Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Road More Traveled By

I have a very beautiful drive to work. It starts out along a highway that passes farms and forest, ducks down into a plateau where my daughter goes to school near the river then veers north towards an escarpment and opens up where you get your first view of the river to your right. On the left is a mass of steep rock that takes even the most athletic of climbers an hour to scramble up. It is not the Rockies but it is a substantial chunk of boulder coming out of the earth.

The rock stretches on for miles. Depending on the season, it can be covered in sleek, black ice and snow-filled crevices in winter, waterfalls and a canopy of autumn colours in fall, or a canvas of lush green leaves in summer. My route turns off the highway onto a winding, hilly road that skirts alongside the base of the mountain before it spits out on the edge of town. This road goes through one of my favourite places on the planet: the Gatineau Park. This park houses hundreds of kilometers of cross-country ski and snowshoe trails in winter and mountain-biking, hiking and canoeing routes in summer. The fellow that runs our country (the Prime Minister) also happens to have a residence in this park with his very own lake. The place is arguably one of Canada’s true outdoor gems, and is only a 15 minute drive from the Parliament buildings that nest above the Ottawa river in Canada’s capital city.

These roads I know well. They are as dangerous as any two-way highway can be but on a good day when the sun is shining and the weather cooperates, driving this road feels like dancing with a partner you’ve known for years. You know where the curves are, where the car will bump and tilt, where you will slow down for deer, stop to see the Dutch belted cattle or the Percheron horse in the new barn by the mountain. You will see bears, deer, wolves, coyotes, foxes, rabbits, raccoons, skunks, cats, dogs, hawks, eagles and owls.

I do have a fairly long commute – 60km. I leave in the morning with a coffee that I have made with beans freshly ground from our favourite local, fair trade, organic coffee roaster. I will listen to my favourite music, CBC radio or an audio book on CD to keep me company through the drive. Sometimes I prefer silence. It will take 45 minutes. This kind of commute is nothing to be proud of environmentally. I have shared it with neighbours on occasion to lessen the blow. I have a small, fuel efficient vehicle. It is difficult to find work around this farming community - so many find themselves driving long distances to their employment. But we weigh it against the rest of our choices and hopefully, just maybe, we come out ahead. The time it takes is no different than the wait in traffic other city folks are doing across much shorter distances. It is what it is and I make the best of it every single day.

The drive home is a lot more difficult. I am hungry well before dinner and it takes all of my power not to stop at the eateries or convenience stores along the way. I bring fruit. I hope for patience to get me home to a warm dinner at the table with my family. I am also antsy after a day in a chair. I am not used to sitting this long. Today I arrived early to work in order to go cross country skiing in the Gatineau Park during my lunch break. I feel blessed to be perched in such a location. It is a cubicle on the 16th floor and those stairs I took for the first time today are also not so bad.

The people that share my space are exceptional. I don’t know if it is biologists in particular or wildlife enthusiasts in general but these lot are a dedicated, slightly obsessed and quirky bunch. There is coherence between the people here. Their values are similar. Their thinking is in line with mine. I fit in here. And I have missed this family very much it appears. There are parents of older children, parents starting their kids in school as we are, as well as new parents. We all talk about our children. There are keen new students and people on the cusp of retiring after a long career. There are people who go to farmer’s markets or subscribe to Community Shared Agriculture programs. Many have their own gardens. They have pictures of their pets on their screensavers. It is not hard to feel like I belong with these people. Our lifestyles are incredibly dissimilar in some ways but not so much in the way that we see the world. And often that is so very much enough, isn’t it?

I used to fear the structure of a 9 to 5 job. It seemed like a prison to me. How can I do what I want when I am stuck here all day? But then I look again. And in the spaces between I can see how people find themselves in their work here. How I express myself working with these people. The goal? To save species that are in danger of becoming extinct. The method? Oh, sometimes not very efficient, but the efforts are made every day to meet the goal. And very good, hard-working people show up every day to make that happen. And that is so very inspiring.

What I want, it turns out, is to be able to rest now within the structure of a daily routine. One that I was never able to find with farming. Because the bucket has no bottom on the farm. There are no true sides to the barn, to the fields, to the jobs that need to be done. Some thrive on this kind of challenge. Or they learn quickly how to create the boundaries that are required in these situations. I never figured this out. The other thing I want is for my work day to end. I want to know that my free time is my own to do leisure and recreational activities with my family, artistic projects, writing and food preparation without feeling the guilt of thinking I should be attending to something else.

Despite these four walls, I have learned that I am every bit the wild woman I always was. But a wild woman who becomes high on structure and form. One who needs her dance floor to have a lighted area, her fields to have end zones, her mountain climbs to have a destination.

I savour the mornings as I pass the same fences, the same horses, the same trees, the same curves in the road. I return home to the same children running towards the front door, arms outstretched, calling my name with delight. I can handle this kind of predictability. We are all adjusting to a new routine.

Somehow it is as though I have been holding my breath for many, many months. And with this drive, the way things are going, I finally feel as though I can breathe fully into my life without worrying about stones left unturned. The farming bees from inside of my bonnet seem to have flown away for now. My children are safely nestled between their father, their respective schools and our evenings together.

I keep asking myself how I ended up back here. The answer is simple. I took the long and winding road alongside the mountain. And in the words of Robert Frost, that has made all the difference.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Working Mother

I visited my daughter’s school last week where she presented the year’s worth of the work she has done in kindergarten to me. I was so proud of her and all of her accomplishments in the year. One thing that stood out, however, was when she completed the sentence: “I am sad when” with “my mother is not home”. Given that there will be a whole lot less of me around home over the next while, this was heartbreaking.

When I explained to my son that I would be returning to my job in the city he asked me why I didn’t want to wash squash anymore. I told him that there was other important work I needed to be doing and he said that if it was because I needed more help, he could help me wash squash. Again, broken heart.

When I was very young my mother had to establish herself in a career that she was forced into the day she became a single mother. This made her very busy and not home a whole lot. I learned to cook and clean and find my own way on most days. I recall the hollow feeling of our home when I opened the door at the end of the day. My older brothers were often not around and there would be hours on end where the house was filled with nothing but the sound of my own footsteps (or those of our little doggie). I dread that my children should ever have this feeling.

I suppose my childhood could have been a lonely one. But I always valued the fact that I learned how to be independent, resourceful, find ways to entertain myself and explore the world on my own terms. Later in life I watched friends be herded unwillingly towards specific higher education, ‘invited’ to marry certain people, crowded by critical relatives. I had none of those problems.

Because of my own experiences, as a parent I find myself working extra hard to share the same space as my children. To make sure they know that they are good company. To make sure that I am ‘around’ if needed. To be by their side as they experience the world. To take them on adventures. To be available for every whim. I even try to sit with them when they watch television or play on a computer. As we all do, I am likely overcompensating for the things I did not have as a child. I wonder where the balance of it all will settle.

What I want my children to know is that their parents, both of them, along with a great handful of important others will always, always be there when needed. That they are not alone. I feel my job now is to figure out a way to instill the great independence and confidence I gained from being able to explore the world on my own as a kid and still let them know that I’ll be there should they slip and need a hand.

After years of juggling work and a farm and small children I finally surrendered two years ago and built my life closer to my children. When kids are little this isn’t such a bad idea – but it isn’t a complete one. My son had just turned two when I left work in the city to be home more, available more as I shifted to working on the farm. It was a bad ending to an anti-feminism book where a girl must quit her job in order to find balance in her home life. Is this what I would have preferred from my own mother? As she did her best in a situation that she could not control, I do not blame her for being away so often. Instead I applaud her for managing to juggle all that she did.

The question remains. When I drive to my job every morning how do I stay close to my children though I am so very far away so much of the time? How will they know that I’m still watching over them in every way I can imagine – just not standing right beside them? How do I forgive myself on the days that I can’t make it to the field trip, can’t get to them right away when they get hurt or sick, can’t be there on their holidays?

I think about my mother pushing through a very difficult situation when my father found a home away from our family. I think about how she did not have choices available to her. She had to support her family. She had to make her way. She says she was terrified. She came out on the other side one of the strongest women I know.

My mother was an example to me. A survivor. She taught me about possibilities. About what a person can do even in the toughest of circumstances. About not giving up no matter what the cost.

For some reason, I have always felt capable of anything I set my mind to. For some reason, I feel inherently able to make the best decision for my future at all times. When I was a child, I somehow knew that my mother trusted me to do the right thing whether she was watching or not. I knew she must inherently have faith in me or she would not have done what she did.

Presence for a child is so very important. But for your children to know that you trust them – that you have faith in them – I can’t think of anything more crucial.

And once in a while, pull up a chair and wash some squash beside them just so that they know they are needed and that you enjoy their company.

Thursday, February 16, 2012


I am a woman in my forties. I think about hormones a lot these days. I am constantly being told about the great ‘change’ to come. Hormones have a great affect on me, right? Actually, it turns out hormones have always had a great affect on me. On everyone. Always. Hormones run your body. They are the air traffic control system for major bodily functions like metabolism and growth and fertility.

With signals from your brain, hormones are secreted into the blood from your glands and give instructions to other systems in your body. They are specific in their task. Like a key to a door or a radio signal, they will only open certain doors or send messages on certain frequencies.

When people ask me why I eat organic food my answer is simple. Organic food is ultimately grown without the use of pesticides, growth hormones, antibiotics, simplified soil fertility enhancers (NPK fertilizers). Organic growth systems respect the living whole. Which means it respects processes already in the works in nature. Like the importance of bugs or fungi in our soils and other important elements besides just phosphorous, nitrogen and potassium. Like the way our bodies integrate whole foods.

Our bodies know what to do with our food long before we read a label or a chart about it. The science of nutrition captures only part of the story. The rest of it plays out inside your body.

When I learned in my herbal medicine courses that a certain herb can actually have opposing effects depending on what your body needs, I realized that the communication between our food (and medicine, same difference in my mind) and our bodies is a lot smarter than we give it credit for. I don’t believe you can introduce a long list of separate nutrients into your body and expect a whole and complete healthy result. I think the body can do its best with synthetic or extracted or isolated nutrients but at the end of the day it is looking for something more complex.

Back to hormones. I’m pretty certain that mine are all out of whack. I never enjoyed the comments throughout my nine months of very nauseous pregnancies that it was something I was doing or not doing that made it so. I am now beginning to believe that there might be some truth to that. I think just because we are women we can’t sign up for Hell with Hormones at any age. They have a lot of power, it is true. But what if there were things we could do that would help our body function in ways that made our lives easier.

I don’t have to tell you that hormones have a lot to say in our days (whether you are a man or woman you have surely been affected indirectly or directly by them). They affect our moods, our behaviour, our sleeping patterns, the ability of our bodies to function properly. Conversely, things like stress can affect how our hormones operate, which can ultimately affect your immune system and your overall health. For example, cortisol is released when we have too much stress and too much cortisol can affect your bones, your blood pressure, your ability to think straight, how the thyroid functions (including metabolism), blood glucose levels and degree of stomach fat storage which leads to other health problems like heart attacks or strokes.

I’m not a doctor or a nutritionist or a scientific researcher in any of these areas. The scribble above is my rudimentary knowledge of something far more complicated than I’m able to understand. But the only point I want to get across here is the part where I’ve started to realize how very, very, very important they are in our day-to-day functioning for any individual at any age of any gender. To assume this is a woman’s problem or particularly a menstruating, pregnant or menopausal woman’s situation is far too simple.

As I go forward into a different sort of work schedule that provides more pressures from the outside and less flexibility with how I manage it, I realize that it isn’t just the road ahead that I need to smooth out. It is the functioning of the vehicle as well. Who would embark on a long road trip without first checking their fluid levels, their filters, their temperature and circulation and tire pressure? Not ensuring that my body is running at optimal levels is attempting just that. And I have come to realize the important role that hormones are playing here. And that there are things I can actually do about facilitating their ability to function properly.

I also probably don’t need to tell you that exercise makes you feel better. It seems to be unclear exactly which chemical produced in the body is causing this ‘high’ – endorphins used to get all of the credit but now there is evidence suggesting other mechanisms are at work. Either way, things we do in a day control how our body responds. Chemically. In very real and tangible ways, whether we can explain it or not.

Now back to organic food. You may be familiar with the sweep of pesticides in use today that are called endocrine disruptors? They are called this because they have been shown to affect how our hormone systems operate. In a bad way. Now from everything I’ve put together so far, I don’t really want someone messing with my endocrine system. How angry would you be if someone put a tennis ball in your exhaust system? Or a hole in your radiator? Or water in your fuel line? Your car wouldn’t function properly and you couldn’t get where you wanted to go.

But somehow it has become acceptable (I know because I do it to myself all the time) to seriously affect how our bodies work because it tastes good, or is cheaper, or is easier to grow, or because only hippies concern themselves with environmental impacts. Some think paying more for organic food is a tax on the gullible (a former President of Canadian Food Inspection Agency, in fact).

No matter what you believe will make you healthier, whether it is inundating your body with nutrient packed supplements or eating organic food, raw food, vegan food, purple food, it will always be true that your body will continue doing what it does with the food you give it no matter what you think. When the affects on my hormones are at stake, I now liken that to the potential for a complete system failure. Perhaps I am wrong. But for my family, that is not a chance I am willing to take.

Endocrine disruptors have been shown to cause cancerous growths, developmental issues, and learning disabilities including attention deficit disorders. Certain compounds have been found to be higher in children’s blood than in their mother’s who are living in the same home. It is controversial whether the levels are considered too high or whether they will have a negative effect. Again, I’m not taking my chances here.

Our exposure to these contaminants comes predominantly from our food. Other sources can be from house dust, plastics (eg. BPA in baby bottles), children’s toys, PCBs from wood finish, chemicals in household cleaners, PBDE flame retardants in our clothing etc.

The types of pesticides used in agriculture are becoming more and more restricted and applications are less frequent or applied in smaller volumes than in years gone by - though I'm guessing that the amount of agricultural production out there has gone up immensely in the past few decades. Yet there are still many unresolved questions as to their affects on the environment, the amount that makes it into our foods and how exposure affects the human body. Given the increases in allergies (and immune system function), learning disabilities and cancer rates, I again am afraid to take my chances.

I keep thinking about how people once thought the world was flat. How Coca cola used cocaine instead of caffeine in their sugary beverages. We are learning all of the time. There is always room for improvement. What will we know in 100 years that we don’t know now? What will we know in ten years that will change how we do things forever?

Here are some things I have learned can positively affect the way the hormones in your body function. I have decided to tweak some of my day to day activities in hopes of gaining a better control system.

1. Limit exposure to contaminants in food, household supplies and clothing. This basically means fewer bleached products (toilet paper), less plastic, less chemical cleaners and more vinegar, less cheap fabric made in far away places (make sure your dryer exhaust does not enter your home!).
2. Eat excellent sources of saturated fats and eat them in moderation (grass fed beef, eggs from pastured chickens (not the same as ‘free-range’), pastured pork, organic dairy products). Remember that endocrine disruptors usually find their home in fats.
3. Less refined carbohydrates (white flours, white pasta, sugar, alcohol) and more complex and whole grains (I have a 50/50 rule here where I try to make half my plate contain whole grains or vegetables/fruits - the rest can be protein, fats and other mixed nubbins). These keep your blood sugar levels more stable and require less hormonal surges to regulate imbalances. I also choose my beast and enjoy in moderation regularly without guilt, but never mindlessly and in excess in areas where alternatives are just as good.
4. Exercise regularly, but in moderation. Yup, that’s my new thing. In the past exercise has been an all or nothing feat for me. I think I was actually over-exercising recently causing free radicals to circulate in my body (lowering immune function), increased acidification and a constant starvation effect it seemed. I forgot to match my calorie burning and muscle building with INCREASED nutrition (a whole and complete diet). Too much exercise can cause bad effects. Just the right amount is absolutely essential for proper body functioning, supported by adequate (volume and quality) nutrition.
5. Drink the best water you can find. If you eat a lot of water-containing fruits and vegetables this is less urgent, but make sure you get enough water.
6. Be mindful of processed foods. They likely only have a portion of the nutrients that the real thing has so you can find yourself eating more to get the same nutritional benefit. Beware of foods that mimic estrogen - soy products, especially over-processed ones have been accused of affecting hormone-like processes in your body.
7. EAT when your hungry. Regular meals are better than binges and starvation as far as regulating your metabolism goes. Eat only when you are HUNGRY. My brother once said before we sat down for a buffet meal: "eat quickly because in 20 minutes your body will know its getting full!" You get the picture.
8. Do whatever you have to do to manage stress. Meditate, colour, read books, hum while walking through the forest, listen to music, cook, visit with the good people in your life.
9. Get enough sleep. (though my theory goes that if you can get your hormones in balance, and exercise the right amount, this will be the winning effect).
10. Use common sense. Though I do hear its not that common anymore, I have faith in us! Ask questions, follow your intuition and go towards the choices that make sense to you - especially given the vast amount of information available to us today. The parts may not all be perfect, but the system will function better as a whole.

That’s all for today. Just some thoughts on food and foods for thought.

Happy hormones make a happy life.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Is There Space for Me?

In the days after bringing my newborn son home from the hospital our family began the delightful, disorienting process of adjusting to a new human in our home. I sat on my perch for hours on end feeding the little guy or holding him while he slept. Because this was my second child I was far less overwhelmed at the concept of taking care of a living being. The greatest challenge I found was learning how to give my daughter (who had just turned 2) the same attention I was used to providing her with.

Many questions are on my mind these days like how will I maintain quality time with my children when I return to work? How will I find a way to fit in exercise? How will I keep up a practise of writing my thoughts regularly? How will I ensure that the meals available to my family are healthy and wholesome? I don’t ask these questions as a way of wondering if I will manage these things. I am taking a great deal of time in the days leading up to my return to my job in the city answering these questions. How will I? Not whether and if, but how. Ideas are being thrown around like snowflakes in a storm.

I recall vividly the moment that my two year old stood at the edge of my lap as I held my sleeping son. “Is there space for me?” she asked. I glanced into my lap and noticed in the physical realm there was very little room for her on my lap. But when I looked into my heart the answer was clear, and without hesitation I said: “Of course there is! Come on up!”

The moments that followed would define the entire next few years of my life as I learned how to integrate all of the essentially important things together. I shifted my sleeping son so that he leaning out over the armrest of the chair and aided my daughter as she took up residence on a part of one knee. We sat there awkwardly together while I tried to keep everyone safe and happy. And with every bit of strength I had I tried to prove that there was no way she could be displaced.

The thing that stands out in my memory is that my daughter had understood at such a very young age that something could come along and take the place that she had once occupied. It breaks my heart to imagine that she thought for even a second that something could. She was so precious and small and needy and yet she realized that she had become the independent one.

I stand firm in my resolve that with a little patience, an enormous amount of organization and a lot of forgiveness, I will be able to hold on to all of the things that are important in my life when I return to work. I have made a list of the foods that we produce or process from our land that are non-negotiable: maple syrup, a case of canned apple sauce, 100L of tomato sauce, a winter store of frozen peas, green and yellow beans, rings of zucchini, dried tomatoes for pesto, frozen roasted squash, frozen trays of spinach pie, jars and bags of berries. These are all the tasks that involve my hands - many more come straight out of the fields and go directly into storage or the fridge or freezer (potatoes, onions, carrots, beef, eggs etc.). With a list like this, I am hoping to accomplish them as I have every year without the panic and urgency that comes from processing every single thing that is surplus from our garden. I will take what I need, and leave the rest to the neighbours, the chickens, the cows and the earth. This is about letting go.

Next year there will be no meat birds and no pigs. We will keep a handful of laying hens for ourselves. I have still not managed to let go of our Jersey cows. The meat and milk they bring us provides value that cannot be measured in my opinion. Who will do the fencing and the milking? Oh, that would be a post for another day. Luckily our Bonnie is not due to calf until July.

For exercise? I have developed a roster of possible scenarios that would constitute a workout and plan to make sure 3 of them fit in every week. The scenarios involve multiple settings, various times of day and lots of room for flexibility to allow room for success. For one, I will continue to use my 5:30am spot for yoga. As it stands, I am always too tired at that hour – surely returning to work won’t change that. But lying awake in bed that early brings a far less desirable result by 7am than forcing myself out of bed to make it happen. I intend to walk or run at lunch once every other week with a friend (or alone). I plan to keep up my regularly squash games but expect only one every other week to materialize. Lately I have found a 20 minute spot once dinner goes in the oven where I can jump on the treadmill before the food is ready. A quick run during this time might be possible. And one day a week – a weekend day or my one day off in the week (I will be commuting 4 days a week), there will be a long, slow walk, snowshoe, ski, or run. An hour or more where possible to wind down and revisit.

I know you’re probably shaking your head imagining that there is no way to keep any of this up. I think you’re right. But I also know that I had done it before in spades. I kept all of those balls in the air and the only one I dropped was my sanity. It seems to me that my task at the moment is to recognize the changes that have occurred since then.

Firstly, my children are no longer 2 and 4. They are now 4 and 6.

Secondly, from the moment my daughter expressed her need for me in the presence of my newborn baby, my nerves began the process of a long, slow unraveling that would take years to heal. In the same way that your nerve cells need multiple years to re-grow after they have been damaged by frostbite, I have learned that my emotional nerve endings needed multiple years to recover from the fray I had put them through.

Thirdly, what was once a construction zone is now called my mostly finished home. The bare drywall screws are now covered in plaster, paint and paintings. Structures that had never been built are now finished. Storage rooms have been recovered as living space. Electrical outlets are covered. Plumbing runs where it is needed. There are many more aesthetic tasks to complete, but for the most part we are no longer living in a major-work-in-progress. Only a normal level of upkeep is required (still huge I know!).

Fourthly (do people still count like this past three?), I have spent two incredible years seemingly glued to the hips of my children. We have worked, played, roamed, built, explored, laughed, cried, screamed, learned to sleep!, learned to use toilets!, learned to eat with utensils! The ways that we have come together have been the gift that a different work arrangement has given us. I am hoping my bank account of feeling close to my children will buy me a few months of guilt-free time away at my job. Secretly I’m looking forward to a change in this regard but no mother should say such things out loud right?

Fifthly (now that’s a cool one I’ve never seen), for the most part I manage to cobble together 7 hours of sleep every night (sometimes more, and sometimes broken but it is consistently there). The way that my brain functions is surely changing with age but my thought processes feel far less damaged now than they did in those multiple years without consistent sleep.

Sixthly (oh, even better than fifthly), we have finally learned that our situation requires external support. For some reason, we assumed our resourcefulness and excellent team-making partnership was enough for us to take on two off-farm jobs, live hours away from our relatives, run a farm business, grow most of our food, build a house, raise two small children and throw in some cats and dogs and elephants and unicorns to care for. We have recently acquired the great skill of asking for help.

What this looks like is a long list of phone numbers for people to call in case of emergencies or in case we can’t make it back to pick up our kids from school on time. It also may look like my husband changing his work configurations over time. It means getting full time help on the farm (which we could have used from day one but were too stubborn to admit). It means better communication between the two head partners at work in the business of home, farm and child management. Words like: 'I need a break, be back in an hour' are words we have recently learned to say out loud.

For now I must introduce my excellent life to a new sibling. My job. Job, meet my life. Life, meet my new job. I think you two should get along famously. If we listen lots, adapt as needed, forgive mistakes, let go often and be realistic about the demands we have on each other, seeking help where needed.

Job, do you have space for me?