FIMBY

In between the awful and amazing

February has been, how should I say it... uninspiring.

I've learned that until my chemistry, psychology or geography changes it's not wise to have high expectations for myself during the deepest heart of winter. My goal this time of year is to keep the show running (bare bones as necessary), deeply care for myself and attend to my needs, and do as much creative stuff as possible.

I suppose I have those same goals all year round but that's pretty much all I can realistically hope to do during February. Whereas in my "high seasons" I have the energy to do all that and more.

The weather was uncooperative for skiing last week. It rained. Plus, we had a sick kid, so, no skiing on all accounts.

There was a lice outbreak at homeschool co-op. We've been spared, so far. The co-op families are doing all they can to contain and not spread the little buggers; a co-op day was cancelled and the other classes this month have been sparsely attended, as all infected families are asked to stay home.

Laurent is sick. I'm pretty sure it's a mild case of the flu and not a run-of-the-mill cold. I've been watching, temperature-taking, and nursing with as much diligence as I can muster.

I don't like it when my kids get sick. (No one does.) I don't like the interruption, the unexpected-ness of it all. I don't like to see my kids suffer. And I really don't like the shame and blame game, feeling like I'm a bad mother because I didn't somehow prevent this through a) essential oils b) homemade bone broth (insert current nutritional wisdom here), or c) better mommy-ing skills in general.

This is the "if I was a really good mom my kids wouldn't get sick" train of thought. Totally a lie but one I can easily fall for.

I'm not a naturally nurturing person, I'm efficient. And sickness, like travel, is so inefficient. I never know exactly what's going on. I try a bunch of natural remedies but I'm not sure what, if anything (besides Ibuprofen and Buckley's), is working.

My main strategies for sickness are: stay home, rest and fluids, but I feel there is probably way more I could be doing. More herbs, more oils, more remedies, more something.

I've been taking care of my kiddos through winter sickness for years but it doesn't seem to get any easier for me. It's like I get out of practice between bouts of sickness. I forget what to watch for, I've let our supplies run low, and I don't seem to administer the right remedies at the right time. I miss the window of opportunity to nip it in the bud. It doesn't help that I used up all the elderberry extract when I was fighting an infection in December.

Getting sick, avoiding head lice and no skiing are like a forced at-home stay-cation, right? Or house arrest.

My problem is not that these interruptions slow life down or keep us at home. I love being home and I am all for slowing down. I'm the person who stands at the gate of our family life holding back the beast called busy. I regularly choose slow and less over fast and more.

What I don't like is when the patterns and systems that are comforting to me, my routines and rhythms, are interrupted. And when I feel inept at mothering.

But February hasn't been awful, inconveniencing yes, but not terrible. I can get myopic fairly easily. Writing helps me get a grip.

There is a hugely popular quote floating around on the internet, with good reason. I love these words.

Life isn't amazing right now but it's not awful, not even close.

Before the flu hit our home we hung out with friends when co-op was cancelled due to lice. We made popcorn and chili and shared knitting tutorials and life stories.

The interruption to my usual homeschool routine also opened a window of time to chat, completely spontaneously, with a dear friend on the phone. And there was that Wednesday I stayed in my pj's till mid-afternoon, which is nice to do, once in a while.

I function best in well-oiled routines and systems, yet I also find them a bit constricting and I imagine myself accomplishing so much when I don't have a schedule to keep. So when a day opens up, free, because of lice, a sick kid, or rain at the ski hill, I think "now's my day to do great things I don't usually have time for". A sewing project, a whack of writing, or hang art and photos on our walls (a job I haven't finished since our move last summer). But that just doesn't work for me. It turns out I get more accomplished, slow and steady, in the routines of life than in what feels like wide open spaces of a "free day".

This threw me off over the past couple weeks, days opened up, but then seemed to be swallowed whole by inefficiency and my non-characteristic flighty nature when out of my usual rhythms.

Currently, one kid lays on his bed all day watching copious quantities of Netflix, On Guard infusing the room, while the other two carry-on with a full schedule of school and social engagements, happy and healthy, for now.

Scratch that. Just as I prepared to hit publish it seems another one may be going down for the count. This time I'm ready. There is no wait and see, there is infuse, diffuse, decoct, apply and minister. I even found dregs in the bottle of the elderberry tincture, drink up baby.

And so February slows down to this: giving love and care to my people, love and care to myself.

January for the rest of us

I had one big goal for this month. One. My goal was to get supper on the table by 6:30 each night.

At the end of the month I can say I succeeded at this goal. I mentioned this in my last post, how using my freezer and the skills I learned in Whole Foods Freezer Cooking have been a game changer in this regard.

I don't think I could have done it, reached this goal, without taking that class.

That feels nice doesn't it? To start off a blog post with a success story. Yay me.

If my small triumph in this area of home management makes you feel less-than, not "enough" in the kitchen department, I assure you this is my one big "success" of the month. You've totally beaten me in other areas, I'm sure of it.

(I know. I know. This is not a competition, though everything conspires against us to make us believe it is.

This is an attempt at humor. I do not want you to feel bad about your supper making skills. But most of you are probably more mature than me, so when you read that someone has succeeded at something they set out to achieve you respond with kudos not insecurity. Yay you.)

Most days it feels like I can only be "good" and on the ball in just a few areas of life but certainly not all of them.

This month I was on the ball with cooking supper and getting it to the table on time. Which made for great evenings of cozy-ness and chill. I really loved that.

On the other end of the day, I meditated maybe three times this month, soaked in God's presence about the same, and completely stopped drawing. Totally dropped the ball. It wasn't intentional. I just really wanted to write. And I stole that morning time from myself to squeeze it in.

Evenings may be cozy as all get out, watching Gilmore Girls and reading in bed; knitting and listening to podcasts but I am also crawling out of my skin somedays about the state of my writing career. "Writing career?", you ask. Exactly.

I want to write. And this desire, and the words that keep coming, hijacked my carefully constructed early morning routine.

And here's the worst of it. All that stuff I've been feverishly writing in the morning, in lieu of the soul-care practices I worked hard to cultivate last fall, none of it is worth publishing (yet). I refuse to publish something that does not ring true and I'm having a hard time finding the resonance in that writing. It can't simply be that I want it to be true, it must be true.

As Anne Lamott would say it's the shitty first draft. The real kicker is that it's not the first draft.

I take issue with most January blog posts I read that focus on productivity, goal setting, and self-improvement projects in general.

I'm not trying to make myself into a better version of Renee. I'm trying to live in the head space and the heart beat of my true identity.

I'm wired for efficiency and productivity and so my areas of growth are to move away from being driven by those motivators, to venture into the messy and ambiguous terrain of learning how to accept situations I can't change, develop emotional resiliency, that kind of stuff.

But I don't find a lot of January blog posts about those topics. Honestly, I'm not looking. I don't want someone telling me what to do. I'm stubborn and prideful like that.

What works for me is stories. Well-written and humorous stories of people's failures and heartaches. And how they are learning to love themselves in that mess and how they love others. And then, then, if I read something that intrigues me and doesn't scare me too much or make me feel terribly insecure, I will go looking for the help I seek, and usually desperately need, from something I gleaned in those stories.

This isn't going to be one of those posts, a well-written and humorous story, but there is failure and heartache.

I recently fell back into the writings of Anne Lamott. For years she's been one of my favorite Christian-spirituality writers but I haven't adored all her books and I think I must have taken a break after a disappointing read a couple years ago. It happens.

Last week I found myself all out of reading material. I looked through my Goodreads to-read shelf while simultaneously scanning the available digital downloads at the library. Small Victories showed up on both.

The essays are new and "selected", which means old and previously published. I think I may have read some of them before in her previous books. I don't remember, which makes them new again to me. I devoured this collection of essays about grief and resiliency and love.

And then I googled "podcasts with Anne Lamott". I just needed more. And I found two author readings and Q&A sessions from former book tours.

I listened and I alternately laughed and then bawled my eyes out, one seamlessly transitioning into the other.

In one of those lectures she received the following question from an audience member. How do you foster resiliency?

Here's where I tell you that what I've been trying to write through this month is the truth of my own weakness in emotional resiliency and tolerance. And the pain and anxiety that has caused me and others.

Here's her answer to the question. Don't quote me, I scribbled these down while listening and some of these are my own paraphrases:

  • do all the things that make me alive and awake
  • stop hitting the snooze button (on life)
  • get outside
  • find emotionally healthy people (she said sober people since her past is alcoholism)
  • read the best books I can
  • read great spiritual masters
  • read more poetry
  • have impeccable friends
  • live the grace of not trying to fix other people
  • keep hiking
  • never stop trusting that I am loved ~ I am chosen ~ I am safe ~ and more will be revealed

Here's what I appreciate about this. Anne is over sixty years old. She's lived some hard knocks. She not a "look how I've turned my blog into a business" thirty-year old writer who dispenses self-help, without wisdom, for a living. I feel she's someone who's advice I can trust.

And I feel my cup filling once again; with love, a wee bit of wisdom, a wee bit of equanimity, itsy bitsy understandings that help assuage some of the frustration of failing and falling. Because listening to Anne, reading Anne, I know I'm not the only woman who feels needy and neurotic.

I just want to know that someone else's forward momentum, healing, spiritual growth, self-awareness journey, meditation practice, (fill in the blank with your own thing) is as herky-jerky as mine.

I got what I needed, and just like Anne says, help is always on the way.

In the most recent podcast I listened to, an old recording from the Free Library of Philadelphia, Anne said this,

The more you make yourself get less done every day the more glorious and sweet and expansive your life is going to be. I really recommend that every single day you figure out one thing you realized you’re not going to be able to do and in the morning you take it off the list. You say "it’s not going to happen. It’s going to be a good day. I’m going to get less done and I’m going to get it done less efficiently." And that is the secret of writing.

Ok. I'll take it.

I wanted to link to a couple of blog posts I really enjoyed reading this month. And some wisdom shared with me on Facebook. I thought I might weave them into the post but it didn't work out that way. So here they are:

And for those of you not jiving with the usual January groove, the one in which you must re-boot your life, yesterday, I thoroughly appreciate this idea shared with me on Facebook from Erin Curran:

I want to officially claim January as the "wrap-up/recover/renew order" month. I may use Candlemas/Imbolc (instead of New Year) as the day to commit to making an important change and then use the roughly 40 days until Spring Equinox to nurture and establish the change.

If January hasn't been the raging success you hoped it would be why not start with Candlemas/Imbolc, which this year is February 2nd, as your "fresh start". My preference is that January is for organizing my thoughts, ideas and plans for the New Year. It's not so much about making the radical changes, or even small changes. I totally jive with a wrap-up/recover/renew order protocol for the first part of winter. And when that feels kind of in place I like to start the intentions for the year. Just a thought.

Making a wellness plan for winter

Like I mentioned late last month, I'm participating in Hibernate this month. An online retreat by Heather Bruggeman.

This is my second year so I am familiar with the format but I also know a bit what to expect as roughly half the content is recycled. It's interesting to me how even the familiar content feels fresh and inspiring. Stuff I theoretically "know" from last year but am re-discovering anew. In part because I had a lot of personal growth stuff going on last winter and Hibernate was just one piece of the plans I was making for my year-long wellbeing.

This winter, I'm all about Hibernate. I don't have any other significant self-development and self-care projects on my radar so I can pour those energies into making the most of the course.

I'm not going to explain the Hibernate content here, because that's the course and it's not my material to share, but one of last week's activities/journaling exercises was to create a winter wellness recipe.

Over the past few winters I've been honing my winter wellness strategies. This post about my phototherapy lamp addresses some of those techniques and activities.

Creating a winter wellness guide is a fun and creative self-awareness exercise. Heather's prompt for us is to answer the question what makes me feel amazing?

I've been seriously pondering this question for the last year. I've had seasons of life where I've journaled through similiar prompts like what does your ideal day look like? etc. But my midlife crisis intensified the desire to identify the activities, ways of being in the world, relationships, values, etc. that really resonate with me. (And also made me wonder where I went wrong in past assessments to wind up so bruised at the end of 2014.)

I have been unapologetically on a mission to find myself and nurture myself, and so basically the pump is already primed for a "what makes you feel amazing?" writing prompt.

Answering this question can generate a lot of ideas, phrases, images, and colors. And I know that my own responses are heavily influenced by my personality and interests, and (hard) life lessons. My winter wellness plan then necessarily reflects who I am, my life experience, and my spirituality.

A little spiritual side note: The tricky part about including a spiritual/giving element to this wellness plan is that life-affirming outward giving, in response to God's love for us, is not driven by "what makes me feel amazing?" It is motivated by gratitude, worship, compassion and other God-given, God-honoring, and God-glorifying responses to God's love.

But the doing of what makes me feel amazing gives me the physical and emotional energy to be of service; available and willing for the work of Spirit in my life, which by its very nature will not always feel amazing, as I am stretched in ways that are discomforting. Which seems antithetical to a season of rest and comfort but is actually the natural outpouring of experiencing rest and comfort - to give rest and comfort.

Hibernate is a winter-focused retreat but I've noticed that all the things I love to do, that make me feel amazing, that feel like honest expressions of me, and that support my well-being, need to be present (in some measure) at all times of the year, though certain needs become dominant, or take on different expressions, during the distinct seasons.

Winter is the time to focus on the winter-expressions of "what makes me feeling amazing?"

Organization and planning feature heavily into my winter intentions because of how I'm wired, but also because January heralds a new calendar year. And all the logistical (new schedules, changing routines) and metaphorical (starting fresh, tabula rasa) implications of that necessitate organizing the household for not just a new season, but a New Year. It's a heady time for an organization geek like myself.

I like to spend time making and tweaking the schedule, organizing our time before I start organizing, and re-organizing space and tackling creative projects. Those projects (bright shiny objects) are tempting but I feel better getting general life organized and a routine established before hauling out the sewing machine and tackling organizing projects around the house.

That's really what January is all about. Creating and tweaking the winter routine, talking about goals with Damien, making financial plans, making yearly plans, re-establishing daily habits that slide over the holidays, etc. And these aren't resolutions they're just the stuff I naturally think about and deal with at the turn of a new year.

The second phase of winter (by the way, the seasons of winter is my own idea entirely, not part of the Hibernate material) is all about making stuff, this year mostly hands-on creative projects to organize and decorate our space.

If early winter is all about cozy, and it is, this part of winter is a bit more crazy. By the third week of February cozy is starting to feel claustrophobic if we don't let off some of that steam. All that careful planning of early January starts to unravel and we take breaks from our routines to let off some of our winter indoor energies.

Right around this time we will celebrate Laurent's 15th birthday and Damien's mom will come for a visit. It will be perfect timing for our annual mid-winter break. We-can't-keep-up-this-schedule-anymore-and-winter-is-starting-to-irritate-me is a well-known phenomena in our house. I just go with it.

Then it's late winter, and at this point it's best if I have plans on the horizon to get out of Dodge. Mom and I are cooking up a retreat idea for that month and it is one of my main goals this winter: to make that happen. My other main goal: get outside every day.

Late winter is also the time I am reserving for more indoor attraction city exploration. Botanical Gardens, a museum or two.

  • January - make order and make cozy
  • February - make stuff and make crazy
  • March - make it through

Here's what my winter wellness plan is not however, it's not a thinly veiled attempt at self-improvement, "this winter I will eat better, exercise more, love move, more, better...". It's certainly not about productivity, or whipping the house into order.

It's about creating a seasonally-inspired, and realistic wellness structure for winter. It almost looks like resolutions, goals, and intentions, but coming through the kitchen door, like trusted family and friends, instead of the unexpected and unfamiliar (and therefore suspect) guests who use the front door.

My winter wellness plan is not about the activities so much or what they will accomplish, it's not about goal setting, and measuring my progress. There is a place and time for that, this isn't it. A winter wellness plan or recipe is an attitude and intention for the season, it's how I want the winter to "feel".

I do have a couple specific goals for each month. One of my January goals is to establish the habit of having supper consistently on the table by 6:30 each night.

Last fall we would sit down to supper anywhere between 7:30 to 8:30 because of our schedule (if I was out of the house till 6, for example) and because I strongly dislike cooking every single night so I would procrastinate like nobody's business even on the days I had no out-of-the-house excuse.

Whole Food Freezer Cooking another course by Heather, was a game changer for me. Now I only cook 3 meals a week but we eat 6 home cooked meals a week (Damien cooks one). Two of those are meals I pull from the freezer, having prepared on a previous week on one of my freezer cooking nights.

And here's the thing: preparing an extra meal for the freezer does not take double the effort, it takes maybe an extra 20 or 30 minutes maximum. And then I save 1-1.5 hours of meal prep time on those nights off of cooking.

So the actual schedule looks something like this:

  • Monday - at home day, cook a double meal
  • Tuesday - grocery shopping afternoon, come home late, eat from freezer
  • Wednesday - skiing day, eat from freezer
  • Thursday - at home day, cook a regular or double meal
  • Friday - homeschool co-op, store-bought pizza or something else
  • Saturday - usually at home, cook a regular or double meal
  • Sunday - Damien cooks

Supper at 6:30 is one of my New Years goals or resolutions that supports other goals, besides giving our bodies time to digest before bed. It makes relaxing evenings possible (one of my winter wellness needs) by providing a definitive end point to the work day. But seriously, I simply could not make this happen if I had to be cooking every night.

I have a evolving and never-ending list of tasks that make up my moments, my days, and my weeks and I do have specific goals for winter, but a winter wellness plan sets the tone for those endeavors and reminds me of what is really important to me during this particular season.

Skiing Together

We had our first family ski day of the season yesterday.

In December, we bought mid-week season's passes for a local-ish ski resort at a reduced price from full season's pass rate.

The resort is Bromont, about an hour and fifteen minutes from the city. Mid-week passes give us access from Monday night thru Thursday night and the hill is open from morning till 10pm. Our plan is to ski one day a week, morning to late afternoon or lunchtime through evening. Night skiing here we come.

Returning to what has become our winter habit, we will once again be skiing through the season. And I couldn't be happier.

When we moved to Montreal we lost easy access to the outdoors. We moved here for very clear reasons, for everything the city could offer our family at this stage of life - homeschool community and resources, socially engaged and culturally relevant church, post-secondary and other education opportunities. But we left the beautiful Gaspe Peninsula to do so.

It's been months since our family has spent a day together in the outdoors, and a ski resort isn't exactly the nature-focused outdoors experience we are accustomed to.

Since coming home from our thru-hike (if you're new here, in 2014 my family hiked the entire Appalachian Trail, hiking was our life for nearly six months), we've gone hiking all together three times and the kids and Damien went hiking once without me. That's four family hikes in fifteen months.

When we came home from hiking the Appalachian Trail, some of us, ok Brienne and I, weren't sure if we'd ever want to hike again. Both of us are prone to hyperbole so that was an exaggeration of our hiking fatigue, but not by much.

These days, as adventure ideas get bantered around the dinner table Brienne remains uncertain, interested in travel and not wanting to be left out but not eager to sign up for privations of any kind, especially as related to personal presentation and hygiene.

I understand. I'm ok with certain physical privations; sleeping in tents, having one change of clothes, pooping in the woods, these things don't bother me. However, I shudder at the idea of intellectual and creative privations and quite frankly I'm not up for the challenge of pushing myself physically and mentally the way I did while hiking the trail.

Maybe someday when Damien and I figure out how to resolve some of our fundamental differences in how we engage with nature (he seeks challenge, I seek beauty), when I feel secure and confident in who I am, and when I have re-trained my cognitive patterns to respond in healthy ways when beset by challenge I will be ready for another long distance hike, but not yet, not now. (It's not on the radar but it's always in the back of our collective conscious.)

The intensity of our thru-hike, the fall-out after that, a season of physical rest, and moving to the city closed the door, for the time being, on one day a week. Something that was a bedrock of our family life for nine years. The end of an era.

This isn't to say we won't hike or backpack together again as a family but with three teenagers who have diverging interests our years of rallying the troops together around a common interest, recreation or hobby are coming to a close.

But skiing continues to stick because skiing is fun. And I cherish that.

I cherish this thing we do together, in an age when together interests are hard to cultivate. (This is one reason I've become a fan of video console gaming. No, not for myself, I still have no interest, but the other four love it. As they rally around their common quests and campaigns I see the value in supporting that connection. Plus, it gives me time for my evening hobbies and interests.)

The kids probably think I'm an overly sentimental mom (I am) when I exclaim, while waiting in the chair lift line, "isn't this so great to be together out here?"

They might roll their eyes, they're usually wearing goggles so I can't tell, but I'm still happy to be standing in line with them.

They have no idea how fleeting these years are and I do.

A phototherapy light

This may be my shortest "review" post ever and I'll tell you straight up, it's a hearty product endorsement.

I get a lot of emails, facebook messages, blog comments (maybe even instagram comments? can't recall) asking me about this light. The most recent arrived in my inbox yesterday.

So I just need to bite the bullet and put up a small post on the blog I can refer back to instead of re-typing the same response over and over.

My phototherapy light, which I also call my Happy Light because it's written on the lamp, is made by Verilux. Damien did the research on different brands and models and we chose this one (from what was available at the time) for its high intensity, fast session times, and large surface area.

You can find this model at amazon.com or amazon.ca. I'm sure you can buy phototherapy lamps at Best Buy and similar stores, I've seen smaller Verilux brand models at the Costco I frequent. If you're in Canada you may be interested in Northern Light Technologies.

Before making the investment to buy this light a few years ago, I did all kinds of research on what the light did, how it worked, etc. I read enough to be convinced to try it. Here are two short reviews on phototherapy from WebMD and Dr. Andrew Weil.

This is my third winter using a therapy light. The first winter I used it, there seemed to be a noticeable difference for me. But that was also the winter we were prepping for our thru-hike, a lot was different that winter, there was no control, in the scientific sense.

Last year I also experienced an improvement in my mental health. However, my winter wellness strategy is multi-faceted and involves supplements, outdoor exercise/skiing, enjoying the season, burning candles - the whole works. So it's really hard to separate the light from everything else, it's a holistic approach to health.

I use the light almost every morning for 1- 1.5 hours. I start in November and continue as long as I feel I need it. I think I packed it up in April last year.

Here's how I'd summarize my experience with my Happy Light:

  • I use it religiously.
  • I recommend it heartily.
  • It's part of a holistic winter wellness strategy.
  • Practical note: I store it during the day and take it out for my morning "therapy".
  • I bought mine at amazon.ca. At the time I bought it, it cost me $190, not including tax.
  • It's not pretty, it's doesn't photograph well like a soft candle, but it works.

If you struggle with Seasonal Affective Disorder, or intense winter blahs, these other posts on the blog (listed in order of publication) may be of interest/helpful to you:

This post has affiliate links.

Resources: 

The days between

One of the things I love about our family holiday tradition is that we linger in this in-between space between Christmas and New Years, and a little beyond.

I love seasonal rhythms and this is one of mine: a slow post-Christmas period to rest, reflect, party a bit more if desired (the kids always want this, I'm less keen), and ease into the New Year.

I haven't always done this. There have been years where we've traveled during that period, or continued our holiday visiting with family but I discovered a few years ago that a true pause between the intensity of family Christmas (we're almost always hosting or staying with extended family for Christmas) and the start of the New Year is a most wonderful, helpful, and life-affirming seasonal practice for me.

Now, I block out these days on our December/early January calendar.

I'm writing another post right now, which I'll publish soon, that discusses in part, the work of making Christmas. These days of lingering and lounging around New Year's are what help me put all that effort into the Christmas holiday.

This is something I feel pretty strongly about, the importance of give and take in family life and that women, and mothers in specific (myself most specifically) don't drain themselves over the holidays "for the sake of the family".

Christmas itself isn't really a "holiday" for me, and my needs for rest and downtime are as important as my kids' needs for all the high energy and excitement they experience at Christmas. These experiences, these memories, do not materialize from a fairy wand, or Santa's sleigh, but from mother's effort.

Because I spend every day with my kids, all year round, there is no rush to fill school vacation with "togetherness", or snow activities. Except for very specific events, like New Year's Eve, we can do it next week. Whatever "it" is.

These days are mine.

It helps, really helps, that my kids are big. And it helps that they love video gaming and sleep-in really late.


snow removal crew in front of our apartment, early morning Dec 31st

How about you? Do you slow your pace, give yourself time before Life starts again in earnest.

A beginners guide to beginning Zentangle

Happy Boxing Day!

Some friends have asked me about the time commitment required for the Hibernate retreat.

It requires none, and there is no guilt or pressure to prioritize or participate in the content. It's completely self-paced.

My approach to last year's retreat was to read, experience, and connect with others around the ideas as much as I could. And some ideas I put off for later in the winter or another season altogether.

Meditative drawing is one of those ideas.

I'd seen this idea floating around and had noticed books at the library. Heather taught a couple meditative flower drawing patterns in Hibernate and I KNEW I wanted to learn more.

I started researching meditative drawing and came across Zentangle. I was hooked, and overwhelmed. I wanted to learn but wasn't sure where to start.

So I reserved all the Zentangle books in the New Brunswick library system, that's the library we used when we lived on the Peninsula, and perused each one to decide which one I wanted to buy.

I settled on One Zentangle A Day and have since discovered a few more resources which I review near the bottom of this post.

I started doodling the beginning of June. I had no idea what I was doing. I have never considered myself an artist, and I've always said, "I can't draw". I'm sure some of you can relate to this.

There are still many things I am unable to draw, that I haven't even tried drawing, faces for example. But what I have learned is that I can draw, with practice. And what is so wonderful about Zentangle and other abstract drawing is that it's not supposed to look like anything you can recognize and so you can't draw it wrong (but you sure can draw it wonky, as I have experienced!)

It feels so good to be joining the artists in my family. All of my family draws. Damien has a hidden talent that only those closest to him (that would be his family) know about and my kids have been drawing since they were toddlers and have never stopped. Their artwork features regularly on the blog because I think it is beautiful and I love it.

But now, I am drawing too. And there is something so satisfying to me about getting shading advice from my son, who's drawing experience vastly outweighs mine.

Fear not, you don't need a resident artist for tutorials, learning to Zentangle doesn't require you to know about shading, or anything else other than connecting points with curved or straight lines.

Zentangle is a pattern-based, abstract drawing technique. And if you want to get really picky about it, it's done on square pieces of special paper called "tiles". I don't use square pieces of special paper. I use a high-quality, blank spiral-bound journal I inherited from Damien who used the first few pages for some doodling of his own.

What I love about Zentangle:
  • No expectations. What I draw on the page doesn't have to look like anything in real life. Phew.

  • Relaxing. I have to admit I'm sometimes a bit jittery about making mistakes but that's also why I keep doing it. To learn that each mistake I make is not that big of a deal.

  • Open-ended. I don't naturally thrive in open-ended scenarios but Zentangle is "going with the flow" in your drawing. You have to let go of preconceived notions of what you think your art should or will look like and let it unfold. I create a Zentangle drawing, pattern by pattern, without a plan. This open-endedness helps me see and experience for myself, the beauty in not knowing, not planning, not controlling.

  • Accessible and space-small. The tools are simple, the supplies easily accessible and doesn't require a special studio or equipment.

  • Guidelines, but it's also very creative. "Official" Zentangle drawing uses certain pre-determined patterns. As you learn to Zentangle, you learn how to draw the individual patterns and combine them with other patterns. I don't know who makes these up or how new tangles are added to the "official" mix. I guess this is what makes it Zentangle specifically vs. abstract doodling. But even though you're following a pattern, called a tangle, how you draw that is very subjective and then there are tangelations (mixing it up). And how you pair and layer patterns next to each creates a new piece of art every time.

  • Therapeutic. I've been doing a lot of things this summer and fall to face anxiety head-on. CBT, mindfulness, meditation, supplements, and drawing. I don't know how significant a role the drawing plays but it helps because it is a type of mindfulness and the fact that I can't do it perfectly is very good for me mentally. A lot of resources profess the therapeutic benefits of Zentangle. I can't disagree with them but mostly I just think it's really enjoyable (so, I guess yes, it's therapeutic).

In trying my hand at Zentangle I completely adopted the posture of a learner, a student. I knew virtually nothing, other than what I learned in Hibernate, about meditative drawing and I have made some ridiculous drawings in my practice. It's supposed to be a "zen" experience but sometimes it's a snort laughter experience as my lines go places I didn't intend.

But I've also drawn tangles I'm really pleased with and I can flip through my journal and see the progression of my skill. This is very rewarding. I'm a learner, I'm not experienced, and it's good to be in that position.

Ever since I started posting photos of my tangles on Instagram I've been asked how I learned and what books I recommend.

Like I mentioned above, I chose One Zentangle A Day because it was my favorite book from what I could borrow and preview from the library collection.

What is Zentangle?

First, I need to define my terms. According to One Zentangle A Day, Zentangle is:

a miniature abstract work of art. It is created from a collection of patterns not meant to represent anything. It is created on a 3 1/2 x 3 1/2 inch piece of art paper called a "tile". This size allows for a work of art that can be completed in a relatively short time.

I'm not so technical about my Zentangle definitions. I draw tangles in a sketchbook and I call it Zentangle. The more precise term for what I draw is Zentangle-inspired art, or art following the Zentangle Method. All those words seem so fussy, and I'm not into fussy. I just call my drawings Zentangle.

This post may bother the Zentangle purists but I'm calling any drawing created with tangles (the abstract drawing patterns) a Zentangle. Technically, a Zentangle is a 3 1/2 x 3 1/2 tile.

What I like about One Zentangle A Day is that it teaches a step-by-step progression of how to draw individual tangles but it teaches you to create multi-patterned Zentangles from day one.

Supplies

OZAD gives an extensive supply list for creating Zentangle art. If you want to do everything the book teaches you'll need these supplies but it's overkill for getting started.

All you need is quality paper, a couple pens, and a pencil. If you want to do black tiles you need white pastel pencils, white gel pens, black tiles. But to start, you don't need any of that.

The huge supply list at the beginning of OZAD is a drawback of the book because it can easily overwhelm a newbie. But it's a good list if you intend to get serious with Zentangle.

I'm still in the newbie basic stage and use very simple supplies.

Lessons

The drawing lessons in OZAD are given out over 42 days of instruction. The premise, like the book title suggests, is that you can do one zentangle lesson each day.

For someone like myself with no drawing experience this is a laughable proposition. I started the book's lesson on July 9th (my first tangle is dated) and I have tangled most week days since then and I'm now on Lesson 22, just over halfway through the book. I'm averaging about one lesson every week.

OZAD is very in-depth but not too in-depth for a beginner. Lessons from the halfway point involve color instruction - using watercolors, gouche, colored pencils, and markers to color tiles. I'm just not ready for that yet, so I'm holding off on that for now and continuing with the blank and white tangle patterns taught in the second half of the book.

After these color lessons, the last 14 lessons (days) are quite artsy and in my opinion, advanced. Whereas the first section of the book I followed fairly closely, this part I will pick-and-choose from as it features mostly Zentangle inspiration vs. teaching how to draw tangles.

All together this book teaches how to draw 70 tangles.

More Resources

Joy of Zentangle teaches tangles with less emphasis on the meditative aspects of Zentangle. More drawing, less zen. I only recently discovered it at a local DeSerres, the library didn't have it in my original search.

I like this book and will be adding it to my personal library soon.

I recommend this book for the variety of tangles it teaches and its shading instruction, something I find quite difficult to learn and is not taught very well in OZAD. I've sought Laurent's advice in this regard, but not everyone has a Laurent in-house.

I haven't adequately previewed any other beginner Zentangle books to provide any more solid recommendations. There is a series of twelve Zentangle art books published by Design Originals that teaches a lot of Zentangle art.

The first in the series, Zentangle Basics is a workbook style publication, with lots of blank space for practice. I've come across other workbook style Zentangle "manuals" that provide more blank space than instruction. I prefer sketching in a notebook/sketchbook and I chose OZAD since I wanted an instruction book primarily.

I've also found a few Zentangle books that provide a lot of artistic inspiration with less focus on instruction, not so great for beginner.

When you start looking for Zentangle books you'll invariably come across a lot of meditative art coloring books. These seem to be wildly popular but I haven't gotten into the experience myself. I LOVE color; bright colors, contrasting colors, and someday I want to color my Zentangle drawings with watercolors, markers, and colored pencils. But coloring in pre-drawn lines just doesn't hold the same appeal for me. My preference is definitely drawing.

I've only scratched the surface of Zentangle, in my own art and explaining it here. I have enjoyed learning how to draw Zentangle inspired art immensely over the past few months even though I do not consider myself an artist. If you are interested in developing your own drawing skill I think Zentangle is a great place to start.

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Christmas Day

We're in Nova Scotia this Christmas for the gathering of the Derryl and Karen Toews Clan.

It's been a grey, raining and foggy week. Now today, Christmas day, was bright and sunny, easily fifteen degrees celsius. We were expecting a warm Christmas so there wasn't disappointment in the weather. At least not too much.

The snow blower and snow shovels are sitting idle, we left the skis at home. Instead we've been stacking Papa's winter wood, assuming there will be a winter, and tomorrow we'll go walking at the beach.

We haven't been to Nova Scotia for Christmas in years. Our last Christmas trip here was in 2009, we still lived in Maine. I'd send you to the blog posts but the photo links are all broken. Something weird happened a couple years ago to all the photos on my old posts, they don't show up, and life being what it is, busy, means I haven't fixed that.

When we finished our celebrations that year our family traveled to the Gaspe Peninsula with my parents on our first reconnaissance trip. That was a very cold and snowy year.

Christmas is a natural time to ponder changes that have taken place in our lives through the years. And for me, that includes remembering places we've lived and the trips we've taken this time of year. Christmas in Nova Scotia, with our siblings in the GTA, on the peninsula, backcountry skiing between Christmas and New Years, and hosting all my family last year (my first time ever); Christmas memories from recent years.

Each year brings something new and something remembered.

And each year it also feels like even though my body is in one place, my heart is in many places, specifically in all the places I've celebrated Christmas through the years, and with family spread across the country; western Canada, New England, Quebec, and the Maritimes.

We're on day six of what will probably amount to twelve days of Christmas, roughly Dec 21 through January 1st. We're spending the first part of that at my parents and then I'll have some days of reflection and rest at home. (I'm pretty sure my family will continue their video game fest during that time, RnR of another kind.)

The weather is different this year but the heartbeat of Christmas is the same.

Hibernate

About five or six years ago I recognized my need for a proactive winter health strategy. There are things I love about winter; the Christmas holidays, the afternoon light in January (swoon), and skiing, for example. But winter is my most difficult season for the sheer length of it, the shorter days, and probably other factors (nutritional deficiencies, environmental toxins, negative thought patterns?) I'm not even aware of yet.

Each year I have added more tools into my toolkit to support my winter health, joy, and wellbeing.

Naming my difficulty was a huge first step. Not everyone in my family struggles with winter and to speak up for myself in this regard, and to be ok with being different from the crowd (in my very own living room), was a good first step.

Choosing to appreciate winter, regardless, was my first strategy. "By golly, I will make the most of this winter!" And then I swing my arm just like Rosie the riveter. This attitude, paired with a fairly serious commitment to getting outdoors everyday and looking for the beauty, was a good starting point.

Skiing was a game changer. I adore skiing. Telemark, alpine touring, alpine downhill (the kind people are most familiar with), and x-country. I've experienced all of them in the past few years. Huge thanks to my husband Damien for moving our family forward in this direction.

This will be my third winter using a therapy light. This is the model I use. (That is an affiliate link.) The first winter I used it, there seemed to be a noticeable difference for me. But that was also the winter we were prepping for our thru-hike, a lot was different that winter, there was no control, in the scientific sense. Regardless, I really think the light helps.

Supplements. A couple winters ago I started taking supplements - 2000 IU's of vitamin D and 1250 mg (750 mg EPA and 500 mg DHA) of omega-3 fatty acids daily. Now I take those daily all year round, and a few others to help out my sensitive amygdala. (In other words, for anxiety.)

A change of scenery has also helped. For me this means traveling, if possible, at the end of winter.

Three years ago, after a very difficult March, my lowest SAD experience to date, we decided on a whim to go to my parents for Easter. And we left the next day. It was one of the best spontaneous decisions (that cost a bit of money) I've ever made.

Two winter's ago we were so busy prepping for the AT I didn't have time to get SAD and our departure in late March shifted us into a geographic region that was experiencing spring. In two days we went from winter to spring.

Last year we took a house-hunting trip to Montreal and this shift in energy in our home during the month of April helped me get through the end of winter.

Last year I did something else to support my winter health, I joined Heather's hibernate class.

I have participated in almost all of Heather's classes except Summer Soul Camp and Harvest.

Here's my brief rundown:

  • Whole Food Kitchen - Love the recipes. I refer back to them often.
  • 30 Day Vegan - I actually know how to do that, so while the course is interesting, it's like preaching to the choir.
  • Hibernate (2nd run) - Knocked my knitted socks off.
  • Freezer Cooking (the one that just wrapped up) - Game changer I'm not going to tell that story here. Now's not the time but it shifted things significantly for me in a much more positive direction. (It's been a hard kitchen year.)

Hibernate

I didn't take Hibernate the first year. I wanted to, my body craved it but I was just too busy with our hike prep. I got through winter fine, no SAD, but the pace of that winter didn't set me up very well for what followed: the most physically, emotionally and mentally demanding experience of my life. By the following fall I was broken and bruised. You know the story. I learned that lesson the hard way.

I need winter as a time for rest, reflection, and fun. Winter is not a pushing through season for me. It's a time to be cozy, as much as our schedules allow, and a time to really nurture myself.

Life is life. Stuff happens. You can't make everything go your way in terms of arranging your seasons just so. But I can create intentions for the seasons of the year, and seasons of my life. As I learned from this past year.

I need to take care of myself all year, but I thin out in winter. Summer fills my well and I feel really healthy during those months, but the well is starting to run dry by mid-winter especially and I need to proactively refill it with life-affirming winter strategies.

Hibernate is part of that.

I was so blown away by it last year. The quality of the content, the vibe it brought into my days, and the skills I learned. Last winter I re-wrote the script for that season, in part because of Heather's workshop. I vowed if it was offered again I would shout it from the rooftops.

Because it was so wonderful for me I decided to gift a registration to a friend this year because Heather makes an impossible-to-turn-down offer where she allows a 2-for-1 registration for a limited time.

It's that time. Hibernate begins January 11 and registration starts today. The 2-for-1 deal is good till Monday.

This year is recycled content from year one and year two. Some content will be new to me and some will be familiar. If you've never joined, it's a great year to do so. I assume you'll get the best of both.

I appreciated so many aspects of last year's retreat. Each weekday for four weeks there were fresh ideas to inspire creativity, rest and renewal, physical health and wellness, and/or relationship building.

Heather organizes the self-paced workshop around five themes: renew, gather, nourish, create, and rest. In addition to beautiful essays, there is a Facebook group to connect, instagram hashtags to share our photos, and blog commenting. (I love all that stuff. Some people just want good content, you get that in spades.)

I didn't even try half of the ideas presented during the course and some of the content I saved specifically for later, candle making for example. I started that last month and now that I'm well stocked, with easy access to more supplies, I will make those in batches throughout winter.

Another favorite of mine from the course was the herbal chai recipe. I ordered a bunch of ingredients in bulk the end of last winter so I'm all set to start my herbal chai routine come January. It is the perfect nourishing, non-caffeinated, not-too-rich winter beverage. I can't wait.

And then there was the meditative drawing, which opened the door to Zentangle, which is an art and therapy I have been practicing, almost daily since summer. I will be publishing more about that next week, fingers crossed.

I loved all these things and more but what I appreciated most is that Hibernate helped me set an intention for the winter season.

I'm the only one in my house who seems to need a season-honoring focus for the winter months. My kids are, well, they're kids. They operate at a different level than me. When I was a kid I don't remember ever thinking about how the season affected my moods, etc. And as a teen I just wanted to do stuff all the time. Just like my kids.

I am not a teenager. I'm a life seasoned mom, supporting three teens. And as it turns out, my needs are different from those of my family, both teens and husband. He loves winter, loves skiing, loves snow. He wants to ski until June. He doesn't get moody in winter. He can power through without much attention to seasonal shifts. Not so for me.

(Interestingly, he isn't as buoyed up by summer the way I am. I'm high and low, and he's steady.)

I'm making a big effort to live according to my own seasonal rhythms, while providing a home environment that allows everyone the freedom to meet their needs also.

Hibernate is a winter gift to myself. The gift of friendship and beauty. The gift of cozy and craft. The gift of learning new skills and trying new recipes. It's just a really good thing. Join me there?

Resources: 

Forty

Remember the good ol' days of blogging, where you'd feverishly write something in the forty-five minutes you had before hitting publish. Yeah, so this isn't one of those posts.

I wrote this on my birthday. Like I say in the post, it was a gift to myself to finally publish some of these thoughts. My birthday was two weeks ago. Then I had to run it by Damien for his "ok". Any time I talk intimately about our marriage I ask him to pre-read what I hope to publish, it's always subject to his approval. He said "no" to a post I wrote this summer to commemorate our 19th anniversary. I'm still holding onto it.

Once I got the approval from Damien I considered photos. I wanted to publish photos from the entire year, since this post is a reflection on this past year.

I wanted to use some of my favorites, my most beautiful nature photography. But I had made some goofs in my photography workflow early this fall in which I had "un-checked", for lack of easier explanation, my favorites.

So... in the past week I've gone through the photos I took this past year, to re-check the favs. In doing so, I discovered sets of unedited and undeleted photos, I try to keep on top of that. And that made me twitchy so I had to spend time doing all that, then choosing my favorites and now, it's the middle of the December and it's my birthday post.

It's a dull grey day, raining. The second of December, my fortieth birthday.

The weather really doesn't matter to me today. I do love the sun. I adore the sun and the angle of light this time of year but there won't be any "angle of light" to appreciate or photograph in this constant drizzle.

You can't order weather for your birthday and the weather feels nearly perfect for what I'm up to right now. Ten am, still in my pj's, drinking hot cocoa and writing on my bed. This is exactly what I want to do. Cozy is my love language and this feels just right.

And anyway, the main thing that is giving me great comfort today is that it's not my thirty-ninth birthday.

Last year was my most difficult birthday to date, that I can remember. I may have suffered a "bad" birthday as a child but I don't recall. My childhood memories are like that, mostly sweet. That in itself is a great birthday gift.

Last year's birthday landed, through no fault of its own, in the trough of a marital existential crisis.

I just had to google existential crisis to make sure I understand it correctly. In that search I came across a post on Psychology Today in which a person had an "existential" crisis one night as she was falling asleep, and she had a conversation with her half-asleep husband that helped pull her out of it.

That is not the kind of existential crisis I am talking about. Nor am I talking about the opposite end of the spectrum when a person goes off the deep-deep end and has no idea of their life purpose, meaning and value.

I'm talking about the somewhere-in-between existential crisis. In this case, a crisis in our marriage, in which we did question the foundations, or more accurately, some of the extra constructs we had added to the foundation.

I'll warn you now. This post is about to get spiritual because as soon as you start taking foundations, life's meaning and purpose you enter a realm that is no longer strictly explained by physical laws and easily articulated definitions. This is where things get spiritual. And for me, that means talking about Jesus.

This is just a heads up since my blog isn't overtly Christian, but today it is.

Waiting for the saints and skeptics (which is not the same a cynic, I am a skeptic about many things) to take a deep breath.

When Damien and I got married we sang a hymn at our ceremony. Our ceremony was not scripted by someone else, we chose this song specifically to set the tone for our marriage.

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus' blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus' name.
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand.

When darkness veils His lovely face,
I rest on His unchanging grace;
In every high and stormy gale
My anchor holds within the veil.
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand.

That's been the foundation through nineteen years of marriage, three babies, many moves, living life and growing into maturity together. It was, and is, what we are both committed to. More than to each other, we are committed to a personal steadfastness in Christ. We both chose in our youth, independant of each other, to anchor ourselves to Christ. And when we met, and not much later decided to get married, we brought that commitment to our marriage to be its foundation.

So, if that was the foundation, why the existential crisis? Very good question. Finding the answer has been the emotional and spiritual work of many months.

Another question, what does this have to do with my fortieth birthday? Other than the fact that my 39th was "celebrated" in the despair of that unknowing and pain.

Here's my attempt to answer those questions.

First of all, I have a year's worth (the year 2015 to be exact) of personal writing, journaling, mediating, bible reading, and prayerful reflections which I achingly, desperately (what other adverbs can I use??) hope to sort, write, and publish one day.

Those words are a testimony of God's grace in my life. They are the story of a Christian couple (two people who have a professed faith in Jesus and are trying to follow his example), who love each other deeply and still manage to hurt and hinder, and then forgive and keep seeking together. They tell the journey of walking through a midlife crisis which is starting to resolve itself, though the future is still unknown, the direction unclear.

It's my birthday today and I'm gifting myself time to start writing this story, a down payment on the process, that in faith I will complete, though that completion may not be published here.

I am somewhat reluctant to start the process because each onion layer I peel back in my published writing, having already peeled many of those layers in my personal writing, begs more questions than it provides answers. And I can't answer all the questions in one little fortieth birthday post.

So here's a fair warning: you get what you get. It won't be the whole story it will be glimpses, not to tease or taunt but to simply start the telling.

Last year all I wanted for my birthday was to not be in the emotional place we were. Damien was in so much pain (it was my earlier pain that caused his suffering, there is no villain in this story) that he could barely acknowledge it was my birthday, that I was special and deserving of love. And at the end of the day he apologized for be unable to move past that for my sake. And he held me and I cried. And all I could do at that point was trust that we would get through this.

It hurt but I understood. It wasn't lovely or beautiful because the depths of pain we sometimes experience in loving other people is just that - deep pain.

By my definition, family life, home, is the sacred space we create that gives our loved ones the permission and space - emotionally and physically - to experience and express all the emotions.

Hilarious joy, simple contentment, fear, ecstacy (the marriage bed), anger, disappointment, frustration, pain and much more. So you could say it was a sacred-space birthday but not in the happy-happy-joy-joy sense.

Last year I started anticipating this current birthday. I wanted to be in a different place when I reached forty. There were many things I wanted for myself, that I have been working on this year, to varying degrees of success. But mostly what I wanted was to be on the path to healing. I was hopeful of reaching this point. Not hopeful of finding "the answer" by my fortieth, but hopeful I'd be on my way there.

November 5, 2014

A rainy, overcast day, just came back from a walk with my family. I am filled with compassion for who I am, who I was.

I see the girl I was and I miss her, her energy, her confidence, her zest. I want to reclaim parts of her, to have them rise again in me, but I want to move into my 40's with the wisdom of the last 20 years as the foundation.

I am so much more compassionate and empathetic than I was as a young woman. I can surrender my plans and adapt to change much easier. I am much more comfortable with my sexuality.

I am a daughter, wife, mother.

Me, always in relationship to someone else.

I used to be feisty, commanding, in control. I was dynamite, small but powerful. Quick to judge, quick to speak, quick to seek forgiveness. Eager to please. Willing to try new ideas but resistant to a change in plans.

Always looking to the future and the resolution of something there - when I graduate, when I get married, when I have babies...

Becoming a mother and a wife enlarged me in ways not possible otherwise. But I lost things also. I gained much from those "losses" but I think chunks of myself have sloughed off, for better or worse. And I want to rediscover the light inside me. That fire that attracted and was attractive.

I think I need to reclaim some of that, or simply acknowledge that, as I move forward into my 4th decade.

The girl who won Damien’s heart, how did I do that?

I feel our thru-hike caused a separation between Damien and I, a separation caused by my shame but also the gutting of myself, the sacrifice of myself.

I was barely an adult when I married Damien. I don’t regret the years we’ve had together, at all. I would have married him sooner if I could. But I think I expected and thought marriage would do certain things for me that it doesn’t have the power to do. Marriage as the panacea for all life’s problems.

I have to heal in the context of our relationship but I have to heal on my own. I have to find answers on my own.

What is not written in that entry, but is implied and in-between all the lines; what is written in many, many other journal entries is this question: who am I?

That was what I set out to discover this past year.

First, I set aside 2015 to be a year of healing, a year to focus on home, family, self, in some jumbled-up order. I had no intentions or ambitions to work-from-home as I had been building with Damien up to that point. In fact, that pretty much all came crashing down with my burn out, so there wasn't really much choice but to go back-to-the-basics of family life/homeschooling and marriage.

I like structure so I created one for the year, according to the seasons.

  • quiet, creativity, fun, and reflection (winter)
  • connection, cleaning, and hope (spring)
  • rejuvenation, exploration, and joy (summer
  • space, gratitude, and celebration (fall)

My intention was to focus my heart on these themes through the seasons and I invited some women to join me on that journey around The Kitchen Table.

That part of the project didn't work out quite as planned. The course I set out for myself, that original framework of ideas to guide me to healing helped some, I'm sure. It pointed me in a direction. And the ideas of course are metaphors for the internal work that had to be done. Cleaning was not just about purging our stuff before our move but about cleaning stuff out on the inside. In writing down these intentions I may have been hoping that my outward actions would change something inside. I don't know.

What I do know is that my healing happened on levels much deeper than Kitchen Table essays could express.

This year my heart needed to be home, that place of safety and security in our family, the axis around which we all spin, the physical and emotional space I've cultivated in my twenty years of being a homemaker.

I started there, with what I knew. And I listened to the longings of my heart. I determined to stop pushing against myself, in my futile attempt to try to meet a longing, a void in my husband's heart, that was not mine to fill.


Four specific areas I identified last winter to rebuild my wellbeing

I identified and articulated my core needs. I was courageously vulnerable with other people (I didn't hide my struggles) and tried to recognize and remind myself how so not alone I was in this journey. I looked honestly at my flaws, my failings, and my wrong ways of thinking and ways I'd messed up, and then I loved me anyway.

I got serious about my mental health and practicing Cognitive Behavior Therapy.

I did all that but I still didn't find the answer to my question. All of that soul-searching work just tilled the soil.

I went through a writing spurt of identifying all I am not, you should see the list, it's long. But that still did not answer the question who am I?

Returning to the root of who I am, finding myself again was brought about in the most unlikely way. I could not have planned it, charted it, structured it, even if I tired.

It was a simple request: I asked my atheist/agnostic (I am reluctant to label someone else's beliefs but this is what he has communicated to me) successful business-man friend to teach me how to meditate. He knew something I did not, how to quiet his mind and find focus and I wanted to learn.

I wanted to learn so I could move forward with my Mental Health and Craft a Vision part of Project Home & Healing.

The Appalachian Trail and the gut-wrenching self-examination that followed taught me that what I believe about myself sets the course for my life, my reactions spring from my subconscious, and the only thing I can truly change is my perspective and my perceptions. But how?? My mind, the part I am aware of, and even scarier the part that remains hidden, is the determining factor in my "success or failure" and how I view myself.

I went to my friend because I wanted to change my subconscious thinking patterns (my mind-stew, or whatever the subconscious looks like) so I would a) have a vision for my future, b) be successful at that wildly creative, amazing vision, and c) not self-sabatoge the good things in my life with doubt/fear/anxiety.

My friend not only extended his friendship, but asked me hard questions, and shared what he had learned in his own life.

He introduced me to his meditation technique. There was nothing weebie-jeebie about it. I'm not into that. I had a goal - to work on re-wiring thought patterns and deep seated false beliefs about myself, so I could be successful at life.

And here's where God's grace is painted like a gorgeous watercolor over the black ink outline of our feeble human efforts.

It was an atheist/agnostic, francophone, business man who pointed me back to Christ.

My friend's meditation technique is a structured thought pattern, it's not an emptying, it's a focusing. And the first gate of that technique is a meditation on "who I am".

I listened to my friend's instructions, I wrote notes, I answered his questions as honestly as I could (there's a lot more to his technique than that first question). My belly roiled with anxiety, he knew that.

I took the instructions, re-read my notes, and I started mediating. And I never got past that first gateway.

I loved the framework my friend gave me, I have every intention of following through with answering all the questions I need to finish the process, because I really want to be pro-active about my thought patterns.

But I haven't finished going through that training yet because I found the answer to the question I've been asking, the question my friend asked me, and that's all I need right now.

I have been asking the identity question, who am I? for the last few years, as I've become a writer, as we've adventured and traveled, and moved and tried new arrangements of living and earning, and as my kids have grown and my roles and interests have changed.

I've written about that quest, quite a bit. I've studied my personality. (I'm a personality-type geek.) Two years ago, I hosted a skype chat with some of you in which we ended up talking about how we define ourselves, our confusion in doing so.

I've had to craft bios for writing projects in which I've attached adjectives to roles... adventurous mother, creative homeschooler...

And yet none of that is the definition of who I am. Because what if my children reject me, or die, my husband abandons me, I lose my cognitive abilities. If I lose all that defines me, who am I then? I don't anticipate this. I don't fear these things. But if my identity is rooted in other people, and in my goodness or my self-awareness, if it is rooted in adjectives and roles, and if I lose all that, I am nothing.

But I am not nothing.

This summer and fall has been about finding my identity outside the defining context of my roles. Finding my worth, my value, my self in something other than the jobs I do and how well I do them.

My identity has nothing to do with if I’m a good homeschool mom, a supportive wife, a loyal daughter.

My identity is in Christ.

He is my perfection, where it truly matters (in the presence of God), allowing me to know my Creator, bringing me into relationship with the Father, enabling me to partake in the Divine.

This is the good news, the gospel: that I don't need to struggle with being enough, Christ is my enough, he is my perfection, my goodness.

Everything I’m seeking, he has already taken hold of for me, given to me. And he invites me to live in that freedom.

Separated from God I am not worthy. Good gracious, I hurt people. I am unkind. I am not honest. All of these injustices committed against myself and others, and so much more, in spite of my best intentions otherwise.

Jesus is my worthiness.

I am worthy because Christ was worthy of communion with God. What other worthiness is there? To know the Divine, the Creator, the Author, that is the ultimate worthiness, the ultimate identity.

I rediscovered who I really am, in a sense I returned to my roots, I re-found my identity in the righteousness, in the wholeness of Jesus.

In Christ, hidden in his blamelessness, I am not just enough, I am completely whole. Healed.

I am in Christ.

The quest to define my identity stops here.

I thought I would find confidence again by getting reacquainted with myself as a child, tapping into my feisty young adult self. I thought I might have to go back to who I was, to find out who I am now. Or maybe I needed to look forward, to craft a vision, into the unknowable future, to define myself based on who I wanted to become. Or maybe I just needed to love myself.

Nothing wrong with any of those ideas, but they weren't the answer in themselves. My identity can be known here, in who I am right now. The love I claim is not simply my own, but God's love for me in Christ.

My identity, that core me that is essentially undefinable, is hidden in Jesus Christ. Safe. Cozy. Secure. Everything I want, right there.

I don't have to be anything to be valued or loved. To re-iterate, I don't have to be a good mom, or a supportive wife, or a caring daughter to have worth. In case it's not obvious, I want to be all those things. I want those and way more. I want to be over-the-top in my affections and support, in love and kindess towards people. But my worth does not come from that. That is not who I am. Who I am is in Christ.

This is what I have been meditating on for the past five months. I meditate on images and Bible verses. And this may sound weird (like most of this post may for some of you), I soak myself in God's love for me. I picture myself being loved by God.

For most of my adult life I have actively sought to know, understand, and define myself in roles, interests and vocations. I repeat, none of these are bad. I think my family has benefited greatly that I want to be a good mom. But when I start to derive my worth, my meaning, and personal value from a role and how well I do it; when I place something else (like marriage) above being in Christ as my identity, that is a misplaced allegiance. It's idolatry.

The seed of a lie - that my life's meaning and value came from anything else other than God's love for me - was planted, that grew to a weed, that had to be pulled. And the pulling of that weed was very painful and it broke a lot of the structures that had grown up up around that weed. It caused pain in our marriage.

We come into new realizations of self as we grow. And as Christians I think we can have new born-again experiences; significant, foundation-shaking, come-back-to-Jesus moments in our life.

This was one of mine.

I don't know that I've ever really viewed myself this way before. For my whole adult life I've defined myself by my roles and my relationship with other people. This is completely human, very natural, it's how we're known and understand ourselves. It's not bad.

But when I failed in one of these roles, or even perceived a failure, when I broke because I couldn't live up to how I defined myself, I realized I can't root my identity in anything but Christ.

Back to the birthday.

The existential crisis in our marriage, which we were experiencing last year on my birthday came from having attached meaning to our marriage in things other than Christ, as we rooted ourselves individually in things other than Christ. We added to the foundation our values, our interests, our desires, which are not in themselves bad, but they are not the foundation.

The same thing that had happened in my heart happened in our marriage.

This year I sought to find an answer to my who am I question. I wanted to heal, on many levels. I'm well on my way but it's not a done deal. I struggle with anxiety because of how my brain is wired and ingrained thought patterns, those don't disappear overnight, nor can I re-wire all at once.

I'm learning how to parent three teenagers and you know all that stuff I said about providing sacred space for my people's emotional honesty, yeah, doing that is actually really hard. Also, in recognizing I'm not called to be everything for everyone, and setting my boundaries, sometimes my pendulum swings into selfishness. This is a work in progress.

My identity is a done deal but living out that freedom is the work of life.

I wanted to be "somewhere" on my 40th birthday. Not a place, but an understanding of self. What I learned through 2015 is not what I imagined I would discover or need to re-discover.

I am reclaiming my confidence, not in self, but in Christ. I am rooted in love - not my husband's, children's, or parent's (though I am so blessed I have those) - but in God's unending love for me. I appreciate that marriage and motherhood are gifts in my life, they are not my meaning, my purpose, my identity. I have been gifted with a personality, a way of doing things, for the mission of glorifying God with my whole being.

And that's what I know on my 40th that was hidden in hurt and shame on my 39th.

Resources: 

Leaning in to the whoosh years (also called homeschooling a household of teenagers)

I started writing this five months ago. Writing, as many of you can relate to, is a way for me to process and make sense of change. I order my inner world, and therefore my perception of the outer world, with writing. There have many changes in our family life since moving to Montreal, hence, a lot to write about and process.

The tsunami of a midlife crisis and the new shoreline that remains, in conjunction with the reality of raising/home schooling multiple teenagers, have pulled the rug out from under me in terms of writing with confidence.

It's hard for me to write with confidence as the landscape has shifted around me. My physical environment is different, my kids have grown significantly, I have grown.

What do I know about anything in this place of messy metamorphosis?

I am sure of my family's love for me, they are sure of my love for them (I think), and sometimes everything else is a muddle. And yet in the muddle, there are some things I know to be true, like finding sea glass on a beach of grey stone. Truth that sparkles, a shimmer of wisdom even. Not a lot, but some.

My experience is just that, mine. It's not universal but nor is it strictly personal, unique to our family only. I hear a resonance in the experience of other women, as their children grow and their mothering role changes.

I have met resistance at so many points in writing this. Not the least of which is the filter I painstakingly use when writing about my family. (Which I increasingly try to use in general.) Is this true? Is this helpful or necessary to share? Is this kind (to me, to others)? And, is this beautiful?

I've been stuck on the conclusion to this post but I can't write a tidy conclusion to what is essentially life-in-progress. And every finishing sentence or paragraph I write feels slightly false and even that millimeter of bullshit triggers the is this true? sensor, like the alarm of an emergency exit.

What I want to say at the very end is, "yep, we're doing life" but I find that lacking and not meeting the helpful/necessary criteria. Who cares?

This is the conclusion I want to write: in this life season I need to lean into the craziness that is homeschooling through high school. And yet, I can't say that without all kinds of caveats. I need to lean-in but also pull out, I need to be present and also gone, literally. (I like to leave the house somewhat regularly so we all appreciate each other once again, and I like it when everyone else leaves and the house is my own quiet space.)

My kids are not me. The way I want to live, as a middle-aged writerly person is different than the way they want to live as social teenagers. The amount of time I crave for writing, reading, thinking, drawing, meditating, thinking some more, journaling, sitting quiet and still makes me think I've crossed the Introvert/Extrovert line. Celine thinks that my need to verbalize my thinking process (chat, chat, chat) keeps me in the extrovert camp.

In the past few years I have cultivated practices of quiet and simplicity, reflection and self-awareness. Downsizing, living in the woods, hiking in the woods, spending a lot of time in and surrounded by nature I think helped foster this. But so did having a midlife crisis (partly brought on by hiking/living in the woods). The aftermath of which requires a fair deal of careful, kind, and honest self-examination.

Since moving I have to show up and engage, with more frequency than has been my reality for years, in a world, that moves a different speed than I do. I do this for my kids. This is jarring to me. And yet my extroverted self needs the meeting new people rush, needs to discuss the ideas I spend so much time ruminating about. Yet another paradox in which I'm looking for the goldilocks principle of "just right".

The reality of sharing life together with five unique people, three of them in the throes of hormones and questing towards independence, is not always smooth or without tension. And not because any of us are against each other but because our needs are different. We love each other and we're different.

That's my conclusion. And now for the post.

I strongly believe in recognizing, respecting and cultivating my children's unique interests and individuality. When the kids were little, the lion's share of each day was spent doing the labor of childcare and homemaking (cook, clean, train/love children, press repeat). This was hard work and I decided fairly early in my homemaking/mothering-young-children vocation that I wasn't going to spend my precious time, outside of what must be done, "enriching" the children's lives with classes and lessons and all manner of go-and-do that wasn't really interesting to me.

Within the constraints and realities of caring for young children and then later homeschooling those children, my way of doing things, my rules, my interests, my comforts tended to dominate our days.

I make no apology for this, nor do I see any problems with this parenting philosophy. In fact, I encourage other moms to do the same. Life with young children should be directed by the parents, with consideration of course for our kids, but someone has to be in charge. Someone has to steer the ship. In our family that someone was me.

I always believed, and still do, that the best thing I could do for our children's wellbeing and the longevity of our at-home learning and living relationship, aka: home education, was to do the things I loved; to operate in my strengths, pursue my interests and bring the joy those activities brought me into the mix of our days.

This was my aim, sometimes I missed the mark, but that was the goal.

Our kids' sense of wellbeing depended more on my wellbeing, and the security of our family life, than it did on their individual pursuits of life, liberty and happiness.

During, what I now call our Adventuring Years - the last four years of our family life - it was five of us at home, instead of the original four. The whole fam-damily, as I like to say, sharing living and learning space in small homes and bigger ones; living by rivers and the ocean, in mountains and woods; and having a grand family adventure on the Appalachian Trail.

The shift was subtle at first and then seemed to snowball. The TV shows we watched, video games played, music listened to, the homeschool curriculum, our schedule, etc.; slowly over the course of days, months, and years my interests played less of role in how we lived.

It was kids growing up, it was Damien at home, it was family life evolving. It was a natural progression, a necessary one.

Children don't have a choice as to how their parents raise them. For better or worse, they are stuck with who we are and how we do things. I don't think our kids have had it too bad but still, they didn't really have a choice.

When we came home from our hike last fall, Damien and I recognized that we had crossed a threshold, rounded a corner in our parenting journey.

It was time to shift course. Puberty hit our home, times three. Our children grew and outgrew. It was time for the opportunities, freedom and responsibilities that come with that growth.

So we moved to the city. Of course it's not quite so simple as all that, but at the core, it looks something like that.

(I've told this story, in some variation for a few months now on the blog. Sorry to re-iterate but I'm still in the adjustment period of that move, at the edge, marveling at how I've ended up here, and how our life took such an interesting turn.)

We are living in the "age" of Comic Con's and music concerts, public transit and going to festivals with friends. A homeschool co-op with science class, history and English Lit. Friday night youth rallies, summer youth conferences, and traffic on congested roadways. A big screen TV, a PS4, and church in a movie theatre. A Monday through Friday full learning schedule and Saturday morning sleep-ins. A change in our family routines and even a shift in our family culture.

We are in a different stage of family life, in large part because our children are in a different stage, but also because the hike was a catalyst to shift the tectonic plates of our family values. As these plates - outdoors, family togetherness, simple living, health, lifelong learning, and faith - have collided against each other there has been the formation of new mountain ranges, new expressions of who we are as a family. And at the subduction zones there have been some earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. (Hello midlife crisis.)

Those places of collision and subduction, by their very definition, are zones of friction. And I don't necessarily mean friction between individuals, though that happens also, but friction between competing values and interests.

When the kids were toddlers and preschoolers the kindly old ladies at the grocery store, the library, and wherever else we visited, commented on how I had "my hand's full". And I did. My hands were busy - wiping bums, noses, and spills; feeding, loving, and correcting.

It was all hands on deck, all the time. Gradually my kids learned to wipe their own bums, cut their own apples, tie their own shoes and my days, my labors, expanded beyond childcare to personal interests and hobbies, most of which were extensions of my roles as mother and natural-living inspired homemaker.

And of course there was homeschooling. But my focus in that endeavor, in the early years, was on love of learning, love of home, love of family, love of nature. Homeschooling this way felt like an extension of parenting, and the "work" of it felt fairly easy and natural.

Our days were full but I chose activities - reading aloud, hanging laundry (we didn't even own a dryer), arts and crafts, baking bread, from-scratch cooking, gardening, weekly farm visits, nature walks - that required a deliberate slow-ness and attention to the season.

I built boundaries around our children, around our home, around our time; and I guarded the entrance.

I actively resisted a harried pace of life and a fast track to growing-up that I felt would undermine creativity, health, and relationship.

I would do it all again.

By no means was it halcyon. Then, like now, I had unrealistic expectations for myself. If I could do it again, I'd be more gracious with myself. (If I could do last week again, I'd be more gracious with myself.)

Parenting requires all hands (and head and heart) on deck through all the stages but in my experience parenting ages 8 through 12 provided a little lull in the intensity. Because we homeschooled and we didn't do individual extracurricular sports (our intention was to cultivate relationship and physical skills in the context of family activities, hiking together, etc.) our schedule was our own. Our pursuits built not just healthy bodies and appreciation of the natural world, but a strong family culture and identity.

Also, by this point, the core foundation was laid, which contributed somewhat to the "ease" of interaction in our days. I don't mean the days were easy but the values of trust, respect, unconditional love, obedience, responsibility, belonging, etc. had already been established during the pre-school years, and those values set the standard for how we treated each other, i.e.: the disciplining had mostly been done.

During this "golden age", the kids' physical independence from me and increased skills allowed for more "free-time" in my day. I wasn't needed quite so much. Hence, a season of writing projects, working-from-home, helping others homeschool, adventuring (and moving).

Our adventuring years, the four years on the Gaspe, was a period of family adventure and transitions. It was a time of experimenting in how we earn an income and how much space we need to live; what kind of resources and community we need as individuals, as a homeschooling family, as Christians.

We tried new ways of earning a livelihood, in online enterprises and outdoors-related pursuits. We experimented with new roles in our marriage, Damien contributed to the hands-on running of our home and I worked from home in online ventures - coaching and writing. We were adventuring on many levels.

Two of our kids passed the child/adolescent threshold during this period and it became increasingly apparent to us that their homeschooling through high school and young adult needs were not going to be met in our current living situation.

The post-hike breakdown opened the door for the "what is in the collective best interest?" discussions in which we decided to move to Montreal.

There have been some big changes in our move here. The tectonic plates of family life have shifted.

We don't hike every weekend, or even once a month. (Saturday morning sleep-ins, Sunday morning church). If you know our history, that's huge. Up until last fall, that was a cornerstone to our weekly schedule, part of our family identity.

We're once again committed to a church body. Practically speaking, we get together with other Christians, in large and intimate gatherings, multiple times a week to encourage each other and be discipled. This takes an investment of time and is a big change from the relative spiritual isolation we experienced for most of our years in the Gaspe.

We've returned to our pre-adventure years division of labor. There is no more "experimenting" with income-earning, we can't afford it.

Damien's technology work has the highest income-earning potential, so that is how we earn an income to support our family. And I don't mean to be crass, talking money, but the goal is to earn more, because raising teenagers is a resource-intense endeavor.

And then there's homeschooling through high school.

I used to down-play the work involved with homeschooling my kids. "That must be a lot of work," people would say. But I didn't think it was. Yes, it was work. Life is work. But I did it the way I wanted, according to our family values and my interests.

I homeschooled and parented as an extension of who I am. It honestly didn't seem that hard to me. Parenting, in general, was the work. Homeschooling, not so much.

Now, with three teenagers in the house, even though they are the ones that do the work of learning, more is demanded of me. Not by our children directly, per se ("mom this, mom that", though there's still plenty of that), but by the responsibility Damien and I bear as we steward our three kids through their final growing years: to provide, with the resources God has given us, for their intellectual, spiritual, physical, and emotional wellbeing.

We decided years ago to homeschool through high school. Some families take it "one year at a time, one kid at a time". We're a "homeschool all kids through high school unless we find a compelling reason not to" family. So far, there hasn't been a compelling reason not to. We've been able to meet our kids' needs without enrolling them in school. And since moving to Quebec, there is the added motivation to stay clear of the (often) homeschool-unfriendly school system.

Philosophically, we don't buy into a conveyer belt education model or curriculum for the masses, and that philosophy has not changed just because our kids are no longer adorable elementary students.

I'm not trying to be hoity-toity or an exclusionist, I believe all children should be free to grow and learn at their own rate, according to what is in their best interests, not that of a system. But the work I feel called to, at this stage of my life, is not to change the system but to raise and educate my own children according to those principles.

This long-term commitment to homeschooling allowed us a ton of freedom when the kids were little - "delays" in reading, "behind" in math, "it's a beautiful day let's play outside instead" - all of that was possible, without stress, when you're not tracking with "what your fourth grader needs to know", standards that honestly make me cringe. Who says? We set the pace for our family.

That was then and this is now. It's not a race, it never has been. We're not rushing to cross the "finish" line by a certain time, but the pace has absolutely picked up.

The very things I didn't do with my kids when they were little - weekly commitments, formal homeschool lessons, a homeschool co-op (assignments! homework! reports!) - are now the activities that structure our days and a week. We follow a schedule that is not entirely of my own making. Other people's expectations influence our time, influence our learning. (I know this is normal for a lot of people; for a nesting, micro-managing, relaxed-education, homeschool mom, it's a big shift.)

We take seriously our responsibility as parents to steward our kids through the high school years; to participate in building, joining, and connecting our kids to healthy teen culture, and to be a part of a strong community of likeminded families for our kids to find and make friendships and connections in their young adult years.

We want to help our kids be prepared for the next stage of their lives, post-homeschool. Their studies are their own, but guiding them through that labyrinth, is our job. It's my job.

You could say we've got our hands full.

Damien calls it the whoosh years because it seems so fast-paced and intense.

This age is not without compensation. Our kids don't need my presence 24/7 and they're big, they can do stuff. But their education and their emotional, spiritual, and physical health is my priority. Just like when they were little, it is their needs that largely drive my days, but in an entirely new context.

I'm no longer guarding the entrance, the way I once did. It's not the "keep out" time of raising children, it's "out and about".

In my experience, life with older children is more facilitated by parents than it is directed by them. I've always facilitated our kids' education, but now I feel like I facilitate a social schedule, I facilitate friendships, I facilitate group learning situations. I facilitate their participation in healthy teen culture.

We guide and mentor choices, but we try to let our kids make the choices, as much as possible.

However, because they are still not independent enough to bear the responsibility of all those choices (the driving that is required, for example), we parents do a lot of assisting in making ideas reality, assisting with the follow-through on those choices. That's our job.

Much like when they were babies, my desires, my needs, do not set the pace of our home life. My kids' values, their desires, their schedules influence my every day routine and schedule in ways I could not have conceived in the "I call the shots" stage of the preschool and elementary aged years. And I find this change from those "golden" middle years, when I set a pace that included more time for mom-directed activities that I enjoyed, to be challenging.

Have you ever spent significant time with teenagers? I love mine SO much, but it is not easy. They go through "stuff". Love and hormones and loss and hormones and project deadlines and hormones and stress and hormones, and the whole teenaged brain syndrome. In their transition to a young adult identity (on the way to adult independence) I feel them pushing against me and pushing against each other.

I am so thankful there are other people investing in my kids lives right now - youth leaders, teachers, family friends, church friends, grandparents - but we're still the the primary mentors and as a homeschool family we still spend most of our time together.

I've raised and educated these beautiful people (which means I am partly responsible for how this all shakes out), so I know them really well and yet, I have regular "who are you?" moments.

Heated sibling interactions, something that has not happened much in our home up till now (really), everyone's quirky wiring and personality traits, new struggles with selfishness and sin, it's a season of iron-sharpening-iron, and hot molten lava erupting at times. Tectonic plates I tell you.

I have a lot more physical freedom these days than I did when my children were babies and toddlers, no one is touching me all the time, physically needing me. But the level of emotional, spiritual and intellectual investment at this age rivals those early years in terms of intensity. Someone is crying, or near tears, almost every day. There are times, more than I care to admit, when I cannot believe I signed up willingly to do this gig - mothering, homeschooling, the entire works.

Sometimes I grumble. I cry. I complain. I get tired. I get exasperated. Ok, I get really exasperated.

I'm not a yeller, traffic aside, but I lose my cool for sure. I throw around really helpful advice like, "deal with it!" I swear more (internally mostly). I mourn the loss of my "middle-years" freedom. I am frustrated as I see my aspirations to be a professional blogger, a writer (of some sort) on-hold. I have resisted at times all that is being asked of me at this stage of parenting. I can easily lose perspective in the busyness of our weeks.

But now is not the time to bail, or moan, whine, or complain, (except a little).

I'm not done growing my people.

My kids need me to guide, encourage, chauffeur, listen, mentor, love, feed, hug, wipe tears through the end of adolescence and their homeschool education. This is my work.

I will never be done mothering, but I will reach a point where my child-raising will be done. I want to give all I have in these final years to know that I did my best. I need to flow with, not resist, the work set before me.

To co-opt a phrase from the corporate, career track women, now is the time to lean-in. And I haven't figured out entirely how to do this except by doing it, by showing up at the zones of friction, those boundaries and edges that rub against each other. Recognizing that we belong together and we love each other, even when it's hard.

Resources: 

November's Brilliance & Bling

I used to not like November. I'm certain the early winter of the Alberta prairies had something to do with it.

I recall that Remembrance Day on Nov 11th, and the trips we often made on that school holiday to Fort St John, B.C. to visit family, felt like full-blown winter. Mom, Auntie Ruth... am I wrong?

Since moving somewhat south and quite-a-ways east November has become a month I deeply appreciate for her end-of-fall beauty, minus all the winter weather. And as the climate warms (or is it just El Nino?) I simply cannot find fault in a milder month.

November is a different kind of radiance than October's celebration of color. And when the days and weeks are as clear as this fall has been in Montreal, it's even sweeter.

I don't decorate for Christmas until the very end of November, or the beginning of December. And this year, with a trip to Nova Scotia in the works, not so much at all.

November boasts her own beauty that I like to savor and enjoy before the Christmas holiday season begins.

The celebration of Brienne's end-of-month birthday adds bling to late November's muted tones (no more leaves) and seems like a fitting transition from the nature-inspired beauty of the fall season to the bejeweled and bedecked traditions of holiday decor.

I don't do much of that myself at home, I only have one rubbermaid bin of holiday decorations and lights, it's enough to add cheer but not transform spaces. But I appreciate transformed spaces. I love shop windows (oh the joy of living in a big city and walking downtown!), fabulous mall displays, and neighbors who go all out in yard decor (or balcony decor as it is in our city neighborhood).

I took all these photos in November but at the end of this month there is no more yellow on the trees, the crunchy leaves are soggy, fall is done her show. I'm ready for the baubles, bows and bright lights of December.

Happy Thanksgiving weekend to my American friends.

After living in the states for eleven years the American thanksgiving holiday weekend still carries with it a certain vibe, even though our life continues pretty much as normal here in Canada.

As I type this, early Friday morning, Damien is out shopping on Canada's version of Black Friday (way more chill than in the states), using grandparent Christmas money and kids' savings to buy a PS4 for our household of teens. Our first gaming console. Gulp.

The non-holiday weekend at our house will involve gaming, packaging calendars and cards, homework, house cleaning, and hopefully candle and soap making for me.

What about you? What are you up to? Have you started your Christmas decorating?

Thirteen, for the third time

It's official. We're finally here. A household of three teenagers.

Celine was 3 1/2 years old when baby Brienne was born, Laurent was 21 months. Without accounting for Laurent's colicky infant-hood, it's tempting to think that it was Celine's easy-going nature that instigated such an audacious plan. Not so many North American families have babies in such quick succession: boom, boom, boom. As many parents know however, family planning isn't always decided in our heads but in our hearts.

Three kids born to the Damien and Renee Tougas family in three and half years. I love telling that story, because yes, I am supermom, or super-something.

Brienne's birthday is today but she seemed to hit the teens early. I felt teenager-hood hovering over our home since last winter. Maybe it's the last child phenomena, playing catch-up with her older siblings. Or maybe it's just Brienne's unique combination of interests and personality. Either way, she's now a card carrying member of the teens.

We will be raising teenagers, in our house we also call them young adults, for eight years. We've been at it for three and we've had an easy go of it so far. But with all kids at official teenaged status we suspect in the next few years the difficulty factor may increase.

You know how it is. All children need patience, attention, discipline, and direction; most children test us with their will, their personality, their drive; some more than others.

I am relieved and excited to be at this point in our parenting journey. I love epic-ness in family life. I am drawn to families that go big or go home. Some families do this by having a ton of kids (before a colicky number two I thought we might go that route). Some families do this by having grand adventures. Some families do this by singing four-part harmony in musical productions.

Having a household of teenagers feels epic to me. For us, it's a milestone in our family story. And here we are.

Brienne is drawn to epic also, in different ways. Large parties, a busy social schedule, a closet full of clothes, more is better, is Brienne's life philosophy.

We like to celebrate crossing the threshold from childhood to teenager status with a significant celebration.

We started the tradition with Celine and continued with Laurent. It wasn't something I planned out in advance. At the time of Celine's 13th birthday we were in the middle of moving (as we were for her 12th and her 16th, yeesh, poor kid). And I wanted to honor her, in a special way that didn't require hosting something at home, everything was in boxes. So we took a little trip, met up with Nana (my mom), and stayed in a bed & breakfast for two nights. It was special and a good fit for Celine.

Laurent's 13th was also a time of family transition, in that hairy-scary countdown to our thru-hike departure. Another trip was a good way to celebrate.

For Brienne we proposed the trip idea. But for the first time ever in our family history, friends feature significantly into Brienne's life. She has a dozen of them. Sweet girls, varying in ages from eleven to fourteen, from all over the city.

In addition, Brienne's idea of fun is to go shopping, to find and plan coordinating outfits. To wear make-up and style her hair. After years in the woods, we live in Montreal; short of New York City (out of the question since I haven't yet renewed my expired passport) why would we leave the fashion capital of Canada to celebrate anywhere else??

We stayed.

First we hosted a special 13th birthday party on the weekend. Friends and fancy foods. Presents and punch. Themed invitations, decor and party favors. Making lip gloss in the kitchen, playing capture the flag in Molson Park.

And today we plan to hit St. Denis, Sainte Catherine, and Value Village. Brienne is a good money manager. Purchases don't have to be new, they just have to the right style.

There's a list, a small clutch of birthday gift cards, and grandparent funds earmarked Converse sneakers. She's the youngest of the three, but it's almost like she's the most teenager of all my kids, fresh out of the gate.

I adore her. (Her siblings know I adore them too. Don't worry.) I admire her spunk and her spirit.

She vexes me also, because other than fashion, make-up, her physical competitiveness, and non-minimalist tendencies aside (ok, so that's a lot), we're peas in a pod. And sometimes all that rubbing against each other makes us agitated little peas. And it is this knowledge that afears me a bit going into this next stage of parenting.

With Brienne's birth I was apprehensive about how I'd parent three with two hands. But I found my groove. I trust/hope parenting three teens will be the same.

2016 Seasonal Art Wall Calendars for sale

In September I posted about the newest addition to Laurent's studio, his Wacom tablet. Much sketching and painting have been done with this tool since he purchased it this summer.

This digital tool has opened up many doors for Laurent to experiment with new techniques and play with new projects.

I am very pleased to present Laurent's most recent project - a 2016 wall calendar.

As with most of Laurent's artistic offerings he has partnered with his sister Brienne to bring this project to life. Laurent does the artwork and Brienne manages marketing, customer service, shipping, and other administrative tasks. They make a good team.

From Brienne:

This 2016 calendar has 12 beautiful drawings, greet each month with a seasonal nature drawing. The calendars are available this week only, so don't miss out. Each month's artwork can be framed to enjoy for as long you want. A calendar would make the perfect gift to give to friends, family or for yourself.

Calendars are sold in two formats: regular weight glossy and cardstock glossy. They are available to purchase until Saturday, November 21. If you order this week, they will be shipped in early December to the destination of your choice, in time for holiday gift giving.

Calendars can be shipped directly to friends and family. We are happy to include a gift tag if you specify your purchase is a gift!!

This collage shows the artwork for each month. Just to be clear, each month features one seasonally-inspired print.

Shipping is available to Canadian and US addresses. Locals can pick up from us.

Regular Cardstock Local
(hand delivered) $30 $33 Canada
(shipping included) $32 $37 USA
(shipping included) $33 $38

All prices are in Canadian dollars and with the current exchange rate if you're purchasing from the United States, you're getting a really good price.

You do not need a PayPal account to make a purchase, you can use a credit card at the PayPal checkout.

Order one or order many. (Order many). But make sure to order this week.

I agree with Brienne. An original artwork wall calendar makes a great gift.

If you have any questions please email Brienne at brienne at tougas dot net.

Some photos of the city in October

I'm getting more comfortable photographing city life, home life, life in general. Something that challenges me as a photographer is that I have to feel relatively comfortable, within the context I'm shooting, before I'm able to feel confident behind the lens.

That comfort is not physical. I've taken many photos with frozen fingers and cramped body positions, angling for just the right light. The comfort I speak of is emotional, spiritual, and intellectual. It's kind of complicated but it's a feeling that I belong where I am or I have a right to be there. I'm not merely an observer, but I'm a participant, and I've found my place.

Which means I generally don't feel comfortable taking photos of new environments, new situations. I don't think I could be a journalist photographer, and I've never felt the desire to take my photography skills and knowledge into the realm of portrait photography, other than dabbling over the years with friends.

If all else is well in my emotional world, if my sense of self and confidence is firm, I can over-ride my "I'm just new here" insecurities to photograph unfamiliar situations, sometimes rather handily. Thank goodness, otherwise I wouldn't have any photos of all the new experiences I've had.

I don't take photos out of curiosity. I take photos to remember and share the beauty of things/people/places to which I feel a connection, and generally in places (geography, relationships) where I feel safe.

Which is why I'm happy that I once again take my camera with me nearly everywhere I go and I'm not as shy about using it, as I was when I first moved here. This means I feel increasingly at-ease with city life. It's not that I didn't want to feel at ease, or even that I felt it was a bad fit. It's just that ease and familiarity takes time.

It takes time.

This is a truth I think about a lot, in fact it's probably one of the most dominant "truths" in my daily cognitive wanderings.

I am impatient with my personal growth and healing. Impatient with how long it takes the kids to learn long division and fractions. Impatient with traffic, the time it takes to make a nice supper, the time it takes to build a reliable income from self-employment.

I am impatient that I don't have exact career plans mapped out for the post-homeschool years. I'm impatient that I'm not a big picture person. There are a lot things I am impatient with. I was impatient with myself this summer, through my writing anxiety and photography hang-ups. I could go on and on.

But, in my more reflective (vs. reactive) moments of awareness, I am much kinder to myself, my kids, my family. Hence my desire to build a lot of reflective moments and practices into my life - reading, photography, meditation, journaling, outdoors, drawing, even something as simple as deep breathing. Oh my goodness I am a champion deep breather these days.

I'm reminded in those practices that life takes time. Periods of transition take time to adjust to, and life is simply a series of transitions. Transition, adjust, short period of calm (if you're lucky). Repeat.

I tend to live my days seeking out (gunning for, if you must know) those short periods of calm, of "arrival". Contrary to whatever you may perceive from someone else's curated life, also known as their online/social media presence, we are all living through this cycle over and over and over again.

None of us ever arrive, but we reach mini-milestones. Like feeling confident enough to stand on the sidewalk of a busy street in our pajamas, puffy jacket, and pink rubberboots (the easiest shoes to slip on when you're in a rush out the door) taking photos into the rising sun.

(Note about the photos: with the exception of the photo of Atwater market, second from the top, these photos are from my Rosemont neighborhood, including the views from our back porch and front balcony. I love where we live.)

October

It took us till mid-October to find our fall groove.

We started a few pieces of our homeschool routine way back in August. We were well past due, what with the move, an apprenticeship, traveling, and a mid-life crisis consuming our energies April, May, and June. July was all about summer and getting settled. August was a continued celebration of all things summer though my personal focus was homeschool planning and getting homeschool routines back up and running.

In the general upheaval of the last couple years, the multiple moves and our 6 month hiking adventure (which was a solid 6 months of prep prior to leaving and 6 months of emotional recovery for me after), some things in our homeschool curriculum had been sidelined, neglected, set aside for another day. A day with more emotional reserves, more physical resources, and access to more opportunities. A healthy family life can accommodate these ebbs and flows but it is time to focus our collective energies on studies once again.

This summer I drafted our Tougas Family High School Graduation Requirements, the HSGR as I refer to it in my files. The HSGR is my answer to the question, "how do I know when we're done this journey?"

Celine doesn't yet have any post-secondary plans so there's not a university or college admission track to her homeschool, at this point. Which makes it a little tricky for me to figure out our homeschool wrap-up.

We don't follow a set curriculum, I devise our own, for each child, year by year based on who they are and our family vision and values. I needed to clarify our family's vision and values for finishing high school, what does that look like? When do I sign off on my responsibilities? That's what I had to figure out, and for the most part I did. Which is something I hope to write about in the homeschooling through high school series.

We moved to Montreal because our kids needed more opportunities than we could access where we lived. I hit the ground running with this mandate, so to speak, when we arrived in June. Within a month I had made connections with a homeschool co-op, we had reconnected with our old homeschool group here (from when we lived/visited three years ago), we found a church and made fast friends in that church. I was on a mission.

Homeschool co-op didn't start till the beginning of October. This gave us the month of September to transition to a full homeschool schedule before co-op started in earnest, i.e. easing everyone in to fuller study days after months of other projects and priorities.

That transition time included a Canadian government and civics study. I taught a four week class at Communidee using Student Vote materials. What a great experience. I haven't "taught" a class of kids since my student teaching days.

My desire in teaching this class was partly selfish. Because of living in the states, and becoming non-residents of Canada (non-residents aren't allowed to vote) I haven't voted in a Federal election since I was in my early twenties. I haven't stayed in the political loop and I had a lot of catching up to do before voting in this election. Teaching my kids about government and elections was one way to do that.

It is so much fun having kids at the age where I can have political discussions with them; talking about where we are on the political spectrum/grid, finding our common points and our differences. Talking politics is really just another way of framing and explaining one's values and belief systems, a worldview. Learning how to do that, while respecting differing opinions, is a crucial part of democracy and civics education.

It was invigorating, all around. I was somewhat informed when it came time to vote and I was able to check off an important piece of the kids' middle school and high school years education. Yes, civics is part of the HSGR.

(I'm still reading the biography Stephen Harper by John Ibbitson which was to help inform my vote. I didn't get it from the library in time and subsequently hadn't read enough of it for the book to really influence my decision before voting. I think I would have voted the same regardless. The book is excellent. And for the record, I voted Green.)

My cousin got married the beginning of the month. And I traveled to Abbotsford/Chilliwack, BC for the wedding and for a long long weekend visit with my large extended family who lives in the area.

Part of my healing for this year has been to return to my roots. When I found out last winter that my cousin was getting married this year I started earmarking the funds and reserved that space on our calendar.

My time out west was like a big family reunion. I belong to these people. They are my roots. I haven't written much about my extended family, as my writing is mostly about my internal life and the family Damien and I have created. But I come from a large, loving, extended family. My maternal and paternal families combined, I have eleven sets (all still married) of aunts and uncles. I have dozens and dozens of cousins ranging from younger than Brienne to established mid-lifers.

I grew up surrounded by most of these people, or within close proximity to them. A lot of my family lived in the same community, my parents worked with my aunts and uncles, I could walk to my grandparents' homes, we went to church together, we shared birthdays and holidays.

Since the end of my childhood, the family has spread across Canada and a few members down into the States. My own birth family - my parents in Nova Scotia, our family in Maine and now Quebec, and my brother's family in Ontario - has moved the farthest from the epicenter of central Alberta that was the cradle of my growing years. But I belong to these people, they watched me grow, they prayed me up and continue to care from afar (there was quite a family hue and cry after this post last year). And on this visit I was folded back into them. Into their kitchens, into their middle-aged auntie wisdom, into their love.

In the weeks bookending the wedding trip we had to buy school supplies for co-op classes, fall clothes for growing teens, a dress for the wedding, Student Vote class was ramping up to the actual vote, homeschool co-op was starting, and there was the election. There was a lot going on and I had despaired a bit that the glory of fall, those oh-too-brief, jaw-droppingly beautiful autumn days, would pass me by while I was too busy.

But they didn't. Fall waited, and we found our groove.

This fall, everyone is adjusting to a busier study schedule - assignments, research projects, presentations, quizzes, etc. I have two scholars now and they need more time for their studies. As we figure out how to make sure kids have time for studies and projects, time for exercise and outdoors, and time to chill in the evening as a family, I've taken over supper prep. But I don't make lunches or snacks so it's probably about the same food-prep load I was carrying last winter, which is doable.

I've figured out when to do the grocery shopping, the night we do a store-bought frozen meal (hoping this workshop will maybe shift that to homemade frozen), and the day I can spend more time making supper (because once in a while I like to do that). I've found a routine for paying the bills and managing paperwork and that blessed time of the week I reserve just for me. Writing has even found a space again, at least four days a week.

Disappointingly, I realized I couldn't commit to volunteering this season, something I started late summer, when I have out-of-the house homeschool co-op, home management, and church commitments almost every day of the week. I am a homebody at heart.

I'm still trying to figure out how and if I will walk/move outdoors/exercise every day. There are a couple days in my week that it just doesn't seem possible, we'll see. I know come winter, I need to be outdoors every day. No skiing into the woods this year. But winter is a new season, the routine will shift again post-holiday. I'll work it out then.

Speaking of winter (how can you talk about mid-fall without referencing winter), I've dug my happy light out of storage in Laurent's closet and zentangle by it each morning, followed by morning mediation and readings. I've ordered my fall and early winter supply of multi-vitamins, in addition to the supplements I take for anxiety and clarity of mind.

October and November is my season to pro-actively prepare for the winter ahead. Along with finding the mittens and assessing which kid(s) outgrew their boots, this is the time of year for me to establish and nurture habits and source helpful tools that will hopefully keep me invigorated through the winter.

But let's not linger there right now. October, though marked with some pain, has also been beautiful and healing.

I am really satisfied with the homeschool vibe we have going and the opportunities and friends our kids have here. I'm going to focus on that, grateful for memorable summer that is now passed and anticipating the season of Big Birthdays and Christmas celebrations just around the corner.

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