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.

Monday, January 30, 2012

The sweet spot

Sometime, and I'm not sure exactly when, Matt and I entered into what might be considered the sweet spot of parenthood.  When I look at our two boys, now aged 10 and almost-8 years old, it dawns on me that somewhere down the road we've travelled so far, day-to-day life with kids got a little easier, a little quieter (relatively speaking!), a little less full of taking care of the boys every minute of the day and more full of interesting family conversations and enjoying each other's company.  We're way beyond diapers and toddler tantrums, and not yet at the stage of hormone-induced teen angst and rebellion (though with the eye rolls and "Whatever, Mom"s I'm starting to get from Noah, I'm aware that those years may not be far off!).  I've really been enjoying the freedoms and happiness this stage of life has brought us so far.

When you have boys whose thoughts and words are mature and wise beyond their years, it's easy sometimes to fool yourself into thinking you've got two young men at home rather than two children.  Every now and then, though, Will's fine-tuned emotional sensitivity takes us back a step or two and reminds us that he's still, in many ways, a little boy trying hard to make sense of the world.   His inflexibility around what he views as right and wrong, and the effort required to manage his very big feelings make him vulnerable still to emotional outbursts.  I get frustrated when we have moments like yesterday:  Will was audibly upset in the afternoon when Noah got invited out to go sledding with a friend and he didn't, and then later, the boys were watching the same all-star hockey game on two different televisions because Will couldn't handle the fact that Noah was cheering loudly for a different team than he was.  I hear Will complaining or crying over things that seem trivial to me and I can't help thinking, "When is this kid ever going to grow up?!"

Those kinds of thoughts are fleeting, though.  I was walking Will to school this morning, and when the bell rang, he did what he does every single morning, in exactly the same order:  looked right at me with his big brown eyes, said a warm "Bye, Mom", waved, and blew me a kiss.  I know from experience with Noah, who barely acknowledges me in the schoolyard anymore, that sadly, the days of my son blowing me kisses in the morning are numbered.  It's in those moments that I realize I'm not in any hurry at all for my little boy to grow up.

Yes, the sweet spot we're in now suits me just fine.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

I like my stuff

I've never liked coffee, but I am completely in love with the Maxwell House television commercial I've been seeing recently.

This delightful little girl makes me literally laugh out loud with joy, and makes me long just a bit for the simpler days of childhood, when liking yourself and your "stuff" seemed a much easier task than it is sometimes in adulthood. 

I wonder how many minutes of each day we grown-ups spend in self-doubt, reliving unpleasant moments from our past, and worrying about what's to come in the future.  How many times do we lie awake in the middle of the night, eyes wide open, our minds racing with questions and regrets and plans and fears, with noise that is unforgiving and relentless?  Those bullying negative thoughts too easily crowd out happier ones sometimes; they scream for our attention and leave us with an overwhelming feeling that this life thing can be difficult business.

This spunky little girl is an inspiration to me, a reminder of the simple fact that happiness is ours for the taking if we only take time to remember the many wonderful things we have to be happy about.  Laugh all you want, but I seriously think I'm going to start cheering for myself in the mirror in the mornings.  Try it and see if it doesn't make you like yourself and your "stuff" just a little bit more.  Go ahead -- I dare you.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Natural beauty

Cold winter winds are harsh on delicate skin, and throughout this season we often find our bodies in need of some extra TLC.  Unfortunately, many of the products available to soothe our skin can also do us harm.  Lovely as they may feel and smell, those soaps and creams and lip balms that line the drug store shelves are often loaded with chemical ingredients like BHT, sodium lauryl sulfate, parabens, phthalates, and parfum, which can trigger allergies, interfere with how our hormones function, and have the potential to cause cancer.  It seems in using these kinds of products, we're simply replacing one set of problems for another.

I undertook a major overhaul of my skin care products after reading Gillian Deacon's book There's Lead in Your Lipstick

Deacon, a breast cancer survivor, gives a compelling argument for being aware of what is in the beauty products we use, and offers an overview of many safer and gentler care options for all of your many parts.  She also provides some instructions for making your own skin care products at home using simple, natural ingredients.  This lovely face scrub, containing soothing oats and chamomile and calming lavender, is one of the little treats I discovered within the pages of Deacon's book.

Oatmeal Face Scrub

1/4 cup raw almonds
4 tbsp oatmeal
1 tbsp cornstarch
1 tbsp chamomile flowers
1 tsp lavender oil

Chop almonds in a food processor until they are a fine meal.
Add remaining ingredients and blend well until mixture is a soft, granular powder.

To use each morning, put a half tablespoon of this mixture in your palm and add just a couple of drops of water.  Rub hands together to make a paste.  Gently rub and massage it onto damp skin in circular motions to exfoliate.  Wash off with warm water and a warm, damp washcloth, and end with a splash of cold.  Pat skin dry with a clean towel.

Store the scrub in a well-sealed glass jar.

The ingredients for making your own skin care products can be found easily in health food stores or online.  But even if you're not keen on mixing lotions and potions at home, there are many companies making products that are free from harmful substances and wonderful to use.  These are some of my personal favourites:

Lip balm:  Burt's Bees  Beeswax, coconut oil, and a hint of peppermint keep lips smooth without the use of petrolatum.

Soaps and Body Lotion:  Olivier  Olivier's moisturizing body lotion contains olive and sweet almond oils to gently nourish skin, and their luxurious handmade soaps, in natural scents like orange, chocolate, cranberry, and pear, smell good enough to eat!

Facial Cleanser and Cream:  Green Beaver  Green Beaver makes a wide range of wholesome natural personal care products.  Their facial care line is gentle and soothing and keeps skin glowing.

Body Balm:  Badger   This rich balm, available in several different natural scents, is perfect for healing very dry skin anywhere on the body.  It's excellent for chapped hands in winter!

Hand Soap:  Nature Clean   Nature Clean's gentle coconut- and glycerin-based liquid soaps clean hands effectively without the use of triclosan. 

I highly recommend reading There's Lead in Your Lipstick for anyone who is interested in learning more about safer personal care products.  You can also find some great information online:  the David Suzuki Foundation's website explains the "dirty dozen" ingredients it's best to avoid in your cosmetics, and the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetics Database allows you to search thousands of body care products to see how safe (or unsafe) they are.  Take good care of yourself; in choosing cosmetics carefully, you'll help keep your body and your planet healthy and beautiful.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Winter wonder

Finally, snow!

It's been an odd, snowless winter for the most part here so far, and while this might make some people happy, it has not been sitting well with me.  (I'll always be a great-white-northern girl at heart.)  In my mind, the short, dark days of winter need the brightness and the peacefulness of swirling, crystalline flakes.  Those beautiful, delicate works of art make it possible for all of us to breathe, to feel joy, to have faith, to hope.

These winter months in our part of the world are hard on humans, I think; it seems at times that the bleakness of the season tries to smother us all in its unrelenting grip.  All around me right  now are sad stories; my mom has spent the past week ill in the hospital (and I've felt so worried and frustrated not being near enough to keep her company), and one of Noah's best friends is staying at our house today while his dad, who has recently been diagnosed with a brain tumour, goes for more medical tests.  A mom I know of is clinging to every last shred of hope while her sweet little five year old girl, who is hooked up to more machines and tubes than a child her age should ever have to know, clings desperately to life.  Sometimes we need every little bit of help we can find to make it through this season.

Last night after dinner, Will and I bundled ourselves up and headed outside to shovel and play in the freshly fallen snow.  My mood was low when I first stepped outdoors, but as I breathed in the chilly evening air and felt the fluffy flakes brush delicately against my face, I relaxed and felt my spirits begin to lift.  Will and I made snow angels, jumped in snow piles and chased each other around the snowy yard until we both fell, laughing and exhausted, onto our backs on the soft white blanket.  We stayed there for quite some time, quietly looking up at an inky winter night sky, watching shadowy clouds blow peacefully across the horizon and marvelling at the twinkling of stars we hadn't taken time to notice in awhile.

When we came back inside, rosy-cheeked and alive, I felt grateful for the new perspective the snowy night had given me.  Watching those beautiful, bright flakes transform the dark landscape made me believe that no matter what happens, maybe everything will be alright.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The impossible dream

Her little heart began pounding furiously and she felt dread falling like a weighty stone in the pit of her stomach when she saw the bags packed at the front door.  "They're leaving," she thought.  "Whatever will become of me?"  But when the bags left the house in the hands of only The Man and The Bigger Boy, her despair was replaced with a fierce glimmer of hope.


Matt and Noah left yesterday afternoon to travel to Oshawa for the First Lego League provincial championship competition.  It felt strange watching Noah head off on such a big, exciting adventure without me, but we had decided as a family it would be in everyone's best interest to spare Will the twelve-hour day at the competition site, so I stayed home to share some quality time with my youngest boy.  Will and I had planned a pizza and movie night together, and I had told Will he could have a "sleepover" in my room, a prize which, to a boy who has complained of feeling lonely in his own little bed ever since he could speak, is the equivalent of winning a gazillion dollar lottery.  We enjoyed a lovely evening together, and after the movie, we headed upstairs for some before-bed reading.


She stretched out lazily on the duvet cover, eyes half-closed, happily dreaming of the hours to come in which she would finally have her way.  But wait -- what was this?  Why was The Smaller Boy coming into this room wearing pyjamas and armed with books and stuffed animals?  Why was he climbing into this bed and burrowing beneath the blankets?  In a panic, she dove under the boxspring for safety, asking herself how things could have gone so horribly wrong.


The sleepover lasted all of fifteen minutes.  Will is a boy of sameness and routine; lying in a different room in the dark with all of its unfamiliar nighttime noises and shadows, even with his mom beside him, was too much when he knew his own comfortable room was right down the hall.  I tucked my boy into his cozy flannel sheets and kissed him goodnight, making promises that he could come back to my room when he woke in the morning.  With his universe restored to normal, Will drifted off to sleep within moments.


She listened carefully as the small footsteps trailed off faintly down the hallway.  When she was certain that The Smaller Boy was not coming back, she breathed an enormous sigh of relief.  "It's only a matter of time now," she thought smugly, "and sweet victory will be mine." 


A couple of hours later, I climbed into bed in a state of drowsy contentment; it had been a good day.  My eyes drooped heavily in the dark room and my breathing slowed... until I felt something slowly creeping towards me....


"If I move very slowly," she thought, "maybe I won't be noticed."  She inched her way forward, quietly, quietly, always keeping her eye on the prize.  Finally, she was there.  She gently lowered herself to a curled up position on the empty pillow, and purred inwardly when The Girl beside her didn't make a motion to move her.  "Finally," she mused joyfully, "the pillow and The Girl are mine alone!".


And that, friends, is the story of how Maggie the cat's dreams all came true last night.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Jolted awake

It was back to school for Noah and Will this morning, a fact that neither one of them was very happy about after two glorious weeks of holidays.  As I watched my tousle-headed, glum-looking boys half-heartedly eating their toast at the breakfast table today, I had to laugh at the marked contrast between what 7am looked like this morning and what it looked like several days ago, when I was listening to them shriek excitedly and watching sparks fly off their bodies as they catapulted themselves around in the early morning darkness.  (Oh, don't be alarmed.  Despite the fact that they did all their own stunts, no children were harmed in the making of this story.)

Will's habit on weekend and holiday mornings is to come and burrow himself cozily under the blankets in my bed; he likes to chat with me right after he's had a snack at 6:something am.  (Well, actually, it's not so much a chat as it is Will talking non-stop for half an hour and me mumbling several "uh-huhs" at appropriate intervals, with my eyes still closed.)  One morning last week, as Will was diving onto the bed in the dark room to tell me something, I was startled by a jolt of light streaking across his leg!  Fascinated by this bit of weirdness, I mentioned out loud what I had seen, and an intrigued and excited Will set about trying to recreate it.  For twenty minutes, Will threw himself wildly around my bed, with every jump resulting in bright streaks of luminescence, sometimes white, sometimes even red or green, and the two of us were wild with excitement over the whole thing.  (This may not seem exciting to you, I realize, but our family goes a little crazy over a good bit of science.  We're kind of nerdy that way.)

By this time, a curious Noah had come into my room to observe the goings-on, and the two thrilled boys began a frenzied conversation about the hows and whys of this pyjamas vs. bedsheets phenomenon, and what they could possibly do with it.  Noah tried several times to recreate the sparks himself, but wasn't having any luck, which led to hypothesizing and testing of variables.  Will gave himself the new nickame "Electric", and Noah booked Will a gig as the party entertainment at his next sleepover.  The boys also tried to capture the whole marvel on film to use in a documentary, because they thought if they just told their story in writing, no one could possibly ever believe them.

A fantastic discovery like this apparently cannot be limited to only one day of enjoyment, because the next morning, both boys appeared once again in my room before 7am (Noah armed, this time, with the "right" kind of pyjamas) to thrill me with yet another light show.  That day, to all of our delight, both Will and Noah had static electricity bolts zapping from various parts of their bodies.  With some careful thought, the boys organized themselves to maximize their light output;  at one point the two of them were lying on their backs holding the covers up in the air so they just barely touched their knees, and they were furiously bicycling their legs to create a veritable meteor shower in the bed.  It was definitely not a lazy holiday morning around our house!

You can understand now, maybe, why the boys weren't too keen on going back to school this morning.  Sitting at desks doing math worksheets must certainly pale in comparison to the thrill of generating your own real live fireworks in the comfort of your pjs.  I think if the boys had had one more week of vacation, they may have actually figured out how to harness all of that electricity and get our home off the grid!  Oh well -- that's what the March Break is for.

Photo credit:  National Geographic

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Talking with strangers

Yesterday, for an unexpected treat, I decided to take the boys out to lunch at Swiss Chalet.  As the three of us approached the restaurant entrance, we met up with an elderly couple who were moving quite slowly and struggling with opening the heavy door.  I smiled at them and moved to take the door handle from the gentleman (who was walking with a cane), but he cheerfully insisted he hold the door for me and the boys instead.  Once we were all inside, the man and his wife began a friendly conversation with us, asking Noah and Will if they had had a nice Christmas and if Santa had been good to them.  The man then asked to shake the boys' hands and wish them a happy new year, and when Will shook his hand, the man said jovially, "Oh, look what fell!".  He had slipped a hard wrapped candy into Will's palm with his handshake, and he proceeded to do the same for Noah and I when he shook our hands and wished us all the best in 2012.  This elderly couple was so sweet and kind to all of us, and chatting with them started our lunch off on a happy note.

It turned out that the elderly couple was seated right next to us in the restaurant, and it also turned out that there had been some misunderstanding about time between the couple and the friends whom they were supposed to meet there, so the husband and wife were sitting and waiting with drinks while the boys and I ordered our lunch.  Several times, the man shuffled carefully over to our table in the hour we were there so he could share a story or an interesting trick with the boys.  Once he showed them how to draw a duck using a single line without ever lifting the pencil from the paper:

Once he pulled some little papers with jokes on them (the kind you get in Christmas crackers) from his pocket and entertained the boys with his enthusiastic telling of riddles.  At the end of our lunch, the man told me with a gentle smile what clever boys I had, and that he was glad for the mix-up with their friends, because talking with us had really helped make his day.  I'd be lying if I said I wasn't moved by his genuine, heartfelt sentiments, or that I didn't feel the same way myself.  The boys and I all agreed that we were really glad we had decided to go out for lunch on that particular day.

Several hours later, I was thinking about the events of the lunch hour and I realized that our experience had gone against everything I have taught Noah and Will about personal safety.  Like many parents today, I have repeatedly told my boys that they should not talk to strangers, nor should they ever take candy from someone they don't know.  (For the record, I did tell the boys afterwards that we were throwing out the candies the man had given us because we didn't know the person they had come from, to which Will very seriously replied, "Yes, and anyway, who knows how long that candy might have been in his pocket.  That man was VERY old!".)  I thought about how I  maybe should have handled things differently to send a consistent message to the boys, but in my heart it felt sad to think that we might have just ignored these two kind people.  We live far from most of our extended family, and the boys rarely have opportunities to interact with people from much older generations.  The delight in both the boys' and the old man's eyes as they spoke with each other showed me that there was a real human connection made between them, and I was forced to face the complex truth that sometimes, a stranger is just a sweet 80-something year old man in Swiss Chalet who carries candies and Christmas cracker jokes in his pocket and tells you that your boys remind him of his own two sons when they were young long ago.

Experiences like these remind me that parenting is tricky business sometimes.  While it would be nice to be able to clearly explain to the boys the differences between good and bad, right and wrong, in simple black and white terms, the truth is, sometimes in between there are some really lovely shades of gray.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Unsilent night

The Christmas season has now come and gone in our house, and Noah and Will and I are enjoying what feels like just a regular old week of holidays before the boys return back to school next Monday.  The decorations have been stored away for another year, the new toys have found a home on shelves, and the festive holiday music playlist has been deleted from the iPod.  (Oh well, it's not like this house has seen a "silent night", or morning or afternoon, for that matter, since the holidays began, anyway!).  Throughout the fall, I had become quite used to a quiet home between the hours of 8:30am and 3:00pm once the boys were settled into their school routines, but having them both at home for two weeks has reminded me of just how much they can talk!  (I can hear my dad laughing all the way from Sault Ste. Marie right now; I'm sure, after years of telling me he was going to build me my own stage, that it must seem only fair to him that I'd end up with children who also have the gift of gab!).

I guess when you have two very bright boys who take advantage of their extra spare time during the holidays to read and think and question things, it's inevitable that all of the ideas they're processing in their busy brains will eventually come spilling out in lively conversations.  Matt and I have heard everything from the fascinating to the practical to the bizarre over the past couple of weeks, and more than once, we have sat there, staring wide-eyed at each other, telepathically (because that's the only way we can hear each other over the boys' constant chatter) communicating the mutual thought, "Oh my GOODNESS, will they ever be quiet?!".

More than one morning has started with Will coming into our room in the dark, with a huge hockey book in his arms, to excitedly recite endless bits of trivia to his still-sleeping parents (because apparently we NEED to know these things before 6:30am).  He's told me over lunch that if he were to fart 5000 times consecutively, he would produce enough energy to run a whole factory.  He's wondered aloud to me, "All cats are born, not made, right?", which then resulted in me having to explain, rather awkwardly,  how cats are first made, and then born.  And he's launched into several indignant rants over injustices like there not being a newspaper to read on January 2nd  (apparently it's very disrespectful of the newspaper company not to consider the kids who would want to read the paper over breakfast that day, you know).

Noah is not as loud as Will, but he is just as adept at long-winded conversations.  He likes to ask us questions we'll never know the answers to, like "What is the densest thing in the universe?".  (I would like to answer, "My brain, because that's what happens when you never get a moment's peace!", but apparently the correct answer is "a neutron star".)  He's informed me this past week that once a chicken lived for 18 months after its head was cut off (where does he read this stuff?), and has explained to me at length how he plans to develop force feedback for the XBox Kinect system when he grows up.  (I'd be impressed if I knew what that meant!)

When you put the boys together in a room, it's best to duck because ideas (and arguments) come flying out of their mouths with such force and speed that they have the potential to inflict damage if they strike anything.  Noah and Will chattered excitedly for hours when our water cooler broke over the holidays and we had to replace it; they thought we would let them have the old one to "build stuff" out of and were planning like a couple of mad scientists.  (I'm now guarding my washing machine and my toaster very carefully!)  They got into a heated debate over features while designing plans for a high tech snow fort that frankly, they wouldn't have enough snow to actually build if you took the precipitation of three heavy Northern Ontario winters and dumped it in our yard.  One night at a holiday dinner with Matt's side of the family, the boys took out the big dictionary just for fun and spent half an hour shouting out new words and definitions.  (They're the life of the party, these two, I tell you!)

They say that silence is golden; if that's the case, I am certain this family will never attain that elusive prize.  Catching a glimpse (albeit a noisy one!) of the creative and critical thinking processes that go on in the boys' minds, though, offers a richness of another kind, one I realize I'm very fortunate to experience.  I'm sure if you ask Noah and Will, they'll explain to you at length that platinum is way better than gold, anyway!

(p.s. Noah just informed me that the title of my post contains a neologism. I'm off to get out the big dictionary.)

Sunday, January 1, 2012

In with the new (and a recipe for healthy pumpkin muffins)

Our little family of four said goodbye to 2011 last night with a delicious fondue dinner, a few rounds of Bananagrams, and an early countdown to 2012 at 8pm, complete with horns, hats, and happy hollering (because hey, it was midnight somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic, anyway!).  Spending the evening enjoying the company of my guys in our home seemed a perfect way to usher in a new year, reflecting on the joys (and challenges) of the previous twelve months and wondering with hope what new ones we might experience in the months to come.

Many people, I'm sure, woke up this morning with their hearts and minds set on making some changes for the better in the new year:  to eat well, to exercise more, to be more organized to allow for the accomplishment of these other goals.  The store flyers this time of year would certainly lead us to believe that all we need to do is buy all the right stuff (treadmills! storage containers! high fibre cereals!) and anything is possible.  I think, though, that while grandiose plans for major self-improvement may seem admirable, if you check back in with people in a month, many of them will have slipped back into their old habits, having found that major change all at once is difficult.  When regular life gets stressful again after the holidays, the treadmill sits unused in the basement and breakfast once again becomes a coffee and a sugar-laden muffin picked up quickly at a drive-through window.

Instead of trying to break too many old habits at once, I think it's wiser (and much more manageable) to make small changes towards a healthier way of living, one step at a time.  Commit to something new that you know you can do and will feel good about:  pick a new vegetable at the grocery store and learn how to cook it in a way you love so you'll want to cook it again. Replace one unhealthy snack a day with something that's better for you.  Decide to regularly take the stairs rather than the elevator at work, or set aside time once a week for a family activity that will get everyone moving.  Little changes like these require a conscious effort to make but are not all-consuming, and they're quicker to become integrated as a regular part of everyday life.  The happiness that comes from being successful with a small shift is wonderful inspiration for further change for the better. 

Today I'm sharing a healthy recipe for pumpkin muffins that could be a part of someone's small change:  they make a wonderful snack as they're full of vegetables and whole grains and low in sugar (an excellent substitute for doughnuts or prepackaged granola bars).  Will's teacher shared this recipe with us in a newsletter she sent home in the fall (thanks, Mrs. Berg!) and they've become a new favourite in our house.  I love that the recipe can be easily adapted to accommodate those with food sensitivities, too!

Pumpkin Spice Muffins

1 1/2 cup whole wheat flour (substitute brown rice flour for gluten-free muffins)
1/2 cup oat bran (substitute pure oats finely ground in a food processor for gluten-free muffins)
2 tsp baking powder
2 tsp of a mixture of cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp sea salt
1 cup pumpkin puree
1/2 cup grated carrot
1/2 cup milk (dairy, almond, or rice)
1/2 cup honey (I use only 2 tbsp and find the muffins sweet enough)
1/4 cup grapeseed oil
1 tbsp applesauce
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp grated orange zest

In a large bowl, mix flour, oat bran, baking powder, spices, baking soda, and salt until well combined.
Whisk together pumpkin puree, carrot, milk, honey, oil, applesauce, vanilla, and orange zest in a medium bowl until well combined.
Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients and stir until mixed.
Spoon mixture into paper lined muffin cups and bake at 375 F for 20 to 30 minutes.  (Check the muffins after 20 minutes -- cooking times will vary depending on your oven.)  Cool and serve.

These muffins are delicious, nutritious, and freeze very well -- perfect for a healthy snack on the go!

I wish you all a very happy 2012, filled with lots of little opportunities to discover a healthier you!