She's makin' a list, checkin' it twice... (and talkin' religion)

This weekend our Christmas festivities will begin in earnest.

My brother, sister-in-law, and their three kids will arrive from Guelph, Ontario. My parents will arrive shortly thereafter from Nova Scotia. It's Christmas in Quebec for the Toews/Tougas family.

We are thrilled this year to host everyone in our large digs. A three bathroom house, plus a guesthouse enables us to comfortably fit everyone on a mattress or in a bed without anyone having to sleep in the living and hanging-out-together spaces.

A well-stocked kitchen, our favorite tool being the Saeco espresso maker (but there's also an Omega juicer for a healthier hit), plus extra fridge and freezer space will accommodate all the cooking, eating, and general kitchen merry making that is a part of Christmas.

We spend almost every Christmas with my parents but not very often do we get the privilege and joy of being with my brother's family.

I am so excited.

Our own family-of-five has a couple holiday traditions, the way we do things. Gifts and finger foods on Christmas Eve - I grew up opening gifts on Christmas Eve. Damien grew up with appetizer, finger foods on the menu.

Christmas morning we do stockings, a tradition started with my parents when I was a teenager.

Christmas, for the family I've created with Damien, is about having fun together, being with family, exchanging small gifts, eating foods reserved for feast days - turkey, special desserts, etc. and playing outdoors (skiing preferably).

As a Christian I am uncomfortable with trite phrases like Jesus is the Reason for The Season, and its derivatives, popular within Evangelical Christian culture (the branch of the family tree I identify most strongly with).

Family is my reason for the Christmas season. It's why I cook and gift and want it to snow. And it's why we give to others in our community or around the world, so they can be supported in loving relationship with their families.

Having said that, the Christian call and tradition to remember the birth of Christ at this particular time of year (I don't actually care how accurate the date is) provides a reflective season, a sacred space in our 21st century lives, to tell the ancient story of our faith, again, to our children.

I don't save this story telling for Christmas Eve, or Christmas morning. I prefer to unravel and remember the story of our faith through the whole month with a Jesse Tree inspired Advent tradition.

Sitting at the post-breakfast (lunch or maybe supper, whenever it works) table with my kids, we read portions of the Old Testament together; recounting ancient stories, that in the birth of Christ reveal their full richness and meaning, from an otherwise sometimes disturbing and violent narrative.

After all this telling and remembering, by the time the days of Christmas roll around we're pretty much done the faith-filled observances of the season. We're ready to party. Ready to celebrate a winter holiday with feasting and merry making.

Jesus in our reason for the season only in as much as he is the reason for our lives, and our faith in Him the foundation of our family life and values. Which means of course, he is The Reason for our season but I don't go around slinging slogans in February, July, or October so why would I do it in December? Nor do I expect Jesus to be the reason for the season for non-believers, why would he be?

Family is the focus of our actual Christmas celebrations. And it doesn't matter to me that pre-Christendom European pagan ritual is intricately woven into Christmas tradition.

This is the story of the church through time, we adapt to and adopt culture; for better, and sometimes, for worse. And our expressions of worship necessarily change through the centuries.

The only thing sacred is the Truth itself, the meaning of the story. Why was Jesus born? What does his birth, life, death and resurrection teach us? How then shall we live, in this light? The seasonal re-telling (or not) of his birth, Holy Day ritual, or holiday reveling, these are not the foundation of my faith, Jesus Emmanuel is.

And how we as individuals, and we the Church, celebrate and share Jesus Emmanuel with the world will look different in time, space and culture. And woe to us if those expressions are limited to December!

This week we listened to the Tim Curry audio performance of A Christmas Carol, a new-ish tradition in our family, about three years running now.

This is my absolute favorite performance of the classic. The kids have been sewing, painting, and drawing while we listen. Be still my Christmas-tradition-happy mama's heart. (If you follow @sparklypinkbling on Instagram you can see some of these creations.)

Such a splendid and rich audio experience. My favorite parts give me goosebumps as I savor Dicken's language and the power of words and story to speak Christmas truth through a mid-19th century ghost story. And when Scrooge wakes up on Christmas morning, a new man, I'm not ashamed to say, I cried.

I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach!

It's not called a classic for nothing.

A new "classic" in our home is for Damien to find a new multi-player computer/iPad video game he and the kids can play together during Christmas week. It's a perfect fit. They game. I read.

My parents are bringing me, from their neighbor's personal library, the book The Long Way Home. A highly valued treasure unavailable through the local library till about mid-spring.

Celine has been sewing, ensconced in her studio attic bedroom. (I know. Talk about the best set up ever for an introverted, seamstress fabric-artist fifteen year old.)

Her handmade creations have become somewhat legendary in our family. A recipient of a made-by-Celine creation is a lucky individual. Laurent still talks about his 10th birthday gift from Celine, a cardboard castle set up on the table, the first thing he saw when coming downstairs for breakfast.

Having never required our kids to give gifts to each other, either handmade or store-bought (and I've never supplied funds or gifts for them to give each other) their gift giving is completely self-motivated, from the heart, and somewhat random.

We don't have a "you must give something to everyone" mentality in our home, or that gifts must be equal in a value. But somehow it all works out. There are always presents-a-plenty for everyone under the tree.

A rather swift and unexpected improvement in our financial situation - a change of fortunes, literally, has enabled the outfitting of skiing and snowboarding, once again, for this winter.

Skis, boots, and bindings have been arriving through the door all month, sourced from the local ski shop and Ebay, and the pay-it-forward goodness of hand-me-downs. Damien has been mounting bindings and tuning skis. Now all we need is more snow!

We give small Christmas gifts to our kids and save the big expenditures for outfitting them for family fun in the outdoors. And this year the focus is definitely on fun.

Earlier this month, in anticipation of eight or so days of hosting seven extra people, I emailed a holiday itinerary and kitchen schedule to our guests - what to expect this Christmas at the Tougas family residence.

Come prepared to play outside. Brings skates if you have them. There will be media and video games. Here's your sleeping arrangements. Prepare a contribution - a poem, a skit, a story, a song - for Christmas Eve. What can everybody eat and not eat? That kind of thing.

My brother's family are strict gluten-free, sugar-free, dairy-free, paleo-ish, plant-based eaters (it's complicated, there's a bunch of sensitivities and food reactions, which I totally get). My mom is a holistic nutritionist kitchen goddess. And our family is somewhere between the two. My Dad adds the spice, he's making the BBQ meats.

This week it was time to revisit the itinerary I sent and get planning the meals and food our family is responsible for.

The itinerary laid out the food plans so everyone knows to expect.

Breakfasts. Fend for yourself, except for Christmas morning brunch.

Lunch. Usually a meal salad or large vegetable-based dish with our collective crew.

Midday snack. Six active kids in the house, gotta have a snack plan.

Supper, divided into main dish and side dish, both contributed by a different family.

Dessert. Pretty healthy with our crew but a birthday and Christmas Day will call for something a bit more extravagant. Thank goodness for Nana/Nutritionist/Kitchen Goddess, as desserts are not my specialty!

Four times a day, not including breakfast, food needs to be coming out of the kitchen to feed twelve hungry people. And there is no way I'm doing all that, nor would anyone expect me to!

So I made a meal rotation schedule.

On any given day, a family (Mom & Dad, my brother's family, or our family) is responsible for approximately 2 food blocks. Lunch and a supper side or maybe snack and the supper main dish. That kind of thing.

Everyone will contribute dishes to Christmas Eve, Christmas Brunch and Christmas Dinner.

This week I looked at what blocks had been assigned (by me) to our family and made a spreadsheet for myself with neat boxes, the grey ones corresponding to meals I am responsible for.

Schedule geek that I am, these little grey boxes with their thin black borders make me inordinately happy. I paraded my handiwork before my family who politely affirmed my joy, "looks good Mom". All they care is that food will be coming out of the kitchen at regular intervals, they are not completely thrilled that they will be helping to cook it. (Insert maniacal mother laugh here.)

Pinterest and I have been getting reacquainted with each other after a long absence. As everyone else already knows, Pinterest is a great tool for storing recipe ideas and I've updated my board completely with categories that represent the way I approach menu planning and meal prep. Love that.

I've also been clearing out the digital clutter and setting up new boards to take me into 2015. The first year for me, in many years, that I've done significant end-of-year self evaluation (breakdown, burn out and post-hike rebuilding will do that to a person) and have very specific goals, and a personal agenda and vision going into the New Year.

I'm hoping to use Pinterest a bit more in my planning and dreaming.

The kids and I have been on school break since my birthday week. As has been the case for every year I've been homeschooling, there is just too much going on in December to focus on studies. Too much sewing. Too much painting and drawing.

Rounds of Settlers of Catan. Gifts to be made. Shopping and extra "I need to go the bead store Mom" type errands. Last Friday morning was a field trip to a local fossil collector's home which inspired a fossil search of our own. And then, "Where's the microscope slides? I'm looking for micro-organisms in the water we collected at the beach."

With all this going on, there's just no time for lessons, which no one minds at all.

Saturday night is our neighbors annual Christmas party. Our neighbor has been flooding the rink the kids and I helped him set up last month. We finally have freezing temperatures again that will keep the ice.

It's a potluck, I'm taking this salad which I discovered last week and love. This will be the third time in two weeks that I've prepared it.

Sunday night is the church Christmas concert. The first we've been a part of for many, many years. Brienne wanted to be involved and with only one car we've all be been making the 45 minute drive to church an hour earlier on Sunday mornings for practice. She's very excited.

There's a banquet first. I think people might dress up for this. Thank goodness I picked up the Calvin Klien sweater dress at le Baluchon last month. Together with my wine-colored silk scarf, some handmade dangly earrings my sister-in-law gave me Christmas' ago, and the black low-heeled Rockports I've had since student teaching when I was pregnant with Celine some sixteen years back, I can pull something off. Maybe I'll go all out and even borrow the girls' makeup.

The kimchi is fermenting for next week's Bibimbap feast on my brother's birthday, two days before Christmas. The few gifts we're giving are still unwrapped in my closet, more should be arriving in the mail any day.

Yesterday, snow finally started falling again. I went skiing in the afternoon and I will go again today.

This morning I need to finish my food planning, and I need to make lotion soon, a favorite gift requested by my Dad. Tomorrow we'll clean the house before heading to the neighbors party.

Christmas, just around the corner.

My heart lives here

I met a woman at church on Sunday. A mother of three; girl, boy, girl, just like mine. Her youngest is seventeen years old and is attending college in another province.

We chatted about our kids and she talked about the difficulty in transitioning out of the active mothering years. How much she misses all her kids at home.

The noise, the fights for the bathroom, banging on doors.

It wasn't one of those "you just wait and see" type talks, it was just heartfelt. Mother to mother.

In five years my own baby will be seventeen. Five years.

I am at the beginning of the end of child raising. Almost at the end with Celine. How can this be?

Damien and I are watching our children grow into their own with anticipation, curiosity, and wonder. We are making plans, making changes to adjust to who they are, what they want, and what they need.

Even though they share a childhood, the same home, parents and family memories, they are their own people, as it should be, and are each going their own way.

But sometimes life, and the different interests we all have, slows down to the measure of a steady heartbeat. An hour in late afternoon, when I'm on supper and all three sit, together, drawing and painting at the table.

My heart lives here.

In these children. Around this table.

My joy. My love. They still live here. And I can't imagine my life without their daily presence, though I know it will come.

So I abide messy rooms without the angst I thought I'd feel when letting that go. I am a tidy person who abhors clutter. But I was a fifteen year old girl once and my room looked much the same.

I accept video games and Netflix, movies with "language" and more violence than I can handle. I don't have to watch them, those are interests they share with their Dad, not me.

There isn't really a lot I've had to learn to live with, yet. They get along. They're kind to each other. The youngest two are best buddies. They respect me and their Dad. We laugh, at each other, at ourselves.

I have it pretty good, as far as the early teen years go.

There are no boyfriends or girlfriends. There isn't texting or even Facebook. (There's nothing righteous in this, it's just our reality.) There is no rush to get a driver's permit. That's all coming. I know. But right now there is this.

It's been a slow childhood and a gradual transition to the responsibilities and privileges of young adulthood.

I can't take complete credit for the amazingness that is my children, but these children have been my life's work. Being with them. Guiding them. Loving them. Protecting them. Educating them. They are my investment in the future.

When I came home from our hike all battered and bruised inside, questioning my worth, I looked at these children as a remembrance of what I have accomplished and what I value.

I am not in that dark place anymore but I still marvel at them each day. Their radiance, their skills, their gifts, their heart. And when I'm feeling low, or insecure about my place in the world of work I remind myself, "you're doing this amazing work called raising three children, and look at the beauty you have to show for it, look at the relationships."

These three, my heartbeat, minister to me in my difficult moments, by virtue of their very being. Beings that I have had a significant role in creating.

They are their own people. I honor that and respect that. But they are my creation also. My finest work. And they are still here. And I don't want to take that for granted, not even for a moment.


Excellent Warm Drinks for Winter Wellness

Written by Guest Contributor Lisa Grace Byrnes of WellGrounded Life.

Here in the Northern hemisphere, some of us are easing into the winter season while others are getting slammed by its snowy arrival!

This is a time of year that we revel in holiday festivities and gather with loved ones.

It’s also the time of the year when relations can feel strained, emotions can take a roller coaster ride, and our schedules feel like they are on steroids.

One of the simplest tools I use to help ground, cleanse, and restore me is sipping on nourishing hot beverages each day of these winter months.

There is just something about having a warm cuppa-goodness always nearby to help me take a few minutes to pause, sip something that will calm and cleanse me, and give me an opportunity to decide how I most want to handle the next moment of my day.

What we eat and drink can provide natural ways to support, cleanse, and nourish ourselves. When our bodies are well cared for, we have the raw materials our minds and moods need to stay resilient and uplifted.

Many choose to do intense, short-term cleanses as a way to rid the body of toxins and excess. Although doing this type of cleanse can have significant benefits, it can also feel overwhelming during an already busy season.

An alternative, simpler approach is to consider how you can weave cleansing foods and drinks into your everyday diet. The winter months are a perfect time to add cleansing and immune-boosting drinks to your menu.

Here’s a few nourishing winter drinks that you can begin to have around throughout your days.

Excellent Warm Drinks for Winter Wellness

Lemon & Hot Water

Lemon is a natural detoxifier and works to counteract acidity in the body. Because lemon is a high source of vitamin C, it helps to convert toxins in your body to a water-soluble form. This allows your body to flush them from your system. Squeeze half a lemon into hot water for an excellent beverage (with the option to add raw honey if you like it sweeter).

Homemade Broths

Miso, vegetable, and natural bone broths are excellent ways to provide proper electrolyte and mineral nourishment while hydrating and warming the body. Broths can be made and sipped from a mug - an especially healing drink if you’re battling a cold or flu, but also an excellent support throughout the winter season.


Ginger is a warming spice and excellent for supporting the body’s circulation and digestion. You can take 1 pound of fresh ginger root and thinly peel or grate it into a sauce pan. Mix with 2 quarts of water and bring to a boil, then simmer for 4 minutes. Cover the pan, turn off the heat, and leave for 24 hours. Strain the liquid through a fine mesh sieve and add the juice of 2 limes, plus maple syrup or raw honey to your taste.

Raw Cacao

When cacao beans are dried at low temperature, they are called raw cacao beans which can be consumed whole, broken into pieces called nibs, or ground to produce raw cocoa powder. Cacao beans are rich in natural antioxidant compounds with many health benefits and consuming them raw preserves the highest amount of antioxidants possible for this food. Personally, I love the Gnosis Raw Chocolate Elixirs.

Milk and Turmeric Drink

Turmeric possesses a wide variety of antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, antiviral and anti-carcinogenic properties, as well as vitamins and minerals. It also has a strong flavor so finding the right recipe is important to enjoying this incredibly healthy beverage. I generally combine about a cup of warm milk to 1/4 tsp turmeric and add honey, cardamom, cinnamon, and vanilla extract to make a delicious beverage.

Apple Cider Vinegar (with “the mother”)

Organic, unfiltered apple cider vinegar (like Bragg’s) also contains “mother” -- strands of proteins, enzymes, and friendly bacteria that give the product a murky, cobweb-like appearance. Simply heat water and allow it to cool slightly so that it is not scalding in temperature. Add a couple splashes of an unfiltered, organic apple cider vinegar and sip throughout the day.

Why don’t you choose just one beverage from above and give it a shot today ~ you may be surprised how so little effort can make you feel so good!

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Renee here again. I am so happy to bring you today's post from Lisa. Her work is life changing for so many mothers. The courses I've participated in deliver big on immediate, applicable, and doable actions for improved wellbeing and health. An excellent investment in YOU! If you register for Replenish 365 before December 18th you pay 2014 prices for the course (which gives you lifetime access to the material).

Author Bio: Lisa Grace Byrne, MPH is a mom of three, founder of WellGrounded Life and a trusted authority on women’s vitality and wellbeing.  She is a passionate speaker, teacher, and mentor, and recently published the bestseller, Replenish: Experience Radiant Calm and True Vitality in Your Everyday Life.  She has a degree from Cal Poly State University, SLO in Biochemistry with an emphasis in Nutrition and Metabolism.  She also holds a Masters in Public Health degree from Boston University and she is a Certified Holistic Health Coach through the Institute of Integrative Nutrition in conjunction with Columbia University.

This post contains affiliate links.


Redecorating the tree

I redecorated the tree this week. When the kids were little I would re-position ornaments sometimes but I've never pulled the whole thing apart to start again.

The tree went up on December 2nd, my birthday. I usually like to wait till the second weekend in December for tree decorating. To space out the holiday happenings, and also because we keep our tree up sometimes past the New Year.

But this year I grabbed for something I knew would bring festivity to the day, for the kids' sake, and my own. A bright spot in what was otherwise a difficult birthday, arriving (unbeknownst to it) in the middle of a deconstruction zone.

So we put up the tree to save the day, or something like that. And it served its purpose, bringing joy and Christmas spirit.

On a much happier day this week, as I was photographing the tree and the snowy day, the special beauty of December, I realized I really didn't like how the tree was decorated. It didn't feel right to me. Some of the ornaments were placed wrong, but mostly I just didn't feel good about it. It was put up in pain, and now I wanted to fix it in joy.

So I did.

I pulled it all down. On the table, next to the suspended Settlers of Catan game, I sorted all the ornaments according to type; shiny stars, glass balls, painted folksy wooden creations, wire and sea glass, etc. I re-strung the lights on the lower branches, which our newest family member Pippin had dislodged. (Pippin was neutered early this week which has toned down his tree-jumping, fellow cat-attacking antics.)

Then I redecorated. Laurent and Brienne were playing outside in the snow and Celine was sewing.

It was just me and the tree, like the years before children, except that nearly all the ornaments now (I have a few from pre-child and even pre-married life) speak of our family history in some way. Years of handmade ornaments, gifted ornaments, Baby's First Christmas, and even the sparkly purple balls purchased last year from the dollar store to decorate for Brienne's birthday, have a story to tell.

Some of the heavy ornaments didn't make it back on the tree, the branches not strong enough to support them. I found other perches and places for the most beautiful ones, but some I put back in the ornament box. They're not needed this year.

No feelings were hurt in the redecorating of the tree. I didn't think they would be.

The things that capture my kids imaginations and their expressions of creativity are increasingly different than my own. Favorite TV shows, the progression through Baldur's Gate (poor Laurent, no one wants to listen anymore), fashion, makeup, hairstyles, reading tech RSS feeds, sewing costumes, painting trees - their uniqueness from each other challenges us as parents in meeting their needs but also grants me freedom because the tree, well, that's mine. And no one else needs it to be just so, but me.

Living in a northern climate, winter speaks to me of tradition, responsibility, and hunkering down for the long haul. A necessary confinement. A curbing of summer's free spiritedness (and gasp, potential out-of-control irresponsibility) enforced by snow and cold.

But this year I feel freedom in the air.

Who knew that redecorating the tree, and being ok with redecorating the tree (no recrimination about what kind of control-freak mother takes down the decorations and replaces them to her liking) would bring me so much satisfaction. Satisfaction in who I am, a person who likes to arrange the tree. just. so.

There is a return this season, winter of all seasons, to loving me. Accepting me, my limitations and preferences. Accepting me, my strengths and ways of operating.

It's subtle and significant. It's relishing (and instagramming) my skill in creating and managing an equitable kitchen schedule for four (on weekends, five) cooks. It's wearing my favorite colors, favorite textures, while knitting more. It's watching shows that make me laugh and reading books that make me think. It's new backcountry alpine touring ski bindings and boots, replacing the telemark I struggled and struggled to learn (no more struggle where I should be having fun).

And it's singing Love Has Come with Amy Grant's A Christmas Album (the digital version of my first cassette tape, a gift for my 10th birthday) while redecorating the Christmas tree.


How the light gets in

There is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in.

I love this line from Leonard Cohen. It speaks beautifully about our human condition.

We are but clay. And through the cracks the light gets in.

And sometimes there are many cracks, a breaking. And what will you do then, with all that light?


I've been feeling cracked for months, my clay being, once luminously glazed and strong, felt dull and weak, broken.

Light was getting in through the cracks, illuminating, at least somewhat, a path to healing. But not enough. Not enough light. Not enough healing.

Last week, the structure broke completely. The pain of that brokenness, shared between Damien and I, was almost more than we could bear. But the illumination that followed, the understanding and love that broke into my shame, insecurity, and pain is nothing short of a miracle to me.

The demolition of personal and familial artifact, the structures we have built up around our values and beliefs, is not something I want to do often. Tearing down structures, that at one time we truly felt supported those beliefs, but over time have proven to be barriers in our marriage and significant stumbling blocks for me, was very painful but is the start of deep healing.

In between two birthdays (I turned 39 last week), and during the first week of Advent, traditions I held on to during the maelstrom, we deconstructed our family life.

We didn't set out to do that, to tear down what we thought, what I thought, were sacrosanct principles in our lives.

But once the walls started coming down it became so glaringly obvious to us that my post-hike recovery depended on this breaking, and rebuilding. That the health and happiness of our marriage depended on this breaking. That the way forward in raising our children depended on this breaking.

Since coming home from our hike I have been on a very painful quest to answer why, oh why, have I struggled so much in the past year? Why have I felt a growing sense of deep insecurity and shame? What happened to my confidence, my spunk, my joy, my fire? I have not historically struggled with depression or anxiety, why now? Is it age? genetics?

I am a strong woman but I have been slowing cracking and crumbling for many, many months. And last week the whole structure came down. Never mind cracks to let the light in. There was nothing but open space, no structure (terrifying for me) and a lot of pain. It felt like our life lay in a heap of broken shards at our feet.

(If you're thinking "wow, that's dramatic", I assure you that's exactly how I felt.)

Standing in the shards, the artifacts of our marriage - ways we've been doing things and how we've set up our life - the only way forward was to dig under all that rubble for the nuggets of truth.

The truth about who I am, who my husband is, who the kids are, how we function and how we thrive.

When the dust settled, like the aftermath of a devastating earthquake, we both saw with such clarity why I have walked around with so much insecurity, shame and struggle, and why it was getting worse. Why I had lost my vision and enthusiasm for the future. Why most of the fun had left our marriage, and why my husband has wondered for months, “what happened to the spunky, fiery, and enthusiastic woman I married?"

Holding this naked truth in our hands, we realized that the path we've chosen for the past few years hasn’t been completely true to who we are, to who I am especially.

We, and it was completely we, set a course, and followed that course based on an ideal that was true to our values, but not true to how we actually function best in our unique personalities.

There are many ways to express our values, our core beliefs, and live them out. We choose a path that wasn't the best fit.

I am a complex individual, as is everyone, but there are a few key pieces about the essence of me that were glaringly obvious when exposed to the light.

I am a security seeking, honoring, and upholding person. I thrive in an environment of order, rules, and structure. I want nothing more than to "do the right thing". I am also extremely loyal, dependable, committed, and value family above all else. I already knew all this about myself.

What I didn't realize, what we didn't realize, is that these hardwired traits, in the right mix (wrong mix?) of circumstances, can take me down a dangerous path.

If I feel something is "the right thing to do", I can be loyal to a "family-building" cause or idea that actually works against the very nature of my being, making decisions that undermine my basic needs. And my stubborn, strong-willed nature will strive to work only harder, to be more loyal, even as I start to crack.

In this perfect storm, this mismatch of decisions and personality (a mismatch made worse by my loyalty to stay the course!) I will crack, and I will assign blame to myself. The plan must be right, I must be inherently wrong.

I have felt fundamentally flawed for the last couple years.

As my security, confidence, and well-being (that I feel well about my being, the essence of who I am) slowly eroded, I experienced shame, anxiety, and depression.

I am the kind of person that will go down with the ship.

And so it was time to grab hold of my husband's hand, side by side, not cowering behind him in fear, and jump ship.

Damien and I are very different people. We share values around core principles and beliefs, but our motivations and our way of functioning and expressing those values is nearly opposite of each other.

And when one of us, in this case me, attempts to operate, or mold myself into Damien's way of moving through the world, I will start to feel inadequate, doubtful, fearful, and eventually shame, deep insecurity, depression, and brokenness. (And the only reason I would try to mold myself to Damien's expression is because of my deep familial loyalty and dedication, two hardwired traits).

Likewise, if I impose my functioning on Damien he will also wither. Either way, if one of us is going down we drag the other with us. We’re one. We are very different people who have chosen to commit ourselves, our lives, our bodies, our fidelity to each other. And when I go down, so does he.

So we've decided no one's going down in this home, in this marriage, in this family.

We’ve picked up everything that is near and dear, or what we thought as near and dear to our hearts, and have held it, exposed, in the light. Light, that only in our brokenness, could finally reach the dark places.

Things are changing in our home, in our family life. (No, we're not done homeschooling. But if that wasn't working for me, I'd have to let go of my loyalty to that idea also.)

Some of the changes will show up on the blog sooner than later. Others I will write about on a need-to-write basis. But this isn’t about details, as much as I love those. This is about finally seeing hope, and a bright vision for my future, after months and months of increasing battles with self-worth, anxiety, brokenness and depression.

My Christmas miracle came early this year. Light shining through the brokenness, bringing truth and freedom. The path to healing.


The things we do for love

We celebrated Brienne's birthday this week. She turned twelve years old, the threshold between childhood and her teenage years.

I am thankful for the vestiges of childhood that are still present in our lives because of her. And as a mother with two teenagers I observe the changes taking place in Brienne with knowing and acceptance, and a bit of trepidation. (I anticipate Brienne's transition to the teen years will generate more fireworks in our household than what we've experienced with her siblings, because like me, she's naturally gifted with a fiery personality.)

I have not mourned my children growing up "too fast" because I don't think they have. They have been sheltered and protected, gaining independence slowly and at a pace that feels comfortable for all of us. But each passing year I am reminded I will not be raising children forever and I see this part of my life journey and purpose - raising our children - coming to an end in the near future.

In late summer, while my family hiked the trail without me, my children walking away from me at road crossings, spending days and nights in the woods, doing hard things, without me, I mourned the loss of their childhood. And I also mourned the loss of my clear and definitive place in their lives.

As they grow into their high school years my role changes. This is new and uncharted territory for our family. Have I done enough? Do they know how much I love and support them? Have I given them enough tools to ease their transition to adulthood? Do they know what life is all about? Do I? So many questions.

I've never been here before. But at least with Brienne, I've done twelve - two times already. This is parenting terrain I know. And so it is easy to celebrate her growing independence, honor her natural nearly-teenaged daughter desires while I still relish the flower hair accessories, miniature horse collection, and Barbies that sometimes litter the floor.

Birthday weeks carry extra responsibility and obligation for me, and last minute preparations for all of us, so I decided to take a vacation week from homeschool. I've always done this but somehow I thought I might be able to carry-on, life as usual, this time around.

After our summer, I crave, more than anything, a home-based predictability to our days, fairly constant routines and structures. I didn't want to lose the momentum we've gained in that area so I thought we'd skip our usual birthday-week school break.

But on Monday, sandwiched between Sunday afternoon's birthday-playdate with friends and Tuesday's day long family birthday celebration, I remembered why we've always had birthday week breaks. Because I unravel if we don't. Extra trips to the grocery store, a complete day dedicated to the birthday child, and the emotional weight I carry as mom to make birthdays special - all of that drains my reserves.

It was good timing anyway. Laurent and Brienne are selling holiday art cards and needed to do a lot of work on that this week. The food club order came in and I was able to help divide the order and spend time chatting with a friend without feeling guilty I was dropping the ball at home - neglecting math, French or history.

I spent a good deal of Wednesday afternoon (I wasn't on supper that night) losing myself in How The Light Gets In. Sadly, I finished it that same night. I'm number 82 in line at the library for Penny's last book The Long Way Home. While I wait my turn, I'm thinking this is a good time to go back and read the first Inspector Gamache books.

Reading Louise Penny's books has given me the unexpected pleasure of discussing books with my Dad. My mom and I have talked books for years, recommending our favorite titles, swapping paperbacks we might have in our collection. But Dad and I haven't shared so many book interests, except for the occasional non-fiction inspirational book. It's fun to connect with my Dad around a story and a character.

As we entered this week I wasn't sure how festive I was feeling. Actually, not to sound like Scrooge but I wasn't feeling festive at all. In truth, I had PMS, and Christmas "stuff" on top of a child's birthday felt like more obligation and disturbance to my routine than I was willing to sign up for.

Not Christmas itself - that is expected and welcomed in our home. It is the holiday for our family and this year we're hosting my brother's family and my parents for eight days. It's not that part that feels like obligation. It's everything leading up to it. It's the work that goes into pulling that off. Making merry. I just wasn't in the mood.

I blame PMS but having winter melt away on Monday certainly didn't help. But winter came back, with mid-week snow flurries, blanketing the world in white. My hormones stabilized. My motherly birthday obligations were fulfilled. I spent an afternoon reading a December murder mystery. And I had cleared my school obligations with our break so I could put some time into Christmas planning.

I also started reading Christmas stories. At our last library pick up I came home with a few holiday story compilations. I anticipated I might need some help this year with Christmas spirit so I reserved some "chicken soup for the soul" type Christmas reading.

I can't heartily recommend any of the titles but they are doing the trick. Mostly in turning my heart to thankfulness for all the blessings in my life - family, health, a home to life in, good food to eat. A healthy dose of gratitude seems to be a good foundation for a season of celebration.

Christmas is something I do for love, it is about the keeping and making of family traditions. It is part of our family story, a dominant thread in the fabric of my own childhood that I now weave into my children's childhood. This is what I do, as mother, maker and keeper of memory, keeper of story, keeper of family tradition.

Birthdays are something I do for love. Stringing up colored lights, taking a week off studies (mine and theirs), spending an afternoon reading for pure pleasure, driving the kids to get more paper, more envelopes for making cards, are things I do for love.

Love is an action, stepping in to obligations, responsibilities, and stepping out of them.

The end of our journey is just the beginning

The 24th episode of the Beyond our Boundaries video series is live today. It tells the story of the final days of our hike.

On the weekend of fall's official arrival in mid-September, our family reached the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, Mt. Katahdin, the end of an almost six month thru-hiking adventure.

Like the trip itself, it was a time I'll never forget.

It was the weekend our friends meet us on Friday night, deep in the Maine woods, with lasagna, fresh bread, and an end-of-season garden salad - headlamps bobbing in the dark while we ate supper; the weekend we registered at Katahdin Stream Campground Ranger's Station giddy with the knowledge of only one more day to go; the weekend we gathered, one last time, around a campfire before seeking the familiar comfort of a warm sleeping bag and tent; the weekend I rejoined my family after six weeks off trail to summit together, the last mountain and the last day of our journey.

While we were on the trail we used our Kickstarter funds to pay a video editor. Since coming home from our hike, Damien's been producing the videos. I'm not a significant player in this post-hike production but I am responsible for contributing the photos I took.

I haven't yet touched most of our photos from the hike, but this last video (or maybe second-to-last, we might do a six months later kind of video talking about life post-thru hike, what we learned in our hike, etc.) features a lot of my photography. Which means I had to revisit those last hiking days in the photo editing process.

When I went through the photos, and then again, when I watched the final cut of the video with my family yesterday morning, I was struck by how joyful the occasion was, how happy I look, and how excited and relieved we were to have made it this far, Baxter State Park in Maine.

We accomplished our goal.

Having now washed ashore, a bit bedraggled, onto the island of Rest Here, in the sea of Uncertain Self-Employment and Project-Driven Living (waters that Damien must navigate alone right now), I am beyond-words grateful that we finished what we set out to do.

We pulled this thing off.

There are days, still, when I question the sanity of what we attempted to accomplish, the audacity of it. Storing all our earthly goods, setting forth to thru-hike the entire Appalachian Trail in under six months, as a family, in a straight shot north. Hello emotional and physical breakdown.

There are days when I cry at what I perceive to have lost in that journey, momentum mostly, in everyday living. The loss of a small measure of financial security, and a loss of vision and direction in my career goals because of what I learned about myself and my limits, in my relationship with my primary business partner, my husband. Hard stuff to learn. Necessary stuff to learn.

These realities (perceptions?) have been hard. But then I watch these videos and I am reminded of the amazing-ness of what we accomplished. And I fall in love all over again with my aforementioned business and life partner, for what we did, together. For these children we are raising, together. For a life, filled with adventures, together.

I am so thankful for the friends and strangers (and FIMBY readers) who came alongside to help us in our journey. I am so grateful to my children who didn't mutiny and owned the experience for themselves. When I got off the trail any one of them could have chosen to end their hike. They didn't. Instead they hiked on and became Jedi Knights (you gotta watch the video).

I am so thankful we have this video series, which stretched me way beyond what was comfortable (not in being in front of the camera but in the production schedule), to always remember and share this amazing experience.

Such a paradox. How something so difficult and breaking could also be the positive defining experience in this season of family life. All the times I wanted to crawl into a cave, to retreat, to be rescued, I held onto hope that in finishing it would all be worth it. And it is.

Katahdin was the end of our Appalachian Trail journey but it was the just the beginning. The beginning of deeper personal understanding, a nascent beginning of a new approach to my career, the beginning of a new era of marriage, the beginning of opened doors for our business interests. And for our children, the beginning of increased independence and self-awareness of their incredible strength, resiliency and discipline. Traits that will take them anywhere they choose to go.

Our dear friend Springfever, who gave us the 2000 miler badges you see here, one for each us, told us the end was just the beginning. I think he is right.

I know many of you are subscribers to our video series, or Kickstarter supporters who have access to the videos. Thank you for that. I do hope you'll enjoy this episode.

For the rest of you, I want to share this last episode at a discounted rate. A thank you gift for reading and following our story here.

We've created a special access page for FIMBY readers where you can purchase the final episode for only $1.49. Or, you can purchase the entire series for over 30% off.

This deal is valid till November 30th only so check it out if you're interested.

Thank you for reading. Thank you for always being so kind and generous to me in your comments and emails. Thank you for praying for me and encouraging me with your words. Thank you for letting me tell my story in the safety of community, friendship, and understanding.

I am so thankful for you.

The first week of winter (and a bit of preamble)

This week I decided to take a break from soul-searching and write about homeschooling, specifically homeschooling high school. It's an exciting time for our family and we've learned lots through the transition into the high school years.

Brienne is enjoying House of Anubis on Netflix, and now likes to dress-up in an improvised school uniform

The older my children get the more I understand about interest-led learning, and its many possibilities and forms.

As I write snippets here and there about our experience and our philosophy, and as we meet new friends locally, I get the inevitable question how does it really work letting your kids have educational freedom? And more importantly for many people - how will it all end? How will Céline get into university, and especially for my Québec readers and friends, how will we navigate Cégep?

These are questions I've been wanting to answer. So that's what I've been doing, writing about Céline's current curriculum and interest-led learning in the high school years, what it looks like in our home, and where it might go from here for post-secondary studies.

Interestingly, the shift in writing focus has rekindled personal passions, dreams and visions in me. All of which have laid dormant for months and months. It is a small rekindling. There is no bonfire burning, I don't have the fuel to keep that going, but a flame of inspiration flickers more brightly inside.

Mid-week, when I realized how deep I was into a three, four, five part blog series on homeschooling the high school years, I had an idea I'd like to try to keep things fresh on the blog while I continue writing.

Going deep in my writing seems to be theme for me right now. I have a need to be thorough and explicit, covering all the angles. For me, this is not the time for short and pithy or sound bite ideas.

But while all this soul-searching, or in this week's case, homeschool writing, is going on, so is my beautiful life. The life I want to share with people on my blog because that is just what I do. Fun in My Back Yard.

I am seeing the beauty and relishing the story, once again, of our lives. And I want to write it. The joy, loveliness, heartwarming moments, laughter, and beauty of the days. Days in a life we have worked hard to build, that we have sacrificed a lot to build.

I feel pain and disappointment from some broken dreams that lie at my feet post-hike. I feel disillusioned and adrift somedays about moving forward. I feel loss at having sacrificed a lot of myself to gain incredible experience for our family as a whole.

Those things are all real in my life. But so is love and joy, commitment and community, beauty and purpose found in each and every day.

I want to tell those stories also.

That my friends, is just a really long introduction to explain something I'd like to try - a weekly post about the fun in my back yard. What we're up to, what I'm loving or doing these days, this is what I used to write about, it's actually the heartbeat of this blog, and it's the writing I always come back to, after various writing forays and blogging experiments.

So, I'll try that again, till I no long feel inspired to do so. Starting now.

Winter arrived this week. Not big winter but definitely winter's hello.

We are happy for winter's arrival but also challenged by it this year because our financial situation is tight, paying off post-hike debt, and we don't have the funds we're used to for outfitting our ever-growing kids for winter sport and activity, specifically backcountry skiing.

Damien is very resourceful, good at finding deals, etc. and I'm good at pinching the pennies, and managing the outflow. This week I found a few extra dollars in November's budget, but not near enough for the needs. So it will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Our financial state post-hike has been a source of considerable strain and tension in our marriage. Thank goodness we're in this for the long haul because sometimes the short haul isn't so romantic, or even fun.

The kids took me on a walk in the woods, on a path our neighbors showed them last weekend. It will be the perfect cross-country ski route for me this winter, assuming we can find me some appropriate boots. Between a small amount of birthday and Christmas funds I have hope I may get the boots I need so I can ski out our door, which would be fabulous.

I only ventured to the beach once this week, at the end of a run. I left the house so frustrated and upset.

Running helped clear my head and by the time I got to the beach I had chilled out significantly. The roiling water and incessant pounding of waves on the shore though was the perfect picture of my previous frustration. I felt giddy with metaphor, nature's perfect reflection of a troubled heart.

I love living so close to the ocean and felt so privileged, and blessed this week, when I considered all the places we've called home in our community here on the peninsula. A little cabin in a river valley. A mountain ski chalet and now our home on the hill, overlooking the ocean.

I try to remember this feeling of blessing when the waves of moving-related frustration wash over me, reminding me that we've experienced all this in only three short years, plus six months away from home on the Appalachian Trail, and one month in Montreal.

It is our willingness to pick up and move, to be homeless for six months, that enabled us the freedom to hike the trail. It is that same sense of homelessness and significant disruption to home life that contributed to pieces of me crumbling and breaking.

I would like to be settled. I have things I want to do with my life besides managing our moves, managing my breakdown.

I am so used to Damien at home now, three years into the work-at-home gig, I take for granted the precious moments that our sacrifices have made possible. This week I was especially aware of the special connection Céline shares with Damien and how crucial his daily participation is in her life.

She is a technical girl. She consumes media, news and information I have no grid for, no interest in. But Damien is there, solid, informed and interested. My heart melting each time I hear her laughter rising from the kitchen in some discussion with her Dad about topics I just don't get.

My girl. Cautious but sure-footed. Confident and sassy enough to buzz cut her hair at fifteen. My heart simply can't contain the affection and respect I have for her.

The kids and I all visited Le Baluchon (rough Québec translation: hobo sack) yesterday afternoon, our local version of Goodwill. We scored big time.

At Le Baluchon they sell most clothing items by the bag. A full bag of clothes costs $5. We came home with stylish, tall brown boots and very practical snowpants for Brienne, a single breasted black wool pea jacket for Céline, and a knit grey winter Calvin Klein dress for me, plus a couple bags of clothes all for less than $20. Thank God for Le Baluchon.

As I finish up this post, I'm watching the snow fall again. Laurent has just come in from shoveling snow. Damien's out and about with Brienne, looking for deals on ski boots and skis, comparing with the prices he's found on eBay. Céline's ensconced in her attic studio/bedroom sewing a gift for Brienne's birthday. And Chocolate Chip Banana cookies - easy, vegan, and whole-food (with a smidge of processed chocolate) - are just coming out of the oven.

The first week of winter.

(Damien and Brienne just came in the door with new skis for Céline, she's bootstrapping the purchase for us, since she has more disposable cash right now than we do. And Damien found a good deal on ski boots for me. We may be outfitted for this season's skiing yet.)

A week of writing and home

It was another week of writing and digging. Walking a labyrinth of interconnected hallways in my heart and mind. Finding new doors, new hallways, following the trail of light through the open doors back to that first open door and asking myself, "now why did I open this door in the first place? What was I hoping to find here?"

I am unearthing what needs to be discovered but man, does it ever take a lot of writing energy to blaze the trails through the jungle thick undergrowth of my hiking experience and post-hike discovery/recovery period.

Nothing writes up easy these days. Nothing. And you reassure me its alright. Because absolutely it is. It is more than alright the work I'm doing. But the desire to publish, to produce, is strong.

Writing and blogging are not "a flash in the pan" pursuits for me. They are passions I will pursue regardless of their profitability or productivity. But gosh, how I want something to show, here, now, for the effort. Proof.

Proof of my worthiness as a blogger, as a writer, by how much I publish. Proof of my worthiness as a homeschooler by the progress of my pupils. Proof of my worthiness as a wife by how much I follow and support.

This artwork will be available as sets of holiday cards, coming to the blog soon.

Yeah, so all that. That's what I'm working through. I thought it was about being depressed on the trail. That was just a symptom of something deeper. Surprise, surprise.

Needless to say Brené Brown's work is a beacon in my labyrinth of digging and discovery.

Every fear, joy, truth, hope, lie, disappointment, pain, goes deep. And getting to the tip of that taproot to investigate the health of the soil in which I'm rooted is a bit arduous.

I am still surprised that the hike brought me to this point, which is a totally different place than I thought I would be, but clearly is the place I need to be.

I went into the hike knowing it would change me. That the intensity of the experience would peel back layers to reveal a core me. I had expected to find this distilled truth on the trail. I didn't know it would be a post-trail discovery and I certainly didn't know this is what I'd find.

So that was the writing week.

In other news, having found a home for kitten number one, we kept his sibling and christened him Pippin. It is completely unexpected that I, formerly on the antagonist end of ambivalent towards cats, would be the one to say, "let's keep him".

This week's music of choice was Switchfoot, Vice Verses and Fading West. Each song touching my experience, my heart, in the way only music does. Songs that have me reaching for my guitar, googling chords and playing along with.

I finished researching and writing out Céline's fall 2014 through summer 2015 curriculum. It was already happening, she was learning and progressing without a written document, but I don't feel peace about the process until I've written it down. Some of you have expressed interest in her job and I hope to write about that in a "this is what Celine's 10th year of homeschooling looks like" post.

I finished The Good Daughter, Home: Chronicle of a North Country Life (Seeds of Another Summer in Canada), and am savoring my way through Shadow Child, also by Beth Powning. (Yes, you should check her out).

I can't wait to pick up Louise Penny's first Inspector Gamache book at Wednesday's library pick up, having devoured The Beautiful Mystery and The Brutal Telling. I think Louise Penny will be a perfect windswept Gaspesien winter companion.

The beach sunsets this week were fabulous (so you may have noticed already). The sun sets earlier each day and it's a fast scramble to get out the door in time to make it there, but the rewards are worth it.

In spite of shorter days, and the rush to watch the sun set, I am relishing the steady advance of winter. I know full well it will be a long one, and I have a history with SAD but my body, spirit and mind see this winter as my time to hibernate and rest. To sit by the happy lamp in the morning as I write my way to understanding, cuddle with cats, drink tea, and on a daily basis brave the wind and snow for an afternoon excursion into the elements to remind me that I'm alive and why I love summer so much.

I finally replenished my depleted lotion stock with my tried and true recipe but I used shea butter this time instead of cocoa butter which resulted in a runnier lotion. This consistency would be perfect for a pump bottle, which I don't have. So I just make a drippy mess on the counter each time I use it.

The kids and I went to a Remembrance Day service on November 11. I felt so Canadian, surrounded by other Canadians remembering fallen family and community members in the world wars, Korea and our peace keeping missions. In a service conducted in English, French and Mi'kmaq I felt like I belong here. After three years to the day, of living on the peninsula, and a lot of struggle with insecurity about my place here, that is a feeling of inestimable worth.

Two Saturdays ago now, our dear friend Springfever, one of our biggest Kickstarter supporters and trail enthusiast (having done the trail 3 times himself) came for supper with his wife to swap hiking stories and look at our (still unedited) photos. I'm always amazed that on our peninsula, with few people clustered in small communities over many miles of coastline, we have a thru-hiker friend living nearby.

This past Saturday we went to the neighbors, the house just behind ours, for a gourmet tapas-like supper prepared from Plenty. We came home with ski boots to fit Céline's growing feet and a better snowboard for Laurent. Have I mentioned yet how much I love it here? Not just the house we are living in right now, but our community and our friends.

Yes, I have a lot of personal work to do right now. And some of it is painful. But there are so many beautiful, solid, and reassuring things in my life. The ocean's tides, which I never get tired of (whoever gave me that advice in a previous post was right); friends who aren't even aware of the blessing they are in our lives; a cuddly kitten, rock music, supplements, books, a happy light; and a community that, after three years living here (seven months of those in other places), truly feels like home to me.

Home, where we are known. Home, where we belong. Home, where we want to be.

Anyone want a kitten?

In the early years of marriage Damien wanted a cat. He grew up with cats and genuinely felt affection for them.

I did not grow up with cats, nor did I feel affection for them.

When the kids were little I finally relented to getting a cat. I didn't naturally feel drawn to animals and had no affinity for them so a cat seemed like a messy inconvenience to an already full family life I was trying to keep tidy and manageable.

I agreed to getting a cat under the following conditions.

I didn't want it to shed. I didn't want the cat on our bed. I didn't want it scratching our furniture. I didn't want it pooping in my flower beds. And with three pre-schoolers to take care of, I wanted no part whatsoever in taking care of the cat.

Damien found a breed that didn't shed, the Devon Rex. But of course I wasn't going to spend money to get a cat either. So Damien worked a barter with the breeder, who lived in Georgia (we lived in Maine at the time). He did computer work for her. A litter of kittens was born. We got one. Pixel, as we named our orange haired tabby, was delivered on a plane to Portland, ME.

I have laughed about this story since the very beginning. We are unpretentious people and here we have a "fancy" cat delivered on a plane.

I remember the August morning that Damien, Laurent and Celine went to pick him up from the airport. Brienne was still nursing, and too little at the time to accompany them. My mom was visiting, she remembers too, the children's squeals of delight as Pixel romped on the living room futon.

With my children's obvious affection and delight, my heart started to soften a wee bit. What I remember most about Pixel's kitten-hood is that he loved to sit in Brienne's blue vinyl highchair seat. And second to that he loved to lay on top of my open homemaker's binder next to my computer in the office.

It soon became obvious, mostly because of how cute he was, that Pixel was not going to be "true" Devon Rex. We were told before he came to live with us that new blood had been introduced into the family line a generation (or was it two?) before his birth. Pixel had the inquisitiveness, personality, and voice (they are loud!) of a Devon but decidedly longer hair, that shed.

Over time he came to sleep on our bed, much to my dismay, but by this point the battle was lost anyway.

Pixel, sensing who's really in charge around here, comes to me when he's hungry, pounces on my head in bed when he's needy and generally seeks me to meet his needs.

Staying true to my original terms and conditions - I don't change litter or do the feeding but I make sure someone does. And I guess Pixel knows I'm the one who makes sure things get done around here.

Pixel is an old man cat now. A fat old cat. We switched him to a raw meat diet over a year ago to help address his obesity and that was working until he stayed at our friend's house during our hike and binged on dry cat food. In spite of all the exercise he got terrorizing their two cats around their farm, he gained a lot of weight. He is back to his raw meat diet but I think it might be too little too late for him now.

Like Pixel, I am getting soft in my old age. So when we found two pre-teen aged kittens (they aren't babies but they aren't young adult cats either) on our daily walk, abandoned on the road to the beach, I couldn't very well leave them there.

The first day we thought it was kind of "random" to find a small cat on the road, unattended. Such a playful fellow following us, begging us to pick him up, which we did.

Our next walk to the beach the cat found us again, and we found its sibling meowing in a tree. Skittish as all get out, that little fellow was.

We took "Munchkin" home, and brought the skittish cat, "Pipsqueak", food. When we checked on Pipsqueak the next day he was still there, but the food sure wasn't. We managed to grab him and I carried him, trembling, under my arms back to our house.

We have asked all the neighbors if the cats are theirs. They aren't. We have Facebooked their availability, and put up posters in our community, looking for a new home for these adorable cats, whom we have grown to love. Pipsqueak has come out of his shell, enduring himself to us with his vigorous play. Munchkin is curious about all things and very cuddly.

Two cats came with the house, a pair of long-haired young spayed females, mother and daughter. We brought our own cat, old man Pixel and now these two kittens join the mix, temporarily.

Collectively these cats sleep on all the beds, shed like crazy (especially the long haired females), raise the dead (or in our case, the sleeping) with their occasional nocturnal howls and hisses, generate an awful lot of litter mess, chew through expensive earbud cords and inexpensive USB cords indiscriminately, and sometimes cough up the most disgusting hairballs imaginable (that would be the long-haired cats again).

They have made the house interesting and lively, the kittens especially adding much needed levity and love during our re-entry period. I have never been this smitten with a feline before.

I can't say I have a lot of affection for cats in general, but my feelings have grown over the years, mostly because my children love cats and the things our children love tend to grow on us, over time.

Last night we said goodbye to Munchkin. Our poster at the animalerie helping us find a family for this sweet kitten. There were tears and plenty of goodbye cuddles and kisses, even from me.

Checking in

We've been off-trail now for six weeks. One of those weeks we went to visit my parents in Nova Scotia.

In our five weeks at home I've been orchestrating our household routines, re-establishing old rhythms and establishing new ones.

As the kids take on more cooking and food prep duties I'm down to being responsible for two snacks, two lunches and two suppers a week. As kitchen manager I oversee the show, write the shopping lists, and make sure the cupboards are stocked, the almond milk is made and the beans are cooked but my work in this domain is waning. And as it wanes my inspiration and enthusiasm for cooking has increased. Can I hear an Amen!?

With the help of a local doctor friend I've started a run/walk routine and my foot is doing well. I can exercise without pain and as far as I know I'm healed but I'm still taking it slow. The nearby beach in on my daily route.

I'm reading tons. I have more books on the go and have worked into my schedule more time for reading than I've had in years. Books, my first love, have replaced the Internet as my source of escape and inspiration. Memoirs, mysteries, fantasies, non-fiction. I adore these piles on the nightstand and a full Overdrive bookshelf on my iPad.

I'm working on my shawl, with a goal to complete it by the end of winter. Winters are long in Quebec, I think I might just pull it off.

My guitar is out, I downloaded a tuner app, and I've started making music again, singing for all I'm worth. I've found new-to-me francophone folk musicians on Spotify, have listened to more ABBA in three weeks than I have in the last 15 years combined, and in the rest of my listening hours I have soaked myself in Steve Bell.

We started going to church. I've been making an effort to re-connect with local and not-so-local friends.

The kids have returned to their studies. Celine has a job. Out of necessity we hit the ground running with homeschool and I've had to build our curriculum as we go. I prefer to plan then execute but there was no time for that so I'm constructing the pieces as we go.

I'm studying French again, in earnest. So are the kids. We are fostering two adorable kittens which we found (rather, they found us) on the road to the beach.

Early-to-bed, early-to-rise, I find immense comfort in the punctuation of my days. The anchoring of The Morning Office and Evening Compline, the sound of surf on my afternoon walk. Morning coffee, post-lunch reading, afternoon tea. Routines that give definition, structure, and regular breaks to my industry.

I could write a blog post, or more about each of these things. I could talk about how to get kids in the kitchen. I could talk about how I loath to push myself out the door each day to exercise but I do it anyway and I love the way I feel when I get back, my hate-love relationship with regular exercise.

I could write reviews about the books I'm reading and new authors I love. (See the sidebar on my blog where I keep an updated list of recent reads.)

I could talk about the importance of pieces of my past in my present, why we stopped going to church many years ago and why we are returning.

I could talk about how our introverted, homeschool teenager has a job, location-independent, just like her dad. I could write about our goals-based curriculum, a schedule for project-based learning, and the kid's owning their own education.

I could write about Canadian history homeschool studies, self-directed second language learning (and the programs, apps and resources we're using), knitting as a meditation, playing guitar, and the recipes I'm loving these days.

I could also write about the excruciatingly frustrating moments and days I have on this path to post-hike recovery. How I seem to have little bandwidth in my life right now for failures and glitches but life is full of those anyway. (Someone didn't get my memo.)

I could write about our trail debt and our austerity budget to get ourselves out of that, which means no funds for homeschooling, among other things. I could write about how, after years of pushing the boundaries and walking the edge, right now I need to live in the safe middle of a very well defined box, with firm boundaries on time, resources, and ideas.

Each morning for a couple hours, or maybe just one, I write. Haltingly. Sometimes with tears streaming down my face and a rumble of anxiety in my belly.

I don't write about recipes, or homeschooling, or books - even though those seem like bright shiny objects. Tidy posts.

Right now I need to write about what happened to me this summer, to try and make sense of my trail depression and post-hike anxiety (which is thankfully subsiding). I'm going back even further to understand subtle and not-so-subtle shifts that have happened in my heart and psyche since leaving Maine in 2011.

This is hard work. Some days it hurts like digging out a splinter and other days it feels like rays of sunshine into dusty, dark corners. This is the focus of my writing time, which is the same as my blogging time. I need to write my way to understanding and discovery. I need to write my way to healing.

This is how I process with writing. I write, talk, write, read, write and maybe cycle through the whole thing again, and eventually I publish. But this kind of writing does not lend itself to a fast turn around on the blog. I do plan to publish, I have always published what my heart feels compelled to write and this is no different. It's just taking a lot of time.

I want to publish fun and beautiful things here. Some bloggers are very explicit in their purpose to use their blog to focus on gratitude, beauty, goodness. I want to share the joy of homeschooling life and homemaking and creativity and yes, even adventure, but a more important writing task calls to me.

My writing time looks like yielding to that call and then resisting. Walking boldly for a few steps then retreating. And in the resisting and retreating I am so tempted to publish "aren't these kittens adorable" or something like that. Maybe I will. But in reality publishing even a simple post takes hours and I don't have those hours to give.

I have always used my blog as a place to not just share ideas and a family story, but as a publishing platform to process and work through things.

In my pre-hike life there were steady and small eruptions, usually corresponding with times of transition and seasonal shifts, of navel-gazing and introspective writing, that would bubble up from the subterranean lava that constantly flows beneath the surface.

Now as I write my way through the last ten months I feel like I'm trying to harness a volcano. I'm not going to write one post and resolve this. I do believe the lava will cool, it will give new shape and structure to my life and eventually, fertile soil. Maybe it's already happening.

But writing my way through this is time-consuming and emotionally difficult. There is no turnaround time I can rely on for publishing to the blog.

Ideally, I would love to post little snippets of our life, whether those are homeschooling, creativity, homemaking, or adventure related, while I keep working on the heart writing. I love that when I look through the archives I see this blog as a record of our family life (according to mother) and I have a strong desire to maintain that somehow, while I'm doing this personal work.

I honestly just don't know how to do that. Each post I publish here takes hours of work. I'm not sure if I should be embarrassed or proud of that. It never used to take hours and hours to write, edit and publish a post. Reading the old archives, I can tell. (She writes with a smile.)

This is not an answer post, or a planning post, or a "you can expect such and such for me" post.

This is me, just checking in.


Couchsurfing with a family

This week, we had the privilege of hosting four young people through Couchsurfing. We fed them supper and put them up for a night and in exchange they shared stories of their studies, travel and homelands with us. And helped us practice our French.

Sophie and Véronique are from France, Lorena from Spain and Rowan from Canada's British Columbia. They are young and adventurous (closer in age to our kids than us), interesting, vibrant, and multilingual.

If we can't travel the world right now we can bring the world to us.

Hosting them reminded me that I had written a post about Couchsurfing years ago on Outsideways, our family's third and now neglected blog. The following post is adapted from that original published in January 2010. Which is why the kids look so much younger (they were) and why the landscapes are so snowy (welcome to Québec in winter!)

In January 2010 we made our first reconnaissance trip to the Gaspé peninsula. We had read it was a beautiful natural area on Québec's East Coast where mountains meet the ocean. Having decided to move back to Canada in 2011, we wanted to know if the peninsula might be a place we could move to and make home.

We decided to go investigate the area directly following our Christmas trip to Nova Scotia, where my parents live. But we didn't have a lot of funds for a post-Christmas trip.

Thank goodness for Couchsurfing.

My parents joined us for this adventure but did not couchsurf. Not for lack of trying, but our family had already booked whatever homes were available by the time they looked for a couch.

Couchsurfing Basics:

The Couchsurfing organization is a social network that helps people find free places to stay while traveling.

  1. To participate you become a member (also free), post a profile to the site and go through a verification process. Obviously this doesn't weed out all loonies and scary people, there are small risks involved, but as soon as people start "surfing" or hosting they leave feedback for both guests and hosts that helps build a level of credibility and confidence. You can sign up to host, surf or both.
  2. A traveler searches in the area they are planning to visit for available "couches". They send a request to potential host(s) and arrangements are made via the Couchsurfing website, personal e-mails, and phone calls. There is no standard level of accommodation or length of stay.
  3. The traveler(s) brings their sleeping bag and is willing to sleep wherever their host puts them up. In exchange they are given free accommodation and often have access to the host's kitchen and other amenities.

Those are the details of how to find and give free accommodation but Couchsurfing is so much more than that.

This is how Couchsurfing describes their vision (beyond a free place to sleep):

We envision a world where everyone can explore and create meaningful connections with the people and places they encounter. Building meaningful connections across cultures enables us to respond to diversity with curiosity, appreciation, and respect."

That was true in our experience. Saving money was just the added bonus.

Our Couchsurfing experience:

When we talked about making this trip we started looking into hostels in the area, as there are many. Gaspésie is a popular tourist destination... in the summer. The hostels we contacted were all closed during the winter. So Damien started looking for couches instead. Of course for a family of five you aren't really looking for a couch but enough floor space to throw down your sleeping mats and bags.

There weren't that many people on Couchsurfing who could accommodate a family our size but we found two households who were willing and we made our travel arrangements based on their availability.

The first household was a young single man who put us up in his bedroom (of his small one bedroom apartment) while he slept on the couch. We stayed here for two nights.

The second willing household was a family who was eager to host us but they lived on a private road that was not guaranteed to be plowed on the day of our estimated arrival. Instead of chancing it we reserved a suite with a kitchenette at a local auberge (inn/hotel). The week of our trip the road was plowed so the family invited us to their home for a meal.

Couchsurfing is not just about finding a free room. It's about meeting and connecting with people in unique places. It's about friendship, breaking down barriers and making this big world a little smaller and friendlier.

Couch One

Yannick, our first host, is a young man who has studied some, traveled lots and come back home to Québec to finish his studies. Because of his travels and world outlook he spoke English and was eager to practice with us.

In fact everyone we met in Québec was able to speak English with us and we did our best (Damien's skills were much better than the rest of us since he spent a year in France after high school) to return the favor speaking French as much as possible.

Staying with Yannick was not without challenges. The day we arrived his kitchen sink backed up, his little icebox freezer defrosted without warning, and his washing machine broke down.

We arrived to a somewhat disheveled kitchen but with a very warm and gracious host. Wow, did I ever learn something about hospitality from this young man! But those inconveniences were solved and we shared parts of the next day and half with him discovering the area's cultural gems and "places to be". One of which was the local boulangerie, where we joined in the kids' open jam session.

His apartment was our home base for our next day's drive along the very windy, cold, and hauntingly beautiful St. Lawrence River on the north side of the peninsula.

When we left, Yannick gave us gifts from his sparse household, expressing the affection he felt for our family. He praised our children (what parent doesn't like that?) and said he hadn't met a family like ours. We proved, in his words, "that it is possible to travel with children and have adventurous experiences", something he hadn't seen in families he knows.

After leaving Yannick's home we drove through the Parc de la Gaspésie crossing to the other side of the peninsula, on the Baie des Chaleur.

Couch Two

Arriving an hour later than planned, we met our second Couchsurfing contact, Isabelle and Danny and their family. These were the hosts that said we could stay the night but the road might not be plowed and so we didn't want to commit to that plan.

However, earlier in the week when we checked the weather forecast, it was determined the road would be passable so they invited us for a mid-day meal at their home. Our family of five, plus my parents. We were told to not bring anything. Talk about hospitality!

Isabelle and Danny live in an intentional community of individuals, couples and families, building sustainable dwellings, community, and livelihoods. They were an inspiring bunch to be around. Members of their community had also come to meet us and contributed to the potluck feast of homegrown turkey, potatoes, gravy, tourtière, salad, squash and apple crisp.

The whole experience at Isabelle and Danny's house blew us away, almost literally. The wind never ceased gusting, but their kindness, warm wood stove, and conversation knocked our socks off. Although the adults spoke fairly decent English their children did not at all. But after "moving around each other" for a couple hours the kids breached the language barrier... with play. Hide and seek, paper airplanes, Lego and drawing.

Crossing the border back into Maine, through the snow and wind of winter, Damien and I talked about the friendliness of the people, the cultural vibrancy we saw evidence of in the towns (we weren't there long enough to explore that), the obvious raw natural beauty of the peninsula and decided the Gaspé was worth another look in the summer.

The end of that story is that we did come back in summer 2010 and moved here permanently in the fall of 2011.

Couchsurfing with a family:

Couchsurfing is a great option for travelling if you enjoy meeting new people. Obviously though it can be a bit more tricky with a family.

Things to consider when Couchsurfing with your family:

  1. Be willing to plan your travels according to who can host you and where. Yannick was the only host we found who responded to our request for sleeping space for a family of five so we based our itinerary around that.
  2. Have great kids. A few traits that come to mind are fun-loving, inquisitive, and respectful. Obviously these are character traits we want to grow in our children regardless of whether we couchsurf or not.
  3. Safety comes first. If it doesn't feel right, don't stay. Have a back up plan, just in case. Don't sleep in separate rooms. Common sense stuff.
  4. Bring along a few comforts from home. Sleeping in a strange situation can be unsettling. We had our familiar sleeping bags. I personally like to bring along my mini titanium French Press (the same one I use camping) because you just never know if your host drinks coffee.

Like I mention in my introduction, Couchsurfing is not just about "going", but also hosting.

If you can't travel the world right now with your family, you can bring the world to your home.

You can find our family's Couchsurfing profile here. And if you're a FIMBY reader visiting the peninsula just send me an e-mail if you need a place to stay.


The Von Trapp Family on the Appalachian Trail

In the winter, before we left for our thru-hike, we gave ourselves trail names. This is not a conventional practice. A lot of hikers acquire trail names on the trail. They are given to them by fellow hikers.

We were leery of strangers naming us. We wanted to name ourselves, pre-trail, based on how we wanted to be known, how we perceive ourselves. And we certainly didn't want to be named based on an infamous trail incident (a common practice).

The kids especially had fun choosing their names.

The trail names Otter, Tenacious Bling, and Padawan were such good choices to represent their individual personalities, interests, and thru-hike perspectives.

I chose the name FIMBY for the very pragmatic reason that should a fellow thru-hiker ever want to find me in the future, googling FIMBY is the best way to do that. And maybe hiking the trail would be a whole lot of fun in my back yard. (The answer to that is yes, and no.)

I hadn't even considered that we'd be christened with a family trail name. Which would pretty much render my pragmatic FIMBY null and void since on the trail I became known as "the Von Trapp mom" for the simple reason that we were the Von Trapp family.

By our best recollection it was The Mailman and his crew of female family companions who named us that way back in North Carolina. (By the way, if you read that Trail Journals entry I linked to you might be interested to know that Red Hawk and Bloodroot started the same day as us, met the kids that first night at Hawk Mountain Shelter in Georgia and remained good friends throughout the entire hike, summiting one day after us. They acquired their trail names the old fashioned way, on the trail.)

The origin of us becoming The Von Trapp family is not completely clear, but somewhere along the way the name stuck.

Why the Von Trapp family?

We have asked ourselves this question often. We don't know the lyrics to Edelweiss and Padawan is the only one of our children who even remembers watching The Sound of Music.

As far as we can tell we picked up this name because Tenacious Bling liked to sing in the early days of our hike, mostly songs from Disney's blockbuster movie Frozen.

And we also dressed similarly back in Georgia and North Carolina - black Sole Runner boots, wool socks, and dark shorts - which may have inexplicably brought to mind Austrian children in lederhosen.

The rest is a mystery to us. We are not a musical family singing our way to freedom through the Alps, nor do we reside in Stowe, Vermont.

Once we realized the name was permanent however, we did attempt to teach the kids Do-Re-Mi. Due to laziness on our part and a musically challenged child (I know, I know, all the more reason to persevere), we gave up that endeavor opting instead for our usual alternative-progressive-pop-rock music mix broadcast through our bluetooth speaker.

An aside: Yes, we were those thru-hikers who played music, and later audiobooks, out loud on the trail. With our music and audiobooks, specifically books in the Ender's Game series, we attracted groupies, other bored-out-of-their-brains thru-hikers desperate for a diversion from rocks, trees, roots, and mud.

Toesalad became a Pied Piper of sorts, leading the children of the AT astray from a pure wilderness experience (which it isn't to begin with so I say this tongue-in-cheek of course). Seriously though, audiobooks saved the day, saved many, many days on our hike and we did try to be sensitive to others by turning it off as soon as we saw day hikers or weekenders approaching.

Though unclear about its origins, we appreciate our family trail name because it was given by the trail community and is now a part of Appalachian Trail thru-hiker history.

Off trail we are known as the Tougas family but our trail community knew us as the Von Trapp family. In fact, we had a few funny incidents with thru-hikers talking about the "Von Trapps" to people off-trail who only know us as the "Tougas family", not realizing they were talking about the same people.

The Von Trapps was our cover name while accomplishing amazing feats of physical and mental endurance. It was the name that took our family across a threshold of immense personal and familial growth, an experience in which we all became Jedi Knights, not just Padawan Céline. It was a code name bestowed by a community of people who like to tell legendary tales.

The Von Trapp family - our superhero identity.

Tenacious Bling

Three years ago I published a little ebook for mothers about nurturing creativity, an encouragement mostly to explore, develop and play with creative practices in our busy lives as moms.

I listed a few examples, mostly from my own life, of easily accessible creative activities and expressions we can explore, even if we don't feel very artistically gifted. I am truly disappointed that I failed to mention one so glaringly obvious.

If I had written that little book now I'd have a richer understanding of one of the most readily accessible creative outlets for women. Fashion.

I have to smile when I write that because it's taken raising a fashion conscious, clothes loving, and sometimes makeup obsessed pre-teen to show me what many women already know and appreciate in their lives: personal appearance can provide the canvas for a wellspring of creative expression.

Because I am a casual/sporty, spend no more than 2 minutes doing your hair type gal this little nugget of wisdom remained largely buried to me. It took my growing daughters to help me unearth it.

(I think living in Québec around fashionable and incredibly creative women has also helped.)

I have unfairly judged women who are well made up in their clothing, hair and makeup.

I wondered, "are they not comfortable and happy in their own beautiful skin?" Maybe. Maybe not. That's not for me to know or judge.

What I do know is this. My almost twelve year feels comfortable with her physically-fit and athletic body. She loves her curly hair and strong, muscled calves. She is proud of her widely spaced toes and broad feet, healthy after years of being barefoot and minimalist-shod. She marvels at her green and grey tinted eyes, unique in our family of blues. She appreciates her dominant bottom lip. (I guess that's why she could produce such a good pout as a two year old.)

And she loves expressing her appreciation for this body, as it is, by embellishing it. Wearing clothes that are fun and fancy. Using her skin as a canvas for makeup art and design.

While we were hiking people liked to ask our kids, "what do you miss most?" Without skipping a beat Tenacious Bling always answered, "clothes".

Her wardrobe when we started the trail was as utilitarian as the rest of ours. But it soon became apparent she was not happy with the situation (i.e.: she complained a lot) and she spent the rest of the hike devising ways to add bling to the blah.

It's not just contemporary fashion she loves, as contemporary as hand-me-down fancy dresses and thrift store finds can be. She loves dressing-up to play a role. Girl on the town for when she runs errands with us. Peasant or servant girl when she's on meal prep. And the perennial favorite Princess.

As Brienne comes into her own creatively and artistically in a family whose other members are accomplished artists, programmers, photographers, writers, and sewists (and dabblers in a lot more), I can see fashion being a key part of Brienne's creative pursuits, and maybe theatre.

She is sparkle and bling; verbally expressive, persistent, and physically flamboyant. Equally confident on a sports award podium or dressed up to go grocery shopping.

She is who she is, our family's very own Tenacious Bling. And I couldn't love her more.

About the makeup

Brienne is wearing Cheeky Cosmetics on her face and Bite Beauty on her lips. Finding natural and less harmful makeup has been getting much easier in recent years but I'm always on the lookout for better products for my girls' skin.

Céline recently purchased a Bare Minerals foundation kit and tube of mascara for her cosplay makeup needs. At our recent (and first) visit to Sephora in Halifax, we used the EWG's Skin Deep Cosmetics Database to help use navigate the labyrinth of products.

If you have any favorite natural makeup brands please share as I'm sure there will be more purchases in our household in the future and I like to be in the know about the best options available.

Already laid bare

I mourned the passing of summer, while it was happening.

I missed gardens and farm vegetables. I missed berry picking. I missed relaxing at the beach. I missed relaxing, period.

Summer is my recharge season. It is the time of year I feel most vibrant, healthy and alive. Each season has its own way of enlivening me. The crystalline brillance of winter, autumn's sharp tang, and the greening of spring all energize me. But summer, with her long light-filled days, is a sustained season of vibrancy.

I had anticipated having a heightened sense of wellbeing while hiking because I'd be outdoors so much, a place that usually invigorates and inspires me. But as I hiked my way through the summer, steeped in more fresh air and heart-pumping exercise than I'd ever known before, I experienced a disconnection with those activities that speak "summer" to me.

It wasn't that we didn't experience summer stuff, we did. But there was very little relaxing into those moments, they were fleeting and often rushed and whenever possible, Damien and I would bear the burden of "the rush", doing the work so our kids could enjoy their non-hiking (and hiking) time as much as possible. On our resupply days they swam while I did laundry - that sort of thing.

Because I felt I "missed" summer I was reluctant to welcome early fall. The change of leaves in Maine was beautiful and fitting for where we were in our journey but coming home I ached knowing I could not partake in fall's bounty during a difficult period of re-entry and transition. Re-settling and re-starting life took all the energy I had.

I watched the pears fall off the tree in the backyard, to be eaten by the deer. The apples in the abandoned orchard next to our house remained where they were, un-sauced, un-dried, un-harvested by me. The waste seemed scandalous.

Mid-autumn finally feels like a season I can settle into and find my bearings. The gardens are laid to rest. No one is swimming at the beach. There is not much left to pick from field or tree.

I am ready for bare branches and I do not mourn the falling leaves. I am already laid bare.

After a season of steadily moving moving north, and before that a hyperdrive season of getting ourselves south, this fall and winter I am staying put and slowing down.

I am ready for a time of simple beauty, of finding refuge in coziness and warmth, finding refuge period. Just like the raised beds and perennials I am preparing for winter, I don't need to grow right now (I don't want to) and I feel a quiet autumn and still winter provide the perfect season to gain strength, not in pushing forward, but in reflection and rest.


For Thanksgiving

My prime objective right now is to get settled, to re-establish the patterns, routines, and life-organization that makes me feel secure. It's a need to nest at full-term pregnancy proportions.

Then along came Thanksgiving and a pre-arranged trip to Nova Scotia to be with my parents and visiting aunt and uncle for the holiday.

My mom, the consummate party planner also wanted to host a celebration for the completion of our hike. So we came and celebrated.

In addition to the fabulous food, Mom's speciality, we gave a mini-presentation about our hike to Mom & Dad's friends (whom we all know personally from our many trips to NS and six months of living here three years ago).

It was fun to share stories of our hike and answer people's questions. Good practice for the future speaking we hope to do about our experience.

My sporadic roiling belly anxiety followed me here, plaguing me at times. But I am loved, just as I am in this home, in these relationships. This is a safe place.

And then there's the music.

I come from a family of musicians and singers, mostly talented amateurs but some professionals also. Music is my roots and returning to my roots is one strand in three of the post-hike wellness strategy I've mapped out for myself.

I have plans for how to incorporate more music making in my life but this little trip brought the gift of family music back to me. After a few piano-less years my mom recently bought a keyboard because she too wanted to bring more music back into her life and my uncle bought a guitar last week in Mahone Bay, his Nova Scotia guitar, to leave at my parents for their annual trip out east.

Singing together old church choruses, with the rich alto harmonies and male tenor I've known since the womb, is like coming home for me. I am so very thankful for my family, my heritage.

Yes, I have some post-hike anxiety. And I am struggling with lost confidence and self-doubt.

But I also have this. I have love and acceptance. I have my mom hugging me in my tears, reassuring me that I may not have it all together (in this season) but I have her, always. I have music in my blood, and a voice that loves to sing. I have a history, a loving family, roots.

I have security in these relationships.


The beach at high tide

Before our hike we lived at a ski hill, about 20 minutes away from our current home, at the base of a small mountain. Now we live by the ocean. I can walk there but when my foot hurts I take the car.

To make the most of this beautiful location I've been going to the beach every day.

If my foot feels tender, and not up for walking the length of the beach and back, I sit and knit, listening to the waves gently lapping the shore. (I'm actually trying to work on my meditation skills.) Other days I explore the beach with the kids finding sea glass and fossils.

I'm not knowledgeable about the tides but yesterday there was no beach to walk or sit on, only wind-whipped waves crashing against the rock walls.

As a regular haunt, this beach is new to me and in all my previous visits the water has been languid and gentle. So this aggressive surf was unexpected and honestly, exciting. The kids and I laughed in nervous delight, as the waves crashed close and closer to our dry perch. Laurent, seeing a lull in the waves ventured beyond his small promontory rock to a sheltered, and invisible from my vantage point, strip of sand behind some driftwood.

Watching him race back, just ahead of the incoming waves, was like watching a good sports game, complete with raucous cheering.

I'm not sure what I'll do about my daily beach outing when winter comes. We'll figure that out when we get there (one day at at time), but I'm certain the beach will offer new discoveries during that season also. And once I've exhausted or grown bored of that, I'll take to the woods behind the house. I hear there's a good trail back there.


More than a fuzzy feeling

I am so proud of my kids.

I know there are all kinds of parental warnings these days against too much verbal affirmation, or the wrong type of verbal affirmation. We're not supposed to tell our kids they are smart, gifted, or inherently talented. We should praise them for their efforts, for working hard, not simply for being.

I missed the memo. I have been praising my kiddos for years for both outward and inward traits. I think it will turn out ok in the end because the main point of all that affirmation is to communicate my unconditional love for them, and to make sure they know, in their heart of hearts, that they are wonderfully and uniquely created by God - talented, gifted, and intelligent.

I know I'm completely biased but my kids are amazing.

In becoming Appalachian Trail thru-hikers, through their own blood, sweat and tears they have accomplished something that very few adults have enough fortitude to do, never mind children.

As thru-hiker kids they are at the top of an elite class. And yes, I am dang proud of them for their incredibly hard work to achieve that. Something I told them often on the trail, minus the dang part (the kids reprimand me when I swear).

Family thru-hiking was a difficult endeavor and in those moments (and months) of self-doubt about why we had taken on something so monumental I sought a sliver of reasoning to hold on to, something to justify why we'd willingly putting ourselves through these trials, and conscript our kids to come along. (What kind of parents are we??)

The words of encouragement that came most readily to me were ancient and true. They were the Apostle Paul's perspective about trials, perseverance, and character.

But I was mixed up because, without a Bible handy for reference, I kept thinking that character was the highest aim. That we struggled through sufferings, to produce endurance in our lives which in the end, develops character. End of story.

Not so. When I finally took the time to check the verse I was a bit surprised and puzzled that character was not the end goal or "prize" when we suffer tribulations, hope is.

As Christian homeschooling parents, good character is high on the list of our child-raising goals. (I'm not saying non-Christians don't have this same value but Christians tend to place a high value, rightly or wrongly, on character.) Throw in my innate tendencies as a rule abiding, authority respecting ESTJ, and you can see how raising kids with responsible, solid character is something I naturally uphold as a good goal. And so I think I took the bit I knew - trials produce perseverance produce character - and stopped there because for me, often, character is the highest aim.

So when I read the verse again, and wrote it this time in my trial trail journal to ponder further, I was challenged by Paul's idea that hope is the highest aim.

I spent the rest of our hike asking myself the question, "why is hope the highest end, not character?"

I perceive hope as risky, sometimes a bit naive, and almost always too trusting. There are no guarantees.

Character on the other hand is more solid. It's a firm foundation, it's stalwart and steady.

As I wrestled with this I remembered discussions Damien and I have had about our parenting goals for this season of family life. We want our teenagers to be invigorated by hope, ideas, and inspiration for their future. We want them to experiment with creative ideas to solve problems, to take chances and not be afraid.

Yes, we want them to develop good character. We've been working on that since they were toddlers. But maybe that's not the end aim and is only the foundation for the real goal, having the courage and inspiration - the hope - to move forward with living, loving, and learning.

You need both.

If hope is the audacious belief you can fly, then character is the firm footing from which you jump.

Last weekend I picked up and resumed reading Brené Brown's book Daring Greatly. I had started it before our hike but just couldn't get into it with all our efforts and preparations. It's a timely read to get back into. Funny how it was the book most accessible and handy to reach in our many boxes of "life" stored in the basement.

I started near the beginning, where I had left off, but right before closing the book for the night I flipped to the end, to the chapter on Wholehearted Parenting. And this sentence in bold jumped off the page for me.

Hope is a function of struggle.

A new take on ancient wisdom, wouldn't you say?

Brené goes on to say a few things about hope.

If we want our children to develop high levels of hopefulness, we have to let them struggle.

hope isn't an emotion; it's a way of thinking or a cognitive process... [it's] a combination of setting goals, having the tenacity and perseverance to pursue them, and believing in our own abilities.

Children with high levels of hopefulness have experience with adversity. They've been given the opportunity to struggle and in doing that they learn how to believe in themselves.

Our kids came off the trail full of ideas for their future. Hope. Their enthusiasm built on experience and personal knowledge (in their aching muscles) that they have what it takes to accomplish dreams, goals, and vision. Character.

I am proud of my children for their accomplishment. (I am proud of my husband, beyond words, for holding the whole show together.) I am proud of myself for following through on my commitment to our hike even though I felt broken and weak. It didn't actually break any of us. Instead, all that hard work grew our character.

I am extremely gratified at the character traits I see in my children. Determination, tenacity, long suffering, responsibility, sacrifice, kindness.

Equally though and perhaps more importantly, I am thrilled that hope is the fruit of that character growth. That from the foundation of character springs hope and inspiration for their future, hope and inspiration for my future.

Hope. Not a fuzzy, feel-good emotion, or wishful thinking, but a faith rooted in the soil of adversity and perseverance through trials. The confidence that you have what it takes to move forward with your dreams and goals.

That is something to feel good about.


An unraveling of sorts

Reading all your e-mails and comments was hard. It was encouraging and affirming on so many levels but it was hard also.

Sharing my hurt opens the path for healing but also the chance for judgement, misunderstanding, and assumptions. The chance for more hurt. The worst part is that I know I have inflicted this type of hurt on other people in their own times of vulnerability. Unintentionally of course, in my self-righteousness ideas, answers, advice and more benignly, in my general enthusiasm for intentional, values-driven living.

It probably takes a certain amount of personal hurt for an ESTJ to be truly softened to the pain of other people. The compassion I feel for other people's suffering is a gift of my own suffering, and I don't mean that in any cliché kind of way. Some people need to feel hurt themselves in order to have empathy for others. I am one of those people.

I'm pretty vulnerable right now (duh) and in order to protect myself emotionally I'm filtering everything very carefully. I don't spend much time on the Internet these days. I have no desire. A new lovely habit in my life, a carry over from living six months mostly in the woods.

Wading through all your loving assurances and advice has taken me some time. And as soon as something starts to make me feel anxious, you'd be surprised how low that threshold is, I close the computer and make progress on the many projects going on around here. The completion of each one making me feel more at home, more at ease.

I feel incredibly blessed to be loved by so many people. I have friends across the globe. I have friends down the street. I have friends who hosted our family in their home as we thru-hiked the AT. I have extended family who have reached across the continent to love and relate, adding their prayers and"family history" insight to my struggles. I have the four people I share my days with who have been so generous in their love and understanding.

I feel so loved right now. This is a good place to be.

I feel incredibly blessed to be living in and caring for our friend's home. Given that I don't have my own home to return to after a life changing adventure, I see now this was the softest landing possible. Thank you Julie and Tony.

Whenever I share a vulnerability, or a dark place where I'm struggling I am tempted to qualify (I'm not "that" depressed), justify (it was "such and such" that caused this), and otherwise explain all the nuances of my tender heart.

As a thinker, trying to understand my feelings, digging down to the roots is something I need to do, something I am compelled to do. But teasing apart this convoluted, yet beautiful, ball of yarn that is my post-hike life will take time and requires the gentlest of touch. Yanking is not going to unravel those knots but careful diligence and time will.

An unraveling to sort things out.

I've started a little project, which is actually a large scale assessment of my life and plan of action for moving forward. Planning, acting, doing something about it makes me feel better and moves me in the direction of healing and resolution.

I had thought it would be cool to share the outline of that project here, she shall go forth and conquer, but it's an outline in progress, like life itself. And so I think my blogging time is better spent chronicling and sharing the individual pieces of that plan and then at a future point, weaving those threads together into the tapestry they have created.

(In organizational speak I am starting a new personal venture called Project: Home and Healing. Based on my aforementioned life assessment I am creating a three part strategy consisting of mental health work, a return to my roots, and a vision quest to, for lack of a better phrase, "figure things out". As the different pieces of this strategy, the colorful threads of yarn if you will, play out in my life I will share them here. And eventually, hopefully, I will publish the outline as a summary of action, the tapestry. Though the outline may publish itself simply as a list of posts. We'll see.)

I am doing what comes naturally to me, what I am strong at, and feel confident in: creating a structure to help me solve a problem. There are holes in the structure, it isn't complete yet, and it will evolve. Therefore I can't really write it out here. Nor do I want to, it's kind of personal.

But as the pieces of the structure come together, as I recognize and celebrate them, or struggle to build them, I want to share those here as part of my project.

That's the plan.


Where I'm at

I don't staycate well. I'm sure there are ways to do it but coinciding a "break" with a desperate, frantic really, desire to get your life back in order doesn't work so well. Trying to ignore 6 months of paperwork, curriculum planning, and finances was a low simmer stress, that occasionally boiled over. Unfortunately scalding those in nearby vicinity.

I worked my way through last week like a spring under tension. Snapping frequently at my husband, or trying my hardest to stay silent so I wouldn't say one more awful thing. Staying silent has never been my strong suit.

The kids relaxed, as much as possible with a stressed out mom in the house, and thoroughly enjoyed unlimited hours on the xbox and large screen TV.

I barreled around the kitchen mostly - organizing, rooting through our kitchen boxes that were stored in the basement, pulling out my kitchen must-have's, doing the final purge I meant to do this spring, finally re-boxing it all to be stored for our next home. Our next move, the thought depresses me.

No doubt hike re-entry is a big part of my stress.

Our family thru-hike was amazing in so many ways. The experiences we had, wholly unique to the Appalachian Trail, which cannot be re-created or re-lived and are hard to even explain to the uninitiated, were life changing and life enriching. The growth we saw in our children was phenomenal. Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail is now a part of their personal story and a foundation stone for their adult lives. It is a permanent marker of guts and glory in our family story. And it was worth all the hard work it took to achieve it.

But making that dream happen took more out of me than I ever imagined it would. You could say all that "glory" left me gutted. It was a sacrifice. It challenged me in ways I had not expected and pushed me to the edge, and beyond, of my comfort zone again and again. I feel tender and vulnerable from that experience. Bruised actually.

I feel bruised from life in general right now. Moving so many times in recent years (six separate moving transitions in three and half years), finding my place in a new community and new culture, adventuring well beyond my comfort zone, two periods of depression, and the financial uncertainties of self-employment (and a large adventure) have all drained me emotionally, physically, and creatively.

People tell me how strong I am, and maybe looking back I'll see that, but right now I feel weak, broken, sad, and stressed. I feel a heartbreaking loss of essential "me" elements in spite of everything we've gained in our lives in the past few years, the past few months.

Is this death before re-birth? Is this just a really difficult period of transition? Is this re-entry? Is this a sign we need to change course? What is wrong here? How do I find my way back? What am I finding my way back to?

This is so hard. It's hard to write about. It's hard to publish. It's hard to live. It's hard to talk about with my husband.

When I was on the trail I would often have the overwhelming desire to crawl into a cave and curl up in the fetal position. Not a real cave, we didn't see too many of those, a metaphoric cave. A safe and solid place to lick my wounds.

I have struggled so much with my self-worth in the past few months. In my moments of deepest despair I thought that maybe I just wasn't cut out for living. That I inherently "don't have want it takes". These were dark thoughts no doubt precipitated by the mental, emotional and physical intensity of my thru-hiking experience. And I didn't have a grid for that kind of self-hurt and loathing. That was a new level of low.

After nine months of pushing in directions that were uncomfortable for me, growing because of that, but also reaching my breaking point, I don't need a staycation. What I need is to return to Renee affirming and Renee building routines, activities, and relationships, a way of living, that makes me feel strong, healthy and happy.

That is my work right now. And my rest.