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 31, 2015

A New Year

If the laid-back feeling of this holiday week had somehow made my family oblivious to the fact that today is New Year's Eve, my recent burst of activity around the house certainly would have tipped them off. Over the past twenty-four hours, I've felt the urge to tidy things up, to reorganize, to freshen things up in our various corners; I've been flipping mattresses and making beds with fresh sheets, cleaning out fridges and restocking them with fresh foods. There's no need, really, to do any of these things right now, but the physical actions seem to satisfy a psychological drive in me on the cusp of a new year -- it feels especially good today to take stock and to make space.

I came across this quotation in my social media surfing this week, and appreciated the encouragement to tend to our minds and hearts as we ring in a new year, much in the same way I've been tending to the physical things around home.

It makes sense to me that we are better prepared to welcome new experiences and awareness if we're willing to leave a part of ourselves open and free. What a wonderful way to approach a new year.

I've spent some time over these past few days thinking back through the joys and heartaches, the accomplishments and the challenges of 2015, glad for having documented them here throughout the year so I can remember more clearly the little details and the way I felt when I was living them. We welcomed kittens to our family, dealt with washing machine woes, made lasting memories in our favourite summer spot, and created a new way to enjoy chocolate. (Mmmm, chocolate.) We found tangible proof of how hard it is to keep up with Will, and proudly watched Noah grow through one of his busiest, most interesting years to date. I made a commitment to myself to focus more on something that makes me happy.  I travelled old familiar roads that led me to a poignant revisiting of my younger self, and to a beautiful place to say a final goodbye. I'm grateful for all of these experiences, cheerful and sad, for the rich meaning and understanding they've brought to my life. I also truly appreciate all of you, who have been here with me as you've read my stories and shared your own experiences, your encouragement and support.

Some friends and I were recently discussing the practice of choosing a personally meaningful word for the year ahead, rather than coming up with a specific New Year's resolution. I like the idea of cultivating a mindset that can be applied to a wide variety of situations; having a word to live by seems to me to offer more opportunities for success. Several words have seemed good possibilities as I've thought about which one might suit me best for 2016, but in the end I've decided on stretch. I don't mean in a physical sense (although that feels good, too, and I really should get back to practising yoga in the new year!), but I'd like to stretch my inner self beyond the artificial limits I may have set in place through unhelpful thought patterns or behaviours. It becomes easy, I think, in one's forties, to settle a little too firmly into comfortable routines and beliefs. I want to reach beyond what feels convenient and familiar, to find what new possibilities and happy surprises might lie there.

What word will you choose for the year just ahead of us? I hope you'll be open to hope, joy, love, and peace in 2016. Wishing you all a very happy and healthy new year!

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

"Fancy Drinks": A Kids' New Year's Eve Cocktail

We've been enjoying a wonderful Christmas holiday here. There have been fun visits and special dinners with cousins and aunts and uncles, late mornings in pyjamas, movie nights with four of us tucked up under warm blankets in our now finished and very cozy basement, afternoons spent enjoying new books and Lego sets and games, Christmas cookies and steaming mugs of tea in the evenings. The holiday season is a gift in and of itself, I think, the way it gives us so many hours to spend in each other's company, playing and laughing and eating and resting to our hearts' content.

As 2015 nears its end, perhaps you and your family are making plans for a New Year's Eve celebration. We're making plans here, too, ones that involve more family and food and fun, so we can welcome 2016 with the same positive energy we hope to keep with us all year long. Whenever there is a celebration being talked about around here, Will requests "fancy drinks" for the kids, so they can enjoy something bubbly as well as the grown-ups. I'm not a fan of pop, even on special occasions, but I'm happy to create something fizzy and sweet from natural ingredients to fill the kids' toasting glasses. This "fancy drink", made from orange and pomegranate juices and sparkling water, is one of my boys' favourites.

You can make these fun kids' cocktails very simply by adding a few ice cubes to each glass, filling them one third of the way up with orange juice, adding a generous splash of pure pomegranate juice, then topping them up with sparkling water. A few fresh cranberries or orange slices make the drinks look extra special, and Will likes when I add a striped straw and a little paper drink umbrella to each glass, too.

Cheers to you, wherever you are -- I hope you've been enjoying a wonderful holiday, too!

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Peace and Joy

A friend recently shared this post on Facebook:

Yesterday I had the pleasure of spending some time at Conestoga Mall finishing up a few things. ... The parking lot was a zoo, even at 10:30am, but I found a spot at the far end and enjoyed a quiet walk in the rain to the entrance. Line ups were common in most stores, but it was time to reflect and give thanks. Sadly, at The Bay, a cashier walked away from her cash for a few moments to help someone and in the meantime two women wanted to purchase their items immediately! They rang the bell at the cash over and over again. Meanwhile, I was choosing the perfect socks for the girls' stockings and heard the ladies comment in such a negative tone of voice to the cashier as she returned, "We've been ringing this bell for 10 minutes, you were nowhere in sight!" The cashier said she was sorry. As I approached the cash, the young cashier had a hard time to look me in the eyes. I told her that she was ok and that the customers certainly weren't ringing the bell for 10 minutes and that she could let that go and enjoy her day.
If you are out in the hustle and bustle today, see what you can do to share a smile, and take a few moments to reflect while standing in line ups....

I loved this reminder to slow down and find the joy in the last preparations for Christmas this week, keeping in mind that just being able to drive to the mall and buy food and drinks and gifts is a privelege we're fortunate to experience.

My friend's words reminded me of a post I wrote here four years ago; I'm still grateful for the same things. A very merry Christmas to you all!  xoxo


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 Facebook share-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.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Maple Spiced Nuts

Christmas preparations are now in full swing at our house. I've been having fun this week working on one of everyone's favourite parts of the holiday season: the delicious foods and special treats we'll enjoy with family and friends who come to visit. The boys have each put in their requests for which cookies and squares they hope will make the baking list this year, and I'm looking forward to recreating some of our family's best-loved traditional foods that evoke happy memories of Christmases past.

One of the treats that was always around in little bowls at Christmastime during my childhood was roasted mixed nuts. Everyone had their favourites (brazil nuts for my dad, cashews for my mom and me), and the salty snack was always great to munch on while we enjoyed drinks and laughs with relatives. This week I noticed a recipe for sweet and spicy nuts in the December issue of Chatelaine magazine, and it reminded me that I've long wanted to try making a roasted nut mixture of my own for the holiday season. Today I tweaked the ingredients of the magazine recipe to suit my own preferences and ended up with a pan full of fragrant and tempting snacks.

Maple Spiced Nuts

2 1/2 cups of shelled natural nuts (I used 1/2 cup each of almonds, walnuts, pecans, cashews and hazelnuts)
1/2 cup unsweetened large flake coconut
1 tbsp coconut oil
1/4 cup pure maple syrup
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 tbsp ground cinnamon (I like to use Frontier organic cinnamon, which is especially flavourful)
1/8 tsp ground ginger
1/8 tsp ground allspice
1/4 tsp sea salt

Preheat the oven to 275 F. In a large mixing bowl, combine the nuts and the large flake coconut.

Place the coconut oil in an oven-safe bowl and set it in the oven to melt while the oven is preheating. Once the oil is liquefied, remove it from the oven and add the maple syrup, vanilla, cinnamon, ginger, and allspice to the bowl. Whisk well to combine.

Pour the syrup and spice mixture over the nuts and stir to coat. Sprinkle the sea salt over the nuts and stir again. Spread the nuts out on a parchment paper lined baking sheet. Bake in the preheated oven for 40 minutes, stirring once every 10 to 15 minutes.

Allow the nuts to cool before serving.

These roasted nuts are a perfect combination of maple sweetness and cinnamony spice, and I'll be happy to set them out in little bowls this holiday season so everyone can enjoy their favourites. (It's still cashews for me!) Maple spiced nuts would also make lovely homemade holiday gifts if placed in pretty glass jars tied with festive ribbon. Enjoy!

Friday, December 4, 2015

So long, Santa

"I don't know if Santa is real or not," Will said to me pensively one day last month, "but if he isn't, what a thing for parents to do, to tell their children there's a Santa Claus and then leave them heartbroken when they find out there isn't." His prickling words stayed with me over the next few weeks as Will's questions about the jolly guy in the red suit became more persistent and challenging. He's always been relentless in his search for the truth, his busy, logical mind rapidly piecing together information and searching for the smallest inconsistencies in details. He loves the thrill of proving his thoughts to be right, even while his tender heart appreciates the sweetness of a good story. So when Will finally asked me outright the other evening if Santa was real, I decided it was time for me to be honest with him.

"I knew it!" he shouted, his triumph over figuring this out tempered somewhat by the sudden surprise of watching a familiar belief crumble into nothing before him, and by the realization that his older brother had already been in on the secret for awhile now. I broke the news to him gently, telling him that the idea of Santa, with its spirit of giving and helping others to be happy, is very real, even if the man himself is not. I saw him blink hard a couple of times, but he recovered quickly, replacing his disappointment with practical questions to assure that he'd still be getting gifts this year, and with incredulous scorn for his dad and me for allowing Santa to take all of the credit for the best gifts over so many Christmases. It was actually me who was emotional and needed to head off into another room for a few minutes so he couldn't see the tears welling up in my eyes.

I had not expected the end of this particular childhood magic to feel so sad. Somehow I had thought it might actually be a bit of a relief to no longer have to cover my tracks so carefully, trying to keep this secret from a child who doesn't miss anything. I've known for a long time that even once he no longer believed in Santa, my kind-hearted Will, who so often gives what he has to make others' lives more cheerful, would always keep the spirit of Christmas alive. But just as Will's belief in a twinkle-eyed, bearded man with the ability to visit all the world's children with his reindeer in a single night has now vanished, so too, I suddenly realize, has the last of my little boys. And I'm old enough to know that no matter how longingly I might wish for it one day, there's no magic that can ever bring them back to me.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The (Dreaded) Christmas Card Photo

Any parent who has ever tried to capture the perfect photo of their children to include with Christmas cards can probably relate to what I'm going to describe next. You choose nice, coordinating outfits for the kids to wear in advance and find just the right backdrop to help set a festive looking scene. You envision a moment captured in time in which your dear offspring are smiling sweetly, their arms draped in brotherly or sisterly love around each other's shoulders, in a striking representation of the wonderful young people they are.

But this is how the Christmas card photo situation actually goes down: Your children hate the outfits you've chosen for them to wear. They stage a full blown protest by refusing to get dressed, and when you somehow finally convince (bribe?) them into their clothes, they sit all hunched over in sulky misery and complain for three hours straight. When you choose the backdrop, an outdoor scene near a fragrant evergreen lightly dusted in fresh snow, you forget to take into consideration the glare of the sunlight. The bright beams pierce the eyes of your photosensitive child like daggers and have him squinting and writhing in every camera shot, while his brother engages in ape-like antics beside him trying to get a laugh. You beg and yell and cry and cajole and snap 548,982,347 photos with your camera, hoping that one, just one, of them might be passable enough to print and mail out, all the while knowing that the chances of this are about one in a billion. (Someone please tell me this sounds familiar so I can feel just a tiny bit better about my years of challenges in this department!?)

This year, as December approached, I found myself dragging my feet when it came time to organize the Christmas card photo shoot. I wondered if it was still necessary, now that the boys are older, to subject all three of us to the high level drama that was sure to unfold in the process. Did our family and friends really want or need a picture of the boys in their Christmas card this year? I decided that yes, they probably still did.

But I had an aha! moment late last week: why not let the fourteen and eleven year old boys take charge of their own photo this year? Surely it wouldn't be a stressful exercise for me if I mostly stayed out of it, right? I asked them to choose their own outfits, style their own hair, and even take their own photo, selfie style. They accomplished all of this wonderfully, and I was just about to dance about with joy and relief until I realized that because of their height differences, the best photo the boys took together had Will cut off at the neck, which he didn't really like.

People, I caved, and got out my own camera, and begged and yelled and cried and cajoled and snapped 548,982,347 photos hoping that one of them might be passable enough to print and mail out. There was squinting and writhing, and plenty of ape antics.

But that's okay; it was actually kind of fun. Some holiday traditions just aren't meant to be broken. 

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Worth Keeping in Your Pockets: November 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 19, 2015

A warm embrace

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Etsy: Happy Holiday Gift Ideas

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

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

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

For the woman with a generous heart:

Hand Knit Red Cable Scarf from Knits by Nat

Leather Tote Bag from Go Forth Goods

All Natural Body Care Gift Set from Wild Raven Soap

For the guy who doesn't need another tie:

UnCase for iPhone from Zero Five Design

Rosewood Watch from tmbrwood

Duck Canvas Dopp Kit by Shotgun Paul

For the trend savvy tween or teen:

Handcrafted Bamboo Skateboard from Habitat Imprint

For the sweetest little member of the family:

Sock Monkey Toy from Amber Vroom

Natural Wood Bowling Set from Apple n Amos

Striped Bathrobe from Eco Emi

For the friend who loves small surprises:

Panda Cookie Dunk Mug from Lenny Mud

Hand Stamped Vintage Spoon from Milk and Honey Luxuries

Heart Hand Warmers from WormeWoole

All Natural Peppermint Bark Candle from The Tiny Collection

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

Monday, November 9, 2015

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

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

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

Cashew Butter Brownies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The truth about basement renovations

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 22, 2015

My favourite candidate

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

On my way

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Humming along

We enjoyed a really wonderful Thanksgiving weekend filled with friends and relatives, warm sunshine, and scrumptious fall foods, with time for play and time for a little bit of necessary work, too. Friday evening we had fun at a lively Oktoberfest celebration at the home of our friends who moved to Canada from Germany several years ago, and Saturday we enjoyed the good company of visiting family around our own table for a Thanksgiving feast. Later in the weekend, we moved everything out of our basement in preparation for a redecorating project that will be happening soon (exciting!), the guys eagerly watched some baseball, and Will and I played too many games of Yahtzee (Will's latest favourite) to count. We also took advantage of the beautiful weather by going on a long walk out in nature together one afternoon.

While exploring the walking trail, Matt and the boys and I noticed the very obvious beauty of the crimson and golden autumn leaves on the trees all around us, but we also came across a couple of fascinating and unusual sights. The trail was teeming with praying mantises -- we noticed close to a dozen of them in total, each of them sitting quietly in solitude out on the sunlit paved path, so we were able to get down and get a good look at their really interesting forms and wonder aloud what they might be watching for. Near the end of our walk, we almost passed by what appeared to be a very ordinary looking large, grayish stone, until we suddenly realized it was a huge tortoise. He too, was still; he watched us, unblinking, from his shady spot among a pile of fallen leaves, and we stood and marveled for awhile at his wrinkled folds of skin that gave him an air of quiet wisdom. Walking in nature always gives my spirits a boost this time of year, but I loved this surprising little reminder that there are always wonders to be found among seemingly ordinary things when we take the time to see them.

Life continues to hum along at an animated pace this month; the four of us are all happily involved in things that engage and excite us, and we've settled nicely into the routines of fall activities. I haven't had as much time lately to devote to writing as I would like, but I'm very much looking forward to attending the Blissdom Canada conference at Blue Mountain Resort later this week, an event that always fills me with inspiration, ideas, and eagerness to try new things in my work. I hope you're finding your own bliss, whatever it may be, during these beautiful fall weeks, too. I'll be back again soon!

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Pumpkin Spice Cake with Maple Icing (gluten-free, dairy-free, egg-free)

It was a very autumn-y sort of weekend around our house.  Matt and the boys and I went and visited a local orchard this afternoon, where we walked among the rows of fruit-laden trees and had fun filling four large bags with shiny red apples together.

These two kooky kids are always the apples of my eye.

The rest of the weekend was pretty blustery and damp outside, so it was a great opportunity to spend time in the kitchen cooking up foods for fall feasting: some homemade granola, a batch of oatmeal cookies for school lunches, beef pot roast for dinner, and a pumpkin spice cake with maple icing for dessert. This cake has quickly become a new seasonal favourite in our house; it's a just-right combination of savoury and sweet that goes perfectly with a warm mug of apple cinnamon tea.

Pumpkin Spice Cake with Maple Icing

For the cake:

6 cups blanched almond flour
6 tbsp arrowroot flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp sea salt
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground allspice
2 cups pure pumpkin puree
1/2 cup grapeseed oil
1/3 cup pure maple syrup
6 tbsp unsweetened almond milk
2 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350 F. In a mixing bowl, combine the almond flour, arrowroot flour, baking powder, sea salt, cinnamon, ginger, and allspice.

In a separate large mixing bowl, whisk together the pumpkin puree, grapeseed oil, maple syrup, almond milk, and vanilla. Add half of the dry ingredient mixture to the wet ingredients, stirring to combine, then add the rest of the dry ingredient mixture and stir again until you have a nice thick cake batter.

Lightly grease a bundt pan with grapeseed oil, then spoon the cake batter into the pan. Smooth the batter with the back of a spoon to create a level top. Bake the cake in the preheated oven for 55 minutes to an hour, or until a cake tester inserted in the cake comes out clean.

Remove the cake from the oven and let it cool in the pan for about 15 minutes. Carefully invert the bundt pan onto a wire rack to remove the cake from the pan and let it cool completely.

For the icing:

1/4 cup raw coconut butter
1 tbsp + 1 tsp coconut oil
1 tbsp + 1 tsp pure maple syrup

toasted chopped pecans for garnishing

Beat the coconut butter, coconut oil, and maple syrup in a bowl with an electric mixer on high speed until a smooth mixture forms. Spoon this mixture into a piping bag fitted with a small round tip. Pipe the icing in loops over the top of the cake, and garnish with toasted chopped pecans.

When Will came in from outside yesterday afternoon and smelled this pumpkin spice cake baking, he exclaimed, "Oh my gosh, I could just float away! It smells like heaven in here!" We all agreed after dinner that it tasted every bit as delicious as it smelled. Maybe you'd like to bake up one of these tasty cakes yourself for a fun fall celebration this month.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015


I'm sitting at a small table in my local Starbucks/Chapters store with my laptop this morning in an effort to coax myself into more focused work. It's work my mind has long been eager to do, but a mind can be too willingly sidetracked when work is challenging and the outcome is uncertain. There are easy distractions at home, too many mundane things that "need" to be done before I'll tackle the work that would make me happiest. So this morning I've tried to escape the false urgency with which the stuff of everyday life beckons me by shutting the door and walking away for a little while.

I've quickly discovered there are easy distractions here too, though, in the form of the other people occupying small tables all around me. There is the blonde woman with a tote bag full of colourful yarn who weaves a crochet hook methodically through loops of deep purple, silver speckled wool, creating a pretty hat in the process. A young man rests his darkly stubbled chin on his fist in a thoughtful moment of pause as he considers what he's just typed onto his computer screen. The slender man behind me with the graying hair sips his beverage while turning the pages of a booklet filled with complex, intriguing-looking math equations at slow intervals. Across from me, a flush-cheeked young woman jots down notes in a small black leather book; I notice she is left-handed. I cast quick, curious glances at each of them every now and then, knowing I should just mind my own business, but I can't help wondering what their stories are. What pressing work has brought each of them here on this particular morning? From what might they be trying to escape?

I have always seen the world in stories. As a child, the warm light glowing from windows of other peoples' homes in the evening enticed me to imagine the lives breathing within the buildings' walls. Snippets of conversations overheard in public spaces have often flourished like vines, branching out into full-fledged fictional narratives in my mind. I am driven still to ponder the complex inner workings of human beings and the ways in which they connect with one another. Maybe, then, these people around me who come and go, giving me tiny glimpses into their uncommon lives, are not distractions at all, but interesting possibilities to consider beyond myself as I search out the stories I most want to tell. 

I watch with great interest as the crocheting woman skillfully crafts a little flower out of yarn and attaches it to the hat she has now finished making. Her morning's work has produced something tangible and satisfying. I realize now with sudden gladness that so has mine. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Etsy: Made in Canada

It's officially autumn, a beautiful season of falling leaves, crisp blue skies and cool air, cozy knits, and comfort foods. Though it's still sunny and summer-like outside this week where we live, I find myself looking ahead for ways to add warmth to our home, our wardrobes, and our lives as the temperatures tumble in the coming months. For me, nothing adds warmth and cheerfulness to a gray, chilly fall day quite like a little something that has been handcrafted with heart.

This Saturday, September 26th, people in 34 different cities across Canada will have an opportunity to shop unique and beautiful local handmade items at Etsy: Made in Canada pop-up markets.  This is the second year for the event, which gives Etsy artisans and shoppers the chance to connect in person. Everyone who attends gets to celebrate up close the diverse talents that live in and are inspired by their own communities.

The pop-up market in my area is being held at Emmanuel Village in Kitchener from 10am until 4pm. I'm really looking forward to attending after seeing so many beautiful items at last year's event. Here is a small sampling of some of the handiwork of local artisans who will be at the Kitchener Etsy market this year. (Click on the highlighted text to visit the online shop for more information.)

Cabled Infinity Cowl by Freedom Knits

Etched Copper Leaf Necklace by Stray Stones

Antler Pillow Cover by HAWT Home

Sugar Maple Salad Bowl by Simply Rooted Wood Shop

Modern Teen Bracelets by ESBeadworks

Stationery Set by isavirtue

Upcycled Fair Isle Wool Dog Sweater by PupCycle Canada

Newborn Gift Set by Teegy Togs

Moose Stuffed Animal by The Blind Stitch

Girls' and Ladies' Slouchy Knit Hat by NoasKnits

To find out where the pop-up market nearest you is taking place, and to see a sampling of the lovely items that will be available there, visit the Etsy: Made in Canada page. Admission to all of the pop-up markets on Saturday is free.

If you're not close to an Etsy pop-up market this weekend, you can support Canadian artisans any time by shopping at Etsy online from the comfort of your own little corner of the country.

Happy Fall!