Space. The final frontier.

Space really is the final frontier for me in some ways. Not outer space but the space in which we live. These tiny house people make me feel strangely envious, as I imagine how simple their lives must be with so little stuff, such easy cleaning, such um, extreme coziness. Of course that “small footprint living” only works when you have no children, and when it is early enough in your partnership that you still crave being really closely together every minute.

Anyhow, it has been certainly a small-er house scenario for us. We went from having 2400 square feet with 12 rooms to 1000 square feet and six rooms. What I have learned from that exercise is we all have a whole lot of stuff we really don’t need, and getting rid of it is a constant battle, to the point where “decluttering” is an industry. Pretty sure decluttering was not an issue for our grandparents. We just love stuff, buying new stuff to replace the old and finding places to put it all.

This is not an option for us anymore. We got rid of an absolutely astonishing amount of goods before we moved across the country, and frankly there is none of it that I miss. It is kind of freeing to have less space, because sometimes we literally have no place to put something, so we just don’t buy it. It does make decisions easier.

Living in a big century house made me into a voracious reader of house porn like Canadian House & Home or Country Living magazines. I have dumped that habit, replaced by a love of online pages like Apartment Therapy . Great articles on stylish and mindful small-space living, organisation, DIY and useful stuff like toy rotation systems. (!!) The other plus of course is that I read it online and it takes up no shelf space.

IMG_9116Speaking of shelf space, books are one thing we can hardly cut back on, but we do try. Book space is a priority for us, but we have become choosier about what we buy and what we actually keep. A charity book sale I organise twice a year keeps us under control as I make sure we shift out a couple of boxes to donate each time around.

I am just as much of a thrifter as ever, but what I buy has changed. Last year I scooped a grandfather clock for $10, only to get it home and realise I bought it for our old house. It did not fit in at all with our all-white condo. Plus it had a truly hideous jerry-rigged red clock face. To make the best of it, I ripped out the clock and now the whole thing is a tower bookshelf. Score! Now I just need to paint it white.

As much as we buy, we must get rid of, so it means we have stuff constantly moving in and out. If things don’t “fit” with our lifestyle now, out they go. Oddly enough a painting of antique wooden potato mashers fits much better in a big country kitchen than in a modern condo-sized one. Here it just looks weird.

Sometimes when we visit friends, I look around and observe their stuff compared to ours. I can’t help it, everybody does it so don’t pretend you wouldn’t. It is kind of fascinating. Some friends have a big house but are quite minimalist, with actual empty space in their home. I’ll call it “room to breathe.” Others have so much stuff, every gadget, game, toy, movie, appliance and recreational aid I can possibly imagine. I look at it and I feel a little envious, sure, but I also feel better about what we own. I feel like if I had all that extra baggage, it would stress me out. Sure, maybe our kids would love all that stuff. But they also really love what they have. We have ENOUGH.

Such a big word, enough.

Sure, I would take an RV. A second bathroom is definitely in our future but I will never go back to having three to clean. I won’t say no to a dishwasher. (two years and counting without that) An unlimited book budget would be lovely, but we kind of have that already with the library. A wee bit more room and we could squeeze in another cat and maybe even a dog. (Husband screams “Noooooooooo!”) But honestly, we have enough.

It is enough for us.

IMG_8595 (1)

Do you feel buried in stuff? How do you know when you have enough?

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What is it about school?

Heading off into the world…

There was one moment when I just wanted to grab her hand and pull her back to me.

Unfortunately, that would be quite embarrassing to have the entire busload of kids laughing at the mom who couldn’t let go, so I backed off and moved back up the driveway so she could get on without a desperate mother clinging to her little hand.

What is it about school? Friends have told me and told me, “Oh, once they start school time just starts to fly, and they just move further and further away from you all the time.”

Good God, there is something really sad about that, until you realize in many ways they are just moving further and further away from you from the moment they are born, from the minute they eat their first solid food, the second they take their first steps. Is that sad or is that joyous? I feel a bit of both. It is the ultimate in bittersweet, really. I rejoice in every first in my babies’ lives, and yet I feel a twinge of sadness. Last week I finally hauled all of the baby gear and sweet wee clothes out of every closet and from beneath every bed and got rid of all of it. Other babies are using it all now. This was due in no small part to the fact my youngest child was about to start kindergarten and is clearly far from being a baby anymore. But it still hurt.

It is a letting go like nothing else I have experienced in my life. I am no longer a parent to babies, or toddlers, or even pre-schoolers. I am out of that club. I can offer wise words as someone who has been there, but a new parent would probably think to themselves, “Oh, she is not HERE where I am, so she does not KNOW.”

So here I am with two schoolgirls. I am the lunch maker, the form-signer, the one who tries every afternoon, like a dentist trying to pull teeth, to extract some meagre nugget of information from our children about their day at school. After years of spending most hours of the day with her, it is hard, really hard, to be relegated to this seemingly secondary role. Yikes, could I be taking it personally? Yes, other than sleep time, a teacher now spends more hours a day with my child than I do. Who knew that could be so tough to swallow? Even when the teacher is wonderful and caring, it still burns.

When our kindergartener comes home from school, she is exhausted and exuberant and bursting with all the new experiences. I try to see it all through her eyes, all the glittering freshness of being out in the world on your own for the first time. Every thing we take for granted, it’s pretty darn thrilling to her, bus rides, lunch kits, recess, a whole class full of other children who she just knows will be her best friends.

I smile and I enjoy the moments when she bursts out with some little story about her day. I look into her eyes and I see the baby that she was just a short while ago, the way she used to look at me when she was tiny and her parents were the centre of the universe. And I see that we are still her centre. Her universe just keeps getting bigger and bigger.

Vacation, anyone?

There is one naîve moment in the day when I get home from work and think “Ah, now I can make a nice cup of tension tamer tea, put my feet up and read a magazine for an hour.”

That does not last. When I get home, there seems to be more work than ever to do, and somehow I just never find the time to flake out on the couch because there is supper to prep, garden to weed, children seeking attention, laundry to sort (since the man of the house can’t tell the difference between anyone’s clothes except his own) and bills to pay. Oh yes, and there is also more work to do, as there are many streams of work going on that don’t necessarily take place in a “workplace.”

Part of me has that old sense of entitlement, that voice that says “HEY! You deserve a break.” But you know what? Sometimes that just does not fly when you’ve got a family. There are times when I tell the girls that I just need a time out. Five minutes later I hear a soft little voice at the door asking “Mama, is your time out over yet? Mama, why do you need quiet time, Mama?” OH, it is tough to turn that little voice away.

So, the only way to really take a break is to BREAK from everything, the house, the yard, the jobs, the sidelines, the blog, the email, everything. We pack up the children and stuff the old car full of gear and take off. And this is what we seek.

In the forest deep…

We are always on the lookout for the greatest playground of all time…actually, we could write a guidebook on playgrounds of eastern Canada, complete with ratings. This one, in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia gets a “10.” Can you believe this is their elementary school?

One of our favourite discoveries. Best playground!

On camping trips, we even sit still on occasion. Although not very often.

Taking it all in.

Sometimes, we just pretend to be pirates. But in exciting new places.

Aaaargh. Ahoy.

Mostly, we just hang out together. No distractions, no work, no chores, just fun and being outdoors all day and all night, too, all of us sleeping in the big tent together, nothing to do but just BE together. It is the best time-out ever.

Glorious green in Fundy National Park.

More and more and more, Part 1

Do you ever feel like your stuff is just going to gang up on you and squish the living daylights out of you? Or is that just me?

TOO MUCH STUFF

There seems to be an out-of-control need for stuff in our world, and it gets tougher every year to resist the pull of all that bigger, better, more expensive stuff. I was reading The Wealthy Barber Returns (I know, it is hard to  believe) and one of author David Chilton’s short chapters talked about how we in this time in history seem to have greater need for stuff than ever before, are never satisfied with what we DO have, and are constantly seeking new ways to get the stuff, even if it means (and it always means) going into debt. Bigger television, newer car, trendy clothes, a new cellphone every flipping year (WHAT is up with that??!),  music, video games,  home reno materials, more and more toys for all ages. The list goes on forever. And I am just as guilty as anyone, craving an iPad for the simple reason that it just looks cool.

All that being said, times are tight around here and we have experienced a complete shift in our thinking as a result. And you know what? I feel more happy and less stressed than I have in years. You know why? One simple reason. In the past, every time we spent money on things like those listed above, or on trips, weekends away, dinners out, knickknacks from Winners, whatever, I knew somewhere deep inside that we did not need them, AND we could not afford them. That creates a lot of stress. I am, of course, Queen of Denial, and we’re talking about a girl who once many unwise years ago took cash advances out on her Canadian Tire credit card to pay her rent. Ahem. So I could spend with the best of the spenders, and I did have that whole “I deserve it” mentality.

Times have changed, and with only one person in the family fully-employed at the moment, times HAD to change. And we have embraced it. In the process, we are not only getting by, but have paid off credit card debt and are continuing to save for our children’s education and our emergency fund. So, how do we do that? Well, let me share a few ways. I know there are lots of frugal living blogs out there, but if even one of our ideas helps someone save some cash, I would be happy.

We cut costs to the bone. As soon as we knew we were down to one job for the household, we wrote down all of our monthly expenses so that we would know just what we needed to continue. Then we started cutting, to make sure our lower income would still cover everything. I am an avid couponer, and I follow some great blogs like Mrs. January, Bargain Moose and Smart Canucks. These blogs tell me where to find the best coupons, how to find freebies and more. When I see my grocery bill come back showing me I saved 9 per cent (or even 33 per cent) by using coupons, I know it is worth it. That is our money and we are keeping it.

I also got rid of my credit card that charged a higher interest rate plus a monthly fee. Why should I pay for a service I can get from another company for free? I switched to a card that has no fee and I pay it off at the end of every month. Simple, right? But I have never ever done that before. Next I called the company which shall remain nameless but is pretty much the only provider of phone and internet service here. I had seen an ad on their website offering new customers a rate for phone and internet that was $35 less than what we were paying. I called and asked for that rate. The first person said no. I spoke to someone else, and was told again the rate was for new customers only. So I told him to cut my service, then I would just open up a new account the next day and be a new customer. Needless to say, I got the better rate, and he threw in the ultra high speed internet as well. We don’t make long-distance calls on the phone anymore, but do it online with Skype or the Google phone service.

Again, I say, why should we pay for something that another company will give us for free?

I have written before about our frugal Christmas, and we have continued to keep gift-giving to some pretty strict rules, which include a smaller budget and more handmade and upcycled gifts. I am also going to confess to a little driveway-surfing. I don’t know what the proper term is, but it happens when people just put unwanted items at the end of their driveways and other people come along and pick them up. One man’s junk is another woman’s treasure and all that. The girls and I were driving home from a visit last fall and saw this at the end of someone’s driveway, beside their trash bags. 

Can you believe it?? It’s a beautiful dollhouse. The girls love it.

Just yesterday we were saying that we needed a little school desk for homework. I was driving home later that same day and guess what I saw? A fab retro school desk, made of sturdy chrome and some kind of indestructible melamine-like stuff, just sitting on the side of the road. I screeched to a stop, backed up, snagged it and took it home. It is PERFECT. And free.

Twenty years ago I would have cringed at the very idea of taking someone else’s cast-offs, but now I know better. With everyone buying new things constantly, “cast-offs” are often as good as new. Times change, and so do I.

There are SO many ways to change your mindset on spending and saving, and no one way works for everyone. Next time, I will share a few more ways we are trying to make a difference, while also teaching our daughters about sensible consumption. Stay tuned!

What are some of the things you do to save money and cut corners? I would love to know.

Sunshine and blue skies

off into the world

Okay, it actually is not sunshine and blue skies outside my window this morning, but it will be later today, I think. Lots of things flitting through my mind this week, which is only appropriate for a blog called “the mind does wander.” I’ve got a list going in my head at all times of things to accomplish, goals to wish and strive for, little tasks to tackle, and of course Big Goals that keep getting added to every list in hopes that one day they will be achieved. (Write novel. Pay off debt. Get up earlier. Have date nights every week. Or at least every six months.)

This week’s goals include celebrating our “baby’s” fifth birthday, and I am feeling a little weird about that. It seems to launch us into a whole different realm of parenting. We go from being parents of very young children, preschoolers even, to being parents of school-age children. Since kindergarten is a full-time affair here, that is huge. It means both of our girls will be gone off to school in September, leaving at 8 a.m. and back home at 3:40 p.m. It means I am no longer in the baby-toddler-preschooler-mom’s club. So how do I feel about that?

I am feeling a bit ambiguous, to be sure. It means letting go of all that is wrapped up in that pre-school period, including my role as a part-time worker and full-time parent. Of course parenthood is always full-time, but the time I have spent at home with the girls the majority of days is pretty much over, and this brings with it a sense of sadness. Already I have moved into the role of more work and less time at home, as Dan has been more the full-time parent this year. I feel that this summer is the end of a certain period in our lives that will never come again in quite the same way, but I suppose that can be true of every moment in our lives.

With that in mind, I am focusing on truly being present in every moment this summer, on looking ahead to the future and what it holds but also just soaking in the joy that is right now. Here are a few things on my wish list for the coming months:

1. Grow more of our own food. Gardening is earlier this year than it has been in years, so we are making the best of that. The greens in the cold frame are cropping very nicely and we are all enjoying the freshness every day. Ava and I actually got most of the garden planted the other day, including my first attempt at growing tomatoes from seed. So far, so good, and I already have visions of the gorgeous tomato sauce made with our own roma tomatoes and red island garlic.

2. Get out camping more. Now that we have resolved that a camping trailer is not in the cards this year, we will enjoy our lovely new tent instead. Destinations? Wish list includes Cape Breton, Fundy National Park, Graves Island, and as always, the Annapolis Valley. The girls’ legs are longer this year which means we can do more hiking trails without having to resort to carrying tired (and heavy) little ones.

3. Spend as much time outdoors as possible. We all love geocaching, so that is definitely on the summer bucket list. It is such a great family-friendly activity that seems to work for all ages. It gets us outside, discovering many gorgeous spots off the beaten track, and the girls always feel like they are on a treasure hunt. Plus, with many hundreds of caches in every province, we can do it anywhere and everywhere we have our GPS.

4. Take holidays. Forget about work completely and absolutely. Sometimes I think we feel somewhere deep inside (or maybe not so deep) that our workplace will fall apart without us, that chaos will ensue  the minute we leave, and that all sorts of crapola will build up there to haunt us when we return to work. It may be disconcerting to admit, but even without you everything just continues on just fine. There are lots of competent people holding things together just as well as me.

5. Hang out. Be a kid. Go to playgrounds every week. Eat ice cream.

6. Take better care of our bodies. We all have bikes now, so I really want to get out biking the trails as a family. I was never a physically active kid (sports??? Ewwwwwww!) but I want to provide the example of being active to my girls. I am even attempting to take up running, and in some sick and twisted way I like it. Of course I am only running about five minutes, then walking, then running. But still, the only thing that could have motivated me to run in the past was if some horrible purple monster were chasing me. And that never happened, thankfully.

7. Have fun.

8. Be loving.

9. Read lots of fluffy books.

Happy Birthday, baby!

Glass dreams

on the beach

Do you ever notice how driven you are to be DOING something?

It takes huge conscious effort on my part to just stop trying to tidy or check email or just multitask all the day long. After a while I notice that my children start to get that way, too, always needing an activity to keep them occupied. But as you may have heard before, I am a big proponent of letting kids get bored, and perhaps I should try this approach on myself as well. If I just stop and sit and stare out the window, who KNOWS what realms of creativity I might stumble into? The mind reels.

In the meantime, this past weekend I was reminded of a few totally pointless activities I love to do. My older daughter and I were on our own for a few days, and I worried she might be bored without her built-in playmate/entertainer sister. We went to the beach, where she spent literally hours doing one of three things: talking to herself, jumping waves, and building sand piles. We should all do those things more often.

We also spent hours walking on the shore, staring down at the sand in search of treasured bits of sea glass. There is nothing more relaxing and satisfying, and really, you could almost call it a meditation of sorts.  The rush of the waves in our ears, the wind in our hair, the gulls crying overhead. The sheer pleasure of finding the oh-so-rare colours of beach glass is just ridiculous. OK, it is not like “jumping in ecstatic joy” satisfaction, but it is quietly joyous when you find a small piece of indigo blue or jade or red. I always wonder where those shards came from…was it from a vase that sunk along with the schooner it was carried on? Did it come from an old pioneer dumping ground that has since eroded away with the red cliff into the sea? Was it from a broken plate tossed overboard by an irate chef as the ship sailed upstream?

Shades of the sea

Well, maybe  I get carried away but it is part of the whole sea glass-hunting meditation. When I find a piece, I rub it between my fingers as I continue down the shore, brushing off the grains of sand and relishing in the smooth/rough finish of the finely-sanded glass, the edges worn down to softer curves by who knows how many years of rushing salt waves and smashing rock. It is just one of those things I love.

And what do we do with all these treasures? Mostly I hoard it, put in mason jars in the window and look at it when the winter winds are  howling outside and I need to go to that beach-y place in my mind. Sometimes we twist it in silver and make it into jewellery, which by far gets more comments from strangers than any store-bought trinkets ever do. There is something about old stuff that speaks to me, even if I know nothing about it. Deep down I know I have just as many shards of 1980s Sprite and Mountain Dew bottles (not to mention the brown of the classic stubby beer bottle) as I do of some long-adrift century-old crockery, but it doesn’t matter. The cobalt blue probably comes from plain old Noxema jars that we all had in the 70s and 80s but in the process of being sea-tossed and sanded to silky smoothness, it takes on a unique patina of beauty and sophistication. And who doesn’t want to wear that?

Anyhow, that was my mindfulness activity this glorious Victoria Day weekend. The glass is scattered on my counter, having been rinsed and set out to dry. The girls will love to sort it by colour and shape into jars, another wonderfully senseless and strangely soothing action. I will keep adding to the collection, while silently cursing Noxema for switching to boring cobalt plastic jars. I feel fairly sure they will never be a treasure tossed, shaped and finally relinquished by the seas. Oh well, such is the modern age.

The morning walk

This morning I figured since I was outside already at 8 taking Kat out to the bus, I might as well just keep going out the driveway and go for a walk.

I headed up our rural road, trying to walk fast without actually breaking a sweat, trying to listen to music without totally drowning out the birdsong. You know, trying to be mindful and get a workout at the same time, if that is possible. The fields are like rusty red corduroy right now, as the farmers prepare for planting. The potato trucks and tractors are out in the fields starting early, and their breaks will be few and far between for a while. I walk towards the bay, where the waves sparkle and the oyster fishermen are already out on the water. I’ve got the Wailin’ Jennys on my iPod. The song, appropriately, is called “Birdsong,” and I am thinking how mellow their music makes me feel. Sure, there are songs that make me walk faster but this morning mellow is where I am at.

Oh, yes, if you’re not “from here,” here is a bit of what our fields look like :

Rusty fields shot by Dan

As I walk, I get a whole lot of thinking done, which you might think would motivate me to do it more often. Apparently clear thought is not a priority in my day.

What crossed my mind was a whole lot of nonsense about the bad news that seems to be everywhere at the moment. Economies are grim, and the news is filled with job cuts and worries about the debt loads of people and nations alike. Our home is no different, as good jobs seem few. As always, talk turns in many circles to going out west.

It is fascinating, really. How many generations has it been where “going out west” is always on the horizon? Here on the east coast past generations have also gone to “The States,” to Boston or somewhere in the New England states to find work, but that is not quite as simple as it once was.

I have been one of those going out west, and someday I may be again. Honestly, I did love it there although I was young and terribly homesick, feeling like I had landed on a different planet or at the very least a different country. The motivation to head west is the same now as it always has been: jobs, work, and a need to forge your own way in a totally new place where everyone doesn’t know you and your father and your grandfather and your uncle and…well, you get the picture.

The potato farmers and the oyster fishermen are assured their work will never be done. What will be on the horizon for others? How can we adapt to the changes that surely seem to be coming for all? Is the answer to be flexible, to diversify how we make a living, to work harder at self-sufficiency? Alarmist is not a word anyone would use to describe me (except perhaps my children, who think I am making a big deal out of the messy play room). I do find that I am drawn to books about sustainable living and self-sufficiency. It is a fascinating genre, written by a mix of those authors who believe the oil is going to run out any minute and chaos will break out in the world, and those who just want to grow their own food and cut energy costs.

Here are a few I found:

Sufficent: a modern guide to sustainable living by Tom Petherick: I like what this author is saying about what is “sufficient,” meaning simply what we need for our own family’s consumption. He speaks out against the extreme consumerism of today’s society, where so much food and other things go to waste. This book is beautifully photographed and illustrated.

The self-sufficientish bible by Andy and Dave Hamilton: This book just looks really good, and is quite common-sense in its approach to gardening, recycling and such.

Time to eat the dog? : the real guide to sustainable living by Robert Vale: Heavy, heavy, serious stuff. Perhaps a little TOO serious.

Less is more : embracing simplicity for a healthy planet, a caring economy and lasting happiness by Cecile Andrews: This is a really good little read, filled with essays that get you thinking about what you need and what you just WANT, and how we can live more simply with what we have.

The everything guide to living off the grid: We have no plans to get off the grid, but this book is also a good choice for people who just want to save energy and be more self-sufficient.

Independence days: A guide to sustainable food storage and preservation by Sharon Astyk: A good guide to canning and preserving food, and a lot of interesting stuff on creating our own food security (and that does not mean eating more comfort foods).

Ecological gardening by Marjorie Harris: One of Canada’s best-known gardening experts, she packs a LOT of information on everything from beneficial insects to composting to natural lawn care into this slim little volume.  No pictures, but makes up for it with simple, no-nonsense facts.

How do you focus on what is important in the face of all the bad-news stories? We keep our eye on the beautiful horizon.

on the horizon

How to be quiet

The sea can be quiet.

Silence is an interesting thing. It can speak volumes, like when someone is glowering silent disapproval all over someone else’s third spilled glass of milk that day. Or, if you wake up early enough in the morning, before everyone else is up and chatting, silence can just be gloriously, miraculously restful.

I am not good at quiet. In my work, I chat non-stop, which is kind of funny considering I work in a library. It is a one-person branch in a small community, though, and people don’t come there to study in silence. They come to chitchat about the weather and their children and most of all, books. I love that, because getting paid to talk about books is just about the closest thing to heaven I can imagine from a professional perspective.

Still, I do crave silence sometimes, and with two little girls in the house silence is not an everyday (or every week) occurrence. We seem to get louder all the time, raising our voices to be heard over the din of raucous giggling, yelling, singing, crying masses. Okay, it is not masses, it is only two but sometimes they feel like more.

So this past week when I was hit with a whopping case of flu, complete with silence-inducing laryngitis, it got me thinking about ways to be quiet. I suppose that is the easiest way to shut me up, to strike me with laryngitis. So everything I said has had to be whispered, while at the same time the sore throat meant I was extremely frugal with what I had to say at all. If it was not important, I just saved my breath. I waited for people to come to me, rather than trying to yell over the din.

Hmmmmmm. I might have something there.

Could this be a new way of communicating effectively? Because frankly, I am tired of raising my voice.

Anyhow, the other side of the coin is that it was just nice to feel like I didn’t HAVE to talk. I could sit silently. We are, in these days of extreme connectivity, apt to fill silences as quickly as they arise, when really some empty spaces would be good for all of us. Being quiet means you can hear the wind blow, or the birds sing, or the soft breathing of a sleeping child across the hall. It also means you can be completely present in that moment, rather than clicking away on your smartphone or cranking up your earbuds.

Last fall, as part of a mindfulness-based stress management course, I had to take part in a one-day silent retreat. That meant for the full day, there was no talking, no eye contact with the other participants, just silence. Let’s just say right up front that I have never, ever in my life been silent for an entire day, and I was intimidated. Even while eating lunch at a table with others, no talk, no eye contact. We spent the day doing relaxation exercises, meditating, yoga, writing in a journal, or just sitting in a peaceful spot staring at the sea. There was a little boathouse down by the water with a hanging swing chair, and I remember sitting there, idly swinging and thinking “I want to do this every week.”

Which leads me to try to find ways of being silent in my everyday life and in the life of my family. Getting up early seems to be the best way for me, while staying up later seems to work best for Dan. Carving out even a half-hour of time to be alone and quiet makes such a difference to my day. Sometimes I do some yoga or stretches. Other days I make a cup of tea and just sit down at my little desk with a notebook. Some mornings I sit and watch the birds outside the window. It sounds pretty simple, right? Well, it is, but it is amazing what a difference it makes. Last year I had just been finding that stress was hijacking my day right from the second I became conscious in the morning. The moment I heard a child wake up, I would leap out of bed with my mind already on overdrive, thinking of all the things I had to do, my heart rate already pounding and that cranky feeling already well-established for the day. THAT is not healthy.

We are trying to help our children find a little quiet as well, which is not easy. But the most simple way to do it is to allow a bit of time at the end of the day for them to read in bed on their own. Just giving them that silent 20 minutes to sit in bed alone with a book helps them unwind and quiet their minds enough to really relax for sleep. Of course Ava can’t read yet but we encourage her to just look at books, which she loves to do. What is really important is that our children learn ways to quiet themselves.

We are always saying “Take a deep breath.” This is a catchall phrase that is sometimes an attempt to divert someone from a tantrum or from smacking their sibling across the head with a Groovy Girl. But it is also a way of diffusing a kid who is getting so wound up that her eyes are actually unfocused and her heart is pounding. It is healthy for children to learn ways to self-soothe, and just taking five deep breaths with the eyes closed is a simple technique they can use anywhere. Heck, it’s a simple technique we should all use.

Needless to say, going on silent retreat is not an option for everyone, and laryngitis isn’t an easily-acquirable solution either, but a little quiet time is good for everyone in the family. It helps us to ground ourselves in the world, to just “be” without constantly having to “do.” That is a huge challenge especially for busy parents, but if we can provide that example to our children it will also help them to handle stress and busy-ness with greater calm.

So take a deep breath. And for heaven’s sake, be QUIET.

 

 

The river

At the shore.

There is a river where I grew up. It runs past the farm where my dad’s family has lived for several generations, and it has always played such a role in our lives. As kids, we were up and down that dirt lane to the shore practically every day of the summer. We camped there in one of those big, smelly dark canvas tents that always seemed to attract the most enormous daddy-long-legs spiders ever seen. There are photographs in existence of a toddler me, round-bellied in a bikini, running up the beach after my big brother, and now there are also photographs of my own daughters, round-bellied toddlers, on the same red sand shore.

As I grew, I spent hours on the beach, creating elaborate periwinkle farms, sandcastles, villages out of shells and driftwood and seaweed. We swam, of course, and boated, dug for clams, and walked for miles up the river at low tide. My husband says its not a river, it is an “inlet” because it is, as all things are here, tidal. Anyhow, it was the only kind of river I ever knew existed. I was fascinated by the tales of the great sailing ships sailing up the river at high tide, dropping the huge stones they had as ballast as they got further upriver and needed to lighten the load.

When I got a bit older and needed time to mull over my increasingly complicated pre-teen and teenaged life, I would walk up through the woods to a spot on the river bank where I could just sit, surrounded by the soothing bayberry bushes and non-judgmental spruces, and contemplate. A lot of serious thought went on there.

When the season ended, and the road got filled in with snow, we mostly stayed away. Some winters it got so well-frozen that we skated on the river, which was glorious. Springtime saw us hurtling down the muddy road, waiting for the day the ice would finally go and I could SEE the water once more, smell it and hear it. The sound of the wind soughing in the trees, the lapping waves, the songbirds and the gulls.

The old spruce trees.

This year is no different, really, even though I am an adult with littles of my own. We all go barrelling down the still-dirt lane together, the girls chit-chatting non-stop with their grandparents the whole way. I feel the same old surge of joy when I see the river sparkling as we round the bend in the woods. The smell of the salt river after the ice goes out is so clean, so fresh, it is unlike anything else in the world. It gives us all so much pleasure.

Summertime is busy here now. Where we used to pitch a tent, cottages have sprung up in a little village. But it is the most wonderful village, made up entirely of our rather large family. You see, my grandparents had eleven children, and most of them and some of the grandchildren have built cottages along the edge of the old home farm along the river. Every weekend is like a big family reunion, and I can’t help but think of how much joy our predecessors would feel to know how it all goes on that lovely piece of family land.

It is difficult to describe such a deep connection to a plot of land. In this era, people move far and often, and few families still live in the same area as their ancestors did. I was always endlessly fascinated by the acres of woods that have now grown over the old farm. Walking through the thick stands of spruce, you could find a long-abandoned wagon wheel, or a path that crossed over a bubbling brook. An old shack stood, half-fallen down but still accompanied by the most glorious lilac bushes I have ever seen. A depression in the ground was the only other evidence of the house that once stood there, its cellar and the sweet lilacs all that are left of that long-ago loved home. Certainly if ghosts walk anywhere, they did in those woods. I thought it was magical.

There is a song by Natalie Merchant that always summed up perfectly how I felt about the river, and I think I will let her say it for me again.

Where I Go

by Natalie Merchant

Find a place
On the riverbank
Where the green rushes grow
See the wind
In the willow tree
In the branches hanging low

Well, I go to the river
To soothe my mind
To ponder over
The crazy days of my life
Watch the river flow
Ease my mind and soul
Where I go

Well I will go to the river
From time to time
Wander over
These crazy days in my mind
Watch the river flow
Where the willow branches grow
By the cool rolling waters
Moving gracefully and slow

O, child it’s lovely
Let the river take it all away
The mad pace and the hurry
The troubles and the worries
Just let the river take them all away
Flow away