Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Nesting, reconstructed

I can't vouch for the rest of society, but my idea of typical nesting doesn't jive with my personality. When I hear the term, I think of creating a nursery that's fit for a magazine spread, of months spent planning and painting, hanging pictures, and purchasing matching linens to make a cozy space with a chosen theme that's special just for baby. I have gifted friends who've created such rooms, and while the results are just lovely, they're equally not me. My first university summer job proved that I'm a woefully inefficient painter, and a sloppy one to boot. My grasp of home decor extends only so far as to allow me to appreciate someone else's handiwork, provided said someone mentions that they've done it. I left my wedding decorations up to my sister, and it took my husband and I three years to order any wedding pictures. I do enjoy having pictures on my walls, but the decision of what to hang where seems to take up more time and brain space than either my husband or I have at any one time. The result of such lack of skill and attention is that we've left our walls the colour they were painted by the previous owners, hung pictures sparingly, and stuck mainly to plants and candles to make the place feel like our own.

Such small scale decor doesn't jive too well with babies, but my babies have never spent much time in their rooms anyways. They've slept in bed with Mommy, on Daddy's lap, snuggled into carriers, in laundry baskets set on coffee tables, on blankets spread three-thick on the floor - it was months before the crib saw so much as an infant nap. Until that point, the baby's room was merely the place we kept the diaper pail. This time around, we're strapped enough for space that I don't think I'll bother setting the crib up until it looks like we're ready to use it, and with no bathroom upstairs the changing station will best be left on the main floor rather than up in either of the bedrooms. I'll be happy just to set up a dresser somewhere to fill with sleepers and onsies and ickle bitty baby socks. Having tiny clothes clean and ready to dress my little babe has been enough cosy creation for this Martha Stewart-challenged mother.

At least, that was where I sat before we had our wee flood.

It turns out there is one space where this mother desires theme and beauty and order: the birthing room. For our first homebirth, I birthed in the living room, but that was back when we lived on a quiet crescent with an enormous two-trunked pine obscuring our front picture window. There was little to prepare other than making room to set up the birth pool - not unlike rearranging to accommodate the yearly Christmas tree. In our current house, however, the corresponding window faces a fairly clear yard and a very busy street, leaving a living room that feels a little too exposed for such a private occasion. We settled instead on our basement entertainment room; it had become our quiet adult retreat, the one room we kept clear of toy clutter, the space where we came to relax once the kids were in bed and the dishes were done. Its depth kept us insulated from the rumble of traffic; the carpet and the fireplace warded off the chill. The walls were green like the ocean - the womb of the world - and there were plenty of surfaces to house a myriad of candles to create a soothing light. It seemed the perfect place to welcome baby, despite the irony of setting up a birth pool on one of the only carpeted floors in the entire house.

That carpet, however, has gone the way of the dumpster, as have the baseboards, trim, and the bottom two feet of those lovely green walls. The electric fireplace was salvaged, and sits in our garage; the shelving around it was not. And so the room sat for many a month, blessedly dry and disinfected, but a little too cave-like for this mama bear. With no reconstruction start date yet in sight, we made alternate plans. I got the guidelines from my midwives for booking their birth centre. We confirmed that the birth pool we wished to rent could fit in our living room, and picked fabric for heavier curtains to separate us from the roving eyes of pedestrians and the noise from passing cars. Neither accommodation was what I had hoped for, but it was a relief to know we could still make it work. And it was something to do other than wait.

I eventually overcame the discomfort of being a squeaky wheel and inquired with our adjustor on reconstruction timeframes. It turns out a few communications had been missed - a client complaint was the missing link to get the process back in motion. After months of inertia, the carpet was ordered, the hot water tank replaced. Tradesmen came in to do estimates and then came back to work. The walls now extend down to the concrete and half the new trim has been installed. New doors hang in the long-empty frames; one of them even has a door knob. Our mudroom and laundry room walls shine with a clean, white coat of paint - better than new. And our relaxing room walls are ocean-green again - I can stand on concrete and picture it complete.

And so I found myself in IKEA, roaming slowly through Home Decor, picking up tapers, tealights, candlesticks, little decorative lamps to provide instant mood-lighting while searching for the matches. I even framed a print and know exactly where I want to hang it: Eos on the western wall, looking serenely over sky and sea. I have a dresser and a bookcase awaiting space for home assembly, and a mental list of icons I plan to move downstairs. The replacement couch and ottoman have been selected, we'll arrange for delivery when we know for sure the carpet will be in. And I'm giddy at the prospect of setting it all into place.

It feels a little absurd to have items like CD racks alongside blue pads and peri-bottles on the homebirth shopping list, and a copious stock of candles doesn't usually shout "ready for baby." But here I stand, at the corner of home renovation and womb-dweller eviction, and I'll take the nesting instincts in whatever form they come. As my chiropractor keeps reminding me, each birth comes from a different body. Time and circumstance have changed me: muscle and sinew sit a little differently as these bones age. It appears my biases and inclinations have shifted too. Each pregnancy takes a different toll, both in terms of energy levels and psychological outlook. Perhaps this round's combination of hormones have awakened a dormant decorator gene. Perhaps my flooded and gutted foundations are to blame. Either way, I'm embracing the warm "baby's coming" glow, be it born of a tiny knitted cap awaiting a drawer or a framed print ready for the wall.  It's been a wild ride, but we're almost there.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Winter spice beef and beet stew: a recipe for November's snow

We received a rare treat this year: a gloom on Halloween straight out of the movies with temperatures well above freezing. The wind that ripped the last of the leaves off the trees and stirred the clouds into ominous formations was even courteous enough to quiet down in time for trick-or-treaters, who ventured out with sweaters under their apparel instead of snowsuits. I was sorry to have to stay home, but a woefully sore foot meant I was better suited to handing out treats than escorting costumed youngsters, much to my husband's chagrin. He'd never been a fan of the copious people contact and awkward costume questions that comes with door-to-door candy collection. He had volunteered to keep the home jack-o-lanterns burning for much of his youth and has continued in that role throughout our marriage. I, on the other hand, was volunteering to take my youngest brother out on Halloween nights in order to extend the fun of costumes and candy well into high school. Babysitting was a mature enough veneer to justify dressing up and collecting sugar. My Mommy costumes have been much more minimalist (butterfly wings, six years and counting), but I've enjoyed dressing up my littles and taking them 'round to meet the neighbours on All Hallows' Eve, and, naturally, sampling from their sugary bounty. Nevertheless, the kids had a marvellous time out with Daddy, and I suspect my husband may have lost a bit of his distaste for the tradition. After all, standing back and basking in your children's cuteness is rather different than enduring such attention yourself. 

With such an unseasonable treat behind us, I had no qualms about this year's early November snow. Its brightness took the edge off the yearly lurch out of daylight savings, and, this year, the return of winter brings me ever closer to baby - close enough to motivate me into completing the rest of those pesky prenatal preparations. It feels good to check them off. And, after a warm and glorious autumn, I'm ready to hunker down, light my candles, and simmer something warmly spiced for supper. So inspired by the nascent season, and with copious amounts of cow still crowding up the freezer, I found a way to incorporate those mulling spices I so wanted to be smelling with some of the last of farmer's market bounty cluttering my fridge: namely, golden beets, a buttery turnip-like cousin of the deep purple beets that I so enjoy but have so little success in pairing with anything (beyond borscht, that is). It turned out so well that I'm sharing it here, for there's many a chilly winter night to come. 

The veggie mix is limited and reflected the lack of variety in my crisper drawer that week; next time I make this stew, it will hopefully have carrots, red cabbage, and some sort of green to go along with the beets and tomatoes. The seasoning measurements are approximate (obviously); please feel free to season to taste. The Tuscan Seasoning I got at Costco and, for those who'd rather approximate from their own kitchen, is described as "a blend of warm Mediterranean flavors with roasted garlic, bell peppers, aromatic rosemary, basil, oregano and lemon." We received ours as a gift and have found it a wonderfully versatile addition to our spice cabinet. I highly recommend it. If anyone from Kirkland/Costco is reading this, I'm happy to be payed for saying so. Baby needs shoes. And by shoes, I mean a college fund (Costco pays well, right?).

Winter spice beef & beet stew


-1 & 1/2 lb stew beef
- 2 Tbsp flour
- generous sprinkle of sea salt, cinnamon & allspice
- a pinch each of nutmeg & clove
- 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper 
- a large shake of Kirkland Rustic Tuscan Seasoning
- 2-3 bay leaves
- bacon fat (or butter or olive oil)
- 2 medium red onions, roughly chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 2 stalk celery, roughly chopped
- 3-4 small to medium golden beets, peeled & cut into 1 inch cube
- 1 small red beet, peeled & finely diced
- 28 oz can crushed tomatoes
- 2 cup veggie stock
- 14 oz water (to clean out the tomato can)
- 2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
- 1 cup red lentils, rinsed & picked over

Toss beef in flour & seasonings. Brown in bacon fat over medium heat in a large, heavy bottomed pot. Remove from pot & reserve. Deglaze pot with a splash of stock and sauté onions, garlic, & celery with another shake of Tuscan seasoning until onion is translucent. Add rest of stock, tomatoes, water, bay leaves, balsamic vinegar, reserved beef & beets. Bring to a boil and simmer, partially covered for ~30min.

Stir in lentils & add another shake of cinnamon along with a pinch each of allspice & clove. Bring back to a simmer, lower heat & cook, covered, for another hour or so until beef is cooked through and beets & lentils are tender. Adjust seasonings, remove bay leaves, & serve with bread or biscuits. Serves eight (or, in our case, serves four twice). 

Happy simmering.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Five Minute Fridays: Laundry

It's Friday again, and I'm writing from a coffee shop piping toe-tapping jazz. This could be interesting. But I do, in fact, have five minutes, so no excuses. To join in this week's Five Minute challenge or to learn more, visit Lisa-Jo Baker's site. Today's prompt is "laundry". Timer's set...GO

In our previous house, we had a laundry line that stretched miles across our soccer field of a lawn. I grew up with clothes horses on my parents' small patch of backyard, but never enough to hang absolutely everything. It took some courage on my part to make use of that whole line: sheets, baby socks, underwear hanging in the breeze, the details of our lives mounted on a flagpole well above the fence line in the afternoon light. It's a suburban sense of privacy - so many pictures from dense cities show line upon line strung along alleyways, across city streets bustling with foot traffic. Millions of eyes could incline a little upwards and gaze on just who all lives in that fourth floor apartment and what they wear under their boots and jackets. But none pictured ever do. Perhaps the world isn't as nosy as I assume.

And stop. Your turn ;)

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Crabapple butter: an autumn recipe

It was an unpredictable summer. The heat came in spurts throughout June and July, but interspersed with such unseasonal stretches of cool that I became paranoid that summer would end before we made good on our August vacation. I suppose it was a fitting follow up to the most capricious of winters and volatile of springs, but it took walking around the neighbourhood in late-night twilight to convince myself that we were still closer to the solstice than the equinox despite the weather. There was fruit for Transfiguration ripening on the trees and flowers for Dormition blooming through many a front lawn; I arrived home refreshed nigh an hour before midnight, my calendars realigned. My husband called off the search party. Next time I'll bring my phone.

Our crabapple tree, unfortunately, had no such wandering affirmations to confirm the continuity of summer. Those dips and dives that killed July's mosquitoes led it to give up on the season entirely, and well before August's end. I watched the apples blush with incredulity nearly a month earlier than normal, and ended up scheduling an emergency apple picking a full two weeks before September, lest our entire crop end up scattered on the driveway. Our tree might have felt rather silly once a sultry September rolled in, engulfing its prematurely fruitless branches with an abnormally late dose of humidity, but these are the times when it helps to be non-sentient.  Accusations aside, we were left with a conundrum: there was no way we could consume enough of the beef in our freezer to make room for this many apples worth of sauce before said fruit went foul on the counter. It's the risk you take when you agree to buy half of the "large cow" straight from the hands who raised it. One of these days, I'm really going to have to get over my fear of canning. In the meantime, there was another course of action available to me: trying my hand at crabapple butter.

I had made apple butter once before, but two years is a long time to try and retain a recipe recited from a series of text messages from a friend who knew a friend in the know, so I put out a call on Facebook for something a little more concrete. A friend came back with this recipe, which, paired with a sugar-to- apple ratio from this recipe and my own method of making apple sauce, was enough to get me started. I loved the idea of adding orange zest instead of lemon to account for the extra tartness of the crabapple, and the aroma of spiced apples simmering for hours is always welcome in my kitchen.

Here's what I came up with:


Crabapple butter


Stock-pot full (16 qts) of crabapples, washed and sorted but not cored, peeled or stemmed 
Baby-fist-sized piece of ginger, peeled and sliced
3 cinnamon sticks
6 cloves
water (enough to fill pot ~1 inch)
brown sugar (1/2 cup per 1 cup of apple puree)
the zest of one orange or one drop of food-grade wild orange essential oil

Simmer apples and spices on low heat, stirring occasionally, until apples are soft (can be smushed against the side of the pot with a wooden spoon), about 12 hours. Remove from heat, and let sit, uncovered, to cool for a few more hours, stirring occasionally. Apple mush can be warm, but not hot. Remove cinnamon sticks (don't worry about cloves & ginger pieces) and put through saucer/food processor/anything that'll removed the cores, peels, and seeds.

Move strained sauce to slow cooker, measuring as you transfer. My yield was 14 cups. Add 1/2 cup brown sugar for every cup of sauce, and mix in orange zest. Turn slow cooker on low and prop lid open with chopsticks. Cook about 8 hours on low, stirring often to encourage evaporation.



According to Mother's Kitchen, who provided the recipe above, an apple has been buttered when it acts like this: "the fruit butter can hold it's shape on a spoon, to check it put a small amount on a chilled plate. When the liquid doesn't separate and create a rim around the edge, and it holds a buttery, spreadable shape when you pass your finger through it, it's ready to can." Once butter consistency is reached, taste and adjust spice if needed (use powdered cinnamon, clove, & ginger). Either process to can or cool and freeze.


My final yield - much easier to fit in the freezer

Globalization has taken some of the shine off the exotic allure of the spice trade, but there's still something compelling about seasoning apples from my own backyard with flavours from far away. It takes me back to a time when acquiring cinnamon from Sri Lanka, cloves from Indonesia, and ginger root from India came hand in hand with tales from the silk road, world events gathered at oases where caravan met caravan to water their animals. I wonder if the average well-to-do Englishman appreciated the weeks and months those spices had spent in saddle bags atop horses and camels, or barrelled in the hulls of sailing ships, bartered from harbour to merchant to peddler to servant to cook before landing in his Christmas pudding.

I checked the packages of my own modern spices: beyond the Kirkland Saigon Cinnamon, all I can garner is the addresses in Ontario where the product met its current container. The label at the supermarket told me the orange I zested came from South Africa; apparently the groves of Florida and California have also suffered from precarious cooling throughout the growing season, leading such grocery giants as Loblaws to cast their net a little further to accommodate our continuing citrus demands. I'm afraid I reacted more with disgust at the added carbon footprint than the awe Perrault's Cinderella felt upon being presented with such exotic fruit at the prince's ball. Oranges have become all to common in the twenty-five-thousand mile diet. (Update: the following autumn, I used wild orange oil instead of zest - food-grade essential oils are hard too find, but the improvement both in taste and aroma is worth the hassle). And my post's meanders are bound to irritate some poor googling chef in search of recipes rather than wider socio-economic-environmental musings (my apologies).

Apples for another project - just too pretty not to picture
So there you have it: a seasonal recipe created at an unseasonable time due to unpredictable weather. To give some perspective on quantities, my iPhone camera was included in my little culinary adventure. The pictures aren't great, but they do capture some sense of the reduction process, from first picking and sorting to saucing and, finally, butter. My stock pot holds about 16 quarts and my slow cooker maxes out at 5 quarts. The containers where I stored my finished product hold about 2 cups each, which should give a good indication of my final yield.

Looking at that motley crew of salvaged Ukrainian tupperware and plain-jane rubbermaids really make me wish I'd thought ahead and bought some little glass jars with flounced gingham covers. Between the orange and the ginger, this apple butter tastes like Christmas, and cooking crabapples peels makes for too lovely a hue not to match with red and white ribbons. Next year, my family might find themselves with home-made kitch in their stockings (try to act surprised). In the meantime, I'll enjoy spreading jewel-toned spicy goodness on my toast. It's especially nice with rye.

May the season give you something to savour, no matter what twists it took to get us here.

Friday, 4 October 2013

Five Minute Fridays: Write

Sometimes the ugliness gets to me. I'm drowning in the pain. I feel the righteous anger for someone else's story, hurt at another's great injustice, so I write. I write and rant and writhe but do not publish. For the story isn't mine. My rantings bring no healing, just catharsis for my own small soul. The world is not moved. They say fight fire with more fire, but wouldn't water be more effective? Sooth, wash, wear away not with more sandpaper, but with rushing streams.

So I look for my own story, what I own among the glories, what is common to us all if only we would look. Try to leave the world a little lovelier despite of all the ugly, all the controversy, all the clever arguments I so would love to win. I already know that I am smart. Does that mean I must be angry? Does the dwelling on the injustice make it somehow dissappear? So I write, and do not publish, should the wrath grow to consume me. Write and rip (or press delete), and make peace with another day.

Linking up again with Lisa-jo Baker et. all for another Five Minute Friday.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Babymoon

I've been out walking in the mornings again. The air is crisp, and the sun is catching greens and golds in the tree tops. The breeze brings a skitter of fallen leaves that huddle in the gutters and meet my step with a satisfying crunch. Autumn is upon us, and this year brings again the pleasure of daily strolls to and from our neighbourhood preschool.

The routine that precedes the jaunt has altered considerably since our first round of pedestrian commutes: while my son still has a slower start to his morning, his sister and I rush about, getting dressed (well, Mommy often settles for sweatpants), breakfast for her, lunch packing for me, hugs for the boy still in jammies, and my first breath of fresh air of the day: a quick march down the street and across a very busy and badly marked crosswalk to this year's school bus stop. Given the number of drivers who barrel on past our corner despite my traffic-savvy first grader's out-stretched arm, I'm very thankful that my shorter and more adventurous child stays safely inside with his father. Longer school days also mean less time for girl talk, so I hope to keep up these daily saunters one-on-one even once the city deals with my traffic safety complaint. Those few moments of focused conversation before the bus pulls up mean a lot in my getting-less-than-little's love language.

Once I've waved my goodbyes to my eldest scholar, I venture back through the rush hour text-and-drivers and breath a little deeper once I reach the other side. One down, one to go. I usually return to boy grins at the window; my newly-minted preschooler has often started eating before this point, but rarely remains at table when there's a school bus boarding to watch. There's often a pointed reminder or four that "done breakfast" means full tummy, not short attention span, but I do manage to get myself fed and (properly) dressed in the meantime.

Just an hour after school bus pick-up, I'm back out en plein air, heading in the opposite direction, with a child who'd usually rather skip ahead than stay close enough for conversation (Don't worry, Grandmas, he's very good at waiting for Mommy at every corner). He contents himself with frequent looks back to ensure I'm still following, and peppers his trot with excited observations of whatever has caught his attention: "Look, Mommy, a magpie!" "Heymommyheymommy - that garage has five doors!" "Heymommy, is that CONSTRUCTION?" Why, yes, I do see the orange cones of glory. Be still my beating heart.

It's quite the change from the near continual hand-holding and quiet humming of my previous preschooler, but it's what comes after the drop-off that differs the most. Once his jacket is hung and I've hugged him goodbye, I leave the building entirely on my own - four mornings a week, I have two hours and fifteen minutes totally devoid of child care without the excuse of an adult commitment. While I have made a point of occasionally scheduling dates with myself in my six year career as a stay-at-home mother, I've never had such regular free time. I must admit it makes me feel a little giddy.

I've heard two different definitions of the term "babymoon". For some, it is a time set aside before the birth, a special outing or vacation for the family unit as they are before everything changes once again. For others, it is a retreat into the home after the babe is born, a period for a mother to rest up and bond with her newest little one without the hassle of entertaining visitors, keeping up with the dusting and the dishes, or even leaving the house. I've done a bit of both between my first two babies, though not always very deliberately. I labeled various little events as pre-emptive babymoons after the fact, and, while I never strictly adhered to the traditional six-week stay-home that exists in the larger umbrella of Orthodox Christian practices, I didn't worry too much about housework or social life while submerged in the haze of the newborn stage.

This time around, however, I'm adding a couple interpretations of my own. I'm having a boy-moon: some focused time with my son while he's still my youngest - and, during most school hours, only - child. But that's a whole other post. I'm also including opportunities for a solo-moon: a respite for the introvert mom, little breaks from motherhood while caring for my next baby is still synonymous with caring for myself. While many a preschool period may be eaten up by errands, phone calls, and emails that are more easily accomplished when unaccompanied, I'll be reserving the odd mid-morning just for me. Be it a long walk taken at my own pace, a morning snack (or a full second breakfast) at a favourite cafe, or just coffee enjoyed hot at home without needing to stick my abandoned mug in the microwave, it's good to be alone. A time to read, perchance to write, a time to pray; I'm two weeks in with as many as twelve weeks to go - the possibilities still stretch before me. Much as I enjoy hearing the children chatter and look forward to more baby cuddles, I'm glad for this little bit of rest nestled between early morn and noon-time bustles, and thankful for the calm before the next glorious storm.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Kyrie eleison

It's Friday again. I cheated a little. You could fill libraries with the works that were written on today's subject. Thankfully, it seems a little silly to try do it justice. The rules and benefits of Five Minute Fridays can be found, as on every Friday, here. Today's word is "mercy".

When I was a student in New Brunswick, I took a trip to a savonrie, a soap shop that made their own product, cottage industry style, right in the store. Their claim to fame was their olive oil: the core of every soap they made. We watched the demonstrator rub the raw oil all over his face, his hands, his hair, and laughed nervously at the thought of cleanliness through such a greasing. "You laugh", he said, baldly Acadien in his confidence, "but this is the image of health!" And so it was: a man shining in life, supple with grace.

Kyrie eleison

I remember the first sermon where the Greek that renders as 'Lord have mercy' was given a more thorough translation. 'Eleison' finds it's root in 'oil', that fruit of the olive once so vital to Mediterranean cooking, heating, light and life. Those two scenes juxtapose together: the oil that sooths, heals, nourishes is also that that cleans, that smooths all our rough edges. The image of health.

Kyrie eleison

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Grey Water

It was the last Thursday of August, and my husband was working late. I took a moment between bedtimes to flip through the latest fold-out map from National Geographic. It was an illustration of how our continents' coasts would change if all the world's ice were to melt into the sea. I browsed with morbid fascination at the sheer amount of human habitation engulfed by such a swollen ocean: Venice, Stockholm, Beijing, Tokyo, most of the major centres along America's eastern seaboard, huge swaths of eastern Mexico and Brazil, most of the Netherlands and Bangladesh, and so much more, lost under the blue.

I thought back to that map a few hours later when I found myself standing in water where there's long been dry land, or, more specifically, dry linoleum tile and carpet. As I rushed around my finished basement, unplugging appliances and draping cables over table-top stereo equipment, I was struck by the deception of that still and serenely painted blue. That melt-water wouldn't creep forward in lovely shades of aquamarine, I thought, now helping my husband keep up with the murky tide flowing steadily from the laundry room, they would come like this, grey-brown with the residue of all the terrain they submerged before they came to swirl about your ankles. The beaches and grasslands of river banks, the asphalt and concrete of city-scapes, whatever pestilence adheres to the inner walls of sewer pipes overwhelmed by rain and flowing backwards into basements - ugh. Don't think, just bail.

It's amazing the calm industry that can come across a soul submerged in a small-scale catastrophe. My husband and I, two people who usually stand paralyzed in the face of the endless mundane list of home-owner to-dos, remained mobile and productive throughout the night of our little crisis. The pictures don't get hung and the baseboards aren't reglued, but it only took one trip to assess that my husband could most efficiently haul water up the stairs and out to the alley if our rubbermaid garbage bin was one-third full.  As the waters receded and clean-up began, our priorities remained clear: keep dry what's still dry, get rid of what's wet. The laundry got sorted with incredible ease when dampness was the only divider. Boxes we hadn't gotten around to unpacking in our two-and-half-years residence were finally emptied and sorted. Books and papers we should have parted with long ago finally left our possession. There's nothing like seeing old things soaked in contaminated water to make you decide whether you really still needed them anyways. Transcripts, yes. Illegible class notes, no.

I had to laugh a couple days later when a friend asked over Facebook "when's the last time you took a deep breath and did something you never thought you could do?" My answer, Thursday. I never thought I'd spend an hour scooping up sewer water with a honey pail while wearing white pajamas. I never thought I'd be watching a small rubbish bin swirl gracefully in the current over our carpet like a scene out of American Beauty and wishing for the leisure to film it. I suppose it was technically Friday by the time I was ripping up my wedding album - the pictures were salvageable, the proof book was not - but by then I'd learned not to inhale too deeply.

I kept telling myself this is no High River. The water came in inches, not feet, and receded within hours rather than standing stagnant for days. Help was a phone call and a 15 minute drive away, in the form of my father-in-law and his shop vac, and insurance called back before the sun rose on our midnight misadventure. The deconstruction crew was hard at work the next morning and done the bulk of the clean-up before we'd gone to bed. And throughout the noise of extraction, the humidity of the power wash, and the smell of the decontaminate that had me wondering if I'd be giving birth to a three-headed baby with a compromised metabolism, our house remained a relatively safe and livable place. Our main floor swelled with belongings and dirt tracked from downstairs, but it only took three friends and one Saturday to absorb the things we'd need, box up the things we didn't, and clean up the slew of germs on our floors and counters. Vexing, very. Disastrous, not quite.

While our storage reorganization is hardly ideal, we were surprised how much space we weren't efficiently using. The pantry is now conveniently located steps from the kitchen instead of down the stairs, a fair trade-off for towels on a different floor than the bathroom. Our overly large playroom/guestroom works comfortably enough as an office/tv room, allowing both a tidy quite place for post-child-bedtime relaxing and a room with a door to prevent the theme songs of juvenile audio-visual entertainment from implanting themselves in parental brains.  The new toyroom is a little cramped, but that just keeps it from getting hopelessly messy. After all, necessity is the father of invention, and a wondrous motivator to boot. 

We're now bobbing in the windless sea of waiting on insurance. Deconstruction is first priority, restoration work is not. Our ruined furniture is finally gone, but the list documenting it is somewhere in transit. We've replaced a couple things, but won't do more until we know how much we'll be reimbursed. The kids don't seem to mind that we took the school year at a stumble. This new normal is settling out okay. So we'll wait, and try to be thankful that we're not stuck treading water. For while we're down one lovely basement, there's no mold setting in.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Divinely Alive - a Five-Minute meditation on "Red"

It's Friday, and my week's been a mess. We're dealing with the aftermath of a minor basement flood, which has meant days of waiting on service calls, and re-shuffling the main floor to absorb the necessities we kept in our now not-so-finished basement. There will be more to do on that front tomorrow, but it's Friday, so today I write. Linking up again with all the brave writers at Five Minute Fridays. For more information and a collection of links to wonderfully unpolished words, check out Lisa-Jo Baker's site.

This week's prompt: red. Timer's set, go:

In the Orthodox Christian tradition, colours can carry deep meanings. We change our textiles, our clothing, our candles to reflect the season the hue represents: white for the Resurrection, green for the Holy Spirit, blue for the Mother of God - the Theotokos, and, through her, all of humanity. Red is for divinity, the colour of the Cross, the colour for Christ. As a child, this dichotomy of red and blue seemed backwards. God, to me, ought to be blue, for the sky, the heavens, the ethereal sense of the other. The nitty gritty dirty of red felt more like humanity to me. More of the concrete and the real. As I've grown, I've come to see that it's me who's got it backward: it is Christ who is real, and we who, without Him, are not. The colour of victory, the colour of blood, the colour of life: this is the core of reality. For what life is there without the very source of life and immortality?

And stop.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Five minute Fridays: Last

Linking up with Lisa Jo Baker for another Five Minute Friday: many writers taking five minutes to write on a single prompt - no editing, no overthinking, just write, publish, and go lavish some praise on whoever linked up before you. It's a lovely way to end the week, to push yourself to write without waiting on perfection, and to read works of other writers you might not have stumbled upon any other way. Care to join in? This week's prompt is "last". Timers ready...go.

It was quite the haul at the farmer's market: peaches and concords trucked over the Rockies, green beans and bacon from a farm just north-east of the city, darling little pattipan squashes, white carrots, kale, and celery so fragrant it could act as spice. This is what I'd been waiting for: one stop glory of the harvest, grown by the hands that sold it. Late August won't last forever; school, fall leaves, and first frost will be upon us soon enough. So I'm blanching those beans, inhaling those peaches, dreaming of the borscht we'll make once fatter beets join the bounty at the stalls while I chop and freeze yet another couple stalks of dill to add to the greens in the freezer. Between the science of preservation and the memories created of savouring sweet the seasonal, there is a way to make it last.

And stop.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Five minute Fridays - Small

It's Friday again, and I'm wilting in humidity. But, with the kids downstairs with a movie and my husband out renting us a steam cleaner, I can't say that I don't have five minutes to spare. So here it is: the labour of five (mostly) clear-headed minutes, trying to write my best despite myself. Feel free to join the movement over at Lisa-Jo Baker's site, or at least see what your fellow writers have done with their five minutes today. It's lovely to see. This week's prompt: small.

I've written before about my daughter's love of big words. It's darlingly precocious, but it doesn't tell the whole story. The problem is understanding and communication doesn't lie in the use of complex vocabulary, but in the misuse of small words. Big words tend to be precise, accurate, and one dimensional. Small words, however, have an infinite variety of nuance and meaning. "Esophagus" is a lot easier to define than "fair", "mean", or "hurry". And yet, we're expected to start with these "simple" concepts. Easy to spell, easy to say, but oh so difficult to pin down. Perhaps that's why she's picked up on her parents' love of the big and varied. I'm sure it's only a matter of time before her brother follows suit.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Of fairy berries, and other sweet imperfections

It was hardly an ideal day for a family excursion. We had just returned from a week of visiting family a province over only to spend our first day back out running errands and attending appointments. With the laundry still piled and sleep schedules still in tatters, my house full of introverts were ready to lie low, myself included. Nevertheless, strawberry season was coming to a close: if we wanted to hit a U-Pick this year it would have to be today. Carpe strawberrium - homebody desires would have to be put off yet a few hours more. Saturday morning was booked.

Between sleeping in, grumpy grown-ups' fuzzy-headed preparations, and twin "getting dressed is no fair" tantrums from the younger generation, it was closer to noon than not by the time we reached the strawberry farm. Thankfully, the combination of country driving, car music, snacks and coffee had soothed our ruffled tempers, and we tumbled out into the parking lot in search of instruction and ready for adventure. The staff predicted slim pickings ahead, but that did not deter us from trying our luck. With all the work it took to get here, we weren't about to leave empty-handed. Nevertheless, I put aside my blessedly unuttered dreams of pies and jam and set my sights on finding enough berris to serve fresh over ice cream for the evening's dessert.

We headed off, as directed, to find the "weedy" patch, as the tended one had reportedly been picked clean by earlier risers. Our search took some aimless wandering (both parents being under the assumption that the other was paying attention to the cashier's directions), saying "no" to the farm's various other treats and attractions, and a visit to a precariously full port-a-potty, but we eventually discovered our intended destination.

"Weedy" turned out to be a bit of an understatement; with the second field not ready for their new berry variety when planting-time came, the farm staff had abandoned their rotor-routing plans for the older patch and chose to let the wheat grow along with the deep-rooted tares rather than losing their original berry plants along with the weeds. The result come August looked suspiciously fallow, but, upon closer inspection, we found there were indeed strawberry plants - with berries! - all in rows, but with a veritable prairie's worth of volunteer flora growing thickly around and in between them.

I imagine our visit was more like hunting for wild strawberries than the average U-Pick ranch experience. Oats and wheat weaved between the milkweeds, thistles, and foxtails. Our city-slicker offspring got more of a botany lesson than we'd bargained for, and marveled at the thought of hard green kernels in the grass turning into such domestic staples as bread or Cheerios. Squirreling out the fruit of the intended crop from beneath the intruders was a challenge, but it soon became a game more than a chore. Our eyes adjusted to the task, honing in on traces of ruby speckled behind the duller hues of gold and green. Exclamations of "this is really fun" and "I love picking strawberries" erased the morning's earlier whines and battles as we wandered through the field, scanning for vermillion treasures, and occasionally bending to claim our prize.

Our son was happy to follow his dad row by unruly row, proud to be the holder of the pail, even when there was only a solitary berry under his charge. Our daughter stuck with me, delighted to soak up what knowledge I'd gleaned from the farm's website on the rhythms of the berry patch. First came the king berries, I explained, the largest of the crew, long gone by now, next the mid-sized mid-season bunch which - thanks to this year's late start - had been ripe for the picking in late, rather than mid-, July. Last were the fairy berries, usually ready by August 'long, and the ones were looking for that day: the smallest, and the sweetest, of the season. Good things come to those who wait - or, in our case, those who tarry. The enchantment of fairy dust was just what my girlie needed to jump into treasure hunting gear: soon, she was finding clutches her mother's gaze had missed and rejoicing at every discovery.


Our harvest was fairly meager, as we'd been warned, but we were hardly disappointed. There was already a bumper crop of wild saskatoons packed in our freezer, thanks to an afternoon spent in the bush while visiting my aunt and uncle's lake-house last week. We had strawberries enough for ice cream, plus a few to top our waffles later that weekend. And, unlike the saskatoon bush, where every thought of turning back was met with yet another clutch of plump berries hanging at eye-level, it was easy to look up and leave the strawberry field once our youngest hand had had enough. And by "had enough" I mean he was ready for a nap and late for a trip to the bathroom. Fortunately, I'd remembered to pack him another pair of pants. If anyone looked askance at a small child changing clothes on the picnic table nearest to the parking lot, we didn't notice.

Having never picked strawberries outside of a well-tended garden, I can't say if late-season berries tend to be misshapen, but I rather suspect this particular patch's berry-fairy may have been an imp. The fairy berries we brought home, while indeed small and sweet, were the motliest collection of strawberries that I have ever seen. Some members of our yield bulged around their stumped green ends like a cluster of crimson grapes, others spread out flatly, respecting the nubbly bottom's vertical constraints. There were tiny rounded berries barely peeking out beneath their jagged green skirts, and a smattering of rubicund perfection, just to keep you guessing. We found fruit fit for Alice's wonderland, some suited to Strawberry Shortcake decor, and even a few I could only describe as comically burlesque. I've heard of pêtes de soeurs, but fesses de fraises? Forget the imp; this field fairy was none other than Shakespeare's Puck, playing bawdy tricks for a late summer's noon.

It was a fitting yield for an sweet yet imperfect occasion. It's easy to presume that in making memories we'll manage to create only good ones, but, in reality, that's rarely the case. I'd known better than to expect complete perfection, having had read up recently on a couple other bloggers' experiences of fruit-picking with kidlets, but I'd somehow slipped into to assuming that my own crew would do a little better simply because they're a little older. In some ways that was true - only one child was guilty of plant squashing, and both grasped the definition of ripeness (not that there were many green berries left to confuse them) - but sometimes a bigger child just means a bigger fight. Not to mention a greater likelihood of parents resorting to empty threats of never doing anything fun again if someone didn't brush their teeth. Also, while both children may technically still be carried where they do not wish to go, doing so too often in my current condition requires more chiropractic care than we can afford. I'll need to take more care not to over-schedule ourselves as I near my last trimester.


Our adventure may have been stretched and squashed in ways I hadn't anticipated and marred with the odd sour-berry moment, but I was as happy with the experience as a whole as I was by its flavourful outcome. We all managed to enjoy ourselves despite the set-backs and, thanks to the wildness of the patch, got even closer to nature than I'd hoped. At the end of the day, our ice cream was still topped with that special sweetness that comes from food you picked yourself. Larger rounder berries are maybe easily found in the produce aisle, but they rarely come with a side of adventure.

Next year I hope we'll do better in the berry patch, especially in terms of planning and yield, but I'd say we got quite the story out of our first attempt. My oldest two will have plenty to tell their youngest sibling about the squishy shapes of fairy berries they missed out on by a mere few months.  They didn't notice les fesses de fraises, however, so I decided not to point them out. I saved that one for the internet, complete with pictures so you can hunt for strawberry tushies yourself. No need to thank me, all credit goes to that prairie pixie, Puck ;)

Friday, 26 July 2013

"More than a Princess"

"Mom, where's my uterus?"

My six-year-old is very into my pregnancy. She was into the last one too, but, being less than three, her interest showed more through play than questions on human anatomy. I puzzled for weeks over her practice of placing an ornate toy mirror on her mermaid doll's tiny tummy before realizing the mirror was a Doppler and she was listening for the heartbeat.

"Hold on," she says, and runs off to fetch the Bearnstain Bears classic "Too Much Junkfood," a second-hand find from my brother than includes a doctor's explanation of why the Bear family needs good food so their bodies can do all the things they do.

"Show me," she orders, flipping to the page where Dr. Grizzly shows what bears look like "on the inside." Human body systems have been a big interest for her these last couple years. By the time she was five, she would tell you that something had gone down her trachea instead of her esophagus rather than simply saying it "went down the wrong pipe." My precision princess prefers to use accurate vocabulary.

I study the illustration of bones and blood vessels and the large empty space under the intestines; Dr. Grizzly's left out the reproductive system. I can't say I blame her, my grade-six teacher skipped that particular unit in health class as well. The poor man had enough trouble getting through the lower half of digestion (also absent from the Bearnstain bear). No such qualms for my little lady - the details of human excretion are currently an infinite gold mine of mirth. A large amount of our dinner conversations begin with queries about the end result of only eating a certain kind of food. We discuss the problems of vitamin deficiencies, muscular atrophy, and - when I forget to stop myself - constipation and diarrhea. Five years of potty training has taken its toll on my sense of appropriate topics for the dinner table. It's almost a relief when the talk turns to the life cycle of the mosquito, or the location of volcanoes in Alaska, or how long it takes to get from Edmonton to Moscow.

When we're not discussing digestion, or mining my iPhone for pictures of lava, she's searching for deeper meaning in fairy tales, Disney movies, episodes of "Strawberry Shortcake". It's incredible how many themes can pulled from a mere 20 minutes of programming or five pages worth of continuous text. The intent behind the characters actions, the back story that fuels their reactions, the reasons why the character most hungry for power is the one least fit to wield it; between her natural inquisitiveness and my tendency to ramble, there were hours of meaningful literary conversation hidden in such unlikely places as the dance scene in Disney's "Sleeping Beauty" (love-at-first-sight myth, blown) and "Barbie in A Mermaid's Tale 2" (and that was just the book based on the movie neither of us has seen).

I never assumed that my daughter would grow into a princess. I dressed her in pink outfits and frilly little frocks through her babyhood on the assumption she'd shun them eventually and I might as well enjoy her cuteness while I could. She's been picking her own attire for three years now, and it hasn't happened yet. She still likes her Sunday finery, and spent her preschool year in skirts and tights, if not in dresses. She chose pants only twice, and both occasions followed her overhearing me say that she "never" wore them. Compliment her outfit, and she'll gladly go into all its details - after all, she picked it out herself. If you tell her she's a beauty, however, she'll say something along the lines of "I know" or "well, yes", and then return to whatever she was discussing before you interrupted to state the obvious. The princess has heard all that before, but what she really wants to know right now is the science behind the rainbow.

For the first half of her life, her toys were as girly as her outfits. The grand bulk of them were gifts from friends and family, happy to have a baby girl to spoil. The most control I yielded was in making birthday and Christmas wish lists, but, beyond a boycotting Bratz and Barbie (and eventually caving on the latter), I've mostly catered to the interests she'd already shown, and her own requests soon followed suit. She loved the princess dresses and fairies and baby dolls she'd received, so, while the content expanded somewhat as she aged, the themes of her wish-lists remained pretty pink. Beyond a few of her books and some of her stuffed animals, the play kitchen, girly-coloured legos, and arts & crafts were as close as we ever got to unisex.

When she got herself a brother, however, I did ask for some "boy" toys, if for no other reason than to even out the playroom a little. Lo and behold, my dainty daughter took to trains like a duck to water. And emergency vehicles. And construction equipment. When my in-laws passed on my husband's old collection of match-box-size cars and trucks to my son, she dove right in, eventually claiming half of them as her own. In true big-sisterly fashion, she lords over her little brother as they play; whether the medium be dress-up dolls, dinosaurs, or a construction site, she maintains firm control over the storyline, and corrects any errors her minion may utter. A tutu is more than just a skirt, and a bulldozer mustn't be confused for a back-hoe. My princess has grown into a queen of an ever-expanding toy empire: all the better to apply the ever-growing knowledge base stuffed in her inquisitive mind.

I can't say my observations of daughter and son have led to any solid theories on gender development. I'm well aware that my case study of two says as much about their differing ages and personalities as it does about their sexes. It will be interesting to see how their dynamic changes once one of them is outnumbered, and what a baby exposed to equal amounts of "girl" and "boy" toys will chose to play with. I have no doubts, however, that my daughter, while still very much a princess, is also so much more, which is why this video gets me teary every time I watch it.

GoldieBlox, I salute you. But I promise you no engineer. My money's currently on biology, but we'll see what else she gets into.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Belong: Five-Minute Fridays

In The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, long-time maid Aibileen keeps her mind sharp by writing each and every day. It was the advice her teacher had given her when she had left school early in order to help her mother at home. I imaging many of those writing stints might have been like Lisa-Jo Baker's Five Minute Fridays: a few moments of quiet taken for herself after a long day of caring for others, first in her employer's household and then in her own. To keep my own mind from turning to mush, I'm trying this again: writing for five minutes (ish) on a single prompt, no editing, and linking up with all the other brave women writers who took a pause from their own lives to do the same. Care to join in?

Here's what I came up with this week:

Belong

I was born to a rooted existence. In spite, or perhaps because, my mother's family had moved often as she grew, my family stayed put. My parents still live in the pre-war home my father bought before their marriage; I and my siblings moved bedrooms throughout our childhood, but never houses, cities, or schools. Naturally, adulthood gave me a longing to leave - to give in to the idea that things would be better if only they were new. Life twists, however, have their wisdom; flying the nest meant leaving the province, but following to a city where I was already known by a few dear transplants who had proceeded me.

I remember that first drive coming into Edmonton. The main highway between it and my long-held home of Saskatoon brings one into the city through the industrial area. My first glimps of my new home came through the smog of refineries, trainyards, mechanic's shops. I couldn't help but wonder just what I'd gotten myself into. Who could live in this ugly place?

The next day, I moved into my own neighbourhood. Like my parents' home, it was near the local university, with pre-war houses, the river valley, and elms that arched over the streets like Ents play "London Bridge". Walking that street, I understood my mother's rootedness: in an unfamiliar city, it was these reminders of home that spoke to me - here, too, could I belong.

Saturday, 13 July 2013

Five minute Fridays: Present

I've been aware of Five Minute Fridays for awhile now. I've been tempted to try, but a little leery too.  My posts are usually months in the pondering, hours in the writing, perpetual in the editing. A five-minute deadline sounded more than a little daunting. But when I saw yesterday's prompt (this afternoon), I thought it was finally take the plunge. Surely it's still Friday somewhere, right? Beyond starting way late, I only cheated a little - getting Voskamp's name right wasn't happening in five minutes, let alone the link, but I wanted to include the reference. Do check out Lisa-Jo Baker to find links to all the other wonderful writers who participated this week. Setting the timer:

1. Write for 5 minutes flat – no editing, no over thinking, no backtracking. 2. Link back here and invite others to join in. 3. And then absolutely, no ifs, ands or buts about it, you need to visit the person who linked up before you & encourage them in their comments. Seriously. That is, like, the rule. And the fun. And the heart of this community.. - See more at: http://lisajobaker.com/2013/07/five-minute-friday-present/#sthash.wy5IwCDQ.dpuf
1. Write for 5 minutes flat – no editing, no over thinking, no backtracking. 2. Link back here and invite others to join in. 3. And then absolutely, no ifs, ands or buts about it, you need to visit the person who linked up before you & encourage them in their comments. Seriously. That is, like, the rule. And the fun. And the heart of this community.. - See more at: http://lisajobaker.com/2013/07/five-minute-friday-present/#sthash.wy5IwCDQ.dpuf1. Write for 5 minutes flat – no editing, no over thinking, no backtracking.
2. Link back here and invite others to join in.
3. And then absolutely, no ifs, ands or buts about it, you need to visit the person who linked up before you & encourage them in their comments. Seriously. That is, like, the rule. And the fun. And the heart of this community..

Present.

It's all there is really. This moment, this rhythmic, stilted clicking of keys, birds mixing with traffic noise wafting in the window along with the breeze, giggles trickling down from upstairs (I'm told there's a waterfall for airplanes to climb). Just now. The clutter on my desk beckons to-do lists, past and future, but when I do deal with the mess - the school year's of papers, a stack of day camp art, the pens, the dust, the what-not - it will be a new now. It's funny how easy it is to forget the present, to skim the surface of experience instead of diving deep. To be carried by the currant steals moments away too soon. But by sinking into this gift, this present, as Ann Voskamp tells us, time slows. And like that last lick of icecream, those cake crumbs last savoured, my presence makes the present so sweet.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Sun tea for the Solstice: a Summer Recipe

It was the first day of summer vacation, eight days past the longest of the year. My children had celebrated my daughter's release from the usual rush to the school bus by whiling away the morning hours playing in their bedroom. Rather hurrying downstairs to dress and eat and get out the door, they giggled and jumped and scattered their toys while I dozed in my own room across the hall, thankful that, despite the noise, they weren't clamoring for breakfast just yet.

As the day heated up, they abandoned their newly reclaimed play-space. It was left in disarray until half-past-seven that evening,  when I came in to tidy before creating a "night" with the help of our trusty black-out blinds. As I puttered around, transforming picnic blankets and faerie cushions back into comforters and pillows, I noticed something new: vertical bands of light on the wall, sourced from their north-facing window.  I'd noted some time ago how the light bends south near the winter solstice, changing the angles from which it hits the house, but not the effects of its widening arc at the warmer extreme of the year. My children's bedroom holds the only north window in our compass-house; I suppose I haven't had cause to be in there at the right moments of the day to catch this summer phenomenon. I had wondered why their room heated up so much last July - it appears it doesn't stay quite as shaded as I'd imagined. Yet another mystery is solved through a change in routine and the power of observation.

My favourite solstice has come and gone, and the summer heat is finally upon us. While I'm not the biggest fan of temperatures above 27 C (nevermind the horrors of last Tuesday's 43 degree humidex), I love all the drinks and snacks that come with keeping cool. Due to an ill-timed and persistent cold, I had to postpone consuming many of the sweetest ones, but I'm making up for it now. I have watermelon in my fridge, yogurt pops in my freezer, and most of my coffees are turning Vietnamese. I'm also throwing lime and mint into my ice water, and trying not to covet my husband's mojitos (I'm making up for it by sending him out for smoothies).

Such treats could technically be made in any season, but there are a few that really only work in the summertime. Home-made sun tea is especially seasonal, and rather unique to our climate as well.  I'd posted about making some on Facebook last summer, and was surprised when a friend from Vancouver commented that she'd never heard of the drink. I'd assumed it was a fairly common beverage, but I suppose that the four to six hours of continuous sunlight required to brew it is a little harder to come by on the coast than it is deep within the continent. For my fellow land-locked friends, however, I am more than happy to share, so I present you a recipe for those long summer days.

I believe I got my original recipe off the internet several years ago, but, as I discovered when searching for borscht, one simply cannot re-google a term years later and expect to find the same results. I'm sure I've tweaked it enough by now to claim as my own anyways. If you posted a similar recipe online back in 2008, however, please let me know - I'll gladly give credit where credit is due.

At any rate, here's how I make it:

Summer Sun Tea


6 bags of black tea (I use decaf.)
9 raw sugar cubes
4-5 fresh mint leaves, washed & bruised
7 cups fresh cold water
1 8-cup clear glass container, preferably with a lid (unless you like a little bug protein with your tea)
4-6 hours of direct sunlight

Dissolve sugar cubes in glass container in a bit of boiling water. Add tea bags and mint leaves. Top up to 7 cups with cold tap water, and stir. Put the lid on the container and set out in direct sunlight for 4-6 hours, depending on the heat of the day and desired strength. Tea should turn a rich brown and the container should get warm to the touch. Once desired strength is reached, remove from sun, chill, and enjoy. Tea will keep in the fridge for 2-3 days.

Variations: substitute 2 1/3 Tbsp agave syrup for sugar cubes. Simple syrup would work well too. If no fresh mint is available, I brew my tea with 5 black tea bags and one bag of Celestial Seasonings Candy Cane Lane green tea. It makes for a slightly different flavour, but is still very refreshing. I had high hopes for making a lemon sun tea, but discovered that brewing the lemon rind turned the tea very bitter. Next time, I'll try squeezing lemon juice into the finished product.

There you have it, an iced summer tea to take you through the Dog Days and beyond. Keep cool, my friends.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Room for one more

About six-and-a-half years ago, a peculiar bulge developed around my middle. It was intimately related to my ever-growing baby bump; my first womb resident, already determinedly particular, had decided to renovate. Through a series of pushes and stretches, nudges and shoves -- along with several blows to the navel that had me wishing I'd never seen Alien -- she made herself an addition in my abdomen, visibly to the right of centre, and settled in for the remainder of the pregnancy. Perhaps her placenta was invading her personal space. Maybe she just wanted to nest, Pussyfoot-style, in order to make the place more her own. I'm just glad she found the real exit when the time came to move out.

My abdomen did eventually return to normal, only to round to the right again midway through carrying my boy. Sure enough, my son had found his sister's addition like a butt-groove in a well-worn couch and settled right in. He's been coveting her favourites ever since. Despite her efforts to convince him that certain items/colours are "just for girls", he hasn't bought it. Were the given item/colour not superior, then why would she insist on always having it? Thankfully, my girl has switched tactics: upping her sell-job on second favourites so that they don't sound like second best. It works well enough to convince them to at least take turns until he develops some more preferences of his own. It's bound to happen eventually. In the meantime, sharing is an important skill, especially for one who is moving up the birth order from "baby" to "middle".

It just so happens that my baby bump is back again, and still veering off of centre. It's been a subtle swelling, an asymmetry visible only to myself; and then solely when I'm gazing down my nose towards my navel. It made it's appearance early this time around, making room in anticipation of the littlest Friesen, who's still swimming too low to fill it. Time will tell if this baby will accept the status-quo or go on to carve out another abdominal alcove. I'm not about to make any predictions.

Pregnancy is a curious thing. It's a time of growth and change and adaptation; mentally and emotionally as much as physically.  I'm adjusting my wardrobe and improving my diet while reassigning bedrooms and car seats. My ligaments are loosening, and so are my plans for "once the kids are in school." We've been surprised before, but "looks like we're starting already" does feel a bit different than "looks like we're not quite done." There's a certain amount of hubris involved in family planning: you can try conceive, you can try not to conceive, but there are no guarantees on if - or when - you'll succeed. Babies come early, or late, or not at all, and we're left to swing with the punches. I'm choosing to swing towards wonder.

I'm marvelling at this timing I hadn't chosen. Three children all close enough in age to play well together, but not so close as to have more than one baby at once. After watching friends handle three kids under three years of age, three under the age of seven doesn't seem so scary. I'll admit, the idea of handling January's school mornings after nights of interrupted sleep is looking pretty daunting, but having a first-grader and a preschooler will mean less hours of being outnumbered, and more capable help for the hours when I am. My daughter has mastered pouring dry cereal and is moving on to milk jugs. My son can open the fridge and help himself to a yogurt cup. Breakfast and snacks are no longer all on me. The light is glimmering at the end of the Mommy Tunnel, and my eldest's budding self-reliance is worth the extra mental taxation six-year-olds bring.

The fledgling midwifery program I've been eying has been hit with a curve-ball of government-mandated administrative stream-lining. The re-organization should help with transfer credits in the long-run, but, in the short-term, I'm glad I'll be putting off my formal studies for a few more years. In the meantime, I now have an excellent excuse to do some more informal learning: I have a seasoned midwife's brain to pick at each prenatal appointment, and a built-in excuse to hang out at Edmonton's new, first, and only birth centre. I've only done this route of maternity care once before, and it's wonderful to get to do it all again - and at a location that isn't 30 minutes out of town. One of my midwives was also a late career bloomer; she became a midwife at the age of forty after having seven children of her own. She's been a great encouragement of how dreams can be built on slowly, and excellent proof that a life well-lived doesn't need to be all in order by the age of twenty-five.

What's more, my husband and I were honoured with a baby god-daughter earlier this year. It's a great responsibility in the long run, but for now it mostly means prayers, and presents, and being a baby-hog at Sunday Liturgy. Spending time holding her has reminded me of all the good parts of having a baby: the coos and the cuddles, the wide-eyed fascination with an ever-growing world, the exponential growth and change that happens in terms of days and weeks rather than months and years. It's a good balance for not-so-lovely parts that I'm currently glad not to be doing, and a refresher course in baby-holding and reading baby cues.

Had I managed to plan all this to happen upon the advent of getting pregnant, I'd be pretty impressed with myself. As it is, it helps to see the mountains of blessings surrounding us as we navigate this unexpected bend in the road. I'm enjoying the ride, asymmetrical bump and all. And my heart is expanding along with my middle, as it, too, makes room for one more.

P.S. In case you're wondering, that Alien link doesn't lead to the real thing. It's the Alien spoof scene from Spaceballs, which is about as close and as gross as I want to get right now.  Because I'm pregnant ;)


Monday, 10 June 2013

Why I love Alexander McCall Smith, reason #653

In recent weeks, I have been merrily tripping through McCall Smith's 44 Scotland Street Series. I've enjoyed McCall Smith's wit and wisdom before, mostly through the voice of Precious Ramotswe, the "traditionally built" proprietress of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, but I find his serial prose even more compelling. Those short daily chapters are such practical delights, much like 100 calorie snacks for the struggling literary addict. Unfortunately, having them collected in a bound novel - instead of doled out daily in the morning paper, as they were originally published - is rather like sitting down with a family club pack of single-serving treats: there's really nothing stopping you from working your way through the entire box other than old-fashioned self-control. Still, it's nice to be able to read a couple full chapters without discovering that the afternoon has had the nerve to turn into evening without offering to stay and fix supper.

I've been itching to share a slice of Scotland Street for nearly two-and-a-half books now, but every clever passage I've come across would lose its flavour if taken out of context, and quoting entire chapters seemed a bit much. I've finally found a paragraph that's lovely enough to quote in its own right, though knowing these thoughts belong to a particularly broad-minded, yet opinionated, anthropologist makes them all the richer. I'll try to bring them to mind next time I drive through one of Edmonton's collision-happy traffic circles; there are two on the West end alone that should really be converted into proper intersections if there's any hope of breaking up rush-hour congestion, but that would require the removal of several enormous pines from within their grassy centres. While I rather suspect those trees owe their continued longevity more to budget constraints than respect for any spiritual dimension, the latter explanation is easier on the blood pressure. "Nuisance" and "hazard" make such grumbly labels; by contrast, "sacred grove" is quite palatable.

I'll have my own words to share again soon; I've had a couple of posts kicking around in the back of my mind for a while, and, now that certain news has been made fairly public, I might actually write them, perchance to publish. We'll see. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy Edinburgh's wit as much as I do (transplanted, in this particular case, to a hotel in Malacca).

The courtyard suited her very well, as it had two frangipani trees in blossom and she could just pick up the delicate, rather sickly scent of their white flowers. She liked frangipani trees, and had planted several in her time in Kerala, all those years ago. But not everybody shared her enthusiasm; the Chinese often did not like them because they associated them with cemeteries, where they often grew. Tree associations interested Dominica. In Scotland, it was well known that rowan trees protected one against witches, just as buddleia attracts butterflies. And then there were the ancestor trees in Africa - a tree which one should not cut down, out of respect for the ancestor who might inhabit it. In India, the same rule applied to banyan trees, and she had once travelled on a highway where a banyan tree had been left growing in the middle of the road. Surprising as it was, that, she thought, demonstrated a proper sense of priorities. In her view, the car should give way to the spiritual values, although it rarely did. And, of course, there were places where the car was even accorded an almost spiritual status. Had somebody in the United States not insisted on being buried in his car? It was so absurd.
-Alexander McCall Smith, Love over Scotland


And so it goes. 

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Practical garden whimsies

The house across the street has a front-yard planter that's shaped like a little wishing well. The planter portion is white with green trim, and the well's roof is shingled in grey - just like the house behind it. It's the kind of front decor that where one might expect to find a trickling pool, or delicate flowers of various heights with a good contrast of colour, tended, perhaps, by a well-painted garden gnome. This particular well, however, is overflowing with rhubarb.

It's the third spring in a row that planter and its abundance of pink stems and wide green leaves has graced the view from my front window. I'm still tickled by the sight of it. There's something daringly eccentric about filling something as whimsical as a wishing well with a plant as practical as rhubarb. Provided one wished for tart, pink, dessert fodder, and sprinkled the well's depths with water rather than throwing in coins, one's wish is nearly bound to come true. All other wishes shall be answered with rhubarb, like a jammed magic eight ball, stuck forever on "ask again later" or "have a nice day."

Front garden edibles tend to get a bad rap. It's as if growing food instead of flowers is somehow unsightly. Granted, I'd be less than excited if a walk around my neighbourhood included homes obscured behind rows of corn, or having all the bare dirt required for hilling potatoes blown into my stroller. What I have seen, however, has been delightful, if a little bit cheeky: zucchinis in a flowerbed, artichokes poking out in rock gardens (that one was in a book - I have no idea if they grow here), and, of course, sunflowers never go amiss, edible seeds or not. Different plants need differing amounts of sun and shade; depending on which direction a gardener's house faces, compounded with the placement of trees, tall bushes, and other buildings, the best spot for beans and tomatoes isn't necessarily going to be in the backyard. Surely vegetable gardens mustn't be restricted to the gardeners on one side of any given street. Such segregation calls for a quiet revolution: raspberries are bushes just the same as roses. Why must they be sent to the back?

I am currently engaged in my own little 'round-the-house gardening. The perfect place for most of sun-loving herbs and vegetables we'd like to plant happens to have a garage on top of it. The pad behind would also do, but ripping up concrete is out of the home-improvement budget for the time being. When we left our rental house to buy our own, we also lost our enormous garden. I don't miss turning and weeding that hard rich clay, nor do I wish that all my Saturdays from May through October were again consumed with planting and thinning, then tending and picking - never mind the snapping and blanching (we had a tremendous bean crop) - but I do miss wandering out back to pick a salad, or basil for the pasta, or chives for an omelet. And our current yard could use some more green space.

Last year, I borrowed a few pots and lined our south-facing pad with sunflowers on the hopes of cooling the concrete. It didn't work, but I did learn the importance of regular watering in container gardens - that dense deep clay plot of yesteryear held moisture like nobody's business. Plastic pots on a concrete pad? Not so much. This year, armed with daily smart phone reminders, I'm trying container gardening again. Over the last few days, between the wind and the rain, the kidlets and I planted the makings of many a salad: tomatoes and basil on the south side in full sun, facing our next neighbour's driveway, lettuce, parsley, mint, and cilantro on the partially sunny west pad behind the house.

The chives were special - given their hardy perennial nature, I wanted to put them in one of the few pots that we actually own so that the kids can divide them as part of their inheritance. Sadly, the one big terracotta I had tagged for chiveliness met a bad end: my littlest garden helper had had so much fun filling it with potting soil that he decided to dump it and start again, breaking the pot in the process (I had left it, of course, on the concrete). Fortunately - both for my love of chives and the mores of poetic justice - our house did come with one other little planter: a plastic one shaped like a great white swan whose back is just waiting to be filled with flowers. It just happens to be sitting on our front stoop.

And so, fellow front-yards-for-food warrior in the house across the street, I see your wishing well of rhubarb. I raise you a swan full of chives. May the first to plant a raspberry hedge win.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Definitions of spring


On the very first nice day of spring Allashua said, "I'm going to go fishing. I'm going to go fishing in the ocean. I'm going to go fishing in the cracks in the ice."
-Robert N. Munsch & Michael Kusugak, A Promise is a Promise

Munschworks 3  has been making the rounds in our reading nooks again. This time, it's at my son's request, which means I have the pleasure of hearing a three-year-old's version of 'Qallupilluit' on a regular basis. The last story in this particular collection is A Promise is a Promise, and, these days, its opening lines get me every time: "on the very first nice day of spring" (emphasis mine). In the Canadian arctic, where the story is set, it would appear that the "very first nice day of spring" is a good time to put on your parka, walk past the snow drifts piled nearly to your roof, and go ice-fishing. Should some mythological creature pull you underwater and spit you back out again, however, there is a real threat of collapsing frozen to the snow before you reach your home.

It's a far cry from my idea of a nice spring day, but then, I could say the same for finding a crocus. I have nothing against crocuses, per say - I'm sure they're very nice flowers - it's just that I've never seen one outside the frame of a photograph. Wikipedia tells me it's because I live on the third of the planet where they do not grow, yet every year, or so it seems to my begrudged ears, I hear mention of someone elsewhere awaiting their return. The bloom seems to bring that warm fuzzy feeling that, yes, it really is spring. Much as I can empathize with longing for the end of winter (I've been at it for at least a month), if it takes a crocus sighting to prove that it's spring, then I'm afraid that season never graces this climate. Nevertheless, there still seems to be a gap between the lands of winter and summer, so we may as well call it 'spring', and, much like Munsch and Kusugak, make our own definition of what it means. Last Friday, I remembered what it felt like to finally shake off the shackles of winter, so I've composed a temporary telling of my own. Next year, I hope to be less suspicious of precociously nicer weather, but this year, this is what it took for me to believe in spring:

On the very first nice day of spring, I awoke before my alarm to see brilliant light coming through the cracks between the window sill and the black-out blind. It was 6:30am, and the sun had beaten me out of bed by a good half-hour. My daughter, however, had not followed suit, and I'm afraid the push for the bus took a bit of a fight, despite the sunshine. No hair-do, no dawdling, just please eat and go. This morning, at least, I could grant her request for runners, so there was one battle less than there might have been. Old snow still hunkered down in the shadows, but it was finally dry enough elsewhere to forgo the boots that had long outworn their welcome.

Bus caught, I got my own breakfast and checked my phone. My weather app promised temperatures in the teens, but, as it had been lying to me for weeks, I didn't put much stock in the afternoon forecast. It wasn't 'til three hours later, upon leaving the house with my son, that I discovered my jacket was unnecessary. Then, I began to believe. And there, along the crack where the south-facing pad met the foundation was quack-grass, all new and green and a good three inches high. That was not there last I checked; could winter finally be leaving?

Our errands passed quickly, sun-roof cracked while driving, exchanging knowing grins with strangers in the parking lot. Why yes, our eyes seemed to say, I'm also in only a sweater, and not all under-dressed. The budding garden centre construction no longer seemed pointless, but practical. The ground still may be brown and barren, but Edmontonians will plant flowers again. Our winter tires kissed the pavement in an unseemly fashion - usually, they'd be off by early April, but this year, the combination of bustling life and endless snow had my husband putting off the chore.  
 
Come the noon hour, my kindergartener bounded of the bus, still floating on the thrill of an extra-long recess - in t-shirts, no less! Amidst lunch prep, I checked the weather again: it was twenty degrees Celsius, twenty above. From famine to feast on the tail of a southerly wind. Once bellies were filled, I sent both kidlets outside; they took my suggestion of skipping coats with glee.  I watched them run while washing up dishes, poking with sticks. They laid down on their backs to watch the willow, finally bare, through their sunglasses, heedless of the dust left from months of baling out the low spot on the garage that lay directly beneath them.

I thought to myself, I want to go raking. I want to go rake in the backyard. I want to pull back the layers of sticks and leaves and dirt, and find the green. The kids caught on quick to my new little "game", and soon there were three collectors of sticks, bending and giggling and commenting on the variety. "Let's talk about them in French," said my Fancy Nancy enthusiast, so we did. Though neither of us could remember the word for 'stick', we still had a ball. We dusted off garden tools - plastic for them, metal for me - and raked for all we were worth. And there was green; tentative, short, and sparse in places, but evidence of life all the same.

Two glorious hours later, spent from our impulse yard work, we enjoyed an impulse snack - an outdoor one for the first time in months. Seated in long-neglected camp chairs my daughter wrestled from the shed, we surveyed our handiwork: the weather was closer to summer, winter's snow still lingered by the fence, but between the lack of brown leaves and evidence of grass greening, it was the very first nice day of spring.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Seasonal dissonance

I found my first grey hair the other day: short, thick, and surprisingly wiry, sticking up from the middle of my scalp. I'd been anticipating this moment (though not quite as soon as this), assuming I'd say "ugh, I'm getting old" and book an appointment for highlights. In reality, however - upon confirming that the monochrome strand was truly a product of aging follicles and not a mishap in the kitchen - I felt kind of wistful. Rather than getting rueful, I actually teared up a little, much as I did when I initially wiggled my daughter's first loose tooth only a couple days before. Time, indeed, is going by. While it leaves none of us unscathed, any proof of progress, be it good or bad, is actually relieving. At the tail end of a winter such as this one, I'll take what I can get.

I have been trying, these last two months, to capture the essence of this most capricious of winters. I have nearly half a dozen entries in my proper writer's book, all abandoned as the weather changed once again.  There have been grey skies threatening rain over white snow, pristine blue ones with warm sunshine which brought either spring-like thaws or hardened frost depending on the direction of the wind. In three separate months, we have had white skies hanging so long over shrunken grey banks that when the snow finally fell we were glad for the change, even if it meant another foot of the stuff to shovel. It've been foolish to hope it would all melt yet anyways. There have been blizzards and rain-falls, Chinooks and hoarfrost, and leaves falling at random from November clear until March.

A freak storm mistook Edmonton for Halifax before Remembrance Day weekend, blanketing every surface with thick, heavy, flakes. It was something of a wonderland in a climate more attuned to prairie powder, but I don't believe the trees ever got over the shock. They've clung stubbornly to their fall fashions long past the usual season, shedding their tattered garments in drips and drabs according to each branch's whim. And that was how I came across the following scene back in December: a flaming willow dripping red on a pure white lawn. The sun warmed my back like summer and the wind whispered of spring. Four seasons all in a moment. Is it any wonder my sense of time got confused?

My children don't seem to mind the inconsistencies. They've been delighted to crunch through January leaves mounding along the windrows. They've slid off an enormous March snow bank into an equally enormous puddle, squealing with delight. It's only Mommy who's disconcerted by the contrast. Fall leaves and spring puddles shouldn't come with so much snow, my mind keeps insisting. But so they have, therefore they do.

I keep telling myself I should stop seeing snow as evidence of winter. Be it increasingly frequent cycles of el Niño and la Niña or true-blue climate change, winter's end appears to be becoming an increasingly fuzzy concept. If there are brown-coated bunnies browsing in the drifts, blooms on the violets atop my piano, and the gloaming tells me that bedtime, rather than supper preparation, is in order, I should declare the beginning of spring. Forget waiting on still-hidden greenery. I'll begin by buying tulips.

Even so, long-held perceptions can take some time to change. In the interim, I'll take my tokens of time beyond the seasons. Be they grey hairs, loose teeth, growth spurts, or wrinkles, it's a comfort to know our lives haven't been frozen by the snow.