To get to the other side

Things have been… busy, lately. And when things get busy, I start to notice my sanity unravel. I’m loath to admit this, because of course I’m perfect, but unfortunately it’s true. I’m not built to be too busy. I like being just busy enough.

My tipping point arrived a few days ago, during one of those ridiculous weekdays in which every minute was scheduled, every task was essential and every word I spoke to my kids was, “Hurry up. Quiet down. WHY AREN’T YOU DRESSED YET?” Everyone had been sick, including our pets, and I had committed myself to several things that were outside of our typical timetable. In between hours of errands and our very limited minutes at home, I prepared dinner in advance. I made chicken.

In the past, one of my most stressful daily experiences was driving home during afternoon rush-hour and having absolutely no plan for dinner. Now that I stay at home and our kids are a bit older and my brain is almost at a functioning level, I have all of our weekly meals planned. I have our fridge efficiently stocked. I have food on the table every day by five o’clock. It’s not just my best attempt at a Norman Rockwell painting, it’s part of my self care. (It’s also delicious.)

Minutes after the meal was cooked, I had just enough time to pat myself on the back before running out the door with all the kids for another appointment. It would be quick, and we would all be back in time to meet my husband at the door when he got home from work and sit down to a family dinner. What I didn’t have time to do was put the piping hot chicken just out of reach of our naughty nine-year-old dog who sometimes (enough for me to know better) has the habit of eating off the counter. When I returned home around five o’clock, it took me two seconds to realize where the chicken went. And my head exploded.

It wasn’t just that I was upset about the chicken. That’s not how my brain works when I’m overworked. Instead, in those moments, my brain pulls every bad memory, every moment of weakness, every failure on record and parades them in front of me like a slideshow of shame just to say, “See, Shannon, this is why you can’t have nice things. Or chicken.”

I couldn’t stop the tsunami of thoughts that went very quickly from, “Dinner is ruined!” to “Our dog’s going to get sick! Our vet bill was already enormous this week and shoot, did I give my daughter her medicine this morning? Why is this house such a mess, I just cleaned it and why did the school call, was I supposed to volunteer? I didn’t write today, no one’s socks match in my family, what happened to my career and F*** YOU NORMAN ROCKWELL!”

Or something like that.

Eventually, I calmed down. This was after my husband came home, we pulled together a meal, put the kids to bed and coaxed our darling dog out of the corner where she was hiding because she knows what she did. When I was finally able to breathe again, I was almost grateful for my breakdown because it gave me the chance to say, “I can’t do this. Today was too much.” And for my husband to remind me that that’s ok. And that we have each other. And to remind me that I am, in fact, perfect. (I’m paraphrasing.)

The next day, when I had to clean up our dog’s barf which consisted of my perfectly cooked chicken and some undigested grass, I wasn’t even mad.*

*Ok, it was barf. So I was a teeny, tiny bit mad. Like, the appropriate amount for cleaning up dog barf, if there’s a scale for those things.

This bill is bananas

You're not fooling anyone, bananas.
You’re not fooling anyone, bananas.

Yesterday I did something that I rarely ever do. I went to the grocery store on a Wednesday. My list had two small items that I needed before my usual grocery-getting trip on Friday. I felt a little bad, and not because it was 8am and my two-year-old was already enjoying one of the complimentary cookies. It was because I’ve worked very hard to keep our grocery check-outs in check, and yesterday I went off-course.

Ok. I don’t mean to be dramatic. This was a small, necessary deviation from our regular routine for the sake of milk and bananas.* But it did remind me of how we used to handle our groceries, and our grocery bill, and I have to say we’ve come a long way.

A few years ago, our eating habits were what you might call unsustainable. We were spending way too much money and wasting way too much food. This was around the time we became brand new parents and our heads exploded. I spent hours steaming, roasting and processing fresh fruit and vegetables to ceremoniously feed to my little ones, while I unceremoniously stuck a frozen pizza (or two) in the oven around 8pm for my husband and me. This was our reward for getting through the day, so we could enjoy our easy meal and binge-watch The Wire in peace. It worked for us at the time.

Until it didn’t. Right around the time that our growing girls began joining us at the dinner table, I took a real, hard look at our growing grocery bill. And then, I took a real, hard look at the forgotten food that would end up as waste at the end of each week. It was our wake-up call. I wanted to make changes for our health and our wallets, and we both wanted to set a better example for our kids at mealtime.

It probably should have been a gradual shift, but truthfully we did an overhaul almost overnight. We changed the way we approached buying food, eating food and enjoying food. We actually started to eat more in terms of ‘quality’ and quantity. And it saved us money! I cut down on my trips to the grocery store, started meal planning and made much more use of my time. Our meals were no longer an afterthought, or worse, a source of negative thoughts. They were thoughtful. And worry-free. And thoroughly enjoyable.

We still splurge every now and then (and again and again), but we attempt to eat and spend as it fits into our overall plan. I try very, very hard to never feel guilty about the food I do eat, but I do feel guilty about the food I waste. After we made this change a few years ago, I hardly feel guilty about food at all.

Except when our favourite pizza place calls to say they miss us and hope we come back soon. I still love you, pizza place! Just not three nights a week.

*Due to an unfortunate combination of unrelenting morning sickness and a bad banana smoothie, I have not eaten bananas since 2009. And I have no future plans to do so. My family loves bananas, so I buy them, but even mentioning them in this post has made my stomach gurgle. That’s how much I care about my family’s happiness (in relation to their banana consumption).

All things being equal

Life is about balance. Work and play. Give and get. Spend and save. (Although this time of year it feels more like we’re spending our savings…)

Each Christmas, I attempt to reign in our holiday spending. With recent tax hits, looming lay-offs, and market slumps, we really do need to proceed with caution. (We also decided that this would be a great time to make a large, unnecessary, emotionally-driven investment, because obviously.)

I love Christmas, and all the gift-giving, cookie-baking, tree-decorating merriness that it brings, but I want our kids to know that there’s more to this season than get, get, get. They will have an amazing Christmas, and even though our household is feeling the pinch, we’re feeling it with vet bills, hockey fees and vacation plans. We still have food on the table. Many folks do not.

It was actually around the table that our family had this discussion. In an attempt to keep the kids in their seats long enough finish their meals, my husband and I asked them for their Christmas wish list. They’re aware that Santa brings one gift, and that there are limits to what that gift can be. (“But if Santa builds his toys, why does it matter if it costs too much?” says the six-year-old about the iPad that Santa will not be bringing.) Their want lists were a mile-long, which accentuated the fact that our need list is mercifully short.

Food Bank use in our province, Alberta, rose dramatically in the last year. (So much so that it increased the national average.) It’s up 83 percent since 2008. We do our part when it’s asked of us, for school food drives or clothing donations, but I’ve hardly been proactive when it comes to supporting our community. It’s shameful, really, because we all had much more to give during the boom. Now, during the bust, it’s the time when it’s needed most.

So on Tuesday, December 1 (officially proclaimed Giving Tuesday by the City of Calgary, following Black Friday and Cyber Monday) we’re starting a new tradition. Our doorbell will ring. Our girls will see that Santa has left a box of wish list items for the Calgary Food Bank’s Emergency Food Hamper. And they can do their part for their community, year after year.

It’s a small step. So small it’s almost nothing. But it’s something. And hopefully our kids will get the message that it’s ok to want something (other than an iPad, sorry sweetie) but it’s important, more important, to give.

Full speed ahead

In September, the leaves changed. In October, they fell.

This month has been a tough one for me and my family, and I’m ready for November. (Who is ever ready for November?) But it’s true. It’s time to take those leaves and turn them over.

When the time comes to get things done, there’s a temptation to do them quickly. It’s very attractive to opt for a quick fix. Take weight loss. You want to lose 10 lbs. (Damn you, mini chocolate bars.) You could just re-adjust your lifestyle and lose a little weight in a slow and sustainable way. Or, you could cleanse and fast and remove a limb. As someone who knows what would work for my body (slow and sustainable) and what wouldn’t (voluntary amputation), in this case I can avoid the temptation of quick fix.

This is not the case for me when it comes to writing, however. When it comes to writing, I need the dramatic. The deadline. The ultimatum. I rely on it. I rely on the ticking tock of the last few minutes of the final hours to hit submit. I have no accountability otherwise. Amazingly, I can say to myself, “Shannon, dear, you can put down the bite-size Kit Kat. You’ve had 37. They all taste the same.” But a writing task that’s self-imposed? Impossible. Who is there to enforce? Who is there to keep me accountable?

Well, this month, I’m appointing someone. Me. (My husband was a close second, but I decided this was too much pressure on our relationship. Like the time I told him to hide the box of Halloween candy from me, it could only end in disaster.) I have some exciting things happening in the New Year (more on this later) but I can’t wait until January to pick things up.

One way to jump in feet first is to sign up for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). If you follow any writers, publishers or agents on Twitter, its buzz is inescapable. I have no experience with NaNoWriMo, but I’m intrigued. And maybe an intense, unrealistic, destined-to-fail, writing-equivalent-of-a-juice-cleanse is the perfect way to turn over a new leaf.

Yep. I think I’ll sign up. Right after I finish this Kit Kat.

(Hey, there’s still a week left of October. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.)

Jet lag white flag

It was at an amusement park in Prince Edward Island where my two-year-old daughter grabbed my hand and led me into a glass-walled maze. My husband had already entered ahead with our oldest two girls, so my fearless youngest daughter was left with her anxious, hesitant mother to guide her through the creepy fun house. (When you have two or more kids of a certain age, you’re almost always dragged into the action.)

At first, we giddily moved through the maze with our arms out in front, carefully avoiding the abrupt dead ends. I even did the bit where I slammed my foot into a deceptively clear glass panel and threw my head back in fake agony. She loved it. (Why do kids love it when we pretend to get hurt?)

But after a few wrong moves and getting absolutely nowhere, I started to feel a little disoriented. The entire experience lasted only a few minutes but I’m embarrassed to say I was more than a little relieved when we eventually found the exit. True to form, my two-year-old’s immediate response was, “Again! Again!”

That dizzy, disoriented feeling hasn’t really left me since our vacation. (Although it could also have to do with the many, many rounds on the carousel and tea cup rides. “Again! Again!”) I’m also still jet-lagged, often waking up at 4AM with the sensation that I should go running, dye my hair blonde or start my own blueberry business. (I would love to embrace an onslaught of brilliant ideas at 4AM if they were actually brilliant.)

I’m also dealing with a little bit of calorie-withdrawal. After subsisting almost solely on a diet of s’mores, shellfish and COWS ice cream (not consumed all together, I’m not an animal) I’m trying to right-size my menu now that we’re back in Calgary. While I’m not technically hangry, I’m a little hanky (hungry/cranky).

To top it all off, we chose this week to take our two-year-old out of her crib and out of her diapers in a potty-training, bed-upgrade boot camp. Another one of my brilliant 4AM ideas. To be fair, though, our toilet-training attempts have never been that strategic. We usually make the move when our kids are about a certain age and we’ve simply run out of diapers.

I guess my sluggish adjustment to regular life is to be expected, considering everything we have on our plate. (Or don’t have on our plate. I wish I could shake this craving for two scoops of Messie Bessie in a signature waffle cone.) And it’s also likely temporary. I’m sure my energy levels and REM cycles will return to normal soon.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to teeter around my tottering toddler as she excitedly runs to the toilet. Obviously, the best part is hitting the flush.

“Again! Again!”

Indulge, repent, repeat

Mondays are ugh enough, but this Monday feels particularly ugghh. It’s been almost 40 days and 40 nights of BBQ, beer and birthday celebrations and today, I’m feeling all of it. We’ve now entered into a 10-day reprieve from any celebration obligations, a period which I will consider my eating-to-excess rehab sentence.

I had no idea you could suffer from food hangovers. Before I became somewhat diligent about my diet (I think of my diet as the food I do eat, not as the food I don’t eat), I didn’t really notice an upset stomach here or there. Probably because I was eating digestively-challenging* food all the time. When I started to clean up my act, and my plate, I realized that I was also probably feeling bad all the time. Now that I’ve improved my menus, I really notice the treats I can handle (beer = A-OK!) and those I can’t (cupcakes are assholes).

One of the reasons I embraced a new take on food (aside from the very frank lecture from my family physician, who addressed my BMI like it was a broken bone during my physical last year) is so I can enjoy those occasions of indulgence, on occasion. Ice cream tastes even better when you remove one unnecessary ingredient: guilt. I can handle a double scoop now and then when I’m eating ‘right’ most of the time.

Summer is a little more challenging, though. (As are holidays, birthdays, weekdays, Saturdays, Sundays…) Summer food is so easy to indulge in, because it’s social, it’s usually served buffet-style, and it’s sooo good. I try my best to make our standard dinner-plate meals during the week, but it seems like almost every other day we’re picnicking, partying or eating on the run. The last four or five days were especially challenging, (thanks, Calgary Stampede, for deep-fried Oreos, really, thanks) so I’m in a hurry to feel better.

I’ve learned, however, that I cannot rush recovery. I have no quick fixes, and no other answers, so I just resume my tried-and-true regular meal plan and hope for the best. It takes a few days, and at least one wave of withdrawals from sugary sweets, but eventually I feel fine again.

And when I’m eyeing that second fifth slice of sizzling pepperoni pizza, I try to invoke the memory of how it will make me feel around midnight, because my brain has a habit of forgetting. It’s the same trick I use when someone hands me a fragrant newborn and my tummy starts to flutter. Remember how it feels to not sleep, for a year??

Oh, who am I kidding? There’s always room for more pizza. And babies.

*I hesitate to label food ‘good’ and ‘bad’. I love it all so much, it just doesn’t seem fair.

Peace and quiet (and waffles)

My siblings and I used to groan when we would ask our mother what she wanted for her birthday, because her answer was always the same: “Peace and quiet.” This was her wish list for birthdays, Christmas, Mother’s Day, anniversaries and any other day that celebrated her in any way. What did she want? Peace and quiet.

Over the years, we interpreted this request in many ways. Gift cards, clothing, spa sessions, jewelry. She always seemed grateful and happy regardless of our gift highs (an anniversary trip to Italy, all credit to my father) and lows (a garment steamer, which I maintain was also my father’s idea).

This weekend I celebrated turning 32. As I’ve mentioned before, May kicks off a celebration binge in our family due to a coincidental cluster of Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and four family birthdays. By the summer, we’re buttercreamed-out. So for my big day, we forewent birthday cake and dined out on birthday waffles instead. Our kids were (shockingly) well-behaved in the restaurant as they proudly presented me with my elegantly wrapped gift.

I’m the beneficiary of many things from my beautiful mother. I love when people say I look like her and I find myself acting more like her everyday. But there are a few traits that have skipped a generation, and I’m embarrassed to say that chief among them is her graciousness when it comes to receiving gifts.

I love buying gifts for people, but I don’t love getting gifts from people. I’m terrible at it. Not because I’m unselfish and altruistic. It’s because I’m… hmmm… what’s the word? Oh yeah. A brat. People hate buying gifts for me. My husband sees it as a challenge, and although he often triumphs, most have given up. I’ve grown up enough to know to be ashamed of it, but I haven’t grown out of it.

It’s not that I turn up my nose at someone else’s taste. It’s just that I prefer to pick things out for myself, by myself. With all the time, energy and money that goes into raising our family, it’s hard to justify accepting something just for me. I feel tremendous guilt when I spend money on myself, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want things. So when excuses like birthdays or Christmas roll around, not only would I like something, but I’d like the (dare I say) permission to take time, energy and money to pick it out myself. That’s the gift.

So this weekend, I unwrapped my birthday gift lovingly presented by little hands with the knowledge of what was already inside. I had spent a blissful evening shopping for myself the night before, without guilt, and was sincerely thankful for everything life has given me (and the new shoes).

I’m not exactly sure what my mother meant when she used to ask us for peace and quiet. Maybe she did want a day at the spa. Maybe she wanted a little respect and validation. Or maybe she just wanted to be left alone. What’s funny about it now that her four children have grown up and moved away, all she wants for her birthday is for everyone to be together.

I’ve come to appreciate my mother even more since becoming a mom myself, and maybe one day I can adopt her gracious attitude towards receiving gifts. Because it truly is the people who surround us who matter most of all.

(That said, if someone ever tries to give me a f***ing garment steamer for Christmas, they’re dead to me.)