Sunday, December 29, 2013

Like An Old Pair Of Shoes

It's a Christmas holiday tradition.... Dutch Blitz battle with the Loewen's.

We've got our long-standing teams figured out.
Team Terry (aka Team Delusional).   (Terry and Zach)
Team Good Looking.  (Mike and Ellie)
Team Shazel.  (Caleb and Hannah)
Team Barla.  (Brynne and Carla)
Team Peener. (aka Team Awesome).  (Me and Sasha)

Some things are always the same.  The trash talking, the laughing at the same jokes and ridiculous antics, the "shushing" when things get crazy because the twins are trying to sleep, the battle between Team Terry and Team Peener...

Sometimes we add something new, like this year.  To make up for Team Terry's arm-length deficiency we incorporated a clockwise rotation in the seating plan every round.  Sad to say, it worked in their favor.

Some things are meant to be the same.

We've been friends since before any kids entered our lives.  That seems like a lifetime ago.  Way back then, we were both newly married and forged our friendship on nights of playing cribbage in our pajamas.  I don't think any of us would have guessed that in 17 years there would be 8 kids between the 4 of us.

It got loud tonight.
But things often do when you fall into step and find reasons to laugh because it just fits so well.

Comfortable and worn-in.  
Like an old pair of shoes.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Remember Syria

Six years ago I was haunted by the horrific situation happening in Darfur, Sudan.    I was overwhelmed with feeling like there was little I could do to make a difference.  The problem felt huge, and any effort on my part felt like the tiniest drop in the most enormous bucket.  When Christmas came, I really felt compelled to do something tangible, so our family learned as much as we could about the refugee crisis in Darfur, and what had erupted politically to create the situation in the first place.  Sasha was wee then.  Hannah was only 7, and Ellie 4.  One thing I've learned over the years, is that you can tell the story of a place and a people so that even the youngest ones can understand the basics.    We learned what we could, and we made "reminders" for our tree to honor those in refugee camps in Darfur who it seemed the rest of the world had forgotten about.

The following year we focused on Darfur again.  Not much had changed.  (Isn't that the way it is all too often?)  The following year we concentrated on refugees in other countries around the world.  The next year it was the housing crisis in Attawapiskat that called out for our attention.  Then last year it was the plight of girls in countries around the world whose lives are less than simply because of their gender.  

This year we focused on Syria.  

We have a small tree upstairs that serves as the place to hang the words, facts, and stories of the place or cause we're focusing on.  It's amazing what you can find to help you communicate the story of a place or a crisis to kids.  Syria's situation is not simple.  But there are simple concepts about dictatorships, democracy, freedom, power, and the fall-out that kids sometimes understand more than we do.

Last week I read the paper and listened to the radio as the current situation in South Sudan was discussed.  Things aren't better than they were six years ago when we started to learn more.  In fact, in lots of ways, they're worse.  That realization hit me.  There are parts of this that feel hopeless.  Will anything change in Syria?  Will there still be a need for refugee camps for Syrians at this time next year?   Sadly, there will probably be a need for more.

Hanging these reminders on a tree isn't going to change anything in Syria.  But knowledge is power, and taking hold of that power means we won't forget.  We won't forget Darfur... or Syria.  Christmas Eve seems as fitting a night as any to hope that you won't forget it either.

To learn more about Syria's refugee crisis:
Click Here for a video that explains the basics to kids.
Click Here for answers to questions about how the conflict in Syria began.
Click Here for information on the refugee crisis specifically.

To help:
Click here for the UN site for giving.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Early Christmas Gift

It was the end of the day.
The last day of school before Christmas break.

It had been a full day of singing and snacking and parties and presents.  A loud day.

He has only been their teacher for a month - taken on the grade five class of ruffians when their teacher left to have a beautiful baby.  He is their first male classroom teacher, so they are all learning together.

I came up to the classroom to find Ellie and to say goodbye - to wish him a Merry Christmas.

He was standing at the door, wishing his charges well as they left for their two week vacation.  This is when I got my window into beauty.  As we were chatting, one of the taller boys in the class came up to him, wrapped his arms tight around his waist and hugged him.  The gift was returned as his arms wrapped around his student.  It was a momentary embrace, but his student lingered awhile, with his head sideways on his chest, savouring the feeling of the tight strong arms around him.  It was solid and soft at the same time, full of kindness and nurture.

I don't know the student who came for his goodbye.  Maybe he doesn't get hugs from a dad at home, or maybe he gets them all of the time.  Maybe there is a dad living in his four walls, or maybe he only seems him sometimes.

What I do know is that when an eleven year old boy comes for a hug, and his male teacher hugs him back good and proper - in that moment - something breaks open.

It did for me.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Christmas Mix

Years ago I took the process of decorating our house for Christmas very seriously.  I had separate bins for different areas of the house and each contained things reserved just for that spot.    It wasn't work to me - I loved it.  It wasn't just the finished product I liked, either.  I loved the whole process... the transformation.  These last few years I take the bins out of the storage room and I open them and look at what they contain and feel exhausted.  I remember the places the garland and the berries and the bows hung and I have good memories of it all, but I just can't conjure up the energy it would take to maneuver what's in the bins to its place in the house.  I am learning to be ok with that.  To look around at the little, subtle bits of Christmas and not feel guilty about how sparse it is, or how simple it has become.  Finding peace in bins that remain closed and contained is important.

Our big Christmas tree is a mish-mash of lots of different kinds of ornaments from places and times in our life as a family.  It tells our story, in a way.  Lots of people have perfectly matching ornaments and a perfect color scheme on their trees, but we're not that family.  Lately, when our girls have been coming home from their friend's houses they marvel at the fact that their friends have trees that look "perfect".  Hannah, especially, laughs about our tree, and wonders what those friends would think if they saw it.  She feigns embarrassment at our family tree, but if I'm right, I think she's endeared to it and  loves the stories it holds.  

There is one ornament, in particular, that makes us all laugh.  It's a plastic spoon with a gold bow tied around it, a face drawn on it, and a halo added on top.  I suppose you could call it  a "primitive angel".   The name "Sasha" is scrawled on the back, and there is no ornament on that tree I love more.

Hannah has laughed and said, "Who hangs a plastic SPOON on their Christmas tree?"  
We do.
And I know she wouldn't have it any other way.


I've been stuffing and addressing envelopes this week.  Just like the ornaments on our tree, the names on the Christmas card envelopes tell stories about where we've been and who we are.  My "master list" holds the key to different doors of our lives.  Friends from elementary school and childhood.   Friends from University years who I still hold dear.  Lots of friends from our two years in BC.  Those envelopes are the hardest to address.  I can usually go about most days and weeks without missing our life in Vancouver too much.  Of course, when the temperature plummets and everything is coated in snow and ice, it's hard not to let your mind drift back to how lush and green and fresh everything remains on the coast.  But when I write out the names and the familiar addresses, the sadness for the beautiful relationships we left behind becomes real and painful again.  I wonder how many more years I will address envelopes for those friends.  Will I be able to keep up and stay connected?  Will we be forgotten?  Will we forget?

But for now we know we haven't forgotten.  And with every swoop of the pen to write another name of a family we love and miss, I take a moment to feel the sadness and the gratitude and remember.


Hannah went to a Christmas party last weekend.  It was a party comprised of six girls from her grade who have become really close friends.  The mom of the girl who hosted the party showed me a picture on her phone this week that she took of six thirteen year old girls in bathing suits and toques, dancing and singing and about to go jump into the outdoor hot-tub.   I loved the juxtaposition that the picture showed - bathing suits and toques - two  things that rarely go together.   I loved the gigantic smiles I saw and the freedom that was evident in order to  prance around in your bathing suit and dance your face off.

At an age that can entail so much body shaming, and body loathing, the picture of these girls with their heads thrown back with smiles from ear to ear painted a different picture. Adolescence doesn't have to be that way.  

And I was grateful.


Last Saturday night we had my classmate and friend Mary, and her partner Jennifer here for supper.  After we were finished eating, Jennifer, (who is an incredibly gifted pianist) began to play Christmas songs, and Mike grabbed his violin and played along.  They played old standards and some sacred melodies, and we sat on the couch and sang along, while Ellie danced and we all laughed.  It sounded amazing, and we joked that they could take their show on the road.  It was a beautiful moment, and I couldn't help but think how amazing the world is when your husband is playing violin with an American pianist from Egypt, while her Egyptian partner sits beside you and sings her heart out while your kids laugh.  Who dreams up these combinations?  How did these beautiful souls end up in my corner of the world?  The mystery of connection and relationships astounds me.  Definitely one of the best memories of this Christmas.


One of the songs Jennifer and Mike played together was "O Holy Night".  There is a line in that carol that gets me every time.  I sing it, and then I can't stop thinking about it:

"Truly He taught us to love one another.
 His law is love,
 And his gospel is peace."

His law is LOVE?  Amazing.
When the word law makes us think of rules and punishment and enforcement and rigidity, God turns it upside down and says His law is love.

That is the kind of God I can get behind.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Party Like You're 13 (Instead of 39)

I got to go to a party tonight.  Just me.

Everyone else was busy and they weren't really invited anyway.  

Here's the funny part: 
The birthday boy is in grade 8 and is a friend of Hannah's.  
I'm a mom and I'm old.  
AND I got invited!

I sometimes wonder if people who don't know me (and some who do) think it's creepy that I enjoy good relationships with kids Hannah's age.  Maybe it does look strange.  I like fist-bumping and high fiving in the hallway at school.   Sometimes I even have a little entourage of boys come looking for me at the end of the day to have a little chat and share a laugh.  That makes me happy.

It makes me happy because I want to share positive relationship with my kid's friends.  I want them to know they have lots of cheerleaders and safe places in the adults around them.  I want them to believe that they are worth talking to, even if they're "only kids".   I want them to tell me funny stories, and I'm tickled that they might want to listen to some of mine.   I want to know them because I want to know more of Hannah, and they share more of her life with her than I do.   I want them to know they are valuable and significant and LIKEABLE - (even by old moms like me).

I got to celebrate a great kid's birthday tonight.  
He makes people laugh and his eyes sparkle as he draws them in.
My eyes sparkled when I got invited.
I'm glad we're friends.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Ghost of Christmas Concert Past

Tonight is the early year's Christmas concert.

Every year, this day serves as a sober reminder for me.  Like an anniversary of sorts.

It was the year that Hannah was in grade two.  Ellie was four and Sasha, two.   If you'd look at a picture from our family from that night, we'd be smiling.   We'd look together and happy - like a perfect family.

If you'd take a look deeper, and rewind the film to the hours before the concert, you'd see something different.  It was cold outside, much like today.  Mike was still at work, hoping to rush through the door  in just enough time to load the girls into the van and make it to the school on time.  I was running on empty.  The chaos of life with a toddler and preschooler, and endless drives back and forth to school to pick up their older sister was beginning to take its toll.  Meds had been started, but dosage was far from perfect.   Layer that reality on top of a mind that had this soundtrack playing on "repeat":

You're terrible at mothering.    
You fail everyday.  
You are ruining these kids.  
Why did you ever want this?

If you'd look a little closer, you'd see my hands shaking a little as I held the curling iron and had Hannah sitting on top of the kitchen table, all decked out in her Christmas finery.   She was going to look perfect.  Beautiful dress, curled hair, sparkling clips, shiny shoes.  If I couldn't mother the right way, at least I could have a daughter who looked like I could.   She had an idea in her mind of what she wanted to look like that night too.  Only I couldn't see it, and the soundtrack in my mind was playing too loudly for me to hear it.  And so with Ellie and Sasha running around at my feet,  I began to curl Hannah's hair and create the image of the daughter I needed her to be.

My voice was harsh with a prominent edge.
"Sit still.  Turn your head this way.  We're almost done."
When she was done, I was done.
Exhausted, lost, and teetering on the ledge of the last shred of control I had.

Then she looked in the mirror, with her taffeta dress and her shining cheeks and began to cry.
"I hate it!  I didn't want it like this!  Everyone will laugh at me!  I don't want to go like this!"

Cue the sound of the guttural yell and words that only moms at the end of themselves say.
Cue the tears and the exasperation and the overwhelming desire to curl up in a corner and give up.
Cue the phone call to Mike telling him to HURRY HOME because I was falling apart.
Cue the volume of the soundtrack being turned up louder, this time adding a few new phrases:

You should be ashamed of yourself.  Who yells at their 7 year old like that over hair? 
I told you you're terrible at this.
You shouldn't have kids.
What would people think if they saw you like this?

When shame comes, it usually makes itself comfortable and takes up residence for awhile.  And so it did.  I fixed the hair the best I could and went about the feeding of the girls and the dressing of the little sisters with robotic-like movement.   Lipstick went on, eyes were dried, deep breath taken, and the show went on.  Off to the school to shake hands and smile, wishing "Merry Christmas" with perfect tone and eyes as bright as I could muster.

We got through that night.  I conjured up every single ounce of joy and optimism I had for that hour.  I had to.  Hugs were given and "great job!" was offered.  When we got home and the three perfect little bodies were tucked into bed, I was done.  Again.

I remember sitting on the couch beside Mike by the Christmas tree.
"I can't do it tomorrow by myself", I said.
"I'm not strong enough to do it."

And I cried.

I cried, and he stayed home.
A sick day, I think.
Because someone was sick and just could not do it.

Sitting here today, I'm sad when I think of that concert.
I'm sad that the soundtrack was so loud and the other little voices were  so small.
I'm thinking about the moms with little ones who can feel their hearts pound of their chests the weight of the world crashing in around them.
I'm wishing I could go and do it over again.
I'm grateful I'm stronger.
I'm frustrated because I'm still fighting with the volume control that  controls the volume that plays in my head every day.
I'm thankful that each year is better than the last.
I'm aware that I'm still not strong enough to do it alone.

Having that realization every day is part of what makes me stronger.


This is the door that I walked through with 9 other people every Wednesday afternoon.

That door opened a lot.  It held open the space for the "right of passage" class for everyone in the Masters of Marriage and Family Therapy program.

The door opens to a room that is usually just a regular classroom, but in this case, so much more.

On the last day of class, I snapped a picture of the door because it had grown significant to me.  It  had come to represent more than the threshold to an open space.

In order to be approved to begin clinical practicum in the MMFT program at U of W, you have to complete a component of the program called "Self in the Family Laboratory".  "Self", as it's regularly called by students and faculty, is a gigantic massive hoop that you have to jump through.  Only you don't just jump through it.  You put your feet into the hoop and stay awhile.   For four hours every week you stand in that hoop and muddle around with 7 other souls who are doing the same thing you're doing.  Standing around the hoop are 2 faculty members who are guiding you along, protecting your space, and sometimes shaking things up to see authenticity rise to the surface.

Describing "Self" to people who aren't in the MMFT program is difficult.  To many people, it sounds a bit like torture.    Entering a lab with 7 fellow students that you haven't chosen and in some cases, don't know, and then proceeding to engage in some of the most in-depth and vulnerable research and work you have ever done, doesn't necessarily sound like a good time.   It doesn't sound or look much like what someone traditionally thinks of when they consider what a Master's program is like.  The goal of "Self" is to examine your own family of origin and the stories, secrets, and patterns it holds, and makes sense of your role within it.  This examination involves talking.  Lots of talking.  Calling up family members, sitting across tables from them, pouring over record books and genealogies and becoming just a little like an investigator.  But more than the talking is the listening.  Your ears are primed to uncover repeated patterns, core issues, and keys to unlocking parts of your family's story that you may not have ever considered.

There were 7 other students in the lab, and we were all women.  We came from incredibly diverse ethnic backgrounds.   We ranged in age from mid 20's to mid 50's.  There had been a lot of living in those years.  We got to hear each other's stories of the living (and often times, the dying) in that classroom.  There were tales of confessions, disappointments, heartbreak, and great pain.  There were stories that made us laugh out loud.  There were memories  that hadn't been recalled or contemplated for decades.  Yet, there they were... on display for the bodies in that classroom to hold and consider.

When it's your turn to present your self within your family of origin to the class, the last part of the session is holding therapy for your "family".  You choose classmates to play family members who they feel somewhat acquainted with from the writing and presenting you've done.    Every time I was chosen to play a role, the weight of it felt heavy.  It was a great responsibility to find my place in another's family.  Playing this role meant engulfing myself into the story and emotion, and responses that I imagined them to have had.  Every time, I felt it was sacred, and like I was holding a gift or valuable artifact in my hand that I had to protect and watch over.  To treat it well so as to honor its worth.

When our class met for the very last time a few weeks ago, we sat around a beautiful dining room table sharing a meal.  Our instructor held up his glass and toasted us all to bring ending and conclusion to something that words can't adequately describe.  We joined the toast and clinked glasses with each other to mark the end, and to celebrate the beginning.    We had finished "Self", and we were grateful.

Now when I look at the picture of that door, I feel brave.  I feel rich, too, for my body and memory hold the sacred stories of the 7 who walked alongside me.

They hold mine, too but  I don't mind.
My load feels a little bit lighter now.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Random Round-up (The Calm Before the Storm (AKA Advent) Edition)

I have a love/hate relationship with this time of year.  I love the excitement it creates in my kids.  I love the way it brings people together who haven't been together in a long while.  I hate the way it ushers in frenzy and very full calendar squares.  Full calendar squares make me anxious.

This is the first weekend I haven't had something to read or write for school, in a very long time.  I love the feeling of having a weekend to do what I want to do, when I want to do it.   It's liberating.

We always put up our tree on the first Sunday of Advent.  It's our tradition.  I like tradition.  While we put up the tree we crack open the first box of the first of the Christmas indulgences.  The first Christmas CD that is played must be "Barenaked for the Holidays".  EVERY year the girls remark how funny it is that the first CD we play at Christmas is half filled with Hanukkah songs.  We then all talk about how much we like that.  (See. I told you I like tradition!)  I like getting the tree out of the storage room and opening the lids of all of our Christmas bins.  I HATE stringing the lights on.  Another tradition is me stringing up the lights and complaining about it while Mike sits on the couch eating oranges and peanuts and pointing to spots I missed.

I'm gearing up to make Papanate (Peppernuts) this week, for my third straight year.  It's an all day affair for me, but well worth it.  It also serves as a good upper arm work-out.

It would be my dream to go away for Christmas and miss the whole thing.  My kids don't share this dream.

I do nearly all of the Christmas shopping in this house.  Mike is just as surprised as the girls when they open their presents on Christmas morning.  More bang for my buck, I suppose.

I've never really liked "Christmas oranges" much.  Does anyone else call them "Christmas oranges" instead of mandarins?   I'm always reluctant to buy the boxes of them because you're bound to get some duds.  I get creeped out just peering into the box of green-paper wrapped fruit.  My hand shakes as I grab each one, because I KNOW that one of them is going to be a moldy, squishy, soggy blob of disgusting, rotting orange.  Needless to say, I usually opt to buy them in bulk.

Our faith community, St. Benedict's Table, has great Advent resources you might like to check out as your calendar squares fill up.   You can find information about the Podcasts, readings, music, and a book by clicking on the St. Ben's site here.  I am thankful to be in community with thoughtful, questioning, passionate,  brave people, who don't see doubt as something to fear.

Online Christmas shopping makes me very, very happy.

Ellie and Sasha have spent the past weekend playing non-stop with their Maplelea dolls.  I love that Ellie still wants to play with dolls.   This doesn't happen very often, but when it does, it's a feast.  The "game" they've been playing is stressful on me and Mike though.  They come up with a theme like "Elegant Dinner Party" and then dress their dolls and do their hair to match the theme.  Then they come up and Mike and I have to vote on which of their dolls best matched the theme.   When we had a tie, Mike made their dolls do speeches on a topic he assigned.  Intensity was at an all-time high.  The stress was killing me.

This was the first weekend since September in which I didn't have reading or writing school looming over me.  I am used to living my life with the thought of what I really should be doing never far from my mind.  As much as I LOVE not having to work on school stuff at home, I miss my friends from my classes when a term comes to an end.  When you get used to spending many hours with people every week, it leaves a big hole in your life when it ends.  Come January, I'll be taking the most classes I've ever attempted at once.  Finding balance should be very interesting.

I have an idea for creating a job that I think could actually work.  I think I'd be really good at it.  I'd just have to convince other people of the same thing.

I thought I'd have a different job by now.

Rainbow Loom.  If you have kids you know exactly what it is.  Here's the thing - I don't get it.  I'm baffled at what becomes the "it" toy or "it" activity each year.  I don't understand why kids would be drawn to it.  I do know from subbing in elementary school, that it's very cool to have an arm full of rainbow loom bracelets on your arm.  I also know from subbing, that it's very irritating to have kids playing with said bracelets constantly.

I have read so many amazing books in the last few months it will be virtually impossible to pick favorites for our annual "best of" round-up that we do every Christmas.

We hardly watch any TV anymore.  If we have time to watch something, it's on Netflix.  Makes me wonder if people will be watching TV at all in ten years time.

Jian Ghomeshi announced this year's CBC Canada Reads finalists last week, as well as the celebrities who will be endorsing them.  It's going to be a very good battle.  My money is on Joseph Boyden's The Orenda.  Boyden is one of my favorite writers of fiction.  I received The Orenda for my birthday in September, but I'm putting off reading it because I don't want it to be over.  I'm thinking this way before I even begin!  That's how much faith I have in Boyden's work.  To top it off, one man I have a great deal of respect for, Wab Kinew, is touting Boyden's book.   Put some of Joseph Boyden's books on your Christmas list while there's still time!

I want to blog more often now that school is less intense.  By "more", I mean more than once a month as I've gotten into the shameful habit of doing.