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.

Advertisements

Beach blanket book bash

Everyone reads in our house. Taz prefers non-fiction.

The fantabulous part of summer reading is the lack of any desire on my part to better my mind in any way whatsoever.

Summer reading is ALL beach reading, glorious, often fluffy, always escapist, this is what I want. Reading on the beach, reading while reclining with a cold drink on the back deck, reading while driving (as a passenger of course) to the next camping destination. Oh, and don’t forget reading at breakfast before anyone else is awake. I have to cram in reading when I can, and for that reason alone, we have reading material in every room of the house. And I do mean every room. That way I can pick something up and fly though a few pages or chapters when I get the chance.

Years ago, pre-kids, pre-career, pre-anything really, my BFF and I would pickle ourselves in baby oil, grab a towel, drinks, snacks and a nice trashy paperback novel each and head to the beach for an afternoon of sunbathing, reading and watching all the other teenagers who were hanging out. OH, the freedom! These days we use SPF 85 sunscreen, carry at least three bags of stuff, and spend the whole time making sure our children don’t jump off the dock and drift away on the tide.

I still get some summer reading in, though, and I am plotting the books for this season. The obvious beach reads are those by authors like Iris Johansen, Nora Roberts, Fern Michaels, Susan Wiggs, and those kind of romance-thriller&suspense authors. And believe me, there are few of those in my stack. But I thought I would share some of the maybe lesser-known or long-forgotten books on my list as well as some of my all-time favourite summer reads.

Pageturners for summer reading

Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne DuMaurier: Love this. Books set in Cornwall get me every time, but this little volume about a bored noblewoman who falls for a charming pirate (and aren’t they all charming?) is SUCH a guilty pleasure. DuMaurier’s books are all worth picking up.

Casting off by Nicole Dickson: The main character travels to a tiny island off Ireland to write a book about the region’s traditional fisherman knit sweaters, and is embraced by the tight-knit (little knitting pun there) community. Makes me want to go there. Makes me want to knit.

Thinking of you by Jill Mansell: Funny, funny, quirky. British writers are my go-to authors when I am looking for self-deprecating humour, and this is a good one. The romantic male lead is named Finn Penhaligon. Need I say more?

Good in bed by Jennifer Weiner: Cannie Shapiro is a Big Girl. Voluptuous, curvy, real-woman sized. She is a great character, looking for love in all the wrong places, but surprises ensue and her whole life path changes. It will make you cheer.

The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher: Perennial favourite, big, sweeping family epic set in Cornwall. Like I said, Cornwall, I love it. Covers several generations of a family and all of their secrets, scandals, love and wind-blown beaches.

The birth house by Ami McKay: Best. Book. Ever. It is such a good read that I have forced it upon almost anyone who asks in the library. “Oh, looking for a book? Read THIS.” Set in rural Nova Scotia, it is set during the time when midwives were slowly being pushed out by the medicalization of childbirth. A few strong women fought back, and it makes for a great story.

Ones I am planning to read

The Redbreast by Jo Nesbo: I hear a LOT about the Scandinavian writers of murder mysteries, but this guy gets the most talk.

Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James: Okay, so, fabulous mystery writer takes on the world of Jane Austen?? I am so there.

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield: Heard a lot about this, so I must try it.

Something by Tess Gerritson : Because everyone tells me I should read her.

The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny: This series has just gotten better and better, and I cannot wait for this latest Chief Inspector Armand Gamache book to be released in August.

Reading anything good? What is your best summer read? Please share… I still have room on my list for more titles! Now if only I can find the time…

More and more (and less) Part 2

Once I get going on the “simplify” theme, it is hard to stop. Especially when the simplifying actually saves me money.

Oh, if you are just joining me now on the “saving money and simplifying stuff” theme, you might want to read this post first.

Something we are quite passionate about now is growing at least some of our own food. It is cheaper, it tastes better, and it is so ridiculously easy to do that almost everyone can do it. Literally, we prep the soil with a bit of compost and cow poop, plant it and basically ignore it until it is time to start snacking on snow peas and strawberries. Sometimes when I need a little time to myself, a bit of stress relief, I do some weeding. Well worth the few bucks we spend on seeds and new garden gloves every spring.

Last year’s bounty…

At some point in my married life I seem to have morphed into a bit of a do-it-yourselfer. Not something one would ever have suspected of me had they known me earlier in my life. That being said, it is strangely satisfying and much, much cheaper to do many things yourself than to hire an expert. We ripped off and rebuilt a deck last year. I am quite sure it would have cost double had we hired someone, and on the bright side it is still standing and attached to the house so we must have done something right.

Junior carpenter apprentice

Back on the topic of stuff, we have tried since our girls were born to be sensible when it comes to belongings. As soon as children come on the scene, the sheer volume of things seems to grow exponentially just to fill their basic needs. Babies come out of the womb with pretty minimal baggage, but it doesn’t take long for them to take over the house with all of their goods. Now that our little ones are not quite so little, we have tried to pass things on as much as possible, but we still have closets stuffed full of outgrown clothes and toys and cute boots that they wore twice. There are books and toys in almost every room no matter how hard we try to limit the spread. We try to be fairly restricted in toy and book purchases, but there is no stopping Santa and grandparents.

One thing we do to cut back on both clutter and cost is use the library. It helps that I am there all the time, but even if I weren’t we would still get most of our entertainment there. We easily take out 25 kids’ picture and chapter books a week, as well as adult books, the latest magazines, music CDs (gone are the days of only classical music at the library) and movies and television shows on DVD. So it is all free and when we are done with it we return it. One sweep through the house and at least 30 things a week are cleared out. To make room for new! Even when we are on holidays we get a library card where we are staying and pick up a supply of trashy magazines, kids’ books on CD for the car, whatever. It is also a great free rainy-day activity when you are camping to go hang out at the library for a couple of hours.

At our house we have done a lot of the classic “save money and energy” things like change lightbulbs to compact fluorescents, wash everything except ourselves in cold water, seal around the windows to stop heat loss. We even had a home energy audit done on our century house a few years ago when there were still government rebates for energy-saving renovations. It has made a difference, but we still dream of putting in solar hot water and getting rid of oil-powered heat forever. That is not yet in the cards for us, so we continue to find ways to save in other departments.

As I learn more about our finances, I have found that it annoys me more and more that I spend so much on banking fees every month. Now that we have combined finances, the two of us mostly use one account for everything, to get paid into and to pay everything out of. Funny how there seems to be a lot more “coming out” than “going in.” Anyhow, we have increased our banking plan several times, only to find that we still go over the maximum allowed transactions every month, which means paying a monthly fee AND also paying sixty cents for every extra transaction. To get unlimited transactions would cost $14 a month. Yep, it’s ridiculous. Paying $14 a month to a bank that is making billions in profits every year from OUR money.

Well, they may only be making a few dollars off my money personally, but you know what I mean. Anyhow, I decided to check out the online banks, and ING was offering me $50 to open an account with them. That got my attention. They offered ME $50 if I deposited $100 in a new account. And they don’t have any transaction fees for regular things like paying bills. None. So just for signing up, I got $50 and I saved $14 to $16 a month on bank fees. Huh. Almost $200 a year. Now I don’t usually promote brands, but I am so annoyed with the regular banks that I am willing to brag a little about this. And if other people are referred to ING by me, we EACH get a $25 bonus. I am willing to suffer the humiliation of doing their marketing for them, so here is the link:

https://content.ingdirect.ca/swfs/en/widget_160_400.swf

Ah yes, did I mention we don’t buy booze anymore? Of all the cost-cutting measures, that seems the harshest. I suppose in the olden days we would have just fired up the still out back to make some home brew. Just a wee glass of icy cold wine on a summer’s eve is truly a luxury, but hey, we do what we must to get off the merry-go-round of debt. And someday, we will get there.

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.

Getting back in the groove

Everyone loses their blogging mojo (would you call that blo-go?), or at least I hope so. I have not typed a word in this space for a couple of weeks, and since I find myself with at least six things to do now that my daughter is asleep I am going to just use photos to get back in the blogging groove. After all, every post does not have to be thought-provoking or clever. I just hope to hit the occasional note of cleverness. In the meantime, let’s have a little feast for the eyes.

These are the colours to be found in our little world this evening…ImageImageImageImageImage

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