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…

In a Blogosphere far, far away

August is a month for organizing. While my mind, body and wallet recover from our amazing trip East, I look ahead to September and all the busyness it brings. Sure, we have summer camps, splash parks and lots of sunny days ahead, but I still feel this immediate need to map our life from here to December.

My organizing began with back to school browsing on a few online clothing stores. List-making and calendar-filling, in-between Facebook creeping and Twitter feed refreshing. (Has there been an election call or something? Gee, I hadn’t noticed.) I happily paid our bus fees for the upcoming school year and not-so-happily paid my recent speeding ticket that I still protest was due to some faulty photo radar on Stony Trail.

When the pieces of our family life started to come together, I shifted focus to the state of my writing life. Which, at the moment, feels like a 1000+ piece jigsaw puzzle scattered on the floor, with missing pieces, chewed corners and no helpful diagram on the box. You see, until now I had blissfully forgotten about my manuscript rejection in June, and although I had some excellent feedback from a recent writing workshop, I’m reeling just a wee bit with where to go from here.

So, I reopened a working spreadsheet on some writing objectives that I set back in January, and reacquainted myself with my goals. There’s a big application due next month for what could be a very valuable experience for me, so I set my sights on that. This meant updating my resume and collecting information on all of my previous publishing credits, a task I’ve been meaning to tackle for a while now.

Because I was missing a few details on some of my past articles, I did the most dreadful thing a person can do: I Googled myself. Not my current name, but my maiden name. All of my writing credentials are under my maiden name, and most don’t even exist online (this makes me feel very, very old). In the process of gathering my old article titles and dates, I came across an abandoned blog. It wasn’t the first or even the only blog I’ve authored (as a journalism student in the early 2000s, blogs were often part of the curriculum) and it certainly wasn’t the best, but there it was in my search results for me and the world to see.

This blog was part of a graduate course I was taking (judging by the content, or lack thereof, I’m surprised I was given a degree at all) and I can easily remember sitting in the journalism school computer lab while writing it. Then it hit me that this memory was almost a decade old. And then it hit me that I’m still doing the exact same thing. Blogging. Drinking coffee. Wondering where my writing life will take me.

I guess a few things have happened in-between, most of them extraordinary. I married the man I always knew I’d marry. I had three children. And I eventually learned to love beets. The 20-something girl sitting in the computer lab back then would be very surprised by two of those three life events.*

But she wouldn’t be surprised that I’m still writing, and that I’m still just a teensy, tiny bit lazy when it comes to writing. And that our life is very, very good.

*Oh, and one more thing. Your perfect streak of no speeding tickets will last about nine more years. Sorry.

Glowing hearts

There are many things for which I am grateful. A partner who is my equal (or better) in every way; three healthy, happy, adoring and adored children; and a life that has lead me down many incredible paths. Some were wonderful, some were challenging, but all have shaped me for the better. And I hope there are more to come.

Sometimes I wonder if many or any of those experiences would have been possible if I were not born in such an amazing country. I’ve made mention before of my Maritime pride. There’s no place in the world like Nova Scotia and I’m proud to be part of the club. But I’m just as proud to be a Canadian.

Our children will have so much at their fingertips. The world is smaller than it’s ever been and I have a feeling they will be itching to explore it. I hope that’s a possibility for them. I hope they hike and dine and traverse around this incredible globe, because it will help them learn more about where they came from. And I hope that they, too, are proud to wear a maple leaf on their backpacks while they do it. (I supposed that means I should learn how to stitch.)

Today, I’m feeling proud. And a little sentimental. And very, very grateful.

Happy Canada Day!

The girl on the plane

It’s not often that I find myself travelling alone. When I was in my twenties, most of my terminal hopping and orderly boarding was done solo, but since getting hitched and having kids, my airport experiences have shifted in flight.

I no longer have the luxury of time and tranquility that comes with traveling alone. I used to love lounging in an airport, coffee-sipping and people-watching, while more burdened travellers herded their children and awkward carry-ons towards their elusive gates. (Now I am one of those burdened travellers and can say that it’s about as enjoyable as it looked to me back then.)

The first time I boarded a plane I was eight years old. My slightly older sister and I were escorted to our seats by a friendly flight attendant while we sported special buttons that read, “I’m travelling alone!” (Oh, how times have changed.) My parents sent me and my sister to Ottawa to spend a weekend with our uncle. We (and another sibling set on the same flight, also travelling alone) were whisked to the cockpit for a quick tour and given warm, gooey cookies with milk. I was hooked.

There have been other flights since. There was the Halifax-Ottawa-Chicago-Amsterdam-Nairobi-Lukasa-Lilongwe milk run to Malawi when I was twenty. There was the longest 55 minutes of my life flying over southwestern Ontario on an 18-seater Beechraft during a lighting storm (I will never again be excited to sit in seat 1A). There was the first flight that my new husband and I took together, which surprisingly didn’t end in divorce. And the first flight we took with our newborn, which unsurprisingly did end in three shirt changes and a shortfall of diapers and clean soothers. (Flying with kids lends a whole new meaning to turbulence.)

My memories of waiting in the airport are even sweeter. Waiting in for my boyfriend to arrive from Ontario while I was still studying in Halifax; waiting for my sister to arrive at Heathrow when she visited me in the UK; waiting at the gate in Calgary with each of our newborns in our arms as family from the east coast ran down the moving escalators towards us. Airports have always meant something to me. When I was young, they were a gateway to a world I was itching to explore, and now that I’m older(ish), they’re an emblem of going home.

During my most recent round-trip, I was alone again. I was traveling to Nova Scotia to say goodbye to someone and I was sad. I saw young people flying alone, couples old and new, and many, many young families making the trek ‘home’ from Alberta to the Maritimes as summer finally begins. I bought my coffee, a chocolate croissant and a certain best-selling thriller that I’ve felt compelled to read for months now, and I sat. And read. And watched. And I felt grateful for everything.

Farewell

I remember talking to a friend shortly after the birth of her first child. She felt anxious more often than not, and admitted that when she heard the occasional sirens of a passing ambulance, she immediately and unequivocally believed that someone she loved was in it. That was never the case, but for a while she was consumed with this fear of an inevitable loss or heartache.

While her thoughts were a little extreme, I doubt she’s the only person to ever think this way. At some point we’ve all had our hearts in our throats when the phone rings in the middle of the night or there’s an unexpected knock at the door. Usually, it’s nothing. A telemarketer. Sometimes it’s my dear mother calling, whose been known to occasionally forget the time difference between here and there, unaware of the anxiety provoked by a 4 AM phone call from home. Sometimes, however, it’s real.

I traveled to Nova Scotia last week to say goodbye to my beloved aunt. She had been diagnosed with cancer, but her sudden passing was unexpected and devastating. She battled, admirably, and in a way that makes you question your own strength. Could I have ever been that strong?

Her children showed the same strength in their goodbyes as the community rallied around them. Their mother was given a Nova Scotian farewell, with family, friends, fiddles and bagpipes. When my family and I return to Nova Scotia next month, we’ll visit her at her final resting place, on a hill overlooking a river that leads to the Atlantic ocean. And I’ll know that she is at peace.

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.

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.)