When he was small, my youngest son had a habit of filling his pockets with 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 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 own pockets. Thanks for visiting.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Counting down to Christmas

Snow arrived in our corner of the world this weekend, and as the four of us watched the pretty little flakes swirling outside the window, our thoughts turned happily to Christmas. We spent most of yesterday decorating our home for the holiday season, and while Noah and Will are the ones who show their excitement the most, we're all looking forward to weeks filled with family and friends, surprises, delicious foods and cherished traditions.

One of our favourite ways of making the wait until Christmas Day a little easier on the boys is keeping a special calendar with them. About five years ago, I was inspired to create a calendar of our own after seeing some photos of beautiful and unique ones in a decorating magazine. I took an old bulletin board I had lying around, painted it red with white trim, attached ribbon to twenty-four little white baby socks, added numbers on them with silver glitter fabric paint, and used clear pushpins to attach the socks in rows on the board. While my calendar certainly didn't compare to the ones that had inspired me, I was pleased with the end result and the boys were thrilled to know that there were little treasures tucked in the socks for them, one for each day leading up to when Santa would arrive.

This year I noticed that the little white socks were growing tired looking, and I went out in search of a new idea for a Christmas countdown calendar, since both Noah and Will still eagerly anticipate its appearance every holiday season. I came across this charming little cottage calendar with numbered doors for each day, and decided to bring it home rather than making something new.

I have filled the space behind each door with fun surprises for the boys: Christmas shaped Silly Bandz, spinning tops, Santa card games, snowman erasers, Lego pieces, little squares of dark chocolate, peppermint candy and the like. I look forward to seeing their smiles each morning (beginning next week!) when they peek behind the day's door to discover their treasure.

When you're a child, waiting for Christmas can seem to take an eternity! Having a little calendar like this at home gives young ones something to look forward to every day while waiting for the special one when Santa will finally arrive.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Food frustration

I have always had a hard time with the month of November. Call it the melancholy month, if you will; with all of its early darkness, cold winds, and wet, dreary landscapes, it's a month where I sometimes lose my normal tendency to put on a cheerful face and carry on in the face of life's difficulties, and instead start to feel mired down in them. I am not looking for pity here by any means (that's not my style), but I hope you'll forgive me for needing to get something off my chest.

I am completely fed-up with food right now. As many of you know from reading previous posts, both Will and I have had to avoid several whole groups of foods in our diets over the past couple of years, foods that wreak havoc on our digestive systems, and in Will's case, his skin and respiratory system. I usually make this food avoidance routine seem easy to others, but right now I'm feeling that it is incredibly hard.

Never one to be put off by a challenge, I have tracked down many healthy alternative foods, recipes, and cooking methods since learning of our food issues. I am very proud of what I've been able to do with so few options and have had some wonderful Eureka! moments in my kitchen in the past couple of years. Sometimes, though, I fall into a hole of fatigue and frustration that's hard to climb out of, because our restrictive diet is not something we can ever really escape. Take this morning for example: Will was a mess before going to school because today was the once-a-week pizza lunch day. Will obviously cannot eat pizza provided by the school, and no matter what sort of interesting lunch I try to pack as a substitute, he feels anxious about lunchtime and about being different. I felt like my heart was going to break in two when he cried this morning and told me when he can't eat pizza at school he feels "sad, lonely, and left out." While the fact he has to miss out in this case is certainly not my fault, I feel racked with guilt that I'm not able to fix this for him. He's such a sensitive boy and he worries so much about things already that it seems completely unfair for life to have added this burden to his little shoulders.

With food sensitivities, going on vacation is an experience fraught with stress and extra work instead of being a relaxing break, a fact that I was reminded of again on our recent trip to Florida. I spent hours before the trip reading websites of Orlando grocery stores to find out if they carried safe alternatives to milk and gluten-containing grains, and then spent more time in the stores themselves carefully reading labels of unfamiliar products. I read countless restaurant menus in advance, trying to figure out where we could safely eat so I could at least get out of cooking dinner sometimes during the week. (I will say that Disney does a fantastic job of accommodating people with special dietary needs!) I spent time every night packing snacks and lunches for the next day so we knew Will would always have food he could eat if he was hungry. Even venturing out to carefully researched restaurants sometimes turned out to be a bust. We took the boys to a really cool dinosaur-themed restaurant that we were sure they would love, and Will had a sad meltdown when he realized the only safe food he could order that he liked was a grilled chicken breast, something we often eat at home. After several days of seeing kids all around him eating exciting looking Mickey Mouse shaped concoctions that he couldn't eat, the disappointment of having a plain old chicken breast was simply too much. It's a lot to ask a child that age to just grin and bear it in these kinds of situations.

The last straw this week came with my discovery of a wonderful new kind of gluten-free bread that is actually soft and great-tasting, rather than dense and rock-hard like most gluten-free varieties Will has been eating for over a year. I was so excited to bring it home for Will to try! After a few meals of eating and really enjoying the new bread, Will's tummy troubles made it clear that he wasn't tolerating the grain it was made of, either, and we've had to return to the old bread again for now. Our weeks are frequently filled with these kinds of setbacks and letdowns, and I constantly feel like a food detective, wondering what the most recent food source of trouble has been. Sometimes it just wears me out.

Our lives as human beings are so complexly involved with food; we eat for nourishment, for comfort, to celebrate, to share a sense of community with others. When someone suddenly cannot eat many regular foods, it's a blow to that person's sense of self, of happiness, of belonging. Yes, I have managed quite well to find good substitute foods to satisfy most of these needs for Will and I, but the truth is, sometimes it's just not the same, and there are always going to be times when we feel sad, and lonely, and left out. It's a reality we both feel keenly, and one we sometimes both desperately wish we could change.

I know this post has been quite the wallow in self-pity, and I hope you've read it for what it is: a venting of sorts so that I can move on and get back to the business of dealing with this challenge the way I usually do. I know there are people out there who have it much worse than we do food-wise. I am truly thankful that neither Will nor I have life-threatening food allergies, as I can only imagine the stress and worry that must bring to families who must deal with them. I'm also grateful for the general good health that eating well has given to all four of us. I'm off now to find my gluten-free, egg-free, dairy-free Christmas cookie recipes -- I have a feeling that the sweet smell of almond flour treats baking is just what I need to pick me up again.

Friday, November 19, 2010

From fantastic to fiasco

I am not a suspicious or a negative person by nature; I generally believe in the overall goodness of people and life. This week, however, I am starting to think that there is a nasty little conspiracy at work in the universe, an unwritten rule somewhere that the payback for taking a week away from normal life to enjoy a vacation is a week of complete chaos upon returning. What else would explain the jumbled mess of the past week after the unparalleled fun of the one before it?

Let's start with the fantastic. Matt, the boys and I spent the week before last enjoying excitement, laughter, and sunshine in Florida together. Our days were filled with wonderful experiences at Disney parks, relaxing afternoons by the pool, a bit of shopping, and great opportunities for family bonding. It was a week marked by many highlights: My heart pumped with exhilaration enjoying Noah's favourite high-flying Soarin' ride, melted when Will ran up to Stitch (his new best buddy) and slipped his small hand in Stitch's big furry one to get a photograph taken, and swelled with happiness watching the boys splashing, swimming, and shooting joyfully out of the water slide at the pool. I know I'll smile every time I remember Will rockin' his heart out with an inflatable guitar when a band member called him up to be part of their street show at Disney's Hollywood Studios, and Noah's look of absolute shock when a garbage can at Magic Kingdom suddenly started walking around and talking to people. We all felt sad to see the end of such an amazing vacation, and the four of us are filled with fond memories that will stay with us for a long, long time.

Fast forward to this past week, where the fantastic quickly turned to fiasco. Now I expected a certain amount of busy-ness upon returning from our week's vacation. There is always unpacking and laundry to be done, work to return to, schoolwork to catch up on, and travel fatigue to recover from. I was even quite happily accepting of a few extra responsibilities on my schedule for the week of our return: a doctor's appointment, parent-teacher interviews, and volunteering to supervise on a field trip with Will's class. It was the rest of what happened this week that left me wondering if someone was trying to play a ridiculous joke on us.

There was a demented cat who stuck to me like velcro for days and spent her nights howling disconsolately to make me aware that she was not happy about my week long abandonment of her. This same cat took it upon herself to barf up hairballs in the hall in the middle of the night (out of spite, of course), which meant that Will stepped in them when he got up in the dark at 5:30am, resulting in a highly unpleasant early-morning ruckus. There was the lovely surprise left in the school yard one morning by a negligent dog owner, which Noah absentmindedly walked through and which necessitated a thorough outdoor scrubbing and hosing of his shoe. There was Will's freak accident involving a bean bag and clapping in gym class, which ended with a grotesquely swollen and purple finger, a trip to the hospital emergency department, and a poor little taped up hand. There was a crazy couple of afternoons trying to track down a specific Christmas present for Noah after finding out that one I had ordered previously was not going to be available in time. Now add to all of that the fact that three out of the four of us have come down with a miserable cold this week. Noah was so congested this morning and his throat was so tight that he was convinced he was going to barf, which triggered gagging, the shakes, hyperventilating, and him telling me that he was going to have a nervous breakdown if he had to go to school. (Yes, we have a flair for the dramatic in our family!) I felt sorry for him and kept him home to calm him down, but he turned out to be fine, and went back to school after lunch. It has been a very long week, and universe, if you're listening, I think we've repaid whatever debt we owed for the fun we had while we were away!

My aunt Christina just returned home yesterday from a Florida vacation with her sweet little girl, Madeleine. Twenty minutes into their flight, Madeleine started exhibiting the symptoms of a bad ear infection and they had a challenging, tiring trip home. Coincidence? I think not. Beware the next time you go away on vacation, and brace yourself for the fallout upon your return! Personally, I'm keeping my fingers crossed for a quieter week ahead....

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Good old-fashioned oatmeal

Frost has painted a pretty picture in white all over the roofs and cars and lawns in our neighbourhood each morning this week, and the walks to school have been mighty chilly ones. The boys and I have donned toques and mittens and have moved at a brisk pace to keep warm, our noses tingling and our breath swirling out in icy puffs as we've chatted about the day ahead. On these kinds of mornings, I'm always glad for the nourishing bowl of steaming hot oatmeal I've had for breakfast. Somehow having a belly full of warm goodness makes the cold fall air seem less intimidating.

I prefer to make oatmeal from scratch rather than using the little instant packets. It really doesn't take much more time and I think the end result has a nicer texture and flavour. It's also easier to control the amount of sugar in your breakfast, and to experiment with different variations by adding your own fruits, spices, and nuts.

If you have to avoid gluten in your diet, like I do, it's still possible to enjoy oatmeal by using certified pure oats, available at health food stores. These kinds of oats have been tested to ensure that they contain no traces of wheat, barley or rye.

My favourite version of oatmeal is this one, which I make many fall and winter mornings:

1 cup water
1/2 cup regular oat flakes
chopped almonds
1/2 an apple, grated
almond milk

In a saucepan, bring water to a boil over high heat. Stir in oats, reduce heat, and cook for 6-8 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Remove oatmeal from heat, cover, and let stand for a few minutes before serving.
Place half of the oatmeal in a cereal bowl. Sprinkle with chopped almonds, grated apple, and cinnamon, then stir gently. Add a splash of almond milk and serve. Delicious!

There are many other ways to serve up a bowl of oatmeal: instead of almonds, apples, and cinnamon, try walnuts, bananas, and a drizzle of maple syrup, or mixed berries with almonds and a bit of honey. Your imagination is the only limit! If time is in short supply at your house in the mornings, make a large batch of oatmeal on a day when you do have time, and refrigerate any unused portions. A wholesome breakfast will then only be a few moments of reheating away when you're in a rush.

Matt, the boys and I will be warming up another way soon; we're heading to Florida for a family vacation. I'll share a bit of sunshine and some stories with you when we return. Hopefully a nice bowl of oatmeal in the morning will bring you warmth and happiness wherever you are this week!