Thursday, 30 June 2011

praise monster

I'm like the Cookie Monster on Sesame Street, except I devour praise. Instead of yelling "COOKIES!" I yell "PRAISE! ahm-num-num-num-num-num..."

And just like Cookie Monster, I've got an insatiable appetite.

Watch out chocolate factory!
I'll devour chocolate just as fast as I devour praise.
People (like my kind husband) give me a compliment, and this is how it goes:

"You are good at blah-blah-blah." [gobble, gobble, gobble]

"You are creative." [eat, eat, eat, eat, eat]

"You look nice." [ahm, num, num, num, num, num]

and I'm still not full, looking for more, tearing open cupboard and fridge doors, searching the pantry for something sweet to satisfy my craving.

I'm pretty sure that we all like praise, to a certain degree. And I think it's just common courtesy to compliment someone or encourage another when the opportunity presents itself. That's just what a good friend does, right? We need each other - to lean on, to push each other, to build each other up, to egg each other on.

I like to feel valued for who I am and what I contribute. But this desire for praise is blended with a Caring Too Much About What Others Think dis-ease, and the two mixed together can be a toxic potion. When does praise addiction get to a worrisome level? Martha Beck has devised this quick and handy test to determine whether you're a praise-aholic. Luckily, I tested as "normal" with no real dysfunctions or obsessive behaviours. Phew! I'll have to let my husband know.

It's something I thought about a lot as a teacher, and now as a parent too - how much praise to dole out. What do I praise? How often? Do I praise with stickers or words or both? How do I get my kids to be internally motivated, instead of becoming mini praise junkies addicted to periodic shots of praise?

There are certain things I refuse to praise just because I can be stubborn. Like eating. Why should I praise something that's just part of normal everyday life? "Oh, good job! Good eating! You ate all of your cereal. What a good eater you are! Good for you!" If my kids would eat just to get praise, this could lead to some pretty chubby kids. Yes, I want my kids to eat. But shouldn't the reward of a content tummy be enough?

In Nurture Shock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, they describe a movement in the '80s to ban everything that might lower self-esteem in schools. No competitions. No keeping score. Trophies for everyone. No x's made with red pencils. They talk about a school in Manhattan that even banned jump ropes. They would still skip in gym class, but with no rope. Then kids wouldn't trip.

Their research in this book is FASCINATING. They talk of the impact of self-esteem on grades, career achievement, alcohol usage, aggressive behaviour, and relationship skills, among other things. They write "for college students on the verge of failing in class, esteem-building praise causes their grades to sink further." Thankfully, praise can be motivating. But to be effective, researchers found that praise should be specific, sincere, and credible.

I'm not poo-pooing positive reinforcement. But I want to go into each day knowing that my portion will be enough. That even if nobody notices all the crap I picked up all over the house, I will notice, and that will be enough (hopefully?). And what if a day goes by when there are zero comments on something I posted here? I want my portion to be enough. The post where I asked for engagement can look a bit like a plea for praise too. Or a "am I doing anything of any worth here? Please tell me I am!" kind of post. I want to be content and confident in my acts, big and small, online and offline, in and outside of my home, even and especially when they go seemingly unnoticed by others.

On the topic of praise, I'm now wondering why we praise God. Does God really need that, just to know that we think God's doing a good job? Is praising God for our sake, or for God's? (this isn't rhetorical here - I really want to know!) Just like praising my child seems to be for my own sake sometimes - I feel proud, and I praise myself - indirectly.

I think that praise is good, motivating, even necessary. I just want to think about when and where and for what. To give praise that's a bit unexpected, but genuine. Or where the praise confirms something the other person has already expressed. And to consume it in small, manageable amounts instead of pillaging the house for those last little crumbs.

Did you make it all the way to the end of this post? Well, good job! Way to go! Do you know what a good reader you are? So good!

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

you are God's echo.

There is something wonderful that those deep, empty caverns of our lives can bring: echoes.

And there is something comforting about an echo. When I call out, this is what the echo says back to me: You have a voice. You are heard. You are not alone.

If we really listen, there are echoes all around us. Like the ripples of hateful oppression, environmental disasters, or unspeakable evil in the world. And reverberations of peace and acts of incredible kindness. How do these impact us? 

We know that we share the air with about 7 billion people. That what we say, do, spew into the air, throw into the water, take from the land, matters. Because of its reverberations - for generations beyond us. 

I appreciate how some native groups make decisions based on what is good for the 7th generation from now. They know that decisions have ripple effects for years and years to come. I know that what I say and do has an impact - positive or negative. I have only to look at my own kids to see/hear some mini-echoes of my own behaviour. 

I love seeing perennial flowers spread and grow from year to year. They are like an echo of their original seed, which echoes its creator. How are we living as an echoes of our Creator?

I think that God's echo lives in each one of us. And our task is to tune in, to listen to, and to become this echo. In this echo/eco-spirituality, we can learn to better care for each other and for the earth.

There's a children's book that I love called Old Turtle by Douglas Wood. In it, Old Turtle tells the other animals that a new family of beings will soon come to the world. She says, "They will be reminders of all that God is... they will be strong, yet tender, a message of love from God to the earth, and a prayer from the earth back to God."

You are God's echo. Deep cavernous reverberations and light ripples on the water. A prayer from the earth back to God.

You have a voice.
You are heard.
You are not alone.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

the gift of emptiness

I don't know if I fully expressed how happy it makes me to see emptiness in our house: empty shelves, an empty closet. And to have newness fill it up. Very content.

how do I love thee, empty shelves?
let me count the ways...
In Gretchen Rubin's year-long Happiness Project, she spends a month focusing on boosting vitality, and de-cluttering is part of that. Her friend had told her that she always keeps one shelf empty. Rubin writes "an empty shelf meant possibility; space to expand; a luxurious waste of something useful for the sheer elegance of it."

We sang a song at church on Sunday morning called "God, fill me now." I had never heard it before, and I was especially attentive because it spoke of emptiness - something I had worked to create over the past week. Here's the chorus:

Here before you now; 
see, my hands are empty.
God, fill me now with you.

It made me think about the gift of emptiness. How we experience times of emptiness that can feel sorrowful and sad. But how we can also empty ourselves so that we can re-boot, be refreshed, and start over again. The second is the kind I crave.

Sometimes I fear emptiness. So I fill it. I fill my time and I fill my space because what would I do if the fullness weren't there?

But right now I don't fear emptiness - I welcome it. I recall other times when I've felt empty in a positive way - my mind is clear, I'm open, I'm empty and ready to be filled with grace and peace and a big dose of love. And then ready to give it away, only to be hopefully filled once again.

"We cannot let another person into our hearts or minds unless we empty ourselves. 
We can truly listen to him or truly hear her only out of emptiness." 
- M. Scott Peck

Monday, 27 June 2011

make room

I have discovered the secret to clearing some clutter from my house: invite someone to come and live with us for a year. Preferably someone who will notice and appreciate a more clutter-free house - someone beyond the infant/toddler/childhood stages.

Over the past two weeks, we've had some interesting developments in our family. We've agreed to host a high school student from Afghanistan for the next year, and she arrived yesterday. We're all very excited. My daughters are especially looking forward to having a big sister.

When I look back to my wish at the beginning of June to put the house on a diet and live in a more clutter-free home, it makes me think: be careful what you wish for. I had no idea that this hosting opportunity was going to come about this month, but it was just the motivation I needed. It blends my wish for a saner house with my wish to extend hospitality in meaningful ways.

We cleared out our spare bedroom (it's amazing how much can fit into one closet!) and had to make some decisions about what to keep and what to toss. The room is ready now and I keep going into it just to look around and sigh a deep, happy sigh. It looks so lovely and peaceful and serene. And I realized: this is what I want. I want this serene feeling ALL OVER my house!

look! empty shelves!
It's not quite there yet. But it's coming, and it's much improved after many loads to the thrift store and recycling/garbage.

In a friend's comments to this post, she talked about being a "Doozer" - those characters from the show Fraggle Rock who were "futilely industrious." I immediately identified, and thought about these Doozers a lot over the past few days of madly cleaning. I said to myself, "Don't be a Doozer," meaning don't just take something from one room and store it in another, shuffling clutter around. Make a system. Throw it out. Give it away. Free yourself. Be liberated from your doozerness. Make room.

This past Christmas, I wrote a play for the kids at our church to perform called "Make Room." My brother-in-law wrote the theme song, and the chorus went like this:

Make room, make room, make room
There's something here that God wants to do
You can be a part of it too
So open up the door and make room

[this song will be on his soon-to-be-released new album]

So along with my Doozer mantra, I sang this chorus as we tidied up and made room. We're making room for surprises, for new opportunities, for new life.

Friday, 24 June 2011

hitting a wall (or window)

Yesterday Eden saw a cedar waxwing bird hit our window and fall. The bird sat on our walkway, wanting to fly, willing itself to fly, but stuck. She couldn't even chirp. Her mouth was constantly moving, but no sound came out.

I had read just the other day that if a bird hits a window, we should often just leave it alone - just let it be, and after a short while it may recover on its own. And so we watched and waited.

Eden loves anything and everything to do with nature. It was all she could do to stop herself from scooping up that needy bird and cradling it in her arms. I allowed her the pleasure of gently stroking the bird's back a few times.

Eden gently encouraged the bird, speaking softly and reassuring her. About a half hour later, that bird flew right up into the tree, chirping and singing again - a different bird altogether. I marveled at the speed of her recovery.

After I've hit a wall I need much longer than 1/2 an hour to heal and fly again. But maybe I don't take the time to wait, to cry out silently with no words coming from my mouth, to rest in the hope that some time, hopefully soon, I may just fly again.

"But those who wait upon God get fresh strength. 
They spread their wings and soar like eagles, 
they run and don't get tired, 
they walk and don't lag behind."
Isaiah 40:31

"Success is going from failure to failure without a loss of enthusiasm."
- Winston Churchill

"The reason birds can fly and we can't is simply that they have perfect faith, 
for faith is necessary to have wings."
- James M. Barrie

Thursday, 23 June 2011

equality is over-rated

When I was in university I had many grand ideas. I still do. One of them was that my future husband and I would do everything exactly equal - 50/50. And that would be the ideal. Household chores: 50/50. Parenting: 50/50. Bringing home the bacon: 50/50. Setting the direction for our future lives: 50/50.

But since then I've sometimes gazed longingly at our Old Order Mennonite neighbours who have their roles so clearly cut. I wondered what it would be like to just know what your jobs are and do them. As simple as that. But I wanted more than that too. Something a bit more complicated.

We're nearing our 12th year anniversary, and I've come to believe that equality - or this 50/50 kind of equality - is over-rated. That if I dare to keep score, that's when things start to go sour. And it's so much work - that keeping track.

I've done more than my share of storming around the house, giving cold shoulders and silent treatments as my way of communicating my displeasure with the state of the house. And that takes a lot of energy, all that stomping and storming and silence. But here's one thing that I've found works, and I'll share my little secret with you: if I ask nicely, my husband is more than willing to help. "Would you mind vacuuming sometime today?" gets a very positive response. Whereas "this place looks like a trailer park in a tornado" doesn't. Politeness and civility really work!

We share the cooking and the parenting and the goal setting/dreaming - not in 50/50 ways, but in ways where we're trying not to keep score anymore. We're trying to support each other as we both work, play, parent, set new goals, and show love.  

We've discovered that there are things that we are each good at. I'll describe it using a body metaphor: I am the eyes, looking for signs of dirt in the house. Then I am the mouth, asking for assistance. Then he is the hands and feet, vacuuming the house. Truly wonderful. Eyes are not equal to hands or feet, but all can work together quite well. 

Yes, there are times when I wish that someone else could be the eyes, looking out for what needs to be done around our home. But I'm sure that there are times when my husband wishes that my eyes notice when taxes are due or when gas needs to be put in the car. Then he's the eyes, and I'm the not-always-willing-to-help-hands-and-feet.

Yes, there are tasks where neither of us is willing to claim giftedness or even feign interest. But the dishes do have to get done.

I'm the best packer in the house, so when we're going away or camping I now see this as one of my roles in our family: to organize and pack. When I embrace this task, I don't get mad when I don't see him joining in because I think "Well, I'm good at this and he's...well...ungifted in this area." I am the chief of packing in the house. He is the chief of packing the car. And we try not to mess with each other. And that mostly works.
definitely not us
I see when things need to be cleaned and I'm the planner/keeper of the schedule. He pays attention to our car, the lawn, the barbeque, and our money situation. Such typical manly things, eh? I used to care about that, but now I could care less. Just get the job done. If he's interested and better than me at some tasks - I say go for it, even if it seems like a traditional division of labour. For me, equality now means assessing and using our individual gifts, and perhaps learning some new skills when we need to.

There are some things I'm vigilant about making sure they're exactly equal. Like when we're sharing a plate of sushi, anything made with chocolate, or mango bubble tea. Then it MUST be 50/50.

We usually don't meet in the middle, or even measure to see where that middle might be. We just meet and try to work together the best we know how. And that kind of equality feels ok. Even liberating in a weird and wonderful way.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

treasuring summer

One way that I treasure summer is by eating it. I love the heat of summer (especially when I'm near water), but I'm not a big fan of a hot house. So I'm looking for cool cooking ideas. If you have any to share in the comment space below, I'm all ears.

Here's a little recipe I devised the other week in order to eat some ripe mangoes and not heat up the kitchen. For this recipe, you don't need to heat anything except the water to make the couscous. Boil a cup of water and put it in a bowl with the 1 cup of couscous; cover with a plate for 5 minutes. Cut up the rest of the stuff while you're waiting. Uncover the couscous and toss it with a fork to let it cool off a bit before adding the other ingredients and tossing it with the dressing.

Mango Couscous Salad

1 cup couscous, raw (or use 2 cups cooked rice or quinoa)
2 cups chicken chunks, already cooked (sub in tofu)
1 tomato, chopped
2 mangoes, chopped (sub in peaches or apricots)
chopped up mint, green onion, cilantro to taste
feta or bocconcini cheese - top with this (optional)

1 1/2 T. rice vinegar
1 T. maple syrup (optional but really yummy)
1/2 t. sesame seed oil
1 T. canola oil
salt and pepper to taste

Fresh Spring Rolls

We brought these camping last year because they were so easy and good. We just put a bit of warm water on a plate, let the rice wrap sit in the water for maybe a minute or so until softened, then move it to another place to stuff it with your choice of fillings, then wrap up the sides and ends, dip, and eat!

Rice paper wraps (we can get them at our grocery store with about 50 in a pack)
Warm water on a plate

Filling ideas:

  • vermicelli noodles, cooked
  • shredded lettuce
  • carrots, thinly sliced
  • tofu or chicken or beef or pork slices or shrimp
  • hoisin sauce mixed with sugar (for dipping)
  • sprouts
  • fresh basil, cilantro, and mint
  • cucumber, thinly sliced
  • mango, thinly sliced

Hoisin dipping sauce:

1/2 cup hoisin sauce
1/2 T. peanut butter
peanuts, chopped

And speaking of ideas, I'm looking for ways that our little family can have a small summer solstice fiesta, nothing big, nothing fancy - just some simple ways to celebrate things summery. I like to treasure and welcome each season. The summer solstice was officially June 21 (yesterday) this year, but I'm sure summer won't mind if we wait a few days before properly celebrating. Here's what I have so far: something that involves sun + water + fire.

Happy summer to you!

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

treasuring age

There was one thing that kept occurring to me as we walked around the zoo yesterday: I am aging.

teenaged gorilla deep in thought
There were so many younger parents walking around with babies and toddlers - parents who looked so much younger than the last time I went to the zoo. Should you really be parents already, I asked them in my head. The last time I was at the zoo, I'm pretty sure I was one of those younger parents. But I still like to see myself as a "young parent." And then it struck me that I just may have some seeing problems. I see myself as barely older than a youth, but I'm pretty positive that others see me as much older than that. Perhaps (hopefully) they see me as the age that I really am. And that should be a good thing, right?

I asked my husband about it, and he said, "I still think I'm about 28." (He's not.)

28 feels about right to me too, because it was a magical age when I could still be considered a young adult, yet have the privileges that come with adulthood, and none of the responsibilities like parenthood or mortgages.

Usually I'm OK with aging - with welcoming a new age while mourning what's lost. I see this in the way I look at my own kids - I miss their young years, but I love where they're at now, and I'm excited about what's to come. I hope to live into and embrace whatever age I am - to see its potential gifts instead of yearning for the past.

My husband once heard a speaker talk about the way that we interact with babies compared to the way we interact with youth. When a baby is in the room, people smile, talk in engaging (sometimes highpitched) ways, and interact physically by holding, rocking, cuddling. Adults make direct eye contact, try to make that baby laugh, and meet that baby's needs in whatever ways possible.

With youth, it's not quite the same. What if we approached all children and youth with the same kind of enthusiasm, love, and engagement we bring to a baby? What if our eyes lit up, our arms went out, and we showered love and attention no matter what the age?

What if we could all treasure the unique age and stage we're at?

It's not every day that I cheer when I see a little grey hair poking through my dark locks. Actually, it's not any day.

When I went with my grandparents to see the senior's residence they'd be moving into, I cried. Because everywhere I looked, I saw old people. And I knew that my grandparents weren't old, even though they were in their 80s/90s. In fact, they weren't really any age to me; they were just Grandma and Grandpa, with an age that never went up and was filled with warmth and love.

And I guess that's how I'd like to be seen - as someone who grows in love, and who treasures life no matter what the stage/age.

not afraid to show wrinkles
"Age has given me what I was looking for my entire life - it gave me me. It provided time and experience and failures and triumphs and friends who helped me step into the shape that had been waiting for me all my life." - Anne Lamott

Monday, 20 June 2011

you are what you treasure.

"We become what we think about all day long." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

"The more you focus on words that uplift you, the more you embody the ideas contained in those words." Oprah Winfrey


"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." Matthew 6:19-21

There's an experience I had that reminds me of focus/treasure. I participated in a sweatlodge ceremony years ago in a native community near Winnipeg. It was a very moving and memorable experience. Our small Mennonite Central Committee group had been asked to join the circle for a youth who was on a vision quest to find his spiritual name. Elements of native spirituality and Christianity were woven together in a powerful ceremony.

We were told that if we didn't think we could "last" in the sweatlodge, to not join the circle from the beginning. If we would need to leave, this would break the circle, and there is power in the circle. So, once we committed, we were in it for the long haul.

I have no memory of how long the sweatlodge ceremony lasted. It felt like hours. When we entered the small dome structure, we squished together in a tight circle, sitting on mats, my skin touching the skin of the person right next to me. No room for personal space in there. In the middle of the lodge, hot rocks were occasionally spritzed with cedar water or showered with herbs: sage, sweetgrass, tobacco. The effect was a multi-sensory experience. As soon as all were inside, the flaps were lowered and it was completely dark, like being inside a womb. And it was immediately, oppressively hot. I wondered if I could keep breathing.

I knew I couldn't last. I had never felt that hot before, and it was incredibly uncomfortable.

But I'm stubborn, and I didn't want to break the circle. And my stubbornness led to a profound teaching for me.

Drumming seemed to be in the background the whole time, a steady beat the accompaniment to songs and prayers. And this is what I found: when I focused on myself and how hot I was, I felt awful and knew I'd have to leave the circle. But when I focused on the beat of the drum, I knew I'd be OK. I could do it. One breath at a time.

I've thought back to this lesson many times over the years. When I think inward and start to obsess about my own problems, big or small, it can seem oppressive and overwhelming. But when I focus on something outside of myself, something larger than myself - like that big Drumbeat of God - things are OK. I can breathe, I can last, I can complete the circle.

The things that I focus on, that I treasure, that I think about all day long, matter. And I want this focus to be opened up beyond me to God's bigger picture and puzzle for my life.

Friday, 17 June 2011

if you can dream it...

I like to think of myself as a Walt-Disney-If-you-can-dream-it-you-can-do-it kind of girl. But there are times when some dreams need adjustment.

Take, for instance, my dream of having a pool in the backyard. The pool instructions said that the yard must be ABSOLUTELY flat. My husband frowned, his skepticism a match for my optimistic belief that this pool could work in our obviously sloped backyard. I thought that the instructions were more of a guideline, and was sure we could work around it. Here was our first idea:
a nice layer of cardboard boxes to prop up one end.
brilliant, eh?
patient husband by lovely round pool
We used a bike pump to blow up the upper ring of the pool. This took a good half hour in 30 degree weather. I kept telling myself what great exercise I was getting and how glorious it was going to feel to crawl into that pool later on and how happy my kids would be and what a wonderful parent I was for allowing my family this small pleasure.

Then we started to put water in the pool, and it was absolutely clear that you absolutely need an absolutely level place to set up this particular pool. We had other ideas of how it could work (my husband still frowning still skeptical): get a pickup truck full of sand, bring it back to our backyard one wheelbarrow after another until we've created a level place, then something about adding some 2 by 4s and plywood. That all seemed like way too much work, and I know that I wouldn't want to deal with that pile of sand come September.

Was having a pool on my property going to continue to be an unattainable dream?

Then my wise and discerning husband had another idea: buy a pool that actually fits and works in our backyard. He went off, and within an hour was home with a $30 Canadian Tire blow-up glorified outdoor bathtub.

Not exactly a dream come true, but it will have to do.

We filled it with just a bit of water, and the kids ran to get bathing suits on. While they were splashing away in the freezing cold water, I decided to  supervise their backyard bathing. The thought of supervising while working occurred to me so I brought out my laptop and worked for maybe 2 minutes on my writing project (big deadline the following day) and then - BIG HUGE SPLASH FROM ABOVE! Right on the keyboard of my laptop. My lecture about water + electronics = bad obviously hadn't made a huge impression.
note the huge water squirter
For about 4 hours my computer didn't work properly and I was cursing the backyard pool idea. How had we gotten here from an innocent wish for backyard bliss?

So I've decided to put this dream on hold.

"One of the most tragic things I know about human nature is that all of us tend to put off living. 
We are all dreaming of some magical rose garden [or pool] over the horizon 
- instead of enjoying the roses blooming outside our windows today." 
- Dale Carnegie

This weekend, I'll dip my toes in the backyard bathtub. Maybe I'll even sit in it.

May you dream well, while watching your own roses bloom.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

tending the summer hearth

Where is your hearth - the place where sparks are fanned to flame, where warmth is encouraged? Around the kitchen table? The piano? The barbeque? The coffee table? Traditionally, the hearth was made of stone or brick and provided a cozy gathering and warming place. It was also used for life-giving tasks like cooking and heating the home. Tending the hearth was an essential job - to keep the home fires burning so that the people living there could be sustained.

For me, tending the hearth is about intentionally caring for the souls in our home. This means our little family, but also the people who enter. You've heard me bemoan the state of our house, my yearning for a cleaner place, my desire to offer hospitality in meaningful ways. All of these feel like part of the whole hearth tending package to me.

tending the hearth: that ratty, fragile nest with strong, solid hearts within
Today I'm thinking about what hearth tending could look like this summer. And I'm struck by how I can slice up this word "hearth" into h/eart/h: hearth, earth, and heart. I think that all 3 need tending; all 3 have deep spiritual connections to each other. So here's my not-yet-finished list of ways I'd like to tend the hearth this summer.

tending the hearth:
  • de-cluttering, giving away, organizing
  • putting the house on a diet
  • trying to make good food together
  • not letting fresh produce rot in the fridge or on the counter - eating it or preserving it before it's too late
  • savouring meals
  • clearing space; leaving room for surprises; keeping an empty shelf
  • inviting others over for backyard barbeques even if the house is messy
  • singing around backyard bonfires, making s'mores and banana boats and tinfoil dinners
  • making a rainbow of jelly: raspberry (red), red hot pepper (orange),  dandelion (done! bright yellow), mint (green), blueberry (blue), grape (purple)
tending the earth:
  • gardening, watering, weeding
  • walking
  • biking
  • learning more perennial flower names
  • learning to identify some more bird songs
  • pondering the heavens by learning the names of the different kinds of clouds (I forget them!) and learning a new constellation
tending the heart:
  • reading just for fun
  • slowing down and being still
  • eating a whole container of peanut butter chocolate ice cream all by myself
  • swimming under a starlit sky in the middle of a northern lake
  • singing with my husband as he strums on the guitar
  • taking a sabbath rest once a week
  • taking a "digital sabbatical" while on holidays or day trips with my family
  • praying by paying attention to the little things, and expanding them out through photos or writing or talking to others
  • being open to surprises and to nudgings of the Spirit
What ideas do you have to tend the h/eart/h this summer?

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

a fierce, gentle life

When I thought about my desire to live well with fewer regrets, it struck me that all of the verbs I used were very active: dare, drill, dive, drum, dance

But what about inactivity? What about stillness?

I think that to live a meaningful life I need to engage - and fiercely. Like a lion.

But I also have a need for quiet, for stillness, for solitude, for gentleness. This sometimes requires that I disengage. From the computer, from the car, even from people. Like a (very quiet and content) lamb.

I love and need both - the rigorous and lively, and the stillness of my own soul.

"Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." Matthew 11:28, KJV

I think that there is so much value in the biblical notion of Sabbath rest - that once a week, we disengage from our regular work to rest and recharge. I'd like to get better at really having a day of rest each week where I can fiercely, gently disengage and connect with others and myself in meaningful ways.

Other cultures/faiths seem to recognize this need for rest. There is Uposatha - a Buddhist observance that occurs about once a week to cleanse the "polluted mind," to bring inner calm, tranquility, and joy.

Holy, expansive rest and stillness. Cultivating gentleness alongside my fierce desire to live well. To push myself, but go easy. To come to a full stop altogether.

Some of my most restful times have been while spending time in creation: digging in the dirt, sitting in a canoe in the middle of a lake, watching a sunset, floating on my back with ears underwater, sleeping under a million stars

But I want to/need to cultivate that still presence not just out in nature, but in my own everyday messy life, even amidst daily chores and family schedules and work. Rest is often at the bottom of my list. When I get all of these things done, THEN I'll rest. But the list never gets done. There's always more to do.

What would my days be like if I started with rest? And not the sleeping in variety. Or what if I took just 10 minutes of rest in the middle or end of the day - walking (with nothing on my ears except earrings), sitting still (with no computer or electronic device in sight), or lying down (with no book in my hands). To stop my thoughts, clear my polluted brain, rest my body, and still my soul.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

from consumption to engagement

I'm still pretty new to this whole blogging world. Over the past several months, blogging has been a creative outlet that's helped me to pay attention, write, connect, and engage. And I really enjoy it - most days. The days that I enjoy it the most are days when I hear a little tidbit from you, my dear reader. That's what helps me to think I'm doing something other than just blabbing on to myself. It's what helps form a half-baked idea into one that is more fully baked. I treasure your responses.

As a teacher, I liked to engage the students - to look in their eyes and see a little spark that tells me that they've "got it." I enjoy doing public presentations too. But what if I was leading a discussion with a room full of wonderful people (like you), and I asked a question, and no one answered? I know that they're there - they're looking at me, and most likely some have heard what I've said. But there's no response. That would feel yucky to me.

Sometimes I wonder how I can make you, my audience, more engaged. Or perhaps you are engaged and I just don't know it.

How do you move from consumption to engagement? What does engagement really look like? What compels you to dive in?

It's a risk to engage. I remember the first time I posted a status line on facebook. I was so nervous! What would people think?

And this past fall, I was part of an online course called Unraveling, where for 2 months we posted photos to a private flickr group that related to weekly themes. This was huge for me too. Did I want to be so public with my life with 150 total strangers? Did I have anything worthy to share? And What Would People Think? (a recurring theme in my life)

We can't engage ALL the time. It would be a full-time job to daily go through my friends' facebook postings and comment or "like" each one. Sometimes we just consume.
consuming gelato
I think that my culture teaches me to consume, and I bring that to my internet use. We're taught to consume literature, music, text messages, e-mails, junk food, and material possessions.

So how do we get to that point where we are comfortable engaging instead of just consuming? I wonder about this in our churches too - how do you get people to engage, rather than coming with a consumption mindset?

I can easily just look at myself to know why people don't feel led to comment. Am I too Mennonite? Too Canadian? Too shy? Too busy? Or do I wonder whether I actually have anything of worth to say? Or do I worry about what people are going to think?

So here's my advice to you, silent readers out there: comment away. Join in the fun! It can take way less than one minute to make a comment. And the absolute worst that could happen is that you post a forgettable comment, but make my day brighter in the meantime.

Here are some options for when you can't think of a long, brilliant comment. Any of these will just make my day (and that's the point, isn't it?):
  • Beautiful!
  • Nice.
  • I hear you.
  • Yes.
  • I've been wondering the same thing.
  • I have a different perspective. Let's talk about this sometime - in person.
  • I'll think give this some thought.
  • You've given me something to think about.
  • love it.
  • :)
  • hmmmm...
And if you're not sure how to post a comment, here's an easy way: click on "anonymous" as your profile, and then add your first name at the end of your comment, or leave a code name for me to figure out, or don't write a name at all and leave me wondering who you are. That's perfectly fine too.

You are most welcome to engage. (you can do it, Mom!)

[a bit nervous to publish this whiny-needy post, but here goes...]

Monday, 13 June 2011

the 5 big regrets

A nurse wrote this article that outlined the most common regrets that she had heard from her dying patients.

For the shortened version, here are the 5 top regrets/wishes:

1. I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

2. I wish I didn't work so hard.

3. I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings.

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

Do I have regrets? Of course. 

There were times when I've held back, when I haven't taken the plunge. I've waded around in the shallow end, just watching. waiting. wishing. scared.

But there have been other times - when I've dared to do something new, risen to a challenge, or bitten off more than what I thought I could chew, or risked, pushed myself in some way, like diving into the deep end. And it's been rewarding.

jumping into the deep end
As I'm writing this, I can hear a woodpecker drilling away at a tree - persistently working at its task. It makes me think about the times when I could drill deeper down, but don't, for whatever reason. 

Drumming is also something that comes to mind - joining in a drum circle, becoming part of something that's larger than me, adding my own rhythms to the music of life.

And dancing. Dancing instead of sitting on the sidelines or blending into the background like a wallflower. To engage instead of just consume. 

5 of my wishes: To dare. To dive. To drill deep down. To drum. To dance.

Friday, 10 June 2011

what is productivity?

"A new report finds that 20% of Canadian homes do not have internet access. Currently, the report characterizes these homes as - quote - productive."

I heard this last week on CBC's The Current and I laughed out loud. Because in my experience, it's so true. Internet use (like what I'm doing right now) can suck up many, many hours if you let it. Some of it can be productive, but there are times when I have to force myself out of its swirling vortex so that I can actually accomplish something.

Some days, I can be bothered when I look back over the day and wonder if I was at all productive. Wasn't there more I was supposed to be doing with my gifts? More ways of reaching out beyond my walls? Especially when my kids were young, and my days consisted of diapers, nursing, and not much else, I longed for something measurable.

Mowing the lawn is measurable - I can see the improvement. So is cleaning, but that so quickly gets undone, so it's not quite as motivating. Some of the times when I feel happiest are when I've created something - a piece of writing, something sewn, a piece of artwork, or a gift. That feels incredibly productive but also life-giving because something of me went into it (not like cleaning or other chores - they don't quite make it on the creativity spectrum at all for me).

In yesterday's post, the poem by Mary Oliver exalts idleness. That watching, waiting, noticing, and being silent can be forms of prayer.

We've all heard that "idle hands are the devil's playground." Now I'm not so sure. Seems like idle minds (and bodies) are needed to pray and to really be present and attentive to God and to others around us.

I'm inspired by my grandma. Her productivity was in her work and her ability to create things of beauty. She would bake a pie, pick raspberries, weed the garden, hang out laundry, preserve some pickles, eat a hearty breakfast, wash, dry, put away dishes, and maybe even sew a little something - all by 8:30 am. It was humbling to see what she could accomplish, especially during my university years of sleeping in.

an example of my grandma's productivity
I'm inspired by my children. Their productivity is in their play. Sometimes this play means creating something artistic. Sometimes it means working alongside an adult, imitating their tasks. My younger daughter loves to get out her plastic lawn mower when we mow the lawn. She takes her job very seriously, walking back and forth over the grass and making sound effects as she goes. This is productive play for her, and she feels a part of what we're doing. My older daughter devours books and loves to play the piano. These leisure activities are expanding her mind and causing new connections in her brain - which seem like a very productive use of time!

the lawnmowing team
Many times my eyes are bigger than my stomach.  Every involvement and idea looks so appealing, and I love to just squeeze everything I can out of life, even if it leaves me all stressed out. Because it makes me feel productive.

"To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, . . . is to succumb to violence . . . The frenzy of the activist neutralizes his work for peace. It destroys his own inner capacity for peace." - Thomas Merton

This quotation speaks to me, and I strive for a balance between productivity and idleness. I seek to focus - to let things go - so that I don't succumb to this violence of overactivity and overcommitment.

Wishing you a wonderfully productive and peacefully idle weekend!

Thursday, 9 June 2011

one wild and precious life

In one of the comments to this post, a friend sent a link to this poem. And I just can't get some of the lines out of my head - the ones that I've highlighted below. I think it's just beautiful. 

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean -
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down -
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention
, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

- Mary Oliver

These words ring in my ears: Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

I sometimes think that being as productive as possible is the goal, but I love how this poem exalts idleness as potential prayer. Paying attention, slowing down enough to really watch, praying, and listening - these are some of the things I want to do with my one wild and precious life.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

messy hospitality

Taking risks in extending hospitality is not something I often do. I play it safe: only invite close friends or family, and only when the house has been sufficiently tidied. So it doesn't usually amount to all that much hosting. I make excuses for not being more hospitable: our place is too small, we're too busy this week, cooking for a crowd stresses me out, we might act too hyper and misbehave (I can be quite unruly at times), and our house is too messy.

Which makes me think about the messiness of hospitality. Because things will never be perfect in our house - we live here, after all, 4 of us messies. And there will never be a perfect food or time or even house. We'd get a bigger house and still I'd make excuses. I need to just do it.

It can be messy to invite people in - you don't know what to expect. Questions swirl in my mind: will they like this food? Will the food turn out? Will there be enough? What will we talk about? Will they have a good time?

But I want to be open to this. To take risks in extending hospitality amidst the messiness of life. To welcome a stranger and to see what gifts could come from our encounter. To step out of what's comfortable. To reshape my priorities. To open my heart and home to someone else. To potentially host an angel.

"Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it." Hebrews 13:1-2

Hospitality can be hard work, but I receive so many gifts in return. It can be deeply satisfying, filled with memories that stay with me long after the meal is tidied up.

"Welcome is one of the signs that a community is alive. To invite others to live with us is a sign that we aren't afraid, that we have a treasure of truth and of peace to share. A community which refuses to welcome - whether through fear, weariness, insecurity, a desire to cling to comfort, or just because it is fed up with visitors - is dying spiritually." Jean Vanier

I have been humbled and abundantly blessed by the hospitality of those who have much less than me. Some of my most memorable experiences as a guest were in tiny, poor, or messy places. Or when the people were more important than the food that was served. Where relationships were treasured - regardless of whether the food or home could appear in Martha Stewart's magazine. 

The following is a journal entry that I wrote after visiting a mountain village on the island of Java in Indonesia years ago.

Today I had a lot to learn from the hospitality of the people in Indonesia. We visited a village high in the mountains, climbing worn steps until we saw the tops of the small buildings. We heard the loudspeaker from the mosque announce, “Come and meet our guests!”

Everyone in the village came to greet us - women, men, babies, children, youth. Their routine days stopped in order to accommodate our presence.

They welcomed us into a home. The people were very attentive and made us feel like honoured guests. Our hosts loaded the tables until there was no more room. Plates and bowls filled to the brim. Glasses of sweet palm juice. Piles of small bananas and rambutans and leechee fruits, juicy and sweet like candy as they rolled around in my mouth. Mounds of crispy chips, jiggly emerald puddings, and dried fruit dripping with sugary golden syrup. 

We asked them questions about their village, and they asked us questions about our countries. They told us that their lives were good - that everyone in the village had enough to eat and a house to live in. Then one man asked us, “How did your countries get so rich?” and then “What can we do to get rich like you?”

Those questions have stayed with me. I wanted to tell him that our countries need to learn to be more like his village - to be happy with “enough”, and to not always yearn for bigger and better. But who was I to tell him that? I was a rich person in his eyes. How can a rich person tell someone who is poor not to wish for wealth?

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

home is where the hearth is

My husband moved a lot growing up. For him, home is where the heart is. He's very flexible that way, and even feels a bit stir-crazy if we are too settled. Home is wherever his family is.

I lived in exactly two homes growing up: one farm until age 2, and then the farmhouse where my parents still live. For me, home is where the hearth is. It's the people too, but it's bedsheets fresh from the sun-kissed line and evening red-winged blackbird songs and antique glass doorknobs that sparkle like diamonds and perfectly planted rows of corn and acres that I could get lost in.

Now that I'm all grown up (!) and have kids of my own, I often think about these questions: what is home? What makes a house feel like home? How do you create that sense of home regardless of where you are or how far you've traveled from your childhood home? Because in my mind, home isn't the house we're in right now in suburbia. It works, and it's fine, but it doesn't really feel like home. To me, this is home:

Home is people, a place, a sensory experience, a feeling of welcome and belonging and all-is-right-with-the-world.

I want my kids to know a piece of land and love it like it's their own. And to know that they are deeply connected to these hills, these plants, this wild place.

To shimmy and slide down gravel pit hills, scoop tiny tadpoles from swamps, learn the perfect shade of a ripe raspberry, eat the best tastes of summer right from the earth, watch a blue heron fly overhead, and come home with hands and feet dirty from the warm, fertile earth.

To know the scratchings of deer on bark, the many shades of fungi growing on old trees, raccoon tracks in the mud, smooth brown chestnuts inside prickly shells, to swing so high they can touch the tops of the corn stalks. This is exactly what I want. This is home to me.

Monday, 6 June 2011

falling off the wagon

Already, you ask?


I was doing so well for one day - I didn't buy anything or bring anything into the house for one whole day as part of my new challenge.

The next day I went grocery shopping and just brought home food - which is allowable. But then, in a moment of weakness, I logged on to kijiji and searched through the local bargains galore. One thing led to another and before I knew it I was driving home with a trunk full of an itsy-bitsy little bit of backyard clutter: a pool.
falling off the wagon
I felt extra sneaky because when I had broached the subject of The Pool with my husband a week earlier, he frowned and said, "It will kill the grass." I guess I didn't take that as an outright "no" because when he was safely in Winnipeg (24 hour drive away), I took matters into my own hands.

I thought about my reasons for buying the pool, and here's what came to mind:
  • It was a good deal. Don't we all love a good bargain?
  • It's a childhood fantasy of mine to have a pool on my property. And isn't that what adulthood is all about? Fulfilling childhood fantasies? 
  • I could imagine a lovely summer family lifestyle avec piscine. I had visions of barbeques poolside, with the kids merrily splashing while the adults sipped wine coolers. All of a sudden, here was a fun reason to have friends over in the heat of the summer months. Here was a new lifestyle.
I know that this is how companies like Starbucks market their products. They say, "This is what your lifestyle will look like/feel like when you sip one of our lattes." And so I buy the lifestyle, and not just the product. I buy the vision of myself (what I feel like, and possibly how others see me) using that product. Sure, I like the taste too, but it's the coolness factor that tempts me and says "you really deserve this. Think about how relaxed you'll feel when you drink this expensive chai latte." I'm sold. Why does a cup of tea that can be made for 25 cents get sold for $5.00? Because I'm not just buying a mug of whipped spicy tea. I'm buying an experience; I'm engaging a brand. 

So many things have come into our house because of my imaginary lifestyles. Like home-school mom. I will most likely never be a home-school mom, but I have all the resources I'll ever need, saved from my teaching career. And then there's tap-dancing me. Why do I have tap-dance shoes when I took one class in university, and haven't since? Do I picture myself as a closet tap-dancer? Or mosaic-maker, with a whole huge bin of broken pottery waiting for that day when I'll feel like making a beautiful mosaic. Even being a teacher is an imaginary lifestyle for me right now. I haven't done this in 5 years. And then there's knitting-sewing-arts-and-crafter. I have enough supplies on hand to lead kid craft workshops every day for the next 2 months. Will I do this? Absolutely not. So why do I hold onto these things?

I keep other things because of fear and "what if's" -- what if I'll need this someday? What if my kid doesn't learn her multiplication tables because I got rid of that math game? What if I want to knit something out of the blue, just after I've gotten rid of my knitting needles that I never use? Most of these what if's are fairly stupid and easily solveable - if I want to knit, I can buy some new knitting needles. Easy. And there are other ways to learn multiplication tables. 

Some of my most satisfying, simpler times of living with enough were during camping, traveling, and living overseas experiences - making do with what I had, and feeling free - like it was more than enough.

So why can't I live like this at home, in my regular life? 

Friday, 3 June 2011

putting the house on a diet

Sometimes I read blogs of moms that have 4-6 children, who homeschool, farm, preserve, knit, practice yoga and daily meditation, sew, workout, and blog, among other lovely things. And I wind up feeling just a tad inadequate.

I think we like to show our shiniest sides - and that's ok. I have many not-so-shiny sides that I like to keep hidden. But, in the spirit of honesty, and just so that you know that I'm more than just a "make-preserves-out-of-roadside-weeds-and-backyard-bubble-tea-and-blog/brag-about-it" kind of girl, I'm about to show you the worst.

Are you ready for it?

kitchen counter (see the Easter baskets still there?)

somewhere there is a desk
I'm embarrassing myself just looking at these. Here's the thing: sometimes I yell, sometimes I fight with my family members, sometimes I'm grumpy in the mornings, and boy am I ever messy. So messy. And these are not just isolated piles, contained in one room of the house. They're EVERYWHERE.

I try! I really do. For a couple of days, I can be Miss Neat and Tidy. And you might be saying, "I've been to your house. It's not so bad."

I will tell you a secret. Unless you have stopped by unexpectedly, there are kind fairies who shove most of the main floor clutter into a storage closet like this:
stuff to be dealt with a couple of years from now

In an effort to simplify, and to de-clutter my mind as well as this house, I've decided that the house must go on a diet. It is getting too stuffed. It's bursting at the seams. Its metabolism is alarmingly low. Lots of stuff comes in, and few things go out. So we've got to find some ways to burn off excess fat from our house.

I thought that for the month of June - for 28 more days - I will give myself a "seriously-reduce-the-house's-input" challenge.

This is my "COME ON IN" list so far: library books, food, 2 new articles of summer clothing (this is a DIET, not a total fast)

And here's my "GET OUT" list so far: excess paper, books I'll never read, clothes I'll never wear, and maybe some other stuff too

And you? Does your house need to go on a diet too? Feel free to join in the fun!

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

holding seeds like prayer beads

As we were planting small rows in our backyard, I thought about the way of seeds.

The way a small wonder is contained inside, ready to explode into plant and fruit and seed.

The way the earth envelopes a seed and encourages it to thrive.

The way the wind blows and seeds scatter - planting themselves. Effortlessly.

The way my body has grown a seed into a beautiful baby. Seeds became prayers became girls.

And the way of these children - holding seeds like prayer beads. Planting. Daring hope to live and breathe, push out of the ground, grow and produce.

The farm-girl part of me knows that these are my prayer beads - each one planted with a prayer for rain and sun and growth and sustenance. The rhythm of planting: Plant a seed. Pray. Plant a seed. Pray. Cover with soil. Water. Hope.

I learned something interesting about beads: that the word "bead" comes from the Anglo-Saxon words bidden (to pray) and bede (prayer). Strings of beads are used in many religions - Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism - to centre the mind and to pray.

So these seed beads help me to be centred and think of the bigger picture. Besides these little spiritual connections, it's just fun to dig in the dirt and get hands dirty. Don't you agree? Is planting a spiritual activity for you?

Some of my favourite poetry and stories have to do with planting seeds. Like this one:

Sowing Clover by Wendell Berry (in Selected Poems of Wendell Berry)

February 2, 1968
In the dark of the moon, in flying snow, in the dead of winter,
war spreading, families dying, the world in danger,
I walk the rocky hillside, sowing clover.

Or this quotation, from Henry David Thoreau's Faith in a Seed:

Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.

And this children's book: Miss Rumphius, by Barbara Cooney, who scatters lupin flower seeds all around her town and on hillsides. Her grandfather had told her,
"You must do something to make the world more beautiful."
This is something I learned from my grandparents: to plant, to tend, and to rejoice in the harvest. And to live my faith in simple ways like planting seeds and praying. Now if only I had a greener thumb.