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.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Oh, deer!

Our family made a new friend on Christmas Eve.  We were in the kitchen, looking out at our sunny backyard and watching an assortment of critters as they went about doing whatever it is that critters do this time of year, and I thought it would be nice to give the squirrels a little Christmas present.  I scattered a big handful of nuts in the shell on the deck, and then we all waited to see what would happen.  It didn't take long for a bushy, gray little fella to show up, his eyes wide when he realized what a gold mine he had discovered, and the four of us were entertained for quite a long while watching the squirrel run repeatedly from the deck to the lawn, where he frantically buried each discovered treasure with his cute little paws.

I felt bad when the squirrel had taken away the last of the nuts and came back looking for more, so I threw another handful of nuts outside, plus a piece of the carrot I was chopping in preparation for Christmas Eve dinner.  Once again, the little guy worked diligently to carry away each nut one by one, and then as a reward for all of his hard work, he perched himself on the railing of the deck and ate the carrot right there.  He then scampered up to our kitchen window sill, stood on his hind legs and looked right at us as if to ask if we were sure there weren't any more nuts we could give him before he scurried away.  I'm sure we'll be feeding this new friend throughout the winter now, a situation that benefits all of us.  (The squirrel loves receiving his free treats, and we all love having a chance to watch his behaviour up close.)

When we bought this house, one of the things that appealed to us most was the large, beautifully treed backyard.  Having grown up in Northern Ontario where trees and grass and critters abound, both Matt and I wanted to raise our family with a opportunity to appreciate these wonderful things, and our yard has not disappointed us.  The second winter we lived here, we had a very unexpected natural visitor in the week after Christmas, and every year at this time we retell the story and are still awed by it.

It was a peaceful winter afternoon; Will was napping, I was out getting groceries, and Matt and Noah were reading quietly.  Out of the corner of his eye, Matt noticed something go past the dining room window and thought it might be a raccoon, until the heard the sound of something clomping on the deck (and realized that if that was a raccoon, it was an unnaturally large one!)  When he went to investigate, he was shocked to see a deer staring at him through the kitchen window.  He called Noah over to see the incredible sight, and the two of them watched her in disbelief (and thankfully photographed her so I could see her later) while she stood silently looking back at them for several minutes.  Eventually, she darted off the deck, gracefully jumped over our five-foot fence, and disappeared, leaving Matt and Noah with an amazing story to tell when I returned home.

We have always wondered where that beautiful creature came from, how she found her way into our city yard, and whether she made it back to her own home safely once she left ours.  (We sure hope so.)  When I look into the deer's deep brown eyes in the photograph, I am filled with a sense of peace and I can imagine the earth must have seemed to just stand breathlessly still for those moments that she stood there, gazing in at us.  The boys both wondered afterwards if maybe she was one of Santa's (rein)deer who had come to pay us a visit and I can understand why they thought so.  Seeing such a gorgeous, gentle creature up so close must have felt like some special kind of magic.

I love that our family has so many opportunities to watch in wonder the many creatures who share our yard with us.  Living among the cardinals and blue jays, the rabbits and chipmunks, the birds of prey, the mice and even the skunks has given us a delightful subject for regular family conversation and a deep appreciation for the richness of our country's natural beauty.  These lovely wildlife friends are truly a special gift for our whole family all year round.  

Thanks to Noah (squirrel), Matt (deer), and my mom (cardinal) for capturing some of our favourite backyard friends in photos.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Warm drinks, warm hearts (Spicy mulled cider mix)

When I was in university, my mom received a Canadian Living Christmas Book from her mom as a gift.  The book was full of pretty holiday craft ideas, delicious sounding recipes for Christmas-y dishes and baked goods, and instructions for creating thoughtful handmade gifts.  I used to love looking through that book when I came home at Christmastime, and every year I would choose a project or two for myself to make and give away.  It made me really happy to share something I had crafted on my own with people who were special to me.

I had long forgotten about that book until a couple of years ago, when my aunt Christina and I were packing up my grandma's apartment for a move and we came across her personal copy of it.  Inside the front cover was a handwritten note from my grandpa:

Sadly, my grandpa passed away a few years ago, but I'm very glad now to have my grandma's copy of the Christmas book on my own bookshelf.  Each year during the holidays, I read my grandpa's inscription and hear his voice, and I remember the many wonderful Christmases our extended family shared together over the years.  These kinds of warm memories are always a meaningful part of each new holiday season for me.

In looking through the Christmas book this year, I was drawn once again to a recipe for a spicy mulled cider mix that I remember making often years ago.  It's a simple combination of spices and dried orange rind that packages up very prettily in glass jars or stainless steel tins, and makes a delightful warm drink when simmered with apple juice (or red wine, if you prefer a more adult version!).  The original recipe calls for cinnamon, cloves, and allspice, but when I was in the bulk section buying these ingredients, I noticed the bin of star anise and couldn't resist adding some of that to this year's version of the cider mix.  The combination of ingredients looks and smells really beautiful!

Spicy Mulled Cider Mix

3/4 cup crushed cinnamon sticks
3/4 cup chopped dried orange rind
1/3 cup whole allspice
1/4 cup whole cloves
1/3 cup star anise

Combine all ingredients in a bowl and gently mix.  Package cider mix in glass jars or stainless steel tins.

To make spicy mulled cider:

In a saucepan, combine 4 cups of apple juice (or a mixture of apple and cranberry juices) with 2 tablespoons of the spicy mulled cider mix.  Cover mixture and bring to a simmer.  Gently simmer for 20 minutes; strain into mugs.  Makes 4 servings.

For an alcoholic version of a spicy mulled drink, substitute red wine for the fruit juice and add honey to taste.

Share a little warmth with the ones you love this winter, in the form of a pretty tin of mulling spices or a steaming mug of mulled cider or wine.  This treat's fragrant, spicy goodness is sure to become a part of some new happy holiday memories.

Merry Christmas to all of you!  May your homes be blessed with lots of love and laughter this holiday season and throughout the new year.  xo

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Homemade Christmas crayons

I've always loved the cheery, colourful art of children.  Give young ones some blank paper and a box of crayons and it's amazing what their wonderful imaginations can create.  Inevitably though, once little artists have drawn multiple masterpieces, their crayons end up as stumpy wax bits that are difficult for small hands to grasp.  What to do with these last colourful crayon remnants other than throwing them away?

Crayola has come up with a crayon-making machine that turns leftover wax pieces into brand new multi-coloured crayons.  Seeing all of the flyer ads for this toy over the holiday season has reminded me of a simple craft project I used to do when the boys were smaller and we had lots of leftover crayon bits lying around (with no crayon-making machine to speak of).  With just a few regular kitchen utensils and an oven, you can make your own homemade crayons that will keep your kids colouring (and smiling!) through the holidays. 

To make your own crayons, you will need:

pieces of old crayons, in multiple colours
an old cutting board and sharp knife
an old muffin tin or baking mold in a shape of your choosing

Preheat oven to 200 F. 
Using an old knife and a cutting board (if you don't have an old one, you can cover your good cutting board in parchment paper to protect it), cut crayons into quarter-inch pieces.
Place crayon pieces in muffin tin cups or molds.  (Crayon pieces should make a layer at least one inch deep.)  You can make solid colour crayons, or mix different wax pieces to create fun, multicoloured ones. 

Place tins or molds in preheated oven and bake for 20 to 30 minutes, or until wax pieces have completely melted.  (You'll want to keep an eye on them.)
Remove tins or molds from oven and let crayons cool.  Pop crayons out of molds and give them to your favourite little ones.  (If you're lucky, maybe the kids will draw you a beautiful picture to thank you!)

I used gingerbread boy molds to make these Christmas crayons, and while Noah and Will don't usually get too excited about crayons anymore, they both wanted some of these festive little guys to draw with.  You can make crayons in any shape for any time of year -- homemade crayons make great gift-toppers, loot bag fillers, or special surprises tucked away in kids' mailboxes.

Wishing you a bright and beautiful week before Christmas!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The real joys of Christmas

Despite the fact that no part of me wanted to enter through the store doors this time of year, I popped into Walmart today after my yoga class to pick up a few things we needed around the house.  As I expected, the aisles were a dangerous labyrinth of carts and people, half of them frantic and running, and the other half seemingly lost as they wandered aimlessly, preventing others from getting by.  I managed to get out of the store within fifteen minutes and only almost got run over once, but I was glad to return to the relative calm of my own home afterwards.  (And let me reassure you that I'm not trying to be smug about the zen-like state of my home during the holiday season with that last comment -- it was only calm because I was the only one here.  If you had been around this evening when the four of us were home, and Will was wailing over nothing in the family room while Noah simultaneously (accidentally) shattered a glass all over the kitchen floor, and then I lost it, you'd know that our house can be just as crazy a place as Walmart at Christmastime!)

I know firsthand how easy it is to get caught up in a hectic, emotional state this time of year.  We feel we NEED to get all the right gifts, make all the right foods, decorate our house in just the right way, fit in all the right activities, and generally produce a Christmas that is Kodak moment-worthy.  (Broken glass all over the kitchen floor somehow doesn't fit with that picture, I'm thinking.)  In all of our complicated holiday rushing about, it's also very easy to forget that the most beautiful and true joys of Christmas are often the simplest things, things that don't require a trip to Walmart or a Martha Stewart-esque flair for perfection (and that won't be ruined by a broken glass or two!).

Real joy is sharing steaming mugs of hot cocoa with your family around the kitchen table after an afternoon of sledding or skating or road hockey together.  It's reliving favourite old family stories with your parents and siblings and other relatives, laughing together and fondly remembering those dear souls who are now only with you in spirit.  It's opening the mailbox and being greeted by the wonderful smell of anisette wafting through the box of homemade genettis that your grandma so thoughtfully sent you, and suddenly being brought back to the happy Christmas Eves of your youth spent at her kitchen table.  It's taking a few moments late at night with your spouse to look at your beautiful sleeping children, their faces softly lit by the Christmas lights from the hallway, and to marvel together at how you ever got so lucky to have them.  It's giving gifts of the heart, by sharing part of yourself with those who really need their spirits lifted this time of year.

When I think back to the Christmases of my childhood, I don't remember very clearly what I received as gifts, and I know that Christmas was never "perfect" (because I'm sure despite all of my parents' efforts, my brothers and I probably wailed over nothing and broke a few glasses, too).  What I do remember with great fondness, though, is the feeling of being warm, and safe, and content at Christmas, feelings that came from being surrounded by a family I love and who showed me in the most meaningful ways that they love me, too.  Whenever I start to feel frantic about getting ready for Christmas, I try to remember what I hope my boys will remember about their childhood Christmases when they grow up, and suddenly all of the other stuff seems less important.

During what can be a very hectic holiday season, I wish you and your family many moments of real and peaceful Christmas joy.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Chocolate hazelnut snowballs

Around our house, a cherished holiday tradition has always been the making and sharing of sweet treats with family and friends.   Though what we make has evolved over the past few years due to both food sensitivities and a desire to eat better (even at Christmastime), the sentiments behind the tradition -- a feeling of togetherness and the simple enjoyment of special foods we've made with our own hands -- remain unchanged.

These no-bake chocolate hazelnut snowballs have become a new favourite in our house during the holiday season.  The idea originally came from a recipe for nut butter balls by Jeanne Marie Martin in The All Natural Allergy Cookbook, and over the past few Christmases I've made several changes to it.  This year's version is my best yet!

Chocolate Hazelnut Snowballs

1 500g jar of natural hazelnut butter
1/2 cup of honey
1/2 cup of cocoa powder
1/2 cup of finely chopped raw hazelnuts
unsweetened shredded coconut (for coating)

In a bowl, mix together the hazelnut butter, honey, cocoa powder, and chopped hazelnuts until well combined.  Chill mixture in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.

Roll the mixture into bite-sized balls, then roll each ball in coconut to cover.  Chill snowballs before serving, and store any leftovers in the refrigerator.  (Makes approximately 45 snowballs.)

These chocolatey, nutty treats are simple to make, free of gluten, dairy, eggs, and refined sugar, and  really delicious!  Served in festive mini-cupcake papers, they make a really pretty addition to any holiday sweet tray.  Enjoy!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


I woke up this morning to the sight of a beautiful white blanket of snow draped delicately over the branches of the trees in our yard.  Every winter, when this first real snow falls, I feel uplifted, hopeful, inspired.  The glistening snowflakes fill the void in the landscape left by the departed leaves and flowers and seem rich with the promise of something new.  I love how the first snow suddenly makes the world seem filled with light.

I had an experience this weekend that left me similarly heartened, when I went to cheer on Noah and his school team at the First Lego League Tournament at the University of Waterloo.  For the past three months, this wonderful group of grade 5 and 6 students (and their devoted teachers, coaches, and mentors) have been working diligently and cooperatively to come up with an innovative solution to a food safety issue of their choosing, and to design, build, and program a Lego robot that is able to perform certain tasks.  Noah's team researched the problem of listeria contamination on canteloupes, and proposed a plan to use an emulsifed oil of oregano solution during canteloupe irrigation to prevent the growth of harmful microbes.  They spent many hours of their lunch breaks, after school, and on weekends working and reworking their Lego robot and practising their very creative presentation.  As we parents watched them perform at the competition (where they were judged not only for their ideas, their project, and their competence in the robot games, but also for core values like working cooperatively and encouraging others), we were all filled with pride for these remarkable young people who conducted themselves so maturely and demonstrated such good teamwork and sportsmanship.

The competition site was bustling with 26 different teams and their supporters, and it was impossible not to be awed by the energy contained within the building's walls.  To see so many young people committed to working together to learn new things and to solve real world issues was impressive, to say the least. In a time when young people in general are often criticized for being unmotivated, entitled, inactive, or rude, these students demonstrated that there is great promise for the future.  One day they will grow up and use their drive, their concern, their enthusiasm, and their excellent ideas to make a real difference in the world around them. 

A very thrilled Noah and his team placed third overall in the Lego tournament, and they will be travelling to the provincial competition in Oshawa, Ontario in January.  I look forward to having another opportunity to cheer for him and his team, and to be in the company of so many other amazing young people who, like the snow this morning, make the world seem that much brighter.

Friday, December 2, 2011

A bookworm's breakfast -- holiday edition

It's December (!) and the snow is gently falling outside, a detail that has made it feel just right to be preparing for the holidays.  This week the Christmas decorations all came out of storage and we've been having fun making the house look, sound, and feel festive.  One of the boys' favourite boxes is the one filled with Christmas books, stories that we've been reading together each winter holiday season since they were little.  Will was home from school sick one afternoon this week, and he and I spent it cozily sharing some of these best-loved Christmas tales after their year-long hiatus in the basement closet.  It turned what could have been a miserable afternoon into a very pleasant one!

I thought I'd post some of the titles we especially enjoy for anyone who is looking for some Christmas books to share with their own young ones.  While Noah and Will are both beyond picture books, at Christmastime, it doesn't seem to matter; everyone in the family loves the fond memories, the laughter, and the warm hearts that these stories evoke.

Olivia helps with Christmas by Ian Falconer

This very entertaining depiction of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day will have Olivia fans both roaring with laughter and easily relating to familiar traditions and feelings associated with the holidays.  Olivia's attempts to be helpful (which Ian Falconer illustrates with great humour) may not turn out perfectly, but she and her family share a wonderful Christmas together nonetheless.

Maisy's Snowy Christmas Eve by Lucy Cousins

Lucy Cousins writes a simple, sweet story of friends gathering to enjoy Christmas Eve together.  When Eddie the Elephant doesn't show up at Maisy's house as planned, the friends all work together to make sure everyone gets to join in the Christmas carolling.  Bright, cheerful illustrations make this a very visually appealing book for little ones.

Bear Stays Up for Christmas by Karma Wilson

Bear is tired and wants to sleep soundly through Christmas as bears are accustomed to doing, but his woodland friends have other plans.  With their encouragement, Bear stays up for Christmas and happily shares in the joys of this special time of year.  Wilson's warm, engaging, rhyming text combined with Jane Chapman's beautiful illustrations make this a lovely book that truly captures the spirit of the season.

Olive, the Other Reindeer by J. Otto Seibold

Olive is a dog... or so she once thought.  After hearing the Rudolph song on the radio one Christmas, however, Olive decides that she is actually a reindeer!  Children will cheer for Olive as she helps out Santa and his team on Christmas Eve using her unique skills, showing that even a little dog can make a big impact. 

Merry Christmas, Curious George by Margret and H.A. Rey

Curious George's adventures have captivated children for years, and his Christmas escapades in this book are also sure to delight!  When George accidentally takes a detour from the Christmas tree farm he is visiting with his friend (the man with the yellow hat), his curiosity gets him into some trouble at a children's hospital.  Sometimes a mischievous monkey is just what sick children need at Christmas, though! 

One Snowy Night by M. Christina Butler

A little hedgehog is woken from his winter's sleep and notices a present dropping from the sky.  It is a fuzzy, warm, red hat (which little hands can actually feel on the book's pages), but no matter how hard he tries, the hedgehog cannot get the hat to fit comfortably.  So begins the journey of the hat, from one creature to another, as the book progresses.  Where the hat ends up by the story's conclusion will make readers feel warm and fuzzy inside, too!

Mr. Snow by Roger Hargreaves

As he does in all of his Mr. Men and Little Miss books, Roger Hargreaves combines an engaging, conversational text with simple but appealing illustrations to draw his young readers in, this time to Santa's Christmas Eve dilemma.  Santa is stuck in the snow and doesn't know how he will get all of his presents delivered... until he finds a snowman some children have made and uses a little magic!  By the end of the story, little readers may start seeing their own homemade snowmen through different eyes....

The Polar Express by Chris van Allsburg

This is a gorgeous holiday book, both in word and in illustration, one that emphasizes the magic of the season for anyone who believes in it.  A boy's marvelous experience on the Polar Express train to the North Pole late one Christmas Eve ensures that he will never forget how to see Christmas as children do -- with wonder at all of its joy and sweetness.

The holidays are a perfect time for snuggling up with the family by a warm fire and enjoying the company of good books.  If you'd like to, please share your family's favourite holiday tales in the comments section below -- it's always so nice to hear about other families' traditions, too!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Changing perspective

Every fall as the weather turns colder, the days grow darker, and I find myself indoors more often, I inevitably get the urge to start rearranging furniture around the house. I come by this habit honestly; my mom also liked to change things up in our family home, and as a kid I loved coming through the door after school to find my bedroom flipped around, or the living room reassembled so that I had a whole new view when I sat on the couch. (My poor dad may not have looked so fondly on my mom's creative work, though. More than once, I'm pretty sure, he tiredly fumbled through the house in the dark of night after working a late shift, only to find that the bed was no longer where it used to be!) For me, however, and I think for my mom, too, it's always been exhilarating to stand in a room and suddenly realize that there is a completely different way to see it. The change in perspective once some shuffling has been done is refreshing and energizing.

Over the past few weeks, I've made some welcome modifications to the physical layout of our home. Items that we no longer use have been sold or donated to people who will enjoy them, a few new items have been added, and some things that have long stood in the same spot have been given new life in a different room. When I look at the finished effect, I feel deeply satisfied with the changes, and wonder why I never thought to do things this way long ago.

The truth is, sometimes we don't think to do things differently because we are creatures of habit. It's much easier, with furniture and with our thoughts, to stick to what we're used to, because it's comfortable that way, because what we know is safe. But nothing in life is static, despite our attempts to hold on. As surely as one second flows into the next, we, too, are constantly changed, like it or not, by our experiences as we live them. While I move furniture around with ease and enthusiasm, and have no trouble parting with physical things I no longer need, I've always found it harder to accept that sometimes my way of thinking and acting need to change too, especially when the old patterns aren't serving me well. Sometimes it takes a crisis of sorts to motivate us enough to make these more profound and incredibly rewarding changes.

The past few months have been a period of inner transformation for me, too. I stood and looked at myself the way I look at a room full of furniture and realized suddenly that it was time for something new. Excessive worrying had become a tired old bed to lie on and needed to be shown to the curb. In its place, I've introduced an attitude of acceptance, of letting go, of realizing I can't and don't need to figure everything out. I'm learning to breathe, to be present in each moment, to welcome whatever may come and realize that that is living, to sit in my newly created space and enjoy the ever-changing view. It's been a relief to break free of the old, exhausting habits bit by bit, and empowering to realize I can choose to look at life differently, more healthily.

Self-transformation is difficult and sometimes tiring; it requires doing most of the heavy lifting yourself. Now that I am finally able to relax, stronger and re-energized in the warm and peaceful room I've created in my heart, I'm so glad I decided to do it. I won't be moving things back.

Thank you for your patience while I've been rearranging myself! I hope to be here more often now to once again share stories, recipes, thoughts, and laughs with you all.

Monday, October 31, 2011

About pumpkins

When I first started teaching (what seems like many years ago now!), I was fortunate to be able to live with some dear family friends who lived in the area of the school where I landed a position. The home of these friends was located away from the city, and so my drive into work every day involved travelling some country roads lined with fields and farms. I remember being struck in the fall season by the sudden sight of pumpkins in one particular corner field; it seemed that one day there was only green foliage visible above the earth, and then the next, the field was bursting with cheerful, orange globes as far as the eye could see. Suddenly becoming aware of what nature and the nurturing care of a farmer's hands had created while I wasn't noticing had a lasting impact on me. The sight of those pumpkins glowing in the early morning sun triggered feelings of warmth and contentedness at the beginning of a hectic day, and it's a visual I can still picture clearly in my mind's eye.

It dawned on me in a local pumpkin patch recently that raising children is something like my experience with the corner farmer's field all those years ago. There are times when daily life with young ones gets so busy or challenging or mundane that it's like we're on automatic pilot, driving past a uniformly green field, not noticing anything remarkable at all, just trying to get to where we have to go next. Sometimes, though, there are glorious moments where the sun shines in just a certain way and we become aware of the gorgeous fruit of all of our efforts: our children, who are incredible, and beautiful, and who take our breath away when we have the chance to really "see" them.

When we visited our favourite pumpkin farm on Thanksgiving weekend, I stood in the afternoon sun and marvelled at how my boys have gone from this (cute little pumpkins in their own right!):

to this:

in what seems such a short time. It's an amazing thing to suddenly notice that your children can now carry their own pumpkins instead of getting lost among the rows of orange orbs that are larger than they are, that they have grown into remarkable people, partly because it was in their nature and partly because of your loving care over the years. Those moments of clarity and wonder are the moments that make all of the more difficult parts of parenting so very worth it.

I look harder now for moments to see my boys the way I saw those pumpkins one fall morning long ago, to suddenly notice something wonderful and inspiring about them, as if I'm seeing them for the first time. Whenever I do, I'm filled once again with feelings of warmth and contentedness.

Happy Hallowe'en to you and all of your pumpkins, big and small!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The old house

They're tearing down the old house on the property behind us this week. It's been a long, cumbersome process, involving heavy duty vehicles and equipment, lots of crunching, smashing and banging, and today, all that remains of the quaint brick house is a sad pile of rubble.

I sympathize with that old house. In the past year, it lost its quiet, long-dwelling family who once treated it with care, and briefly suffered the insanity of noisy, rude tenants who damaged it and treated it disrespectfully. When the tenants moved out, the house was left to stand empty and alone in the cool fall weather, with no heat to warm its bones, no light to brighten its dark interior, and no people to fill its days with laughter and love. The breaking down of its walls and foundation this week was symbolic of the house's recent state of weakness after years of standing strong and proud on its little hill.

In recent months, my life has felt very much like that of the poor old house. Where I once was full of positive energy, strength, and happiness, I've lately felt tired and anxious and sad. I've been spending too much time inside my own head, which has been dark and cold like the abandoned building behind us, and I've been having a hard time letting warmth, light, and laughter back in, despite the kindness and loving care of those dear to me. The physical and emotional after-effects of an illness I had at the beginning of the summer have taken their toll on me, a person who worries far more than is healthy, and I feel like I've temporarily been reduced to a shadow of my former self.

Some of you may remember that I had dental surgery back in May. The surgery was fine, but I was prescribed a course of the antibiotic clindamycin to prevent possible infection afterwards, and as a result of that drug, I developed a c. difficile infection. Aside from suffering with the very unpleasant symptoms of that illness, I was extremely anxious about it, a fact that was only exacerbated by the frequent and sensationalist news stories circulating at the same time regarding c. difficile outbreaks and deaths in various hospitals around the province. I was terrified to treat the infection with more antibiotics as was recommended by my family doctor (because I've personally had too many awful experiences with them wreaking havoc in my body), but I was terrified not to because of what might happen if I didn't. Thankfully, with the reassurance and care of my naturopathic doctor, I was able to get rid of the infection using high doses of probiotics and some other supplements instead (a fact which I think speaks volumes about how effective naturopathic medicine can be).

My worrying, however, did not end when I got the all-clear test results. My digestive system was still not functioning at its best, and I couldn't stop myself from worrying obsessively about what if the infection came back, a possibility that was unlikely due to the fact that I had built up a good supply of probiotics in my system to replace the depleted ones that had allowed for the infection in the first place. I developed a stomach ulcer, and then worried while I waited for the results of h. pylori testing, which ended up coming back negative. In the meantime, I started to feel exhausted all the time and developed muscle aches in my lower back and neck and shoulders, and then worried more that there was something else wrong with me. Several doctor's appointments and tests later, I have begun to realize that it has likely been my constant anxiety that has made me such a wreck. The body can only handle so much stress at once, and constant worry over a period of a few months has completely worn mine out.

I have come to understand that I need to stop the vicious cycle of worry that is contributing to my physical illness, and that I have the power within me to do something about it. I am continuing to work with my wonderful naturopathic doctor on my digestive system and my anxiety, both of which are slowly improving, and I've recently started seeing an osteopath to help with the physical aches and pains. I'm looking into yoga classes, and attended my first group meditation session at a studio last night, a new experience for me which I found very interesting and relaxing. I am slowly digging myself out of my dark pile of rubble and heading towards warmth and light again. I am choosing to believe that I will get there.

They've been tearing down the old house behind us this week to make room for a new one. It will take time, but eventually the scars left behind by the old house will be smoothed over, and a new house will stand strong and proud, ready with an open heart to welcome a family within its walls. The old house will eventually become a distant memory for those who were part of its history. Healing takes time, too, but I feel now that I'm on the road to smoothing over my own scars. One day soon, I hope, I will stand strong and happy again on my own little hill of wellness, the events of the past few months a distant memory that contributed to building a better me.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The (little) men of the house

Matt was out of town for work for a few days and nights this week. I'm not complaining, because work travel isn't something Matt has to do very often, but any parent who has spent some time flying solo knows exactly what I mean when I say I wasn't really looking forward to it. We get used to our regular routines, to having someone else there to help with the many responsibilities involved in day-to-day life with kids (not to mention, adult company!), and sometimes it's just downright tiring doing it all on your own (especially when you've still not been feeling quite like yourself lately, either). Once Matt was gone, though, I quickly came to realize how much my boys are growing up, and how very thoughtful and sweet they can be when they think about what's going on around them.

In my experience, it's not common for seven- and ten-year-old kids to be eager to help out around the house. Requests of that nature are usually met with scowls or groaning (from Noah, who views mundane tasks as a nuisance that take him away from far more interesting endeavours) and screams of indignation (from Will, who thinks being asked to do a boring job is a grave injustice that must be railed against with great passion). The past two evenings, though, a different scene was played out in our home. Noah came to me after school one day and, of his own accord, asked me if I would like him to help make dinner for everyone. He was a willing runner for things I needed from the basement, dried all of the dishes cheerfully, and when I had to run out after dinner to pick up our veggie box for the week (something Matt usually does on the way home from work), Noah decided to stay behind on his own in his room, where he diligently finished a lengthy homework assignment.

Will was equally pleasant and cooperative. When I asked him to please set the table (which is usually Noah's job, but Noah was at a Lego team meeting after school), he smiled and said, "Sure! I want to be extra helpful tonight," and even filled the water glasses without me asking. When I poured him a bowl of cereal at 6:15 am the first morning (his ritual before-breakfast "crunchy munchy snack" which he usually has with Matt while I'm getting ready upstairs), he looked at it for a moment, then very sweetly said, "Mom, just for future reference, this is a little bit too much cereal." (Now this may not seem like such a big deal, but if you've witnessed Will's usual reactions to perceived disruptions to his perfectly ordered way of doing things, i.e. putting the exact same amount of the exact same four cereals in a certain order in his bowl every morning or else!, you'd be impressed with his calm, polite tone!) Will even agreed to talk about something other than hockey at the dinner table.... for five minutes, anyway!

It dawned on me this time around that Matt being away from home has gradually become easier than it once was, that the little boys who once needed so much from me are now happy to be the little men of the house, taking on extra responsibilities to help out the whole family when there are fewer to share the load. Sure, I still prefer when Matt is home, but I've come to realize that in the company of my two other wonderful fellas, I suddenly don't feel so on-my-own when he's not.

Monday, September 12, 2011

A birthday story

Today is my birthday, a day when, every year, I'm joyfully reminded of something I've always known but don't always think about: I am truly blessed with a wonderful family. Earlier today, I was talking on the phone to my mom and dad, who called me to sing their annual "Happy Birthday" song in unison (aren't they so cute!?). My mom then told me a story about my earliest days that I thought was too sweet not to share, so she wrote it down and sent it for me to publish. Thanks, Mom, for this wonderful memory and for all the others you, Dad, and our whole family have left happily etched in my mind over the years.

It’s inevitable that when your child’s birthday rolls around, your thoughts return to that time of wonder and excitement!!! You remember everything that was going on at that time, all the little things that happened, and the people who were involved.

Today is my daughter Lisa’s 39th birthday. . . . (although I am not sure I should be mentioning her age!!) ;) The year that Lisa was born we were living in a big house with my father. About a week after we arrived back home from the hospital, I decided I wanted to go out shopping for a bit. I had every intention of taking her with me in her pram, but my dad said that he would love to watch her, and that I should just go alone and have fun! After being cooped up for a week in the hospital, and then at home, I jumped on the chance to get out, and took him up on his offer. I knew that my father would take excellent care of her for the short time I would be gone, so I took off merrily on my way!

I hadn’t thought to tell Dad where anything was, because, after all, we lived in the same house and I guess I just thought he would know! Diapers were important, but I thought their location was quite obvious in the large drawer right underneath her crib.

I don’t think I was gone very long, and when I returned I asked him if he had had any problems. He told me that everything had gone smoothly, but he hadn’t been able to locate her diapers. He didn’t let that stop him though! In his search he had found the pillowcases that I was using as bassinet sheets. He took one of those, and ever so carefully folded it to perfection to fit my tiny little girl!! Voila! Instant diaper! That’s just the way this wonderful man was.

My daughter Lisa has grown into an amazing woman, and has brought so much joy into our lives. She is everything one could hope for in a daughter. I can't help but think that this is largely in part because of the influence of my dad, and many of the other wonderful people in her life.

Happy Birthday Lisa!!!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Autumn soup

Summer suddenly seems to have disappeared with the return of school yesterday, leaving in its place some cooler, grayer, rainier weather. This made me think of soups, and stews, and roasts, and many other wonderful comfort foods that we haven't enjoyed in a while and that will be welcome family fare for the change in seasons ahead. On the menu for this evening at our house is Autumn Soup, a hearty and flavourful mixture that is both warmth and nourishment in a bowl.

This soup recipe is based on one that my mom taught me to make. She has always been a wonder at taking ground beef and combining it with some of this, a little of that, and turning it into something delicious. I still consult the original soup recipe copied in her handwriting which she gave to me when I went to university, and I still think of her and home every time we enjoy this meal!

Autumn Soup

1 lb lean ground beef (I prefer organic, grass-fed beef, for health reasons, and because its flavour is excellent in this soup)
1 small onion, diced
approximately 1 cup of each of the following: diced carrot, diced celery, and potatoes, cut into 1-inch cubes
1/2 tsp dried basil
1 bay leaf
sea salt and pepper to taste
1 796ml can of diced tomatoes plus one full can of water
a handful or two of roughly chopped kale

In a large saucepan, cook ground beef over medium-high heat until beef is browned.
Add onion, carrots, celery, potatoes, basil, sea salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until onions are softened.
Add tomatoes, water, and bay leaf and bring soup mixture to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 30 minutes.
Before serving, add kale to soup and stir, heating until leaves are just wilted.
Ladle soup into bowls and enjoy!

I have made this soup in various ways over the years; sometimes I substitute brown rice macaroni for the potatoes. (I cook the pasta in a separate pot, drain and rinse it, and then add it to the soup just before serving). Sometimes I substitute spinach leaves for the kale. All of the variations still result in a steaming bowl of healthy soup that's easy to make and that everyone enjoys. As my mom wrote on the bottom of my copy of her recipe, "Good stuff!".

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

What to pack? (School snacks)

Our backyard has been a flurry of wild animal activity these past few days, and the boys and I have been especially amused watching the squirrels and chipmunks who frequent our deck. We have a very old, large black walnut tree at the back of our property, and everywhere we look there are little critters running with large green orbs in their mouths, looking for places to stash them for later. Yesterday we had a good laugh when we found this tucked in the corner of our kitchen window:

Despite the hider's best efforts, I'm not sure this snack is still going to be there when he comes back to find it!

Many parents' thoughts are probably turning to snacks this week as well, for no matter how much the kids don't want to admit it, school will be back in full swing next week. I don't love the thought of packing lunches and snacks for the next day every evening again, but I've found that advanced thinking and preparing always makes the task a little simpler.

The food industry has done quite a job of providing options for quick-to-pack, individually wrapped, snack-sized foods for kids, but in my opinion, many of the "foods" contained in those packages are lacking in nutritional value. We've come up with a collection of healthy, homemade options in our house (along with a few better-for-you packaged foods) that the boys both enjoy, and if you're looking for ideas, you may want to try some of them. (I've provided the links to recipes that are posted elsewhere on my site for easy reference.)

Homemade muffins made with whole grains and fruit (There are three recipes here, one of which is gluten, dairy, and egg-free.)

Banana oat bundles (These delicious cookies are dairy and egg-free, and can be made gluten-free as well if you use certified pure oats.)

Raw veggies with hummus or white bean dip and Mary's seed crackers (gluten, dairy, and egg-free)

Oatmeal apple cinnamon mini-muffins (gluten, dairy, and egg-free, and just the right size for small hands and appetites!)

Homemade granola bars (gluten, dairy, and egg-free, and bursting with nutritious ingredients!)

Homemade applesauce with toasted whole grain pita triangles, Pita Break lavash crackers, or gluten-free brown rice cakes.

Homemade chocolate granola bites  (These yummy snacks are gluten, dairy, and egg-free as well.  I make the heart shaped ones for Valentine's Day, but year round I use mini muffin tins as molds to create perfect little two-bite snacks.)

Fresh fruit kebabs with plain yogourt for dipping (You can sweeten the yogourt with a little bit of honey if your kids are used to the sweetened, flavoured varieties.)

Cranberry coconut granola cookies (gluten, dairy, and egg-free)

Babybel cheese with Triscuit Thins and an apple (I like Babybel because it is made with milk rather than modified milk ingredients, and it also has no added colouring. You can buy a giant bag of Babybel cheeses at Costco for a great price!)

Homemade trail mix using low-sugar dry cereal (like Cheerios, or Nature's Path Whole O's for a gluten-free option), multigrain mini pretzels (like PC Blue Menu Alphabet pretzels, or Mary's Sticks & Twigs for a gluten-free option), fruit-juice sweetened dried cranberries, unsweetened flakes of coconut, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, and a little sprinkling of dark chocolate chips (at least 70% cocoa).  If your children's school doesn't have a no-nuts policy, then you can add a variety of nuts to the mixture as well; raw almonds, cashews, pecans and walnuts are all great additions.

Packing school snacks for Will became more of a challenge when we discovered his food sensitivities; cheese and yogourt were out, as were any foods containing gluten, and because the boys' school is completely nut-free, I am not able to send any of the baked goods I make for him out of almond flour. In addition to some of the options listed above, though, Will also really enjoys the little sandwiches I make from a piece of fresh-baked gluten-free bread, natural sunflower seed butter and a bit of fruit-juice sweetened jam. By slicing off the bread crusts and cutting the bread in half, I can make a perfect snack-sized sandwich with a healthy, school-safe protein and just a bit of sweetness.

It may be a little more work to bake and prepare your own snacks for your children, but their bodies and brains will thank you for it when they're well fuelled up for all of the activities they'll participate in through the course of a busy day. A few baking or food-prep sessions on a weekend can provide a nice freezer/fridge stash of healthy snack foods that can quickly be packed into lunch bags. (And unlike our little squirrel friend, you can be pretty sure that those snacks will still be there when you need them!)

If you're looking for durable and healthy containers in which to pack all of these yummy snack foods, you may want to check out these eco-friendly options. They're a great alternative to chemical-laden plastics, and after a year of daily use, the boys' sets are both still going strong! (Believe me, that says a lot about their quality -- have you seen the way young boys treat their belongings?!)

If you have some great healthy school snack or lunch ideas, please share them in the comments section below! Best wishes to all of your children as they return to school next week. I hope they have a year full of happy adventures!

Monday, August 29, 2011

Thoughts from two parking lots

The boys and I were out running some errands this morning, and in each of two separate parking lots I noticed a simple but significant detail that put a smile on my face.

While heading back out to our car from a store, I noticed a small boy, about five years old, walking with his siblings and a woman who appeared to be his grandmother. He was dressed in what you would expect a child to be wearing on a warm, sunny day: shorts, a t-shirt, a pair of sandals well-worn from months of carefree play outdoors. There was one exception though. Over his t-shirt, the boy was wearing a pressed, new-looking black suit jacket. It fit him perfectly and seemed to fit his mood perfectly, too; he walked with purpose and a confident smile, completely unaware that his fancy jacket seemed to most observers to be completely out of place.

In the next parking lot, I saw another little boy who was probably about two years old walking with his family. This spunky little fellow was also sporting shorts and a t-shirt, along with a pair of muddy green rain boots designed to look like frogs. There was not a cloud in the sky (and definitely no sign of rain), but it was clear that the boots had been the boy's preferred choice of footwear for the day, and the spring in his step told me they were making him feel happy.

At some point this morning, the grown-ups responsible for these two boys probably made a choice to just let these out-of-the-ordinary fashion choices go, to not concern themselves with making their boys change for the sake of appearance, to let them have a say in who they felt like being at that moment. I've found myself there, too, almost every afternoon this summer when Will put his t-shirt on inside out and backwards after swimming and left it that way for the rest of the day, no matter what else we had planned. As a parent who admits that she might be a teensy bit of a control freak, I know that sometimes it's hard to just let our kids do things that we think (or think others will think) are odd. I like to remember though, that while it's important for me to teach my children right from wrong in the many life situations where it matters, it's also important for my children to find their own way, to explore, when it's safe, what feels right to them.

There might come a day, soon, when that boy in the suit jacket looks around at the peers who will come to influence his self-impressions and decides that he needs to lose his unique sense of style to fit in more with the other kids around him. Maybe the boy in the rain boots will come to forget how much he loves frogs and jumping in puddles just like them, because the "cool kids" who only wear shoes will mock him for his "silly" choice. Perhaps, though, because these two young boys were given opportunities like this morning to express themselves, they just might have the self-confidence to realize that it doesn't always have to matter what other people think.

Hats (and suit jackets and rain boots!) off to the children of the world who are proudly discovering who they really are, and to the grown-ups in their lives who are giving them some breathing room to do so.