(Not so) Slow and Steady

From the day you became a parent, you’re either waiting for time to speed up (When will they crawl? When will they walk? When will they talk?) or for time to slow down (Stop growing! Stop changing! CRAWL BACK IN MY BELLY!)

The rapid, relentless progression of childhood leaves me breathless. The minute I start to feel comfortable in my parenting role, the ground shifts beneath my feet and I’m behind again. What’s that? It’s fun, you say? You could find it fun, the way a cat finds it fun to chase a laser around the room. In this case I’m the cat, my parenting goals are the laser, and my kids have already moved on from the game while I’m still trying to land on the little red dot.

I couldn’t tell you what has made us so incredibly busy in the last couple months. School, schedules, stomach bugs (enough with the stomach bugs!) plus a myriad of other excitements and challenges. The pages in our full family calendar have flipped by even faster than my daughter grew out of her back-to-school clothes. (Seriously, STOP!) But I can tell you that I’m working very hard to keep up. I haven’t gone for a good long run in a little while, or even a little run in a good long while, but my parenting fitness has been given a strenuous work out lately.

Parenting isn’t a sprint, or even a marathon. It’s psychological Ironman. It’s emotional CrossFit. It’s sometimes, literally, Formula 1. (We’re late for hockey, people!)

And just like my measly 5K performances, I’m actually grateful to hit my less-than-perfect personal best. Which means we’re not first, we’re not last, I’m on the verge of collapse, but we’re happy. Winded, confused, and hungry… but happy.

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Four weeks, three trips to the emergency room, two crutches and one dose of IV fluids later, and I can’t help but count my blessings. April was crazy and May has been kind of cruel, but now that my oldest daughter’s ankle has healed and everyone’s stomachs have un-queased, I can come up for air and reflect on the weeks that were. Because a lot has happened.

Last month I finished my mentorship program with the Writers’ Guild of Alberta. I crammed as much writing as I could into April, and on a sunny Saturday in May I did my first fiction reading ever at the Five New Alberta Voices event in Edmonton.

I read the first chapter of my middle grade novel, which has come LEAPS and BOUNDS since I started my mentorship with the Writers’ Guild. My amazing mentor, Lee, was there to introduce me and cheer me on. My husband arrived separately with our three girls in tow, including our oldest daughter who was nursing a fractured ankle. (And by nursing, I mean refusing to use her crutches.)

Our plan was for my husband and daughters to stay only during my reading, then duck back to the hotel before the show was over, leaving me to get drunk with the other writers enjoy myself. Which was a good plan.

But when you’re dealing with kids, you can’t really have plans. C’mon! We know better. We should have assumed that a nasty little bug was churning circles inside our three-year-olds’ intestines just as a I took the podium. It happened exactly then. My husband held our puking child against his chest as I stuttered through my reading in my lilting Maritime drawl.

IMG_2322Afterwards, my husband sent me the following text: “Quinn just threw up on me.”

(On the bright side, only one person threw up during my reading, which I think is pretty good for my first time.)

I didn’t actually know that my darling girl was sick until two glasses of wine later (ok, three, I was super nervous) when I thought to check my phone. I thought my wingmen had exited as planned, just in time to miss the reading that followed mine, a very racy (and masterfully written) NC-17 novel that made even my ears blush. But when my giddy self read my husband’s text, my heart and stomach sank. And I hopped in a cab for the hotel.

And that’s about it. The days that followed my little literary high have been filled with a whole lot of retching and not a lot of writing. But I’m ok with it. Because now, finally, we’re happy and healthy. And I have time to reflect on my opportunity to write, and to read what I wrote to a smattering of light applause from the Alberta literary community. And even though it was gut-wretching at the time, I love that we have yet another story to tell. About the time my writing made my daughters puke. All night. For weeks. See? Gold.

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.

We’re (not) sorry to see you go

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Why can’t we be friends?

Leading up to Christmas, I did a lot of shopping online. We sent many, many gifts to our family on the East Coast, and the thought of fighting for parking at the mall and standing in line at the post office drove me, and my credit card, to the comfort of my desktop. It was a dream.

But the ensuing onslaught of marketing emails I unintentionally signed up for was the thing of nightmares. At first they were merely bothersome, but then I started receiving up to three emails a day from the same stores, reminding me that their BOXING DAY SALE has been extended until MARCH and here’s a COUPON CODE to save you $$$ on fleece! I was annoyed, and eventually compelled to act. (Also, my credit card is on hiatus until June.)

So, I began the New Year with a resolution to unsubscribe. Instead of dragging these unopened emails directly to my trash folder, I opened them, scrolled all the way to the bottom and gladly clicked ‘unsubscribe.’ (There were a few passive aggressive, “We’re sorry to see you go” messages but overall, it was easy. Bing, bang, boom.)

My inbox was my own again. Emails were fewer, but they were meaningful, relevant, and (for the most part) scribed by actual human beings! I was no longer missing the important stuff buried deeply among the spam, and I started getting excited about email again. Every new message brought with it its own little joy. It was 1999 all over again! (I wonder if I can still recover the password for my old Hotmail account, lipsmackers32…)

That got things rolling. I thought, “What else is sucking all the air out of my virtual well-being?”

Naturally, this led me to Facebook. I left old groups, un-followed pages and turned off any unnecessary notifications that had just become part of my over-stimulating, underwhelming Facebook experience. It was liberating.

Then I had another thought. What if I… unsubscribed… to people?

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a little gun shy when it comes to deleting people from Facebook. For the most part, I enjoy all the updates and announcements and birthday reminders, and there are so many people in other parts of the country and the world with whom I never want to lose touch. Also, the few times I did try to delete ‘friends’, it didn’t go so well. (I myself have also been deleted, and ouch, it can sting.)

So, I took the easy way out and instead of un-friending, I chose to ‘unsubscribe.’ That way, my newsfeed is a little more meaningful, nobody gets hurt and I don’t receive any frantic messages from old acquaintances who I had NO IDEA were following my profile. (“Did you delete me?!!”)

You may be wondering on what grounds I based my decisions. Well, it wasn’t political, or petty, or even personal. And it’s not that I disliked anyone. I just had to decide how I wanted my Facebook account to function. And just like my inbox, my newsfeed was filled with a few incessant, repetitive, (and mostly useless) messages that were drowning out what was actually important to me, like cookie recipes and cat videos. I feel lighter already.

(Don’t worry, I still follow you. You’re great. Really!)

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).

Mindfulness-ish

About a year ago, at the suggestion of someone much wiser and balanced than I, I started reading a book on mindfulness and meditation.

You may have heard of it. It’s considered a classic introduction to the practice of mindfulness, and it’s called Wherever You Go There You Are by John Kabat-Zinn.

“Sure,” I remember saying, while simultaneously thinking there is absolutely no way in the Four Noble Truths that I’m reading that. But upon further insistence that this book was essential to a life well-lived, I downloaded a digital copy to my tablet, which is what I do with books I don’t really care about.

(I was later told that this book is not meant to be stored as an electronic file on your tablet like that series of selfies your kids took with your unwilling cat. Instead it’s meant to be held and highlighted and dog-eared, so evidence of your many epiphanies is much more tangible. My bad.)

It may be surprising to some that I found this book exceedingly helpful. To others, likely those who have read the book or who are aware of the witchcrafty-powers of practicing mindfulness*, it may not be surprising at all. Mindfulness, in its simplest explanation and in words that I’ve trickily avoided plagiarizing from most articles on the internet, is a mainstream technique with Buddhist roots that involves being actively engaged in the present.

It’s about observing and not criticizing. It’s about being self-compassionate. It’s about improving your state of wellness. (And with a little concentration, contemplation and discipline, it’s eventually about becoming a “full human being!”)

Sounds great, but I was much less motivated by becoming a “full human being” than by using mindfulness as a method of stress reduction. And it did work. But it does take some pretty dedicated mental training that, ironically, sometimes stresses me out. (ONE MORE thing on my to-do list!)

I do return to this book sometimes, and I try to use some tricks** of the trade*** when I’m feeling overwhelmed. It’s especially useful when I’m with my family, but not present with my family. If I catch myself drowning in a river of negative thoughts or worries that are ultimately beyond my control, I drag my floundering body out of the current and onto the shore. That helps me concentrate on the puzzle we’re building, or the dough we’re rolling, or the episode of Full House we’re watching for the billionth time (more likely).

I keep waiting for the week, the month or the season when life starts to slow down, but I’m getting the impression that just won’t happen. But I can slow down to engage more with the present, and mindfulness is just one more tool in my dusty toolbox that helps me do just that.

I may never reach the state of “full human being,” but maybe it will get me as far as “somewhat functioning wife and mom.” I’ll take it.

*Practicing mindfulness has not given me witchcrafty-powers. Yet.
**Mindfulness is not a trick.
***Mindfulness is not a trade. Or is it??

A year in words

I’m not really one for resolutions, or regrets, or radicchio. (Although I am one for alliteration, at all costs.)

But I can’t help but look back on 2015 and think it was a raging success. I had some ups, some downs, and some life-turned-upside-downs, and (lucky you) they were all documented here for your reading pleasure. Here’s a snapchat:*

This year, I said yes. A lot. Like joining my husband and daughters for a family run instead of standing in my pantry eating handfuls of gummy bears. (I did that, too, and it was amazing.)

I said no. There were times, especially in the last few months, when I felt overwhelmed. On top of stumbling through my day job and dreaming of my dream job, I felt the pressure of the four million other things I should be undertaking. I had to slow down, practice self-care and say no to some less important things, so I could eventually say yes to more important things.

I pushed myself to write. And to call myself a writer. And to share my writing with you and a bunch of discerning five-year-olds. I pushed myself to run. And even though I fell short of a few running goals, and some writing goals, I’m still standing. (Which is the anthesis of running, so that should be obvious.)

I said goodbye. I found myself traveling alone to Nova Scotia twice this year, once to say farewell to a wonderful woman, and once to be together with my parents and siblings at a difficult time. These times were hard, but they made me forever grateful for everything.

I was surrounded by love. Lots of love. So much love. I learned a lot about my daughters, and they learned a little about me. (Mostly good stuff.)

And despite a few close calls, I made it into the New Year without losing a single person. Ok, ok, I did technically lose a person, but she was found relatively quickly and is now tethered to my body with rope and glitter glue. But I can proudly say that I made it into the New Year without losing a single person for a period longer than five minutes.

It was a good year. And I have a feeling 2016 will be even better.

Happy New Year!

*Possible new years resolution: Learn what snapchat is.