of issues and thoughts, words and arguments are swirling about in the air. It is busy, in the air. Too busy. Overwhelming. Against all compulsions and my initial reactions, I think it is best to sit and listen. Take it in. Learn.

The week is chugging on, each day giving us a new concept to taste, digest and expel in one form or another. At the end of this week comes Remembrance Day, a moment of national silence. Quiet. To reflect and remember, honour and mourn. We consider our freedom, and the costs. We thank our veterans and active duty military for their service. We are humbled, quiet, in their presence and memory.

I can remember November 11th as far back as my school-age memory serves. Each year, I remember standing in a gymnasium or bundled up at an outdoor ceremony. The bugle plays. There is silence, and I unfold the Kleenex from my pocket to dry my cheeks. I will do the same this week. I will think about the sacrifices. I am grown, now, and in sitting and listening I have learned of soldiers my own age who suffered. Who suffer. I have known men who grew old and continue to suffer. They came home when others did not.

Perspective.

This week is tumultuous. It is confusing. This week our place in the world feels magnified, as the big picture comes together and we wonder how the story will play out. Instead of talking, being armchair pundits, growing angry, growing spiteful, let's sit quietly. Let's listen. Let's learn together. Let's remember the names and faces we know. The stories we have sit and heard. I will think of the military members I know who have missed their families, their spouses and children, to serve and fight and work towards peace. Many come home not at peace, and the suffering continues. They need us to sit and listen.


Then, when it is time to speak, let your words pass through these three gates, as Sufi poet Rumi advised, and first ask yourself: "Is it  true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?"

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Listen to the Wind

I saw the first snow falling this afternoon. It reminds me a new season will come soon. Not my favourite, but Mother Nature didn't ask, so I won't bother her. I have had my crock pot out, bread baking weekly, swapped heavy blankets in for light ones, outfitted the girls in winter gear and put a tarp over the wood pile. Now that all of the list items have been checked off, I begin to settle in to the dark months. The new season will settle in and do to me what she always does. I resist, at first.



The season is cold, the wind bites, my toes get clammy without socks on. I live in a day planner upon whose pages I list our dinner plans, appointments, activities, and reminders. As if writing them down and checking them off means I'm doing alright. I make sure all mittens have been accounted for, that tickets for holiday recitals are purchased well in advance for our large family, the broken weather stripping is replaced on the back door before snow and most seep in the crack. All of these things amount to organization, and by a certain extension, peace. But the kind of peace that can be organized and bought is not what the cold months ask me to cultivate.


I stand at the front window and watch snowflakes fall, dizzyingly fast under the streetlights, chaotically whipping in the wind. I take a break from planning the kind of weather gear we'll need in the morning, and what we'll eat for breakfast. Step one, I remember, is to be still. Make room. I have cleaned and repaired and been busy preparing, but now the real work begins.

Be still. Find where the heart is. Listen and feel. Stay there when my mind wanders and the fidgets creep in. Resolutely ignore the distractions, reminding myself if they are of any importance, they will make themselves known another time. Work myself into the stillness and wait what the cold days bring. Sometimes it is reflection, sometimes it is re-aligning priorities with clarity, sometimes it is resolving to take better care, sometimes it is evolving into someone who lets herself feel things gutturally. A mystery, each season, each cycle through. 
Skylar already knows, Zen master that she is

I am reminded as well of a favourite proverb of mine: "Listen to the wind, it talks. Listen to the silence, it speaks. Listen to the heart, it knows." (Native American Proverb)

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

No Answers

In talking with neighbours and friends, we all agree the foliage this year seems particularly spectacular. Brighter, more vibrant than other years. I thought maybe my eyes were just metaphorically more open, more observant of the changing colours, and so that was why they seem extra beautiful fantastic this Autumn. It happens every year, predictably. i must be more attuned to noticing life's beauties this year. Nope. Everybody seems to be making extra effort to get out to the woods for walks and hikes. We want to be immersed in these living works of art.

So I thought to myself, "Is there a scientific reason the leaves are brighter this year?" I wondered if the drought in July, the late spring or the sunny October days may account for the beauty. Tree experts in the news hazard best guesses, but there seems to be no known cause. What?! Hold the phone. A mystery! An inexplicable, un-Googleable, spontaneous mystery? No identifiable, quantifiable answer! This is amazing, to me. Stand and behold this magnificent wonder.


In a world where there are answers to everything, I am in awe. Whenever I need a recipe substitution, a tip for getting crayon off walls, an answer about what kind of dinosaur that is, where the closest Bridgehead Coffee is located, there is always an answer within a few seconds of beginning a Google search. This convenience and access to answers is amazing; a true testament to the unfathomable, limitless capacity of the human mind for technological innovation.


Today, there is no answer at my computer. There is only hiking. It began a beautiful, warm morning with a weather forecast promising blue skies.  My sister, Summer and I drove into Gatineau Park, an area people will drive from hours away to visit this time of year. We chose a 2.5km hike around Pink Lake and began to bear witness. That's all one can do, really. Unanswerable questions like "why are the leaves so beautiful?" are shifted aside to make room for awe and wonder. 




Gold-leafed trees erupted all around us, as though we were walking through a film reel edited to display only yellow tones. We turned into the sun and the lake was alight with turquoise, a pop of jewel tone among the rich hues of the trees. Further along the path, the maples weren't just red, they were nearly neon. The orange leaves weren't ruddy, they were glowing like fire. There simply weren't enough ways for me to categorize, document, and describe the wonders my eyes beheld. So instead, I walked among them, let their magic pour over me and into me. The warm sun blessed my skin, and I felt communion with every other leaf touched by the same rays. 


When something so rare as an unidentifiable phenomenon comes along, one so obviously beautiful and so easily accessible to people from all walks of life, I am humbled beyond questions. I obey. I worship. I absorb what magic I can and I feel what it is to be present. Not curious, not pensive, just part of a fleeting Autumn season's beauty. 


If you have time for a walk or for a longer hike, I implore you. Go. Leave devices and the world of answers behind. Go for a walk with mystery, even a short after-dinner stroll through beauty and wonder. May it leave you awe-struck, even just a little. Let the wonder still your busy mind. 



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