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, February 29, 2016

February in Fast Forward

Happy Leap Day! Here we are, at the end of February already. Even with the extra day added on, this month, which has felt very full in all kinds of good ways, seems to have flown right by. I could have written a dozen blog posts detailing the various things we've all been up to in recent weeks, but time for writing has been in short supply, so I'm settling for the fast forward version of chronicling February's more noteworthy moments today.

Matt and I have been especially proud parents this past month, as we've had several exciting opportunities to be observers to the hard work and accomplishments of our boys. I watched Noah compete in the CWOSSA swim meet, where he represented his high school in two events, and Matt and Will and I all attended the much anticipated unveiling ceremony of Team Dave's FIRST robot, an impressive feat of engineering that Noah and his teammates achieved through hours of determined effort over the past several weeks. We missed having Noah around home through most of January and February -- he spent every Saturday and Sunday and many weeknights at the school during the build season, often staying there even for meals, which we parents all took turns providing so the kids could eat together in the school cafeteria and then keep working -- but seeing how excited he is about the robot project, how many new friendships he's developed with teens who share common interests with him, and how much real world learning he's acquired throughout the process has made us so very happy for him. We've been amazed to see what the team's robot is capable of doing, and how confident and knowledgeable these young engineers are when they speak about their project to an admiring crowd. Noah is eagerly awaiting Thursday now, when he and his team will travel to Toronto for their first robotics competition of the season, and Noah will act as one of three team spokespersons as they deliver their presentation to the judges for a chance at the prestigious Chairman's Award.

Part of Team Dave with Mayor Dave Jaworsky, who stopped by for a visit one evening. The robot is partially hidden from view on the floor behind him.  

Even with all the time and energy Noah devoted to the robotics team throughout these past two months, he still managed to excel on all of his semester one exams, and is confidently keeping up with his semester two course load, including an extra Grade 10 course that he's taking online to free up space in his timetable next year for some higher level courses that really interest him. He continues to faithfully go to crossfit classes and to volunteer as an assistant swim coach every week, too. I admire his drive and focus, and his ability to manage all of these aspects of his life so well.

Will was invited to attend yet another meeting as a student representative; this one was a Town Hall held last week at the board office, led by the Director of Education, who was interested in hearing what students thought about their school experiences. Students were chosen for their passion, commitment, and leadership, and Will was the only Grade 6 student in the small group selected from across the whole board -- all the others were students in Grades 7, 8, or high school. He loved that the meeting was in an official board room, where each student had a little microphone in front of them and a glass of water; these details made him feel very important as he shared his ideas. I'm always so thrilled for Will that he makes such an impression on people (the coordinator of the meeting greeted him with enthusisam when I dropped him off and told us that Will had been highly recommended for this meeting), and that he's using his strong voice for good.

We've been very glad to be able to see Will shine in his dancing recently, too. We watched him perform with his hip hop group at his team's showcase last week, and it was exciting to see through his high energy performance and new tricks how much he's grown since last year. I'm looking forward to watching him compete in the first dance competition of the season on Friday. This past weekend, one of Will's dance teachers encouraged his students to come and check out a dance battle that he was part of at the University of Waterloo on Saturday afternoon, so Matt and I took an eager Will to see what it was all about. It ended up being a high-energy afternoon of great dancing, where university students faced off against each other in the styles Will loves most (popping and locking, breakdancing), but the most thrilling part of it all was that they allowed Will to register as a competitor. Just like that, he got up in front of a crowd of older teens and twenty-somethings and freestyled his heart out against seasoned competitors. I could learn a lesson or two from my adventurous boy about having the courage to live out a dream.

Will freestyling with his dance teacher at U of W on Saturday.

Spending all of this time with young people in recent weeks has felt very inspiring to me. Whether it was teen swimmers, whose hard working bodies created a powerfully loud spray of churning water that sent a thrill of excitement through me as they sprinted down the lanes all together, or dancers, who shared their true selves with touching honesty through their strong and graceful movements, or robotics students, awesome in their ability to generate creative ideas and a well-built machine in response to a real-world problem, or kids with a passion for speaking up to make a difference in their schools, all of them give me feelings of hope and promise as the next generation finds its way in the world.

When we haven't been occupied with the boys' activities this past month, much of our mental energy has been devoted to making a decision about Will's school situation next year. We were invited to attend a meeting with his teachers and principal last week, where they suggested we consider either subject acceleration or a full grade skip for him in September. This has felt like a very weighty issue to both Will and I; we've had many, many discussions in which we've considered all of the pros and cons of each choice. In the end, Will has decided to go with subject acceleration in math, so next year he will be a Grade 7 student but will take math with Grade 8 students, and then he will attend high school for first period each day in Grade 8, just as Noah did. While we all feel that Will is certainly capable of skipping an entire grade, we're respecting his wish to stay and graduate with his friends, so we'll look for creative ways to keep him learning and growing in the other subjects next year, too.

I've carved out a bit of time to focus on learning myself this month, at a writers' workshop series offered by the University of Guelph a couple of weeks ago. The sessions I attended gave me some brand new ideas for writing projects that I hadn't considered before and am quite excited about. I just need to figure out what else I can let go to free up some time to get started....

As if these activities weren't enough, Matt and I also took on some home improvement projects in February. We emptied out both of the boys' closets, removed the ineffective closet organizers that had been in there since we moved into this house over eight years ago, gave the closet interiors a much needed paint job, and installed a more streamlined system for storing clothes and other items. It wasn't an especially thrilling or glamorous task, but both boys are very happy with how much easier the stuff in their closets is to access now. (It's funny sometimes how long we're willing to hold on to something that just isn't working, in a closet or in life, when a bit of work can make a change that improves things dramatically.) Next up is a complete bathroom renovation -- we've chosen the tiles and fixtures and paint colours and the contractor we've hired will be starting on the demolition soon. (Goodbye and good riddance, floor-to-ceiling 1980s ceramic tile!)

Finally, we've been very glad for the mild overall weather we've been graced with this month, which is typically cold and dreary. Matt and I have been able to spend an afternoon outside almost every weekend, walking in our neighbourhood or on a favourite trail through the woods with the warm sun on our faces. The cheerful bit of quiet together out in nature has been a much appreciated gift amid the month's bustle.

I wonder what March will bring. It looks like the new month will come in like a lion tomorrow -- more excitement lies ahead!

Monday, February 22, 2016

Chance Encounters

I recently started watching CBC's heartwrenching television series Hello Goodbye. I should have known from the previews that I would need an entire jumbo-sized box of tissues just to make it through one 30-minute episode of the show. The program's host walks through Toronto's Pearson Airport and stops to talk to travellers or people waiting to greet loved ones; they share very touching personal stories with him about where they're going as they head toward the airport gates, or whom they're eager to see again as they watch the doors hopefully in the arrivals area. We meet a woman who is finally rejoined with the husband and young daughter she left behind in her homeland nine years ago, when she bravely came on her own to Canada to create a better life for all of them. There is an elderly woman perched gingerly on her walker, waiting to be reunited with her dear ninety year old cousin who is flying over from England, for what will most likely be the last visit together of their lives. A father with two young sons hugs his mother- and father-in-law goodbye as he and his boys prepare to travel the world for a year, a journey of tribute to his wife, who loved adventure before cancer took her from them. What strikes me as I watch each emotional embrace is how many extraordinary stories of sorrow and loss, of forgiveness, of hope and love there are among the most seemingly ordinary people. We all pass strangers everywhere, each and every day of our lives, and have no realization of the joys and the burdens they carry in their hearts.

One day recently I was at Michael's craft store, looking for a frame for a wall map, when I noticed a woman named Grace who used to work as a cashier at our grocery store. She was a long-time employee there; I had gone often through her line over the years and had come to appreciate her efficiency and the candour with which she spoke to me as we chatted about everyday things. She retired this past summer, and I hadn't seen her since her last week at work.

That afternoon at Michael's, I could tell she recognized me as much as I recognized her when we caught each other's eyes over the shelves and smiled, so I went over and said hello to her and asked her how she was enjoying her retirement. We spent the next twenty-five minutes talking animatedly together. Grace told me how she had worked in a grocery store since the age of fifteen, the year she came home and found her mom lying unmoving on the couch, dead from a stroke. She reminisced about how good the original owner of the grocery store had been to her throughout her career, and how even after he retired and grew old, he would make a point of coming to say hello to her when he was in the store, taking the time to bag a customer's groceries at the end of her conveyor belt if there was no one stationed there. She humbly expressed to me her disbelief and her delight over how many people came to see her and share kind words with her on her last day at work, and how she had come to know these people over the years, not always by name, but by piecing together details gathered through years of observation and little snippets of conversation. It was surprising and heartening to learn more about Grace in one chance meeting than I had known about her in all of the years that I had seen her almost weekly. Her touching stories made me glad for the chance encounter and for taking the time to listen.

When Grace and I parted, she looked into my eyes and said, "God bless you. You've made my day more than you know." I felt that she had made mine, too. It's a privilege to be let in on someone else's story, and to gain a deeper, more compassionate understanding of what it is to be human.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Chocolate Cherry Valentine Cupcakes (gluten-free, dairy-free, egg-free)

When special occasions like Valentine's Day are near, I often enjoy using the time that I'm home alone to bake a surprise treat that my three guys and I can all enjoy together. This afternoon I had several hours free, so rather than turning to one of our old favourite chocolate recipes (cashew butter balls, mmmm!), I decided to play around a bit and come up with something new. Will was thrilled when he came home and discovered the heart-shaped silicone baking cups drying in the dish rack -- he went rushing around the house on an instant treasure hunt to find whatever it was I had made in them. His eyes lit up enthusiastically when he came across these chocolate cherry cupcakes in the fridge, and he wanted to know how soon he could eat one. With their delicious chocolate base and their toppings of a homemade cherry sauce, whipped coconut cream, and a sprinkling of dark chocolate, these cupcakes are making all of us eager for dessert this weekend!

Chocolate Cherry Valentine Cupcakes

For the cherry topping:

2 cups frozen pitted sweet cherries
1 tbsp water
1 tsp coconut palm sugar
1 tbsp ground chia seeds

Add the cherries, water, and coconut sugar to a saucepan over medium heat. Cook the cherry mixture for 10 to 15 minutes or until the cherries have softened, stirring often and using the spoon to break the cherries up a little.

Gradually add the ground chia seeds to the hot mixture, stirring continuously while adding them, then lower the heat and cook for another 10 minutes or until the cherry mixture has thickened. Remove the cherry sauce from the heat and let it cool slightly. Place it in a lidded glass container and put it in the fridge to set while you bake the cupcakes.

For the cupcakes:

3 cups blanched almond flour
1/4 cup cocoa powder
3 tbsp arrowroot flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp sea salt
1/4 cup melted coconut oil
1/4 cup pure maple syrup
3 tbsp unsweetened almond milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup mashed ripe bananas

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Arrange twelve heart-shaped silicone baking cups in rows on a baking sheet.

Combine the almond flour, cocoa powder, arrowroot flour, baking powder, and sea salt in a large mixing bowl. In a smaller bowl, whisk together the coconut oil, maple syrup, almond milk and vanilla extract. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and stir well. Add the mashed bananas to the mixture and stir until all ingredients are well combined.

Divide the cake batter between the twelve heart-shaped baking cups, using a spoon to make sure it's spread out smoothly to fill all parts of each heart. Place the baking sheet in the preheated oven and bake for 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the centre of a cupcake comes out clean. Let the cupcakes cool. Once cooled, remove the cupcakes from the silicone cups.

For the whipped topping:

1 398ml can of chilled, unsweetened, full-fat coconut milk (I used Native Forest Organic brand)
1 tsp pure maple syrup
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

plus one square of dark chocolate, shaved, for garnish

Turn the can of coconut milk upside down and remove the lid. Drain the liquid out of the can, then scoop out the remaining solid coconut cream into a mixing bowl. Beat the cream with an electric mixer to soften it up a little. Add the maple syrup and vanilla extract and beat the cream again until it is smooth and fluffy. Spoon the whipped coconut cream into a piping bag fixed with a wide star tip.

To assemble the cupcakes:

Carefully spread a spoonful of the cherry sauce over the top of each cupcake, following the outline of the heart. Pipe a heart-shaped serving of whipped coconut cream in the centre of each cupcake, then sprinkle the shaved dark chocolate on top. If not serving immediately, store the cupcakes in the refrigerator.

Happy Valentine's Day! I hope your weekend finds you enjoying good times with loved ones.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

A House With Character

I loved the character-filled house when we first went to look at it. It was older, and charming, with its cozy little rooms tucked into corners and its gently creaking wood floors. There was a large yard behind it, with a pretty, if overgrown, stone garden lining one side of the house, and we had family already living happily just a few doors down the street from where it stood. We would have work to do if we decided to make it our home, we knew -- the basement was creepy in its unfinished state, the kitchen and bathroom fixtures sagged tiredly, and the walls were faded and dingy from years of being bathed in dust and sunlight -- but we had never been afraid of working for what we wanted. We saw there was inherent promise in this well-worn house, so we hammered a For Sale sign into the lawn of our existing home and embarked on a new adventure.

For two weeks we owned both houses. We wanted to give ourselves time to tackle the most demanding renovation tasks, so that the place would feel comfortable before we uprooted our two small boys from the first home of their lives. In the evenings and on weekends, Matt and I took shifts, with one of us staying back to care for the boys, and the other going over to our newly purchased house to dive determindedly into our to-do list: stripping stubborn old wallpaper patterned with smiling bunnies and gaudy wildflowers from the walls, ripping out the kitchen cupboards and floor, painting, cleaning, assembling new furniture. Sometimes we were joined by generous family members who came along cheerfully to help out. Other times one of us worked alone for the evening in the empty, dimly-lit house, with only an old CD player and the cars rushing past on the street outside for company.

The trouble started before we even moved in. One night during the frantic two week work period, after a particularly heavy rain, I walked down the basement stairs and found a sizable puddle of water pooled on the concrete floor, with more trickling down the cold, gray wall above it. I called Matt with a panicked, sinking feeling, worried that this older home had more "character" than we had bargained for, and knowing that it was too late at that point to turn back. Indeed, the puddle was only the beginning of a veritable flood of unfortunate challenges we would face head-on.

Throughout the tumultuous year and a half we lived in that house, we paid the financial and emotional dues for a multitude of problems, none of which had been hinted at by a home inspection. The basement walls continued to weep during random rainfalls, without any sensible pattern to its frequency or location. The sewer pipe backed up into the laundry room, choked as it was by the roots of the beautiful old trees I had loved in the house's front yard. We suffered through a month-and-a-half long wasp infestation, in which hordes of the aggressive insects filled our bedroom every morning and we drove ourselves crazy trying to find the source of them. (They had a secret nest tucked away in the bedroom walls, in a tiny sub-closet off our main one.) The thick electrical wire that connected the house to the city power source on the street blew down in a storm one day; it lay threatening us from the driveway like a long, charged up snake. The roof started leaking. A few of the windows seized. Mice scurried in the plaster walls behind our bed while we tried to sleep at night. As each new problem surfaced, one after the other, and we paid yet another professional to come and set things right, I continued to work almost zealously on turning the rooms and the garden into the picture-perfect living spaces I had imagined when we first fell in love with the place. I thought if we could just get past whatever the most recent problem was, the house would finally become for us the quaint little family haven we had thought it could be.

The day we realized the chimney was crumbling was the day I finally ran out of energy. I felt that the house, with all of its flaws and demands, had succeeded in its mission to break me. We fixed the chimney, then hammered another For Sale sign into the front lawn and walked away from the house a few months later with great relief. For a long time afterwards, I considered the decision to move into that house a mistake, a choice that in hindsight, we probably never should have made.

I've driven by that old house often in the almost nine years since we moved out of it; it sits on a street that is on the way to many other places I frequent in town. Whether it's because time has dulled just how stressful living there felt for me, or because being away from its walls has given me perspective on its value, I have a different feeling about the house now.

The spirit of imagination the house inspired on first look never left it or me, I now realize; it was present in little signs everywhere even as we struggled to deal with the bigger problems. It was there in the pretty view from Noah's tiny bedroom, where we lined his bed up perfectly so that he could gaze out the window and dream while the sun rose off in the distance. It was there in the friendly neighbours all around us, whose kindnesses added warm colour to our grayest days. It was there in the surprise trilliums that bloomed quietly, beautifully in the side garden every spring, and in the old wood floors that squeaked and thunked genially as we played on them, adding our own lines to the stories already written on the long, golden boards. The house had made us feel something that initially encouraged us to take a giant leap and see what would happen. While living in it didn't turn out how we had envisioned, thinking of that choice as a mistake ignored all of the more complex benefits of our time there. We grew from our experiences in that house; we left there not actually broken, but changed in ways that made us wiser, closer to each other through shared challenges, more appreciative of easy times, more resilient.

Sometimes I glance inside the open front windows of our old house when I pass by it, trying to catch a glimpse of the people who live there now and the way that they're using the rooms we worked so hard to improve. I wonder what secrets the house has held for them that we didn't discover in our time there, what little bits of wisdom they might be gaining. I wonder often if they're happy.

Last week as I drove by the house, I noticed with delight an impressively tall, colourful, intricate structure built out of K'Nex standing in the old living room window; it looked very like something my boys would have built in the days when little bricks and rods and wheels were the chosen canvas for their imaginative endeavors. It's somehow comforting to me that the house seems now to be still what it was for us then, even if we didn't fully appreciate it: a hopeful, if flawed, home, heartily encouraging creativity and growing.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

"It's like sleeping, only worse."

Noah set off to catch his school bus early this morning, his backpack stuffed with new binders and a freshly printed copy of an unfamiliar timetable. It was the beginning of second semester for him today, following a first semester exam week he felt really good about and a couple of relaxing days off. He was eager to get started on a new round of classes and learning opportunities, and I felt happy for him and the many ways that his high school experiences are allowing him to thrive.

Will watched his brother depart with eyes full of longing, wishing that he was starting out on a new adventure this morning, too. He's been feeling disenchanted about school lately, having reached a point in the year where the curriculum is feeling very repetitive and meaningless to him. The advanced understanding he's always had, coupled with the fact that he was already exposed to the Grade 6 curriculum last year when he was a Grade 5 student in a 5/6 split, means he feels he's not learning anything he doesn't already know. "Being at school is like sleeping, only worse," he's told me sadly when I've tucked him into bed on recent evenings. "It's like being in a void. There's just nothing. There's no point to any of it."

It's unsettling to have your usually energetic, wildly curious, eager-to-learn child slowly become despondent about school. But it's not the first time this has happened around here. Noah, too, spent the second half of Grade 6 in a gloomy, unmotivated cloud, his spark for learning practically extinguished by being asked to sit in on lessons and complete assignments that offered him no new ideas to consider. Despite both boys having a wonderful, engaging, caring Grade 6 teacher who does all kinds of interesting things in her classroom, it still seemed, and seems, a real challenge to suitably meet their learning needs within the confines of the junior division. (It doesn't help, either, that the number of enrichment workshops, where kids like Noah and Will get to spend a day engaged in creative, higher level thinking activies with their intellectual peers, have been reduced in recent years from one workshop every month to only four workshops for the entire year. There are so few opportunities now for gifted elementary school kids in our board to have appropriately challenging learning opportunities together.)

I imagine that some parents, hearing my concern about my "bored" children, would roll their eyes and scoff that it's not a real worry to have kids whose advanced cognitive abilities make the classroom a challenging place for them. But it sure feels like a real worry to me. I lie awake at night considering what options we have available to prevent Will from becoming more frustrated and sad, and even less interested in going to school. In an education system where classes are organized by age, most of our options involve arranging something for Will that is noticeably different from what usually happens in a Grade 6 classroom. And while we encourage the celebration of differences in schools, my eleven year old is keenly aware that doing something noticeably different will still invite questions and comments from his peers that he's not sure he's comfortable with.

Will craves freedom in his learning, the kind that he feels when he discovers something fascinating and wants to devote hours of his time and energy to understanding all he can about it. He wants to move at a faster pace, and go off on tangents, and create things that he's proud of because they involved hard work on his part and therefore have meaning for him. Staying with the current Grade 6 curriculum is not providing any of that for him right now. I feel that we need to do something, because there are still five months left in the school year and they will feel agonizingly long for Will if something doesn't change. But what exactly is that "something"? My mind is swirling with questions about single subject or full-grade acceleration, with the logistics of independent study projects, with the possibilities of educational opportunities outside of school itself. I worry that I won't be able to fulfill the promise I've made to Will to help him find or create a learning environment this year that feels good for him, both academically and socially, and my worry makes me flit nervously from idea to idea in my head, unsure of which ones to pursue.

I've started with an email to Will's teacher this afternoon, outlining our concerns and our willingness to work with her to provide some new learning opportunities for Will this term. I have great confidence that she will do whatever she can to help improve the situation for him. I'm also very aware, though, of the limitations of a public school classroom where one teacher is responsible for so many different learners, and it's possible that we might have to wait longer than we hope to find what Will is looking for.

Will is my youngest boy, and I am in no rush to see him come to the end of his elementary school years. I have to admit, though, that wanting what's best for him has me wishing just a little that he was happily heading off on a high school adventure this week, too....