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, January 28, 2016

Worth Keeping In Your Pockets: January 2016

There is a surefire way to invite a bit of trouble into your life: announce on your blog that your January is going very well. I went into last weekend feeling buoyant, riding on the waves of the positive things happening for our family lately and looking forward to a Friday evening book club meeting, a Saturday morning writing session, and a Sunday afternoon skating party with friends. But by Saturday afternoon I was fretting and grumbling. I had fallen into the dangerous trap of mentally comparing my writing with other people's at the morning session and making myself feel inferior, and then I read the news and realized that over the past few months I had likely eaten dozens of containers of organic greens that may have been contaminated with listeria. (So much for salad being a healthy lunch choice!!) On Sunday evening, Will and I spent a couple of hours in the hospital ER, waiting for him to get his painful wrist looked at after he took a tumble on the ice at the skating party. Needless to say, the weekend looked quite a bit different than the one I had been anticipating.

I have a bad habit of getting sucked into an instant vortex of negativity when minor setbacks happen, and turning small problems into imaginary bigger ones. I often have to remind myself to step back and look at things from a more balanced perspective, to find the positives among life's typical challenges. Listening to other people's good writing is a pleasure and a valuable learning opportunity; eating recalled lettuce does not automatically lead to illness. A fall at the end of a skating party means everyone got to enjoy themselves for a good while first. A suspected broken bone can turn out to be only a sprain, and we can be thankful for good doctors and nurses who treated Will kindly and had us in and out of the ER in under two hours on a Sunday evening, feeling reassured that all was well.

In the spirit of focusing on good things, I'm sharing another edition of Worth Keeping in Your Pockets today. It feels like it hasn't been long since the last time I wrote one of these, but I've discovered several nice treats lately that I think you might enjoy, too!

Flavoured Honey:  We love using honey as a natural sweetener in our kitchen, so I was excited to learn that someone in our neighbourhood keeps bees in her backyard. Catherine Young, of the Backyard Honey Company, is running a lovely business selling a variety of locally made products using honey created by her bees. She also shares her extensive knowledge with school children and other community groups by giving educational Bee Talks. I was welcomed into Catherine's home to sample and learn more about her products, and I left with two jars of the most delicious flavoured creamed honey, one cinnamon and one cocoa. The boys savour a bit of these sweet spreads on their morning toast with nut butter, and I'm sure they'll be asking for more once our two jars run out. If you'd like to learn more about Catherine's beekeeping or would like to purchase some of her honey, you can find her here. It's so nice to support local small business people who are sharing something wonderful with their communities.

Happy Face Spoons: Need to add a little cheer to early, dark winter mornings? How about a happy face spoon for your cup of coffee or your bowl of oatmeal? I found these smiling utensils at Fenigo before Christmas and couldn't resist them. I gave Will the jam spreader in his stocking, which he now enjoys using every morning to make his toast just the way he likes it: with a generous dollop of cashew butter and a bit of jam or honey enthusiastically smushed beyond recognition into it. Happy Face Cutlery comes in all shapes and sizes (dessert forks, grapefruit spoons, vegetable peelers, butter knives, tea strainers, and more) and they make a fun addition to a utensil drawer, a lunch bag, or a food gift for a friend. 

Best Slippers Ever: When my sister-in-law Becca came to visit us with her family back in November, I was smitten with the slippers she was wearing. They were glerups felted wool ones and they looked so warm and comfortable on her feet. Matt took note and thoughtfully gifted me a pair for Christmas. My typically cold feet are deliriously happy now -- the slippers hug my feet nicely, cushion every step, and keep my toes feeling perfectly toasty. My husband knows just the way to my heart! These slippers were one of my favourite gifts and I will appreciate them every day this winter.

A Lovely Natural Face Cream:  I've mentioned the Rocky Mountain Soap Company here several times before, and it remains the place I return to again and again for gentle, natural skin care products. My latest discovery from their online shop is the Pomegranate Day Cream, which I am very happy with as a daily facial moisturizer. The cream is light and non-greasy, smells lovely without any chemical fragrances, and moisturizes skin beautifully, even in harsh winter conditions. I only need to use a little of the cream each morning, so a small jar lasts a long time to help give my skin a healthy glow.

A Favourite Laptop Sleeve: With Noah schlepping his laptop back and forth to school every day for course assignments now, he needed some kind of protective sleeve to prevent it from getting damaged. (A teenaged boy's backpack gets some pretty rough and tumble treatment over the course of a full day, I'm sure.) I found this sleeve by Herschel online and Noah has been really glad to have it. The design is classically simple, but the features are very nice; it has a sturdy zipper and super soft plush lining to offer good cushioning. There is also some stylishly fun red and white pinstripe detailing inside. I like this well-made product from a Canadian company so much that I'd like to get one for my own laptop next.

Chalkboards and Daily Riddles: I found a fun-shaped, small-sized chalkboard at HomeSense a few weeks ago that was just right for the empty wall space in our laundry room. The cheerful yellow frame brightened up the utilitarian room a little right away, but it's what I've been using the board for that has really made things livelier around here. Every day I write a new riddle on the board once everyone leaves for work and school -- a word wink, a jumble, a logic puzzle, or a math challenge of some kind -- and leave it there to see who can figure it out. I first presented a riddle as an experimental use of the chalkboard to see how it took, but this has quickly become a challenge everyone looks forward to each afternoon (and I've been kept on my toes trying to find new and more complicated puzzles to keep them thinking!) There are lots of online resources for riddles and puzzles if you do a quick Google search, and many good books available as well.

I keep hoping the fact that the boys are spending more time in the laundry room reading and solving puzzles will somehow encourage them to do more of the actual laundry, but so far no luck. Oh well, the daily riddles have been a fun family activity for all of us!

Here's to the small but good things that are all around us when we take the time to notice and be grateful for them.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

January Hues

January is not usually one of the most cheerful months of the year for me. The dark mornings and the endless sea of winter gray and white beyond my windows can seem achingly monotonous after the excitement of a new year wears off, and I find myself longing quietly for some kind of change to happen. Often by this time in the season, the winter blues begin to seep into my bones along with the chill of mid-winter's frigid air.

This January feels different though. Part of it may have to do with winter having arrived so late this year: we are just this week shovelling regular, significant snowfalls from our driveway in the evenings, all four of us awed by the new-again wonder of fresh flakes tumbling from smoky indigo skies. Instead of boredom or sadness, I feel an energetic hum within and an excitement usually reserved for spring, that optimistic season of fresh things bursting into the world .

This feeling has been helped along by me saying yes to new experiences and challenges this month, resisting the urge to let a slowly moving season lull me into a kind of sleep. I decided several weeks ago that I would enter a creative nonfiction writing contest, not because I actually have any hopes of winning it, but because having a lofty goal would encourage me to stretch and write better than I ever have before. I've been working hard to do justice in words to a touching family story that has occupied my mind and heart for months now, and the feeling of deep personal satisfaction I've experienced throughout the writing process has made me feel very much alive.

Also, last weekend, I began the writing adventure that I previously mentioned signing up for. I was definitely nervous but open to the experience as I walked into the room full of writers and other creators. Carrie was warm and welcoming as a guide; she encouraged us all to write without fear or self-criticism, keeping our pens constantly moving as she led us through a series of activities. Creating something completely unplanned, unencumbered, and unexpected was a liberating exercise for me, and made me aware of just how often my internal critic badgers me during my usual creative process. I was grateful for the sudden, exciting realization that I have many ideas and feelings within me waiting to be explored, and they're readily available to me when I'm willing to focus on the writing rather than the end result. I left the session feeling joyful, and eager to return the next Saturday. Now more than I've ever been, I'm sure that the time I spend writing is when I feel most like myself.

January has been an exciting month for Noah and Will so far as well. Noah has happily been spending many of his weekend and weekday evening hours at school these days as a member of a FIRST robotics team. He and his high school teammates are working hard to design, build, and program a robot that will meet the season's engineering challenge, with the guidance of some wonderful, dedicated university student mentors and adult professionals. The team has only six weeks to build the robot from scratch, and then they'll compete in several competitions to see how well it performs. I am thrilled for Noah to have this valuable learning opportunity that speaks to so many of his interests. We're very fortunate that there is such enthusiasm for large-scale, multi-faceted projects like this one at his high school and in our community as a whole.

Will is enthusiastic about his new role this month as a young ambassador. Our school's principal was to choose two students to be part of the Elementary Student Senate, which gives Grade 7/8 students "an opportunity to express their voice and opinions as leaders within their schools and communities". He decided to send our Grade 6 boy. Small but mighty; that's always been our Will! I dropped him off at our area high school for a senate orientation meeting this morning; he was keen to begin sharing his ideas about what is working well and what needs improvement at his own elementary school. He was also happy about the possibility of bumping into his big brother today in the high school hallways. I'm proud of Will's commitment and his eagerness to make a difference in his world.

There is much for me to be cheerful about in this first month of 2016. It's been a nice surprise to discover a different set of January hues.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Almond Cherry Orange Biscotti (gluten-free, vegan)

On Christmas Eve afternoon, I called my grandma in Sault Ste. Marie to tell her I was thinking about her and to wish her a Merry Christmas. I was feeling as I often do when special occasions approach, and I am here and so many of my extended family members are there: flooded with warm memories of the happy family gatherings of my childhood, and wishing a little wistfully that it was somehow easy to recreate them in the same way now.

My grandma and I chatted cheerfully about the preparations we'd each been making for the holidays. She told me about the dozens of genettis and pintas she had baked and given away, the cheese and meat ravioli she'd prepared for family dinners, and the most recent batch of biscotti to come out of her oven that week, which were orange flavoured and dotted with chopped almonds and dried cherries. (Have I mentioned before that my grandma is eighty-six years old? Eighty-six, and still finding joy in baking and cooking up wonderful foods to share with the people she loves. "What else am I going to do?", she asks me. "You've gotta keep busy." I hope I have half of the strength and enthusiasm she does when I'm her age.)

I told her I liked the sounds of her biscotti, and she asked me if I thought I could make them in such a way that I'd be able to eat them. I told her I was pretty sure I could. And then one day in early January, an envelope addressed to me in my grandma's handwriting showed up unexpectedly in my mailbox.

My grandma had thoughtfully written out her biscotti recipe for me, and included a series of photos from a magazine to illustrate the method for making them. I was especially eager then to try making a batch of my own. Having my grandma's encouraging handwritten instructions made me feel almost as though she were here with me in my kitchen.

I had to modify my grandma's recipe quite a bit to eliminate gluten, eggs, and refined sugar, but the almond flour version I came up with has the same delicious flavours hers did. The sweet orange flavour and tart cherries scattered through a crispy cookie were a big hit with my eager dessert eaters here at home.

Almond Cherry Orange Biscotti

2 1/2 cups blanched almond flour
2 tbsp coconut flour
1/4 cup coconut palm sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp sea salt
1/3 cup chopped walnuts
1/4 cup dried cherries (I like Eden brand, with no added refined sugar)
the zest of one orange
1/4 cup melted coconut oil
1/4 cup fresh orange juice

Preheat the oven to 325 F. Combine the almond flour, coconut flour, coconut sugar, baking powder, sea salt, walnuts, dried cherries, and orange zest in a large mixing bowl.

Add the melted coconut oil and the orange juice to the almond flour mixture. Stir well, until a crumbly dough forms. Knead the dough with your hands until it all sticks together.

On a parchment paper lined baking sheet, form the dough into a long, flat oval with your hands. (See the example my grandma sent me in the first photograph above. I think my oval was a little too wide this first try; next time I'll try making it longer and a little taller to improve the shape of the finished biscotti.) Bake in the preheated oven for 30 minutes, then allow the baked dough to cool completely.

With a sharp knife, slice across the width of the cooled oval to create biscotti that are each about an inch wide. Place the biscotti cut side up on the baking sheet once more, and bake them for another 10 to 15 minutes at 325 F, keeping an eye on them so they don't brown too much. Allow the biscotti to cool again until they are crispy.

I was really pleased to be able to create a version of my grandma's biscotti that all of us can enjoy. They're a delicious accompaniment to a hot cup of coffee or tea and a good book on a winter afternoon. I've saved my grandma's letter along with my own recipe notes in my cookbook now -- I'll think very fondly of her every time I make this special treat.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Should kids be watching movies during school lunches?

It's Friday -- we've made it to the end of a full week back to school and routines and the painful act of having to get out of bed too early in the mornings! Despite our reluctance about the holidays being over last Sunday evening, the transition into a more bustling, productive lifestyle once again has been positive for all of us.

As Will was happily recounting to me the events of his school day over a snack one afternoon this week, I was reminded of an issue that has been bothering me for some time. It has become a daily practice over the past several years for at least some of the classrooms at his school to have a movie playing from the BrightLink projector onto the white board during the twenty minutes that the students are given to eat their lunch. The reason for the movie, according to my boys, is to get kids to eat quietly before they go outside to play for the remainder of the period. It seems harmless enough, I suppose, giving kids twenty minutes of screens to ensure a certain level of calm while they eat their lunch, but I'm not comfortable with a daily habit of meals with screens for my children, and here's why. 

According to a Common Sense Media 2015 national survey, tweens today spend just over four and a half hours on screens daily, not including the time they spend using media for school or homework. For teens, that number jumps to over six and a half hours of daily screen time for entertainment. Those numbers seemed shockingly high to me when I first read them, but they made sense when I thought some more about all of the ways our children come into contact with screens as they go through a typical day. It doesn't take long for the hour tally to climb when you add in texting, video games, movies and tv shows, YouTube, social media sites like Instagram, and surfing for cool stuff online. The easy portability of screens today means that media use has crept into many aspects of day-to-day life: kids are texting, watching movies, gaming, and using social media while they're eating, waiting for things, studying, or supposed to be sleeping.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has set out guidelines for families regarding screens, based on studies that show that "excessive media use can lead to attention problems, school difficulties, sleep and eating disorders, and obesity". It recommends no more than one or two hours a day of entertainment media for children and teens, as well as the practice of setting "screen-free zones" at home in places like the bedroom and the dinner table. Because it is so easy for kids to exceed these daily recommendations, it requires a conscious effort on the part of parents (and school staff, when children are in their care), to ensure that kids are nudged away from screens and encouraged to participate in other activities that they enjoy.

We have always had a no-screens rule during meals in our home, because I want mealtimes to be about food and conversations that encourage connection between family members. It seems to me that watching a movie on a regular basis during a meal encourages mindless eating, where kids tune out the cues their body is giving them about what they're eating and when they've eaten enough. It also discourages children from sharing in the pleasures of the social, community aspects of a meal, and from learning how to behave appropriately during mealtimes in a group setting. How can we expect them to learn acceptable social behaviours if we miss out on the teaching opportunity by distracting them with constant passive entertainment?

I believe that electronic media can be a useful educational tool in schools; my boys have learned some fascinating things using computers and well-designed programs in their classrooms. It doesn't make sense to me, though, for them to spend twenty minutes each day mindlessly watching part of a movie that's not even that interesting to them during their lunchtime. If schools are setting in place nutrition policies for students and teaching them about healthy eating practices in their lessons, it follows that they should set a good example for kids during school mealtimes as well, by turning off the screens and allowing kids to focus on their food and reasonable friendly chatter with their classmates. We have to be careful as adults responsible for the well-being of children that we don't rely too much on screens simply to make things easier for ourselves.  Just because we can put on a movie to keep lunchtime quiet doesn't mean we should.

How do you feel about kids watching movies during lunch at school, or about other practices or policies your kids' schools have regarding screens? I'd love to hear your views and concerns.

Monday, January 4, 2016

A Different View

The living room seems strangely empty this morning now that everyone has left for work and school, a stark contrast to the previous two weeks when the room was bustling with cozy chaos. Books, games, and the parts for assorted curious projects were often scattered over every surface throughout the holidays, proof that a family was happily living in the space for more than just a few hours a day.

"I was meant to live this way!"  
~Will, age 11, in reference to the unlimited free time he had over the holidays to pursue his various interests

Even though the four of us were all home last night, there was a noticeable hush over the house, the giddy energy of freedom having seemingly been packed away with the last of the twinkling Christmas lights over the weekend. Transitions back to "normal" after a cheerful, rejuvenating, family-focused holiday are always met with some wistful reluctance around here.

Even the cats were begging me not to let Christmas be over -- they were quite happy under the tree.

We all found a new energy shortly after tumbling sleepily out of our beds this morning, though, helped along by the welcome sun that was shining for the first time in what felt like weeks, and by the shock of the suddenly frigid winter air as we stepped out our front door. It was a wake-up call of sorts, after the calming lull of the holidays, an encouragement to open our eyes to the new possibilities we can explore from where we now stand.


We sent Will back to school with a brand new pair of glasses today, a first for him as he's never worn glasses before now. His recent optometrist appointment showed that his nearsightedness had progressed to a point where he needed help seeing the board at school, so we walked out of the office with a prescription and a boy who wasn't really sure that he wanted to get glasses. (Funny how that works -- a year ago, when the optometrist mentioned Will's nearsightedness but said that he wasn't yet in need of prescription lenses, Will kept wishing he was getting glasses!)  I was glad to see his excitement, though, when the first pair of frames I pulled down for him from the display wall at Lenscrafters was exactly what he wanted, and he beamed with satisfaction when he saw his fresh new look in the mirror. 

He's thrilled with how clear everything at a distance appears to him now, too. (I am just keeping my fingers crossed that the glasses, which don't need to be worn all the time, will somehow survive their travels to and from school every day and the mysterious black hole that is Will's classroom desk.)

Noah and I are each taking on something new this month as well: he is starting crossfit classes for teens a few times a week, and I've signed up for a "writing adventure" with an accomplished local author whose work I greatly admire. I was curious and excited about the session she's offering when I read about it on her blog, and I signed myself up for it before I allowed myself to think too much about it and talk myself out of participating. I am used to writing all by myself in my living room, usually when no one else is home, only sharing my work once I'm reasonably comfortable with it (and sometimes not at all). The idea of writing through guided exercises in a room with other, very likely more skilled, people and sharing it immediately afterwards with the group definitely makes me feel nervous, but I'm eager to take this next step to see where it might lead me. I'm stretching!