Thursday, March 20, 2014

DIY Dishwasher Soap

Some money-saving, environment-saving attempts have met better success in our home than others. Our foray into re-useable dinner napkins was successful for a period of time until that awkward night we accidentally divulged to dinner guests that our napkins were made out of a set of bedsheets that had snagged and ripped a hole. Those friends have returned to our house for dinner since then, but I think I perceived some restrained expressions of relief on their face when they saw paper napkins.

One successful change we've made is to start making our own dishwasher detergent. I must give all the credit to my husband for this venture. He has become an accomplished home-chemist, making all-natural hand-crafted bar soap and deodorant too. I researched making our own soap years ago, and shelved the project when I realized it involved danger and safety goggles. I had flashbacks of safety videos in high school chemistry class, and the horror of imagining that you might have to strip and use the emergency shower if you caught fire or had chemical burns, the threat of injury being far less dire than the prospect of public nudity in high school.  Perhaps it still is?

We have been using the homemade dishwasher detergent for at least six months now, and are happy with the results. It uses only four ingredients, is cost-effective, and is eco-friendly. Phosphates have been banned in Canada in dishwasher soap since 2010, but commercial dishwasher soaps may still contain fragrances, chlorine, and other nastiness that create fumes when they mix with steamy water. The key with this recipe is to use the vinegar in the rinse to remove any film from the dishes. I had never used a rinsing agent before switching to this homemade version from the commercially available soaps, probably because of the slew of chemical ingredients in store-bought versions, but it is definitely necessary in this case.

I usually use 2 cups each of washing soda and borax and 1 cup of coarse salt, but as long as you keep the proportions in balance, you can make as much or as little as you wish. Mix the first three ingredients together, using a sieve and wooden spoon to sift if any of them are clumpy. We keep ours in a decorative tin (but actually not really decorative - it's an old laundry soap container) on our counter. The vinegar just goes in the rinse compartment in your dishwasher. Top it up periodically to make sure your dishes come out sparkly! Keep in mind that while these ingredients are natural, they can be toxic in high doses, even salt, so keep this out of reach of children just as you would with other dishwasher soap.

Happy cleaning! (Or is that an oxymoron?)

Electric Dishwashing Machine, 1917. Wikipedia

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Protecting Kids' Privacy Online

The oldest known photograph featuring a living person, taken in Paris, 1838.
There are two people on the sidewalk, one shining the other's shoes. Source
According to this source, we now take as many photos every two minutes as were taken in all of the 1800’s. Ten percent of all photographs in existence were taken in the last twelve months. In the first week of his life, my firstborn son was likely more photographed than I was in the first five years of my life, thanks to digital photography. The pictures of our long-awaited baby were seen by more people in that week than the number of people who have ever seen a baby picture of me. I was enraptured with that tiny bundle of newborn fuzz and wanted to share pictures of him with everybody I had ever met.

O's newborn hand
That delicate newborn is now a sweet, talkative five and a half year old who loves soccer and reading The Magic Treehouse books. I've tried to refrain from posting photographs of my kids faces on this blog, and from revealing their first names on this site, but lately I find myself wondering if I should even be posting photos of them on Facebook for friends and family to see, or blogging anecdotes about them. When he tuns 32 and I finally let him access the internet, will he be embarrassed to find his photographic history online? 

The planets aligned perfectly the other day, and I made a joke that was actually funny. Of course, I have no proof because my chronically sleep-deprived brain cannot recall what said joke actually was, but my husband remarked that I am funny. There was a time in my life, probably around grade five or six, when I really wanted to be the funny girl, that quirky girl whom you couldn’t help but like. I rounded out the persona by wearing the funkiest earrings that Claire’s carried in the early 90’s, and made some other questionable fashion statements in pursuit of my new identity. I may have confessed this before, but I actually owned and wore a tee-shirt with a 3D, moulded out of rubber or plastic of some sort, hot dog, complete with bun, ketchup and mustard. I kid you not, it said “What a Wiener!” I'm pretty sure I didn't even get the innuendo; I just thought it was funny. I bought it at Liquidation World, which should have been my first clue that it was, perhaps, not intended to be part of a regular, everyday wardrobe. There was another in shirt our costume dresser, which was a more suitable place for such trappings, that had a rubbery anatomical heart with flames coming out of it, and said “Heart Burn.” That one would actually be quite useful now if I still had it. I could wear it most evenings and just point to the shirt when anyone asks how I am feeling. 

The rubber tee-shirt saga was one of many stages in which I tried on a new facet of my identity, sometimes without even being aware of it until the stage had passed. Luckily, everybody else was too busy figuring out their own identity to remember my awkward stages. Or, possibly, I just had friends who were nice enough to pretend to forget about the whole wiener teeshirt thing. In retrospect, it was probably a good thing that I switched schools the following year and had to wear a uniform for the rest of my school career until university. 

The internet does not forget. I cringe to think of what it would have been like to be a teenager in the age of digital photos and instant uploads and Facebooks. Honestly, I’m glad to have some space from the old incarnations of myself. Are my kids going to inherit a public record of their morphing identity, awkward stages and all? Will they resent me posting about the cute things they say as toddlers, photographs of them with spaghetti all over their faces, and whatever awkward pre-teen antics they explore? Will they resent me posting pictures of them when I see them as handsome, but they are painfully self-conscious?

O experiencing the "high tech" of my childhood
On the other hand, those beautiful boys permeate every aspect of my life right now. Could I even carve out an online presence without including something about them? Will they be glad to have some record of their early days beyond what their memories hold? Will my candor about the struggles of parenthood bring them some relief when they experience the joy and fulfilment, interspersed with tedium and exhaustion of raising their own children? In any case, don’t they at least kind of owe me some writing material fodder in exchange for all the sleepless nights and Superstore meltdowns?

T on the beach
I’m sure that it will be more difficult for my children to disentangle themselves from the record of their various stages and identities in this, the internet age. What do you think? Beyond the obvious need to maintain at least some basic level of anonymity to safeguard your children from online predators, how far does our duty to safeguard their privacy need to encroach on our desire to authentically share about our lives online? 

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Gratitude: Music

My high school English Lit teacher was a lanky fellow, who walked slightly stooped, and with strides that seemed just a little too long, like he was constantly rushing without wanting to do the work of running. He was in his mid-twenties, and it was the first time that I realized that some of my teachers really weren’t much older than I. His classes had an air of sophistication in my mind, like what I imagined university classes might be like. Most of my university classes, in fact, were quite pedestrian in comparison. We began most English Lit classes with the fluorescent lights off, our heads on our desks, listening to classical music. The melodies of Bach, Mozart, and Liszt smoothed away the discord of high school for ten whole minutes. The arrangements of notes were true, the way mathematic equations are true, and if I closed my eyes, I was carried away from everything. My mind stopped analyzing the minutiae of every interaction of the day, and everything was still.
He was an outstanding teacher, caring about his students and passionate about literature, but he tended to reveal too much of his private life to us, a gaggle of teenagers, mostly girls, who would giggle incredulously over lunch at his latest revelations. Looking back, I have to chuckle about the things we found scandalous. After one operatic number, he sighed deeply and wistfully declared that he hoped his future wife would sing arias as they snuggled in bed. Clearly, my attempts to scrub away that scene from my mind were unsuccessful. He did, however, say at least one other thing that implanted itself into the walls of my subconscious. “What if this music was divinely inspired?” he asked. 

If we believe that the scriptures were written by human hands but inspired by the Creator, could it not also be possible that some musical pieces are divinely inspired? Surely all of our talents find their source in the One who made us, but is it possible that some pieces of music or other forms of art transcend the regular miracle of creation and are actually sacred? I don’t know, but Handel’s Messiah leaves me wrecked every time I listen to it, especially this version performed by a flash mob at the mall. Perhaps it is the unexpected injection of the sacred into the mundane, a masterpiece in the food court, that makes me believe. I've watched this video so many times and it still makes me weep and laugh at the same time, which is really attractive. My poor husband. 

My parents valued music enough to spend part of their single income on piano lessons for my sisters and I when we were young, something for which I am now much more appreciative than when I was rising at dawn every morning to practice scales and arpeggios. I fear that I just may have been obnoxiously ungrateful. 

Aside from the early rising component, I actually enjoyed the piano and regret giving it up. I discovered that I had a good ear for music quite early; I could hear and name any note played. This proved to be a blessing and a curse. I remember shifting away from one of my Pioneer Girls (like Brownies for church kids) leaders during singing time every week as she always sang gloriously off key, and, while I had the ability to hear perfect pitch, I certainly didn’t have the ability to produce perfect pitch myself. Unfortunately, you can’t shift away from your own voice. I used to cringe at our extended family birthday celebrations when we sung “Happy Birthday” in about 7 different keys simultaneously. At this point in my life though, I’m just thankful to see my extended family when it happens once in a blue moon, and what was once dissonance in my ears is now warmth in my heart.

I am word junkie, but there are times when words fail me, and music intercedes. It infuses consolation into our souls in times of grief, and gives form to jubilation in joy. It can arrest anger, and move us to compassion. Music can move a harried mind into a place of quiet contemplation. It can move us in ways that we can't seem to understand or resist.


Sunday, January 26, 2014

Stealing Back the Joy

You know that feeling in the pit of your stomach when you realize that you have revealed too much? Like that feeling the morning after a slumber party in your teens, when you realize that you told everyone who is going to tell everyone else who you've been harbouring a crush on for the past five years? Somewhere in the midst of the sugar rush that comes from hours of eating junk food, and the delirium of talking until three a.m., your better judgment goes to sleep without you. Luckily for me, although I'm not sure that I counted my perpetually single status as good luck at the time, nothing came of my nocturnal revelations. Being sweet sixteen and never kissed is certainly better in retrospect than it felt at the time.

Ironically, ever since I wrote my "Secret Dreams" post last summer, I've struggled with writing. I was sixteen years old again, wishing I hadn't spilled the beans about my unattainable crush. I suddenly felt like I had something to prove, and an impossible goal to reach of being a "real" writer. Instead of embracing the joy of the dream, however unlikely, and the enjoyment of the process, I just felt...foolish. Blog posts used to germinate in my mind almost before I was aware of them, sprouting and coming to fruition as soon as I could steal away some uninterrupted moments to hammer my fingers across the computer keyboard. Suddenly, I was racking my brain for ideas, and discarding every idea just as quickly for a variety of reasons that really only funnelled down to one: perfectionism. It has a way of stealing joy.

I've decided to steal it back. I hereby trade back my perfectionism for joy.

Over the past few weeks, I've been journalling again and rediscovering the pure enjoyment of creativity. I am reminded that writing is an act of creation, but it is also a skill like any other, from flower arranging to performing a perfect corner kick (I have to include a soccer analogy once in a while in honour of my most faithful reader, my dear husband) :skills take practice. The longer I avoided writing because of my fears of inadequacy and slight mortification that I told the world I want to be a writer, the more difficult it became. I hope I never let embarrassment, pride, and perfectionism, a trifecta of negativity, encroach on the joy of creation again. I'm fairly sure that I will, but this imperfect, unpolished post can serve as a future note-to-self to snap out of it.

"The discipline of creation, be it to paint, compose, write, 
is an effort toward wholeness."
~Madeleine L'Engle

"In art we are once again able to do all the things we have forgotten; 
we are able to walk on water;
we speak to the angels who call us;
we move, unfettered, among the stars.
We write, we make music, we draw pictures, 
because we are listening for meaning,
feeling for healing...we are returned to that open creativity 
which was ours when we were children."
~Madeleine L'Engle

Thursday, November 21, 2013

So Much Depends on a Red Wheel Barrow

So much depends on a red wheel barrow. Sometimes, it's memories of your loved ones, and sometimes it is true love.

I grew up next door to my grandparents, our house perched above theirs on the hill at the quiet dead end of a busy street. I doubt there was a day in my life, other than vacations, when I didn't catch at least a glance of my grandparents' house outside our living room windows. A staple part of that view, for most of our lives, was the wheelbarrow.

My parents with the wheelbarrow in the early 1970s.
So much a part of the landscape was it that I didn't think about it as being a moveable, separate object until it was gone. When I was about fourteen or fifteen years old, my grandparents and my family had a joint garage sale, which mostly consisted of us trading our junk for each others treasures. The unfortunate thing is that sometimes you don't realize which pieces of your junk are somebody else's treasures until it is too late. I managed to scoop up some sentimental knick knacks before some stranger scored a bargain on a piece of our family history. The wheelbarrow, however, was sold before anyone in my family even realized that my grandparents were going to sell it. Perhaps they hadn't even planned on selling it until somebody saw it and made an offer on it. In any case, the wheelbarrow was loaded and gone before we could salvage it. The person most disappointed was my older sister, who had always been fond of it and was at the age at which the reality of dreaming of having her own family, home, and yard was not so distant in the future anymore. The wheelbarrow, rich with memories and family history, would have been a meaningful fixture in her own yard, perhaps, one day.

Within a couple of years, our beloved Granddad passed away suddenly and unexpectedly of a heart attack at the age of seventy-three. It's funny how as a sixteen year old, seventy-three seemed pretty old to me, and not that different than eighty-three or ninety-three. The older I get, the younger seventy-three seems. Parents and grandparents grow up too quickly, just like kids, I suppose. After his passing, every tangible item that stirred memories of Granddad became precious, and the loss of the wheelbarrow stung a little bit more for my sister.

Around the same time, one of us made an incredible discovery while riding the bus to university. The elevation of the bus made it possible to see over the hedges of yards just enough more than our car that we spotted the red and white wheelbarrow in a yard just a few minutes away from our house, where it had been all this time. Even though the wheelbarrow was not in the family anymore, at least we could take a peek at it now and then.

By this time, my sister had started dating a young man who loved poetry and good quality woodworking tools. He soon became a regular fixture around our house, and when he wasn't at our house, our phone line was inevitably tied up with their phone calls. This was during the infancy stage of the internet at our home, when the internet connection ran through the phone lines and was disconnected by anybody picking up the phone. There were some pretty epic battles between us three sisters for use of the phone line in those days. One successfully uninterrupted phone conversation led my older sister to tell her new suitor about the Disappointment of the Wheelbarrow, and the ensuing discovery of the proximity of the wheelbarrow to our house.

One night, they met as usual at the church's young adult's group, and he surprised my sister with a gift: a framed photograph of the wheelbarrow, and this William Carlos Williams poem:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

The photo of the wheelbarrow at the buyer's house.

It was, she says, the moment she knew without a doubt that she loved him.

Fast forward about fourteen years to this Fall. On a drive in my parents' neighbourhood, I was a little crestfallen when I saw a "For Sale" sign with a "Sold" sticker on the house where the wheelbarrow lived. I wondered what would become of the wheelbarrow.

My uncle, who lives in a third house next door to my parents and grandparents, received a call late at night around that time from a woman whom he had never met. She explained that about fourteen years earlier, a young man had come to her door and asked if he could take pictures of her wheelbarrow, which must have seemed bizarre until he explained that it used to belong to his girlfriend's late grandfather, and had always been special to her. He asked the woman to please let him know if they ever decided to sell the wheelbarrow, and he would gladly buy it back for the family. She remembered after all these years how earnest he was, and wanted to return the wheelbarrow, free of charge, now that she was selling her house and moving. She described the young man to my uncle, and my uncle figured out whom she was talking about. My uncle was still puzzled, however, how this woman had found his phone number. Somehow, she remembered where she had bought the wheelbarrow, and drove back to my grandparents' house. Upon arriving there, however, she realized that at her age, she was not able to walk down the steep driveway to knock on the door. With incredible kindness and impressive disregard for the human gag reflex, she took the admirable and socially risky step of poking through the garbage bag at the end of the driveway, which was actually from my Uncle and Aunt's house, long enough to find a name and phone number. My brother-in-law was thrilled to be able to call and thank this woman, and tell her that he's now been married to that sweet girl for twelve years and they have two little girls of their own. A day later, the wheelbarrow was loaded up and brought back to their home and my sister has her wheelbarrow full of memories and love.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

To Halloween or not to Halloween

I grew up trick-or-treating, relishing in that one day a year that it was okay to take candy from strangers. We used pillowcases to collect candy, because they held much more weight than flimsy plastic bags, and the now-ubiquitous reusable shopping bags were not yet commonplace. I remember limping on a twisted ankle one year because it was my sister's last year to trick-or-treat before it would get really awkward, and we wanted to rake it in. I still remember the houses that gave unusual treats, like our neighbour who worked for a souvenir pin company, and gave out a collection of surplus souvenir pins every year; the house that gave out juice boxes, which were a coveted status symbol in school lunch boxes; and a house that made fantastic candy apples with their name and address on the popsicle sticks to prove that they weren't going to anonymously poison us. We ran from house to house until our parents reigned us in, and then gathered at my neighbour's fantastic annual Halloween party. It was the one time during the year that all of the neighbours gathered together and visited. The hostess's attention to Halloween-themed details in the food and decorations was amazing, and this was in the pre-Pinterest era. I wonder if I've had an original creative thought since Pinterest.

This year's creations.
It never occurred to me that some Christians wouldn't celebrate Halloween until I started attending a private Christian school in grade seven. Among my classmates, a sizeable minority of them experienced Halloween in a much different way, peeking out the windows of their house at trick-or-treaters with absolutely no lights on in the house. Some others attended the Halloween alternative "harvest festivals" or "pumpkin parties" at their church. I hoped, for their sake, that they didn't know what they were missing. It seemed, to my twelve year old brain, a grave injustice. It turns out that those church parties were actually pretty fun too.

O trick-or-treating
Now that I am a parent myself, I have more understanding for those parents, although I choose to let my kids take part in Halloween. Parenting is rife will hard choices. Should I let my kids watch this show, go to that birthday party, play with at that kid's house? Should I throw out that brand new Scaredy Squirrel book I scored at Value Village because Scaredy consults a horoscope? We make judgements according to what we think is best for our children, and for some people that means choosing not to partake in any of Halloween's offerings. Parenting is hard enough without feeling like we are judging each other. I don't wish to persuade those who don't celebrate Halloween to start doing so, but rather to encourage those who do celebrate Halloween, including myself, to see some of the opportunities.

Super-O at the Strong Start Halloween party last year
At first I wondered if I was just letting my kids celebrate Halloween because it's so much fun. There are things that make me uncomfortable, like the gore and the ghouls, the vampires and the mummies. But I love the fun of imagining (or searching Pinterest) a costume idea and creating it, and the excitement of trick-or-treating. I love the candy. And, I hate the candy. Thankfully, I think there are more redeeming features of Halloween than simply having fun (which is not a bad thing either).

Halloween fixates on and celebrates fear. Is there anything positive about such a negative emotion? In my experience, there is a difference between true fear, and amusing fear. For most people, there is an element of amusement in the jolt of fear induced by spotting a fake spider in your Halloween punch, or by somebody you know jumping out from a hiding spot and startling you. After all, even the fun of the earliest game we play with our kids, Peekaboo, is the thrill of momentary fear followed by relief.

O and T as Bert & Ernie, the costumes that my Mom sewed for my sisters and I when we were little
Real fear is different. Real fear in my life was thinking my husband was not going to beat the Lymphoma monster. Most of the fearful elements of Halloween are intended to be amusing. There are reflections of real fear in Halloween decorations, like tombstones and zombies, though they should actually make public speaking decorations for Halloween since most people are more afraid of public speaking than death. A zombie doing public speaking would be the penultimate Halloween decoration or costume. Perhaps in using these decorations and costumes, even unknowingly, people are only able to give voice to what we fear most (other than speaking in public, shudder): death. I wonder how many fake front-yard graveyards actually give people pause to think about life after death.  Do the witches, gargoyles, and devils give people pause to actually think about the spiritual realm of life? There's an opportunity to engage with people who need hope, I'm sure of it. With the focus on fear and evil, isn't it a perfect opportunity for the One who defeated death and evil to shine?

O's first year trick-or-treating. He was too little to know that we ate all his candy.
For those who don't ponder the spiritual aspects of Halloween, it's really just a fun, imaginative, sugar-filled night. It's one of the few non-awkward chances to knock on every door of my townhouse complex and introduce ourselves to neighbours, and maybe stop to chat for a while. It's a chance to be a good neighbour, and be hospitable and generous to neighbourhood kids. I was accidentally the stingiest person on the block last year. The first trick-or-treaters were three young adult men who didn't even have costumes on. One tried to placate my obvious hesitation by passing off his cat shirt as a costume. I wondered if that was the kind of trick-or-treater we were going to get in our new neighbourhood, so I left a bucket of candy on the porch when we left to trick or treat with the lame backup candy I bought in case we ran out of the good stuff, and put a sign on it saying "Take one, not two...we are watching youuuu!" So, all the cute and appropriately aged trick or treaters that came after that saw our sign and the individually wrapped single gummy bears or whatever they were. Awesome.

Last year's pumpkins
The dark side of Halloween is undeniable, but it's easy to forget that aspects of our Christmas and Easter celebrations evolved from early pagan festivals and rituals as well. If holidays that Christians consider to be religious holidays, like Christmas and Easter, can be celebrated by the secular world with Santa and the Easter Bunny, why can't Christians appropriate the non-religious aspects of Halloween for some simple fun? Even better, why can't we use the holiday to engage with our friends and neighbours, especially when they might ask what we think about the spiritual aspect of the day? Why should the devil have all the good music?  We've taken back drums, electric guitars, dancing, movies, card games not limited to Rook; how about Halloween next?

Friday, October 11, 2013

Reflections on the Truth & Reconciliation Commission, Vancouver

My husband asked me yesterday why I don't blog anymore. He said that he misses it, and he also brought me a giant bouquet of red roses, so I'm giving him about five thousand points.

I somehow thought that the pace of life would slow down with O in school all day and only T at home to care for. How come nobody told me that the pace is actually 3.4 times faster? In addition to the busyness, I feel like I'm just finding my bearings again emotionally. The truth is that even though I knew it was going to be difficult sending O off to school each day, that foreknowledge didn't pad my fall. A nurse friend (side-note: don't nurses make such wonderful friends? I have several friends who are nurses and they seem to all have the common traits of empathy, flexibility, calmness, and are not easily grossed-out by my grossest stories) recently told me that the times in life when a woman is most susceptible to depression are post-partum, and when the children leave the nest. I'm pretty sure she was referring to when they are young adults, but I can imagine that the third peak must be when all the kids are in school, especially for stay-at-home moms. I'm bracing myself for 2.5 years from now, unless I pop out a third child. The changes in my life have prompted me to retreat a bit away from writing and into compulsive crafting (to be exposed in a later post) and watching the entire series of Doc Martin on Netflix in a short length of time in the evenings while said crafting was happening.

Other than O's commencement of kindergarten, the most significant event for me recently was attending the Truth and Reconciliation Commission National Event in Vancouver, which I previously wrote about here. Last month, I saw courage and it looked like this:

Imagine speaking about the darkest, most desperate moments of your life to a hall of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people. Beyond those seated in the room, your words and your face are being viewed by tens of thousands of people across the world via the internet. 

There is a moment when survivors share their stories when they close their eyes and pause. In that moment, you can see that under the bandages of any healing, there is always going to be a fresh wound. In that pause, however unremarkable in length, you can see the survivor's struggle to stay present in the moment, resisting the mind's pull to experience anew events from the past.

As only a witness and observer to the sharing of their stories, I cannot assume to understand all of their reasons for having the courage to speak. Whether it was their intention of not, I hope that sharing brought the survivors some measure of healing, a sense of vindication, and a release from the feelings of shame that victims of abuse often have. Some of them spoke to honour the memory of siblings or dear friends who lost their lives at residential school, or due to the emotional effects of abuse later in life. Their willingness to embrace vulnerability helped me to learn more about Indian Residential Schools, and their devastating intergenerational effects.

In addition to the Indian Residential Schools, I learned for the first time about Indian Hospitals, including the Nanaimo Indian Hospital, from a woman who was kept there from age two to four, enduring unbearable treatment. I learned about the "day schools," which were much like the residential schools except that students returned home every night. The abuse they suffered was horrific too, but their experiences have not been addressed by any financial settlements from the government or churches. I learned about forced sterilizations, medical experiments, and children freezing to death after trying to run away from abuse at residential schools.

In hearing their recollections of their childhood traumas, I couldn't stop myself from imagining the horror of my own children experiencing what these once-children did. I imagined their pain through the eyes of my five year old, and the pain that their parents must have experienced, having their children wrenched out of their arms and taken to residential schools.

The timing of this experience for me was especially poignant given that I had been fretting in the past few preceding weeks about O beginning kindergarten. The juxtaposition of his experiences and the experiences of these former children was not lost of me that day. I worried about whether his home-haircut was dorky and nobody was telling me. The survivors all had identical bowl cuts on arrival at the school, with some careless ear snippage for good measure. I worried about if his lunch containers might have BPA, and whether kids would tease him about the food I packed. I was the kid with the "boring" lunches, but now I'm thankful for all the healthy food, Mom! Survivors were doused in DDT for twenty four hours on arrival to kill any imagined creepy crawlies, and they were fed grossly inadequate food for growing bodies. I wondered if O would be overwhelmed by French immersion; survivors were beaten for using the only language that they knew. I wondered if my heart would break a little every day when I said good-bye to my oldest baby for six hours; those kids and parents probably wondered if they would ever see each other again.

"Aboriginal children waving farewell, Fort Providence Indian Residential School."
Library and Archives Canada
On the last day of the commission, we skipped church and took the skytrain into Vancouver to participate in the Walk for Reconciliation. We were a little concerned that the characteristically ill-timed Vancouver rain would put a damper on attendance, but approximately seventy thousand people showed up. Dr. Bernice King, the daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., delivered a powerful address, which I encourage you to listen to here. The weekend of courage ended on a note of hope, listening to her powerful words and seeing so many people in our city coming to learn, listen, and support.

We need to update our cultural narrative to include awareness of these atrocities in our past, and their intergenerational effects. We would think it strange, would we not, if German schoolchildren didn't learn about the horrid history of Nazism, or if Americans didn't know about its history of slavery? We too must be culturally literate in our own failings if we are to experience healing as a nation, and to prevent injustices from continuing to happen. I don't recall learning much of this in school, or even at university. I am hopeful that my children will learn more in school about it than I did, but, if not, they will certainly learn about it from us. Not yet though, five years old and two years old are too young to bear the weight of this knowledge that we all must begin to share with those who have been bearing it alone these many years. For now, I want my kids to be as carefree and joyful as those children should have been with their families.

Two M├ętis Children with an Inuit Child at All Saints Residential School, Shingle Point, Yukon
Library and Archives Canada

Monday, September 2, 2013

Gradual Entry, Gradual Letting Go

Tomorrow is O's first day of kindergarten. I'm hoping that since I had some tears already today, that I will be dry-eyed tomorrow and not embarrass him too severely on his first foray into public education. I thought I was crying about feeling overwhelmed about finding a balance between remedying my relentlessly messy house and spending quality time with the boys, which sounds silly except that I know most of you have been there too. I thought that my momentary complete exasperation with fending off endless requests, mediating arguments, and supervising time-outs while trying to clean the upstairs bathroom for the first time in an unmentionably long time had pushed me to the brink. That was, until my husband saw me brushing away some tears and said "You're thinking about tomorrow, aren't you."

And he was right, even if I wasn't consciously aware of it at the time that the errant tears departed my tear ducts against my will. I remember when O was about three years old, and some of my friends were getting ready to send their first born children to kindergarten. Away from the ears of said children, these friends admitted that they couldn't wait to have some freedom. At the time, I couldn't imagine being glad to have O be away from me for half of his waking hours almost every day, but these friends insisted that I would be ready when it was his turn. Well, I've got about twelve hours left for that prediction to prove true! I know that little brother T will benefit from some more one-on-one attention, so that is my chosen beacon of hope in my sea of melodramatic despondency. Maybe we can comfort each other in our bereft state of O-lonliness.

Thankfully, he will start kindergarten with a "gradual entry" over the next couple of weeks, and I can't help but think that it is the beginning of my gradual "letting go." All precious things in life are a gift; some of them are so fleeting. Being able to spend my days with O for the last five years has been one of the great privileges of my life; I want to be greedy and hit the pause button. As much as I want him to stay five forever and never loose his boundless imagination, tender heart, and sweet little boy giggle, at every stage he has surprised and delighted us with new things. Sure, some stages have made me want to pull my hair out, starting with the grays, but I'm sure the next stages will bring new things to be thankful for.

On the plus side, O is super excited for school, so at least there won't be two of us trying not to weep tomorrow!

"Look how big I am, Mom!"

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Truth and Reconciliation

This is Agnes, my maternal great-great-grandmother, feeding the geese on her farm. Her mother-in-law, Eliza, was the midwife in Fort Langley for many years, and the go-to medical person before a doctor moved to the town. Agnes' daughter, Ada (my great-grandmother), married the boy next door, Harry (my great-grandfather). Ada's brother, Adam, married Harry's sister, Ruberta, so their families were doubly bound together.

Left to right: Hazel Smith, Adam Towle, Harry Smith, Ada Towle, Ruberta Smith, George Towle

Aren't they cute, gazing at each other? Harry reminds me of Felix from the television series, Road to Avonlea. O says he looks like Bert (Dick Van Dyck) from Mary Poppins, which he insists on pronouncing Mary PopSins,  because it sounds better.

Here is a closer view of the barn that you can see in the rear of the previous photo.

Harry's family's farm is now the site of Trinity Western University. When my husband and I first got married, his job required us to live on campus at TWU for three years. Living in dorms as newlyweds had its peculiar challenges, like students knocking on my door at midnight to ask me survey questions about relationships, weekly fire alarms from students burning toast, and maintenance workers thinking it was okay to enter our apartment without warning, but it was neat to think that I was living on the same land where my great-great grandparents lived, where they birthed their babies and grew their food. I printed a copy of this barn photograph and hung it on my wall in that campus apartment. 

As a child and teen, I loved poring over my grandma's photo albums and hearing her recollections of her grandparents, real "pioneers", as she called them, of our local area. On trips to the Fort Langley museum, you can see my great-grandmother's name in the school attendance list, and there are stories of their lives in local history books. In The Langley Story Illustrated by Donald E. Waite, there are two  particularly interesting and amusing accounts of my family members. The first is about  my great great grandmother, Agnes, who is referred to as "Mrs. Stanley Towle" in the account. As a side note, as much as I adore my husband, I hope to never be referred to as "Mrs. David Heinrichs." It seems to me the strangest and most sexist styling of name possible. I give the author the benefit of the doubt that he was being consistent with the naming practices of the time in which his subjects lived. In any case, Waite writes of the great flood of 1894:

The flood waters also gave Fred McLellan's pregnant wife troubles.  The living level of their home was completely engulfed forcing Mrs. McLellan to flee upstairs with her one year old son Neil.  All the excitement brought on the termination of the woman's pregnancy and she went into labour.  Fortunately Mrs. Stanley Towle was on hand and able to act as midwife. She (155) tied Mrs. McLellan's youngster to his bed to make sure he would not fall into the swirling waters and then proceeded to deliver his brother.  The baby came into the world amid all the confusion on May 20, 1894.

Of my great-great-great grandmother, the actual midwife and hotel proprietor, Eliza Towle:

    Swanson's daughter Clara went to work in the Towle's Commercial Hotel at Fort Langley. The hotel was sectioned off into two compartments. In one of the rooms only men gathered to drink. No women were allowed. Story has it that one pioneer got a little liquored up and stripped naked in order to do a little jig on a table top. For a joke one of the other patrons ordered a meal for the performer. Miss Swanson got a shock when she kicked the swinging door from the kitchen open and made an entrance with a tray of food. She let out a scream which attracted the attention of Mrs. Towle [Eilza]. Grabbing a buggy whip the hotel proprietor went out after the drunken dancer who ran bare foot from the premises with Mrs. Towle in hot pursuit. She gave him a good flailing with the whip before returning to the hotel. Miss Swanson later married Mrs. Towle's one-armed son George.

Left: Eliza and two of her sons. Note the dresses on the boys, common to that time period.
Centre: Eliza's house in Fort Langley
Right: Eliza in later years. She doesn't strike me as the whipping type.
Evidently, my pacifist leanings are not attributable to my heritage! Amongst the branches of my family tree, this line has the longest and most easily accessible history in the local area, although pretty much all of my family tree has been growing in Canada since the 1700s or 1800s, some even in the 1600s. On surveys that ask what my ethnic heritage is, I only feel legitimate in answering "Canadian." While being able to trace my family's history in my own country is interesting and stirs up some kind of nationalistic pride in me, much like watching the heritage moments commercials did in the pre-Harper era, my feelings about my family history are now tangled with uncomfortable questions.  

It wasn't until recent years that I started considering my family history in light of what I have learned about the treatment of the First Nations people of our country. The land farmed by my great-great-grandfather's family, that now boasts a university and downplays a set of train tracks and really foul-tasting drinking water, was lush and fertile, nestled alongside the Salmon River. If memory serves me correctly, my great-great-grandfather bought the land from the Hudson's Bay Company, or, at least, not very far removed from that point. Does the fact that he bought the land from a legitimate company make my family any less complicit in taking land away from the First Nations tribe who lived there before HBC arrived? I can only conclude that my ancestors were benefactors of a racist and unjust government, even though they did not do anything illegal or unusual for that time. 

When I look at my great-grandmother's Fort Langley school photo from 1912, I scan the faces for any break in the vastly racially homogenous crowd. 

Fort Langley School, 1912

Close-up of my great grandmother, Ada, in the centre of the middle row.

We now know that most First Nations children were forcibly removed from their families and homes, and sent to "Indian Residential Schools."

Did my ancestors who lived on this land knew about the schools? Did they see the brokenness that must have spread when entire communities were robbed of their children, denied the right to parent their own children? Did they recognize the abuse all children in residential schools suffered in the loss of their language, culture, and relationships with family and friends, their very identity? Did they hear whisperings of rampant physical, sexual, and psychological abuse? These were children.

How do I retain pride in my heritage and my family when we were the collective benefactors of a system that has so mistreated and damaged a now-marginalized people group? I have more questions than answers, and more misgivings about those questions than hope. The biggest question is: what can I do? It strikes me that perhaps this isn't even the right question, and that this question puts me in the centre of the equation, as did the paternalistic attitudes and policies of our predecessors. Perhaps the starting point is not to do anything other than listen and learn. Instead of learning about First Nations people and culture, perhaps I should learn from them. Instead of listening to information about First Nations issues, perhaps I should listen to them. Sometimes I wonder how we did not learn about the atrocity of the Indian Residential Schools when I was in grade school or high school, but the last residential school only closed in 1996, just two years before I would graduate high school.

From September 18th to 21st, 2013, just under one month from now, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada is holding its national event in Vancouver. My husband had the opportunity to attend the national TRC event in Montreal this past April, and it was truly a profound experience for him. You can watch a short video of him and others speaking about their experiences here.

To quote from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada's webiste, 

    The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada has a mandate to learn the truth about what happened in the residential schools and to inform all Canadians about what happened in the schools. The Commission will document the truth of what happened by relying on records held by those who operated and funded the schools, testimony from officials of the institutions that operated the schools, and experiences reported by survivors, their families, communities and anyone personally affected by the residential school experience and its subsequent impacts.

To learn more about Residential Schools, here are some places online to start:
If you can track down a copy of the documentary We Were Children, I implore you to watch it. 

If you want to do some more in-depth reading, there are many books written by residential school survivors, and others who are knowledgable on this issue. I am currently reading Unsettling the Settler Within: Indian Residential Schools, Truth Telling, and Reconciliation in Canada by Paulette Regan. 

I plan to attend at least some of the conference in Vancouver in September, and I encourage you to consider doing the same. We can listen.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Vegan Mac & Cheese

All good things must come to an end, and today marks the end of my husband's three-week long vacation time. I've taken a break from blogging during our vacation, and now I remember that writing is a skill like any other; it requires practice. I attempted to write about something serious, which, in the end, was the literary equivalent of a poorly played game of Tetris. In the meantime, I've decided to share one of my favourite dinner recipes: Vegan Mac & Cheese. It's easy, vegan, and pretty inexpensive. I'm not a nutritionist, but it seems decently healthy enough too.

I seem to come across more and more people who need to eliminate dairy from their diet, even if it is only for a period of time, such as while nursing a baby. The rest of my family all loves dairy, especially cheese, and they enjoy this non-dairy version of their favourite comfort food. My husband says that it is "cheese-esque" and never complains when I serve this dish for dinner. That might be insufficient proof of its success, however, since he rarely complains about food. I'm so thankful that I married somebody with an adventurous culinary spirit. Let me tell you, there have been some epic misadventures that would have left any other man clinging to his meat and potatoes for life. 

The real key to this recipe is not to pre-judge it when you look at the ingredients! One ingredient that is unfamiliar to many people is nutritional yeast. Nutritional yeast is a deactivated yeast; it is a complete protein, and is a source of several vitamins. It's low in fat and sodium, and free of dairy, gluten, and
sugar. It has a cheesy or nutty type flavour, which makes it popular in vegan dishes as a cheese substitute. You can find it in most health food stores, and some mainstream grocery stores (i.e. Superstore) carry it in their natural foods section. Without further ado, the recipe awaits you:

3/4 cup milk alternative (soy or almond)
1/6 cup soy sauce or tamari (I usually eyeball this amount by looking at halfway to 1/3 cup, but it's 2 Tbsp and 2 tsp if you want to be exact)
1/2 cup nutritional yeast
2 tsp paprika
1 crushed clove garlic
1/2 block firm tofu
1/4 cup vegetable / canola / other mild-flavoured cooking oil
1 tsp prepared mustard
1/2 cup pureed cauliflower (optional, adds extra nutrition and creaminess, and your family will never know!)
macaroni noodles to fill your favourite casserole dish (ten handfuls of dry noodles for us!)

Pre-heat to the oven to 350 degrees. Cook pasta noodles according to directions while you prepare the sauce. All of the ingredients (except pasta) need to be pureed together - either in a blender, food processor, or immersion blender. Once the pasta is cooked and drained, combine noodles and sauce in your casserole dish and stir until well-combined. Bake, uncovered, for about 15 minutes, or until lightly browned. 

Fret not, it will taste better than it looks!
Sauce, post-puree

All mixed up and ready to go...

Browned to perfection 

Bon apetit!

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