When he was small, my youngest son had a habit of filling his pockets with the many treasures he encountered in his daily adventures. I didn't always understand the value he saw in his chosen objects -- really, how many rocks and sticks could one boy keep? In his eyes, though, each one was beautiful and important. Life is just like that on a larger scale, isn't it? We gather up the precious bits of our own experiences and save them all to learn from and enjoy later. Perhaps you'll find a little something here that you'd like to keep in your pockets. Thanks for visiting!

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Worth Keeping in Your Pockets: November 2015

The first significant snowfall of the season happened here over the weekend. Pretty white flakes swirled gently in the cold November air, creating a magical glow in a sky that should have been dark in the late evening hours. The first snow evokes the same rush of sentiments in me every single winter: sudden joy, hope, childlike wonder at the beauty of the tiny crystalline forms as they fashion a cozy white blanket over the trees. Based on the enchanting snowy photos that so many of my friends shared online that night and the following day, it seems many of us are touched somehow by the loveliness of a scene that feels fresh and new no matter how many times in our lives we witness it.

Once the cold, wintery weather settles in for the long haul and the novelty of the first snowfall wears off, we might be looking for ways to prolong the feelings of lightheartedness that those initial flakes stir up in us. The months ahead are a good time for spreading cheer in our homes, our communities, and elsewhere in the world through little gestures of sharing. Today, in a November edition of Worth Keeping in Your Pockets, I'd like to share with you some happy items and activities that might help make winter feel more welcoming.

Natural scents for your home: I love to have a house that smells inviting in the winter, as if someone has been baking all afternoon. Sometimes I actually do bake to create that effect, but when I'm not planning on popping cookies into the oven, I like to use a little bit of scent to sweeten stale house air. I am very sensitive to synthetic fragrances (most scented candles and plug-in air fresheners give me awful headaches and feelings of nausea), so I was pleased to discover this room diffuser that allows me to use whatever pure essential oils I like. I just add a few drops of oil to the little pad, plug in the diffuser, and enjoy the subtle scent as it wafts through the house. My favourite combination of oils so far has been tangerine mixed with cinnamon -- the boys always ask me what I'm baking when they smell it.  :)

Stuart McLean story collections on CD: Our family has long been fans of Stuart McLean's CBC Radio program The Vinyl Cafe; we love listening to him tell humorous and poignant stories each week in his familiar, engaging voice. Matt and I have been to see his live Christmas show a couple of times and it is always such a beautiful evening of narrative and music. Sadly, Stuart McLean has had to cancel the rest of his Christmas tour this year for health reasons, but it's still possible to bring his warm, lively storytelling into our own family room over the winter through various compilations of his work on CD. We have the Christmas collection shown above and we look forward to enjoying it together every year. There are also other great collections available at Chapters. (Matt keeps The Auto Pack in his car to keep him entertained when he's doing a lot of driving for work.) While we're listening this holiday season, we'll be sending Stuart our best wishes for good health in the new year.

A special knitting project: If you like to spend some of your long winter evenings knitting, or if you know someone who does, perhaps you'll be interested in helping the Canadian military. They're looking for volunteers to knit the national gift of peace: sweet little dolls that soldiers and health care workers will give to the many Syrian refugee children who are expected to settle in Canada over the coming months. For many years, the gestures of love woven into the handmade Izzy Dolls have brought comfort to children in countries torn apart by war or natural disasters. You can find all of the information you need to participate in this meaningful project here.

Thornbury Bakery bread: We've recently discovered a most delicious gluten-free, dairy-free, egg-free bread, made fresh at the Thornbury Bakery from wholesome ingredients and delivered to several health food stores in our area. The loaves of bread, the buns, and the baguettes are so much like wheat-based artisanal breads that it's hard to believe they're gluten-free and vegan. Will is thrilled to have buns with such good flavour and texture packed in his lunches now, and the baguettes are wonderful warmed and sliced to accompany a steaming bowl of chili or soup on a frosty evening. You can find more information about Thornbury Bakery products, and a list of stores that sell them, here.

Magnetic messages: We've had a set of large magnetic alphabet letters on our fridge ever since the boys were very small. Initially they were for Noah and Will to explore sounds and learn how words are formed, but as the boys grew older and became avid readers and writers, we all started using the letters to leave messages and jokes for one another to find, so the letters' appeal has lasted much longer than I initially thought it would! Almost everyone who comes to our house, children and adults alike, ends up writing something on our fridge with the letters, or with the magnetic poetry set that we've recently added. This kind of word play is great fun for all ages, and I'm often touched by the insights I find shared in that little corner of our kitchen. (My mom and dad have this magnetic Scrabble set on their fridge, and we all love to play with it, too!)

As the cold weather arrives and the snow swirls all around your home, what sorts of things help keep you feeling warm and cheerful? I'd love to hear about them.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

A warm embrace

Last summer when we were spending time at our friends' cottage on St. Joseph Island, we all became attached to a particular throw that was draped across the couch there. The blanket was thick and as soft as you can imagine, with faux fur on one side and a generous plush on the other. We nicknamed the blanket "Big Iris", because lying under it was like being curled up near our enormous, silky, friendly cat who is never far from anyone's side at home. We would often find the boys tucked under Big Iris as they read in the mornings, and in the evenings when the air was chilly, all four of us would huddle under its welcome warmth while we talked and laughed together.

While I was shopping recently for decorative items for our basement redo project, I came across a Big Iris look-alike blanket and knew we had to have it for our rec room. I brought it home, took the tags off, washed it and fluffed it up beautifully in the dryer, and laid it across the back of the newly assembled sectional one afternoon this week. I then waited happily to witness the boys' reactions when they discovered we had a Big Iris of our own.

It wasn't the boys who found Big Iris first, though; it was the real Iris. I think she is in love.

We'll be making room for one more under Big Iris in the evenings now.

It feels this week as though the whole world could do with being wrapped in the embrace of a warm blanket. Let's all remember that small acts of love can bring great comfort.  xo 

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Etsy: Happy Holiday Gift Ideas

The leaves have all fallen from the trees around us now, leaving empty spaces where not long ago there were brilliant splashes of crimson and gold. Looking out at the deserted landscape, it would be easy to feel a November sort of melancholy. A few days ago, though, I caught sight of a beautiful red cardinal perched in the bare branches of the tree right outside our kitchen window, his bright feathers adding a welcome splash of colour to the morning. It was the first time I had seen this winged friend in months, and I was reminded of how each season brings its own little joys to our lives. It's important to keep our hearts open to receiving them.

One of the things I love about this time of year is choosing special Christmas gifts for family and friends. I start early to give myself lots of time to find little treasures that I hope will make each person happy. Time and time again I find myself turning to Etsy, the wonderful online marketplace for handmade and vintage goods, to do much of my holiday shopping. It makes finding unique gifts fun and easy (and I don't have to go to a crowded mall to do it!)

Today I'm sharing a collection of lovely gift giving ideas I've found as I've been browsing Etsy lately. Perhaps you'll find something here that would be just right for a special person you know.

For the woman with a generous heart:

Hand Knit Red Cable Scarf from Knits by Nat

Leather Tote Bag from Go Forth Goods

All Natural Body Care Gift Set from Wild Raven Soap

For the guy who doesn't need another tie:

UnCase for iPhone from Zero Five Design

Rosewood Watch from tmbrwood

Duck Canvas Dopp Kit by Shotgun Paul

For the trend savvy tween or teen:

Handcrafted Bamboo Skateboard from Habitat Imprint

For the sweetest little member of the family:

Sock Monkey Toy from Amber Vroom

Natural Wood Bowling Set from Apple n Amos

Striped Bathrobe from Eco Emi

For the friend who loves small surprises:

Panda Cookie Dunk Mug from Lenny Mud

Hand Stamped Vintage Spoon from Milk and Honey Luxuries

Heart Hand Warmers from WormeWoole

All Natural Peppermint Bark Candle from The Tiny Collection

There are so many more wonderful handcrafted items from around the world to discover on Etsy. Take a peek at the thoughtfully curated editors' picks in the Etsy Holiday Gift Guide to make it even easier to find the perfect something for everyone on your list. May you find much to smile about this November!

Monday, November 9, 2015

Cashew Butter Brownies (gluten-free, dairy-free, egg-free)

One evening later this week I'll be attending a book club meeting with a group of friends. (We're reading Elizabeth Hay's His Whole Life, a book so beautifully written that I'm reading it a second time this week just to savour the images and feelings it evokes.) Our once-a-month meetings are as much about friendship and food as they are about discussing literature; everyone brings along an appetizer or sweet treat to share and we always spend an enjoyable few hours catching up with each other.

While thinking about what food to bring for this month's meeting, I remembered an old favourite brownie recipe I used to make years ago from the Better Homes and Gardens' New Baking Book. Those rich brownies, topped with chocolate chips, toffee bits, and nuts, were a definite crowd-pleaser, and I was curious to see if I could create a new version of them that was free of gluten, dairy and eggs. My curiosity paid off: the dark chocolate cashew butter brownies that came out of my oven today were every bit as scrumptious as the ones I remembered loving long ago. I'm happy to be able to share this classic treat with Will now, too!

Cashew Butter Brownies

one 500g jar of natural cashew butter
2 tbsp ground chia seeds mixed with 6 tbsp water (stir and let stand for a minute to form a gel)
1/2 cup pure maple syrup
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup blanched almond flour
1/2 cup cocoa powder
1/4 tsp sea salt

1/3 cup chopped walnuts
1/3 cup unsweetened large flake coconut
1/4 cup chopped dark chocolate

Preheat the oven to 325 F.  Line a 9 by 13 inch baking pan with two pieces of parchment paper, one placed over the other in opposite directions.

Add the cashew butter, chia seed mixture, maple syrup, and vanilla to a large mixing bowl and beat these ingredients with an electric mixer until they are well combined.

In a smaller bowl, combine the almond flour, cocoa powder, and sea salt. Gradually add the dry ingredients to the cashew butter mixture, beating with the electric mixer after each addition, until you have a uniform batter.

Spread the batter into the prepared baking pan, using the back of a spoon to smooth it out evenly. Sprinkle the chopped walnuts, coconut flakes, and dark chocolate bits on top of the batter. Bake in the preheated oven for 30 minutes.

Let the brownies cool completely. Lift the edges of the parchment paper to remove the cooled brownies from the pan, place them on a large cutting board, and cut them into squares using a sharp knife. Serve and make everyone happy. (These brownies go perfectly with a cold glass of homemade almond milk!)

I'm looking forward to sharing these decadent brownies with my friends later this week. I think I'm going to have to bake a second batch before the book club meeting, though -- these ones sure won't last long at our house!

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The truth about basement renovations

We are in the process of renovating our basement. As has been the case with all of the major home improvement projects Matt and I have undertaken together, I've been alternating these past few weeks between giddy euphoria over how nice I imagine everything will look when it's all finished, and utter despair over the chaos that this project has created in our house in the interim. You know how things have to get worse before they get better during the renovation process? Let's just say I'm not very tolerant when it comes to the "worse" part. For anyone contemplating a basement redecorating project of their own, here are a few truths I've discovered that you may want to consider before diving in.

  • You will need to become a master of the real-life version of Tetris, so that you can strategically stuff every single piece of furniture and anything else that lives in your basement into the one small room that is not being redone. (In our case, this was the bathroom. Anyone care to join us for a foosball game in the loo?)
  • When your very energetic son discovers the empty basement, he will be thrilled that you have so generously provided him with a new, wide-open gym for playing sports and practising his break dance skills. You will have to break his little heart with the news that eventually there will be furniture going back in there.
  • Your neighbours will eagerly show up in your garage with shopping carts and big blue bags, thinking that an IKEA store has finally opened up in your area. They will not be impressed when you turn them away because the boxes stacked up high there are all yours, waiting to be carried inside and assembled.
  • Your husband will disappear. (It's very likely that he will be lost somewhere among the IKEA boxes.)
  • Cats have a redecorating agenda of their own. Yours will bolt down into the basement when no one is looking, brush up against the wet paint on the walls, and then roll all over the floors in other parts of the house to spread the paint around nicely.
  • You will cry over spilled milk. Literally. Someone will spill a glass of milk at dinner when you are at the worst point of the renovation process, and you will cry and launch into a 45 minute rant about how your whole life is a disaster. And then you will go to bed, to spare your poor family from any more renovation-induced drama.
  • Everything will take much, much longer than you anticipate. (On the plus side, by the time you finish changing the last light fixture and installing the last closet handle, the energetic son who wanted an empty basement gym will have moved out to go to university, and you won't have to feel bad about filling it with the finally assembled IKEA furniture.)
If all of this is scaring you off, take heart. When basement renovations start making you crazy, you can do what we did this past weekend and leave town. (Seriously, we did. We enjoyed a great little family getaway with my mom and dad in Frankenmuth and Birch Run on Sunday and Monday, and we've returned home with renewed energy to tackle the last stages of our project.)

We've moved past the most challenging parts of the process here now, I think. The painting is done, the flooring is in, and the baseboards have all been reinstalled. We have two lovely new pantries in the basement hallway that make me happy every time I look at the rows of food and overflow kitchen items so neatly organized inside them. Most of the stuff has been cleared out of the bathroom (though the foosball table still remains), and I am starting to believe that the basement may actually one day look as nice as I first imagined it would.

If you need me over the next while, I'll be in the basement with an allen key and an encyclopedic set of instruction manuals. I'll be back (much) later....

Thursday, October 22, 2015

My favourite candidate

Last year, Will was chosen by the student head of the tech crew to join the small school team, which is responsible for setting up and running all of the equipment needed for assemblies and special events. This older boy took Will under his wing, teaching him the ins and outs of operating the sound board, and being part of that crew was one of the highlights of Will's school year. He loved going into the school early on mornings when he was needed for set ups, and the privelege of sitting at the tech crew table during assemblies to manage all of the gear that brought them to life. (In the spirit of tradition, he even got to carve his name into the table, which bears the names of all of the crew members who worked the board before him.)

This fall, Will was given the responsibility of choosing the tech crew's two newest members. The older boy is graduating at the end of this school year and is grooming Will to take charge when he leaves. It would have been typical in this kind of situation, I think, for an eleven year old to simply choose two of his good friends for the job and call it a day. But that is not at all what Will did. He asked the teachers of the two grade 6 classes if he could speak to each group of his peers for a few minutes about the opportunity, and his talk produced forty-two interested volunteers. A quick-thinking Will devised a two-stage hiring protocol on the spot. He asked everyone to submit a resume outlining their qualifications and their motivations for working on the crew, and he told them that he would invite the best candidates to do a trial run at the sound board, after which he would make his decisions.

Will pored over those resumes at home in the evenings that followed, and talked to me about the qualities he was looking for in a tech crew member: some tech experience and an eagerness to learn, dedication and a sense of responsibility. Although he worried about his friends being angry with him if he didn't choose them, he remained faithful to offering the students whom he believed best earned it the chance to come and try out the sound board. He sent the successful candidates an official email congratulating them all, and he'll have to make the final cuts soon after the second round of his process. I have no doubt he'll make excellent choices.

A couple of weeks ago, I received a phone call from Will's school principal in the middle of the morning. My heart rate skyrocketed for an instant, until I heard the principal say he was calling to ask my permission for Will to be the student spokesperson for their school fundraiser. The school council really wanted to drum up enthusiasm about the upcoming dance-a-thon, and they felt Will was the perfect person to help them do that. I gladly agreed, knowing that Will would love this particular role and would give it his all, too.

Over the following weekend, Will emailed and phone called back and forth with parent members of the council planning a fundraising kick-off assembly for Monday, one that needed to be put together on very short notice due to circumstances at the school. He selected music, agreed to do the tech set up, planned a speech, and organized a flash-mob without even having the benefit of being at school to do so. I heard from several parents on the council afterwards about what a fantastic job Will did. He's currrently spending time at home in the evenings writing enthusiastic announcements promoting the dance-a-thon, which he presents over the school PA system each morning.

It's not just his own world of school and dance-a-thons and tech crews that inspires Will, though; he also took a keen interest in politics and the federal election over these past few months. I answered many questions from him about candidates and issues, and listened to him protest intelligently about two things he perceives as injustices: that children aren't allowed to vote, and that his school doesn't have a student council that he can run for.  As I watch Will push off jauntily on his scooter down our driveway each morning, confidence and heart and a strong sense of fairness radiating from his still-small body, I think often that it wouldn't surprise me at all to see his name on a ballot one day....

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

On my way

I'm back home this week after a bustling, compelling, exhilarating few days spent with other writers at Blissdom Canada in the lovely Blue Mountain area. This morning I'm plodding through necessities like buying food, washing clothes, and keeping our insanely curious cat away from the painters working in our basement, but I'm restless, and my mind is whirring with activity that is much more appealing to me than these tasks, which feel especially unimaginative today.

The conference was what it has always been for me: a chance to learn, to be inspired, to build relationships with people who also love to do what I do. I was excited to attend sessions where intelligent women shared openly about their experiences as freelance writers, and offered useful advice and warm encouragement for others to find their way along a similar career path. I learned from experts about how to build connections and engagement on social media platforms, and about tools that can help me create posts with visual appeal. Some sessions moved me deeply, as women shared their courageous stories of personal terror and triumph, and as we remembered a kind and beautiful member of our own community who passed away unexpectedly and too soon last spring. I even spent a lively afternoon taking a class with friends at the Collingwood Cooking Academy, where we baked delicious goods with local apples and doted on the resident ducks who quacked enthusiastically outside the kitchen door while we worked. The weekend was filled with an unbridled sharing of ideas and support for one another, and I left the conference feeling buoyed by a vibrant community for the personal possibilities that lie ahead.

The drive home from Blue Mountain was along a route that was mostly unfamiliar. I navigated a long series of turns onto country roads, the open skies revealing sights that were either touching or unnerving to me. At first my hands gripped the steering wheel as I wound through curving roads leading upward, the asphalt made slick by an unseasonably early snowfall, but in time I relaxed into the rhythm of wheels rolling steadily under a canopy of heavily frosted trees. Once I passed the snow belt, the white branches gave way to ones bearing gloriously coloured leaves, clustered together to create a beautiful autumn canvas that stretched on for miles across farmers' fields. I drove past massive wind turbines spinning eerily in the otherwise quiet air, their rotating blades intimidating me in a strange, inexplicable way. I saw flocks of playful sheep and velvety brown cattle grazing peacefully at the sides of the road, and every now and then the sun's rays streamed earnestly through small gaps in the cloud cover, creating brief moments of sublime illumination. Steering myself though the hills and turns, with new discoveries around each bend, made me feel very much alive.

I have a similar kind of unexplored route to navigate in the coming months and years if I want to realize my dreams, one that will certainly be filled with moments of fear and frustration, and hopefully also of surprise and delight. I am so grateful for my experiences at Blissdom and what this community has given me to help me on my way:  direction and inspiration to continually keep moving forward, friends who encourage and believe in me, and a new-found confidence that has come from believing in myself.

Special thanks to Jennifer Powell and the entire Blissdom team for the wonderful conferences and opportunities they've created over the past several years, and best wishes to all of us on the exciting roads that lie ahead.