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.)

Into the woods

When we consider our reaction to stress, fear or pressure, we often think in terms of black and white. Fight or flight. Cope or crumple. But everyone knows that stress is more complicated than that, and even the most even-keeled can have a rocky road towards the light at the end of the tunnel.

This week involved an unexpected trip home to Nova Scotia to be with family. All is now well, and I’m excited to return to Calgary tomorrow to my husband and three beautiful girls. I’m sure they’ve had a busy week, too.

Touching down on Maritime soil is always a restorative experience for me, even when (especially when) I’m not feeling particularly grounded. Sometimes you comfort, sometimes to need to be comforted. Sometimes you cope. Sometimes you crumble. And sometimes, you just need a good walk in the woods.

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Let’s try this again

One of my proudest moments of the summer came in line at an amusement park. My oldest daughter and her many cousins had waited with as much patience as they could muster for their turn on the go-karts. It was the ultimate amusement park experience and they had counted down the minutes to when they’d be behind the wheel.

When it was finally their turn, they each ran for a machine. It was a busy day, and in the musical chairs of go-kart selection, my daughter was the one left standing. There weren’t enough karts, and there wasn’t enough time to wait for another go-round. Her aunts and uncles held their breath for the breakdown that never came. She did that awkward shrug she does when she’s holding back her disappointment, and she coped.

I was reminded of that moment the other night, when my husband and I held her hair and rubbed her back as her stomach churned with a nasty flu bug, and we told her that she would miss her first day of Grade 1. You don’t get many first days of school, and while they’re tough for some (mostly us parents) they’re important. They’re the ultimate school experience, and our daughter had counted down the minutes to her first day of school all month. And now, not only was she staying home, she was sick.

I probably don’t need emphasis when I say that stomach bugs are the worst. They’re awful, especially when they happen to your kids. I was hit first, and despite our best attempts to quarantine, our oldest daughter was next. The day before she was due back to school.

I felt awful, not just because we were in complete and utter agony, but because my daughter was missing her big day. But between sips of water, saltines and a lot of laundry loads, I was reminded of three things:

One, my husband is an excellent care-taker. While I was crippled and cramping, he handled our kids and their demands like the pro that he his. He even made banana bread. Banana bread! I’m grateful for his care and will try to hold back my huffs the next time he comes down with a man cold. (I will try.)

Two, we’re going to get sick. It’s that time of year again. This bout of bellyaches was a timely reminder of the importance of washing your hands all day, every day. Anything to avoid any more nasty little bugs.

Three, our oldest girl is tough as nails. She took the news of her delayed debut in Grade 1 with grace. She battled her bug and although she arrived in her new classroom this morning one day behind, she was renewed and ready to tackle this school year. These first days of school do more than just remind me of how much she’s grown, but how well she’s grown, despite all of my missteps, my fears and my many, many shortcomings. She’s incredible, and I can’t wait to hear about her second attempt at a first day of school.

Now, waking her up at 7am each day without groans and grumbles? That’s an entirely different story…

28 days

It’s been 27 days, 12 hours and 49 minutes since I last laced up my running shoes.

Even though it was a foggy Maritime morning, I remember it clearly. (Mainly because its digital memory remains logged in my GPS watch, mocking me with the strength of a thousand satellites.) It was 6am on the day before we left PEI for Nova Scotia and then the airport, and I ran my near personal best. It was humid, smelly (I ran alongside a dairy farm) and wholly satisfying. Even the cows were impressed.

A quick jog in Nova Scotia

And I haven’t run since.

At first, I considered my break a well-deserved hiatus. I’m certainly not fitness-obsessed, so a week or so without running didn’t bug me a bit. It was hardly a thought in my brain. But then another week went by, and it started to nag. Now another has come and gone, and it’s not only a thought in my brain, it’s a twitch in my legs. A fly in my soup. A bee in my bonnet. In other words, it’s starting to really, really bug me.

Now, if the fact that I haven’t gone running lately bugs me, a human adult of my own volition, then why don’t I, aforementioned adult, go running? Good question.

The truth is, I don’t know. Mustering myself up for a run can be the effort equivalent of convincing my kids to floss. Sometimes, it’s just not worth it. (I kid, I kid, they floss…) I’m not very good at reward-based systems when the reward comes afterwards. (Are there many systems where you reap the rewards upfront? Those, I like.)

Sure, maybe there’s an intense sense of accomplishment and boost of adrenaline after I run, and it’s possible that my body feels stronger and my clothes fit better and my life is extended by regular, moderate exercise but what can you do for me now?

The nag of not running has almost completely invaded my headspace. It has escalated into a thing, this question of “Should I run today?” and my mind is just a murmur of opposing thoughts of will she / won’t she and it’s all become very awkward in there.

I’ll probably go for a run. Maybe not this month (certainly not tonight) but soon enough, I’ll go for a run.

So for now, it’s 27 days, 12 hours, 49 minutes and counting…

The parent trap

Yesterday was cleaning day. I washed, wiped, polished. I dusted, freshened, frenzied. I even scrubbed an inky handprint from the bathroom wall. It felt great. It was like getting a tiny high five. Great job, Shan!

The true mark of a thorough cleaning day is to tidy the kids’ bookshelf. It’s one of those low priority, high reward tasks. I sorted and stacked our cherished collection of board books, picture books and chapter books to perfection. I felt refreshed.

By bath time, I was still feeling great. I drew the girls a bubble bath in our soaker tub, a rare treat for them, and calmly cleansed the day from their skin (and the offending blue ink from my two-year-old’s hands).

I went downstairs to pour their milk. When I returned to the top of the stairs, I saw that in a matter of minutes, my bed-ready babies had laid out their many, many books in intricate, messy pathways along the floor.

I snapped. I yelled. Yes, from a healthy perspective this imaginative little mess wasn’t really a big deal. But to me, right then, it was. For three reasons: One, I like a tidy home. When our house is clean, I feel calm and in control. Two, we have friends coming to visit today. Sure, it’s unlikely that they will inspect our bannister for dust or even be impressed that our books are (were) alphabetized by author, but my tidying efforts lend themselves to an overall welcoming feeling in our home, and I like that.

And three, maybe most importantly, cleaning the house was basically what I did all day. This is what I had to show for myself. I did other things, but this was my big accomplishment. When the bookshelves were emptied onto the floor after hours and hours of effort, it was like a day’s work of data entry being deleted from my hard drive. (I chose data entry as a comparable to this aspect of stay-at-home parenting, because I’ve done both and know that either one can lead to insanity.)

I should point out that this pressure of what did you DO all day comes from me and no one else. Sure, there are mommy wars waging outside my window, but I’ve been a working mom and a stay-at-home mom, and I found both to be very, very hard. I chose to stay at home this time, for reasons maybe one day I’ll blog about, but that doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes wonder if I made the right decision.

I mourn the months lost of building my career just as I mourn the minutes that pass as my babies grow up. I love being here to help my children develop (and deliver them safely each day to school and beyond) but my thoughts also drift to what else I have to offer. When it comes time for me to focus on my professional self again, will I be ready? Since having kids I’ve gained and lost weight, lost and gained hair, and permanently misplaced some marbles. What will the state of my brain be when my kids are in school full time?

After my overblown explosion about the books, my three daughters and dear husband scrambled to replace each title on the shelves. I stood there, feeling utterly ridiculous that I cared this much but not quite ready to concede any ground. I could tell I was being appeased but not totally understood, which was ok, because I’m not sure I could have articulated my complicated feelings in that moment.

It’s not necessary, or even possible, for me to keep a checklist of daily progress as a stay-at-home parent. House clean: check. School fees paid: check. Children met expected developmental milestones today: check. Most days we’re lucky if we end the day without anyone (including me) shedding any tears.

But I do sometimes need some evidence of a productive day, outside of parenting, so I can foster that flicker of hope that I’m still a capable adult. While I’m busy preparing my kids for the outside world, it’s sometimes comforting, sometimes worrying to know that I will one day return to it, too.

Maybe we’ll never be ready. Maybe we will. But I guess the lesson is that if I’m here, home, now, I should make the most of it.

(Is that the lesson? Is it?? No really, I’m sincerely just guessing.)

Good morning, Nova Scotia

We survived the plane ride. We forgot only one, maybe three essential things (which is an improvement). But I did remember my running shoes. My husband and I have snuck in a couple of runs since arriving, and I can think of no better way to start our day than with this view around mile one:

Nova Scotia

Yesterday I ran my personal best, and this morning I beat it. It could have something to do with running at sea level (I consider my tougher runs in Calgary as altitude training). But it’s also because we’re so damn happy to be here, it’s impossible not to have a skip in our step.

Our vacation will be a whirlwind. We plan to squeeze enjoyment out of every humid, happy second we spend on the East Coast. But when you’re in a place this beautiful, it’s impossible not to stop and enjoy the view.

It’s not the destination, it’s the journey. (But also the destination)

I should start by saying that at one point, I really did believe I could achieve it. At least, I wanted badly to believe I could achieve it. A year ago, I set my goal: I will run five miles by July 2015.

I’ve wanted to run in the annual 5 Mile Road Race in my rural hometown for years, but this was the summer when the timing, training and intention would all line up. With months to prepare, I could finally get myself into the sort of shape that would carry my 30-something-year-old post-baby body across the finish line (which is traditionally and cruelly half-way up a hill on Main Street). I’ve attended the race before, as part of the small cheering crowd, but this will be the summer that I race. I will run 5 miles.

Wellllll, that’s probably not going to happen. At least not in time for the race, which is just two weeks away.

I started ‘running’ last summer. Before then it had been a very long time since I ran, for exercise, on a regular basis. I had fallen out of favor with ‘health’ and ‘exercise’ and physical ‘well-being’ during my grad school and baby birthing years. I had sporadic bursts of aerobic activity, but overwhelmingly my time was spent wishing I could improve my lifestyle instead of actually doing it. Then, about a year ago, my husband and I fell (pushed ourselves) into a routine of eating food that made us feel better and doing activities that made us feel stronger. Running fit neatly into that lifestyle change, and we’ve been pounding the pavement ever since.

My first big milestone was running 5K. I started running for three minutes, walking for two, for about a half an hour. I adjusted to running four minutes, walking for one just in time for my first 5K race in October of last year. This was huge for me. Even though I had already been running a distance of 5K on some of my training runs, crossing the finish line that day meant the world to me. I ran my next 5K race bedside my husband in May of this year.

My second major milestone was running 5K without stopping to walk. While at dinner with my very dear friend, I was lamenting about my sluggish runs. My friend, who was training for her first full marathon, told me that my barriers were more mental than physical. Just try it, she said. So I did, and that week I ran 5K without stopping. I was pumped. (A side note, she ran 42.2K at a quicker pace than I ran 5K, not just because I’m very slow, but because she’s amazing.)

The natural progression would be to then increase the distance of my runs, which would conveniently coincide with training for, say, a certain 5 Mile Road Race that has been on my radar for years? Yes, some people might think this, but for some reason I’ve chickened out. I let my training slide and allowed the little voice inside my head who said, You can’t, drown out all the other voices who said, Maybe? I dunno. Five miles is kinda far. (I need new voices.)

It’s now two weeks away and I won’t bore you with the list of reasons I’ve cultivated as to why I’m not going to race. (My most altruistic being that I wouldn’t want to pull precious rural resources away from those who truly need it when I require medical attention at about mile three.)

I’m disappointed that my goal won’t be realized this summer, but I can’t be discouraged. The truth is, every time I wanted to stop, collapse and heave violently into a bush during my many runs around our Calgary suburb, I pictured myself crossing that finish line on Main Street in my small hometown. And it kept me going. So I may not be racing this summer, but in some ways I feel like I’ve already won.*

*Ok, ok, I have not technically won. But there’s always next year.

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.

Things that make you say ommm…

Life can be stressful. I’m always searching for new methods for dealing with stress, especially since becoming a parent. Parenting isn’t my only or even biggest source of stress, but when you’re caring for kids, you can’t afford to live in a broody, anxious state all the time. Because when the milk gets spilled and you don’t have balance, you’re probably going to blow.

My first big encounter with being overwhelmed was in university. I can remember my last few weeks of my undergrad like it was exactly 10 years ago. I was over-loaded with exams and assignments and organizing grad week activities for my fellow classmen. I had just been accepted to grad school with no idea how to pay for it, and I was saying goodbye to my roommates and dear friends. At the time, I was big into list-making. It was the best way to help me cope with stress and get things done. I can laugh now at what my seemingly stressful list of tasks must have been:

  1. Hand in final essay
  2. Pack for Cuba
  3. Find a summer job? (Note the question mark. Oh, to be 22 again.)

Flash forward a few years, to my first pregnancy. When I discovered I was pregnant, I had what some might call a mini (mega) meltdown. My new husband and I had just sold our home in Nova Scotia, left our cushy jobs and moved across the country to Calgary. We were still living in a hotel when the little blue line appeared on the stick. I had no career, no permanent place to live and unrelenting nausea. List-making just wouldn’t do.

So I tried yoga. It wasn’t the first time I’d done yoga, but the first time I stuck with it on a consistent basis. Yoga helped me pre and post pregnancies, and even though I deeply disliked pigeon pose I always looked forward to class. Especially Shavasana. (How could you not be relaxed in something called corpse pose?)

Since then I’ve dabbled in all sorts of other stress-relieving activities. Some good (mindfulness, meditation) and some not-so-good (retail therapy, Ben & Jerry’s). Recently, exercise has re-entered my life in a big way as one of my go-to coping methods. Even though I’m usually moving in slow-motion (speed has never been my strength) running is one of the quickest ways for me to get some relief.

Then there’s writing. I write almost every day, and each time it brings me a sense of peace. It’s tempting to think about where my writing might eventually go, but the truth is I’m totally happy to focus on the act for now, as opposed to the outcome. Because it’s just one of many outlets that help me stay balanced and buoyant. And without them, I’d probably be drowning in spilled milk 😉

10,000 stumbles

The other day my husband forgot his beloved pedometer on the bathroom counter when he left for work. For the last month, he’s been tracking his activity with this wicked little wristband. He fawns over his daily, weekly and monthly step charts like a newlywed fawns over her wedding photos. He’s become even more proud of his unbroken record of 10,000 steps per day than his ability to grow a formidable ‘vacation beard’ each summer. (Men are weird.)

I noticed his prized pedometer on the counter when I woke (much later than he) and thought little of it. I’m even less inclined to become obsessed with steps per day than I am to appreciate good facial growth. But then I had a thought. How hard is it to reach 10,000 steps per day? I’m a busy person. I’ve always thought that my days are more active than not. My daily routine must reach at least 10,000 steps. Easy.

So I put it on. My husband was all for it, since my sub-in might maintain his perfect record. The little display on the wristband gave an encouraging blink of light and I was on my way. By one o’clock, I had walked to the bus stop, strolled the aisles of the grocery store, picked up my daughter from Kindergarten and taken the stairs more than 20 times. And I was less (much less) than half-way to 10,000 steps. Even more to my surprise, I had zero active minutes.

I made a decision. I plunked my two youngest girls in the jogging stroller and strapped a helmet on my five-year-old. Even though it was a blistering 30+ degrees Celsius outside, we went for a run. My oldest girl peddled ahead on her bike. About half-way into our jog, we sought some shade to picnic and rehydrate. While my two little ones sipped, I asked my oldest daughter how she was doing.

Earlier that day, she had greeted me at the double doors of school after class with a flushed red face and a breathless message: “My teacher wants to talk to you.” (Like me, my daughter doesn’t just blush when she’s embarrassed, her capillaries actually burst into flames. I used to hate the crimson colour of shame that would creep upon my cheeks, but on my daughter I find it endearing.) The teacher eventually found me to say that my daughter was a little too chatty in class. I nodded and offered my most serious parenting face and thanked the teacher for letting me know.

Sometimes it’s hard to notice your kids growing up while it’s happening. It’s almost always a realization in retrospect, like “When did you get so big?” But during these last few weeks of our daughter’s formative first year of school, we’ve witnessed weekly (almost daily) growth in our oldest girl. And we couldn’t be more proud. This has been a big year, and June is a tough month. My daughter is tackling a cruel schedule of year-end activities, tempting summer weather and a big dump of schoolwork that must be completed by the end of the year. She’s growing out of her clothes and some of her child-like comforts. On top of that, her many friendships are changing. Some are blossoming while others buckle.

So sitting there in the shade we chatted about how this all feels. It wasn’t a long conversation, and I left the ‘advice’ to my husband when he eventually tucked our girl in later that night. (He borrowed a nugget of wisdom from his dear, departed Nan, who used to tell him, “You aren’t the first Cleary to get in trouble at school. And you won’t be the last.”)

When my husband got home from work I tossed him his pedometer in a dramatic “Be gone with you!” gesture of my arms. That was enough fitness tracking for me. But I do wish there was a way to track our parenting steps (and missteps), so we could gauge, adjust and (hopefully) fawn over our successes in a neat little chart. (And use it as quantitative evidence of our parenting skills when our children turn on us in their teens.)

I suppose that’s not how it works. Nothing is ever that easy. And I’m not sure if our little chat helped my daughter in any big way, but at least our jog together got us talking. It also got me to 10,000 steps. So I guess that’s something.