Friday, December 30, 2011

The Whole Life

My husband and I may be taking a course in January called Holistic Management. It is intended for farmer’s but the principles can be applied to many aspects of our lives. Hence, my interest in it.

What the course teaches is to look at farming as a process that should help us meet our life’s purpose – a means to an end - and not the end in itself. In other words, we should tend to a piece of land because the act of doing it makes us feel at home in ourselves. For me, I have always enjoyed the satisfaction gained from creating food for people and the ability to do something real with my hands that always provides new opportunities to learn. (Indeedy that it is). But in the business and busy-ness of it all, the wholeness started to break into little tiny parts. And the sum of these parts were less than that of the whole.

Focusing on a complete entity, instead of the fragmented parts, I believe, is a spiritual practise. Wholeness is found when your little heart fills with curiosity and wonder about the day ahead as soon as you get up in the morning. Where you are connected to your pure self. There is so much about where we live that brings out that innocent, curious child in me. This is why I feel both confusion and hope when I become so tired from it despite having everything I ever wanted right under my nose.

My husband and I journeyed into a life beside each other because we worked well together. We bought a farm because we both appreciated the elements that it had to offer, not because it was entirely central to our plans. Within a few years there was a business, two children and major renovations and farm makeovers. We fared it well, I believe, but there was a landslide of responsibilities from very early on in the relationship. Though we were building our dream life together, my focus slowly shifted to all that we had to get done and away from the reasons why we were doing it.

What I had forgotten was that it was the two of us that had breathed life into our farm. And in return we were given a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. When, if ever, did our farm sign an ownership agreement to take possession of the two of us? How important to incorporate the needs of our family, our bodies, our house, our personal practices into our lives, despite the deands of our work. Yet it became so easy to take care of the pieces forgetting that there was a whole system to attend to. Focusing on the housekeeping and not the house.

Apparently, the clues to finding the underlying purpose of your life are all around you. I have read that in order to create change we should build tomorrow out of the stuff of today. In other words, it may not be necessary to quit your job, move out of the country, sell the farm and send your kids away to change your life! That is like throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Instead you ought to seek out the reason why you ventured where you did in the first place. What was the original passion that brought you to this undertaking? Then you tweak your decisions until the original purpose becomes clear again. That way you get to keep the good stuff, chuck the rest.

Sometimes our reasons get left in the attic with the rest of the unpacked boxes. The most valuable things can be stored away for safe-keeping. Yet having our dreams out of reach is not useful in the event that they are needed. It seems if you lose sight of the reasons why you’re doing what you do, you’re left with nothing but a to-do list. And that, in my opinion, is not enough.

I do look around and see that I still possess the stuff that my dreams are made of. I have a partner that is compatible with me beyond my wildest expectations. There are children that are healthy and seemingly happy despite the bumpy parts. My body is starting to relish in the changes from regular activity and healthier intake (Christmas cookies aside). I still humour artistic urges on a regular basis. There is love aplenty and strength to persevere and a palette to tell it all to in writing. What more could a girl ask for?

As the New Year approaches, I look forward to awakening to the purpose behind my life again.

One of my favourite sayings is the one about taking a journey only to find what you were looking for was waiting back where you started.

This year, may you tease apart the busy and unpack the purpose that brought you here. And know that you have the intuition needed to find your path back to the beginning. Back to where the circle is once again made whole.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Broken Muscles, Broken Heart

When I am working on gaining fitness, my focus shifts from the numbers on a scale and the size of my pants to how I feel. This is a very good thing. Though the number on the scale has recently been climbing (I’ve decided it is all that muscle I’m gaining and not the twelve boxes of chocolates I’m indulging in), I don’t beat myself up over it. Instead, I throw on my running shoes and remind myself of the power and potential strength my body houses.

This morning I propped the kids on the couch with a bowl of oatmeal and headed out for a cold, winter morning run with the dogs. It seemed a necessary undertaking (as did this post) before the wind of Christmas sweeps us away for the next number of days.

The sun was shining on newly fallen snow causing the entire untrampled ground surface to glisten like lights on a mirror. The temperature hovered around -15C which is the kind of cold that makes the condensation from your breath build icicles on your eyelashes. But I had dressed for it. Looking through these sparkling frames around my lashes gave an effect that no Photoshopped Christmas card could ever accomplish. A moving picture of magic all around me.

A few days ago I played my first game of squash in a very long time with a seasoned player and had to take a couple of days off of any form of exercise. If you’ve ever played the game, you know what I mean. I had squash butt. Which means you can’t lower yourself onto a toilet or down a single stair or bend to pick anything up, or get yourself out of bed or into a car for a couple of days. I felt 80 years old. Yet, exceptionally pleased to be back in the game so to speak.

The game of squash to me, with the right partner, is an exercise in all manner of expression. I spend the 45 minutes listening to my heart pounding in my chest, wiping sweat from my brow, breathing heavily, giggling at my follies, cursing at my mistakes and enjoying the power of a really good shot every once in a very little while. All of this is shared with another person. That is trust and intimacy in its deepest form. In order to turn purple and slog through such a thing in front of someone, you really need to trust them.

My daughter asked me why I was limping about yesterday and I explained the way you do to a 6 year old in simple terms. When we exercise, we are making ourselves stronger. In order for your muscles to build, they have to first break themselves apart. And that feeling hurts but it is just your body telling you that you are getting stronger.

What a beautiful metaphor for the heart. We have heard about how we can be stronger in the broken places. How a broken bone is stronger when it heals. But when you have experienced a broken heart (and I’m certain we all have in one way or another) it is very difficult to see that this ‘injury’ is one that will lead to greater strength in the future.

These holidays are a time that we get to learn how to open our hearts to the world. We are exposed to all manner of challenges to get ourselves ready for the festivities and offer as much as we can to those in need. People get frayed and fragile during these emotional times. And we forget to take care of ourselves and wonder why we end up sick or crying or mad or feeling guilty when we're supposed to be filled with only joy and cheer.

Christmas (or any other celebration that you observe) becomes an opportunity to break apart. And find yourself at the end of the calendar year healed in some strange way from the process. Because we are given the opportunity to put ourselves back together in a way that is more stable than ever before.

May your heart be broken this season. Wide open. Taking in all of the wonder and beauty of the world around you. Letting go of the pain or the worry or the guilt or the fear. May you find strength in the broken places.

Almost like somebody put on shiny, ice-sparkled glasses when you took the opportunity to run through a winter wonderland.

Happy holidays to all.


Thursday, December 22, 2011

Securing Your Words

Do you ever wonder what leads people to reveal themselves in writing? Worse yet, all over the internet in blogs, or social media outlets? Why share intimate details of one's personal life in public fora? I often get a look of puzzlement when I speak of wanting to write my story. I think if you’re a private person, the idea of splattering your worst moments, or even your best, all over the place would be as comfortable as peeling your eyelids inside out.

I don’t consider myself a gregarious person. I actually think I fall more accurately into the private category. But I have these words that find me and feel like I’d be letting myself down if I didn’t let them out of their box. They are pushy, these words, and are looking for a way to be heard.

I am reading Carrie Fisher’s latest memoir called Shockaholic where she talks about her experience on shock therapy for depression (among other things). The woman is hilarious, incredibly intelligent and seemingly constantly at the whim of her feelings. She’s a bona fide navel gazer and a darn good one in my opinion!

I have never needed to come across as a ‘together’ person, only an honest one. Though I find myself wondering why she feels the need to reveal so much about herself. Why can’t she write the book and tuck it away in a drawer somewhere until someone finds it after she dies?
But the truth is that I already know why. In fact, Carrie Fisher says it best when she says she puts her feelings into words and prays they won’t get out again. Like drugs or alcohol (which Fisher admits she has used plenty of in her day), words can take the edge off of a problem, bring light (at least temporarily) to dark corners, make the unbearable easier to face – or at least hide from.

Yet the beauty of words is that they don’t give you a hangover. The solutions that appear in writing cannot only prevent self-destruction, but have the ability to help others when they are used well. Although they might be addictive, I would argue that they are more likely elusive and you couldn’t get a dealer to bring them to you no matter how much money you had.
Words can be a perfect friend telling you all the right things at just the right moment. They can make you feel connected or guided. When you find the right ones, I believe it is a gift to offer them to the world. To keep them to yourself for reasons of pride or ego would be selfish, in my opinion.

The world needs our words. Carefully chosen, artfully arranged, respectfully shared. Without words, we have no voice and cannot be heard. There is a place for silence, and a time for words.

I don’t think we should ever feel badly for sharing our thoughts. The words that make the world make sense to us, they may be the same words that another needs to hear.

I’m not signing up to be anyone’s therapist here. I wouldn’t be so bold to assume that I could make a difference in anyone’s life. But I can not judge another for using words as a way of quelling fears or confusion or loneliness. I could not assume that sharing words about matters close to home is an unstable practise. Sometimes words are what a person needs to get through the day.

What Fisher neglected to mention is that her feelings may well find their way into words, and though she prays they won't, they may in fact get out again. Out into the world where they can make a difference, change a life, help an idea along or alter a mood. And that may not in any way be a bad thing.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Embracing the Inner Animal

Our family went to see the new Muppet movie recently. As a child I was a serious Muppet fan. Since I still haven’t decided whether I wish to grow up or not, it is safe to assume I am still very much a Muppet fan. I loved the movie. It tickled me with its music, humour, nostalgia and great wit.

One of my favourite characters is Animal. A friend of mine put together a video at our wedding without our knowledge where he went around asking the guests which Muppet they felt Rob or I was most like. Rob got Fozzy Bear and Kermit. Half the folks suggested I was closest to Miss Piggy. The other half thought more the groovy hippy chick in the band. I noted it depended whether the people met me in my early years or later in life. Early years got Miss Piggy.
Later years got hippie chick.

There was only one person who said I was closest to Animal. This person knows me best, I figure. I think it was my brother – or maybe my husband-to-be.

If you don’t know who Animal is he is the crazed monster-like creature who speaks in short syllables with a gutteral voice. His puppet usually has his mouth wide open, his neon hair is standing straight up in the air and his head is throwing itself about uncontrollably. He is a drummer.

In the latest Muppet movie he is trying to be a more controlled individual and has given up drumming altogether. He doesn’t seem too thrilled with being a reserved character but gets support by his meditation sponsor played by Jack Black. Watching him continually repeat his mantra ‘In Controoooollllllll’ had me regularly in tears of laughter.

Have you heard the Muppet version of Wild Thing? It includes a nice little acoustic version of Kermit singing quietly with his ukulele. Then along comes Animal and adds drums to the whole thing much to Kermit’s surprise, making the song rock out. I still listen to this song frequently. It is hilarious. A great kids song. Do go and find it and have a listen.
I won’t spoil the movie for you in case you plan to see it. But suffice to say Animal is not a fellow who would easily be contained. This puppet has passion and he is particularly expressive about his feelings and urges. He is not subtle. He oozes emotions and physical energy. And to date, aside from the time the others got upset that he ate his drum set, the folks around him seem to have accepted him the way he is.

If that person at my wedding is right, I gather that I’m not very good at bottling things up. Although I do my best to hide anything that might make the scene around me uncomfortable, I seem to manage to fail almost 100% of the time. This is true for ups or downs.

Though I don’t think anyone would take well to being asked to control their expressive side (especially with handcuffs), I expect there are many circumstances where toning it down is appreciated. But as far as women go, at least the ones that I’ve gotten to know, I see a greater need to express more often, than a need to see more containment. It seems at birth we are given a long list of rules of what makes a ‘lady’ and we are asked repeatedly to abide by the rules (sometimes indirectly and often explicitly).

A woman must be poised and in control. She must be polite and at the ready to serve if needed. As the decades went by, she had to be more and more capable of running a household both financially and otherwise. A woman should never cry in the workplace (or in public for that matter) as it is unprofessional and deems her a weakling. Should she get angry to the point of shouting, she is a crazy person. If she laughs too loudly, she is disruptive. Should she speak her opinions too strongly she is a tyrant or a bitch. If she reveals a soft side or vulnerability, she is not fit to play with the big boys.

Over time, slowly but surely, the world has learned that rules are handy things to have but sometimes, and sometimes often, those rules are made to be broken. No person, man, woman or child, should ever be made to feel that the full expression of herself is a fault. Why it became important to tame a wild woman into a lady, I will never understand. Now I am not suggesting destructive wildness. Not even that it is necessary to be offensive or gregarious in ones wildness. Just to honour that un-stifled version once in a while. Let her out for a romp.

What I hope to see more of in the future are women who are unfettered by chains that were made so that others could have a more convenient time of things. I wouldn’t suggest a full-on Animal imitation every moment of every day. But somewhere inside of you I’m guessing there is a little bit of Animal hoping to get out. I don’t point this out to encourage you to return to an emotionally immature three year old who can’t control their outbursts. I hope to appeal to the part of you that you have gently kept at bay because you worried what others would think. I want to remind you that there may be a dormant part of you waiting for a chance to see light. And that the world is good and ready to meet her!

May she find her way to the surface as this new year of great promise approaches. May she be everything you hoped. May she not eat her drum kit.

Now which Muppet are you?

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Thursday December 15th Resolutions

I am not really a fan of New Year’s resolutions. I firmly believe that a resolution you intend to keep could start on any day of the year. I believe that new beginnings can happen at any point in the road. At any age. Any day of the week. Before any family turmoil or parties filled with mountains of tasty food and beverages. The ones that we are resolved to see through don't need the calendar to make them happen.

I believe we have the power to become exactly the person we wish to be and the decision to do this is available at any moment – at the end of our fingertips. I also believe that we all know this but have a lot of reasons why we think its hogwash most of the time, or at least out of our own reach.

So what better day than Thursday to begin a new path? How about the week before Christmas as a great place to make positive changes? If I can’t hold my resolutions through the wreckage of routine, in the face of great stress and pressure and family dances, with my children chocked up on Santa magic and sugar cookies, then the resolution surely won’t make it through the year will it?

In honour of the year ahead, I have made a list of 12 things for 2012 that I would like to pursue. Beginning now. Today. This morning before 6am I already began in fact.

And they go something like this:

1. Schedule play time (with and without kids)
2. Schedule a work day starting at 5:30am, 3 days a week
3. Write for 3 hours, at least 3 times a week
4. Continue with 3-4 45 minute workouts per week
5. Meet up with a friend (could be husband) without children once a week for adult conversation
6. Spend one hour a week reading or listening to someone inspiring who's sole purpose in that hour is to teach you how to make and meet your goals.
7. Write a progress report of time spent towards goals every day. Put it up on a board so that you can always see it.
8. Start using cash for art materials, toys, music, tools, clothes etc. Budget for this stuff.
9. Submit progress in writing to someone, somewhere (person to be determined)
10. Seek help or advice about something you would like to learn or get better at once a week.
11. Make your mission a priority.
12. Protect Yourself.

There it is. 12 for ’12. How exciting. I’ve expanded all of this a little bit in my written notebooks so I apologize if some of it sounds a little vague. Sharing this here is my attempt to be accountable. The main purpose of the exercise is to get out from under the mountain of excuses I’ve made for myself (most of them with excellent intentions) that have kept me from that thing that is burning inside of me telling me there is something else I’m supposed to be doing.

Numerous life coach type people (Anthony Robbins, Martha Beck, Marianne Williamson) have all asked us to outline what we wanted to do with our lives when we were 5, 6, 7…10. What did we envision doing with ourselves when we were children, before the jaded character set in, and before the worries of the world swept us away? What did that little person know in her heart she was really, really good at and wanted to sing out to the rest of the world?

For me, this one is simple. Writing. I wanted to write songs, screenplays, musicals, books, poems. I wrote things constantly, anywhere, with anything, anytime, in any place. Words have danced around me like fairies my whole life.

I learn exceptionally better when things are visual, when I see them in colour, spread out across mind-maps and organized charts. That is how I take in information best. I find it difficult to learn from reading, or even from listening to someone talk. I tend to need to have physical involvement with the material to get it to stick in my head.

But my best expression is without a doubt with words. What comes out of me comes out most accurately using words. I was never the kid who got her painting taped on the wall in school. I was fairly athletic but never the first one around the track. I wasn’t terribly social although I had fit in just fine across most of the cliques, including the geek squad. I preferred pajamas and long johns to any particular fashion statement. And I was never much of a decorator (unless you count the neat little project piles around my house as decorative).

But with a pen and paper I could make my heart and spirit soar. Words made me feel like I was being guided through the universe on a tour of truths. Everything makes sense to me with words. Often I can seek answers to questions by writing. I can find solutions to problems. I can let go of frustrations and obsessions. Connections reveal themselves.

So without further ado, I would like to announce that I will be writing for a while. Six months to be exact (until the day my children step off the school bus and join me for a summer of work and play). I have not yet determined what I will be writing. A book of some kind. A book that may never see the light of day. But I feel it is my duty to give this thing a life.

Fiction? Perhaps. Memoir? At last partly. How-to book? Probably.

The most important thing for me right now is that I set aside the time to make this happen. I will be blocking off a minimum of 3 hours a day for 3 days out of the week. I am starting today. This will exclude any blogging I manage to get done in between.

Here are some of my excuses of why I’ve not done this to date. As I have said before, I don’t think lies appreciate having light shed on them. So excuses be gone. Excuses, I see you.

1. I can’t concentrate and won’t stop when there are too many things needing to get done around the house and farm.
2. I would rather spend my ‘extra’ time getting healthy, making good food and exercising.
3. I have two small children that will never let me focus in their presence.
4. I am too old. (I’ve been too old for some time now – here I must remind myself how very old I felt at 21 when I bought my first guitar imagining how very too late the whole effort was).
5. I’m not as good as she/he is.
6. I should be spending my energy and time on more important things that are of value to my family and my community
7. I can’t find the time
8. I didn’t get enough sleep
9. What I write isn’t going to be any good
10. I’ll be too afraid to submit the writing to anyone and wouldn’t know where to start anyway.

Now go on. Get out of here. Go write your own lists.

What are the excuses holding you back? What did you love to do when you were 6? What have you always imagined you would do, but haven’t yet? What will the rest of 2011 bring (and then 2012 of course)?

Away you go.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Sustainable Farming

I’ve got something important to tell you. I’ve known it for some time and feel bad that we’ve been spending all this time together and I haven’t told you yet. I’m taking a break from farming. Although selling the farm was put on the table, it was hardly considered, and we are going to stay in this place that we’ve called home for 8 years now.

My husband is a farmer at heart. I also learned when I lived in the city that I required regular access to green space. It was imperative yet not always possible. In my experience you can live in the country and create genuine urban experiences but you can’t live in the city and find this kind of steady quiet and natural space that we have living here full time.

I suppose I had this idea in my head of what a farmer’s wife ought to be. I based it on nineteenth century stereotypes. And the standards I had set for myself to be everything to everyone always. Mighty sustainable goal, wasn’t it? (Insert chuckle here).

What taking my leave from farming means is that in the coming growing season (the seed catalogues have arrived!) I will scale back on what I feel responsible for. Likely my jobs won’t look that different. I want to have the gift of focusing my primary attention on raising my children, keeping the house in order and staying healthy and happy. The amount of disorder that we have endured in our living and working spaces in the past 8 years seems far beyond what two people should have to wade through. Someone needs to call things to order!

I want to ease back the pressure valve and try to practise some form of coasting for a while. Smell the roses so to speak. At least when it comes to the growth and development of our spaces. Instead I want to keep the operations humming as they were, fix what needs fixing and stop building new arenas. I want to pay more attention to the growth and development of the human beings rather than spaces.

What I have committed to is closing loops, tying up loose ends, cleaning up project piles, continuing to take care of the health of our family, and giving my children my undivided attention at least some of the time. Up until now I have too often been the ‘I’ll be with you in a minute Mom’. I will be spending the next year (and perhaps a lifetime?) creating an environment cultivating sanity and not chaos. You’d think everyone would naturally pursue this but this goal has eluded us to date. I don’t blame us. The excitement of learning new things, building new avenues, setting new goals has overtaken us for many years now.

Now it is time to breathe it all in.

Perhaps we completely underestimated what building our home without a steady stream of contractors would entail. We definitely had no idea how two little bundles of human could flip our worlds over. We dabbled in all manner of farming, many things new to us, without much support from beyond our two pairs of hands. This was in itself I think our biggest mistake.

Organic vegetable farms of our size (small to mid-sized) often have a crew of people helping with labour, packing, markets, childcare, barn chores, building repair, field jobs and so on. We always leaned on trying to make it happen ourselves. We had inconsistent help and never a full time crew to rely on. Everything fell to us. And in my opinion this is more than a family can hold. More than it should have to hold.

In the olden days of farming, there were communities and families close by surrounding the workload. Jobs were shared and shifted to make lighter work for the group. And even when the work was relentless, there was someone to lean on, and company to keep. More often than not, my husband and I have only had each other for back up when things got out of hand. This was scary to say the least.

We are looking into taking on interns or full time employees next season. We have come to a point in the business where it is too large to be run by one young family alone. And we must decide that if the business is going to grow, we need to seek appropriate support. Despite our stubborn natures, we cannot do it all alone.

What we have found in our business is the market demand is far greater than what we have been able to grow. We are not competing with WalMart, not yet anyway. We have always sold everything that came from our fields. And we asked a fair price for it, never dumping produce cheaply, always maintaining a volume-dependant price comparable to that of our fellow farmers. To date we have been increasingly successful every year as far as sales of vegetables goes. What I don’t see as sustainable is keeping up this pace of work as a family without external support.

As you know, I have been looking around for a new purpose to my life, after realizing that returning to a job in the city may not be possible in the coming years while my children are still young. For the past two years, all of my ‘extra’ time was spent pursuing projects on the farm. I needed to answer one simple question. Was I a farmer? I wrote and wrote and wrote about it. I talked to anyone who would listen. How do they do what they do? And more importantly, what drives them every morning when they wake up?

To me, there was no way I could continue living on this farm and not know where I fit in. The only way to see this through was to immerse myself wholeheartedly into it. I had something to prove, if only to myself. I even made sure that there were portions of the operation that I was entirely in charge of. This kept any feelings at bay of being solely motivated as my husband’s little helper. In addition to these projects, I continued with the upkeep and repair of the home, processing a winter’s worth of food and the majority of the childcare functions. I also gave 2 or 3 days every week to the packing, delivering and farmers’ marketing of our vegetables.

It wasn’t any different than working in the city as far as the amount expected of me went. The only difference was that I had more control about some of the wheres and whens of it all. And I had earned the title of stay-at-home Mom. Which was awesome, albeit slightly inaccurate. I mostly appreciated not being an hour away from my children when I worked.

Once the words ‘I quit’ left my lips, however, I felt like a failure with respect to farming. Like I had not lived up to my own expectations. That there was something more I was supposed to be trying. That someone else could have done better. It was only recently that a friend of mine took me off my own hook. She observed that I had explored certain aspects of farming because it was something I needed to find out more about and get out of my system. And then came the day that I had learned all that I wanted from it. Not that I would stop the farm operations altogether. But I would integrate what I now knew into a life of my choosing. Then the farming would become sustainable - not just for the environment, but for the family that operated it.

After this conversation, my report card stopped reading ‘failure’. Instead it read: ‘kicked butt, moved on’. Not moved on from farming, but moved on from worrying that I wasn't cut out for it. I had permission to stop asking questions. I was also free from the assumptions I had attached to my involvement with farming. In my mind I had thought that if I didn’t farm, I was a bad wife to my farmer husband. Quitting meant we needed to move to the suburbs. My farming relatives and neighbours would shake their heads and say ‘I knew she couldn’t do it’. I would deprive my children of the work ethic that a farming family can teach.

I want to remember what drew me here in the first place. Farming a land includes peace and rhythm, excellent food security and endless opportunities for growth and challenges. One who bores easily will do well on a farm. And it works on natural principals. All of these things are still what force me out of bed in the morning. Nothing has changed.

Now I have new assumptions. Its really just a different perspective because lets be honest. In reality, not a whole lot is going to change with my day. I will still be going to the farmers' market, helping pack up the orders and getting them to their destinations, processing our food, milking the cow and collecting the eggs, organizing the butcher and most of the jobs I did before. What is new is that I will no longer feel that I am doing far less than I should. I’m chucking out the assumptions. I am answering the question once and for all about whether I’m capable of farming.

Kicked butt. Moved on.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Dance in Abundance

I drove past one of those plastic individually lettered signs the other day that read LA BON DANCE. My French is not entirely perfect but this didn’t seem exactly right to me. La Bonne Danse? The Good Dance? It wasn’t until later that I realized the letters had been shifted, an apostrophe missing. L’abondance. Abundance.

The world I live in is one of abundance. There is an abundance of food, space, light, laughter, love, warm clothing, invitations, connection, four-legged furry ones, toys and tools, entertainment and distraction… We long for nothing. In fact we have to beg people not to give us physical things. When we need (or even want) something, we buy it. Gift giving has become a stress or a circus amongst my people to try to find that thing that the person didn’t realize they needed, but could use oh so badly. Guess what? It doesn’t exist.

It seems trendy this year to give to charity instead of buying physical presents for one another. Or to push for homemade, local or handmade products. Good on y’all. This is right up my alley.

But the other day I went browsing the toy aisle of a Big Box Store and I literally almost had a seizure from the amount of stimulation. The packaging, the floor to ceiling shelving filled with boxes, even paint on the floor of the aisles with words like Barbie or Transformers marking entire aisles of themed toys. I had to buy a birthday gift for a party my daughter was attending. Unfortunately, I still feel really badly every time I make someone’s kid open a gift that clearly has been used by someone before – and often not even someone I know. I also am not a craftswomen – my strengths lie with food. When I give a second hand thing I feel like I’ve gypped that kid out of a shiny new, big, plastic doo-dad. Every time. But I keep doing it. Because its what I believe is the right thing to do.

In the end I brought 80% used stuff in our little recycled baby shower gift bag (I’m a girl on a mission to re-use…). The receiver of the gift was so pleased with the second-hand toy that she proceeded to play with it right away in the midst of the gift opening. Probably because there was no packaging to meddle with. Anyway – she wasn’t upset. Only I was the one concerned about the gift.

I heard on the radio the other day that we are living in a world where people expect to be able to spend more than they earn. On first glance, it isn’t anything we haven’t heard before. But look again. We EXPECT to SPEND more than we earn. In other words, the expectation is on spending – not on earning. In my head, I wonder if we have come to believe we shouldn’t have to work hard for our money. We might even settle for earning less. Yet there are also those that work very hard, and still earn less. Often regardless, the spending and acquiring doesn’t change. What we feel we deserve does not shift in us consumer-type people.

I’m not talking about children with empty bellies and people without proper winter clothing. I’m talking about the you and I who buy, buy, buy mountains o’ things whether we’ve got the cash to pay for it or not. This happens whether the thing is actually needed - we just feel we have a right to anything we want. Well I do anyway.

Don’t think I I believe that buying second-hand stuff lets me off the hook entirely. I still buy too much stuff. I just managed to find a way to cheat the ultimate price tag on it. But instead of a $50 snowsuit for my kids, I buy five $10 ones (though trust me, on a farm this is a very good idea). All the same, there is too much stuff, too much being amassed.

I can’t get that sign out of my head. The Good Dance. Having an abundance of anything is a privilege, nobody would argue this. What we call abundance is a matter of perspective, though I suspect we’d all know it when we saw it. But that doesn’t mean we know how to manage it. With this dance idea, I have come to realize that having abundance is not enough in and of itself. With abundance, we must feel gratitude. We must understand where we are relative to others. We must appreciate what we have.

And most importantly, I feel it might be very important that we have WORKED for it.

Today, we live in a world where we can expect to get something for nothing. The windfalls. The infomercials on how to get rich quick. The lotteries. The families broken over matters of estate. We want lots of stuff and we want to do as little as possible to get it.

During this season of giving, I wish that we could all learn the good dance required around abundance. Where there is health, we take a moment to be grateful (because that is really the only moment you can be certain of). Where tummies are filled, we understand the energy that has gone into the food on our plates. Where our skin or house is kept warm, we can track the materials back to their original source.

That we have a look into the bigger picture. The delicate balance. The Very Good Dance that is required as we hold so very much in our hands.

I have nothing against stuff. Especially stuff that can be used. But I do care when someone else has to pay for the stuff we have acquired, either environmentally or financially or with the basic human rights to a fair wage.

The best things in my life were not easy to attain. I had to work for them. I had to spend a lot of energy on figuring out what I wanted and then more energy on finding them. I earned them. Above all, abundance like every dance requires someone to lead. Preferably this someone will be you. Not a marketing firm, The Jones’ or a whim of emptiness that feigns satisfaction with a purchase.

Last but not least, remember that the best things to feel abundant for don’t necessarily fit on the shelf of a store. And then dance your little heart out.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

This You Can Control

A handful of minutes before my son was born there was a moment of panic. Mostly mine, but judging by the nurse spinning around and running to the phone after ‘checking’ me, I gathered there was some haste on the part of the health professionals as well. I was screaming all kinds of things to anyone who would listen, feeling completely out of control as people poured in like rain in response to what must have been an 'all-hands-on-deck' call. After 17 hours of contractions, I was somehow surprised about what was about to happen. Like it had caught me off guard. And this was my second child so I really can’t say the experience was completely new.

A kind and gentle, soft-spoken nurse came over to me, held my hand while we waited for the doctor to arrive and said: ‘You are panicking’. ‘No shit’, I said.

‘This you can control’, she whispered.

I had a baby falling out of me and I was terrified. The pain was unbearable. And here was this woman telling me I still had some blooming control in my repertoire. Someone has got to be kidding me!

At the time I thought she meant that I could control whether I had the baby or not. It seemed like a perfectly reasonable choice to have. But then I looked into her serene face and felt her tiny hand holding mine. She meant that I didn’t need to panic. And somehow, I calmed down. I looked into her eyes, breathed as she asked me to, and calmed down.

I recently heard about people who get themselves in a frantic pickle and their neurons keep firing rapidly long after the stimuli have been removed. These are likely the ones that make mountains out of molehills. The ones who make your heart race and your blood pressure go up when you only imagine them entering the room.

Would it help me to know that I am one of those people? That for the longest time I had my panic button permanently switched to the ‘on’ position? I look around me and see what others view as a serene and gentle life of bucolic lovelihood. Yup, I see it too. But all of it had perhaps been viewed through the panic lens. Was I hanging on to the ‘holy shit’ handle even when there was no longer a risk of an accident?

Being with my first child was a peaceful experience for me. Even after we tore off our bathroom in late November the year she was born and decided to build a thousand square foot addition ‘before winter’. I bathed with my little one in a room that barely snuck above freezing that winter and somehow I managed to keep my sanity. Returned to work I did after a year and I recall expressing gratitude for the great balance I had in my life. A job in the city where I could use my brain and visit with adults. A life in the country where I could sow my wild seeds. A family to make noise around me in the evenings. A long, quiet drive to collect my thoughts each day.

Then I got pregnant again. There was more snow that year than ever before on the last month before my maternity leave. And I commuted 75km each way with a 2 year old through snowstorms night after night after night after night. I had morning sickness the entire pregnancy, all day long, and would have to pull over repeatedly to humour the nausea. I was in hell. And terrified that I would not survive and that I wasn’t properly able to care for the one child I already had. But survive I did. I ramped up my resources and gave it all I had.

I never blamed that little guy who came into the world two years after my first. I loved him with every bit of the heart that I had. How could I not? But I was never the same again. I stayed that woman driving in the snowstorm, white-knuckled, in blackness, hormonal and exhausted with a two-year old asking questions from the backseat. Looking back, I don’t know how I did it.

It has taken over a year to undo the perma-panic that settled in that year and stayed alive and well for the first three years of my son’s life. I was that person that people would often say ‘calm down’ to. (Why, oh why, do people say that? Don’t they know it is a sure way to freak a person out?)

But there were those assuring eyes of the nurse, Lee, on the night my son was born. She was my grandmother. My aunt. My mother. My Goddess. She was every woman grabbing me by the reigns and effortlessly leading the wild one inside of me back to the barn. I let her take me there because she put the power in my own tiny little hands in that moment.

This you can control.

I went for a run yesterday against every bit of my will. I didn’t feel like going. I felt heavy and lazy and I didn’t care in the least about any dumb goals I had set. The sun was shining, the dogs were antsy but I didn’t care. I wanted to forget the whole thing. But a kinder, gentler side led me to my running shoes and sent me out the door anyway.

There is so much racket going on in the brain. The entire run I watched the sewage of my mind loll about like a ship through stormy waters as it attempted to make my feet stop moving. The ship still sails. The weather still turns. And despite the racket, I can still choose to be the calm observer – all the while still getting my exercise.

I can’t change the weather. But deciding to override the drama - this I can control. The more I practice this, the more I believe it. And that’s a switch I’d like to make stuck for a while.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Squash Fries

Now that the snow looks to be taking up residence around here, we are officially wrapping up our season of growing vegetables. The greenhouse has gone to sleep for the winter (we don’t heat it until the seedlings start to grow in the early spring). The potatoes, carrots, brussel sprouts and squash are all tucked away aiming to give our family a winter’s worth of nutrition. There may be a handful of squash deliveries yet to make to restaurants and stores but that would be about all.

As Christmas approaches, I wanted to share one of my favourite dishes. It happens to go over well with the liluns too, which is always a bonus for me. Squash fries. As potato beetles are a-plenty around here it is always uncertain whether we will see a potato crop. We have been creative over the years with our bounty of squash and come up with this easy delight.

First, cut open the squash (I use Acorn, Butternut, Celebration or one of the other velvety, not mealy ones). Scoop out the seeds with an ice cream scoop and place face down on a baking sheet. Turn the oven on at 350F and leave them in there for approximately 15-20 minutes. They should still be firm put slightly softened by this effort, thereby easier to work with. Turn the oven off and let the squash cool before handling. You may want to remove them from the oven if your oven heats up quickly.

Cut the squash into slivers about 2 inches wide at the widest part. Peel off the skin being careful to keep the form of the flesh. Now cube the orange fleshy part into 1-2 inch cubes. Similar sized cubes would be desirable for consistent baking times.

Alternatively, you can peel the squash when it is raw (this can be tricky depending on whether the skin is tough or not – sometimes a potato peeler is an option). Then cut it in half, scoop out the seeds and cut into cubes. You can throw these cubes in the freezer for another day which is what I have done.

Raw Butternut Squash Cubes Ready for the Freezer

Our family Christmas gatherings are often potluck and this makes an excellent dish to bring and blast with heat once at your destination.

When you’re ready to make the fries, distribute olive oil or pats of butter around a baking sheet. I have no fear of butter and use a good ½ cup over a large cookie pan. Place in a preheated oven on the middle rack at around 400F. Once you can lift the cube from the pan with a spatula, turn the lot of them over to brown the other side after around 20 minutes. They are ready when the edges start to brown slightly and the fat layer in the pan is sizzling like a deep fryer.

Try not to overcook these or they will turn to mush. The key is to get a crispy outside, and a softened inside all the while holding a shape.

If you are blessed with loved ones around you and food to eat, here’s wishing you a wonderful season of baking, eating and visiting.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Making Friends with Guilt and Envy

I have a confession to make. Things that other people do or say can send me reeling. With guilt, envy, feelings of being inadequate, or a certain brand of lonely emptiness (which I take to be the opposite of connection). It is fair to say that I am a sensitive type. But I think that’s the easy way out. Here’s another route.

I so often let the projections of other people get inside of me. Those negative voices spilling over with fear and echoing the voices in my own head. The ones that say I can’t. And they are very loud at what they do.

Lately I’ve been focusing on the ones that say I can. This is where envy comes in. All of those I envy are those that are reaching for something bigger in their lives. Not relative to me. Just bigger on their own scales. I’ve been turning up the volume on possibilities and avoiding the faces and places that like to share their grief with me. I’ve put down the sword of destruction and picked up the art of building and being creative.

I think as ‘keepers’ it is really important to have your own wagon. What the hell is she talking about now, you ask? I mean you have two choices. To stroll along behind someone else’s wagon arranging all the excess debris that flies off of it. The stuff they can’t handle or don’t know how to do. Or you can make your own wagon and ride alongside them.

Having your very own wagon means you have to put yourself into it. Probably drive it. Decide on the shape, paint the edges. Is it a fast or slow one? Large or small? Covered or open? Where is it going? So much more simple to follow along behind someone else’s, right?

I have learned the hard way that trying to help other people with their wagons all day long without having one of my own is a sure way to die inside. Without a destination of my own, my little spirit shrunk like a dried flower.

If I were God, I would simply say: how dare you not nourish and tend to your flower. What right have you to let yourself disappear?

Like a flowering plant, we humans need to keep growing and challenging ourselves to keep reaching for light. We need to thrive on energy and give beauty and fragrance to the world around us. Well, maybe not all kinds of fragrance but you get the metaphor.

Here is the thing about having your own wagon. (Now in case you’ve gotten confused about whether you’re a wagon or a flower, stay with me, it’ll all come together). When you have your own wheels, you can take others for a ride in it. You can carry the load for another. You can fill it with flowers even, can’t you?

Anger. Jealousy. Guilt. These nasty clouds can spread grey over an otherwise lovely day. But I’ve finally learned their power. In order to survive they need an empty shell, or wagonless wagon, a flowerless flower.

For the first time since the beginning of this blog I am comfortable with the definition of what feminism truly means. It is the ability of a woman to be the central figure in her own life. It has nothing to do with how much she has to care for, or how she sets her priorities. It is the choice to be able to put one’s own basic needs first. Including the important need to grow, seek light, take in water. Create a life. Fill it with needy things. But still breathe from only one center.

And jealousy preys on those who forget they need their own standards and goals. Those that know in their heart of hearts they are not living up to their full potential. Guilt is not far behind envy, whispering in your ear that you should be headed somewhere different.

We are told as women to not be so hard on ourselves. Not take on too much. It isn’t about taking on too much. The ambitions of women today are not at fault for the overloaded families marching around.
Lately I think my greatest fault was not taking on enough. Not focusing on the things that were central to my happiness and worrying far too much about what was expected of me. Who needed what from me. What was the most urgent priority of the day. I needed more of the real stuff. Less of the business that belongs to others in the first place.

The one thing we are told to instill in our children is a sense of self. Confidence in what they have to offer the world. So where in there should a mother give up her own offering for the sake of that of another? When did I hop off my own wagon to leave it rot somewhere to make sure that others fully functioned at their greatest capacity?

Somewhere before I had kids. Slightly before marriage. Somewhere around the time I moved into my first home, which happened to be on 100 acres of farmland.

There is nobody to blame but myself. Everybody expected me to stay on course. Chase my potential with all the vim and vigour of the person I was when this journey began.

But somewhere back there I left it behind. For a good cause, of course. It seemed necessary. Nobody would argue that giving it all up for your kids, your husband, the family business, the animals and plants in need of care isn’t a noble undertaking.

But I forgot my wagon.

I let guilt drag me down. I thought if I served myself I would be a terrible wife and mother. I let envy fester. I considered myself less worthy of all the great things others had. I wasn’t smart enough. Not good enough. Did not have enough money, support, energy, vision…

Envy and guilt were only ever the canary in the mine. They showed me loud and clear that I was capable of more. That I didn’t have to solely revolve around the needs of others. That I could be my own master. That I could build more, create more, extend more. On my own terms. Not in a stand-off kind of way. But as a woman who knows what she needs to survive and doesn’t try to ignore those needs to build up another.

I am starting to see that restoring my own wagon actually gives me energy. There is much more joy and laughter around me these days. And room to move and grow. I don’t suffocate quite as easily. I don’t anger as quickly. I sleep better. I attract positive people more readily. I no longer limit myself with rules about how I couldn’t, shouldn’t, won’t, haven’t, can’t.

I don’t envy others quite as much because I feel ultimately capable of anything I set my mind to. Or better yet, I know what to do when envy sneaks up. Spend more time on my own potential, that is. I don’t feel the same guilt because I see the reward and how others gain so much more from me in the wake of these new beliefs.

What can I say? I was given the ability to flower. Why wait until spring to make it so? Why not make like a Christmas cactus and give myself and others the gift of colour right now?