Summer sixteen

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Photo: Shirley Lynne Photography

I’m not sure if packing for a family of five has become easier, or if I’ve just become numb to the entire process. Tomorrow we leave for our yearly pilgrimage to the East Coast, and even though I’m not quite ready to go, I’m more than ready to get there.

In many ways, it’s been a super sweet 2016. But in others, life feels a little unsure. We have lots to be grateful for, lots to look forward to, and lots of hard work ahead (gulp!).

In the meantime, there’s packing to do! Today, on our wedding anniversary, my husband reminds me that all we need is each other. Which is good. Because I have a feeling I won’t get around to packing much else.

Happy summer! x

Antivirus

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.

Momentum, mo problems

If I had to choose a theme for my life in the last five years, it would probably be “keeping up.” Keeping up with my kids, keeping up with our hectic lifestyle, and keeping up with my expectations as a partner, a parent and (one day, again, hopefully) a professional writer.

I wouldn’t choose the theme “balance,” because that would imply I’ve found some. I wouldn’t choose the theme of “failing miserably,” even though I feel that way sometimes, because despite the many delays and mistakes and missteps, I’m enormously proud of how life has unfolded. Also, my husband hates it when I say I’m failing. (I’m sorry.) But he loves it when I mention him on the blog. (You’re welcome.)

Five years ago, I joined a creative writing class while working full-time at the university. It was a rewarding return to writing after a hiatus from my journalism career. Since then, I’ve kept writing, attended some workshops and conferences and, most recently, was selected for the mentorship program with the Alberta Writers’ Guild.

The momentum has been slow, much like the excruciating pace of my four-year-old fastening her seatbelt while I rev my minivan’s V6 because we’re late AGAIN, but at least it has been building. With momentum comes more opportunity, and with opportunity comes more pressure.

I’m working furiously on my apprenticeship project in the short time I have left with the WGA. I’m writing and editing and (soon) submitting and (likely) getting rejected but at least I’m doing it. And there is so much more I want to do.

I want to revamp my website. Like, a total overhaul. I’m so excited about it. I also want to blog more, with structured themes, services and features.

I want to finish my works-in-progress. I want to make the most of the amazing writing community right at my fingertips. I want to do a lot of things.

What I don’t want to do is to give up. Sometimes I feel like I’m already operating at full capacity, like there’s no way I could do all the things I want to do, in the time I want to do them, and do them well. But what I really, really don’t want to do is grieve a dream without ever really going for it.

So I won’t.

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).

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.

Good expectations

People often ask me, “How do you do it?” And although these people are my small children and they’re usually referring to complicated board game instructions, I thought I would take the time to share my recently discovered secret to success: good expectations.

I like to set my sights high-ish. I have goals-ish. My expectations are good, not great. That way, I hardly ever fall short of life’s seemingly endless challenges and spiral down a rabbit hole of failure, fear and regret.

It wasn’t always this way. As a teenager, I had laughable, lofty expectations of life, love and prom. I blame American television shows. But as life, love and prom (and my vocabulary) proved to be a bit less glamorous than that of the sesquipedalian kids of Dawson’s Creek, I adapted.

For example, when I was a new mom at home alone while my entire family lived on the East Coast and my husband travelled for work, my daily expectation for myself was pretty low. The lowest of the low. Did my baby attempt a nap? Yes? Success! Is her belly full of breast milk and her bones still intact? Seemingly so? Success! Did I shower today and remember to rinse the conditioner from my hair? Who can be sure? Success!

Aside from the tears, fears and unsettling hormone imbalance, my year-end parenting performance review was outstanding. (So much so that I promoted myself to mother of two. Then tree. With each new newborn, my expectations lowered even further. Does everyone have a pulse? I think so? Success!)

Now, as my youngest daughter approaches age three and my mind, body and soul emerge from the trenches of tantrums and toddlers, I’m slowly starting to raise my expectations ever so slightly. But there are levels to this sh**. And since you asked I’ll share with you my approach, which involves a tertiary goal system and exactly zero accountability. (You have to find what works for you.)

Level One: Daily life.

While some people might call this category a routine, or universal parenting responsibilities, or simple mindless tasks a monkey could do, I call these goals, simply so I can give myself extra credit when we make it to the bus stop on time or I remember to pack my daughter’s lunch. Bus, lunches, dinner, drop-offs, pick-ups, these are all my daily life goals. (In addition to these daily life goals, there are also what I like to call add-ons, like permission slips, library books and special events. If I can successfully accommodate these add-ons at a frequency of three out of five, I pat myself on the back.)

Level Two: Nice to haves.

These goals are less things I should accomplish and more things I pull off somehow. Like hitting (and surpassing) 100 posts on my blog. Applying successfully to the WGA Mentorship Program. Showing up on time to hockey / piano / dance with equipment / homework / all three children safely in tow. These are nice to haves. Did the sweet teacher receive her gourmet chocolates on the last day of school before Christmas break? No? My daughter forgot them in her backpack? Oh well. No biggie. Appearing as a put-together, appreciative mom of a girl who had a great beginning to the school year was a nice to have. Besides, who doesn’t love getting chocolates in January, four days into their resolutions?

Level Three: A girl can dream.

Here’s where I store the unmentionables. Goals that seem about as achievable to me as winning the lottery. Run five miles. Publish a book. Win the lottery. These are the loftiest of all my goals, so lofty that acknowledging them at all makes them even more elusive, like a birthday wish or another Jays pennant run. Raise three happy, well-adjusted, independent kids. Retire early and travel the world with my husband. Retire at all. Find a job from which I can eventually retire. Have perpetually manicured hands. Overhear my daughters’ friends say, “Your mom is so cool,” and my daughters say, “Yeah, she’s pretty great.” Like I said, a girl can dream.

So there you have it. The anatomy of ‘good expectations’ provided by someone who managed to shower this morning and make the kids lunch. In that order. You’re welcome. And good luck. (Or, should I say, great luck.)