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.

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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 book obituary

There are many casualties of moving. Furniture. Drywall. Marriages. My husband and I have boxed our belongings and moved homes six separate times during our life together. It’s a consequence of living in three different provinces in 10 years. And each time, it gets harder and harder to unpack each and every box. Even important items are forgotten, replaced and left for dead in a plastic bin labeled, “Computer Junk.”

Most of the time these abandoned items are just that, junk. I don’t think we’ll ever again need that snake pit of cords from our apartment in Southwestern Ontario circa 2005. But sometimes, these abandoned items are treasures, waiting to be remembered and returned to their former glory.

On a particularly thorough hunt for a pair of ice skates, I came across one of my precious treasures: my boxes and boxes of books. I hadn’t unpacked them since our most recent move, in anticipation of the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves I would build. Well, it’s been more than two years, and my extravagant bookshelves exist only on my Pinterest board titled, “Bookshelves.” And today, when I opened one of these boxes of beautiful books to let them breathe, I made a horrifying discovery.

Mildew. Mold. Moisture. Everywhere.

I even shoved my nose deep into the binding of book after book, for a whiff of hope that these books could be recovered. I’m not sure they can. I think my books are too far-gone. And now, I’m in mourning.

So in memory of my moldy books, I thought I would compile a list of titles that I read, and loved, and that deserved so much more.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

I’ve read this book three times, and each time it’s held a different meaning. Joan Didion is one of my all-time favourite writers. A giant. An inspiration. A legend. This is a gorgeous book about grief and loss, which is ironic, because now, it’s gone. Goodbye, beautiful book.

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson

Without a doubt, this is the funniest book I have ever read. Gut-busting. I don’t remember each individual story in this book (even though I’ve read it multiple times, each time as funny as the last) but I remember the experience of reading this book. Which at one point involved me falling off my bed in a fit of tearful laughter. I haven’t read her long awaited follow up, Furiously Happy, but I’m furiously curious if it will end up in my Christmas stocking. Cheerio, funny friend.

February by Lisa Moore

This book killed me. Seriously, I lay dead. It was just so beautifully and captivatingly written. I loved every line, every passage, every expertly elicited emotion. Its characters and setting and sentimentality gave me the deep, deep feels. Fair winds and following seas, February.

The Sweetness At the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

No, no, not Flavia de Luce! This unassuming book got me hooked on the genius that is Alan Bradley, and I fear that when I open the other four boxes of books in our basement, I’ll discover that several other Falvia adventures will also be marred with mildew. If only I had the wit and wisdom of this tenacious eleven-year-old to have properly stored these treasures in the first place. Alas. Until we meet again, young Flavia. Until we meet again.

Mugshots

It’s been a minute since our last family photo. We missed the boat on Christmas cards last year (sorry Mom), and our last ‘professional’ photo was a few years ago, when our baby was still a baby and my body had a bit more bulk. So this year, my husband convinced me that it’s the perfect time to update our old, tired portrait for a new, shiny version. Just in time for the holidays!

There’s just one problem. Having our photo taken makes me itchy and anxious and irritated. Add an eager photographer and three restless kids to the mix and it’s a one-way ticket to disaster town. And with our crazy schedules between now and the end of time, I wasn’t sure if we could even find the time to book a session. (Also $$$).

So, because I’m brilliant, I made the decision to take the photo myself. I have a great camera (that I never use). A tripod (hidden somewhere in the basement). And access to helpful how-to YouTube videos (just after I watch Adele seven more times). I could take our family photo in the comfort of our own home, with minimal to no mental breakdowns. Yes?

Umm, no. When I’m having my photo taken for the purpose of a family portrait, which will exist as definitive proof of our carefree yet photogenic candidness, I want to shoot myself. (And not with a camera.) I cannot do family photos.

The proof is in the pudding. If you looked above the piano in my parents’ home at our big family photo of 2011, you would see several beautifully dressed, perfectly posed people in their Christmas finest, all smiling at the camera. And then you’d see me in the middle, seemingly on the verge of tears. (Although 2011 was also the year of my ill-advised pixie cut, so to be fair I was always on the verge of tears, camera or not.)

Or you could look at our little family photo of 2013, taken in Nova Scotia to a beautiful backdrop of sand and sea. You would see one smiling husband, three smiling children, and then me, looking slightly murderous. In my defence, we were swarmed (SWARMED!) by blackflies during that shoot, so my homicidal undertones were somewhat justified. But overall, it’s just  me. I cannot do family photos.

So, as you might expect, our attempt at a family photo this weekend did not go well. We had three tired, cranky girls, one tired (I would never say cranky, but…) husband, and one helpless, hopeless photographer/subject/mom with murderous undertones.

We did not achieve a perfectly presentable family photo. We did get some slightly blurry, tremendously silly ones that we may send as part of our Christmas cards (it’s hip to be ironic, right?) or we may try again. (Although the tripod has been bannished to the basement once again, reminding me of why I buried it so deeply before.)

But at least we have the memories of squirming toddlers, sulking six-year-olds and screaming, pleading parents as the self-timer ticked down time after torturous time. And those memories? Those memories will last a lifetime.

Nightmare on easy street

Have you ever done something you just know you shouldn’t do? (Slow down, I don’t mean anything illegal, just ill advised.)

A late-day espresso that you know will keep you up all night? Waiting in a busy Starbucks line when you know you’re already late? Balancing a scalding hot coffee in your lap when you know you’re about to merge into traffic? (Much of my life is dictated by coffee. And being late.)

I know my limits. Low caffeine tolerance and high caffeine dependence are just two. I have many, and I often push them without too much harm. But there’s one thing I do know, that I KNOW that I should not do… I should not indulge, should not watch or read or listen to or even dare to think about scary stories.

(I do realize this is a ridiculous problem to have. I really do.)

I’ve written about being a scaredy cat before. I cannot handle fear. The thought of fear simply terrifies me. But during this lead-up to the spookiest night of the year, Halloween, it’s been inescapable.

I suppose it’s partially my fault. I’m sometimes under the delusion that I can read a short horror story, watch a scary move preview, conjure up a spooky memory, and all will be well. I’m an adult. I can withstand a little pulse-quickening and hair-raising for the sake of a good thrill. Right?

Wrong. I can’t. And lately, with the nostalgic film nods and the revival of ghostly folklore and the two-sentence twitter horror stories (Have you read those?! They’re chilling!) I totally overdid it. And I’m not the only one. Two nights this week my husband and I have been summoned around midnight to the bedrooms of our little ones, who have also overindulged. (Their vice is Scooby-Doo.)

Luckily for them, and for me, my husband is fear-resistant. (Or at least, he ain’t afraid of no ghosts. His hair is raised more by sports losses and stock crashes than things that go bump in the night.) While I offer what little comfort I can from the comfort of my own bed (paralyzed by fear of what’s under there), he runs to their bedside (in total darkness!!) to rescue and reassure. My hero.

This particular character quirk, I can’t overcome. I will never be super fearless in the face of the supernatural. But at least, after October 31, my kids and I will enjoy a bit of reprieve from all things ghosts and goblins and ghouls.

But just for November. Because December brings something even more terrifying, something more cruel. Something that sends shivers down the spine of even my fearless husband. Christmas bills.

All hands on deck

One of the simplest truths about parenting is that the bigger person needs to be the bigger person. Simple. But not always easy.

It’s also true that I can be a bit sensitive at times. And while it’s easy to reason with yourself when your toddler looks at the lovely dinner you’ve prepared and goes eewwww, there are other times when the reasoning takes a bit of effort.

Like many stay-at-home parents, the bulk of the weekday shuffle is left in my moderately capable hands. Monday to Friday I’m the cruise ship captain of our family vessel, trying my hardest to be chipper and cheery as I muster my slowpoke passengers from the poop deck (so much poop deck) to our daily activities. Sometimes, most times, all goes well. But other times, there’s a mutiny.

Lately, our oldest daughter has been a little…fiesty. With our crazy September schedule and the ever-evolving experiences she confronts on a daily basis, I can hardly blame her. I’ve also probably failed at being more ‘Mom,’ and less ‘Captain Get Dressed for School, We’re Late Again.’ I’ll admit, as the oldest child she’s the one I expect the most from. But I could also afford to give her a break once in a while. Because now she’s pushing back, and I’ll admit, it’s a little hurtful.

What’s important, however, is that I don’t react as someone who is hurt but as someone who hears what she’s really saying. For example, we’ve entered into a pattern where she hops off the school bus and blurts out some ‘constructive’ observations about my failings. You forgot to pack my spoon! You were supposed to sign this form! You sent the snack in the wrong bag! Almost immediately, I can feel my defenses engage.

Instead of, ‘How was your day?’ or ‘I missed you!’, I’m tempted to say, ‘Weren’t you proud to bring in the snack for your class, whatever bag it was in? This form isn’t due until next week. And look, here’s your spoon, in the front pocket of your lunch bag.’

But we’re not really talking about a bag, or a form, or a spoon. (Although a spoon does go a long way when you’re eating soup.) I think it’s her way of showing me that she’s overwhelmed. And she needs my help in other ways. And that her shirt is stained with tomato soup.

It’s sometimes hard for me to keep my defenses down and really hear this, because (surprise) I’m overwhelmed too. It’s hard to be the parent, the Captain, the cook, the deck hand and the lifeboat, all while operating completely without a compass. (Luckily my husband has an excellent sense of direction.)

Our daughter is navigating new paths too. And while she still needs me to do all the logistical things that parents do, she also needs a safe port in the storm. Which is important to establish now, when the waters are relatively calm. Because in a few years from now we’ll have three tween-age daughters all under one roof, and I have a feeling it’s going to get rough. Or as my husband likes to put it, “Man overboard.”