Saturday, December 30, 2006

I resolve

I don't normally make New Year's resolutions, but here are a few I thought I could live up to...

I resolve to:
- eat chocolate when I feel like it
- play "would you rather" in the bathtub with Maddie until she outgrows it
- laugh
- read a few good books
- enjoy my husband's kisses
- write things that inspire me
- believe in people
- forgive myself for not getting the laundry put away
- dance in the rain again
- do at least one thing that scares me
- lounge around the house in my pajamas on Saturday mornings with my daughters
- listen to good music
- find new places to wander
- let the kids have coke and chocolate for breakfast on New Year's morning, like they've done every year since the turn of the century
- send a few things in the mail to special people
- go to the Folk Festival and discover a new singer-songwriter to fall in love with
- hang out in my favourite bookstore
- eat s'mores by a campfire
- play Settlers with Julie
- enjoy the company of friends
- walk to 7-11 for a Slurpee with my daughters
- gaze out the window of an airplane
- get a few more things published
- put highlights in Nikki's hair again
- make friends with a stranger
- savour good food
- listen to the birds
- keep doing "lie-with-me-night" until the girls don't want me in their bedrooms anymore
- paint something
- follow my calling
- write blog posts
- daydream
- read interesting magazines
- indulge myself
- show compassion
- pray
- waste time and enjoy it
- encourage my children in their giftedness
- go on a few dates with my husband
- stand up for someone
- eat a fresh mango
- give something away
- be bold
- sleep in late
- be kind to my mother
- ride my bike through the park
- eat popcorn at a movie with one, two, or three of my siblings
- stare into space
- let go of unnecessary things
- visit my dad's grave
- play with lego
- read blogs that make me laugh, cry, smile, cringe, or snort
- sit under an acacia tree
- let my kids stay up late once in awhile
- buy sour soothers and share them with my daughters
- be present for a friend who needs me
- find joy


We pulled out of B&S's driveway in Calgary at 7:08 yesterday morning. At 10:08 last night, we pulled into ours. After exactly 14 hours on the road (crossing over one time zone on the way), many many miles of prairie landscapes, dried out chicken sandwiches in the car, a few close calls where-in the arguing children almost got abandoned in the snow along the side of the road (just kidding - they did quite well), a passable meal at the Burger Baron in Regina, switching drivers whenever we tired of the other's music selection (the driver controls the airwaves), a station break when we found out Saddam had been hanged, and we are home.

I was planning to post some pictures, and I may do that later, but first there is laundry to do, grocery shopping to suffer through, unpacking and re-packing, a haircut for Maddie, a few hundred blog posts to catch up on (I'll try to visit soon) when the other members of the family allow me on the computer, and about a million other things I can't think of right now. In the meantime, if you want to catch a glimpse of just how much fun we had (it was possitively delightful), check out the slide show on my sister's blog.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Blogging in the dark

Because it's nearly impossible to blog or read blogs in a house full of eighteen people, I'm blogging in the dark in the middle of the night. There are sleeping people on nearly every soft surface in this house, including one on the couch beside me, and one on the floor at my feet. I can't turn on the light, nor can I walk very far without tripping over a body.

No, I'm not hiding out in an overcrowded bomb shelter - we're just celebrating Christmas the way we used to do it. With the whole family camped out under one roof for the holidays. It used to be that we'd all head to the farm and the first family to arrive got the best chance of getting an actual bedroom. Latecomers ran the risk of sleeping on the kitchen floor.

In the years since Dad died, Christmas has changed. Mom moved into an apartment in the city, and at Christmas time, those who lived outside the city showed up for a few days and spread out among the available homes in the vicinity. We got together for a meal or two and maybe a night of bowling, but it just wasn't quite the same without the challenges of shared bathrooms and the joys of late night games of Skip-bo.

This year, we finally took my brother up on his longstanding invitation to converge on his house in Calgary. All of the rest of the family are Manitoba-based, so we all loaded up our cars and headed west. It may not be the farm - there are no fresh eggs for breakfast and Dad won't come in from the barn cradling a small animal to delight the children - but this Christmas has held a charm and beauty all its own. There's nothing quite like the pleasure of sharing a few days of undivided attention with my siblings, their spouses and children, and mom and her husband.

There are games to play, loads of food to eat, movies to watch, jokes to laugh at, cousins to entertain the kids, and conversations to fill the hours. There's time for skating, time for hangin' out in the hot-tub, and time for wandering around the nearby lake.

Tomorrow, we head to Banff for the day, and then we begin the trek home. We'll be ready to sleep in our own beds by then, and the people in this house will be ready to have their soft surfaces free of sleeping bodies. In the end, we will be refreshed and reminded why there is nothing quite as good as family.

Sometimes I think that maybe those people who live in cultures where their extended families live under the same roof have got some advantages over the rest of us.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

To the ruined and the hurt

Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I’m preparing for Africa. Perhaps it’s a deep desire to understand the hearts of the people there. Perhaps it comes from working in an organization trying to end hunger. For whatever reason, I seem to have immersed myself in stories of African conflicts lately.

Two of the most recent movies I’ve seen are Hotel Rwanda and Catch a Fire. Both of them are based on true stories about the brutality of conflict in different parts of Africa. Both are about man’s inhumanity to man. Both are dark and depressing, yet thankfully in both, there is a redemptive character – someone who rises above the carnage to demonstrate love, grace, compassion, and incredible courage.

Last week, a journalist visited our office. He’d spent a month in Sudan, trying to follow our food shipment into Darfur, one of the most brutal places on earth these days. He had stories of corruption, fear, carnage, and despair. In the end, the food had to be diverted to another region of Sudan because the passage to Darfur was just too dangerous. According to the World Food Programme, people in Darfur have only enough food to last them until the middle of January. Who will provide for them when it runs out and the rebels don’t allow any more trucks to pass?

Nestar is a young woman who is spending a year working as an intern in our office. Nestar grew up in Uganda, where the ironically named Lord’s Resistance Army has been terrorizing people for most of Nestar’s life. She was displaced from her home at a very young age and has never been able to return to her village. The first week in Canada, Nestar’s host family took her camping. She said she lay in the tent in complete terror, not sleeping a wink all night. To her, sleeping unprotected in the bush was the equivalent of offering herself up to the rebels.

The book I can barely put down these days is called Left to Tell. It’s the incredible story of Immaculée Ilabagiza, a young woman who survived the genocide in Rwanda by hiding for three months in a tiny bathroom with seven other women. The bathroom was so small they couldn’t all sit on the floor at the same time. During her months in the bathroom, Immaculée’s mother, father, and two brothers were brutally slaughtered by the Hutu warriors. One day, while in the bathroom, she heard the killers murder a woman on the street in front of the house. The woman's child was left crying beside her body. All day the baby cried. At night, the crying ended, and then they heard the dogs come to tear the flesh from the bones.

I wish I had a conclusion to this post. I don’t. I don’t know where to go with all of this ugliness and hatred. Some days, it leaves me with such heaviness I can’t shake the melancholy. It’s hardly the way to start the Christmas season, but nonetheless I feel that I have to carry the stories of the people I’ve heard and find some way to honour them.

There may be no conclusion, because so much evil and brutality is still going on in many places in the world. There’s so little I can do about it. Even in Ethiopia, where I’ll be in a few weeks, there are always risks of uprising because of unstable political systems, injustice, and poverty. It’s not something that makes me afraid to go there, but it sits so heavy on my heart sometimes. How can people be so brutal to each other? What evil gets into their bones and drives them to kill?

With all of this weighing down my heart, I find myself clinging to my belief in redemption and hope. If there is evil in the world, than there is also good. There are people willing to risk their lives to save other people. There are people standing up to injustice and saying “no more”. There are people living out the call of Micah 6:8 to “love justice, do mercy, and walk humbly with our god.”

When the heaviness hits me, I turn to the things that breathe peace and hope into my soul. Sometimes it’s the Bible, sometimes it’s a quiet meditative walk, and many times it’s music. This week, it’s been the words of Martyn Joseph.

Yet still this will not be
Though all around is rage
The story getting darker
With each turning of the page
Yet still this will not last
This kingdom of the fool
Will be humbled and made low
When the broken hearted rule

There’s a journey that’s now calling
Towards the ocean’s heart
It’s an offering of mercy
Where we play the selfless part…
We’ll leave our treasure by the roadside
And our trinkets in the dirt
Giving back life and ruby riches
To the ruined and the hurt

In this context of hurt and ruin, I find myself with a few choices. I can rail against a God who lets it all happen and doesn’t rescue his children from torture and despair. I can abandon any belief that there really IS a God who could let this happen. Or I can choose to believe that God weeps weary tears as he watches his children tear each other apart, begging us to find a better way. I haven’t always made the same choice, but today I choose to the third.

Set aside all the trappings of Christmas, and I think that is what is at the heart of it. It’s God’s way of whispering to us “choose humility, choose peace, and choose hope.” The humble birth in a stable is a beacon pointing us to a better way – where power is turned upside down and the greatest way is the way of the child. Even among death and destruction, there is redemption and hope.

I conclude with Immaculée’s final words in Left to Tell. “The love of a single heart can make a world of difference. I believe that we can heal Rwanda – and our world – by healing one heart at a time.”

May you find peace this Christmas, and may you seek peace for those who have none.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Since I get to write at work...

I really don't have time for much personal reflection or posting these days, but since I'm contributing to my work blog right now, I thought I'd at least share what I wrote there. (You're welcome to visit there, but since I prefer to keep my work and personal life separate, I'd prefer it if you'd leave your comments here instead.)

I remember the first time I met Steve Bell. He’d visited the Foodgrains Bank office as a guest of his old friend Stu Clark. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen Steve (I’d been to several of his concerts), but it was the first time I’d shaken his hand or sat around a table chatting with him.

My first impression of Steve was “he is a man of humility”. Although he’d gained success in the world of music, was well recognized across Canada and beyond, and had won JUNO awards for his music, he did not carry himself with the air of a “celebrity”. His down-to-earth style and easy sense of humour made it quickly evident why so many people are drawn to his stories and songs. I knew, almost from the very first moment I met him, that we would become friends.

My second impression of Steve was “he is a deep thinker and an eager learner”. In our first conversation, it was clear that Steve wanted to engage. His visit to the Foodgrains Bank was not simply to shake a few hands or exchange pleasantries. He wanted to learn. He asked lots of questions about things like “food security” and “food justice”. His heart had been touched by the many people in the world living with hunger, and he wanted to know how he could get involved.

Over the next two years, a relationship began to develop between Steve Bell and the Foodgrains Bank. Periodically, we would sit down over lunch or coffee, and each time we did, his questions would reflect his ongoing learning and his desire to gain a deeper understanding of the many root causes of hunger. During that time, Steve was generous with his music, sharing songs for a few multi-media presentations. Last June, he addressed the board of directors, sharing some of his thoughts on how the Foodgrains Bank could grow and engage more and more Canadians in the fight against hunger.

Yesterday, we sat down with Steve and his wife Nanci to plan the newest and most exciting venture in the ongoing relationship. (This was the first time I’d had a chance to meet Nanci, and let me just say I knew almost as soon as I met her, that we would quickly become friends too. Nanci has a comfortable smile that draws you in and makes you feel that you have found a safe place.)

In January, Steve and Nanci and myself (Heather Plett) will travel to Ethiopia to visit a few of the projects supported by the Foodgrains Bank. A camera crew will follow Steve as he meets with people, visits their farms and villages, and learns about their lives and the challenges of living with hunger. In addition, one of Steve’s songs will be recorded for the production of a music video.

It’s hard to describe how exciting this project is for me. For one thing, I fell in love with Africa the first time I visited 2 years ago and I look forward to sharing that with Steve and Nanci. For another thing, I think the development of the resulting videos will be an exciting venture both for the Foodgrains Bank and for Steve. The combination of music and video will create a powerful opportunity for communicating the stories of the people who live with the reality of hunger.

Beyond that, though, it is exciting to travel with people who have deep and thoughtful hearts – people who know how important it is in our walk with God that we not only share generously with those who are hungry, but we get involved in their lives. Jesus paints a powerful picture when he shares the bread at the Last Supper, and that vision of sharing food around a common table is an important part of the work that we do.

Ending hunger is about so much more than sharing food. It’s about building relationships and partnering with those who are hungry. It’s about grappling with the causes of hunger and learning about how we can help change some of those circumstances. It’s also about being willing to make sacrifices and changes in our own lives so that there will be more balance in a world that seems so horribly out of balance. Steve and Nanci are willing to take some risks, ask some thoughtful questions, and get involved. We could hardly ask for better ambassadors or partners in the journey.

To learn more about the projects we will visit in Ethiopia, click here and here. To learn more about Steve Bell, visit Signpost Music.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

You're not supposed to cry while you're wrapping presents

There I was, sitting on the floor of my bedroom, surrounded by wrapping paper, tape, scissors, and a mountain of presents, and what was I doing? Crying. Go figure.

It started with the book I was wrapping for Maddie. Lighthouse by Robert Munsch. It's the story of a little girl who's lost her Grandpa. The first tears came when I realized how little the book will really mean to Maddie. She doesn't remember her Grandpa. He died when she was only a year old.

And then, because I was crying anyway, I shed a few extra tears for the little girl who was in the basement playing with Julie. Remember T? She lost her mom a few months ago and is now living with her uncle because her dad is out of the picture. She was at our house for a sleepover. I sat there on the floor crying for her, because this will be such a different Christmas for her.

Over breakfast this morning, I asked what she'll be doing for Christmas. "Well," she said, "we normally open our presents in the morning, and then we go to my Grandma's house." And then her voice faded away because I'm sure she was remembering that she doesn't have "normal" any more. This year, there will be a new normal, and who knows what that will look like?

I sat their crying because I feel so helpless to do anything for this little girl. I can't give her her mother back. I can't make Christmas happy. I can't give her a safe and happy place to land. I feel so limited, when all I can do is give her a friendly home to visit now and then. And even as I give her that, as we sit around the breakfast table, I feel a little guilty because we have our whole family around the table.

Christmas isn't just about joy. It's about sadness too. It's about loss and loneliness, and getting used to life without some of the people we love.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Making a list, checking it twice

No, I'm not talking about Santa's list. At this point, that's the least of my worries. I've got way too many other lists to worry about right now - I've got no time to give the ol' man in a red suit any thought.

I'm planning 2 very different trips in the next three weeks, and my brain is moving into operation overload. What needs to be done ahead of time? What needs to be packed? What errands do I still have to run? What do I have to organize for the people I'm responsible for? What am I forgetting to communicate? Okay, there's just no way around it. Time to plug some organization into my normally disorganized brain. Yup, I'm makin' lists.

First it's the Christmas trip to visit family. Let's see... what is there to think of? Gotta bring presents, clothes, sleeping bags, air mattress, stuff to entertain the kids in the car, that little magical machine that Marcel sleeps with that ensures both him AND I get a decent night's sleep (it's called a cpap machine - he's got sleep apnea - if we forget that machine, the whole household won't sleep for a week!), skates, a camera, and about a hundred other things that probably won't fit in the trunk of the car. But first I have to finish the Christmas shopping, make sure the girls have appropriate clothes to wear at their Christmas concert, make sure there's enough clean laundry for everyone to pack in their suitcases, attend a family Christmas party, and... oh I've got a headache already.

Then, a few days after our return, it will be time to pack for Ethiopia. Have I picked up my malaria pills yet? No. What about sunscreen? Nope. Packed gifts for our local hosts? Some. Bought extra memory cards for the camera? Yup - check that off the list. Oh but before I start packing there's a press release to write, more coordination with the travel agent, an orientation with the team, a conference call with the Ethiopian consultant, money to be picked up... somebody give me something for this headache!

Ah, but don't get me wrong - it's all good. I've got so much to look forward to that the stress feels more than manageable. Once I get my lists made and I can start putting checkmarks beside things, I'll feel much better. In the meantime, though, this blog will probably take low priority. Which, at this point, because Blogger is driving me crazy and won't let me (or anyone else) comment in most places, may not be such a bad thing.

For all those people on whose blogs I TRIED to comment, you'll just have to trust me that I'm still thinking of you. (Lucia, I've tried to tell you about three times that I hope you have a great trip!) And to those of you who sent me emails asking for an African postcard/blessing- THANKS! I look forward to the hunt for some interesting postcards.

For those who haven't sent an email yet... there's still time! I'm still in Canada (in relatively close proximity to a computer) until the end of the year.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Be blessed

Last week, I got home from a busy day of board meetings to discover that my painting from Andrea had arrived in the mail. Ahhhh. What a refreshing touch of magic in an otherwise long and draining day! I was blessed. By colour, wonder, friendship, creativity, and connection. I’d already received blessings by visiting Andrea’s blog, so this was a further blessing of her personal giftedness with a paintbrush. She can paint better than I could dream of painting. Now that it’s hanging on my wall, I let her art inspire the art in me. Thank you Andrea.

Last night, after another busy day at work, I arrived home to discover two more blessings had arrived in the mail. What fun! Nowadays, too much of the mail that arrives at our house is either junk mail (will the Christmas flyers NEVER stop?) or bills, so it’s a rare treat to receive something personal.

The first blessing was a Christmas card from Vicki and her family. She has a beautiful family – just the kind of people who look warm and comfortable and open. I think our family could spend a fun Saturday afternoon hanging out with their family, if the distance between us were less. I have been blessed by Vicki through her card, her blog, her emails, and her visits to my blog. Thank you Vicki.

The second blessing I received in the mail yesterday was a beautiful little blessing book from Jen Lemen. Something had touched her heart, and made her think of me. Instead of letting the feeling pass without lending it energy, she created a blessing book especially for me. Her words touched a special place in me that was open to her blessing. “You are being held in perfect love even now.” “Your strengths are a gift. Your talents are a blessing. Use them now to bring light where there was darkness, hope where fear once reigned.” I am grateful that she was open to the nudging of her muse and that she took the time to reach out to me. If you read her blog, you’ll soon realize that Jen has an uncanny ability to recognize the need in other people, speak directly to their hearts, and breathe words of wisdom and comfort into the dark or lonely spaces. Thanks Jen.

All of these little blessings in the last week have made me contemplate how I’m living out the call that I, like everyone else, have to share my giftedness by showering blessings on other people. Because I believe, deep in my heart, that all of us are meant to reach out and touch each other. We are all gifted with something – the ability to make art, the gift of encouragement, the wisdom to offer good counsel, the strength to challenge systems that hurt people, the ability to teach, the courage to stand up for marginalized people, the gift of humour to lift people up, the compassion to know when someone needs help, the ability to communicate so that other people feel less alone – and these things are meant to be shared.

Sometimes, we take these gifts for granted. We underestimate our own power to touch other people. We think our gift is not worthy, or we assume that someone else could do it better. We feel the nudging to share the blessing of our giftedness, and instead of taking action, we brush it off because it feels like too much of a risk. We deprive each other of the opportunity to be blessed because we limit ourselves by our pride or low self-esteem. Sometimes it’s because we’ve been hurt and we don’t want to risk getting hurt again. Sometimes it’s because we haven’t been raised to believe in our own worthiness. Sometimes we’ve told ourselves so often that our giftedness is without value that we start to believe it.

I am so glad that Jen, Vicki, and Andrea took the risks to send little pieces of themselves to me. I’m so glad they didn’t let the little voices of doubt stop them from blessing me.

I wish that I could say that I always follow up on the opportunities and inspirations I have to offer blessings. I don’t. I have lots of good intentions, but I let them pass with the wind. I hope though, that even though I don’t always get things in the mail (this year’s Christmas cards, for example) I have offered some blessing to you through the words I write on this blog. Because that is one giftedness that, after nearly 40 years of telling myself I’m not really good enough, I’m willing to own. I may not be able to paint, but I can write. And this is my covenant to you, dear reader, I will continue to share this gift with you, and I hope that you will be blessed.

And, here’s another offering of blessing… I have a few days of down time in Ethiopia next month. I’m willing to share a little blessing of Africa with you. If you will send me your mailing address (my email address can be found in my profile), I will take the time to hunt down some postcards and send one to everyone who takes the risk to ask for one. It’s possible that I won’t find postage until I return to familiar soil, but I will commit to getting them out sometime in January.

I know how much I have been blessed by the gifts in my mail. Now please offer me the opportunity to bless you.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Whatever (in other words, I have no inspiration for a title)

1. In answer to some of the questions on the last post, I don't expect to have much opportunity for posting while I am in Ethiopia. At the beginning and the end, I will be in a hotel in Addis Ababa, and there's a chance there might be internet access there, but in between, we'll be traveling to pretty remote sites. I expect we'll be sleeping in mud huts, so the chance of electricity, let alone internet, is fairly slim. What I will do, however, is post my journals (and pictures) when I get home. I did the same last time I travelled, and if you're interested, you can find it all in February/March 2005. And if you want to see my pictures from that trip, you can find them here (at the site I keep meaning to build - one of these days when I manage to find a 36 hour day).

2. Sorry I can't bring any babies home. Joyce and Andrea's requests reminded me about Matthew, the little boy I fell in love with in an orphanage in Tanzania. It may have had something to do with the fact that he shared a name with my stillborn son, but this child was truly irresistible. We played with the children under the tent in the backyard, took some of them swimming, and mostly got our hearts wrenched out of our chests. Most of these children had been orphaned because of AIDS and some of them had contracted the disease themselves. Matthew was one of the lucky ones - he tested negative.
Matthew in TanzaniaHere he is modeling my sunglasses. I was happy to learn, after I returned home, that he was adopted by a Tanzanian family. You can read Matthew's story here. Warning to all those who desperately want a little African baby in their homes, visiting the orphanage's website can be hazardous to your health. I'm even wondering about the wisdom of letting my husband know where to find it, because he dreams of having a little African son like Matthew.

3. Just like the last time I was preparing to go to, I find myself poring over all things African. I was in a bookstore looking for the book Jen Lemen recommended, but couldn't find it. I may need to order it. I also watched a great documentary called Black Gold that I would recommend to anyone interested in learning more about the coffee industry and the way it impacts coffee farmers in Ethiopia. It is appalling that the coffee that costs nearly three dollars at Starbucks (for one cup!) doesn't provide enough income for the farmers to send their children to school, or even feed them sufficiently. There's just something seriously wrong with this world when the rich countries send aid to poor countries, but won't consider changing trade rules to protect them so that they can provide for themselves instead of relying on aid. Watch the movie, and you'll be lining up at the fair trade coffee stores instead of Starbucks.

4. On an entirely unrelated note... Let this be a warning to you: DO NOT make Vicki's Apple Cake recipe unless you have better willpower than me. If you make it, you will not be able to resist having seconds or even thirds. You will look for excuses to walk through the kitchen so you can nibble on the edges or run your finger along the side of the pan to lick the sauce. When you clear the table, you will have to muster all your willpower NOT to lick the dessert plates before putting them in the dishwasher. It's just that good. And I think Whippersnapper would agree, because she helped me eat it. Only I wasn't generous enough to send her home with any because, well, I wanted to hoarde it for myself. I may even hide the rest of it from my kids.

5. Today was an incredibly beautiful day here in the place others (who are disrespectful and don't deserve to live in our beautiful city) call "Winterpeg". So nice that I looked for excuses to walk to the store (or beyond). If I had one of those weather pixies like Hope, she would have been shedding the layers today and dancing in the sunshine.

6. I got my painting from Andrea this week. Yay! Being an art owner just makes me feel so happy, not to mention cultured and interesting! If I could, I would fill my home with art, and then I would spend hours just sitting and gazing at my lovely treasures.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Going to Africa again

In less than a month, I will stand, once again, on African soil. I will breathe deeply the scent of fragrant blossoms. I will lick the sweet nectar of mangoes from my fingers. I will embrace the people who welcome me. I will sit with stranger-friends and hear their stories. I will sleep on the rough earth and not even mind if goats or roosters keep me awake. I will marvel at the majesty of wild animals. I will let people touch me. I will walk through their fields and let them show me their harvests. I will let the tears flow when I see the needs. I will let the joy fill me when I see their compassion and grace. I will soak it all in and let my soul be moved.

Almost exactly two years ago, I started this blog because I was preparing for my first trip to Africa and I wanted a space to process my feelings and thoughts before that trip. My first post was called "Going to Africa" and in it, I said this:

I will listen and let them teach me. I will open my heart to the hope and the hurt. I will tread lightly on their soil and let the colours wash over me. I will allow the journey to stretch me and I will come back larger than before.

Now, two years later, I know that I did indeed come back larger than before. I was stretched beyond my expectation, and I fell in love with a place that I knew would draw me back. It's hard to describe how a place like Africa moves me in ways I've never been moved by any other country. It got under my skin and into my heart. It becomes somewhat addictive.

How very, very lucky I am to be going back. I work for an incredible organization that supports food-related programming all over the world. I will be visiting 2 of those programs in Ethiopia. The amazing thing about traveling with an organization like ours is that we visit places that no tourist will ever see. We see the way people live in the remotest parts of the country where little if any "modernization" has touched them. We'll visit a region where we've supported local efforts to build irrigation systems to grow better crops. While there, I hope to see Elizabeth again. She's an incredible young Ethiopian woman (only 23 years old) who manages a large team of engineers and other labourers in the development of irrigation ditches and model farms. She is a powerful force for positive change in Ethiopia and I am in awe of her strength and wisdom.

This trip will have the added bonus that I get to enjoy the journey with an incredible travel companion. Steve Bell and his wife will be joining us, along with a small crew who will produce a video for us while we're there. I'm very excited about this project. Steve is an amazing musician whose depth and wisdom shines through in his music. You may recall a post a few weeks ago after I attended his concert with the Symphony. I've enjoyed getting to know him over the past 2 years, and I know that his presence will make the journey even more exciting.

In the meantime though, there is much planning to do, and my mind is going a hundred places at once. Planning itineraries, booking flights, getting the necessary immunizations, writing story-boards for the video production, arranging conference calls for the team, etc., etc. On top of that, there are Christmas presents to be bought, the family Christmas trip to plan - oh, the list goes on and on. In a month, I will relax, eat injera and lentils, and let the sun warm my cold Canadian skin. But until then, I have to try to get everything done while remembering to live in the present, enjoy my kids, and let the wonder of Christmas fill me.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Thinking outside (or inside) the box

I just finished reading Augusten Burroughs' book Magical Thinking. In it, he describes magical thinking as his ability to think something into being. When he wanted a bestselling book, he just thought about it hard enough, and sure enough, it came to pass.

In my little world, magical thinking is the ability to turn an ordinary box into a television, a computer, or a car. Last night, when I climbed into bed with Maddie for lie-with-me night, she was curled up next to her dolly who was sitting inside a small gift box. "We're just watching TV," she said. "Do you want to watch with us?" Why, yes I did. And so, lying in front of a cardboard box with the lid leaning at just the right angle so all three of us (dolly, Maddie and I) could see it, we watched The Amazing Race. Then, when the cardboard version of the show was over, the box became a computer, and Maddie taught her dolly how to play games at pbs.org. Before I left the room, the box had transformed into a car, and it was time to drive dolly to her bed. And to think I almost threw that magical box away!

Tonight, when I went to tuck Maddie in, the box had been dismantled and has now become a bed for dolly.
Maddie and dolly
Imagine all that from a box! I want that kind of magical thinking.

And since we're on the box theme, did you know that a 4-year-old fits perfectly in the Christmas tree box? And if your little sister climbs in and closes the lid, you can sit on it and she can't get out.
In the Christmas box
The best part was that she ENJOYED being inside the box and actually WANTED her sisters to sit on it. I'm not sure what kind of magical thinking was at play in this case, but it didn't end in tears, which is more than I can say for some of the things her older sisters put her through.

For Christmas, she's getting a bunch of boxes in various sizes. Who needs more than that when you've got magical thinking on your side?

Weekend bits and pieces

- On Friday night, we celebrated my oldest daughter, Nicole. No, it’s not her birthday, but given the recent step in her journey toward womanhood, I thought it was fitting to celebrate her growth. I’d read about “menarche parties” and “red parties” and new agey dancing-naked-around-the-moon type ceremonies that would totally freak her out, but instead of doing something completely outside her comfort zone, she selected a few female friends and mentors, and we celebrated her. It was a low-key affair – just dinner out, complete with delectable desserts and good conversations. The event suited the girl – classy, comfortable, and quiet and not ostentatious or overboard.

- Was there any sanity involved in the creation of Crazy Frog? After they’d put up with my music selection for about an hour, it was the girls’ turn to make a selection. I let them play Crazy Frog on the condition that it would ONLY stay on as long as they were cleaning the house. The moment I found them slacking off, the cd would get banished (possibly even destroyed) and it would be my turn again. The motivation seemed to work, because they cleaned for much longer than normal, which meant that I was subjected to synthesizer hell for about 45 minutes. And of course, for the rest of the day, I had the annoying voice of the crazy frog repeating inane words like “the crazy frog is jumping” ad nauseum in my brain. I think the cd may go missing between now and next week’s housecleaning binge. For the parent who let their child buy this for Julie for her birthday - I'VE GOT YOUR NUMBER!

- Saturday was about as long as I could hold out in the “we’re not putting up the Christmas tree until December” plan. The girls have been bugging me to do it for about 2 weeks, but I stood by my rule (otherwise known as “buying myself some time”). On Saturday, after the house had been cleaned (that was the other motivation for the 45 minutes of cleaning time), the girls and I made our annual trek to Ten Thousand Villages for their new ornaments. I used to buy them Hallmark ornaments each year, but now I just take them to our favourite fair trade store and they get to pick out an interesting ornament from another part of the world. Our tree is delightfully eclectic, to say the least. Some day they’ll move out, take their decorations with them, and I’ll be left with nothing more than a few bows, a sparkly egg that says “our first Christmas together”, a dough creation of Santa flying an airplane, and the pregnant bear that says “mom-to-be”.

- I had told myself that, since we won’t be home for Christmas, I would only put up the tree and forget about all the other decorations around the house, but then the tree looked so lonely and I couldn't resist putting up the nativity scene, the garlands, the bows around the candles, the lights over the picture window, the nutcracker, the Father Christmas figurine – you name it. It’s beginning to look a LOT like Christmas.

- All those people who keep telling ccap “just you wait” about how challenging child rearing can get when they reach a certain stage (and of course the stages keep changing) can just shut up, because I’m lovin’ every stage. On Saturday, as I sat back and watched my tree get decorated without any effort on my part (except that I put the lights up), I quite enjoyed the fact that my kids are old enough to do it on their own without me having to reach the high branches and protect the breakable ornaments. The same was true on Sunday, when they decorated gingerbread men, and I could sit and sip my tea with the other adults and didn’t have to be forever fussing with icing and sprinkles. It’s not that I don’t enjoy doing it with them, but it’s quite lovely when it becomes less work and they can do much of it themselves. (Okay, so the truth is - I'm just lazy and I had kids so I could make them my slaves!)

- Marcel spent most of the weekend watching the Liberal leadership race, because that's his idea of a GOOD TIME. I was interested too, because I want to know who might possibly lead our country one day, but the result is about the only information I really needed to know. I don't know if they made the right choice, but I do know I'm glad Ignatieff didn't win. He left a bad taste in my mouth.

- I finally got around to watching Hotel Rwanda this weekend. It’s one of those movies I’ve been meaning to watch for awhile now, and I think I actually rented it once before but had to return it before I got a chance to see it. On Saturday night, Marcel was out with his siblings, the girls were watching something else on TV, and I crawled into bed with a cup of tea and the portable dvd player that the girls won last year, and I watched the movie. It’s heartbreaking but beautiful. I love movies that show the beauty and grace of otherwise flawed people in the midst of ugliness and hatred.

- Have you ever seen a chicken explode? On Sunday, we invited friends (Yvonne and George, for those of you who know them), and family (ccap and her boy and girl) over for supper and we cooked a chicken. I’m not sure if it was because I put it in the roaster upside-down, but when I opened the roaster, the centre of it was blown open - almost like a small explosive device had gone off in the chest cavity. My first thought was “of COURSE the chicken blew up – it’s because I’m a lousy cook and even worse host”, but then when I was finished channeling my mother, I invited everyone into the kitchen to see the spectacle. I was a little nervous of feeding it to guests, for fear that I might inadvertently be subjecting them to salmonella or some other horrid form of food poisoning, but we all ate it, and as far as I know, no-one got sick. Whew!

- It’s a good thing I’m going back to Africa next month (more on that later) because I used my very last Kenyan tea bag last night. I thought I’d used them all up months ago, but then I discovered a small box I forgot I had. Yesterday, I pulled the last bag out and threw the box away. Sigh. I don’t know if it’s REALLY that much better tasting than the other stuff from the store, but I just like the fact that it connects me with my African experience every time I take one out of the box.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

A good choice, I'd say

Remember the coat I bought for $90 and then decided it wasn't quite right for me? Well, I returned it, paid a visit to the Sally Ann (otherwise known as the Salvation Army thrift store), bought this coat for $5...
And then for good measure, I bought this funky wrap/shawl for $3...
BUT the best part of all? With a few extra dollars thrown in, I bought THIS PAINTING from blog friend and talented artist, Andrea Pratt from Colouring Outside the Lines.
I'm SO excited and I can't wait to get my painting in the mail. Like I've said before, when I make money freelance writing (and it's not usually very much), I try to re-invest the money in myself by buying something that will inspire me - a book, a cd, something like that. Well I wasn't sure a faux fur coat would inspire my creativity, but I'm pretty sure this fun and colourful painting will.

One of the greatest things about blogging (a rather unexpected delight) has been the opportunity to meet artists, writers, and other creative people from all over the world. I love to be part of a creative community like this, and I hope the brilliance of all these shining stars rubs off on me.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

What makes a person do that?

Today I read of a 68 year-old great-grandmother who made fresh pita bread for her family for supper, then left the house, strapped on a suicide belt, approached a group of Israeli soldiers, and blew herself up.

I can't get this woman off my mind. I want to understand her. I want to be able to comprehend what it is that leads a person to do that. It seems important to me to be able to understand the tipping point for her. Maybe if I understand her, I can honour her in some way. Maybe if I understand her, both her pain and her hope can have more meaning than what seems like just a wasted death.

What darkness creeps into your soul and eats away at you until you are convinced that blowing yourself and others to bits is worth the pain and heart-ache you will cause your children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren? Did she become obsessed with revenge, or did she really think she was contributing to a solution? If it was revenge, was it the loss of her grandson and the crippling of another? The injury and imprisonment of her three sons? The destruction of her home? Or the deep sorrow she felt after witnessing a massacre?

If she had loftier visions of helping to resolve the conflict, did she envision that the death of a 68 year-old grandmother would be a powerful wake-up call for the warring factions and those who stand by as witnesses?

Each of the things she had to endure is painful, and together they seem almost incomprehensible in their tragedy. It's not hard to understand her anger and desire for revenge. But I just can't quite get past the fact that, by avenging the pain she'd seen and suffered, she caused even more pain for all the people who loved her. You'd think that would have stopped her from pulling the pin.

Surely she knew how hard it would be to swallow her last offering of pita bread after they'd learned of the offering of her life.

Or perhaps the pain had buried her in its rubble, destroyed her capacity for reason, and rendered her only a shell of the grandma she wanted to be. Perhaps she thought the future for her family looked brighter without her bitterness and anger tainting their every waking hour.

On the other hand, maybe she was thinking clearly and knew the pain she'd cause, but she felt a strong calling from God to offer herself as a sacrifice. Perhaps, in the depths of her faith, she believed that this was what she'd been put on this earth to do.

Putting aside the complicated middle east politics that I don't pretend to comprehend, I'm not sure whether to think of her as a hero for being willing to sacrifice her own life, or a coward and a fool for not sticking around for her family. Perhaps the truth is somewhere in between.

Given the same set of circumstances, would any of us do the same?

Monday, November 27, 2006

Just say maybe

Eight years ago, my supervisor at the time said something simple yet fairly profound in his assessment of me. He said that one of my strengths and flaws was my ability to see both sides of an issue. In his view, it was a strength in that I was able to understand people’s perspective and tend to refrain from being overly judgmental. But it was a flaw in that it held me back when it was time to make a decision and stand firmly on one side or another.

A few months ago, I had yet another annual performance review in a long line of annual performance reviews. As much as they’re necessary evils, I dislike them – both when I’m the one DOING the review (of my staff) and when I’m the one RECEIVING the review. I’ve had approximately 10-15 of them. I’ve done even more of them. I’ve grown weary of them. Partly it’s because they’re a little artificial and I think that people should be guided along a pathway on a day-to-day basis rather than face an annual assessment of how close to the path they’re staying.

I get along great with my boss, and mostly he said highly positive things about me, but one of the things he said about me has stayed with me because it reflected what I’d heard eight years ago. He said that sometimes I’m a bit too much of a “maybe” person – that I occasionally have trouble making a firm decision or seeing things as black or white, especially if it might negatively impact a person or group of people.

It’s true, it’s one of my greatest flaws. It’s also one of my greatest strengths. I am a leader and communicator partly because I can understand different people’s perspectives and can usually figure out the best way to get through to them and empathize with them wherever they stand. I can also find common ground in almost every disagreement. At the same time, I am held back in my leadership abilities because I am often not as directive or bold as I should be. I anticipate people’s negative responses to a decision (on one side or another), and so I hold back to avoid hurting them or causing dissent. I can usually see why something is a bad idea just as clearly as I can see why it’s a good idea. As a result, I get stuck in the middle of too many issues.

I think this strength/flaw explains why I prefer to be a “facilitator” rather than a “leader”. In my current job, I have to be a leader. I have to make decisions for a team, and every time I do, there are some people who disagree with me. I don’t enjoy it. I don’t like to “play the heavy”. I’d rather be the consultant they hire to help them come up with good ideas, help them see their way through impasses, and help them figure out how to strengthen their communication and build their teams. That way I can leave the decision-making up to someone else as I wander off to another project or task. That way, I can use my strength/flaw to its greatest advantage and nobody gets hurt.

The truth is, I want to embrace this piece of me, this strength/flaw. I want to embrace it and make it beautiful, so that it will in turn bring beauty to what it touches. I don't want to be afraid to be bold, but I also want to be content with being a "maybe person". Because sometimes the "maybe persons" are the most comfortable ones to be with in the middle of all these shades of grey. And sometimes, the "maybe persons" are the ones that lead us in the directions that feels right for all of us.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Much better now, thanks

I'm starting to feel human again. Yay! Do you know how good it feels to brush your teeth and have a bath after you've been sick? SO good! (Again, I'm searching for a metaphor, but I got nothin'.)

I'm surprised I actually managed to post yesterday. Truth is, I was a little delirious, so you'll have to forgive me for my lack of discretion. I was so exhausted all day, I couldn't make it from one room to the next without stopping to rest on whatever piece of furniture was in my direct path. At one point, Marcel asked what I was doing on the couch when I'd said I was going to bed and I said, plaintively, "I just couldn't make it that far." I think the only reason I made it to the computer was because I had to get downstairs to throw the soiled clothes and bedding in the washing machine, and the computer chair was the closest place to rest before making my way back to bed.

I just have to say one more thing... I think my daughter Julie is growing up to be a beautiful gracious girl, and the next time I'm sick, I want her around. She brought me blankets, offered to get me drinks, and basically served me whenever she could. This morning, when I emerged from my bleariness, she brought breakfast in bed. How good is THAT? (I'll overlook the fact that she's fighting with her sister right now because she was so good to me yesterday.)
Update on Julie:
Today, while I sat by and watched rather groggily, she baked the most amazing blueberry muffins. I may just have discovered the perfect "after-you've-been-sick-and-can-barely-smell-food-let-alone-digest-it" food - Julie's blueberry muffins! Mmmmmm...

Friday, November 24, 2006

Not for the faint of heart

I am sick today. Sick, sick, sick. (I'm trying to think of a catchy metaphor to emphasize just how sick I am. 'Sick as a dog' just isn't working for me. 'Sicker than a mad cow?' Hmm... has potential.) I got whalloped by one of those stomach bugs that my body takes very, very seriously. I'm sure I threw up ten times last night. And I am not a polite, lady-like vomiter. Oh no - none of that for me! My wretching is violent and horrible and frightening for small children. Sometimes I swear my stomach will turn itself inside out, do a flip flop out my throat and into the toilet. Last night I'm sure I saw the shadow of death pass over me.

(Okay - if this is turning you off, feel free to visit someone else's blog. 'Cause it gets worse from here.) Perhaps the violent wretching contributes to the fact that I frequently pass out when I vomit. I think it cuts off the oxygen to my brain or something. Or else my brain says to my body parts "Okay folks, shut 'er down, this one looks like the death of us. Might as well make ourselves comfortable on the floor." It's pretty horrible. You don't even want to imagine what it's like to wake up on the floor in a pool of your own vomit. And last night it was even worse, because it was coming out both ends. (Am I going too far here? I SAID you could leave.)

Because he's used to me passing out, Marcel is usually right there beside me, trying to catch me when I fall. Let me tell you, there are few sounds more comforting when you're huddled over a toilet, than the rapid footsteps of the one you love.

I'm not sure Marcel knew what he was getting into when he said "in sickness and in health." When you're standing up there at the alter, ready to say "I do", you do not immediately picture your beloved lying in a pool of vomit. Nor do you imagine yourself cleaning her off and shuffling her back to bed.

And yet he shows up in the bathroom every time, and with a look of resolve on his face, puts his hand on my shoulder while I wretch. I don't care what anyone else says, but THAT'S how you define love. I can do without the flowers or chocolates or fancy dinners out, as long as I have that hand on my shoulder for as long as we both shall live.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

About the person who shows up in the comments as "Old Roommate"

Remember the black skirt? Remember the good karma? Remember the friend who came back into my life after an absence of almost ten years?

It's my friend Kari and she's BACK! And she's a blogger! She's gonna hate me for this, but you should all go over to her blog and say hello. She'll get mad and probably tell me I had no business sending people to her blog because "it's boring, she's a bad writer, she's a techno-illiterate, blah, blah, blah" but don't pay any attention to her self-deprecation because she's brilliant and funny and YOU WILL LOVE HER. Besides, she's been mad at me before (I seem to recall a drink in my face when she thought I was trying to set her up with some guy at a party), and she always gets over it quickly. Here's hoping she hasn't figured out a way of tossing a cyber-drink my way.

Truly, she is funny, humble, down-to-earth, bold, beautifully honest, uninhibited, and she writes a really entertaining blog. It is so much fun having her back in my life. I have the greatest memories of life with Kari, back when we were roommates. Some of the memories are kind of strange, I'll admit. Like the night we were both laughing so hard at something (possibly at the way we were both inconsiderate slobs and our other roommate kept the place together) and I ended up lying on the floor under the rocking chair - I really don't remember much except that I remember the view from beneath the rocking chair. Or the night we rented the movie The Music Box, but by the end of it we were both so depressed and didn't want to go to bed on that note, so we walked to the video store in the middle of the night and rented a comedy. Or the time we got the munchies after testing a bunch of recipes in the drinks recipe book she'd bought me for my birthday and we walked to Safeway and ended up sitting on the sidewalk giggling. Or the really raunchy postcards of X-rated clubs and peepshows she used to send me from London (just to make me LAUGH people - no other reason!), addressed to my OFFICE because she didn't want our other roommate to see them.

For years, I knew there was a hole in my life because Kari wasn't there anymore. She keeps me grounded in a way few people can. She has a unique way of making me feel normal and special and reasonably well-balanced despite my many quirks and flaws. She knows some of my deep dark secrets, my insecurities, and my stains and she loves me anyway. ('Course she has no choice because I know HER deep dark secrets too. Mwa-ha-ha.)

Now that we're both moms we can continue to laugh at our failures and flaws and the way we're messing up our children and feel a little more sane because we're not the only one in these shoes. Welcome back Kari!

Here we are, back in the days of our youth. Kari's the one in the middle.

Random bits and pieces

- In the last 24 hours, the temperature has dropped 24 degrees - from a balmy +12 degrees (Celsius), to a rather cool -12 degrees. Those living in the warmer south may think that's a little whacky, but I don't really mind living in a place with temperature mood swings. It makes life interesting, because it can just as easily swing the other way around.

- If you want to see an amazing sight, visit my office at about 4:30 in the afternoon. I have a view of the highrise office buildings of Winnipeg, and around that time, the sun is beginning to set and it makes all the tall buildings glow a brilliant orange. Breathtaking. Yesterday there was a verigated pink cotton candy effect on the skyline behind it to add to the tapestry.

- Is it just me, or when you see an empty plastic bag dancing in the wind do you remember that amazing scene from American Beauty? Sometimes I see one float up to my fourth floor office window and I have to just stop and stare at the raw beauty of it.

- It's not only raw beauty I see from my office window. Sometimes it's rather ugly. There's a rather seedy hotel across the street and occasionally there are people passed out on the street in a drunken stupor. Once in awhile I see a fight break out. A few weeks ago, there was a car on the sidewalk and police had taped the area off. It turns out, the guy driving the car had died of a heart attack while driving and when his car hit the sidewalk, he'd hit one of the people who was hanging around in front of the hotel.

- Does anyone really care about TomKat's extravagant wedding? Do they think sinking hoardes of money into it is going to make the marriage last longer?

- Speaking of TomKat's wedding, why the heck was Brooke Shields there? Has she no pride?

- And speaking of TomKat's wedding (maybe I do care after all - teehee), don't you just feel horribly sorry for his two older children? They had to watch both of their parents get married in the same year. That's just not fair. It was hard enough for me to get used to the idea of my mom getting remarried and I'm an ADULT and my mom was a widow. I can't imagine how messed up it feels for a kid whose parents are still both alive.

- Does anyone understand why Oprah insists on putting a picture of HERSELF on every single magazine? Is it some kind of huge ego trip, or does that really help sell magazines? I can tell you it's a deterrent for me, but perhaps I'm a minority.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Maybe there's such a thing as overthinking something

I had ninety dollars burning a hole in my pocket. It was the last cheque from my short-lived writing contract with Words of Life magazine. (Just after they accepted me as a monthly writer, they shut down the magazine. Bummer.) Since I usually consider the small amounts of money I receive for freelance writing as my "fun/personal development money", I felt justified in spending it on myself.

I headed to Winners to see if I could find a new coat. I don't really NEED a new coat. I have a perfectly good parka that's still fairly new, plus I have a long coat that's good enough even though I don't particularly like it. But what I wanted was somewhere between the two - a shorter coat that was a little more dressy than a parka.

At Winners I found a coat that I instantly fell in love with. Perhaps it was the feel of it that I just couldn't get enough of. It's black faux fur with a black and brown stand-up collar and large cuffs at the arms. It is so soft you just can't resist touching it over and over again. I tried it on and glanced at myself in the mirror. Wow. I'd never looked so glamorous and put together! This coat was smokin'! And it was $89 dollars! Perfect.

I bought it, and as I drove home with it, I kept reaching into the bag to touch its luxurious softness.

When I got home, I put it on in the garage before walking into the house to model it for my family. When I opened the door, I was greated with dumbfounded stares. And not in a good way. The stares quickly turned into frowns and even sneers. They were NOT impressed. Clearly, my family had not fallen in love in the same way I had. Nikki promised me she'd walk five feet away from me if I EVER wore that coat in public. Marcel tried to redeem himself after his first stuttered response, but he only sank himself further into the hole. It just wasn't working for him.

Undeterred, I swore that I didn't care whether or not they liked the coat, I LIKED IT and that was what counted. Part of me was more convinced than ever that I would flaunt this coat in front of them every chance I got because I HAVE A RIGHT TO LIKE WHAT I WANT even if they don't agree.

But... a few days passed, and I didn't wear the coat. My excuse was that the temperature had warmed and it just wasn't cold enough to warrant a faux fur coat. That wasn't the whole truth though. I began to suspect that perhaps my family was at least partly right - the coat just didn't suit me.

Last night, when I drove the girls to piano lessons, I wore the coat for the first time. During their lesson, I went to my favourite bookstore and wandered around wearing the coat. I realized as I wore it that it didn't quite have the effect I'd hoped for. It didn't make me feel special and elegant and interesting. It made me feel self-conscious. It's a coat made for someone who carries glamour gracefully, not someone like me who wears scuffed shoes and torn gloves, never has the latest hairstyle, doesn't push back the cuticles on her nails let alone paint them, doesn't pluck her eyebrows, and wears little if any make-up. I realized as I walked around the mall that if I kept the coat, I would also need to buy new accessories to go with my "new look". I'd need new gloves, a new pair of boots (instead of my clunky boots that are warm but scream "non-glamorous"), a new headband, and a new scarf. And my bag made from African fabric just wouldn't suit, so I'd need a new bag too. This coat could end up costing me alot more than $90.

Another thing happened while I was in the mall. I spotted some people who are associated with the non-profit organization I work with. When I found myself avoiding them, I realized that I would feel horribly self-conscious wearing my new coat to work (or to the circles closely associated with my work) where I'm surrounded by a lot of committed idealists who believe in simplicity and non-consumerism. The coat screams the opposite of those ideals. And then, as I analyzed my reaction, I realized that those ideals are not only important to the people I work with, they're important to me too.

So then I began to think about what I base my decisions on. Can I buy a coat that I like just because I happen to like it and overlook the fact that others think differently? Can I buy a coat that might make me look like the person I try hard not to be - a materialistic consumer - even though it wasn't ghastly expensive? Can I buy a coat and be satisfied that I don't have the necessary accessories to match? Or will the coat make me feel pressured to buy more stuff? Am I too concerned about what other people think of me and the way they might judge me? Is it okay to be a little extravagant now and then and still be committed to simplicity and non-consumerism? Would I feel comfortable wearing the coat in front of some of the people whose hunger we are trying to end - like Paulina? Am I taking this stupid coat WAY too seriously?

Before I went to bed last night, I knew I'd be returning the coat. Perhaps it won't be for the "right" reasons. But then I'm not entirely sure we EVER make decisions with entirely pure motives. Aren't we always at least a little influenced by peer pressure, self-consciousness, and what other people think? Sometimes there are conflicts even in our non-pure motives (for example, I know that SOME of my friends and associates would love the coat even though others don't) and that muddies the water even more. Sometimes even the decisions that seem morally pure and altruistic are made mostly for the purpose of APPEARING morally pure and altruistic.

I know it's just a coat, but it represents something much bigger than that. It represents the choices I make in my life, the image I portray to the world, the importance I place on "things", the example I set for my children and the way I try to find a balance in an imbalanced world. I may not make the "perfect" choice with the $90 (for example, I'm not sure I'll altruistically give it to charity instead of spending it on myself), but I want my choice to at least reflect the person I am, not the person I'll never be.

And now it's back to the thrift store - imagine what $90 can buy me there!

Monday, November 20, 2006

The one in between

She's rarely the first to do anything. She wasn't the first one to walk, talk, or ride a bike. She rarely got marveled over in that "wow - look at that - one of our OWN offspring is capable of all that" way. Her older sister beat her to that honour. She's also not the last one to do anything. She's not the one whose baby cuteness is held onto for as long as possible because there will be no more of it after she's done. She's never had her cute toddler sayings recorded for posterity on her mom's blog. That would be her little sister's place.

She's the one in between - the one who is not celebrated for being first or last. She's the one the birth order experts say is most often overlooked. Sometimes, the birth order experts are right.

She's my daughter Julie, the in-between child. Though she is marvelous in her own way, she rarely gets the spotlight for being a marvel. It's true, I know it, because I am often the most guilty of overlooking her.

Last week when I wrote this post about Nikki and then this one about Maddie I saw it happen once again. Julie got overlooked. It's not on purpose - it just happens that way.

So the express purpose of this post is to marvel at my in-between girl.

Perhaps part of the reason I tend to overlook Julie is that, in many ways, she is the most like me. In the good ways and the not-so-good. She is smart, stubborn, adventurous, disorganized, spontaneous, fun-loving, opinionated, and easily distracted. She loves to do things her own way and rarely gives up until I let her try. (You'd think I'd know by now that I should just let her try the first time she asks instead of engaging in a battle of the wills, but I'm a slow learner. Plus I'm just as stubborn as she is.) She loves to cook, but she does NOT want to be Mom's helper - she wants to be Mom's BOSS. She bakes cakes by herself and has even cooked a meal or two. (And she's only nine.)

She is a whiz-kid at school. Few things challenge her. She told me the other day that she'd never made a spelling mistake on a test, and I'm inclined to believe her. When she's supposed to do homework, she asks "Mom, what's the point, if I get all the answers right the first time I try?" She has a point. I've often said that she didn't "learn" to read, she just "absorbed" it. One day she couldn't read and the next day she was reading novels. She read ALL of the Harry Potter books by the time she was eight years old. (Okay, so that's not QUITE true - the last one came out a month after her eighth birthday and by about 4 days after she'd bought it with her birthday money, she'd finished it.) She often reads a novel per night - we have a hard time keeping her in books. There are many, many nights when I'm on my way to bed that I have to remind her "Julie - it's time to turn out the light now." As I do it, I'm reminded of the same gentle tone my dad used when he'd say the same thing to me. Readers tend to understand readers.

Julie LOVES to play games. That's one of the few ways that she's not like me - or any other member of the family. She begs and pleads the rest of us to play games, and once in awhile we agree, but not nearly as often as she'd like. Nobody else cares much for games, other than Maddie whose games are at a slightly different level. (Too bad we don't live closer to ap or grandma - we'd send her over to one of their houses for game night now and then.)

When there's fun to be had, Julie is often first in line. If I'm looking for a fun, spontaneous family thing to do on the weekend, I usually turn to Julie as my first ally because she'll almost always be game. Yesterday, when she was looking through the paper and saw all the fun things going on all over the city because of the Grey Cup, she said "Mom, let's make it our goal today to not be at home ALL DAY." A girl after my own heart. The whole family ended up at The Forks because of Julie's nudging.

Some day, I can imagine myself travelling the world with Julie. What fun it will be to don a backpack and head out on an adventure with my marvelous fun-loving daughter!
This is not the best picture I have of her, but I like the way her personality shines through. The slight sneer on her lips is pure Julie.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

The soul awakes

Sometimes the spirit comes gently, riding a summer breeze, waiting on the side of a mountain stream, or curling up on the couch like a comfortable friend. On those times, the spirit waits unobtrusively for us to answer the beckoning, rest from our travels, and find solace.

Sometimes the spirit comes boldly and powerfully, shaking the rafters with energy, shouting from the mountaintops, and crashing with lightning from the sky. On those times, the spirit defies us to ignore the power and presence of something much greater than any of us.

Last night was one of the latter. Last night, the spirit crashed into the room, riding the musical power of an orchestra, wafting upon the intricacies of Steve Bell's voice, and shouting boldly "Listen! This is important. Awake from your slumber and know that I am here!"

Wow! What can I say about such an incredible night? I've been a fan of Steve Bell for a long time, have been to several concerts, and have even been blessed to become his friend, but I have NEVER been moved by any musical night as much as I was last night. Remember a few weeks ago when I said my soul had fallen asleep? Well, it has definitely been awakened.

We sat in the front row (no, they're not the expensive seats - they're actually considered lower end because you're beneath stage level - I got tickets late and that was almost all that was left), and the energy in the concert hall was palpable. It felt like you could reach out and touch the spirit as it moved through the room. We couldn't see much of the orchestra from where we sat, so I don't know if they were all grinning, but I can certainly tell you that Steve and his band were having the time of their lives. Their faces glowed with energy, and it was contagious. I think there were grins all over the room.

Each song got a little better than the one before. Just when I thought "oh, this one is definitely my favourite", they'd play the next one and it would get even better. In the end, I think my favourite arrangements were Deep Calls to Deep, Dark Night of the Soul, and Moon over Berknau. Wow! What made Moon over Berknau even better was Steve's incredible ability to craft a story and draw us into his world.

When Steve recorded a cd of Bruce Cockburn songs last year, he talked about how a song doesn't really belong to one person, even if that person wrote it. He said that Bruce's songs had become his own because of how they impacted his life. Last night, I think Steve's songs became everyone's. I sat closest to the pianist Mike Janzen (who also wrote the score for the orchestra) and it was clear that the songs belonged to him as much as to Steve. I think the audience, like me, would agree - these songs are no longer just Steve's. They are ours because of the way they have changed us. Thank you Steve.

There were times last night when the awakening of the soul was almost more than I could bear. I could feel it in every part of my body and sometimes my eyes involuntarily filled with tears. The wakening of the soul awakened the muse, and my own words of poetry flowed through me as I closed my eyes and listened.

What an amazing night! I am so glad I was there. Now I feel like I need to honour the spirit and create something myself...

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Still a little girl

Almost as though she understood how monumental yesterday's event was in the journey of a mother with daughters, and almost as though she knew the pace of change sometimes steals my breath away, Maddie climbed up next to me on the couch last night, curled up inside my arms, and promptly fell asleep. It's not often anymore that I get to hold a sleeping child in my arms. Too quickly they move from vulnerable sleeping babies to blossoming young women.

Last night, I held my sleeping baby for a long time. I buried my face in her hair and held on tight until, eventually, her daddy carried her to bed.

She's still my little girl and I will savour these moments for as long as I can.

Tonight, as if to further prove she's not all grown up yet, she danced around the house - first in her "Angels in Training" shirt and then later, before her bath, buck naked. At one point, as she flashed her private parts to her daddy, she saw him flinch and asked "Daddy, are you overwhelmed with vaginas?" I covered my mouth and hid my face so she wouldn't see me giggling. (Yes, as he looks forward to three daughters in puberty, I think he's feeling a little overwhelmed with vaginas.)

Incidentally, she firmly believes her shirt says "Monkey in training." I haven't made any effort to correct her. Seems more appropriate somehow. (And in case you're wondering what's all over her shirt, it seems she was enjoying the play doh at day care today.)
Silly Maddie

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

On becoming a woman

Today my oldest daughter took a huge step in the journey toward womanhood. She made me promise not to blog about the specifics, so I won't go into the details, but you can guess what that "big step" is.

I look at her and I am in awe. In awe of her beauty, her strength, her wisdom, and her growth. She christened me "mother" and has walked with me in the journey ever since. Only when she becomes a mother herself will she understand how much her journey has impacted my own. Only then will she catch a glimpse of how much she has changed me and molded me.

Today heralds a new journey - one that could be rocky sometimes with hormones and teenage angst. I think she's ready for it though. She has always been wise beyond her years, and if today is any indication, she will accept the changes with a healthy measure of pride, strength, and determination.

Instead of going to a church meeting tonight, I took my beautiful daughter on a date. We ate cheesecake at Baked Expectations, smiled at each other alot, talked about everything from the silly boys in her class to the way her body is changing. I am blessed and honoured to be called her mother.

I love the above picture of her with her little cousin, because it shows the beautiful young woman she is becoming. When she carries little Abigail, I catch a glimpse of the woman she will grow into.

I am excited about her journey. She is already incredible, and I know that she will blossom into a beautiful, strong woman. May I be worthy of the task of guiding her.

Sriving for mediocrity?

I’m not particularly fond of the new report cards the girls brought home this term. The school division invested a whole truckload of money in a new reporting system, and in my humble opinion, they could have left their money in the bank.

When I look over Nikki and Julie’s report cards (that came home in fancy expensive folders with high-end brochures to explain them), you could swear they are almost identical girls. Anyone who knows them can vouch for the fact that they are NOT. Yet, the report cards reveal so little real information, I’m sure 95% of the students in the school come out looking like cookie cutter models of each other.

One of the reasons for the change is to separate their academic achievement from their social skills. On the front of the report card, there are about 10 boxes related to their social/interpersonal levels. These boxes are marked with an “M” for “meets expectations” or a “D” for “developing”. I suppose they were trying to move away from levels (excellent, good, fair, etc.), so that young students won’t feel overly judged or categorized, but to me, it just means that all students come out homogenous. Where is the motivation to work hard, if you come out looking like every other student? It’s not working for me.

On the back, where they focus on academics, they have no quantitative marking system whatsoever. Instead, they just have comment boxes, that include so much rhetoric, my head began to spin. “Nicole has a grasp on mathematical concepts.” “Julie can process information successfully.” What does that MEAN?

I don’t know much about child psychology or educational models or formative or summative marking systems (Marcel used those last words – apparently he’s learning something in all those university classes he’s taking!), but I do know that both Nikki and Julie were disappointed with their report cards. It was clear that neither of them feel motivated to work harder if there isn’t some indication that their efforts are worth it. Are we encouraging our kids to strive for mediocrity?

Nikki was particularly disappointed. She said to me a few weeks ago, “Mom, you know how my first report card of the year is always a little lower than the ones later in the year? Well, this year, I think it will be better, because I’m doing really well this year.” She has a new-found confidence about school, (which makes me so happy, because I’ve wiped away too many tears in the past) but I wouldn’t say that these report cards did anything to feed that confidence.

Julie, on the other hand, is a gifted student who told me the other day that she has never made a spelling mistake on a test (she’s in grade 4). It’s probably true, though I can’t verify it. This is the kid who devours books – reads one almost every night from cover to cover. Few things challenge her academically. Yet, if you read her report card, you’d think she was an average student.

Anyone care to comment? I know there are some educators who read this – perhaps you have some insight that I’m missing. Perhaps report cards really aren’t that important in the grand scheme of things. Who knows?

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Apparently, Melissa wants jewellery for Christmas

Since Melissa is surfing the web checking out other people's jewellery (I think she has her eye on Marnie's new Disney necklace), I thought I'd answer her question and show her what my ring looks like. I'm not sure which one you were asking about Melissa, but here's the pinkie ring I bought about 20 years ago at some roadside jewellery stand in Arizona...
pinkie ring

And here's the one my husband found under the seat of our old van, just before we sold it (the van, that is). Nobody else claimed it, so finders keepers.
thumb ring
Anyone else have jewellery to show Melissa? Perhaps, if you find a ring under the seat of YOUR van, you can send it to Melissa and make her Christmas a happy one.

UPDATE: Oh. My. Gosh. Did I just post pictures of my MOTHER'S hands? When did mine start looking like hers? There's some serious roadmaps on those hands!

Monday, November 13, 2006

Good people everywhere

Yesterday, as I drove from Brooks back to the Calgary airport to fly home, I caught myself smiling while I bopped to the music. I was feeling energized and happy. It was a good trip. Even better than the miles of smooth, nearly empty highways with nothing but good music and my thoughts, were the many good people I spent time with. This trip was just what I needed. I was refreshed by relationships.

1. My brother, sister-in-law, niece and nephew. On Thursday night, I hung out with my niece while she showed me a cool powerpoint she was working on for school. Later, my brother (sometimes known on this blog as bbb, though he doesn't have a blog - unless you count the five entries he did while he drove across Florida) and I went to a movie (Catch a Fire - worth seeing, by the way). Movies have always provided a bit of a common bond with my siblings and I. It's what we often do when we're together. Two of us (bbb & ccap) are more addicted than the other two, but we all enjoy a good night out at the movies now and then. The next morning, we played a couple of games of Settlers (and nobody cried :-), and then went out for Vietnamese food for lunch. It was a delightful time. Comfortable, relaxed, and just the right way to start a business trip that I initially thought would have its stressful moments. I am blessed with good family.

2. Volunteers and supporters of the non-profit organization I work for. On Friday night, I drove to Red Deer for a annual meeting with about 100 dedicated volunteers who commit time and energy to our organization's mission to end hunger. It was SUCH a good meeting. There was a great spirit in the room. Given some of the challenges we've been through lately in that province, I really didn't know what to expect, but it turned out much better than I even dared to hope. I've made some good friends there over the past couple of years, and it definitely feels good to walk into a room where you know there are people who support you. They energized me to come back home and re-commit myself to doing my job the best way I know how.

3. Staff. In the Spring, we hired 2 new staff to work on my team in Alberta (there are staff across the country that report to me). It's a husband and wife team that job-share in the role. They are the kind of people you want on any team - compassionate, understanding, cooperative, energetic, committed, and all those other good things. More than anything, they feel safe - the kind of people you just know you can be yourself around and they will support you and continue to respect you. I spent Friday night and Saturday morning with them, and the trip was worth it just to see them in action. Their presence was one of the reasons Friday night's meeting was so successful. Also, another new director was there from our Winnipeg office, and he's a similar kind of person. (I was also on the hiring committee when he was hired, so I'm starting to think I have good instinct when it comes to hiring!) After the meeting Friday night, the four of us congregated in my hotel room and hung out until about 1:00 a.m. It is so much fun when you enjoy the presence of the people you work with. Things have gotten much better in that regard.

4. Hope. Yay! I got to meet another blogging friend! I hooked up with Hope for lunch on Saturday and it was everything I'd hoped for and more. We chatted for two and a half hours and it felt more like half an hour. I don't think there was an awkward silence throughout. In fact, we probably could have chatted for another two and a half hours if I hadn't had alot of miles to cover to get to Brooks. What can I tell you about Hope? Well, I think I'm in love. I want to live next to her, share recipes with her, wander along the river with her, stay up late at night chatting around a campfire, you name it. She is warm, comfortable, safe, kind, funny, and lots of other good things I can't think of words for. Plus she's the classy kind of woman who thinks to bring a gift AND pay for lunch. Wish I'd thought of at least SOME little gesture! Maybe when she makes her way to Winnipeg, I'll get a chance to return the favour. I'm waiting for your visit Hope.

After my second successful blogger meet-up, I'm getting a little addicted. Anyone else want to meet me? You never know where my travels might take me. In my limited experience, you really CAN get to know someone from reading their blog, and so far, I've been drawn to just the kind of people I would like in "real" life.

5. Julie (and family). My third night in Alberta was spent near Brooks at the home of my very dear friend Julie. When I arrived, she was alone (her husband and sons were at a birthday party) so we got a few hours of alone time to reminisce and catch up on family news, etc. Julie and I have been friends since we were in diapers. We grew up about a mile apart, but out there in the country, they were our closest neighbour. We used to ride bikes or horses or walk to each other's houses all the time. Our families did lots of neighbourly things together too. We didn't have a TV growing up, so we would sometimes get to visit their house to watch special shows like The Sound of Music, Disney, or the Santa Claus parade. One of the memories Julie and I reminisced about was the time (I think it was around Halloween) she and I decided we wanted to be world-changers and we wrote and performed a play for neighbours and friends as a fundraiser for a charity. I think there were about 10 people in my parents' living room, and if I remember correctly, we donated about three dollars to the Gideons (an organization one of our neighbours worked for). I guess life has come full circle since I now work for a non-profit organization and part of my role is leading the fundraising campaign. It was such a treat to see Julie again and actually get some one-on-one time without our kids clamouring around us.

6. Julie's church family. Part of my reason for visiting Julie (or at least the reason that justified my visit on a business trip) was so that I could make a presentation at her church. It was one of those incredible services where you know something bigger than any of us is at work. The speaker spoke on exactly the same topic I had planned to talk about in my presentation. The story I told couldn't have been better suited than if we'd sat down and planned it together (which we didn't, since I'd never met or talked to the speaker before and we'd made no arrangements through Julie about the topic). I felt completely at home there, and left feeling happy that Julie and her family have a wonderful church community surrounding them.

So there you have it - relationship refreshment. I have been renewed by the people I met. Thank you to all of them for sharing pieces of themselves with me.

Speaking of relationships - now I think it's time I start catching up on all of your blogs so you don't think I've abandoned you. (And just so you don't think I'm doing this on work time, I've taken today off to recuperate from my trip. Catching up on blogs sounds like recuperation to me!)

Before I go though, Hope, this picture is for you, just so you know how much I enjoyed the gift. Mmmmm...
sipping chai

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Go west, young woman

In a few hours, I'll be on another plane heading for Alberta. No, I don't have much time to formulate any meaningful thoughts, but here are some of the things I'm looking forward to and some of the things I'm not:

Looking forward to:
- Seeing my brother, sister-in-law, niece, nephew, and dog-nephew. (Yes, AP, that last one is for your benefit.) I'll stay with them in Calgary tonight.
- Hanging out with my sister-in-law tomorrow morning. She is one of my best friends.
- The airplane rides. I love planes and airports and just about anything associated with travel.
- Miles and miles of open road and me, alone, in a rental car. I love driving, and I'm rather fond of driving alone, with no fighting going on in the back seat and nothing to interrupt my thoughts other than the radio.
- Meeting another blogger friend. I'll tell you more later.
- Spending time with my new employees in Alberta. They're both beautiful people with good souls.
- Visiting my closest childhood friend Julie and her husband and sons.
- A quiet night in a hotel room.
- Meeting some of the friendly supporters and volunteers who have become friends in the past year and a half when I've had to travel to Alberta more than I wanted to.

Not looking forward to:
- Three nights in three separate beds.
- Weariness from an agenda that looks a little too full.
- A potentially contensious management issue I have to deal with.
- Being away from my family.
- Spending part of a day with a pasted-on-smily-face working at a booth at a trade show.
- Missing the weekend routines at home, like Friday night supper with my extended family, lazy Saturday mornings, good conversation in church on Sunday mornings, Sunday night supper with Marcel's extended family, and watching Amazing Race on Sunday night with my daughters.
- Not being the one to drop Maddie off at the second birthday party she's ever been invited to.

There's not much chance I'll be blogging or catching up on your blogs while I'm gone. Since I'm already behind on the "catching up" side, I'll have lots of reading to do when I get home. Talk to you then! In the meantime, like my dad used to say whenever we parted, "Be good."

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

We didn't just break the mold, we threw it away

Tonight, while I sit here sipping tea and reading blogs, Marcel is at the parent council meeting at school. He's their new treasurer. Everybody loves him for volunteering. I love him for volunteering. It gets me off the hook. At least SOMEONE in our family is doing their part.

He's a rare commodity - a father who's willing to volunteer on parent council. Even though we've come a long way, baby, there are still some things that are traditionally mom's roles. Volunteering at school is one of them. But I'm quite happy to let him have this role. I'm not very good at the whole "mommy volunteering to make this world a better place" thing. I'm happy to go on the occasional field trip, but I'd rather not hand out pizza on hot lunch days, cut out hundreds of pig faces for kindergarten crafts, or listen to kids read in the hallway.

For the most part, Marcel and I have managed to live our married life outside of the "rules" of a traditional marriage. For the past 4 years, he's been the primary caregiver and stay-at-home parent (while he went to university). He's been to more doctor's and dentist's appointments than me lately, he volunteers at school, coaches soccer, nags the girls about homework after school, signs agendas, packs lunches, makes supper, serves pizza on hot lunch day at school, takes Maddie to story time at library, etc., etc. It works for us. It some ways, I think it suits us better than if we'd done things the other way around.

It's not like we sat down one day and decided "hey - let's be radical and kick tradition in the butt". Mostly, we've tried to make each decision in a way that worked for our own marriage, rather than in a way that lined up with traditional expectations of our roles. For a long time, we both worked and, back then, we shared the roles. We took turns with things like meals, volunteering, transporting to doctor's appointments, etc. Then one day we arrived at a crossroads where I was advancing in my career, he was stagnating in his, I was making enough money for us to survive, he wanted to go to university, and we wanted one of us to be at home for the girls more. It just seemed like the right choice for him to stay home with the girls and go to school (mostly in the evenings at first).

The transition wasn't without its road-bumps. At the beginning, I probably had unrealistic expectations of what he would take responsibility for. At the same time, he occasionally felt that I was taking him for granted. Sometimes, I have to admit, I found myself feeling little twinges of jealousy when he knew more about the girls' schooling than I did, knew more of the other parents than I did, and got to spend more time with the girls. And I'm pretty sure sometimes he was a little jealous that I got to spend more time in the company of adults than he did. But we got used to our new roles, and soon found that it worked quite well for us.

In the future, we might make decisions differently. When he's back to work, for example, I hope to spend more time at home, and then I'll take over more of the responsibilities around here. Nothing is forever, and neither of us is afraid to take one type of role or another. We just find what works for us. This year, since he's in school almost full time, we're back to sharing most of the household and parenting tasks.

I remember sitting on a farm in Africa talking to the owner of the farm who was a well respected community leader and politician. We were waiting for the meal that his wife (or wives - can't remember which) and the other women of the village were preparing. He was quite puzzled when I told him that I had small children who were at home with their dad. When I explained that my husband was the primary caregiver who cooked most of the meals and looked after the children when I worked, he looked at me with shock and probably a bit of horror. He couldn't quite fathom what I'd just told him. I'm pretty sure he was hopeful that I wouldn't have a chance to chat with his wife. I have to admit, it gave me some measure of pleasure to see the look on his face.

I am grateful that I live in a culture where it is not particularly surprising anymore that we've chosen the roles that we have. I am grateful that I'm married to a man who's comfortable with this arrangement (or any other we might want to try). I am grateful that my daughters won't grow up with any preconceived notions about what roles a man or a woman should or shouldn't fill.

Tomorrow, I leave for Alberta on another business trip. While I am gone, I never have to worry that the kids won't be well cared for or that the house will fall apart. Homework will get done, lunches will get made, dishes will be washed, and my absence will barely have an impact. Chances are, there would be more chaos around here if Marcel went away for a few days than when I do. (Fortunately, though, I will still be missed.)