Monday, September 29, 2014

Amidst the Noise

Yes, it is fall, and yes, the outdoors are beautiful right now. I'll leave it to the more poetic minds out there to wax about the season, because they probably don't have loud toddler chatter as distracting background noise. It really makes contemplation and the conjuring of lyrical prose difficult achievements. Suffice it to say, we are enjoying this momentary jolt of warm weather with afternoon swims, airy sun dresses, walks under the canopy of fiery leaves and primal displays of enthusiasm via interpretive dance on our front lawn. Look at that, I can be slightly poetic amidst the cacophony of little girl shrieks. 

Some days I find really easy activities to engage the girls' attention that are both age- and season-appropriate. On those days, the deafening screams of toddler arguments are tuned out by my new favourite frequency: quiet confidence. Today was one such day. (Mondays make for great resolution-setting days, don't they? If I am to declare myself a renewed mama of patience, no yelling, calmness and fun ideas, it might as well be on a Monday.)

We went for a short walk, all the little girls on foot, to a neighbour with a giant pine tree down the street. They collected big, open pine cones in little buckets. At home, we spread a peanut butter-oat mixture all over the pine cones, tied string to the tops, and rolled them in birdseed. This process was messy, involved several reminders not to eat the birdseed (before my resolve was thinned and I just let them eat birdseed), and, the best part: proud little grins. 

It was messy. Many seeds were eaten.
 We all walked out front after lunch in our bare feet to check on our pine cones and see if any birds had found our treats. A squirrel had taken one away, but the rest still hang. I posted Skylar under the tree this afternoon to guard our fir tree from rodent intruders.

My recent decision to pare down our level of busy-ness came in good time. I had forgotten how many needs our home has this time of year. This weekend there was a garden to cut back, logs to pile for firewood, and family dinners to prepare. It felt really productive to perform sweaty, hard work with immediate and visible benefits. Abby helped me finish cutting back the hydrangea and plant some tulip bulbs for next spring. The little girls contributed their pine cone bird feeders, to help our bird neighbours fatten up for winter. Rich helped dig up some ugly, brown-flowering bushes to make way for berry bushes next year.

Dried, chopped and ready to burn
He also transported and piled maple logs from my mom's (former) tree. The maple's roots had been damaged and the tree was dying. I couldn't stand to have that magnificent part of our family's history be turned into sawdust by the arborists, so I asked if we could have the logs for firewood. And maybe some crafty projects. I climbed that tree, carved it, watched my babies sleep under its hypnotizing branches dancing in the wind, posed next to it for pictures, and had my Grama wax its leaves and mail them to me in the Yukon when I was homesick. I remember helping plant that tree in our backyard shortly after moving in. Now all that's left are rings to count in a pile of logs at the side of my house. I'm sure there is some poetic metaphor to be made, but the increasing decibel of singing coming from Hailey and Robin's room has quashed all hope of inspiration.

The remains of our family maple tree

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Two Roads Project: Close-Up

Johanna: (Left) At this age in my life, birthdays start to be less about the hoopla and attention, and more about meaningful connections and introspective thinking. 
Yesterday was my birthday and my big request was for butter chicken (with naan and basmati) and carrot cake for dessert. I woke up to many happy birthdays from Noah and Katia, and enjoyed opening my cards over a delicious breakfast of pumpkin waffles. I received phone calls and was just the right amount of celebration. 
Birthdays have a way of getting me to look at my over all life. How are we doing here? Am I happy right now in my life? Is there anything missing? 
In the New Year we hope to be moving on to a new posting, in a different part of the country. This big change on the horizon gives me hope and excitement, for the new changes that will surely unfold. 
With a big move stewing in the back of my mind, I think about what I want next for myself, for my family, for a home. I know that there are certain things lacking right now that I will want to fill in (a church or spiritual community, extra activities for the kids, more culture), but I also know that there are many beautiful lifestyle attributes (slow living, lots of family time, close connections to nature) that I will want to continue as we move on. 
There is hope and anticipation and possibility. There is the chance to look inward. There is the opportunity for change. And I am looking forward to it all. 

Sarah (right): When I am old and my memory is fading, I hope I remember the intimacy of family. The smell of my babies' fluffy scalps as they rested heavy on my chest. The rough bristles on the nape of Rich's neck as I run my hands over it. The freckles, the sleep noises, the split-second expression I see: things only I notice. I want to remember Hailey and Robin's identical ponytails. Each day they wear their bangs this way, in floppy ponytails tied with impossibly small elastics atop their little heads. The contrast of sun-bleached white hairs against suntanned forehead skin. The wispy, airy feel of hair that has never been cut. The curls at the end, corkscrew tight in the back. These two little heads come running at me and collapse into my lap. I find myself staring down onto these little ponytails as we read another story, cut fingernails, slide on shoes. These are the things I hope flash before my eyes in my life's montage, evoking a powerful feeling of love found in the most minute of places.

The well-known poem by Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken ends, "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-- I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference."
Two women, who became friends via the magic of the Internet, were both living life on roads less traveled by. Circumstance had them both live in Whitehorse for a short time, where they became best friends. Life's map has them currently in differing geographic locations, but their connection and camaraderie continue as they continue on paths of motherhood, friendship, creativity and discovery. The Two Roads Project is our effort to reconnect with each other and our inner artists on a weekly basis, each Friday. (Or thereabouts. We don't always know which day of the week it is).
Johanna writes here.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Feminism, 2014

Abby, at age three, told me that a boy in her preschool class had long hair tied in a ponytail, so he must be a girl. I remember answering her with an explanation that went something like, "Many times you'll see girls with long hair in ponytails, but boys can do that with their hair, too. Just as girls can cut their hair very short. Hair belongs to each person to do with as they please."

She has posed a few questions about people in crowds whom defied what she understood as cemented gender qualifiers, and again I revisited her question with answers like, "Most of the time it is girls that wear dresses, but boys can too," and when she says something innocently and loudly, like "Mama is that a boy or a girl?" I often prompt her to ask the person, who has most likely overheard and began looking back at us. Kids disarm people in a really beautiful way, so I let it happen.

All that to say, in our family, there is a very fluid understanding about how gender directs what you can do. I honour that my girls need to establish their sense of identity and gender as they develop, and I help them do that by letting them experiment in their play, in how they dress and in how they act. In all frankness, I can say that, with the exception of Summer (who is still quite young), all my girls seem to be pretty comfortable in the female genders they have been assigned, and I don't foresee any issues there. As for the limitations they will surely face because of their genders, I am arming them with tolerance, confidence and, when they are older, this video:

I applaud Emma Watson with my own standing ovation for putting eloquently chosen words to the conflict women face by virtue of their gender. She simplifies complex international challenges to gender equality by placing the onus on us as individuals, women and men. This address to the UN has gone viral, so I'll spare you any more of my own synopses and let you watch it for yourselves. Suffice it to say, she posits that women's rights are every one's responsibility to uphold, men included.

I have seen it in my lifetime, when gender roles were pushed on girls in spite of their capabilities and dreams. I am aghast when I learn what it means to be born a girl in China and India, where proverbs like, "Having a daughter is like having a spilled glass of water," prevail. There are countries in the world where lifting women into the arenas of quality, honour and respect seem like unimaginable, far-flung, withering dreams. That is not the case where I live. Perhaps if we raise our daughters here to ask themselves, "If not me, who?" and  "If not now, when?", then our notions of gender equality can indeed begin to permeate places where, today, women are shunned as second-rate chattel.

This is what feminism looks like in our corner of the world in 2014.

(Kristy Chapman Photography)

Monday, September 22, 2014


This time last year, when we were counting down the weeks to move into our Ottawa home, adjusting to life with a new baby, and helping Abby transition into full-day kindergarten, I could not handle juggling any more balls in the air. Pumpkin patches, apple picking, harvest festivals all passed me by, and while I lamented that I was missing out, I took solace in knowing it would all be there next year.  Not a very carpe diem way of approaching things, but we were in survival mode and that calls for a moratorium on all rules, routines and policies.

But what does that mean for us now? This year, we are settled. Back-to-school required minor adjustments, but Abby's expectations were set and met. Summer is growing and sleeps in predictable patterns. Hailey and Robin are content with paper and markers, and equally enthralled with nature hikes, road trips and cupcake treats. Rich has a nice work-life balance, finds time for the things that matter to him, and we both enjoy our show together, neighbourhood jogs and the odd date night thrown in. If I look around me, everyone is content where they are with what they find.

Fall mantle.  But for whom?
Then, there is me. I am content, too, don't get me wrong: bills are getting paid, our bellies are full of food, and we are healthy. But I remember the things we missed last year and feel a pull to do it all. If I list it all off, it sounds absurd: the Carleton University butterfly exhibit, farmer's market last harvest week, apple picking, my own freelance writing projects, a trip to Montreal's Biodome, attending workshops at Ottawa Writer's Festival, a hike in the Gatineaus, the pumpkin patch, helping a pregnant twin mama with meal delivery, visiting friends when they come to town next month, Thanksgiving everything, then Halloween everything.

As you can see, it is all too much. On top of what we already have booked: a race for me in October, a trip for Rich and I in November, Sunday morning gymnastics for Abby, and family dinners for Thanksgiving and my birthday, my existing writing commitments.

Comfort foods
I think I just answered my own question. It is clear that when we have free time as a family on evenings and weekends, we aren't going to do everything. In fact, I know everyone would be happy not doing anything but eating and cuddling at home, like we do. Maybe the occasional walk in the woods or trip to the park. I just have a hard time shaking the nagging voice that says I am not seizing the days, making them exciting, creating long-lasting memories on outings with our girls. But when I step back: am I doing that for them? Or is it maybe more for me? I am answering my own questions again.

Thanks, blog.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014


I read somewhere, probably somewhere pithy like Pinterest, that black and white pictures are to the creative soul what a novel is without pictures. We see an image, and our imagination takes us the rest of the way. I don't know, it stuck with me. Maybe because I am a defender of novels in a day where reading is qualified as Buzzfeed lists, trending hashtags, and linked articles no longer than 700 words. Or maybe it is just because behind a black and white filter, an image seems to take on more depth, more importance. Suddenly, I can see majesty in something I didn't notice the first time around.

I can see here how Skylar is ageing. I can see how soft and fluffy her fur is, after a morning when I don't think I stopped once to pat her coat or cuddle her squishy body.  I can see depth where I usually see nuisance. 

This fall we have made decisions about how busy we are to be, how intentionally we are to make good use of resources, how much free space we'd like to leave ourselves. For fun, for housework, for impromptu all-doll tea parties and subsequent all-doll sleep sessions on the playroom carpet. I see things moving a lot slower, and when I notice something sweet, telling or otherwise beautiful I remember to take a picture. I frame the shot, smile behind the lens and snap the shutter, committing to both my own memory and the camera card's a moment. I revisit it when I upload it to my laptop, editing shadows and contrasts, light and dark. 

The poet in me is fed and happy. I have found beauty, lyric, symbolism and a story told in a picture I took of a fleeting moment. I have made space and time in my days to do nothing but watch my family be silly. I catch Abby leading Robin by the hand to a corner of the couch to cuddle, just the two of them, unprompted. I see Hailey pick herself up after a fall and choose to smile instead of cry. I see Summer do some cute new leg move and scan the room to meet me eyes, checking to see if I saw her accomplishment. I did. 

Monday, September 15, 2014


The weekend rainfall was all the permission I needed to stay in, drink tea, and start making preparations for fall. We tried on hand-me-down shoes, jackets and hats for size, consigned too smalls and extras, put away sleeveless rompers, canned tomatoes, cooked warm comfort foods, meal planned, read by the fire, organized the play room, and donated a whole whack of loved but finished toys. There was very little summer about our days. Swimming is on hiatus until the warmer temperatures subside from the forecast for good. We all put socks on this morning, because the hardwood floors were cold.

I feel like planning. I made fall travel plans, by myself and away with Rich. I purged a bunch of stuff to make our house flow more efficiently when the cold weather comes and we spend more time indoors. I gave the fireplace a test run and thoroughly enjoyed the smell of burning firewood that permeated the main floor, drifting up the stairs to our bedrooms. It felt cozy, and it felt right.  

I take comfort in embracing the transitory nature of autumn. It feels a lot like nesting in preparation for a baby. I laundered and filed seasonally appropriate clothes, moving girls up a size and storing away special baby clothes to save for ... for whom? Nieces or nephews, grand babies, friends' babies to come. I took out quilts to play with and stored away sunscreen and swim goggles. I gathered root vegetables and the last of the tomatoes to turn into something warm and nourishing in our bellies. 

It feels very primal. My biology can sense the impending cold months, and experience has taught me how best to prepare for what's ahead. Fall is something to celebrate, and that reminds me to keep one foot in the present while the other is in a Sorel snow boot, somewhere in December. I am enjoying walks outside, putting knitted hats and woollen slippers on Summer. I wrap Hailey and Robin in our outdoor blanket in the stroller while we walk Abby to school. We crunch leaves, gather fallen acorns,  and avoid the bees making frenzied, last-minute rushes for the flowers.

Anyone with an Instagram account knows how accessible autumn's beauty is. The show-off leaves blow about, and scurrying animals add movement to the pictures. In our house, there is baking to be smelled and then enjoyed once it cools, slow acoustic guitar music in the background, dark spices added to our breakfast oatmeal to warm us from the inside. I mourn the loss of summertime, my quickly-fading suntan and afternoons reading in my floatie chair. Sweaters, chai tea and walks in the woods make for a pretty good consolation prize.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Your own curiosity

I know I may be going a bit overboard in my fandom of Elizabeth Gilbert, but I cannot apologize for the resonance I feel in her shared wisdom. I just feel a pull on a thread, the other end of which much attach to her pen. I have found particular wisdom and encouragement from her in application to my writing, and what the craft means to me. She explains very well the reasons it is not just a hobby or interest, but a spiritual practice. I often don't know what I feel about a certain issue until I write about it, privately in my journals or publicly in this space.

She is travelling with Oprah on a speaking tour, and shared a video this week that inspired me. She talks about how difficult it is to follow one's passion, when it is unclear what that passion is. I know so many people in my generation who are bred to follow their dreams, without really giving us permission to not know what those are. You don't need to backpack Europe after university to find yourself. You also don't need to travel around the world after a divorce in order to be whole again (though it worked for Liz).

I know my passion is writing, but aside from that practice, I have wondered before what to write about, what to chase, and into what should I invest my time. The answer isn't to get hung up on what our passions might be, but, simply, what piques our curiosity.

Each day, each hour, that could be something different. It could lead nowhere, it could lead exactly where you need to go. Today, for instance, I am curious about how my book is going to end. I am about a hundred pages out, so I plan to sit here beside the dog, with my cup of chai and find out what happens to Theodore decker in The Goldfinch.

Follow your curiosity.
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