Monday, 24 June 2013

How to survive (and love) summer vacations with kids

Ava's very first road trip. That's Mount Robson reflected, and she is SO excited.

Remember road trips with your family as a kid? I do. It was always very exciting except for the part where my dad made us get out of bed at 4 a.m. so we could be in line for the first ferry in the morning. Yup, the joy of living on an Island in those days (pre-Confed Bridge) was having to wait in line for the 6 a.m. ferry to the mainland. Yeesh.

Anyhow, we rarely travelled all that far, maybe to Lunenburg to see the boats, or Cocagne for the boat races (see a boat theme here?), or even to Cape Breton to do the Cabot Trail. My husband remembers driving from British Columbia to Manitoba every summer. He claims his dad told them to go to the bathroom at home 'cause they weren't stopping again until Manitoba.

Now that we have our own children we know the frustration of having a small but demanding voice coming from the backseat every half-hour, "I have to peeeeeeeeeeeeee!" We are planning trips to both coasts this summer, so we are in full prep mode now, especially from a mental perspective.

Confederation Bridge...much easier than waiting for the ferry.


Accept the fact that you have to stop a lot and it will take at least 2 hours longer than you plan. 

Make a playground the destination.
Make sure every place you are headed has a playgound. And pretend that is your major goal in life, to get to the next stop so that you can go to that playground. Somehow they will endure hours of driving for some monkey bars. I swear we could write a book entitled "Playground tourism for Dummies."

Bring lots of stuff
We don't have DSs (DSesses??). No video games. But I stock up on lots of books from the Sally Ann or library book sales for the girls. No library books on holidays so they don't get left somewhere. We also bring MP3 players for each girl, loaded with lots of their own tunes. Taylor Swift, Walk off the Earth, One Direction, some clean Pink, Josh Groban, some fiddle tunes and Irish Rovers. Eclectic. We also pack lots of drawing pads, coloured pencils and doodle books because they can draw for hours.

Bring lots of food
When in doubt, give snacks. Lots of fruit, nuts and something treat-like. Road trip food like corn nuts or popcorn or (GASP) junk food. I always have to have corn nuts and cream soda on road trips.

Bring your sense of humour
If you're feeling a little crazy and you think you might scream if one more person asks "whennnnnnn will we be there?" just remember, your children will grow up and refuse to go on roadtrips with you. Enjoy! Be silly, and laugh. You will all feel better.

Camp or stay with friends with kids along the way.
That way the trip itself is part of the fun. It's not just about the destination, it is all the fun stops as well. Plus the kids can entertain each other while the grown-ups crack a cold bottle of wine and catch up on life.

Learn stuff
National Parks and Historic sites are SO great for families. They have wonderful programs to engage kids, and lots of fun things for everyone to do as they enjoy nature and learning. I know, theme parks and water slides are fun (for about 10 minutes), but nature is the ultimate theme park. Last year we bought a national park pass that let us into every park and historic site in Canada, and it was well worth it.

Fun at Lunenburg
Digging for dinosaur bones at Fundy Geological Museum

Park Xplorer program at Fundy National Park

Changing of the guard at Fortress of Louisbourg

Surviving the summer at home

Make every day a stay-cation. 
This is my first summer of being totally off, full-time parenting for the entire season. And I am ready. Rainy days call for trips to the library, where there are always lots of activities as part of the Summer Reading Program. Sunny days mean picnics at the park, playground tours (we make it a goal to visit each one in the city), and this summer it will be trips to a lake since the ocean is currently thousands of kilometres away. Swimming lessons are also on the list.

Be footloose and fancy-free.
Take the kids for a hike in the woods, find a stream, sit back and relax. It is amazing how much fun children can have with a few sticks, some birch bark and some free-flowing water in a sun-dappled forest.

Little geocachers
Go geocaching!
If you've got a GPS and lots of junky doo-dads, you are all set for this amazing outdoor activity. Everybody loves a treasure hunt, and there are literally hundreds upon hundreds of geocaches in every province. We have a little bag of goodies (called swag in geocaching language), so when we find a cache we can swap for whatever little item in the cache the girls want. Check out to download coordinates for caches wherever you are.

Go camping. 
There is nothing better than sleeping outdoors. Really, I mean it. It just may not seem that way when you have to get up in the middle of the pitch-black night and stumble to the nearest comfort station (ie. bathroom) with a child who needs to pee and flatly refuses to do it behind the conveniently located tree beside your tent. But camping is a parade of awesomeness. Stay up late, eat beans and wieners, roast marshmallows on the campfire and listen to the crickets.

Have some lemonade and freezies. Enjoy this oh so short period of time when your children are so young and full of imagination and joy and enthusiasm for the world around them. If we could all adopt that attitude, to approach each moment with the trust, optimism and fresh outlook of a child, summertime becomes all it is meant to be. A time to refresh, to soak up nature, blue skies, good food eaten outdoors, and time to reconnect as a family.

If all else fails, go fly a kite.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

My sizzling summer reading list...

Books are my drug of choice. When I don't have a book, I am thinking about getting one. I have books in every room of the house, and I carry my e-reader around just in case I can snatch even just a little fix while I wait outside the school for my kids or at a stoplight.

Just kidding about the stoplight. Really.

As addictions go, I suppose reading is a good one to have, although my husband might think otherwise when he is trying for the third time to ask me a question and I just look up blankly from my book and then continue to ignore him.

I still love real paper books with pages, but I love my e-reader as well, so I alternate between the two. A couple of real books, a couple of e-books. My usual goal is about 100 books a year. Sometimes I reach the goal, sometimes I don't. I am a bibliophile.

Now that I am on sabbatical from the library, I really miss the day-to-day book chat that has always been my favourite part of working there. One of the greatest compliments I ever got was from someone who told me I was like a "book diviner," that I could talk to a person a few minutes, then go to the shelf, run my hands over the books and pick out the perfect one for that person. Just how geeky I am is reflected by how incredibly flattered I was by that comment. Anyhow, something I like to do every year is write a blog about summer books, good ones to read or a list of a few I am planning to take on this summer. Unbelievably, summer is almost here. (Honestly, I did not think our first prairie winter would ever, ever end.)

So drum roll... here is my wish list for this spectacular summer reading season. Please, help me out by commenting at the end and giving me some more ideas...there is always room for more. With a major road trip coming for us this summer, I will be reading my way across three provinces when I am not busy refereeing whatever is going on in the back seat.

You can find any of these titles free at your local library, as I will. If you like to own your books and want to order them from Amazon, click on the title links to read reviews or shop, and this blog will receive a tiny portion of sales, with thanks.

The Paris Wife 
Paula McLain

There is a little rebellious bit of me that won't read what everyone tells me to read, but this one I will, because it sounds like a delicious plot. Literary history at its best, with Hemingway in love.

Summer of love
Katie Fforde
Fluffy, frothy, British. Katie Fforde is almost as good as Jill Mansell for escapist, fun, romantic romps in the British countryside. And summer is in the title.

Susan Howatch
...because frankly, I will read anything moody and atmospheric and set in Cornwall.

Elin Hilderbrand
Some of her books were, I thought, a waste of time, but they are always beachy, set on Nantucket, and involving lots of family intrigue, so I am going to give her another try barefoot. And summer is on the cover.

The summer guest
Justin Cronin
This book looks so diabolically different from his huge bestseller The Passage that I have to read it. The Passage is part one of a highly-addictive trilogy of zombie apocalypse books that I consumed (all 800 pages) in a weekend so it will be interesting to see what he does with family drama. And summer is in the title.

The light between oceans
M.L. Stedman
I know you should never judge a book by its cover, but this IS a great cover. The story looks gorgeous, too, set on a tiny lighthouse island off of Australia. A little mystery, a bit of tragedy, lots of dramatic crashing waves, and I am sold.

The way I see it 
Temple Grandin
This is a book I have meant to read for ages, since I saw the movie Temple Grandin, which was stunningly good. I have a sweet little friend who is autistic, and I want to understand him as much as I possibly can.

Ah yes, I will also be including at least one book from Jane Green and one from Jill Mansell if I can squeeze them in. What is on your list for this summer? Please share, and happy reading.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Finding community and digging it

Just when I think about how difficult it feels at times to set up life in a new place, I get a reminder that we have a head start on settling that so many don't have. At least we are in our own familiar country, where people speak in languages we understand (mostly) and every step we take is not a struggle to survive and fit in.

My youngest daughter goes to daycare part-time at the local association for newcomers, where she stands out as a newcomer of a different sort, an Anglo-Saxon Canadian newcomer. Let's just say she glows there. It was her idea. She was bored at home with me in the afternoons, so she said, and wanted to play with other children. The other kids are from many different parts of the world, and we both love that. She talks about her friends from Saudi Arabia, Africa and other countries she didn't even know existed before.

Today we saw a woman sitting, her face turned toward the window, her beautifully-embroidered clothes covering all but her sandalled feet. Her head, fashionably wrapped in a hijab, rested on her hand, and she sat silently, just looking out at the strange prairie city outside. When I left, she was still there. I could not help but wonder what was going through her mind.

I hear many conversations in many different languages here, and I hear translators trying to explain to settlement workers what the newcomers are saying, what problems they are facing and asking what to do about it. It puts our whole life into perspective, truly. We may have some (ahem, political) problems in this country, but all in all we have it pretty darn good and no one can tell me otherwise. How does one make a home in a country that is so strange and alien, when that person has run from a life which we in Canada can not even imagine? So far from family and all they know, it must seem insurmountable. If I think it is tough to meet people and find some sense of belonging, what must she feel?

One place I am looking for community (not to mention fresh veggies) is at the city's community garden, and interestingly enough, so are many immigrants. The organizer tells me that about one-third of all the gardeners in the city's large garden plots are in fact newcomers to Canada. It is a way for them to grow their own food, and specifically to grow food that is culturally appropriate for their families. What an idea! I love it.

I have never needed to do community gardening before, as we have always had a big yard in which to putter. The garden is a fascinating place. Seniors and young families, newcomers to the city and newcomers to the country, all are there digging and weeding alongside one another. There are even raised platform gardens for those with mobility issues. It is the ultimate in inclusive gardening, where the experts can help the newbies, where you can share if you have too many zucchini and someone else too many green beans. Kids run free, gardeners discuss the weeding over their coffees in the morning. Twice during the growing season the gardeners hold farmers' markets selling their extra produce and baking, with the proceeds going to local charity. AND everyone is encouraged to grow an extra row of vegetables for the food bank. Fabulous, and also pretty timely considering all the talk these days about food security, eating local and the rising price of groceries. 

For a very small fee, we get a plot, rototilled and ready, a supply of water, and a shed full of every tool we could possibly need, from wheelbarrows to hoes, tomato cages to watering cans. It is the best deal in town, truly, because for newly-arrived city dwellers like us it becomes our yard, the place we go after school on a sunshiney afternoon. We weed and water and plant, pick some rhubarb out of the communal patch, watch the trains go by across the river and listen to the birds. The girls run around importantly checking their own little plots and playing with the toys that live in the gardens. We bring a picnic and enjoy the flower beds. It makes me wish that everyone who lives an urban lifestyle could have their own little patch of earth like this. Just as Ava's daycare does for her, the garden helps connect us to others we might not normally know, and indeed gives a sense of being "settled" in a way that we wouldn't find otherwise. The bonus of fresh food grown by our own hands is just another fabulous perk.

Friday, 17 May 2013

It's a little weird, but I like it

Unknown prairie flower (ideas, anyone?)

Murals cover buildings all over Moose Jaw

So many buildings have these amazing old signs

Grain elevator in rural Coderre

"The cheapest cash store in the new province" (dating this sign around 1905)

The river, looking towards the railyards and grain elevator

The magpies and geese sing their songs, the train whistle echoes across the riverbank, and the grain elevator towers over all. Oh yes, and the Snowbirds zip overhead regularly, making aerial acrobatics seem like an everyday occurrence.

Just a few things that make our life in Saskatchewan SO different from the Maritimes:

A couple of weeks ago, we had a blizzard. Then three days later it was 28 degrees Celsius. You just never know when to put the mittens away.

Our garden is not in our backyard. We have a patch in the community garden, a big green space along the banks of Thunder Creek and the Moose Jaw River, overlooking the Canadian Pacific railyards on the other side.

The earth is not red, like our home in Prince Edward Island. It is black, sandy soil that even smells different. Can't wait to see what grows well here.

We live on the edge of the city, literally. Out our front window we can see across the highway to the wide open prairie.

We hear and smell the trains all the time. Coming from the Island where trains ceased running in the 1980s I still find it a novelty to hear the trains whistle, especially at night. The bridges in town go over the railyards, which stretch almost as far down the valley as the eye can see.

Grain elevators are some of the tallest buildings in town.

There are a lot of ticks here. Ewwwww. And prairie dogs, except I guess they are technically ground squirrels. Whatever, they are a hoot. Also many, many deer, just hanging out in the parks and fields.

15 Wing Moose Jaw is the home of Canada's air force aerobatic team, the Snowbirds. Since there are so many brilliantly clear days here, these daredevils can often be seen zooming their jets overhead in formation. And I still get goosebumps every time.

At least a couple of times a week I encounter other Atlantic Canadians. It is like we can smell the salt air on each other.

Language quirks:

Hooded sweatshirts are called "bunny hugs." I know, weird.
According to my daughter, Kat, you don't "butt in line," you "BUDGE" in line. I think they are just more polite in Grade 2.
People from Moose Jaw are called Moose Javians. Seriously.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Being Mom

I never thought of myself as mom material.

To be perfectly honest, I didn't really like kids much, even when I was one myself. That might have explained why I wasn't terribly popular. I didn't have the "right stuff" for parenting, like patience, selflessness, moral fortitude, or a strong stomach. I was all about "me," but I guess that is the job of kids, teenagers and twenty-somethings everywhere, to be totally about self. And yet, there are women like my mother or my sister-in-law who had their children young and did a fantastically good job of raising them despite their extreme youth. Being "all about me" was never an option for them in their twenties, as they already had little humans depending on them for life.

I waited a long time to change my mind about the baby concept, but once I did I jumped onboard the train with all engines firing. And what have I learned in the past eight years of Mother's Days? Because when you've got small children there are 365 Mother's Days a year.  Well, you can click on this old post of mine from last year for a little bit of that, Speaking of Babies. It is still one of my favourites, because it helps me remember when my girls were babes.

One little thing I've learned is that I can never capture on film what my eyes see when I look at my children. Sometimes I will be talking with them or just looking at them, and they get a look in their eyes that I so want to capture, so I run for the camera, and snap and snap photos, but somehow they never quite work. Every once in a blue moon it will be successful, and I catch an image of what I see. Sometimes, it's a feeling of pure love emanating from her as she looks at me on the other side of the camera. Those are the keepers.

Kat, then

And now
Ava, then

And now

It makes me realize that what I am seeing is their pure spirit inside that makes them who they are. It is so much easier to see in children, who have not started putting on the masks and acts that we as adults adopt over the years. Their true selves are so much closer to the surface. If you can be truly present and look at them not just to check for eye crusties in the morning or to make sure they have on matching socks, you can really see them, deep inside. Especially as they get older, it is amazing to see them develop their own identities, as hard as it is to imagine them living independently in the world. It gives glimpses of the future.

Looking back through our thousands of photographs taken since the girls were born, I realize the very best ones are those that happened by accident. We have never once had studio portraits taken of the girls, or of us as a family. Somehow it seems having someone they love behind the lens brings out the true personality, and of course the widest array of goofy faces.

So much of mothering is done stumbling along learning as we go. I learned from my mother, from my grandmothers, and so much from dear friends who bravely went ahead and had children before we did. I am quite sure they must have gotten tired of my endless questions, but they were always open and generous and kind and understanding of my profound ignorance. I am also the most fortunate of women to have a supportive equal partner and co-hort in all this parenting craziness.

Our girls have taught me about the important things in this life of ours. Career and money and "stuff" don't come into it at all, to my surprise. They have taught me to slow down, to breathe, to look around me and listen and smell and reach out to what surrounds us, to be open to all. The most simple of things can bring the greatest joy, and every stranger could become a friend if you just smile.

I have learned that I am not as selfish as I once thought. From the moment of their conception, my daughters have taught me many ways of being a better person, a better parent, and I hope a better citizen of the world we live in. The sense of responsibility is huge, to protect them in what is frankly a frightening world at times, and to help them learn all they need to know to be happy, healthy, productive members of the planet. Already they have made a difference, by teaching one person how to put others first, and how to love unconditionally.

This weekend I want to wish a Happy Mother's Day to all of the mothers in my life, my own mom and the moms in my large, lovely extended family, and to all of my friends across the country and indeed in other parts of the world who are all doing a damn fine job of this mothering gig. May we all teach our children to be open, loving people who will make the world a better, more peaceful place in the future.